The beautiful journey begins again on Friday night. Let's try and fill in the blanks as best we can between then and Mon., April 4.
This will be the fifth college hoops season your humble narrator has covered for SB Nation. While the misfires have far outnumbered the victories, the one area where he has had consistent success has been picking national champions before the start of the season. Since Nov. 2011, the one shot that has found nothing but rim has been Louisville's repeat attempt in 2013-14 ... which he believes still would have happened had the Cardinals not ran into their large archrivals in the Sweet 16.
So here's your prediction for the last team standing five months from now: the Kentucky Wildcats, who will claim the ninth title that everyone in Lexington believed was coming a year ago.
Though Kentucky carries the same coaches' poll ranking into this season as they did 12 months ago, there are few in Lexington who believe this group would match up all that favorably with the team that came so close to being college basketball's first unblemished champion in nearly four decades. That doesn't necessarily mean that the 2015-16 Cats don't have a better shot at finishing their season with some net-cutting.
From the first day of the 2014-15 season, the overwhelming consensus was that a "great" team was going to win the national championship. There were five or six teams that appeared to fit that mold, and it would have been extremely surprising if one of those squads didn't wind up claiming the title. One of them did. It just wasn't Kentucky. The Wildcats were a great team in a season that featured a handful of other great teams. They ran up against one of those teams on the season's final weekend, and that great team was better than they were on that particular night. It's as simple, and as painful, as that.
The sport's landscape would appear to be more navigable in 2015-16. There is no overly apparent dividing line between the group of teams who should rule the season and those who are merely staring up in envy. For Kentucky, a squad with yet another loaded class of newcomers, a returning starter at the most key of positions on a Calipari team and a couple battle-tested bigs, this is an appealing setup.
Timing isn't everything in college basketball, but it's more important than it is in any other major American sport. Overwhelmingly positive or negative work that took four months to comprise can be completely wiped away by one or two good or bad weeks in March. In keeping with that theme, improved timing might be more important than an improved team when it comes to Kentucky's quest for championship No. 9.
College basketball's rules committee took part in a noble endeavor in 2013-14, when they made significant alterations to the block/charge call, as well as what does and does not constitute a defensive foul. The goal was to create more freedom of movement and increase scoring. The second of those checkpoints was achieved, as scoring rose from the historic low of 67.5 points per team from the previous season to 71.0 points per team.
Unfortunately, the bulk of that increase in scoring came from the free throw line, as teams didn't change the way they were defending even after being whistled for bundles of fouls each night out. Foul calls rose to an average of 19.11 per game, and the cries of discontent from home crowds across the country were so loud and so consistent that officials had all but abandoned enforcing the new rules by the time February rolled around.
After the 2013-14 season, the rules committee officially reversed course and abandoned its attempt to limit defensive contact and curtail the "everything's a charge" culture. The result? Scoring dipped right back to where it had been two seasons prior and complaints about the state of the game rose to an all-time high.
What the committee did next was a stroke of genius: they agreed to the highly-publicized changing of the shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds and widening the lane, while quietly bringing back the old "freedom of movement" rules. This might not sit well with fans when they discover the "deceit" during the season's opening weeks, but ultimately it will prove to be the right thing for the game. It took the NBA two seasons of complaining from both the players and fans before everyone finally adjusted to a similar set of rules, and 15 years later the sport is in a much better place.
When I say "crash" I don't mean like No. 7 seed Connecticut/Michigan State or No. 8 seed Kentucky. I mean like 11th-seeded VCU or some other team from a non-Power 5 conference. It's gonna be a wild March.
The widely held belief seems to be that the best formula for an NCAA Tournament is a host of upsets on the opening weekend, and then a restoration of order that results in a Final Four loaded with perennial powers. Well, we've gotten that for two years in a row, and while it was cool, I'm game for someone off the beaten path to end their season in Houston. I also think the setup is perfect for it to happen this season.
The Purple Aces are one of the few teams in the Missouri Valley with the potential to spoil the fun for Wichita State this season, and the biggest reason why is their senior guard. One of the best pure scorers in the game, Balentine enters his final collegiate season with 1,766 career points after pouring in 20.1 per game as a junior. I'll take him over the likes of Kyle Wiltjer, Kahlil Felder, Stefan Moody and Malik Newman because he has fewer offensive weapons around him.
It's not quite "death and taxes," but Kansas basketball winning at least a share of the Big 12 regular season championship has certainly entered the "Meryl Streep nominated for a major acting award" realm of certainties.
Every offseason it seems like we're flooded with a handful of fresh reasons why this season is going to be different. Last season's dose of denial came in the form of the Big 12 being atypically strong in the middle and at the bottom, and the Jayhawks having to cope with the losses of No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins and No. 3 pick Joel Embiid.
Instead, things went the way they've gone for more than a decade, and the Jayhawks hoisted the Big 12's regular season championship trophy for an 11th straight season.
To put things in perspective, the last time KU's name didn't end up on the Big 12 championship trophy, Louisville and Cincinnati were members of Conference USA, LeBron James was in the middle of his rookie season in the NBA, and SB Nation did not exist. Just two programs have dominated their conference in this fashion before: UCLA, which won the Pac-12 for 13 straight seasons (1967-79), and Gonzaga, which saw its 11-year run atop the West Coast Conference end in 2011. John Wooden was only in Westwood for the first nine of those Bruin championships, which means Bill Self is just one title away from becoming the first coach ever to win 12 straight.
Reloading has become a staple of the Self era in Lawrence, which has seen 20 Jayhawks selected in the NBA Draft since 2005, 14 of whom left school at least one year early. Darrell Arthur has become Marcus Morris, who's become Thomas Robinson, who's become Andrew Wiggins, who's become Kelly Oubre, and so on and so on.
Despite the influx of next-level talent, Kansas has continued to win by doing things the Self way, which, ironically, requires each future professional to put team before self. Just once in the past decade (Wayne Simien in 2004-05) has a Jayhawk player averaged more than 20.0 points per game. It's a recipe that has resulted in a pair of Final Four appearances, a national championship, five No. 1 seeds in the last nine years and an NCAA Tournament seeding of four or better for the past 12 years.
Even with two other Big 12 teams (Iowa State and Oklahoma) starting their seasons ranked in the top 10, it feels foolish to doubt Self's ability to maintain the status quo.
Three years ago, Tom Crean was on top of the college hoops world. He was the conquering hero who had revived Hoosier basketball from the lowest low that a majority of the fan base had ever experienced. He was the head coach of a team with two potential All-Americans and the perfect mix of experienced upperclassmen and talented youth. He was the man in charge of the most talented college basketball team in America, and the group most likely to cut down the nets in Atlanta five months later.
There had been problems along the way, of course.
Indiana fans had expected some hard years in the wake of the Kelvin Sampson debacle, but Crean's first three teams going a combined 28-66 and 8-36 in Big Ten play had tested the patience of even the most resolute Hoosier. There were off the court things, too. Eli Holman broke a potted plant in Crean's office after a conversation between the two about Holman's transfer went sour, Austin Rivers tweeted that Crean was "a joke" while his brother, Jeremiah, was playing for the Hoosiers, and Crean was hit with a secondary violation for having illegal contact with eventual Michigan State star Gary Harris. It was all stuff that made the Alumni Hall faithful go, "it happens."
What Indiana fans couldn't and haven't been able to shrug off is what happened at the end of the 2012-13 season: Tom Crean didn't cash in.
Despite heading up a team that included the eventual No. 2 and No. 4 selections from the 2013 NBA Draft, Crean's 2012-13 Hoosiers failed to win 30 games and dropped a 61-50 Sweet 16 game against Syracuse in which they looked totally intimidated by the bigger and more physical Orange. A 17-15 hangover season later, and suddenly the recruiting swings and misses weren't so easy to brush off. Suddenly the jokes about the the Sweet 16 shirts and cutting down the nets after a home loss sting a little bit more than they did at the time they were first conceived.
Suddenly, the off-court stuff was being used as justification for calling for the head coach's job.
Indiana's 2014-15 season was essentially a microcosm of Crean's entire time in Bloomington. The season started with some fans and writers calling for the head coach's head. Two months later, another faction of fans and media members were lambasting the others after the Hoosiers' surprisingly prolific start. Fast forward a few more weeks, and Indiana is tanking and the first group is thumping its collective chest again. Then, finally, the Hoosiers save enough face to make the NCAA Tournament, lose a close game in the first round, and leave everyone without any sort of definitive answer yet again.
But let's go back to 2013. What if Crean and IU had made it to Atlanta like they were supposed to? What if the Hoosiers hadn't felt like underachievers all season? What if they hadn't looked shaky against Temple in the Round of 32 and terrified against Syracuse four days later? What if Crean was, at worst, the guy who had gotten Indiana basketball back to the Final Four? There would be criticism, sure, but there would also be a whole lot more folks in Bloomington tossing out statistics regarding underage drinking in college and pointing to the unpunished failed drug tests at other major programs.
One way or the other, it feels like things in Bloomington are coming to a head in 2015-16. Crean got another year with the Hoosiers, and he also got the same deal from stars Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon Jr., as well as incoming freshman stud Thomas Bryant. It's an IU team that begins its season with a top 15 national ranking and the potential to go where no Hoosier team has gone since Dane Fife was wearing candy stripes.
The difference between "the guy has no control over anything" and "he's done a hell of a job considering the knuckleheads he has to work with" is razor thin -- say, a handful of regular season wins and a couple of NCAA Tournament victories. That's the line Crean will walk over the course of the next five months, and when all is said and done, I think it's a line that he will traverse successfully.
The only thing more bizarre than Brian Gregory's original hiring at Georgia Tech is the fact that he's been able to keep his job in Atlanta this long.
Gregory was on the verge of being forced out at Dayton (which has been just fine without him) before then Georgia Tech athletic director Dan Radakovich tossed him a lifeline. Since then, Gregory has yet to lead the Yellow Jackets to a postseason tournament of any sort (other than conference) or an ACC finish better than ninth. In fact, Tech has finished with a winning record just once under Gregory, a 16-15 run in 2012-13.
The major difference between Gregory and the other major conference names on the proverbial "hot seat" list is that most of the others have at least some legitimate inkling of hope for the future. Georgia Tech has a solid senior returnee in Marcus Georges-Hunt and a good shooting transfer in Adam Smith, but there's really nothing there to indicate that the Jackets are going to be significantly better any time soon. Unless GT somehow finds a way to become one of the season's most surprising overachievers, the program will be searching for a new head coach during the first half of March.
The Battle 4 Atlantis has made a meteoric rise to the top of the early season tournament power rankings thanks to its ability to lure the best fields to the Bahamas for Thanksgiving weekend. That same phenomenon resulted in a TV deal with ESPN, which officially set the event up as the main November challenger to the Maui Invitational.
While the Battle 4 Atlantis appears to be loaded for years to come, the old island mainstay may win the battle later this month thanks to a loaded group of eight teams that includes Indiana, Kansas, St. John's, UCLA, UNLV, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest and host Chaminade. Don't be surprised if at least three of those teams wind up making it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
The last two years have gone too according to plan when it comes to predicting the last unbeaten standing. This is the season we get back to a team like Valparaiso or Louisiana Lafayette (watch out for an upset of Miami) carrying the flag. I could also see a team slightly out of the spotlight like Cal also achieving the feat.
With Duke stealing Kentucky's thunder last season and also beginning to emerge as the new king of the one-and-done, it seems like there's even more of a pseudo rivalry between these two powers than there typically is. We know they'll square off in the headline game of the Champions Classic on Nov. 17, but they're also going to meet up in the NCAA Tournament four months later where the Wildcats will exact a bit of redemption for losing what they believed was rightfully theirs in 2014-15.