‘Pulse’ on 2014-15 college basketball landscape

Kevin Pulsifer

With a fabulous season of college hoops about to begin, it’s time to dig in deep and learn about the rest of the nation and what will be in Villanova’s way en route to a Final Four appearance.

You went to Hoops Mania, you saw the ’Cats crush lesser foes in two separate scrimmages, you’ve seen multiple players elected to All-Conference teams and some players on All-America watch lists. You probably know that Villanova was unanimously chosen to win the Big East this year.

But let’s step outside of our comfort zone for a bit. Here’s a breakdown of some of the quality teams Villanova will be fighting for AP Top 25 votes week in and week out.


The old Big East lost two more teams to greener pastures (although I’d consider Rutgers leaving to be more of a “win” for the conference). 

Along with the Scarlet Knights and the Big 10, last year’s national title contender Louisville has departed for the ACC.

That said, three newcomers arrive from various mid-major conferences and will likely keep this conference competitive throughout the season. 

Tulane, East Carolina and Tulsa have truly rounded this league out and made it an “American” conference, with few teams on the east coast.

Pressing Questions: How will UConn fare in its quest for a repeat without star guard Shabazz Napier? Can Fran Dunphy and Temple rebound from a pathetic 9-22 season to reach the NCAAs? Will any of the newcomers resemble Louisville, or will they all act like Rutgers and pace the bottom of the conference?

Predicted Top 3: SMU, UConn, Memphis


There are certainly arguments for the Big 10 and Big 12, but it’s hard not to see the ACC as the best conference in the country. 

Duke and UNC are perennial contenders, newcomer Louisville won the title in 2013 and Syracuse and Pitt are not at their best but will still be easy bets to make the tournament. 

Oh, and last year’s No. 1 seed Virginia is there too. Meanwhile, NC State, FSU and Notre Dame will look to make splashes as well. UNC has been plagued by academic scandals all year, but with PJ Hairston gone, it appears as though the storm is over.

Pressing Questions: Will Jahlil Okafor be able to withstand the hype he’s been getting and perform at an elite level? How will Syracuse fare after losing Tyler Ennis to the NBA?

Predicted Top 3: Duke, Louisville, UNC

Atlantic 10

This 14-team mega-conference has been on the rise recently. The A-10 has a reputation as a mid-major, but with the strength at the top of this league, it could honestly go either way. 

VCU has been a defensive force in the last few years, wrecking havoc everywhere it goes, but current Head Coach Shaka Smart has never won a league title. Dayton beat a bunch of big names late last year and snuck into the tournament, as did GW, UMass and St. Joseph’s. 

With VCU facing Villanova in New York City later this month, Dayton facing UConn, and UMass facing Harvard, FSU and Notre Dame, the relative ability of this conference will be tested early on in the season. 

And don’t forget about Saint Louis; last year’s low-seeded NCAA team graduated a lot of talent but can still hang with the big boys.

Pressing Questions: Is DeAndre Bembry good enough to lead St. Joe’s back to the tournament? Will newcomer Davidson, used to beating up on lowly SoCon opponents, struggle or thrive in a more competitive environment?

Predicted Top 3: VCU, UMass, Dayton

Big Ten

While the ACC may be the best overall conference, it’s not crazy to think that the Big Ten contains the strongest top-tier teams. Ohio State, Michigan State and last year’s Final Four team, Wisconsin, have arguably been more consistent than Duke and UNC. Wisconsin notably returns some of its biggest heroes from 2013-14 (Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker), and is likely to be one of the title favorites throughout the year. 

Tom Izzo and Thad Matta are historically some of the best coaches in the nation. Don’t forget about Iowa (the Hawkeyes spent much of last year ranked) and Nebraska (The Huskers finished 11-7 in-conference last year!).

Pressing Questions: How many bids will the conference get from mid-tier teams like Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana and Michigan? Will Maryland or Rutgers be able to make any noise at all in a power conference?

Predicted Top 3: Wisconsin, Michigan State, Nebraska

Big 12

Last year was about as good a year as any conference could have. The Big 12 had 70 percent reach the NCAAs—on par with the 11 Big East teams from a few years back—and even Texas Tech managed to upset Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Things will likely not end up the same way this year, however, as Oklahoma State lost Marcus Smart to the Boston Celtics and West Virginia and Baylor lost lots of talent as well. 

The league could easily still put in 5-6 bids, and Kansas looks to be a top-10 team throughout the entire year, even after losing Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. The intrigue here is seeing how the rest of the league sorts itself out, with Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa State and Kansas State all fighting for supremacy.

Pressing Questions: Will Kansas be able to win again in a league that has now proven to be consistently strong? Which player will earn the conference’s Player of the Year award? Juwan Staten of WVU, Marcus Foster of KSU, Perry Ellis of KU and Georges Niang of ISU are all capable of leading their team, and I’ll go out and say the winner of this award gets his team a top-3 seed in the tournament.

Predicted Top 3: Kansas, Iowa State, Kansas State

Mountain West

By definition, the MWC is a mid-major. It will get a couple at-large bids every year but rarely place multiple teams in top-25 talks. It will have some major upsets, which are only upsets because no one knows that these teams are just as talented as some of the brand name schools. And of course, it is also characterized by a severely weakened bottom-half. San Jose State won just seven games last year, Nevada lost its best talent to the NBA and Air Force hasn’t been much of a force in years. 

The top of this league should once again be the San Diego State Aztecs, who lost star guard Xavier Thames but have a great recruiting class and could easily be ranked alongside Villanova for most of the year. They’re likely the second-best non-power conference team behind Wichita State. Boise State, Colorado State and New Mexico could all see a tournament bid in the future, though not all together.

Pressing Questions: Will the Aztec freshmen be ready to produce at a high level when they return from injury? And will someone in this conference finally go far in the tournament? With a 19-40 overall record in March, no MWC team has ever reached the Elite 8, even though some have been seeded very well.

Predicted Top 3: San Diego State, Boise State, Colorado State


Last year featured six teams in the NCAA Tournament, a great accomplishment for a conference that has never been considered elite. Three of these squads reached the Sweet 16. But now they have to contend with a lot of turnover. Stanford lost two of their best players to the NBA, UCLA lost three to the pros in the first round of the draft, and Arizona State lost a few to graduation. The one mainstay will be the Arizona Wildcats, who have been in the upper echelon of college hoops for a few years now. ’Zona took Wisconsin down the wire in the Elite 8 last year, and is returning a serious chunk of its star defense. Unfamiliar names such as Colorado and Utah may turn out to be much improved in a conference that could provide a lot of close-fought contests. The only problem with that is that they might spend too much time beating up on each other and not enough beating big names out of conference.

Pressing Questions: Who will rise from the heap to finish in second place? Road performance in February will likely decide much of the standings in the Pac-12. Who will step up for Oregon, if anyone, after an offseason where three players were dismissed for rape allegations, two were arrested for shoplifting and two recruits decided not to enroll?

Predicted Top 3: Arizona, Utah, Stanford


If you haven’t heard, Kentucky has a bunch of good freshmen again. Shocker. But what’s interesting is that in a world of one-and-dones, Head Coach John Calipari has managed to keep some of his talent year to year. Willie Cauley-Stein is entering his junior year as a shot-blocker, and the Harrison twins—who ALMOST CHOSE ’NOVA—return for a sophomore season. 

This “veteran” presence is part of the reason last year’s Wildcat team reached the tourney finals and easily could this year. 

Meanwhile, Billy Donovan and Florida will lead a likely strong Gator team to second in the conference. Jon Horford, who transferred out of Michigan, will be a key to their success this year. As for the rest of the SEC? I won’t try to figure it out.

Pressing Questions: 10 of the 14 SEC coaches are within their first five years at the helm. Someone’s gotta emerge from the masses, right? If no one does, the conference could be just a two-bid league in 2015. And how will Calipari’s “platoon” work out for Kentucky? If it fails, they could find themselves too far behind the race for a 1- or 2-seed.

Predicted Top 3: Kentucky, Florida, Georgia


It’s Gonzaga’s conference to lose, per usual, but there are a decent number of teams fighting for the inevitable second WCC ticket to the big dance. Saint Mary’s and BYU are normally the teams fighting for that spot, as they will this year, but I’ll come out and say that there’s a solid group that could contend for this spot. San Diego has a similar make to BYU, and could make noise after pulling off some big upsets last year. Portland is returning all but one of their important players, and veteran leadership is key when trying to win big in a mid-major conference. 

And then there’s San Francisco, who went 1-6 against Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, and BYU but 13-0 against everyone else in-conference. Are they ready to take the next step, or is it going to be stuck in the same rut this year as well?

Pressing Question: What will Gonzaga do in the tournament this year? It’s one of the most intriguing topics every March. Two years ago, they lost as a 1-seed.

Predicted Top 3: Gonzaga, BYU, Saint Mary’s

Everyone else

Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about the Cinderellas. There will be, as always, a group of no-name conference winners that could earn top 10 seeds in the tournament and rank in the top 25. Here’s a few teams to look out for this year:

Wichita State—Kinda obvious on this one, even with the loss of Cleanthony Early. The guards Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton are returning, and Gregg Marshall is a great coach that will have the Shockers back in the tournament with a great seed. Just don’t expected them to go undefeated.

Harvard—The Ivy League isn’t exactly good. But the Crimson face Virginia, Boston College and Arizona State early in their season. Two wins out of three is expected. Three wins and we could be seeing an undefeated team into March.

Georgia State—Remember Kevin Ware from Louisville? He transferred here, as did Ryan Harrow and Curtis Washington who played for Kentucky and USC, respectively before departing. It is also returning its conference’s player of the year in R. J. Hunter.

Louisiana Tech—These guys won almost 30 games last year. They’re returning four of their top players. They’ll grab a 10-11 seed this year and possibly upset a high-major at-large team.

I didn’t mention the Big East at all. Look for Seton Hall to actually be good this year, DePaul to potentially go 0-30, and Georgetown, Xavier and St. John’s to provide some tough competition for Villanova.

Tomorrow morning. 11:00 a.m. Texas Southern at Eastern Washington. College hoops tip-off. In the wise words of the Joker, “and here.. we.. go.”