1. Can Michigan State get over the hump?
This season will mark the 20th year since the Spartans last won a National Championship – the first for Head Coach Tom Izzo, and the second in program history. Since then, MSU has made six Final Four appearances, but only capitalized on one of those opportunities. This leaves Izzo with a record of 2-6 in Final Four contests. Despite last year’s Final Four loss to eventual runner-up Texas Tech, East Lansing remains hopeful. Currently, Michigan State stands as the odds-on favorite to win the ‘19-’20 championship at +650. It will be fascinating to see how they respond to the pressure of entering the season as the favorite. Despite losing three steady contributors to last year’s team, experienced contributors remain on the team. Kenny Goins, Matt McQuaid, and Nick Ward left to chase their NBA dreams, and their presence will be missed this season. As a trio, they started a combined 99 games last season. Ward led the team with 29.6% USG, Goins started all 39 games, and McQuaid was second on the team in minutes per game with 31.4.
On the bright side, reigning Big Ten POY Cassius Winston returns for MSU as a sure-fire preseason All-American. Winston’s play on both ends of the floor will help to determine how far into March Sparty will play. Last year, Winston led the team in points per game, assists per game, minutes played, and free throws per game. He also led the team in win shares with 7.7, which finished 2.1 above his closest teammate. If that level of play continues this season, the Detroit-product will have an opportunity for the 2020 Naismith Trophy. Michigan State also returns Aaron Henry and Josh Langford. Both players will see expanded roles this season and remain key factors to this experienced group. With veteran leadership, a top 25 recruiting class, and one of the most talented squads in the nation, Tom Izzo has all the ingredients necessary to cut down the nets in Atlanta this season. However, only time will tell if another late March game will send the Spartans packing once more.
2. How Will Duke replace 3 Lottery Picks?
Another year, another crop of Duke lottery picks selected in the NBA Draft. In fact, Duke has had a player drafted in the first round of the draft in every year since 2009. Digging deeper, NBA teams have drafted a Blue Devil in the top 3 of every draft since 2014, along with 5 top ten picks in the last two seasons alone. This past year, Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish all came off the board in the first ten picks, leaving a substantial hole in the Blue Devil starting lineup for the ‘19-’20 season. The trio accounted for each of the top three usage rates on the entire team, and Zion led the nation in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) at a whopping 40.2. Obviously an enormous hole to fill for incoming freshmen and returning players, the newcomers must step up quickly in order to defend Duke’s 2019 ACC title.
Fortunately for Duke fans, Tre Jones returns for his second season anchoring the point guard position. Despite the incredible talent of last year’s team, Jones led the ‘18-’19 team in assist percentage and started all 36 games in which he played, finishing 2nd on the team in minutes played. The sophomore guard will be called upon often this year and expects to score at a higher rate with the ‘Big 3’ now in the NBA. The Blue Devils also landed the #3 recruiting class in the nation, behind only Memphis and Kentucky. 5-star recruits Vernon Carey (6’10”) and Matthew Hurt (6’9”) will form a tremendous, high-upside frontcourt this season. Carey and Hurt ranked number 6 and 11 in their recruiting class, respectively. Duke also landed two 4-star players in Wendell Moore and Cassius Stanley. Moore should have an opportunity to compete for a starting spot at small forward, which could result in three true freshman starters. Despite losing so much incredible talent, the Dukies look poised win again this year. However, it will be critical for them to come together as a group in preseason and quickly figure out how to replace the 43.7 average FGA per game from the three lottery picks. With such a massive amount of opportunity available for several talented young players, Duke will be one of the most intriguing storylines to monitor this season.
3. Can Memphis Live Up to the Hype?
The Memphis Tigers appear ready to return to prominence in the 2019-2020 season, as one of the nation’s most interesting teams. After landing one of the better recruiting classes in recent history, Memphis’s hype has grown considerably.. Since 2007, only Virginia has landed a top recruiting class in addition to Kentucky and Duke. All seven recruits rank within the top 112 players in the nation, including 5 in the top 60. Vegas currently lists the Tigers at +1200 to win the NCAA Tournament and that number seems short at first glance. However, if the young guns can play as advertised, Memphis’ long athleticism should compete with anyone in the nation.
7-foot PF/C James Wiseman headlines this historic class as the number one overall player in the nation. Wiseman look like a modern-day big, with long limbs and extreme upside. Currently projected as a 2020 first-round pick, he will instantly enter the D-1 scene as one of the top players and an All-American hopeful. The second 5-star recruit in this class is Precious Achiuwa, a 6’9” SF from Monteverde, FL. Achiuwa is an explosive athlete that competes hard at both ends of the court. Both Wiseman and Achiuwa expect to start and contribute for the Tigers throughout the season. Memphis has already drawn some Fab 5 comparisons, with the potential to start a lineup consisting of five freshmen. The remaining five players in this class are all 4-star recruits, with Boogie Ellis and DJ Jeffries possessing the best opportunity to start for the Tigers. Second-year head coach Penny Hardaway will be under intense scrutiny to capitalize on this historic recruiting class, while the Memphis faithful look to avoid a sixth-straight March Madness absence. The Tigers will be must-see TV this season, especially once the young team gets some experience under their belt and potentially rounds into form in the early part of 2020.
4. How Will the New Rule Changes Affect the Game?
Division 1 NCAA men’s basketball changes each year more than any other sport in the nation. The NBA Draft, graduation, transfers, and coaching changes all shake up the college basketball landscape each year. This year, however, two significant rule changes will immediately affect how all 351 D-1 teams will play. On June 5th, the NCAA Rules Oversight Panel passed a motion that moved the three-point line back to the international distance of 22 feet, 1¾ inches. This new rule further extends the college 3-point line, which was formerly 20 feet, 9 inches from the basket. In 2018-’19, 38.7% of field goal attempts were 3-pointers, and the average D-1 conversion rate was 34.4%. Although it is a much smaller sample size, the 2019 NIT 3P% was 33%, and 3pA% was 38.1%, 1.4% and .7% lower than in-season averages, respectively. Overall, three-point attempts have increased every year since 2015, while 3P% has fluctuated between 33% and 35.5% since 1993. The NCAA last extended the three-point line in 2008-09, but three-pointers are taken 5% more often than in 2009. The addition of less than two feet does not seem like much, but it will certainly affect spacing and defensive tactics, Screens will occur higher up the court, and zone defenses will be less compact within the arc. Many teams have seen this new rule after playing in the NIT, and the rest of the teams will have this entire offseason and preseason to adjust, so drastic differences in made 3-pointers are not expected. However, it will be interesting to see if teams will continue to shoot threes as successfully and as often this season.
The NCAA also implemented a rule to reduce the shot clock duration after an offensive rebound from 30 seconds to 20 seconds. This is the first change regarding the shot clock since the Rules Oversight Panel shortened the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30 seconds prior to the 2016 season. Reducing the shot clock is an obvious attempt to speed up the game, and it follows the NBA’s 2018 rule change to reduce the shot clock after an offensive rebound to 14 seconds. This rule will be noticeable in the second half when a leading team is attempting to close out a game. They will be unable to hold the ball as long, which should allow trailing teams a higher chance of staging a late-game comeback. Both this rule and the extended three-point line will affect over/under totals and should be considered when handicapping or wagering on games. If the market does not quickly adjust in the early part of the season, there could be a possibility for some inefficient lines in the totals scene.