For weeks, scandal-weary college basketball coaches and administrators have hoped the sport would produce a story big enough to put the FBI probe on the back burner.
On Tuesday, they got their wish … in the form of two new sordid sagas.
The day started with the estranged friend of Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner gleefully revealing that he had provided two of the Yellowjackets top players with impermissible benefits. Ron Bell had a falling out with Pastner this year and decided to seek revenge by soiling the coach’s previously squeaky clean image.
Hours later came reports that Chinese police had scoured the luggage compartment of UCLA’s team bus and arrested LiAngelo Ball and two of his teammates. LaVar Ball’s middle son and fellow freshmen Cody Riley and Jalen Hill allegedly were caught shoplifting at a Louis Vuitton store near their hotel in Hangzhou.
Those are college basketball’s biggest headlines just two days before the curtains part on a new season. The battered sport can’t avoid self-inflicted wounds long enough to generate much interest in actual basketball.
While the start of the season won’t remove the cloud hovering over college basketball, meaningful games will at least provide a distraction from the talk of indictments, informants, subpoenas and wiretaps. Below is a look at some of the most intriguing basketball-related storylines as the 2017-18 season tips off:
1. How will the FBI investigation impact college basketball’s national title race?
It’s impossible to examine college basketball’s championship contenders without discussing the potential impact of the federal probe. Four potential Final Four contenders and five preseason Top 25 teams are among the programs prominently featured in the federal complaint.
Arizona has the most at stake simply because this season once appeared to be Sean Miller’s best chance to reach his first Final Four. The Wildcats have an ideal blend of talent and experience at full strength, but there’s no way of knowing if eligibility concerns stemming from the FBI investigation will force them to suspend key players or reevaluate their decision to back Miller.
Louisville already fired Rick Pitino and indefinitely suspended top recruit Brian Bowen because of bribery allegations involving Adidas. Alabama subsequently announced it’s holding out McDonald’s All-American Collin Sexton due to eligibility concerns, as is Auburn with two of its key starters. Arizona, USC and Miami have not made any such public announcements, but the federal complaint referenced current members of both the Wildcats and Trojans who were being paid.
What’s also worth noting is that there’s no way of predicting how many other marquee programs will be ensnared in the scandal before the end of the season. The FBI is still investigating the rampant corruption within the sport and law enforcement could offer deals to the 10 men they’ve already arrested in exchange for information about folks higher in the college basketball food chain.
In other words, the only safe programs are ones whose coaches are impeccably clean. That’s likely a short list in high-major college basketball.
2. Is Duke a deserving favorite this year or an unworthy one?
The skepticism Duke’s preseason No. 1 ranking has inspired stems from the Blue Devils’ underachievement under similar circumstances last year. They began last season atop the polls but failed to live up to expectation, dropping seven league games before flaming out against eventual Final Four team South Carolina in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
An avalanche of injuries, the midseason back surgery that sidelined Mike Krzyzewski and the Grayson Allen tripping fiasco stunted the Blue Devils’ growth and prevented them from jelling like usual. Harry Giles never regained the explosiveness he had before his knee injuries, Marques Bolden fell out of Duke’s rotation by midseason and Jayson Tatum needed a couple months to shake the rust off and showcase his polished scoring repertoire.
It also didn’t help that Duke had no true point guard to set up teammates with easy shots. Allen, Frank Jackson and Luke Kennard both did their best to create off the dribble for their teammates, but all three are scorers at heart.
Duke once again will start nothing but McDonald’s All-Americans this season, but this time they’re all healthy. Among the Blue Devils’ collection of talent is the projected No. 1 pick in next year’s NBA draft, forward Marvin Bagley, one of college basketball’s most accomplished seniors, Allen, and a trio of other five-star freshmen, Trevon Duval, Wendell Carter and Gary Trent Jr.
One cause for concern for Duke is whether Allen is capable of providing leadership as the lone senior on a roster rife with freshmen and sophomores. Allen was stripped of his captaincy last season in the wake of his third tripping incident in two years. Another issue for Duke is whether Duval is the answer at point guard. He’s explosive off the dribble, but he’s not much of a shooter and he’s more scorer than facilitator, not ideal in a starting five in which he’s probably the fourth or fifth best option.
3. Besides Duke, who else can win a national championship this season?
Some years in college basketball, there are only a handful of teams with national title potential. This season feels more wide open than that.
Michigan State can win it. Tom Izzo boasts the nation’s strongest frontcourt, a group that includes national player of the year candidate Miles Bridges at small forward, five-star freshman Jaren Jackson at power forward and elite back-to-the-basket scorer Nick Ward at center. If point guard Cassius Winston can lower his turnover rate and wing Josh Langford blossoms into more than just an outside shooter, the Spartans have an excellent chance to cruise to a Big Ten title and secure a No. 1 seed in March.
Arizona can win it. Sean Miller has such a glut of talent at wing that a preseason injury to returning starter and NBA prospect Rawle Alkins isn’t that devastating, nor would it be season-killing to lose someone at the position to a suspension. Frontcourt depth behind DeAndre Ayton, Dusan Ristic and Keanu Pinder on the other hand is a bigger concern. The point guard position is also the one position where Arizona lacks elite talent, seemingly an annual problem for the otherwise loaded Wildcats.
Kansas can win it if Devonte Graham does his best Frank Mason impression and Udoka Azubuike emerges as a defensive anchor. Villanova can win it if former national title game hero Phil Booth is healthy again and Omari Spellman blossoms into a force at both ends in the frontcourt. Wichita State can win it if Landry Shamet and Markis McDuffie recover from offseason foot injuries quickly enough. Kentucky can win it if John Calipari can get his least experienced roster yet to jell by March. USC could win it if the FBI investigation doesn’t decimate Andy Enfield’s best roster.
If you’re looking for a real sleeper, you could do worse than Cincinnati. A Bearcats program annually known for its defense and rebounding possesses a skilled starting lineup headlined by high-scoring Sacred Heart transfer Cane Broome, back-to-the-basket specialist Kyle Washington and versatile forward Gary Clark. If the defense remains strong and last year’s offensive uptick continues, watch out.
4. How will last year’s national title game participants fare?
North Carolina and Gonzaga probably won’t stage a championship rematch in San Antonio next April, but they won’t fade from national relevance either. Both will contend in their respective leagues, remain fixtures in the AP Top 25 all season and potentially even emerge as dark horse Final Four threats by March.
All-American candidate Joel Berry, do-it-all senior Theo Pinson and prized Pittsburgh transfer Cameron Johnson form the nucleus of a strong perimeter corps for North Carolina, but the key for the Tar Heels will be withstanding the loss of last season’s top three big men. Sharpshooting former walk-on Luke Maye is the lone returning key member of a frontcourt that bludgeoned opponents throughout North Carolina’s title run.
Dominating the glass at both ends has traditionally been part of North Carolina’s formula for success, but playing a two big man lineup would require Roy Williams to rely on 6-foot-9 freshman Garrison Brooks alongside Maye. The Tar Heels may be at their best when they go small with three guards on the floor at once and the 6-foot-8 Johnson sliding to power forward.
Gonzaga will miss the scoring and leadership of Nigel Williams-Goss and the rim protection of 7-footers Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins, but four of the Zags’ top eight players from last season return. Josh Perkins and Silas Melson will share point guard responsibilities and Johnathan Williams and Killian Tillie will form a frontcourt that thrives more on athleticism than clogging the paint and altering shots at the rim.
Player development has long been a hallmark of Gonzaga’s success, and this year should be no different. Look for redshirt freshman Zach Norvell and Jacob Larsen and raw but ultra-talented forward Rui Hachimura to emerge as key contributors this season.
5. Can any Big 12 team keep Kansas from making history?
The last time Kansas didn’t earn at least a share of the Big 12 title, Usher’s “Yeah!” was the most unavoidable song on the radio, the Motorola Razr was the most popular phone on the market and Facebook was a trendy new site your parents hadn’t yet discovered.
Don’t expect that streak to end this season.
It would be a major surprise if Kansas doesn’t capture a 14th straight Big 12 title this season, eclipsing UCLA’s record of 13 straight conference championships from 1967 to 1979. The Jayhawks boast one of the nation’s deepest, most versatile backcourts, though it will be critical that either senior Devonte Graham or prized Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman grow into Frank Mason’s former role as the offense’s primary ball handler and distributor.
Kansas may have to resort to more small ball than Bill Self typically prefers given its guard-heavy roster, but the return of a healthy Udoka Azubuike ensures the Jayhawks will have at least one dominant rebounder and rim protector. Azubuike’s ability to stay healthy and avoid foul trouble will be critical for Kansas defensively because the depth behind him is unproven.
The Big 12’s depth behind Kansas is once again impressive as eight teams have realistic hope of reaching the NCAA tournament and every team in the league could finish in the RPI top 100. West Virginia could be the best of the chase group if the guard-heavy Mountaineers can weather top big man Esa Ahmad’s absence until the end of the fall semester. TCU and Baylor both also have the potential to contend for the league crown should the Jayhawks underachieve or get hit with a rash of injuries.
6. Which small-conference teams have giant-slaying potential this March?
The team high-major programs should most want to avoid is Vermont, which returns four starters and most of its key reserves from a 29-win team that went undefeated in league play last season and put a scare into Purdue in the NCAA tournament. The Catamounts have the reigning America East player of the year Trae Bell-Haynes and the league’s most talented player Anthony Lamb. They’ll pose a threat to Kentucky on Sunday at Rupp Arena.
Also a potential scary draw in March is Charleston, a experienced, defensive-oriented team that returns all five starters from a 25-win season and is expected to dominate the traditionally balanced Colonial Athletic Association this season. Guards Joe Chealey and Grant Riller form one of the nation’s premier mid-major backcourts and versatile forward Jarrell Brantley is a three-level scorer who can also defend multiple positions.
Besides Charleston and Vermont, Middle Tennessee could once again be dangerous. Conference USA has produced first-round upsets in each of the past three NCAA tournaments, and the Blue Raiders have been responsible for two of those, toppling Michigan State and Baylor the past two seasons. Middle Tennessee graduated its pair of standout forwards, but the Blue Raiders return Conference USA’s best guard tandem in Tyrik Dixon and Giddy Potts, giving them a chance to once again in the league and do some damage in March.
7. Which coaches are under the most pressure to succeed this season?
The list of coaches on the hot seat is different this season in that wins and losses may not be the only factor administrators have to consider. As a result of the FBI investigation into college basketball, a losing coach with no history of NCAA violations may receive more patience and a more successful coach ensnared in the federal probe may face pressure to win enough to justify the negative headlines.
Among the scandal-tainted coaches, the one whose job is in the most jeopardy is probably Auburn’s Bruce Pearl. He hasn’t finished better than 11th in the SEC his first three years with the Tigers, his chances of a breakthrough fourth season were marred by the indefinite suspension of two key projected starters and he already has a history of NCAA violations from his days at Tennessee.
At the top of the list of traditional hot-seat candidates is Clemson’s Brad Brownell, whose program hasn’t secured an NCAA bid since 2011 and is projected to finish 13th in the ACC this season. To keep his job beyond next spring, Brownell probably needs to either exceed expectations on the court this season or outduel the traditional powers for five-star in-state phenom Zion Williamson.
Nebraska’s Tim Miles also faces pressure to show that he can reverse his struggling program’s fortunes this season. The Huskers made a late surge to earn an NCAA bid in Miles’ second season, but they failed to build on that momentum, going just 17-37 in Big Ten play the past three years and finishing no higher than 11th in the conference standings.
Even though Nebraska has been to the NCAA tournament just seven times in program history and traditionally suffers from a lack of in-state talent, the Huskers’ increased commitment to basketball has provided Miles with resources his predecessors lacked. Nebraska needs Miles to show he can take advantage of the program’s sparkling new 15,100-seat arena, state-of-the-art practice facility and beefed-up recruiting budget.
8. Which new coach will have the most immediate success?
Archie Miller inherits an Indiana program that lost three of its four leading scorers from an NIT team. Patrick Ewing takes over a Georgetown program without a single Big East-caliber guard on the roster. Brad Underwood assumes control of an Illinois program that hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2013 and graduated last season’s lone double-digit scorer.
Most of the high-profile coaches hired last spring will have a tough time achieving instant success, but Missouri’s Cuonzo Martin has a chance to be the exception to that rule.
Hired to revive a once-proud program that endured its worst-ever three-year stretch under previous coach Kim Anderson, Martin immediately made a shrewd move by hiring Michael Porter Sr. as an assistant coach. That enabled Martin to land Porter’s two talented sons, Michael Jr., a long, athletic forward considered one of college basketball’s three top NBA prospects, and Jontay, another five-star forward.
The Porters are the pillars of a heralded recruiting class that could transform Missouri from the SEC’s worst team to an NCAA tournament team. The Tigers now have the talent to finish in the upper third of the SEC if Martin can get his influx of promising newcomers to mesh quickly with a handful of key returners.
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