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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 12 UNC Greensboro Spartans

Can the Spartans repeat as Southern Conference champs?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-UNCG vs Gonzaga Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

2017-18 Record: 27-8 (15-3 SoCon), 13-seed in the NCAA Tournament

Key Returning Players: Francis Alonso (G, Sr.), Demetrius Troy (G, Sr.), James Dickey (C, Sr.), Isaiah Miller (G, So.)

Key Losses: Jordy Kuiper (F), Marvin Smith (F)

Key Newcomers: Eric Hamilton (F, RS Jr. via Wichita State); Mohammed Abdulsalam (F, Fr)

Key Non-Conference Games:

After winning the regular-season and Southern Conference Tournament titles last season, UNC Greensboro will have several chances to show its quality during the non-conference slate. Last season, UNCG was able to pick up a key non-conference win over NC State, defeating the Wolfpack 81-76 in Raleigh, which was when we first knew that Wes Miller’s team was for real. Could the Spartans do the unthinkable again with a win over LSU or Kentucky?

Kentucky is, of course, the most appetizing game of the non-league slate. The Spartans will travel to Rupp Arena — one of the most historic arenas in college hoops — on Dec. 1. Kentucky will once again be national title favorites, having signed three likely one-and-dones, plus Stanford graduate transfer forward Reid Travis (19.5 PPG, 8.7 RPG).

But LSU, on the other hand, offers a more realistic opportunity for the Spartans to get a big-time upset against an SEC team. LSU is coming off an 18-15 season and an NIT appearance. The LSU game will to open the season, and second-year Head Coach Will Wade will certainly know the Spartans well. Wade coached at SoCon foe Chattanooga for a couple of seasons before moving on to VCU and eventually LSU.

The Spartans will face the Aggies across town at the Corbett Sports Center on the campus of North Carolina A&T. It will mark the 19th meeting between the two programs, and first since the 2016-17 season. The Aggies won 20 games for the first time in five years, and went unbeaten at home for the first time in three decades (13-0).

The third and final game of the three-game road swing to start the season will be against the UNC Wilmington Seahawks on Nov. 16. The Seahawks struggled last season by finishing with an 11-21 record, but the Seahawks will still have one of the top players in mid-major hoops in Devontae Cacok, who averaged 17.5 PPG and a nation-leading 13.5 RPG last season.

UNCG’s first Division I home opponent is Prairie View A&M out of the SWAC. Prairie View A&M was 16-18 last season, but is expected to finish in the upper half of the SWAC this year because they have two of the league’s top guards: rising senior Gary Blackston (19.2 PPG/116 assists) and JUCO transfer Dennis Jones.

11/6 @ North Carolina A&T
11/9 @ LSU
12/13 @ UNC Wilmington
11/19 vs. Prairie View A&M
12/1 @ Kentucky

Three Things To Watch

What legacy will Francis Alonso and Demetrius Troy leave?

Seniors Demetrius Troy (7.7 PPG, 3.8 APG, 2.3 RPG) and Francis Alonso (15.6 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 2.9 APG, 111 three-pointers) have both played a huge role in the resurgence of UNCG basketball. Now it’s the last chance to build on what they accomplished last season. Is there a possibility of a second-straight title for the first time in their Division I history?

Alonso has a chance to go down as one of the top three-point shooters and free throw shooters in both school and SoCon history. Individually, Alonso has 297 three-pointers in his outstanding career at UNCG. This season, Alonso needs just 13 more triples to set a new school all-time mark; if he accomplishes this, he would surpass former Spartan great Scott Hartzell’s (1993-96) 309 triples.

Can The Spartans chase perfection in the SoCon?

Let’s face it: Going undefeated in conference play is something rarely seen anywhere in college basketball. The last time this happened in the SoCon, the 2007-08 Davidson Wildcats completed the season with a perfect 23-0 record in regular-season and conference tournament play.

UNCG went 15-3 last season in league play, and were nearly unbeatable in the Gate City. Conventional wisdom would tell you the Spartans will have at least a chance to complete the feat in the regular-season in 2018-19. But the league is much tougher than it was in 2008. If the Spartans complete the feat, they will be just the 10th team in the conference’s 97-year history to do it, immediately enshrining them in SoCon history. Only current charter member Furman managed to sweep the regular-season and tournament in 1974-75.

Is Wes Miller on track to become one of the hottest mid-major coaches?

If this season is another success for the Spartans, how long will it be before the bigger programs sniff around Gate City? It appears that Miller has built a consistently successful program in the always-tough Southern Conference, but should Miller take a bigger job, the Spartans could lose that sustainability and mojo without him.

One thing is for certain: Should he leave following the 2018-19 season for a bigger program offering more money, he has made the head coaching job at UNCG a much more attractive one than when he took over for Mike Dement during the 2010-11 season.

X-Factor

For me, the answer is simple: Demetrius Troy. In my opinion, Troy sets the tone for this team as a leader on and off the floor, and is as important as Alonso. Without Troy’s distribution and leadership, Alonso isn’t the player he is and the Spartans aren’t the team they are. Without Troy, one could argue they wouldn’t have cut down the nets last season.