By Patrick Grudberg ‘24
After an offseason packed with coaching changes, transfer portal drama, and an answer to the forever looming question regarding Coach K’s future (this season will indeed be his last), college basketball is finally back! The first games of the season tip off Tuesday, November 9th, headlined by two fantastic matchups in the yearly Champions Classic; #3 Kansas faces Michigan State while #10 Kentucky plays #9 Duke. Here are a few things to look out for as the non-conference slate gets underway this month.
Will Gonzaga finally get over the hump and claim their first National Championship?
Last season, everyone was convinced that it was finally Gonzaga’s time to win their first national championship. I certainly believed it. I picked them to win my bracket, but I lost. After seeming immortal for the entire season, touting a perfect 31-0 record, Mark Few’s team got rocked by Baylor in the Championship game. The Bulldogs lost Corey Kispert and Jalen Suggs to the NBA, but they do return with tournament standout Drew Timme. Timme will lead the frontcourt along with #1 recruit Chet Holmgren, which will certainly make for an unconventional yet enticing lineup. Neither are known for their perimeter play, and Few already lost his best shooters in Kispert and Junior guard Joel Ayayi. Like last season, the Zags have a gauntlet of a non-conference schedule; matchups against #5 Texas, #2 UCLA and #9 Duke will certainly serve as good tests for the team’s prospects. Per usual, their weak WCC conference slate won’t give us much help in deciding whether this team has as good a shot as last season. For now, it’ll be most exciting to see how Chet Holgrem looks alongside the Preseason All-American in Timme.
Will UCLA meet lofty expectations after their Cinderella run to the Final Four?
Nobody expected UCLA to make it to the Final Four. After losing their last four regular season games, Mick Cronin’s squad barely qualified as an eleven seed in a play-in matchup with Michigan State. Their historic run could have ended that night, down 11 points at half. But it did not; they stormed back with an overtime victory. Wins against Alabama and Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight secured the Bruins a spot in the Final Four. But their run came to an end in heartbreaking fashion; against aforementioned Gonzaga, Jalen Suggs hit a miracle half-court buzzer beater to send UCLA home packing. Thankfully, they return almost all their key players from that run, notably Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez. I expect Cronin’s squad to stumble a bit in the early goings; they have a tough matchup against #4 Villanova on Nov. 12. If they win that matchup, then it might be time to consider UCLA as more than a one-time Cinderella run.
Is this finally the year for Penny Hardaway and Memphis?
The Penny Hardaway era at Memphis has not gone according to plan so far. In Penny’s first season, hometown recruit James Wiseman, current Golden State Warrior, left the team after two games following controversy over his recruitment to the school. Memphis finished that season 21-10, and they capped off last season with a tournament championship… in the NIT. After plenty of justified criticism, this season has more promise than ever. Top recruits Emoni Bates and Jalen Duran committed to the program over the summer. Hardaway returns with solid role players in Landers Nolley and Lester Quiñones. Do I think Memphis has a shot at a Final Four? Almost certainly not. We won’t know too much about their prospects from their passive non-conference schedule, headlined only by Alabama and Tennessee. And similar to Gonzaga, their conference games in the American Athletic Conference won’t give us much to work with. So for now, the Tigers should latch onto Bates and Duran and see how high they can take them.