A Hoops Season to Be Excited For
November 14, 2016 by Ross Lancaster • Print Story •
It seems crazy to think about, but we've now officially been in the one-and-done era of college basketball for a full decade, as the season of endless Kevin Durant/Greg Oden debates took place in 2006-07.
To me, looking back on the major narratives in the seasons since, we've generally gone back and forth between seasons where the biggest stories and best teams bounced between elite squads of super-recruits and clubs with teams whose core players had been together multiple years.
For example, Louisville's 2013 title team was full of key juniors and seniors, with an unsung George Mason transfer taking home Final Four Most Outstanding Player. That came a year after the best team of the past 10 years, Kentucky's 2012 squad, was led by two players that went in the top five of that June's NBA draft.
College basketball's signature program of the last 30 years, Duke, has been on both sides of this equation in the past decade, taking home a title in 2010 with three key senior starters who had all been maligned previously in their college careers, and then again in 2015 with three freshmen who all were picked in the first round of the draft less than three months after winning the championship.
Last season, with a recruiting class not as elite as some years' past, and a variety of great upperclassmen, we'll definitely remember last season as one where college basketball belonged to the more veteran teams, and included Villanova's redemption, North Carolina's peaks and valleys as title favorite, Virginia's tournament heartbreak, and Buddy Hield's dominance.
As the 2016-17 season starts, it's possible that we remember it equally for both elite freshmen and established teams with returning stars. That might make it one of the best seasons in recent memory.
For starters, the defending champion, Villanova, brings back a very strong team that at least has a shot at becoming the first repeat champions in (you guessed it) 10 years. With Daniel Ochefu now departed and key frontcourt recruit Omari Spellman deemed ineligible, it's a weaker team down low, but there's potential to go small successfully with Josh Hart, championship game star Kris Jenkins and Mikal Bridges having the ability to guard multiple positions.
However, the biggest favorites, in some order, are three of the of the most storied programs in the sport's history: Duke, Kansas, and Kentucky.
Duke brings back Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard, and Amile Jefferson and adds what might be one of the top 10 recruiting classes ever, featuring four top 20 players from the class of 2016. However, the Blue Devils could start slow, with the Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum, the lynchpins of the group, currently dealing with injuries.
Kentucky, unsurprisingly, also reloads with a stable of blue-chip recruits, including guards Malik Monk and De'Aaron Fox, and big men Bam Adebayo and Wenyen Gabriel. Sophomore Isaiah Briscoe returns and looks like he's already improved his game substantially after a disappointing first season, having came in as the nation's top PG recruit from 2015. Forward Derek Willis is the exceedingly rare four-year John Calipari player at Kentucky who projects to be a significant contributor in his last year in Lexington.
It feels like calling Kansas a prohibitive favorite to win the Big 12 (and thus tie John Wooden's UCLA with the most consecutive regular season conference titles at 13) is somehow an understatement. Frank Mason and Devonte' Graham are probably the nation's best starting backcourt, star recruit Josh Jackson will contribute greatly despite a disappointing debut in a loss to Indiana in Hawaii Friday evening, and sophomore Carlton Bragg is set for a leap after a tepid first season in Lawrence. Yet another season with 30-plus wins before the NCAA tournament and a No. 1 seed is very possible.
If that's not enough traditional powerhouses for you, North Carolina returns Joel Berry, Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks and is a contender once again. Glue guy Theo Pinson is out at least until the start of conference play, but the team is still pretty loaded, with a few solid recruits who will have time to come into their own in Chapel Hill supplementing a veteran team.
Away from the college hoops royalty category, Oregon returns four of five starters from a team that rampaged through the Pac-12 after mid-January last year and to a No. 1 seed. Dillon Brooks, the Ducks' best player, is currently out after foot surgery, and his health is crucial to title contention. Arizona is also strong out west, and Gonzaga and St. Mary's are worth staying up for in the WCC, as usual.
Xavier could give Villanova a run for its money in the Big East. Indiana and Michigan State's new recruits are going to be worthy competition for Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Wisconsin in the Big Ten.
The ACC is so loaded that it's probably going to be disappointing if the conference doesn't get nine or 10 teams in to the NCAA tournament. Louisville, Virginia, and Syracuse could all be in conference title or Final Four contention if the right things go their way. "Best conference ever" talk might come early and often.
Want mid-majors? Wichita State no longer has any of the key pieces from its Final Four team in 2013 or undefeated regular season bunch in 2014, but is still a strong favorite in the Missouri Valley. Princeton, UT-Arlington, UNC-Wilmington, Valparaiso, UAB, Siena, and Chattanooga all return teams that will have giant-killing potential should they win their conference's automatic bids in early March.
It's also worth noting that with the rule changes made last season, college basketball is now more watchable than it was at many points in the past 10 years.
Regardless of whether you're a casual fan of one team, follow one conference the most, are watching college hoops to get a read on NBA prospects, just tune in for March, or try to soak in as much basketball as possible, it's going to be almost impossible for this season to let you down. It could very well be the most complete and most compelling season since the one-and-done era began.
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