Picking a 2014-15 Favorite, Dark Horse and Longshot in Each Major CBB Conference

Thad Novak@@ThadNovakCorrespondent IMay 21, 2014

Picking a 2014-15 Favorite, Dark Horse and Longshot in Each Major CBB Conference

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    With Triple Crown season in full swing, it’s an ideal time to handicap a different kind of race: the pursuit of college basketball’s conference titles. Just like on the track, there are plenty of contenders to watch, but not all have the same chances of coming out on top.

    One of the most exciting contests promises to be in the Big 12, where perennial front-runner Kansas has plenty of rivals next season. From frontcourt-heavy Texas to guard-rich Kansas State, there’s no shortage of contenders, but who has the best shot at coming out on top?

    Herein is a projection for the favorite in each major conference, along with two other teams that could win with a little bit, or a lot, of luck. Note that there’s meant to be some separation between these categories, so that a team (for example) that just misses being the favorite is too good to qualify as the dark horse.

AAC Favorite: UConn

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    Don’t be misled by the UConn Huskies’ considerable graduation and NBA losses. Even with just two starters returning, the defending national champs are going to be a very dangerous team, starting with the extraordinary Ryan Boatright.

    Heading into his senior year, Boatright will bring leadership, scoring and superlative defense to the point guard spot after serving as Shabazz Napier’s sidekick for three seasons.

    Most of his help will come from the backcourt—especially N.C. State transfer Rodney Purvis, likely to lead the team in scoring—but don’t overlook fast-developing Amida Brimah.

    The 7’0” Ghanaian has already proven himself as a rim-protector while he was still learning the American game.

AAC Dark Horse: SMU

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    Larry Brown did a credible job in SMU’s first year as a power-conference team, guiding his inexperienced charges to the finals of the NIT. Now he’ll get to reap the benefits, bringing back three starters and a wealth of reserves from that squad.

    The best of the returnees are big man Markus Kennedy and point guard Nic Moore, but the latter will be moving off the ball to make room for the Mustangs’ new superstar.

    Emmanuel Mudiay, ranked as the nation’s second-best recruit by both Rivals.com and Scout.com, brings a 6’5” frame and some big-time scoring punch to the floor leader’s role.

AAC Longshot: Tulsa

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    In the final major shift of conference realignment, three teams from moribund Conference USA get promoted to the AAC.

    The only one with a chance to be a factor in its first season of top-level competition is Tulsa, coming off a trip to March Madness and boasting a top-flight new coach in Frank Haith.

    In other good news for the Golden Hurricane, four starters are back from last year’s sophomore-heavy roster.

    The deep crop of rising juniors is led by top scorer James Woodard (also the squad’s leading rebounder at just 6’3”) and gutsy forward Rashad Smith.

ACC Favorite: Duke

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    Duke and North Carolina, beneficiaries of absurdly stacked recruiting classes, stand to run neck-and-neck all season atop the ACC.

    Duke, though, has the conference’s best big man—national No. 1 freshman Jahlil Okafor—and that will be an edge the Tar Heels can’t quite overcome.

    Okafor’s cohorts, point guard Tyus Jones and small forward Justise Winslow, would be headliners in almost any other team’s recruiting class, and shooting guard Grayson Allen is a big-time talent as well.

    Coach K also has a respectable supply of veteran supporting players at his disposal, including sometime starter Quinn Cook at PG and versatile 2-guard Rasheed Sulaimon.

ACC Dark Horse: Virginia

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    In any other conference, Virginia would be a front-runner for the championship. Even though the Cavaliers lost too much (and recruited too little) to keep pace with titans Duke and UNC, they could easily give the ACC a third top-10 team in the preseason polls.

    The key, once again, will be the stifling defense that ranked No. 1 in the country in points allowed last season.

    Although Akil Mitchell’s graduation will make that unit a little less overpowering in the paint, ex-reserve Anthony Gill will provide an interior spark for an offense that relies heavily on perimeter scoring from Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes.

ACC Longshot: Louisville

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    Losing Russ Smith guaranteed that Louisville, champion of the AAC’s inaugural season, was in for a tough introduction to the ACC.

    However, the unexpected return of high-scoring forward Montrezl Harrell leaves the Cardinals with just enough firepower to claim this spot over rebuilding Syracuse.

    With Harrell down low and Chris Jones and Terry Rozier returning in the backcourt, Louisville is well-stocked with both experience and speed.

    A fast team got even faster in recruiting, thanks to the arrival of athletic freshmen Shaqquan Aaron and Quentin Snider on the perimeter.

Big 12 Favorite: Kansas

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    Kansas has won or shared the regular-season conference crown every year since 2004-05, Bill Self's second season in Lawrence.

    No matter how much the Jayhawks have lost—and in this case, the total is a comparatively modest three starters—it’s never wise to count this team out.

    Newcomers Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre Jr., both among the top 10 freshmen in the nation, will carry next year’s roster.

    Even then, Self will need to coax a strong year out of his point guard duo—2013-14 backup Frank Mason and last-minute recruit Devonte Graham—in order for KU to edge out Myles Turner and a loaded Texas team for the league title.

Big 12 Dark Horse: Iowa State

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    Iowa State doesn’t quite have the star power to hang with Kansas or Texas on paper, but the Cyclones will still be a formidable squad.

    Georges Niang, the point forward whose injury torpedoed ISU’s NCAA tournament run, returns to become the centerpiece of a perennially loaded offense.

    Designated rebounder Dustin Hogue is back as well, while the backcourt is loaded with scorers. Even Bryce Dejean-Jones, the UNLV transfer who inherits the point guard job, is more dangerous as a three-point bomber than a playmaker.

Big 12 Longshot: Oklahoma

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    An NCAA tournament upset at the hands of North Dakota State made it easy to overlook how much the Sooners accomplished last season. Senior star Cameron Clark is gone, but four other starters are back from the league’s second-place finishers.

    Underrated point guard Jordan Woodard, coming off an impressive freshman campaign, leads an offense heavy on three-point marksmen (and deep enough to hold off fast-rising Kansas State for this spot).

    Up front, rebounding machine Ryan Spangler will get some welcome depth behind him in the form of freshmen Dante Buford and Khadeem Lattin.

Big East Favorite: Villanova

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    The Big East sent four teams to the 2014 NCAA tournament. Three of those were star-driven teams whose stars are off to the NBA, but league-champion Villanova bucks both trends.

    The Wildcats do lose leading scorer James Bell to graduation, but four other starters return from a 29-5 squad.

    Rising senior Darrun Hilliard II heads an ensemble cast of three-point bombers outside, while his classmate JayVaughn Pinkston provides both scoring and rebounding in the post.

Big East Dark Horse: Georgetown

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    Even in an uncharacteristic down year in 2013-14, Georgetown had D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera to lean on.

    The sophomore guard showed why he’d been such a heralded recruit for John Thompson III, emerging as an offensive star alongside now-graduated Markel Starks. The key question for next season is whether Smith-Rivera will get enough help.

    Returning big men Mikael Hopkins (an unimpressive scorer to date) and Josh Smith (assuming he gets his academics in order) will contribute, but the main burden will fall on a deep freshman class headlined by versatile forwards Isaac Copeland and L.J. Peak.

Big East Longshot: Marquette

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    Buzz Williams’ surprising departure for Virginia Tech leaves his old team in the hands of novice head coach Steve Wojciechowski.

    Mike Krzyzewski’s former protege isn’t just a spelling test on par with his old boss—he’s a promising young coach with just enough talent on the roster to sneak up on his new conference.

    BYU transfer Matt Carlino immediately becomes the star of the team, a high-scoring combo guard who will wake up last year’s disappointing offense.

    He’ll have speed and shooting around him, thanks to rising senior Todd Mayo and a host of athletic young wings led by 2013-14’s top freshman, Deonte Burton.

Big Ten Favorite: Wisconsin

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    Until 2013-14, Wisconsin was the team nobody wanted to face in the postseason, but that nobody wanted to pick, either.

    For 2014-15, the Badgers will find themselves in the unusual position of being the toast of the conference rather than a scrappy underdog/spoiler.

    Rising senior Frank Kaminsky, the hero of March’s Final Four run, brings his three-point bombing, shot-blocking game back to Madison for one more go-around.

    He’s joined by three other returning starters and the top reserve from a rare Bo Ryan team that proved it could score points as well or better than its D could keep them off the board.

Big Ten Dark Horse: Nebraska

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    In 118 seasons of basketball, Nebraska has won a total of eight conference titles (regular-season and tournament combined).

    Suffice it to say, even the most promising Cornhuskers team in 20 years will have to surprise a lot of people to win its first Big Ten crown.

    With explosive Terran Petteway keying the offense, though, a surprise could be in order. Last year’s 19-win squad was short on experience, but all five starters are back from a group that jelled into a very tough defense.

Big Ten Longshot: Ohio State

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    Both Michigan and Michigan State have claims on this spot, too, but of the trio, Ohio State has the best mix of returning and incoming talent.

    The returnees, for the first time in what seems like forever, do not include Aaron Craft, but that doesn’t mean coach Thad Matta will be hurting for point guard options.

    Shannon Scott, a more productive offensive PG than Craft and nearly as lethal a defender, will be the primary ball-handler, with plenty of help from freshman combo guard D’Angelo Russell.

    Their best scoring target will be dunk specialist senior Sam Thompson, while the defense will get major contributions from another senior (shot-swatting Amir Williams) and another prize recruit (forward Keita Bates-Diop).

Pac-12 Favorite: Arizona

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    After narrowly missing out on the Final Four in March, Arizona is a decided favorite to reach that plateau next season. Even the losses of the Wildcats’ two leading scorers won’t be enough to put much of a dent in Sean Miller’s intimidating roster.

    The biggest share of the offensive burden will fall on forward Brandon Ashley, healthy again after tearing a ligament in his foot in February.

    He’s got a terrific veteran point guard to set him up (T.J. McConnell) and one of the country’s toughest defenses around him (headed up by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and stud freshman Stanley Johnson).

Pac-12 Dark Horse: Utah

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    This spot would have belonged to Oregon, but the Ducks’ dismissal of three players facing legal trouble leaves them too shorthanded. Instead, unheralded Utah leapfrogs the league’s mainstays for a shot at overtaking Arizona.

    Combo guard Delon Wright has an outside chance at conference player of the year honors after a brilliant post-JUCO debut last year. All four of his fellow starters return, highlighted by physical forward Jordan Loveridge and towering center Dallin Bachynski.

Pac-12 Longshot: UCLA

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    A UCLA team that had been fueled by Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson loses not only its two signature stars but also its top two big men (the Wear twins, Davis and Travis) and its high-scoring sixth man (Zach LaVine).

    By rights, the Bruins should be sunk, but Steve Alford just might be able to pull off a miracle.

    His hopes start with freshman Kevon Looney, a high-motor rebounder who could also add some finesse scoring to Tony Parker’s occasional brute-force points.

    The biggest question, though, will be whether Isaac Hamilton, who sat out last year when UTEP wouldn’t let him out of his letter of intent, is ready to be a star in the backcourt alongside steady Bryce Alford and high-flying Norman Powell.

SEC Favorite: Kentucky

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    It’ll be front-page news if any team other than Kentucky takes the top spot in the polls heading into 2014-15. Dakari Johnson and the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, returning starters from the national runners-up, are just the beginning for a roster dripping with talent.

    That trio wlil have a lot more help than "just" returning reserves Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein both of whom have NBA potential themselves.

    Freshman Trey Lyles should step right into Julius Randle’s role as the focus of the offense. Meanwhile, his classmates, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis, will add some of the three-point shooting last year’s team often lacked.

SEC Dark Horse: Florida

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    Four-fifths of a Final Four starting lineup are gone, but Billy Donovan’s team is still going to be awfully dangerous.

    If Kentucky weren’t so stacked with NBA-bound talent, the Gators would be poised to challenge for the league title on an equal footing again.

    Up front, rising sophomore Chris Walker—a leading contender for SEC Player of the Year recognition—and versatile Dorian Finney-Smith will show off their prodigious athleticism on both ends of the floor.

    Walker’s classmate Kasey Hill is bursting with potential at point guard, while the one returning starter, Michael Frazier II, is the best pure three-point shooter in the country.

SEC Longshot: LSU

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    LSU would have been right there with Florida for the dark-horse spot if it weren’t for Anthony Hickey’s decision to transfer.

    The simultaneous losses of defensive ace Hickey and sniper Andre Stringer (graduated) leave the Tigers backcourt in serious trouble. However, if coach Johnny Jones can find a serviceable pair of guards, he’s got a front line to be reckoned with.

    Rising sophomores Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey are first-class scorers, and Mickey is one of the nation’s top shot-blockers. They'll get some substantial help in the pivot from 6’11”, 270-pound freshman Elbert Robinson.