The college hoops season kicks off in grand style tonight with the Armed Forces Classic in Honolulu featuring two heavyweight matchups with  Kansas vs Indiana and Arizona vs Michigan State.

In order to kick the season off right, The Shadow League assembled our All-Star roster of hoops experts to break down the Elite Eight things you need to know in order to get hyped as we take our initial steps toward the Madness of March and the Final Four.


***

PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Amaar Abdul-Nasir: Melo Trimble, Maryland

Grayson Allen is the best player on the best team in the country. If this were the NBA, that would make him the front-runner for MVP.

But college basketball’s Player of the Year doesn’t quite work that way.

More often than not, the POY is somebody who carries a large load on a team that is at least good enough to get a good seed in the NCAA Tournament. Look at some recent winners: Buddy Hield, Denzel Valentine, Frank Kaminsky, Doug McDermott, Trey Burke, Victor Oladipo, Draymond Green, Jimmer Fredette, Evan Turner … none of them fit the Grayson Allen mode.

Duke doesn’t need Allen to carry a large load. They’re too good, too deep. Allen might be the best college basketball player in the land – and, let’s call a spade a spade and not pretend he won’t have the same media-bias advantage that helped the POY campaigns of Fredette, Kaminsky and McDermott – but don’t be surprised if Allen’s numbers actually go down from last season thanks to Duke’s overall wealth of talent.


Who does fit the POY profile? Oregon’s Dillon Brooks and Maryland’s Melo Trimble come to mind. Villanova’s Josh Hart won a national championship as one good piece of a great unit, but if the reports are true about how much he’s improved his game in the offseason, he will become a stand-alone star. And if he’s eligible to play, keep an eye on Arizona’s Allonzo Trier.

But if I have to pick just one, I’ll go with Trimble. Two years after he was supposed to be a one-and-done Lottery pick, one year after he and the Terrapins were supposed to be a national powerhouse, I think Trimble puts it all together in his junior year.


Martin Sumners: Dillon Brooks, Oregon

Highly touted freshman entering college hoops with YouTube highlights as their basketball resume build hype for the game, but more often than not it’s still the upperclassman that wins the Player of the Year.

This year, that truism continues with the 6-foot-7 forward who last year led the Ducks to the Elite Eight, losing to Oklahoma and the NBA’s sixth-overall selection Buddy Hield. 


Brooks, with an all-around game including NBA three-point range, averaged of 16.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game last year. Although the passionate Canadian-born baller will miss the beginning of the season recovering from off-season foot surgery, his confidence should be zooming after busting up Duke so bad in the Sweet 16 that Coach K went ballistic and then apologetic.  


Maurice Merrell: Ivan Rabb, California 

Of the players on the AP Preseason first team, which includes Duke’s Grayson Allen, Villanova’s Josh Hart, Dillon Brooks of Oregon and Iowa State’s Monte Morris, Ivan Rabb might be the most reliable player on both sides of the ball.


You don’t draw comparisons to Kevin Garnett without tenacity. His 12.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game were good numbers for the Cal Golden Bear as a freshman (especially while sharing the rock with current Boston Celtic stud Jaylen Brown), but he’ll be the focal point of the offense now. Be prepared for the kid’s second coming.


Alejandro "Ali" Danois: Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky

A slasher like Freddy Krueger, creator like Miles Davis, defender like Johnnie Cochran and a backcourt rebounder like Jason Kidd, the combo-guard will absolutely destroy it this year when he starts knocking down the deep ball. He'll live up to his NYC playground nickname this year as "Must See TV!" 



IMPACT FRESHMAN (Best One-N-Done)

Amaar: Lonzo Ball, UCLA

Here’s the thing: I think the best freshman in the country is not going to go pro after his freshman year.

That freshman is UCLA’s Lonzo Ball. The 6-foot-6 point guard has a funny-looking shot, but it’s accurate. He can score and handle and defend, but what separates him is his passing. I’ve only seen Ball on TV and YouTube, and while this is something you only fully appreciate in person, it looks like he has It. He has the gift; the third eye; the passing gene.

A lot of ballplayers can drop a nice dime. Plenty can go behind their back or no-look. This is different. This is that thing that LeBron has, that Rondo has, that Ben Simmons has. Ball may have it.


However, I think it would be smartest – and Ball is smart – for him to do more than one year in college. The NBA is absolutely loaded at the point guard position, and many of the best PGs were not one-and-dones: think Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker, James Harden and Kyle Lowry. Of course there are exceptions, like Kyrie Irving and John Wall, but for every one of them there’s also a Marquis Teague and a Tony Wroten who are scrapping just to stay in the league.

Ball could be the nation’s top freshman, but I hope he considers giving himself a shot to then be the nation’s top sophomore.


Martin: Josh Jackson, Kansas

To euphemistically paraphrase a line from the best TV offering in 2016, Luke Cage, “Ninja, do I have to explain alliteration to you?"


Josh Jackson is the Jawn! Born in San Diego, he played two years of high school ball in Detroit until moving back to Cali for his junior and senior years in Napa, California.  Despite ties to Michigan and the West Coast, he chose to attend the University of Kansas. 

Believe me, the 6-foot-8 forward will be rocking chalk all over Phog Allen Fieldhouse. Think former Jayhawk swingman Andrew Wiggins with more fire. 


Maurice: Rawle Alkins, Arizona

This year’s freshmen class has been talked about as possibly one of the best since they were all in middle school. If one-and-done wasn’t a thing and high schoolers were still allowed to make the jump, the 2016 NBA draft would’ve looked like prom night.


Arizona’s Rawle Alkins has the one thing on lock most don’t: defense. His game is akin to fellow former Wildcat standout Stanley Johnson, who’s defensive skills will get him paid by the Pistons for years to come.

Expect to see a Nova style, three-guard offense featuring Alkins, freshman Kobi Simmons and returning star Allonzo Trier with Alkins as the designated defender.


Ali: Markelle Fultz, Washington

Markelle is a 6-foot-5 point guard with the feel, vision, athleticism, passing and scoring ability to play both backcourt positions in the NBA right now. My man can shoot the deep ball, finish at the rim, his mid-range game sick, is an exceptional floor general and plays defense with pride.


There isn't anything he can't do. His game is a twisted Long Island Iced Tea cocktail of Penny Hardaway and Chris Paul. That's right, I said it!


UNDER-HYPED (Player not receiving the attention they deserve - yet)

Amaar: Maurice Watson, Creighton

I like players who can pass. Creighton point guard Maurice Watson was No. 1 in the Big East and No. 9 nationally in assists last season (229), his first at Creighton after transferring from Boston University.


Watson has the full arsenal of passes, but the 5-foot-10 senior can score, too. I watched him put up 27 points on my Georgetown Hoyas, and he scored 32 against Xavier when they were ranked No. 5 in the country.


Martin: Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson

Maybe I’m just a sucker for a funky good moniker. With such an onomatopoeia poetic name, Blossomgame, it would be fitting for him to be recognized as a player on the verge of fruition. 


You may not have even heard of this Clemson senior, but your local NBA scout has been keeping tabs on the 6-foot-7 forward who played schoolboy ball in Georgia at Chattahoochee High. This past spring, he declared for the NBA draft but never signed with an agent. Despite performing well at draft combines he decided to return to college.  Tiger fans are happy.    


Maurice: Ethan Telfair, Idaho State

That’s right, former NBA player Sebastian Telfair’s baby brother is giving out buckets in the Big Sky conference. After a two-year JuCo stint, Ethan averaged 20 points, 5.4 assists, 4 rebounds and 2.4 steals a game last season en route to being named conference newcomer of the year and earning conference first-team honors.


Bassy’s baby bro recorded seven games of 30 or more in the 2015-16 season, including 37 in his first game against conference power North Dakota. Hard to put up those kind of numbers and go unnoticed for too long.


Ali: Frank Jackson, Duke

The other Duke freshmen, Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum, are getting all of the hype, but Jackson will make you believe that your eyeballs have the capacity to lie.



BEST CONFERENCE

Amaar: ACC

The Big Ten looks strong, but it’s hard to go against the ACC. Duke is everybody’s preseason No. 1, North Carolina is coming off a national title game appearance, Syracuse is coming off a Final Four run, Virginia might have the best defense in the country, and Louisville should be in the mix as usual.


Martin: ACC

With conference standard bearers in the preseason top 10: Duke, UNC and UVA and former Big East teams of ‘Cuse and L’ville in the fold, the ACC ranks as the best.

Right behind is the Big East represented by Villanova, current national champion, and Xavier with a resurgent Seton Hall and Providence.

The Big Ten takes a step back with both Indiana and Michigan State still strong, but rebuilding a bit upon losing senior leadership in Yogi Ferrell and Denzel Valentine.  The Pac-12, led by Oregon, Arizona and UCLA, and the Big 12, led by Kansas (with an insane 12 straight conference titles), West Virginia and Texas remain solid while the SEC, except for Kentucky, prepares for spring football.

Image title

Maurice: ACC

The ACC got five schools in to the NCAA Tournament last season. Three advanced to the Elite Eight, two met in the Final Four.

While only four schools sit in the preseason top 25 (Duke, UNC, Virginia and Syracuse) there are three to four more schools in the conference that will fight for a spot when the madness starts. 


Ali: ACC

My boys already said it all. The ACC's ensemble got more talent than the cast of The Departed


SURPRISE TEAM

Amaar: Georgetown

The Hoyas finished eighth out of 10 teams in the Big East last season. Then they lost D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, the school’s all-time leader in threes and fifth all-time leading scorer, to graduation.

Conventional wisdom says they take a step back this season, but I think they’ll move forward. Junior L.J. Peak and grad transfer Rodney Pryor, both 6-foot-5, give Georgetown an athletic pair of guards. Senior Bradley Hayes is inconsistent, but when he’s on, he’s one of the most effective centers in the country. Junior wing Isaac Copeland was supposed to break out last season, and that potential is still there.


Martin: Texas

College basketball, among all the big time sports, is the most coach-driven proposition. Thus, the smart money as far as a dark horse should be on Shaka Smart.

Image title

Last season he was tabbed to lead Texas after his transcendent performance at Virginia Commonwealth, and the Longhorns finished 20-13 but lost to Northern Iowa on a buzzer-beating, half-court shot in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. 

Although Texas will have to overcome a few early season personnel losses due to injury and disciplinary reasons, Shaka, in his second season in Austin, could shock the world.

 

Maurice: Florida State

Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse and Virginia are getting all the attention in the ACC, leaving room for Florida State to grab mad surprise shine this season.


Combo-guards Xavier Rathan-Mayes (who scored 30 points in 4:38 as a freshman against Miami) and the Seminole’s leading scorer Dwayne Bacon will team with top 10 recruit Jonathan Isaac this season.

It’s tough to replace NBA talent, having lost Malik Beasely to the NBA, but the Seminoles did it in a one-and-done way. Now we’ll see if they can translate talent into wins.


Ali: Virginia Tech

If you don't know what my man Buzz Williams has cooking in Blacksburg, remember that I told you here first. 


MAD MAJOR! (Mid-Major Team NO ONE wants static with)

Amaar: San Diego State

I don’t think Gonzaga should count for this category. Yes, they technically play in a mid-major conference. But the Zags have been so good for so long that nobody takes them lightly anymore, and they compete right with West Coast stalwarts like Washington, UCLA and Oregon for big-time recruits.

So I’ll go with San Diego State.

Steve Fisher missed the NCAA's last season for the first time since 2009, as the Aztecs wound up in the NIT’s Final Four. I wouldn’t bet on Fisher to miss the tourney two years in a row.

The Aztecs brings back three starters – PG Jeremy Hemsley, SG Trey Kell and PF Zylan Cheatham – and their defense is always a problem. (Remember, this is where Kawhi Leonard built much of his foundation.) This year, the SDSU defense gets a big hand from 6-10 transfer Valentine Izundu, who blocked 2.2 shots per game at Washington State.


Martin: Princeton

Teams take the Ivy League lightly at their own peril. 

Tommy Amaker coached Harvard to several wins in the tournament in the recent past.  Last season, Yale beat Baylor and pushed Duke until losing 71-64.

This year, Princeton will be that team. The Tigers finished second in the conference (splitting with Yale) last year and return several seniors including Spencer Weisz, who played high school at Seton Hall Prep, and another Jersey kid in junior Amir Bell (East Brunswick) is running the show.

Also, their big man Hans Brase who missed last season due to an ACL injury is back.

Image title

Maurice: Dayton

Let’s make this clear: if Dayton doesn’t get Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year, they at least make it to the Sweet 16. As a seven-seed, they were favored to do so.

Of course, ‘Cuse hit their groove at the right moment and made it to the Final Four, but that says a lot for the Flyers. Led by guard Scoochie Smith, Dayton returns eight upperclassmen who wont just be happy to be in tournament conversation. They’ll be looking for revenge. 


Ali: Rhode Island

The Rams can knuckle up with anybody in the country. Lefty guard E.C. Matthews put up 17 points and five rebounds per game as a sophomore, but lost all of last year to a knee injury. This year, he'll be back like The Terminator. Jared Terrell gets buckets, as does three-point marksman Jarvis Garrett

Hassan Martin was last year's A-10 Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Kuran Iverson is a beast on the boards and coach Danny Hurley will shock and amaze this year en route to the Elite Eight.

 

FINAL FOUR

Amaar: Duke, Wisconsin, Kansas and California.

Oregon is the trendy pick out of the Pac-12, but I really like Cal. They may be less talented on paper than last season, but they’re more experienced and should have more of an identity with sophomore PF Ivan Rabb as the centerpiece and senior guards Jabari Bird and Grant Mullins (a transfer from Columbia) running the show.

Wisconsin is returning just about everybody from last season’s Sweet 16 squad, led by senior PF Nigel Hayes and senior PG Bronson Koenig. Duke is Duke, they're loaded and have the best coach in the country. 


Martin: Duke, Kansas, Oregon, Virginia 

No real surprises here otherthan perhaps not picking Kentucky, as all these teams are ranked in thepre-season top 10. 

Coach K has alreadyled the Blue Devils to 12 Final Fours, with the last being in 2015. This year, he has a teamstacked with talent. Kansas, led bycoach Bill Self, tends to have not only a freshman five-star player or two, butalso a team supported with well-seasoned upperclassmen. This season even moreso with perhaps his most highly touted freshman, Josh Jackson, along with returning leadership. Look for the Jayhawks to redeem itself from losing last season to Villanova inthe Elite Eight.


Oregon has received more notice in the past decade for itsfootball program, but quietly the basketball team has represented itself quitewell.  This season, the Ducks along withpotential player of the year Dillon Brooks, finally crash the Final Four.   Virginia has also been knocking on thedoor the past few seasons under coach Tony Bennett. They'll bounce back from anElite Eight loss last year to Syracuse to reach the Final Four at theUniversity of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona. 


Maurice: Duke, Oregon, Kentucky, UNC

Last season felt like there wasn’t a clear-cut favorite for the first time in a long time. Everything’s back to normal now, with Duke and Kentucky playing home to some of the more talented rosters, top to bottom, in the last five years. Duke has a POY candidate in Grayson Allen and two potential freshmen of the year in both Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum. They also have Coach K.

Kentucky has returning stud Isaiah Briscoe along with the next Amar’e Stoudamire in Bam Adebayo, along with four other freshmen ranked in the top 100.

The University of Oregon emerged as a real power player in college basketball last season, earning a No.1 seed in the tournament and knocking out Duke on their way to the Elite 8. Tyler Dorsey returns as the team’s leading scorer (13.4 ppg) and the Ducks adding Georgetown transfer forward Paul White, and impact frosh duo Payton Pritchard and M.J. Cage.


Ali: Duke, Kentucky, UCLA, Xavier

Duke and Kentucky are as deep, talented and awe-inspiring as the mind of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. And as much as I like Kansas, North Carolina, Oregon, Villanova and Arizona, you gotta factor in some bracket busters to crash the party. 

Xavier was a Top Ten team last year that won 28 games, and if you haven't seen guard/forward Trevon Bluiett and point guard extraordinaire Edmond Sumner in action, you gon' learn today! 


And wait til you get a load of UCLA freshman floor general Lonzo Ball dishing the rock to Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Aaron Holiday, Thomas Welsh and fellow freshman TJ Leaf. Good'Gawd'a'mighty!!! Get ready for the return of Showtime in Los Angeles.


NATIONAL CHAMPION

Amaar: Kansas

I’m big on experienced guard play in the NCAA Tournament, and the Jayhawks have arguably the best point guard in the nation, Frank Mason, who just happens to be a senior and has been KU’s starter since his sophomore year.

Another returning starter is shooting guard Devonte Graham, the Big 12 tournament's Most Outstanding Player who also made the conference's All-Defensive team. Freshman wing Josh Jackson was the No. 1 high school player in the country according to more than a few trusted sources, and junior wing Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk knocked down 45 percent of his threes for KU last season.


Senior Landen Lucas is a solid big man, but the X-factor is 6-10 sophomore Carlton Bragg, who has all the talent to be an absolute beast, but manages to disappear on the court sometimes.

Even though the Clinton's and common sense failed to do it, the Jayhawks are about to turn Kansas back into a blue state.


Martin: Duke

Senior guard Grayson Allen, another potential player of the year, shepherds a team with two potential top-five NBA draft picks in freshmen Harry Giles, 6-foot-11 from Winston-Salem, NC and Jayson Tatum, 6-foot-8 from St. Louis.

This could be the best Duke team since the repeat champs in 1991-92. Once Coach K resigned to signing the one-and-done player, his teams have consistently remained in the hunt for the national championship.  This would be his 13th Final four appearance and sixth championship if all goes according to plan.


Maurice: North Carolina

The Tar Heels guard depth will power them to this year's national title, and look for newcomer Seventh Woods to add some lock-down defense to Joel Berry II's scoring and Nate Britt's floor generalship. Justin Jackson's transition game is second to none. Kennedy Meeks and fellow senior Isaiah Hicks will hold it down in the paint and guard/forward Theo Pinson excels on the defensive end.

Great guard play, tough D, experience and leadership will have Roy Williams cutting down the nets once again. 


Ali: Kentucky

John Calipari's crew is more loaded than Drake at a strip club, and the confetti will be raining on the Wildcats when they cut down the nets after this year's national championship game. Isaiah Briscoe is the only returning starter, but have no fear: Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo, De'Aaron Fox, Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones are ready to creat a new version of Kentucky Basketball magic.

The Freshmen will shock and amaze, and Briscoe will lead them to the promised land.