College basketball begins, ends in DFW

Jay Bilas thought college basketball hit rock bottom last year, which says something from one of the sport’s great ambassadors.

The respected ESPN analyst mentioned the low scores, the unwillingness to adjust the rules and simply the quality of play lacking as reasons why the sport has fallen in recent years.

“Look, I love college basketball, but I love it enough to tell the truth about it,” Bilas said.

But Bilas is optimistic about this season getting back on track, praising the new hand-check rules and the added difficulty in drawing a charge. He also raved about the talented freshman class coming into the game, which largely determines how the season goes in this one-and-done era.

“If that holds true again, we’re in for what I think could be a phenomenal season,” Bilas said.

It starts Friday, and the marquee event to begin the season is at American Airlines Center. The Boots and Buckets Showcase features a tripleheader, with Oklahoma-Alabama at 4 p.m., TCU-SMU at 6:30 p.m. and Baylor-Colorado at 9 p.m.

The season ends in DFW, too, when AT&T Stadium hosts the Final Four in April.

Along the way, teams will be trying to impress and earn a coveted spot in the 68-team NCAA Tournament field.

“Friday we start looking at teams,” said Ron Wellman, chairman of the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee and athletics director at Wake Forest.

“All of us are going to be taping games, watching them. We all have assignments on what conferences we’re watching so we have a lot of work to do over the next four months.”

Speaking of which, here’s everything you need to know about the upcoming season, broken into fours in honor of the Final Four coming to Arlington.

Final Four picks

Michigan State: The Spartans enter as one of the most experienced teams. They’ll have a nice inside-outside threat with seniors Adreian Payne and Keith Appling, and also return starters Gary Harris and Branden Dawson. And nobody wants to see a Tom Izzo-coached team in March.

Kansas: Andrew Wiggins. He is being called the best recruit since LeBron James. But the Jayhawks are much more than just the super recruit as they have other top freshmen and potential first-rounders in guard Wayne Selden and center Joel Embiid coming in. It could take some time for the young Jayhawks to get going, but they should be rolling by March.

Kentucky: A year after missing the NCAA Tournament, John Calipari has reloaded with youngsters who could carry him to another title. Plano Prestonwood product Julius Randle is one of the top freshmen in the country, and will be joined by fellow freshmen Andrew and Aaron Harrison, James Young and Dakari Johnson. The Wildcats also have a nice returning group led by Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein.

VCU: The surprise team from 2011 re-emerges. Shaka Smart has proven he’s one of the top young coaches in the game, and has the talent to make a second trip to the Final Four in four years. They got a much-needed inside presence with Florida State transfer Terrance Shannon and have a deep and talented backcourt with Briante Weber and Rob Brandenberg.

Top four mid-majors

Wichita State: A run to the Final Four does wonders for a program, and the Shockers are lucky Gregg Marshall hasn’t been lured away by a bigger program. The backcourt is strong with Tekele Cotton, Ron Baker and Evan Wessel, and the frontcourt is in good hands behind last March’s breakout star, Cleanthony Early.

VCU: The Rams have established themselves as one of the top teams in the country, playing a “havoc” style under Shaka Smart. They have a group who could once again surprise people come March, especially with their penchant to force turnovers.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs have become perennial contenders under Mark Few. They have gone to 15 consecutive NCAA tournaments, and were the top-ranked team at one point last season. The Zags lost their best player from last season, Kelly Olynyk, but have an inside replacement in 7-foot-1 center Przemek Karnowski.

North Dakota State: The Bison begin the season in hopes of securing their first tournament bid in five years, and have all five starters back. Taylor Braun is a contender to be the Summit League’s best player, and don’t be surprised if this squad upsets someone in March.

Four sleepers

Virginia: The Cavaliers have made two Final Fours in their school’s history, and could be in position to do it again this year. Joe Harris is a sharpshooter on the outside, and Akil Mitchell gives them an inside presence.

Harvard: The Crimson are looking for a fourth consecutive Ivy League title, and enter as the favorites. Laurent Rivard and Siyani Chambers are returning starters in the backcourt, Wesley Saunders is a versatile swingman and Kyle Casey and Kenyatta Smith bring experience in the paint.

Boise State: A young Broncos team made an improbable run to the NCAA tournament last year, which means they will be even more dangerous this year with veteran players. The top six scorers are back, including forward Anthony Drmic, who averaged 17.7 points a game last year.

Creighton: Doug McDermott is a preseason All-America candidate and is looking to become the eighth college player to score 3,000 points (he’s 784 shy). And don’t forget Grant Gibbs, who flies under the radar but is one of the top guards in the country. The Blue Jays have the talent to contend again.

Top four coaches in four words

Tom Izzo, Michigan State: X’s and O’s guru.

Bill Self, Kansas: Ten consecutive conference titles?

Mike Krzyzewski, Duke: Winningest coach in history.

Rick Pitino, Louisville: Two schools, two titles.

Top four nonconference games

Michigan State vs. Kentucky, Tuesday: Matchup of the top two preseason teams and two teams at the opposite ends of the spectrum. The Spartans are a veteran group with experience, while the Wildcats are an inexperienced, but talented bunch.

Wichita State at Saint Louis, Dec. 1: The Shockers made the Final Four a year ago and will be tested early. The Billikens return four starters from last year’s tournament team, led by Dwayne Evans, who averaged 14 points and 7.7 rebounds.

Michigan at Duke, Dec. 3: The Wolverines were last year’s runner-up and return two key pieces in Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary. But Cameron Indoor isn’t an easy place to play, and the Blue Devils bolstered their team with transfer Rodney Hood and freshman Jabari Parker.

Georgetown at Kansas, Dec. 22: The Jayhawks have several early tests, but this should be an intriguing matchup in Allen Fieldhouse. The Hoyas lost Otto Porter to the NBA and Greg Whittington to an injury, but are known for their rugged defense, which will have its hands full with Andrew Wiggins.

Top four freshmen

Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: Athletic and skilled, he could emerge as the top player in country.

Julius Randle, Kentucky: Strong and aggressive forward who will pose matchup problems all season.

Jabari Parker, Duke: Consistently makes highlight-reel plays and will be an immediate contributor.

Aaron Gordon, Arizona: Accumulated countless accolades as a prep and should do the same in college.

Top four sophomores

Mitch McGary, Michigan: Shined in NCAA Tournament, now looking to do it for a full season.

Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: NBA talent who opted to return for his sophomore campaign.

Gary Harris, Michigan State: Do-it-all guard poised to make a bigger impact as a sophomore.

Jahii Carson, Arizona State: Averaged 18.5 points per game as freshman while setting several school records.

Top four juniors

James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina: A double-double threat every game.

Tyler Haws, BYU: Sharpshooter who averaged more than 21 points a game last year.

Gary Bell, Gonzaga: Regressed somewhat in his sophomore campaign, but is still a solid guard.

Le’Bryan Nash, Oklahoma State: Has yet to live up to his high school hype but has shown signs of progress.

Top four seniors

Aaron Craft, Ohio State: Arguably the best perimeter defender in the game today.

Doug McDermott, Creighton: Versatile player who can play inside and out.

Russ Smith, Louisville: Two-way player who is looking for another title.

Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: Turned it on last year in March. Needs to do it an entire year.

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