1 This is the Big Ten's year to shine » Has it really been 13 seasons since Michigan State last captured a national title for a conference known for cold nights, packed gyms and fierce rivalries? There have been four NCAA tournament runners-up from the Big Ten since the Spartans' championship in 2000 -- this year it could produce half of the Final Four or more. Indiana begins the year as the country's top-ranked team, but No. 4 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan are close behind. No one ever counts out Tom Izzo at Michigan State, and Wisconsin has been to consecutive Sweet 16s. It's a quintet that will be talked about at length during the season. What matters is how deep the teams can go in March.
2 Conference realignment: Ready, set, go! » The program most ready to upset the hierarchy in its new conference could be SEC-newcomer Missouri. Led by dynamic point guard Phil Pressey and Connecticut transfer Alex Oriakhi, the Tigers will present a stiff challenge to Kentucky and Florida. In the Atlantic 10, VCU was picked to finish third, but fellow newcomer Butler will have to work hard to avoid getting lost after years of being the brightest star in the Horizon League. West Virginia was picked a mere sixth in a Big 12 that will be dominated by Kansas and Baylor. Old Dominion, Conference USA-bound next year, will be fighting for an at-large NCAA bid thanks to its tournament ban from the CAA, which is losing relevance at a rapid pace.
3 The Big East and ACC head in different directions » The team everyone is talking about to start the year in the ACC isn't North Carolina or Duke, and that's a good thing. N.C. State's rise -- and Maryland isn't far behind -- means the conference is getting more competitive, and that's before Syracuse, Pittsburgh and eventually Notre Dame come on board. The Orange and the Panthers' send-off this season will lead to nostalgia from every one of their opponents for what was -- but no longer is -- the nation's best basketball conference. (Well, maybe Louisville won't care; the Cardinals are very good, and they have football.) San Diego State and Memphis are both talented, but it will be a long time before they truly feel like Big East teams.
4 The next elite pro talent has to be in here somewhere » After a season reinforced by the NBA lockout, the cabinet isn't as full for the 2013 NBA Draft. That said, one-and-done freshmen always make an impact. Kentucky center Nerlens Noel is the No. 1 prospect, though not the caliber of Anthony Davis or John Wall, and UCLA small forward Shabazz Muhammad is still waiting for NCAA clearance. Both have freshman teammates who should impress, too: small forward Alex Poythress for the Wildcats and small forward Kyle Anderson for the Bruins. Indiana could have June's top pick, sophomore center Cody Zeller, and an NCAA title, but opportunities abound to surge into lottery territory for returners like N.C. State forward C.J. Leslie, Maryland center Alex Len and Georgetown forward Otto Porter.
- Craig Stouffer
Teams to beat
The defending national champions have their annual freshmen reload, bringing in top recruit Nerlens Noel, a 6-foot-10 forward, to fill the void left by No. 1 NBA Draft pick and player of the year Anthony Davis. The Wildcats also have top-20 recruits in small forward Alex Poythress and shooting guard Archie Goodwin to help make up for losing the top six scorers from their championship squad. But the most pressure will fall on point guard and N.C. State transfer Ryan Harrow. Coach John Calipari has had his lead guard drafted in the first round five straight years. Will Harrow be the next guard Calipari transforms into a top NBA pick?
With forward Cody Zeller deciding to come back for his sophomore season, the Hoosiers earned the top spot in the preseason rankings. Zeller averaged 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds a game and helped lead Indiana to the Sweet 16 last year, losing to eventual national champion Kentucky in a 102-90 shootout. The Hoosiers also return senior forward Christian Watford, who was second on the team in scoring (12.6) and rebounding (5.8) last season. Can the Hoosiers live up to the hype? The storied program hasn't made a Final Four since 2002 and hasn't won a title since 1987. The biggest test may be surviving a tough Big Ten schedule.
Last year, Louisville exceeded expectations to win the Big East tournament and make a Final Four run. The Cardinals won with defense. In postseason play, they allowed fewer than 70 points in eight of nine games, including holding Cincinnati to 44 points in the Big East championship and top-seeded Michigan State to 44 points in a Sweet 16 upset. The Cardinals' most dominant defensive presence is back in center Gorgui Dieng, who averaged 3.2 blocks a game. Also returning is leader Peyton Siva, who enters the season as the front-runner to be named Big East player of the year.
N.C. State Wolfpack
It's not Duke or North Carolina that comes in as the preseason ACC favorite for a change. N.C. State has one of the best duos in the country with forward C.J. Leslie and guard Lorenzo Brown. In 2011-12, Leslie averaged 14.7 points and 7.3 rebounds, and Brown averaged 12.7 points, 6.3 assists and 4.5 rebounds. Senior forward Scott Wood should space the floor for the Wolfpack's two stars. Wood made more than 40 percent of his 3-pointers the last two seasons. Also added to the mix is highly regarded freshman shooting guard Rodney Purvis.
- Jeffrey Tomik
Player of the year candidates
Cody Zeller, Indiana
The angular 7-foot sophomore shows amazing toughness, quickness and polish inside as a traditional back-to-the-basket, low-post force. Zeller averaged 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds last year and was fourth in the nation in field goal shooting (62.3 percent). He is considered a possible No. 1 choice in the 2013 NBA Draft and was one vote shy of unanimous Associated Press preseason All-America honors.
Doug McDermott, Creighton
The "most efficient player in college basketball," ESPN's Seth Greenberg said of the 6-8 forward, who can fill it up from the perimeter and scrap inside for ugly baskets, a la Antawn Jamison. He averaged 22.8 points and 8.2 rebounds, hitting 60.1 percent from the floor and 48.6 from 3-point range a year ago. He teams with Greg Echenique on a squad that enters the season ranked 16th.
James Michael McAdoo, UNC
If he had opted for the NBA Draft, McAdoo likely would have been a lottery pick with his rare combination of size (6-9, 230 pounds) and athletic ability. But he remained in Chapel Hill and will attempt to fill a huge void left by the departure of frontcourt stars Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes and John Henson. McAdoo is the son of former Old Dominion player Ronnie McAdoo.
C.J. McCollum, Lehigh
The smooth 6-3 senior was named to the AP preseason All-America first team, a significant feat for a player from the Patriot League. He came to the attention of the nation when he scored 30 points to propel the 15th-seeded Mountain Hawks to an upset of No. 2 Duke in the NCAA tournament. McCollum and Lehigh have another chance to make a statement Friday night, opening at Baylor.
Tony Mitchell, North Texas
The 6-8 sophomore took off last year, averaging 14.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.0 blocks. He has more power at 235 pounds but has been compared to another small-school product, Scottie Pippen, with his ability to hit 3-pointers, defend the perimeter and run the floor. It will be interesting to see how Mitchell fares Friday night against McDermott in the Green Wave's opener at Creighton.
- Kevin Dunleavy