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High Expectations for College Basketball Teams in 2017-18

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Michigan State's Miles Bridges. Photo: AP

It is late April, and that means it is time to focus on the NBA Playoffs, the NHL Playoffs, Major League Baseball, the NFL Draft, college basketball. It may be premature, but there are some fan bases out there that have a lot to look forward to in the 2017-18 season.

The window has closed for underclassmen to declare for the NBA Draft and the 2017 recruiting classes are also being finalized. Teams for the most part know the breakdown of their rosters and how returning players will mesh with newcomers. Here are some teams that should be excited about the possibilities for the upcoming season.

Michigan State: It was a wild season in East Lansing. The Spartans opened the 2016-17 slate with high hopes after Tom Izzo was able to land the best group of recruits in his tenure. The start did not go as planned though with losses early to Arizona and Kentucky. It looked like the season might be lost after a home defeat to Northeastern to drop their record to 7-5. Michigan State recovered and was able to sneak into the NCAA Tournament as a 9 seed. They took down Miami in the first round before losing to Kansas in the second round. Injuries and inexperience played large roles in their struggles.

The assumption was that talented freshman Miles Bridges was going pro after a stellar season. His surprise return immediately puts the Spartans in contention for a national title. Bridges should average close to a double-double if he continues to progress. The other freshmen who are coming back for their sophomore seasons include Nick Ward, Joshua Langford, and Cassius Winston. They all averaged at least 20 minutes per game and 6 points per game. Coach Izzo also attracted a top 10 recruit to Michigan State in Jaren Jackson. The power forward should add some depth around the rim in what could be his only year in college before turning pro. The Spartans will be a top 5 preseason team based on the talent and experience coming back.

Missouri: It is hard to imagine a team finishing 8-24 and last in the SEC having any excitement building around their program. That is exactly where Missouri is after moving quickly to improve in March and April. The school brought in Cuonzo Martin as head coach after firing Kim Anderson. Coach Martin is known as a good recruiter, and he was able to attract some serious talent to California in his time there. The hiring of Coach Martin paid immediate dividends when the top recruit in the class of 2017, Michael Porter, asked for his release from Washington in order to play at Missouri. Porter is 6’10” and has the skills that could make him the #1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. While it may take Missouri a couple years to find its footing in the SEC, the buzz around the program is back.

Saint Mary’s Jock Landale, right, shoots against Stanford’s Reid Travis (22) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016, in Stanford, Calif. Photo: Ben Margot / Associated Press

Saint Mary’s: Saint Mary’s had one of the most successful seasons in program history in 2016-17. The Gaels advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but they were overshadowed by the tremendous success of conference foe Gonzaga. That should change in this upcoming season. One of the main reasons Saint Mary’s fans should be excited is because of the drastic drop off that could occur at Gonzaga. The Bulldogs lose Przemek Karnowski and Jordan Mathews to graduation. Nigel Williams-Goss and Zach Collins have both hired agents and are headed to the professional ranks.

This opens the door for the Gaels who will enter next season with another veteran group of players. Jock Landale returns for his senior year at the center position. He should be an All-American candidate. They also bring back experienced starters in Calvin Hermanson and Emmett Naar. The Gaels have a great pipeline of talent that comes from Australia, and they have built a reputation for playing methodical basketball. The West Coast title is ripe for the picking, and Saint Mary’s is in great shape to grab it in 2017-18.

Wichita State: Many fans, including myself, thought the end of an era may have occurred when seniors Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet graduated following the 2015-16 season. There was little to no drop off even with an influx of new players in 2016-17. Landry Shamet stepped into the point guard position in place of VanVleet and immediately showed a confidence not normally seen from young players. Markis McDuffie and Shaquille Morris took on larger roles as the Shockers finished the regular season 30-4 with a Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship. Even with the gaudy record, the NCAA Tournament committee placed them as a 10 seed. The main argument was that they played a weak schedule and had few quality wins to boost their tournament resume.

That will change next season. Wichita State recently announced a move to the American Athletic Conference. This will immediately boost their strength of schedule numbers and also grow the visibility of the program. They will now be playing teams such as Memphis, SMU, Cincinnati, and Connecticut on a regular basis.  McDuffie and Morris both declared for the NBA Draft, but neither hired an agent. If they both return, the Shockers have the talent to be a conference title contender in year one in the AAC. They should be given better seeding in the NCAA Tournament with the conference change as well.

Georgia Tech: Josh Pastner entered his first year as the head coach at Georgia Tech with very low expectations. The team fizzled out in the NIT during the 2015-16 season, and Brian Gregory was quickly fired. The Yellow Jackets competed well in 2016-17. They did enough in the ACC for Coach Pastner to be named conference coach of the year. They missed out on the NCAA Tournament with a 17-15 overall record, but they secured a spot in the NIT. Georgia Tech defeated Indiana, Belmont, Ole Miss, and Cal State Bakersfield en route to the NIT championship game. TCU beat them soundly in the title game, but there is a lot to look forward to entering next season.

Josh Okogie, a breakout star in the ACC, returns for his sophomore season. Ben Lammers and Tadric Jackson will also return in starting roles. The ACC will experience some shifting with North Carolina, Duke, and Virginia losing a lot of talented players. This may be Georgia Tech’s year to break into the top tier of the conference standings.

TCU: Jamie Dixon accomplished a lot in his first season at TCU. The former Pittsburgh head coach arrived after TCU finished with a 12-21 record and only won two Big 12 games in 2015-16. The turnaround was immediate in 2016-17 with a record of 24-15 and an NIT championship. The expectations should continue to rise at a school that has been short on basketball success since the mid-80s. Vladimir Brodziansky, Kenrich Williams, Alex Robinson, and Jaylen Fisher all return after leading last year’s team. Coach Dixon also brings in a talented group of newcomers which includes some experienced junior college players. The expectations should include an NCAA Tournament bid and potentially a run at a Big 12 title in 2017-18.

Other teams may have high expectations based on the decisions of players who have not hired an agent and may return to school.  For the fans of the teams above, the college basketball season can’t arrive soon enough.

By Ben Billman

Ben Billman is currently a doctoral teaching assistant at the United States Sports Academy. He lives in Mobile, Ala. with his wife Jennifer and son Derrick. He is originally from Indiana, and therefore has a deep love for the game of basketball. Reach him at bbillman@ussa.edu.

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