DURHAM, NC – OCTOBER 28: Players of the Duke Blue Devils react from their bench during their game against the Virginia State Trojans at Cameron Indoor Stadium on October 28, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)

The 2016-17 college basketball season (thankfully) starts this weekend, tipping off with a 23-game slate on Friday. The season-opening weekend is headlined by Michigan State-Arizona and Indiana-Kansas at the Armed Forces Classic in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Besides top matchups, conference rivalries and races to earn one of the coveted NCAA Tournament bids, the college basketball season will provide plenty of highlights and narratives worth following. Here are five storylines to watch as we begin the slow journey to March Madness.

1. How many games will Duke lose?

This could be the best Duke team since the 2001 national champions. (Bear in mind that the Blue Devils have won NCAA titles in 2010 and 2015). They have three returning starters, highlighted by everyone’s favorite villain, Grayson Allen, whose freshman heroics helped lift to the team to the 2015 title.

Duke also has arguably the top incoming recruiting class with Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden, although all three are battling injuries.

The Blue Devils face games against Kansas and Michigan State in the non-conference. But Duke won’t have a dangerous road game until visiting Louisville in January. The Atlantic Coast Conference is as deep as it has ever been in recent years. There are five teams in the preseason top 25 (Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisville and Syracuse). Of those four, Duke only has to play North Carolina twice but Louisville, Virginia and Syracuse are all on the road. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Duke enter the NCAA tournament with four or five losses.

The 2000-01 Duke team had three NBA first-round draft picks (Jay Williams, Shane Battier, Chris Duhon and Mike Dunleavy, Jr.) and two second-rounders (Carlos Boozer and Chris Duhon). It finished 35-4.

2. What are the chances that Villanova repeats?

Villanova is the AP preseason No. 4, but just getting back to the Final Four won’t be easy. No defending champ has returned to the Final Four the following year since Florida won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007. Bovada has Duke (+350) as the overall favorite to win it all, while Villanova (+2000) is eighth.

The Wildcats will have to replace graduated guard Ryan Arcidiacono and post presence Daniel Ochefu. Also, the Wildcats were dealt a blow when five-star, 6-foot-9 recruit Omari Spellman was ruled academically ineligible. That’s a huge loss because it leaves the Wildcats with questionable low-post scoring.

Villanova has three returning starters, keyed by senior guard Josh Hart, who averaged 17.5 points and eight rebounds in the Final Four. Championship game hero Kris Jenkins is also back and he’s a little heavy. The guy to watch is Mikal Bridges, a defensive specialist as a freshman and a key part of the Elite Eight win over Kansas. Villanova should get a significant boost from Fordham transfer Eric Paschall. He was the 2015 Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year, after averaging 15.9 ppg as a freshman.

Villanova will be tested early with a road trip to No. 15 Purdue on Monday.

3. Which Kentucky freshman will wow you?

You know the drill. Every year, John Calipari brings in a stud recruiting class. Every year, a superstar emerges. In 2010-11, John Calipari had John Wall. The next year, it was Brandon Knight. In 2011-12, Anthony Davis led the Wildcats to a national championship. In 2012-13, Nerlens Noel did it. In 2013-14, Julius Randle was the guy. In 2014-15, it was Karl-Anthony Towns. Last year featured Jamal Murray.

Who’s next? This year, Kentucky has five of the top 25 players: De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo, Malik Monk, Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones.

Bam Adebayo seems like the most likely candidate to succeed early. Last year, the Wildcats’ weakness was post play and the 6-foot-10 Adebayo figures to be fed the ball early and often.


A NBA scout already has high praise for the big man. He told ESPN.com’s Jeff Borzello: “He’s an effort, energy guy. He’s so relentless. You don’t see that a lot at the college level. The will, the physical nature, it’s hard to contain.”


4. Is Oregon ready to party like it’s 1939?

If you’re not a hardcore college hoops fan, it might surprise you to learn that Oregon was the first NCAA Tournament national champion (in 1939!). The Ducks haven’t been back to the Final Four since. Back then, it wasn’t even called the Final Four and the field consisted of eight teams.

Oregon is the preseason No. 5 team – the highest ranking ever achieved by the program. It received one first-place vote. The Ducks return four starters, although forward Dillon Brooks — the program’s first-ever AP Preseason All-America — will likely miss time due to recovering from foot surgery. You might remember Brooks scoring 22 points in the Ducks’ 82-68 victory over Duke to reach the Elite Eight. You also might remember him being caught in a boldface lie after the game.

The Ducks graduated just two scholarship players from last year. Among the returning stars are senior shot-blocking specialist Chris Boucher, sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey and point guard Casey Benson, who led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio.

Oregon will also add Villanova graduate transfer guard Dylan Ennis, who was limited to two games at Oregon last year due to injury.

If Oregon reaches the Final Four, hopefully it will make a fun song like the football team once got.

5. Will anybody stop Kansas’ run for a 13th straight Big 12 title?

It’s got to end sometime. Will this be the year? Kansas’ streak is one of the most awesome feats in modern college basketball history. The Jayhawks have won at least a share of the Big 12 every year since 2005 – Bill Self’s second year in Lawrence. The best the rest of the league has done is tie. Kansas shared the title with Texas (2006, ’08), Oklahoma (’05) and Kansas State (’13).

The last team not named Kansas to win the Big 12 outright was Oklahoma State in 2004. The Jayhawks are once again favored to extend their dominance with guards Devonte’ Graham and Frank Mason III back. They also add freshman guard Josh Jackson, the No. 1 incoming recruit. He’s already drawing comparisons to Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 overall recruit in 2013 who went to Kansas and became the NBA top overall pick in 2014.

Texas, Iowa State, West Virginia are expected to challenge in the Big 12. Texas, in its second year under Shaka Smart, has young talent. Watch out for freshmen 6-foot-11 Jarrett Allen and 6-10 James Banks. Iowa State has the league’s preseason player of the year in Monté Morris. West Virginia finished second in the Big 12 last year and brings back three of its top five scorers, including Jevon Carter and his fancy shoes.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant.