This is a guest post by Kevin Triskett, college basketball enthusiast and longtime friend of Meryl’s. Today he gives readers a preview into the NCAA season, which starts tonight at 6:30 p.m. Central.
Most college basketball season previews read like a paint-by-numbers. A short list of one-and-done freshman, accessing Kentucky’s chances of winning the National Championship (or going undefeated if you’re completely disconnected from reality), and an unsurprising list of teams in contention for the Final Four. Those ingredients, though, just wouldn’t do the 2014-2015 season justice. UConn’s surprise run last March, proved again that anything can and will happen in a three week long, single elimination tournament. We enter this college basketball season with less certainty than usual and no clearly dominant team. That adds tremendous intrigue to the early weeks of the season, where stories will take shape, stars will emerge, and front-running teams will test each other in the best regular season in sports. Here’s a quick guide to the teams and storylines you need to follow on the march to Madness.
For the third consecutive year, the AP and coaches voted Kentucky to top their preseason rankings. This atypical Wildcats teams starts more returning core players than dynamic incoming freshmen. The Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, should improve on stellar, but somewhat disappointing freshmen campaigns. No backcourt in the country matches their size and agility, and with a lengthy frontline, Kentucky may just overpower every team they face come March.
Duke, not Kentucky, features the one-and-done freshmen everyone expects to take college basketball by storm. Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones, best friends from AAU Ball, but from different states, committed to Duke together. Analysts across the country suspect Okafor will win every player of the year award then declare for the NBA Draft. But Duke is more than these two young studs. The Blue Devils return Rasheed Sulaimon, Mason Plumlee, and Quinn Cook, all dangerous role players. Kenpom.com ranks Duke #1 this preseason — and his model typically undervalues the contributions of freshmen.
Arizona’s Sean Miller will either be the “Best Coach to Never Win a Title” or knock himself right off that list in the next three years. Miller has himself a juggernaut in the desert this year. Brandon Ashley returns from an injury that may have cost the Wildcats a National Championship last season. Andy while no player can replicate Aaron Gordon’s skillset, Arizona has size, speed, ball handling, defense, and one of the best in-game tacticians in the basketball universe. With UCLA as their only challenger in the Pac-12, Arizona should roll into March as a clear 1 seed in the West.
College basketball gives fans exciting, special regular season match-ups every year. Thanks to conference re-alignment, the number of fresh marquee games increases dramatically this year. Louisville moves full time into the Atlantic Coast Conference. Rick Pitino and his Cardinals trade UConn, Cincinnati, and SMU for Duke, North Carolina, and a renewed rivalry with Syracuse. Teams in new conferences have had mixed results, but Louisville, at the very least will get an impressive number of prime time, nationally televised games. Virginia, looking to prove last season’s Elite 8 run wasn’t a fluke, gets a home-and-home with Louisville and two chances for a statement win.
Fans of college athletics have used the Big 10 Conference as punching bag for close to a decade now. The Big 10 has dominated college basketball regular seasons with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin all earning #1 seeds, and making Final Fours this decade. The fight to win the conference, however, seems to have worn down these teams come March. This season, Michigan State, Ohio, State, and Michigan are down, and Iowa, who made the tournament for the first time under Fred McCaffery last season, lost their top scorer. Wisconsin returns their top scorer, Frank Kaminsky, their top ball-handler Traevon Jackson, and their dynamic front line of Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes. The Badgers’ talent and experience, coupled with a good-not-great conference could mean the end of the B1G Title drought.
Off the Court
In the early season, much will be made of the academic scandal perpetrated by North Carolina. Rob Dauster from NBC Sports has covered this story dutifully and reports that student athletes from the 2005 Tar Heels National Championship team took paper classes during their title run. The NCAA has what I might call an “inconsistent” track record punishing schools for major violations, but the ‘05 Championship banner and Roy Williams’ legacy are in serious doubt.
Today is the big day. The 2014-2015 NCAA College basketball season tips off in glorious fashion with 112 games. The most notable matchup pits Louisville, coached by Rick Pitino, against Minnesota, coached by Rick’s son Richard. The Gophers barely missed last year’s tournament in Richard Pitino’s first full year at the helm, but they won the Postseason NIT Title. Louisville narrowly missed the Final Four, dropping an Elite 8 heartbreaker to archrival Kentucky. The Cardinals lose their bedrock point guard Russ Smith to graduation, but return enough talent to keep them in the Top 10. The game tips live from Puerto Rico at 6:30 p.m. Central on ESPN.
College basketball gives way to college football and the NFL over the weekend, but ESPN’s 24 hour Tip-Off Marathon launches Monday night, culminating in the Champions Classic — #18 Michigan St. vs. #4 Duke, followed by #5 Kansas vs. #1 Kentucky. The peculiar result of the 2014 NCAA Tournament leaves us with far more questions than answers heading into 2015. With thousands of games, hundreds of twists, and one champion, the 2014-2015 season promises to be anything but boring.
You can follow Kevin on Twitter @KTriskett, where he will be talking a whole heap about college basketball and other fun stuff.