I know that it feels like summer just ended and we’re barely in the throes of Autumn, but we did it. We made it through the desert. College basketball is back, folks.
Renew your KenPom subscription, forget how poorly your bracket performed, and start thinking about the 2019-20 season. In the days of the one-and-done era of college basketball, that task is easier said than done. Only two of the fifteen members of the AP All-American teams from last season are back for another year of college basketball this year.
The college basketball landscape, especially at the top of the polls, is littered with first-year players and familiar faces who have moved to new places. Freshman and transfers have become the life-blood of many successful programs. Early in the season, tracking these newbies is easy. It may take a minute to learn the new names and their skills, but it’s a linear, one-to-one mental transition.
Deciphering the growth and changes of returning players can be much more difficult. Some will make a major leap, emerging from role player to All-American, like a Luke Maye or Rui Hachimura. Others will stagnate, like Miles Bridges did between his freshman and sophomore years. Others will shy away from their newfound role, like all of Duke’s veteran big men did last season.
These changes aren’t often as flashy as a shiny new freshman dunking and commanding attention, yet they can be the difference between a championship, tournament win, or disappointing season for a program.
This group of players will have my attention this fall:
There’s little doubt preseason that Winston projects to be the best player on the best team in college basketball. Sparty brings back a ton of talent and it all surrounds Winston at the point guard position.
There’s almost no way aside from injury that Winston won’t be very productive and the Spartans will not be among the five best teams in the nation throughout the season. The bigger question, to me, is about Michigan State’s ceiling.
Winston is a very good basketball player. He’s a floor general, a senior, a leader, and a scorer when he needs to be. He defends his position and almost never commits a turnover.
How good can a team be when they are led by a semi-slow, pass-first, below-the-rim point guard in 2019? Does Winston do anything that really challenges opposing teams, or does he simply wear them down? Is Winston, given his talent and athleticism, capable of doing something historically or mind-numbingly great this season?
Don’t get me wrong. Cassius Winston is a great player. His skills are not to be pushed under the rug. He’s following in the footsteps of so many great senior point guards in the annals of college hoops. I just need to see what he’s capable of with games on the line, the Spartans up against the wall, or when they need one bucket or one stop to win a game. I know he can win games, post a flawless box score, and play great basketball. But in an Elite Eight game, with the opposing team’s best defender in a stance across from him, is Cassius Winston the type of player who can create a bucket for his team? I’m not sold, though I’m more than happy for the answer to be proven to be “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.”
I’d like to see it first. Maybe tonight versus Kentucky he starts proving me wrong.
Tre Jones (Duke)
Ashton Hagans (Kentucky)
This is a double-dip, given the similarities in their situations. Both Jones and Hagans are drive-first, ill-shooting sophomore point guards returning to a top program surrounded by incoming talented freshman, instead of trying their luck in the late first round of the NBA Draft. Whew. Ok, the similarities stop there.
Jones is one of the country’s best defenders and likely the best on-ball defender in the nation. That was certainly the case when he could pressure with little concern last year, knowing he had Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish defending the paint behind him. With a new crop of young Blue Devils flanking him, Jones will be looked to anchor the defense from the point guard spot, rarely seen in today’s world, while also handling the ball offensively. The main reason Jones passed on the NBA was to develop as a shooter, after making just 26 percent from long range last year, on an inexplicable 2.9 attempts per game.
Hagans is also strong defensively, but more because of his athletic ability, as opposed to Jones, a cerebral and cagey defender. Hagans excels offensively, with the ball in his hands and driving downhill into the paint. He is a blur coming off a screen, with the vision and the touch to make teams pay. Like Jones, Hagans struggled as a shooter, sinking just 27.5 percent from beyond the arc. If he can become even an average shooter and show himself to be a bulldog defensively, NBA teams will be salivating and John Calipari will hand him the reigns to run things in Lexington this season.
Another sophomore point guard!
Dotson was among my personal favorite players to watch last season, showing himself to be a deft passer, play-maker, and defender at a young age. That wasn’t easy at Kansas last year, with Bill Self’s roster on a roller coaster all season. Lagerald Vick left the team for personal reasons. Udoka Azubuike missed time with an injury. Silvio De Sousa battled the NCAA about his eligibility. Quentin Grimes was…Quentin Grimes.
That left Dotson steering a ship with the sails on fire and holes in the hull. With more and more on his plate, Dotson answered the call. With more opportunity, he scored more, stayed efficient, and kept the Jayhawks afloat.
With things more settled this season, despite the NCAA, FBI, and Snoop Dogg’s best efforts, Kansas is more prepared to be a national title contender. If Dotson grows from a very good point guard to an All-American, it’s easy to see the Jayhawks zipping through the bracket in March. To quantify things, it would be nice to see Dotson raise his 3-point percentage this season and have his assist-to-turnover ratio closer to 3-to-1 than the 1.5-to-1 he posted last season.
Most people will key on the development of Kehei Clark or the emergence of Mamadi Diakite in Charlottesville this year. If either of those returning players disappoints, Tony Bennett’s team will struggle to proudly defend its national title, but Jay Huff is the one player who can truly change the Hoos ceiling this season.
As a sophomore last season, Huff averaged just 4 points and 2 rebounds per game, in less than 10 minutes of action. Yet when he was on the court, Huff’s abilities to anchor the defense at the rim and stretch the offense to the 3-point line made him a match-up nightmare. Huff recorded a block rate over 10 percent, good for top 20 in the nation if he had enough minutes to qualify for the statistic. His long, rangy arms are an asset in the paint, altering opponents’ shots whenever someone was able to penetration through Virginia’s stingy perimeter defense.
Offensively, Huff has a soft touch around the rim and a smooth stroke from downtown. He’s a 42 percent outside shooter in his college career, terrorizing opposing centers. Rarely do college defenders need to match-up with a true 7-footer who can step beyond the arc and knock down shots. Huff makes opposing coaches and players shift their defenses to account for him all over the court.
There are, however, plenty of reasons that Huff was limited to just a quarter of Virginia’s available minutes last season. Physically, he needs to return to campus stronger this season, to be a true inside and outside threat. With better body control and smarter movement defensively, Huff can be a legitimate game-changer defensively, rather than just relying on his physical tools.
Early on, I’ll be keeping tabs on more than just how often Huff plays, but with whom he shares the court. Right now, Diakite and senior forward Braxton Key will likely see a majority of minutes in the frontcourt for the Hoos. Is Huff’s shooting strong enough for Bennett to commit to a huge lineup to start games and in crunch time? Can Key cover on the perimeter? How much will Diakite and Huff play together, as opposed to being staggered throughout the game?
When Virginia plays at the Carrier Dome (in an ACC game, yuck) to start the season on November 6, these questions will be front and center.
The flow of graduate transfers over the last decade have created a sort of free agency in college sports. Mid-major stars have upgraded to larger programs for a chance at wider success. Role players on top teams have chosen to become stars at lesser programs.
For a player like Kerry Blackshear, graduating and entering the transfer portal made perfect sense. Blackshear had already scored 1100+ points at Virginia Tech and grabbed more than 600 rebounds. He played in three NCAA Tournaments in three years, reaching the Sweet Sixteen last March. The other four players who made up Virginia Tech’s top five scorers were all leaving campus, either as graduates or as early entrants to the NBA. Head coach Buzz Williams left Blacksburg for Texas A&M.
Instead, Blackshear could move on to find a program able to compete for a conference title and national championship. In the end, he chose Florida, where he’ll be flanked by a cadre of talented perimeter players. Notably, Andrew Nembhard was one of the best freshman point guards in America last season and returns to Gainesville after a summer playing with the Canadian national team at the FIBA World Cup. Noah Locke and Keyonte Johnson are back as sophomores, after combining for 17 points per game in a freshman season in which they both made better than 36 percent from outside the arc. Two high-level freshman, Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann, give Mike White’s Gators even more firepower.
Blackshear will be at the center of Florida’s success, fully capable of posting 20 double-doubles while anchoring the Gator defense. If he can continue to develop as a shooter and raise his 3-point percentage, as he did in each of the two previous seasons, Blackshear could be a First Team All-American and one of the key players in all of college basketball this season. If that’s the case, Florida will be among the crop of teams capable of cutting down the nets in Atlanta next April.
Since 2010, 49 different players have scored 45 or more points in a Division I men’s college basketball game. Just five players have accomplished that feat more than once. Only Markus Howard has done so on four occasions, and he’s back for more.
Howard teammates’ with the most offensive skill, the Hauser brothers, both decided to leave Marquette and transfer to other programs to finish their careers. Coach Steve Wojciechowski’s best offensive plans this season will start, end, and heavily feature Howard. No player in college hoops will have a bigger or brighter green light than Howard will this season. The speed of his release and his range will be on full display, for all 40 minutes of every Marquette game.
With 313 career longballs, Howard has a chance to become the 18th college basketball player to sink 400 threes in his career. Though Fletcher Magee’s newly minted record of 509 (!) is likely safe from Howard this season, it won’t be from lack of trying or opportunity. I’d be shocked if Howard shoots fewer than ten triples per game this season, which only five guys in DI did last year.
Markus Howard is the best pure shooter in college basketball this season and he’s got five months to put on a show.
From the best pure shooter, let’s move to the best “shot-maker” in college basketball. No player can heat up like Powell, who has nearly unlimited range and little conscious when it comes to shot selection. Last season, that meant on any given night he could register 2-for-12 from long range. Or a 5-for-7 night. Or 1-for-9. Or 6-for-11. Each of those outcomes occurred during Powell’s junior season and while it’s difficult to see him becoming a very disciplined shooter, there is upside to improve his consistency.
Powell’s volume is near certain to increase, but with some extra thought about when and where to take those shots, he could become the nation’s deadliest dagger-makers and one of it’s leading scorers. If that’s the case, the Pirates have a real chance to challenge Villanova for the Big East title.
Honestly, all I want is Gus Johnson yelling the Trenton, New Jersey town motto at the top of his lungs again:
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.