Top Storylines for 2014-15 NCAA Basketball Season
College basketball's opening day has become a happening on par with Major League Baseball's, if not the NFL's. By the time you read this, games may already be tipping off. Texas Southern and Eastern Washington get us started at 11 a.m. Eastern Time, in case you're curious.
Still, it'll take a few weeks for the big picture to crystallize. We have countless questions, but no true answers just yet.
These 10 queries are major talking points for the 2014-15 season, but they're merely the tip of the iceberg. Feel free to supply your own, as opening day is the perfect time to debate the future while simultaneously enjoying the present.
10. Can Gonzaga Finally Break Through the Glass Ceiling?
Gonzaga had its moment to be Goliath in 2013, earning a No. 1 seed. The Bulldogs proceeded to puke on their shoes, getting a scare from No. 16 seed Southern and then falling to eventual Final Four participant Wichita State.
Coach Mark Few annually has teams capable of dominating the West Coast Conference and earning a respectable tournament seed, but little has been done with them. The Zags have made only a pair of Sweet 16s in the last 13 seasons, despite winning a total of 351 games for an .807 percentage.
This year, Gonzaga loads up with a host of talented transfers, including Byron Wesley from USC and Kyle Wiltjer from Kentucky, with former Tulsa and Vanderbilt guard Eric McClellan eligible in December. Iconic guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. return, along with mountainous center Przemek Karnowski. A pair of freshmen, point guard Josh Perkins and forward Domantas Sabonis, offer hope for the future.
With all this depth and talent, especially some imported from power conferences, this looks like the Gonzaga team best equipped to storm into a Final Four. Of course, we've all seen this movie before, and it'll be time to believe it when we actually see it.
9. Does UConn Have the Horses to Chase a Repeat?
UConn fans have ridden analysts of all stripes hard this offseason over some slight or another, pleading insufficient respect being paid to the defending national champs. That's ignoring, of course, the fact that the Huskies were a No. 7 seed that came a play or two away from bowing out in the round of 64 and that four key contributors are now gone.
Coach Kevin Ollie has to retool behind senior guard Ryan Boatright, which is like testing Robin to see if he can drive the Batmobile. He won't be alone in the backcourt if NC State transfer Rodney Purvis can score at an efficient clip and junior college import Sam Cassell Jr. can free Boatright to play off the ball from time to time.
There's still a great defensive presence in the post in sophomore Amida Brimah, a dangerous shot-blocker whose offensive skill level is reportedly coming along nicely. Fellow soph Kentan Facey is willing to crash the glass with abandon while he tries to hone his face-up offensive game. He could eventually play the same role that DeAndre Daniels played on the title team.
Freshman wing Daniel Hamilton and 260-pound classmate Rakim Lubin can make immediate impacts, Lubin with his bulk and strength on the glass and Hamilton as a Swiss Army knife, capable of making any play Ollie needs.
The Huskies still have talent and depth, but most of it is very youthful. If the freshmen and seldom-used sophomores grow up quickly, UConn is not only the team to beat in the American, but a very good Sweet 16 candidate. Anything beyond that...well, we didn't see it coming last March, either.
8. Who Are Our Potential NCAA Tournament Cinderellas?
The deep Cinderella run is part of the NCAA tournament's magic. Every tournament since 2007 has featured at least one double-digit seed crashing the Sweet 16. There are several potential bracket-smashers lurking in the weeds again this season, waiting to make some touted higher seed's season a few games shorter.
The list has to start with the schools that have experience with breaking hearts. Florida Gulf Coast has two links left to the infamous 2013 #DunkCity team in guards Brett Comer and Bernard Thompson.
The Eagles could (should?) run undefeated through the Atlantic Sun. Stephen F. Austin returns Southland Player of the Year Jacob Parker and two other starters from the team that sent VCU home early last March.
Murray State is preparing to retake its throne atop the OVC behind sophomore star Cameron Payne and athletic forward Jarvis Williams. Green Bay still harbored slight at-large chances last season, even after losing in the Horizon League tournament. Horizon POY Keifer Sykes and defensive ace Jordan Fouse return, although 7-footer Alec Brown will be missed.
Georgia State and New Mexico State will be led by their guards. GSU boasts a pair of All-Sun Belt first-teamers in R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow. NMSU returns WAC POY Daniel Mullings from the team that played San Diego State within four in the 2014 tournament.
Northeastern and UC Irvine have big men pulling the load. Northeastern forward Scott Eatherton averaged a double-double last season, and he gets former CAA All-Rookie performer Quincy Ford back from injury. UCI monster Mamadou Ndiaye stands all of 7'6" and weighs somewhere near 300 pounds, and he's every bit as hard to shoot over as that build would suggest.
There are undoubtedly more capable upset specials out there, but any one of these teams should certainly make you nervous if they're matched up with your team on Selection Sunday.
7. Will the One-and-Done Prospects Be College Stars?
In the era of package deals and superteams, potential one-and-done NBA prospects often don't seek out schools where they can reign as undisputed stars. If an elite player is going to be forced to attend college for a season, he'd like to be surrounded by fellow studs and chase a national title while he's there.
Many times, however, the brand-name programs that land these top ballers already have some great proven players returning. The minutes for the star freshman might not always be there, and his numbers could project the appearance of underachievement.
Of course, we're all familiar with the epic logjam at Kentucky. Kansas banger Cliff Alexander will be sharing the post with smooth junior Perry Ellis. Texas freshman Myles Turner has potential All-Big 12 performers Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes flanking him on the Horns' front line.
By season's end, the casual fan will peruse the stars' stat lines with a shrug and a "was that it?" Big Blue Nation, KU supporters and Texas Exes will soak up every minute of their players' performances with pride. If the haters don't get it, well, that's their problem, isn't it?
6. Will the Big East Return to Power-Conference Status?
The relaunch of the streamlined, 10-team, geographically far-flung Big East went reasonably well, but something was still missing.
Regular-season champion Villanova slumped meekly out of the NCAA tournament, falling to former conference rival/eventual national champion UConn. Creighton, which smashed the Wildcats mercilessly in both of their meetings, was itself brusquely bounced by Baylor. In all, the new Big East earned four NCAA bids, as many as the American and one more than the SEC. However, none reached the Sweet 16.
This season could be even bumpier for the Big East. Creighton star Doug McDermott is gone, and the Bluejays' NCAA tournament prospects may have bolted town with him. Butler coach Brandon Miller is on indefinite leave with an undefined health issue, leaving the Bulldogs with their third coach in as many seasons. St. John's has multiple players dealing with transcript issues, and DePaul is still DePaul.
Ex-Marquette coach Buzz Williams seemingly didn't think much of the league's future, bailing on the Golden Eagles for less money at ACC bottom-feeder Virginia Tech. His replacement, longtime Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski, brings greater name value, if not as proven a track record.
Villanova is still widely considered the class of the conference, but pursuers Georgetown, Providence, St. John's, Xavier and Seton Hall all have their share of questions to answer. Another four-bid season may be a wildest-dreams scenario as opposed to the best case.
5. Can the SEC Earn More Tourney Bids Than the Atlantic 10?
If we go strictly by winning percentage, the SEC had itself one hell of an NCAA tournament. All three entrants reached at least the Sweet 16, with Tennessee getting that far after escaping a play-in game. Of course, Kentucky and Florida both stormed to the Final Four, pacing the conference to a 12-3 record in the tournament.
Still, a Power 5 conference landing only three teams in the Big Dance is embarrassing. Not so much as the regular-season champion getting snubbed a la the 2012 Pac-12, but still weak.
To compound the SEC's woes, consider the mid-major-only-because-it-doesn't-play-football Atlantic 10. The A-10 sent an impressive six teams to the tournament, with Dayton surprisingly crashing the Elite Eight. Even the mighty ACC could only equal the six.
It sounds too simple to say that the SEC is talent-deficient—outside of Lexington and Gainesville, that is—but that's exactly what's happening.
In conference play, the 14 SEC teams beat each other up to the tune of a 48.0 effective field-goal percentage according to Ken Pomeroy (subscription required). Only the MEAC shot worse. Three-point shooters sank only 33.5 percent of their attempts, placing the league 28th among the 32 conferences. Offensive efficiency ranked 24th, one spot behind the mighty Patriot League.
Auburn fans are galvanized by the arrival of new coach Bruce Pearl. Texas A&M has an epic 2015 recruiting class lined up. LSU has the No. 1 prospect in next year's class, Australian forward Ben Simmons, coming to Baton Rouge next fall. Arkansas, LSU, Ole Miss and Georgia all harbor NCAA hopes this year. Pieces are in place for an SEC resurgence.
As for the A-10, attrition is the word. Everyone lost key pieces, with the possible exception of ascendant Rhode Island. Still, six bids are unlikely to happen again. The SEC will hope to pick up what the A-10 drops—a switch from football, where the rest of the world pants for crumbs off the SEC's table.
4. Is Kansas' Big 12 Title Streak in Jeopardy?
We're used to Kansas dominating the Big 12, and coach Bill Self has plenty of weapons in his arsenal to keep the run of regular-season championships intact for an 11th straight year.
As alluded to elsewhere, star freshmen Cliff Alexander, Kelly Oubre and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk join returning producers like Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden to form a lineup that the rest of the league can only envy.
Or can it?
Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg certainly has had little difficulty stitching veterans, freshmen and transfers together into cohesive rosters. He's set to do it again with Bryce DeJean-Jones (ex-USC/UNLV), Abdel Nader (ex-Northern Illinois) and Jameel McKay (Marquette via junior college) joining returning stars Georges Niang, Dustin Hogue and Monte Morris.
Texas has one of the nation's burliest frontcourts, but coach Rick Barnes still has to have questions about his team's perimeter game.
Oklahoma could field the league's most complete starting lineup if ex-Houston forward TaShawn Thomas is awarded immediate eligibility. Guards Buddy Hield, Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins could all draw All-Big 12 votes at season's end.
Kansas State has potential impact transfers Stephen Hurt (Lipscomb via JUCO) and Justin Edwards (Maine) set to line up alongside sophomore star Marcus Foster and talented classmate Wesley Iwundu.
Kansas has seen some rock fights during its decade of dominance, and this one promises to be anything but easy. If KU is going to win title No. 11, it's going to earn it through some grueling duels.
3. Where's the Star Power?
The megastars in college basketball are frequently the coaches, especially in the era of the one-and-done revolving door. The man on the sideline is the only face that fans can truly get used to seeing.
That makes last season a bit of an anomaly. For every breathlessly hyped freshman that struggled through growing pains he was supposed to transcend through sheer force of will—see Wiggins, Andrew and Parker, Jabari—there was a senior making plays en route to All-American status, such as Doug McDermott or Russ Smith.
This year, not a single All-American returns, leaving the stage wide open for some new blood. Star guards like Marcus Paige of North Carolina or Wichita State's duo of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker jostle for attention with big men like Montrezl Harrell of Louisville or Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin. Kaminsky's teammate Sam Dekker, Michigan's Caris LeVert and Iowa State's Georges Niang will excel from the wing.
None of these veterans, however, are true household names. Few multi-year college players are these days, as the cult of the freshman continues to permeate the game.
Countless analysts have tabbed Duke rookie center Jahlil Okafor as their National Player of the Year. Kentucky's Karl Towns, Texas' Myles Turner and Kansas' dynamic duo of Alexander and Oubre all have their supporters for All-American honors as well.
As mentioned before, the era of the superteam might be blunting the impact of all but the most gifted freshmen. I expect that we'll see a lot of veteran players on this season's All-American teams as well. We just won't see any of them reach a major place in popular culture the way icons of yesteryear—Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, the Fab Five—were able to.
2. Can Kentucky Possibly Live Up to Its Potential?
Short answer: Probably not. Not unless the entire team simply joins the NBA as an expansion franchise and rolls into the Eastern Conference playoffs.
That's not a knock on the talent dotting Kentucky's roster, far from it. (Have you heard that UK has nine McDonald's All-Americans? Once or twice, maybe?) It's simply an indication of how good each player could eventually become if he lands in the right professional setting.
With this many weapons, however, come some awkward lineup decisions for coach John Calipari. He'll have a constant fact-finding mission to determine the best players for the best situations, which ones work well together and which don't. The Wildcats' admirably rugged nonconference schedule will carry its share of ups and downs as Cal fine-tunes his mix.
Once SEC play begins, the Cats can throw the switch and truly attack their opposition. With Florida relying on much younger talent than last season and every other team sitting somewhere between unproven and hopeless, UK's main enemies will be selfishness and complacency, two qualities that Calipari can now exercise at will because every position has a next man up.
By the NCAA tournament, Kentucky has every capability to launch another epic hot streak and storm into the Final Four. By that point, however, nothing short of a national championship will be acceptable. If anyone's caught looking ahead to the draft and suffers through a bad game on the sport's biggest stage, he'll hear about it on Twitter.
Kentucky's mission lies ahead of it, and the objective is clearly defined. However, when only one outcome is considered a success, the odds of achieving it drop drastically.
1. Which Is the Dominant Conference?
About a month ago, I ranked the game's top 10 conferences and drew some serious crossfire from partisans supporting the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 in particular.
Whether you're drawn to the collection of coaching talent in the ACC (four current Hall of Famers there, don'tcha know) or you're anxious to see the Big Ten end its 14-year national title drought, you're as likely to go to the mat for your favorite team's conference as you are for the team itself.
The ACC has four teams ranked in the top nine of both the Associated Press and USA Today polls. However, there's only one other ACC team ranked in the top 25. The Big Ten sees those five with five of its own, and the Big 12 checks in with four.
Sending 70 percent of the league to the NCAA tournament last year and having 40 percent ranked to start this one are both impressive figures for the Big 12. Its smaller membership can make for fewer barnacles stuck to the hull. However, 2014 tournament teams like Oklahoma State and Baylor have a burden of proof this season after losing most of their leading men. West Virginia could come on to fill the void.
My rankings favored the ACC, because while the Big 12 could get six of its 10 teams into the Dance, the ACC could equal that percentage by sending nine of its 15.
Like most of these, however, conference supremacy is a question that won't be truly answered until March.