Ten intriguing questions leading up to Midnight Madness festivities

Unlike last year when Kentucky and North Carolina towered over the rest of the nation as the season began, there's no prohibitive favorite this winter.

As Midnight Madness approaches Friday night, Indiana, Louisville, Kentucky, Michigan and Kansas are just a few of the dozens of teams who believe they have legitimate national championship aspirations.

In what promises to be a wide-open season in college hoops, there are plenty of storylines worth following. Here are 10 of the biggest:

1. Is this the year NC State unseats Duke and North Carolina atop the ACC?

The last time neither Duke nor North Carolina won or shared the regular season ACC crown was ten years ago when Wake Forest captured the 2002-03 title. NC State has the chance to break that streak exactly thirty years after Jim Valvano led the Wolfpack to the most unlikely of national titles in 1983.

Thanks to the return of Lorenzo Brown, C.J. Leslie and Scott Wood from last year's Sweet 16 team and the addition of a top-five recruiting class, NC State is suddenly the trendy pick to win the ACC. It also helps that defending champ North Carolina has to replace four first-round picks and that Duke isn't quite as talented as usual with no big-time point guard and Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry playing starring roles.

A word of caution to the Wolfpack faithful, however: Let's not forget that last year's NC State team lost 12 games and snuck into the NCAA tournament as one of the final at-large teams. There's no question NC State will be better, but an outright ACC title and Tobacco Road bragging rights is a huge leap.

2. Are these Kentucky freshmen as good as those Kentucky freshmen?

Those Kentucky freshmen, of course, are Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marcus Teague and the rest of the group that led the Wildcats to the national championship last spring. And these Kentucky freshmen are the group that will team with NC State transfer Ryan Harrow and returner Kyle Wiltjer to attempt to replicate that feat this season.

The headliner from Kentucky's fourth straight No. 1 recruiting class is Nerlens Noel, a shot blocking specialist who could provide some of the defensive presence Davis did last season despite John Calipari's refusal to entertain such comparisons. Shooting guard Archie Goodwin is a big-time scorer, versatile small forward Alex Poythress defends, rebounds and gets to the rim and 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein was the most pleasant surprise of summer workouts.

This group of Kentucky freshmen will certainly be good enough once again to propel the Wildcats into SEC title and Final Four contention. But to expect them to propel Kentucky to another national title and produce the two top picks in next year's NBA Draft? That's probably asking a bit much.

3. Can embattled UCLA coach Ben Howland save his job?

It's amazing that Howland's job security is a legitimate question only four years removed from his third consecutive Final Four appearance at UCLA, but that's how rocky the past few years have been for the Bruins. In the last four years, they have missed the NCAA tournament twice and failed to win more than one game in either of their two trips.

To jumpstart the program this season, Howland landed one of the best recruiting classes in the nation featuring high-scoring wing Shabazz Muhammad, pass-first forward Kyle Anderson, skilled big man Tony Parker and sweet-shooting Jordan Adams. The problem is neither Muhammad nor Anderson have been cleared to play this season by the NCAA even though practice is set to begin.

If UCLA has Muhammad and Anderson for most of the season, it can overcome its defensive deficiencies, challenge for the Pac-12 championship and play into the second week of the NCAA tournament at the very least. If one or both were unable to play, suddenly the Bruins look very unproven again on the perimeter and probably have to rely on the Wear twins and Joshua Smith to try to eke out an NCAA bid.

4. Can a player from a non-power conference win national player of the year?

In the past decade, BYU's Jimmer Fredette and Utah's Andrew Bogut are the only two Wooden Award winners to hail from outside the six BCS leagues. That suggests it's a long shot for a player from another conference to make a run, but there are definitely some more intriguing candidates than usual this year.

Creighton's Doug McDermott, the nation's leading returning scorer, is a fixture on most preseason All-American teams. Murray State guard Isaiah Canaan, the centerpiece of last year's final remaining unbeaten team, has also received some early All-American buzz. And guys like UNLV's Mike Moser, Lehigh's C.J. McCollum, San Diego State's Jamaal Franklin and North Texas' Tony Mitchell also have the talent to play their way into consideration.

The key for any of them to have a realistic chance is they have to put up huge numbers and their teams have to be nationally relevant in February and March. Of the above group, McDermott, Moser and Franklin have the best chance to make that happen, though the rest should not be counted out.

5. Can new UConn coach Kevin Ollie do enough to keep his job?

No first-year coach finds himself in a more difficult spot this season than Jim Calhoun's hand-picked successor.

Since UConn would only commit to giving Ollie a one-year contract that expires days after the Final Four, the former Huskies guard will have a mere six months to prove he's worthy of keeping the job in the long run. Worse yet, the Huskies are ineligible for the postseason because of poor APR scores and they're nowhere near as talented as usual as a result of a mass exodus of transfers and NBA defections.

The strength of the Huskies is the backcourt trio of Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and freshman Omar Calhoun. If UConn is going to finish above .500 in Big East play and give Ollie some ammunition with which to push for a longterm contract, the Huskies need the three guards to excel, enigmatic forward DeAndre Daniels to tap into his potential and center Tyler Olander to exceed his limited potential.

6. Will the West Coast enjoy a hoops revival this winter?

The inability of schools West of the Rocky Mountains to produce a single Sweet 16 team last March was an embarrassing feat for the conferences in the region. Neither the WCC nor the Mountain West had strong NCAA tournaments after solid regular seasons, while the Pac-12 simply did not have a single elite team last season.

If the West Coast is going to emerge from this down period, it needs to start with the Pac-12, which looks to be improved this season thanks to an influx of promising freshmen. Arizona has top 10 potential if Xavier transfer Mark Lyons and elite recruiting class mesh with a handful of key returners. UCLA could also return to the elite if Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson get eligible. And Stanford, Cal, Colorado, Washington and USC each appear capable of making the NCAA tournament, though many of these teams might be a year away from doing real damage.

Beyond the Pac-12, the Mountain West and WCC have a few teams that could have a Sweet 16 run or better in them. UNLV has its most talented team since the Jerry Tarkanian era, Gonzaga boasts a deep frontcourt and a promising sophomore guard duo and San Diego State adds a handful of promising newcomers in the frontcourt to complement Xavier Thames, Chase Tapley and Jamaal Franklin on the perimeter.

7. Which small-conference school will make it big?

One of the best parts of following college basketball each winter is the emergence of a formidable mid-major program from a league outside the top 10.

Last year, Murray State became a national darling after it started 23-0, Harvard cracked the top 25 and made its first NCAA tournament in decades and Ohio took North Carolina to overtime in the Sweet 16. It's always challenging to project which schools will make that leap into the spotlight prior to the season, but here are a few that are definitely worth watching.

Creighton boasts a preseason All-American in McDermott, good size and outside shooting among its supporting cast and a renewed emphasis on correcting the issues on defense that sometimes cost them a year ago. Drexel has CAA player of the year candidates Frantz Massenat and Damion Lee and ample motivation after being one of last year's final teams left out of the NCAA tournament. And don't sleep on Davidson, which is definitely deeper and maybe even better than the team Stephen Curry led to the Elite Eight in 2008.

8. Can Syracuse or Pittsburgh win the Big East in their final seasons there?

Take a good look at the Big East this winter. It won't be the same the following year. Flagship programs Syracuse and Pittsburgh are playing their final seasons in the Big East this year, as perhaps is Notre Dame, which will also leave for the ACC as soon as it can buy its way out of its contract.

The departing team with the best chance of challenging preseason favorite Louisville is probably Syracuse despite the departure of first-round draft picks Dion Waiters and Fab Melo and senior standouts Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine. Expect the Orange to rely on their trademark defense early in the season as they wait for a backcourt of versatile senior Brandon Triche, athletic sophomore Michael Carter-Williams and redshirt-freshman Trevor Cooney to jell.

Pittsburgh endured a rare down season last year because the transfer of Khem Birch and the injuries to Tray Woodall forced other players to play out of position and made their defense uncharacteristically weak. With Woodall healthy, transfer Trey Zeigler eligible immediately and top recruit Steven Adams bolstering the frontcourt, the Panthers have a great chance for a bounce-back season and a top four Big East finish.

9. Can Indiana hang its first Final Four banner since 2002?

Last year, Indiana emerged from a lengthy rebuilding process by upsetting Kentucky in December, contending in the Big Ten and advancing to the Sweet 16. Thanks to the return of future lottery pick Cody Zeller and the arrival of a decorated recruiting class, Indiana appears ready to take another step.

The strength of the Hoosiers is a versatile frontcourt featuring Zeller, skilled forward Christian Watford and bruising freshmen Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Peter Jurkin off the bench. Promising freshman Yogi Ferrell, sweet-shooting Jordan Hulls and defensive standout Victor Oladipo are the likely perimeter starters, though Will Sheehey will see playing time and oft-injured Maurice Creek may yet make an impact as a senior if he can stay healthy.

Indiana will be a formidable offensive team with its array of shooters and interior scorers, but there are three big questions about the Hoosiers: Can Ferrell thrive at point guard as a freshman? Can Tom Crean keep everyone happy despite a limited amount of minutes to go around? And can the team improve defensively? If the answer to those is yes, this may be the national title favorite. If not, the Hoosiers may not quite live up to expectations.

10. Which freshmen can make the biggest impact this season?

There are some obvious answers here. Kentucky will go as its freshman class develops. UCLA and Arizona cannot make big leaps without their freshmen making immediate contributions. But there are other freshmen who also will have to play well right away for their teams to meet expectations.

The only way Oklahoma State goes from the middle of the Big 12 to league title contention is if freshman point guard Marcus Smart provides the immediate scoring and leadership the Cowboys have lacked at that position. Pittsburgh also is counting on New Zealand native Steven Adams to solidify its frontcourt and help propel the Panthers back into the Big East's top tier.

Further down the recruiting rankings, a brilliant freshman season from Semaj Christian is probably undermanned Xavier's best hope of a surprising top six finish in the Atlantic 10. The Musketeers lost the core of last year's team and fellow freshmen Jalen Reynolds and Myles Davis, but Christian is a capable heir apparent to Tu Holloway.