After what was an eventful offseason in the world of college basketball, the regular season is nearly upon us. Since North Carolina cut down the nets in Phoenix way back in April, a lot has happened, for better or worse.
Of course, the biggest news of the offseason was the FBI investigation that rocked college basketball earlier this fall. The probe shined a light on the corruption that has long existed between schools, shoe companies and top recruits.
The hardest-hit school, of course, was the University of Louisville, which saw long-time coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich get the ax after alleged bribery between the school, Adidas and one of this year’s top prize recruits in Brian Bowen, Jr.
Bowen has since been cleared by the FBI and is now subject to an internal investigation by the University, as it was his father, Brian Bowen, Sr., who took the reported bribe of $100,000, without any involvement of his son.
Numerous other schools have been exposed by the investigation, and there is surely more to come down the pipe. While we don’t know the extent or impact of much of the investigation, Arizona’s Sean Miller and a slew of other coaches have seen extreme scrutiny.
While the scandal has been a black cloud hanging over the sport, time marches on and the season is about to tip off. Not all news was bad news this offseason, and here are some of the other major storylines to watch for.
Bridges returns to MSU
Many expected that Michigan State forward Miles Bridges would take his talents to the NBA after a solid freshman campaign. But he surprised a lot of people when he announced in April that he had “unfinished business” and would be back in East Lansing for his sophomore season with the Spartans.
(Video from Detroit Free Press)
On top of a good crop of incoming freshmen and a solid returning core, Bridges’ return has landed the Spartans at No. 2 in the Associated Press Top 25 Preseason Poll. And for good reason. Bridges is the first power-conference player in more than two decades to return for a second year after averaging at least 16 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists.
While Bridges — named the top player in the nation this season by CBS — and the Spartans certainly had some ups and downs last season en route to a No. 9-seed in the NCAA Tournament, the young 6-foot-7, explosive, do-it-all player showed flashes of greatness.
Bridges and a cast of increasingly seasoned returning players, including Nick Ward, Joshua Langford, Gavin Schilling and Cassius Winston — I know, I know. There are probably three or four more key players, but you get the idea — are the clear favorites in the Big Ten, and will compete for a shot at the national title this season.
Shockers on the move
Not only did Wichita State move from the Missouri Valley to the American Athletic Conference, the Shockers also moved up on a lot of people’s radar. Gregg Marshall’s team returns all five starters from last season’s 31-5 campaign that ended in a near-upset of Kentucky in the NCAAs.
That includes All-MVC selections Landry Shamet and Markis McDuffie, who will both miss the majority, if not all of non-conference play nursing stress fractures. But the likes of Connor Frankamp, Shaq Morris and Zach Brown will keep the Shockers more than competitive to begin the season.
Wichita State enters the season as the No. 7 team in the AP Poll, its highest preseason ranking in school history. The Shockers’ biggest non-conference challenges include a trip to No. 24 Baylor, a home bout with an up-and-coming Oklahoma squad, and a good, but not great field in the Maui Invitational.
Despite early season absences from Shamet and McDuffie, Wichita State is Shockingly favored to win the national championship, according to ESPN’s BPI standards.
Take that for what it’s worth, but the Shockers are good. And they’ll have more opportunities for quality wins in the AAC with the likes of Cincinnati, SMU and a sleeper in UCF than they did in the MVC.
Freshmen to watch
Even in a year that upperclassmen are expected to play a prominent role across the sport, there is an abundance of freshmen with star potential. Three freshmen grace the top 10 of the aforementioned CBS top 100 list and six fall in the top 20.
Aside from Bowen, whose future is unsure at this point, top youngsters this season include Duke’s Marvin Bagley III, Missouri’s Michael Porter, Jr., and Arizona big man DeAndre Ayton.
Bagley reclassified from the class of 2018 earlier this summer and instantly slotted in as the top newcomer in college basketball. Though yet unseen on a college floor, Bagley has great size, and a skillset that will make him tough to guard.
The 6-foot-10 Porter heads to Mizzou trying to do what Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons were unable to do — lead his team to the NCAA Tournament. Ayton will also have size to his advantage, though he has quite the supporting cast to help elevate his game, while Porter will be the show for the Tigers.
Coaching carousel leaves Butler, IU, others in transition
There were a handful of coaching changes this offseason. Some more surprising than others. The biggest surprise, of course, came rather late in the process when Ohio State unexpectedly cut ties with Thad Matta after 13 seasons and Butler’s Chris Holtmann jumped at the opportunity to coach in the Big Ten.
The Bulldogs dipped back into the family and hired former player LaVall Jordan, who comes over after one year at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a stint under John Beilein at Michigan. While the Bulldogs lost four key players to graduation and Holtmann took top recruit Kyle Young with him to Columbus, they still have a decent core that could help make the transition a little smoother for Jordan.
Senior Kelan Martin will be the go-to guy for the Bulldogs, though he will have to try and avoid slumping like he did at various times last season. Jordan will also lean on sophomore guard Kamar Baldwin, whose 54.8 effective field goal percentage (a formula that gives more weight to making three-pointers: (FGM + 0.5*3PM)/FGA) ranked in the top 15 in the Big East and third among freshmen, according to kenpom.com.
On the other hand, Holtmann will have a bit of an uphill battle at Ohio State, a team that was already in transition before he took the job. He’s not the only new face on the sidelines in the Big Ten. Archie Miller takes over for Tom Crean at Indiana, leaving his former Dayton Flyers in jeopardy of missing their first NCAA Tournament in three years.
Top transfers to keep an eye on
Graduate-school transfers are playing increasingly important roles across the nation every season. Perhaps the top grad transfer this season is Cameron Johnson, who goes from Pitt to the defending national champions in North Carolina. Johnson, who averaged 11.9 points and shot better than 40 percent from three-point range for the Panthers, will try and fill the big shoes of All-ACC star Justin Jackson.
After losing a lot of talent from last year’s Final Four team, the Oregon Ducks will look to a pair of grad transfers to help them try and get back. Elijah Brown (New Mexico) and MiKyle McIntosh (Illinois State) would have both competed for player of the year awards in the Mountain West and Missouri Valley, respectively. Now both will come to Eugene expected to contribute in big ways for the Ducks. Brown, a one-time Butler player before transferring to New Mexico, averaged 19 points last season, while McIntosh got 12.5 a game for the Redbirds.
While grad transfers have become a hot commodity in college basketball, there are a few traditional transfers who will have significant roles for their new teams. Charles Matthews, a former Kentucky signee, is eligible to play this year after sitting out last season at Michigan. The guard had a team-high 23 points in the Wolverines’ first exhibition game, 17 of them coming in the first half Friday in Ann Arbor.
Former Mississippi State guard Malik Newman sat out last season and now figures to play a big role in the Kansas Jayhawks’ backcourt alongside Devonte’ Graham. What better replacement for National Player of the Year Frank Mason than an explosive player that played against him every day in practice last year?
As the college basketball season gets going, check back here for more coverage, including bracketology, conference previews and mid-major teams to remember.