Six weeks after the start of practices the moment we’ve all been waiting for is finally here, with Friday marking the start of the 2014-15 regular season. There have been no shortage of opinions on how this season will shake out, with No. 1 Kentucky seen by many as the favorites to cut down the nets in Indianapolis. However that doesn’t mean every fan or pundit will subscribe to the thinking that John Calipari’s team will coast to the storied program’s ninth national title.
Below are the College Basketball Talk staff’s picks for the Final Four and national champion, with each writer providing reasons for their selections as well.
Rob Dauster (@RobDauster)
Final Four: Arizona, Kentucky, Gonzaga and Oklahoma
National champion: Arizona
I think Arizona and Kentucky are easily the two most talented teams in the country this season, and when it comes to NCAA tournament success, talent is a pretty good indicator of who will advance. No one should argue with picking either of those two teams to reach Indy. As far as Gonzaga is concerned, I think this is the year that they make the jump (finally!). A healthy Kevin Pangos combined with the additions of Kyle Wiltjer, Byron Wesley and Domantas Sabonis will make this group unstoppable offensively.
Oklahoma is the final pick for me, and I’m basing this on the assumption that Tashawn Thomas will eventually get a waiver to be eligible to play this season. Jordan Woodard and Buddy Hield make up the nation’s most underrated back court, Ryan Spangler is a hoss in the paint and Thomas provides the athleticism and versatility that they lacked from a true four last year.
Raphielle Johnson (@raphiellej)
Final Four: Kentucky, Arizona, North Carolina and VCU
National champion: Kentucky
Unlike last season I have a hard time picking against Kentucky, not only because of their talent but also the mix of freshmen and returnees who experienced last year’s run to the national title game and all of the publicity that preceded it (remember the 40-0 talk?). I think the experiences of Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, the Harrison twins and the other returning players helps Kentucky as they deal with the hype, and all involved will benefit. As for their biggest threat, I’ll take Arizona because Sean Miller has a group that certainly doesn’t lack for talent or experience. The one question mark for Arizona: consistent perimeter shooting. If Stanley Johnson, Gabe York and T.J. McConnell can provide that help, things open up for Brandon Ashley (who was arguably their best perimeter shooter before hurting his foot) and Kaleb Tarczewski in the front court. They’re going to be really good defensively; if the offense takes a step forward they’ll be in Indianapolis.
As for North Carolina, the Tar Heels have something they didn’t have a season ago: more help for Marcus Paige. The three freshman, especially Justin Jackson, will help him offensively as will an improved J.P. Tokoto. And in the paint both Brice Johnson (who’s gained weight) and Kennedy Meeks (who’s lost weight) enter the season with transformed bodies, which will mean even better seasons for them. Lastly, I really like VCU. They lost Juvonte Reddic but they’re deeper in the front court than they were a season ago, and Treveon Graham and Briante Weber will lead the way on the perimeter. Look for their loss to Stephen F. Austin to serve as fuel for Shaka Smart’s Rams, and do not gloss over the return of Melvin Johnson when assessing their chances. He wasn’t available late last season due to a knee injury, and that’s a big deal given his ability to provide an offensive spark off the bench.
Scott Phillips (@phillipshoops)
Final Four: Arizona, Kentucky, Texas and Wichita State
National champion: Arizona
Arizona is the biggest national championship contender to enter the 2014-15 season, but by a slim margin. Sean Miller’s team isn’t even the most talented group of Wildcats in the country — more on them in a second — but the West Coast version of the Wildcats play a more selfless brand of ball. Without the injury to Brandon Ashley last season, Arizona could have very easily entered this season as the defending champions. Now that they’re healthy, Stanley Johnson is a better lineup fit for Arizona than Aaron Gordon was last season and this Arizona team has more depth than last season. Kentucky is my close runner-up, as John Calipari’s ballclub once again features an absurd amount of talent (and egos) that have to come together for a common goal. If Calipari can get those egos to mesh together, they’ll assuredly win the national championship, but Kentucky has only earned one national championship in five years under Calipari and the Harrison twins need to grow as players — and leaders — in order for Kentucky to win.
As for Texas, the Longhorns only lose Martez Walker from last season — who was, truthfully, a distraction — and gain McDonald’s All-American big man Myles Turner to a team that exceeded expectations in an incredibly difficult Big 12 last season. Point guard Isaiah Taylor is more experienced, Texas has the bodies inside to match up with any team in the country and they have a lot of depth. Lastly, things are way too quiet in Wichita, Kansas this preseason. I watched Wichita State lose to Kentucky in the Round of 32 last season and that was a Final Four-caliber matchup in the first weekend. The Shockers return all three members of its backcourt from the past two seasons of ridiculous success and new starting front court member Darius Carter had some solid games last year as a first-year Division I player. The Shockers could also have more depth this season — depending on the contributions of their newcomers — and as Shabazz Napier proved last March, great guard play wins in the NCAA Tournament and Wichita State has the most tournament-experienced group of guards in the country.
Terrence Payne (@terrence_payne)
Final Four: Kentucky, Arizona, Wisconsin and Villanova
National champions: Kentucky
Kentucky is the preseason favorite, and we’ve seen these Wildcats perform on the court in multiple nationally-televised games already. Platoon system will likely have its ups and downs, but Kentucky’s depth will wear down opponents. Arizona has the most talent in the country outside of UK, and that’s saying something given the departures of Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon. Sean Miller was somewhat critical of his team last week, but this roster is loaded enough to get him to his first Final Four.
Bo Ryan waited 13 years for last season’s Final Four trip, but shouldn’t have to wait that long for his second. He’s got a team of veterans with All American candidates Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker on the frontline with seniors Trae Jackson and Josh Gasser in the back court. For my final team, I’ll go with Villanova. A 29-win season was overshadowed by early exits in the Big East and NCAA tournament, but Jay Wright brings back essentially the same team. The Wildcats should breeze through the Big East, and early on last season they proved they were a top-10 after winning the Battle 4 Atlantis.