6. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Tate’s Take: This club very well could challenge anyone in the country for the title of nation’s best back court. Former Kentucky Wildcat Kyle Wiltjer will be the focus of the ball club and has indeed come a long way into his own after the transfer. Look for him to complete the year with All-American honors at season’s end. Twin towers consisting of Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis (son of basketball Hall of Famer Arvydas), will present a tough task matchup for any opposing team in the land, displaying outstanding footwork, soft hands and a high IQ. Add Angel Nunez to the mix and trouble spells. Problem is overly successful coach Mark Few will certainly have his hands full in the back court where his biggest challenge lies. Traffic director Kevin Pangos, natural scorer Byron Wesley and versatile wing Gary Bell Jr. have departed from the team as their eligibility expired after last season and lead the Zags with most career wins in program history. What remains for a team led by a coach with a 81% winning percentage? I’m glad you asked. Lots of uncertainty at guard with solid contributor Kyle Dranginis and unproven frosh guard Josh Perkins will force Few to really put his skills of X’s and O’s to use. *Side Note*: Zaga has only beaten 1 top-10 nationally ranked team in the past 8 years (#9 Baylor in ’10-’11). Overrated or not, have Zags fans become satisfied with outstanding WCC play and mediocre success in the Big Dance?
7. Wichita State Shockers
Tate’s Take: Let’s get an exclusive inside look at the Shocker fans off season wishlist: Fred Van Fleet returns? (check). Ron Baker returns? (check). Gregg Marshall returns? (check). Now what? Despite the HUGE losses of Darius Carter and Tekele,Cotton, Anton Grady will provide immediate help up front along with youthful but skilled Shaq Morris who much more will be asked of. Throw KU sharpshooting transfer Conner Frankamp in the mix after Christmas break and Marshall will be picking up where they left off: WINNING. This high of a pick in the polls would look much different if WSU wasn’t in the Missouri Valley Conference, but since they are, keep a close eye on the team that many will forget about when brackets come out on Selection Sunday.
8. Villanova Wildcats
Tate’s Take: The best dressed coach in college basketball Jay Wright is back at it again for his 15th season at the helm for the Wildcats and after a very disappointing loss in the tournament as a #1 seed, the Wildcats are poised again for yet another walk through the Big East. One of the best incoming point guards and overall players in the country Jalen Brunson will walk onto the floor and pickup where left off only a season ago. Nova, known for predominantly it’s guards, won’t change much about it’s system or style of play. A typical 4-guard offensive set, run & gun, fast-paced, transition style is and has been the recipe/blueprint of success and has been for years. Fast outlet passes will pay benefit for likely another top 2 seeded tournament team as it has the past 2 postseasons. The combination of Josh Hart and Dylan Ennis could have provided an unmovable punch before Ennis decided to take his efforts to the west coast at Oregon. Expect Ryan Arcidiacono to continue shooting the ball at a very high rate (especially from long distance) and be sure to take note: Daniel Ochefu is a monster that gives up on 0 plays. A very coachable and as fearless of a competitor and rebounder as they come, Ochefu will own the paint and block shots on a nightly basis. You know exactly what you’ll get from him. Daniel reminds me much of KU’s frosh Chieck Diallo with his intangible abilities that don’t show up on the stat sheet like undeniable hustle and knack for rebounding. He’s what I call 1 of: Tate’s ‘Hungry Hungry Hippos’. Will that account for enough size inside? Although Daniel plays with lots of emotion that next level scouts love, but occasionally finds himself sitting to Wright for foul trouble and that’s what Nova cannot afford if they find themselves lacking the ability to strike quickly and put points on the board in a hurry as they’re accustomed to.
9. Kentucky Wildcats
Tate’s Take: Let’s just put this on the table right now: Isaiah Briscoe is the best incoming Freshman in the country (including Ben Simmons). Now how far back can you think to remember when UK was slotted this low in preseason rankings? Here’s a stat-line for you to enjoy: This is the 1st time the Wildcats haven’t been ranked #1 to start the season since 2012 when they cut down the nets. I know what you may be thinking… not surprised! Furthermore, Big Blue Nation hasn’t been ranked lower than #5 in a handful of years where they checked in at #10, but here’s the kicker: The ‘Cats has began the season in top 25 every season dating back to 2008 when Coach Cal was still in Memphis. Sure it seems that UK will take a step back in large part due to the fact that they failed to land some of the VERY BEST recruits like usual but make no mistake about it, No. 1 center Skal Labissiere and five-star guard Jamal Murray who (reclassified from 2016) and has become a hot commodity on the recruiting scene late, will fill the void left behind by Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker who bolted for the NBA and are far from less quality. Tyler Ulis and Marcus Lee will proved to take on and be prepared to succeed at much larger roles after playing key minutes during critical moments in 2014-2015. If someway, somehow Senior Alex Poythress can stay off the IR, this team has a chance to be REALLY good… better than most may think with a high ceiling. Don’t think Calipari will ‘shoot the fade’ for not getting his usual talented recruits in bulks… he’s not running and will get the best and most out of what he has to work with. The apple won’t fall far from the tree.
10. Oklahoma Sooners
Tate’s Take: Nearly every team the past decade has had a chance to dethrone Kansas of the Big 12 crown but many have failed and all have failed. Next in line is Boomer Sooner! Buddy Hield is definitely the straw that stirs the drink for Lon Kruger’s club but he’s not alone. Physical and often under appreciated Ryan Spangler should be a walking effortless double-double every night no matter the opposing program. Cousins and Woodard will help form this team into exactly what it will be as we draw closer to postseason play. Biggest question that lies is what will it take for Lon Kruger to get his team and this program to reach it’s full potential from start to finish and get back to the Final Four for the 1st time since Hollis Price & Co. in 2002?