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Hartnett: Storylines define college basketball (Nov. 8)

Brian Hartnett | Wednesday, November 7, 2012

In the midst of all the discussions about the top two teams in the BCS and lamentations that a college football playoff system is not yet in place, it is easy to forget that the college basketball season tips off Friday.

Perhaps this is because, in direct contrast to the dazzling spectacle of March Madness that ends the season, the beginning of the hoops season is marked with little fanfare. Top programs load up their schedules with cupcakes, tournaments pit a geographically random jumble of teams in locales as diverse as the Virgin Islands, Alaska and Disney World and most squads have not yet developed the team chemistry that makes them so exciting to watch.

Despite these factors, there is still much for college basketball fans to enjoy about this part of the season.

Much-heralded freshmen get their first chance to make an impact, the crazy nature of tournaments paves the way for upsets and several of the sport’s powerhouse programs square off in non-conference matchups. In the next week alone, fans will have the chance to see such intriguing matchups as Florida-Georgetown, Michigan State-Connecticut, Syracuse-San Diego State, Michigan State-Kansas and Duke-Kentucky.

There is also the opportunity to examine the season’s juicy storylines and, believe me, this season has about as many potential plots and subplots as the number of teams present in your bracket come March.

Just three years removed from a 6-25 season, No. 1 Indiana enters this year as the national favorites. I don’t know why, but it just feels right to see the premier program from the nation’s most basketball-crazed state at the top of the polls. Fresh off its first Sweet 16 appearance in 10 years, the Hoosiers feature a solid core in homegrown sophomore center Cody Zeller and senior forward Christian Watford, as well as a top-five recruiting class. It will be interesting to see how Tom Crean’s squad handles sky-high expectations and fares in a loaded Big Ten conference that also features top-five teams Ohio State and Michigan.

Indiana’s neighbor to the south, Kentucky, rode Anthony Davis’s unibrow to a national title last season but lost Davis and the rest of its starting five to the NBA. Fortunately for Big Blue fans, Kentucky coach John Calipari has replenished the depth chart with his latest group of mercenaries, a top-ranked recruiting class that features star center Nerlens Noel and his high-top fade. The Wildcats may struggle out of the gate, but, given Calipari’s ability to develop team chemistry and manage egos, it wouldn’t be surprising to see another banner hanging from the rafters of Rupp Arena at the start of next season.

Conference realignment hasn’t hit the college basketball world too deeply yet, but the landscape is expected to change in the next few seasons. This season marks the final one in the Big East for Syracuse and Pittsburgh, two of the conference’s most prominent programs, and both teams have the chance to leave their mark. With a strong frontcourt and senior point guard Brandon Triche running the show, the Orange should challenge Louisville for conference supremacy, while a talented freshman class that includes seven-foot New Zealander Steven Adams should help the Panthers return to the Top 25.

The Big East plans to replace Syracuse and Pittsburgh with several mid-major programs, which looks like a good strategy given the strength of the mid-majors this season. To realize this, one only needs to look at the preseason All-American team, which includes Creighton junior forward Doug McDermott, Murray State senior guard Isaiah Canaan and Lehigh senior guard C.J. McCollum. McDermott, Canaan and McCollum all lead teams that can make some noise deep into March. They’re hardly the only ones, though, as programs like UNLV, San Diego State, Virginia Commonwealth and Saint Louis all have the ability to bust the brackets of unsuspecting fans.

I guess the main storyline left is to discuss the national champion, but I won’t provide you with that. Why? Well, the beauty of college basketball is its unpredictability and my prognosticating ability is no more accurate than that of your brother or grandmother.

Rather, I’ll leave you with a simple suggestion: This weekend, feel free to tune into all the football you want, but take some time to watch the sport that truly does its playoffs right.

Contact Brian Hartnett at bhartnet@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.