Our 2014-15 season preview begins with the Dagger's Preseason Top 25 complete with best-case and worst-case scenarios for each team. Check back every day for the next six weeks for more college hoops preview content.
Last year's record: 29-11, 12-6
Key returners: G Andrew Harrison, G Aaron Harrison, C Willie Cauley-Stein, C Dakari Johnson, F Alex Poythress, F Marcus Lee
Notable newcomers: G Tyler Ulis, G Devin Booker F Trey Lyles F Karl-Anthony Towns
Best-case scenario: Only one NBA team had as many former McDonald's All-Americans on its roster last season as Kentucky will this year, and it shows. The deep, experienced Wildcats overwhelm opponents with their size and talent, winning all but a handful of their SEC games by double figures en route to a league title. Aaron Harrison picks up where he left off in March, leading the Wildcats in scoring, displaying improved leadership and making a strong case for national player of the year honors. And when he has a rare off night shooting the ball, it seldom matters because Poythress and Lee gobble up offensive rebounds and Kentucky's trio of 7-foot centers make it tough for opponents to score at the rim. The NCAA tournament serves as a Kentucky coronation as the Wildcats romp to their ninth national championship, eliminating rival Louisville and avenging last year's loss to UConn along the way. The decision to return to school pays off for the Harrisons, Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson as all four are selected in the first round of the NBA draft. That is not lost on Booker, Lyles, Lee and Ulis, who each show patience and return to school to take a run at a repeat title and to have their chance at starring roles in Lexington. The good feelings extend to John Calipari, who signs another contract extension without even bothering to explore NBA options.
Worst-case scenario: For Kentucky, the problem with not having its usual mass exodus of superstars last spring is that the roster is actually too loaded. With nine McDonald's All-Americans and another near-certain first-round pick in Cauley-Stein, there simply isn't enough playing time to keep everyone satisfied – especially in the frontcourt. Poythress' inability to either shoot from the perimeter or stay in front of opposing wings forces Calipari to play him exclusively at power forward, leaving the Wildcats with six big men and only 80 minutes to split between them. Johnson balks at being demoted to third-string center and neither Lyles nor Lee are happy with their limited roles either. Chemistry issues and erratic perimeter shooting cost the Wildcats some regular season games against lesser-talented teams, but Calipari promises to make another late-season "tweak" and Kentucky vows to pull it together in March just like it did the previous year. Alas, this year it's not to be. Aaron Harrison can't recapture his clutch shooting from last year as he misfires repeatedly down the stretch and the Wildcats fall in the Sweet 16. Rex Chapman floats another crazy rumor before the national title game that Calipari is NBA-bound ... only this time it's true. Calipari bolts a few days later and most of his roster follows.
Last year's record: 33-5, 15-3
Key returners: G T.J. McConnell, G/F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, F Brandon Ashley, C Kaleb Tarczewski, G Gabe York, G Eliott Pitts
Notable newcomers: G Stanley Johnson, F Craig Victor, G Parker Jackson-Cartwright, C Dusan Ristic, G Kadeem Allen
Best-case scenario: Having reached five Sweet 16s and three Elite Eights without ever advancing to college basketball's grandest stage, Sean Miller enters the season with a strong claim to the title of best coach never to make the Final Four. By April, Miller sheds that bittersweet label thanks to a roster with both depth and star power. McDonald's All-American Stanley Johnson establishes himself as an explosive scorer capable of stepping into the go-to role Nick Johnson filled last season. Hollis-Jefferson enjoys a breakout season as a high-energy slasher and defensive stopper. A healthy Ashley provides rebounding and some of the pick-and-pop outside shooting the Wildcats lacked without him last season. Tarczewski protects the rim and delivers back-to-the-basket scoring. And McConnell is the glue that holds it altogether with his distributing, leadership and timely outside shooting. Fueled by that quintet, Arizona storms to another Pac-12 title, earns the No. 1 seed in the West and survives yet another back-and-forth Elite Eight game to finally get the monkey off Miller's back. Pressure alleviated, the Wildcats go two wins further, capturing the national title and avenging last year's loss to Wisconsin in the process. The entire starting five graduates or turns pro, but no matter — a No. 1 recruiting class arrives in Tucson ready to lead another charge.
Worst-case scenario: Miller has to wait another year to shed the label of "Best coach without a Final Four" because Arizona's deep, talented roster fails to meet expectations. Johnson is not quite as good as projected like so many other Mater Dei products and proves ill-prepared to assume the role of go-to scorer as a freshman. Hollis-Jefferson remains a jack of all trades but still is neither a competent outside shooter nor an explosive scorer. Ashley's foot injury becomes a recurring issue and McConnell's passing ability goes to waste on a roster lacking enough half-court scoring weapons. Excellent defense and transition offense still carries Arizona to a top-three finish in the Pac-12 and an NCAA tournament bid, but the idea of salvaging a sub-par season with a deep March run never materializes. First comes a Pac-12 tournament loss to UCLA for a third straight season. Then the Wildcats don't get last year's fan-friendly San Diego-to-Orange County NCAA tournament draw and bow out meekly in front of a hostile crowd back east. The departure of all five starters is mitigated somewhat by the arrival of another decorated recruiting class, but Arizona fans still are left with some nagging concerns. If Miller couldn't get the Wildcats to the Final Four with the wealth of talent he had in 2014 and 2015, will he ever do it in Tucson?
Last year's record: 30-8, 12-6
Key returners: G Traveon Jackson, G Josh Gasser, F Sam Dekker, F Frank Kaminsky F Nigel Hayes, G Bronson Koenig, F Vitto Brown
Notable newcomers: F Ethan Happ, G Jordan Hill, G Zak Showalter (Redshirted 2013-14), G Riley Dearring (Redshirted 2013-14)
Best-case scenario: Expectations are high for a Wisconsin team with seven of its top eight players back from a Final Four run, but the talented, experienced Badgers have no trouble living up to them. Even though the graduation of Ben Brust deprives Wisconsin of its top sharpshooter, Bo Ryan has plenty of options. Sometimes he goes big, adds Hayes to the starting lineup and slides Dekker to his more natural small forward position. Sometimes he goes small and stays with a three-guard look by elevating the promising Koenig into a starting role. Prudent shots, crisp ball movement, disciplined tempo and physical defense have long been Wisconsin staples, but Ryan continues the trend he began last season and trusts this group of Badgers to play faster and with more freedom. The result is an efficient, high-powered offense that makes up for any defensive shortcomings and powers Wisconsin to a runaway Big Ten title and a return to the Final Four. Standing in the Badgers' way once the get there is a familiar foe: Kentucky. The two programs deliver another classic game that once again ends with Wisconsin in need of a bucket and the ball in the hands of Traevon Jackson. This time he buries the game winner, paving the way for the Badgers to rout Roy Williams and North Carolina in the title game and claim the Big Ten's first national championship since Mateen Cleaves and Michigan State way back in 2000.
Worst-case scenario: Expectations are high for a Wisconsin team with seven of its top eight players back from a Final Four run ... and the talented, experienced Badgers have some trouble living up to them. What Wisconsin's Final Four run masked last season is that the Badgers lost six Big Ten games last season and won neither the regular season nor tournament titles. What's more, the offensive efficiency Wisconsin relied on to make up for its uncharacteristically porous defense was partially fueled by 3-point shooting, an area that suffers this season somewhat due to the graduation of Brust. Michigan edges Wisconsin for the Big Ten title, Michigan State claims the Big Ten tournament title and the Badgers limp into the NCAA tournament as a No. 4 seed with major questions about its on-ball defense and lack of a shot blocker in the paint. Wisconsin does enough to earn the rematch it craves against Kentucky but it comes in the Sweet 16 instead of the Final Four and it doesn't go well. Traevon Jackson does make the game's last shot, but it's a meaningless one that lowers Kentucky's margin of victory from 18 to 16. And with that, Ryan's best chance to win a national title fades away and the Big Ten's title drought extends another year.
Last year's record: 26-9, 13-5
Key returners: G Quinn Cook, G Rasheed Sulaimon, F Amile Jefferson, F Semi Ojeleye
Notable newcomers: C Jahlil Okafor, G Tyus Jones, F Justise Winslow, G Grayson Allen
Best-case scenario: Whereas last year's Blue Devils lacked both lock-down perimeter defenders and a rim-protecting center to make up for it, this year's team finds an obvious solution. Six-foot-7 freshman Justise Winslow emerges as a defensive stopper capable of guarding multiple positions and 6-foot-11 Jahlil Okafor provides the anchor in the middle that the Blue Devils were missing. Okafor and Winslow can't clean up all Duke's shortcomings on defense, but even modest improvement makes a big difference because the Blue Devils are so potent on offense. Between Okafor's vaunted low-post prowess, Rasheed Sulaimon thriving in a bigger role from the perimeter and Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones providing playmaking and timely scoring, Duke overwhelms its opponents with its litany of weapons. Sweeping the ACC regular season and tournament titles ensures the Blue Devils secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and draw an opening-round opponent far too weak to have any chance of becoming the next Mercer or Lehigh. From there, Duke builds momentum, eviscerating five straight opponents to win its fifth national championship. Mike Krzyzewski doesn't even care when reporters bring up the advantages he gained as coach of USA Basketball during the post-title game press conference. He brushes those questions aside with a smug grin and a fistful of championship rings.
Worst-case scenario: Duke's potent offense takes a half step backward without Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood and its defense doesn't improve nearly as much as anticipated. Okafor isn't an elite shot blocker and provides little resistance when opposing guards beat Duke's perimeter players off the dribble. And that happens often with Krzyzewski compelled to start point guards Jones and Cook alongside one-another to avoid complaints from either party, relegating the team's best perimeter defender, Winslow, to the bench. A couple of big early-season victories and the Duke name keep the Blue Devils in the top 15 most of the season, but the Blue Devils drop three straight in mid-February against Florida State, Syracuse and North Carolina and enter the NCAA tournament as a vulnerable No. 4 seed. Everyone's most popular upset pick comes through a few days later as 13th-seeded Georgia State exposes Duke's suspect defense and joins the Lehigh-Mercer pantheon. No reporters bother to ask Krzyzewski about the advantages of coaching USA Basketball after the Georgia State game, and why would they? The Blue Devils have now failed to get out of the opening round of the NCAA tournament three times in four years.
Last year's record: 25-10, 14-4
Key returners: F Perry Ellis, G Wayne Selden, G Frank Mason G Conner Frankamp, G Brannen Greene, F Jamari Traylor
Notable newcomers: C Cliff Alexander, F Kelly Oubre, G Devonte Graham, G Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, F Hunter Mickelson
Best-case scenario: Can a program really lose the No. 1 and 3 picks in the draft and get better? Yes. Though Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid may have been the two most talented players in college basketball last season, both became top-three picks as much on potential as production. Between the arrival of top recruits Oubre, Alexander and Mykhailiuk and the further development of leading returning scorers Selden, Frankamp and Ellis, Kansas quickly proves to have more than enough weapons. Equally importantly, the Jayhawks are better equipped at point guard too despite the unexpected departure of incumbent starter Naadir Tharpe. The competition between Mason, Frankamp and Graham brings out the best in each of them and enables Bill Self to turn to the hot hand late in games. Kansas rolls to its 11th straight Big 12 title, enters the NCAA tournament fully healthy unlike a year ago and reels off six straight victories to capture Self's second national championship. With the money raised during the title run, Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger signs Self to a lifetime contract and still has a few million left over to devote to Charlie Weis' hefty buyout figure.
Worst-case scenario: Can a program really lose the No. 1 and 3 picks in the draft and get better? No. Though Kansas replaces the scoring of Wiggins and Embiid, the Jayhawks miss their defensive prowess. A Kansas team that was already Self's worst defensively last season slips even further with referees still whistling fouls at a record pace and with their top shot blocker and perimeter stopper both in the NBA. Turnovers and poor decisions once again plague the Jayhawks as well because they lack an elite point guard for a third straight season. Mason doesn't make a sophomore leap, Graham isn't ready to make an immediate impact as a starter and Frankamp proves to be more of a pure shooter than a distributing combo guard. Between costly turnovers and defensive breakdowns, Kansas cedes the Big 12 to Texas and Jayhawks fans learn that league titles are not a birthright. They're also reminded that deep NCAA tournament runs aren't either when Kansas falls for a second straight season in the Round of 32 — to in-state foe Wichita State no less. Self leaves for an NBA gig over the summer and, after swinging and missing in bids to land a couple high-profile coaches, Zenger decides to bring Weis back to coach both the football and basketball programs. Tens of thousands of Kansas fans revolt and decide to root for the Shockers.
6. NORTH CAROLINA
Last year's record: 24-10, 13-5
Key returners: G Marcus Paige, F Kennedy Meeks, F Brice Johnson, F J.P. Tokoto, F Joel James, G Nate Britt, F Desmond Hubert, F Isaiah Hicks
Notable newcomers: G/F Justin Jackson, G Joel Berry, G/F Theo Pinson
Best-case scenario: The unpredictability that plagued the Tar Heels last season is no longer an issue this winter. North Carolina starts this season focused and ready without the uncertainty of the P.J. Hairston saga hanging over their heads. Three-point shooting and free throw shooting also aren't such glaring weaknesses as explosive freshmen Jackson, Berry and Pinson cut into the playing time of the inefficient Britt and Tokoto. With more scorers available on the perimeter, a slimmed-down Meeks seeing increased touches on the low block and Johnson finishing in transition and via the offensive glass, North Carolina's offense is more balanced and less reliant on Paige. The All-American candidate's points per game drop off a bit, but his shooting percentage skyrockets. That potent but balanced offense propels North Carolina to an ACC title and elevates the Tar Heels into national title contention. The season ends in Indianapolis one win shy of a championship, but that's still more than good enough to secure Tobacco Road bragging rights over an underachieving Duke team upset in the opening round of the NCAA tournament for a third time in four years and a hapless NC State team that doesn't even make the field of 68 at all. Depressed PackPride messageboard posters suspend their quest for vigilante justice for a few days for an alcohol-soaked bender.
Worst-case scenario: The unpredictability that plagued the Tar Heels last season is no longer an issue this winter ... but not necessarily in a good way. Yes, North Carolina doesn't fall to any small-conference lightweights this November, but the overhyped Tar Heels also don't defeat any of the elite programs on their schedule either. What hinders North Carolina is the same problem that short-circuited its season a year ago: None of the Tar Heels besides Paige can shoot. He's the only returning rotation player who shot more than 25 percent from behind the arc last season, and it shows. Switching from shooting left-handed to shooting right-handed does little to improve Britt's long-range accuracy, nor does Tokoto become any sort of threat from the perimeter. And while North Carolina's incoming freshmen are gifted athletically, there proves to be a reason none of them are known for their shooting. Over-reliance on Paige burns the Tar Heels in the long run as he wears down late in close games and the Tar Heels fade from ACC title contention by Valentine's Day. They also exit the NCAA tournament against the first zone defense they encounter, ceding Tobacco Road bragging rights not just to Final Four-bound Duke but also to a surprising NC State team that makes an unexpected Sweet 16 run. Ecstatic PackPride messageboard posters celebrate North Carolina's misfortune by uncovering more evidence of academic fraud in Chapel Hill.
Last year's record: 31-6, 15-3
Key returners: F Montrezl Harrell, G Terry Rozier, G Chris Jones, F Wayne Blackshear, F/C Mangok Mathiang, G Anton Gill
Notable newcomers: G Quentin Snider, F Jaylen Johnson, F/C Chinanu Onuaku, G Shaqquan Aaron
Best-case scenario: Finally free to run the show now that All-American Russ Smith has moved on to the professional ranks, Jones and Rozier show why Rick Pitino has been touting them all offseason. Jones, quicker and faster after shedding 10 pounds, excels attacking the rim and making plays off the dribble.Rozier validates the glowing reviews he received on the summer camp circuit and leaves scouts drooling by the end of his breakout season. The emergence of that guard duo ensures Louisville has the perimeter weapons it needs to complement a frontcourt highlighted by one of the best big men in the nation in Harrell. The 6-foot-8 junior returns more well-rounded, having added improved free throw shooting and an array of low post moves to his already-established prowess gobbling up rebounds and finishing at the rim. Fueled by that trio of all-league candidates and a talented supporting cast, Louisville has little trouble adjusting in its debut season in the ACC. The Cards sweep the regular season and tournament titles, a warning shot to Duke and North Carolina that Tobacco Road is no longer the ACC's power center. Louisville's dream season ends in ideal fashion as the Cards topple Kentucky in an all-Bluegrass national title game on a Harrell put-back slam at the buzzer. Pitino tattoos a picture of the play on his chest and vows to name his next Kentucky Derby-caliber horse after Harrell.
Worst-case scenario: Turns out Pitino's praise for Jones and Rozier was just empty hype. The guard duo is adequate defensively and getting to the rim but hardly explosive. Since its backcourt can't measure up to the Peyton Siva-Russ Smith heyday and Blackshear remains more comfortable as a role player than a star, Louisville desperately needs an All-American type season from Harrell. Alas, the 6-foot-8 junior remains one dimensional — an elite defender and offensive rebounder who excels on put-backs and dunks but lacks the refinement to knock down mid-range jumpers or score with his back to the basket. Another season in the American Athletic Conference might have masked Louisville's shortcomings but they're quickly exposed in the rugged ACC. Duke and North Carolina take great joy in sweeping the Cardinals and serving notice that the ACC will always be their league. The NCAA tournament provides little solace for Louisville fans as the Cardinals don't survive the opening weekend and Kentucky cuts down the nets in Indianapolis. Pitino doesn't add to his tattoo collection and, nostalgic for his days in Lexington, vows to name his next Kentucky Derby-caliber horse after Tony Delk.
Last year's record: 30-7, 16-2
Key returners: G London Perrantes, G Justin Anderson, G Malcolm Brogdon, F Anthony Gill, F Evan Nolte, F-C Mike Tobey, F Darion Atkins
Notable newcomers: G B.J. Stith, G Marial Shayok, F Isaiah Wilkins, C Jack Salt
Best-case scenario: For a team that loses its most dangerous scorer (Joe Harris) and its best defender (Akil Mitchell), Virginia enters the season remarkably well positioned to build on last year's ACC title. Every other member of the Cavaliers' rotation returns, including ACC player of the year candidate Malcolm Brogdon, pass-first point guard London Perrantes, versatile defender Justin Anderson and breakout candidate Mike Tobey. Plus, the Cavs add a strong recruiting class highlighted by explosive scorer B.J. Stith and athletic forward Isaiah Wilkins, the Georgia player of the year and the step-son of Dominique Wilkins. What Virginia loses in defense and leadership without Harris and Mitchell it makes up for offensively with a patient, balanced attack that's among the most efficient in the nation. The Cavs again enter ACC play overshadowed by Duke and North Carolina and again finish ahead of both Tobacco Road powers, claiming a second straight league title in the process. The lack of elite talent on Virginia's roster inspires skepticism entering the NCAA tournament, but in a triumph for teamwork, the Cavs reach the Final Four before succumbing to Kentucky by a bucket. There's still joy in Hooville though. Every member of the rotation besides senior Darion Atkins returns the following year.
Worst-case scenario: The ceiling for an experienced, well-coached team is high, but Virginia descends from an elite team to merely a good one because of a series of disappointing developments. Brogdon regresses offensively now that he's seeing the defensive attention that went to Harris last season. The light never turns on for Tobey, who continues to drift through long stretches of games like a ghost despite his considerable talent. And finding a defensive anchor with Mitchell's physical tools, communication skills and ability to defend ball screens proves more difficult than anticipated. None of that puts Virginia in any danger of missing the NCAA tournament, but it does leave the Cavs a rung below Duke, Louisville and North Carolina in the ACC and well short of preseason expectations. It also spells another early NCAA tournament exit against a program with more NBA-caliber talent, this time in the round of 32. North Carolina wins the national championship, several of Virginia's underclassmen transfer to programs that play at a quicker tempo and college basketball handicaps Bennett Ball by adopting a 30-second shot clock beginning with the 2015-16 season. Any lingering joy in Hooville? Long gone.
Last year's record: 32-8, 12-6
Key returners: G Ryan Boatright, C Amida Brimah, G Omar Calhoun, G Terrence Samuel, F Philip Nolan, F Kentan Facey
Notable newcomers: G Rodney Purvis, G Daniel Hamilton, G Sam Cassell Jr. F Rakim Lubin
Best-case scenario: It seems unfathomable UConn's backcourt could be as good as last year's without Shabazz Napier, but the Huskies don't drop off at all. Boatright has a Napier-like season now that he's the focal point, scoring or distributing off the dribble, sinking timely jumpers, playing sticky on-ball defense and providing senior leadership. Hamilton and the NC State transfer Purvis live up to their reputation as former top 20 recruits at wing. Calhoun reemerges as the game changer many expected him to be a year ago in the role of first guard off the bench, Cassell, a top 10 junior college recruit, contributes immediately and Samuel builds on his strong finish to last season as well. Though neither Brimah nor Nolan provide much frontcourt offense, UConn doesn't require it. All the Huskies need is for Brimah to block shots and protect the rim and for Nolan to play sound defense and attack the glass, which both do. The result is a UConn team that is much better than last year's pre-postseason. The Huskies hold their own against a strong preseason schedule, hit their stride in league play and roll into the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed. From there, it's like last March all over again — only everyone knows better than to sleep on UConn this time. By the time the Huskies edge Kentucky in the national title game for a second straight year, plans are being made in Storrs to erect a statue of Kevin Ollie and the ACC and Big Ten are in a bidding war to add UConn.
Worst-case scenario: Without Napier, UConn's backcourt isn't close to as formidable as last year's. Boatright isn't Napier no matter how hard he tries. He jacks up too many contested shots trying to fill his former teammate's shoes, and most of them miss. Purvis, whom Ollie referred to last season as "a Ferrari sitting in the garage that I can't drive," turns out to be more Honda Accord than Testarossa. Hamilton and Cassell are slow to adjust to Division I ball, Calhoun continues last year's disappearing act and Samuel's strong finish last year turns out to be fool's gold. Though Brimah and Nolan defend and rebound as expected, having two non-scoring threats on the floor hurts UConn's offense and puts more pressure on the struggling backcourt. The Huskies flounder against a preseason schedule featuring six NCAA tournament teams from last year, cede the American Athletic Conference title to SMU and sneak into the NCAA tournament as an underachieving No. 10 seed. From there, it's nothing like last March. UConn exits in round one, Ollie never gets his statue and the Big Ten and ACC openly laugh at the Huskies' desperate pleas for membership. Says Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany snidely, "They're in the 30th biggest TV market in the country and their football team lost to Temple this season by four touchdowns? Get real."
10. WICHITA STATE
Last year's record: 35-1, 18-0
Key returners: G Fred VanVleet, G Ron Baker, G Tekele Cotton, F Darius Carter, F Evan Wessel
Notable newcomers: F Tevin Glass, F Rauno Nurger, F Shaq Morris, C Tom Wamukota
Best-case scenario: Motivated by their heartbreaking NCAA tournament loss to Kentucky and months of skeptics questioning whether their gaudy record was a product of their schedule, the Shockers embrace their "Play Angry" mantra and begin the year with something to prove. Every half-decent non-conference opponent they face feels their wrath, from Memphis, to Utah, to Alabama, to a trio of teams at the Diamondhead Classic. Just like Wichita State seamlessly replaced point guard Malcolm Armstead and big man Carl Hall last year en route to an unbeaten regular season, the Shockers have little trouble filling Cleanthony Early's shoes. Junior college transfers Glass and Wamukota absorb most of Early's minutes and evolve into capable defenders and rebounders. The scoring comes from the back-to-the-basket offense of Carter and a skilled, diverse three-man backcourt that validates the preseason hype that it is one of the nation's best. When the NCAA tournament pairings are revealed, Wichita State fans drool over a potential Elite Eight showdown with Kansas. Sure enough, both teams win their first three games, paving the way for the most satisfying Shockers victory of Gregg Marshall's tenure. Another heartbreaking Final Four loss stings temporarily, but the accomplishments of the past three seasons soon ease the pain. Two Final Fours and an unbeaten regular season silence the naysayers and give Marshall no reason to look elsewhere.
Worst-case scenario: Well aware that they can't really prove anything until the postseason after the way last season ended, the Shockers lack the consistent focus during the regular season they had a year ago. They also miss Early's scoring ability and defensive versatility as the players who absorb his minutes can't collectively match his production and Wichita State often seems one weapon short against elite foes. The combination of a soft schedule and a few unexpected losses hurts the Shockers' resume and forces them to settle for a No. 6 seed. A potential shot at Kansas in a regional final is the one silver lining to Wichita State's NCAA tournament draw, but that only makes it sting more when the Shockers fail to make it that far and miss their chance to silence legions of skeptics in Lawrence. The naysayers continue to argue last year's undefeated season was a product of the schedule, Bill Self reiterates his unwillingness to ever play the Shockers and Marshall begins to wonder if he'll ever have it this good again in Wichita. With his son graduating high school, Baker leaving for the NBA and several other key players set to graduate, Marshall decides the time is right to jump for the best available job.
Last year's record: 36-3, 18-0
Key returners: F Dorian Finney-Smith, G Michael Frazier, G Kasey Hill, F Chris Walker, G Eli Carter
Notable newcomers: F Jon Horford, F Alex Murphy, F Devin Robinson, G Brandone Francis
Best-case scenario: Though Florida graduated four of its five starters from last season's Final Four team, there's an argument to be made that this year's Gators are more talented. Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Patric Young and Will Yeguete each went undrafted by the NBA last June, but DraftExpress.com projects four members of this year's Gators will hear their names called either in 2015 or 2016. It takes a month or two for the newcomers and returners to adjust to their roles and mesh with one-another, but the Gators survive a daunting non-conference slate and again feast on the SEC schedule. The former McDonald's All-American Hill thrives as full-time point guard, Frazier diversifies his game and finds ways to be be productive when his 3-point shot isn't falling and a stronger, more focused Walker provides a consistent effort defensively and timely highlights on the offensive end. Florida edges Kentucky for the SEC title, reaches the Elite Eight for the fifth straight season and the Final Four for a second consecutive year, eliminating last year's nemesis UConn along the way to enact a small measure of revenge. NBA teams once again court Billy Donovan after the season. He quickly quashes that talk by signing a contract extension.
Worst-case scenario: Talent doesn't help Florida recreate last season's success. None of its veterans are ready to make the leap to go-to scoring threat offensively and its two ex-McDonald's All-American sophomores are better pro prospects than college players. Even with a full offseason to acclimate himself to the program and get better and stronger, Walker still lacks focus defensively, gets pushed around in the paint and contributes modestly offensively besides an occasional alley-oop or transition dunk. Hill displays an explosive first step to the rim, good court vision and a long wingspan in his first season as full-time point guard, but his outside shot remains a weakness, as does his ability to create offense in half-court sets and play under control. The outside shooting of Frazier and the versatility of Finney-Smith and Murphy help somewhat, but ultimately the Gators are just too easy for elite opponents to guard. They never mount a real challenge to Kentucky in the SEC and fail to survive the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years, falling at the hands of UConn yet again. Walker and Hill both turn pro early despite erratic seasons, but the real blow comes a few weeks later when Donovan follows. Though he loves Gainesville and has turned down chances to coach in the NBA before, coaching at basketball's highest level has long intrigued him and he feels the timing is right for a new challenge.
Last year's record: 29-7, 15-3
Key returners: G Kevin Pangos, G Gary Bell Jr., C Przemek Karnowski, G Kyle Dranginis, F Angel Nunez
Notable newcomers: F Kyle Wiltjer, G Byron Wesley, G Josh Perkins, G Eric McClellan, F Domantas Sabonis
Best-case scenario: After years of buckling under the weight of March expectations, Gonzaga finally helps Mark Few shed the label of perennial NCAA tournament underachiever. In the backcourt, a fully healthy Pangos and Bell deliver the leadership and sound decision-making expected from a pair of four-year starters and Wesley accepts that his scoring output won't be the same as it was at USC last season and embraces the role of perimeter defensive stopper. In the frontcourt, Wiltjer benefits from his redshirt year almost as much as Kelly Olynyk did two years ago and becomes the inside-outside threat Kentucky hoped he'd be, while Karnowski builds on a successful sophomore season and Sabonis makes an immediate impact as a third big man. Blessed with uncommon experience on the perimeter and size and skill in the paint, Gonzaga stuns Arizona on Dec. 6 to serve notice it's legit, rolls through the WCC slate with just a single loss and survives the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009. Free of that burden, the Zags play with confidence and ease the following weekend, dispatching Arizona a second time in the Elite Eight to advance to the program's first Final Four. That's where the run ends, but no matter. The sting of 2013's round of 32 flameout is long-forgotten.
Worst-case scenario: Same old, same old. Experience, size and skill help Gonzaga edge BYU for the WCC title, but this isn't a Zags team built for a deep NCAA tournament run. Nagging injuries again hamper Pangos and Bell. Wesley is more interested in hoisting shots than using his length and athleticism to become the perimeter stopper the Zags have lacked in recent years. Wiltjer offers outside shooting but little in the way of defense or rebounding. And Karnowski has trouble staying out of foul trouble long enough to provide the rim protection and back-to-the-basket scoring the Zags need from him. Reacquainted with elite competition for the first time in a while, Gonzaga crumbles in the round of 32 once again and leaves the arena with chants of "overrated" ringing in their ears. Few valiantly defends his team by praising them for another strong regular season, but the words sound hollow to frustrated Zags fans. They understandably start to wonder if Gonzaga is ever again going to achieve the sort of March success that first helped the program first crack the national consciousness 15 years ago.
Last year's record: 29-5, 16-2
Key returners: G Ryan Arcidiacono, G Darrun Hilliard, G Josh Hart, F JayVaughn Pinkston, C Daniel Ochefu, G Dylan Ennis, F Kris Jenkins
Notable newcomers: F Mikal Bridges, G Phil Booth
Best-case scenario: With Creighton rebuilding and nobody else poised to step up in class, a Villanova team that returns four starters from last year is once again the class of the Big East. Between Hilliard building on an excellent junior season, Hart delivering a breakout performance in his first season as a starter and Booth contributing as a combo guard off the bench, Villanova easily absorbs the loss of last year's leading scorer James Bell. Those three and hard-nosed junior point guard Ryan Arcidiacono form a skilled backourt worthy of Villanova's reputation for producing guards. The frontcourt was supposed to be the bigger question, but Pinkston delivers a big-time senior season as an interior scorer, Ochefu blocks shots and defends the paint and Jenkins emerges as a capable third big man. Fueled by its strong perimeter corps and its stingy defense, Villanova piles up nearly 30 regular season wins but once again is a popular early-round upset pick in the NCAA tournament due to its lack of high-level talent. This time, however, the Wildcats don't oblige. Six years after his only other appearance on college basketball's biggest stage, dapper Villanova coach Jay Wright again gets to sport one of his Italian suits on the bench at the Final Four.
Worst-case scenario: Though a 29-win team returns mostly intact, Villanova has some weaknesses — namely a lack of frontcourt depth. Ochefu is the only scholarship player 6-foot-7 or taller on the roster and when he gets into foul trouble, the Wildcats struggle to defend the rim. Regression from some of Villanova's key players also takes its toll. Arcidiacono isn't quite as remarkably turnover-free as last season, Hilliard proves less consistent shooting from the perimeter and Hart shows flashes in every facet of the game but can't do it all consistently yet. The result is a few more regular season losses than last year, a less gaudy seed and a more difficult road in the NCAA tournament. Just like last year, Villanova lacks an go-to scorer to turn to when crisis strikes in March, and just like last year the Wildcats can't survive the round of 32. Wright does get to sport one of his dapper Italian suits at the Final Four, but it's merely behind a courtside desk as a guest analyst for Turner Sports.
Last year's record: 24-12, 11-7
Key returners: C Cameron Ridley, G Javan Felix, G Isaiah Taylor, F Jonathan Holmes, G Kendal Yancy, G Demarcus Holland, F Connor Lammert, F Prince Ibeh
Notable newcomers: C Myles Turner, G Jordan Barnett
Best-case scenario: Having already beat Kansas on the recruiting trail last spring in the race to land elite big man Myles Turner, the Longhorns also outclass the Jayhawks on the floor this winter.They end Kansas' decade-long reign over the Big 12 thanks to a more consistent backcourt, a stingy defense and a deep, multi-faceted stable of big men that collectively rebounds as well as any frontcourt besides Kentucky's. Fitting Turner into a lineup that returns all five starters is no problem for Barnes. The 7-footer's shot-blocking, ability to the run the floor and knack for sinking mid-range jumpers provides a perfect complement to the lumbering Ridley and excellent backups Ibeh and Lammert. Furthermore, the 6-foot-8 Holmes helps clear the frontcourt logjam by displaying enough skill and agility to slide to small forward with ease for long stretches. Nobody confuses any of Texas' perimeter players for Reggie Miller, but Felix and Taylor show improved shot selection this season, the reserves make some timely buckets and the Longhorns gobble up enough offensive boards to make up for their occasionally wayward shooting. That formula is enough for a 15-3 Big 12 record, a No. 1 seed in the fan-friendly Houston Regional and Barnes' first trip to the Final Four since 2003. Off-target perimeter shooting ends Texas' season in the national semifinals, but Texas fans are thoroughly satisfied. They spend a day or two lauding Barnes before returning to grumbling over the sorry state of the Longhorns football program.
Worst-case scenario: Forget outclassing Kansas. Texas isn't even the second-best team in the Big 12. The logjam in the frontcourt becomes more unmanageable than Barnes expected when Holmes proves better suited to defending the paint than the perimeter, leaving Texas with a quintet of big men accustomed to ample playing time. Frequent grumbling from some of the incumbents about Turner eating into their minutes turns out to be a season-long issue and a chemistry killer. Still, the bigger problem for Texas is on the perimeter. Its guards can't shoot. Felix and Taylor display the same scattershot shot selection as last season, Holland remains an asset on defense only and Yancy is no closer to tapping into his potential as a former heralded recruit. The Longhorns as a team somehow shoot worse from behind the arc than the 32.7 percent clip they posted last season. Defense and rebounding still carry Texas to the NCAA tournament, but the Longhorns brick themselves into a big first-half deficit in the opening round and lack the firepower to climb out of it. Disinterested Texas fans barely notice because they're too busy grumbling over the sorry state of the Longhorns football program.
15. SAN DIEGO STATE
Last year's record: 31-5, 16-2
Key returners: G Winston Shepard, F J.J. O'Brien, F Dwayne Polee Jr., F Matt Shrigley, F Skylar Spencer, G Aqeel Quinn, G Dakarai Allen, G D'Erryl Williams
Notable newcomers: F Angelo Chol, G Kevin Zabo, G Trey Kell, F Zylan Cheatham, F Malik Pope
Best-case scenario: One of the elite defensive teams in the nation also manages to generate enough offense that the graduation of do-it-all point guard Xavier Thames proves less crippling than expected. Quinn, Williams and Zabo collectively absorb Thames' minutes at point guard, making good decisions with the ball and creating shots for others. The trio of point guards don't provide much scoring, but Polee, Shepard and Shrigley each shoulder a greater offensive burden to help replace Thames' 17.6 points per game. Chol, a transfer from Arizona, also helps by emerging as a back-to-the-basket scoring threat. And San Diego State's most highly touted freshman class ever contributes more consistently by the end of the year. Even on nights when San Diego State's half-court offense is anemic — and there are a few — the Aztecs win more often than not anyway by generating second-chance points and transition opportunities. They have a defense-first culture, length and athleticism at every position and a pair of shot blockers in Spencer and Chol who erase mistakes, crash the boards and allow the perimeter players to gamble for steals or release in transition without fear. San Diego State survives a grueling non-league slate, feasts on an unusually weak Mountain West and enters the NCAA tournament eager to improve on last year's Sweet 16. They shut down every opponent they face in the West Region and get timely buckets from up and down the roster, avenging last year's Sweet 16 loss to Arizona to earn 69-year-old Steve Fisher a return trip to the Final Four. Many suspect Fisher will opt to reitre on top. They're wrong. To the delight of San Diego State players and fans, he says he has a few more years left in him.
Worst-case scenario: While San Diego State is formidable defensively, the Aztecs aren't efficient enough on offense to be an elite team. So much of last year's offense was predicated on Thames creating off ball screens that none of the returning players have any experience making plays in late shot-clock situations. The point guards aren't scorers, Shrigley and Polee are catch-and-shoot guys, not creators and Shepard's wayward jump shot and turnover-prone decision making cancel out any success he has finishing at the rim. The freshmen don't help much either as Pope (broken leg) and Cheatham (broken foot) are too far behind due to injuries to catch up this season. Defense and rebounding keep San Diego State competitive every game, but a lack of an offensive catalyst leads to a lot of close losses against the best teams on the schedule. Plus, the Aztecs prove vulnerable to upset against mediocre opponents who hang around by slowing the tempo and holding their own on the glass. San Diego State does sneak into the NCAA tournament but this is a team a year away from making any real noise. The Aztecs bow out in the round of 64 without getting another crack at Arizona. Many suspect Fisher will return to take one more shot at a Final Four. They're wrong. To the dismay of San Diego State players and fans, he hands the reins to coach in waiting Brian Dutcher, saying that he's proud to leave the program on solid footing.
16. IOWA STATE
Last year's record: 28-8, 11-7
Key returners: F Georges Niang, G Dustin Hogue, G Monte Morris, G Naz Long, G Matt Thomas
Notable newcomers: G Bryce Dejean-Jones, F Jameel McKay, F Abdel Nader, G Clayton Custer
Best-case scenario: There's nobody who has used transfers more effectively of late than Fred Hoiberg, and this year turns out to be no exception. Dejean-Jones, UNLV's leading scorer last season, serves as a perfect backcourt complement to the pass-first Morris, curbing his volume shooting ways yet calling his own number enough to help make up for the loss of DeAndre Kane. Nader, a Northern Illinois transfer, thrives as a complementary wing scorer at Iowa State after facing double teams at his former school, and McKay, a Marquette transfer, rebounds, runs the floor and protects the rim once he becomes eligible in mid-December. Still, Iowa State's biggest star is Niang, who proves impossible for opposing power forwards to defend because of his outside shooting, passing and nimbleness in the paint. Raining down threes on its opponents and dominating the glass at both ends, Iowa State goes unbeaten at raucous Hilton Coliseum in the regular season, shares the Big 12 title with Kansas and wins the rubber match with the Jayhawks in the Big 12 tournament. Niang then draws motivation from the broken foot he suffered last March and puts the Cyclones on his back, spearheading a deep NCAA tournament run. Hoiberg spurns his many NBA suitors to return to Ames once again and Niang decides to come back as well to chase a championship as a senior. Meanwhile at Iowa, the Hawkeyes lose 20 games and Fran McCaffery is suspended for more poor sideline behavior.
Worst-case scenario: There's nobody who has used transfers more effectively recently than Hoiberg, but this year's additions fail to make the impact previous ones have. Dejean-Jones chucks bad shots up at an alarming pace in Hoiberg's freewheeling system and hampers team chemistry with his I'm-going-to-get-mine style of play. Nader can't stay out of off-the-court trouble and McKay has a hard time making an impact as a midseason addition. Returners Niang, Hogue, Long and Morris are sufficient building blocks for Iowa State to still make the NCAA tournament, but this Cyclones team isn't nearly as potent as last year's. A poorly timed first-half shooting slump puts the Cyclones in a big hole in the round of 64 against a dangerous mid-major, and Iowa State can't get enough stops in the second half to come back. The despair is compounded by a deep Iowa run, the loss of Niang and Hoiberg to the NBA and the realization that Hilton magic may fade away for the time being.
17. MICHIGAN STATE
Last year's record: 29-9, 12-6
Key returners: G Travis Trice, G/F Denzel Valentine, F Branden Dawson, F Matt Costello, F Gavin Schilling
Notable newcomers: G Lourawls Nairn, G Javon Bess, F Marvin Clark, G Bryn Forbes
Best-case scenario: Able to fly under the radar early in the season thanks to the departure of Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling, Michigan State exceeds modest expectations. The Dawson the Spartans get is the one who averaged 17.5 points per game during a postseason hot streak. He understands it's his time to inherit the role of go-to scorer and he's ready for it, showing off an improved jump shot, solid ball handling and an ability to take advantage of mismatches either in the post or on the perimeter. Valentine also thrives with greater responsibility. From scoring to distributing to rebounding, the 6-foot-5 junior proves to be a jack of all trades. There's concern about less experienced players handling the other positions, but Trice and Nairns complement one-another well at point guard, the Cleveland State transfer Forbes adds a perimeter threat at shooting guard and Costello controls the paint at both ends. Confidence buoyed by an unusually modest non-league schedule, the Spartans enter Big Ten play comfortable with their roles and emerge as Wisconsin's toughest challenger. They earn a better NCAA tournament seed than last year's team did and surprise everyone by advancing to Tom Izzo's seventh Final Four, defeating former recruiting target Jahlil Okafor and Duke in the process. Patrons at The Riv in East Lansing toast that accomplishment with $3.00 24-ounce mugs of Labatt and dream of the possibilities down the road when the young talent on this roster matures.
Worst-case scenario: Sometimes, expectations are lower for a reason. Dawson proves better suited to a complementary role offensively than the job of go-to scoring threat. Valentine remains a better facilitator than scorer. Trice is a spot-up shooter masquerading as a point guard and Nairns can't shoot well enough to make opposing defenses guard him. The frontcourt also lacks quality depth behind Costello and badly misses stretch forward Kenny Kaminski. Confidence zapped by some unexpected non-conference losses, Michigan State quickly falls out of contention in Big Ten play and narrowly avoids missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1997. Patrons at the Riv in East Lansing mutter under their breath about recent recruiting misses as the Spartans bow out meekly in a forgettable opening-round loss. The grumbles get louder when Okafor, Tyus Jones and Duke win the national championship.
Last year's record: 23-10, 12-6
Key returners: G Buddy Hield, F Ryan Spangler, G Jordan Woodard, G Isaiah Cousins, G Frank Booker, F D.J. Bennett
Notable newcomers: F Tashawn Thomas, C Jamuni McNeace, F Khadeem Lattin, F Dante Buford
Best-case scenario: Overshadowed in its own state by talented but turmoil-ridden Oklahoma State and on its own campus by an elite football program, Oklahoma's reemergence under Lon Kruger did not receive the attention it deserved the past two years. That changes this season when the under-publicized Sooners force their way into the national headlines with their appealing style of play and array of returning standouts. In the backcourt, Hield again flourishes, hitting jumpers at a similar clip to last season while also attacking the rim more aggressively than he previously did. Cousins provides scoring and lock-down defense and Woodard distributes effectively just like last season while also emerging as more of a threat to score himself. Losing second-leading scorer Cameron Clark doesn't damage the frontcourt too badly as Thomas wins his waiver request and becomes eligible immediately. The 6-foot-8 Houston transfer forms a solid tandem with Spangler, enabling Lon Kruger to bring along his young big men slowly as backups. Oklahoma outduels Kansas for the Big 12 crown, earns a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and enters its opener motivated to avoid the opening-round upset that ended its season last year. The Sooners do more than that, reaching the Elite Eight and even coaxing a fist pump or two out of notoriously bland coach Lon Kruger. Meanwhile in Stillwater, life after Marcus Smart proves tough. Only hapless TCU finishes behind the Cowboys in the Big 12 standings.
Worst-case scenario: The Sooners are neither good enough nor appealing enough to capture headlines. The backcourt falls a bit shy of expectations as Hield settles for too many jump shots and seldom attacks off the dribble and the pass-first Woodard remains a non-threat as a scorer. Still, it's the frontcourt that turns out to be the far bigger issue, especially after Thomas does not receive his waiver and has to sit out the entire season. None of the freshman big men emerge as impact players right away, and the Sooners badly miss Clark, one of their most aggressive and efficient players last season. Between the hole in its frontcourt and a lack of depth off the bench, Oklahoma is clearly a tier below the top teams in the Big 12 and finishes in the middle of the pack. That alleviates any fears of falling victim to another opening-round NCAA tournament upset. The Sooners lose their first game again, but this time it's the play-in game in front of a sparse crowd in Dayton. Meanwhile, Texas wins the national championship and Oklahoma State makes an unexpected Sweet 16 run. Oh, and there are no fist pumps from Kruger. Only forced smiles and cliches. Lots of cliches.
Last year's record: 26-9, 12-4
Key returners: G/F Treveon Graham, G Briante Weber, G JeQuan Lewis, G Jordan Burgess, G Melvin Johnson, F Jarred Guest, F Mo Alie-Cox
Notable newcomers: G/F Terry Larier, F Justin Tillman, F Michael Gilmore, G Jonathan Williams
Best-case scenario: Thanks to the return of ball-hawking point guard Briante Weber, shot-swatting big man Mo Alie-Cox and a collection of long, quick, versatile players at other spots, VCU once again boasts one of the nation's most intimidating defenses. Swarming full-court pressure wears down weary opponents and generates plenty of transition layups to help the Rams compensate for their sometimes inefficient half-court attack. Half-court offense never will be VCU's calling card, but the Rams improve on last year's dreadful shooting numbers. Weber, a converted wing, displays better court vision and decision making in his second season at point guard, while the development of JeQuan Lewis and freshman Jonathan Williams allows the senior to slide off ball sometimes too. Conference player of the year candidate Treveon Graham, rangy shooter Melvin Johnson and promising young players Jordan Burgess and Terry Larier each provide scoring from the wing. And while Alie-Cox's specialty is defense, he delivers back-to-the-basket scoring too. The result is a VCU team built to not only emerge as the class of the Atlantic 10 but also do some damage in March. Last year's heart-wrenching loss to Stephen F. Austin is a distant memory by the time the Rams conclude their NCAA tournament run with a second Final Four bid. Louisville ends VCU's run in Indianapolis, but the impact of the run lingers. Top 100 recruits continue to view VCU s a viable option and Shaka Smart continues to see no reason to leave.
Worst-case scenario: For a team that generates dozens of transition layups from its swarming defense, VCU shot an alarmingly low percentage from the field last season. The Rams sank only 42 percent of their shots, a flaw that hamstrung them despite their defense ranking among the nation's best. The graduation of efficient big man Juvonte Reddic and 3-point specialist Rob Brandenberg only exacerbates the problem this season. Weber, despite all his defensive attributes, isn't a natural point guard and often struggles to create shots for his teammates. The Rams also lack either a back-to-the-basket scorer who commands a double team or enough consistent outside shooters to make opposing defenses pay for taking away driving lanes. Fierce defense still propels VCU to a top-four finish in the Atlantic 10 and an NCAA bid, but this isn't the special season many in Richmond anticipated. The cold-shooting Rams exit in the round of 64 with a hail of errant threes. Once again, power-conference suitors try to woo Smart after the season ends. Weary of the challenge of trying to out-duel programs with more pedigree and deeper pockets, this time he bites.
Last year's record: 28-9, 15-3
Key returners: G Caris Levert, G Derrick Walton Jr., G/F Zak Irvin, G Spike Albrecht, F Max Bielfeldt, F Mark Donnal
Notable newcomers: G/F Kameron Chatman, F Ricky Doyle, F D.J. Wilson, G Aubrey Dawkins, G Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahim
Best-case scenario: Having lost 57.2 percent of last season's total scoring because of the departures of Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, Michigan enters the new season in search of new stars. They find one in LeVert, a 6-foot-6 junior who completes his transformation from overlooked recruit, to impact player, to All-American candidate. Complementing LeVert's all-around brilliance are a trio of returning perimeter players. Walton looks for his own shot more while still running the offense and keeping his turnovers low, Irvin contributes more than just 3-point shooting as a sophomore and Albrecht provides much-needed vocal leadership coming off the bench. The frontcourt isn't a strength, but it's not nearly as bad as many expect either. By March, Donnal and Doyle have developed into serviceable defenders and rebounders as freshmen and Chatman is reminiscent of Robinson with his perimeter skills and ability to guard bigger players. In a year labeled as a rebuilding season from the get-go, Michigan makes fans forget all about its football nightmare under Brady Hoke, finishing in the top-three in the Big Ten and advancing all the way to the Elite Eight. Falling one win shy of a Final Four for the second straight year is hard to stomach, but it's made easier by the fact that every key player decides to return the following year — yes, even LeVert. Also soothing Michigan's pain: Neither Ohio State nor Michigan State even make it out of the opening round.
Worst-case scenario: With its proud football program in shambles, Michigan fans turn to basketball in search of relief ... but they find none. LeVert stars and Walton, Irvin and Albrecht contribute, but the frontcourt is even worse than expected. With Mitch McGary in the NBA, Jon Horford at Florida and Jordan Morgan playing overseas, the most experienced big man on the roster is the 6-foot-7 Bielfeldt, who played all of 4.7 minutes per game as a junior. Bielfeldt sets a mean screen and battles on the boards, but he's a liability offensively and overmatched athletically against the Big Ten's best big men. Trouble is he's still more reliable than either the redshirt freshman Donnal or the true freshman Doyle, neither one of which are consistent enough defensively or on the glass to satisfy Beilein. Chatman also has his share of freshman moments as he tries to replace Robinson. The result is a Michigan team that doesn't score as efficiently as previous Beilein teams and can't stop anybody. The Wolverines sink to the middle of the pack in the unforgiving Big Ten and settle for an NIT bid, a fate made worse by deep NCAA tournament runs from rivals Ohio State and Michigan State. There's also less reason for future optimism after LeVert announces at the conclusion of the postseason that he's NBA-bound.
Last year's record: 21-12, 9-9
Key returners: G Delon Wright, F Jordan Loveridge, G Brandon Taylor, C Dallin Bachynski, G/F Dakarai Tucker, F Jeremy Olsen
Notable newcomers: F Brekkott Chapman, F Kyle Kuzma, G Chris Reyes, F Isaiah Wright, C Jakob Poeltl
Best-case scenario: It wasn't long ago that Utah had such a threadbare roster coach Larry Krystkowiak had to schedule opponents like San Diego Christian and College of Idaho just to make sure the Utes had a winning record before league play. Those days are long gone now. With their top six scorers back from a 21-win team and a solid recruiting class providing added depth, the Utes emerge as the most viable challenger to Arizona in a league that lost a lot of talent from last season. Wright, a first-team all-league selection last season, validates his decision to return to school, solidifying himself as a first-round pick by finishing in the top five in the Pac-12 in scoring, assists and steals. Loveridge excels as well after shifting to his more natural small forward spot, while Taylor and freshmen Kuzma and Chapman provide complimentary scoring. Utah's smothering perimeter defense again defends beyond the 3-point arc, secure that Bachynski is lurking in the paint to erase mistakes. The Utes hang in the race with Arizona until the last weekend of the regular season before settling for second place in the Pac-12. Then, in only its second NCAA tournament appearance since 2005, the Utes reach the Sweet 16 before falling a bucket short against top-seeded Kentucky in a near-monumental upset. The loss stings but Utes fans console themselves by offering condescending congratulations to BYU on its NIT bid.
Worst-case scenario: Maybe Krystkowiak should have scheduled San Diego Christian and College of Idaho again. Utah more resembles the team blasted by Arizona in the Pac-12 quarterfinals and Saint Mary's in the opening round of the NIT last season than the one that crept into NCAA tournament contention in the weeks prior to that. Overmatched athletically against the best teams on their schedule and lacking enough scorers to complement Wright and Loveridge, the Utes struggle against a beefed-up non-conference slate featuring four marquee road games. They fare only marginally better once Pac-12 play begins as last year's issues closing out close games and winning away from home resurface. Strong defense and the all-around brilliance of Wright help the Utes claw their way within sight of the NCAA tournament bubble by the start of the Pac-12 tournament, but any hope of a bid vanishes when UCLA runs Utah off the floor in the quarterfinals. Again, the Utes settle for an NIT bid. Again, NCAA tournament-bound BYU fans offer condescending congratulations. Again, Utah falls flat in round one.
22. OHIO STATE
Last year's record: 25-10, 10-8
Key returners: G Shannon Scott, F Marc Loving, F Sam Thompson, C Amir Williams, G Kam Williams
Notable newcomers: F Anthony Lee, G D'Angelo Russell, F Keita Bates-Diop, F Jae'Sean Tate
Best-case scenario: Can Ohio State really improve its inconsistent offense despite losing its three leading scorers? Thanks to the arrival of a deep, talented crop of newcomers, the answer is yes. Russell, a slender but highly touted 6-foot-5 guard, starts from day one, scores in bunches and provides badly needed perimeter shooting. He and fellow freshmen Bates-Diop and Tate are an ideal complement to Scott and Thompson, the former a distributing and defensive dynamo at point guard and the latter a high-flying slasher more comfortable scoring near the rim. The Buckeyes also generate more offense in the paint because of Lee, a former Temple standout who was one of the most coveted one-year transfers on the market last spring. Lee also bolsters the Buckeyes rebounding, a major issue all of last season. Fueled by better rebounding and perimeter shooting and an always-stingy defense, Ohio State improves as the freshmen develop and emerges as Wisconsin's top challenger in the Big Ten. The momentum carries into the NCAA tournament, where the Buckeyes avenge last year's loss to Dayton with a cathartic round of 32 victory and advance all the way to the Elite Eight. Meanwhile in Ann Arbor, Michigan endures a down season. Buckeyes fans who spent all winter poking fun at the Wolverines' once-proud football program now have something else to joke about.
Worst-case scenario: The downside of counting heavily on freshmen is it can sometimes backfire, and that's exactly what befalls Ohio State. Russell contributes from day one, but he's not the go-to threat the Buckeyes desperately need. Bates-Diop and Tate come along more slowly and fall out of Matta's notoriously tight rotation by the start of Big Ten play. The Buckeyes are a better rebounding team because of the addition to Lee, but their outside shooting remains a weakness and their typically strong perimeter defense takes a small step backward without Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. The result is that Ohio State lacks the consistency to compete for the Big Ten title and struggles to even match last year's modest success. The Buckeyes don't have to worry about crashing out of the NCAA tournament in the opening round again this season because they settle for an NIT bid. Meanwhile in Ann Arbor, Michigan exceeds expectations yet again and reaches the Elite Eight. Buckeyes fans who spent all winter poking fun at the Wolverines' once-proud football program have the tables turned on them in March.
Last year's record: 28-6, 14-4
Key returners: G Trevor Cooney, F Rakeem Christmas, F Tyler Roberson, G Michael Gbinije, F Dajuan Coleman, G Ron Patterson
Notable newcomers: G Kaleb Joseph, F Chris McCullough
Best-case scenario: For a program that lost its three leading scorers from a team that shot below 40 percent in all six of its losses last season, Syracuse is better than expected offensively. Joseph, the only true point guard on the roster, inherits the starting job from Tyler Ennis and plays beyond his years, providing instant offense with his ability to attack off the dribble. McCullough, one of the most athletically gifted big men in this year's freshman class, runs the floor exceptionally, finishes in transition with aplomb and excels at crashing the offensive and defensive glass. He and Roberson help the Orange replace what they lost when Jerami Grant and C.J. Fair left for the NBA. With the newcomers contributing immediately, Cooney providing lights-out 3-point shooting and Christmas providing timely buckets and anchoring the two-three zone, Syracuse surges into contention in the ACC. The Orange fall a win short of the league title but they take some consolation in knocking new rival Duke out of the race with a Feb. 26 upset in Durham — and, yes, Jim Boeheim keeps his jacket on and his temper in check through the final buzzer this time. Then the Orange make a deep enough NCAA tournament run that all the snow on campus has melted by the time they return.
Worst-case scenario: With Ennis, Grant and Fair all in the NBA, Syracuse is worse offensively at the start of this season than it was at the end of last season. The point guard position is the biggest problem as Joseph makes poor decisions with the ball and struggles to create opportunities for his teammates and Gbinije still looks ill-suited to the position off the bench. McCullough also is inconsistent, sprinkling in enough moments of promise to tantalize Syracuse fans but seldom playing well for long stretches at a time. With the freshmen enduring growing pains, more pressure falls to Cooney and Christmas offensively ... and neither can handle it. Cooney misfires early and often from the perimeter as teams view him as the player they can't let beat them now. And Christmas, for all his defensive gifts, just isn't a consistent source of back-to-the-basket offense. Neither is the injury-plagued Coleman, who never gets healthy enough to make much impact this season. The wizardry of Syracuse's two-three zone keeps the Orange competitive in the ACC, but too many turnovers and ill-advised shots frequently come back to bite them late in close games. As a result, Syracuse slips out of contention for the ACC title by Feb. 1 and then collapses amid a daunting stretch of the schedule in February and March. Boeheim's caustic press conferences are the only highlight as Syracuse finishes the season on a seven-game losing streak and misses the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008. As punishment, Boeheim makes every player stay in blizzard-ravaged Syracuse during spring break.
Last year's record: 19-13, 11-7
Key returners: G Terran Petteway, G Shavon Shields, G Tai Webster, F Walter Pitchford, F Leslee Smith, F David Rivers, G Benny Parker, F Nick Fuller
Notable newcomers: F Moses Abraham, G Tarin Smith, F/C Jake Hammond
Best-case scenario: Raucous sellout crowds, marquee wins and national headlines become the new normal for Nebraska basketball as the Huskers build on their strong finish to the regular season last year. Petteway emerges as a legitimate Big Ten player of the year candidate, putting up similar scoring numbers as last year but hitting a higher percentage of his outside shots and cutting down on the turnovers. He gets plenty of help offensively from Shields, another slashing wing with good size and athleticism. Frontcourt defense is much stronger this season because of the addition of Abraham, a 6-foot-9 defensive-minded center who went by Moses Ayegba at Georgetown. Abraham pairs well with Pitchford, a non-traditional big man more comfortable shooting pick and pop jumpers than muscling for position in the paint. Nobody overlooks Nebraska this season, but it doesn't matter because the Huskers are good enough to take opponents' best shot and still win anyway — especially at home where they're almost unbeatable with their crowd behind them. Nebraska emerges as the top challenger to Wisconsin in the Big Ten, reaches the NCAA tournament for the second straight season and performs much better than last season's opening-round flameout. The Huskers win an NCAA tournament game for the first time in program history ... and then they win another. Even after the run ends, the party keeps going as Petteway announces he'll be back for his senior season, giving the Huskers a real chance at a Final Four run. Nebraska a basketball school? Believe it.
Worst-case scenario: Raucous sellout crowds, marquee wins and national headlines prove to be a one-year wonder for Nebraska basketball as the Huskers fail to build on their strong finish from last season. Opponents defend Nebraska more intelligently this season, taking away driving lanes from Petteway and Shields and forcing them to knock down outside shots. Their erratic shooting puts more pressure on Nebraska's point guards to make plays — not a good thing since that's an area of concern for the Huskers. Webster's confidence is still shaken from a rough finish to his freshman season and proves too turnover-prone once again. Parker's defense is still much more of an asset than his offense and the talented Smith isn't ready to make an immediate impact as a freshman. Unexpected losses pile up early in Big Ten play and waning enthusiasm makes Pinnacle Bank Arena less of an advantage for the Huskers. Nebraska is still good enough to salvage an NIT bid but there's no return trip to the NCAA tournament. Petteway turns pro and Husker fans start looking ahead to spring football. Nebraska a basketball school? Not yet.
Last year's record: 28-9, 12-6
Key returners: G Norman Powell, G Bryce Alford, C Tony Parker, G-F Noah Allen, F Wanaah Bail
Notable newcomers: G Isaac Hamilton, F Kevon Looney, C Thomas Welsh
Best-case scenario: A skeptical fan base warms up to Steve Alford when he withstands the early departures of first-round picks Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine and still matches last year's success. The frontcourt is the strength of the team as Parker flourishes in his first season as starting center, Welsh continues to blossom as the top reserve and Looney delivers the best freshman season by a UCLA player since Kevin Love. Bail also provides solid defense and rebounding off the bench, taking the minutes that would have gone to ineligible freshman Jonah Bolden. Concerns over UCLA's lack of backcourt depth prove overblown as the Bruins avoid injuries and get better guard play than expected. Neither Hamilton nor Bryce Alford are classic point guards, but both grow into the job, taking care of the ball and creating scoring opportunities for themselves and their teammates. And Powell emerges as one of the Pac-12's top wings now that he's free from the shadow of Adams, LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad. UCLA establishes itself as the Pac-12's best team besides Arizona in the regular season and reaches a second straight Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. Nobody's satisfied since UCLA only hangs title banners, but there's hope one of those could be on the way sooner than later. Bucking the trend at UCLA over the years, Looney decides to stay in school rather than turn pro and No. 1 overall recruit Jaylen Brown signs with the Bruins in the spring.
Worst-case scenario: The few UCLA fans who bother to show up to Pauley Pavilion for the last home games of the season do so only to boo Alford. That's how caustic things get in Westwood during a humbling 2014-15 season. Concerns over UCLA only carrying three scholarship guards on its roster prove warranted as foul trouble and injuries force the Bruins to give walk-ons playing time or play big men out of position. Furthermore, UCLA struggles to take advantage of all its frontcourt talent because it lacks a true point guard capable of getting players the ball in positions to score. For all his talent attacking the rim, Hamilton is programmed to do one thing, and that's score. And Alford is an undersized shooting guard masquerading as a point guard, not an ideal fit on offense and a major liability defensively. The other issue is that UCLA's lack of bench options force its big men to play out of position. Parker has to play extended minutes alongside Welsh at the four even though he is better suited to guarding centers than forwards and Looney is forced to play some small forward even though he is more effective defending the paint than the perimeter. Too many players playing out of position and too little depth prevents UCLA from challenging for an NCAA tournament bid, let alone making a push for the Pac-12 crown. Worse yet, Looney announces he's leaving for the NBA in the locker room after the Pac-12 tournament and Brown chooses in-state Georgia over the Bruins. And with that, at a school that expects Final Fours and national championships, Alford looks far away from contending for either anytime soon.
OTHERS TO WATCH: SMU, Harvard, Pittsburgh, Kansas State, Georgia State, Memphis, Georgetown, Iowa, Stanford, BYU, Colorado, LSU, Indiana, Georgia
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