Today marks 100 days until the tipoff of the 2017-18 college basketball season. If you have made it this far, you deserve a can of Coke and hearty pat on the back, as the offseason is more than halfway complete.
To commemorate this milestone in the arduous march back to basketball, The Open Man offers 100 of the most compelling storylines for the coming season, every Thursday.
1. Michael Porter, Missouri and No. 1 Picks Missing the NCAA Tournament
An odd coincidence headlined each of last two college basketball seasons, and could realistically again for a third: The No. 1 pick in the NBA draft might very well play for a team that misses the NCAA Tournament.
LSU and Ben Simmons showed flashes of brilliance in 2015-16, but the Tigers flamed out spectacularly late in the season. Markelle Fultz was excellent for Washington last season, but the Huskies collectively were just garden-variety bad.
Now comes Michael Porter, arriving on the college basketball scene the almost-universal name associated with 2018’s No. 1 pick. He’s joining a Missouri program just now coming up for air from stifling NCAA sanctions. Cuonzo Martin is in as Tigers head coach, and while Martin’s proven himself one of the finest defensive minds in the game, he’s had talented teams suffer through disappointing regular seasons.
His last Cal team missing the NCAA Tournament with Ivan Rabb and Jabari Bird is the most noteworthy example.
If Porter can lead a team shrouded in as much uncertainty as Missouri to the NCAA Tournament, against a vastly improving SEC, considering his No. 1 status cemented.
2. Can New-Look UCLA Maintain Without Lonzo Ball?
From the No. 1 overall pick, we transition to the second selection in June’s NBA draft: Lonzo Ball. Ball is one of three starters gone from the UCLA team that reached the last year’s NCAA Tournament, and one of four key contributing Bruins head coach Steve Alford must replace.
Bryce Alford, T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu all played roles in UCLA’s impressive turnaround, but Ball’s uncanny play-making ability earned plaudits for immediately transforming the Bruins after missing the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
Veteran Aaron Holiday adeptly manned the point at times in Ball’s place last season, though Holiday’s most effective as a slashing two. Incoming freshman Jaylen Hands might be the guy to take over Ball’s point guard duties. But while Ball was himself a freshman, expecting another first-year player to play at such a transcendent level may be demanding too much.
3. The Battle of Los Angeles
While Steve Alford has talent but plenty of unknowns ahead of the 2017-18 season, crosstown rival USC and Andy Enfield returns a treasure trove of proven commodities.
USC was arguably the biggest winner of the NBA draft deadline this past spring, getting back Chimezie Metu, Bennie Boatwright, Shaqquan Aaron and De’Anthony Melton. With veteran point guard Jordan McLaughlin back in the mix, and the arrival of Charles O’Bannon Jr. — the son of legendary UCLA Bruin Charles O’Bannon — the Trojans have a Final Four-caliber roster.
Intensity in the previously pedestrian UCLA-USC basketball rivalry cranked up virtually from the moment Enfield and Alford came on the scene. With SC ripping off a clean sweep in 2015-16, upsetting the Bruins once this past season and UCLA returning the favor with a blowout in Pauley Pavilion, the action on the court is now more befitting a true rivalry.
Expect the energy and animus to amplify with both programs harboring legitimate March aspirations next season.
4. Final Four or Bust for Arizona
As good as USC and UCLA may look on paper, both will enter the coming college basketball season considered as underdogs to Pac-12 counterpart Arizona. Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins both decided to hang around Tucson for another year, joining veterans Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Cartwright, as well as one of the best recruiting classes in the nation.
Put the pieces together, and Arizona is a popular choice for preseason No. 1. That’s both a blessing and a curse for the Wildcats.
Sean Miller’s knocked on the door of the Final Four repeatedly as a head coach, reaching the Elite Eight four times in his career; three at Arizona. The Wildcats’ regional final losses have been in especially heart-wrenching fashion, leaving a fanbase that grew accustomed to regular Final Four appearances under Lute Olson longing for that run.
March can be something of a crap-shoot. Opponents get hot — and good teams go cold, as was the case for Arizona in its Sweet 16 exit this year against Xavier. Matchups can be unfavorable, which Arizona ran into twice with Wisconsin. Good looks may touch every inch of rim and not fall, much like the ending to UA’s 2011 Elite Eight loss to UConn.
There are certainly explanations for Arizona’s lack of a Final Four appearance under Miller, but pressure is mounting to overcome whatever challenge might arise in the NCAA Tournament.
5. Tom Izzo’s Revenge
Tom Izzo long had the Midas touch at Michigan State. With all due respect to my colleague Jon Rothstein, Sparty finding another gear come NCAA Tournament time was as reliable as death and taxes.
For the past two seasons, however, Michigan State’s been…off. With national Player of the Year candidate Denzel Valentine running the show in 2015-16, the Spartans felt like shoo-ins for the Final Four. They then lost to Middle Tennessee in the first round.
In 2016-17, the very real possibility of Michigan State missing the Dance altogether loomed. While getting to the Round of 32 was a testament to the team’s resolve, it remains a second straight first-weekend exit for a program previously guaranteed to make at least the Sweet 16 much of the previous two decades.
We’ve seen it before in college basketball: The game changes, and coaching legends struggle through disappointment after disappointment in pursuit of that one last, great season. Don’t put Izzo into that category yet.
Miles Bridges’ return headlines a stacked roster of veteran talent; exactly the kind of roster with which Izzo has historically excelled.
6. Proud to be an American
One of the cornerstone programs responsible for building the Missouri Valley into a mid-major conference transcending its label, Wichita State, departs for the American Athletic Conference.
In the years since the Valley sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament — more than some so-called power conferences — the conference saw coaches leave and programs decline. Stalwart Creighton’s departure for the Big East was a devastating blow, depriving the Valley a perennial contender that could mutually benefit with Wichita State.
As Wichita State has matured into a full-fledged powerhouse program this decade — a Midwestern Gonzaga, if you will — the Shockers needed a conference that could better bolster their March ambitions. They get that in the American, which features an annually ranked NCAA Tournament presence (Cincinnati), a fast-rising up-and-comer (SMU) and one of the premier programs of the last 30 years (UConn).
The American has issues of its own — issues it sought to address with the addition of Wichita State — but there’s no question the situation is of greater benefit to the Shockers’ goals. A beefier resume come Selection Sunday will mean a lot, especially this year, with Gregg Marshall returning everyone from the 2016-17 team.
7. The State of the Mids
Wichita State’s move to the American adds another bullet-point in the mounting argument that college basketball is doing a disservice to itself by widening the gap between conferences tied to upper-echelon football and mid-majors.
While football realignment has slowed recently, its tremors still reverberate around the basketball scene. Wichita State leaving the Valley opened a spot for Valparaiso, which departs the Horizon — a league that lost Final Four participant Butler to the traditional basketball power Big East.
And while the “epidemic” of transfers from mid-major programs into power conferences is often overstated, try telling that to the members of the Ohio Valley Conference.
— Eli Boettger (@boettger_eli) July 28, 2017
Kudos to Eli Boettger for unearthing some illuminating figures on the transfer rates by conference. For the OVC and Conference USA, the word epidemic works.
C-USA is especially interesting, as it was a conference not long ago boasting some of the best basketball in the nation. Louisville, Cincinnati, Memphis and Marquette were among those who called C-USA home.
It’s now a one-bid league — a one-bid league that boasts NCAA Tournament wins in each of the last three seasons straight, but a one-bid league nonetheless.
Mid-major college basketball is in turmoil. Look no further than the final at-large bids extended to the 2017 Tournament; programs like USC, Kansas State and Wake Forest from Power Five football conferences.
8. A Few Minutes to Appreciate Mark
In these tumultuous years for the state of mid-major basketball, what Mark Few has accomplished at Gonzaga is all the more impressive. He’s maintained a level of excellence for almost two decades and built a national power without changing conferences, and avoided the perils of transfers.
Gonzaga is going to take a step back this year. It’s basically an inevitability, given the Zags played in the final game of the season. The only place further the program can go is to a national championship.
Losing Nigel Williams-Goss, Zach Collins, Jordan Mathews and Przemek Karnowski puts a damper on Gonzaga’s title outlook. No matter where in the NCAA Tournament Gonzaga’s run ends this year, however, Few hasn’t just earned a pass: He deserves the full kudos of college basketball followers everywhere.
9. Saint Mary’s Next Step
2017 national runner-up and perennial West Coast Conference champion Gonzaga will find itself in an unusual spot entering the next college basketball season: An underdog.
That’s because the Zags’ nearest WCC rival, Saint Mary’s, reloads with a legitimate preseason Top 15 roster. Joe Rahon is the only departure of real significance (though his defensive ability will be missed); with preseason All-America candidate Jock Landale leading the way, however, the Gaels have the opportunity to make considerable noise.
Saint Mary’s is coming up on a decade of playing high-level ball. Current NBA’er Patty Mills led the Gaels into the national spotlight, and Omar Samhan’s heroics in the 2010 NCAA Tournament took the program a step further.
The scare SMC put into Arizona last March lingers, a possible preview of the havoc the Gaels can make when the next NCAA Tournament rolls around. Even with its previous successes, this is a program that has lived in the shadow of Gonzaga.
2017-18 looks like prime-time for Saint Mary’s to break out. Head coach Randy Bennett, now in his 16th year with the Gaels, has remained as committed to his own WCC program as Mark Few to Gonzaga. A result in 2018 like Gonzaga saw in 2017 isn’t at all unrealistic.
10. Non-Conference Play
So in the previous nine entries, references to March have been plentiful. Such is the state of college basketball in 2017, and I am as guilty as anyone of falling victim to it. The decline in quality of play that followed the NBA’s institution of the one-and-done rule pushed casual viewers away from the regular season, rendering the college basketball season three weeks long in the eyes of many.
The past two seasons have seen a remarkable turnaround in quality of play. Offensive tempo has picked up, more star players are emerging, and college basketball these few years has been entertaining — and not just in March.
Glossing over the regular season, and especially the non-conference schedule, can be an easy trap to fall into. The first two months of the campaign coincide with the end of football.
Missing out on the opening weeks of college basketball is to miss out on some of the most exciting basketball played all year, though. College football fans oftentimes lament the lack of quality matchups in out-of-conference schedules, but hoops builds its November and December around marquee dream contests.
UCLA last season is a great example. On three straight Saturdays in December, the Bruins played Kentucky at Rupp Arena; Michigan at Pauley Pavilion; then Ohio State in Las Vegas, kicking off the first leg of the CBS Sports Classic.
UCLA-Ohio State was a competitive game, though inconsequential in the grander scheme of the season. The North Carolina-Kentucky game that followed, however?
The only reason UNC-Kentucky from Las Vegas isn’t the greatest college basketball game I have ever covered is because I was on press row for Kris Jenkins’ buzzer beater to lift Villanova to the 2016 national championship.
Carolina and Kentucky saw each other again in March, and the rematch was ever bit as good.
College basketball’s early slate features dozens of these marquee pairings. Make time in your football-viewing schedule during the autumn to tune in.