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The 10 Most Important Stories in College Basketball for 2015-16

Author:
Ben Simmons

Ben Simmons

Fear the Turtle

Think about how the following sentence would have sounded five years ago when Maryland was limping to the end of the Gary Williams era: In 2015-16, the Terrapins will be the class of the Big Ten.

That statement would have been ludicrous not long ago, but the Terps indeed enter the season with legitimate national championship hopes for the first time since 2002. A program that was a regular contender under Williams in the ’90s and Lefty Driesell in the ’70s and ’80s has spent the last 15 years or so in the wilderness. Last season was Maryland’s best since the 2002 title team as the Terps ended a four-year NCAA Tournament drought, won 28 games and finished second in the Big Ten in their first season in the league.

That should only be an appetizer. Fifth-year coach Mark Turgeon has a team loaded for something special in 2015-16. The Terps have a top-flight point guard in Melo Trimble, who averaged 16.2 points per game as a freshman. Jake Layman, who averaged 12.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, also returns. Both of them considered the NBA Draft before returning to school.

Maryland Team Preview | Big Ten Predictions

Getting those two key players back would be enough cause for optimism in College Park, but Turgeon is adding even more talent. Robert Carter Jr., who averaged 11.4 points and 8.4 rebounds in 2013-14, is eligible after sitting out a year after a transfer from Georgia Tech. Rasheed Sulaimon, dismissed at Duke in January, will be looking for a fresh start as a graduate transfer. And Diamond Stone, a five-star freshman, gives Maryland a post presence.

Get ready, Maryland fans: All the pieces are in place for a title run.

Roy Williams' Last Great Team

No team should try to live in the here and now quite as much as North Carolina. Indeed, the immediate future is bright. It’s the long-term prospects putting Heels fans on edge.

In all, North Carolina returns all but one notable player from a team that went 26–12 and reached the Sweet 16 last season. Had J.P Tokoto not made a puzzling decision to leave early for the NBA Draft, the Heels would have a strong case to be the preseason No. 1 team.

After averaging 25 wins and 11 losses during the last three seasons, North Carolina has been building for this year, which should be the Heels’ best since 2012. It also may be North Carolina’s last national title contender for a long time and — perhaps — the last championship contender for 65-year-old coach Roy Williams.

When the NCAA finally completed its investigation into extensive academic fraud in Carolina’s African and Afro-American Studies program, Williams escaped major culpability. He was mentioned once in 59 pages and only to note he’d been interviewed. Weeks after the Notice of Allegations arrived, Williams received a contract extension through 2020. However, North Carolina athletics — the investigation wasn’t limited to men’s basketball — was hit with five serious NCAA charges.

North Carolina Preview | ACC Predictions

Whether anyone buys that Williams didn’t know of the paper classes in many of his players’ majors is up to them. The only certain part of the whole saga is that it’s going to get worse before it gets better. In the face of its own NCAA issues, Syracuse self-imposed a postseason ban and lost 12 scholarships over four seasons. North Carolina won’t know its fate until late 2015 or into 2016, and the Tar Heels aren’t likely to self-impose a postseason ban on a contender.

Predicting what the NCAA will do is a fool’s game, but in the present, North Carolina is already paying a price in recruiting. The 2015 recruiting class landed prospects ranked No. 116 and No. 126 in the 247Sports Composite. Most important, rival Duke pulled five-star forward Brandon Ingram from Kinston (N.C.) High, a traditional UNC stronghold. In other words, the elite recruits North Carolina is used to landing are probably going to be scared away until they know they will have a chance to win a championship. After this season, that timetable is a mystery.

Kentucky is Still Kentucky

The spring was a bizarre time to be a Kentucky fan. The Wildcats had wrapped up a 38–1 season, ending with a loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four. Then, seven — seven! — of Kentucky’s players left early for the NBA Draft.

Yet for some reason John Calipari had trouble filling the vacant spots on his roster. When the final five-star recruiting holdouts of the 2015 class started making their choices, none of them picked Big Blue. Kentucky missed on Brandon Ingram (who went to Duke), Cheick Diallo (Kansas), Jaylen Brown (Cal), Malik Newman (Mississippi State) and Stephen Zimmerman (UNLV). Kentucky needed to sign a three-star junior college shooting guard, Mychal Mulder, just to break the losing streak.

But did we really believe Kentucky wouldn’t have elite talent?

Securing super scorer Jamal Murray in late June put Kentucky back in the national title conversation, if the Cats were even out of it. Murray, a combo guard from Ontario, reclassified from the 2016 class to 2015 after breaking out at the Nike Hoops Summit. He ended up the No. 10 prospect in the class, according the 247Sports Composite.

Kentucky Preview | SEC Predictions

Murray’s arrival means Kentucky will have six five-star prospects on its roster — for a team that just had four lottery picks in the NBA Draft. But just because Kentucky has the top recruiting class — plus key veterans Tyler Ulis and Alex Poythress — doesn’t mean that this is a carbon copy of 2014-15. Murray’s arrival means Kentucky will be more guard heavy, especially after the Cats started Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns on a supersized frontline a year ago.

Kentucky won’t have the juice entering this season that they did in each of the last two, but the Wildcats aren’t going anywhere.

The Ben Simmons Show

LSU basketball hasn’t had a ton of opportunities to tap into the fan hysteria that’s normally reserved for football (and even baseball) around Baton Rouge. The Tigers have been to the NCAA Tournament only twice since the 2006 Final Four and to the Sweet 16 twice since 1987.

That’s why LSU put Ben Simmons front and center when it came to selling season tickets. In May, LSU splashed the “25 Is Coming” marketing campaign across online and print ads, billboards and social media. Using a Simmons jersey number to sell tickets before he even arrived on campus may have been a case of poor timing as the sport faces name and likeness litigation, but it was nonetheless effective.

LSU Preview | Top Freshmen for 2015-16

Anticipation for Simmons is already at Shaq-sized levels at LSU, and with good reason. The name LeBron James is getting dropped when talking about Simmons. Not that Simmons is the best player in the world. He just has a game that’s not defined by being a guard or forward. When pressed, Simmons calls his position “point forward.” He can be dominant. He can be selfless. And with his Melbourne roots — he played rugby and Australian rules football as a child — he’ll have an international level of intrigue heaped upon him.

Simmons, who is being mentioned as the likely No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, will be tasked with leading LSU back to national prominence in what figures to be a short stay in Baton Rouge.

Can Chris Mullin Save St. John's?

If St. John’s sixth coach since Lou Carnesecca retired in 1992 can’t give the Red Storm an identity, perhaps no one can.

To a certain generation, St. John’s basketball has been unrecognizable for the last 15 years or so. The one-time powerhouse has become an also-ran, reaching the NCAA Tournament just twice since 2002 and failing to win a game in the NCAAs since 2000.

The generation that doesn’t recognize what the Red Storm has become recognizes the crew cut on the bench. Chris Mullin is the best player in school history. A prep star from nearby Brooklyn, Mullin led St. John’s to its last Final Four, in 1985. He won Big East Player of the Year three times, played on the first Dream Team and landed in the Basketball Hall of Fame. His credentials as an ambassador for the program are unmatched.

Big East Predictions | New Coaches

St. John’s is gambling on Mullin being its version of Fred Hoiberg, a school legend with minimal coaching experience who nevertheless restored the program to glory. In Mullin’s case, he has no coaching experience at any level, arriving at St. John’s after a stint as an advisor to the Sacramento Kings front office.

To fill in the gaps, Mullin hired two assistant coaches who could turn St. John’s into a recruiting power. He pried ace recruiter Barry Rohrssen from the staff at Kentucky — yes, Kentucky. He also hired Matt Abdelmassih, a Brooklyn native and St. John’s alum who was one of Hoiberg’s top recruiters at Iowa State.

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Will St. John’s ever be the national title contender it was when Mullin played? Perhaps not, but Mullin at least makes St. John’s a program worth monitoring again.

The Revolving Door with the NBA

Not even 15 years ago, the thought of the Bulls hiring the Iowa State basketball coach would make every Chicago fan wince. In December 2001, the Bulls fired ex-Cyclones coach Tim Floyd 25 games into his fourth season. He was 49–190 when he was dismissed. In 2015, the Bulls went to the Iowa State well again, hiring Fred Hoiberg in June.

Floyd never really had a chance in Chicago. He took over a team that won the NBA title a year earlier in the final go-round with Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson and the gang. Hoiberg takes over for an embattled Tom Thibodeau and inherits a roster with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. He’s been greeted as a missing piece.

The Bulls aren’t the only franchise to entrust an MVP to a coach who was working in college a season earlier. Billy Donovan left Florida for a chance to coach Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City for at least one season. While two coaches in one season hardly qualifies as an exodus, this year’s carousel represents a shift in attitudes surrounding college coaches in the NBA. College-to-NBA coaches have been more notable for spectacular flameouts (Rick Pitino, John Calipari) or takeovers of struggling franchises (Lon Kruger with the Hawks, Mike Montgomery with the Warriors, Reggie Theus with the Kings and Leonard Hamilton with the Wizards).

Iowa State Preview

Credit for the shift to some degree goes to Brad Stevens. The former Butler coach stunned the league by turning the Celtics into a playoff team in his second season. Hoiberg, like Stevens, is a devotee of advanced analytics that have transformed the game at both levels. Hoiberg, unlike Stevens, spent time in NBA front offices and was a respected pro in his own right.

The question now is who, if anyone, is next. The Cavaliers pursued Calipari prior to last season and before the return of LeBron James. He’s only 56, and the only mountain left for him to climb in the sport is atoning for his disastrous tenure with the Nets from 1996-99. UConn’s Kevin Ollie was interested in the Oklahoma City job that later went to Donovan. Ollie already has won a national title in college, and he was beloved by his teammates in his 13-year NBA career.

And not to be overlooked, the door has gone both ways in recent years as ex-NBA coaches have been hired at SMU (Larry Brown), Alabama (Avery Johnson), Utah (Larry Krystkowiak), Rutgers (Eddie Jordan) and Nevada (Eric Musselman).  

The Rise of Cal

Now introducing your Pac-12 contender … Cal? We could say stranger things have happened, but, nope, not really. Cal has won only one conference championship (regular season or tournament) since Pete Newell’s final season in 1960. Yet the Golden Bears find themselves at or near the top of the Pac-12 in 2015-16.

Arizona lost its top four scorers. Utah must replace Delon Wright. Oregon needs to do the same with Joseph Young. UCLA is down Norman Powell and Kevon Looney. That makes Cal one of the top teams in the Pac-12 and a threat to reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997.

Cal Preview | Pac-12 Predictions

To be clear, the optimism around Cal isn’t by default. The Bears all of a sudden are a recruiting force for the first time in decades. Cuonzo Martin scored arguably the biggest coup of the year when he signed Jaylen Brown out of Georgia in May. The McDonald’s All-America shooting guard and a top-five prospect in the class elected to sign with Cal instead of Kentucky or Michigan. Two weeks earlier, Oakland power forward Ivan Rabb decided to go to Cal. That gives Martin two top-10 prospects joining a team that already returns three double-figure scorers (Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird).

Cal went 7–11 in the Pac-12 last season, but a top-10 finish nationally isn’t out of the question.

Indiana's Love/Hate Relationship with Tom Crean

OK, so we’re not entirely certain if there’s a “love” part of this relationship right now. Tom Crean rebuilt Indiana from the wreckage of the Kelvin Sampson era, delivering a team led by Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo in 2012-13 that spent much of the season ranked No. 1. The seeds of fan frustration started that season when that loaded Hoosiers team lost to Syracuse, 61–50, in the Sweet 16.

Since then, Crean’s program has been a sideshow. In 2014, the Hoosiers were snubbed by the NIT. Then came reports of a rift between Crean and his players. And then the off-court issues: alcohol incidents and failed drug tests for five of his 13 scholarship players in the span of a few months. Before last season, Crean appeared to be on the brink of losing his job — one Indiana fan asked him directly on his call-in show.

But the off-court problems waned. Indiana started last year 15–4 and made a surprising run to the NCAA Tournament. This being Crean and Indiana, fans weren’t satisfied with an overachieving team. The Hoosiers lost at home to Eastern Washington in late November and finished the season by losing 10 of their final 15 games. His game management was a constant source of frustration for Indiana fans, and Crean’s sideline histrionics made for chuckles from non-Hoosiers.

Indiana Preview | Big Ten Predictions

After last year’s wild ride, the 2015-16 season should be more stable — even if Crean in May dismissed Devin Davis (for a marijuana citation) and Hanner Mosquera-Perea (for being in the same room with Davis and his marijuana). Yogi Ferrell, Troy Williams and James Blackmon Jr. are all back for IU, and the Hoosiers add the size they lacked last season with highly regarded freshman Thomas Bryant taking over the post.

Crean has a team built to contend in the Big Ten, but if history is any indication, the journey won’t be uneventful.

Steve Prohm Takes over for the Mayor

We’re still trying to figure out if Steve Prohm is taking over an ideal situation at Iowa State or an impossible one.

What the former Murray State coach has in Ames is rare in college basketball. Fred Hoiberg left him a top-10 team with veteran leadership provided by Georges Niang and Monté Morris. Prohm’s situation is unprecedented in Iowa State history. No first-year Cyclones coach has taken over a team that won 20 games a season prior, much less a team riding a string of four consecutive NCAA Tournaments.

Prohm also has to follow a mayor who was exceedingly popular with his constituents. Hoiberg made Iowa State a contender in the Big 12 for the first time in more than a decade. He delivered back-to-back Big 12 Tournament titles and took the Cyclones to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2000. With an up-tempo, high-scoring style of play that is the exception rather than the norm, Hoiberg had Hilton Coliseum rocking on a nightly basis.

Iowa State Preview | Big 12 Predictions

How Hoiberg achieved these results in Ames, Iowa, only underscores the difficulty of the job Prohm has taken. Hoiberg was one of the first coaches to make transfers the central plank in his recruiting strategy. And even though many of his transfers came with baggage, Iowa State (for the most part) avoided the pitfalls of recruiting other programs’ castoffs and malcontents.

Prohm was adept at unearthing future pros to play at Murray State. Isaiah Canaan led the Racers to 31 wins in 2012, and Cam Payne led the Racers to 29 wins last season. Will that be his approach at Iowa State, or will he keep the door open to transfers? Iowa State is a tough job, but Prohm will be expected to continue the winning ways in Ames.

Let’s just go ahead and concede that Kentucky will have a very good team again and will probably be the favorite in the SEC. Now that we’ve gone out on that limb, let’s ask: Who is No. 2?

Not so easy, right?

For the last six seasons, the SEC has gone through either Kentucky or Florida. Moreover, the gap between the SEC champ and the field has been stark: The Wildcats went 18–0 and won the league by five games a year after the Gators went 18–0 and won the league by six games. Competitive balance might be the calling card for SEC football. It isn’t for basketball. At least for now.

The departure of Billy Donovan to the NBA means Kentucky might not have a sparring partner for the time being. But at the same time, the rest of the league has reaffirmed its commitment to basketball, which didn’t always seem the case.

Vanderbilt Preview | SEC Predictions

Donovan and his two championships and four career Final Fours are gone, but Mississippi State and Tennessee both hired coaches with Final Fours of their own (Ben Howland and Rick Barnes, respectively). Alabama backed up a Brink’s truck of cash for Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall, who declined. The Tide’s second choice, Avery Johnson, is an NBA coach who has taken a team to the Finals. A year earlier, Auburn brought Bruce Pearl back into the league. Even with Donovan gone, the cast of SEC coaches is a net gain in terms of career accomplishments.

All of those coaches probably need time to build programs, so Kentucky’s true challengers will probably come from an incumbent coach. Vanderbilt returns almost every key piece — including star forward Damian Jones — to a team that finished last season on a tear. LSU adds a potential No. 1 overall draft pick (Ben Simmons) to a team with a veteran core of Tim Quarterman, Jalyn Patterson and Keith Hornsby. Texas A&M returns its top three scorers — all seniors — and adds a top-10 recruiting class and a point guard transfer this season.

None of those teams might be able to unseat Kentucky this season, but SEC basketball on nights that the Wildcats aren’t in action just got a lot more interesting.