by John Fanta
NEW YORK — A headline’s never looked so beautiful for a college hoops junkie. The general sports fan may not pay attention to college basketball until March, and frankly, they’re missing out. On opening night alone, the top four teams in the country – #1 Michigan State, #2 Kentucky, #3 Kansas and #4 Duke – collide inside Madison Square Garden to tip off a loaded slate inside The Mecca this season.
The Spartans and Kentucky will follow the “appetizer” to Tuesday night between the Jayhawks and Blue Devils.
We’ll get back to those four teams in a moment, as that’s just the start of the storylines heading into 2019-20. Some others? Louisville having a national championship caliber line-up as Chris Mack embarks on year two, star-studded freshman Cole Anthony leading North Carolina, Myles Powell and a loaded Seton Hall roster getting set for the program’s most anticipated season in decades, Penny Hardaway returning Memphis to the big stage, and oh, Virginia defending a national title and attempting to reload.
We could go on and on. Heading into Tuesday, though, here’s five storylines on my mind as the season nears tip-off.
- Duke Will Put the “D” in Defense
– How will the Blue Devils reload with Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish gone? Well, it’s ironic, because it starts with the kid who received some of the quietest attention last season, but was a “godsend” to Mike Krzyzewski. Sophomore guard Tre Jones will set the tone for this Blue Devils team, a year after averaging 9.4 points per game with 5.3 assists and 3.8 rebounds. With junior Jordan Goldwire alongside Jones, the way Duke can defend at the guard position could be really special. Plus, that’s experience that matters, and when you pair that alongside the top recruiting class in the country, great things can happen. 5-star center Vernon Carey Jr. headlines the class, and with power forward Matt Hurt and small forward Wendell Moore also receiving 5-star ratings, the pieces are in place for Duke to be complete. Any freshman class is going to take time to grow, but the Blue Devils have some experience to usher them along. It’s no Williamson/Barrett situation, but if that proved anything, it’s that a superstar-led team isn’t necessarily the formula to go deep in March. That’s what magnifies the presence of Jones and Goldwire.
- The Addition of Kerry Blackshear to Florida
The Gators welcome in a Top-10 recruiting class powered by small forward Scottie Lewis and point guard Tre Mann, but what stands out to me is the experience factor that Virginia Tech grad transfer Kerry Blackshear gives Mike White’s team. NCAA Tournament appearances on a roster almost always bode well. Why? Those guys know what it takes to navigate your way through the journey to March. Blackshear has been to the last two Big Dances while in a Hokies uniform, scoring 1,152 points and adding 616 rebounds in his three years under Buzz Williams. With sophomore point guard Andrew Nembhard anchoring the backcourt, it’s not entirely on this freshman class to do everything. Rather, they can take time to come fully into their own with these veteran presences in place. This Gators team is complete, and will be in a battle with Kentucky for the SEC title.
- The Race Is On for BIG EAST Player of the Year
Marquette’s Markus Howard and Seton Hall’s Myles Powell could give the world of college basketball a Player of the Year race for the ages in the BIG EAST. As two of the AP All-America Preseason Team’s five selections, for these two to come from the same conference adds so much intrigue to the race for the league’s top individual honor. What’s even more fascinating is that Howard is the incumbent, but Powell garnered the preseason recognition. While the Pirates are ranked 12th in the AP Poll and Marquette, losing the Hauser brothers due to their offseason transfers, is just outside the poll, that does not take away from this race. Grab your popcorn.
- Are Penny Hardaway and Patrick Ewing Back?
Memphis is garnering more preseason recognition than Georgetown, but there’s great reason to believe that these two legends could lead their former schools back to the NCAA Tournament in 2020. The Tigers welcome in the nation’s top recruiting class, with a whopping two five-star prospects and five four-star prospects. Crazy, right? While 7-footer James Wiseman is working his way back from an ankle injury, all eyes will be on him to lead the way. His five-star teammate, Precious Achiuwa, showed what he brings to the table in an exhibition win over Le Moyne earlier this week with 21 points and 11 boards in just 25 minutes. For the Hoyas, a stacked sophomore class powered by reigning BIG EAST Freshman of the Year James Akinjo will look to build off a 19-win season that saw Georgetown finish tied for third in the conference at 9-9. While the Hoyas lose center Jessie Govan (17.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG), NC State transfer Omer Yurtseven is a defensive upgrade in the post who averaged 13 and seven two years ago for a Wolfpack program that made the NCAA Tournament. When both Memphis and Georgetown are relevant, that’s not just good for them or their conferences; it’s good for the sport of college basketball. When it’s two former players who are a part of the rich history of those name brands now leading them on the sidelines, that makes the story that much more special.
- Rock Chalk Jayhawk
While the battle between Kansas Basketball and the NCAA over allegations is hanging over Lawrence, the Jayhawks are once again the Big 12 favorite in 2020. While Kansas’ 14-year streak of Big 12 regular season titles ended last season, the pieces are all in place for a new one to begin. In a day and age where the “traditional” big man is giving way to one who stretches the floor, the Jayhawks have the traditional stalwart inside in preseason conference player of the year Udoka Azubuike. Up until a torn ligament in his hand ended his season last year, Azubuike was averaging 13 and seven per game. While injuries have been the issue throughout his career, if he can stay healthy, nobody will have a more experienced, commanding force in the post in the country. Sophomore point guard Devon Dotson will run the offense, but the key for the Jayhawks is what they get on in between their “1” and the “5.” Sophomore combo guard Ochai Agbaji could very well lead the way there. The perimeter threat scored 19 points in the Jayhawks exhibition win over Pittsburg State, hitting on five of six from beyond the arc in the performance. Sophomore forward David McCormick is also expected to take a second-year leap after starting the final 13 games last season. With two four-star prospects on the wing to bolster that position as well, KU is a complete group.
Tuesday can’t come soon enough.
Follow Fanta at @John_Fanta on Twitter and check out his columns throughout the season on NCAAHoopsDigest.com