School is back in session, or at least it finally gets back underway on the hardwood.
The college basketball season opens on Tuesday, and the opening slate is anything but quiet, as the top four teams in the AP poll are all in action at Madison Square Garden. Thus, TBL has a decalogue of predictions to ring in the new semester.
-Seton Hall will make the Sweet 16
Seton Hall basketball has enjoyed a resurgence to the tune of four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. Winning hasn't been the issue-- their active streak of four straight 20-win seasons is a program record, but they won only a single game in their postseason trips. Now, there's no better time to cause some March mayhem. They come back armed with one of the top players in the nation in Myles Powell, and could well challenge Villanova for Big East supremacy. The excitement can be felt on all levels in Newark. Head coach Kevin Willard was up for several other big jobs, but opted to stay with the Pirates.
-Gonzaga finishes 2nd in the WCC Standings
Can we even consider the Bulldogs a mid-major anymore? GU basketball is as much of a March tradition as a Guinness on St. Patrick's Day. Their NCAA tournament streak is one year away from legally being allowed to enjoy such a beverage and a strong recruiting class (including Brock Ravet, the state of Washington's all-time leading high school scorer) will likely ensure it reaches that landmark. But the fact remains that the Bulldogs lost over 80 percent of their scoring from last season and hungry contenders from St. Mary's are waiting in the wings. There's no shame in coming up second to the Gaels, who topped the Zags in last season's West Coast Conference title game.
-Shaka Smart saves his job
Texas is back? Yeah, that chorus trumpets itself on the gridiron every autumn, but now it could translate to the hardwood as well. This is a crucial year for Smart, who embarks on his fifth year in Austin. He earned a career-high (at Texas) 21 wins last season, but all he had to show for it was an NIT Champions banner. The Longhorns haven't won an NCAA Tournament game since 2014. A case to advance can certainly be made by the arrival of five-star prospect Will Baker, who turned down offers from UCLA, Kentucky, and North Carolina to help Smart's case.
-Michigan State is a consistent top dog
If 62 wins over the past two seasons is what Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford can do as underclassmen, just imagine what they can do as seniors. Winston in particular has made a case for himself as the nation's best point guard. Understandably, the Spartans are the toppers of the opening AP poll, and their roster and schedule give them a perfect opportunity to maintain that spot on a consistent basis throughout the 2019-20 campaign. MSU opens with No. 2 Kentucky at MSG on Tuesday before going to Seton Hall nine days later. A stacked Maui Invitational field includes Kansas and UCLA as well.
-Patrick Ewing helps the Hoyas bite
Everyone knew that Patrick Ewing's rebuild of his alma mater's prestigious basketball program was going to take some patience, but Ewing got the team up to an unexpected 19 victories last season, their best since their last Tournament appearance in 2015. The Hoyas were particularly enthused by the quick rise of freshmen James Akinjo, Mac McClung, and Josh LeBlanc. With usual Tournament hunters like Marquette and and Creighton dealing with their own questions, Georgetown can swipe away one of the Big East's tournament bids, even if contending with rival Villanova may be too much to ask for at this point.
-Florida's backcourt puts them in the Final Four
Florida has only one senior on its roster, former Virginia Tech center and graduate transfer center Kerry Blackshear. But what they lack in experience, they more than make up for in a talented backcourt. Headlining the cause are returning sophomores Andrew Nembhard and Noah Locke, while the losses of KeVaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson were quickly accounted for by the addition of freshmen Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann. The dynamic duo was each named a McDonald's All-American, capping off what's easily the best offseason haul for fifth-year coach Mike White.
-Make (Conference) USA Great Again
Last year was a brutal year for Conference USA, with no teams ranking within KenPom's Top 100. A new year bears some shooting promise for the conference, as they may possess three of the sharpest shooters in the nations. Texas-San Antonio returns Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace (combined for over 43 points per game last season), while Middle Tennessee State will welcome back Antonio Green (17.9 PPG). The class of the conference may well be the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky, featuring show-stopping sophomore Charles Bassey, while Old Dominion is the defending champion after winning their first C-USA title last season. It'll be difficult and it'll take a marquee win or two (UTSA has an opportunity at Utah State on November 18), but such shooting could shockingly land this group an at-large bit.
-Mick Cronin has UCLA believing again
"Mick & Chip" sounds like the worst Disney crossover ever, but, right now, they're legions of hope for UCLA athletics. Kelly has guided the football team to wins in four of their last six, while Cronin is the name brought in to bring stability to the men's basketball squad. A lot of teams would kill to have the resume Steve Alford wrote in LA (three Sweet 16's in five full seasons), but in college hoops Valhalla, that's reason to panic. Cronin, already a talented name that helped make Murray State and Cincinnati part of the national basketball conversation, has fantastic Californian clay to work with including fifth-year players like Prince Ali and exciting newcomers like Shareef O'Neal (son of Shaq). If anything, the arrival of Cronin should bring some relative sanity and stability back to the Bruins.
-Juwan Howard needs some time
With John Beilien off to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Michigan basketball has gone with one of the most beloved names of the program's past to take them into the future. The "hire a campus legend" routine has produced both hot and cold results; for every Jamie Dixon, there's an Eddie Jordan. In Howard's case, Ann Arbor patience is required. Three double figure scorers (Ignas Brazdeikis, Jordan Poole, and Charles Matthews) are gone, and Howard only has one senior (G Zavier Simpson) to work with. A third straight 30-win season is definitely too much to ask for, but if they can pick up a big win or two and compete the rest of the way, it could serve as an excellent first chapter. As Larry David might say, though, curb your enthusiasm.
-UConn gives a sign of what's to come
The ladies in Storrs have been more than happy to pick up the slack, but the men's basketball and football programs have taken a big toll on the hapless Huskies. UConn is currently working on a streak of three Tournament-free seasons, but hope has emerged with an transition back to the Big East after several years of falling down the AAC ladder. In his first year at the helm, Dan Hurley gave fans some excitement, and it could only increase with name brand talent like Josh Carlton (AAC Most Improved Player) and Christian Vital (14.2 PPG) returning. The Big Dance might be a tall task, but the Huskies could well use their Big East momentum to get back to a winning record.