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Hoops Heavyweights

With the NBA decimated and done, college basketball is set up for a season for the ages

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Ohio State's Jared Sullinger Photo via HoopSpeakU.com
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Harrison Barnes of North Carolina Photo by Gerry Broome
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So what if the NBA players and owners can’t work it out? The regular season drags on forever anyway. It just means that there’s more air time for college hoops.

And the upcoming season promises to be one of the finest college basketball has seen in a while, simply because the talent is at an extremely high level, in part due to the amount of players who stuck around because of the NBA uncertainty.

With all of that in mind, it’s time to preview the season, which will tipped off in earnest this weekend. Here are some of the storylines to watch:

WELCOME BACK, GUYS

The predominant storyline is the amount of superstar talent that stuck around instead of putting their names in the NBA Draft. Guys like Kentucky’s Terrence Jones, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes and John Henson, and Baylor’s Perry Jones III could have claimed lottery status in the draft, but instead will be battling for a national title in March.

It should make for one of the most competitive NCAA tournaments in years.

NEWBIES TO WATCH

Added to all of the returning talent is a monster class of freshmen that should have immediate impact. Connecticut may have lost Kemba Walker from its national championship squad, but massive center Andre Drummond should return the Huskies to their lane-dominating ways of old. Scott Drew continues to work recruiting wonders at Baylor, adding Top Five talent Quincy Miller after securing Jones a year ago. Duke fans will get a look at Austin Rivers, a standout talent who also brings some swagger that will have Blue Devil-haters in a lather.

But no one can match John Calipari’s class at Kentucky: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague represent three of the top 10 recruits in the nation. Putting them with returnees Jones and Doron Lamb could bring Calipari his first national title.

CAROLINA’S A BEAST

The only rival to Kentucky talent-wise is North Carolina, where Roy Williams returns just about every important piece from the team that found its groove last year once Kendall Marshall took over at point guard. Barnes, Henson and Tyler Zeller comprise an unstoppable front court — as Michigan State learned in that aircraft carrier game Friday night.

Marshall gets them the ball on time, and James McAdoo and P.J. Hairston are top freshmen. The Heels lost to Kentucky in the Elite Eight last year. The rematch this year might just come in the national championship game.

A BUTLER THREEPEAT?

By threepeat, of course, I mean the possibility of the Bulldogs reaching a third straight national title game. It seems outlandish with Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard gone, but would you have believed that Butler would get there last season? Coach Brad Stevens returns, and that’s the most important piece.

While we’re on the topic of Cinderellas, it will be fun to see how last year’s other mid-major Final 4 interloper, VCU, deals with success. The Rams also lost a ton of key performers to graduation, but they managed to keep Shaka Smart from big-time coaching offers, so they have that going for them.

BYE-BYE, BIG EAST

Oh, it may still exist after this season, but it won’t be the same. I’m a Syracuse grad, and, while I’m happy to see the Orange land in a good spot in the ACC with all of the conference turmoil, I’ll be a tad misty-eyed at the thought of their departure from the best conference in the last 30 years of college hoops.

Of course, the conference is packed with talent again, with soon-to-depart Syracuse and Pitt joining Louisville and defending champ UConn as legitimate national title contenders. The intensity for the upcoming conference season and, especially, one last go-round at the Garden for the Big East tourney, should be something to behold.

Well, there you have it. All you need now is your television, a few snacks and beverages, and your team colors.

With those things in tow, you’re all set for a college hoops season for the ages.

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