Kentucky remains college basketball royalty, but there are plenty of other bluebloods

It wasn't a law but it surely seemed like some kind of an unofficial mandate: last college basketball season, all general analysis, written or spoken, contained a reference, preferably with genuflection, to Kentucky.

Therefore, the most exciting part of the coming season — unless you live in the Bluegrass State — is that other teams will finally be getting some attention.

Here's what to watch in what should be a wide-open season.

(Spoiler: Kentucky won't come near an undefeated season, but they still could win it all.)

The Contenders

Maryland

Why it can win it all: Melo Trimble returns to an already solid group that has added significant pieces. That core is beefier, thanks to a big-time big man, freshman Diamond Stone. And the rotation is more versatile thanks to transfers Robert Carter (Georgia Tech) and Rasheed Sulaimon (Duke). Maryland may be the nation's deepest, most well-rounded team.

Why it won't: In the span of a season, Maryland went from struggling to post a winning record, and save its coach's job, to becoming the nation's biggest target. Can the Terrapins handle the pressure?

North Carolina

Why it can: Big men. Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson return to form one of the nation's most feared frontcourts.

Why it won't: Even if the Tar Heels can overcome guard Marcus Paige's early injury, and even if they can work around a weak perimeter offense, there are still NCAA sanctions to worry about.

Kentucky

Why it can: Kentucky pulled the nation's No. 2 recruiting class, which included Skal Labissiere, who has the potential to be the nation's best player.

Why it won't: The Wildcats couldn't win with a roster full of future NBA players. Why would it be any different with all that talent gone?

Duke

Why it can: Duke has the nation's best recruiting class and Coach Mike Krzyzewski. That formula worked last season, didn't it?

Why it won't: Sure, Duke is the defending national champion. But who's left? The freshmen are good, but there's no Jahlil Okafor among them.

Virginia

Why it can: The Cavaliers may have the best defense of the one-and-done era.

Why it won't: Virginia played at the second-slowest tempo in all of college basketball last season. That usually doesn't lead to championship teams and certainly not to exciting ones.

Kansas

Why it can: Kansas returns 79% of its scoring from a team that won the Big 12 Conference last season. The Jayhawks are deep, experienced and talented.

Why it won't: Cheick Diallo could be among the nation's best freshmen. But his eligibility is uncertain.

Wichita State

Why it can: The Shockers have one Final Four and two regional semifinal appearances in the last three seasons. They still have Coach Gregg Marshall and senior guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet who merit All-American consideration.

Why it won't: The coaching is great and so are the guards. If only Wichita State had the frontcourt to match.

Iowa State

Why it can: Senior forward Georges Niang returns for his senior season. After years on the precipice, the Cyclones are due.

Why it won't: Coach Fred Hoiberg is gone. Those are big shoes to fill for new hire Steve Prohm.

Oklahoma

Why it can: Buddy Hield can score in bunches and the rest of the Sooners defend well.

Why it won't: The Sooners need production outside of Hield, especially from the frontcourt.

California

Why it can: Newcomers Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb are NBA-caliber talents. By those standards, Tyrone Wallace, a senior, is one of the Pac-12 Conference's best players.

Why it won't: The Pac-12 might not offer a strong enough test for this young group.

Dark horses

Vanderbilt: Yes, Vanderbilt. It won eight of its final 10 Southeastern Conference games and returns pretty much everyone.

Texas: Rick Barnes had his struggles, but not in recruiting. Coach Shaka Smart inherits lots of talent, and he'll put it to good use.

Pepperdine: It's doubtful Gonzaga Coach Mark Few has many nightmares, but if he did, they'd be about the Waves, who almost beat the Bulldogs twice last season and have most of their talent back.

Valparaiso: The Crusaders nearly upset Maryland in last season's NCAA tournament.

Stephen F. Austin: Will it be three consecutive tournament appearances for the Lumberjacks?

Players to Watch

1. Ben Simmons, forward, Louisiana State

2. Marcus Paige, guard, North Carolina

3. Kris Dunn, guard, Providence

4. Buddy Hield, guard, Oklahoma

5. Kyle Wiltjer, forward, Gonzaga

6. Skal Labissiere, center, Kentucky

7. Kevin Yogi Ferrell, guard, Indiana

8. Ron Baker, guard, Wichita State

9. Georges Niang, forward, Iowa State

10. Jaylen Brown, forward, California

Top storyline

You're on the clock: The 2014-15 basketball season was the slowest on record and the lowest-scoring since the introduction of the shot clock. Whether this season is more watchable will depend on the effect of the NCAA's big off-season rule change: the shortening of the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30.

This summer, as the rule was being debated, Kentucky Coach John Calipari predicted, "Thirty seconds is not going to have an impact on the game."

A more nebulous change could have a greater impact. Officials have been instructed to emphasize more freedom of movement for offensive players. That should mean more fluid games. It will also mean more fouls.

"There's going to be a lot of free throws," UCLA Coach Steve Alford said.

Early indicators

Best early-season matchups:

No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 5 Duke, Nov. 17, Chicago

This game could have been a rematch of last season's championship game, if not for those pesky Wisconsin Badgers.

No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 13 Michigan State, Nov. 17, Chicago

The back half of a terrific doubleheader.

No. 3 Maryland at No. 1 North Carolina, Dec. 1

The ACC/Big Ten Challenge hasn't had a game this good since ... last season, when Duke defeated Wisconsin in a preview of the national championship game. This has the same potential.

No. 12 Arizona at No. 9 Gonzaga, Dec. 5

Both teams lost significant pieces, but the winner could still be the best in the West.

No. 14 California at No. 6 Virginia, Dec. 22

This will be a coming-out party for Cal's touted freshmen — or a wakeup call.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on November 10, 2015, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Kentucky is still royalty, but not king of the hill - There are lots of other bluebloods in college basketball this season." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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