Dana O'Neil did a magnificent job Monday of encapsulating the college basketball season that awaits us six months from now. Eamonn Brennan unveiled his preseason All-American teams Tuesday and on Wednesday Dave Telep and ESPN.com's recruiting gurus told us everything we need to know about college basketball's new faces.
Now it's my turn.
Here are 10 things I'm looking forward to in what is shaping up to be -- at least on paper -- a spectacular 2013-14 season:
1. The new ACC/realignment
I'm on board with most of the coaches who spent the past season bemoaning the impending changes to some of the most tradition-rich conferences. I liked the Big East the way it was, thank you very much.
But how could someone not get excited about what's in store for the ACC, which adds Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse? Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim all in the same league? Yowza. All three coaches have preseason top-10 teams. Pitt and Notre Dame have been staples in the NCAA tournament under Jamie Dixon and Mike Brey, respectively. Oh, and Louisville and Rick Pitino will join the conference in 2014. No conference will be able to match the ACC.
That being said, don't sleep on the new Big East, either. The Catholic 7 schools of Marquette, Georgetown, Seton Hall, Villanova, St. John's, Providence and DePaul added three salty opponents in Creighton, Butler and Xavier. This will also be one of the best leagues in the country.
Kentucky has assembled what will likely be remembered as the greatest recruiting class in history, with five players ranked in ESPN.com's top 10. And it could get even better if No. 1 overall prospect Andrew Wiggins joins the group. But we've heard enough about the Harrison twins, Julius Randle & Co. At least for now. The Class of 2013 boasts plenty of other talent that will make 2013-14 an outstanding season for freshmen, especially compared to last season .
Aaron Gordon (Arizona), Jabari Parker (Duke), Jerrell Martin (LSU) and Wayne Selden (Kansas) have all been mentioned as likely or potential first-round NBA draft picks in 2014. KU's Bill Self has told friends that center Joel Embiid could end up being the best big man he's ever coached, and no one would be surprised if preseason top-10 teams Florida (Kasey Hill) and Syracuse (Tyler Ennis) start freshman point guards.
3. Kentucky operating at warp speed -- again
Sorry, I realize I just said in the previous section that I'd stay away from talking too much about the Kentucky freshmen we've already heard so much about. But I can't help it. Whether the Wildcats are winning or losing, I've been fascinated by everything that's gone on in Lexington since John Calipari's arrival.
No coach in history has had as much success with one-and-dones as Calipari, who led Kentucky to the Elite Eight in his first season (2010), a Final Four in his second year (2011) and an NCAA title in 2012. Injuries, chemistry issues, an inconsistent freshman class and a lack of leadership caused UK to miss the tournament all together last season. And folks were no doubt laughing when Kentucky fell to Robert Morris in the opening round of the NIT.
Hopefully everyone got their barbs in.
Along with arguably the greatest recruiting class ever, Calipari's squad will also be bolstered by the return of future first-round picks Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, along with Kyle Wiltjer. Kentucky didn't have those kinds of "veterans" last season.
4. Early-season tournaments
None of this fall's events will match the 2012 Battle 4 Atlantis, which ended with Duke topping eventual national champion Louisville in the title game. But overall, I think the early-season tournaments will be an upgrade from what we saw last season.
Kentucky's vaunted freshman class will be unveiled to the nation against preseason No. 3 Michigan State in the Champions Classic, which also features a matchup between Kansas and Duke. Both squads are loaded with talent, but KU loses five starters and the Blue Devils must replace their three leading scorers: Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly. The teams may look far from polished, but it will be fun to see each program's faces of the future for the first time.
The Maui Invitational boasts three teams (Syracuse, Baylor and Gonzaga) that are in my preseason Top 25, along with NCAA tournament contenders Cal and Arkansas. Baylor is replacing point guard Pierre Jackson, who led the Big 12 in points and assists, but Scott Drew's squad returns every other key piece. It'd be fun to see the Bears match up with C.J. Fair and Syracuse in the title game. This will also be our first good look at new Orange point guard Tyler Ennis.
The Battle 4 Atlantis won't be as strong as it was in 2012, with Kansas being the only head-turner. But don't pencil the Jayhawks in the championship game just yet. Tennessee is a preseason Top 25 team, Villanova and Xavier will contend for NCAA tournament berths, and new USC coach Andy Enfield inherited a solid cast of returning players. (Note: If you're a fan considering attending this tournament do it. It's as fun and well-run as any event I've ever experienced. Basketball, beaches, waterslides, casinos, nightclubs, high-end restaurants, pizza stands all on one property).
Other events to look forward to: A Puerto Rico Tip-Off featuring Michigan, VCU, Kansas State, Georgetown and an FSU team that might feature Andrew Wiggins; a potential Hall of Fame Tip-Off title game between Louisville and North Carolina; and a potential NIT final between Arizona and Duke at Madison Square Garden.
Also in the works is an early-November event in Dallas that would feature as many as four games in one day at American Airlines Center, home of the Dallas Mavericks. The goal of the event, according to Brooks Downing of BD Global Sports, is to generate hype in the city that will host the 2014 Final Four five months later. Participants have yet to be announced, but don't be surprised if regional teams such as Texas, Baylor, SMU, Oklahoma and/or Oklahoma State and Arkansas are pitted against high-caliber teams from various other conferences. Two schools that were rumored to be in the event -- Notre Dame and Memphis -- won't be participating, their coaches told ESPN.com on Wednesday.
5. Hoops renaissance in Los Angeles
It's been a while since the folks in L.A. were truly excited about USC and UCLA. But with new coaches at each program, interest and enthusiasm should be on the rise.
Andy Enfield takes over the Trojans after leading 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. His up-tempo, high-flying brand of "Dunk City" basketball should be a welcome treat for fans who had grown tired of the slow, plodding, defense-oriented style employed by former coach Kevin O'Neill. Will it work again for Enfield at USC? We'll definitely have fun finding out.
UCLA fans had obviously turned their back on Ben Howland. Why else would a school ax a coach just weeks after he won the Pac-12 title and just five years after he'd appeared in his third straight Final Four? Sometimes change is refreshing for everyone, though. And I happen to be among a minority of people who think hiring New Mexico's Steve Alford was a good move for the Bruins.
Say what you want about Alford, but the man was wildly successful at UNM, where he averaged 25.3 wins the past four seasons while leading the Lobos to four of the past five Mountain West Conference titles. I know, I know. Alford never got the Lobos beyond the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament, and the latest loss was a second-round exit against No. 14 seed Harvard.
But you know what? I saw Georgetown lose to Florida Gulf Coast this season. I've seen Duke fall to Lehigh and Kansas get embarrassed by Bucknell and Bradley. It happens. I don't judge a coach based solely on his postseason tournament record. Alford's day will come.
6. Kansas' quest for a 10th straight Big 12 title
The Jayhawks' feat of nine straight league championships is one of the most remarkable accomplishments in college basketball history. No team from a major conference has won that many consecutive titles since UCLA won 13 in a row from 1967 to 1979. And that was before the age of one-and-dones and frequent player transfers, which make sustaining success these days that much tougher.
If there were ever a season for Self's team to not win a conference title, this would be it. Kansas loses all five starters from a squad that finished 31-6. Oklahoma State, meanwhile, returns its entire squad, including future first-round draft picks Marcus Smart and Le'Bryan Nash. Baylor lost point guard Pierre Jackson, who led the Big 12 in scoring, but returns everyone else and could still add some pieces.
These aren't completely uncharted waters for Self and Kansas, which lost every starter from its 2008 national championship squad but won the Big 12 title the following season. That team, though, featured the title squad's sixth man (point guard Sherron Collins, who finished his career as the school's fifth all-time leading scorer and will likely have his jersey retired) and eventual third-team All-American Cole Aldrich. KU's returnees don't boast that type of potential.
Kansas did sign the nation's No. 2-ranked recruiting class, led by Selden and Embiid, who could be among the Big 12's best players by season's end. Still, it will be hard for a team so dependent on freshmen to navigate the season without more ups and downs than usual. If anyone can make it happen, though, it's Self. If we've learned anything, it's not to bet against him.
7. Mediocre teams becoming good, bad teams getting better
I love picking sleeper teams. Not just in the NCAA tournament, but prior to the regular season, too. And please don't misunderstand: I'm not saying any of these squads are going to win the NCAA tournament. Heck, a few of them might not even make the NCAA tournament. But that doesn't mean they can't be sleeper teams, because I define sleeper teams as squads that will make significant strides in 2013-14.
Three teams getting zero love that will make the NCAA tournament:
LSU Tigers: The Tigers return leading scorer and rebounder Johnny O'Bryant (13.6 points, 8.7 boards) along with standout guard Anthony Hickey, who ranked second in the country in steals (2.9) while chipping in a team-high 3.8 assists and 11.2 points. LSU also adds a pair of forwards in Jarrell Martin -- the No. 11-ranked player in the Class of 2013 -- and Jordan Mickey, who will have an immediate impact. The SEC will be strong this season thanks to up-and-coming programs such as LSU (and Tennessee, among others).
St. John's Red Storm: I never understood why Jakarr Sampson didn't receive more hype last season. As a freshman, the forward averaged 14.9 points and 6.6 rebounds, yet Steve Lavin was able to convince the NBA prospect to return for his sophomore season. Even without Sampson, St. John's roster would've been loaded. Chris Obekpa ranked second in the country in blocks last season with 4.1 per game, and D'Angelo Harrison averaged a team-high 17.8 points. Both return along with bruising forward God'sgift Achiuwa, who redshirted last season. Another important piece will be incoming freshman Rysheed Jordan, the No. 3-ranked point guard in the Class of 2013.
Arizona State Sun Devils: If you'd like to join the Jahii Carson fan club, send your applications to me. I'm the president. A point guard, Carson averaged 18.5 points and 5.1 assists last season and likely would've won national freshman of the year honors if not for a couple of guys named Smart and McLemore. Carson is back, along with center Jordan Bachynski (3.4 blocks), guard Evan Gordon (10.1 points) and Jonathan Gilling (9.7 points, 6.1 rebounds).
Three teams that finished near the bottom of their conference but will be significantly better:
SMU Mustangs: Larry Brown's first season with the Mustangs resulted in a 15-17 overall record and a 5-11 mark in Conference USA. Help is on the way. Point guard Nic Moore, who redshirted last season, was the Missouri Valley Conference Freshman of the Year in 2011. Signee Yanick Moreira was the top-ranked junior college big man in the nation, and incoming freshman Keith Frazier will become the first McDonald's All American to ever suit up for SMU, which returns three double-digit scorers: Jalen Jones, Nick Russell and Ryan Manuel.
Nebraska Cornhuskers: The Cornhuskers are far from ready to move into the upper half of the Big Ten, but Tim Miles' squad will be a pest to nearly every team it faces. That was actually the case last season. The Cornhuskers went just 5-13 in league play, but several times they were in tight games until the game's waning minutes against top-10 opponents. What made everything so impressive was that Miles inherited a depleted roster prior to one of the top seasons in Big Ten history. A lot of coaches would've gone 0-18. Nebraska will lose two of its top three players, but second-leading scorer Ray Gallegos (12.5 points) returns to a squad that adds former junior college standout Deverell Biggs and transfers Walter Pitchford (Florida) and Terran Petteway (Texas Tech). Incoming point guard Tai Webster, a New Zealand native, is a likely starter.
Mississippi State Bulldogs: The Bulldogs may finish near the bottom of the league once again, but I'm still banking on this team getting better under Rick Ray, who did a remarkable job during his inaugural season in Starkville. I know, I know. Mississippi State went just 10-22, but I don't know if I've ever seen a roster that was as snakebitten by injuries, player defections and suspensions. By the end of the season, Ray was forced to play managers and walk-ons that he plucked from a group of regular schmoes who practiced against the school's women's team. Yet somehow, Ray managed to beat Ole Miss, South Carolina and Auburn in the final few weeks of the season. During a time when everything could've completely fallen apart, the Bulldogs actually got better. They'll continue to do so in 2013-14.
8. Wichita State's attempt to become the next Butler
The Bulldogs shocked the college basketball world by making it to the Final Four in back-to-back seasons in 2010 and 2011. It wouldn't be nearly as big of a "Shocker" if Wichita State became the next school from a nonpower league to accomplish the feat. First of all, the Shockers' accomplishment last month hardly seemed like a fluke considering they reached college basketball's final weekend by beating Pittsburgh, Gonzaga and Ohio State before nearly upsetting Louisville in a four-point loss in the NCAA semifinals. Gregg Marshall's team didn't luck into anything when it came to seeding, favorable matchups, etc. Wichita State was simply "that good" when it mattered most.
And it could be again.
All but two of the key pieces from this season's Final Four squad return. Granted, losing power forward Carl Hall and point guard Malcolm Armstead will sting. But the staff is confident that juco transfers Earl Watson and Darius Carter and former Louisiana-Lafayette star Kadeem Coleby (who redshirted last season) will more than make up for the absence of Hall in the paint. And point guard Fred VanVleet was logging more and more minutes as Armstead's backup by the end of the season and outplayed Armstead at the Final Four.
Mix in the return of potential first-round pick Cleanthony Early, sharpshooter Ron Baker, defensive standout Tekele Cotton and a healthy Evan Wessel, and this team has all the pieces to be playing on college basketball's biggest stage once again.
9. The Final Four in Dallas
As luxurious and breathtaking as it is, I don't think Cowboys Stadium will be able to match the environment we saw at Atlanta's Georgia Dome this season, which was as good as any I've ever experienced at a Final Four. But I still think the event will do much better than some people are anticipating.
Texas is definitely a football state, but fans showed up in droves for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games at Jerry World in March. More than 40,000 people were on hand for Michigan's Sweet 16 victory over Kansas on a Friday night. Most of those people were Jayhawks fans, which made it easy to assume that the Michigan-Florida tilt in the Elite Eight two days later wouldn't draw. But more than 36,000 people were on hand for that one.
I think Arlington, Texas, will do a nice job of hosting the Final Four. There are plenty of restaurants and bars near Cowboys Stadium to make the atmosphere fun. And if anyone needs any food recommendations in my hometown of Dallas I'm your guy.
10. My "I-told-you-so" moment on April 7, 2014
For the first time in eons (OK, maybe ever), the team I picked in the preseason to win the national title -- the team I stood by all season, no matter what (this is documented) -- ended up cutting down the nets. So thanks, Louisville.
Now I'm picking you again.
I believe the Cardinals could be even better in 2013-14 than they were last season. Junior college transfer Chris Jones -- the top-ranked juco recruit in the country -- could be an improvement over departing senior Peyton Siva. The loss of Gorgui Dieng will hurt down low. But my guess is that Chane Behanan, Montrezl Harrell, Luke Hancock, Wayne Blackshear and others will make big enough strides to overcome it.
Kentucky will no doubt be the most talented team in the country. But Louisville's experience -- it's been to two straight Final Fours -- and cohesion under newly minted Hall of Famer Rick Pitino will keep the Cardinals at the top.