With the first game of the 2023-24 basketball season just seven days away, and with the two exhibition games now behind us, we are going to take a look at some of the other teams in the nation who could be harboring Final Four aspirations, or more. By now, you all know that winning it all this season is a very reasonable hope for this year’s Spartans. According to Caesars Sportsbook, MSU has the second-best odds of winning the championship (+1200 behind only Kansas’ +1100), and they sit at number 4 in both the AP and Coaches preseason Top-25 polls. So yes, expectations are there. Coach Izzo knows it. The players know it. They are welcoming and embracing it.
But who else is coming into the season with high expectations? I am going to give a breakdown on the other 9 teams in the preseason top ten; both polls have the same teams just in a different order. Without further ado, let’s look at the teams trying to be Spartan Spoilers.
The Jayhawks sit atop both polls going into the season and have collected 69 of the 95 available first place votes between the two. There is usually a lot of disdain sent Kansas’ way from several other schools across the country, and for a number of reasons: They always are a candidate to win it all, Coach Bill Self’s involvement in the college basketball corruption probe from a few years back, that annoying “Rock Chalk” chant. Well, this year MSU has another reason to despise this program: hunter dickinson. Yes, that’s right the former um star has left our conference rival to join the team who could be our biggest obstacle in the way of a natty. He probably is Kansas’ best player and definitely it’s biggest (expletive deleted). MSU fans surely remember him taking on a villainous role last year. Time will tell if he tries to continue his wrestling bad guy storyline in his new home. The good news for Izzo and company is familiarity, not just with dickinson but also with Coach Self and the program itself, as MSU faces them on a regular basis in the annual Champions Classic, though their roster has turned over a great deal since we last played them 2 seasons ago.
Aside from their new transfer portal pickup, The Jayhawks also feature Dajuan Harris Jr. as their starting PG, who is the reigning Big 12 DPOY. He was also fifth in the country last year in assists, a number he will look to improve upon with his new teammate from ann arbor. Kevin McCullar Jr. is Kansas’ best wing player and has value on both ends of the floor scoring and rebounding. Kansas is always going to be a good team and never an opponent to take lightly. MSU could very easily see them as a Final Four opponent.
My preseason rank: 2
Next up is arguably our biggest basketball rival, as there have been some fantastic games between these two teams in both the regular season and the NCAA tournament throughout the careers of Tom Izzo and the recently retired Mike Krzyzewski. The Spartans and Blue Devils will clash again this year in the Champions Classic on November 14 (who will I see there?) in the first matchup in this series for Duke’s new coach Jon Scheyer. Like the last team on this list, Duke is the bluest of blue-bloods and always a force to be reckoned with, though they have also had some famous early tournament flameouts.
This year’s squad, as is often the case with Duke’s famed recruiting, is mostly underclassmen. The lone upperclassman, however, will be the man controlling the ball as Jeremy Roach comes back for his senior season. Aside from Roach, this roster is comprised of incoming four- and five-star freshmen as well as a few sophomores who probably could have been one-and-dones last year. Their prized freshman is Jared McCain, a backcourt player who could end up being this team’s leading scorer. In the middle, they bring back Kyle Filipowski, last year’s ACC ROY and tourney MVP, who should be good for a double-double average this year after averaging 15 and 9 in his freshman campaign. There isn’t a bad player on this roster, it will just be the same question this program must face every year, and that is how well can all these new pieces mesh together.
My preseason rank: 4
The third team in the preseason AP poll comes into this season with a major disappointment fresh on their minds. Last year, the Boilermakers became just the second #1 seed to ever lose to a #16 in their NCAA Tournament opener. But let me
remind warn you all that the first team that accomplished that embarrassing feat, the 2017-18 Virginia Cavaliers, went on to win it all a season later. So, yes let’s laugh at our conference foe and our biggest challenge to this year’s Big Ten crown, but also let’s realize that they will most certainly come in laser-focused and looking to redeem themselves.
All conversations about Purdue hoops must begin and end with Zach Edey, the 7’4” reigning national player of the year. One of the off-season’s biggest questions was whether or not he would return for a final season. In the end, he decided to return, and that makes every other team’s life just that much harder. He is absolutely the hardest player to defend in college basketball. But he is not the only player to be concerned about. Purdue brings back a pair of guards who both earned starting jobs last year as freshmen in Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer. Expect to see these two make a sophomore leap and be an even more formidable duo.
I would not be doing my job as an MSU writer if I did not mention Purdue’s coach, Matt Painter. He obviously received plenty of criticism for his team’s 1st round knockout last year. Let’s see if he learns from it or if he just goes completely off the rails and takes his team with him.
My preseason rank: 5
Here is another program MSU will have some familiarity with, as the Spartans knocked out a higher seeded Golden Eagles in the 2nd round last year. And similar to MSU’s roster, Marquette has a lot of experience in its lineup, with everyone projected to be starting this coming year being an upperclassman. While MSU gets touted for having perhaps the best backcourt in college hoops in ‘23-24, Marquette may have the best single guard in the nation in Tyler Kolek. The senior was third in the nation last year with 7.5 assists per game, and that was on top of being second on the team at 12.9 PPG. So yes, this guy can beat opponents in multiple ways.
Marquette’s second most important piece is their center, Osasere “Oso” Ighodaro. This year as the unquestioned man in the middle for Marquette (he was splitting stats with their other big man a year ago), Oso should be a double-double machine. Playing in the Big East, look for Marquette to compete for a conference championship, a high tournament seed, and a deep March run, assuming they don’t get tripped up by an underseeded team from a major conference again. But I am not betting on that to happen. I could easily see this team playing MSU in the Elite Eight or later.
My preseason rank: 3
The defending national champions are among the favorites to win it all in Phoenix, with Caesars giving them the seventh best odds, but they do have a lot to replace from last year’s championship team. The biggest loss will be that of center Adama Sanogo, who led them in both points and rebounds. Taking his spot will be sophomore Donovan Clingan, though he is currently trying to come back from an offseason foot injury. Last year, playing only about 13 minutes per game, he averaged 7 points, 5.5 rebounds, and just under 2 blocks per contest. Assuming his foot heals fully, expect this guy to be one of the better centers in the country by the time we flip the calendars to 2024 and conference play heats up.
Until then, UCONN will be carried by super senior PG Tristen Newton and five-star freshman Stephon Castle, who just led the Team USA U18 team to a championship this past summer. Newton can do a little bit of everything - score, dish, rebound, and steal - though he will need to see his FG% go up if UCONN will reach its potential. Castle, who is listed as a PG coming out of high school, will play on the wing for the Huskies and should be one of their leading scorers.
Of course, we have not seen a repeat champion since Florida in 2006 and 2007. Since the UCLA dynasty of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the only other team to repeat in the past 50 years was the ‘91 and ‘92 Duke teams. Those Florida and Duke teams both had their best player return in their quests to repeat; UCONN does not have that luxury.
My preseason rank: 8
A #1-seed in last year’s tournament, Houston is about to become a science experiment this year as we get to see how well a team that dominates a mid-major conference does when they get moved to a high-major, and arguably the toughest conference in the land at that. And to make their task even tougher, they will be without their top three scorers from last year’s team.
There are some solid pieces, though, that will help the Cougars make the adjustment to the Big 12. First and foremost is their PG, Jamal Shead. Last year, Shead earned DPOY in the American Athletic Conference and averaged 10 points and 5 assists. He is the straw that stirs the drink. His backcourt mate will be L.J. Cryer, a transfer from Baylor, who thus will have familiarity with a number of their conference opponents and has a national championship ring from his freshman season. Cryer is a threat to score from deep, shooting over 41% a season ago beyond the arc. And PF J’Wan Roberts, who was the AAC’s Most Improved Player last year, is a player who can score on one end and block shots on the other, tallying 49 rejections last season.
Houston has a great coach, but I feel that the move to the Big 12 will result in a worse overall record for them, and thus a lower tournament seed and a tougher path to the Final Four.
My preseason rank: 7
Creighton is one of the teams that is earning a high preseason ranking due to a bit of a Cinderella run in last year’s tourney, and not necessarily based on what their entire season looked like. They finished the Big East season in third place, got crushed in the conference semifinal, and were a six-seed in the big dance before making it all the way to the Elite 8, where they lost by one point to San Diego State. So is this buzz or is the ranking appropriate?
Two-time defending Big East DPOY Ryan Kalkbrenner returns for his final season. Last year he led the conference with 72 blocks, and that is a conference that had a lot of solid centers and power forwards last year. On top of that stat, he also scored 16 a game on 70% shooting and pulled down six boards per contest. After Kalkbrenner, the Bluejays best player is probably Baylor Scheierman who plays on the wing. His best game last year was probably their Sweet 16 victory over Princeton where he scored 21 and had 9 rebounds. For the season, he averaged 12.8 and 8.3 in those categories, though his three-point shooting can be a bit hot-and-cold.
It is always big deal when a non-major team makes it to the Elite 8 or further, but few have been able to do it in consecutive years, Gonzaga notwithstanding. Maybe the 2010 and ‘11 Butler teams were the last to repeat that level of success in consecutive years. It will be tough for Creighton to make another run, but with their talent it would not be the most surprising thing.
My preseason rank: 6
The highest-ranking SEC team in the preseason polls, Tennessee has a lot of talent from last year’s Sweet 16 squad to replace. That is why this ranking comes as a surprise to me. Among the talent they do have for this coming season, they do not have a lot of size, and some projections for their starting five list four guards and just one big man.
Arguably their best player is Santiago Vescovi, the fifth-year senior from Uruguay who has been a first-team All-SEC each of the past two seasons. Vescovi is really the only player coming back with significant starting experience for the Volunteers. This team does not have the talent that Duke does, but they do have the same challenge of building cohesion amongst a very new lineup.
My preseason rank: 9
*This was written prior to yesterday’s exhibition but I maintain my opinion.
9. Florida Atlantic
The other preseason top-ten team who is largely here on the coattails of last year’s cinderella run is the Florida Atlantic Owls. And the Owls got a step further than Creighton, having made it to the Final Four after beating KSU (still painful). Similar to Houston above, FAU is also moving up to a tougher conference, going from Conference USA to the AAC, though the AAC’s best team, Houston, just jumped ship to the Big 12 along with Cincinnati and Central Florida.
The Owls do return the majority of last year’s Final Four squad. Alijah Martin averaged 13.4 PPG last year and he should be the top scorer for them this year. Vladislav Goldin from Russia will man the low post for this team and should flirt with a double-double in most games. Next to him, PF Johnell Davis will move into the starting lineup after being CUSA’s 6th Man of the Year in ‘22-’23.
Like I said with Creighton, it is rare for lightning to strike in the same place twice. And I think the Owls are a level below the Bluejays.
My preseason rank: 10
The rankings I gave each team above were just in comparison to each other, not where I would put them in national rankings. You may have noticed that one number was missing in my list. That number was #1. And I left that blank because I am giving that distinction to none other than...
MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY
My preseason rank: 1