Duke, Kansas, Kentucky look like league favorites
Virginia was one of college basketball’s unexpected success stories last season, winning 30 games and finishing two games ahead of the field in the ACC. The previous year, it was Miami that won a regular-season title in that conference.
Can anyone repeat those surprising runs to first place? Perhaps, but at the start of the 2014-15 season, it’s the usual big names who look like the favorites. Here are our picks for the regular-season titles in some of college basketball’s top leagues:
CONNECTICUT (AAC): The Huskies finished tied for third in the American Athletic Conference last season, then proceeded to win their second national title in four seasons. Their path to conference supremacy is easier now that Louisville has departed for the ACC, but Southern Methodist and Memphis should be worthy opponents for UConn.
The Huskies must replace star Shabazz Napier from last season’s team, but guard Rodney Purvis is now eligible after sitting out a year following his transfer from North Carolina State.
DUKE (ACC): The Blue Devils will rely on a talented freshman class led by 6-foot-11 Jahlil Okafor, but they’ll be pushed in a conference that now adds Louisville. Duke has not won the ACC’s regular-season crown since sharing it with Maryland in 2010 — the same year the Blue Devils won their most recent national title.
Duke will try to become the ACC’s fourth different regular-season champion in four years. Louisville, Virginia and North Carolina will be around to challenge, and Syracuse could also be in the mix.
VILLANOVA (BIG EAST): The Wildcats won 29 games last season and return four starters — and Creighton, their top competition in the Big East, must replace star Doug McDermott. Villanova went 16-2 in conference play last season en route to its first outright league title since 1982.
Georgetown will try to bounce back after sliding to seventh place a season ago. St. John’s could also be a factor after a 20-win season that resulted in an NIT appearance.
WISCONSIN (BIG TEN): The Badgers return four starters from their 2014 Final Four run, including 7-footer Frank Kaminsky. Wisconsin has finished fourth or better in the Big Ten in all 13 seasons of coach Bo Ryan’s tenure, but the Badgers have not finished first since 2008.
Wisconsin lost five of six games last season during a stretch that began in mid-January. The Badgers went 29-3 in the rest of their games. Their top challengers should be Ohio State, Michigan State and perhaps Michigan, which won the league by three games in 2013-14 but lost stars Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III to the NBA.
KANSAS (BIG 12): The Jayhawks have won 10 straight Big 12 titles, and although someone occasionally finishes even with Kansas, nobody has managed to knock the league’s dominant program into second place during this run. The Jayhawks must now replace Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, two of the first three players taken in this year’s NBA draft, but it’s still hard to pick against them.
Texas returns five starters from a team that went 24-11, so the Longhorns seem like the top threat to Kansas’ streak.
ARIZONA (PAC-12): Brandon Ashley’s return from a broken foot has Arizona among this season’s national title contenders. The Wildcats went 33-5 last season, losing in overtime to Wisconsin to fall a game short of the Final Four. Arizona easily outdistanced UCLA atop the Pac-12.
The Bruins are one of several teams that appear to be at a level just below Arizona. Utah, Stanford and Colorado are also in that group.
KENTUCKY (SEC): The top-ranked team in the AP preseason poll, Kentucky returns six regulars from the team that lost to Connecticut in last season’s national title game. The Wildcats also added their usual group of prized recruits. How it will all mesh together is the obvious question.
Florida went 18-0 in the SEC’s regular season last year, becoming the second team in three years to go unbeaten after Kentucky went 16-0 in 2012. Those two teams look like the class of the conference again, although an improving Arkansas program may be heard from as well.
Kentucky got good news in the offseason when 6-foot-6 twin sophomore guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison and junior 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein decided to return to college instead of entering the NBA draft.