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The college basketball season is upon us and here are the top-five storylines to watch nationally as teams get set to tip off:
Where do the defending champs stand?
In just three years, Jay Wright has shed the label of being one of the most underachieving coaches in college basketball to become an all-time legend, joining Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams as the only active coaches with multiple national championships. The Wildcats have won at least 32 games in each of the past four seasons, and remain the team to beat in the Big East. But winning a third national title in four years will be unbelievably difficult without National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson, lottery pick Mikal Bridges and Final Four MOP Donte DiVincenzo. Wright returns starters Eric Paschall and Phil Booth, and adds one of his best-ever recruiting classes. The potential remains powerful in Philly.
How will Virginia respond?
The Cavaliers won 30 of their first 32 games last season — going 17-1 in the best conference in the country — and swept the ACC regular season, and postseason, titles. But all anyone will
ever remember from the season is the stunning loss to UMBC, which made Virginia the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Despite the devastation — or maybe, because of it — the Cavaliers will be a championship contender again, returning most of the core from one of the most accomplished groups in school history. No one knows what will happen in March, but Virginia should claim another high seed, having won at least 29 games in four of the past five years.
Duke taking the one-and-done route again
If the recruiting rankings are any indication, Duke is in for another sensational season, with three top-five freshmen — RJ Barrett, Cameron Reddish and Zion Williamson — slated to start alongside another five-star prospect, point guard Tre Jones. The fifth member of this class, four-star wing Joey Baker, will come off the bench. Jones’ older brother Tyus was the point guard on Duke’s 2015 national championship team, the last freshmen-dominated roster to cut down the nets. But that team also had valuable non-freshmen such as senior Quinn Cook, as did Kentucky in 2012, the other one-and-done national champions. It remains to be seen if Duke has anyone to make an impact like that, or if it will hinder this talented group.
Will another non-power team reach the Final Four again?
Loyola-Chicago won over the nation with its unlikely run to the Final Four last year, making it the sixth time this decade a non-power conference team reached the final weekend. Though it is far too early to know if another double-digit seed can bust everyone’s brackets, preseason No. 3 Gonzaga and No. 7 Nevada could represent small schools in Minneapolis. Though the Bulldogs are as talented as almost any team in the nation and haven’t been considered a mid-major for several years, the Wolf Pack rode their up-tempo offense to a Sweet 16 run last season. It won’t be surprising if either team reaches the Final Four, but it would certainly give it a different feel.
Which transfers will make the biggest impact?
Transfer season has become almost as important as signing days. Nearly all of the nation’s top programs rely on transfers to some extent. Kansas (Dedric Lawson), Kentucky (Reid Travis) and Gonzaga (Brandon Clarke) have players who could be considered the country’s best, who started at other schools. Nevada has built itself into a Final Four contender around transfers. St. John’s has realistic NCAA Tournament hopes, partly due to the arrival of Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron. Villanova is looking for Albany grad transfer Joe Cremo to make a major impact. But no school is expecting more production than Kansas, which lost its top three scorers — Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman — from the Final Four team, but replaced them with the Lawson brothers, All-American Dedric and K.J., and jet-quick point guard Charlie Moore.