November is here, so the first college basketball jump shots that count can’t be far behind. Here are nine of the more intriguing questions that must be answered between now, and somebody’s one shining moment in Houston on April 4.
Will Kentucky be, well, Kentucky?
The Wildcats lost 85.9 percent of their scoring and 77.3 percent of their rebounding from last season’s almost-perfect run. Yawwwn. Another new load of blue chips has been unloaded in Lexington, this time imported from Haiti (Skal Labissiere), Australia (Isaac Humphries) and Canada (Mychal Mulder and Jamal Murray). The presumption is that John Calipari’s United Nations will keep the good times going, with the help of holdovers Tyler Ulis, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee. Poythress is a rare commodity; a three-year graduate in the capital city of One-and-Done.
Kentucky’s stay among the very elite is considered a given, even though not every Calipari recruiting wish came true this time, and no program can be impervious to the loss of seven NBA signees. But is it automatic?
Big Blue Nation seems pretty excited, anyway. The Wildcats drew 15,007 to their intrasquad session. Only 13 schools in America averaged 15,000 to their real games last season.
By the way, 21 former Wildcats were on NBA opening night rosters. So 4.7 percent of the professional basketball workforce was made in Kentucky.
How will Duke be at reloading?
Thirty years ago this season, Mike Krzyzewski showed up in his first Final Four. Time, and his program, have marched on. He turns 69 this season, with five national championships and even more grandchildren. But this task will be a tad different.
His thoroughly modern title last April was positively Kentucky-ish, accomplished with several one-and-doners. Replacements have been obtained, and Duke will answer the bell with seven McDonald’s All-Americans. And perhaps Grayson Allen, took some leftover magic home in a doggie bag from last year’s Final Four. Allen was the reserve guard who averaged four points a game all season but torched Wisconsin for 16.
Duke has its aura, but also questions. That’s how the Blue Devils could be picked third in the ACC pre-season vote, but ranked fourth in the nation in the USA Today coaches poll. One remarkable Duke feat still perking along is its 116-game home winning streak against non-conference opponents, going back to 2000. Something to keep in mind when Indiana visits Cameron Indoor Stadium on Dec. 2.
Can Villanova exorcise its tournament demons?
March is fickle, and here’s just the bunch to prove it. The team that won 62 games the past two seasons. The team that blew through its league as the beasts of the Big East with a 32-4 conference record in two years. But also the team that went pfft in the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament both times, despite being seeded No. 2 and No. 1.
Introducing the Villanova Enigmas. They are poised again to make a conference run and build a shiny record, led by guard Ryan Arcidiacono, who found so many ways to be valuable last season he was named co-Big East player of the year with a 10.1-point scoring average. Shouldn’t a program be measured by the consistency of four months, and not the foul fate of one?
A fine idea, coach Jay Wright said. But. "We don’t expect anyone else to look at it that way. We get judged on losing in the second round of the tournament. We know that, but everything we talk about is what we did consistently over the year and what we have to do this year to be that good of a team again."
How will offenses look, being served in 30-second doses?
There’s a shortened shot clock and a batch of new officiating guidelines to try to make college basketball look a little less like rugby. All designed to aid and abet the offense, since the average points per team per game last season was 67.74, the third lowest since 1952.
So maybe the scoreboard operators will be busier this season. Then again, maybe five fewer seconds will lead to more impatience, more rushed and ugly shots, and more clangs off the rim.
Is Ben Simmons the best thing to hit Louisiana since jambalaya? Or even more important, since Shaq?
The fairest freshman of them all will be wearing No. 25 for LSU.
We know this because LSU had an open practice for NBA scouts to come and drool, and 28 of the 30 teams showed up.
We know this, because Simmons was named pre-season SEC player of the year before playing his first minute. So take that, Kentucky.
The 6-10 phenom can play anywhere on the court, or in the world. His road has gone from Melbourne, Australia to Baton Rouge, where the faithful are expecting him to be Shaquille O’Neal 2.0. That’s asking a lot, but Simmons said he was unfazed by the idea of feeling pressure playing basketball. "It’s something I’ve been doing since I was four years old."
Will Indiana and Tom Crean have a happy marriage?
It should not be forgotten that Crean arrived in Bloomington to a mess; sanctions and a roster with one returning scholarship player. That was 2008. In the ensuing years, the Hoosiers would win a Big Ten championship and be ranked No. 1, so the strains in this relationship are curious.
But March has ended too early for local tastes, and too many Indiana players have ended up on police reports. Crean has dropped the hammer on several offenders, and now comes a season with the high expectations, from veteran star guard Yogi Ferrell to vaunted 6-10 recruit Thomas Bryant.
So where should Crean turn to get his troops focused for the matter at hand? Johns Hopkins lacrosse, of course. Crean set up a session for his players with Dave Pietramala, who has built a dynasty there. We’ll see if that helps against Maryland, but one thing is clear. Indiana needs a big season.
Can the Kansas Jayhawks do to Iowa State and Oklahoma what they did to Lithuania and Germany?
A mostly-Kansas team rolled to a gold medal in the World University Games. Now the Jayhawks want to use that trial by fire to get back to business as usual. As sure as the sun rises in the east over Topeka and sets in the west over Dodge City, Kansas wins the Big 12. The Jayhawks’ 11-year title streak might be the most unappreciated feat in the game at the moment, and they have the goods to make it a dozen.
But then they have to do something about March. Kansas has not survived the first weekend two consecutive years as a No. 2 seed. Make that three, and it is no longer an anomaly. It’s a trend.
Is it Gonzaga’s time?
Mark Few has taken the Zags to the NCAA Tournament all 16 years of his tenure, and won 80.9 percent of his games, which is fourth best of all time, and – drum roll, please – higher than John Wooden. He has made Gonzaga-as-Cinderella more dated than the rotary telephone.
What’s left? Oh yeah, the Final Four. With 6-10 Kyle Wiltjer, 6-11 Domantas Sabonis and 7-1 Przemek Karnowski, the Gonzaga Mountains might at last be too good to keep out.
How will the new guys do?
This season is particularly laden with new coaches owning interesting pasts.
Let’s see, there’s the only man this century to coach a team to three consecutive Final Fours – before getting fired. That’s Ben Howland, late of UCLA, now Mississippi State.
And the man who took his team to the NCAA Tournament 16 times in 17 years – before getting fired. Rick Barnes, late of Texas, now Tennessee.
And the man who led the Dallas Mavericks to their first NBA Finals – before getting fired. Avery Johnson, who will try to power up Alabama basketball, otherwise known as the filler between the Tide’s bowl game and spring practice.
There’s the second best free throw shooter in NBA history, taking over a program that was tied for 309th in free throw percentage last season. Charlotte’s Mark Price.
There’s the coach who played in the dim light of Division III at Kenyon, became famous by turning up the wattage at VCU, and now is in the center stage glare of Texas. Shaka Smart, whose middle name, apparently, is Havoc.
There’s the one-time Final Four MVP taking over at a school that has never seen the Final Four. Arizona State’s Bobby Hurley, via Duke.
And Chris Mullin, the St. John’s great who has been assigned in the first coaching job of his life the task of making his alma mater relevant.
All that ought to keep our attention the next five months.