By Kevin Sweeney
We’re getting closer…..
The season is just 50 days away from getting underway on November 10, and I’m working hard to prep for my conference previews that start on October 1. For today though, I decided to take some of your college hoops questions. Thanks to everyone for their submissions, lots of really great questions to talk about.
So we start off with a question from Brad, and one that I find super interesting. One team I’m pretty high on going into the year that a lot of people aren’t is Illinois. This is mostly a bet on Brad Underwood to get the most out of his guys, but I think I’d have them in the NCAA Tournament if I were doing a bracketology today. Guys like Mark Smith and Kipper Nichols have a chance to thrive in Underwood’s up-tempo system. At the mid-major level, a team I really like that some don’t is UCSB. The Gauchos went just 6-22 a season ago and came in last in the Big West, but with a pair of all-league level players in Jalen Canty and Gabe Vincent, as well as 2 excellent grad transfers in guard Marcus Jackson (12.2 ppg at Rice) and forward Leland King (3.7 ppg at Nevada).
On the other hand, there are a few teams that I’m just not sold on. Wisconsin for me is a team that is being overrated just because of their brand. While the Badgers have shown the ability to reload in the past, the Badgers lose 4 starters from last season and don’t have clear replacements in place. I still fully expect them to be an NCAA Tournament team, but they aren’t a preseason top 25 team (or all that close) in my opinion. I also have concerns about UNC-Wilmington. Many still think they can contend in the CAA, but with a new coach, new system, and losing their entire backcourt from a season ago, all the pressure in the world is on big man Devontae Cacok to carry the load offensively. While he’s certainly talented, it’s a major role adjustment for him and he’ll need to have a monster year if the Seahawks are going to compete in the conference.
Loaded question here, but I’ll dive right in with the favorite 2017 class. This is obviously not the best class in the nation, but I really love what Ed Cooley has assembled this year at Providence. With 4 starters set to graduate after this season, it was critical that in the 2017 and 2018 classes the Friars stocked up with talent. The big land was PG Makai Ashton-Langford, a top-50 player in the class who has a chance to be the next in a line of great lead guards for Cooley’s program. He also adds a pair of high-upside bigs in 6-8 Nate Watson and 7-footer Dajour Dickens, both of whom project as at least rotation players and perhaps more at the next level.
For the underclassman lineup, I’ll only use guys who in my opinion should have stayed/haven’t thrived in the NBA.
- PG: Nigel Williams-Goss (Gonzaga)
- SG: Marcus Keene (Central Michigan)
- SF: PJ Dozier (South Carolina)
- PF: Jaylen Johnson (Louisville)
- C: Diamond Stone (Maryland)
This lineup features some guys that not only weren’t can’t-miss NBA guys but also would make a huge difference on their teams this year. Stone is the only one not from the 2017 draft class, but imagining him teaming up with Cowan, Jackson, and Huerter at Maryland this season would be super fun to watch.
Finally, we talk Sean Miller and Arizona. In my opinion, this is the year he gets it done. That roster is so talented and so versatile. I believe the Wildcats find their way to San Antonio this season.
Wright State is hosting an exempt event this season, and it should be a fairly interesting field of mid-major clubs. To me, the best team in the event is Fairfield out of the MAAC. The Stags have some pretty talented pieces around MAAC POY candidate Tyler Nelson, and could find themselves contending for a MAAC title if they get good point guard play. Next for me would be Wright State. You have to love the duo of Grant Benzinger and Justin Mitchell. Key this season will be the play of Parker Ernsthausen, who I think can be a breakout candidate. Both Gardner-Webb and Jacksonville project as mid-pack or lower teams in their respective conferences.
To be honest, I don’t think Oklahoma was all that far away from being a very good basketball team last year. They were stout defensively and a decent offensive club, but the issues were finishing close games, especially once senior leader Jordan Woodard went down with an injury. However, the young Sooners have another year under their belts, so winning down the stretch should be less of an issue. They also add Trae Young, a dynamic point guard, a lights-out shooter who has drawn some comparisons to a younger Steph Curry. He will make that offense much more dangerous and is a key reason why I’m fairly bullish on the Sooners this season.
After the 2016-17 season in which the Owls under Mike Rhoades went 23-12, I was all aboard the bandwagon. I truly believed they could contend in Conference USA this season. Then Will Wade left VCU for LSU, and it all crumbled. Rhoades left Rice for VCU, and stars Egor Koulechov (Florida), Marcus Evans (VCU), and Marcus Jackson (UCSB) all departed as well. Now, the Owls look to be facing a bottom-half finish in the C-USA. However, Scott Pera is the right man for the job, and has made some splashes on the recruiting trail in the 2018 class. I wouldn’t be surprised if in 2-3 years they are contenders again, but all that momentum departed with Rhoades.