Turn back the clocks to this time last year, and one thing is clear: Whatever we thought we knew about the 2015-16 college basketball season, we didn’t.
It was a time when Villanova was considered a regular-season juggernaut that was destined to fail in March. Maryland supposedly had the best starting five in America. Senior star power was thought to be a distant memory, and the Pac-12 had no dominant team.
So, preseason conventional wisdom is usually flawed. (More than) A few crazy things are bound to happen throughout the course of a season, and it’s fun to try to pinpoint off-the-wall predictions that just might come true.
17) Jayson Tatum leads Duke in assists this season
The question everyone has about Duke in 2016-17 is this: who’s playing point guard? The Blue Devils don’t have a true floor general, as incoming freshman Frank Jackson’s natural position is shooting guard. And Grayson Allen, for all of his offensive gifts, has never been known as a playmaker.
But what sets Mike Krzyzewski apart from many coaches is his adaptability; give him some time, and he’ll optimize the parts he has to work with. Last year, that meant moving Brandon Ingram to the four and playing small-ball. Once upon a time, he turned point guard novice Jon Scheyer into an excellent facilitator.
This season, it could mean utilizing Tatum in a point forward role. A 6-8 jack-of-all-trades with superb court vision, Duke will want to have the ball in Tatum’s hands as much as possible. Jackson and Allen thrive while spotting up and running off of screens, and slotting the 6-8 Tatum at the top of the key with the ball will give opposing coaches headaches. There, he can see over defenses with ease, run the pick-and-roll or take smaller guards into the post and dominate. Tatum likely won't serve as Duke’s primary ball handler early on, but expect more of this as the season progresses.
18) DJ Hogg becomes an all-SEC player
Texas A&M was absolutely loaded on the wing last season, but now that Danuel House and Jalen Jones have moved on, Hogg is going to get more minutes. For curious college hoops fans, that’s a good thing.
Hogg is a modern basketball player in every sense of the phrase. He’s 6-8, can shoot and can defend multiple positions; given the Aggies’ experience last season, they didn't feature him much as a ball handler, but he was able to get to the rim when asked to do so.
Hogg’s raw numbers weren’t overwhelming last season. He averaged 6.2 points and 2.9 rebounds in 18.2 minutes per game, but his tools are what have folks excited. Hogg shot 33.1 percent from 3-point range last year, but he’s got a beautiful stroke; that number should spike with an increased sample size. If the Aggies are going to return to the NCAA tournament, Hogg will need to amp up his production.
19) Lonzo Ball is a human highlight factory, but struggles with efficiency
Ball’s court vision is uncanny, and he has a rhythm to his game that makes him extremely fun to watch. He has some Ben Simmons-like qualities; Ball whips passes all over the court with pristine accuracy, and he’s not afraid to take calculated risks.
With that said, his game needs some refining. Ball was inefficient in UCLA’s preseason trip abroad, and for all of his jaw-dropping highlights, his overall performance left something to be desired.
Ball should perform well as a Bruin, and UCLA games will be must-see TV because of him. Just don’t be surprised to see the (hopefully for his sake, the occasional) 2-for-10 outing sprinkled in.
20) P.J. Thompson plays well, but he doesn’t get enough credit
Thompson is the anti-Ball, of sorts. The Purdue point guard isn’t exactly the type that’s going to get you jumping off of your couch, but he’s solid. The optics aren’t always great, but Thompson did what was asked of him in 2015-16.
As a sophomore, the Boilermaker point guard shot 41.5 percent from 3-point range and turned the ball over 1.2 times per 40 minutes. The latter is an outstanding figure for a lead guard, but the Purdue narrative persists: lackluster point guard play undermines superb frontcourt production.
There’s some truth to that, but it’s also not totally fair. Thompson is far from spectacular, but he’s perfectly capable. It’s not as if he’s out there bricking away from 3-point range as the Boilermaker bigs are dominating on the interior. In order to take the next step, for better or worse, Matt Painter is going to have to place more trust in his guards. Thompson was an efficient player last season, and with a higher usage rate, the Boilermakers could become more dangerous.
21) Virginia takes a slight step back from previous seasons
People outside of Charlottesville forget how good Malcolm Brogdon was. His raw stats were deflated throughout his career due to Virginia’s slow pace, but here were his tempo-adjusted numbers compared to Hield and Valentine in 2015-16:
Brogdon was far and away the best defender of that trio, as well. Anthony Gill is gone, too, but Memphis transfer Austin Nichols should fill his void nicely. Brogdon will be more difficult to replace – as it stands, incoming freshman Kyle Guy has some major shoes to fill. He figures to be a good player in time, but it’s hard to see Virginia replacing even 70 percent of what Brogdon gave the Cavaliers. UVA is ranked seventh in the Coaches Poll, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see it finish the season somewhere in the teens.
22) Jaron Blossomgame wins ACC Player of the Year
With an army of transfer help, Clemson figures to make the NCAA tournament this season. And if it does, Blossomgame will become a mainstream college basketball attraction.
As a junior, Blossomgame averaged 18.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game on 53.8 percent shooting. He finished 2015-16 with a staggering true shooting percentage of 61.3. Duke is clearly the best team in the ACC, but with all of its star power, the Blue Devils might not have anyone score 20 points per game. Blossomgame should do so with ease, and he should also lead the Tigers to new heights this season.
23) Valparaiso wins an NCAA tournament game
Call it a hunch. Alec Peters surprised some people when he decided to return to Valpo this season, and the Crusaders are certainly thankful that he did. Valparaiso has 58 wins over the last two seasons, but Peters has never won a game in the tournament. It would be nice to see that change in 2017.
24) Oregon finishes with a top-five offense
Attracting top-flight incoming talent is great, but continuity matters in college basketball, too. When Oregon was humming on offense last season, it was beautiful to watch. The Ducks return most of their key pieces in 2016-17.
Elgin Cook is gone, but the Ducks add Dylan Ennis and welcome back five of their top seven scorers from last season. Dillon Brooks’ injury is a concern, but this unit is a machine regardless. Oregon finished No. 12 in adjusted offensive efficiency last season, and it has a good chance of reaching the top five this year. Every dribble the Ducks take has a purpose; the ball moves around the perimeter like a hot potato, and once there’s a crease in the defense, the Oregon ball handler is at the rim. Once again, the Ducks should challenge for a No. 1 seed.