What is one to do after The Year of Zion? The spectacular Duke freshman captured the imagination of the country with his play and unique build and explosiveness. There has never been a player like Zion Williamson in college basketball, and ratings and interest proved it. This season, there isn’t the single player who can capture the attention of the nation in that way. But that’s OK. In fact, it’s great. Why? Because it is different, and college basketball serves up something deliciously different every single season. This season will be no exception.
The 2019-20 season reminds of the 2010-11 season in which Kemba Walker seized control of the headlines and UConn won the national championship, seemingly out of nowhere. This season, when there are favorites and usual suspects to populate the top 10, the one thing we know is, we just don’t know. Isn’t that true every season, you say? No. Not even close. In 2014-15, we knew Kentucky had a legit shot to go unbeaten, Wisconsin was a Final Four team and Duke would be in the Final Four absent a bus accident on the way to the arena. This season, there are no such teams … yet. A great player will emerge, and some outstanding teams will separate and give the look of a title contender. Yet, there is this strong feeling that if you are healthy with fresh legs and free minds, a number of teams can do something special in March.
Until we see some November and December games, the unwashed masses just don’t know. Fortunately for you, The Bilastrator does know. The Bilas Index is the most comprehensive collection of basketball judgment on this, or any, planet. For the first time ever, The Bilastrator brings you The Bilas Index before a single ball is bounced in a regular-season game. As always, you’re welcome.
Hard to believe that Tom Izzo has never snagged a preseason No. 1 ranking, despite the fact that his program is a true “blue blood.” Izzo has the nation’s best point guard in Cassius Winston and an emerging star in Aaron Henry. The keys will be at the 4 position — where the Spartans need consistent production — and avoiding turnovers. For some odd reason, the only thing one could criticize in Michigan State is consistent turnover issues. Still, the Spartans hang banners, and 2020 could bring another banner year, much like 2000.
Bill Self says the recent NCAA notice of allegations will focus him and his team like nothing else could. Well, that is bad news for Jayhawks opponents. Self’s team has size, length and depth. Devon Dotson is among the best point guards, Udoka Azubuike is a load in the paint, and Ochai Agbaji can be a star. Kansas will start a new streak in the Big 12, and don’t be surprised if Mark Emmert is handing Bill Self the trophy in Atlanta, before being moved aside for the photo.
Mike White has his best team, and he has been within a whisker of the Final Four. The arrival of Virginia Tech transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. can be the difference between good and great. Blackshear can challenge for SEC player of the year, and White will use him like the queen on a chess board. The Gators are legit.
John Calipari has returning talent, which is not always the case in Lexington. With Ashton Hagans, Nick Richards, EJ Montgomery and Immanuel Quickley, Cal has players who can lead the way, so the team is not “coach directed.” A difference-maker is Tyrese Maxey, who can do it all as a rookie. Will Kentucky shoot it better this season? If so, Atlanta is the destination.
The Terps were a bucket away from beating LSU in last season’s NCAA tournament, and they return a load of talent. Mark Turgeon has a sophomore class that is truly outstanding and will be remembered in College Park for a long time. Anthony Cowan Jr. is among the best point guards in the country, and Jalen Smith can be a lottery selection. Keep your eyes focused on Aaron Wiggins. He is special.
The Cardinals return talent and toughness, and they have a star in Jordan Nwora, one of only two All-ACC performers from last season. The key will be the point guard position and whether Steven Enoch and Malik Williams take significant jumps. Louisville can be the ACC’s best team.
Mark Few doesn’t have the usual cast of returnees, but he does have a ton of talent and skill. Killian Tillie is an NBA talent who needs to stay healthy, Admon Gilder is a scorer who was very good at Texas A&M and Corey Kispert has the chance to be another Zags star. The Zags beat Michigan State in a closed scrimmage, which should not shock anyone. Gonzaga can compete with anyone, anytime, anywhere.
This will be a different version of the Tar Heels under Roy Williams. There are two grad transfers in Justin Pierce and Christian Keeling and arguably the best high school player in last year’s class in Cole Anthony. Anthony will not make people forget about Coby White, but they won’t cry about losing White after they see Anthony. He could very well be the ACC player of the year. He is that good. Garrison Brooks is greatly improved, and Armando Bacot gives Williams the rim protector he lacked last season.
Coach K has another excellent recruiting class but without the superstar firepower of the past few seasons. In other words, he has first-rounders but perhaps not top-5 or lottery picks. Vernon Carey Jr. is the best player and a beast in the post and on the glass, but Tre Jones needs to lead the way. This should be a versatile, deep and determined pressure-defensive team. Will Duke shoot the ball better than last season? If the answer is no, there will be growing pains this season.
The Wildcats were the most prolific 3-point shooting team in Villanova history last season, and don’t expect this Jay Wright group to shoot fewer 3s. In fact, expect the Wildcats to shoot more. Villanova lost a lot, but it still has some excellent talent that is used to winning. It will take some time for the talented freshmen to learn the Nova Way, and they will. Villanova will be Top 25 all season but top 10 by the end.
Tony Bennett lost his top three scorers to the NBA draft, which should set back the Cavaliers this season … to No. 11. While the offensive firepower will not equal last season’s title team, the Cavaliers still will defend at an elite level and control the tempo of games. That will lead to 25 or more wins and another legitimate shot at an ACC title. Virginia is a big-time program.
Few thought the Red Raiders could match their success from two seasons ago, yet they exceeded it with a championship game appearance. Who wants to bet against Texas Tech this season? Chris Beard doesn’t settle, and he recruits believers. Davide Moretti was one of the most improved guards in the Big 12 last season. Just how good was Moretti last season? He was the fifth player in Big 12 history to shoot at least 45% on 3-point field goals and 90% on free throws in a season in which he played at least 25 minutes per game. No player in league history has had two such seasons. Chris Clarke is getting a second chance in Lubbock, and Jahmi’us Ramsey has the opportunity to be among the nation’s best freshmen. Texas Tech lost a lot, but it still will be very good.
13. Memphis Tigers
Second-year coach Penny Hardaway landed the No. 1 signing class in the country, headlined by James Wiseman. The class includes three other ESPN 100 prospects. The Tigers have missed the NCAA tournament in five straight seasons after making it in 10 of the prior 12 seasons. Hardaway is not shying away from expectations, and his players are responding. There will be growing pains due to youth but tremendous upside. The first test is Oregon in Portland in early November.
Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline combined to take 49% of Purdue’s FG attempts a season ago. With both gone, the spotlight shifts to team depth: Matt Haarms, Nojel Eastern, Aaron Wheeler, Trevion Williams and High Point transfer Jahaad Proctor will all need to take a step forward. Both Eastern and Williams can be breakout stars in the Big Ten this season.
The Wildcats have the highest-ranked team in the Bilas Index that will have two available players — Jon Axel Gudmundsson and Kellan Grady — who averaged 15 points per game a season ago. Davidson might have the best backcourt in the country this season, and Bob McKillop’s teams are usually pretty good when his guards are good.
16. Arizona Wildcats
Nico Mannion, Josh Green and the star-studded freshmen class will get most of the attention. A potential wild card among the newcomers: Max Hazzard, who led UC Irvine in scoring last season en route to an NCAA tournament upset over Kansas State. Arizona struggled last season due to a lack of talent. That won’t be the case this season.
17. VCU Rams
The Rams were the only team in the country a year ago that ranked in the top 15 in opponent turnovers per game (14th) and opponent field goal percentage (6th). They were an elite defensive unit, holding opponents to the third-lowest effective FG% in the nation, behind only Houston and Texas Tech. This team has experience and toughness.
Sam Merrill is the leading returning scorer in the Mountain West and one of two returning first-team all-conference selections. Sophomore Neemias Queta will be another key, as he anchors the Aggies’ interior defense. Last season, he set school records in blocks (84) and blocks per game (2.4).
19. Baylor Bears
Tristan Clark‘s return from injury will be enormous for Baylor. In 14 games last season, he averaged 14.6 PPG on a Division I-best 73.7 FG percentage (minimum of five FGs per game and 10 games played).
20. Houston Cougars
Houston held its opponents to 36.8% shooting and 27.9% on 3-point attempts last season, becoming the only team in the past 20 seasons to have the best FG% defense and 3-point FG% defense in Division I in the same season. Kelvin Sampson needs guys to get buckets after all that Houston lost. Kansas transfer Quentin Grimes will be a huge boost there.
Kaleb Wesson is one of the few guys in the Big Ten who could challenge Cassius Winston for conference player of the year. Wesson went from four made 3-pointers his freshman season to 26 3s a season ago. His continued ability to be a threat both on the block and behind the arc make him one of the toughest matchups in the league.
Alpha Diallo, a 6-foot-7 guard, was second in the Big East in rebounds per game (8.1), fourth in steals per game (1.65) and ninth in scoring (16 PPG) last season. He might be the biggest threat to Markus Howard and Myles Powell for conference player of the year honors.
Cincinnati is one of just three programs that has been in the top 15 in opponent PPG each of the past five seasons, along with Virginia and Old Dominion. Will John Brannen bring the same sort of defensive identity? Or is that identity going to Westwood with the departed Mick Cronin?
The Buffs can challenge for the Pac-12 title; Tyler Bey‘s 17 double-doubles led the Pac-12 last season, and he is back. McKinley Wright IV does it all; he was the only Pac-12 player with 400 points, 150 rebounds and 150 assists a season ago.
For Myles Powell, the Seton Hall program scoring record is within reach (2,494 points by Terry Dehere). Powell enters the season with 1,663 career points, and he likely would have to average around 24 PPG to get there.
26. Harvard Crimson
Seth Towns, the 2017-18 Ivy League player of the year, missed all of last season. Along with Towns, Tommy Amaker returns his top nine scorers from last season, including All-Ivy first-team selection Bryce Aiken and Ivy League rookie of the year Noah Kirkwood. This can be Amaker’s best team at Harvard, which is saying something. Amaker has changed the Ivy League and raised the level of play.
Jordan Ford scored 716 points last season, third most in a season in school history (behind Jock Landale in 2017-18 and Omar Samhan in 2009-10). His return means Saint Mary’s is good enough to challenge for its first regular-season West Coast Conference crown since splitting it with Gonzaga in 2015-16.
28. Oregon Ducks
Dana Altman directed the Ducks to their third Sweet 16 in the past four seasons, and they will be led this season by senior Payton Pritchard. He has started 109 consecutive games and is one of three players in program history with 1,000 career points, 400 career rebounds and 400 career assists (Ron Lee and Luke Jackson). Oregon, which will welcome in several new faces, was 12th in Division I scoring defense last season, allowing 62.2 PPG after being 175th in 2017-18.
29. Dayton Flyers
Obi Toppin is the player to watch for the Flyers, both because he is their best NBA prospect and because it’s difficult to look away when he plays. Toppin plays way above the rim; his 66.6% shooting in 2018-19 was the best in a season in A-10 history (minimum of five FGs per game).
30. Texas Longhorns
The team with the second-longest active win streak in Division I is … the Texas Longhorns, after they stormed their way to an NIT title. Bringing in Luke Yaklich, who served as defensive coordinator at Michigan for two seasons and had the Wolverines in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense over both campaigns, is a significant add to Shaka Smart’s staff.
The Musketeers return four players who averaged double-digit scoring last season (Naji Marshall, Paul Scruggs, Tyrique Jones and Quentin Goodin). They only won 19 games a season ago. The last time Xavier went consecutive seasons without winning 20 games was 1980-81 and 1981-82.
Over the past 15 seasons, four Big 12 freshmen have averaged a double-double in conference play. The first three were Kevin Durant (2006-07), Michael Beasley (2007-08), Mo Bamba (2017-18), and the fourth was West Virginia’s Derek Culver last season. Expect Culver to take the next step toward being a star.
Expect the Vols to be good again. Rick Barnes has increased the program’s win total in each of the four seasons at the helm. Tennessee tied a school record with 31 wins last season and spent the entire 2018-19 campaign ranked in the top 10. Barnes will need to replace the SEC’s leading scorer from last season in Grant Williams (19 PPG) and Admiral Schofield (16.4 PPG), who was fifth in league scoring. Lamonte Turner will get more shots and blossom into one of the SEC’s best players.
The Badgers won 14 conference games for just the third time in school history. Greg Gard will have to fill the shoes of three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection Ethan Happ.
All eyes will be on freshmen Isaiah Stewart (No. 3 in ESPN 100) and Jaden McDaniels (No. 7 in ESPN 100). They are two of the three top-10 recruits to play at Washington in the ESPN 100 era (since 2007). The other was Markelle Fultz (No. 7 in 2016). Kentucky transfer Quade Green is eligible immediately, which is a huge boost.
36. Auburn Tigers
The Tigers made their first Final Four appearance in program history last season. Bruce Pearl’s squad set an SEC record with 454 3-pointers, a mark that trails only the 2017-18 Villanova team (464) in NCAA history. The backcourt will not match last season’s, but Austin Wiley should have a breakout season, and freshman Isaac Okoro should be a difference-maker.
Iowa State won the Big 12 tournament for the second time in the past three seasons. The Cyclones will need to replace their leading scorer Marial Shayok, who was second in the Big 12 with 16 20-point games (Kansas’ Dedric Lawson had 18). Tyrese Haliburton is the breakout star, and he just needs to add scoring to his efficient floor game.
38. Georgetown Hoyas
The Hoyas have missed the NCAA tournament in four straight seasons. The program has not missed it in five straight since 1969-74. Georgetown will crack the tournament field with this team. The backcourt of James Akinjo and Mac McClung will take steps forward, and Omer Yurtseven will be effective as a pick-and-roll big man in Patrick Ewing’s offense.
First-year coach Nate Oats brings consecutive 25-win seasons and consecutive NCAA tournament appearances with him from Buffalo. Previous head coaches Avery Johnson and Anthony Grant were not able to accomplish either in their time in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide have talent, led by point guard Kira Lewis Jr. and shooter John Petty.
The Wolfpack’s 24 wins last season tied the most for the program since they won 26 games in 1982-83, when they captured the national title under Jim Valvano. Since hiring Kevin Keatts two seasons ago, NC State has led the ACC in turnovers forced for consecutive seasons. Markell Johnson will lead the way as one of the best point guards in the ACC this season.
The Irish return 85% of their scoring from last season, which is most in the ACC. They were winless versus ranked opponents last season (0-8), their first such winless season under Mike Brey and first for the program since 1998-99, when they went 0-6. John Mooney returns as the top scorer and rebounder, and Rex Pflueger is back after a knee injury that cost him the entire season. Notre Dame was young last season, and this group is more like Mike Brey likes it … older.
42. LSU Tigers
The Tigers will rise up as the players age and jell. Last season’s 28 wins were the most for the program since they won 28 in 1999-00, and the Sweet 16 appearance was their deepest tournament run since going to the Final Four in 2006. LSU has an excellent backcourt in Javonte Smart and Skylar Mays. The difference-maker is Trendon Watford, a super talented freshman big man.
Zavier Simpson is one of the best passers in Michigan history; in fact, his eight 10-assist games last season were a single-season program record. With the losses of Jordan Poole, Ignas Brazdeikis and Charles Matthews, those assist opportunities will be tougher to come by.
Florida State is coming off a season in which it set program records for wins (29) and ACC wins (13). Leonard Hamilton will have to replace his two top scorers in Mfiondu Kabengele (13.2 PPG) and Terance Mann (11.4 PPG). Kabengele and Mann were two of seven players in the ACC with at least 400 points and 200 rebounds while shooting 50% from the field last season. Raiquan Gray needs to have a breakout season for the Seminoles.
After setting a program record for wins in his first season with 28, Chris Jans followed it up last season with a 30-win campaign. The Aggies have won the WAC tournament seven of the past eight seasons.
This team was headed for a top-15 ranking, before Sam Hauser and Joey Hauser bolted for the door. Markus Howard returns, and he is the top major conference scorer coming back. Howard’s four career 40-point games are already the most in Big East history. What can he do for an encore? Perhaps set the single-season mark for such games. His three 40-point games last season were tied with Eric Murdock (1990-91 for Providence) for the most in a single season in league history.
Last season’s leading scorer, Xavier Johnson (15.5 PPG), will lead a group of eight returners. The Panthers have lost 24 consecutive road games, the longest streak in school history. That streak ends this season. Pittsburgh is turning a corner under Jeff Capel.
49. USC Trojans
Isaiah Mobley, No. 16 in 2019 ESPN 100, is the highest-ranked recruit to pledge to Southern California since DeMar DeRozan (No. 8) in 2008. Andy Enfield has led USC to a losing record in three of his six seasons at the helm.
50. Georgia Bulldogs
At one point last season, the Bulldogs dropped 13 consecutive conference games, their longest such losing streak in program history. But Tom Crean set a good foundation, and five-star recruit Anthony Edwards will help take the Dawgs to the next level.
The Shockers were 13th in Division I in rebounding last season, and they return their two leading rebounders in center Jaime Echenique and guard Dexter Dennis. They snapped a streak of seven consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, the longest in program history.
52. Indiana Hoosiers
The Hoosiers missed the NCAA tournament for the third straight year and the seventh time in the past 11 seasons. The program has not missed the tournament in four straight seasons since 1969-72. This can be a very effective defensive team, but the Hoosiers need to stay healthy. Injuries were a huge factor last season.
The 2019 College Basketball Invitational champions won a school-record 24 games last season and earned their first postseason title since 1990. Alexis Yetna was named AAC freshman of the year and finished with the most rebounds by a freshman in league history (346).
Returning a guy like Lamar Stevens is a rare luxury. Stevens has scored over 600 points in each of the past two seasons; if he does so again this season, he would climb to the top spot on Penn State’s all-time scoring list, currently occupied by Talor Battle.
The Bluejays were 13th in Division I in 3-point FG% and fifth in 3-point FGs made last season. They are one of two Division I teams to return two players that each made 95 3s (Ty-Shon Alexander and Mitch Ballock).
56. Syracuse Orange
57. UConn Huskies
Dan Hurley’s squad is looking to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015-16. The Huskies are in the midst of their longest tournament drought since missing it in 10 straight seasons from 1979-80 to 1988-89.
Steve Forbes enters his fifth season at the helm, and he led the Bucs to a top-3 regular-season finish in the Southern Conference in each of the past four seasons. ETSU has four straight 20-win seasons, its longest streak since doing it four straight times from 1988 to 1992. They return their top six scorers from last season.
Danny Manning will lean on nine returners this season, led by last season’s leading scorer in Brandon Childress (14.7 PPG), Chaundee Brown and Charlotte transfer Andrien White. Manning has struggled against ranked opponents, with a record of 3-40 while trying to rebuild the Wake program.
60. Butler Bulldogs
Last season was just the third time in the past 15 campaigns that Butler won fewer than 20 games. The Bulldogs return All-Big East second-team selection Kamar Baldwin, who was seventh in the conference in scoring last season (17 PPG).
61. BYU Cougars
First-year coach Mark Pope will look to snap a streak of four straight seasons of missing the NCAA tournament, the longest since 1997-2000. Pope will rely on returning big man Yoeli Childs, who was second in the WCC in scoring last season (21.2 PPG). Childs will have to sit out the first part of the season due to his participation in the NBA draft process, which is yet another example of “student-athlete welfare.”
In 2018-19, Ben Howland brought Mississippi State to its first NCAA tournament in the past 10 seasons. Reggie Perry will have a breakout season for the Bulldogs.
63. UCLA Bruins
Mick Cronin had a top-15 defense in each of the past five seasons with Cincinnati. UCLA did not rank inside the top 200 in any season over that span. Will the defensive philosophy translate to Los Angeles?
South Carolina will have to replace first-team All-SEC forward Chris Silva, who was top 10 in the SEC in points, rebounds and blocks per game. Frank Martin enters his eighth season at the helm and has one NCAA tournament appearance to show for it (albeit a Final Four run). He has won more than 17 games only twice.
Anthony Lamb is one of the most versatile and talented players in the country. He is one of two returning players in Division I who averaged 20 points per game on 50% FG shooting while making at least 50 3-pointers last season.
Boise State returns its top four scorers from last season, including Derrick Alston, who was named to the five-man All-Mountain West preseason team. The Broncos’ 13 wins last season were tied for their fewest since the turn of the century. Leon Rice has done a great job with this program, and the Broncos should be back this season.
With Ignas Brazdeikis and Romeo Langford in the NBA, the Illini have the two highest-scoring returners from last season’s strong crop of Big Ten freshmen in Ayo Dosunmu (13.8 PPG) and Giorgi Bezhanishvili (12.5 PPG).
68. Liberty Flames
Led by Scottie James, the Flames had the fourth-best 2-point field goal percentage in Division I (.581) and were seventh in effective FG% (.569) last season. With James back, the Flames should again be among the most efficient interior offensive teams in the country. James and Caleb Homesley are two of the better players in the country at any level.