College basketball is back, and all is right in the world. After my adopted Gonzaga Bulldogs lost a heartbreaker in the national championship, it was a very long offseason waiting to get back to this point. While the Zags and my Hoosiers are in transition periods right now, there are countless reasons to be excited about this upcoming season. Let’s get it rolling by looking at the initial top ten from the second most powerful power rankings (h/t Titus) in all the land.
Just missed the cut: North Carolina, Cincinnati, Minnesota, West Virginia, Notre Dame
Projected Starters: G Ja’Quan Newton (SR/6-2/187), G Bruce Brown (SO/6-5/190), G Lonnie Walker (FR/6-4/192), F Dewan Huell (SO/6-11/220), C Ebuka Izundu (JR/6-10/232)
KenPom Projections: 1.104 points per possession (33rd in the country), 0.919 points allowed per possession (23rd)
Brown might just be the most underrated player in America, and the Hurricanes are his team now. Jim Larranaga can combine Newton, Brown and 5-star freshman Lonnie Walker to form the best backcourt in the ACC (if not the country), and Huell should build on an impressive freshman campaign.
Projected Starters: G Chris Chiozza (SR/6-0/175), G KeVaughn Allen (JR/6-2/193), G Egor Koulechov (SR/6-5/205), F Kevarrius Hayes (JR/6-9/225), C John Egbunu (SR/6-11/265)
KenPom Projections: 1.114 points per possession (20th), 0.884 points allowed per possession (2nd)
Florida will win the SEC this year, even if they technically aren’t the conference’s most talented team. The Gators were a top five team in points allowed per possession last year, and only Virginia projects to have a more suffocating defense this year. Allen will be the guy on offense, aided by transfers Koulechov (Rice) and Jalen Hudson (Virginia Tech). Kentucky may be the king of the SEC, but Florida has the perfect roster to change that.
Projected Starters: G Jordan McLaughlin (SR/6-1/180), G De’Anthony Melton (SO/6-4/190), G Elijah Stewart (SR/6-5/190), F Bennie Boatwright (JR/6-10/230), F Chimezie Metu (JR/6-11/225)
KenPom Projections: 1.139 points per possession (7th), 0.921 points allowed per possession (25th)
Everyone is back from last year’s tournament team (97% of minutes, to be exact), plus Duke transfer Derryck Thornton and McDonald’s All-American Charles O’Bannon. The specter of an FBI investigation looms over the program thanks to Tony Bland, but for now just enjoy how much fun the Trojans are. Andy Enfield’s team will play fast, and the combination of Boatwright and Metu on the interior will give opponents fits all season.
Projected Starters: G Jalen Brunson (JR/6-3/190), G Donte DiVincenzo (SO/6-5/205), G Mikal Bridges (G/6-6/210), F Eric Paschall (JR/6-9/255), F Omari Spellman (FR/6-9/245)
KenPom Projections: 1.168 points per possession (2nd), 0.893 points allowed per possession (5th)
Villanova finally adds a huge frontcourt presence in Spellman, the type of back-to-the-basket big man that every great Wildcat team has had. Phil Booth also returns after missing nearly all of last season, and should provide a spark off the bench. But with Josh Hart graduating, this is unquestionably Brunson’s team now. His leadership and playmaking ability will lead this team to a Big East title and a deep tournament run.
6. Wichita State
Projected Starters: G Landry Shamet (SO/6-4/180), G Connor Frankamp (SR/6-1/171), F Zach Brown (SR/6-6/213), F Markis McDuffie (JR/6-8/213), C Shaquille Morris (SR/6-8/279)
KenPom Projections: 1.147 points per possession (5th), 0.893 points allowed per possession (5th)
In the first season of the American Athletic Conference, one of its member schools, UConn, won the national title. Now in its first season in the league, Wichita State has a very real shot at matching that feat. It will probably take a little bit for the Shockers to get going, once Shamet and McDuffie both fully recover from offseason foot surgeries. KenPom projects this to be a top five team on both sides of the ball, and who am I to argue? Returning everyone from last year’s 31-win team has the Shockers thinking Final Four.
Projected Starters: G Quade Green (FR/6-1/180), G Hamidou Diallo (FR/6-5/198), F Kevin Knox (FR/6-9/215), F PJ Washington (FR/6-7/236), F Wenyen Gabriel (SO/6-9/205)
KenPom Projections: 1.154 points per possession (4th), 0.886 points allowed per possession (3rd)
Get ready to hear Coach Cal talk about how young his team is in every single halftime and postgame interview this year, although in his defense this is the youngest roster he’s had to deal with in Lexington. Gabriel is the top returning scorer, and he only averaged 4.6 points per game last year. An incredible six 5-star freshmen join him, headlined by Diallo, a freak athlete. Kentucky is inching closer and closer to “positionless” basketball, as this is a wing-heavy bunch.
Projected Starters: G Devonte’ Graham (SR/6-2/185), G Lagerald Vick (JR/6-5/175), G Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (SR/6-8/205, F Billy Preston (FR/6-10/240), C Udoka Azubuike (SO/7-0/280)
KenPom Projections: 1.143 points per possession (6th), .900 points allowed per possession (9th)
Let me be the first to congratulate Kansas on winning the 2017-18 Big 12 title. Ultra-talented Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman may not even break into the starting lineup (at least initially), which speaks to the embarrassment of riches Bill Self has at his disposal. Graham will be a player of the year candidate, and will lead a plethora of guards who are very proficient from the outside. Keep an eye on Azubuike, who missed almost all of last season with a wrist injury. Self wanted Azubuike to improve his post moves and become more disciplined on defense (8.7 fouls per 40 minutes last year) in the offseason, and by all accounts he has. If Azubuike continues to improve he could be the most physically dominating player in college basketball.
Projected Starters: G Parker Jackson-Cartwright (SR/5-11/170), G Allonzo Trier (JR/6-5/205), G Rawle Alkins (SO/6-5/220), F DeAndre Ayton (FR/7-1/250), C Dusan Rustic (SR/7-0/245)
KenPom Projections: 1.160 points per possession (3rd), .902 points allowed per possession (10th)
Arizona could be in trouble too, as Emmanuel Richardson was another assistant charged by the FBI. Ayton will likely be the most impactful freshman not named Michael Porter Jr. and should average close to a double-double. Trier has been dominant when not injured or suspended for PEDs, and should have a monster season. Once the Wildcats get Alkins back in December when his broken foot heals, Sean Miller will have all the pieces to make his first Final Four run.
2. Michigan State
Projected Starters: G Cassius Winston (SO/6-0/185), G Joshua Langford (SO/6-5/210), G Miles Bridges (SO/6-7/225), F Jaren Jackson (FR/6-11/242), F Nick Ward (SO/6-8/245)
KenPom Projections: 1.137 points per possession (9th), 0.91 points allowed per possession (15th)
Miles Bridges shocked everyone when he returned to East Lansing for his sophomore year, but the Spartans are certainly glad he did. After an injury ravaged year in which Michigan State’s frontcourt was basically limited to Bridges and Ward, the Spartans are now loaded up front–adding stud freshman Jackson to returnees Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling. The Big Ten is nowhere near as good as it usually is, which only makes MSU’s roster look even better. But no one at the Breslin Center would be satisfied with a Big Ten title–this roster screams national championship or bust.
Projected Starters: G Trevon Duval (FR/6-3/186), G Grayson Allen (SR/6-5/205), G Gary Trent Jr. (FR/6-6/209), F Marvin Bagley III (FR/6-11/234), F Wendell Carter Jr. (FR/6-10/259)
KenPom Projections: 1.169 points per possession (1st), 0.934 points allowed per possession (35th)
I said this last year and it did not end well, but Duke has the most talented roster in America by far. Duke was already loaded before Bagley reclassified to play in college this year, and adding him gives the Blue Devils one of the best players in the country. It can’t be overstated how talented this roster is (so much so that Marques Bolden is almost an afterthought!). Duke’s best is far better than any other team’s, but whether or not it can achieve that will depend on how well Allen and this crop of freshmen can mesh.