Well, the return of college basketball is nigh. (That word sounded better before it was actually written.)
So let’s take a look at the top 10 storylines entering the 2015-16 season. (Ma$e’s “Welcome Back” should be on everyone’s playlist right now.)
1. Is this Kentucky squad overrated?
It’s fair to ask this question. Kentucky has finished first (2013) or second (2014, 2015) in RecruitingNation’s rankings of the nation’s top incoming classes in the three years since Anthony Davis led the Wildcats to the 2012 national championship. Talent has never been an issue for John Calipari at Kentucky. But this season’s squad lacks some of the obvious panache that has defined past Kentucky rosters, and it also faces more questions, such as: How will Tyler Ulis handle full-time point guard duties? Plus, some of the Kentucky teams that looked like juggernauts in recent preseasons (the 2013 NIT squad and the 2014 Final Four team that finished 22-9 during the regular season and 12-6 in the SEC) fizzled in key stretches. Elite recruits (Skal Labissiere, Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray) will join legit vets Ulis and Alex Poythress on a squad with as much potential as any team in America in 2015-16. But we’re still not sure whether this team is closer to the 2013 NIT squad, last year’s one-loss titan or something in the middle.
2. Will Ben Simmons become the face of college basketball?
The Australian phenom stands 6-foot-10, and he can do everything. Finish inside. Penetrate. Handle the rock. Shoot, pass, explode. He’s been the projected No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft for years. If he justifies that hype with his performance in what should be his first and only season at this level, Simmons could boost his individual profile and the popularity of the sport, which is always in search of additional mainstream cachet prior to March Madness.
3. Will Tom Crean win back the Indiana fans he’s lost?
“We get anxious, Coach.” That’s what a board of trustees member told Indiana’s leader at a recent event, per ESPN.com senior writer Dana O’Neil’s revealing profile. Crean isn’t naive. He understands the stakes this season. If Indiana struggles, Crean’s seat will get warmer by the day. But he has a group in Bloomington that’s capable of competing for the Big Ten title and more. Yogi Ferrell anchors a crew comprising the best Hoosiers team, on paper, of the post-Cody Zeller era. And if Crean can get this team to stay focused and avoid additional off-court troubles, he might extinguish the fire that’s spreading beneath him.
4. Is this the last national title shot for Roy Williams?
Right now, North Carolina’s incoming class is ranked 14th by RecruitingNation, although recent commit Seventh Woods should elevate that slot. The Tar Heels were 33rd in 2015. Rasheed Wallace ain’t walkin’ through that door, folks. Sure, the Tar Heels are ranked No. 1, but they’ll lose Marcus Paige and other key contributors after this season. That fact, coupled with the NCAA drama, suggests that Williams could be coaching his last team with the goods to compete for a national title before he exits the game, whether by choice or external pressure that the NCAA’s pending penalties might create.
5. Will Rick Pitino survive the Louisville sex scandal?
Katina Powell’s book about a sex-for-cash arrangement she says she made with former assistant Andre McGee spawned investigations by the school’s brass, law enforcement and the NCAA. That’s a lot of heat. Pitino hasn’t been tied directly to any accusations, but the cloud of uncertainty will hover until the inquiries are all completed.
6. Is it really wise to go all-in with Maryland?
"If you would have asked me two years ago if this was possible, I would have said no way," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon told ESPN.com’s Eamonn Brennan about last season’s NCAA tournament team. "It just kind of all came together." But we don’t know if this year’s team is “together” yet. There's an abundance of talent in College Park. Now it’s up to Turgeon to streamline this operation. If that happens, the Big Ten should run for the hills. If it doesn’t, Turgeon might want to.
7. Will Kansas get 12 conference titles in a row?
The Jayhawks are looking for their 12th consecutive Big 12 title, and they are, again, the favorite to win the league. This is some Roman Empire-like dominance. And it will continue unless respectable threats Oklahoma, Iowa State, Baylor, West Virginia or Texas can stop them.
8. Is Cal the new king of the Pac-12?
It's hard to find a better starting five than the crew Cuonzo Martin will guide in Berkeley: Jaylen Brown, Ivan Rabb, Tyrone Wallace, Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews. Yeah, Arizona is the preseason favorite, but Cal’s nucleus is the league’s best. Cal could -- and perhaps should -- claim the Pac-12 championship in 2015-16.
The two seniors helped America’s favorite underdog earn that status with a 2013 Final Four appearance, a 35-0 start and a No. 1 seed in 2014 and a Sweet 16 victory over Kansas last season. But the duo will depart after this season. How will their last chapter at Wichita State, ranked 10th entering the season, end?
10. How will the 30-second shot clock affect the game?
Some think the five-second reduction in the shot clock will turn college basketball into “NBA Jam.” Others think the pace problems could persist -- per KenPom.com, American finished last in average possession length at 21.9 seconds -- because teams weren’t taking a bunch of shots with just a few seconds remaining on the previous shot clock. Either way, the reduction is an admirable attempt to rid the game of some of the sluggishness that’s hindered its overall flow, flavor and mass appeal. Let’s see if it works and place bets on how soon calls for a 24-second shot clock will begin.