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Previewing college hoops season

| Monday, November 10, 2014

In contrast to its high-powered, frenetic spectacle of a championship in the spring, the college basketball season often begins with little fanfare.

The start of the season features many “cupcake” games for big-name programs, tournaments in locales as far-flung as Alaska and Hawaii and several teams — I’m looking at you, Kentucky — trying to figure out what kind of on-court chemistry they have.

Some even can argue that with the NCAA tournament now expanded to 68 teams, regular-season college basketball has become devalued — it’s now possible for teams to earn at-large bids with double-digit losses. There might be some truth to that — certainly, college basketball doesn’t feature the same sort of high stakes in the regular season that college football does — but that doesn’t mean there’s not great players and teams to watch and intriguing matchups both in and out of conference.

Here’s a look at some of the best college basketball storylines heading into this season.

 What will Kentucky look like?

This question can probably be asked every season as long as John Calipari and his one-and-done model continue to be in Lexington. The Wildcats rolled to the national title in 2012, lost in the first round of the NIT the following year and suffered 10 losses in the regular season last year before gelling on a run to the national championship game.

Fortunately for the top-ranked Wildcats, this season might require less team development than in recent years because Kentucky returns a number of starters, including the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, as well as juniors Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein. Add in a talented freshman class led by big man Karl Towns, and Kentucky should have a good shot at reaching the same game it lost in last season.

 Will Arizona bring the Pac-12 its first championship this century?

There have been constant rumblings of an East Coast bias with regards to college basketball coverage, and such rumors might not be unfounded. The Pac-12 hasn’t won a national title since Arizona did it in 1997. This year’s Wildcats might be the team to snap that streak, however, as Sean Miller’s squad looks to be the conference favorite even after losing Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon. Arizona is tough defensively and includes a balanced attack that includes tested upperclassmen like point guard T.J. McConnell and Brandon Ashley as well as promising newcomers like heralded recruit Stanley Johnson.

Will Connecticut be able to defend its national title?

The Huskies surprised many by winning the national championship as a seven-seed last season. Connecticut returns several key contributors from last season’s team, including talented guard Ryan Boatright. Unfortunately for the Huskies, their top contributor and leader down the stretch, Shabazz Napier, is now in the NBA, and their frontcourt might just be a bit suspect. Still, Connecticut should roll through an American Athletic Conference that is even further decimated by the loss of Louisville and receive a solid seed, though it remains to be seen who will step the Huskies up to an elite level come March.

Which conference will be the toughest in the nation?

Speaking of Louisville, its addition to the ACC might just make the conference the toughest in the nation. Though the ACC didn’t have a Final Four representative last season, it currently has four teams ranked in the top-10 — Duke, North Carolina, Louisville and Virginia. Throw in Syracuse and near-top 25 teams like Pittsburgh and North Carolina State, and the ACC should at the very least be a battle at the top of the standings.

Which freshmen will emerge nationally?

The previously mentioned freshmen Towns and Johnson may well both be candidates for the top first-year player in the country. But it wouldn’t be fair to leave Duke’s Jahlil Okafor off this list. Okafor is a six-foot-10 center that has drawn comparisons to Tim Duncan and will be called on to help out a Blue Devils team looking to replace Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood. Okafor will likely have a fellow freshman feeding him the ball in guard Tyus Jones. And who knows which other freshmen may emerge to help contribute to making the season’s end as exciting as it’s been the last few seasons.

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

About Brian Hartnett

Brian Hartnett is a senior marketing major and journalism, ethics and democracy minor. The Carroll Hall resident hails from Clark, New Jersey and covers Notre Dame football, as well as other University topics.

Contact Brian