Your 2015-16 College Basketball Primer

College basketball gets underway this weekend, and The Sports Fan Journal is here to get you ready with everything you need to watch for as we start our journey to March. Let’s jump right in.

Best Conference: ACC

Determining the best conference for this season depends on how you define “best.” If you want to define it by the cream of the crop, then the top-heavy ACC would be the pick. If you feel that strength from top to bottom is a better indication of quality, then you may be inclined to go with the Big 12. Let’s highlight what each has to offer, and you can draw your own conclusions.

ACC teams make up 50 percent of the top six of the preseason Coaches Poll, with North Carolina sitting at 1, Duke at 4 and Virginia at 6. That's a pretty impressive feat and will lead to some thrilling basketball in what should be a very intense battle for the conference championship.

North Carolina, a squad that boasts six McDonald’s All-Americans, is the preseason favorite. The Tar Heels return their top four scorers from last season, including senior guard Marcus Paige. Guard play and experience are huge come March, and Paige gives UNC both. Expect the Tar Heels to make noise all season long and into the spring.


Duke finds itself in the opposite situation of its rivals. The Blue Devils lost their top five scorers from a season ago and will rely heavily on newcomers. Luckily for them, they aren’t short on diaper dandies. Brandon Ingram and Derryck Thornton will look to fill the scoring void left by last season’s departures and should be among the highest-scoring freshman in the nation.

Duke will rely on senior Amile Jefferson for leadership as the young guys find their way in the college game. There is no shortage of talent on this Blue Devils roster, and they should be a force in the ACC. However, that lack of experience could hurt them come March.

Head coach Tony Bennett has developed Virginia into a powerhouse. The Cavaliers will look to rebound from last season’s early exit from the NCAA tournament, where they lost in the second round as a 2 seed. Senior guard Malcolm Brogdon will be the focal point for the Cavaliers, but there are question marks as to where his help will come from. They will be right in the mix for the top spot in the ACC and have been a trendy pick to reach the Final Four. I don’t see their ceiling being quite that high, but this squad is no joke.

Meanwhile, the Big 12 has five teams in the top 25, including three in the top 10. Kansas sits at 5, while Iowa State is 7 and Oklahoma is 8. In addition, Baylor sits 21, while West Virginia is 23.

Kansas is the favorite here, led by senior Perry Ellis and juniors Wayne Seldon Jr. and Frank Mason III. One question mark for the Jayhawks is the eligibility of highly touted recruit Cheick Diallo, who has hired an attorney as he waits for a ruling from the NCAA. Regardless of Diallo’s status, Kansas is primed for another stellar season and a deep run come March.

Iowa State was prematurely ousted from last season’s NCAA tournament, losing to 14-seeded UAB (and busting my bracket in the process). The Cyclones enter 2015-16 on a mission to avenge that loss. They boast a roster full of upperclassmen, led by Georges Niang, one of the best players in the NCAA. Point guard Monte Morris is another player to watch on this team. They should push Kansas for a Big 12 championship and could be a team to watch come tournament time.

Oklahoma returns Big 12 Player of the Year Buddy Hield and his impressive offensive game. Hield’s offense combined with the Sooners' great defense will allow Oklahoma to be a thorn in the sides of its Big 12 competition and make a push for the top of the standings.

Baylor and West Virginia round out the Big 12’s ranked contingent. Baylor will lean on senior forwards Rico Gathers and Taurean Prince. Gathers averaged a double-double last season, and if he can replicate that success, Baylor could be a team on the upswing.

After making a run to the Sweet 16 last season, West Virginia faces some question marks after losing leading scorer Juwan Staten. The Mountaineers could take a step back this season, but along with Baylor, they will provide more of a push against the three favorites than UNC, Duke and Virginia will get in the ACC. The Big 12 should provide more intriguing matchups on a night-in, night-out basis.

Potential Surprise Conference: Big East

No, this year’s iteration of the Big East is not the Big East we remember from the conference’s superpower days. But the “new” Big East has been solid since its inception two seasons ago, last year sending six of its 10 teams to the Big Dance.

Currently, only Villanova (9) and Butler (22) are ranked. But Georgetown, Providence, Xavier and Marquette are all lurking just outside the top 25.

Villanova is the early favorite. The Wildcats will be led by senior Ryan Arcidiacono. He can make big shots, plays with great energy and has a very unselfish game, always looking to set up his teammates. He is the unquestioned leader of this team now that JayVaughn Pinkston has graduated.

Junior Josh Hart has shown steady improvement during his time at Villanova, and the Wildcats will look for that to continue to help make up for the loss of leading scorer Darrun Hilliard. Daniel Ochefu gives 'Nova a solid piece down low, but the most intriguing player for the Wildcats is highly ranked freshman Jalen Brunson, who is expected to make an immediate impact. Winning MVP at the U-19 Championships has only added to the excitement. Brunson will combine with Arcidiacono, Hart and sophomore Phil Booth to form a backcourt grouping that will see the Wildcats at times employing the four-guard look that they used successfully in the mid-2000s.

There are some very good players in this conference, players who may be getting overlooked because of their schools or because of the loss of clout the Big East has experienced. Georgetown’s D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera (16 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists per game last year) and Providence’s Kris Dunn (16 points, 8 assists, 6 rebounds) are both conference Player of the Year candidates, and some have mentioned Dunn in National Player of the Year discussions. Don't sleep on Marquette freshman Henry Ellenson either, who is one of the best freshman in the country.

Despite a lack of preseason hype, the Big East could once again send six teams to the tournament.

Teams Outside The Top 10 That Could Make Noise

Wichita State (12)

The Shockers have gone to four straight NCAA tournaments under coach Gregg Marshall. They announced their presence in a big way with a run to the 2013 Final Four and followed that up with a 35-1 regular season and No. 1 seed in 2014. Last season’s squad went 30-5 and returns senior guards Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, giving them one of the nation’s best backcourts. With that guard play and experience, the Shockers could be a problem come March.

Cal (14)

Cal struggled to an 18-15 record last season but will look to make a huge jump in 2015-16. The Bears return their two leading scorers from last season, Tyrone Wallace (17 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists) and Jordan Mathews (13.6 ppg.) Joining them will be two highly touted recruits in Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb. With the mix of experience and youth, the Bears will push Arizona at the top of the Pac-12 and be in position to make a deep run in the tournament.

UConn (24)

A pair of newcomers will lead the Huskies this season. Seton Hall transfer Sterling Gibbs and his 16 points per game scoring average lead the way. He will be helped by freshmen Jalen Adams and as Amida Brimah, who will anchor the frontcourt, while Daniel Hamilton and Rodney Purvis will chip in as well. The Huskies missed the tournament last year, but head coach Kevin Ollie has shown he can take a middle-of-the-pack team on a championship run.

3 Other Players to Watch

Ben Simmons, Freshman, LSU

The 6-10 forward was the nation’s No. 1 recruit. Simmons immediately steps in as the Tigers' focal point offensively. He possesses great ball-handling and passing skills for a player his size, and LSU will look for him to be a play-maker as a point forward. Shooting the ball is where Simmons has the most need for improvement, but his skills make him the potential No. 1 pick in next year’s NBA draft.

Diamond Stone, Freshman, Maryland

Another big man, the 6-10 Stone will look to play his role on a talented Maryland team that has Final Four aspirations. Offensively gifted, Stone is great around the basket and can step out a little bit and knock down a jumper. He will look to improve on the defensive end of the floor, but this youngster has NBA lottery potential. He also has an awesome name.

DeAndre Bembry, Junior, St. Joe’s

A bit of a sleeper here, Bembry isn’t a highly touted freshman, and his team will more than likely not be making any kind of March run. But that doesn’t mean he should be ignored. The 6-6 forward averaged 17.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game last season. He plays with high energy and does a little bit of everything on the floor. If you haven’t had a chance to check him out, you definitely should.

There won’t be any shortage of great plays and great matchups this college basketball season, and we can’t wait. Check back with us throughout the season for more insights and coverage of developing story lines, and most importantly, enjoy the season.

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