Ryan Mayer

In the midst of college football, the NFL, and that whole election thing that happened a couple of days ago, one thing may have slipped your mind: college basketball starts this week. Yep, that’s right, with the second week of November comes the official start of the annual march towards March Madness. I know, it kind of snuck up on us, right?

Well, in case you’re rusty on your college basketball knowledge, wondering which players you should watch, and which teams are expected to be contenders for the title, we got you covered. Sit back, call up your school’s fight song on YouTube and let the glory of a new college basketball season wash over you.

Top 5 Contending Teams

1) Duke Blue Devils

Duke has found itself in an interesting position the past few years as Coach K has seemingly embraced the recruitment of one-and-done players more and more. After Brandon Ingram led last year’s team to the Sweet 16, he headed off to Los Angeles to be the new star of the Lakers. But, there’s a lot of returning talent and perhaps the best incoming class of freshmen that Coach K has had to work with.

Grayson Allen returns for his junior season after leading the team in scoring and assists last year at 21.6 points per game and 3.5 helpers per game. The team’s third, fourth and fifth leading scorers are all back as well in Luke Kennard, Amile Jefferson, and Matt Jones. Add to that trio of returnees the number two, four, 13, and 15th ranked recruits in the country and it seems like a pretty good mix of veteran talent and incoming freshmen for Coach K to work with. That’s not even mentioning forward Chase Jeter, who was last year’s 15th ranked recruit.

Among the freshmen, the names to know are small forward Jayson Tatum and power forward Harry Giles. Giles is still recovering from a knee injury suffered in his senior year of high school with no timetable on his return. Tatum is struggling through some injury issues of his own as is Marques Bolden. That said, there’s enough depth here to get them through until everyone is healthy. Once they are, Coach K’s team is going to be scary.

The long story short, it’s going to be a long season for the Duke haters out there.

2) Kentucky Wildcats

Surprise! Coach Calipari is once again expected to have one of the top teams in the country and again, surprise, freshmen will be heavily featured. Despite coming in second to Coach K in the freshman arms race this year according to 247 Sports, Coach Cal will be just fine talent wise. The freshmen whose names you should get familiar with are forward Bam (Edrice) Adebayo, point guard De’Aaron Fox, guard Malik Monk and forwards Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones.

Those five combine with returning defensive hound Isaiah Briscoe and floor-spacing forward Derek Willis. Isaac Humphries and Dominique Hawkins offer solid depth off the bench. This is an interesting Cal team as outside of Adebayo, they don’t really have the same number of large young men in the interior that they’ve had in the past several years. Cal always finds a way to get his group of wildly talented, but inexperienced players to play cohesively by season’s end and I would expect more of the same here. The Wildcats are once again going to be in the race for a No. 1 seed and Final Four run.

3) Villanova Wildcats

Yes, the team that won last year’s title is a serious title contender again this year. In fact, no champion since the ’06-’07 Florida Gators has brought back as much of their roster as the Wildcats do this season. Gone are heart-and-soul point guard Ryan Arcidiacono and interior presence Daniel Ochefu, but, the stars of last year’s tournament? Yeah, they’re all back.

Kris Jenkins, Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Phil Booth and Darryl Reynolds all return. That means the top two scorers and six of the top eight have come back for Jay Wright. In addition, they get the benefit of Fordham transfer Eric Paschall becoming eligible this season along with incoming freshman Omari Spellman (247 Sports’ 19th ranked recruit). Both will look to help offset the loss of Ochefu inside. Paschall is a former Atlantic 10 Conference Rookie of the Year averaging 15 points and five rebounds in his freshman year with the Rams.

This Villanova team looks primed for another run to the Big East title and, if they can recapture last year’s Big Dance magic, another potential title run.

4) Kansas Jayhawks

Bill Self’s squad went to the Elite Eight last year and now returns basically every player of note except for Perry Ellis, who graduated. So, similarly to Villanova, this team is laden with experienced players that made a deep run into the NCAA Tournament last season, which means this is a contender to be celebrating when the confetti rains down in Phoenix, Arizona.

The backcourt duo of Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham return as the leading remaining scorers from last year’s team that was 10th in the nation in Adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom. In addition, sweet shooting guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk is back for his sophomore season after connecting on 40 percent of his three-point attempts in his freshman year. Down low, the ‘Hawks have sophomore Carlton Bragg Jr and senior Landen Lucas back.

The additions? Oh, no big deal. Self just adds 2016’s top-rated recruit, Josh Jackson, who seems ready for superstardom in the vein of Andrew Wiggins from two years ago. Also, guard Malik Newman, formerly of Mississippi State, was a Top 10 recruit himself. For big man prospects? Look no further than 7-footer Udoka Azubuike, who was the 35th ranked recruit this year in 247 Sports rankings.

All of that is to say, this team is LOADED with talent and more than capable of raising another banner.

5) Oregon Ducks

Huh? Oregon? Really?

Yes, really.

The Ducks announced themselves on the national stage in gaining the number one seed and rolling to the Elite Eight (beating Duke along the way) before falling to Buddy Hield and Oklahoma in the regional final. This year’s Ducks team, is similar to the Jayhawks and Villanova in the regard that their expectations are high because of the amount of returning talent.

The biggest significant loss is Elgin Cook, and junior forward Dillon Brooks is likely out for at least the first couple games with a foot injury. But, Tyler Dorsey (13.4 PPG), Chris Boucher (12.4 PPG),  and Jordan Bell (6.8 PPG) are back to hold down the fort until Brooks (16.7 PPG) returns. Additionally, guard Dylan Ennis was granted another year of eligibility after missing all of last year with an injury, which should help take some of the pressure off of Dorsey in the backcourt.

The recruiting class brings in four four-star recruits including one of the top junior-college transfers in the country in power forward Kavell Bigby-Williams. Dana Altman has the talent to make another run at a No. 1 seed and a Final Four/national title run is certainly possible.

Players To Watch

This spot will be used to highlight players outside of those teams we’ve already highlighted. Why you ask? Well, I’ve already given you all the big names on those teams and besides, you know most of those dudes already. These guys? Well, they’re either top-ranked recruits, seniors getting a chance to shine, or, they play for mid-majors and you may not see as much of them before the tournament.

Lonzo Ball, G, UCLA Bruins- Ball is another of the freshmen sensations to enter the ranks this year. He has inside-the-gym range due to the slightly eccentric system that his father coached he and his two brothers in, in high school. Just take a look at his high school highlights.

Point being, watch a couple Bruins games this season.

Mike Daum, F, South Dakota State- Daum has a fascinating story for how he ended up with the Jackrabbits that CBSSports.com did a profile on here. The long story short is, he hit 12 threes in a game during a showcase tournament and that led to him picking up his first scholarship offers from DI schools. Now, a year later, Daum is coming of being named the Summit League Freshman of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and the MVP of the conference tournament. A 6-9 sweet shooting forward who knocked down 44.6-percent of his threes and led the Jacks in scoring last season at 15.6 points per game. South Dakota State is expected to fight to win the Summit League and if they do, Daum’s a name to watch come March. If you see the Jackrabbits on the national TV schedule, take a second to check them out.

VJ Beachem, F, Notre Dame- You may remember this name from the NCAA Tournament last year. Beachem exploded in the tournament going from averaging 12 points per game in the regular season for the Irish to over 17 per game in March. His shooting stroke really stood out as he hit 12 of his 22 three-point attempts (54%). With Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste gone, Beachem is the team’s leading returning scorer and should get even more of a chance to shine as the offense’s primary option.

These three guys are just a few of many fun players that you’ll get to know better over the course of the five months. The season begins tonight and the 24-hour tip-off marathon starts next Monday. College basketball season is here folks, enjoy it.

Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him