What a time to be alive.
Who am I kidding? I have to shed a few tears for Grantland, which was a huge part of my life. The guys at Grantland, especially Jalen Rose, David Jacoby, and Bill Simmons – finding their podcasts certainly served as an inspiration to working on a project like Splashtag. As Jalen always says…
Okay enough with the somber thoughts. On the bright side, NBA season has just started. I’ve watched the ending of Cavs-Bulls and I watched a lot of Wolves-Lakers (heartbreaking ending but great to see Kobe play well in the first half and Julius Randle kill it). NBA season has certainly been exciting, but people need to remember it’s an 82-game season. Sometimes it can get weary and drag too long. However, I’m excited about something that’s starting very soon…
College Basketball!!! On the college level, every game really does matter as the games have implications from seeding to making the tournament. Plus, every game in some ways is a test. Can a team win on a neutral court? What about on the road? Not knocking the NBA – I am an NBA junkie as well. However, from November to the first week of April, college basketball is generally the more ENTERTAINING product while the NBA is the more refined product. The new rules, notably a shorter shot clock, were designed by the rules committee to make the game have more possessions and hopefully more watchable.
Here at Splashtag, we are starting a new annual tradition of our college hoops preview. This will be a nice holistic summary with features beyond just a preview per conference. We’ll try to diversify a little bit and put in multiple perspectives – national title picture, NBA draft prospects, teams that will be fun to watch, the coaches, storylines, the new rules etc.
Think about what a perfect college basketball season is to you. Do you value the rivalries, the tournament, the storylines, NBA draft prospects, potential coaching jumps, maybe even the quality of basketball. Very rarely do we have a perfect college basketball season, but in recent years we’ve had some very good ones. 2013-14 and 2014-15 were very impressive and likely aren’t going to be repeated. In both years, there were undefeated teams heading into the tournament, great rivalry games, intense 3-way races for the #1 pick, 7-seeds in the Final Four, loaded Kentucky rosters, Duke Freshman and awesome tournaments. Some of the criteria are very broad criteria and “no-duh” ingredients for a good college basketball season, so we’ll be a little more specific and break things down on this wish-list for this college basketball season. Furthermore, they won’t be title predictions – that all varies by fan base, who you think is good, and what you think wins basketball games.
Scandals and Eligibility Issues Die Down
Right now there are many notable programs that have either been hit with NCAA sanctions or in the midst of investigations. North Carolina is the only preseason top-5 team dealing with an investigation. Louisville is also under a horrible amount of attention for their escort scandal. Meanwhile, Syracuse won’t have Jim Boeheim coaching them for 9 games, and SMU faces a similar sanction except that they aren’t eligible for the tournament. It’s unfair for the Louisville players to have this distraction cloud their season when many of the players weren’t involved (especially their two best players who just transferred to Louisville), all the accusations are still allegations, and law enforcement is actually looking into the scandal.
Then there are the eligibility issues for many freshmen. While I can understand the NCAA’s motives for having their guidelines – dragging it out so late into the offseason is ridiculous. Skal Labissiere and Caleb Swanigan were only recently cleared. We also don’t have word on Check Diallo. I don’t want any of the freshmen to experience the same fall Cliff Alexander did.
New Rules make the game more “watchable,” but discipline and finesse remain
The rules committee changed many rules to make the game have more possessions and teams run a little more. I mean, they are college kids. That being said, I still want to make sure that teams like the traditional Wisconsin teams and Virginia among others play with the same discipline and focused defense. More possessions and up-tempos offenses are great – as long as teams don’t overrun themselves.
Rematches and Revenge
I might be kind of biased on this one. But, I think re-matches in the tournament always set the stage for great storylines and games, especially when there is a revenge factor. What if Kentucky and Wichita State played again the tournament? That 2014 game would be in the minds of everybody. There are many re-matches I’d love to see, and I’ve actually included some low-major/mid-major schools here.
Wisconsin’s upset of Kentucky really hurt me. I’m still breathing but I had no chill about Wisconsin after that game, even though that was a likeable team. I really liked last year’s selfless and deep Kentucky team. Tyler Ulis was one of my favorite dudes in college hoops, so I was devastated. What if Kentucky and Wisconsin played in a Round of 32 or Sweet 16? Re-matches always bring out the hype. Having Arizona-Wisconsin 2 years in a row along with Kentucky-Wisconsin in the Final Four in back-to-back years made fans that much more excited (shout-out to Oregon as well for keeping it close with the Badgers in both those years as well). Michigan State taking on UVA again added extra hype. What if Duke could avenge one of its early-exits by beating Lehigh or Mercer in the first round? What if Butler got another shot at Duke in the tournament?
Honestly, I’ve seen so many great tournament games in the last few years to the point where so many would excite me. Dayton-Ohio State again (remember that Aaron Craft miss), Dayton-Syracuse, Michigan-Kansas, Kentucky-Michigan. In fact, I’d love to see my pre-season pick to win it all (Maryland) get revenge for last year’s loss to West Virginia. Even a game that might seem trivial like VCU-Kansas (2011 Elite Eight) has nostalgia and added intensity/media hype to it.
The revenge doesn’t always have to be of a previous tournament game. What if two regular-season foes played each other again in the tournament? Kentucky-Louisville has happened twice in the last four tournaments, and nobody would complain about a Duke-Carolina or Duke-Maryland game.
A Closer Look into the Season
Point Guard’s Game
If you don’t have a great floor general, your team usually doesn’t get far. You don’t need a superstar point guard necessarily, but at least someone who will make the right decisions and be poised down the stretch without being detrimental. College Basketball is a point guard’s game – if you have a superstar point guard they can get hot and be heroic, and if your team is well-balanced or has other guys, a smart point guard will get other guys involved and make the right decisions with the ball down the stretch. Maybe I’m biased because I’m a point guard myself, but the point guard is the most important (not necessarily best, that varies) decision maker. Furthermore, I won’t dive into the freshmen too much cause you’ve probably heard so much about them – plus there will be a bit of learning curve.
Who are some of the great point guards this year? I tried to come up with a top-five, but I realized that not only were there so many, but they all had different narratives coming into the season and skillsets.
Fred VanVleet is seasoned. He’s part of the most successful four-year class at Wichita State and he has one more year to add to that legacy. He’s been to a Final Four, rolled through a season undefeated, but what would cement his status? A national title would certainly put him, Ron Baker, and Gregg Marshall into College Basketball folklore. I don’t think they will win the National Title, but I see them as a contender. VanVleet is one of those players who makes the right decisions and is poised. He still drives it to the hoop well and aggressively. I read a story this summer saying that this summer he was looking to becoming more explosive – look out!
Tyler Ulis is going to be a pest on the defensive-end. He’s also fast and nifty – not necessarily explosive but he moves very well. The guy is competitive and smart – he had 15 assists and double-digit points in the Blue-White scrimmage, don’t tell me his height is going to be a major detriment. He’ll be the extension of Coach Cal on the court and frankly is one of the real leaders for that Wildcats team despite their three-headed point guard monster.
Melo Trimble overachieved as a freshman. Nobody had Maryland finishing 2nd in the Big Ten last year, and who would have thought Melo Trimble would lead Power-Five players in Free Throws made? Trimble is a talented scorer and can take over down the stretch. He takes it to the hoop fearlessly (which explains the free throws) but he can shoot and we saw him at times last year get hot from behind the arc. I’m writing a Maryland column that will talk about their team in greater detail, but as a tease, expect his scoring ability and control of the game to stay, but with a more talented team I expect his assists to go up from last year’s average (3 per game).
Kris Dunn comes in with a completely different profile as the guys above. He could easily have been a lottery pick this year, and pundits are saying his team is a borderline tournament team. I’ve heard some say that he should have left because his leading scorer will be gone and that he’ll be the focus of the defensive schemes. That may be true, but I think Providence is a tournament team. Kris Dunn is an excellent defender, passer, and lengthy – I’m sure he’s worked on his shooting this offseason. He’s currently on many preseason All-American teams and one outlet labeled him the preseason player of the year.
I talked about Tim Quarterman a little bit in my Ben Simmons column. Quarterman is tall and versatile and I think tall point guards thrive in college hoops. He can stuff the stat sheet – including steals on the defensive end. Whether he plays point or off the ball (with Antonio Blakeney at the point), he’ll be key for this young but talented Tigers team with Ben Simmons if they are to get far into the tournament.
Meanwhile, guys like Monte Morris freaking care of the ball like nobody else despite playing in an emphatic offense. He’s been among the leaders in Assist-Turnover ratio and never seems flustered when he’s got the ball.
Guys like Demetrius Jackson are drawing plenty of attention for their athleticism and scoring ability. While I’m not high on Notre Dame, Jackson could make them a league-pass team in the ACC. Speaking of potential league pass teams and exciting players will Isaiah Taylor be a great fit for the new “Havoc”-esque style that Shaka is going to instill at Texas?
Seniors like Yogi Ferrell and Angel Rodriguez are looking to redeem themselves after showing lots of promise during the 2012-13 Season, which was 3 years ago. Then, Rodriguez was at Kansas State but was the leader of a 4-seed and Ferrell was occasionally starting on a one-seed Indiana team alongside Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo. Sterling Gibbs has bounced around but now he’s under the leadership of Kevin Ollie. He may not be Shabazz Napier, but he can certainly be a top point guard. Marcus Paige has had great years, but last year he dealt with injury and he looks to make one final (and realistic) push for the national title. Tyrone Wallace did-it-all last year as a tall and versatile point guard, but he was inefficient because the team around him wasn’t as good as it could’ve been, but that’s changing with two stud freshmen in the fold and former All-American Jabari Bird returning from injury. Gary Payton II is trying to make the NCAA tournament. There are plenty of different storylines for the point guards.
Everybody always raves about the freshmen. Man he’s going to be one-and-done, he’s going in the top-ten of the draft. Unfortunately, there are always guys who take time to adjust to the college game, and either slip (Kelly Oubre, Shabazz Muhammed) or fall way short of expectations (Cliff Alexander). I do like some of the juniors and seniors –Wichita State’s backcourt, Marcus Lee, Nigel Hayes, Georges Niang, Kris Dunn. However, I think the sophomores are going to be great.
Tyler Ulis and Grayson Allen have a few things in common. They both wear #3, play for Hall-of-Fame coaches, have been to a final four, play with incredible energy and grit, and they are the only remaining members of their four-person recruiting classes. I can’t wait to see their teams go head-to-head in the Champions Classic.
I’ve discussed Melo Trimble in the section above and in great detail in my other column, but he’s a sophomore as well that will inflict a lot of damage to opposing defenses.
Jakob Poetl could have been a top-ten pick, but he stayed for his sophomore year for an extra year of seasoning, which is great. Now, Utah has a big body and probably their best and most steady rim protector since Andrew Bogut.
Former All-Americans like Justin Jackson, Xavier Rathan-Mayes (who had like 30 points in 4 minutes once), and James Blackmon will be looking to build upon promising freshman years. Jackson is on a top-5 team, Rathan-Maye’s squad missed the tournament last year but they get another All-American in Dwayne Bacon, while Blackmon looks for Indiana to be better than a 10-seed.
Best possible Final Four?
So, what’s the best possible Final Four? Let me give mine (and this is going to change without a doubt) and then discuss teams I could see in the Final Four and the intrigue/storylines that would follow.
My ideal final four would be: Duke-Maryland, Kentucky-Wichita State.
Duke-Maryland: Sulaimon vs his old school, two former (and fierce) conference rivals, Coach K’s bitterness about Maryland’s ACC exodus, would make for a great game. In recent memory, the farthest a defending champion has gone was the Sweet 16 (Duke in 2011). Could Duke get back to a Final Four after losing so much and having to integrate so many fresh new faces? Maryland is a storied program but hasn’t been overly successful in the last decade or so. After overachieving last year as a feel-good story, it seems like the expectation is that Maryland will be a good team this year, and being in the Final Four would certainly garner plenty of viewers. Plus, the Big Ten almost always has a team in the Final Four (in the last decade, the only years where no Big Ten team made the Final Four were 2006, 2008 and 2011).
Wichita State – Kentucky: One team went undefeated in the 2013-14 Season, another went undefeated in the 2014-15 Season. The two teams played in the 2014 tournament, where the 8-seeded Kentucky Wildcats (who had underachieved in the regular season but were talented and figured it out) knocked off the hard-pressed and gritty undefeated Shockers. Wichita State lost to Notre Dame last year to get their shot at revenge. What would be more grand than Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet getting another shot at Kentucky IN the Final Four and have their freshman and senior years result in Final Four trips? Furthermore, Kentucky always has plenty of All-Americans and draft-prospects to the point where scouts salivate at the opportunity to watch the Wildcats.
Some other teams I would love to see in the Final Four and the intrigue.
LSU – I don’t think this LSU team will be a top-3 seed, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make the Final Four. They certainly have the talent. They have many draft prospects including the top-ranked incoming freshman, Ben Simmons. It’s likely that they will be a fun team to watch and plus, who wouldn’t want to see Skal Labissiere vs Ben Simmons in the Final Four (for maybe a third or fourth time).
California – Imagine a team missing the tournament in back-to-back years and then following that up with a Final Four. Like LSU, California has talented freshman and some versatile veterans already on the roster. Plus, it’d be nice for the Pac-12 to send a team to the Final Four for the first time with the new moniker.
Arizona – Almost the same reasons as Cal, except that there are more reasons to believe that Arizona can do it. They’ve been to back-to-back Elite-Eights, Sean Miller is one of the best coaches in college basketball, and they have been the class of the Pac-12.
North Carolina- How did I not mention the likely preseason number one team? Carolina goes about ten-deep, and they have all sorts of talented players and former All-Americans who stayed in school for a variety of reasons. Plus, they’ve got an exciting perimeter unit led by Marcus Paige. In the midst of the academic scandal, seeing UNC in the Final Four against Duke, Maryland, Kentucky, or whoever would be a nice getaway from the news on the academic fraud.
Iowa State/Kansas – I put these guys together for a reason. Both are likely going to be high-seeds. But the last two years, Iowa State was a three-seed and Kansas was a two-seed and the two teams accumulated four wins in the Big Dance. Iowa State loses Hoiberg, but could Prohm do what Steve Kerr did in Golden State? Just imagine if a coach, in the first year of the job, took his team to the Final Four? That hasn’t happened in a while. Will upperclassmen experience with Perry Ellis and Frank Mason finally pair well with hyped up freshmen? Will Tyler Self play? I’m joking about that last one. Lately the Big 12 has been a deep conference with a lot of good teams, but no true juggernauts or title contenders. Could that change this year? Buddy Hield and Lon Kruger could take Oklahoma to the Final Four, but I don’t think that would be as interesting as a team like Iowa State making it.
Miami – This is a real sleeper pick that I’m going to go with. I don’t think Miami will be a top-3 seed, but I do think their talent is being overlooked. Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan were good last year, just as they were with their Big 12 teams. Another Big 12 transfer, Kamari Murphy, was on some talented Oklahoma State teams with Marcus Smart and gives them a paint presence. In 2006, Jim Larranaga took a George Mason team to the Final Four. What if in 2016, the 10-year anniversary, he did the same with the Hurricanes? It would be great for the city of Miami. Even with the successful 2012-13 Season for UMiami, the LeBron teams, and the current talented starting five plus Justise Winslow, the Hurricanes making the Final Four would be a huge deal.
Virginia – Tony Bennett breaking through would cause quite a shuffle in the coaching rumor mill. Plus, it would put to rest all the talk about Bennett’s style being a “regular-season” type of basketball.
So, what will happen in March/April? I have no idea – that’s what happens when college kids are thrown into neutral sites and different time zones to play win-or-die games. That being said, I hope this preview has given you a bit of a taste of what to look forward to in this upcoming college basketball season – the storylines, tandems, coaches, and so on. I hope you’ve enjoyed the first annual Splashtag College Basketball preview and I hope you read our second one that will come out in November 2016! In the meantime, if you enjoyed this column, hit us with a like, share, or read our other work.