Xavier Basketball 2017-2018

Key Departures: Edmond Sumner, Rashid Gaston, Malcolm Bernard

Projected Starting Lineup:

PG: Paul Scruggs (Fr.)

SG: J.P. Macura (Sr.)

SF: Trevon Bluiett (Sr.)

PF: Kaiser Gates (Jr.)

C: Sean O’Mara (Sr.)

Key Reserve Players:

SG/PG: Quentin Gooden (So.), PF: Tyrique Jones (So.), SF: Naji Marshall (Fr.), SF: Jared Ridder (Fr.), SG: Elias Harden (Fr.), C: Kerem Kanter (GS.), C: Kentrevious Jones (Fr.) 

Discussion:

Chris Mack and the Musketeers enter the 2017-2018 season fresh off an Elite Eight appearance. Xavier was able to advance in the tournament, despite not having their star point guard Edmond Sumner. Even though he suffered an ACL tear, Sumner decided to turn pro, and was selected late in the second round of 2017 NBA draft. The good news for the Musketeers is that they retain their top two scorers in Bluiett and Macura, and they bring in the seventh best point guard in Paul Scruggs. Bluiett was one of the purest scorers in college basketball last season, and the trend will continue for his senior season. He averaged 18.5 points a season ago, and failed to score in double figures only three times in the games that he played in. My favorite game from Bluiett last year was his 40-point performance in a loss at Cincinnati. He played all 40 minutes, he was 12-15 from the field, and 9-11 from distance. He is so gifted offensively, and is conditioned to score the basketball. He is also a solid rebounder for a guard/forward player, averaging 5.7 boards last season. Along with Jalen Brunson of Villanova, I expect Bluiett to be a Player of the Year candidate in the Big East. J.P. Macura also returns for his senior year. Macura is the perfect glue guy and teammate to have on your team. He is a smart player, who is always hustling, competing on both ends of the floor, and making winning plays. He is able to contribute in many different ways both offensively and defensively. Macura and Bluiett will be huge leaders and scorers for this Xavier team.

Paul Scruggs takes over for Edmond Sumner, and brings plenty of versatility to the table. Scruggs brings great length to the point guard position, and court vision as well. He will be able to run this offense, and will be a great distributor in transition. He can really break down the defense with his passing and ball-handling. Quentin Gooden, who got very valuable minutes as a freshman (24 mpg), will be a very important guard off the bench. He was second (only to Sumner) in assists per game last year for Xavier.

At the four and the five, I have Kaiser Gates and Sean O’Mara. I love the versatility of Gates, and his ability to stretch out the defense. He should get plenty of minutes this year. O’Mara should get a good deal of minutes as well. O’Mara can score down low and has good touch in the paint. He averaged six points and three rebounds in just under 14 minutes of play last year. Tyrique Jones should see an increase in minutes as a sophomore. He gained good experience as a freshman, but only played 11 minutes per game. He will bring his physical play, energy, and rim protection off the bench. Kerem Kanter and Kentrevious Jones could see back up center minutes off the bench. Kanter, the younger brother of Enes, is a grad transfer from Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he averaged 11.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in just 19 minutes of action last year. Jones, is a three-star freshman beast, standing at 6’11”. However, he is still not officially on the roster.

Naji Marshall, Jared Ridder, and Elias Harden are three four-star perimeter guys on the ESPN Top 100 Chart, who will also be a part of the rotation. Marshall can get to the basket and can be a guy to feed in transition, and Ridder has a really smooth stroke. Harden brings shooting from mid-range and from beyond the arc. These three freshmen could see valuable minutes this year, and will eventually fill the holes created from the departures of both Bluiett and Macura.

Xavier has a chance to get back to the Elite Eight again. They have one of the best scorers in the country in Bluiett, and they have a very good recruiting class highlighted by Scruggs. The Musketeers always compete, and they can be a scary matchup for teams in March. I have Xavier at number 17 for the preseason list.

 

Notre Dame Basketball 2017-2018

Key Departures: V.J. Beachem, Steve Vasturia, Matt Ryan

Projected Starting Lineup:

PG: Matt Farrell (Sr.)

SG: Temple Gibbs (So.)

SG: Rex Pflueger (Jr.)

PF: Bonzie Colson Jr. (Sr.)

C: Martin Geben (Sr.)

Key Reserve Players:

SG/SF: D.J. Harvey Jr. (Fr.), PF: John Mooney (So.), PF: Elijah Burns (RS So.)

Discussion:

It has happened to me the past few years. When Mike Brey loses key players, I don’t expect the Irish to be that good the following year. Then, he surprises me every time. Players like Jerian Grant, Zach Auguste, and Demetrius Jackson are stars that he has lost over the last couple years. This year he loses Beachem and Vasturia, two pillars in his basketball program. These losses will be significant, but the important factor here is that Bonzie Colson returns. Colson has gotten better and better every single year. Last season he was a first-team All-ACC member, he averaged 17.8 points per game, and 10.1 rebounds per game. Colson is such a skilled player, and he knows how to use his body. He is only 6’5″-6’6″, but he plays with so much passion and determination. Colson even shot 43.3 percent from downtown, a part of his game that keeps improving. He is such a matchup problem for opponents. Defensively, he averaged 1.4 blocks and 1.1 steals per game. He will be the focal point of this Notre Dame team once again for his senior year, and he will be a Player of the Year candidate.

Matt Farrell is back for his senior season, after having his best year last year. Farrell averaged over 14 points and five assists per game, while shooting 42 percent from deep. After only playing about 13 minutes per game for his sophomore year, he played just over 34 minutes last year, taking the reigns from Demetrius Jackson. Farrell, a former two-star, reminds me a lot of P.J. Thompson of Purdue. They weren’t highly-touted recruits, but they have been terrific players for their respective programs. Colson and Farrell will be key for the Irish this season.

Temple Gibbs received valuable experience last year as a freshman, but will see a big increase in his role as a sophomore, with Beachem and Vasturia gone. Gibbs will need to bring consistent shooting in the backcourt (along with Farrell), and after a year of adjusting to the college game, he will be called upon much more this year. The DeMatha product, D.J. Harvey, brings an athletic element to this team off the bench. He will be a shooter and a scorer off the bench, and I like his defensive potential on the perimeter. When it comes to defense, Rex Pflueger is the guy that comes to mind. He is a fearless competitor on the defensive end when it comes to guarding wings and ball-handlers. He is not a go-to guy for scoring, but he can hit a 3-pointer.

I have Martin Geben starting at the five. Geben was in and out of the starting lineup last year, as Mike Brey decided to go small at times with Colson at the five. You may see the same concept this year, except this season, Harvey may be inserted for Geben. Geben does offer more of a true post presence for this team. Mooney and Burns may get in on the action this year as well in the frontcourt. Mooney and Burns only played 46 and 44 total minutes respectively last season, but may be called upon more this season. With Colson gone after this year, these guys will need to learn the ropes. I like Mooney’s potential to stretch the floor, and I am especially intrigued by Burns. I like the athleticism that he brings at the power forward position, his ball-handling as a big, and his ability to run the floor/finish around the rim.

I don’t expect Notre Dame to be very deep this year. However, in Bonzie Colson, they have one of the best players in the country. It will be interesting to see the rotation that Mike Brey uses this year. I am especially interested to see how Gibbs and Harvey can help make up for the losses of Beachem and Vasturia. I have the Irish ranked at number 16 for my preseason list.

UCLA Basketball 2017-2018

Key Departures: Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf, Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Ike Anigbogu

Projected Starting Lineup:

PG: Jaylen Hands (Fr.)

SG: Aaron Holiday (Jr.)

SF: Kris Wilkes (Fr.)

PF: Cody Riley (Fr.)

C: Thomas Welsh (Sr.)

Key Reserve Players:

SG/PG: Prince Ali (RS So.), PF/C: Jalen Hill (Fr.), PF/C: Gyorgy Goloman (Sr.), SF: Chris Smith (Fr.), PF: Alex Olesinski (RS So.), SF: LiAngelo Ball (Fr.)

Discussion:

The Bruins lose four starters from a season ago, and those four players also happened to be their top four scorers. Thomas Welsh returns as the lone starter. I have Aaron Holiday returning to the starting lineup (where he was during his freshman year), after being a primary bench player last season. Even though he came off the bench, Holiday was practically a sixth starter last year. Along with Leaf, Alford, Ball and Hamilton, Welsh and Holiday were the other two players to average double figures in scoring per game. The Bruins were 31-5 last season, completely silencing the rumors of a Steve Alford firing. It will definitely be difficult to make up for the loss of four starters, but this year’s UCLA squad should still be a good one.

Thomas Welsh returns to Los Angeles for his final season. Welsh is an automatic machine from mid-range. Don’t give him any space. I expect his scoring to go up a bit from last season (10.8), and he will still have a very heavy impact on the boards. He could definitely be a double-double guy. Aaron Holiday will return to the starting lineup for his junior season. Holiday accepted the role of playing off the bench last season (behind Ball and Alford), and still was extremely productive and efficient. He actually played five less minutes per game last year, opposed to his freshman year, but averaged more points. Holiday has also shot over 40 percent from 3-point range for two consecutive seasons. He isn’t going to blow you away with crazy athleticism, but he understands his role, and is efficient with his minutes. He can play both guard positions, as he can score the ball, and can be a distributor.

Coach Alford brings in a very good recruiting class, headlined by Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes, two McDonald’s All-Americans. Hands has the challenge of replacing the superstar Lonzo Ball, which is no easy task. Hands isn’t quite the electric passer/court vision point guard that Ball is, and doesn’t have his size. However, Hands brings a lot to the table. For his small size/frame, he is a sneaky good athlete. He really knows how to get into the lane and knows how to attack the rim. He is quick and has a really good handle too. I think he will bring versatility at the point guard position for UCLA. Wilkes brings really good athleticism and length on the wing, and is a type of player that UCLA hasn’t had in a while. I can see him and Hands being a dangerous combo in transition.

I have Cody Riley starting next to Thomas Welsh down low. It is hard to believe that Riley is a teenager. He is an absolute brute, with a physical frame beyond his years. Jalen Hill will also play significant minutes, and brings an ability to finish around the rim. The seasoned veteran, Gyorgy Goloman, will add depth in the big man rotation, along with Alex Olesinski. Goloman can provide minutes when needed, and Olesinski, a redshirt sophomore, brings good skill/feel for the game.

Prince Ali suffered a torn meniscus last season, and had to take a redshirt. The former four-star will be the third guard in the rotation, along with Holiday and Hands. It will be interesting to see how many minutes Chris Smith and LiAngelo Ball will receive off the bench at the small forward position. Chris Smith brings fantastic length as a forward, and Ball has been described as a big, physical bucket getter.

UCLA was special last year, there is no question about it. Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf were sensational freshmen. Lonzo is a once in a lifetime talent. There will be a drop off from last year, but I don’t think it is as significant a drop off as most make it out to be. Holiday and Welsh, combined with this recruiting class, will make a really good team. Hands has big shoes to fill, and a lot of pressure on his plate, but I think he is up for the challenge. I have UCLA at number 15 on my preseason list.

Miami Basketball 2017-2018

Key Departures: Davon Reed, Kamari Murphy

Projected Starting Lineup:

PG: Ja’Quan Newton (Sr.)

SG: Bruce Brown (So.)

SF: Anthony Lawrence Jr. (Jr.)

PF: Dewan Huell (So.)

C: Ebuka Izundu (Jr.)

Key Reserve Players:

SG: Lonnie Walker (Fr.), SG: Dejan Vasiljevic (So.), PG: Chris Lykes (Fr.), PF: Deng Gak (Fr.), C: Rodney Miller (So.) PF: Sam Waardenburg (RS Fr.)

Discussion:

Lonnie Walker would be in the starting lineup (forming a three guard set with Newton and Brown), but unfortunately, the talented freshman tore his meniscus and is out indefinitely. The McDonald’s All-American would have been a huge part of this team, but now we have to see what the future holds for Walker. Walker can do it all offensively. He has a really smooth game, a sweet outside stroke, and has great body control when attacking the basket. He is one of the most gifted players in his class. Newton and Brown will have to carry the load now in the backcourt. Newton is a speedy point guard with experience running the offense. Sometimes he does play too fast and out of control. He averaged 3.3 turnovers per game last season. Newton was also suspended for three games last year, so he needs to be the mature veteran and leader that this team needs, as he suits up for his final season in Coral Gables. Brown was nothing short of sensational last year. He is a combo guard, and I was really impressed with his point guard play last year. For a freshman, he had so much poise and maturity. He controlled the tempo of the game, ran the offense, and was able to distribute the basketball. Brown also affects the game defensively, making him a very good two-way player. I can just see him getting better and better. Two of his best games last year were home victories against UNC and Duke. He scored 30 and 25 points in those games respectively. In the UNC win, Brown shot 8-11 from the field, and 4-6 from downtown, while also adding four boards, five assists, two steals, and two blocks. He even had a triple-double against South Carolina State. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him turn pro after this season.

With Walker injured, I have Anthony Lawrence Jr. sliding into the starting lineup, a place where he already has experience in. I really like his ability to stretch the floor, as he had the second best 3-point shooting percentage last year, only trailing Davon Reed. Dejan Vasiljevic is a guy who has crazy range as a shooter. He got very valuable minutes last year as a freshman, and he will continue to be a key piece off the bench. Chris Lykes, the 12th ranked point guard in the class out of well-known Gonzaga College High School, will be responsible for coming off the bench and running the offense. He will gain valuable playing time and experience this year behind Newton, and then will go on to be the starting point guard of this team for the coming years.

The big question for this team is: Will their bigs be able to match the play of their guards? Huell, the former McDonald’s All-American, had a fairly underwhelming freshman year. He was in and out of the starting lineup, and didn’t really emerge as the star that I expected. He is a very skilled power forward, who can handle the ball well, finish above the rim, step out and shoot it, and can be a shot blocker. He runs the floor well for his size and has fluidity to his game. He played in just over 17 minutes per game for his freshman year, but I think he could be a breakout star this year. Huell, along with Ebuka Izundu, will need to be forces on the boards with Kamari Murphy gone. Izundu has good defensive potential, and offers a solid paint presence on both ends. Rodney Miller, who barley saw any time last year, could see a larger role for his sophomore year. Miller is a true 7-footer from Oak Hill Academy, who has a lot of potential. Deng Gak and Sam Waardenburg bring added depth to the frontcourt as well. The sky is the limit for Gak. He is another big who moves well, and brings really good length/athleticism at 6’10”. He does have a slim frame, but I really like his potential as a passer in the paint, and as a big who can stretch the floor. Waardenburg is a skilled power forward out of New Zealand, who could see some minutes off the bench as well. This team can be very good if they can have consistent productivity from their bigs.

The injury to Lonnie Walker definitely hurts. They would probably be ranked in the top ten with him healthy and in the lineup. However, Bruce Brown is a very special player, who is a star in the making. And if Huell can be the player that he is capable of being, that adds another element to this team. Newton needs to be the big leader on this team as well. I have Miami at number 14 in my preseason rankings.

 

Florida Basketball 2017-2018

Key Departures: Kasey Hill, Devin Robinson, Canyon Barry, Justin Leon, Eric Hester, Schuyler Rimmer

Projected Starting Lineup:

PG: Chris Chiozza (Sr.)

SG: KeVaughn Allen (Jr.)

SF: Keith Stone (RS So.)

PF: Kevarrius Hayes (Jr.)

C: Isaiah Stokes (Fr.)

Key Reserve Players:

C: John Egbunu (RS Sr.) SG: Jalen Hudson (RS Jr.), C: Gorjok Gak (So.), SG: DeAundre Ballard (Fr.), PF: Dontay Bassett (RS Fr.), SG: Egor Koulechov (GS.) PF: Chase Johnson (Fr.), SG: Michael Okauru (Fr.)

Discussion:

The Gators fell to the Gamecocks in the Elite 8 of last year’s NCAA tournament. Coach Mike White has done a sensational job since taking over for Billy Donovan. Florida had a record of 27-9 last year. They do lose a fair amount of scoring from last season, but KeVaughn Allen returns. Allen is one of the purest scorers in the SEC, and I think he will be one of the better scoring guards in the country this year. Allen had eight 20-point games last season, including a 35-point performance in the thriller against Wisconsin in the Sweet 16. He led the Gators in scoring last season, and I think he will pick up right where he left off. He is one of those scorers that can take over a game offensively when his shots are falling. Chris Chiozza takes the point guard duties from Kasey Hill, despite having plenty of experience at the position. Chiozza was essentially a third starting backcourt player, but came off the bench because of Hill and Allen. Chiozza was the hero from the Wisconsin game, and he will be called upon to produce as a distributor for Mike White for his senior year.

At the small forward position, I chose to insert Keith Stone into the starting lineup. Stone only played 12.1 minutes last season, but his minutes will increase with the departures of Devin Robinson and Justin Leon. Stone has really good size at the three, and he will have a much more substantial role this season. Jalen Hudson, the transfer from Virginia Tech, is another player that could battle for a starting spot. The last time that I saw Hudson play was in the NIT tournament at Cassel Coliseum against Princeton in 2016. He had 28 points in his final home game as a Hokie. Hudson is an athletic guard who can contribute on both ends of the court. He can step out as a perimeter shooter, but his ability to drive and get to the rim is what impresses me the most. He brings a great work ethic and competitive mindset to Gainesville, and will be a big part of this rotation. The graduate transfer from Rice, Egor Koulechov, and the freshman, DeAundre Ballard will also get in on the action. Koulechov averaged 18.2 points and 8.9 rebounds last season for the Owls. With the transfer of Eric Hester, Hudson and Koulechov will take on an increase in ball-handling duties. Ballard is a high-character kid who brings versatility as a guard. He can score in different ways (he can shoot it), and has good potential as a perimeter defender. Mike Okauru, the four-star from Brewster Academy, brings added depth to the guard rotation.

One of the issues for Florida last year was a deficiency in the frontcourt, more specifically, with the bigs. When John Egbunu tore his left ACL against Auburn, Kevarrius Hayes had to step in/start, and he played the bulk of the big man minutes. Hayes actually played very well. He brought energy and effort on the boards, and provided a defensive post presence. He is not a great offensive player, but he knows how to use his strengths to contribute. You saw players like Devin Robinson and Justin Leon (more natural small forwards) playing as stretch fours, due to the lack of size. Egbunu is still recovering from his injury, but will be available later in the year. I have Hayes remaining in the starting lineup at the start of the season, along with Isaiah Stokes, who ameliorates the size issue from last year. Stokes, just like his brother Jarnell, is very skilled. He also has a really good feel for the game. Offensively, he will do a lot of damage in the paint area and in the mid-range game. Gorjok Gak, Dontay Bassett, and Chase Johnson will provide added big man depth off the bench. Gak played sparingly during his freshman season, but now has a year of the college game under his belt. He has good length at 6’11”, runs the floor well for his size, and has defensive potential as a solid rim protector. Dontay Bassett was redshirted last year due to a stress fracture in his foot. Bassett is another big who runs the floor well, can be a rim protector, is athletic, and can finish above the rim. Chase Johnson is a smart player who brings stretch four ability, and will know his role on this Florida team.

Florida will be really good in the SEC again this year. They bring in a good recruiting class that joins key pieces from last year. KeVaughn Allen will be a SEC Player of the Year candidate, and Isaiah Stokes is a freshman to keep your eyes on. Defense will continue to be their calling card. They will be competing with Kentucky again this season, and I have them ranked at number 13 on my preseason list.

 

Purdue Basketball 2017-2018

Key Departures: Caleb Swanigan, Spike Albrecht, Basil Smotherman

Projected Starting Lineup:

PG: P.J. Thompson (Sr.)

SG: Carsen Edwards (So.)

SG: Dakota Mathias (Sr.)

SF: Vince Edwards (Sr.)

C: Isaac Haas (Sr.)

Key Reserve Players:

SG: Ryan Cline (Jr.), SG: Nojel Eastern (Fr.), C: Matt Haarms (Fr.), SF: Aaron Wheeler (Fr.), PF: Jacquil Taylor (RS Jr.), SF: Eden Ewing (Jr.), SG: Sasha Stefanovic (Fr.)

Discussion:

Yes, the Boilermakers do lose one of the best players to ever put on a Purdue uniform in Caleb Swanigan. Swanigan averaged 18.5 points and 12.5 rebounds per game for his sophomore season, and went on to be the Big Ten Player of the Year. Swanigan was also a first-team All-American selection in 2017. The good news for Matt Painter and company is that they still get one more year of the P.J. Thompson, Dakota Mathias, Vince Edwards and Isaac Haas class. All four bring valuable experience to the table, and this core has built a solid chemistry going into their senior years.

P.J. Thompson, a 5’10” point guard, will be running the Purdue offense for the final time. Thompson came to Purdue as a two-star and ranked as the 64th point guard in his class. However, he has been a very valuable player for this program over the years. He has increased his scoring and assists per game each year, and has been in the top 10 in assist to turnover ratio the past two years. Thompson knows how to take care of the ball, make smart plays, and can execute the offense. Carsen Edwards returns as a sophomore, and he is a special player who is destined for stardom. He had a very good freshman year, averaging over 10 points per game. Edwards has experience playing with top-tier talent, by playing with USA basketball. As a sophomore, he will need to improve his shooting percentage (and 3-point percentage), but he is going to be really good for Purdue. He got valuable minutes as a freshman, learned the speed of the college game, and is now prepared to advance his game to the next level.

Dakota Mathias and Ryan Cline also return for Purdue. These two snipers can absolutely light it up from downtown. Mathias shot a crazy 45.3 percent from 3-point range last year, and Cline shot 41.3 percent. Both guys take care of the ball as well. In fact, P.J. Thompson and Vince Edwards also shot over 40 percent from distance. Shooting will be a huge focal point to this Purdue offense, and they have a plethora of players to fit the part. Freshmen Nojel Eastern and Sasha Stefanovic will also add depth in the shooting department as guards. Eastern, a four-star recruit, is a lefty with a sweet stroke, he is a good ball-handler, and adds some athleticism to this guard rotation. Watch out for him in transition as well.

Vince Edwards had an up and down junior year. In and out of the starting lineup, he never got into a rhythm for the season. Edwards was still able to average 12.6 points for the season, and shot the ball well, as previously mentioned. With Swanigan off to the NBA, I have Vince Edwards sliding over to the power forward position for his senior year. He will be asked to guard multiple positions defensively, and will also be called upon for rebounding. His versatility will create matchup problems for other forwards, and I expect him to have a very good senior year. Isaac Haas also averaged 12.6 points a season ago, and he will be the main guy when it comes to being a paint presence for the Boilermakers. For me, Haas was always somewhat overshadowed by A.J. Hammons and Caleb Swanigan. He definitely isn’t quite on the level of those two guys (especially his outside perimeter game), but he is very solid fundamentally, and can really score down low. If you feed him in the post with a mismatch, he can score every time. He uses his height to his advantage in order to score over shorter bigs. He will definitely be called upon for rebounding with Swanigan gone, but I do think he will have his best season as a Boilermaker this year. Matt Haarms, a four-star center (who is also over seven feet), will come off the bench and play minutes behind Haas. There will be two twin towers on the roster.

Jacquil Taylor, who has been plagued by injury for the majority of his collegiate career, is now healthy, and will provide frontcourt depth off the bench. He has only played in 102 minutes as a Boilermaker, and didn’t play in a single game last season. Aaron Wheeler and Junior College transfer, Eden Ewing, will come in and play forward minutes off the bench as well. Wheeler is a lankier forward, who can step behind the arc, and can also run in transition. Ewing brings solid size and athleticism at 6’9″, and can hit from mid-range.

Purdue loses their best player to the NBA, but they retain their veteran core. They have the experience to make a late run in the NCAA tournament. With the four seniors and Carsen Edwards, their starting lineup will be really tough to match up against. I see them contending with Michigan State in the Big 10, and have them at number 12 in my preseason rankings.

 

 

 

UNC Basketball 2017-2018

Key Departures: Justin Jackson, Tony Bradley Jr., Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt II

Projected Starting Lineup:

PG: Joel Berry II (Sr.)

SG: Kenny Williams III (Jr.)

SF: Theo Pinson (Sr.)

PF: Luke Maye (Jr.)

C: Garrison Brooks (Fr.)

Key Reserve Players:

SG/PG: Seventh Woods (So.), SG: Jalek Felton (Fr.), SG: Brandon Robinson (So.), C: Brandon Huffman (Fr.), SG: Cam Johnson (GS.), SG: Andrew Platek (Fr.), C: Sterling Manley (Fr.)

Discussion:

The defending NCAA champions are just outside of my top ten. The Tar Heels lose the 2017 ACC Player of the Year in Justin Jackson (also a first-team All-American), and they lose their dominant size. The identity of last year’s team was rebounding. Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, and Tony Bradley owned the boards last year, especially on the offensive glass. There were hopes that Bradley might return for his sophomore year in Chapel Hill, but he elected to stay in the draft, and was taken late in the first round. I really thought that if Bradley returned to college, he would have been a potential lottery pick. He would arguably be the best big man in the ACC, UNC would probably be ranked in my top five, and the Tar Heels would contend for a second consecutive title. He would be a walking double-double guy. Bradley played less than 15 minutes per game during his freshman year, but averaged seven points and five rebounds per game. His numbers per 40 minutes were absurd. He was efficient while on the floor, and showed flashes of greatness on both ends of the court. Bradley still has some rawness, and I really think another year in college would have helped fine-tune his overall game. However, with Bradley off to the NBA, Garrison Brooks and Brandon Huffman step up to the plate at the center position. They will be asked to contribute right away. Both four-star recruits come in fairly raw, especially offensively. Sterling Manley, a three-star, may also see some minutes at center as well. The good thing for Roy Williams is that he has a few guys to share the minutes at the five. Also, he has veterans in the starting lineup to help the freshmen bigs.

Joel Berry returns as the floor general for UNC, and the senior guard has all the leadership experience you could ever want. As a junior, Berry was a leader for the redemption team last year, hitting big shots all season long. Berry is a great teammate and competitor, leaving it all on the floor last year, despite dealing with ankle issues. The pattern continues here with another seasoned veteran point guard to keep your eyes on in 2017-2018. Hopefully Kenny Williams returns fully healthy this year after missing the last 14 games a season ago. Williams dealt with a knee injury and did have surgery. He will need to continue to improve his 3-point shooting consistency in order to be an effective 3&D player for UNC.

Theo Pinson is another Tar Heel who has dealt with injury, and has struggled to stay healthy throughout his UNC career. Pinson, the former five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American, has yet to be the player that I expected (Part of this could be due to health). Pinson has been an inconsistent scorer and shooter, but does give a lot of energy on the defensive end. He can also make plays for his teammates. With Justin Jackson no longer on the team, perhaps more opportunities will open up for Pinson, as he closes out his career in Chapel Hill. Luke Maye, the hero from last year’s tournament game against Kentucky, will have a huge role on this team. Many people didn’t know of Maye before that shot. He is actually a very good player, who has improved his shooting and stretch four ability. He hustles, understands his role, and just knows how to play. Now a junior, Maye will be a very important piece for Roy Williams.

I think Seventh Woods will take on a Nate Britt type of a role off the bench, and will be playing a lot of minutes at the point guard position. Brandon Robinson and Jalek Felton will also be two important guards coming off the bench. They will need to bring their offensive scoring, especially their perimeter shooting. Robinson did not see too much time during his freshman year, but his minutes will go up for his sophomore season. Felton is a five-star recruit, who is just wired to score. He can pass/distribute the ball too.Andrew Platek, the four-star shooting guard coming in, will bring his perimeter game off the bench as well. UNC also adds grad transfer Cam Johnson to the mix. Johnson adds outside shooting and size to their deep guard rotation, and will fit nicely in Chapel Hill.

Last year’s UNC Championship victory reminded me of the Spurs winning the NBA Finals in 2014. UNC had a heartbreaking loss to Villanova in 2016, and the Spurs dealt with a harsh defeat in the NBA Finals to the Heat in 2013. To me, both teams were destined to come back and win the following year, and that is exactly what they did. UNC still has some of their core pieces, but they lose some really important pieces. Rebounding will be the biggest question, and filling the void of Justin Jackson will also be a key factor. I don’t have them in the top ten, but have them just outside in the eleventh spot.

West Virginia Basketball 2017-2018

Key Departures: Nathan Adrian, Tarik Phillip, Elijah Macon, Teyvon Myers, Brandon Watkins

Projected Starting Lineup:

PG: Jevon Carter (Sr.)

SG: Daxter Miles Jr. (Sr.)

SF: Esa Ahmad (Jr.)

PF: Lamont West (RS So.)

C: Sagaba Konate (So.)

Key Reserve Players: 

PG: James Bolden (RS So.), PF: Maciej Bender (So.), PF: Derek Culver (Fr.), PG: Brandon Knapper (Fr.), SG: Chase Harler (So.), SF: Wesley Harris (So.), SF: D’Angelo Hunter (Jr.), PF/C: Logan Routt (RS So.), SF: Teddy Allen (Fr.)

Discussion:

The Mountaineers lose a total of five seniors from a season ago. They lose experience, leadership, and valuable minutes. Additionally, to the surprise of many, Elijah Macon chose to turn pro, instead of returning to Morgantown. On the positive side, West Virginia does return three of its top five scores in Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles Jr., and Esa Ahmad.

It is simple as this, Jevon Carter will be one of the best players in all of college basketball this year. Carter is an extension of Bob Huggins on both ends of the court. He is the head of the snake on defense, and in charge of running the offense. Carter was a First-team All-Big 12 member last year, he is a three time Big 12 All-Defensive team member, and was last year’s Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. He averaged an insane 2.5 steals per game last season. Don’t let his size fool you. He is an absolute beast, filled with passion, toughness, and grit. I can see him competing with Devonte’ Graham of Kansas for Big 12 Player of the Year honors. Carter will be joined in the backcourt by another scrappy guard in Daxter Miles Jr., forming a duo of seasoned veterans. Miles Jr. averaged 1.4 steals himself last season. I expect his scoring to increase into double digits for his senior year, especially with a player like Tarik Phillip no longer in the picture. It seems repetitive, but what do all of the top college teams have? Top-notch guard play.

Esa Ahmad is one of my favorite players in the country, and someone who is still underrated. Ahmad has really good size at 6’8″. He had an outstanding performance  at home against Kansas last year, scoring 27 points in the victory. Ahmad has a smooth mid-range stroke, but he impresses me the most with his ability to use his body to get to the rim. He has shown us flashes of athleticism and explosiveness, and he can also finish through contact/get to the stripe. He is a good scorer, but needs to be more consistent in order to be an elite scorer for West Virginia. When he demands the ball, it really helps him get going offensively.

I have Lamont West and Sagaba Konate in the starting lineup as the bigs going into the season. There is a lot more time available on the court for both players going into this year with the departures of Adrian, Macon, and Watkins. West got really good experience and solid minutes last season, and I anticipate his role to increase even more this year. West is a really good athlete, who can finish above the rim. He runs the floor well, and showed us his potential to be a threat as a stretch four. West has the chance to be an absolute stud. Konate got decent minutes for a true freshman last year, and I think he can provide a post presence and a bruiser down low for the Mountaineers. I am also really intrigued by his potential as a rim protector. The four-star freshman, Derek Culver, should also see good minutes as well. Culver is a beast on the boards/around the basket, and is a good athlete at the power forward position. I also expect Maciej Bender to see an increase in minutes as a big. Hopefully, he can step into a Nathan Adrian-type role. He has good fundamentals, and can definitely shoot it. Logan Routt will add depth at the center position as well.

James Bolden and and Brandon Knapper will be in charge of the point guard duties behind Carter. Just like Carter, they are small guards, but it will be vital for them to keep up the intensity and hustle that the first unit brings. Bob Huggins brings in two Junior College players in D’Angelo Hunter and Wesley Harris. Both players have really good potential at the small forward position, and will now be exposed to a larger stage. Harris actually played with Malik Newman in high school, and I am really excited to see him play. Teddy Allen, another small forward, could see some minutes here and there off the bench as well, along with the sophomore shooting guard, Chase Harler.

Bob Huggins loves to control the tempo of the game. They’re “Press Virginia” for a reason. I have so many guys in the rotation because Huggins plays with such a deep bench. Virtually the entire roster will likely see minutes on the floor this year. He loves giving younger players experience, even if they only play sparingly. Also, with the pace and the effort that West Virginia plays with, a deeper rotation is needed because the players are exerting so much energy on the court. This year will be no different. I think this team has a really good chance to get to the final four, with Carter now in his final year. I have them tenth in my preseason rankings, and see them finishing close behind Kansas in the Big 12.

 

USC Basketball 2017-2018

Key Departures: Charles Buggs

Projected Starting Lineup:

PG: Jordan McLaughlin (Sr.)

SG: Elijah Stewart (Sr.)

SF: Charles O’Bannon Jr. (Fr.)

PF: Bennie Boatwright (Jr.)

PF: Chimezie Metu (Jr.)

Key Reserve Players:

PG: Derryck Thornton (RS So.), SG: De’Anthony Melton (So.), SF: Shaqquan Aaron (RS Jr.), SG: Jonah Mathews (So.), C: Nick Rakocevic (So.), PF: Harrison Henderson (So.), SF: Jordan Usher (Fr.), C: Victor Uyaelunmo (Fr.)

Discussion:

The Trojans return virtually all of their scoring from a season ago. Jordan McLaughlin, now a senior, will lead the way at point guard for Andy Enfield’s offense. McLaughlin trailed only Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz in assists per game for the Pac-12 last year (not bad company to be in). He will need to continue to be the facilitator for this year’s team, which is loaded with talent around him. McLaughlin is joined by Elijah Stewart in the backcourt, forming a very good, experienced guard combination. If both McLaughlin and Stewart can be 40+ percent 3-point shooters for their senior years (which they are both capable of), it adds a consistent and dangerous element to this team. Derryck Thornton, the transfer from Duke is definitely a capable starter, but I have him running the offense off the bench. Things didn’t work out for him in Durham, so he decided to attend a school closer to home. Thornton, the former five-star, is a good ball-handler, and will provide shooting/passing off the bench. I chose to insert the talented freshman out of Bishop Gorman, Charles O’Bannon Jr., into the starting lineup in place of De’Antony Melton. The McDonald’s All-American adds more size on the wing. Although he possesses an unorthodox release, he is a gifted scorer and perimeter shooter. This USC squad will be absolutely ridiculous from 3-point range.

Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu might be the two biggest reasons why USC will be so good this year. Along with McLaughlin and Stewart, they are the other two players who averaged double figures in scoring last year, and they were also the top two guys. Boatwright was plagued by an a knee injury last year, and didn’t play in 17 games. Boatwright knows how to put the ball in the basket, he is versatile, can stretch the floor, and will be a player to watch when it comes to Pac-12 Player of the Year honors. He is a serious matchup problem. I am very glad that he didn’t choose to go to the NBA. Metu adds good length and athleticism down low at 6’11”. He is fundamentally sound in the paint and around the rim, displaying an ability to hit jump-hooks, in addition to his post moves and footwork. With his length, he will be a very important piece on the defensive end as well for the Trojans. Metu is a very efficient player, which was seen firsthand in their loss to Baylor in last year’s NCAA tournament run. He scored 28 points on 11-14 shooting from the floor, in 33 minutes.

Many people say that in order to make a deep run in March, you need really good guard play. USC has guards all over the place. In addition to the starters, and Thornton, De’Anthony Melton and Jonah Mathews are two more guards in this rotation. They both played significant minutes as freshmen (both over 20 mpg), and will be more than well prepared for their sophomore campaigns. Shaqquan Aaron and Jordan Usher will compete for minutes at the three. Both players add good size at 6’7″. Usher brings some physicality on both ends of the court, and it will be interesting to see how many minutes he gets as a freshman.

Nick Rakocevic could see an increase in playing time as a sophomore behind Metu. He was efficient when on the floor last year as a freshman, he moves well as a big, and knows his role. Harrison Henderson and Victor Uyaelunmo add even more depth and size on this roster. Uyaelunmo has the chance to be a really good rim protector and shot blocker.

USC is going to be a super fun team to watch this year. They have depth and experience at every position. They are loaded. They will be right behind Arizona in the Pac-12, and I have them at number nine in my preseason rankings. Keep in mind, Marvin Bagley has USC on his radar.

Villanova Basketball 2017-2018

Key Departures: Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Darryl Reynolds

Projected Starting Lineup:

PG: Jalen Brunson (Jr.)

SG: Donte DiVincenzo (RS So.)

SF: Mikal Bridges (RS Jr.)

PF: Eric Paschall (RS Jr.)

C: Omari Spellman (RS Fr.)

Key Reserve Players:

SG: Phil Booth (Sr.), SF: Jermaine Samuels Jr. (Fr.), PF/C: Dylan Painter (So.), PF: Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree (Fr.), PG: Collin Gillespie (Fr.)

Discussion:

As I discussed with Devonte’ Graham and Quentin Snider, Jalen Brunson is another point guard to keep your eye on this year. The junior will be one of the best floor generals to watch in college basketball. With the departures of players like Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins, Brunson will step into a larger leadership role for the Wildcats. Having won a National Championship his freshman year, Brunson has all the experience necessary. Ever since he stepped his foot onto campus, Brunson has been poised and mature beyond his years as the point guard for Villanova Basketball. In addition to running the offense, he will be required to score more with Hart and Jenkins both gone. Villanova will definitely miss these two guys. They are both great dudes. Kris Jenkins will always be remembered for “the shot” against UNC in 2016, and Hart is one of the best teammates you could ever ask for. He’s the ultimate competitor, and a guy who improved on his game every single year. Hart is one of the best rebounding guards that I have ever watched. He did a little bit of everything for Jay Wright. By being exposed to these guys, Brunson definitely learned about their work ethic, and what it meant to be a Villanova Wildcat. I think Brunson is definitely prepared to take on a larger role.

I was pleasantly surprised with Donte DiVincenzo this past year. His activity and energy on the court was contagious, and his game-winning tip-in against UVA last year gave him a name in the college basketball world. I expect his scoring to increase (into double figures), and he will form a very good backcourt with Brunson. DiVincenzo will also take on a more facilitating role with Hart no longer in the picture. This will help out Brunson. Mikal Bridges didn’t take as big of a leap as I anticipated last season. I love his slashing ability, length, and his 3&D potential. He has the tools to be an NBA player. Although he was second (behind Josh Hart) in 3-point shooting percentage last year, he was not consistent enough. I also expect his scoring to increase, and I think this might be the year that he makes the significant leap in his game.

Last season, size was a huge issue for Villanova. Darryl Reynolds basically played center, and Eric Paschall spotted him with minutes off the bench. Both guys are natural forwards. Additionally, Omari Spellman was ruled ineligible for the 2016-2017 season, as he did not meet the requirements in time. The former five-star recruit would have made a substantial impact for the Wildcats last season, and may have changed their outcome in the NCAA tournament. He adds serious size in the paint on both ends of the court for Villanova. He is very skilled and talented, he can step out and shoot it, and uses his body well to finish down low. I have Paschall sliding over to the four (he can play three too). He will need to continue to improve his outside shooting, but he is very active/involved when on the floor. Painter, who only played in 127 minutes in his freshman season, will add more depth as a big, along with Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, the four-star freshman. Cosby-Roundtree is still very raw, but will hopefully help out on the boards and with put-backs.

Phil Booth, the hero from the 2016 Championship squad, only played in three games last season due to a knee injury. However, he has recently been cleared for all basketball activities, which is huge news for Villanova. He adds shooting, big-game experience, and more guard depth. I could see him being inserted into the starting lineup at some point, but for now, I have him coming off the bench. One of my favorite recruits is Jermaine Samuels, who adds good length and athleticism on the wing behind Bridges. I think he will be able to contribute on both ends of the court during his freshman year. Collin Gillespie may see some back-up point guard minutes during his freshman year. He can learn how to be a playmaker for the Wildcats, and has a perfect mentor in Brunson to teach him the ropes.

Villanova has lost its cornerstone pieces the last two years. First it was Daniel Ochefu and Ryan Arcidiacano. Now, it is Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins. With Jalen Brunson now the face of the program, Villanova has entered a new era. This team will have some experience going into the year, but the squad as a whole is relatively young. I have them ranked eighth on my preseason list, and expect Jay Wright to capture a fifth straight regular season championship in the Big East.

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