There are some new names and a lot of the same old faces, but with the start of the college basketball season, you know there will be plenty excitement.
As the 2014-15 basketball season gets ready to tip off, there are storylines galore for fans of college basketball to chew on prior to the first games.
But here at Scout.com, we have broken it down to the Elite Eight storylines to watch for the new season, which tips off on Nov. 14.
SECOND FIVE RANKED FOR Kentucky
Many of the jokes around the state of Kentucky during the basketball season a year ago were about the t-shirts some Wildcat basketball fans made that said “undefeated” or “40-0” in preparation for the season.
Sure, the Wildcats had some quality players returning and were adding the No. 1 recruiting class in the country – again. But going undefeated isn’t easy, and the Wildcats found that out in a hurry, losing to Michigan State in the third game of the season. They went on to finish the season 29-11 after dropping a decision to Connecticut in the NCAA national title game.
Going unbeaten is not an easy task.
Indiana’s team in 1975-76 was the last undefeated team in Division I hoops, going 32-0. UNLV didn’t lose until it reached the Final Four in 1990-91, while St. Joseph’s made it to the Atlantic-10 Tournament in 2003-04 and Wichita State made it to the NCAA Elite Eight last season before losing its only game to Kentucky.
There hasn’t been as much talk about 40-0 this preseason, but perhaps there should be, given the ridiculous amount of talent on the Wildcats’ roster this season.
UK has four big-time returning frontcourt players, and also added two freshmen who could come in and start right away…and are potential lottery picks.
Some describe freshman Karl Anthony-Towns as the best player on the team, while Trey Lyles was a national top 10-player out of Indianapolis. Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee are all former McDonald’s All-Americans returning for Kentucky coach John Calipari.
In addition to the Harrison Twins – Andrew and Aaron – as well as Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis returning in the backcourt, the Wildcats also added former McDonald’s All-Americans Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis to the roster.
Calipari said recently that he feels like his team is so deep that he’s coaching two teams – so the expectations are that he will have a two-platoon system in place for the Wildcats in games early this season.
“I’m not convinced of what the groups will look like,” Calipari said, noting that he has a rotation that can go 12 deep.
So while there hasn’t been much 40-0 talk during this preseason, it’s not too far-fetched for the UK faithful to start making plans.
ACC AS THE POWER CONFERENCE
As a key player in the old Big East Conference for several years, Louisville Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino didn’t think he would see a better league in college hoops.
Now, Pitino admits he was wrong.
“The Big East was the best conference in college basketball,” Pitino said. “But (the ACC) intrigues me. There are so many good coaches and great programs. It’s going to be a lot of fun for college basketball fans.”
The ACC is the power among the conferences this season, with four teams ranked in the Scout.com top 10 and several others include in the top 25.
Duke and North Carolina added a total of seven McDonald’s All-Americans to rosters that were already full of talent, while Louisville had one of the best recruiting classes of the Pitino era, adding talented pieces to All-American Montrezl Harrell and other aspects of a team that won the national title two years ago.
“There are no off nights,” Pitino said. “The fans are going to love it; the competition each night is going to be great.”
Sean Miller BUILDING A MONSTER
Miller has signed 11 five-star prospects in four years with the Wildcats, four more than any other program except Kentucky.
Arizona started last year 21-0 and was ranked No. 1 in the AP poll for eight weeks, but lost to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Tournament to finish at 33-5.
The 45-year-old Miller has won an average of 25.8 games per year in Tucson since replacing Lute Olson, won Pac-12 regular-season titles in 2011 and 2014, and finished either No. 1 or No. 2 in the Pac-12 in each of Miller’s first five seasons. Now in his sixth season, Miller is hoping for a title, and this could well be the season for it, given a roster that is loaded with talent.
It’s become a rite of the preseason – analysts and fans all over the country trying to predict which mid-major team could be that season’s Cinderella.
Well, it wasn’t too difficult last season. The pick was Wichita State, and the Shockers obliged by going 35-0 before losing to Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament.
The Shockers have plenty of talent back from that team and will be in the mix for the national title again this season, but they won’t be this year’s Cinderella.
Instead, it will be someone else…and there are several candidates.
Harvard has pulled an upset in the NCAA Tournament two years in a row and should be the best mid-major team not named Wichita State this season, as the Crimson returns a core of its best players. Harvard coach Tommy Amaker has built a program that should continue to be in this conversation for a number of years.
Hunter also has perhaps the most talked-about transfer in the history of the game. Former Louisville guard Kevin Ware only played 53 minutes with the Cardinals last season before saying he needed a “fresh start.” The NCAA granted Ware a waiver to play immediately for the Panthers during the summer.
Ware was at the center of the college basketball world two years ago when he suffered a horrific broken leg on national TV in the Elite Eight game in which Louisville – the eventual national champions – beat Duke. He became a national story and tried to come back last season, but was never healthy.
Now, Ware is healthy and ready to help Georgia State become a sleeper.
Louisiana Tech returns three key players from a team that averaged 81 points a game, while Cleveland State returns six of its top seven scorers from a team that won 10 of its final 11 games a year ago.
Florida Gulf Coast fit the Cinderella role two years ago and could be back with an influx of talent, while Northern Iowa – the team in 2010 that knocked off overall No. 1 Kansas – looks to challenge Wichita State for the conference title and Cinderella tag.
NEW COACHES ON THE BLOCK
The new season also means some new – and in several places old – faces on the sidelines for schools.
The two biggest names back in the game – Bruce Pearl and Kelvin Sampson – make a return after sitting out after NCAA issues sent them to the sidelines. Both Pearl and Sampson take over programs needing a facelift.
Pearl is back on the sidelines after being fired by Tennessee and getting a show-cause penalty from the NCAA because he lied to an investigator about some transgressions with the Volunteers program when he was there.
Pearl was given a three-year penalty and was fired in 2011. He then spent time as an analyst at ESPN before being hired by Auburn for this season. He’s already started to work some magic with the Tigers, bringing in some talented newcomers. With a huge focus on recruiting, Pearl is generating some good vibes from Auburn fans, who normally are still focused on football in December.
Sampson – the new coach at Houston – received a five-year penalty for his wrongdoings at Indiana, where he had generated some excitement among Hoosier fans in his two seasons on the sidelines at Assembly Hall.
Sampson has previously been a Division I coach at Washington State and Oklahoma before going to Bloomington. At Washington State, Sampson went to the NCAA Tournament in 1994, and he then took Oklahoma to the Big Dance in 11 of 12 years.
Sampson was let go by Indiana after violations regarding impermissible calls to recruits during his time at both Oklahoma and Indiana came up.
Sampson will try to help Houston return to prominence for the first time since the Phi Slama Jama days. The Cougars play in the AAC, which Sampson believes he can win with the talent he has already on the roster.
Perhaps the most shocking move of the offseason was Buzz Williams leaving Marquette for a Virginia Tech team that has made the NCAA Tournament just once since 1996. But Williams believes he can recruit to Blacksburg and become a contender in the always-tough ACC conference.
The other move that many didn’t expect came from Frank Haith, who left the SEC and Missouri for Tulsa. The coach who generated the most chatter toward the end of last season for potentially taking a bigger job was Danny Manning, the former Kansas All-American, who left Tulsa to take the job at Wake Forest.
And then there’s the Tennessee move and shake. Cuonzo Martin left the Volunteers because he didn’t like his job security there, so he took the gig at California, where he should thrive after winning at Missouri State and with the Vols.
Former Morehead State and Southern Mississippi coach Donnie Tyndall is the new coach at Tennessee, and he has really excited the fan base.
WHO WILL BE THIS YEAR’S WISCONSIN?
After watching Wisconsin go from a team that didn’t look like a title contender to one that lost in the Final Four, college basketball fans should be on the lookout for the team that could make a similar rise this season.
And there are plenty of them.
Here are a few candidates that could emerge nationally this season as a sleeper for a bid to the Final Four – or more.
Illinois won six of its final nine Big Ten games last season, but still missed the tournament. Head coach John Groce has a team built to win this season, thanks to two key returning players and two impact transfers – Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall) and Ahmad Starks (Oregon State). The Illini also have a talented freshman in Leron Black.
Mark Fox looks to have things going at Georgia with all five of his top scorers back from a team that was very competitive – just not consistent – last season. Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann averaged double-figure scoring and should see significant improvement.
There seems to be a difference of opinion about Notre Dame in the preseason. The Irish have only gotten a little love, but their second year in the ACC should be a little easier, and having playmaker Jerian Grant back will help. Mike Brey also has Pat Connaughton and several other key players back.
Miami was that team two years ago, but had major roster turnover last season and slipped to just 17 wins. The Hurricanes have two transfers – Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State) and Sheldon McClellan (Texas) – who should help.
Arkansas is another potential sleeper from the SEC with six of its top seven scorers returning, while Utah won 21 games last season and returns its entire roster – including All-American candidate Delon Wright. The Utes could contend in the Pac-12 and be a team similar to last year’s Badgers.
If it’s one of these, then it will be another school… because one surprise team always seems to emerge.
THE TRANSFER GAME
It’s become a new season for college basketball coaches: transfer season.
In recent years, the season ends and the transfer game begins, with players moving from one program to the next. There were more than 500 players who transferred from Division I schools following last season.
That means there will be plenty of newcomers for fans to watch this season.
Gonzaga looks like the biggest winner of the transfer game this season, with two key impact players now eligible after sitting out last season. Byron Wesley led USC in scoring at 17.8 points a game before leaving, while 6-10 Kyle Wiltjer is a former McDonald’s All-American who left the stacked roster at Kentucky for the Zags.
Bryce Dejean-Jones is a graduate transfer from UNLV who headed to Iowa State, where he will add to an already solid lineup of talent. Dejean-Jones averaged 13.6 points a game last season before graduating with one year of school left, allowing him to transfer and become eligible right away at any school.
Miami also has a pair of top transfers who will be impact players, including Kansas State transfer Angel Rodriguez and Texas’ Sheldon McClellan, while Matt Carlino was a top guard at BYU and now will be a starter at Marquette.
USC lost Wesley but will benefit from the transfer of Katin Reinhardt from UNLV, while SMU’s Jalen Jones is now at Texas A&M. The top player on the roster at N.C. State is Trevor Lacey, a transfer from Alabama.
ALL-AMERICAN STATUS UP IN THE AIR
While Kentucky leads the race for the national title with several other teams close behind, the individual battle for All-American status is jumbled.
Kentucky’s Harrison Twins – Andrew and Aaron – figure to be Wildcats in the mix for those honors, along with incoming freshman Karl Anthony-Towns, center Willie Cauley-Stein and several other potential first-round draft picks.
But the Wildcats didn’t have a first-team preseason All-American in the Scout.com rankings, which had three of the top five from the ACC.
Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor, North Carolina’s Marcus Paige and Louisville Montrezl Harrell are the top players in the ACC, while Wisconsin has a pair – Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker – involved in the race for individual honors.
Iowa State’s Georges Niang is expected to be the top player in the Big 12, and West Virginia’s Juwan Staten is another star from the Big 12. Michigan State’s Branden Dawson, Nebraska’s Terran Petaway and Michigan’s Caris LeVert will vie for national honors from the Big 10. Arizona has two top players in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson, while defending national champion Connecticut has a top guard back in the fold in Ryan Boatright.
Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker are the top players from Wichita State, which is expected to win 30-plus games again. And then there’s Utah’s Delon Wright, who could be the Pac-12 Player of the Year.
But wait, there’s more.
Other incoming freshmen are expected to make a major impact on the game, while some other “sleeper” prospects should make names for themselves with solid seasons.
Kansas has a talented freshman with one-and-done potential in Cliff Alexander, while Texas’ Myles Turner, Duke’s Tyus Jones and North Carolina’s Justin Jackson are other potential major impact youngsters.
Pettaway and Dekker moved up from sleepers to the top of the list among All-American candidates after last season, and others could join them with a big season, including Stanford’s Chasson Randle. He averaged 18.8 points per game last season and had a huge game against Kansas in the NCAA Tournament.
And don’t forget about BYU’s Tyler Hawes, one of the most prolific scorers in the country last season, Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos or Georgia State’s R.J. Hunter, who will lead a team that could be a surprise nationally with tons of new talent coming in for Hunter’s father, coach Ron Hunter.
As you can see, there’s no shortage of talent this season.