November 14th. That’s the date that is circled on the calendars of college basketball fans all around the country. 157 college basketball games will be played on November 14th to bring in the new college basketball year. Soon all the things that make college basketball the best sport in the world–the dunks, the pull up threes, the packed student sections, the fiery coaches, and Bill Raftery yelling incomprehensible nuggets (Dick Vitale too!)–will return. Get pumped.
To prepare for it all, I’ve thrown together College Sports Town’s second annual college hoops preview. Give it a skim, check out where I’ve got your favorite team ranked, and, as always, tell me where I’m right (and wrong) in the comments section. Enjoy!
1. Duke: Exit Jabari, Enter Jahlil
Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor may not be as good as Jabari Parker, who played one year in Cameron Indoor before splitting for the NBA. Parker was a nearly unstoppable offensive force for Duke last year, scoring with ease from all over the court. But Okafor will still have a massive impact in his first–and likely only–year at Duke. The Blue Devils had a typically strong season last year, winning 26 games, but in the end they finished with more losses than they’ve had in a season since ‘07, none more disappointing than their defeat against Mercer in the
first second round of the NCAA Tourney.
Duke was unusually small (for Duke) and struggled early defensively, giving up 94 points in a loss to Kansas in their second game of the season and 90 a couple weeks later to…Vermont. Coach K’s teams are rarely deficient on that side of the ball, and they did improve over the course of the winter, but the team’s inability to guard consistently reared its head more often than anybody in Durham would have liked. The Blue Devils allowed Mercer to shoot 55% in their Tournament loss.
The expectation is that Duke will get back to playing Duke-level D this year, and Okafor is a great place to start. The seven footer should be an anchor for a team that added another stud in point guard Tyus Jones, also a McDonald’s All-American. The two diaper dandies will join a nucleus of vets that includes senior guard Quinn Cook and junior wing Rasheed Sulaimon, a tremendous scorer in his own right who should step into the spotlight after the departure of Parker. This Duke team looks bigger and better than the ’13 outfit. A fifth national title for Coach K could be in sight.
Predicted Win Range: 31-37
2. Arizona: Pac-12 could have a rough season. ‘Zona won’t, though
The Pac-12’s basketball product has gone somewhat stale in recent years and the conference could be headed for an awful winter. The good news is that Arizona is still in the league, and the Wildcats are looking like strong contenders to win it all in ’15. There are surely concerns about where the scoring will come from after the departure of Nick Johnson, but ‘Zona should find a way to score. Plus, there’s the fact that Arizona might be the best defensive team in the nation. Slasher Brandon Ashley will lead the charge at both ends, and the talent-rich Wildcats should win 30 games for the second straight year.
Predicted Win Range: 30-35
3. Kentucky: Wildcats will be big and physical
It took a while for Kentucky to coalesce last year, but when John Calipari’s talented and much-hyped squad figured it out, the results were impressive. UK rode some clutch shots, tough defensive stops, and a little bit of luck through the NCAA Tournament’s toughest region (they beat Wichita State, Louisville, and Michigan along the way). In the Final Four, they bested Wiscy 74-73 in a thriller. Then they lost to an unbelievable UConn team in the title game. And then, as usual, everybody headed to the draft. Except not…Julius Randle and James Young hit the draft, but the Harrison twins and Willie Cauley-Stein all elected to return. Then, Cal predictably brought in some outstanding freshmen, pulling in big name big guys Trey Lyles and Karl Towns Jr. This all leaves ‘Tucky with a decent mix of diaper dandies and experience going into this season. That mix, in addition to bodacious talent, has plenty of folks calling for a Big Blue title.
Predicted Win Range: 26-35
4 . Wisconsin: Always-good Wiscy was great last year. They should be great again this winter
After more than a decade’s worth of NCAA Tourney visits and several deep runs, coach Bo Ryan finally took Wisconsin to the Final Four last year. The Badgers, who have historically won with smothering defense and smart, opportunistic offense under Ryan, opened things up offensively last year. This winter, the good times should keep on rollin’ in Madison. Star 7-footer Frank Kaminsky is back, gritty guard Traveon Jackson is too, and Bo Ryan has to be thinking about another Final four.
Predicted Win Range: 26-33
5. Villanova: Nas would be proud of ‘Nova, which should have their best team since ‘09
With just about everybody back from last year’s team, which went 29-5, there’s reason for the rest of the Big East to be afraid of Villanova. The Wildcats did lose James Bell, one of their leaders and a dude with in-the-gym range, to graduation. But their other four starters are back and all are good. Junior Ryan Arcidiacono will run the point for the Cats, and he’s the guy who can make all the shots. These Wildcats also have size; forwards JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu will anchor ‘Nova in the paint. Jay Wright’s Wildcat team is not loaded with future lottery picks, but its mix of experience and balance makes the Catholic school from outside of Philadelphia a strong title contender. Who knows, maybe they’ll even inspire another rap lyric.
Predicted Win Range: 29-33
6. Wichita State: I’m just sitting here resisting the urge to make another dumb Shocker pun
At least for the moment, it appears Wichita State is the nation’s top mid-major. The Shockers won 35 straight games last year before falling to Kentucky in the Round of 32 in March. This fall, the Shockers will be without the best player from that team–the uber talented Cleanthony Early–but a bunch of excellent players are returning to Wichita. Ron Baker’s back. Star point guard Fred VanVleet is too. And guard Tekele Cotton will continue to be a defensive force on the perimeter. Greg Marshall’s program is rolling. It should be another good winter for the Shockers.
Predicted Win Range: 30-36
7. Virginia: This Tony Bennett team should have the body and soul to compete for an ACC ‘ship
Who doesn’t love a little Tony Bennett? I’m talking about the esteemed singer from Astoria, Queens, of course. As for the basketball coach, he’s pretty darn good too. After four years of steady improvement under Bennett, the Cavaliers broke through last year, winning 30 games and the ACC title. They bowed out (relatively early) in the Big Dance though–falling by two to Sparty in the Sweet 16–so this year could still be a step forward for UVA. The Cavs are a defense-first team, and they’ll be led on that end by guard Justin Anderson. Meanwhile, speedy slasher Malcolm Brogdon will lead what should be a strong Virgina offensive attack. Bennett’s got a good thing going in Charlottesville.
Predicted Win Range: 27-33
8. Florida: Gator basketball brand has never been stronger
It’ll be a different look from Bill Donovan’s Gators this winter. They lost four of five starters in the offseason and will have to rekindle the same type of chemistry they had last winter, when they went 36-3 and 18-0 in SEC play. The good news is that Coach Donovan is a master of just that type of alchemy. What’s more, the Gators still have loads of talent, and the one starter who’s back (Michael Frazier II) is a baller. Florida has made it to at least the Elite Eight each of the last four years. No reason not to aim for five.
Predicted Win Range: 28-33
9. Louisville: Cards enter the ACC ready to make a splash
When Louisville pounded eventual national champion UConn 81-48 on March 8th last winter, it looked like Louisville had a helluva great shot to repeat as national champs. But it didn’t come to fruition; the Cards lost a back and forth game to Kentucky in the Sweet 16. The Cardinals might have come up short, but they should be right in the thick of things again this March. The Cardinals lost Russ Smith to graduation in the spring, and Smith was the face of the program for the past couple years–a blazing comet at both ends of the court who personified coach Rick Pitino’s aggressive style. He’ll be sorely missed. Dynamite big Montrezl Harrell is back though, and Louisville has the size across their frontline to bully their new ACC brethren. Their backcourt won’t be too shabby either: Terry Rozier and Wayne Blackshear are both very capable dudes.
Predicted Win Range: 26-32
10. Kansas: Wiggins, Embiid–gone. That’s fine, Bill Self’s cupboard is far from bare
This Kansas team obviously won’t have the same type of topflight NBA talent that last year’s did. So be it, the 2008 Kansas team that won a national title didn’t have two top three NBA Draft picks either. This year, stalwarts Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis will be joined by another group of nasty freshmen. The results will be excellent, and Kansas fans will forget about Wiggins and Embiid in no time.
Predicted Win Range: 26-32
11. North Carolina: This will be the Marcus Paige show
Let’s be honest: the Tar Heels have underachieved the past couple years and the program is in a bit of a rut. Roy Williams has looked totally confounded by his teams at times. He’s been unable to turn talent-rich squads into legitimate title contenders and has fielded questions about his program’s academic integrity. Of course, this is still UNC, and the Heels have managed a more than respectable 49 wins the past two winters. This year, the hope in Chapel Hill is that they’ll really get their mojo back. UNC had very little success from 3 last year, but freshman Justin Jackson, a wiry and gifted wing, figures to help in that area. At the same time, Marcus Paige, a sensational junior point guard, should have a fabulous year. There are still question marks around the Dean Dome, but there’s also reason to think UNC is ready to return to the top 10.
Predicted Win Range: 26-30
12. Gonzaga: Beat goes on for Gonzaga
The hot shooting Bulldogs sniped their way to 29 wins last year. They continue to dominate the underrated WCC, and will again be the class of the conference this year. Steady, sharp shooting point man Kevin Pangos will continue to lead the charge for the Zags with the super efficient Gary Bell Jr. serving as his sidekick in the backcourt. Gonzaga will have to deal with the loss of forward Sam Dower Jr., but talented transfer Kyle Wiltjer, last seen on that ill-fated 2012-13 Kentucky team, will fill ably in his place. Another transfer–guard Byron Wesley–was a star at USC and will be one in Spokane also. Should be another great year for the Zags.
Predicted Win Range: 27-32
13. Syracuse: They probably won’t start the year 25-0, but the hope is that this year’s Orange squad will finish stronger
The expression “the names change, but the game remains the same,” fits Jim Boeheim’s program to a tee. Boeheim’s 2-3 defense is pure gold and Syracuse seems to get even better defensively each year. They lost a lot of good dudes to graduation and the NBA before last year, but ‘Cuse still had a fantastic season. The only thing: it ended on a real sour note: six losses in their final nine games. This year’s team won’t repeat that finish. The Orange are replacing big names like Tyler Ennis and CJ Fair this time around, but a tough squad remains. Trevor Cooney can shoot the air out of the ball, gritty forward Rakeem Christmas is back for another round (how has he not graduated yet!?!??!), and big things are expected of freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph. That 2-3 zone is back too.
Predicted Win Range: 25-30
14. Texas: Arrival of Turner will bolster Longhorns
There’s a great deal of excitement around the Texas basketball program at the moment. The Longhorns are returning a lot of guys from a squad that won 24 games last year and brought in arguably the best frosh in the nation, a wildly athletic seven footer named Myles Turner. He’ll join quality returnees like senior forward Jonathan Holmes and double double machine Cameron Ridley. Texas is experienced, deep, and talented. All good things. They’ll win plenty.
Predicted Win Range: 26-31
15. Ohio State: Thad Matta’s Buckeyes have won 25+ games each of the last five years
This Ohio State team isn’t all that experienced where it counts. The departures of stars LaQuinton Ross and Aaron Craft leave the Buckeyes with major holes. Losing Lenzell Smith Jr. to graduation doesn’t help things either. But expectations should still be extremely high in Columbus, where coach Thad Matta has brought in dynamite freshmen D’Angelo Russell. Russell is expected to be a star off the bat. Other new arrivals include forward Anthony Lee, a transfer from Temple, who will add some power to an OSU front court that was uncharacteristically ineffective last year. Ohio State will have a new look this winter, but we can trust Matta to make it all work. The Buckeyes boast a 77% winning percentage in ten years under Thad.
Predicted Win Range: 25-30
16. San Diego State: Athletic Aztecs will be outstanding again
San Diego State coach Steve Fisher will turn 70 this March, right before the Sweet 16. I guess you could say, by measure of this ranking, that I think he’ll have a little extra to celebrate about when he turns 70. The Aztecs, who made it to the Sweet 16 last year (but no further), are coming off an incredibly impressive 31 win season. In repeating the effort, they will have to overcome the departure of leading scorer Xavier Thames, which is a bit of a concern for a squad that struggled to score with Thames. But the bread and butter of Fisher’s program is defense, and the Aztecs will undoubtedly be tremendous in that area. A breakout year from junior Winston Shepard, who was solid but inconsistent as a sophomore, could be key.
Predicted Win Range: 26-32
17. SMU: This year they’ll aim to leave no doubt on Selection Sunday
Last year when SMU was shockingly left off the NCAA Tournament bracket, I thought to myself ‘Larry Brown’s getting too old for this shit.’ Fortunately for Mustangs fans, the coach doesn’t feel the same way. The 74 year old basketball mastermind took a team that won just 13 games the year before he arrived (2012) to the cusp of the Tourney last March. And there’s really no question that the team deserved to get in; SMU was 23-9 and ranked 25th in the polls on Selection Sunday, having already logged wins over Memphis, Cincinnati, and the eventual champion Huskies (twice). Brown’s Mustangs should be even better this year, led by tiny (5-9) point guard Nic Moore and power forward Markus Kennedy. Justin Martin, a swingman who transferred from Xavier, should also be an impact player. SMU hasn’t gone dancing since ‘93. They’re a good bet to end the drought this year.
Predicted Win Range: 25-31
18. VCU: And they’ll have Havoc, Havoc, Havoc ’til someone takes their Shaka away
Shaka Smart’s VCU program keeps rolling. The 37 year old coach’s team went 26-9 last year, although they failed to make any magic happen in March (losing off the bat to Stephen F. Austin). By recent VCU standards, it was a pretty quiet season, albeit one that included wins over Virginia and St. Louis. Smart seems to have his name thrown around every time a major program is hiring, but Smart has stuck around Richmond. This winter, his team will aim to make a little more March noise than they did in ’13-14. VCU brings back veteran leadership (Treveon Graham, Briante Weber) and is athletic across the board. The Rams will be the class of the oft-underrated A-10.
Predicted Win Range: 24-30
19. Michigan State: Sparty loses tons, but Izzo will figure it out
Michigan State lost loads of offensive talent this offseason (Garry Harris, Adreian Payne, Keith Appling–all gone). As such, coach Tim Izzo might lean on his defense more this winter than last. But there are still offensive weapons remaining, most notably forward Branden Dawson. The Spartans might start slow, but they should have things figured out by March. That’s the Izzo way, after all.
Predicted Win Range: 21-27
20. Harvard: Harvard’s building toward a deep NCAA run
Harvard has won games in each of the last two NCAA Tournaments. In 2013, the Crimson raced by New Mexico in the Round of 64 before getting waxed by Arizona in the next round. Last March, the Crimson took down five seed Cincinnati–a good five seed at that–and looked like they might be headed to the Sweet 16 before mighty Michigan State went into high gear down the stretch of a thrilling game. The Crimson are building upward. Could this be the year they break into the Sweet 16? They certainly have elite athleticism across the board. But for Harvard to take the next step forward, they’ll need to find a jump shooting option to replace the excellent Laurent Rivard. Even with Rivard, Harvard struggled at times from the perimeter last year. The expectation in Cambridge is that Corbin Miller will fill the void, but improvement in the shooting of Wesley Saunders, already Harvard’s best two-way player, might put Harvard over the top.
Predicted Win Range: 25-31
21. Iowa State: Fred Hoiberg’s program is trending upwards
There were some rumors swirling around Fred Hoiberg drawing interest from the NBA this offseason, but the outstanding 41 year old coach is still in Ames. He’s got a pretty good team this year too; Georges Niang will lead a team that also features excellent players like Dustin Hogue and transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones. Plus they have a 7-foot-1 freshman named Georgios Tsalmpouris. Long legs. Long name.
Predicted Win Range: 20-26
22. Georgetown: Led by star Smith-Rivera, the Hoyas look to bounce back
As good as Georgetown has been under John Thompson III, they’ve not made it past the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament since 2007. Last year, they missed the Tournament altogether, as the losses of Otto Porter to the NBA Draft and Greg Whittington to injury proved costly. Expect it to be bounce back city in our nation’s capital this year. Junior guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera will be the star of the show for the Hoyas–the Big East preseason POY is coming off a monster sophomore season and can score from all over. JT3’s team is big–with center Joshua Smith (who missed much of last year for academic reasons) leading the front court. The Hoyas also added a strong freshman class. The sun’s about to come up over the Georgetown’s gothic campus.
Predicted Win Range: 22-27
23. UConn: Boatright will keep things going right
The Huskies are rebuilding in a sense after the title; Shabazz Napier is gone along with DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey. Nonetheless, UConn fans shouldn’t tear up yet. Freshmen Daniel Hamilton is expected to come in and make a big impact. More important than that, though, is the return of Ryan Boatright, one the nation’s best two-way guards. And, with Kevin Ollie still at the helm, UConn still should be a tight ship. Just don’t bank on them to repeat as national champs.
Predicted Win Range: 21-27
24. Michigan: Baby Wolverines will be a tough out in the Big Ten
As good an X’s and O’s coach John Beilein is, the amount of talent that the coach has brought to Ann Arbor should not be understated. This winter, Michigan might experience some growing pains. The Wolverines are young across the board. Juniors Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht will fill key leadership roles. LeVert likely will be the squad’s best player. Meanwhile sophomore guard Zak Irvin may be poised for a breakout year. The play of the new class of freshmen will also be critical. If Beilein can get them to play together, Michigan still could be really good, really fast.
Predicted Win Range: 19-24
25. Providence: Big East title not a fluke
It might not seem a likely year to call for Providence to breakout. After all, the Friars lost star Bryce Cotton to graduation, and few players meant more to their team than the electrifying guard did to PC last year. Cotton played just about 40 minutes per game and scored 22 per night. And he’s not the only guy who the Friars will have to replace; stud forward Kadeem Batts graduated and wing Josh Fortune transferred. Providence wasn’t a deep team last year (they featured a six man rotation), so the losses are somewhat daunting. Even with all that in mind, there is plenty of reason to think the Friars are ready to breakout. To a large degree, they already have. PC is fresh off a 23 win season that culminated in a Big East Championship. But this year they should be even better. Under coach Ed Cooley, PC won 15 games in ’11-12, 19 in ’12-13, and of course 23 last winter. Cooley has enhanced the overall talent level in the program. This year, he’ll have to lean on a fantastic freshman class (7-2 center Paschal Chukwu, wing Jalen Lindsey, and forward Ben Bentil are all high profile guys) and senior forward LaDontae Henton (a do-it-all two-way demon who plays bigger than he is). Last year’s surprise run to the Big East title was only the beginning for Cooley at PC. This year, the Friars will build on it.
Predicted Win Range: 21-26