|ESPN.com: Katz||[Print without images]|
With alignment on hold until after next season, the lines have been drawn, the places set. Now, it's time for programs that have lost their way to lock in and start the climb out of mediocrity.
The Demon Deacons stuck with Jeff Bzdelik for a fourth season after winning just 13 games in each of the past two seasons. Transfers have become all too common in the program. There was progress last season: winning six conference games, beating ACC champ Miami and knocking off NC State. But the Demon Deacons couldn't win on the road. Climbing out of the bottom third will be even tougher this year with the additions of Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame, not to mention the forthcoming switch of Maryland for Louisville. Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman and Bzdelik are good friends. Wellman put his stake in Bzdelik and has to see this through. Now is the time for the Demon Deacons to make a move to ensure that the rocky road was worth the wait. The Wake Forest fan base is one of the most passionate in the league. It's a shame that it hasn't had the opportunity to create a feared, frenzied atmosphere like the one it had less than 10 years ago.
The Cornhuskers are investing in basketball like never before. Nebraska is playing in $179 million Pinnacle Bank Arena. Coach Tim Miles is entering his second season. He has a young team in Lincoln, and there will be growing pains. Still, there needs to be a return investment. The Huskers must make Lincoln a feared road stop in the Big Ten going forward. Nebraska has a chance to show promise. The time is now to make a move before even the most passionate fans begin to lose interest.
The Mountaineers' transition to a new league might have been the toughest of any team that moved. That shouldn't have derailed a program Bob Huggins had rolling to a Final Four just over three years ago. Huggins has too much pride to let West Virginia wallow in mediocrity, but the talent drain was in effect last season. There were recruiting mistakes and opportunities lost. The Mountaineers must make Morgantown as difficult a road stop for opposing teams. Moving into the league's top four is more than doable for the Mountaineers.
The Pirates might be one of the biggest beneficiaries of a move to a smaller conference. Seton Hall was lost amid the bloated old Big East. Now the opportunity is there for the Hall to climb. A strong 2014-15 recruiting class should give hope. There is optimism for one of the most difficult high-major jobs in the Northeast. Kevin Willard is entering his fourth season as a .500 coach, but he could be judged with a clean slate in a new league where the true round-robin schedule will be a fair barometer. The new Big East desperately needs the New York-market teams to matter in March. St. John's appears to be ready to accept the responsibility. The Pirates must do their share, too.
If you've never seen the Huntsman Center rocking, then you've missed out on one of the top home courts in the West. The problem is that those instances, since the late Rick Majerus was on the sideline, have been limited. Crime-fighting coach Larry Krystkowiak has the right demeanor, character and credibility to deliver a winner, but the corner must be turned soon. Utah can -- and should -- be one of the rising teams in a conference that allows plenty of chances for schools to take a turn near the top. If once downtrodden Colorado can be a regular, established contender, then Utah can as well. Krystkowiak said he believes in the younger players in the program. Now it must ignite the passion that once made Salt Lake City an intimidating destination.
Georgia has always been one of the more intriguing SEC teams not named Kentucky or Florida. The Bulldogs are within range of plenty of talent, notably in Atlanta, even going against hometown Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs have a determined and loyal fan base that craves a winner. Mark Fox has coached and recruited pros, but he hasn't been able to get that talent to win consistently in the postseason. The SEC is wide open beyond the top two teams, with room after that for whoever can produce. If there ever was a time to make a move back into being a team of consequence, this is it.
When Guy Lewis was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame last month, it brought back memories of the Cougars' dominance in the 1980s. That era is long gone while Houston has spent time in the Witness Protection Program. Now the Cougars have come out of their shell in the American Conference, where there is a real opportunity for Houston to get on the national stage. Once Louisville leaves, UConn, Memphis and Cincinnati will need challengers. Temple and SMU might take their shot. Houston, though, can draw from as much, if not more, of a talent base than any school outside of Memphis. The Cougars might never have a better chance to be a factor than right now. The 1980s aren't coming back, but Houston has a shot to create its own revival.