November 6th, 2018 will go down in history as yet another day in which droves of people took to their local elementary, middle, or high school, or whatever your polling place’s day job is, and cast their votes in the mid-term elections. It will not be remembered for which teams won their Champions Classic games, and yet I wish it would. In a political environment that grows in toxicity seemingly by the minute, with ads claiming a Migrant Caravan of Central Americans are en route to murder our police and rape our children, the chaotic and carefree fun of college basketball seems a welcome reprieve on Election Night.
This is my 2018-19 college basketball preview. In honor of the Election Day start, I will be casting my votes on a number of college basketball related issues. Each issue will have two to five candidates, and I will vote on which I believe will win their respective election.
Who will cut down the nets in Minneapolis?
There’s a slate of worthy candidates for this one, and I’m excited to see how the season plays out. Of course, picking a National Champion in November is a fool’s errand, and perhaps the closest we ever got to having an easy pick was still wrong; when the 2013-14 Kentucky team that featured Devin Booker, Karl Anthony-Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Trey Lyles were nearly unanimously picked to win it all. They nearly did too, going 38-0 only to lose to Frank Kaminsky’s Wisconsin Badgers in the National Semifinal. The point is, picking a National Champion in November is really fucking hard. I’m going to try anyway. Here are my five favorite teams to contend this season:
Kentucky Wildcats, Kansas Jayhawks, Gonzaga Bulldogs, Duke Blue Devils, Tennessee Volunteers
Realistically, I could have made this a four horse race, but I didn’t want to leave Rick Barnes’ Volunteers completely off the table. After last season’s surprising run as SEC co-champions, the Vols are returning virtually their entire roster. Experience means a lot in the NCAA Tournament, and the Vols have it in spades. So does Gonzaga, as Mark Few has put together a roster filled to the brim with upper-classmen and transfer students. The Zags finally broke through to the Final Four in the 2017 Tournament, and they hope this is the year they win it all. Unfortunately, the Zags did not earn my vote, nor did Tennessee, and while it’s difficult to overlook the freshman power of John Calipari’s Kentucky, and the returning talent from last year’s Final Four team in Kansas, Duke earns my vote as this year’s National Champion.
The Blue Devils will be starting two freshman in RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson who are likely to also be the top two picks in the NBA Draft. After an impressive preseason tour, where Zion looked like he belonged on a different basketball court than everyone else, it’s really tough to overlook this Duke team. As much as I (and everyone else in America) can’t stand Duke, it seems like this is their year to cut down the nets, again.
Which team will be the most disappointing out of the pre-season top 10?
Only two teams in the top 10 stand out to me as teams that could have disastrously disappointing seasons. Those two are Virginia and Michigan State. Virginia nearly speaks for itself, after being thoroughly blown off of the court by 16th seeded UMBC in the first round of last year’s tournament, it almost feels like they’re set up to disappoint based on their #5 overall ranking. While Tony Bennett teams are pretty much guaranteed to play stifling defense, they’re also basically a promise to play a very slow and very boring style of offense. The ACC is going to be bloodbath this year, between Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and Clemson all finding themselves in the preseason top 25, and I simply don’t see Virginia repeating their regular season performance of a year ago.
In a similar vein, Michigan State could see themselves putting up yet another relatively disappointing season, as critics are beginning to wonder if coach Tom Izzo has lost his fastball. Of course, last season’s team failed to live up to the hype, as they were swept by rival Michigan and bounced by Syracuse in the first weekend of the tournament, all while boasting two lottery picks in their starting five. Izzo rightly received criticism for his decision to bench forward Jaren Jackson Jr for much of the Syracuse game, opting instead for little-known Ben Carter to take on the role of swingman against the Boeheim zone. This season, Izzo will need guard Cassius Winston to continue to shoot the 3 ball at a high-clip, and will also need more consistent performances from forward Nick Ward. In a Big Ten that has recently been owned by John Beilein and the Michigan Wolverines, it feels like Izzo’s Spartans may again fall short of expectations, and they unfortunately earned my vote as the team that will be the most disappointing this year.
Which Big Ten school could be the most surprising?
The Big Ten suffered a down year last season, as perennial powers Wisconsin and Indiana were no-shows, while Ohio State was unable to hold a candle to Michigan and Michigan State, who were head and shoulders better than the rest of the conference. While Michigan made an appearance in the National Championship, they did so against the easiest path in tournament history, and the talent pool in the Big Ten doesn’t seem vastly improved from last season. Only three Big Ten schools find themselves in the AP Top 25 to open the season (Michigan and Michigan State, of course, and Purdue), but the conference feels wide open.
Initially I wanted to cast my vote for Penn State to surprise people in this conference, and they impressed me by knocking off 13th ranked West Virginia in an exhibition matchup. Despite losing Tony Carr and Shep Garner, the Nittany Lions looked confident and cohesive as a unit against the Mountaineers. It’s import not to take too much away from an exhibition matchup, but Penn State’s freshmen Myles Dread and Rasir Bolton played with a confidence rarely displayed by young newbies at a middle-tier program.
However, the school that I really believe could open eyes in this conference is Nebraska. Last season, Nebraska found themselves in the KenPom Top 40 and won 22 games. This season, they’re ready to take the next step, as they’re also returning every key player from a year ago. I’ve already stated that Michigan State could be set up for disappointment, and I don’t believe in Michigan or Purdue as much as those fanbases do, so the Big Ten is completely up for grabs. A strong performance from Nebraska’s returners could shock the midwest and win the conference.
Who will win National Player of the Year?
There are a few names that leap to my mind at the thought of which player will take home the Naismith Award for Player of the Year, and while some seem obvious, like clear front-runner and obvious Freshman of the Year RJ Barrett, or Kansas’ Dedric Lawson, who is entering his third college season after transferring from Memphis, there is also a dark horse. My personal favorite player in college basketball, and my purely adoration induced pick to win Player of the Year is North Carolina’s Luke Maye.
Maye, entering his senior season with the Tarheels, has shown marked improvement in every season of his career. After spending his first two years coming off the bench in Roy Williams’ lineups, he exploded onto the scene in his junior season a year ago, averaging a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 47% and 43% from the perimeter. The 6-7 forward displays everything needed from a wing player in today’s style of basketball, with an ability to space the floor as well as work into the low post and crash the offensive glass. He has a basketball IQ as high as anyone in America and constantly makes the right decision with the ball in his hand. The lone drawback has been his free throw shooting, but with even a slight improvement in that department, Maye should have no trouble competing for the Naismith award.
The one remaining question I have related to this season in college basketball is whether or not any coaches will lose their jobs due to the FBI investigation before the tournament tips off in March. While I don’t think it will happen, given I believe it would have happened already if it were going to, it is undoubtedly a storyline worth watching this season. Between the news that the NBA G-League will accept athletes out of high school on contracts worth up to $100 thousand, and the FBI trials set to take place in a few months, this might be the last season of college basketball as we know it. Let’s all do our best to enjoy it.