68 reasons why we're excited about the new college basketball season
Villanova sent us into the offseason the best way possible, with an impossible clutch shot that punctuated an impossible run from a team that many said had impossible odds to win the Big Dance, given the heavyweights ahead of the Wildcats. That parting gift (1) carried us through these months absent of college basketball, but it no longer needs to be the prime source of our excitement (2) because a new season is finally here (3).
New players (4), new contenders (5), new coaches (6), new roles (7), new expectations (8) – but don't worry, there's the same rivalries (9), the same level of difficulty to run the table (10), the same anxiety about witnessing an upset (11) on any given night.
There's plenty of juicy storylines to watch, so take your pick as to which seems to be the most intriguing. For starters, Mike Krzyzewski (12) and John Calipari (13) seem to be on a collision course as the two best teams in the country atop the AP Top 25 poll (14). Can you imagine a Duke (15) vs. Kentucky (16) national championship (17)? The two powerhouses have split their last four regular-season matchups, but they haven't met in the NCAA Tournament since the 1998 Regional Final. We could've seen them square off for all the marbles in 2015, but Wisconsin picked off the previously undefeated Wildcats in the Final Four.
Loaded with talent, Duke (18) stands a strong chance to end the season No.1, much like how it started. The Blue Devils have size, experience and Player of the Year candidate Grayson Allen (19). The 6-foot-5 guard returns for his junior year after averaging 21.6 points, while Luke Kennard (20), Amile Jefferson (21) and Matt Jones (22) will guide a gifted class of newcomers headlined by big man Harry Giles (23), the potential top overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
Kentucky (24), meanwhile, is looking to bounce back from an embarrassing exit in the Round of 32 last year. For just the second time in Calipari's seven seasons at UK, the team failed to reach at least the Elite 8. Despite losing the majority of the roster's core -- Skal Labissiere, Marcus Lee, Jamal Murray, Alex Poythress and Tyler Ulis – Isaiah Briscoe (25) and Derek Willis (26) will greatly improve while integrating another five-star recruiting class.
Outside of those legitimate title contenders, there are plenty of strong teams (27) who will make a case to be favored once March Madness (28) comes around.
Villanova (29) has enough talent to repeat as champions. Oregon (30) notched a school-record 31 wins and returns four starters – including All-American guard Dillon Brooks (31) – one year after claiming a No. 1 seed. Kansas (32), ranked second in the USA Today poll, is going for 13 straight Big 12 crowns, a feat that would match UCLA's streak from 1967-79 (33). Michigan State (34) is reloaded, thanks to the third-ranked recruiting class in the country (35). Plus, we can't stress this enough, we've learned long ago to never (36) count (37) out (38) Tom (39) Izzo (40).
The list can go on and on, when it comes to teams who may steal the show once all those blank brackets (41) are passed around. We also love North Carolina (42), Virginia (43), Xavier (44), Indiana (45), Arizona (46), Wisconsin (47) and Louisville (48).
And how about some smaller schools (49) that are already generating a ton of buzz, such as Rhode Island (50) and Dayton (51)? The Rams, under the leadership of coach Danny Hurley (52), seem to be a favorite to crash the Sweet 16 thanks to the program's trajectory and the return of dynamic duo E.C. Matthews (53) and Hassan Martin (54). Meanwhile, don't' sleep on the Flyers, who will enjoy a fourth consecutive trip to the tournament. Truth be told, the Atlantic 10 produced one of the most interesting conference races down the stretch with three teams – and this should be no different (55).
We can't wait to watch Washington's Markelle Fultz (56), Kansas' Josh Jackson (57), UCLA's Lonzo Ball (58) and NC State's Dennis Smith Jr. (59) play their way onto the All-American Teams as freshmen. We're excited to see how Villanova's Josh Hart (60), Clemson's Jaron Blossomgame (61), Arkansas' Moses Kingsley (62) and Valparaiso's Alec Peters (63) make the most of their senior campaigns.
Trust us, we're not just interested in the biggest conferences. Can Princeton (64) win the Ivy League? How about Belmont (65) coming out of the OVC? Maybe Lehigh (66) can capture the Patriot League and pick off a top seed. Maybe Stephen F. Austin (67) could be a Cinderella.
All of these questions will be answered soon enough, but let's just enjoy this weekend for what it is: The start of a journey to the field of (68).
That's something to dance about.
By: Brian Fitzsimmons