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Andy Katz | NCAA.com Correspondent | November 4, 2018

College basketball: Gonzaga chases a title, Loyola-Chicago aims for repeat run. 10 teams to watch this season

Gonzaga was our preseason No. 1 pick. And, despite the addition of Reid Travis to Kentucky, the Bulldogs could easily hold that tag heading into the season.

Beat Duke in the Maui Invitational title game — if they were to meet in November— and the Bulldogs should be a consensus No. 1.

The Zags should dominate the WCC with Saint Mary’s and BYU the usual suspects trying to push them during the regular season.

Gonzaga is a high-major program, an elite destination and a unique program that can thrive despite being in a middling conference.

The rest of my picks in this “other” category will have a hard time getting a bid if they don’t win their conference tournament. The one exception could be Loyola-Chicago if the 2018 Final Four Ramblers play their non-conference schedule well.

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Here are some thoughts on this group of 10 heading into the start of school:

1. How much of an impact will Geno Crandall have for the Bulldogs? The North Dakota transfer guard averaged 16 points a game last season. He could be the added experience on the perimeter the Bulldogs covet. They are set at every position, but were probably one guard short of having the complete team needed to make another run toward a Final Four and national title game. Experience matters and the Bulldogs have it at every position. If Crandall can deliver a dozen points a game or simply be a steady hand when pressured or if there is foul trouble, then he will maximize his transfer. 

2. How does Cameron Krutwig avoid a sophomore slump? Krutwig was one of the unheralded players on the Ramblers last season, making their Final Four run even more impressive. He was under recruited by Big Ten schools and clearly maximized his freshman season. He didn’t show any signs of being overwhelmed by the situation. But now there won’t be any surprises. He will be expected to lead. His effort was never in question. But how will he handle being the focus at times of an opposing scout? How will he deal with the need to produce even more? My gut says he will shine. But this is yet again new territory for Krutwig, something I’m sure Porter Moser will relish having him thrive in this season.

3. How does Buffalo carry the momentum of the Arizona upset? The Bulls have been bandied about as one of the marquee games on non-conference schedules. West Virginia coach Bob Huggins and Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski have both mentioned how tough the Buffalo game will be on their non-conference schedules. The Bulls will take a rough road trip to St. Bonaventure before meeting Syracuse at Carrier Dome. If the Bulls were to go 2-2 or better with those four games, clean up on the rest of the non-conference games and win the regular-season MAC title (i.e. get the top seed), then an at-large bid should be under serious consideration. The MAC consistently struggles for attention. But this may be it’s best chance for an at-large berth since 1999.

4. What would Marshall have to do to get an at-large berth? First off, Dan D’Antoni is about as loose as they come. He is clearly enjoying this second act as a head coach. Jon Elmore had a memory maker in the first round upset of Wichita State. The Thundering Herd enter Conference USA as a favorite with Western Kentucky (although Middle Tennessee State can never be dismissed). The game to keep an eye on is Nov. 23 when Marshall is at Maryland. The Thundering Herd could make a massive statement for themselves early in the season. Getting high-profile, non-conference games was extremely tough for Marshall. They picked two others at the end of December at Texas A&M and at Virginia. If Marshall were to go 2-1 on these road games,  an at-large berth could be within reach.

5. How soon before the nation is all on board with the Jackrabbits? I kid because I care. Not sure why, but I’ve fallen for the Jackrabbits and their logo. Love it. So original. But it’s not just about the name or the gear. Mike Daum is something special. He will average over 20 a game. And it would be a shame if South Dakota State can’t win the Summit again and get into the NCAA tournament. This is a team that will be a trendy pick to get a first-round upset like fans hoped it might last March against Ohio State. Daum is talented enough to deliver a win this season. The problem prior to the NCAA tournament is South Dakota State can’t get high-profile games. It’s a shame. Daum and the Jackrabbits deserve to be on a national platform early against a high-level opponent. There is a reason other teams don’t want to play them — they could get beat, like they may in March.

6. What kind of impact will Charles Bassey have at Western Kentucky? Bassey reclassified and Western Kentucky said he graduated high school to be eligible for this season. This was a major coup for Rick Stansbury and Western Kentucky. Stansbury said Bassey, “wants to be somewhere where he can be impactful.’’ He said the 6-10 Bassey will add a lot to the program overall. If Bassey can be a dominate player for the Hilltoppers, then the race to win the Conference USA title – especially with the aforementioned Marshall – should make it one of the better conference races to track.

7. When will everyone catch on about Harvard’s Seth Towns? Well, it shouldn’t take too long. He was the Ivy League player of the year. He was an AP All-American honorable mention. He was only a sophomore last season when he scored 31 against Columbia, 25 against Kentucky and helped Harvard win the Ivy League regular season and get to the NIT after failing to win the Ivy League tournament. The 6-7 Towns should flourish as a junior and push Harvard to the top of the Ivy, holding off teams like Yale while also competing with Brown’s Desmond Cambridge for player of the year honors.

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8. What are the chances Wofford can win the Southern Conference and get to the NCAA tournament? Two words: Fletcher Magee. The Terriers shocked the establishment with a road win at North Carolina last season. Magee scored 27 in the Terriers win over the Tar Heels, then No. 5, in the program’s first-ever win over a top 25 program. Wofford also beat Georgia Tech and Harvard last season. But Wofford couldn’t get past eventual Southern champs UNC Greensboro, who ultimately pushed Gonzaga in the first-round of the NCAA tournament. Wofford isn’t getting an NCAA tournament at-large berth unless it has an impeccable non-conference, littered with high-profile wins and then wins the league convincingly. But if they can get through the tournament and earn a berth, then this will be a trendy first-round upset team. Coach Mike Young deserves to get a shot with this group next March.

9. What kind of challenge is Randy Bennett facing at Saint Mary’s? Maybe his biggest yet. But I have no doubt he will pass it. Bennett has one of his more inexperienced teams this season. The Gaels return just two of the top six scorers in Jordan Ford (11.1) and Tanner Krebs (7.7). The Gaels are littered with redshirts and newcomers, and there’s no reason to believe Bennett won’t have this team ready to be a pest yet again deep into the WCC. Still, Saint Mary’s usually receives the early praise as a nudge to Gonzaga. This season, they will have to climb up to be real bother. Don’t think for a second that Saint Mary’s can’t do it yet again.

10. How far can Yoeli Childs carry BYU? Childs averaged 17.8 points and 8.6 boards last season for the Cougars. Coach Dave Rose has traditionally done a great job of featuring the star. Childs should be that for the Cougars this season. But BYU needs to get out and win some notable non-conference games  to jump start their season. Too often, the Cougars have relied on earning a bid through the WCC. That means trying to get one to two wins over Gonzaga. BYU must come out of the road games at Nevada, Mississippi State, Utah, UNLV, San Diego State and Illinois State with at least three wins, possibly four, to be in the conversation for an at-large berth. It’s doable. It’s a tall task. But it’s plausible.

Early predictions

NCAA tournament picks: Gonzaga, Loyola-Chicago, Buffalo, Marshall, South Dakota State, Harvard, Wofford

On the bubble: Western Kentucky, Saint Mary’s, BYU

Power rankings of the other conference contenders

  1. Gonzaga
  2. Loyola-Chicago
  3. Buffalo
  4. Marshall
  5. South Dakota State
  6. Western Kentucky
  7. Harvard
  8. Wofford
  9. Saint Mary’s
  10. BYU

 

Top players:

Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga

Clayton Custer, Loyola-Chicago

Mike Daum, South Dakota State

Jon Elmore, Marshall

CJ Massinburg, Buffalo