College basketball is finally knocking on the door. While the occasional out of conference match-ups can be fun, the real grit comes in conference play.
Rivalries and intense competition pave the gridiron of the season on the way to the ultimate goal. The March Madness Tournament is the light at the end of the tunnel for college basketball teams and winning their conference secures their team a spot in the big dance.
The season is just beginning, but the following are who I predict will eventually win their conference.
Athletic Coast Conference:
Virginia surprised many last season when they went on to win the ACC regular season crown as well as the ACC Tournament.
The Cavaliers were even granted a 1-seed in the annual March Madness tournament, but fell to Michigan State in the Sweet Sixteen.
However, Virginia wasn't the ACC's only hope in the tournament. North Carolina, Duke, Pitt and N.C. State all earned bids in the March tournament.
Duke and N.C. State were eliminated in their first games in the tourney and North Carolina, Pitt and N.C. State all followed suit in the following round. Once the greatest conference in college basketball, the ACC was all but forgotten by the Elite Eight.
Luckily for fans on the Atlantic coast, it's a brand new season. Despite being upset in the first round to Mercer, Duke landed two of the top four prospects for this season, including the No. 1 ranked Jahlil Okafor.
In-state rival North Carolina convinced guard Marcus Paige to return for another season as well as adding high ranking recruits in Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson.
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim will have to completely retool his team for the season, but with one of the best coaches in basketball, the Orange should never be counted out. Virginia, Pitt and Boston College all have potential to make some noise in conference play as well.
The most interesting story of the season will surely be the new addition of the Louisville Cardinals and how the team that won it all in 2013 affects conference play.
That being said, I think Coach K rallies the Blue Devils for some vengeance this year after a couple of disappointing seasons. Jahlil Okafor will be a daunting monster in the paint and Tyus Jones' clever facilitating passes should lead the offense to a much better season, even without the likes of Jabari Parker.
Last season the Big 10 was one of the most competitive conferences in basketball. The Michigan Wolverines won the regular season crown, but went on to lose to rival Michigan State in the Big 10 Tournament.
Three teams from the Big 10 would eventually make up the Elite Eight of last year's March Madness tournament, but it was Wisconsin that survived the furthest. The Badgers lasted all the way to the Final Four, and without a last second buzzer beater from Aaron Harrison, would have made it all the way to the finals.
As for this season, I think Wisconsin's success from last season's tournament carries over into conference play. Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State all lost key starters in the off season while the Badgers have many of their players returning for another season.
Most notably is forward Frank Kaminsky, who was just recently named the No.1 player in college basketball by ESPN. The schools from Michigan and Ohio State have legendary basketball programs and will certainly be competitive, but Wisconsin has the talent to considerably dominate the Big 10 this season.
Kansas, per usual, won the Big 12 last season but surprisingly didn't even make the Big 12 Conference Tournament Finals. Iowa State was the eventual winner with a program that seemingly gets better every year. But after the Kansas Jayhawks landed No. 3 recruit Cliff Alexander in the off season, Kansas is the favorite to win the Big 12 yet again.
Surprisingly edging them out in recruiting was the Texas Longhorns who one-upped Kansas by locking in the No. 2 recruit in the nation, 7 footer Myles Turner. Things have finally got interesting in the Big 12. Add a newly dangerous Iowa State to the mix along with the likes of Oklahoma and Iowa, and this season could make for the most competitive Big 12 play in quite some time.
The Jayhawks have a lot to prove after only winning one game in last year's NCAA Tournament before being bounced out by Stanford. Head coach Bill Self lost star players Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid to the NBA Draft, but has his Kansas team prepared for another big run.
However, the Jayhawks have seemingly lost some intensity as well as competitive spirit these last few years and it causes me some hesitation when choosing the Big 12 winner.
So instead of the favored Jayhawks, I'll pick Texas. The Longhorns have their best recruit since Kevin Durant in Myles Turner and I think excitement and ferocity will carry them a long way.
This conference is a very easy one to predict. The Arizona Wildcats won last year's regular season title and despite losing stars Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, I predict they do it again.
With the new addition of Stanley Johnson, the Wildcats will put up the points to match their top tier defense. Head coach Sean Miller is among the elite coaches in college basketball and he will surely have his team ready for a run at the title.
I can't imagine any team giving Arizona problems to Arizona and the only other team even ranked in the pre-season polls to match #2 Arizona is the #24 ranked Utah Utes.
UCLA will continue its downward spiral and a new team has replaced them as the flagship program of the PAC-12. For more on the Arizona Wildcats, here is the link to my Wildcats season preview.
The battle for the Southeastern Conference will be a two-horse race. The Florida Gators, led by head coach Billy Donovan, won the regular season and the conference tournament to cap off an undefeated season in conference play last year.
The Gators, for the most part, avoid the potential one-and-done players and uniquely revolve their team around veteran leadership and teamwork. This method has been successful for the Gators as last year they entered the March Madness tournament as a 1-seed and made it to the Final Four.
Standing in the way of the Gators' success is the preseason No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats. Last season, after boasting a starting five of all freshman top recruits, Kentucky struggled early on. However under the leadership of coach John Calipari and the hot hand of Aaron Harrison, the Wildcats caught fire in the March Madness tournament and made it all the way to the finals before losing to UConn.
However, this year will be different for Big Blue. While they did indeed lose stars Julius Randle and James Young to the draft, they brought back more than what they lost. The Harrison Twins, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein and Marcus Lee all returned for another season.
Add top 10 recruits Trey Lyles and Karl Towns Jr. to the mix and the Kentucky Wildcats have the most talented team in college basketball. Florida has the experience and veteran leadership to lead them to another succesful season. But unfortunately for the Gators, this season UK has all that and more.
For more on the Kentucky Wildcats, here is the link to my season preview of UK basketball.