On Friday, North Carolina and Michigan State will play a basketball game on the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego before a crowd that includes President Obama. The extraordinary backdrop creates a high-profile opening act to what could be a banner college basketball season.
After an offensively challenged national title game between Connecticut and Butler and an incessant stream of football-driven conference realignment news, the focus returns to the court.
And many of the most recognizable programs will be at their best, powered by an unusual number of top underclassmen who returned to school. And with the NBA stalled in a work stoppage, college basketball in the coming weeks has center stage of the hoops landscape all to itself.
“This is the year of the blue bloods,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “When I think of Connecticut, North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio State, Duke all kind of in their rightful place at the top of the polls to start the season, it certainly means the blue bloods are back. The exciting thing this year is that we have some teams you can look at and say, ‘These four or five could potentially be great.’ ”
One season after Butler and Virginia Commonwealth earned improbable Final Four berths, upset-minded and capable mid-major programs remain poised to create NCAA tournament drama. But the gap between mid-majors and some traditional powers may be wider this season because of a handful of elite players who unexpectedly returned to school, perhaps in part because of concerns about the NBA’s work stoppage.
As a result, a who’s-who list of schools fills out the top of the polls. The top six teams in the Associated Press preseason top 25 are coached by men who have combined for 28 Final Four appearances and 10 national championships.
For North Carolina, which received 62 of 65 first-place votes in the AP poll, sophomore Harrison Barnes, junior John Henson and senior Tyler Zeller returned to school. Kentucky sophomore Terrence Jones decided to remain after a Final Four appearance. And Ohio State sophomore big man Jared Sullinger is back after collecting 34 double-doubles. All were projected to be first-round NBA draft picks.
“Jared had told me a year ago last summer that he was going to be here for at least two years,” Ohio State Coach Thad Matta said. “So there was no shock and awe in my mind when he announced that he was coming back. He is grounded and true to his word.”
North Carolina re-assembled its roster in a similar fashion before its 2009 national title season, when standouts Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson decided to return. But Coach Roy Williams believes the difference this season is that his team is not the overwhelming favorite it was two seasons ago. Other schools have restocked the same way.
“In ’09, there was North Carolina and perhaps a little gap,” Williams said. “This year, you may pick Ohio State, you may pick Kentucky, you may pick Duke, you may pick North Carolina. There are six or seven teams that are big-time, big-time teams.”
Barnes, who has added 15 pounds of muscle, is one of the faces of the sport. After being named a preseason first-team all-American as a freshman, Barnes initially struggled but closed the season as one of the nation’s most reliable players in the final minutes of close games. Feeding him the ball will be point guard Kendall Marshall, an instinctive passer who Williams said has better court vision that previous Carolina stars Lawson and Raymond Felton.
The flavor of this season takes Fraschilla back two decades, when fans got to know players like Duke’s Christian Laettner and Grant Hill by watching them multiple seasons. Fan familiarity is lost, he said, when players jump to the NBA after freshman seasons.
“They’ve got one foot out the door the moment they arrive,” Fraschilla said. “I think it’s going to enrich the enjoyment of watching college basketball [this season] because we felt like we watched Bobby Hurley grow up over four seasons. Those days will never return, but there’s another layer to college basketball this season because some of these stars are returning. It was fun to watch John Wall for one season, but not as much fun as watching Jared Sullinger for two.”
Kentucky, again an intriguing blend of touted freshmen and veterans, has been dubbed “One and Done U” because of how many recent players have made the leap to the NBA after just one season under Coach John Calipari. In four consecutive seasons, Calipari had a point guard — Derrick Rose (first pick) and Tyreke Evans (fourth) at Memphis, John Wall (first) and Brandon Knight (eighth) at Kentucky — selected among the first 10 picks in the NBA draft.
After Knight departed, Calipari secured arguably the nation’s top recruiting class, which included standouts Anthony Davis, Michael Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. And so the cycle continues in Lexington. Calipari said recently that Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) paid him one of his greatest compliments.
“He came up to me and asked, ‘How many guys are going to leave this year, Coach?’ Calipari said. “I said, ‘Mr. Senator, probably six, five — I'd say maybe six.’ He shook his head and said, ‘You're creating more millionaires than a Wall Street firm.’ And you know what, I kind of liked it.”
The tone-setter for the season will occur Friday in the Carrier Classic. Michigan State and North Carolina will wear camouflage-patterned uniforms, and the deck of the USS Carl Vinson is expected to seat about 7,000 fans, with most tickets given to service members.
“And Magic [Johnson’s] going to be there,” Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said, “the president’s going to be there, and unfortunately those three guys that were supposed to leave last year from Carolina are going to be there. So it's going to be one hell of a deal, and we're looking forward to it.”
The same goes for an entire season that will command attention.