Orientation for the 2016-17 college basketball season is now in session, and just in time for Friday, with 160 games from New Hampshire to Honolulu.You’ve seen the marquee, starring Duke, Kentucky and Kansas. You’ve heard the player of the year contenders– with Grayson Allen and Dillon Brooks on the front row. You’ve spotted the intriguing coaching moves, starting with Jamie Dixon– having taken Pittsburgh to the NCAA tournament 11 times in 13 years– now at his alma mater TCU, which hasn’t been since 1998.
You know the championship game next April that would answer a lot of wishes: Duke vs. Kentucky, Coach K vs. Coach Cal.
But it’s a big world out there in college basketball, so here are 9 other names to notice as the season starts:
No. 1. Middle Tennessee
The season has to start somewhere. Might as well be Murfreesboro, Tenn. That’s the first tipoff of the college basketball season, when the Blue Raiders– with Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw, their two leading scorers from the team that booted Michigan State out of the NCAA tournament in March– go against Milligan at 11 a.m. CST.
Who opens the season at 11 o’clock on a Friday morning? Middle Tennessee does, for a couple reasons. More than 4,000 school kids are bused in from all over Rutherford County, to make a field trip out of it. And they honor Veteran’s Day by playing on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, just like World War I ended.
No. 2. Michigan State
Tom Izzo is known for bold scheduling, but when did he turn masochist?
The Spartans– with Denzel Valentine gone and several freshmen being counted upon– open against Arizona in Hawaii on Friday. Then, they play Kentucky in New York the following Tuesday, possibly Louisville in the Battle 4 Atlantis and Duke in Durham on Nov. 29.
Which means, Michigan State could see the No. 1, 2, 10 and 13 ranked teams in the Associated Press poll within the first 19 days of the season and all away from home.
There’s a word for that.
“Brutal,” Izzo said. “It’s 13,600 miles in 22 days. That is taking on something that we’ve never really taken on before. It means we’re going to find out exactly where we are, like we always do.”
No. 3. Evan Bradds
The Belmont forward launches a bid to lead the nation in shooting three seasons in a row. He was at 68.8 percent as a sophomore and 71.4 as a junior. He has taken 735 shots total and missed only 228, which means his .690 percentage is the highest for a career since the NCAA started tracking the stat in 1948.
“It’s been fun these past two years. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to my teammates. Half the time, they put me in a position to shoot a layup,” Bradds said. “I spend a lot of time working on my game around the rim. That’s where I stay a lot.”
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, you’re not alone. For its website, Belmont sent Bradds onto the streets of Nashville with a microphone as an interviewer named Brad Evans, to ask passersby one trivia question. Who led the nation in shooting the past two seasons?
One young lady said it must be someone from Kentucky. A man said since all the good players get drafted after one season, he had no idea.
“Literally, my apartment sits on that street. Not one person got it correct,” Bradds said. “The thing was, we came back to campus and asked people, and they still didn’t know.”
They know the name well enough back in his native Jamestown, Ohio – population 1,993 at last count. Bradds’s grandfather, Gary, had his No. 35 retired at Ohio State, which is why Bradds wears it now.
“When I go back home, everybody makes sure that I know they either played with him or knew him,” Bradds said. “That’s pretty cool, just being in a small town talking about him.”
He never knew his grandfather. Gary Bradds died of cancer at 40, nearly 11 years before Evan Bradds was born.
“I know he’s up there watching and critiquing everything,” Bradds said.
No. 4. James Daniel III
The Howard guard, all six feet of him, led the nation in scoring last season with a 27.1 average. An ankle injury will delay his encore for several weeks– Daniel has vowed to get back earlier– but he’ll return eventually to lead the team picked to win the MEAC.
The beginning of the season is not gentle for Howard. By Dec. 7, the Bison will have played at Michigan, Marquette, Georgetown and Maryland. But, they’re pointing toward March. What would the MEAC’s NCAA tournament bid mean to them? The last time Howard owned that was 1992. The Bison have had one winning season since. In other words, a lot.
“He’s been a major part of us becoming relevant again in terms of college basketball,” coach Kevin Nickleberry said of Daniel for the school’s media guide. “The last thing on his to-do list is lead us to a championship.”
No. 5. Fletcher Magee
He plays for Wofford and doesn’t miss very often. Magee became only the sixth freshman in Division I history last season to top 90 percent in free-throw shooting, leading the nation at 92.5. He was third in 3-point shooting at 47.9 and hit nine of 10 in one game.
Practice might not make perfect, but it does make an awfully high percentage.
“In my offseason workouts, I try to shoot two free throws for every five shots I shoot, which would normally be about 50 (free throws) per workout,” he said. “A few times a week my teammates and I would shoot 100 straight.”
His skills apparently were evident early on. Before his freshman year at the First Academy in Orlando, Magee worked on his shooting daily with Beau Bufton, an assistant coach. Bufton asked Magee then that when he went on to college one day and led the nation in free throw or 3-point shooting to give his old prep coach a shout-out. So, there it is.
No. 6. Mark Few
He’s 466-111 at Gonzaga, translating to 80.8 percent, which is higher than any other Division I coach out there. He’s also No. 3 on the all-time Division I winning percentage list. No. 4 is a guy named John Wooden.
Every season it’s same question. When’s it his time for the Final Four?
No. 7. Tubby Smith
Never mind turning 65, he’s up for a new challenge, taking over at Memphis, 19 years after he led Kentucky to the national championship. If Smith can get the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament one day, it’ll be his sixth different school, and no coach has ever done that. But then, unusually high numbers have never been unusual for a man who was one of 17 kids.
No. 8. Brad Underwood
You can count the Southland conference games he been to in the last three years at Stephen F. Austin on one hand. Make that one finger, as in 53-1. Now he’s at Oklahoma State, which just had its worst season in 29 years. Good luck with trying to keep that kind of record going in the same league with Kansas.
No. 9. Chicago State
Oh, sure, everyone knows about Duke at the top of the college basketball heap. But there’s also the bottom. Light a candle for the Cougars. After going 4-28 last season – the worst record in America– they open with 12 of their first 15 games on the road, including Wisconsin and Notre Dame. But, they’re anxious to get started.
So is everyone. Time to play.