Friday was the official start of the college basketball season, so it’s time for my annual preview of my favorite sport. This is a year where the national rankings are really top heavy, with the top three or four teams looking like they’re in a whole different league than the rest of the country. That begins with Kentucky, which is stacked like an Amazon warehouse.
Kentucky is the consensus preseason #1 for a very good reason. They may be the deepest team 1-12 that we’ve see in a long time, maybe ever. That’s because, contrary to what has happened the last few years, they had some really good players return to school to join their usual loaded freshman class. That starts with their backcourt, made up of twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison. 7-footers Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson also came back, along with Alex Poythress. With just that starting five and a bench full of scrubs, that would be a top 5 team. But the truth is, they may have trouble beating the next five guys off the bench. Freshmen Karl-Anthony Townes, one of the most skilled and diverse big men I’ve seen in a while, is likely going to be a top 5 pick at the end of his freshman year. Big man Trey Lyles and speedy point guard Tyler Ulis will be lottery picks when they come out. To say this team is loaded is an understatement. They’re always loaded, but this team they’ve got a bunch of great players who also have the experience of making a Final Four run last year. This team simply doesn’t have a weakness.
The next three teams can be ranked in pretty much any order. Duke, Arizona and Wisconsin are also stocked with great talent and depth. Duke lost their two great wings, Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, but they return everyone else who mattered and add to them the best recruiting class in the country, led by center Jahlil Okafor. This guy is a beast on the offensive end, a rare true back to the basket center at 6’10 and about 260 pounds. Duke hasn’t had a player like that in a long time, maybe ever. There’s a ton of quality experience with Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon, Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee. The other three freshmen — Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen — will get big minutes. Three of them are starters, something Coach K hadn’t done since 1983 when that’s all he had. The good news for Duke is that the upperclassmen have embraced the freshmen, something that could have been a problem. The ceiling is very, very high for this team.
Arizona lost Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordan from last year’s team but return almost everyone, including Kaleb Tarczewski, T.J. McConnell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley, who is returning from an injury that cost him the second half of last season. Freshman big man Stanley Johnson is as strong and athletic as they come and Ryan Anderson will be impossible to keep off the floor despite the upperclassmen starting in front of him. This team doesn’t quite have the depth of the first two, but they’ve got a ton of talent and experience.Wisconsin returns every player but one from last year’s Final Four team, including all-American Frank Kaminsky, who may be as tough a matchup as there is in the country. He’s a 7-footer who can play in the post, in the pick and roll or knock down threes. And he may not even be the best player on the team. Sam Dekker, a multi-talented 6’9 junior, is poised for a huge season. He can score inside and out and is one of those players who just seems to always be in the right place at the right time. The same goes for Nigel Hayes, who came off the bench last year and should double his scoring this year. This is not your daddy’s Wisconsin team, they can light up the scoreboard. And Bo Ryan remains the best coach no one talks about in the country.
The next four will sound familiar: Kansas, North Carolina, Florida, Louisville. All have a lot of talent and depth, but I think they’re a step below those first four.
Now to my favorite team, Michigan State. After losing three players to the NBA from last year’s team, this is supposed to be a down year for the Spartans. Don’t bet on it. Brendan Dawson is ready to bust out in a big way. He’s an athletic freak who can jump out of the gym and he was a different player last year when he returned from a broken hand. In the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, he was the best player on the floor night after night. Denzel Valentine is also going to have a huge season. He’s a stat sheet stuffer who can do it all and he is now the leader on this team. Senior Travis Trice should be solid at point guard, but he’ll likely split time with Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn, who may be the fastest player Izzo has ever had. The real key with this team is how their big men develop. If Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling can play good defense, rebound and combine for 20 points a game, this team is going to be better than expected. Izzo has been saying all summer that he loves this team, which is something he rarely does. He’s usually gloomy and negative even when he’s got a dominant team. But he says he’s never had a team that worked harder than this one and that means a lot. I don’t think they’ll challenge Wisconsin for #1 in the Big Ten, but they’ll battle with Michigan for the #2 spot. As usual, the schedule is brutal, beginning with Duke on Tuesday. The thing that could really hurt this team is their defense. The three players who left for the NBA weren’t just their best offensive players, they were their only really good defenders as well. There’s no one to protect the rim and the backcourt just can’t guard the way last year’s team could.
Final Four picks: Kentucky, Duke, Wisconsin, Louisville.
National Champion: Kentucky.