Wait a minute — since when did college basketball start so soon after the end of the Cubs’ season?
College hoops is here, baby. It arrived Friday in a big way, with defending national champion Villanova, every other AP preseason Top 25 team and 13 of 14 Big Ten teams (what’s your deal, Nebraska?) all in action.
Let’s try to answer five key questions about the season to come:
Who’s No. 1? It’s Duke — emphatically — which is a far different story than last year at this time, when at least four teams were being widely touted in best-of-the-best terms. The Blue Devils received 58 of 65 first-place votes in the opening AP poll.
“It’s an honor to be picked,” said coach Mike Krzyzewski, “but there a bunch of others that could be, and I’m just glad to be in that mix.”
Grayson Allen is back to chase national player of the year awards, and he’s joined by what could be the best freshman class — led by big man Harry Giles, do-it-all forward Jayson Tatum and point guard Frank Jackson — in school history.
Who’s in that next cut? Lots of teams are worthy of consideration, but Kentucky stands out — primarily because of its latest star-studded freshman class, which will challenge Duke’s for tops-in-the-land status. Bam Adebayo is a beast up front. Guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk are hugely talented.
Kansas could be this season’s Villanova, unremarkable on the interior but stacked with high-end perimeter players. Or Villanova — which returns its best player, Josh Hart, and Mr. Big Shot, Kris Jackson — could be this season’s Villanova. Wisconsin brings back everybody from a Sweet 16 squad. Oregon will be outstanding. And there are others.
What about the other teams from last season’s Final Four? Runner-up North Carolina will be good again, but it’ll be a surprise if the Tar Heels repeat as a No. 1 seed. Syracuse will be a better regular-season team than it was in 2015-16, when it snuck in on the NCAA tourney bubble before making a wild Cinderella run. Oklahoma will fall way back.
Who’s the best player in the country? The freshmen across the country this season will be a nonstop story — it’s an incredible group — but Duke’s Allen, a junior shooting guard, is at the top of the marquee. Oregon’s Dillon Brooks is a seasoned star, as are Hart and Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes.
Some non-Duke, non-Kentucky freshmen who will steal plenty of headlines and could become instant NBA lottery picks: Kansas’ Josh Jackson, Washington’s Markelle Fultz, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Michigan State’s Miles Bridges and Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen.
Which conference is best? Tuck your pride back in, Big Ten fans, because the answer isn’t your league. It’s the ACC by plenty. In addition to Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse, there also are Virginia and Louisville with legitimate Final Four potential. Just a spectacular league. The Big Ten probably is second-best, but there’s a significant gap.
First team: Grayson Allen, G, Jr., Duke; Dillon Brooks, F, Jr., Oregon; Josh Hart, G, Sr., Villanova; Nigel Hayes, F, Sr., Wisconsin; Ivan Rabb, F, So., California.
Second team: Bam Adebayo, F, Fr., Kentucky; Thomas Bryant, C, So., Indiana; Josh Jackson, F, Fr., Kansas; Monte Morris, G, Sr., Iowa State; Jayson Tatum, F, Fr., Duke.
BIG TEN RANKINGS
1. Wisconsin: Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Ethan Happ, Vitto Brown, Zak Showalter — the whole gang is back, including the bench players from last season. The Badgers don’t have great size, great shooting or great athleticism, but they’ve got just enough of all the above to go with off-the-charts effort and togetherness.
2. Indiana: There’s so much talent here, the sky is the limit. Highly skilled Thomas Bryant is a true center in a league without many of them. OG Anunoby is an explosive athlete who could take a huge step forward. There’ll be plenty of shooters. How will transfer guard Josh Newkirk fit in?
3. Purdue: What a frontcourt the Boilers will have with Caleb Swanigan, Vince Edwards and 7-2 man-mountain Isaac Haas. Guard play is a concern, but what else is new at Purdue?
4. Michigan State: Freshman Miles Bridges likely will lead this team in scoring all season. The progress of fellow freshman Joshua Langford will be fun to watch. Not a lot of size on this squad.
5. Michigan: Really nice experience on what should be one of the best offensive teams in the league. Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton Jr., Muhammad-Ali Abdue-Rahkman and sweet-shooting Duncan Robinson all are back.
6. Ohio State: Marc Loving, Jae’Sean Tate, JaQuan Lyle and Marc Loving all were double-digit scorers last season. Will they be (a lot) more consistent this season, especially late in games? If so, the Buckeyes could contend for the title.
7. Illinois:Fourth-year starter Malcolm Hill (18.1 ppg last season) has all-league first-team potential. Center Mike Thorne Jr. and three-point shooter Jalen Coleman-Lands should be consistentproducers. Fellow senior big Maverick Morgan has developed into a nice player. Will Leron Black be a positive or a negative? And hello again — again — Tracy Abrams. This poor guy has dealt with so many injuries, it’ll be wonderful if he can stay upright for a full, final go-round. Newcomers Kipper Nichols and Te’Jon Lucas are promisingadditions. Watch the Illini ride the bubble into their first NCAA tourney since John Groce’s first season (2012-13).
8. Maryland: Point guard Melo Trimble was better as a freshman that he was as a sophomore, which was odd because he had Big Ten player of the year written all over him. Now? We’ll see.
9. Northwestern:Junior point guard Bryant McIntosh (13.8 ppg last season) is where it all starts for the Wildcats. They’ll miss Tre Demps and Alex Olah, but a good point man can go a long way. Forward Sanjay Lumpkin is a tough-minded partner in crime.There are a number of new pieces, but the one everybody will be watching is Vic Law. The former St. Rita star redshirted last season due to an injury. If he’s much better than he was as a freshman — and he could be — the Wildcats will have real possibilities to quiet the NCAA tourney angst.The Big Dance? Finally? Maybe? Bet on it at your own risk.
10. Penn State: The most under-appreciated player in the league has to be Shep Garner, who’s good enough to play for anybody. Pat Chambers quietly has brought in a terrific group of newcomers.
11. Iowa: Huge transition season for Fran McCaffery and the Hawkeyes, whose only returning starter is the tremendous Peter Jok. At least the pressure — which seemed to get to last year’s team — is off.
12. Minnesota: There just isn’t much to believe in with the Gophers, who’ve struggled on and off the court the last couple of seasons. How long is fourth-year coach Richard Pitino for this job?
13. Nebraska: The Huskers will have to defend like their lives depend on it, because they lost pretty much all the quality offense from a team that didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard.
14. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights bring back their top three scorers, led by Corey Sanders, from a team that just wasn’t ready for the Big Ten yet.
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