College Basketball Season Preview: Five Teams To Watch This Season

College Basketball Season Preview: Five Teams To Watch This Season

College basketball season is nearly here. As the new season starts, a new crop of stars enters the college basketball ranks, and some familiar faces return. In today’s world of one-and-dones, the landscape of college basketball completely changes on a yearly basis. There is more mystery about almost every team each season, and you could make the case for just about team to be this year’s “team to watch.” These are the five teams, in no particular order, that I’m most excited to see play this year. The list includes some good teams, but these aren’t your usual preseason power rankings, just a list of teams I’ll have my eye on. There may be some bias that factors into these picks, and in most cases there is. Nonetheless, there are good reasons to watch and enjoy every team on this list, regardless of personal allegiances or preseason rankings.

 

North Carolina

I’ve been a Carolina fan my entire life, but I think the Tar Heels will be on a lot of people’s radar this season. There is a ton of hype surrounding a UNC squad that enters this season as the number one team in the nation, and with good reason. The Heels return all but one of their key players from a team that finished 26-12 and played its best basketball at the end of the season. Marcus Paige has grown up into a national player of the year candidate right in front of our eyes, and he’s got the right players around him to turn some heads across the nation. Add in the fact that Carolina only plays five games against preseason top-25 teams, and a 30-plus-win season seems very realistic.

Paige’s injury is a cause for concern; the senior fractured a bone in his right hand, and is expected to miss three weeks to a month of time. Luckily for North Carolina, the injury is to his non-shooting hand, so if he’s even close to being ready to play by the time the Heels play Maryland, he’ll play, but even that time table will be cutting it close, and he won’t be 100 percent immediately. Fortunately, Carolina has two experienced backups for Paige in Nate Britt and Stilman White, so they’ll have a competent point guard no matter what. Let’s say Paige isn’t ready by the Maryland game and the Tar Heels drop the game. A relatively close loss to a good Maryland team won’t hurt UNC’s reputation too much, especially if Paige is out and the Terrapins are undefeated when the two teams face off. Even so, Tar Heel fans are still crossing their fingers that their star point guard recovers from his hand injury as soon as possible (again).

I’ll be pulling hard for Carolina this season not just because I’ve done that for as long as I can remember, but also because of the way this roster is constructed; it goes against everything the current one-and-done system has taught us over the last five or so years. Like last year’s Wisconsin group, this team was built over time and will rely on experience and leadership to win games. The individual talent is impressive, but not overwhelming. There aren’t any obvious lottery picks. But the core of this roster has been playing together for years, and in an age where youth is abundant and experience scarce, UNC will try and prove that you can win a championship without superstar freshmen leading the way.

 

Indiana

Full disclosure: I am a student at IU. But before you scroll down to the next section and ignore everything I have to say because it’s probably all biased homerism, I promise there are real, unbiased reasons to watch Indiana this year.

The Hoosiers are number 15 in the preseason polls and have been a popular dark horse Final Four pick this season, and there is some good reasoning behind that, not the least of which is the fact that IU has a solid all-around big man for the first time in years. Thomas Bryant, the 6’10’’ freshman out of Huntington Prep (Andrew Wiggins’ former high school), may not be a national star this year, but he’ll be an integral part of a Hoosier squad starving for a post presence. Last year, Tom Crean and his team had to get creative and play super small lineups for most of the season due to a significant lack of size. Bryant, a skilled, physically dominant big man, will have the opportunity to be a force on both ends of the court and give the Hoosiers a legitimate inside presence.

In addition to Bryant Indiana also returns its three best players from last year in Yogi Ferrell, James Blackmon Jr., and Troy Williams. Indiana is a good shooting team with great athleticism, and Crean says that he believes his team can go nine or ten deep for the entire season.

Indiana is by no means the best team in the country, and as of now, they probably don’t really belong in the national title discussion. We won’t really know how good the Hoosiers really are until conference play rolls around (they play Wisconsin and Maryland twice each), but whoever wins the Big Ten will be a great team, and Indiana has the potential to become the class of the conference.

 

California

Cal has generated a ton of hype coming into the season. The Golden Bears boast arguably the best freshman 1-2 punch in the country with Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb. The former is an explosive, versatile, two-way star, and the latter an smooth, ambidextrous post threat with a variety of offensive weapons. Both are projected lottery picks and all-around studs on the basketball court. They immediately make Cal a top team in the Pac 12; add in the fact that the Bears return over 70 percent of the scoring from last season and an experienced backcourt in Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Matthews, and Jabari Bird, and the this team looks like it will be a contender when March rolls around.

I can say without a doubt that Jaylen Brown is my favorite freshman in the country and the player I’ll be most interested in season. Having grown up half an hour from Brown’s high school, Wheeler, I’ve been watching him play for a good three years now, and he’s as good he’s made out to be, if not better. At 6’7’’, Brown possesses the rare combination of size, athleticism, and skill that allows him to stand out whenever he steps on a basketball court. After being Wheeler’s small forward his sophomore and junior years of high school, Brown essentially played point-center his senior year on a much smaller Wheeler team; he handled opening tips, spent a decent amount of time in the post, defended opposing fours, and scrapped inside for rebounds while also handling the ball, launching jumpers, guarding on the perimeter.[1]

Brown’s experience playing as both a big and a wing gives coach Cuonzo Martin the significant luxury of starting Brown at the four and playing a small-ball lineup, as Cal returns three starting guards in Wallace, Matthews, and Bird. Using Brown as a “stretch four” will allow the Bears to space the floor around Rabb and give their perimeter playmakers open lanes to the basket. Martin also has the option of going big for stretches and playing Kameron Rooks or Kingsley Okoroh with Rabb, allowing Brown to slide to the three and play a more perimeter-oriented game. No matter what style Cuonzo Martin decides to play, Jaylen Brown has the versatility to fit into any lineup the Golden Bears will play this season.

 

LSU

LSU isn’t typically known for its basketball program, but trust me when I say you’ll want to watch Tigers this season. If Brown and Rabb aren’t the best freshman duo in the nation, then the combination of Antonio Blakeney and Ben Simmons is. Blakeney is an athletic shooting guard who can score from anywhere on the floor, and, in my opinion, an underrated prospect. He beat out Simmons for Mr. Basketball in the state of Florida and led his high school to a 23-8 record his senior year. With all the hype Simmons gets (and deservedly so), Blakeney gets overlooked when people mention LSU. He can really score, and I believe he will turn some heads over the course of this season.

Simmons was the 2015 Gatorade Player of the Year and is already a popular choice to be the 2016 NCAA player of the year. When locked in, he is nearly unstoppable. At 6’10’’, Simmons plays like a guard in a forward’s body; he can guard any position, rebound, handle the ball, set up his teammates, and throw down vicious dunks with ease. To top it all off, Simmons, who shoots with his left hand, prefers to use his right hand around the basket. If you watch his highlight reels, you’ll notice that most of his dunks and layups are with his right hand. That kind of ambidextrousness allows him to be creative at the rim and shoot a high percentage. Simmons helped lead his high school, Montverde Academy to three consecutive national championships, and now, he’ll try and make LSU a contender for the first time in years.

 

Iowa State

The Big 12 will be ultra-competitive this season. Kansas has won 11 consecutive conference championships and will have two star freshman big men; Oklahoma has been a hot choice to usurp the Jayhawks and they have one of the best guards in the nation in Buddy Hield; Baylor’s Rico Gathers is an All-American and dominant interior presence; Texas has brought in an outstanding coach in Shaka Smart and will try to become one of the nation’s best teams again; West Virginia and Oklahoma State will do things probably; Texas Tech and Kansas State are also teams that exist.

But the Big 12 team I’m most interested in is Iowa State. The Cyclones will play under first year head coach, Steve Prohm, after the Mayor, Fred Hoiberg, left to coach the Chicago Bulls, but much of their roster remains the same. Iowa State will return one the best point guards in America in Monté Morris, sharpshooter (and Best Name in College Basketball candidate) Nazareth Mitrou-Long, defensive and rebounding extraordinaire Jameel McKay, and undersized but crafty do-it-all center, Georges Niang, a.k.a. the Boris Diaw of college hoops. Iowa State may be a bit undersized, but boy, do they play hard. What Niang and McKay lack in height, they make up for with athleticism effort on defense and on the glass. The Cyclones, whose name perfectly represents their up-tempo and deadly style of play, have only one player taller than 6’9’’, but they use small lineups to play fast, space the floor, and be creative of offense. Every player in their starting lineup can shoot the ball, and each brings a unique second skill to the table. The reality is that Kansas will probably win its 12th consecutive Big 12 title, but when at their best, Iowa State can compete with any team in the country, and at the very least, they’ll be extremely fun to watch.

[1] Those teams were absolutely loaded. In 2012-2014, Wheeler had Brown, Elijah Staley (6A All-State selection, went on to play football at Mississippi State), Daniel Giddens (freshman center at Ohio State and former teammate of mine!), Shembari Phillips (outstanding shooter and athlete, now at Tennessee), Avery Patterson (another great shooter), and a ton of athletic guards. Amazingly, Wheeler’s only state title in the Brown era was his senior year, after Giddens and Staley had both left. Go figure.

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