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
John Calipari is so used to losing players early to the NBA Draft that he recruits as if he’s roster-less, and prospects typically commit as if he’s roster-less, too. In most years, it works well for all involved. And it’ll work well again this season — probably. But the fact that Julius Randle was the lone Kentucky big to turn pro created quite the logjam in the Wildcats’ frontcourt, and there’s now no scenario (barring injury or suspension) where Calipari finds minutes for every forward and center who’s going to think he deserves minutes this season.
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.