By Nick Morgan, Sports Editor
As the 2017-2018 NCAA basketball season draws near, there is a lot to be excited about. The AP preseason poll lists half of the four teams in the Final Four last year inside the top 25; the national champion, University of North Carolina, currently sits at ninth, and Gonzaga at 18th. South Carolina and Oregon both fall outside of the national ranking, which could lead to a major bracket makeover from the previous year. Duke, Michigan State, Arizona, Kansas and Kentucky all make up the top five in that ranking.
The preseason number one choice, the Duke Blue Devils, look to fill in valuable players that left for the NBA draft last season. Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Luke Kennard averaged 40 points per game combined. The returning player of note is senior guard Grayson Allen. Allen averaged 14.5 ppg with 3.5 apg in the 2016-17 campaign. The nation’s number one recruit, Marvin Bagley III, will look to help Allen with some of the load. Bagley is projected by most analysts to land in the top three in the 2018 NBA draft. Trevon Duvall, another top 10 recruit, looks to get the nod from coach Mike Krzyzewski in the starting point guard roll.
Another exciting team in the preseason top five are the Spartans from Michigan State, led by 2016-17 leading scorer and early national player of the year favorite, Miles Bridges. The Spartans had an early tournament exit in a 90-70 loss to the Kansas Jayhawks in the round of 32, so be on the lookout for the Big Ten favorites to make a run and get their chance at the championship this year.
Sitting at third, the Arizona Wildcats return three of their top four scorers from last season when Arizona won a share of the Pac-12 regular season championship, the conference tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16 as a No. 2 seed. The team’s returning starters are Allonzo Trier, who averaged 17.2 ppg as a sophomore last year, guard Rawle Alkins (10.9 ppg) and center Dusan Ristic (10.9 ppg). Another freshman who is expected to have an immediate impact for the Wildcats is 7’1”, 250 pound center Dylan Smith. Arizona has not won the tournament since 1997 and has not made the final four since 2001. The tide could soon be changing for this special team out west.
The Kansas Jayhawks look to continue their dominance of the Big 12 conference coming off of their 12th consecutive conference title. Unlike previous years of one-and-done’s for the Jayhawks, this team has a bit more experience than other Bill Self teams. Each player in the projected starting five for Kansas played significant minutes last season. The Jayhawks also acquired a solid center in Mississippi State transfer, Malik Newman. Forward Devonte’ Graham already has a decorated career at Kansas, as the two-year starter already is a member of the 1000 point club. This team has all the ingredients for a title contending team; they’re defensive-minded, athletic freaks who can shoot the ball.
Coach Calipari’s Kentucky squad rounds out the top five this year, and they look just as good as they ever have. The Wildcats finished 31-5 last year and made an exit from the tournament in the Elite Eight at the hands of the eventual national champion, the North Carolina Tar Heels. In the preseason, UK lined up with an all-freshman squad with Quade Green, Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox, PJ Washington and Nick Richards in the middle. Shai Alexander and Wenyen Gabriel also played significant minutes during the Wildcats preseason run. The Wildcats look to capture their first title since the Anthony Davis team from 2012, and this looks like the squad that could do it.
If there’s one certain thing about college basketball, it’s that nothing is certain. There will be bracket-busters, there will be upsets and injuries, but that’s what arguably makes the NCAA so great; anyone can beat anyone. The college basketball season will tip off on Nov. 16 and 17 with the annual 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York with Providence vs. Washington and Virginia Tech vs. Saint Louis.
Photo courtesy of Foter