After a long offseason of drawn-out baseball games in the summer sun and computers determining national-title races on the gridiron, college basketball is finally back.
As with any season, there are plenty of burning questions that need to be answered. How those uncertainties unfold will determine conference races, the Final Four and who eventually holds the national title.
Read on to see 10 burning questions as the 2013-14 season fast approaches.
The conference realignment wheel has finally stopped turning for the time being, and the college basketball landscape will never be the same.
Of interest is how the changes will impact the NCAA tournament. Traditional “mid-major” schools like Creighton, Xavier and Butler are now in “power” leagues, which could alter the way they are viewed on Selection Sunday. Could this mean we see even fewer bids for mid-major leagues than in the past?
Other conference realignment fallout could influence Louisville’s seeding—after a year in a weak league—and how ACC teams are treated after the additions of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame.
Now that the Big East is far from the powerhouse it was, it seems clear that there are two conferences above the rest.
The Big Ten and ACC are the top two leagues in the country, and fortunately for college basketball fans, we will be treated to the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Dec. 3 and 4. While the ACC dominated the event for years, the Big Ten has closed the gap recently. This season’s event could be the best ever with the ACC’s new powerhouse additions.
ESPN analyst Dick Vitale tweeted which conference he thinks is best: "No doubt—ACC will be the best conference in hoops!"
Outside of the Challenge, which league is considered the best will impact NCAA tournament seeding and eventual bubble decisions. Which league garners the most overall respect (a la the SEC in football) will get the benefit of the doubt come decision time for the postseason.
While the battle for national respect between the ACC and Big Ten will certainly be interesting, there may not be better races in the country than those within the leagues.
The ACC will be a battle between Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse. The traditional feud between the Tar Heels and Blue Devils always shapes the ACC’s race, but this year, newcomers like the Orange, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame could mix it up.
The Big Ten will have Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State on the top with Wisconsin, Iowa and Indiana nipping at their heels. This conference may not be as strong as it was last year, but it still is incredibly deep and will be entertaining to follow.
These two leagues will provide plenty of drama (and NCAA tournament teams) in 2013-14.
Defending champion Louisville is in somewhat of a basketball purgatory this season. The Cardinals left the Big East and will not join the ACC until next season.
That means they will spend 2013-14 in the American Athletic Conference. Simply put, there will be plenty of blowouts for Rick Pitino and company once conference play starts.
Cincinnati, Connecticut, Houston, Memphis, Rutgers, SMU, South Florida, Temple and Central Florida make up the opposition for the Cardinals. While the Bearcats, Tigers and Huskies should at least hang with Louisville, there are a lot of cupcakes on that list.
Look for Russ Smith and his teammates to dominate a lot of games this year.
"It's going to be an exciting season," Cardinals coach Rick Pitino told The Courier-Journal. "We are one year away from a potential mini-dynasty—one year."
We have seen both ends of the gamut for Kentucky the past two years.
John Calipari’s freshmen-dominated squad won the national championship two seasons ago, yet last year’s version failed to make the NCAA tournament and then lost in the first round of the NIT. Fortunately for Big Blue Nation, the 2013-14 version is closer to the title winners in terms of pure talent than last year’s bust.
There are so many excellent players on the roster that the NCAA tournament isn’t going to be an issue, assuming they're in good health. Whether the Wildcats can bring another national title back to Lexington is the bigger question.
How quickly the freshmen adjust to the big lights and whether they can find a solid rotation with all the weapons will determine the answer to that in March.
No player was a bigger lightning rod in college basketball last season than Ole Miss’ Marshall Henderson.
Henderson steamrolled his way through the SEC tournament, taunting opponents and fans along the way, and led his team to an upset of Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament. People either loved or hated the brash way he played (and likely will play this year), but Henderson was always in the headlines.
Henderson was already suspended for three regular-season games in the 2013-14 campaign for off-the-court issues. While that isn’t exactly the best way to earn to respect and love of those who don’t like you, Henderson does get another chance this season to change some minds.
People will certainly be paying attention.
The best players of every incoming freshman class always receive hype, but it’s difficult to remember so many first-year players getting this much love so early.
Andrew Wiggins dominated headlines all offseason as arguably the best high-school prospect since LeBron James. He almost single-handedly turned Kansas from a Big 12 title contender to a national title threat when he committed to Lawrence.
Jabari Parker once graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, and he will continue to be in the spotlight at Duke. He is the most talented player on Coach K’s squad, and any Final Four hopes in Durham fall on his shoulders.
Out west, Aaron Gordon leads an impressive crop of freshmen at Arizona, while Kentucky’s group of first-year players has also been well documented.
Ultimately, the question with all of this enticing but inexperienced talent is if the substance will live up to the hype. The national title race will be shaped by the answer.
There have been so many Cinderellas in recent NCAA tournaments that it’s almost expected at this point. The Butlers, VCUs, Gonzagas, Florida Gulf Coasts and Wichita States of the world have knocked off elite competition recently and earned names for their programs along the way.
There will surely be some Cinderellas in March this season, but the question is who. Wichita State once again has a loaded squad after a Final Four run, and the Mountain West is looking to bounce back after a disappointing showing in the NCAA tournament.
The prediction here is that Harvard turns some heads this year. Tommy Amaker has gradually built a powerhouse by Ivy League standards, and that should continue this season. The Crimson knocked off New Mexico in the last tournament and will look to go even further this time around.
The National Player of the Year race in 2013-14 will be an intriguing battle between a loaded crop of freshmen and some returning veterans.
Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and the entire lot of Kentucky first-year players each have an opportunity to take home the honors if they live up to their potential, but familiar names such as Marcus Smart, Gary Harris, Doug McDermott and Russ Smith are also in the running.
There may be some dark-horse candidates who throw their names into the hat, but the race between the experience and freshman talent is a subplot to watch this year. Team records and head-to-head showdowns will likely play a role in who ultimately takes home the Naismith Award with so many of these candidates facing off in both nonconference and league play.
The biggest question for any college basketball season is who will cut down the nets at the end of the Big Dance.
The past two seasons, the champion came from the Commonwealth of Kentucky (Kentucky and Louisville), and both the Wildcats and Cardinals are contenders again. Elsewhere, squads such as Kansas, Duke, Michigan State and Arizona are on the shortlist of title favorites.
Don’t count out the likes of Syracuse, Florida, Michigan, Ohio State, North Carolina or Oklahoma State either. Regardless of who wins the actual championship, fans will be treated to elite basketball all season between a number of talented squads.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.