Road to 2014 Final Four is filled with possible storylines

(Photo provided by Flickr)
(Photo provided by Flickr)

Seven months ago, to the day, was the last time college basketball fans got their fill of the sport they love. It was the National Championship game and the Louisville Cardinals, the tournament’s No. 7 overall seed, played a strong second half to hold off the Michigan Wolverines. Now, it is time to start the road to the 2014 Final Four in Dallas.

This year, NCAA basketball welcomes one of its most highly-touted freshman classes in some time. Among the names are Kansas’s Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kentucky’s five members of the 2013 recruiting class top 10: Julius Randle (3), Dakari Johnson (7), James Young (8) and the Harrison brothers Andrew (5) and Aaron (9).

These freshmen are expected to set the college basketball world on fire. I am excited already by the footage I have seen of Parker from preseason scrimmages and Wiggins has me ready for the Blue Devils, Jayhawks showdown Tuesday night. If anyone has not seen the show Wiggins put on in the McDonald’s High School All-American Slam Dunk Contest go watch it  as soon as possible.

The Kentucky class is head coach John Calipari’s masterpiece of a career filled with impressive freshmen classes. From Marcus Camby, way back at UMass-Amherst, to Derrick Rose, to John Wall, this man has sought out and corralled some of the top talents across the country. But, this class includes the top recruit at four positions on the court and Young is the No. 3 small forward behind Wiggins and Parker.

(Photo provided by Flickr)
(Photo provided by Flickr)

The talk around this team is of a perfect season and its head coach is not shying away from the possibility. And why should he? Calipari’s 2012 Wildcats, led by Anthony Davis, went 38-2 a few years ago with a talented team, and this one has the potential to be even better.

Now, turning to one of the few that stayed. Oklahoma State head coach Travis Ford has to be ecstatic to see Marcus Smart back on his roster this season. The standout guard was a potential top 5 pick in the NBA Draft this past spring, but he decided to return for his sophomore season after the Cowboys fell in the second round of the NCAA tournament to University of Oregon. Smart’s return is huge for the Stillwater squad as it returns the rest of its key players. The Cowboys are primed and ready for a deep run this March.

Star players, like Smart and the skilled freshmen joining the college ranks this season, are ripe for blossoming offensive numbers with the change to the game’s hand-checking rule. The rule calls on officials to be stricter about how defenders use their hands and arms on defense. It refers to keeping an arm or forearm on one’s opponent, putting both hands on another player, constant jabbing at the player one is guarding and the use of an arm bar to impede progress of a dribbler. The rule will take some time to acclimate into the game, but it looks to be just the change needed to up scoring in the game after a season with the lowest points-per-game average in almost two decades. Look for more players averaging 20 points a game this year.

Even with these changes, parity will be one aspect of the game that does not change. Although Kentucky looks to have a leg up on the competition any of the top 12 in the preseason rankings could make a run to Dallas.

Louisville, Michigan and Syracuse are all back in the top 10 after their runs to the Final Four this past spring. They all return crucial pieces from last year’s squads.

Also, no one can ever sleep on teams coached by the most storied men in the game, Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo. Both coaches have talented freshmen to compliment strong returning squads, as both are March Madness staples.

The ball goes up tonight and it will be a fun one. Let’s sit back, relax and enjoy the journey to March.