Gee, the World Series just ended and the kids have barely put a dent in their Halloween candy bars. The college basketball season is here already?
Yep, and never mind the conference football championship games are still five weeks away. Time, then, to sort out these 15 questions.
Where will the season end?
In Atlanta, with the first Final Four ever at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. That’s the place with the video board almost the size of a county.
Ok, but where will it start?
Waco seems as good a place as any. The Baylor-Central Arkansas game tips off at 11 a.m. CST on opening day, the nation’s first game between two Division I teams. The Bears go that early so they can bring in local school groups. The first day’s highlight will be the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden; No. 3 Kansas vs. No. 4 Duke followed by No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Kentucky — the first time the Classic has ever had the four top ranked teams. That ought to get the blood pumping for the season. Big Blue Nation no doubt recalls how last year went at the Champions Classic. Duke 118, Kentucky 84.
Who’s No. 1, everywhere?
Michigan State, for the first time ever in the preseason, and there aren’t many things you can say Tom Izzo has never done before. This puts a lot on the shoulders of Cassius Winston, since he’s the biggest reason the Spartans are at the top. Any national player of the year forecast usually begins with him. “I don’t think it’s even hit me yet. I’m going try to keep it that way,” he said. “Just remain humble and remember all the things that got me to this point, and have the same mindset of trying to prove myself. Make sure I’m attacking every workout, every practice with my best effort, trying to become the best player. If I do that. I feel like everything will take care of itself.”
Of course, it’s not where you start, but where you finish. Izzo doesn’t get too excited about rankings or honors in November, but would like very much to end the long wait for his second national championship in April. It’s been 20 years for the Spartans. It’s been 20 years for the Big Ten, too, by far the longest dry spell in the league’s history.
Any other streaks we should know about?
There’s the Great Drought in the West. It’s been 23 years since the last national championship for any team west of Lawrence, Kansas. Matter of fact, the Eastern time zone has produced 21 of the past 22 national titles. The West has had only three champions in the 44 years since John Wooden retired.
For team streaks, we call your attention to the Jan. 11 game, Clemson at North Carolina, when the Tigers will once again try to do something about that 0-59 record in Chapel Hill. Meanwhile, Duke’s home court winning streak against non-conference teams is 147 and counting, going back to 2000. Nobody terribly scary on this season’s slate, either.
One other streak. It’s been 13 years since a team repeated as national champion. For that matter, Florida is the only team to do it in more than a quarter-century.
So where does that leave Virginia?
Needing to replace its top three scorers, that’s where. “I think we’re just getting to work,” Tony Bennett said of the title defense. “Are you defending it, are you attacking it? We learned from it. That’s part of last year’s team, this is part of this year’s team — be as good as you can.”
“This is one of the least experienced teams that I’ve ever had here, for a specific reason, for a good reason, right?” Right. National champions often head off early to the pros.
The Cavaliers are not the only team from that overtime championship game that has a lot of replacing to do, correct?
Yep. Texas Tech lost four starters and has 10 new players. But that run to Minneapolis is in the record books. “Last year is over. Nobody can ever take it from us,” coach Chris Beard said. Now he wants to show how well the Red Raiders can reload, which is what consistent programs do.
If not Winston for player of the year, who’s Plan B?
Look to the Big East, where the game within the game whenever Seton Hall and Marquette meet will be Myles Powell vs. Markus Howard, two incendiary devices who can score in a hurry.
Surely, there must also be freshmen potentials. This is 2019, isn’t it?
True. That starts with Memphis’ James Wiseman, part of the blue chip stack Penny Hardaway has accumulated. Pick any Duke or Kentucky newcomer you want. Georgia’s Anthony Edwards. And North Carolina’s Cole Anthony, who has proven so adept at distributing the ball in Tar Heel practices to veteran such as Garrison Brooks, that Roy Williams mentioned, “I think Garrison got more lob dunks in the first eight practices than he did maybe all last year.”
Sounds like the Big East could be pretty good, huh?
Gee, they certainly hope so, after the league exited last year’s NCAA Tournament faster than students on a fire drill. Villanova was the only conference team to win a tournament game. Then the Wildcats were blown away in the second round by Purdue by 26 points. But the league had a lot of important players to replace last season. This year, 34 of the 50 starters are back. Villanova is getting the usual buzz, and why not? But keep a very close eye on Seton Hall.
“That can happen to any league,” Villanova’s Jay Wright said. “We just had everybody young at the same time. What made us in the end being able to win it was we had two seniors that no one else had, but I think this year everybody is going to have them. I think the league is going to be a beast.”
Any other conference intrigue going on out there?
Sure — drum roll, please — the ACC. This assembly line of trophy and high draft picks has produced three of the past five national champions, by three different schools. No other league has ever dreamed of doing that. But not one player from either the all-conference first or second teams returns, so you wonder if there might be a little slippage. Mike Krzyzewski sees that as a by-product of how well the ACC sends out NBA-ready talent.
“I think it’s just caught up to everybody. We’re just going to see more newness throughout the league, especially a league of our stature, because these kids get prepared for the pros by being in the best conference. It makes it wide open for the league this year.”
And don’t count on much of a drop-off, Louisville’s Chris Mack said.
“There’s a lot of turnover in the league, but the thing about the ACC is it attracts the best players in the country, so even though there may not be some household names like there were a year ago, they’re going to happen quickly.”
One ACC coach certainly looking for an upgrade is Mike Brey at Notre Dame. After missing the NCAA Tournament two consecutive years, he wanted to send a message to his players that things needed to improve. And so . . . take a look at last season’s team banquet. “We used paper plates and that was our banquet and we didn’t invite anybody. We kind of circled the wagons and tried to set the tone.”
The ACC going to 20 league games forced some compressed scheduling, which did the Irish no favors. They open the season against North Carolina. In Chapel Hill. In February they play four games in nine days – at Clemson, at Virginia, at Duke, home to North Carolina. Ouch.
Mack’s name rings a bell. Why?
You must have been reading one of those annual lists of best active coaches still waiting to get to the Final Four. He’s almost always near the top. But with All-American Jordan Nwora and a talented Louisville roster that has the Cardinals ranked No. 5, he might be ready to leave the club soon.
“That’s a hell of a list to be on. I’m not worried about the lists I make or the lists I don’t make, I’m just trying to get our guys better every single day with the expectation and hope that we can get to a Final Four.”
Anyone else who has been conspicuous by their absence in the Final Four?
Well, yes. Duke and Kentucky. The one-and-done twins have rolled out a glittering array of freshman NBA draft picks in recent seasons, but neither has gotten to the Final Four since 2015. Gee, Loyola Chicago has been there since then, and the Ramblers’ biggest star was a nun. Four years do not exactly qualify as a long drought, but they do put into focus the question of how far young talent – no matter how prodigious – can carry a team in March.
“The season is longer for a young player because they’ve never experienced it, especially at a high frequency team that’s watched,” Krzyzewski said. Like Duke. “It takes its toll. And although it hasn’t happened (at Duke), a kid who knows that he’s going pro can start looking ahead. Or the family, or whatever. So there’s a couple of things there, with a veteran team it wouldn’t happen because they’ve invested, and they’ve been there three years or four years. It is tougher for a young group. How old can you get in nine months?”
Which is why Krzyzewski is glad to have some experienced hands with his freshman thoroughbreds this season, and so is John Calipari at Kentucky. The blue masses get rather cranky in Lexington when they wait this long to get back to a Final Four. Goodness, Auburn showed up there it last April. As Calipari starts his second decade at Kentucky, the most impressive thing about his legacy might not be the tonnage of wins, but how well he’s learned to co-exist with the thermonuclear heat and fan expectation of the position.
“Here’s what I do know . . . when you’re coaching here. If you’re worried about all that stuff, the clutter out there, you can’t do this job and you can’t be about the kids. You’ll be under the desk in a fetal position. Your secretary will come in (and wonder) `Where did he go? Coach what are you doing under there?’ . . . So this is not one for the faint of heart, whether you’re playing here or coaching here.”
Speaking of coaching, what first-year guys are particularly fascinating?
Start at Michigan, where one-fifth of the Fab Five is back. Juwan Howard has the maize and blue blood, but will be learning the job on the fly. The man he replaced, John Beilein, had coached in 896 Division I games. Howard has coached in none.
Then there’s Mick Cronin at UCLA. He had a rousing program at Cincinnati, but these are shark-infested waters. The last three Bruin coaches – Steve Lavin, Ben Howland and Steve Alford – combined for 11 Sweet 16s and three Final Fours, and were all more or less run out of town as disappointments. Welcome to Westwood, Mick!
Fred Hoiberg became The Mayor when he won big at Iowa State in his boyhood home of Ames. What will he be if he wins big in his birthplace in Lincoln, Nebraska, where his parents met, one grandfather coached and the other was a professor? “It’s funny how life comes full-circle sometimes,” he said. Since Lincoln is the state capital, maybe he can be governor.
Nate Oats built a power at Buffalo, but is now the latest man charged with convincing the people at Alabama that March is good for something besides checking how the quarterback situation is at spring football practice.
For the shortest job jump, there’s Casey Alexander who moved just down boulevard from Lipscomb to his alma mater Belmont, replacing retiring legend Rick Byrd. The schools are so close, Alexander once said his daily jogging route from his Lipscomb coaching office took him past Belmont. Now, presumably, he’ll just jog in reverse.
For second-year intrigue, there is Hardaway’s head-long effort to make Memphis nationally relevant. This is the 25th anniversary of Hardaway leading the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals with the Orlando Magic, beating the Chicago Bulls and the un-retired Michael Jordan along the way. Now he’s chasing another kind of final.
So Memphis is a dark horse. How about any others to keep in mind?
All depends on what you call a sleeper. Gonzaga would send you into the Washington woods wearing bear scent if you still tried to call the Bulldogs that. WCC colleague Saint Mary’s, not so much, so there’s one to promote. New Mexico State returns the core of the team that nearly knocked out Auburn last March. P.S. This is the 50th anniversary of the Aggies’ appearance in the Final Four. Utah State could go places with Sam Merrill. And Harvard has the looks of an Ivy League trouble-maker.
Last thing. About the extended 3-point line. Big change?
That’s TBD. Jim Boeheim is an old hand at defending the perimeter with his Syracuse zone, and said, “The guys who can shoot out there, the difference in the distance doesn’t matter. It’s not important, it’s not relevant.”
Greg McDermott, whose Creighton teams often thrive with the 3-pointer, had another take:
“I don’t really feel like the 3-point line affects us. We’ve recruited shooters intentionally. I think a lot of our 3-point shots are taken beyond there anyway. I think it could impact the marginal shooter. The other thing I think it will do for college basketball is maybe it allows the big man to come back into the game a little more. You have to be one step closer (on defense) to that 3-point shooter because the line’s moved back, and that’s a step farther away from the big guy with the double team coming, and everything that goes with that.
“I feel like the NBA’s really moved away from the back-to-the-basket big. I’d hate to see that happen in college basketball, and I feel like moving the 3-point line helps that.”
New coaches, a new rule, but the same old names at the top of the polls. Let the journey begin.