Evans Seven: Pressing questions as college season winds down
Coaching changes, recruiting wins and March Madness are all ahead of us, and the next few weeks will determine much when it comes to the short-term and long-term future of college basketball. In this week’s Evans Seven, we assess which programs, players, coaches and conferences have the most pressing questions that should be answered over the next several weeks.
1. What will happen with Duke - and its players?
The Blue Devils could have an entire Evans Seven column about their current personnel and what might unfold once the season comes to a close. The elephant in the room remains Zion Williamson and his return to the floor. How will he look? When will he return? Will the Blue Devils get back to their dominant selves if and when he does return? Will RJ Barrett continue to cement his standing as a capable franchise piece at the NBA level? Is this one of Coach K’s best, last chances at a national title? Does Tre Jones complete his freshman year on a strong note and bounce for the NBA? If he does, how will Duke go about filling its hole at the point guard position? Questions are not in short supply in Durham.
2. Is upheaval coming to Big Ten coaching fraternity?
Matt Painter has my vote for the national coach of the year honors, and John Beilien is not far behind. Tom Izzo has worked wonders this winter despite a rash of injuries. But beyond those three, questions hover over the rest of the Big Ten coaches. Tim Miles has become the subject of most hot-seat articles at Nebraska, and many have been throwing stones at Ohio State's Chris Holtmann and even Indiana's Archie Miller in recent weeks. The same could be said for Richard Pitino at Minnesota, and don’t forget about Chris Collins at Northwestern and Pat Chambers at Penn State.
The sport is fickle, though, and two strong weeks of conference play could catapult a coach from the hot seat into a contract extension. Indiana was left for dead, but could squeak in the NCAA Tournament, just as Minnesota could, thanks to its win over Purdue on Tuesday. Next week’s Big Ten Conference Tournament is a time when many coaches will have to answer questions facing their programs.
3. Will Pac-12 get just one bid in NCAA tourney?
A dark cloud has hovered over the Pac-12 Conference since a college football referee scandal in the fall. Things have not gotten much better since. Between the continued questions surrounding Arizona and Sean Miller’s job, the mid-season coaching change at UCLA and Oregon and USC each underperforming, the top shelf of the conference has been rather bare. Arizona State has been hit-and-miss, leaving Washington as the league's lone bright spot, thanks to the work Mike Hopkins has done.
The Huskies could be the Pac-12’s lone representative in the NCAA Tournament later this month, and the idea that a power conference might see just one program receive a bid is devastating. Recruiting wins, financial investments and a clearer vision from the league’s office must be addressed before optimism can radiate in the Pac-12.
4. Can UNC rally in its recruiting efforts?
For a program that made it to the national title game twice in the past three years and has Michael Jordan on its alumni list, it is a bit shocking to see UNC be the ultimate bridesmaid lately. In this recruiting cycle, the Tar Heels were finalists for Josh Green, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Tre Mann, Wendell Moore, Vernon Carey, Anthony Edwards and Zeke Nnaji but came away empty-handed.
They did hit the jackpot with Armando Bacot this fall, but if the Tar Heels want to compete for another national title anytime soon, the next few weeks are crucial to their long-term success. Replenishing their talent reserve is a must because the Tar Heels will be losing Luke Maye, Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams to graduation, along with the possible early departures of Coby White and Nassir Little to the NBA.
The end is near for Keion Brooks' recruitment, but things do not look good for UNC. Can the Tar Heels go from dark horse to winner in the Precious Achiuwa or Matthew Hurt sweepstakes? Does their longtime pursuit of Cole Anthony result in a tremendous recruiting win? They need some pieces to fall into place, and if they don't, their earlier recruiting failures will become even more magnified.
5. Who stays - and who goes - at Kentucky?
Who stays and who goes has become the common theme this time each year in Lexington, especially this season, as there is no clear-cut lottery pick on Kentucky’s roster, despite the sparkling play of PJ Washington lately. The sophomore is most likely out the door, joining Reid Travis, who will have exhausted his eligibility. Keldon Johnson might have the best chance of being the first UK member to be selected in June’s NBA Draft.
From there, it is a total guessing game. Does Tyler Herro ride a hot hand to the league? Do both Immanuel Quickley and Ashton Hagans return, or does one bolt for the NBA? Perhaps even a transfer could happen. Also, what does Kentucky do with its frontcourt? Can the Wildcats strike with Matthew Hurt? Can they sway Jaden McDaniels? It seems that John Calipari always has an answer, but this offseason could be his most daunting.
6. What storylines will unfold in non-power conferences?
Could Nate Oats be the next Buffalo head coach to make the move to the high-major platform? Is the time about up for Eric Musselman in Reno? And will he have the opportunity to reinvigorate a power conference fan base much like he has done at Nevada?
Does Wofford’s Fletcher Magee pull his own Steph Curry impersonation and lead another Southern Conference unit to a run in March? Can Chris Clemons and Mike Daum continue their shooting sprees and rocket their names up the all-time scoring list?
There are plenty of storylines among the mid-major programs, and we haven't even mentioned that this could be the year that Mark Few takes Gonzaga to its first-ever national championship. Better coaching jobs, NCAA records and future NBA earnings are all on the line.
7. What will be the surprising coaching change?
Every year, there is one coaching change that surprises the entire industry. Two years ago it was Hopkins taking the Washington job and Brad Underwood leaving Oklahoma State after just one season in Stillwater for Illinois. It would be a surprise if we aren’t surprised in the coming weeks. Who that will be remains up for debate, although rumors have swirled around a Pac-12 coach making a swift move and a few others might be trying to notch NBA gigs. Throw in the continued FBI investigation into the sport and the coaching carousel could be spinning faster than ever, leaving even more room for an unexpected change.