The long road to North Texas begins
Many questions to be answered as season tips off this weekend
And so the basketball season begins, from Air Force to Youngstown State, with 343 other Division I schools in between. The long road to April, to North Texas’ AT&T Stadium and the Men’s Final Four, has to start somewhere – and that would be the Convocation Center in Ypsilanti. Eastern Michigan hosts Albion at noon Friday; the first of all the tipoffs to come.
The intriguing storylines are vast. Not just at Kentucky, where the Wildcats are the first team in 34 years to go from unranked at the end of one season to No. 1 at the beginning of the next, thanks largely to John Calipari’s most vaunted freshman class since ... well, John Calipari’s last freshman class.Not just at Louisville, where Rick Pitino has gathered a few familiar faces from last spring for an attempt to do what only Florida and Duke have accomplished in 40 years – repeat as national champions.
Not just at Kansas, where Bill Self always reloads faster than they do in a Die Hard movie, or else how can a man win nine consecutive conference championships? He turns this season to Andrew Wiggins, the brightest star in a national Milky Way of uber-talented freshman.
Not just at Michigan State, where no player who puts in his four years with Tom Izzo has ever failed to make the Final Four. But it’ll happen if the Spartans miss this season.
Not just in the new Big East, where introductions are in order. Really, what says Big East more than Butler vs. Creighton?
Not just in the ACC, with its famous incoming members. Sometime this winter, Duke and Syracuse will meet as conference rivals, matching Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim, who can both say they led teams into the Final Four in each of the past four decades. Meanwhile, in case anyone is wondering, North Carolina is 16-4 all-time against Notre Dame in basketball. Just like the Tar Heels are 2-16 against the Irish in football.
Not just in the Los Angeles basin, where USC has brought in Andy Enfield of Dunk City renown at Florida Gulf Coast, and across town UCLA has Steve Alford, fervently hoping this hiring of an Indiana native son turns out as well as the last time it tried that. A fellow named Wooden.
The two men will now compete for the hearts and minds (and recruits) of southern California, and if all else fails, they could always decide their differences by a coaches’ free throw contest. Enfield’s 92.5 percentage as a player at Johns Hopkins remains the best in Division III. Alford’s 89.8 at Indiana is the ninth best in Division I.
And not just in the box scores, where there will be much early scrutiny to see what mayhem is being wrought by the new rule cutting down defensive contact. With the scoring last season the lowest since 1952, the keepers of the game decided the court needed more field goals and fewer body checks. Now everyone waits to see if it works. Will there be more freely flowing offense, or a Macy’s parade to the free throw line?
It will take adjustments by all, and not everyone is sold at the beginning. “I don’t like the new rule personally,” Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell was saying the other day. “I’m pretty sure no one does.”
There are storylines for every school, every occasion, every level of experience. Krzyzewski begins his 39th season, while at the other end of the career rainbow, 22 men in Division I will be a head coach for the first time. That includes Buffalo’s Bobby Hurley, once a Krzyzewski point guard.
The incoming freshmen have created a deafening buzz. But there is still marquee space for some of the holdovers who put off the NBA’s siren call and decided to stay, starting with Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart.
Many places dream of championships, but Grambling State, 0-28 last season, would just like to start by winning a game.
The noise is loud from all the new conference alignments, but we should also pause to mention the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders, who will journey through the season as the nation’s one and only independent.
Who is looking forward to a fresh start in the new Big East? Oh sure, the Marquettes and Georgetowns. But how about DePaul, whose conference record the past five years in the old Big East was 7-83?
Kentucky has soared from unranked to the top of the heap, but for truly stunning rapid advancement, consider Towson. Barely two years removed from a 41-game losing streak, the Tigers are among the favorites in the Colonial Athletic Association.
We’ll want to keep track of how Tubby Smith does, starting over again at Texas Tech. How the Larry Brown project is progressing at SMU. How things are going at Ole Miss with the mercurial Marshall Henderson – who in some ways is Johnny Manziel without shoulder pads.
One perennial storyline is whichever coaches need strong seasons to save their jobs. Supposedly, this year that includes Oregon State’s Craig Robinson. But really, would you want to be the athletics director to fire the brother-in-law of the President of the United States?
Other questions must be answered. Is Harvard really loaded? Will VCU’s havoc defense – the busiest collection of thieves since the James gang – again force turnovers on 28 percent of the opponents’ possessions? Can the Baylor basketball team average as many points as the Baylor football team? After back-to-back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, can Florida find one more win in March? How high will South Dakota State’s 30-game home winning streak go?
By now, parity in college basketball is as accepted fact as the theory of relativity. The No. 1 ranked team lost eight times last season and was passed around among five schools – Indiana, Duke, Louisville, Michigan, Gonzaga – like a plate of cookies. In the end, Wichita State was in the Final Four, but only after losing to Evansville during the season. Twice.
So what Cinderella story is out there among the prized freshmen, legendary coaches and conference realignment? There has to be. There always is.