College basketball’s March Madness begins in the deep freeze of November, and buried in the beginnings of this season are the hard feelings left over from last year’s championship finals.
Perennial superpower, the University of Kentucky, returns bigger, and potentially better, than the team that lost to the University of Connecticut 60-54 in the 2014 national title game. An opening season clash against fellow historical basketball powerhouse Kansas University, set the stage for a season that may provide reparations to the Kentucky program for last year’s loss.
“They’re long,” said Kansas coach Bill Self after the 72-40 thrashing by Kentucky in mid-November. The Kentucky signature, upon sight, is that they look like the biggest college basketball team ever (so says the eye test). Whether its starting line-up, or the flush of near 7-foot talent coming off the bench, it seems that it may take a perfect effort by a very good team to challenge this super team for the championship come March.
And though Kentucky returns super team after super team on an annual basis, it is Connecticut that leads college hoops in championships over the last decade (2004, 2011, 2014). First time championship coach, Kevin Ollie of Connecticut, returns a team that should minimally follow last year’s victory with a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
Looking to send several teams to the NCAA tournament is the Big 10, led by Wisconsin, who returns several key players from a team that joined Kentucky, Connecticut, and Louisville, in the 2014 Final Four.
This year it seems several roads in the Big 10 Conference travel through Madison, whether football or basketball. The Minnesota Gophers finished as National Invitational Tournament champions at the end of the 2013-14 season. And though the NIT is somewhat of a consolation prize for teams that did not make the NCAA tournament, the success sets the stage for a potential tournament run for the Gophers.
For Richard Pitino to reach the tournament in only his second year as head coach, it would continue to help build upon the recent athletic success on the field by Gopher athletics.
Escaping the Big 10 successfully is a daunting enough challenge for the rising Gophers, but it will be tough for any team in the nation to hang with Kentucky.