Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Midnight Madness events are coming up Friday, which means one thing: the long wait for the return of college basketball is coming to an end.
In fact, exactly one month from Tuesday, on Nov. 14, the regular season will begin, as teams start to take to the hardwood for their season openers. While the excitement for the regular season is palpable, this seems like the perfect time to look at April.
After all, what is the regular season but a preamble to the NCAA Tournament, setting the table for naming a national champion. So let's take a look at teams that have a legitimate shot at remaining upright to the bitter end.
As usual, the early favorites come from a small pool of perennial powerhouses. That may not make for as much intrigue, but the reasoning is predicated on recent history. Despite the heroics of programs like Wichita State and VCU in recent seasons, the national title has a habit of winding up in the hands of a select few programs.
Connecticut was a surprise champion last season due to its seventh seed, but that was its third title in the last 11 seasons. In the interim, North Carolina (twice), Florida (also twice), Kansas, Duke (of course), Kentucky and Louisville all ascended to the throne.
Coach John Calipari's Wildcats are the odds-on favorites to win it all this season and in doing so join the Huskies, Gators and Tar Heels with multiple titles in the last decade. According to Bovada, the Wildcats currently have odds of 7-2 to win the national championship, better than any other team in the country.
The surprising reason is the immense wealth Calipari has in returning talent.
You read that correctly.
There are few programs that will ever have a roster featuring players the likes of Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Marcus Lee, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson all at once.
The two Harrisons will rule the backcourt after they combined for 24.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game, with plenty of late-game heroics, last season.
Then there is the incredible rotation the Wildcats will feature up front. Led by Cauley-Stein, Kentucky should have no problem carving out space on the interior. That includes the additions of top-tier freshmen Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles because it just wouldn't be a Calipari squad without a few blue-chip recruits.
All in all, the Wildcats' exceptional depth and added experience make it an easy bet they will avenge their runner-up finish last season and complete the job in 2015. That is, if they can get past the rest of the teams standing in their way.
Kentucky escaped against Wisconsin in last season's Final Four and it may have to repeat the task.
Frank Kaminsky took the college basketball world by storm last March, pushing the Badgers to their first Final Four appearance since 2000 and just their second overall since the expansion of the field to 64 teams. The 7-footer has exceptional offensive ability and overall durability, leading the Badgers in scoring (13.9 ppg) while starting in all 38 games.
One player alone can't win a national title (although Connecticut fans might argue that Shabazz Napier did last season) and luckily for Kaminsky, he won't have to. With Sam Dekker (12.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and Traevon Jackson (10.7 ppg, 4.0 apg) also residing in Madison this season, the Big Ten and the nation as a whole should be on alert.
A preseason favorites list wouldn't be complete without at least one or two teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference. It would look even more odd without Duke at least in the conversation. While Mike Krzyzewski's crew may catch more hate than any program in the country, there is no denying his program's excellence, despite its finish last season. Fans from across the country rejoiced when the third-seeded Blue Devils fell to 14th-seed Mercer in the NCAA tourney.
There's a good chance Duke will get some revenge this season even with Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood each cashing paychecks in the NBA. Sure, Quinn Cook (11.6 ppg, 4.4 apg) and Rasheed Sulaimon (9.9 ppg) are solid returning contributors, but the real reason for the hype in Durham is the youth.
That's right, Coach K and Coach Cal have switched roles this season, with Duke relying on No. 1 overall recruit Jahlil Okafor and excellent point guard prospect Tyus Jones to keep it playing deep into March, although defending ACC champ Virginia and an improved North Carolina squad have other plans.
The Big 12 also will feature an intriguing battle at the top among a trio of national title contenders. Kansas is no surprise, but Texas and suddenly dominant Iowa State also will be in the mix. However, the favorite of the three has to be Kansas.
Bill Self has the proven coaching chops to win a national championship and a roster that could very well get him there. Self lost Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid to the NBA Draft, but he just turned around and picked up a pair of exceptional recruits to fill those spots. Rangy swingman Kelley Oubre and powerful big man Cliff Alexander should fit right in at Allen Fieldhouse. Add in returning players like Perry Ellis (13.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Wayne Selden Jr. (9.7 ppg), and it's tough to imagine any way the Jayhawks aren't in the running come season's end.
The favorites aren't all from east of the Rocky Mountains. Arizona earned a No. 1 seed last season and Wildcats fans want even more from this campaign. Freshman star Aaron Gordon and Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Johnson are no longer playing in Tucson, but coach Sean Miller has done a good job reloading rather than rebuilding.
Freshman Stanley Johnson leads an enticing recruiting class and joins a frontcourt that may just rival Kentucky in versatility. Also in the mix are Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (9.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg), 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski (9.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Brandon Ashley (11.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg), who was an important piece before suffering a torn ligament in his foot last season. Additionally, T.J. McConnell (8.4 ppg, 5.3 apg) should continue to provide a steady force in the backcourt.
For those looking for a team off the beaten path, Gonzaga, San Diego State and perhaps even SMU could crash the party, but smart money is on the customary contenders, as boring as that may be.