Why you should care
If your college basketball team checks these boxes, congratulations, you’re in with a chance.
Between recruiting corruption scandals, evolving pace of play, rule changes and the shifting tiers of Division I competitiveness, college basketball is changing faster than Drake’s bandwagon fandoms. So, how do we know which programs are true contenders? Will your favorite blue blood’s five-star recruiting class pay off? Which mid-major has the talent to take the nation by storm?
We know two things: Talent is up across the board, and it’s increasingly difficult to predict true Final Four contenders. Let’s try anyway. Here’s a simple checklist to grade your team’s potential. If you answer “Yes!” to four or five of the following 10 questions, congratulations; your team has a chance! We think.
1. Does Your Team Have a Point Guard? Like, Even One Mildly Decent Point Guard?
Great point guards are conspicuously absent from this college hoops season. That said, a few programs are blessed with adequate floor generals. Shamorie Ponds brings a gritty toughness and cunning court leadership that should finally produce a successful St. John’s season in Queens. Marquette junior Markus Howard, a scoring point guard, could be a Player of the Year sleeper, while LSU’s Tremont Waters will have the Tigers competing for the SEC title. Look for Michigan State’s Cassius Winston to flourish in a featured role.
Even the best players can take time adjusting to college, so a reliable veteran cast is invaluable.
Jay Bilas, ESPN
2. Does Your Team Return a Veteran Core?
Minus generational players like Anthony Davis (Kentucky, 2012) or Carmelo Anthony (Syracuse, 2003), experience is the surest way to contend. “It’s difficult to know exactly what you’re getting from recruits,” says ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. “Even the best players can take time adjusting to college, so a reliable veteran cast is invaluable.”
A few of the usual suspects (Villanova, Virginia and North Carolina) have experience in spades. All will play deep into the season, but don’t sleep on Syracuse, Nevada, Tennessee and Purdue. After a surprise Sweet Sixteen run, Jim Boeheim’s young Syracuse Orange are a year older and a lot wiser. Potential NBA first-rounder Tyus Battle is an ACC Player of the Year candidate. At Nevada, twins Caleb and Cody Martin withdrew from the NBA draft to make another run at a national title. Keep an eye on their Nov. 27 rematch with Loyola-Chicago, which knocked the Wolf Pack out in the Sweet Sixteen last season.
3. Did Your Team Land Five-Star Freshmen?
That being said, modern college basketball revolves around transcendent freshmen. Even reigning champion Villanova had Omari Spellman. A handful of programs boast multiple five-star recruits. Duke and Kentucky lead the way with four, followed by Oregon, North Carolina, Louisiana State, Kansas and Vanderbilt, with two each. Six programs have one such freshman. (Somehow, one of those schools is Western Kentucky.) At Indiana, fans are hoping hometown star Romeo Langford — ESPN’s No. 5 recruit overall — can lead the Hoosiers back to glory.
4. Does Your Team Have a Potential Breakout Star?
In no particular order, these players have the skills — and optimal circumstances — to arrive: Zach Norvell (Gonzaga), Jordan Poole (Michigan), R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson (Duke), Caleb Martin (Nevada), Markus Howard (Marquette), Nassir Little (UNC), Romeo Langford (Indiana), Dedric Lawson (Kansas).
5. Does Your Team Have a 7-foot-6, Rim-Protecting Center?
Congratulations to the UCF Golden Knights, favorites to win the American Athletic Conference title. Please thank Tacko Fall when you see him ducking beneath door frames in Orlando.
6. Did Your Team Add an Impact Transfer?
Former Auburn guard Mustapha Heron, eligible this season thanks to the NCAA’s hardship waiver, could trigger St. John’s’ resurgence. Heron led Auburn to an SEC title last season while averaging 16.4 points and 5.3 rebounds. Marquette added Ed Morrow (Nebraska) and Joseph Chartouny (Fordham) in a push to return to March Madness; Gonzaga, arguably the nation’s best team entering the season, added North Dakota graduate transfer Geno Crandall to its already deep cast. In perhaps the most influential transfer this summer, former Stanford star Reid Travis moved to Kentucky. The two-time All Pac-12 forward gives John Calipari’s young Wildcats exactly what’s been missing: toughness and veteran leadership.
With new NCAA rules allowing for more transfer leniency than ever before, it’s become “the quickest way to add experience to a young team,” says CBS analyst Steve Smith. It’s an increasingly easy way for contenders to solidify their chances in the age of the one-and-done.
7. Does Your Team Play Even a Smidgen of Defense?
High-level defensive execution can be hard to come by in college basketball. Still, a few programs — like West Virginia and Cincinnati — regularly break the mold. You know who else typically plays excellent defense? Mid-major contenders, because they must. Loyola-Chicago will be back in the tournament. Harvard, led by Seth Towns (reigning Ivy League Player of the Year) and Bryce Aiken (Ivy Freshman of the Year), is a real threat to win some games in March.
8. Can Your Big Man Make Free Throws?
This is important. Just ask Kansas’ Udoka Azubuike — or the fan who stormed the court to teach him how to shoot said free throws.
9. Is Your Team Under Investigation by the FBI?
If so, your club is likely a contender. A shortlist of programs mentioned in connection with an ongoing federal corruption investigation: Louisville, Kansas, Arizona, NC State, Oregon, Maryland, Creighton, Duke, Oklahoma State, Michigan State, North Carolina, Miami. More schools will surely be added in the weeks to come.
What do these programs have in common? Big talent, big money and big-time coaches who apparently care more about winning and furthering the professional careers of young athletes than the student-athlete myth propagated by a broken system.
10. Is Penny Hardaway Now Your Coach?
Memphis Tigers, come on down! On second thought, let’s save it for 2019. Hardaway’s Tigers will be improved, but with several big-time recruits — and, likely, transfers — incoming, next season is when we’ll really hear them roar.