Keep an eye on Duke's freshmen, Kentucky's bigs, Louisville's superstar and more
If the 2014-15 season is anything like the 2013-14 edition, we’re in luck.
Just think of all that transpired a year ago: Wichita State’s run for history, a fantastic freshman class led by Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Jabari Parker, Syracuse’s hot start as an ACC member.
And then think of how all of that was flipped in the NCAA Tournament as Kentucky finally delivered on its title-contending promise only to be stopped by a seventh-seeded UConn team in the championship game.
Say this about 2014-15: There’s more where that came from. Duke, Kentucky and Kansas have superstar freshmen again. The ACC adds another powerhouse program in Louisville. And Wichita State should keep rolling.
The only question is what wild twists and turns this season will take down the stretch. We’re ready.
1. Duke’s Big Three
Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones promised each other (and anybody else who would listen) in the summer before their senior years of high school that they’d take visits together and enroll at the same college. Ultimately, they settled on Duke, then started working on Justise Winslow. And the result is a college-aged “Big Three” that should give Mike Krzyzewski a reasonably good chance to capture his fifth national championship.
“We just wanted the best opportunity to win,” Okafor explains, and there’s no denying that their decisions created an ideal situation for lots and lots of wins.
Okafor, Jones and Winslow are all consensus top-15 national recruits who play different positions. Basically, they represent the nation’s top incoming point guard (Jones), the nation’s top incoming center (Okafor), and one of the nation’s top three incoming wings (Winslow), and they’re the main reasons why Duke should actually be better this season despite losing its best two players — Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood — early to the NBA Draft.
Who’s the best of the group?
That’s Okafor, for sure.
He’s a 6-11, wide-bodied big who makes up for what he lacks in athleticism with a unique skill set and understanding of the game. More than anybody else, he’s likely to go first overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, and it should surprise nobody if Okafor is a first-team All-American during what’s expected to be his lone year in college.
“We consider Jahlil Okafor as good a big man as there is in the country,” Krzyzewski says. “He’s had an amazing amount of experience playing for the United States and for a great high school program.”
And now he’ll play for a great college program.
“The great thing about all of the kids is that they want to share a spotlight and they want to be on a great team,” Krzyzewski adds. “They’re team-first guys — even though they have this excellent amount of individual talent.”
2. Kentucky’s Loaded Frontcourt
Have you counted the bodies yet?
Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee are all back, and they’ll be joined in the frontcourt by freshmen Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns. That’s six future pros who are natural power forwards or centers, and so the obvious question is this: How will Calipari find proper minutes for all of them?
Answer: He won’t. Because it’s impossible. Granted, Poythress will be asked to play some small forward, and it’ll help if he’s successful. But even if he is, and if Lyles and Johnson start at power forward and center, that’ll still leave Cauley-Stein and Towns as big reserves, which would leave Lee, most likely, caught in a numbers game and completely buried on the bench even though he’d be the best and most athletic big at like 90 percent of the nation’s high-major programs.
“For the first time I’ve had players return that had their chance to put their names in the draft, so we’re in a unique situation where we have veterans now,” Calipari says. “I’m excited about it. The returning players and the freshmen are getting along well. So it’s all good.”
All good for now, of course.
But will it be all good when the games start?
That’s the biggest challenge facing Calipari this season.
3. Wichita State, Obviously
Gregg Marshall’s Shockers became the story of last college basketball season — and the nation’s most divisive team — while taking a perfect record into their Round of 32 game against Kentucky. As you know, the Wildcats won on that Sunday afternoon in St. Louis thanks to a flurry of 3-pointers and free throws in the second half. But Wichita State still finished 35–1 overall, and the Shockers are returning enough to roll through the Missouri Valley Conference again.
Fred VanVleet is back. So is Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton.
That means Wichita State returns its starting 1, 2 and 3 from that 35-win team, and now you know why Marshall decided to return for an eighth season at WSU despite the fact that Tennessee, Missouri, Wake Forest, California and basically every other power-conference school with an opening tried, either directly or indirectly, to lure him away from the MVC power he’s built. Put another way, Marshall’s stock won’t slip this season because he’ll win plenty thanks to the presence of VanVleet, Baker and Cotton. They combined to average 35.0 points, 11.7 rebounds and 10.9 assists last season.
Bottom line, pencil the Shockers down for another 30 wins.
Then we’ll see if the school can keep Marshall for a ninth season.
4. KU’s quest for another Big 12 title
Bill Self has developed over the years into one of the surest things in college basketball, if not the surest, proof being that his Jayhawks have won at least a share of 10 consecutive Big 12 titles. So this season’s challenge is trying to win an 11th straight despite losing three starters — including the players who were picked first (Andrew Wiggins) and third (Joel Embiid) overall in the 2014 NBA Draft.
That sounds like a tall task. And it would be for most coaches.
But you’d be silly to bet against Self because A) he’s really, really good, B) he returns Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis, and Frank Mason from a 25-win team, and C) KU is once again enrolling a stellar recruiting class featuring Cliff Alexander, Kelly Oubre and Devonte’ Graham, the last of whom the Jayhawks added late after the point guard was released from his signed National Letter of Intent with Appalachian State.
“He’s good,” Self says. “He’s a true point guard.”
Assuming that’s true, KU will have something this season that it never had last season— i.e., a true point guard — to help create for Selden, Mason, Oubre and Ellis, and Self will have no shortage of interesting combinations at is disposal.
“We should be good 1 through 4,” Self says. “We have some talented guys.”
The most interesting piece will be in the middle.
He’s a 6-8 forward and physical specimen who projects as a future NBA Lottery pick, but Alexander is unproven defensively and hardly a shot-blocker/shot-alterer like Embiid. And that might be an issue (although Arkansas transfer Hunter Mickelson should alleviate some of those concerns). Either way, Self has an incredible roster featuring veterans and newcomers and no fewer than four future NBA Draft picks, and that, more than anything else, is the point here — that Kansas will be fantastic again and, probably, Big 12 champions again.
5. Montrezl Harrell’s Breakthrough
Every year, without exception, there are underclassmen who surprise college basketball fans when they announce they’re leaving college early, and then, also every year, also without exception, there are other underclassmen whose decision to remain in college a year longer than most anticipated doubles as a shocking development.
Which brings us to Montrezl Harrell.
“I was shocked that he came back,” says Louisville’s Rick Pitino.
Harrell was a projected Lottery pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. He could be a millionaire right now. Instead, he’s still in Louisville, still enrolled and set to have the type of breakthrough season that could make him a first-team All-American and, perhaps, a top-five pick in next June’s NBA Draft. Physically and athletically, Harrell already checks every box because he’s a 6-8, 235-pound freak. So as long as he expands his offensive game, his decision to delay getting paid NBA money for a year should pay off and, of course, give Louisville a chance to compete at the top of the ACC in its first season in the ACC.
Did you realize that, by the way?
In a move motivated by football (duh!), Louisville has relocated to the Atlantic Coast Conference after spending one season in the American Athletic Conference after spending eight seasons in the Big East that were preceded by a stint in Conference USA. (The Cardinals sure do bounce around a lot, don’t they?) The byproduct from that development is that it’s safe to call the ACC the nation’s best basketball league thanks to the presence of Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Virginia, Maryland, Georgia Tech, NC State, Pittsburgh and, yes, Louisville. As for Pitino, well, he’d rather be in the old Big East still, frankly. But he knows those days are gone forever. So now he’s looking forward to coaching in some new spots.
“I’ve never coached at Duke or Virginia,” Pitino says. “So I’m excited about it. I really am.”
6. John Beilein’s Magic
Kentucky’s John Calipari has transitioned more prospects from high school to the NBA than any other college coach in recent years, and he really is on an unprecedented run. It’s amazing. But what’s equally impressive — and perhaps even more impressive — is how John Beilein has taken two prospects ranked outside of the top 75 of their high school classes and turned them into top-10 picks in consecutive years.
One is Trey Burke, who left Michigan after two seasons and was picked ninth in the 2013 NBA Draft. The other is Nik Stauskas, who left Michigan after two seasons and was picked eighth in the 2014 NBA Draft. Both were Big Ten Players of the Year.
So what’s Beilein’s secret?
“We try to project whether a player is on the rise,” Beilein says, “or if he’s already where he’s gonna be (when we sign him).”
Let the record show the Michigan staff is great at those projections. They clearly saw something in Burke and Stauskas that nobody else saw, and the byproduct of that was the Wolverines averaging 27.6 wins per season in the past three years.
So why is this relevant this preseason? Because Beilein has yet another unheralded recruit positioned to possibly be a top-10 pick. His name is Caris LeVert. He’s a 6-7 guard who was ranked 215th in the Class of 2012. Now he’s on every NBA franchise’s radar and projected, by most right now, to be a Lottery pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, provided LeVert makes himself available. Either way, most of the shots Stauskas took last season will be LeVert’s to shoot this season. That means he should average more than 15 points per game for a nationally relevant program and be in contention for All-American honors.
7. The re-emergence of Arkansas
One of the more unbelievable facts about college basketball (given the history of the program and resources available) is that Arkansas hasn’t made a Sweet 16 since 1996. Did you realize that? The Razorbacks won the national title in 1994, lost in the title game in 1995, made the Sweet 16 in 1996, and they really haven’t escaped the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament since then.
“I hear it every day, man. Every day — from like the elderly people,” says Bobby Portis, the Hogs’ 6-11 forward. “Because, you know, back in the 90’s, we were a powerhouse. But it’s kinda flipped. So now somebody says something about it every day.”
The good news is that Portis’ decision to return to Arkansas for his sophomore year (rather than declare for the NBA Draft after last season) gives the Razorbacks a legitimate chance to break through and end this streak. Portis averaged 12.3 points and a team-best 6.8 rebounds last season, and his return ensured that coach Mike Anderson would have his top three scorers back. The others are Rashad Madden and Michael Qualls.
That trio doesn’t compare to the top three players at Kentucky, obviously. But they’re talented and good enough to lead Arkansas back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008, and it should surprise nobody if the Hogs escape the opening weekend of that 68-team event for the first time in 19 seasons.
“Every year they talk about Kentucky and Florida and nobody else in the conference,” Portis says. “But maybe we can change that.”
8. North Carolina (on the basketball court)
UNC is one of the best and most accomplished programs in college basketball — proof being the 18 Final Fours and five NCAA Tournament titles. Beyond that, it’s the place Michael Jordan played, and the impact of those three years spent in Chapel Hill will probably last forever. And yet, all that said, the Tar Heels have been in the headlines recently more for off-the-court issues than on-the-court performance.
P.J. Hairston being ruled ineligible because of impermissible benefits dominated talk early last season. Meantime, that academic scandal is the story that keeps on giving, and who knows where that will ultimately lead? But it’s important to remember that the Tar Heels are still, you know, really good at basketball, and this season should serve as a reminder thanks to the return of Marcus Paige and enrollment of another heralded recruiting class featuring five-star prospects Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson.
“We are ecstatic that these three young men … decided to join our basketball family,” Williams says. “Each of them (is) talented, comes from a wonderful family and shares a common trait in that they have a tremendous desire for their teams to do well.”
Yes, that’s probably coach-speak on some level. But there’s no denying that the Tar Heels are equipped to have a team that does well and possibly advances to the Elite Eight for the third time in five seasons, if not farther. Navigating the ACC will be tough as usual thanks to Duke and Virginia — and the additions of Louisville (this year) and Pittsburgh (last year). But Paige, a 6-1 junior who averaged 17.5 points and 4.2 assists last season, could become the 17th consensus first-team All-American in UNC history this season, and, if he does, the guess here is that the discussion surrounding North Carolina will be more about hoops than fraudulent classes.
9. Sean Miller’s Emerging Monster
National championships are hard to come by for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the single-elimination nature of the NCAA Tournament. One bad shooting night, you’re done. One freak injury to a key player, you’re done. One questionable foul, you’re done. So it’s possible to be great and never actually cut nets on the first Monday in April, and there are lots of great coaches who fall into that category.
Which brings us to Sean Miller.
He’s likely the biggest power (at a top-shelf program) working today who hasn’t yet won a national title. In fact, he’s never made a Final Four in 10 years as a head coach. But his time is probably coming — perhaps as soon as this season courtesy of a roster that is loaded to the point where at least two players (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson) project as future Lottery picks in the NBA Draft.
How’d this happen?
Miller has lured commitments from 11 five-star prospects in the past five classes, which is at least four more than every other program not called Kentucky. That’s why Arizona is the clear favorite in the Pac-12 despite the losses of its top two scorers from last season’s 33-win team (Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon), and it’s hard to imagine a scenario (barring injury) where Arizona doesn’t finish first or second in the Pac-12 for the fourth time in five years.
10. The Wide-Open Race to Make an All-America Team
College basketball is a sport where most of the top players turn pro every single year. So nobody was surprised, nor should they have been, when Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, UCLA’s Kyle Anderson and lots more like them exited school after last season. That’s par for the so-called course.
Still, it’s worth noting that not a single first-team Associated Press All-American, second-team Associated Press All-American, or third-team Associated Press All-American is back in college for just the second time since 2003, and that means nobody seems like a sure-bet to collect first team honors at the end of this season. Which is fun, right?
Last year, around this time, pretty much every media outlet (including this magazine) had Marcus Smart, Doug McDermott and Russ Smith listed as preseason first-team All-Americans because they were awesome players who performed brilliantly at the college level in the year prior. But there are no can’t-leave-them-off guys entering this season, really. For instance, a reasonable person could pick Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet as the first-team point guard … or Duke’s Tyus Jones or West Virginia’s Juwan Staten, and it’s like that at every single position.
There’s nothing silly about selecting Marcus Paige (UNC), Ron Baker (Wichita State), Caris LeVert (Michigan), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (Arizona), Sam Dekker (Wisconsin), Stanley Johnson (Arizona), Montrezl Harrell (Louisville), Georges Niang (Iowa State), Karl-Anthony Towns (Kentucky), Jahlil Okafor (Duke), Cliff Alexander (Kansas), Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin) or any number of players. So, for the first time in a long time, literally every single position on every single postseason All-American team seems to be there for the taking, and it’ll be a blast watching players try to earn those spots.
Perhaps all five will come from the names listed above.
Either way, get ready.
The college basketball season is almost here.