The dust has settled on the latest session of college basketball conference realignment (although it is almost certain to kick back up again in the near future), and it’s time to turn our attention to what should be a number of exciting league races in the 2013-14 season.
While the long course of the regular season says more about the overall strength of a team or even a league, conference tournament week is arguably the most exciting stretch of basketball this side of the Big Dance.
With that in mind, read on to see the dream matchup for every NCAA basketball major conference tournament title game.
We are going to call the American Athletic Conference a major league as long as Louisville is there (the Cardinals are ACC bound after the upcoming season).
Clearly, a dream title game would involve the defending champions, as Rick Pitino returns plenty of talent even without Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng. Russ Smith, Luke Hancock and company will have the Cardinals near the top of the rankings all season long if everything goes according to plan.
The other slot in the American Athletic Conference title game could have gone to former Big East programs Cincinnati or Connecticut, but we have seen those squads have enough shots at Louisville in their old league. This is a new conference, so why not go a different direction?
Memphis gets the opportunity to restore an old Conference USA rivalry against Pitino’s bunch. Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford and Geron Johnson give the Tigers a formidable core that can hang with the Cardinals, and ex-Missouri guard Michael Dixon looks to be joining the fold as well (pending the request for a waiver).
The ACC has always been about Duke and North Carolina, but the 2013-14 season brings some new and historically great blood to the conference.
A dream title-game matchup would feature the Blue Devils from the old guard against the Syracuse Orange of the new guard. Of course, nobody is going to file a complaint if we get the talented Tar Heels instead of one of these teams, but the Orange and Devils could battle all season long for a league crown and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Coach K has a deep and loaded roster at his disposal that features the likes of Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood, Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon. Post presence may be an issue going forward without Mason Plumlee, but Duke is ready to chase yet another ACC title.
The Orange come to their new conference with plenty of talent. In particular, C.J. Fair will anchor Syracuse’s 2-3 zone and offense, and the potential emergence of Tyler Ennis will go a long way toward determining the overall success of the season.
The Big 12 has been Kansas’ personal playground for the past nine seasons and has served as an informal warm-up before the NCAA tournament starts, but the Jayhawks finally have a legitimate threat in the 2013-14 season.
Oklahoma State received arguably the best news of the entire college basketball offseason when Marcus Smart surprised plenty of experts and returned to campus for his sophomore campaign. Smart is one of the clear front-runners for any and all player of the year awards, and he will be joined in the backcourt by Le’Bryan Nash, who is plenty talented in his own right.
Another contender for player of the year awards is Kansas’ freshman Andrew Wiggins. Before Wiggins became a Jayhawk, it looked as if the Cowboys may be the Big 12 favorites heading into the season, but that is no longer the case.
Throw in Perry Ellis and Memphis-transfer Tarik Black, and Kansas is ready to seize yet another conference crown. Smart may be the one thing standing in its way.
The 2013-14 Big East will not be your father’s Big East, or even your older brother’s Big East at that, but that doesn’t mean there aren't some talented teams lining up this year.
A dream title-game matchup could certainly feature Creighton or Xavier as well because we are going for the old-school, traditional Big East team against one of the upstarts that has joined the conference. We are going to give the nod to Butler, even without Brad Stevens at the helm anymore, thanks to its recent Final Four runs and overall success.
The Hoyas will look to defend the honor of the old conference without Otto Porter on the roster anymore. John Thompson III will have a squad that features the likes of Markel Starks and Greg Whittington and should be better than it is getting credit for in the preseason.
The 2013-14 Big East tournament will be somewhat lackluster compared to the epic showdowns in Madison Square Garden, but it will still provide fans with exciting basketball come March.
Michigan certainly could be included in this game, but the past four Big Ten tournament titles have gone the way of Columbus or East Lansing (three to the Buckeyes, one to the Spartans).
While the conference is certainly loaded with squads like Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State have developed a fierce rivalry the past few seasons. Tom Izzo and Thad Matta are arguably the two best coaches in the league, and no other Big Ten schools have won more than one regular-season conference crown since 2005.
During that stretch, the Spartans have at least a share of three, and the Buckeyes have at least a share of five.
This game would feature a ton of familiar names to fans across the Midwest and country, including Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross, Sam Thompson, Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne and a clash between the Buckeyes’ stifling perimeter defense and the scoring guards of the Spartans.
A No. 1 seed may even be on the line in the NCAA tournament (as it often is in the Big Ten tournament final).
Boise State is still a football school first and foremost, but making the 2013 NCAA tournament was a major step in the right direction for the basketball program, even if it did feature a loss in the first round play-in contest.
The Broncos will look to build upon that momentum behind the steady hand of floor general Derrick Marks. Marks averaged better than 16 points a game and swiped nearly two steals a night on the other end and figures to contend for Mountain West player of the year honors.
As for New Mexico, losing Steve Alford in the offseason was a major blow, especially considering how an excellent season ended in crushing disappointment against Harvard in the NCAA tournament. There is no more Tony Snell, but Kendall Williams will challenge Marks for Mountain West player of the year.
Look for both teams to make the Big Dance and battle it out for a conference crown in 2013-14.
Oregon surprised everyone except its most loyal and optimistic fans in the 2012-13 campaign with a season that included a Pac-12 tournament title and an impressive Sweet 16 run in the NCAA tournament.
The defending conference tourney champs will feature UNLV transfer Mike Moser, who is eligible to play immediately and will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing year. If Moser can return to the All-American status he used to occupy alongside the likes of Dominic Artis and Johnathan Loyd, the Ducks will be incredibly dangerous.
Despite Oregon’s prominence, Arizona features the best team on paper from the West Coast, but there are a number of questions that must be answered because it is an inexperienced squad. The Wildcats will be loaded with newcomers, including transfer point guard T.J. McConnell, who isn’t as flashy as Mark Lyons, but will significantly cut down on the turnover numbers.
Sean Miller also has the likes of Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley, Aaron Gordon, Nick Johnson and Rondae Jefferson at his disposal, so the Wildcats are certainly the Pac-12 favorites heading into the season.
This may be the easiest pick on the list, partially because Kentucky and Florida should both be Final Four contenders in 2013-14 and partially because the rest of the SEC is lackluster at best.
John Calipari has reloaded in Lexington, following one of the most disappointing seasons in Kentucky history with an incredible freshman class. Names such as Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, James Young and the Harrison brothers highlight a roster where the only real concern is finding enough shots to go around.
The Gators will be particularly strong in the middle with the return of Patric Young and the addition of Chris Walker. Throw in talented and heady freshman Kasey Hill at the point, and Billy Donovan has some horses that can challenge Kentucky for an SEC crown.
Look for these two teams to split in the regular season and settle it once and for all in the conference championship game.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.