Realignment, balance headline '04-'05

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Starting our preview here makes sense because of the curtain call taking place at Kansas.

The run by the Jayhawks seniors -- starters Wayne Simien, Keith Langford, Aaron Miles and reserve Michael Lee -- is one of the most remarkable in college basketball.

This foursome has been a large part of runs to two Final Fours, including a national title game loss to Syracuse in 2003, and an Elite Eight in 2004. The four have combined for 87 wins, a 12-3 record in the NCAA Tournament and 3,725 points over the past three seasons.

They did all this while also weathering a coaching change from Roy Williams to Bill Self.

"This is rare and it won't happen too often," Self said. "All four guys stayed all four years. In today's climate, that doesn't happen too much anymore."

The Jayhawks seniors are a bit of a symbol as we get ready to tip off the 2004-05 season. They are on their last run, the one they hope will end up with a national title in St. Louis, before they hand over Kansas to a stellar freshman class and an even better one joining the Jayhawks in 2005.

While the change coming in Kansas is a fairly natural transition, the shifting winds that are blowing through the rest of the nation are much more dramatic.

The ACC is now an unbalanced 11-team conference with the addition of Virginia Tech and Miami from the Big East. The unbalanced schedule will directly affect the title race in what is arguably the best conference in the country -- with three teams in the top 10 and six in the preseason Top 25. Wake Forest plays Maryland and North Carolina only once, both at home. Georgia Tech plays North Carolina only in Chapel Hill. N.C. State doesn't have to go to Duke. Maryland doesn't go to Georgia Tech.

The Big East plays this season with 12 teams before bloating to 16 in 2005-06 with the loss of Boston College to the ACC and the addition of Conference USA teams Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette, DePaul and South Florida. How the Big East will manage 16 teams is still to be determined, but it didn't work for the WAC in the '90s.

Conference USA will have one last hurrah as a relevant league before the aforementioned teams depart. C-USA will also say adios to Charlotte and Saint Louis, off to the Atlantic 10, and TCU, which will relocate to the Mountain West. Memphis remains as an anchor, but the additions of Central Florida, Marshall, Tulsa, Rice, SMU and UTEP will lead to a decrease in NCAA Tournament bids.

Change will also occur on the bench when at least one legendary coach steps down. Purdue's Gene Keady has already announced he's leaving the Boilermakers after this, his 25th season in West Lafayette. He handpicked his successor, luring former Purdue player Matt Painter to leave his one-year stint as head coach at Southern Illinois to serve as an apprentice to Keady this season.

Eddie Sutton has already chosen his son, Sean, as his successor but won't name a date when he will step down at Oklahoma State. But his recent injuries -- stitches in his face and five cracks in his tailbone after two different falls -- could speed up his retirement. Lou Henson is fighting back after a viral infection in his brain while also battling cancer. He's not expected to return to the bench at New Mexico State anytime soon, meaning his career could be over. Henson, who like Sutton is a great coach and one of the great characters in the game, is 25 victories shy of 800.

This is also the final year for some of the more unheralded but valuable players to their respective programs, such as Hakim Warrick of Syracuse, Ryan Gomes of Providence, Julius Hodge of N.C. State, Chuck Hayes of Kentucky, Jawad Williams of North Carolina, Ronny Turiaf of Gonzaga, Chris Thomas of Notre Dame and Taylor Coppenrath of Vermont. The Catamounts, led by Coppenrath and fellow senior T.J. Sorrentine, are trying to pull off an unbelievable three straight NCAA Tournament appearances. The last two were Vermont's first -- ever.

Appropriately, Vermont brings us back to Kansas, as the Catamounts open the season in Lawrence on Nov. 19, kicking off the Kansas seniors' farewell tour.

"We've got one more shot at it and we want to leave a legacy here," Simien said. "We've been close, coming down to one shot (against Syracuse) and we were one shot short of going to a Final Four last year (in a loss to Georgia Tech in St. Louis). Anything short of a title would be a disappointment."

Langford sounds even more desperate.

"We have to win it," he said. "I feel so anxious. We've got more Final Four appearances than some teams have in two decades but we still haven't done anything with it."

Miles said he doesn't view Kansas' run of two Final Fours and an Elite Eight special yet, because it lacks a national title. Even Lee, the one role player in the group, is certain how this final season before college basketball goes through a seismic change should end.

"There's only one way, a national championship," Lee said. "Coach Self inherited a good program and he has changed it to make it his own. People say they want to play in a Final Four. We've done that. People say when they come to college they want to play in a national championship game. We've done that. There's nothing left to do but win the title."

Let the quest begin for Kansas, along with Wake Forest and at least 10 to 15 others that start the season believing they could cut the nets down in St. Louis.

Enjoy the ride. It should be as wide open as ever.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.