The college basketball season officially tips off tomorrow night, with nearly every team in Division I scheduled to play. As the glitz and glamour of opening night prepares to overtake us, let’s get a quick refresher on some of the top teams, players and storylines to watch as the season begins in earnest.
The top five of the preseason AP poll offers few surprises, save one — the No. 3 Gonzaga Bulldogs. Now, to call the Bulldogs a surprise is a bit disingenuous, as Mark Few has virtually his entire team back from last year’s group, which bowed out in the Sweet 16. The ‘Zags will be without 6’10” forward Killian Tillie until around Christmas, after his ankle surgery last week, but Mark Few still has quite the talented group to work with until then.
Let’s take a quick spin through the rest of the top five.
#1 Kansas Jayhawks- The Jayhawks have been the most prominent program embroiled in the Adidas controversy this offseason, and it has cost them the services of forward Silvio De Sousa, who is being held out after some of the allegations made during the trial. However, Bill Self adds the Lawson brothers, KJ and Dedric, who sat out last year after transferring from Memphis. Considering those two will be part of a roster featuring Udoka Azubuike, LaGerald Vick and five-star guards Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson, the ‘Hawks should be just fine.
#2 Kentucky Wildcats- Normally, Kentucky is the school for insanely talented freshmen, but this year they also (gasp) have some strong veterans. Stanford grad-transfer forward Reid Travis is here after averaging 19 and 8 for the Cardinal last season. He joins pesky guard Quade Green and forwards PJ Washington and Nick Richards as the core veterans leading another sterling first-year class.
#3 Gonzaga Bulldogs- Tillie is out, and Johnathan Williams and Silas Melson are both gone, but there’s still plenty to like, with guard Zach Norvell returning for his sophomore year after being second on the team in scoring last year. Skilled forward Rui Hachimura and senior guard Josh Perkins should help Norvell guide this crew through Tillie’s absence.
#4 Duke Blue Devils- The Blue Devils have arguably both the most-hyped recruit (Zion Williamson) and the best overall (R.J. Barrett). Fellow five-star Cam Reddish will also get plenty of shine as Coach K has once again reloaded with a highly talented group of freshmen. Fans just have to hope this group can power past last year’s Elite Eight finish.
#5 Virginia Cavaliers- The first 1-seed to fall to a 16-seed in tournament history, and now the butt of many a joke, Tony Bennett’s crew will still suffocate you on defense. The upside this year comes in the form of sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter, who showed signs last year of being a potential go-to scoring option, something the Cavaliers sorely missed in that game against UMBC. Hunter missed that game, by the way.
A couple of the guys we mentioned above are again the ones to watch here. Reid Travis, RJ Barrett and Dedric Lawson all belong in the conversation about potential star players this season.
Barrett, a 6’7″ sweet-shooting forward who seems to perfectly fit the NBA’s vision of guards for today’s game, is the likely No. 1 overall pick in next June’s draft. Travis, as noted above, is a near double-double threat for a Kentucky team that should be near the top of the poll all year. As for Lawson, he basically averaged a double-double in 2016-17 for Memphis (19.2, 9.9).
There are a couple of guys outside of those top-five teams to note, though. Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, LSU’s Tremont Waters and Indiana freshman Romeo Langford will all have their moments to shine this season.
If you’re willing to go even further afield, South Dakota State’s Mike Daum has a chance to hit 3,000 points for his career this season. While the mark likely won’t come until March, anytime you get the chance to watch Daum you should probably do so.
Top Matchups Opening Week
While every team opens its 2018-19 season this week, that doesn’t mean that every team has a marquee matchup that you’ll need to watch closely. So, we’ve sifted through all the games of this upcoming week to lay out the ones you should note and make time for in your schedule.
#1 Kansas vs. #10 Michigan State, 7 p.m. ET- Part one of the “Champions Classic” is set to be played at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. We covered Kansas above, so let’s quickly look at MSU. The Spartans lost a pair of lottery picks in Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. That said, the trio of sophomores Cassius Winston, Nick Ward and Josh Langford all return after finishing second, third and fourth on the team in scoring last season respectively. Tom Izzo adds the 17th-ranked recruiting class, with five four-star guys, to that trio.
#2 Kentucky vs. #4 Duke, 9 p.m. ET- You know the major players in this game. It’s Duke’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class of stud freshman battling Kentucky’s second-ranked group, combined with a solid veteran core. The last time these teams faced each other in the Champions Classic, Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray showed off their stuff in a 74-63 Kentucky win.
BYU @ #7 Nevada, 11 p.m. ET- The Wolfpack might be the most surprising entrant in the top 10 of this year’s preseason poll for the casual fan. But, Bill Musselman’s group returns virtually their entire roster from last year’s Sweet 16 group, and they add a few more transfers, who should have an impact this season. Musselman also secured a commitment from five-star prospect Jordan Brown, making this team very deep at the front-court spots.
#25 Washington @ #11 Auburn, 9:30 p.m. ET- This is the only other top-25 matchup of the week, but it should be a fun one, with Bruce Pearl’s Tigers bringing most of the guys (with the exception of Mustapha Heron) back from last year’s group that won the SEC regular season title. They take on a Huskies team that surprised in Mike Hopkins’ first season at the helm, going 21-13. Their top five scorers are back, and it could be another good year for UW.