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Joe Boozell | | October 27, 2016

32 bold college hoops predictions for 2016-17, Part IV

  Could this be the year that Illinois returns to the NCAA tournament?

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.

The reality: Villanova won the national championship; Maryland failed to live up to the hype; seniors Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine were the two best players in the sport and Oregon earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

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.

With that in mind, here is Part IV of our 32 bold college basketball predictions for 2016-17. Check out Parts I, II and III as well.

25) Dennis Smith Jr. comes close to matching Cat Barber’s production

Barber put up huge numbers last season for North Carolina State, and the Wolfpack have another special point guard coming in this year.

Smith might be the best ball handler in the country. He’s that electric. The freshman needs to add muscle, but he can get into the paint just about whenever he wants and can finish once he’s there.

MORE: ACC basketball preview

The biggest concern for North Carolina State is whether or not it will have enough guys who can capitalize on Smith’s drive-and-kick ability. Barber averaged 23.5 points and 4.5 assists per game last season; the latter mark could have been much higher.

Smith is a great passer, and he’ll look to get his teammates involved. Expect to see a slightly lower scoring mark but a slightly higher assist total for the freshman sensation.

26) Ethan Happ leads Wisconsin

Happ finished behind Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes in scoring last season, but he was the most efficient of the three by far.

A battering ram with outstanding touch near the rim, Happ utilizes angles as well as anyone in college basketball. He shot 53.8 percent from the floor in 2015-16 and his 18.5 net rating led the Wisconsin starting lineup by a significant margin.

Happ knows exactly who he is on offense; he’s not going to get cute near the 3-point line and stray away from his bread and butter. Few Big Ten interior defenders can hang with him one-on-one, and if the Badgers make a concerted effort to get their big man more post-up attempts, they’ll improve on offense.

27) Illinois returns to the NCAA tournament

Let’s drink some orange Kool-Aid, shall we? Illinois has had horrible injury luck in the past few years, but John Groce’s team is fully healthy going into 2016-17. The Illini are hungry and talented.

Tracy Abrams returns for his sixth year after a rigorous journey through injuries, but when he’s good to go, Abrams is a solid Big Ten point guard. As a junior, he averaged 10.7 points and 3.2 assists per game. And then there’s Malcolm Hill, who was quietly one of the top players in the conference last season.

RELATED: Big Ten basketball preview

Hill plays just about every position on the floor, and he plays them all well. He averaged 18.1 points per game last season; Illinois doesn’t tally the 15 wins it did without Hill. Maverick Morgan is a solid big and Groce welcomes in plenty of young talent.

Illinois is starving for a breakthrough, and this could finally be the year it happens.

28) The Big East crown comes down to the wire

People forget how good Xavier was last year. The Musketeers began last season 21-2, and they produced top-25 units on both sides of the floor.

Xavier returns its key parts, too. It loses far less than Villanova, and the Big East rivals split their decisions last season. The Musketeers will be without James Farr and Jalen Reynolds, but they welcome Norfolk State transfer RaShid Gaston into the mix, who put up 15.5 points and 9.6 rebounds per game in 2014-15.

With all of that said, at this point, picking against Villanova in the Big East is crazy. The defending champions have plenty returning, and they have a formula for success that works. But in 2015-16, these two teams weren’t that much different. Don’t be surprised to see Villanova and Xavier battling down to the last conference game in early March.

29) Kyle Kuzma takes a massive leap in his junior season

Jakob Poeltl is gone to the NBA and few are talking about Utah this preseason. The Utes will take a step back, but it’s foolish to write off Larry Krystkowiak’s program entirely.

Kuzma is a major reason why. A 6-9 athlete capable of playing either forward spot, Kuzma averaged 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game last season. Those numbers will rise. The junior has a lethal off-the-bounce repertoire for a guy his size, and though his 3-point percentages left some to be desired last year, he has a smooth stroke.

Kuzma will have the opportunity to be a star this season. If Utah is going to sniff last year’s success, he’ll need to be just that. A leap could be in the cards for the Utes’ forward.

30) Kelan Martin scores 40 points in a game this season

He was close last season:

Martin made huge strides as a sophomore, averaging 15.7 points per game and posting a 21.7 player efficiency rating. Roosevelt Jones and Kellen Dunham are gone, so Martin is the unquestioned alpha dog on offense.

Transfers Kethan Savage and Avery Woodson are solid Jones and Dunham replacements, but they won’t require the ball as much as their predecessors did. That means Martin will be able to operate, and operate, he can. The junior is one of the best pull-up jump shooters in college basketball, and with his bulky 6-6 frame, he’s got a burgeoning post game to boot.

The Bulldogs have surrounding talent to the point where defenses can’t focus exclusively on Martin, but make no mistake: this is his team. As a result, No. 30 should score a lot of points in 2016-17.

31) Notre Dame misses the NCAA tournament

Mike Brey runs a marvelous program in South Bend but the cupboard looks pretty bare for Notre Dame this season. The Fighting Irish lose Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste, and though Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem return, this could be a rare down year for ND.

RELATED: ACC basketball preview

The ACC is absolutely loaded this season, and the Fighting Irish simply might not have enough guys who can create quality shots. At a certain point, that catches up to you, and defense has never been Notre Dame's calling card.

Jackson made the game so much easier for his teammates, and the Vasturias and the Beachems of the world won’t get the spot-up looks they did in 2015-16. The Fighting Irish could easily prove this prediction wrong, but as of now, their chances in the ACC don’t look as promising as usual.

32) Florida State pulls off a huge ACC upset at some point

It’s smart to take a wait-and-see approach with the Seminoles, but their talent is undeniable. Jonathan Isaac is one of the best freshmen in the country, and Dwayne Bacon can do stuff like this:

And, well, this:

Xavier Rathan-Mayes is back as well and Florida State has talented complementary pieces. The Noles have struggled with consistency in recent years, but they have the ability to knock off anyone this season. That includes Duke, North Carolina or Virginia.

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