The 2017-18 college basketball tips off Friday, and USA TODAY Sports continues a series that examines the most intriguing story lines.
Today, five bold projections for the season’s tip-off.
1. Sean Miller will finally take Arizona to the Final Four
Depending how you define bold, one projection on this list could have been, the FBI’s investigation findings won’t impact any Final Four contender. And the biggest Final Four contender to already be implicated is Arizona (the Wildcats are listed on the federal complaint, with suspended assistant Emanuel “Book” Richardson being accused of paying a player. That means firings and suspensions aren’t out of question).
Should the Wildcats avoid any bombshell distractions, all signs on the actual hardwood point to this finally being the year for Miller to orchestrate a Final Four run after coming oh-so-close with four Elite Eight runs in the past. There’s an ideal recipe of old and new talent on this roster. First-team preseason All-American Allonzo Trier gets a full season to tap into his player-of-the-year potential, while the incoming talent (namely freshman 7-footer DeAndre Ayton) attempts to blend in with the core.
2. Michael Porter Jr. will buck the NCAA tournament-less trend
The past two seasons, the NBA draft’s No. 1 pick has played for a below-average team that is a far cry from Duke or Kentucky or any thriving one-and-done institution you see fit. Ben Simmons’ lone season at LSU was polarizing – at best — but he couldn’t carry the Tigers to the NCAA tournament. Similar story for Markelle Fultz, who put up great numbers at a dreadful Washington squad last season. Can Porter be a different story? He’s got better surrounding pieces than Simmons or Fultz did, but coach Cuonzo Martin has hauled in top-tier talent that underachieved before when he recruited so well at California.
Porter has an opportunity to dominate highlight reels, put up monstrous stats and carry his team to the NCAA tournament. But Missouri has been in the SEC’s basement for several seasons before Martin’s hiring. A night-and-day resurrection of the Tigers from the SEC’s ashes would be a huge feat, and pulling a Carmelo Anthony — leading his team to the national title — would buck this unfortunate trend in emphatic fashion.
3. Favorite Duke will not cut down the net ... nor will Michigan State
The fact that these two title contenders meet in the Champion’s Classic on Nov. 14. But last season the Blue Devils had similar expectations before becoming unraveled by a slew of distractions, injury and flat out underachievement. The prospectus for this season feels better, with preseason first team All-American Grayson Allen getting his act together, coach Mike Krzyzewski bringing in a true point guard in freshman Trevon Duval, and fellow freshman superstar Marvin Bagley offering more of an immediate liftoff than the injury-riddled Harry Giles. All that said, the Big Dance is a single elimination tourney booby-trapped for teams with high expectations like Duke. Consider John Calipari’s similarly powerful Kentucky team that got stunned by Wisconsin the last time Duke won the title in 2015.
As for the Spartans, coach Tom Izzo really deserves another Final Four team. But his last team that looked Final Four-bound in 2015 (ahem, Middle Tennessee upset) is a great example of the cruelness March can provide to championship-caliber teams. Preseason play of the year front-runner Miles Bridges and a balanced core give Izzo as good of a chance as he’s had. But matching up preseason top-two teams with One Shining Moment are few and far between.
4. Northwestern will go to the Final Four
Do you believe in miracles? Coach Chris Collins does. He’s a Cubs fan, after all. He also believes in the process. And while the next step in the process for the Wildcats — after reaching their first-ever NCAA tournament last year — is likely to contend for the Big Ten as a top-15 national team and maybe reach the Sweet 16, the feel-good magic of Northwestern is too heavy to not forecast something unexpected.
But Final Four? Even Collins might consider that bold. The pieces might not formulate to a great team, but they are certainly in place for a darn good team, with dynamic point guard Bryant McIntosh piloting the ship and explosive wings Vic Law and Scottie Lindsay shooting the missiles. If the Cubs can win a World Series, why can’t Northwestern put on 2018’s glass slipper?
5. Wichita State (yes, Wichita State) will win the national title
Go ahead, roll your eyes. The Shockers were a mid-major, like yesterday. But the significance of WSU’s first year in the American Athletic Conference is significant for more reasons than it being a colossal program breakthrough. This roster, ranked No. 8 in the preseason coaches poll thanks to everyone coming back from a 30-5 team, is very likely coach Gregg Marshall’s best team to date. That includes 2013’s Final Four team and 2014’s one-loss team. Don’t expect the Shockers to go undefeated, like they almost did while playing in the Missouri Valley. But expect their tough non-conference slate and bulked-up AAC schedule to prep them to do some serious damage in March, while likely having an easier path with a single-digit seed thanks to being in a power conference. The key to the equation here is WSU being battle-tested and almost always stellar in March. This is a program that’s used to getting horrid seeding from the selection committee so anything better than a No. 6 seed positions them nicely to push towards San Antonio.
Point guard Landry Shamet’s potential is through the roof, as his playmaking gives Wichita a chance to win every night. But the X-Factor is Markis McDuffie, whose energy and motor are contagious. So if you want to actually make some serious money in ‘Vegas, maybe show some guts and don’t pick Duke or Kansas or Kentucky to win the 2018 national championship. Pick Wichita State, a team that’s absolutely good enough to win it all but won’t get national title talk until it actually happens (hence the name, Shockers).