College basketball is back, in all its court-rushing, bracket-busting, cheerleader tears-inducing glory. Throughout the season, VICE Sports will have breakdowns of the week's biggest games, statistical and video analysis, and regular features covering the sport's best, brightest and weirdest.
Today, our 2015-16 Season Preview. Enjoy:
The Top 16
Given how many programs now rely on star freshmen every year, it can be tough to determine which teams will live up to the hype and which ones will underachieve. Here's our best guess at the best 16 squads—corresponding to the the top four seeds in each region of the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky doesn't have the depth from last year—arguably no program in the history of college basketball can match the school's two-platoon squad in 2014-15—but the Wildcats are still crazy talented. Freshmen Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere might be Kentucky's two best players. But remember Alex Poythress? Tyler Ulis? They can play a little, too. Add freshman Isaiah Briscoe, and John Calipari's squad is as loaded with future pros as ever. Improved on offense, a bit worse on defense, a championship contender, and a lock for the green room of the 2016 NBA Draft: that's Kentucky in a nutshell.
2. North Carolina
With potential NCAA sanctions on the horizon following a major academic scandal involving the basketball team, North Carolina faces a potentially dicey future. Presently, however, the Tar Heels are primed to make a title run. Star point guard Marcus Paige will miss time early in the season, but he'll be back when it really counts. North Carolina's ultimate ceiling depends on the development of Kennedy Meeks and Justin Jackson, which is reason to be skeptical. Still, the potential is there.
Maryland was very, very lucky to be as good as it was last year: the Terrapins finished a ridiculous 12-1 in one-to-two-possession games, even though the outcomes of close contests have proven to be essentially random over time. That said, this year's squad won't need luck to make a dramatic improvement. Point guard Melo Trimble is back, and he's joined by star Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon, Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter, Jr., and coveted freshman big man Diamond Stone. In a potential down season for the Big Ten, Maryland looks like the conference's top team.
Honestly, this might be too low for the Jayhawks. Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis and Frank Mason III are all back, and all figure to improve. Much depends on freshman Cheick Diallo, who is currently in an eligibility battle with the NCAA. If he's cleared to play, Kansas could easily be the best team in the country.
How will the defending champions make up for the loss of Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones? All eyes are going to be on freshman Brandon Ingram, who should be one of the country's best newcomers. Duke also returns a good core, including forward Amile Jefferson and guard Grayson Allen, who broke out in last year's NCAA Tournament. A truly formidable recruiting class is lined up for next fall, but in the meantime, the Blue Devils have enough ability to give North Carolina a run in the ACC.
Speaking of the ACC: Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill are both back for a team that is starting to look Wisconsin-like in its ability to be nationally elite every season because of its system. The Cavs are much more efficient on offense than people give them credit for—slow tempo leads to lower point totals, but not necessarily to an attack that can't put the ball in the basket—and the program's defense is always incredible. UVA will play a lot of close games because of its tempo; it also will win a lot of those games, and could snatch the conference crown through sheer consistency.
7. Iowa State
Perhaps we're higher on the Cyclones than we should be, given that Fred Hoiberg has left to coach the Chicago Bulls. However, replacement Steve Prohm's system fits Iowa State's players well, and boy, do the Cyclones have players. Georges Niang is the most underrated player in the country, and the rest of the starting five—Monte Morris, Jameel McKay, Naz Long and Abdel Nader—might be more complete than conference rival Kansas'. The issue is depth. Is there enough of it to weather injuries, fatigue and a long, punishing season?
Oklahoma didn't get as much attention as it deserved last year, but that should change as the Sooners push Kansas and Iowa State for the Big 12 title. The trifecta of Buddy Hield, Ryan Spangler and Isaiah Cousins bring a lot of talent and experience back to Norman.
With Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono returning, the Wildcats are still going to be able to shoot the hell out of the ball. And there's really no reason to think they're going to fade away in a somewhat weak—albeit improving—Big East. Last season, the Wildcats earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and the addition of freshman Jalen Brunson could make this team even better. The question is whether a jump-shooting team that's just average inside can make a deep postseason run.
10. Wichita State
The Shockers might be a mid-major program, but they're not plucky and they're not a Cinderella. Between Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State has one of the best backcourts in the country—and while the team's frontline isn't particularly big, Anton Grady and Evan Wessel have proven themselves against top competition (ahem: Kansas). The Missouri Valley is actually pretty deep this year, but the Shockers are good enough to go undefeated.
Gonzaga's frontcourt is, for lack of a better word, unfair. Kyle Wiltjer (6-foot-10), Przemek Karnowski (7-foot-1) and Domantas Sabonis (6-foot-10) are going to absolutely dominate the West Coast Conference, and they could probably dominate just about any opponent. The backcourt is less imposing, but Wiltjer shoots like a guard and should be able to carry the Bulldogs to another great season.
Arizona is rightfully the Pac-12 favorite this year, but Cal has the most upside. Top-rated recruits Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb will get most of the attention—especially from NBA scouts—but senior Tyrone Wallace and Jordan Matthews will be very good, too. Don't sleep on the Bears as national contenders.
13. Michigan State
MSU is underappreciated this year. The Spartans would likely be a top 10 team if they had been able to land Caleb Swanigan, who eventually committed to Purdue. Still, they have a star in Denzel Valentine, and guards Bryn Forbes and Marvin Clark could make major jumps. Maryland is the best team in the Big Ten, but don't be surprised if Michigan State ends up advancing further in the NCAA tournament, since that's basically what Tom Izzo does.
It feels a bit dodgy to rank Indiana this high, given that Tom Crean teams with this much talent previously have underachieved. But with Yogi Ferrell, James Blackmon, Jr., Troy Williams and star freshman center Thomas Bryant, the Hoosiers should be one of the top three teams in the Big Ten and one of the 16 best in the country.
This Arizona team is far less talented that the Wildcats teams of the past few years—four starters are gone, three to the NBA, and under-the-radar one-and-done candidate Ray Smith is out for the year with an ACL tear—but it still figures to be pretty good. Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson joins Kaleb Tarczewski to anchor an experienced, burly front line, and Sean Miller's teams always play smothering pack line defense. Will that be enough to beat out Cal?
Delon Wright is gone to the NBA, but Utah is still going to be a very good team in an improved Pac-12. Center Jakob Poeltl will be one of the best big men in the conference, and point guard Brandon Taylor has the potential to be a very good scorer. The Utes will go as far as their inside-outside duo can take them.
Year of the freshman (again)
Two years ago, it was Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. Last year, it was Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor and De'Angelo Russell. This year? More of the same. At least one freshman will end up as an All-American, and one or more could be cutting down the nets in April. A closer look at the top newcomers:
-Ben Simmons, LSU: Simmons is arguably the best player in this class, and as a potential No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick, he's a steal for a program like LSU. The Tigers should make the NCAA Tournament. Can he take them further?
-Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere, Kentucky: Surprise, Kentucky landed two of the best freshmen in the country. Murray starred for Team Canada, while Labissiere has overcome tremendous odds to become the top center prospect in the 2016 NBA Draft.
-Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky: Briscoe might be the best freshman point guard in the country, but he'll have to share minutes with Tyler Ulis. #KentuckyProblems
-Brandon Ingram, Duke: The only way Duke wins the national title again this year is if Ingram plays like an All-American. Which could happen!
-Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, Cal: Cal has some good seniors, but it will live and die with the progression of its freshmen. Brown and Rabb could be the two best NBA prospects in the Pac-12.
-Cheick Diallo, Kansas: As mentioned above, eligibility is the only question.
-Diamond Stone, Maryland: Stone is a big center who could give Maryland a dominant post player. Sometimes, big men face a learning curve; the quicker Stone adapts, the better the Terrapins will be.
30-second shot clock
In an effort to make college basketball more "watchable," the NCAA has shortened the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30 seconds this season. The idea is that more possessions will lead to more points, and more points will lead to better television.
The NIT, CBI and CIT experimented with this last year, and ultimately, it didn't make a huge difference, positive or negative. Scores weren't much higher than before, and efficiency didn't decrease, as some coaches worried it would.
The biggest difference coaches noticed was an increase in the use of pressure defense. Loyola coach Porter Moser saw it in his game against Rider:
"You'll see college teams do that nuisance press just to take time off, and I think that'll be a factor, too, with the shot clock," Moser said following his team's CBI win against Rider.
"Rider did a 1-2-2 press after makes, so that took away 10 seconds each shot clock," Moser said. "Next thing you know, you're starting your offense with like 17."
It will be interesting to see how much the press is used this season. In the NBA, which has a 24-second shot clock, teams don't bother pressing because the guard play is good enough to break the press. That's not always the case in college. If teams can delay how long it takes opponents to set up their offenses, better-conditioned teams could have an advantage. So could teams with more than one capable ball handler.
While eligibility concerns surrounding Purdue's Caleb Swanigan, UCF's Tacko Fall and Kentucky's Skal Labissiere were resolved just in time for the season, the status of another player who came to America from Africa remains uncertain.
The NCAA has still not cleared Kansas' Cheick Diallo, who hails from Mali. The NCAA has a history of declaring players from Africa ineligible because of their educational backgrounds—even though those players have been admitted to their schools. That's awful, but it's the reality for players from non-Western cultures.
Diallo could be a big loss for his team if he's not on the court. But off the court, this story is even more interesting. Like Fall, he has considered suing the NCAA if declared ineligible.
That potential lawsuit is unlikely to be successful, but it will be fascinating to see if the NCAA adapts, given that many schools are looking overseas for players.
PG: Marcus Paige, North Carolina
SG: Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
SF: Georges Niang, Iowa State
PF: Ben Simmons, LSU
C: Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
Player of the Year
Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
Coach of the Year
Steve Prohm, Iowa State
Freshman of the Year
Ben Simmons, LSU