Earlier this week we brought you the very first Today’s U Roundtable in which we discussed a few topics regarding the current college football season.
That’s all fine and dandy—and it was—but what about those of you who are eagerly awaiting college basketball season? Sure, college football is in the air, but the action is about to heat up very quickly on the hardwood. So, we figured we’d throw you—college hoops fan—a bone.
Enjoy our first Today’s U College Basketball roundtable. Let’s look ahead to what should end up being a great season.
1. Which team heading into this upcoming season is nobody talking about, but you believe they have a chance to be a legitimate contender?
Bobby Reagan: Michigan. Two words: John Beilein. Okay, more words… Beilein and incredible depth at the guard spot. Beilein might be the most undervalued great coach in college basketball, mostly because he’s overshadowed by Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan and Thad Matta in the same conference. Just ignore the fact that he took a team to the title game much like Matta and Ryan without a championship. The return of Derrick Walton and Caris LeVert along with all but one player from the rotation last year has Michigan looking like the second best team in the Big 10. When Beilein took that team to the title game, it was due to guard play with the likes of Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., LeVert and Glenn Robinson. This team has the same makings of a group and can make a run to the Final Four.
Mark Carroll: Notre Dame is a team that people seemed to have forgotten about. Sure, the Fighting Irish lost Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton, but they return an excellent point guard in Demetrius Jackson and a great big man in Zach Auguste. This is a group that was playing as well as any other team in the country at the end of last season, and even after a 32-win campaign and Elite Eight appearance, there’s no reason to think Mike Brey is going to let his team fall too far. It’s important to remember that there’s no dominant team up top this season, so Notre Dame is a team that I could see sneaking into contention.
Kyle Kensing: Rarely does one of college basketball’s blue bloods qualify as overlooked, but UCLA is flying low under the radar. Blame the Bruins’ lackluster performance in big non-conference games a season ago. However, after going on a Sweet 16 run that ended with the Bruins giving Gonzaga a real fight, UCLA heads into the new season a much different team. Bryce Alford played with far more confidence in February and March than in December and January, which will be a linchpin for the Bruin offense. The maturation of Tony Parker is one of the sport’s best storylines. Parker became an absolute monster in the paint by season’s end, closing out the season with 16 points and 11 boards against one of the nation’s best front courts in Gonzaga. UCLA needs one of the freshman to step up, and for Thomas Welsh to emerge as a reliable stretch four. If those two things happen, the Bruins can win a wide-open Pac-12 and make noise in the Big Dance.
Thomas Beindit: One team that might be flying a bit under the radar as a potential national contender are the Indiana Hoosiers. Admittedly, the pieces will have to fall just about perfectly for the Hoosiers to have a serious shot at making the Final Four in April, but there are a lot of reasons to like Indiana. To start, the team has one of the best trio of players in the country in James Blackmon, Yogi Ferrell, and Troy Williams. All three are potential picks in next year’s NBA Draft and could get into All-Big Ten consideration this season. Along with this, the Hoosiers addressed the team’s biggest issue last year, which was a lack of quality interior play. Many were down on Indiana last season after the team fell off the map in Big Ten play, but what few remember is that the Hoosiers were 15-4 before its best interior defender was sidelined for a large hunk of Big Ten play. With the addition of elite prospect Thomas Bryant upfront, the team may finally have the pieces to get it done this year.
Adam Biggers: I’m not really sure if there is potential unsung hero entering the season. I’d imagine that Gonzaga, as usual, would be one to watch. Despite not belonging to a Power 5 conference, Gonzaga is no longer a team that nobody talks about… California comes to mind. But again, I’m not sure if Cal qualifies as a team that “nobody” is talking about these days. Coach Cuonzo Martin has created a buzz in Berkeley–one that’s worthy of your attention.
2. Name one player who you feel is on the way to a breakout year and tell college basketball fans why they need to keep an eye on said player.
Bobby Reagan: Demetrius Jackson from Notre Dame. Jackson is poised to have the same type of year Jerian Grant did last year for the Irish, which includes an All-American selection. Jackson did score over 12 points per game last year, but he was the third option at best on offense. Now, the team is his and with the uptempo style Notre Dame plays, Jackson can get a ton of shots up. He’s effective at the same time too, thanks to being uber athletic – seriously, check out his highlights. He might be the most athletic guard in the country and with Grant not in South Bend anymore, look for Jackson to put up some impressive numbers.
Mark Carroll: Damion Lee averaged 21.4 points per game last season, but the production didn’t draw a ton of national attention, because he was a Drexel. Now at Louisville, Lee will be an impact player for the Cardinals from Day 1. In fact, the shooting guard fills a major need in Louisville’s backcourt, with multiple key guards from last season’s roster now gone. Lee will shine for Rick Pitino’s squad, and I think he’ll be a big name in his final year at the college level.
Kyle Kensing: Staying out West, I don’t know if I’d necessarily call Jordan Loveridge of Utah a breakout candidate a breakout candidate since he averaged double-figures for three seasons and was arguably the Utes’ star in 2013-’14. However, his statistical production dipped considerably a season ago, from 14.7 PPG to 10, and 7 RPB to 3.9. With Delon Wright gone, Loveridge will again be the focal point of the offense. I’m expecting a re-emergence from him in his senior season. He’ll make a run at Pac-12 Player of the Year and All-American recognition.
Thomas Beindit: Though Stanford may not be considered a national contender this season, the Cardinal have one player who could be set for a breakout year and that’s Reid Travis. Stanford lost some major contributors last season and in a crucial year for head coach Johnny Dawkins, Travis could be the most important piece on the roster. As a high school prospect, Travis was considered to be one of the best players in the country, but struggled with injury issues during his freshman year and was never able to get on track. Still, even with these issues, he had some flashes during some big games last year and was one of the better rebounders on the roster. Now, with some pretty big openings in the lineup, Travis could be set to be the key piece upfront and one of the most important players if the Cardinal are going to get back on track.
Adam Biggers: Melo Trimble of Maryland. Now a sophomore, he’s on pace to help lead the Terps toward a title while gaining more national recognition. He started 35 games and averaged 16.2 points per game during his freshman year. The only way is up for Melo. I also like Kyle Wiltjer of Gonzaga. The transfer from Kentucky certainly adds power to what has typically been a well-rounded, fundamentally-sound program. He is the type of player who could carry a team through March.
3. Hypothetically, if you were under restriction to only watch one conference play college basketball this season, which conference will you be watching and why?
Bobby Reagan: ACC. Simply put it’s the best basketball conference this season with the most depth. Teams like Wake Forest and Florida State should take a step up this year thanks to a plethora of guys coming back, and then there’s the obvious talent in Notre Dame, North Carolina and Duke. The games are often heated with the long-standing rivalries between the traditional ACC teams. Oh, not to mention the whole Louisville situation with Rick Pitino. That will be a circus in itself that’s worth watching the entire year.
Mark Carroll: This is easy: You’ve got to go with the ACC. Not only did the league just produce a national champion in Duke, but North Carolina is a popular pick to win it all this season. Virginia is also a top-10 team going into the season and could reach 30 wins for the third straight season. I’m also high on Notre Dame, and there’s no reason why Miami, Louisville and NC State can’t be NCAA tournament teams. Even programs like Pittsburgh and Florida State could contend for tournament bids, while Georgia Tech and Wake Forest should be improved. There’s no other league in the country that could conceivably have three teams ranked in the top five.
Kyle Kensing: For me, it’s the Big 12. Kansas, Oklahoma and Iowa State all look like legit national title contenders, and each plays an exciting brand of basketball with future NBA talent. Sure, the ACC has Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Notre Dame: all Final Four-caliber teams. Add breakout candidates Miami and Florida State, and the sheer number of quality ACC teams outranks that of the Big 12. However, the 10-team Big 12 means more quality per capita. A team like Baylor with its uptempo style, or West Virginia with its stifling defense, can make a splash. Texas’ first year with Shaka Smart at the helm is one of the most intriguing plots of the season. Every Big 12 season also comes with the built-in storyline of Kansas’ regular-season reign. Is this FINALLY the year the Jayhawks lose the conference championship?
Thomas Beindit: For my money, I’m going with the Big Ten. Not only is it the Big Ten the only conference in the country that returns two Final Four teams from last season, but it also returns five other teams that made last year’s NCAA Tournament, including the Maryland Terrapins. The Terps are considered to be a national championship contender this season and weren’t even one of the Big Ten’s two teams to make the Final Four last year. That designation belonged to Michigan State and Wisconsin, who are also considered to be top 25 teams. On top of this, the conference also has the Michigan Wolverines, who could be the wildcard team in college basketball this year. The Wolverines had a ton of talent last season, but were unable to overcome injury and youth concerns in route to a frustrating finish. Finally, even some of the teams projected to be at the bottom like Minnesota, Nebraska, Penn State, and Rutgers all have talent and add key recruiting additions this year. Maybe the depth can’t quite match some other leagues, but the Big Ten is going to be very intriguing this year with several teams in the national championship picture and even more in position to have great seasons.
Adam Biggers: Big Ten basketball. Of course, that’s my Midwestern bias rearing its head–I was raised on Big Ten sports. From top to bottom, though, I don’t know if there is a more entertaining and physical conference in the game. Wisconsin and Michigan State made it to the 2015 Final Four. Michigan returns its top four starters (and they’re healthy) and then there’s the promise of Indiana and even Purdue. Maryland’s entering its second season in the league, too. I can’t think of many reasons NOT to watch Big Ten basketball this year.