The popularity of college basketball has skyrocketed in recent years. Scoring is high; star players are filling the rosters of teams all across the country. Off the court, things are a little rocky though. There are of course the scandals that have created an enormous image problem. And in reality, the “one and done” mentality of players today has taken away from the loyalty fans feel for their teams.
In a previous blog here, I talked about the fact that NCAA basketball has a lot of “egg” on their face right now, thanks largely to the indictments rolling in for the bribes and kickbacks that some shoe companies funneled towards recruits. Over the summer ten arrests were made stemming from the federal probe that was launched, several were assistant coaches at four prominent schools. The probe itself has already taken down one of the biggest names in college basketball, Rick Pitino.
For some fans, the scandals will not cause their love of the game to waiver.
I’m one of those fans.
I love college basketball.
Teams like North Carolina, Duke, Michigan State, Arizona, Kentucky, Villanova, Cincinnati, Kansas, Louisville, Florida, Miami and UCLA should all be at the top of their regions when the March Madness brackets come out in a few months.
But what I love about college basketball are the teams like Texas Southern, Western Michigan, Weber State, Nicholls State, Louisiana Lafayette, UC Irvine, Iona, South Dakota State, UNC-Asheville…the bracket busters. The dreamers. The long-shots.
Everyone is chasing that one shining moment.
Who are the players to watch this season?
Miles Bridges of Michigan State, Grayson Allen of Duke, Allonzo Trier of Arizona, Devonte’ Graham of Kansas, Bonzie Colson of Notre Dame, Jalen Brunson of Villanova, Michael Porter Jr. of Missouri, Joel Berry of North Carolina, Trevon Bluiett of Xavier, Jock Landale of Saint Mary’s.
These names are synonymous with some of the biggest programs in the country. They also all encompass some of the top talents in college basketball.
Miles Bridges opted not to be one of the “one and done” players in college basketball. When he decided to return for his sophomore season at Michigan State, the Spartans quickly became a 2018 Final Four contender. This may be the season that Coach Tom Izzo gets his second national title. Bridges is known for his gravity-defying dunks and his massively forceful blocks on opponents.
Grayson Allen is one of the most polarizing players in all of college basketball. Personally, I’m not a fan. The constant whining and anger management issues are just too much for me, too distracting. But all that being said, he averages more points per game than any other player on a top 10 ranked team. If Allen can refrain from tripping too many opponents this season, he has a shot at National Player of the Year.
Remember the name, Peyton Aldridge. He likely will not be mentioned as a National Player of the year. But chances are, he will score more points this season than any other player. Davidson is known for players like Aldridge; you know the ones that fly under the radar, names like Steph Curry.
Michael Porter Jr. was a highly coveted player coming out of high school. Missouri has not made the tournament in five years; the Tigers may have found the forward to lead them back to the promise land.
Who will hang another banner in the rafters?
The ACC is to college basketball, what the SEC use to be to college football.
I am a Tar Heel, not born and bred, but I’ve been a fan as long as I can remember. How could you not love Dean Smith and Michael Jordan? Will UNC repeat as national champions? I’d have to say I don’t think it’s likely. But, a girl can dream! I think Duke and Louisville will battle it out with Duke ending up on top. Duke has Grayson Allen back, and freshman point guard Trevon Duval along with Marvin Bagley III. They should be a leading force in all of college basketball this year.
The Atlantic-10 is the forgotten man of college basketball.
They are the league full of bracket busters and unknowns.
Rhode Island, VCU, St. Bonaventure, Saint Joseph’s, Dayton, Davidson.
The AAC, not to be confused with the ACC has some potential to bust a few brackets in March as well.
The Wichita State Shockers are bringing back all five starters from last year’s team. Cincinnati is returning four of their top five scorers.
The Big East has Villanova on top, again. Xavier, Seton Hall, Creighton and let’s not forget Butler, are all good teams that will challenge Villanova.
Michigan State is easily sitting at the top of the Big Ten entering this season. Miles Bridges is a no-brainer for national player of the year if he stays healthy. Purdue, Northwestern, and Minnesota are returning some good players as well.
The Jayhawks should win their fourteenth consecutive league title, but West Virginia and TCU hope to make Kansas work for it in the Big 12.
Arizona is beyond thrilled to have Allonzo Trier back this season leading them to the top of the Pac-12. If he can stay healthy, teamed with freshman Deandre Ayton, the Wildcats should seal up the Pac-12 fairly easily with only a little noise from USC and UCLA. Some of the Bruins ended up in a little trouble yesterday in China. Led by LiAngelo Ball, three UCLA players were arrested for shoplifting from the Louis Vuitton store. It will be interesting to see how that plays out, especially with the fact that in China that carries a 3-10 year term with it. Maybe Lavar Ball was right about his middle son never making it to the NBA.
It’s hard for SEC fans to get behind Kentucky’s basketball program. For one, their top tier talent never stays long enough to remember their names. With almost a complete roster turnover this offseason, the Wildcats may have a little trouble on their hands. Florida, Alabama, Texas A&M and Missouri could prove to be harder tests than Coach Calipari is used to dealing with.
Last season only one team from the Mountain West made it to the Tournament. Nevada, San Diego State, and UNLV all look to be contenders this season. The Broncos star Chandler Hutchison is a welcome sight for Boise State fans as well this season.
What’s that Player’s Name?
Big names like Grayson Allen and Miles Bridges are well-known, but it’s the kids that fly under the radar that you should watch. The players that don’t necessarily top all the stats sheets but are as reliable as they come. Players that can impact a game but not dominate the ball typically are the coach’s favorites. They love winning, sure, but their superstars can’t do it all alone.
Names like Dakota Mathias of Purdue, Josh Perkins of Gonzaga, Mikal Bridges of Villanova, Khadeem Lattin of Oklahoma, Isaiah Wilkins of Virginia, and Payton Pritchard of Oregon.
Payton Pritchard averaged only 1.4 turnovers in 28.5 minutes per game as a freshman for the Ducks. Isaiah Wilkins is by far, the best, screen-setter in all of college basketball; his rock-solid screens have allowed Virginia to use curl screens better than anyone else in the game. He may not have much shooting talent beyond the paint, but Khadeem Lattin can dunk better than most in college basketball; combine that with his stellar defense, and you have a star in the making for the Sooners. As a sophomore, Mikal Bridges made 40% of his 3s for the Wildcats. Villanova counts on Bridges to be their defensive whiz kid, and he handles the pressure perfectly. Josh Perkins is the picture of consistency for Gonzaga, he may not lead the team in scoring, but he is Mr. Dependable. Coaches love players who do all the little things well, and that’s Dakota Mathias. He made 46% of his 3s last season and was a menace on defense. 
Will College Basketball Survive?
Can college basketball survive the latest scandal?
Though it should sound as a warning signal to boosters and athletic directors around the country.
College basketball is fixable.
But only with some radical changes.
Some have suggested making freshman ineligible. It seems ludicrous, but proponents of the idea claim it would remove the incentive to cheat your way in. The question becomes, who would pay someone who can’t help the program immediately? That’s like putting a down payment on a brand new car you can’t have for a year. Many believe making the freshman season a non-factor would eliminate the one and done option that exists as well. The desire to do away with that format is to reinstate the student-athlete experience. Some believe that narrowing the window in which a player can transfer will help restore the game. Giving players a year with a team to decide if it’s a good fit and then allowing a transfer period, but then restricting it after that first year. Returning the recruiting scene to the high school season and away from the AAU tournaments would do a lot for the game. College coaches are spending too much time in the summers stalking players and very little time getting to know their high school coaches and teachers. They barely know the kids nowadays, they simply know their stats. 
Rick Pitino once said, “Failure is good. It’s fertilizer. Everything I’ve learned about coaching, I’ve learned from making mistakes.”  If that’s the case, sounds like the latest FBI investigation could prove to be the biggest learning phase for Coach Pitino.
John Wooden is the gold standard of college basketball coaches. The Wizard of Westwood retired with an 80.4 winning percentage, an 88-game win streak and four perfect seasons. It’s doubtful his accomplishments will ever be equaled. The beautiful thing about Coach Wooden’s career was not all the wins, or losses, or championships even; it was the investment into the lives of his players. Coach Wooden once said, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”  And that was John Wooden. He was a coach that taught his players how to be men. And that’s exactly what we need in college basketball today.
Be more of a John Wooden, than a Rick Pitino.