Initial thoughts: So in an ideal world, Louisville would be playing Villanova because both likely will start the season in the top 15. But as it is, it’s not too shabby.
Illinois was a late add after Maryland had to drop out because of scheduling conflicts. The Illini, with all five starters back, are a pretty good pickup. With all of those returnees in a league in transition, John Groce's squad will be a Big Ten dark horse, which is a pretty nice step up for a team that finished 7-11 in league play a year ago. Illinois will have to battle a pro-Villanova crowd, but if the Illini are looking to make an eye-opening statement, this could be the place to do it.
The same could be said for Indiana. The Hoosiers were a disappointment last season, and the fevered fan base is growing impatient for results. Losing Noah Vonleh and Will Sheehey doesn’t make things easy for Tom Crean but he has options, including Yogi Ferrell and Stanford Robinson, not to mention talented freshman wings James Blackmon and Robert Johnson. The real key is Ferrell; his maturation as a leader has to be on the fastest of fast tracks.
But like the Illini, if the Hoosiers want to turn some heads, upsetting a cross-river rival is a good way to do it.
Why you'll want to watch: Louisville and Villanova. So the upstart opponents add some intrigue, but the real value in the Jimmy V comes from the headliners. Neither of these teams will be a hot pick to make the Final Four. Both of these teams could make the Final Four. Why? Because they have experience, and if UConn taught us anything, it’s the value of the veteran.
As soon as Montrezl Harrell said he would return to school, the Cardinals went from a good team to a very good team, maybe even one good enough to challenge for a national title. That’s not to say there aren't issues. Replacing Russ Smith is an issue. Getting Chris Jones to play better defense is an issue. But with Harrell, plus Mangok Mathiang inside, and Jones, Terry Rozier and Wayne Blackshear outside, and the fourth-best recruiting class in the country, there’s plenty for Rick Pitino to tinker with.
Jay Wright’s team, which won 29 games, is similarly loaded. Eight of the Wildcats’ top nine scorers return but more than that, they've been through the wringer. The Wildcats hit rock bottom before regrouping, and Wright has admitted he lost his way in recruiting. Now with players that suit his style, he has an experienced team and a gritty one. Individually JayVaughn Pinkston, Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu, Darrun Hilliard II and Josh Hart are good players. Collectively, they've become a great team.