Discussion surrounding college basketball has become so focused on March Madness in recent years that the beauty of conference races and fierce rivalries is now lost on many fans.
Clearly the goal is to cut down the nets at the Final Four, but a conference crown and victories over your hated archrival have to amount to at least somewhat of a successful season.
Thanks to the never ending carousal that is conference realignment, there are some changes to the major leagues for the 2013-14 season. That means fans are in for a double-dipping of traditional showdowns and new matchups.
Read on to see 10 conference games that will thrill fans as they patiently wait for the Big Dance.
When fans think of Big Ten basketball, a litany of historically great programs come to mind, including Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Michigan State.
But it is Thad Matta and his Ohio State Buckeyes that have won three of the past four conference tournaments and at least a share of five regular-season crowns since 2005. During that stretch, Michigan State is the only other team to have won at least a share of more than one regular season conference title. (The Spartans have three and won the Big Ten tournament that Ohio State didn’t in the past four years.)
Matta and Tom Izzo are arguably the two best coaches in the league, and every time these squads face off there seems to be anything from a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament to a Big Ten championship on the line.
The 2013-14 version featuring the likes of Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne will be no different.
While Michigan State and Ohio State have consistently been the cream of the crop in the Big Ten regular season the past few years, Michigan’s appearance in the national title game in March signified a level of success the Wolverines haven’t enjoyed since the days of the Fab Five.
With Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and an impressive recruiting class on campus for the 2013-14 season, expect John Beilein’s squad to compete for a Big Ten title alongside the Spartans and Buckeyes.
Michigan lining up against in-state rival Michigan State is always thrilling for fans in the Midwest, but it will be even more so this season if a conference crown is on the line. Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne will have their hands full dealing with a number of challengers, but none will elicit the beautiful hatred that makes college rivalries special quite like the Wolverines.
The ACC is almost always one of the best conferences in the country, but it will be truly special for the foreseeable future. Adding programs like Syracuse, Notre Dame and Louisville (in 2014-15) to a league that already includes the likes of Duke and North Carolina is impressive.
Fans will be in for a treat when the best of the new teams (the Orange) faces off against the traditional powerhouse Blue Devils.
Coach K has a deep and loaded roster at his disposal, but he will be heavily reliant upon newcomers this year. Jabari Parker may be the best freshman this side of Andrew Wiggins, and Rodney Hood is a talented transfer who has been flying under the radar this offseason. Throw in Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook, and Duke looks ready to go.
Syracuse will compete for an ACC crown and even a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament right alongside the Devils. C.J. Fair and the Orange’s lockdown 2-3 zone facing off against Coach K is appointment viewing for ACC supporters.
Apparently Duke and North Carolina have some type of rivalry on the basketball floor that dates back generations and splits allegiances and even families in the Tarheel state.
The Blue Devils and Heels will be joined by new blood in the ACC in 2013-14 (and by even more the year after when Louisville comes calling), but this is still the showdown to mark on the calendar when it comes to this league. After struggling for much of the season last year, North Carolina hopes to challenge its rival for a championship this time around.
The status of P.J. Hairston is still very much up in the air, which means James Michael McAdoo may have to carry a heavier load. How successfully he can do so will go a long way towards determining the Tar Heels’ overall success.
Duke is loaded and a legitimate national title contender behind Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood and Quinn Cook. Final Four or no, for 2013-14 to be considered a truly successful season in Durham a victory over North Carolina is a must.
Will somebody other than Kansas in the Big 12 please stand up?
The Jayhawks have completely dominated their conference recently, winning the past nine regular season titles and regularly earning No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament because of their efforts. The landing of uber-prospect Andrew Wiggins to go alongside Perry Ellis and Memphis-transfer Tarik Black has them in the position of league favorite yet again.
However, Oklahoma State is in a prime spot to challenge Bill Self’s squad thanks to the surprising decision by Marcus Smart to return to school for his sophomore campaign. Smart will be one of the front-runners for conference and national player of the year and will be joined in the backcourt by the underrated Le’Bryan Nash.
The nine regular season titles in a row give this showdown plenty of intrigue and a back story, but these are two of the best teams in the entire country regardless of history.
Not every preseason prediction has Oregon contending in the Pac-12 again, but this projection has the Ducks as the No. 2 team on paper behind Arizona largely because of the transfer of Mike Moser.
The former UNLV star struggled for much of the 2012-13 season as he tried to fit in with a deeper rotation and played somewhat out of position. He is eligible to play right away for the Ducks and will look to return to his all-conference form from two years ago.
Look for Moser to do just that alongside Dominic Artis and Jonathan Loyd. The Ducks will look to run and run often, which will result in a number of easy opportunities for the former Runnin’ Rebel.
While Oregon is potentially dangerous, the Wildcats have to be considered the league favorites. Sean Miller replaces Mark Lyons, who was talented but turnover prone, with the more steady hands of transfer point guard T.J. McConnell.
Throw in the likes of Kaleb Tarczewski, Aaron Gordon, Nick Johnson, Brandon Ashley and Rondae Jefferson, and it is clear the Ducks will have their hands full.
Louisville will be in college basketball’s version of purgatory this season in the American Athletic Conference.
The Cardinals are set to join the loaded ACC in the 2014-15 season and are no longer a part of the Big East, so the AAC it is for one year. Look for the defending national champions to cruise through much of their conference slate.
However, there are some challengers for Russ Smith, Luke Hancock and company, including an old Conference USA foe in Memphis. The Tigers will feature the likes of Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford and Geron Johnson and seem to be the biggest obstacle standing in the Cardinals’ way for a conference crown.
Old Missouri guard Michael Dixon also appears to be joining the fold for Memphis, which will make the Tigers an even more formidable thorn in Louisville’s side.
The Big East received a major facelift in the offseason, and frankly it wasn’t exactly for the best. Losing top-notch programs like Syracuse, Notre Dame, Louisville, Connecticut, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh isn’t exactly a formula for dominant success.
But the new-look league has plenty of talent still left in the cupboard, including perennial March darlings Xavier and Creighton.
While the Musketeers were uncharacteristically bad last season, the return of the criminally underrated Semaj Christon gives Chris Mack a nationally excellent weapon at his disposal. Throw in a solid recruiting class and one of the best home court advantages that nobody talks about, and Xavier is in good position for its first year in a new conference.
The Bluejays will feature Doug McDermott for approximately the 20th year in a row. Look for the big man to possibly lead the nation in scoring even against better opponents than what he saw in the Missouri Valley.
Fans of the new-look Big East should become intricately familiar with these two programs. They will be around the top of the standings for years to come.
Can Boise State carry over the momentum it garnered from making the 2013 NCAA Tournament in the 2013-14 regular season and contend for a Mountain West championship?
If the Broncos are going to do so, they will need to feature a heavy dose of floor general Derrick Marks. Marks is an effective scorer (he averaged better than 16 points a night last year) and can set up his teammates when his shot isn’t there. Look for Marks, who is also a solid defender, to contend for conference player of the year and perhaps turn some heads come March.
As for New Mexico, the defending conference champions took a bit of a blow in the offseason when Steve Alford bolted shortly after signing a new contract extension. Tony Snell is no longer on campus and the aftertaste of a shocking loss to Harvard has to still sting around the program.
Kendall Williams will need an impressive season if the Lobos are going to hold off Boise and other challengers in 2013-14. This game will give fans of this underrated league a thrill.
Perhaps you heard that Kentucky brought in an impressive recruiting class this offseason.
John Calipari got back to doing what he does best following a disastrous year in Lexington that ended with a shocking loss in the NIT to Robert Morris. He dominated the recruiting trail and has the Wildcats in position to once again challenge for a national title.
Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, James Young and the Harrison brothers highlight one of the best rosters on paper in the entire country. Assuming there are enough shots to go around, Florida is really the only team in the SEC with enough talent to challenge Kentucky.
The Gators will be particularly reliant on their post game thanks to the return of Patric Young and the addition of Chris Walker. Each will be a force on the glass and redirect plenty of shots on the defensive end.
Throw in freshman Kasey Hill at point, and Florida has some horses to hang with the young Wildcats.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.