The Open Man College Basketball 100 continues. If you missed Part 1, check it out here. Every Thursday until tip-off of the 2017-18 college basketball season, The Open Man is counting down storylines.
Part 2 dives into the SEC, top recruiting classes and NCAA Tournament dreamers.
11. SEC: It Just Means More?
John Calipari restored blue-blood Kentucky to powerhouse status in short order upon his 2009 arrival. Save a brief dip in 2012-13, when the Wildcats missed the NCAA Tournament and suffered an NIT First Round loss to Robert Morris, Kentucky’s maintained an elite level throughout Cal’s tenure.
The SEC as a whole hasn’t been so fortunate, suffering through some lean years as a conference. Sure, various programs hit peak seasons along the way, like Florida’s 2013-14 campaign or Texas A&M in 2015-16. When it comes to sustained success, it’s been Kentucky and only Kentucky. And forget about a collectively great season for several SEC programs.
That began to shift last season, beginning with an NCAA Tournament that saw three SEC teams reach the Elite Eight. Of course, Kentucky was one. So was Florida, which has seemingly returned to sustained greatness in the last few years. But the only one to reach the Final Four, South Carolina, is perhaps the best indicator of the improved outlook for the SEC as a whole.
The hire of Frank Martin was an absolute coup, setting up South Carolina as a perennial Tournament team. Other SEC programs made similarly impressive hires in recent years, like Ben Howland at Mississippi State; Avery Johnson at Alabama; and Mike Anderson at Arkansas.
While SEC football has entered an era of uncertainty, and arguably been surpassed by the ACC, might SEC by creeping up on the title of best conference in college basketball?
12. Babes to Lead Them
When official college basketball rankings begin trickle out over the course of the fall, two of the names you can expect to see at the top — Kentucky and Duke — also topped rankings for 2017 recruiting.
That’s not a coincidence, as the two are directly linked. Freshmen will do the lion’s share of the work for the Wildcats, which really isn’t out of the norm for a Calipari-coached team. However, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski only has one national championship-winning team in his illustrious built on first-year talent.
The 2017-18 Blue Devils will look quite a bit like that 2014-15 squad, which combined the freshman phenoms Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow with veteran Quinn Cook. Grayson Allen — a breakthrough performer in the 2015 NCAA Tournament — will occupy the Cook role, with Trevon Duval, Gary Trent Jr., and Wendell Carter taking on the roles Okafor, Winslow and Tyus Jones occupied (and four-star recruits Alex O’Connell and Jordan Tucker could be integral).
For Kentucky, it’s business as usual — and yet, the 2017 is somehow unusual, even by Calipari standards. With Hamidou Diallo leading a loaded crop of five 5-star prospects, which also include Kevin Knox, P.J. Richardson, Jarred Vanderbilt and Nick Richards, this might be the best class Calipari’s signed since 2009-10.
But will it be enough for his second national championship?
Since Duke’s 2015 title, veteran lineups at Villanova and North Carolina won the national title. Both faced other junior-and-senior laden roster in the national championship game.
13. A Big Year in the Big 12
Kansas prepares for the 2017-18 college basketball season the 13-time defending Big 12 Conference champion. I’ll repeat that so the gravity isn’t lost on anyone:
KANSAS HAS WON 13 STRAIGHT BIG 12 CHAMPIONSHIPS
For context on just how long the Jayhawks have reigned over their league, consider that when this reign began Nick Lachey was married to Jessica Simpson, and their MTV series Newlyweds was still going strong; the original XBox, Gamecube and PS2 were the most modern video game consoles; and Howard Stern was still on terrestrial radio.
Despite this remarkable dominance, the Big 12 almost always entertains. Obviously the central plot line to any Big 12 season is the pursuit of ending Kansas’ reign on top — and the Jayhawks will face stiff competition this season — but that’s only a portion of what should make the 2017-18 Big 12 season exciting.
Baylor’s become a perennial contender under Scott Drew. Bog Huggins continues to solidify his place among the all-time greats in college basketball coaching with one great West Virginia team after another — and his 2017-18 squad may be his best yet. The Mountaineers might be the most likely contenders to a new-look Kansas team’s throne.
Look for Texas to bounce back in a significant way in Shaka Smart’s third season. The Longhorns are loaded with veteran talent, and add some high-impact freshmen, as well.
The most intriguing of the many NCAA Tournament-quality teams in this year’s Big 12 may be Jamie Dixon’s TCU Horned Frogs. More on TCU in a College Basketball 100 to come.
14. Northwestern: Here to Stay, or Another Kind of One-and-Done?
In a year the Chicago Cubs ended their World Series drought, and the city of Cleveland celebrated a professional sports championship, it only made sense that college basketball’s longest suffering program finally have its breakthrough.
Northwestern reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history, the culmination of a magical season. The Wildcats’ stay in the Big Dance even lasted beyond Round 1 — thanks in part to one of the stranger ending sequences in recent memory.
While an upset of Gonzaga wasn’t in the cards, Northwestern returns enough to make a serious run at the Sweet 16 in 2018 — assuming the historic yips that vexed previous Wildcat teams don’t return. Former Wildcats player and head coach Rich Falk told me in the lead-up to Northwestern’s first Tournament appearance that “it always seems to be something” working against the Wildcats, after all.
15. Will The Rest of the Forgotten Four Follow Northwestern?
With Northwestern’s ascent to the NCAA Tournament, only four programs that have fielded teams since 1939 are without invitations to the Big Dance: Army, The Citadel, Saint Francis (NY) and William & Mary.
William & Mary’s flirted with March a few times in recent years, most notably in 2014-15 when a Marcus Thornton-led team split the CAA regular-season championship. The Tribe reached the conference tournament championship, too, but were blown out in the early minutes against Northeastern.
That same week, one of, if not the best team in Saint Francis history suffered a heartbreaking defeat to Robert Morris in the NEC Championship. The Terriers won the NEC regular-season championship outright behind Associated Press All-American and NEC Player of the Year, Jalen Cannon.
The following season, Army roared to a hot start — and, in turn, head coach Zach Spiker became one of the hottest names among the mid-major ranks. Once the Black Knights reached Patriot League play, however, the hot start cooled, and dreams of a first NCAA Tournament evaporated.
The Citadel’s closest flirtation with the Big Dance came in 2008-09, when the Bulldogs won 20 games and played in the CIT.