By Hocine LOUKKAF on 9/7/2018

The NCAA season brings a lot of promises as several teams are filled with talented players, which made it tough to choose a favourite. Yet, Kansas is the choice, followed by traditional hyped powers like UK, Duke or UNC or more lowkey teams like Gonzaga, Virginia or Oregon.

#1 Kansas

Despite the fact that they lost their three best scorers, the Jayhawks return even more interesting pieces with Azubuike (13pts 7rbds 1.7blk), Vick (12.1pts 4.8rbds 2as) and Sousa who will have his first full year of college basketball after starting in January next year. The recruits are good also with top 10 recruit combo guard Quentin Grimes, PG Devon Dotson and center David McCormack, three blue chips used to a HS honors. As if it wasn’t enough. Kansas will be able to use three major transfers in PG Charlie Moore who averaged 12.2pts and 3.5as at Cal two years ago and last but not least, do-it-all forwards and brothers Dedric (19.2pts 9.9rbds 3.3as 2.1blk in 16-17) and KJ (12.3pts 8.3rbds 2.8as in 16-17) Lawson who could be the leaders of numerous other top 10 teams. Can all these players succeed as a team, that’s what we will see this year.

 

#2 Gonzaga

2018 championship game runner-up comes back with more ambition than ever as it returns all but two of its seven best scorers. Tillie (12.9pts 5.9rbds 48% 3pt) and Hachimura (11.6pts 4.7rbds), who might have been drafted in June, will be asked to step up once again for what may be their last year with the Bulldogs. As usual, coach Few adds some international flavour with solid big man Filip Petrusev who won gold at Euro u18 with Serbia averaging 22pts 9rbds and 3blks per game while redshirt freshman combo guard Ayayi showed why he could be the next Ntilikina as he helped France get a bronze medal averaging 15.7pts 3.6rbds and 2.3as. Norvell (12.7pts 3.9rbds 2.3as) and Perkins will bring their outside shooting while  athletic transfer Brandon Clarke (17.5pts 8.9rbds and 2.6blks for San Jose State in 2016-17) will bring his energy and defense from the bench or as a small five.

 

#3 Auburn

Take a SEC regular season champion and add a top 5 center in the nation. That’s basically what’s gonna happen at Auburn. The Tigers lose their best scorer, Mustapha Heron, but welcome back six of the other seven best scorers, including starting backcourt Brown (15.9pts 38% 3pt)/Harper (13.2pts 5.4as) and promising forward Anfernee McLemore (7.4pts 5.3rbds 2.7blks 39% 3pt). After being suspended during last year, Purifoy (11.5pts 4.7rbds in 16-17) will miss 30% of the season but then will fill the void left by Heron spot for spot. The best news for coach Pearl came in June when Austin Wiley (8.8pts 4.7rbds 1.3blk in 16-17) decided not to enter the draft despite an interesting draft process. He will be a nightmare for every SEC teams and brings that much needed inside presence that could make Auburn almost unbeatable.

 

#4 UNC

Even if they are not as hyped as Duke or Kentucky, the Tar Heels always build solid teams who know how to win. This year, they boast an interesting mix of experience and youth. Luke Maye (16.9pts 10.1rbds), your typical college warrior a la Tyler Hansbrough comes back for his senior season after a bitter loss in the tournament’s second round against Texas A&M. Guards Johnson (12.4pts 4.7rbds 2.3as) and Williams (11.4pts 3.7rbds 2.4as) may also have learnt from this game as they combined 2/12 from three. Inside, Maye will be helped by promising sophomore Manley (5.4pts 3.6rbds 0.9blk in 10min) who should get major minutes at the center position. What makes this team really dangerous is its top notch recruiting class which perfectly fits the returning players. The starting SF spot will be handled by a potential top ten draft pick, Nassir Little, who could be the glue guy of this team on offense and defense. To replace Joel Berry, Roy Williams has obtained the commitment of two intriguing NC guards, scoring combo guard Coby White, a top 25 recruit in the country and maybe the most intriguing, 6-7 playmaker Rechon Black who could be the first option at the PG spot and is able to defend multiple positions.

 

#5 Kentucky

Calipari may have lost some of his glamour which allowed him to recruit several number one prospects like Wall or Davis some years ago, yet he’s still able to launch interesting prospects like last draft’s 11th pick Gilgeous-Alexander. Inside duo PJ Washington (10.8pts 5.7rbds) and Nick Richards (5.1pts 4.4rbds 0.9blk) is returning and will be joined by Quade Green (9.3pts 2.7as). Last minute transfer Reid Travis (19.5pts 8.7rbds) was recruited by everybody but decided to solidify Calipari’s paint. They will mentor a helluva recruiting class with several top 30 prospects like athletic swingman Keldon Johnson, versatile PF EJ Montgomery, PG Ashton Hagans and sharpshooter Tyler Herro.  The roster is complementary and will try as usual to go as far as possible in the tournament.

 

#6 Nevada

Last year’s run ended in the Sweet Sixteen (33pts 10.7rbds 7.3as 2.1 combined last year) against Loyola despite Martin brothers’ effort to go further. After contemplating going pro, both decided to return as did three of the other four best scorers including Jordan Caroline who had 17.7pts and 8.6rbds per contest last year. The Wolf Pack was lucky in the recruiting process when five star forward Jordan Brown decided to commit. It will also have another solid offensive option with transfer PG Jazz Johnson who averaged 15.8pts per game at Portland two years ago. Nevada may lack some depth contrary to their opponents but this talented and versatile starting five can go deeper than last year’s.

 

#7 Oregon

After helping Troy Brown get drafted in the draft’s first round, Oregon can count on a terrific recruiting class to improve last year’s disappointing season. Of course, the main man among newcomers is Bol Bol, the 7-2 shooting center who hopes to play only one year before jumping to the pros. He isn’t the only talented freshman as he’s joined by two other top 40 prospects. At PG, Will Richardson comes with the experience of a year at famed Oak Hill Academy where coach Steve Smith has compared him to Brandon Jennings and Marcus Williams. At the SF spot, top 20 recruit Louis King is a long shooter who is as comfortable shooting from outside as he is driving to the basket. The less recruited Miles Norris is a versatile combo forward who really has a shot at becoming an  NBA prospect pretty soon.  Bol will receive the help of another freshman inside with dynamic Francis Okoro. The returning roster also boasts some interesting pieces. Payton Pritchard (14.5pts 4.8rbds 41% 3pt) keeps improving and could see his assist number rise with the talented freshman class. Bailey and White are solid back ups who know their role. Finally, the best prospect among returning players, Wooten (6.4pts 4.5rbds 2.6blks) will be Bol’s right-hand man and build upon a promising freshman year to emerge as a solid first round prospect.

 

#8 Duke

Experience, what experience?? One of the most academic and legendary coaches, coach K has become the one and done boss, and that hasn’t changed this season. Duke has signed three of the top five prospects including potential top five picks RJ Barrett and freak athlete Zion Williamson. The starting five will be completed by two other majors prospects, versatile swingman Cam Reddish and floor general Tre Jones. What might be worrying is the fact that this team lacks depth and, contrary to last year’s roster, the inside spots are pretty weak with DeLaurier and Bolden asked to fill the void left by the departure of both Bagley and Carter Jr. Zion will be asked to handle the business inside almost by himself, a heavy load for a freshman.

 

#9 Virginia

The first #1 seed to be beaten by a #16 seed in the NCAA tournament, the Cavaliers have unfortunately made history. They could make it once again by winning it all and have some weapons to reach that goal. Coach Bennett returns several major pieces of his chessboard. Guy (14.1pts) and Jerome (10.6pts 3.9as) will  form a solid backcourt, with freshman Kihei Clark and Australian shooting swingman Kody Stattman to bring some depth. Glue guy De’Andre Hunter (9.2pts 3.5rbds 38% 3pt) will navigate between both forward spots and will be able to count on Salt and Diakite from the bench, but above all on two potential hidden secrets at the center position who could bring much more than Isaiah Wilkins last year. The first one is Francisco Cassaro, an Argentina seven footer who scored 22pts on 6/9 shooting against the USA in FIBA Americas u18. The other is an internal recruit, seven footer sophomore Jay Huff, who wasn’t given much chance to display his athleticism and outside shooting in his freshman year, yet was able to get 3.4pts and 1.2blk in less than 9min.

 

#10 Tennessee

Another hard working team, the Vols return their five best scorers of a team which won the SEC regular season title. Forwards Grant Williams (15.2pts 6rbds 1.2blk) and Schofield (13.9pts 6.4rbds) will keep attacking opponent’s defenses while Bone (7.3pts 3.5as 39% 3pt) will have to step up to make up for Daniel’s departure.

 

The wild card : Marquette

Last year, Marquette was one of the worst defenses among big conferences members. Coach Wojciechowski has the chance to receive the help of two defensive specialist transfers, Ed Morrow from Nebraska (9pts 7rbds 1blk in 16-17) and Fordham graduate Joseph Chartouny (12.2pts 5.6as 4.6rbds 3.3stls), one if not the best steal collector of the country. He will also upgrade the size of the backcourt where returning scorer Markus Howard (20.4pts 41% 3pt) could not make up for Andrew Rosey’s lack of defensive effort. The SF is filled by another interesting prospect, versatile SF Sam Hauser, who had a solid sophomore season with 14.1pts 5.7rbds and 2.9as. Even more promising is his little brother, Joey, who spent last semester with the team as a redshirt and will bring more shooting and offensive versatility. This potential starting five can count on a solid bench with Brendan Bailey who is back from mormon mission, size (Heldt, John) and shooting (Elliott, Cain).

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