Philadelphia, PA – The ball's been tipped, but where we go from here is anyone's guess.
March's madness may extend from November onward as a mass draft exodus, plus question marks, youth or a combination of both at several national powerhouses, have left the door open for several mid-majors led by pre-season All-American candidates.
Prognosticators are looking squarely at Creighton's Doug McDermott and Murray State's Isaiah Canaan as two of this season's dominant presences, and not to look down upon both players' immense talent, but it speaks volumes that two of the nation's top players reside outside power leagues.
Lehigh's C.J. McCollum, San Diego State's Jamaal Franklin and a player whose eligibility was up in the air, UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad, are also mentioned in All-American circles.
There is a growing consensus that Indiana's Cody Zeller is the nation's top player leading the nation's top team, and while Indiana's resurgence is a big story and great for the overall vitality of the sport, no one sees an NBA- ready skill set inside Zeller's slender frame.
He's a very good player being promoted as great, same with McDermott, Canaan and others. And in a season without a veteran standout like former UNC forward Tyler Hansbrough or a freshman phenom like former Kentucky star Anthony Davis, a collection of very good normally leads to chaos, upsets and upstarts not even on our current radar.
It sounds like March already, yet the season is only just over a week old.
This isn't a season for the status quo or the casual fan to just pencil in Duke or Michigan State or North Carolina as national champion. Granted, any of those three could cut down the nets in April, but any or all of the three is just as likely to fall victim on the tournament's first weekend.
We just don't know. North Carolina STATE is seen as the class of the ACC. The one-year-only, 16-team Atlantic 10 is being labeled the nation's deepest league. Conference musical chairs has left Memphis the overwhelming favorite in Conference USA even though the Tigers may not be that good. Michigan may finish third in a stacked Big Ten, and the Wolverines are as talented as they have been in years.
From afar it may sound like From The End of the Bench is hedging its bets, and in casual conversation with those who have chronicled the game for many years, each and every proclamation ended with "but..." and a verbal retreat of the bold prediction made just seconds earlier.
With that said, no one wants to read a season preview wrought with questions and trepidation. You came here for tangible analysis above and beyond a sermon on parity. So, away we go with five bold predictions and a quick conference analysis.
Just don't make a habit of focusing on the column archive. And don't say we didn't warn you. A wild, uncertain ride lies ahead.
5 BOLD PREDICTIONS
1. UNLV reclaimed its place in national discourse early last season after emphatically dismantling North Carolina's perimeter defense. The Runnin' Rebels have the talent and experience to take the leap to the Final Four this season, led by all-everything forward Mike Moser and two key transfers, Bryce Dejean-Jones (USC) and Khem Birch (Pittsburgh). Freshman forward Anthony Bennett has already become a major part of the rotation, scoring 22 points in the season-opening win over Northern Arizona.
2. Jeff Withey is the best player very few are talking about because most see him as a one-end-of-the-floor factor. He isn't, and can't be if the Jayhawks are to compete for a Big 12 title and beyond. It may take awhile, evidenced by his passive eight-point performance in a 67-64 loss to Michigan State, but coach Bill Self now has some time to work an offense around the big man and a roster composed of nearly 50 percent freshmen. I think the Jayhawks will figure it out before a big three-game, mid-December stretch against Belmont, Richmond and Ohio State, and Kansas will once again win the conference crown.
3. Iowa is From The End of the Bench's team to watch this season. If you can only watch one team like a hawk, make sure it's the Hawkeyes, who are poised for a big season in the toughest conference around. Head coach Fran McCaffery finally has a solid, young foundation to build around in freshman Adam Woodbury, Aaron White and Melsahn Basabe. Iowa is built to last in the Big Ten because of that frontcourt, and the Hawkeyes are on their way to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.
4. The Atlantic-10 is a tougher, more complete league than the ACC and Pac-12. Mid-Atlantic hoops fans should sit back and marvel at the collective talent in this perfect storm. VCU and Butler came in a year earlier than scheduled, Temple is hanging around before bolting for the Big East, Saint Joseph's returns all five starters, Richmond went to the Sweet 16 just two years ago, and La Salle is not the bottom dweller it once was. This league is deep with more than half of its teams thinking tournament bid at the season's outset. Who will capture the hardware? For all of the talk about the newcomers, mainstay Saint Joseph's will outlast VCU to win the regular-season title.
5. Indiana is best built to win the national title even if it doesn't win its own league. If I had to pick, and I don't want to, the Hoosiers would be my national title favorite, yet they may lose out to Ohio State, Michigan or even Michigan State in the conference standings. The Big Ten put five teams in the preseason AP Top 25, and that doesn't count the team I exuded man love for back in bold prediction #3. There won't be many off nights in this league, as Purdue, Penn State and Northwestern are all better than most think and Minnesota is a possible tournament team with Trevor Mbakwe back in the fold. Indiana may lose five conference games, and even if it does, I still may consider them the favorite to cut down the nets on the first Monday night in April.
BIG SIX CONFERENCE ANALYSIS
ACC: Can you trust Mark Gottfriend and his team full of temperamental talent? When the going is good this year, and there will be plenty of those times, the Wolfpack will look as advertised. But what happens in Cameron with the game on the line or when next-door neighbor North Carolina is staring them in the face down the stretch? There is some uncertainty there (fitting the national theme). There is also uncertainty after the big three, but also a good amount of intrigue, especially at Maryland after Dez Wells' transfer decision.
Big Ten: Watch Zeller's footwork. He doesn't run as well as his brother Tyler, a gazelle who thrived in Roy Williams' high-octane UNC attack, but he understands the game and how to get position better than most. His touch around in the rim and after contact is also a plus. He and the Hoosiers are the team to beat in a deep league already discussed twice above.
Big 12: I can't fall for Baylor's "talent" until I see how it stands up to pressure. I can't trust Rick Barnes even though Texas appears better on paper. I am on board with Kansas State and Oklahoma State as sleepers because of their grit and star power respectively. Watch the Cowboys' Le'Bryan Nash. He is worth the price of admission.
Big East: The Garden may never be the same, so enjoy this one last Big East conference tournament as we know it. Syracuse and Pittsburgh will jump to the ACC next season, and Notre Dame is leaving soon after, yet for all of the talk about the defections and the turmoil, how good did UConn look the other night? The Huskies showed more togetherness than expected, and while people get lost in the weeds of Jim Calhoun's retirement and Kevin Ollie's inexperience, this team has a lot of talent led by Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Two big barometer games in early December will tell a lot: versus North Carolina State and Harvard.
SEC: By season's end, Kentucky could be as good or even better than last year's national title team. But it will go through growing pains, illustrated by its disappearing act down the stretch in a loss to Duke. Florida's Kenny Boynton looks like a new player, playing within himself and contributing at both ends of the floor. The burden to score appears to have lifted thanks to senior Erik Murphy, who looks like a more aggressive version of his 2011-12 self. I expect the Gators, along with Missouri, to push Kentucky for the conference crown.
Pac-12: It can't get worse, and an argument could be made that it's about to get a whole lot better, especially with Muhammad eligible at UCLA and if Arizona plays to its talent level, which is a notch above its already high conference championship projection. I also have a feeling USC could take a big step forward with Jio Fontan taking on more of a distributor role and J.T. Terrell picking up where he left off at Wake Forest.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Next week we look at the biggest games and teams with the most to prove as preseason tournaments kick into high gear. The 2012-13 Fine 15 is unveiled and From The End of the Bench provides a Top 5 list of thanks, college hoops style.