The long, lonely span of time without college basketball from the first week of April to the beginning of November is nearly over. Preseason polls, conference previews and media days are our only taste thus far, but it’s coming.
The madness is coming.
In the first edition of Monday Madness for the 2016-2017 season, we’ll look at early contenders for player of the year, who will compete for a No. 1 seed so they don’t have to get knocked off by a No. 15 seed (sorry Michigan State) and who will win the national championship.
It’s back. Let’s do it.
Player of the year
It’s the preseason, and this is the time for picking exactly what the college basketball season will look like come March. That’s a tall task in November, and we’ll all probably be wrong, but it’s fun.
“It gets the people going!”
Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine are gone. Ben Simmons isn’t playing at half-speed and skipping class at LSU. The star power has shifted, but the first two on this list will be familiar due to their successes last season.
Grayson Allen, Duke G
The legend of Grayson Allen started two tournaments ago, with the then-freshman bursting onto the scene with 16 points in the championship game win over Wisconsin.
Coming off the championship game heroics, Allen never looked back, leading Duke and the ACC in scoring last season with 21.6 points per game. The Blue Devils fell to Oregon in the Sweet 16, but Allen is back for his junior season. Oh, and with the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class alongside him.
Being one of college basketball’s biggest stars and the leader of a championship favorite sets up Allen as the frontrunner for player of the year. But, with the best class in the country arriving in Durham, he might have to adjust his game a bit. While his points per game might suffer, he can still be the nation’s best player, as he will continue to be the Blue Devils’ No. 1 option.
Josh Hart, Villanova G
The leading scorer of the reigning champs, Josh Hart and Villanova are back to build off their championship run.
The Wildcats are returning three of their top five scorers. Hart’s scoring numbers might go up a bit after the loss of senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono (12.5 points per game), but Villanova will once again have one of the most balanced offenses in the nation. In 2015-2016, the Wildcats had four players average in double figures, with a fifth just outside of the mark (9.6 ppg).
But where Hart makes his money (or will, after his college career because I do not encourage NCAA violations) is his defense. Normally, scoring in volume is the key factor in winning the Naismith or Wooden Award, but Hart is the sport’s biggest two-way star. He averaged over a steal per game last year, and in Nova’s man-to-man defense, he’s the anchor that is able to guard multiple positions.
Freshman who could be in the conversation
Markelle Fultz, Washington PG
“Haters will say it’s fake.”
Hatters Will say it's Fake 😁 pic.twitter.com/CvU7xCWnIT
— Markelle Fultz (@MarkelleF) October 28, 2016
If this isn’t enough to peak your interest, then maybe his play under the lights will.
You expect the country’s elite freshman talent to be housed at Duke, Kentucky or Kansas, but in comes Washington’s Markelle Fultz. He might be all the way in Washington, but he will be a national star soon. I wanted to wait a week to take a look at college basketball’s freshman class this season, but I couldn’t resist on this one.
Ranked No. 5 in the stellar Class of 2016 (according to 247Sports), Fultz had an amazing summer before arriving on campus. A McDonald’s All-American, a star of the Nike Hoop Summit and the MVP of Team USA’s gold medal team in the FIBA Americas Under-18 tournament.
He already has quite the resumé, and before his collegiate career has even started, he’s already at the top of many NBA mock drafts.
Unlike many of college basketball’s other elite freshmen, Fultz won’t have to fight for the spotlight or to be the No. 1 guy. Washington’s three leading scorers are out, leaving Fultz to be the man on campus.
He’s set to be an extremely high usage player and will have plenty of opportunity to put his skills on showcase with the Huskies. Fultz will score and distribute at incredible rates for a freshman, and his defensive rebounding and ability to take the ball away might make him the best all-around guard in college basketball this year.
My pick for Player of the Year
I’m drawing from this short list and taking Fultz. Making the tournament is an important factor, and I think Fultz will be good enough to take Washington there, who hasn’t made it since 2011. His numbers will be insane, and I like the comparisons he is drawing to former Ohio State Buckeye and current Los Angeles Laker De’Angelo Russell.
I think he’ll be even better, and who doesn’t love a player to rise up and take the spotlight away from the sport’s elite programs?
No. 1 seeds
While the college basketball regular season is full of excitement, everyone knows it’s just a precursor to one of the best events in sports: the NCAA Tournament.
So before the season starts, I’ll predict who will head into March as the No. 1 seeds.
Duke Blue Devils
Nearly the unanimous No. 1 in any preseason ranking, this is potentially Coach K’s most talented team. An experienced core led by Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson combined with the top freshman class makes Duke the most lethal team in college basketball this season.
While top recruit Harry Giles’ health is a major concern, the Blue Devils will be a juggernaut come the end of the season — even if Giles misses an extended amount of time. Plus, typical ACC contenders North Carolina and Virginia lost multiple key pieces.
The Jayhawks might have the best backcourt in the country in Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham and No. 1 recruit Josh Jackson. Another dominant run through the Big 12 will position them nicely for a No. 1 seed.
For the first time since 1985, Villanova is the champion. The Wildcats had an amazing tournament capped off by one of the sport’s best championship game finishes ever. Ryan Arcidiacano and Daniel Ochefu are out, but the Wildcats are returning much of their championship team. And if it comes down to it, Kris Jenkins is ready for another buzzer beater.
After a “down year” for Coach Cal and Kentucky — split the SEC regular season championship with Texas A&M and had an early tournament exit in the round of 32 against Indiana — the one-and-done specialists are back with one of college basketball’s most talented young teams. With the SEC lacking anyone that can give the Cats too much trouble, a No. 1 seed is likely.
Who will cut the nets down?
Grayson Allen? Coach K? The best recruiting classes in program history?
Give me Duke.
I can’t resist this team. While yes, Giles coming off a knee surgery is a major concern, it’s a testament to how stacked this team is that people aren’t hitting the panic button just yet. As long as Giles doesn’t miss the entire season, Duke has to be the favorite to win it all.
A favorite to win player of the year and a freshman class as talented as this one, coached by arguably the best in the history of basketball, is almost just too good to be true.
But hopefully it’s not, because I’m picking them as my national champion.
Edited by David Bradford
Featured image by Dalton King
Dalton, a firm believer that sporting events are best spent on Twitter, is an Assistant Sports Editor for TNJN and a sophomore studying Journalism at the University of Tennessee. Two of his favorite pastimes include beating his roommates at 2k and remaining in awe of the amount of stories fellow editor David Bradford writes. Twitter: @dk_writes