Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Indiana, Kansas, and UCLA are generally regarded as the “blue blood” programs, or college basketball royalty. If you take a look at the incoming freshman classes for these schools or the current AP poll, it’s clear: the oligarchy has returned. If your only sources of college basketball news are ESPN headlines, then you probably think that Duke will go 40-0, Kentucky will send its whole roster to the NBA, and the Big 12 will cancel its championship tournament because, let’s face it, Kansas will win anyway. Yes, the traditional powerhouses are good, maybe great, but there are other teams lurking, hoping to write a script of their own. Here are 10 bold predictions for the 2016-17 season.
UCLA will beat Kentucky on December 3rd…again.
Last year, on December 3rd, the Bruins welcomed #1 Kentucky to Los Angeles. The Bruins came out hot and stayed on top the rest of the way, upsetting the Wildcats 87-77. This year, the Wildcats welcome the Bruins to Rupp Arena. In 2015, the fans at Pauley Pavilion stormed the court in jubilation, but in the 2016 matchup, the fans at Rupp will leave feeling like it’s Groundhog Day. The senior experience of center Thomas Welsh and guards Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton, combined with the sure-handedness of freshman star Lonzo Ball, will be too much for the young Kentucky team.
Frank Mason III will win the Wooden Award.
On November 15th, Frank Mason III was listed on the Wooden Award watch list, so why would this be a bold prediction? Well, for starters, Mason might not even be the best player on his own team. Freshman forward Josh Jackson is currently projected to be the first pick in the 2017 NBA draft, and Mason shares the backcourt with an emerging talent, Devonte’ Graham, who averaged sixteen points per game last season. Despite immense competition from around the country, and even on the Jayhawks roster, Frank Mason will win the Wooden Award because he is a leader, a scorer, and a passer. In his first game as a senior, he posted thirty points and nine assists against Indiana. This trend should continue as the Jayhawks will rely on Mason’s sharp decision-making throughout the season.
Villanova will follow up their national championship with a Round of 32 exit.
Move aside Michael Jordan and Christian Laettner, because Kris Jenkins nailed the most legendary shot of NCAA tournament history to give Villanova the 2016 National Championship. In the five years prior to their historic run, the Wildcats did not even make it out of the first weekend. Villanova was your typical “bracket-buster”: a team that consistently underachieves in the tournament. They’ve had their glory, but this year they will revert back to old habits. Jay Wright’s team is without the crucial guidance of Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, two seniors on last year’s roster. Without a go-to scorer, the majority of points will likely be spread evenly among Kris Jenkins, Josh Hart, and Jalen Brunson. If those young players have an off night in a pressure-packed tournament game, Villanova will go home early.
Princeton will win the Ivy League.
The last time a team other than Harvard or Yale won the Ivy League championship was the 2010-11 season. Harvard has been known to cause a stir in March, and Yale pulled off an improbable upset last year. However, this year, both Harvard and Yale seem to be entering a period of rebuilding. Harvard lost its key point guard, Wesley Saunders, winner of the Ivy League Player of the Year award in 2014. Yale gets their tournament hero, Makai Mason, back, but their losses may be too devastating to overcome. Three key seniors left the team, including 2-time Ivy League Player of the Year, Justin Sears. Meanwhile, Princeton returns three All-Ivy League players, as well as the rest of their 2015-16 starting lineup. Princeton will come out on top of the Ivy League as they look to improve upon their two-loss conference record from last season.
The ACC will have 10 NCAA tournament teams.
Five teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference are currently represented in the AP Top 25 Poll. Most experts suspect that #1 Duke, #5 North Carolina, #8 Virginia, #12 Louisville, and #18 Syracuse are virtually locks to make the NCAA tournament, barring unexpected injuries or uncharacteristic performances. I am going to include Florida State, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, NC State, and Notre Dame into this discussion. FSU brings in a highly rated recruit, Jonathan Isaac, and returns superstars Xavier Rathan-Mayes and Dwayne Bacon. They surely have the talent to go dancing, and, if they can play as a team, they will. Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh have both lost one key player, but they still possess the talent and coaching to earn a bid. NC State, with the addition of Dennis Smith Jr., a projected first round NBA draft pick, should build on its disappointing 16-17 finish in 2015-16 to make a trip to the tournament. Finally, Notre Dame, who has lost the most talent out of the five bubble teams, should be able to make it happen with coach Mike Brey, who has a knack for getting the most out of what is available.
Louisville will miss the College Football Playoff but make the Final Four.
The College Football Playoff Rankings of November 15th have Louisville positioned behind Clemson in the #5 spot, and they seem unlikely to make a final push into the top four. While the football team does not control their own destiny, the basketball team has full control over their fortune. After self-imposing a postseason ban last season, the Cardinals should be fired up and ready to roll. Rick Pitino’s strategy this season will be to wear down opponents with a full-court press. This could force many turnovers in March, and, if Louisville is able to capitalize, they will make it back to the Final Four.
North Carolina will sweep Duke in the regular season.
The last meeting between North Carolina and Duke saw the Tar Heels knock off the Blue Devils on Senior Night in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Carolina won that game by converting at the line and dominating the boards. However, this season, without the interior presence of Brice Johnson to haul in offensive rebounds, the Heels will need to shoot better from the field and get quality looks to beat an extremely talented Duke squad. If Joel Berry II, Justin Jackson, or Nate Britt can step up and make three-point shots, and if the Tar Heels’ big men can contain the tandem of Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles, the Tar Heels will complete the sweep.
This will be the year of the perfect bracket.
I know. The odds aren’t necessarily in my favor on this one. In case you didn’t know, the statistical chances of picking every game, from all eight rounds, correctly, are 1 in 2.4 trillion according to a Duke professor. I probably have one hundred times the chance of getting all of my predictions correct than you do of getting a perfect bracket. But hear me out. Last year, there were 13 million brackets entered into the ESPN tournament challenge. If each one of those entries has a 1 in 2.4 trillion chance of being perfect, then combined, the odds that just one of those 13 million end up perfect are only 1 in 184,000. This year, realistically, Duke and Kentucky seem set to dominate. Continued success of a few teams could make the tournament more predictable, thereby increasing those odds to slightly less impossible. If there was ever a year for the perfect bracket, this is it.
Jim Boeheim will win his (non-NCAA recognized) 1000th game on December 21st.
On March 6, 2015, the NCAA announced that it would vacate 108 of Syracuse’s wins from the mid-2000s due to participation of ineligible players. This reduced Jim Boeheim’s career win total from 966 to 858. Syracuse also voluntarily vacated 24 wins prior to the NCAA ruling. As of November 15th, Boeheim’s unofficial win total sits at 991. After Syracuse drops a game to Wisconsin, Boeheim will be sitting on 999 wins going into the game versus St. Johns on December 21st. Syracuse will easily win the game as restless fans will cheer on Tyler Roberson and the Orange. Syracuse University will not be able to celebrate Boeheim’s accomplishment publicly, but the fans of the basketball program will show gratitude and appreciation for the incredible journey of their legendary coach.
In a rematch, UCLA will defeat Kentucky in the national championship.
UCLA, the most overlooked team in the nation, will win the national title because of their unique combination of freshman talent and experienced leaders. Bryce Alford, the coach’s son, is the type of player that wins national titles. In recent years, it was Kemba Walker for UConn, Peyton Siva for Louisville, and Ryan Arcidiacono for Villanova. The pattern is striking; teams with clutch senior guards win titles. So, UCLA has their guy in Bryce Alford, but they are also bringing in heralded recruits Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf. Ball is already averaging 8.5 assists per game, demonstrating his ability to distribute the ball. T.J. Leaf joins senior Thomas Welsh in the paint, and that senior guidance will be crucial in his development. Kentucky will make the national title game due to the sheer number of talented players on the roster. Their freshman class has been labeled as Coach Calipari’s best ever and they are producing on the court. They stomped Michigan State behind 23 points from Malik Monk, just one of the five-star recruits on the team. When UCLA and Kentucky meet in the NCAA tournament championship game, it will be closer than their previous meeting. Steve Alford and John Calipari will have their teams playing at full potential, but UCLA, with the edge in experience and balance, will win a tight contest and secure their first title since 1995.