1. Michigan State will not be the No. 1 team the in the country when the calendar flips to 2020
Even with Joshua Langford’s recurring knee injury threatening to keep him sidelined for another season, Michigan State appears on paper to clearly be the most complete team in college basketball as we enter the 2019-20 season. That’s why the Spartans collected 60 of the possible 65 first-place votes in the preseason AP poll, and 30 of the 32 top spot nods in the preseason coaches poll.
That doesn’t mean the Spartans are going to be immune from the same early season lumps that will plague nearly each one of the other 352 teams in Division-I.
Despite the Big Ten’s move to a 20-game conference schedule last season, Tom Izzo has yet again revisited his time-tested trademark of scheduling aggressively during the non-conference portion of the year. Before the calendar turns from 2019 to 2020, the Spartans will have faced No. 2 Kentucky on a neutral court, hosted No. 4 Duke, played at No. 12 Seton Hall, and played three quality opponents at the Maui Invitational. As talented as the Spartans are, it’s difficult to see them navigating that maze without making at least one wrong turn.
Not that Izzo has any problem with that.
For as good as Michigan State has been over the last two decades, the Spartans have had more than a handful of early-season head-scratchers that have sent their fan base into a panic before Christmas. In almost all of those cases, MSU has benefited from its early slip-ups and wound up being its best self by March.
Over the last 20 years, just once (2000-01) has Michigan State entered January without a blemish on its record. Only three times has it made it through the month of November without losing. The Spartans have been an AP preseason top 25 team in 18 of the last 20 seasons, and in 13 of those years, MSU has been ranked lower on Jan. 1 than it was on day one of the season.
Over that same 20 year span, Michigan State has been an AP preseason top five team a whopping eight times. In just one of those years (2000-01 again), the Spartans improved on that ranking in the season’s first two months (No. 3 to No. 1). One time (2017-18) they held steady at No. 2. The other six times, Izzo’s team has fallen in the rankings once November and December wrapped up. In four of those years, they fell out of the top 10. In one season (2003-04), they dropped from the top 25 entirely.
This same 20 year span that we’re talking about produced 10 trips to the Elite Eight, eight runs to the Final Four, and the 2000 national championship. Don’t push the panic button if Michigan State loses its spot atop the sport early and remains in a stalking position as we celebrate the new year. That’s sort of the way Tom Izzo likes it.
Which leads me to …
2. Michigan State will win the 2019-20 national championship
We started doing this post (in some form) all the way back at the start of the 2011-12 season. In three of those first four years, the post’s prediction about who was going to cut down the nets on the first Monday of April wound up being correct. Since then (2014-15), your humble and faithful predictor is 0-for-4.
Because of this, it might seem like riding with the near-unanimous preseason No. 1 is a move born out of both necessity and panic that this streak of futility is going to continue to inch closer and closer to the one decade mark. The reality is, Michigan State is simply the only team in the country that on paper doesn’t have at least one bright red flag.
The Spartans have the best player in the country (Cassius Winston) and he plays the most important position in the sport. Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry check both the size and next-level ability boxes. Kyle Ahrens, Thomas Kilthier and Gabe Brown bring experience. And explosive guard Rocket Watts headlines a strong freshman class that might not include a one and done threat, but is certainly stout enough to assist in winning a national championship.
Five months from now, Tom Izzo will have that elusive second national title, and Michigan State will become the 10th program to have won the Big Dance more than twice.
3. A team seeded seventh or worse will crash the Final Four
Outside of the two UConn teams (2011 and 2014), every national champion of the past decade was either a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed. Because of this, there’s been a growing sense that while the NCAA tournament might give us a wild opening weekend in most years, by the time we get to the end of March and the beginning of April, things have typically shaken out the way most people have expected them to.
That doesn’t really tell the whole story.
Last season was the first time since 2012 that at least one team seeded No. 7 or worse hasn’t crashed the Final Four. And even last year’s national semifinals weren’t stacked with the perennial powerhouses everyone expected to be there. Outside of eventual national champion Virginia, the Final Four featured zero No. 1 seeds, and a pair of teams in No. 3 seed Texas Tech and No. 5 seed Auburn that were appearing in the Final Four for the first time in program history.
Since 2011, a total of nine teams seeded seventh or worse have crashed the season’s final weekend. That group includes a healthy mix of true Cinderellas (Wichita State in 2013, Loyola-Chicago in 2018) and underachieving power conference teams that got hot at the right time like Syracuse in 2016 or South Carolina a year later.
Things always change significantly once the ball actually starts being tipped around the country, but this appears to be a season where the gap between the 8-12 best teams in college basketball and the rest of the country isn’t going to be as defined as it was a year ago. With that being the case, expect at least one significant surprise team to be in Atlanta on the season’s final weekend.
4. East Tennessee State will win at least one game in the NCAA tournament
Look, I’m going to be annoying about this all year. This is your warning.
The Bucs return their top six scorers from a team that won 24 games last season and went 13-5 in a Southern Conference that had four teams that at least flirted with NCAA tournament at-large bids. Perhaps more importantly than all that, they have a head coach in Steve Forbes who seems destined to land a major conference gig at some point in the next couple of years and then establish a reputation as one of the better coaches in the entire country from there.
ETSU has a chance to turn some heads early when they play at Kansas on Nov. 19, and then get another shot at a national splash when they face LSU in Baton Rouge on Dec. 18. They might not win either of those games, but they’re winning a more important one (at least one) in March. You heard it here first.
Other potential Cinderellas to have your eyes on throughout the season: Vermont, New Mexico State, Harvard, Colgate, Belmont, Wright State and UC Irvine.
5. Dayton’s Obi Toppin will become college basketball’s highlight king
There is no Zion Williamson in college basketball this season, but Dayton has a sophomore that’s going to make fans across the country pay a tad more attention to the Atlantic 10 this season than they would otherwise.
Obi Toppin was a breakout star for the Flyers as a freshman last season, averaging a team-best 14.4 points per game. The 6’9 forward from Brooklyn scored a healthy chunk of those points around the rim via his absurd athleticism.
Even if you’re not tuning in for the full games, you’ll see plenty of Toppin highlights on SportsCenter. There’s also a solid chance you’ll see him and Dayton back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017.
6. Detroit Mercy’s Antoine Davis will lead the nation in scoring
The coach’s son is option No. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 on a Detroit Mercy team that now also features Brad Calipari on its roster. Davis ranked third in the country in points per game last season (26.1), and the two players in front of him — Campbell’s Chris Clemons and Hofstra’s Justin Wright-Foreman — have both graduated. Last season, Davis also became the first freshman ever to lead the Horizon League in scoring, and his 132 three-pointers broke the Division I record for triples by a freshman that had previously been held by Stephen Curry.
Lamine Diane (Cal State Northridge), Jermaine Marrow (Hampton), Markus Howard (Marquette) and a host of others will make runs at the scoring title, but ultimately, it’s going to be Davis who wears the crown.
If you’re looking forward to watching Davis torch the nets during Championship Week this year, brace yourself for some bad news. Detroit Mercy is ineligible to participate in any sort of postseason tournament this season, including the Horizon League tournament, because of subpar APR scores.
7. The SEC will at least tie for sending the most teams to the NCAA tournament
For years now, we’ve heard rumblings that the SEC was poised to re-emerge as one of the two or three best conferences in college basketball. And for years now, we’ve seen the SEC remain a league where Kentucky is awesome, one or two other teams are pretty good, the middle of the conference doesn’t stack up favorably with the other five leagues, and the bottom of the conference is awful.
That has slowly started to change in recent years thanks to some splashy coaching hires, an uptick in recruiting amongst the belly of the league, and an increase in tournament success by a handful of programs that had been long overdue for some memorable March moments.
Suddenly, the SEC looks like a conference where only one team (sorry, Vandy) appears to not have a realistic shot at earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Kentucky and Florida might be the only teams in the league that look like true title contenders, but don’t be shocked if some strong performances in November and December (and January in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge) result in no fewer than eight teams from the SEC hearing their names called on Selection Sunday.
8. At least three coaches from the ACC will lose their jobs after the season
There is no major conference in college basketball that seems easier to project for 2019-20 than the ACC. There is an established top tier of Duke, Louisville, North Carolina and Virginia. A middle tier loaded with teams that have decent rosters but some glaring weaknesses. And then a defined bottom tier filled with teams that have little to no hope of doing something special this season. Unfortunately for the coaches in the league with the most restless fan bases, their teams all reside in that bottom tier.
Wake Forest’s Danny Manning might have the hottest seat in all of college basketball. The Demon Deacons began playing basketball in 1905 and have lost 20 or more games in a season just six times. Manning has produced 20-loss seasons in three of his last four years. A massive buyout doesn’t seem like enough to save his gig if 2019-20 is another woeful campaign.
Josh Pastner was the ACC Coach of the Year in 2017, but in three years he has yet to take Georgia Tech to the NCAA tournament or finish with a conference record at or above .500. Toss in the fact that the Yellow Jackets have been banned from the 2020 postseason because of multiple recruiting violations, and a job that seemed fairly secure a few months ago now seems less so.
Jim Christian hasn’t led Boston College to an ACC finish better than 11th in his five years on the job. He’s produced just one winning season (a 19-16 effort in 2017-18) despite having a pair of NBA Draft picks in Olivier Hanlan and Jerome Robinson, and another player in Ky Bowman who made the Golden State Warriors active roster this year.
Brad Brownell took Clemson to the Sweet 16 two years ago, but that run was sandwiched in between a pair of disappointing seasons that began with promise and ended in the NIT. Brownell’s team has already been significantly bitten by the injury bug before the start of the 2019-20 season, but that excuse may not hold a ton of water if the Tigers finish in the bottom four of the ACC in his 10th season on the job. To his credit, Brownell has already secured a pair of top 100 commits (P.J. Hall and Olivier-Maxence Prosper) from the recruiting class of 2020.
9. The Battle 4 Atlantis will be the best early season tournament
A year ago, the Maui Invitational gave us one of the better early season tournament title games in recent memory when Gonzaga upset a Duke team that had already taken the basketball world by storm. Both teams had already been pushed in the days before — Duke in the semifinals by an Auburn team that would end its season in the Final Four, and Gonzaga in the first round against an up-and-down Illinois squad.
Maui is going to be fantastic again this season, but it’s unlikely to be better than its annual rival, the Battle 4 Atlantis.
How’s this for a loaded field: Atlantis has a quarterfinal matchup between two teams — No. 12 Seton Hall and No. 15 Oregon — that are beginning their seasons ranked in the top 15. The tournament also features a pair of preseason top 10 teams in No. 8 Gonzaga and No. 9 North Carolina, as well as three other major conference teams (Michigan, Iowa State and Alabama) that also have legitimate aspirations of being NCAA tournament at-large teams.
Southern Mississippi will also be participating in the event. Best of luck to first-year head coach Jay Ladner.
10. Cole Anthony and Nico Mannion are the players fans are going to have the most fun watching
Both Anthony and Mannion are going to have the full green light to get up and down and score a ton of points for two of college basketball’s highest-profile programs. Both have the skill-sets to take full advantage of this gift that neither program typically bestows upon a freshman.
Other guys are going to score more, and someone else is probably going to win national Player of the Year, but Anthony and Mannion will be the two most-talked players in the sport this winter. Expect their seasons to end with multiple All-American nods and a chance to enhance their already bright stars once the sport’s biggest stage rolls around in March.