Let’s bounce around the country and pinpoint what some top programs will be known for this season.
*Most exciting team: Kentucky
Hamidou Diallo made our must-see TV team on Monday. But the truth is, Kentucky has several quality candidates. More, in fact, than any team in the country.
De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk formed and electrifying backcourt duo last year. This season, Kentucky will look more like Kentucky – meaning the Wildcats will overwhelm foes with sheer size, strength and athleticism. Even without Jarred Vanderbilt, who’s sidelined with an injury, the UK frontcourt is loaded.
Meet Kennedy Meeks doppelganger Kevin Knox, a 6-9, open-floor wrecking ball. Knox gives John Calipari an explosive, tweener forward he’s lacked in recent years. Knox throws down viciously in the first two plays of this clip:
And big man P.J. Washington, who’s taking the ball up the floor after missed free throws:
Diallo has a 44.5-inch vertical leap and a 6-11 wingspan. He’s a shooting guard.
If outside shooting is your thing, look elsewhere. The Wildcats could struggle from behind the arc.
But if you’re a fan of massive humans doing things massive humans shouldn’t be able to do, this is the team for you. Oh, and with so little returning, we don’t really know what we’ll get from Kentucky on a nightly basis. Besides pure entertainment.
*Team that’s no fun to play against: West Virginia
Some teams are unpredictable from year to year. In a sport where there is so much roster turnover, that’s expected.
The beauty of West Virginia is that it’s not as prone to the roller-coaster effect. Sure, the personnel matters, but Bob Huggins has it to the point where we know what we’re getting regardless of the talent — an OK offense paired with a relentless, full-court defense that is a near lock to finish top 10 in the country.
The Mountaineers finished sixth in defense in two years ago and fourth last season. Both times, they forced turnovers on at least a quarter of their opponents’ possessions. Think about that. When you’re playing West Virginia, you probably won’t even get a shot to the rim on 25 percent of your possessions.
There are ways to beat Press Virginia. It takes discipline, a savvy point guard… and usually, playing somewhere other than Morgantown. But even if you score on West Virginia, facing the Mountaineers is the most irking chore you can fathom. Expect more of the same in 2017-18.
*Most experienced team: Wichita State
Wichita State returns every key piece from a 31-win team. These guys are all seniors: Rashard Kelly, Zach Brown, Darral Willis, Jr., Rauno Nurger, Shaq Morris and Conner Frankamp. For reference, Kentucky is likely to have zero juniors or seniors in its rotation this season.
This kind of experience is rarely seen in college basketball. And it’s not just that they’re veterans – just because they’ve played a few years, it doesn’t automatically mean they’re good. But these guys are. The Shockers have won 30 games or more in two of the past three seasons.
Of course, Wichita State moves to the AAC this year. The Shockers figure to be the best team in the conference, but they’ll need a longer attention span than they did in the MVC.
Again, that’s the good thing about having experienced talent. Off-nights are few and far between. These guys are legitimate title contenders.
*Most likely team to bounce back: Oklahoma
Oklahoma made the Final Four two years ago with Buddy Hield leading the way. Hield left for the NBA, and the Sooners struggled to a 11-20 record last season. A year after shooting an astounding 42.2 percent from 3, that mark plummeted to 34.3 in 2016-17.
Oklahoma probably won’t make the Final Four this year, but it looks like a tournament team. The Sooners return Khadeem Lattin, a key piece on that semifinal squad; Kameron McGusty, who averaged 10.9 points as a freshman; and add Trae Young, who could be one of the most dynamic young scorers in the country. He’s the most exciting player to set foot on campus since Hield.
Oklahoma saw what kind of success Oklahoma State had last year with Jawun Evans running the show. Young is in Evans’ mold; he’s a slick pick-and-roll operator that can jack 3s off the bounce and find open shooters and cutters. Give Young the keys, and the Sooners should be fine offensively.
Lattin can anchor the defense, which was secretly decent last year, finishing 39th. Scoring was the problem. Young can’t solve it alone, but he’s one of the most gifted young shot-creators in America that plays the most important position on the floor. If he’s good – which feels inevitable – Oklahoma will be, too.
*Biggest wildcard: Missouri
Missouri is like Kentucky, only with a few less highly-touted freshmen and no track record of winning with freshmen as its best players.
That’s the negative side of the argument. The positive side is that they have Michael Porter, Jr., perhaps the closest thing we’ve seen in college basketball to Kevin Durant since KD himself. Porter is a 6-10, sweet-shooting forward who will be an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses. The Tigers also have Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon, forming one of the most talented fronctourts in America.
With that said, Ben Simmons didn’t make the NCAA tournament with LSU, and Markelle Fultz didn’t with Washington. Cuonzo Martin is a good coach, but he’s never been known as an Xs and Os guru. With that said, transfer Kassius Robertson should juice Missouri’s spacing, and the Tigers have a few returning players who look far better as the fifth and sixth options than they did as the first and second. In theory, this isn’t just the Porters and a bunch of castoffs.
Still, everything about this team is new. They could earn a top-three NCAA tournament seed. They could also miss the dance entirely, or finish somewhere in between.
The range of possible outcomes is huge.
*Team with the most to prove: Texas A&M
A team that has Robert Williams, DJ Hogg, Admon Gilder and Tyler Davis should, at the very least, finish well above .500. That’s a better top four than most NCAA tournament squads.
And yet, Texas A&M finished 16-15 last year and barely cracked the top 100 in offense. The Aggies turned the ball over on a whopping 21.2 percent of their possessions, which ranked 320th. Ball security was a major reason for their struggles. Having talent is great (duh), but if you can’t hang on to the ball, that ability is hidden.
Texas A&M adds Marquette transfer Duane Wilson to help stabilize the operation. He’s not an elite point guard, but he’s competent; if the Aggies can finish middle-of-the pack in turnovers, they’ll be dancing in March. Williams, Davis, Hogg and Gilder are too talented not to.
The projection systems like Texas A&M’s chances. KenPom has the Aggies ranked 15th. Now, it’s time to prove it on the floor. They have all the tools to succeed.