Midnight Madness festivities and glorified intrasquad scrimmages were held at a few schools, while every other NCAA team has gotten at least a couple of practices under its belt.
Once the real games begin (we're about one month away), this column will be dedicated every Monday to recapping the best and the worst of the college hoops weekend. For this special edition, however, we'll look at the offseason that was and preview the season to come.**********
4 Teams with Final Four dreams
Duke: The most impressive thing about Coach K's career is that his four national championships have been spread across multiple decades and eras. While other icons like John Wooden and Bob Knight collected their trophies and had their greatest success in bunches, Krzyzewski's teams have appeared in at least one NCAA title game in the '80s, '90s, 2000s and 2010s. And in a lot of ways, this year's Blue Devils reflect the versatility and adaptability of their coach. Duke can go big or small, fast or slow, finesse or ferocious. The most dangerous utility tool in their belt will be freshman Jabari Parker, a 6-8, 235-pounder who can play at least three positions and might be Duke's best overall talent since Grant Hill.
Kansas: KU is looking a lot like UK right now, as Bill Self finds himself in charge of a Caliparian group of freshman and transfers who are talented enough to deliver a national championship in their first year together before scattering off to the NBA. After losing all five starters off last season's Sweet Sixteen squad, the Jayhawks loaded up with six quality newcomers. They'll be headlined by teen phenom Andrew Wiggins, a 6-8 wing from Canada who is exactly what you'd expect from the son of a former NBA two-guard and a former Olympic sprinter. Memphis transfer Tarik Black will be a force inside, and senior point guard Naadir Tharpe will provide veteran leadership at the position where it is most important.
Michigan State: The calendar says it's about that time for the Spartans to make their regularly-scheduled Final Four appearance. Tom Izzo never seems to go too long without fielding a serious national title contender, and this year's version looks familiar -- a battle-tested group that plays D, plays together and plays smart, with an underrated ability to explode offensively. Senior PF Adreian Payne, senior PG Keith Appling and sophomore SG Gary Harris lead a deep squad that only lost one key piece (C Derrick Nix) from last year's Sweet Sixteen team.
UConn (women): Popular opinion had this pack of Huskies putting it all together this season, but then they exceeded expectations and rolled to a national championship last season. Now there doesn't appear to be any team that can stop Breanna Stewart, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Stephanie Dolson and Co. from at least getting to Nashville for the 2014 women's Final Four.**********
4 Programs on the Rise
Oregon: Not many teams can lose their best player -- let alone their entire starting frontcourt -- and come back with expectations to outdo the previous year's Sweet Sixteen berth. But Oregon coach Dana Altman has proven a master at refilling the talent pool in Eugene. Arsalan Kazemi, E.J. Singler and Tony Woods are gone, but UNLV transfer Mike Moser and Iowa State transfer Richard Amardi have arrived to bolster the front line. They will complement sophomore guards Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson and senior Jonathan Loyd, perhaps the best backcourt trio in the Pac-12.
Tennessee: A program that could've been a fast-sinking ship after Bruce Pearl's exit has been kept afloat by Cuonzo Martin, and this season looks like the one in which the Volunteers make it back to the NCAA tournament. Tennessee boasts smooth-scoring SG Jordan McRae (first team All-SEC) and rugged junior PF Jarnell Stokes (second team All-SEC), and freshmen guards Darius Thompson and Robert Hubbs III should contribute right away. As talented as Kentucky is and as deep as Florida is, don't be surprised if Tennessee is wearing the SEC tournament championship hats when it's all said and done.
Seton Hall: The Pirates have had more losing seasons (five) than 20-win seasons (three) in the 21st century, which doesn't even make sense for Big East school located in the middle of the recruiting hotbed that is the New York/Jersey/Philly area. Seton Hall had one of its good years in 2011-12 when the team went 21-13, and last year's sub-.500 follow-up fell apart due more to injuries than anything coach Kevin Willard did wrong. This year's squad will be better, led by seniors Fuquan Edwin (16.5 ppg) and Gene Teague (11.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg), and the Pirates' future in the restructured Big East is promising thanks to an increase in TV revenue and no longer having to compete with football-playing financial powerhouses in its conference.
SMU: If Tim Floyd could outkick his coverage and land recruits he had no business landing at USC with his weak NBA resume (among other tactics), imagine the talent Larry Brown can attract to SMU with a legitimately impressive NBA track record and an NCAA championship on his ledger. The Mustangs finished 15-17 in Brown's first year, after which he added freshman Keith Frazier -- the first McDonald's All-American to sign with Southern Methodist -- plus transfers Markus Kennedy (Villanova) and Crandall Head (Illinois). A top-half finish in the new American Athletic Conference is in the cards, and the Mustangs will be even better next year after Brown secured a commitment from Class of 2014 recruit Emmanual Mudiay, one of the three best high school point guards in the country.**********
4 Programs in Rebuilding Mode
Minnesota: Regular trips to the NCAA tournament under Tubby Smith wasn't good enough for the Gophers, so Tubby was fired and Richard Pitino was hired. Rick's son has promised to install an up-tempo pressing style, but without athletes like departed senior Rodney Williams available, it'll take some time for Pitino to construct the team he wants.
N.C. State: The core group of C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown, Richard Howell and Scott Wood that put the Wolfpack back on the map have all gone to the next level. Also gone is talented guard Rodney Purvis, who transferred to UConn. Not many recognizable faces are left on coach Mark Gottfried's team aside from sophomore forward T.J. Warren (the ACC's leader in field goal percentage), but the abundance of available playing time will be valuable down the road for promising freshmen like PG Cat Barber and PF BeeJay Anya.
Texas: Last season was the Longhorns' first losing campaign under Rick Barnes, and it ended with a loss to Houston. In the College Basketball Invitational. In the first round. That might have been acceptable in the '80s when Houston was good and UT basketball was just something to do until football season, but not anymore. Barnes will try to avoid another sub-.500 campaign with a team that has no seniors, one junior (SF Jonathan Holmes) and a bunch of freshmen and sophomores. Texas has talent, but it's young and needs room to grow. Barnes can recruit, though, and the school's athletic program is reportedly the richest of any in the country. The Longhorns shouldn't be down for long.
Miami: Basketball at The U became relevant in 2013, as the Hurricanes flirted with a national No. 1 ranking and made it to the Sweet Sixteen. But after losing the top six scorers and all five starters from that team, Miami is in danger of fading back into Bolivian. Last season's success did plant some seeds for the future, however, as Jim Larranaga (AP Coach of the Year) was able to land two Top-100 recruits from the Class of 2014 in Philadelphia SG JaQuan Newton and Dallas PF Omar Sherman.**********
4 Future Pros You Know
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: Pound-for-pound, Smart was probably the best college basketball player in the country last season. Guys like that typically don't stick around to defend that title, but Smart (15.4 ppg, 4.2 apg) bypassed the NBA draft to chase a championship in his sophomore year. At 6-4, 220 pounds, Smart can simply outmuscle most D-1 guards, but he keeps it interesting by outrunning and out-thinking them, too.
Doug McDermott, Creighton: Every few years there comes along a high-scoring forward from a lovable underdog school who has a gorgeous shooting stroke and comes pre-packaged with comparisons to Larry Bird. (Of course, he has to be White.) Once upon a time it was Danny Ferry, then Christian Laettner, then Keith Van Horn, then Wally Szczerbiak, then Kyle Korver, then Adam Morrison. Now it's Doug McDermott (23.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg). You know what? The NBA draft is eight months away. Let's put the Bird stuff away for now and just enjoy the senior-season run of the Big East Player of the Year favorite.
Russ Smith, Louisville: Everybody knows "Russdiculous" can score, but he needed to come back for his senior year to prove to pro scouts he can pass and run an offense. With Peyton Siva graduated to the NBA and no obvious replacement at point guard, Rick Pitino should give Smith every opportunity to run the point as the Cardinals defend their national championship.
P.J. Hairston, North Carolina: If you ever wondered what J.R. Smith's career would've been like had he gone to UNC as planned instead of going pro out of high school, P.J. Hairston might be your living hypothetical. Hairston made headlines for all the wrong reasons during the offseason, getting arrested and later suspended for a series of car-related incidents. When he is allowed back on the court -- and no doubt taking the bus for the rest of his stay in Chapel Hill -- the 6-6 guard can begin the process of trying to make NBA teams overlook his past. Hairston (14.6 ppg) has too much potential and too much going for him on paper to completely crash his pro stock.**********
4 Future Pros You May Not Know
Jahii Carson, Arizona State: Owner of the quickest first step in college basketball, as well as the hops and hang time to finish over and around big shot-blockers, Carson (18.5 ppg, 5.1 apg) shared Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors with UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad last season. Everybody at ASU predicts the 5-10 point guard is going pro after this year, and they're probably right.
Isaiah Austin, Baylor: In between cringing every time Austin jumped and landed on those super-skinny legs last season, it may have gone unnoticed that the 7-1 freshman was pretty good. Austin (13 ppg, 8.3 rpg) can mix it up in the paint or step out and hit threes, and on a Bears team that features senior star PF Cory Jefferson and senior sniper SG Brady Heslip, he should be able to showcase his skills on an NCAA tournament stage.
Chiney Ogwumike, Stanford: In the aftermath of Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins entering the WNBA with more hype than any trio since Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo, expect Ogwumike to quietly establish herself as the league's next No. 1 draft pick. The younger sister of Nneka Oguwmike (the WNBA's top pick in 2012), Chiney is a 6-3 versatile forward who won both Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the Pac-12 last season while averaging 22.4 points, 12.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks.
Sim Bhullar, New Mexico State: Standing 7-5 and listed at 360 pounds, Bhullar began his freshman year as a novelty and ended it as a real threat for the Aggies, finishing with averages of 10.1 points, 6.7 boards and 2.4 blocks. He still has a lot of room to develop his skills and improve his conditioning, but with his size, NBA teams will surely give Bhullar every chance to succeed.**********
4 Fab Freshmen
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: Wiggins may truly be the best high school player to come along since LeBron, but I disagree with those who say he plays like LeBron. The high-flying wing reminds me more of Paul George, with less polish; more athlete than complete basketball player at this point. But he's still really, really good.
Jabari Parker, Duke: Speaking of complete ballplayers, Parker makes up for a lack of explosive athleticism with an overflowing skill set. He's got some Carmelo and some Paul Pierce in his game, but Parker is too versatile to be labeled a pure scorer like those two. He's a pure player.
Julius Randle, Kentucky: He probably won't lead the Wildcats in scoring due to UK being loaded with offensive-minded guards, but when Randle does get the ball, he'll be next to impossible to stop one-on-one. The 6-9, 250-pound lefty has plenty of moves, but he also has a bulldog mentality to just beast his way to the basket if those moves don't work.
Aaron Gordon, Arizona: The younger brother of former high school All-American Drew Gordon (who played at UCLA and New Mexico), Aaron is a Blake Griffin clone who is a hungry rebounder and vicious when attacking the rim.**********
4 Early Games You Need to Watch
Maryland at UConn (Nov. 8, ESPN2): Ten Division I men's basketball programs have won national championships in the 21st century. The Terrapins and Huskies are two of them, and both are clawing their back to prominence after a few down years. Whoever wins this matchup at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn could set the tone for a bounce-back season.
Oregon at Georgetown (Nov. 8, ESPN): Live from Seoul, South Korea. The Hoyas begin their search for a post-Otto identity, while the Ducks get a tough test right out of the gate in a season where expectations are high.
Cal Poly at Arizona (Nov. 8, Pac-12 Network): The Mustangs pulled off one of last season's first big upsets when they beat 13th-ranked UCLA on the road. Arizona is being picked by many as a top-five team this year; this will be a gut check to see if the Wildcats are legit.
Seattle at Washington (Nov. 10, Pac-12 Network): An old cross-city rivalry that was reignited when the Redhawks returned to D-I in 2009 is starting to get good. Former UW assistant Cameron Dollar has his deepest and most versatile squad since becoming head coach at SU, while Lorenzo Romar's Huskies have added All-American freshman PG Nigel Williams-Goss to complement standout two-guard C.J. Wilcox.**********
4 Questions that Need Answers
Will the AAC or the Big East be the stronger conference?
Is it safe (or smart) to believe in Gonzaga again?
Is Ole Miss PG Marshall Henderson college basketball's Johnny Football?
Can Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary continue the momentum that Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. helped build at Michigan?