College basketball preview: UNC, Gonzaga, Houston looking great; Big Ten, not so much

Let’s look at 10 storylines for the new season.

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Terrence Shannon Jr. and Illinois rank 23rd — third among Big Ten teams — in the opening Top 25.

Terrence Shannon Jr. and Illinois rank 23rd — third among Big Ten teams — in the opening Top 25.

Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The new college basketball season arrived Monday with the force of a leaky faucet, the fanfare of a race for comptroller and the blink-and-you-missed-it excitement of your Aunt Shirley and Uncle Marv’s pinochle game. Every team in the Top 25, including No. 23 Illinois, won. A few of them even might have broken a slight sweat.

The point is, you haven’t missed anything yet.

But more-enticing matchups will come soon — like at the Champions Classic doubleheader next week in Indianapolis, where Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State will be on display. The Blue Devils have a new coach in Jon Scheyer, the Jayhawks have a national champion’s new swagger and the Wildcats have a new skew toward a veteran lineup. And the Spartans? Well, they have a new streak of being unranked in the preseason poll — two consecutive seasons — for the first time since the 1990s.

And we have 10 storylines for the new season to get to:

1. Heel, yes: Voters love North Carolina, which received 47 of 62 No. 1 nods in the opening poll. Caleb Love, Armando Bacot, R.J. Davis and Leaky Black are back from the NCAA runner-up squad, and transfer Pete Nance, on board from Northwestern, was the fifth starter in the Tar Heels’ opener Monday. Gonzaga was next with 12 No. 1 votes, including mine. I had Houston at No. 2 and North Carolina at No. 3.

Jacksonville v Duke

New coach Jon Scheyer leads Duke in its opening game.

Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

2. Coach S: Mike Krzyzewski has left the building, and Northbrook native Scheyer has moved into the highest-profile job in college basketball. Have there been bigger shoes to fill since Mike Davis took over for fired legend Bobby Knight at Indiana a

little more than 20 years ago? Honorable mention goes to Kyle Neptune at Villanova, where two-time national champ Jay Wright has retired.

3. Big East beware: Sean Miller — fired by Arizona amid scandal 18 months ago — is back at Xavier, where his head-coaching career began. Thad Matta, who walked away from Ohio State in 2017 because of health concerns, is back at Butler, his alma mater and where his own head-coaching career was launched. As if the conference waters weren’t hard enough for DePaul to stay afloat in, right?

4. The Big Meh: In 1977, Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown, Reggie Jackson earned the nickname ‘‘Mr. October’’ and Purdue came in at No. 12 in the preseason Top 25. Believe it or not, that was the last time — until this year — there was no Big Ten team ranked in the initial top 10. Indiana (13th), Michigan (22nd) and Illinois are the only ones getting any respect at all.

5. The skyin’ Illini: They will be tons of fun to watch because of how long and athletic they are, an enticing collection of ‘‘positionless’’ players — 6-6 Terrence Shannon Jr., 6-10 Coleman Hawkins, 6-9 Matthew Mayer, 6-7 RJ Melendez. This team will disrupt passing lanes, swat shots, run the floor and do a whole lot of dunking. Hmmm, have we ever seen a group like that in Champaign before?

6. Large and in charge: Partly because of NIL enticements and more so because the NBA doesn’t quite know what to do with big men who aren’t ballhandling, three-point-shooting ‘‘freaks,’’ the college landscape is packed with high-quality inside studs. Kofi Cockburn — who was at Illinois’ opener as a fan — isn’t one of them and soon will leave for Japan to play professionally. But Oscar Tshiebwe is back at Kentucky, Hunter Dickinson at Michigan, Zach Edey at Purdue, Trayce Jackson-Davis at Indiana, Drew Timme at Gonzaga, Adama Sanogo at Connecticut, Bacot at UNC. It all has a nice throwback feel to it.

North Carolina v Kansas

Armando Bacon and North Carolina are the early No. 1.

Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

7. Beats digging ditches: This is Chris Collins’ 10th season at Northwestern and his sixth since an NCAA Tournament breakthrough that — with all the losing since — almost seems as though it didn’t happen. How do the next four months look for the Wildcats? Bleak. That’s just reality.

8. Ramblin’ on: You might’ve missed that Loyola left the Missouri Valley for the Atlantic 10. No more Drake, Northern Iowa and Missouri State; now it’s Dayton, Saint Louis and VCU. One important difference for the Ramblers: They’re now in what typically is a multi-bid league, so making the NCAA Tournament won’t necessarily ride on winning the conference tournament. Another difference, though: Nobody’s picking the Ramblers to finish first in the A-10, and that might be the case for a while.

9. Ranking the conferences: The Big 12 widely is considered the best league, and it probably is. I had Baylor (No. 5), Kansas (No. 9), TCU (No. 12) and Texas (No. 14) on my opening ballot. But I also had five from the SEC — Kentucky (No. 4), Tennessee (No. 7), Auburn (No. 16), Arkansas (No. 20) and Alabama (No. 22) — and can imagine Kentucky or Tennessee cutting down the nets in the end. At best, the Big Ten is third.

10. Mixed bag: Nobody’s having more fun than Tennessee and TCU fans, considering how high those schools are in the College Football Playoff rankings, too. . . . I’m fascinated to see how Iowa’s Kris Murray and Wisconsin’s Jordan Davis progress. They are the twin brothers of Keegan Murray and Johnny Davis, who were NBA lottery picks. . . . Houston is plenty good enough to win the whole thing, and guess where the Final Four is? No, smarty pants, not San Antonio. A Cougars coronation in H-Town would be something.

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