Let’s identify 16 key storylines to watch in this brand-new event.
*Bagley vs. Bamba?
Two of the most highly-touted freshmen bigs in the country could square off in the second round, if Duke handles Portland State and Texas beats Butler.Mo Bamba, who has the potential to be the best defender in college hoops, has nine blocks in two games. Marvin Bagley looks like the next Chris Bosh. When we talked about the best freshmen in the country, the first names we mentioned were usually Michael Porter, Jr., DeAndre Ayton and Bagley, in some order.
With Porter out for the season, Bamba could vault into that conversation. Good showings against Butler and Duke would be significant.
Gonzaga lost – don’t hold your breath – Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews, Zach Collins and Przemek Karnowski from last year’s team. Johnathan Williams and Josh Perkins return, but the Bulldogs are unproven. Who steps up?
The Zags have six guys averaging double-digits in scoring through two games. Keep an eye on Killian Tillie, who was probably the best fourth big man in the country last season. He’s averaging 12.3 points and 8.7 rebounds. Freshman Corey Kispert has impressed early on; he’s averaging 11.7 points and shooting 42 percent from 3.
*Hoops fans get to meet Florida’s Egor Koulechov
No. 7 Florida is a reasonable pick to win its bracket, and the Gators have a new star in Koulechov, a graduate transfer from Rice. Koulechov is averaging 20 points and eight rebounds – he’s 6-5, and he snared almost nine boards per game last season.
Mike White is a great coach, and Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen form an excellent backcourt. The Gators needed an extra jolt to become a contender this season, and Koulechov looks like he could provide it.
*Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann could face his former team
Holtmann, who unexpectedly left Butler this summer for Ohio State, could meet up with the Bulldogs in Portland. The Buckeyes enter the tournament 4-0; Butler is 3-1 with a road loss to Maryland. Holtmann either coached or recruited every player on the Bulldogs’ roster.
“It’s certainly in the back of my mind,” Holtmann told the Indy Star of a possible matchup.
“It would be weird, I would say,” Butler guard Kamar Baldwin said.
Grayson Allen’s health
Allen has struggled in two games since his 37-point outburst at the Champions Classic, combining to shoot 5-of-18 from the floor and 1-of-10 from 3. Mike Krzyzewski told reporters that he held Allen out of practice this week because he’s “a little banged up.”
A comment like that wouldn’t turn heads for most players. But it’s a little different with Allen, who limped (literally and figuratively) through his junior year and wasn’t nearly as productive as he was as a sophomore. Allen has proven he can play through pain, but last year, he didn’t look like himself. Keep an eye on how he’s moving in Portland.
*Kelan Martin against quality wing defenders
Martin’s numbers look a lot like Trevon Bluiett’s, but we don’t think about Martin like we do Bluiett. Why? Because sometimes, his numbers are empty calories. He feasts on mid-majors and struggles against NBA-caliber wings.
Case in point: he averaged 20 points and 11.5 rebounds in two games against Kennesaw State and Princeton. Against Maryland, where he was hounded by Justin Jackson, Martin scored 12 points on 5-for-15 shooting. Despite being considered Butler’s best player, he’s been removed from the starting lineup a few times in his career for that reason. He never topped 30 minutes in the Bulldogs’ three NCAA tournament games in 2017.
He’s clearly talented, and in facing Texas (and possibly Duke), he’ll have a chance to change the narrative. Martin’s performance can make or break the Bulldogs.
*Experience vs. talent
It may not unfold this way, but Florida and Duke are the two most likely teams to advance to the championship in their bracket.
If that happens, we’ll see an interesting case study of experience vs. talent (note: Florida is clearly talented, but not on Duke’s level). However, the Blue Devils start four freshmen alongside a possibly-injured Allen. The Gators start two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore, and their perimeter trio (Chiozza, Allen and Koulechov) is one of the best in the country.
Florida could face Gonzaga, too, and it will be a similar story. The Bulldogs are talented, but there are several new faces. The Gators’ experience could give them a leg up early in the season.
*Texas’ guard play
Bamba is a beast, but his presence alone won’t be enough to get the Longhorns back to the NCAA tournament. Texas sputtered last year because its guards, oozing with ability, just weren’t efficient enough.
Andrew Jones and Kerwin Roach are playing more to their strengths this year – which means they’re attacking the hoop relentlessly. Roach is shooting 11 percent from 3, but he’s at 60 percent overall. He’s missed 10 shots this year – 10! Eight of them have been from 3-point land, meaning he’s an absurd 14-for-16 from 2. Roach is a better athlete than pretty much anyone he faces; he’s learning to leverage that.
Jones is a better shooter than Roach, but not quite the athlete. Still, he could stand to push the drive-to-shoot ratio more in favor of driving. It’s early, but Jones and Roach are both shooting better than 48 percent from the field. Neither topped 43 percent last season.
If these guys have a bounce back year, and Bamba is Bamba, the Longhorns could make some noise. We’ll see how they fare at the PK80.
*Is Luke Maye legit?
If Maye plays in Portland like he has in North Carolina’s first three games, it will be a huge development for the Tar Heels. Roy Williams had to replace Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley in the frontcourt. UNC was relying on Maye, and he’s exceeded expectations.
Maye is averaging 19.3 points and 9.3 rebounds while shooting 55.6 percent from 3. Even if he regresses to something like 15 and eight, it’s a win for the Tar Heels. Joel Berry is their star. What they needed coming into the season was a viable second option.
Their sweet-shooting big man is filling that void thus far. He has a chance to build even more confidence this week.
*Miles Bridges’ position
Bridges was phenomenal as a small-ball power forward for Michigan State as a freshman. His shooting spaced the floor, and because he only shared the court with one big man, there was room for his rampaging drives. Bridges is one of the best athletes in the country.
Bridges is mostly playing small forward this year, which means he’s standing on the perimeter more. Why? Because Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward, two true big men, are a few of the Spartans’ best players. On one hand, you want to play your best guys. On the other, that means your best player (Bridges) isn’t in his proper position. What should Tom Izzo do?
He’s a good enough coach to figure it out, but it felt like Bridges was underutilized against Duke – 10 of his 15 shots against the Blue Devils were 3s. Again, he’s a good shooter, but the best part of his game is his combination of strength and athleticism. Playing the four allows those talents to shine through.
It will be fascinating to see how Izzo juggles his frontcourt rotation.
*Trae Young: gunner, or stud?
The new Oklahoma point guard has Buddy Hield-level talent. He’ll take some ridiculous shots, but he’ll make some ridiculous shots. He’s averaging 18.5 points and 11.5 assist early on; he almost always has the ball in his hands for the Sooners.
The knock on Young is that his shot selection isn’t great. He’s shooting less than 40 percent from the floor. But he clearly has the passing gene – he had 13 dimes in his last game – and can shift his mindset from score-first to pass-first in a pinch.
Which version will we see in Portland? Well, Oklahoma is going to need some of both – especially if it faces North Carolina. But he could become a household name with a big tournament.
*North Carolina dominates tournaments
Of course, the Tar Heels went 6-0 in last year’s NCAA tournament. They went 3-0 at the Maui Invitational (fun fact: UNC has won three national titles since 2005; it won the Maui Invitational all three times). The year prior, North Carolina went 5-1 in the NCAA tournament.
It didn’t win the 2017 ACC tournament, but there’s a pattern here. Perhaps Roy Williams’ teams thrive in a single-elimination setting because, without as much time to prepare, the best athletes generally win out. UNC doesn’t have the jumbo-package front line it has in recent years, but it’ll be interesting to see if Williams and company can keep blitzing through these brackets.
*Possible Arkansas vs. North Carolina rematch?
If you’ll recall, the Razorbacks played the Tar Heels in last year’s Round of 32, and led in the second half before a late collapse. They could face each other in the second round of the PK80. Arkansas is 3-0 on the young season.
*DePaul’s progress…. Or not
Man, it’s been a rough decade for DePaul. The last time the Blue Demons won 20 games was 2006-07. Frankly, they haven’t come close since then.
DePaul is off to a 1-2 start (granted, the losses came against Notre Dame and Illinois, games it wasn’t expected to win). And things won’t get any easier with Michigan State looming.
It probably won’t beat the Spartans, but it can still have a productive weekend – a matchup with UConn is winnable. This program needs some good vibes, and it can take a step forward with a solid showing.
*Remember Elijah Brown?
Brown is on his third school – he started at Butler before transferring to New Mexico, and is now at Oregon. With Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey, Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher gone, Brown has a prime opportunity in Eugene. What will he do with it?
Remember, he’s averaged more than 20 points at the NCAA level. He’s been fine for Oregon thus far – he’s averaging 12 points and making 40 percent of his 3s. The Ducks are winning – big – but they haven’t faced anyone noteworthy.
Brown is one of Oregon’s few players who can create his own shot. He’ll need to in the PK80. If the Ducks can get past UConn, a likely matchup against Michigan State will be waiting for them.
*It's the first year of the tournament
So naturally some crazy stuff will happen. In case you didn't know, the tournament is in celebration of Phil Knight's 80th birthday.
Enjoy this week, folks. It's one of the best of the season.