College Basketball Conferences with Best Shot to Produce 2014 National Champion
Conference pride seems to play a larger role in college football than college basketball to the outside observer (perhaps because ESPN constantly likes to remind everyone that its business partners in the SEC are so dominant on the gridiron), but it certainly exists on the hoops side of things as well.
From the ACC/Big Ten Challenge to RPI rankings determining the precious few final spots in the NCAA tournament, conference strength will matter once again in 2013-14. But which league will bring home the ultimate prize?
Read on to see the five most likely conferences to win next season’s national championship.
American Athletic Conference
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The American Athletic Conference may be seen as the collection of leftover teams after the Big East and ACC were done poaching other programs, but it has a legitimate chance to produce next year’s national champion.
The reason for that legitimate chance? Louisville is making a one-year pit stop in the American Athletic Conference before it joins the ACC in 2014-15. Sure, Peyton Siva will no longer be lacing it up for the Cardinals, but Russ Smith’s decision to return to school makes them threats to once again win the title.
Chane Behanan, Wayne Blackshear and Luke Hancock are also back, and newcomers Chris Jones and Terry Rozier will help replace Siva’s lost production. Rick Pitino will have his squad ready to go against this makeshift conference, and preseason darling Kentucky will have a challenger right in its backyard.
Memphis also has a puncher’s chance to get hot in March for the American Athletic Conference, but a national title is probably a bit of a stretch at this point with the departures of Adonis Thomas, D.J. Stephens and Tarik Black.
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Arizona State, Stanford, UCLA and Colorado will give the Pac-12 some depth and a presence in the Top 25 rankings, but if a national championship is coming from the West Coast it will be from Arizona.
The Wildcats lost a lot of pieces (Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom), but an impressive recruiting class and the expected development of last year’s freshmen provide reason for optimism in Tucson. Throw in the leadership that Nick Johnson will provide, and Sean Miller has a number of pieces in place for a deep run.
Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley need to continue to make strides in the post, and Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell must give Arizona the true point guard presence it was sorely missing last year. For as talented as Lyons was, he was not much of a distributor and had a turnover problem.
Assuming all the “ifs” work out in the Wildcats' favor, they are a national title threat. The Pac-12 will have a number of good teams, but really only one national title contender.
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The SEC will be better next year than its historically bad 2012-13 campaign, but if a national title is coming back to the league, it will come from either Kentucky or Florida.
The Gators lose their top three scorers from last season (Mike Rosario, Erik Murphy and Kenny Boynton), but their front line will be one of the strongest in the nation. Patric Young could compete for the SEC Player of the Year, and he will be joined down low by incoming freshman Chris Walker. Look for freshman Kasey Hill to shore up the backcourt as well.
As for the Wildcats, they could go from losing to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT to entering the season as the No. 1 team in the land. John Calipari brought in one of the best recruiting classes in the history of the sport, and Willie Cauley-Stein and Kyle Wiltjer return to provide veteran leadership.
If Andrew Wiggins decides to take his talents to Lexington, the Wildcats could run away with the SEC and possibly even the national title. The 2012-13 struggles will simply be a blip on Kentucky’s historical radar.
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Duke, Syracuse and North Carolina give the ACC a three-headed threat when it comes to winning the national title next season.
The Blue Devils lose Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry, but incoming freshman Jabari Parker and transfer Rodney Hood will give Coach K two brand new shiny toys to play with. Throw in Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon, and Duke still has enough talent to contend for a national title.
The Orange also lose some key pieces (Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche and James Southerland), but return enough talent to be considered a top-10 quality squad. C.J. Fair could contend for an ACC Player of the Year award thanks to his scoring and rebounding prowess, while the combination of Rakeem Christmas, Jerami Grant, Baye Keita and DaJuan Coleman gives Jim Boeheim a number of options.
The Tar Heels had a disappointing season by their lofty standards last year, but the return of most of the key contributors and a highly-regarded recruiting class has fans excited once again on Tobacco Road. Look for North Carolina to give Duke all it can handle in the game’s best rivalry.
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The argument can be made that if the Big Ten didn’t win a national title last year, it probably won’t next year either. That’s not a knock at the league’s strength for the 2013-14 season, but more of a recognition of how good the league was last year.
However, Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State are all top-10 caliber squads, and Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa should find themselves in the rankings as well. The Big Ten may not have a Kentucky or Louisville, but in terms of quantity and quality, few conferences, if any, can match it.
The Spartans get every key contributor from a year ago back except Derrick Nix, the Buckeyes get Aaron Craft and LaQuinton Ross back and Michigan will enjoy the services of Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and a quality freshman class.
Indiana lost more than almost anyone in the country, but Yogi Ferrell and an approximately 735-player incoming class should help the Hoosiers remain competitive. But if a national title does come from the Big Ten, it will in all likelihood come from the triumvirate of Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State.