Freshman stars will share spotlight with returning veterans in 2018-19

Myron MedcalfESPN Staff Writer4 Minute Read
Kentucky coach John Calipari doesn't have a lot of experience returning this season. That's not a surprise.Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

We're 100 days away from the Champions Classic, the marquee event to usher in the 2018-19 season. Four powerhouse teams will meet in Indianapolis on Nov. 6 -- Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State and Kansas -- and it wouldn't be a surprise to see any of them at the Final Four in Minneapolis.

The pecking order for the season is beginning to take shape. There appears to be a clear separation at the top among Kansas, Duke and Kentucky. All three could start the season ranked 1, 2 and 3 in every respectable preseason poll, and they will also dominate the headlines due to the incoming talent they'll boast.

The Blue Devils' freshman trio of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish will be the most imposing in the nation. The Jayhawks' backcourt of Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson will be among the nation's best. Keldon Johnson leads the latest roster of future pros in Lexington.

Youth will be served once again in college basketball. But a strong collection of veterans will sing background vocals while threatening to supplant the highly touted freshmen as the game's stars once the season progresses.

Ethan Happ is back for a Wisconsin squad that's finally healthy. Luke Maye guides a North Carolina squad chasing Roy Williams' fourth ring. West Virginia's Sagaba Konate wants to prove he's a Clint Capela clone with an NBA future. Rui Hachimura's impressive summer with the Japanese national team sparked All-America projections for the Gonzaga junior. Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams returned to Tennessee. Twin brothers Caleb Martin and Cody Martin spurned the NBA to return to Nevada. Kansas State returns every key member from its Elite Eight run.

This season has the potential to have an appetizing blend of young, ebullient stars and ambitious veterans who've returned to strengthen their legacies and respective draft stocks. Is it the year of the freshman? Or course it is. But it's also the year of the veteran.

With the likes of Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga will be a Final Four contender in 2018-19.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It always starts this way. The months that have preceded every college basketball season in the one-and-done era have been dominated by the buzz about the next wave of freshman talent. They're the headliners and provocative characters who've driven the game's narrative through their efforts to turn six months of Division I basketball into NBA contracts.

But the season usually ends with veteran players cutting down the nets. Since 2006, the year the NBA began requiring potential draft picks to be 19 years old and a year removed from high school graduation, only two freshmen, Kentucky's Anthony Davis (2012) and Duke's Tyus Jones (2015), have won Most Outstanding Player honors in the Final Four. Both went on to be first-round picks.

Last season, Villanova's run to its second title in three years featured youth and experience in a perfect concoction for a champion. Four players from that team, including three first-rounders, were selected in June's NBA draft. Two, Omari Spellman and Donte DiVincenzo, were underclassmen. The lone second-round pick, Jalen Brunson, won the Wooden Award. That's the desired formula, one that teams like Kansas, UNC, Kentucky and others will follow.

They won't rely on youth alone. And they won't place the full burden on returning players, either. Maye is a star, but he needs five-star freshman Nassir Little to learn the system early. Kansas has an impressive collection of freshmen, but per a source close to the team, Bill Self will run the offense through Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson. Nevada needs freshman Jordan Brown to find a role and complement all the returning talent. Stanford transfer Reid Travis' arrival at Kentucky might have elevated the Wildcats to a slot as the national title favorites. Is he enough to send John Calipari back to the Final Four? We'll find out soon.

Every year, at this point in the offseason, we often ask the same question: What will reign? Youth or experience? It's this ongoing battle. Perhaps this season the answer might be ... both. If that's the case, we'll all benefit from the display of diversity that will be on display.