Alex McKay, Contributor
- Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Best returning player: Bonzie Colson
Best newcomer: D.J. Harvey Jr.
Last year brought another successful year to the Irish’s basketball program. Mike Brey has built one of the most consistent programs in the country regardless of his personnel. He is one of the great offense minds in the game and is poised to challenge for another ACC championship. The Irish return some great talent this year led by All-American Bonzie Colson. I know it feels like Colson has been in college as long as Van Wilder, but this is actually his last year. The All-ACC stud continued his phenomenal college career with another superb season (17.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg) last year. This year I expect Colson to collect a lot of awards across the board. I firmly believe he is the best returning player in college not named Miles Bridges. He is literally tailor made for Brey’s four out one in offense. He is able to create space with strength and surprising quickness. He also recently added a consistent three-point stroke last season shooting a little over 43%. Brey likes to have one of his guards screen down for Colson allowing him to rotate towards the top of the key and exploit the mismatch that Colson presents on bigger centers. When not using Colson in a post-up or at the top of the key he is running two-man game with point guard Matt Farrell. Farrell exploded on the scene last year as a junior and was one of the reasons Notre Dame was so successful. He is one of best facilitators in college basketball as well as a passionate leader and underrated scorer. His scoring average rose from 2.6 to 14.1 last year and averaged just under 6 assists a game. He should be on some All-ACC teams when the seasons over. Farrell and Colson form one of the best duos in college basketball and will be the driving force for the Irish this year. Along with Mike Brey’s offensive mind comes his ability to develop guards as well as any coach in the country. Each year we see a guard make a huge leap for the Irish with last year being Farrell. I expect this year it will be Temple Gibbs. He is the most athletic guard on the roster and even though he only averaged 5 points in 15 minutes last year I expect him to make a similar jump that Farrell did the year before. While depth could provide an issue especially if Colson gets into foul trouble in any games, I still believe in Notre Dame’s talent and wouldn’t be surprised if they end in the top 3 in the ACC this year.
- Alabama Crimson Tide
Best returning player: Braxton Key
Best newcomer: Collin Sexton
Alabama is combining a great recruiting class with a very strong supporting cast to form one of the deepest and exciting teams in the SEC. They currently have the 8th best recruiting class according to 247 Sports and that class is headlined by scoring guard Collin Sexton. Sexton is one of the most explosive guards coming into college this year and his skill set reminds me of Phoenix Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe. He will be one of the most dynamic guards in the country as he is constantly in attack mode. His speed and quickness is explosive and it will be a joy to watch him in the open court in transition. This five-star can handle the ball and is a good passer, but scoring is his bread and butter. Sexton is an elite scorer and should average in the 15-18 points per game area. He is a legitimate NBA prospect and I don’t expect him to stay in Tuscaloosa beyond this year so enjoy him while we have him. He might be the player that I am most excited to see in college this upcoming year. What makes Alabama so exciting is how nicely all the pieces fit together. Sexton is joined by fellow returning point guard Dazon Ingram (10.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.3 apg) whose size and length (6’5) make him a mismatch with other guards. Ingram and Sexton will complement each other nicely and will share ball-handling duties. The best player returning for the Crimson Tide is Braxton Key who after mulling over the NBA draft decided to return to school. He is a 6’8 combo-forward who showcases very impressive point-forward skills along with a gifted scoring touch. The starting lineup will be filled out with Riley Norris (9 ppg) and Ohio State transfer Daniel Giddens who even though is raw is filled with potential and is gifted with great length. Alabama is so deep this year that they have a five-star coming off the bench in shooting guard John Perry. This may be one of the most versatile rosters in the country that is littered with mismatches. The Crimson Tide was one the strongest defensive units in the country last year finishing 10th in defensive rating and with Coach Avery Johnson at the helm Alabama should continue to be a very good defensive unit. The biggest flaw of this team was its slow pace as it ranked 301st in tempo last year, but I expect Sexton to speed up this offense and revive Alabama’s transition attack. With an influx of new talent complementing an already strong, versatile roster Alabama will be a team to watch this year and could make some serious noise in the upcoming season.
- North Carolina Tar Heels
Best returning player: Joel Berry II
Best newcomer: Jalek Felton
I have seen North Carolina all over preseason rankings getting as high as in the top 10 and as low as in the 20s. I am more low on the Tar Heels then most people and that was only amplified when star point guard Joel Berry broke his hand which will result in him missing the beginning of the regular season. This Tar Heels team will look far different then ones in the past. For the past couple years North Carolina has won games with its interior strength and depth. They led the nation in rebounding margin and offensive rebounding percentage last year. A Roy Williams team hasn’t finished outside the top 27 in offensive rebounding percentage since 2002. Crashing the glass is their blueprint for successful, but this year it’s going to be a far more guard oriented team. The only big returning that played minutes last year is Luke Maye, the hero in UNC’s tournament win over Kentucky, and he didn’t even become a consistent contributor until the second half of the season. I have serious concerns about how will this front court will handle itself with so little experience. The ACC is once again stacked with athletes and future pros all over the place and I wonder how well UNC will be able to compete with the frontcourts of the likes of Notre Dame, Duke, and Louisville. What this team lacks in its frontcourt it makes up for in athletes and talented guards. Joel Berry who won the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player returns to be the leader and point guard of the Tar Heels. He is the leading returning scorer at a little over 14 points per game. Berry has the ability to play with or without the ball as he is a very deadly stand-still shooter. His level of play this year is paramount to the success of UNC. Berry will be joined by freshman Jalek Felton, nephew of former UNC star Raymond Felton, who is a gifted playmaker and scorer. Felton will need to pick up the slack until Berry is healthy. Seventh Woods will most likely be thrusted into the starting lineup until Berry returns. Woods is a freak athlete and has shown tools as a pesky defender. The remaining Tar Heels rotation will be filled with combo-forwards who will be forced to play multiple positions. Theo Pinson who at times has initiated the offense will be tasked will playing a lot of the four this year as well as Pitt graduate transfer Cam Johnson. With massive questions in the frontcourt and Berry missing the beginning of the season we could see North Carolina struggle early. However, with a proven backcourt mixed in with the coaching pedigree that Roy Williams has there’s no reason to not expect UNC to challenge other tops teams in the ACC.
- UCLA Bruins
Best returning player: Aaron Holiday
Best newcomer: Jaylen Hands
UCLA had one of the most blatant roster turnover in the country. The Bruins lost 71.2% of its scoring due to graduation and players going pro. However, they retooled with some really good recruits that can help mitigate the losses from May. For instance, three freshmen will slide into the starting and provide an immediate impact. Guard Jaylen Hands will be a name that Bruins fans will quickly learn. He is a very gifted passer and excels finding the open man in transition. He’s an aggressive slasher that has very good body control which allows him to hang in the air and absorb contact very well. He is very rangy and has long arms and hands which allows him to be very disruptive on defense. His athleticism and explosiveness will be on full display this year and he could join Lonzo Ball as the second consecutive one and done point guard from UCLA. Hands is joined by another explosive athlete in Kris Wilkes. Wilkes could very well lead the Bruins scoring this year as his quickness and strength make it tough for larger forwards to keep up with him and for guards to not be overpowered by him. He will already be one of the stronger finishers in the PAC-12. The last incoming freshman that will most likely make his way into the starting lineup is Cody Riley who is a versatile forward who can play multiple positions. Similar to Wilkes, Riley uses his athleticism and strength to create mismatches for himself. These freshmen will be joined by returning sixth man Aaron Holiday and senior center Thomas Welsh. Holiday is the Bruins best facilitator and defender. He has shown prowess as a lockdown defender and expect Coach Steve Alford to have Holiday shadow opponents best perimeter player night in and night out. Holiday was maybe the best sixth man in the country last year as he averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists per game and now he’ll have the opportunity to showcase his talents in the starting lineup. I expect him to make another huge leap and be a huge contributor for the Bruins. Thomas Welsh will be the other veteran leader on this team. He is a very consistent and efficient big man and has a gorgeous mid-range touch and only takes high percentage shots. His leadership and consistency will be vital for UCLA this season. The bench has ample talent with Prince Ali, top 100 recruit Jalen Hill, and who could forget LiAngelo Ball. You can say what you want about Lavar Ball’s antics, but I am a huge believer in all the Balls’ talent. And while LiAngelo doesn’t have the pedigree that his other brothers have I expect LiAngelo to be a solid contributor whether that is this year or down the road. He a nice scoring touch that he’s showcased in high school, but I expect his shooting to be his biggest impact for UCLA. With a lot of new faces for the Bruins it may take a little while for all of them to develop chemistry, but if it all clicks watch out for the Bruins in March.
- Seton Hall Pirates
Best returning player: Angel Delgado
Best newcomer: Myles Cale
Seton Hall returns four out of five starters from last year’s team that made the NCAA Tournament. Seton Hall is primed to make serious noise not in just the Big East but also in March. The main reason for that is Angel Delgado who is one of the most gifted rebounders in the country. His impact is very similar to that of Caleb Swanigan last year in the way that he is a walking double-double. Delgado led the nation in rebounds per game at 13.1. He also averaged 15.2 points and is finally being recognized as one of the best players in the country. Delgado uses his length and strength to be an absolute menace on the offensive glass. He provides the Seton Hall offense with so many second chance opportunities and prevents some many second opportunities on defense with his defensive rebounding. He should easily contend for Big East Player of the Year as well as possibly contending for National Player of the Year honors. His value to the Pirates cannot be overstated. Regardless of how good Delgado is Seton Hall is far from a one-man show. He is joined by leading scorer Khadeen Carrington (17.1 ppg) who is a very gifted left hander slasher. Carrington may be tasked with being the teams point guard as Madison Jones graduated, but Carrington has shown the ability and instincts to become a gifted passer. Maybe the biggest mismatch that the Pirates have is Desi Rodriguez who is 6’6 220-pound power forward. He averaged 15.2 ppg while pulling down 5.2 boards a night. He even shot relatively well from three last year at 35%. When Rodriguez is hitting perimeter shots he’s one of the most difficult covers in the Big East. If he can become more consistent from the perimeter Seton Hall will be a terrific offensive team. Rounding out the starting lineup is sophomore Myles Powell who averaged over 10 points last year but severely struggled with efficiently. His scouting report out of high school commended his ability to be a knock down shooter but he shot a porous 33% from three last year. Good spacing in the Pirates offense is critical so teams can’t double Delgado so expect Powell to be a lot better this season. Believe it or not Seton Hall is a better defensive team than an offensive one. They force turnovers as well as any team in the country and as mentioned are a very strong defensive rebounding team and usually only limit their opponents to one shot. The point guard position has some questions attached to it, but I expect either Powell or Carrington to lock down the spot. Overall, this is a very talented team that has very high expectations for the upcoming season. This team is the dark horse in the Big East and if they get hot in March a deep run is not out of the question.