Every basketball season, we must ask ourselves the question, "Why doesn't this sport just wait for football to end." The answer is still a mystery, but the fouls will begin to squeak on Friday night, so here we are with the first four team previews of the year.
Average predicted conference win total: 2.2
Key arrivals: Corey Sanders, Omari Grier
Key departures: Myles Mack, Kadeem Jack
As a native of Central New Jersey, I enjoy going to Rutgers basketball games. The arena is cozy yet boisterous, it's easy to get good seats, and there is a Red Robin nearby. The only problem with the RAC over the years has been the on-court product, and that will not change in 2015-16. Last season, the Knights finished last in the Big Ten in effective field goal percentage and 13th in turnover rate. And that was with senior leaders Mack and Jack dominating most of the possessions.
With those two gone, it's tough to imagine Rutgers improving this year, but on the other hand, there's nowhere to go but up. Omari Grier, an experienced transfer student from Bradley, will be able to play right away thanks to that special rule for grad students, and that should help the development of four-star recruit Corey Sanders. The point guard from Florida has a chance to be the future of head coach Eddie Jordan's program, and he'll certainly get plenty of time to prove that he's for real. Meanwhile, a young-but-talented frontcourt featuring Shaquille Doorson and Ibrahima Diallo will try to improve the Rutgers defense and avoid another 20-loss campaign.
13. Penn State
Average predicted conference win total: 2.9
Key arrivals: Josh Reaves, Mike Watkins
Key departures: D.J. Newbill, Geno Thorpe, Ross Travis
The Lions appeared to be finally making progress at the end of last season with an exciting victory in the regular season finale at Minnesota and a Big Ten Tournament upset of Purdue, but now it's back to the drawing board as three key starters are leaving. We knew that Newbill and Travis were out the door, as they were out of eligibility, so the real stomach punch came when Geno Thorpe decided to leave the program... for South Florida of all places. Thorpe didn't put up the sexiest numbers last year, but in 2015-16 he had a chance to be Penn State's best player due to his increased aggressiveness on offense and defense as well as his improving three-point shot.
Instead, the departure will leave a lot more shots for Shep Garner (36 percent from the field in 2014-15), so let's hope that the combo guard has become more selective over the summer. If neither Garner nor small/power forward Brandon Taylor (a 37-percent shooter last year) have drastically improved their offensive games, head coach Pat Chambers will need to be heavily reliant on freshman guard Josh Reaves, who has the chance to be as frustrating for opponents as Newbill and Talor Battle were in years past. The hope is that Chambers's loaded 2016 class will surround Reaves with better teammates than his predecessors and spark a run of NCAA Tournament appearances, but for now it will be a challenge for the Lions to top last season's total of four conference wins.
Average predicted conference win total: 4.8
Key arrivals: Andrew White, Glynn Watson, Ed Morrow
Key departures: Terran Petteway, David Rivers
Jesse Collins: Nebraska basketball is going to be a better team in 2015-16 than they were in 2014-15. While the train wreck that saw a bottoming out of expectations shouldn't be that difficult to outplay, there is some significant reason for hope. The Huskers lose the great scoring prowess of Petteway, but they have gained quite a bit in other areas. Andrew White, who had to sit out last year due to transfer rules, looks to be all you would hope for in scorer. Shavon Shields is an underrated player with All-B1G potential. Benny Parker — often asked to do too much — should be a change-of-pace guy once Watson — true freshman and phenomenal distributor — comes up to full speed. Last year was not fun, but this Nebraska team has the chemistry and potentially a little bit of Ewing Theory going on with Petteway gone. I like our chances. I'm not expecting a top four finish, but do not be surprised if Nebraska finishes in the top half as opposed to the bottom four.
Average predicted conference win total: 6.2
Key arrivals: Joey van Zegeren, Aaron Falzon
Key departures: JerShon Cobb, Dave Sobolewski
MNWildcat: This is The Year for Northwestern basketball. Unless it isn't. It probably isn't, but it's a year nonetheless. The 'Cats will look for Alex Olah and Tre Demps to riiiiide off into the sunset winners during their senior seasons. Olah and VaTech transfer van Zegeren will patrol the paint for NU, providing offense and defense, respectively. I really think Olah could live up to the hopes we've had for him — the senior from Romania is nearing 10 rebounds per 40 minutes but still struggles in man defense, which Chris Collins expects him to play. Bryant McIntosh needs to avoid a sophomore slump. He's added muscle and conditioning which will hopefully help him avoid the dropoff he experienced at the end of last season. Vic Law needs to grow as a sophomore, freshmen Dererk Pardon and Falzon could contribute immediately in the stretch three/four role, while Gavin Skelly and Sanjay Lumpkin will have to continue to provide some thump in the paint for the 'Cats.
For me, though, the 'Cats fortunes begin and end with Collins's ability to put them in position to win. His reticence to switch from man defense to zone defense in 2014-15 cost them in losses to Central Michigan, would've allowed them to hang with Northern Iowa for longer, and was a major factor in defensive woes (70.7 ppg allowed, etc.) on their 10-game losing streak in the Big Ten. Collins needs to let his athletes run, but also stay mindful of his limitations in the paint — Olah is not a pick-and-roll center, no matter what he insists — and put his team in a position to succeed. In a season with nine cupcakes, tough games at VaTech, one of Mizzou/K-State, a matchup at DePaul, and a game with No. 1 UNC, the 'Cats can ill afford poor game planning or a failure to adjust in-game. Collins got his schedule, now it's on him to coach his team into an NIT-worthy resume that just might have us believing for a little while.
But no, this is not The Year.