While March Madness captivates the attention of an entire nation for a month, and is arguably the best single event on the entire sports calendar, it has somewhat overshadowed the excitement of the regular season.
College basketball fans will be treated to a handful of tight and entertaining conference races in the 2013-14 season before the magic of March arrives. With everything from arena banners, regional bragging rights and postseason seeding hanging in the balance, it will be worth tuning in before Selection Sunday.
Read on to see five of the tightest conference races this year.
The Big Ten once again has a chance to be the best conference in college basketball this year, especially with the defections the Big East suffered in the offseason.
On paper, this race seems to be split into two tiers—the elite one with potential Final Four and national title contenders, and the sleeper one with teams that could knock off one of the elites in the conference standings.
The elite tier consists of Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State, three programs that could find themselves in the Final Four come April. Superstars such as Adreian Payne, Gary Harris, Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, Aaron Craft and LaQuinton Ross will battle each other all season and treat Midwest hoops fans to one of the tightest battles in the country.
The sleeper tier consists of Wisconsin, Indiana and even Iowa. The Hoosiers lost as much talent as anyone in the country but still have Yogi Ferrell and Noah Vonleh. Meanwhile, the Badgers always win under Bo Ryan (especially at home) and the Hawkeyes are talented enough to return to the NCAA tournament this year.
In theory, a competitive season will come when somebody besides Kansas wins the Big 12. Could 2013-14 be the year that it finally happens?
The Jayhawks have won the past nine regular season titles and regularly earn favorable seeds in the NCAA tournament because of these efforts. Bill Self lost a lot of talent following last year, and it looked for a while like Oklahoma State, who welcomed Marcus Smart back, may finally knock Kansas off its shelf.
And then Andrew Wiggins elected to join the Jayhawks.
Wiggins, alongside fellow freshman Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis and Memphis transfer Tarik Black, has Kansas poised as league favorite once again. But that doesn’t mean the Cowboys won’t give it everything it can handle.
Smart will be on the short list of National Player of the Year candidates (along with Wiggins) and will be joined in the backcourt by the underrated Le’Bryan Nash. This could be the best two-team race in the entire country, especially with the backdrop of Kansas’ history of dominance setting the stage.
The ACC is one year away from becoming absolutely loaded with the addition of Louisville, but adding programs like Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh for 2013-14 is nothing to sneeze at.
The preseason favorite in this conference almost always comes from the Duke and North Carolina duo, but the Orange have something to say about that this season. C.J. Fair and Jim Boeheim’s lockdown 2-3 zone will challenge the conference’s establishment in some of the most intriguing games following conference realignment.
As for the Blue Devils, Coach K once again has a deep and loaded roster at his disposal. Jabari Parker may be the best freshman this side of Andrew Wiggins, transfer Rodney Hood is not getting enough attention in the offseason and Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook return in the backcourt.
As for the Tar Heels, optimism is back in place after a disappointing 2012-13 campaign. The status of P.J. Hairston is still very much in the air, but James Michael McAdoo may be primed to finally live up to his early hype.
Whoever wins this race should be in prime position on Selection Sunday.
No conference in the country experienced as much turnover as the Big East with the recent realignment, and the 2013-14 race is wide open as a result. Mainstays Marquette and Georgetown are confident heading into the year, but newcomers Creighton and Xavier should have an impact on the standings as well.
The Musketeers are being overlooked because of a down season in 2012-13, but Chris Mack’s team is underrated and dangerous. Semaj Christon is one of the best players you have never heard of and should be a household name for college basketball fans by March. Throw in a solid recruiting class and an impressive home-court advantage, and Xavier should return to the tournament.
As for the Bluejays, Doug McDermott is back once again and is on the short list of candidates for the national scoring title, even against better competition.
If the Golden Eagles and Hoyas are going to win this league, they will have to go through the new kids on the block first.
The Mountain West was the RPI darling during the regular season last year, but the NCAA tournament was a bit of a wake-up call. That being said, this race should be very entertaining in 2013-14.
Boise State features arguably the best one-two punch in the league with Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic. Marks is the floor general who also scores a bunch of points, while Drmic will pour in the points this year. Look for the Broncos to not only return to the Big Dance but last a bit longer this time around.
New Mexico will also contend for a conference crown despite the loss of coach Steve Alford and Tony Snell. Kendall Williams is the key for the Lobos if they are going to hold off Boise State and other challengers.
UNLV and San Diego State may also have something to say about this race by March.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.