A Look Back At The Top 14 Headlines Entering The 2014-15 Season
R.J. Hunter and the Georgia State Panthers lived up to their pre-season expectations, advancing to the NCAA Tournament after winning the Sun Belt tournament title. (Source: Sports Illustrated)

As the Final Four weekend approaches, that means the season will be over in less than a week. With that, it’s about time to look back on what transpired over the course of the 2014-15 season. Before the season started, Vavel USA outlined 14 intriguing storylines for the year. With the season winding down, it’s time to take a look at those storylines to see just how they played out.

How good will the Kentucky Wildcats be?

It’s safe to say that this storyline has already answered itself. John Calipari’s platoon offense has yet to experience a loss this season, entering the Final Four weekend with a sparkling 38 – 0 record. Over the course of the season, the Wildcats had to overcome some adversity to keep their perfect record intact. Kentucky struggled against Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss in conference play, and had to fight back against Notre Dame in the Elite Eight. While they faced some adversity, the result was always the same: a win for the Wildcats. Freshman Karl-Anthony Towns has continued his impressive development over the course of the season, and his name has been seen atop some recent NBA Mock Drafts. All eyes will be on the Wildcats in Indianapolis as they continue their push for perfection.

Can the Connecticut Huskies repeat as champions?

Without the likes of Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels on their roster, it seemed unlikely that the Huskies could repeat as champions. With the emergence of SMU, and the play of Tulsa, it seemed even more unlikely. The Huskies struggled at times in the regular season, and it looked as though they wouldn’t have a shot to make the field of 68. In the end, they were able to advance to the conference tournament finals, but were knocked off by the Mustangs. Connecticut did not make the tournament field, thus answering the headline with relative ease. They settled for a berth in the NIT, but were eliminated early on at the hands of Arizona State. Ryan Boatright is graduating, and it’s unclear whether or not Amida Brimah will return for the Huskies next season. Kevin Ollie may be in for another down year next season.

The Wooden Award race is wide open

At the beginning of the season, there were a plethora of possible Wooden Award candidates, and the race wasn’t as clear-cut as the season before when Doug McDermott ran away with the award. As the 2014-15 season progressed it looked like it would be a two-horse race. Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky and Duke’s Jahlil Okafor were widely considered as the top two contenders over the course of the year, but Kaminsky has emerged as the odds-on favourite to take home the hardware. Okafor has been a streaky player over the course of his freshmen campaign, while Kaminsky has been reliable and solid for the Badgers. Both players have led their teams to the Final Four, but Kaminsky has arguably put together the better statistical season. It looks as though the race wasn’t as wide open as originally thought, but it was a good race nonetheless.

The incoming freshmen are ready to leave their mark, even if it’s only for a brief time

The story of the year so far has been the play of the freshmen, and they definitely left their mark all over the NCAA landscape. The likes of Okafor, Towns, Trey Lyles, the rest of Kentucky’s roster, Tyus Jones, D’Angelo Russell, and others have made their mark on college basketball. It’s expected that a lot of these players will leave school early for the NBA Draft, but it’s not always a sure thing. Maryland’s Melo Trimble decided to forego the NBA Draft and return to school for at least one more season. Some of the players may choose to take the same path that Trimble took, thus creating a larger legacy for themselves in college, and having a bigger impact on the game.

Will we see another run like the one Dayton made last season?

There were some memorable upsets in this year’s NCAA Tournament, highlighted by UAB and Georgia State both pulling off monster upsets in the Round of 64. UAB knocked off Iowa State, while Georgia State knocked off Baylor in a tournament game that will be talked about for years. However, no double-digit seeds made it past the Sweet 16 this year. The run that comes close to Dayton’s from a season ago is the one that Michigan State is currently on. As a seven-seed, the Spartans have started to play their best basketball at the most important time. They currently find themselves in the Final Four, which is Tom Izzo’s seventh trip there. The Spartans take on Duke for the chance to go to the national championship game. Given the fact that Michigan State did not look like a tournament team no more than a month before it all started, the Spartans’ run through the big dance may be even better than that of Dayton a year ago.

Strong mid-major conferences get a makeover

Before the season started the Southland Conference and the Atlantic Sun Conference underwent makeovers, bringing in new teams and watching old teams move on to new homes. Entering the season, Wofford and Florida Gulf Coast looked to be the clear-cut favorites in their respective conferences. While they both put together impressive seasons, only the Terriers made it back to the NCAA Tournament. Wofford won both the regular season title and the conference tournament title, advancing to the big dance for the second year in a row. They held off the likes of VMI and Mercer, newcomers in the conference, to claim the titles. The same can’t be said for Florida Gulf Coast, who were knocked off the top pedestal by North Florida. The loss of Filip Cvjeticanin before the season started didn’t help their case, and the team didn’t have the same intensity as years in the past. Florida Gulf Coast settled for a berth in the CIT where they were eliminated in the first round by Texas A&M-CC.

In the Big Ten it’s Wisconsin, and then it’s everyone else

The preseason prediction of Wisconsin running away with the Big Ten conference title played out just as expected. The Maryland Terrapins gave them a run for a while, but there was no stopping the Badgers. Even when the team lost Traevon Jackson to a foot injury others stepped up and Wisconsin didn’t miss a beat. They continued their run of strong play into the conference tournament, where they held Michigan State scoreless in overtime to come away with the title. The Badges now find themselves in the Final Four in a rematch with Kentucky from last year’s Final Four. They will look to end Kentucky’s run to perfection to put themselves in the national championship game.

Welcome back Bruce Pearl!

Bruce Pearl’s welcome back tour in Auburn didn’t go as planned in his first season with the Tigers. The Tigers were able to land Antoine Mason from Niagara, who was the top returning scorer from the 2013-14 season, but that didn’t seem to help matters. Auburn struggled to a 4 – 14 record in conference play, and a 15 – 20 record overall. Pearl was able to lead the Tigers to the SEC Tournament semi-finals, but that doesn’t mask the struggles of the regular season. Next year may be a bit better as Marshall-transfer Kareem Canty is eligible to play for the Tigers. This year didn’t go as expected, but Auburn fans are still optimistic that Pearl can turn things around for their beloved Tigers.

High-profile coaches have found new homes in the NCAA

Before the season started four coaches were identified under this headline. Missouri hired Kim Anderson, Wake Forest hired Danny Manning, South Florida hired Orlando Antigua, and Marquette hired Steve Wojciechowski. All four of those programs struggled at times this season, and none of them appeared in post-season play during their first season with their respective programs. There is optimism surrounding the Marquette program, as they bring in a high-profile recruiting class led by Henry Ellenson. These teams will be looking for a bounce-back season in 2015-16, where we will see other high-profile coaches on the move.

The Mountain West Conference will be one of the best races to watch all season.

This headline was based on a hunch, but it lived up to its billing, and then some. Boise State and San Diego State were the top teams in the preseason rankings, and they didn’t disappoint. Boise State did most of their damage without Anthony Drmic in the lineup, and San Diego State had to go about their business for a while without fan-favourite Dwayne Polee on the bench. The conference also saw strong performances from Wyoming and Colorado State, making the conference tournament that much more exciting. In the tournament itself Wyoming peaked at the right time, and made a run through the tournament and into the finals. They held San Diego State to 43 points, and came away with the Mountain West tournament title, while essentially eliminating Colorado State from the NCAA Tournament in the process. It looked as if four teams could potentially make the big dance from the conference, but Colorado State was the odd-man out. The conference had so much talent on display this past year, and the race lived up to the billing without a doubt.

The Big West is home to big time talent

At the start of the season the Big West was put on notice because of two talented forwards. Unfortunately this season, both Alan Williams and Mamadou Ndiaye missed time due to injury, meaning everyone was unable to see them maximize their talent against the competition in the conference. The Gauchos and the Anteaters were top contenders in the conference, but Ndiaye’s squad was able to come away with the Big West tournament title and advance to the NCAA Tournament. UC Irvine fought back against Hawaii to punch their ticket to the big dance. Williams will be graduating this season, while Ndiaye will be back in the Big West to hopefully improve his game and have more of an impact on a consistent basis.

How will the ACC play out this season?

When the dust settled, and the regular season was over, Virginia stood atop the conference standings for the second year in a row. They did most of their damage with London Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon dealing with injuries over the course of the season. They didn’t possess the high-profile athletes like Duke or North Carolina had, but that didn’t faze Tony Bennett’s squad one bit. Duke’s freshmen lived up to the hype, and Notre Dame emerged as a legitimate contender in the conference behind the play of Jerian Grant, Zach Auguste, and Pat Connaughton. Then, of course, there was the scandal surrounding Syracuse. The Orange banned themselves from all post-season play this season as the NCAA continued their investigation. In the end, the ACC was one of the best conferences to watch this season, and it definitely lived up to expectations both on the court and off it.

Will Georgia State live up to its expectations this season, after coming so close in 2013-14?

Entering the 2014-15, the Georgia State Panthers were once again the preseason favorite to win the conference title. They were looking to avenge their loss from the season prior when they lost to Louisiana-Lafayette in the Sun Belt tournament championship. That season they went undefeated in conference play during the regular season. This year the Panthers didn’t go undefeated, but they were able to overcome the loss from a year ago and make it to the NCAA Tournament. Behind the play of RJ Hunter, Ryan Harrow and Kevin Ware, the Panthers were one of the more exciting teams to watch all year long. In their opening round game against the three-seeded Baylor Bears, R.J. Hunter made a long three-pointer that sent his dad, and coach, Ron Hunter falling to the floor in excitement. The 14-seed Panthers shocked the Bears, and gave the college basketball world one of the greatest moments in recent memory. While their run would end in the Round of 32, the Panthers were able to bounce back from heartbreak a season ago to live up to the expectations and make the big dance.

How well will former “mid-majors” VCU and Wichita State fare this season?

It’s about time that people stop calling the likes of Wichita State and VCU “mid-majors,” because they play like power programs despite being in lesser-profiled conferences. This season Virginia Commonwealth struggled at times. When Briante Weber went down with a season-ending knee injury their season seemingly went with him. The Rams didn’t look like the same bunch of guys, and it came through in the NCAA Tournament. VCU was eliminated in their opening game by Ohio State. As for Wichita State, the Shockers played some of their best basketball in the NCAA Tournament. They were able to overcome an early exit in the Missouri Valley tournament to advance to the Sweet 16. They knocked off instate rival Kansas in the Round of 32, before losing to Notre Dame. Both Shaka Smart and Gregg Marshall have built their respective programs into top contenders on an annual basis, which is a big reason why they have been the focus of multiple rumours around teams looking for a new coach. Marshall has resigned with Wichita State, while Shaka Smart just signed a deal with Texas to be their head coach.

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So there you have it. All of the headlines from the start of the season seemed to play out as expected, for the most part. This season has been an exciting one to say the least, but it’s not quite over. Let’s all enjoy the Final Four weekend before we have to endure a lengthy break without any college basketball.

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