College basketball is back today! The first official tip-off is this afternoon at 12:30pm between Wisconsin Lutheran at Green Bay. What a lot of college basketball fans will focus their attention on is this evenings double-header at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana where Kansas plays Michigan State and Duke plays Kentucky. As far as the beginning of the season, conversation and debates tend to gravitate toward conference predictions, who are sleepers and cinderellas to wreak havoc come tournament time, and players to watch. I will briefly touch on each of those topics in this post!
The Big 12 boasts the deepest conference. They are capable of sending a majority of their teams to the tournament and make it to the second weekend.
Big 12 Conference Prediction:
- West Virginia
- Kansas State
- Iowa State
- Texas Tech
- Oklahoma State
The ACC is second on my list. This may be rather bullish, but I think the ACC can send 7, possibly 8 teams to the NCAA Tournament this year. Four teams in Kenpom’s top 10 preseason ratings is telling, but does not reflect the body of work in the first couple months. It will be interesting to see how things shake out in the non-conference schedule.
ACC Conference Prediction:
- North Carolina
- Florida State
- Miami FL
- Virginia Tech
- NC State
- Notre Dame
- Boston College
- Georgia Tech
The Big East may have lost some talent at the top of the conference, but I think that view is a bit shortsighted. The bottom half of the conference is loaded and each conference game will be a battle. Also, Villanova has consistently proved that they effectively prepare their players to play at a high level annually. It may be a rougher start to the season for the Wildcats, but I am confident Jay Wright will have sorted things out by the time the first week of Big East play begins.
Big East Prediction:
- St. John’s
- Seton Hall
The Big Ten is strong at the top of the conference with Michigan State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Michigan, and I’ll include Indiana in the mix too. But with Illinois and Rutgers associated in the same group, that drags the conference down for me.
Big Ten Prediction:
- Michigan State
- Penn State
- Ohio State
The SEC has five strong teams that I think will make the NCAA tournament, yet after those five, there isn’t much to write home about. I do think that LSU will surprise fans this year.
SEC Conference Prediction:
- Mississippi State
- Texas A&M
- South Carolina
Sleepers and Cinderellas
Buffalo didn’t just beat Arizona, they absolute wiped the floor with the Wildcats. The scary thing is that five of the top six scorers are back after a 27 win season. The Bulls will be a pick to make the second weekend in the NCAA tournament this year.
If St. John’s doesn’t perform well this year, then I don’t know what the future looks like for Head Coach Chris Mullins. Preseason Player of the Year, Shamorie Ponds, will continue to draw attention for the numbers he puts up in the scoring column, but the addition of Mustapha Heron and Sedee Keita bring depth to the Johnnies roster. Big East conference play will be telling how St. John’s will participate in the postseason, but I expect they will join 67 other teams in the NCAA tournament.
Few seem to be talking about them currently, but the Saint Louis Billikens are on the verge of making noise this season. They are an athletic team that has phenomenal rebounding, especially in their guards. Offensive rebounding will keep the Billikens in games in addition to their physical bigs. They have a deep roster that does not give up much when the rotation goes 8, 9, or 10 deep.
Loyola Chicago won the hearts of college basketball fans as they methodically made their way to the Final Four last year. Although they lost three players from last year’s team, they bring back potential All American Clayton Custer. The Ramblers will have to compete with a reloaded Illinois State team in the Missouri Valley Conference this season for the top spot. I’m on the fence if this conference has the possibility to get two teams into the tournament this season.
The Nevada Wolf Pack is loaded with talent after bringing back an experienced group of players. They are a likely pick to win out their conference and make it past the second weekend in March.
Western Kentucky brought in a five-star recruit in Charles Bassey. His off court issues may be the hurdle that stymies the Hilltoppers season. However, if Bassey keeps his focus on school and basketball, teammates Taveion Hollingsworth and Lamonte Bearden are set to be reliable scoring options for Bassey.
Players to Watch
South Dakota State’s Mike Daum has reached his senior season. He will produce offensively for his squad. He will need to average just under 25 points per game to reach 3000 career points – a feat achieved by only eight other players. The most recent NCAA player to score 3000 career points was Doug McDermott from 2010 to 2014. If there’s one reason that SDSU makes it back to the NCAA Tournament, it’s because of Daum and his ability to draw defenders to him and shoot accurately at a high clip.
Carsen Edwards from Purdue is a do-everything type of player. His speed, ability to shoot the ball, and distribute to teammates effectively makes him a player to watch. As a sophomore Edwards averaged 18.5 points a game. Relying on him as an upperclassman invites the idea that he will be productive this season.
Duke has a plethora of freshmen to watch. If you want rim-rocking dunks, Zion Williamson is more than willing to provide that entertainment. However, R.J. Barrett is the savvy lefty that is versatile on both ends of the floor. He distributes the ball at a high level and has a feel for the game that is unmatched by nearly all other NCAA college basketball players.
Markus Howard’s 52 point performance that included 11 3-pointers wasn’t the ah-ha moment fans began to pay attention to Howard’s scoring ability. He’s always had it, but that performance drew more attention. Howard will provide numerous sparks for Marquette throughout the season. His role should help guide this Marquette squad to the second weekend and possibly beyond.
The loudest cheers for Indiana’s first game may not be during the actual game itself. It may likely be when freshman Romeo Langford’s name is announced. His shooting will excite and his level-headed persona will surprise. Langford has potential to lead the Big Ten in scoring this season. I’m most excited to see Marquette and Indiana play each other in what should be a game that does not lack offensive scoring.
It is always enjoyable to invite conversation and discussion as another college basketball season begins. As this is an opinion piece, I would love to hear which teams and players you are excited to watch this year. In the following weeks, be sure to look for updates on early season tournaments! Happy first day of college basketball!