The college basketball season begins Tuesday, highlighted by the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on opening night (7 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN app). With the five-month countdown to the Final Four in Atlanta officially commencing, ESPN.com's experts make their Final Four, Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year picks below while tackling some of the season's biggest storylines.
The college hoops season tips off in style on Tuesday, when Duke plays Kansas (7 p.m. ET) and Michigan State faces Kentucky (9:30 p.m. ET) in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden. What is the biggest question you're looking to have answered in that event?
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: What is Duke's plan going to be on offense this season? New Blue Devils Matthew Hurt, Cassius Stanley, Wendell Moore and Joey Baker (in effect a new arrival as a sophomore) have all had their moments in the team's two exhibition games, but how these guys will perform when the opponent is Kansas remains to be seen. Meanwhile, in 48 exhibition minutes, Tre Jones didn't hit a 3 (he was 0-for-6). Can he show some perimeter range this season, and if not, can a no-Zion version of Duke score at an elite level with defenses always sagging off the Blue Devils point guard?
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: Will folks leave Madison Square Garden praising or critiquing Kansas guard Devon Dotson?
I mean, if we're talking about a possible title run for Kansas, then we should focus on Dotson, who has to lead the Jayhawks in his second season. His potential growth rivals the return of Udoka Azubuike in terms of significance for Bill Self's squad. Will he cut down on turnovers (2.3 per game last season)? Is he a more reliable 3-point shooter (35% in Big 12 play last season)? His usage rate will increase with Quentin Grimes, Lagerald Vick and Dedric Lawson all gone. Matched up against Tre Jones at the Champions Classic, we'll learn more about this Kansas squad and Dotson's role as its new leader as the season begins.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: John hit the biggest Duke question, so I'll go with Kentucky and how the Wildcats dole out minutes.
There's a case to be made that their best lineup right now would be Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey, Immanuel Quickley, Nate Sestina and EJ Montgomery, but that quintet would lack a true wing. John Calipari showed different looks in the two Kentucky exhibition games, starting Montgomery and Richards together in the first one. Sestina started the second one in place of Richards, who was out with an injury, and he brings spacing and shooting to the frontcourt. Keion Brooks was the versatile starting forward in the first exhibition, and Kahlil Whitney had that role in the second one.
There is a ton of talent on this Kentucky roster, but it remains to be seen how all the pieces fit. Calipari basically has three point guards, a pair of versatile forwards, Sestina, two inconsistent big men and Johnny Juzang (another shooter). He could tinker with his starters and rotation for several weeks.
There is no apparent Zion Williamson or even Trae Young-like figure on the eve of the 2019-20 campaign. If you could pick one player who has a chance to become the "must-watch" player of this season, whom would you pick?
Gasaway: To be fair to this year's players, Zion was named second-team (!) All-ACC in the preseason a year ago, and before we saw Young take the floor for Oklahoma, he was rated below Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr., Deandre Ayton and about 20 other freshmen from that year. Maybe someone will emerge this season.
How about Cole Anthony? The North Carolina freshman is projected as a top-five pick next summer, and last season Coby White showed us what a first-year player can do when Roy Williams gives him the keys to the UNC offense. I expect big things from Anthony.
Borzello: I think Anthony Edwards is going to put up huge numbers at Georgia and Memphis is going to be the biggest storyline in the country, but the answer to this has to be Anthony. Anthony has been amazingly productive at every level of high school basketball, be it the school season, AAU, all-star games, etc. His numbers on the Nike EYBL circuit were historically impressive, with ESPN Analytics' Neil Johnson writing that Anthony's 2018 campaign was the "best single statistical season in the shoe circuit era."
Anthony is going to need some freedom to do his thing on the offensive end, as he's a ball-dominant guard who loves to make plays off the bounce. Fortunately, Roy Williams is likely going to give it to him, as Anthony is going to need to step in for Coby White from day one. We could see some eye-popping numbers from Anthony, especially in North Carolina's up-tempo system.
Medcalf: It's probably Anthony, but let's go in a different direction. How about Nico Mannion? You've got a top-10 NBA prospect with red hair who will have the green light from Sean Miller perhaps as the NCAA is closing in on the program? That's the perfect blend of intrigue and polarization to make Mannion the most interesting player in college basketball. He has the style, the position, the program and, on the West Coast, the spotlight to go viral. The five-star guard is the next backcourt star to lead the Arizona program that some call "Point Guard U."
We'll never get another Zion. He was a once-in a-lifetime star. Months before Trae Young's debut at Oklahoma, however, I was the only reporter at a team photo shoot who wanted to talk to him. Six months later, ESPN sent me back to Norman, Oklahoma, with a TV crew. Mannion, whose father, Pace Mannion, played in the NBA, could enjoy a similar rise at Arizona. Few are talking about him now. But that could change in a few months.
If you had to identify one "mystery team," a group whose outcomes range from "Final Four" to "non-NCAA tournament disaster," which would it be?
Medcalf: Texas Tech. I trust Chris Beard's coaching. I have questions about everything else.
At Big 12 media day, Beard told me that his early practices with his new group had been "good and bad." He has found success at the Division I, Division II and junior college levels. Last season's run put him on the short list of candidates for the big jobs (Duke, North Carolina, Kansas) that could open up in the coming years. But do we trust his team? Most programs that lose a lottery pick (Jarret Culver) and, in total, four of the five starters from last year's national title game would probably not begin the season with a top-15 ranking. But Texas Tech's spot at 13th in the preseason AP poll is based solely on Beard's coaching. That might be enough.
We weren't talking about Texas Tech or Culver at this point last season, but they ended the season on the final stage. Freshman Jahmi'us Ramsey and Virginia Tech transfer Chris Clarke could help the Red Raiders rise to the top of the Big 12 again and make another run. But I don't think we know enough to solidify that projection yet.
Borzello: Washington. Heading into the season, Mike Hopkins' Huskies are sort of like a mini-Memphis. They had a solid season last year, lost most of that production and now have a terrific group of newcomers. I have them in the top 25, but they just missed in the AP poll and are all the way down at No. 52 at KenPom.
Washington finished with a gaudy record last season, but most of that was bloated due to the Pac-12, and now it loses four starters and five of its top six scorers. In that group were three double-figure scorers and two NBA draft picks, so it's hard to say the incoming group is going to be that much better. Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels are top-10 prospects, with Stewart capable of dominating college from day one. The Huskies received good news when Quade Green was granted a waiver to play immediately, but Green was inconsistent at Kentucky. Then there's Hopkins' zone defense, which isn't easy to pick up quickly.
There's enough talent here to win the Pac-12 and several games in March, but there's also some concern as to whether this team is even as good as last season's.
Gasaway: Auburn. Humans and laptops can't reach any kind of consensus on Bruce Pearl's group. Looking at the variance in rankings across the AP poll, Ken Pomeroy and Bart Torvik, the Tigers clock in at Nos. 24, 44 and 74, respectively. That range spans the difference between a potential repeat of last season's Final Four run as a No. 5 seed and a middle seed in the NIT. The bullish school of thought here assumes Pearl has a plug-and-play system that works (though he's talking about slowing the pace this season). Conversely, skeptics suspect that losing Jared Harper, Chuma Okeke, Bryce Brown, Malik Dunbar and Horace Spencer will be too much to overcome. We shall see.
Give us one out-of-the-box storyline -- something you're fascinated by that no one else seems to be talking about -- heading into 2019-20.
Borzello: I think it's the irreversible trend of conferences scheduling league games earlier and earlier. I don't love it, but I understand why it's happening -- and I think it could end up being a net positive for early-season college basketball.
On this season's opening day, we have the Champions Classic, but we also have the start of ACC play on Nov. 5-6. The games on Nov. 5 will obviously be overshadowed, but Virginia starts its title defense at Syracuse on Nov. 6. That's a pretty solid follow-up to the Champions Classic.
Now, I associate conference play with cold January and February nights, but with more leagues going to 20 games, they have to push them into December (and November). Following the Champions Classic, there's usually a little bit of a lull before the early-season tourneys -- and I think that's where the earlier conference games could benefit college hoops. I'm not saying North Carolina-Duke should move to November, but I'm a lot more intrigued by Syracuse-Virginia than, say, Seattle at Washington State (the best game on Nov. 7). I guess you could say I'm warming to the trend.
Medcalf: I'm just curious to see how college basketball fans respond to the sport this season without Zion Williamson, who lured casual observers like no other player in the social media era. The game still has stars, but this is a rare year when some of the best players in the sport aren't projected lottery picks. James Wiseman, the projected No. 1 pick in next summer's NBA draft, is the only player from the preseason Associated Press All-America first team who is listed as a first-round prospect in ESPN.com's mock draft.
The reality is that only two teams backed by one-and-done stars have won a title since the age limit changed for draftees in 2006 (Kentucky in 2012, Duke in 2015), but they've expanded the appeal of the game. In the 2019-20 season, the veterans could shine while the freshmen sing backup.
Gasaway: Call me a wild dreamer, but as Naismith is my witness, one of these years, the Big 12 is going to go 10-for-10 on NCAA bids. Last March, the men's basketball committee went all-in on sub-.500 conference records: Oklahoma was 7-11 in the Big 12 and earned a single-digit seed. So, yeah, the little matter of 90 league losses having to land somewhere won't necessarily be a deal-breaker. Not to mention, every program in the conference has finished at least one season in the KenPom top 25 in the past five years. It's going to happen eventually.
2020 Final Four predictions
Medcalf: Kentucky, Kansas*, Michigan State, Florida
Borzello: Florida*, Kansas, Kentucky, Oregon
Gasaway: Kentucky*, Louisville, Gonzaga, Maryland
College Basketball 2019-20 superlatives
Player of the Year
Medcalf: Cassius Winston, Michigan State
Borzello: Cassius Winston, Michigan State
Gasaway: Cassius Winston, Michigan State
Newcomer of the Year
Medcalf: Cole Anthony, North Carolina
Borzello: Cole Anthony, North Carolina
Gasaway: Cole Anthony, North Carolina