Plenty of the usual bluebloods figure to contend for a championship, but it’s a season of many possibilities for several teams, and it’s something coaches notice as well.
“I definitely do,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright, who brings back three starters with considerable experience from a 33-3 team. “Usually that’s a product of what Kentucky and Duke and North Carolina do with recruiting because those are the favorites a lot of years. Last year was interesting because of Wisconsin, all their guys stayed and they had a veteran team, as well as Kentucky. This year, there doesn’t seem like there’s one specific team.”
Polls — and preseason polls in particular — are grain-of-salt ventures. The last preseason No. 1 to claim the national title was North Carolina in 2009, and four of the last six preseason No. 1s didn’t reach the Final Four (and Kentucky did so in 2014 only after enduring a turbulent regular season and earning a No. 8 seed). But the polls do provide a glimpse at perception. And with five schools earning first-place votes in the Associated Press preseason poll for the first time since 2010, there is a sense this season is difficult to handicap.
That’s especially true when the allocation of the first-place votes are examined. Four schools (Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland and North Carolina) received at least five nods as the preseason favorite, something that hasn’t happened in the AP poll since 2004.
“There’s so many unknowns,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, who has a veteran roster but graduated arguably the two best players from an ACC tournament champion and regional finalist. “There’s not one or two or three teams that are a lock for the Final Four. A lot of things are going to develop when you have a team like mine that’s probably in the top 30 somewhere. You like that there’s always hope. I like it. I think it’s going to play out with great drama this college basketball season.”
The teams starting at the top aren’t impervious. North Carolina, the preseason No. 1 with an undeniably deep roster, will be without senior guard Marcus Paige (broken hand) in the season’s opening weeks. The Tar Heels haven’t reached a regional final since 2012, a blip most programs wouldn’t think about but the longest such drought in Chapel Hill since the three Matt Doherty years and coach Roy Williams’ first season.
Kentucky seems like something of a hybrid of the last two years, at least at this stage. The 2014 team was largely constructed around freshmen, and last year’s Wildcats were deeper and more seasoned. Coach John Calipari’s roster this year includes holdovers like senior Alex Poythress and sophomore Tyler Ulis, but the Wildcats still have their usual influx of freshman talent that might take time to coalesce.
Another program receiving its share of hype: Maryland. The Terrapins haven’t escaped the first weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2003, but have amassed an impressive array of talent — from sophomore guard Melo Trimble to senior wing Jake Layman to graduate transfer Rasheed Sulaimon (Duke) to skilled big man Robert Carter Jr. (Georgia Tech) to coveted freshman center Diamond Stone.
Without an obvious favorite, there’s room in the discussion for a team like Maryland — and many others.
“Obviously, Kentucky was special last year, but I think every year there’s 15 to 20-some teams that can win a national championship, that are good enough, that have the talent, that can get hot at the right time,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said. “There’s just no dominant team, no six first-rounders or five or whatever they had. It is exciting for the country.
Both Kansas and Virginia are known quantities at this stage, with the Jayhawks returning Perry Ellis and three other starters while the Cavaliers bring back fifth-year senior Malcolm Brogdon as they seek their third consecutive 30-win season. But both teams were bounced in the NCAA tournament’s Round of 32 in March.
That leads to one of the roots of the possible free-for-all: The teams that went deep into last year’s tournament all lost substantial pieces.
Three Duke freshmen were first-round selections in June’s NBA Draft, and guard Quinn Cook is also gone. Wisconsin loses national player of the year Frank Kaminsky and several other veterans. Kentucky exported four lottery picks to the NBA. While a surprise semifinalist, Michigan State is now without Branden Dawson and Travis Trice.
Even the regional finalists took major hits. Arizona and Louisville both lost four starters, and Notre Dame graduated stars Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant. Even Gonzaga, which figures to have one of the best front lines in the country, fields a backcourt littered with players adjusting to new roles.
Then there’s the matter of the changes to the rule book and how the game will be officiated. The reduction of the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30 is a considerable adjustment, and while it could prod more teams to fall into a zone, it might not be the biggest change.
Assuming there is a season-long commitment to greater freedom of movement for players without the ball — a point of emphasis for officials this season — it could have a substantial impact. Veteran coaches witnessed such points of emphasis at various times in the last decade, only for things to revert to normal once conference play commences.
Brey believes that might not be the case this time around after hearing from J.D. Collins, the new national coordinator of officials, last month at the ACC’s media day.
“I’ve never seen a mandate so strong,” Brey said.
In any case, the tweaks lend an experimental feel to the early portion of the season, and the ability of teams to adapt to the new rules package could also influence a wide-open season.
“If a certain team adjusts to it really well, it gives them a chance to be better than predicted,” said Wright, who does not believe the shot clock changes will make a major difference. “It’s one of those years where that could have an impact.”
The discussion of a wide-open season is fine for now. Soon enough, though, coaches will have plenty concerns beyond the potential parity at the top of the sport.
“It’s like for 15 seconds and then you back into your bunker and it’s about grinding and surviving regular-season league play,” Brey said. “It’s about whether you can do enough to get a bid.”