Sometimes as a sports fan it’s challenging to stay positive.
In the last few weeks, I have had the privilege of watching the Reds gag away a 2-0 lead in the playoffs. I’ve seen the Eagles treat the ball like a live grenade. And I’ve lost to my wife and seven year old nephew in fantasy football.
So why do I still have a smile on my face? Because college hoops season is nearly upon us, that’s why.
I am proud to say that I finished second in the Bracket Matrix last season, so I figured my first foray in college basketball writing this year should be projecting this year’s March Madness field.
While it’s way too early (and probably too foolish) to try to attach projected seeds to the teams, here’s a look league-by-league at who I like to make the field of 68.
First up are the conferences projected to get multiple teams in the Big Dance:
Team chemistry should be improved for the Blue Devils without Austin Rivers, and Mason Plumlee seems poised for a breakout season to lead a talented frontcourt.
Quinn Cook’s play at the point will be critical, and keep an eye on redshirt freshman Alex Murphy.
Leonard Hamilton lost a lot of firepower from last year’s 25-win squad, but All-American candidate Michael Snaer is back to lead the ‘Noles.
Stingy defense will keep FSU in most games while the rest of the rotation sorts itself out.
The Hurricanes have great balance with big man Reggie Johnson and stretch four Kenny Kadji up front to complement Durand Scott and Shane Larkin in the backcourt.
After losing four NBA first rounders, there are some question marks for the Heels.
Talented sophomore James Michael McAdoo showed flashes late last season and is in line for a breakout season, and Reggie Bullock should be all the way back from a knee injury suffered as a freshman.
For this team to excel though, they need strong play from freshman PG Marcus Paige and consistent play from one of the other frontcourt options.
North Carolina State
The Wolfpack return the nucleus of last season’s Sweet Sixteen squad, led by one of the nation’s best point guards in Lorenzo Brown. Explosive forward C.J. Leslie is back as well, and the team received good news in the offseason when talented freshman Rodney Purvis was cleared by the NCAA.
If the newcomers can mesh and everyone accepts their roles, NC State has the talent to win the ACC.
Atlantic 10 (5)
We know Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke can fill it up from long range, but can he play the point? Andrew Smith gives the Bulldogs a veteran presence inside, and Khyle Marshall appears ready to take the next step.
The Minutemen played at one of the faster paces in the nation last season and return their top four scorers, led by 5-9 Chaz Williams.
UMass settled for a trip to the NIT last season, but if their defense improves, look for them in the Big Dance this year.
All five starters return from last season, including the outstanding backcourt duo of Carl Jones and Langston Galloway. The Hawks were the preseason pick to win the league for good reason.
The Billikens lost their leading scorer from last season, and coach Rick Majerus will miss the season due to serious health concerns. hrow in an injury to star guard Kwamain Mitchell, who will be out until early December, and things aren’t exactly looking up for SLU.
Still, the team has a number of talented shooters and should be tough defensively once again, both of which will keep them in the hunt.
Don’t be surprised if the Rams win the A-10 in their first season in the league. They return multiple key contributors from last year’s team, including breakout candidate Treveon Graham, and tenacious defense will continue to be VCU’s calling card.
Big 12 (6)
Electric point guard Pierre Jackson and dead-eye shooter Brady Heslip return in the backcourt, but the Bears will be counting on highly touted freshmen Isaiah Austin and Ricardo Gathers to produce right away up front.
Last season’s Jayhawks had some big shoes to fill, and this year is no exception following the departures of Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor.
Look for Elijah Johnson to step up in the backcourt, Jeff Withey to patrol the lane on defense, and freshmen Perry Ellis and Ben McLemore to contribute immediately.
Bruce Weber inherited a veteran roster, led by senior Rodney McGruder. The Wildcats have some size inside with Jordan Henriquez and Thomas Gipson to go with a slew of experienced guards for what should be a strong defensive team.
Guard Marcus Smart projects as one of the nation’s top freshmen, and he’ll pair with sophomore forward Le’Bryan Nash to form a dangerous one-two punch for the Pokes.
Interior play and quality depth will be key as Travis Ford tries to work his way off the hot seat.
The Longhorns lost leading scorer J’Covan Brown, but they return a quintet of talented sophomores, led by point guard Myck Kabongo (assuming his eligibility issues get sorted out).
Frontcourt play is a question mark for Rick Barnes, who needs five-star center Cameron Ridley to produce early and often.
Transfers Aaric Murray, Jawan Staten, and Matt Humphrey will be asked to fill the void left by the graduation of Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant.
As long as this team doesn’t take defensive instruction from their gridiron counterparts, the ‘Neers should be dancing once again.
Big East (8)
The Bearcats have a number of talented guards, led by Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright, and with a few question marks up front, look for UC to play more small ball.
The departures of Jason Clark, Henry Sims, and Hollis Thompson leave big shoes to fill for the Hoyas, but look for a breakout sophomore year from Otto Porter.
Other returnees will be asked to step up, and freshmen D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Stephen Domingo should both contribute early.
Few preseason publications have the Cardinals outside of the Top Two and for good reason.
Their starting five features a veteran playmaker in Peyton Siva, a streaky scorer in Russ Smith, a pair of talented sophomores in Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan, and a big man who can protect the rim in Gorgui Dieng.
Outside shooting is the biggest concern here, but Rick Pitino boasts an incredibly deep squad that has already tasted the Final Four.
Replacing Jae Crowder and DJO won’t be easy, but you can count on plenty of toughness from Buzz Williams’ squad.
The Golden Eagles have size inside with Chris Otule and Davante Gardner, but this team will go as far as the perimeter trio of Vander Blue, Todd Mayo, and Trent Lockett will take them.
All five starters return from an Irish squad that won 13 Big East games last season. Four of those players scored at least 9.5 points per game, led by big man Jack Cooley who also chipped in nearly nine boards per contest.
The Panthers settled for an invite to the CBI last season, but expect them to be dancing again thanks to a healthy Tray Woodall, Central Michigan transfer Trey Zeigler, and talented freshmen Steven Adams and James Robinson.
I wasn’t buying the Bulls as a tournament team last year, but they impressed once they got there.
I am, however, buying Anthony Collins in the backcourt, and USF should have improved depth to go with returnees Victor Rudd and Toarlyn Fitzpatrick in the frontcourt.
The Orange lost four key players from last season’s team, but Jim Boeheim’s cupboard is far from bare.
Guys like C.J. Fair, Michael Carter-Williams, and Rakeem Christmas need to step up, and freshmen Dajuan Coleman and Jerami Grant will be asked to contribute immediately.
Big Ten (7)
Led by preseason Player of the Year Cody Zeller, Tom Crean’s Hoosiers boast a deep and experienced roster.
Freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell gives the offense an added dimension, but IU needs to show improvement on the defensive end if they want to live up to their lofty ranking.
The Hawkeyes showed solid improvement in Fran McCaffery’s second season, and I like them as a sleeper team in the Big Ten.
Look for a breakout season from sophomore Aaron White, but the key for Iowa may well be the play of freshman point guard Mike Gesell.
With sophomore Trey Burke returning at the point and an infusion of young talent like Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, expectations are high for the Wolverines.
Replacing veterans like Zack Novak and Stu Douglass won’t be easy, and Tim Hardaway Jr. needs to regain the shooting stroke he displayed as a freshman.
Gary Harris has Big Ten Freshman of the Year written all over him, and Tom Izzo’s hallmark defense and toughness will keep the Spartans in virtually every game.
Branden Dawson’s recovery from a torn ACL appears to be ahead of schedule, and his rebounding and athleticism give MSU another dimension on both ends of the floor.
Now that the concerns about Trevor Mbakwe’s availability appear to be behind them, the Gophers are poised to make a return to the tournament after falling in the NIT Championship last season.
With Mbakwe and Rodney Williams, the frontcourt is solid, but Tubby Smith needs guard Andre Hollins to build off of his strong finish last year.
Few teams can match the duo of Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft, but the key for the Buckeyes will be the supporting cast. Early reviews have been positive on sophomore Sam Thompson, while fellow soph Amir Williams will be counted on to ease the loss of Jared Sullinger.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s to never count out the Badgers regardless of who they lose from year to year. So even without Jordan Taylor, things are looking good in Madison.
Bo Ryan’s squad has plenty of experience, and freshman Sam Dekker is going to be special.
Conference USA (2)
The inside-outside combination of guard DeAndrea Kane and forward Dennis Tinnon gives the Herd a strong foundation, as Coach Tom Herrion looks to get the Herd back into the Big Dance for the first time in 25 years.
The Tigers should be the class of C-USA once again.
They boast a talented backcourt with Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford, and they added Shaq Goodwin, one of the top power forwards in this year’s class, to a strong front line. Look for a breakout sophomore campaign from Adonis Thomas.
Mountain West (3)
The Rams snuck into the NCAA Tournament last season and will look to do so again with new coach Larry Eustachy on the bench.
Guards Wes Eikmeier and Dorian Green combined for nearly 30 points per game last season, and Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson gives CSU added bulk inside alongside undersize forwards Pierce Hornung and Greg Smith.
San Diego State
Guards Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley are two of the league’s top players and lead a number of returning players from last season’s 26-win squad.
Talented freshmen Winston Shepherd will need to contribute right away in the frontcourt if the Aztecs want to challenge UNLV for the conference title.
Despite losing a few key players, the Rebels are expected to win the MWC and are ranked in the Top 20 by most pundits.
Forward Mike Moser averaged a double-double a season ago, and Anthony Marshall provides verteran leadership at the point. Throw in an impact freshman like Anthony Bennett and major conference transfers like Khem Birch and Bryce Dejean-Jones, and this team definitely isn’t short on talent.
Conference Player of the Year candidate Solomon Hill returns for Sean Miller’s Wildcats, but there are a number of new faces who will be asked to play prominent roles.
Freshmen big men Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, and Grant Jerrett will be counted on to play big minutes right away, and Xavier transfer Mark Lyons needs to play well at the point if Arizona wants to make a deep run in March.
I really like the backcourt of Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright, and if big man Dwight Powell can take the next step as a junior, Johnny Dawkins’ squad could make some noise out west.
Eligibility concerns continue to swirl around freshmen Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson. If both are able to suit up for the Bruins, UCLA could win the Pac-12. If not, Ben Howland might be looking for a new gig next year.
You can count on solid defense from the Tide, but stud recruit Devonta Pollard will give Anthony Grant an anchor in the post.
Trevor Releford is a talented point guard, and look for solid improvement from a quartet of sophomores who gained valuable experience last season.
Despite losing Bradley Beal and Erving Walker, the Gators still have plenty of scoring punch with Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy, and Patric Young back in the lineup.
The key for this team will be point guard play of Scottie Wilbekin and/or Braxton Ogbueze.
The reigning champs have reloaded and are considered a Top Three team despite have zero returning players who started a game last season.
Nerlens Noel was the highest rated recruit, but big man Willie Cauley-Stein has earned rave reviews early. NC State transfer Ryan Harrow will work to be the next in the line of great Calipari point guards, and freshmen Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress look like outstanding prospects as well.
The Tigers lost a lot, but Frank Haith has reloaded thanks to transfers like Alex Oriakhi, Keion Bell, and Earnest Ross, and the return of forward Laurence Bowers.
The backcourt tandem of Flip Pressey and Michael Dixon is among the best in the country.
Cuonzo Martin returns virtually everyone from last season’s squad, which peaked after the midseason addition of Jarnell Stokes.
Jeronne Maymon will team with Stokes to form a tough frontcourt duo, and guard Trae Golden has earned high praise from Martin for his work this offseason.
West Coast (3)
Brandon Davies will anchor the Cougars down low, and the streaky Matt Carlino returns in the backcourt to provide additional scoring punch.
Tyler Haws, who scored 11.3 points per game as a freshman is back from his Mormon mission, and freshman Cory Calvert is a talented shooter from long range.
Four starters are back for the Zags, led by WCC Player of the Year candidate Elias Harris and the sophomore backcourt duo of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr.
If Sam Dower and/or Polish native Przemek Karnowski can fill the void left by Robert Sacre’s graduation, look out.
With Rob Jones gone, sophomore Brad Waldow will need to step up inside, but there are no such questions at the point thanks to Matthew Dellavedova, who is one of the nation’s best.
And here are the one-bid leagues:
America East: Stony Brook – I expect a close race between the Sea Wolves and Vermont, but I’ll give Stony Brook the edge thanks to the solid all-around play of Tommy Brenton and talented freshman Jameel Warney.
Atlantic Sun: Mercer – The Bears used a balanced offensive attack to win the CIT Championship last season, and they will look to build on that success by taking the A-Sun crown with Belmont now in the OVC. Point guard Langston Hall is an All-Conference talent and provides a steadying influence in the backcourt.
Big Sky: Montana – Point guard Will Cherry broke his foot in September, but assuming he’s healthy when he returns, the Grizzlies should be dancing once again. Look for Kareem Jamar and Matthias Ward to hold down the fort until he returns.
Big South: Charleston Southern – Four starters return for the Buccaneers, led by the impressive backcourt duo of Saah Nimley and Arlon Harper, both of whom should be even better as sophomores.
Big West: Long Beach State – The 49ers lost a ton of talent from last year’s squad, but look for breakout years from James Ennis and Mike Caffey, who will team with a slew of major conference transfers.
Colonial: Drexel – After missing out on the NCAA Tournament despite finishing 16-2 in the CAA, the Dragons have to replace Samme Givens. Coach Bruiser Flint’s team is known for staunch defense, but Frantz Massenat, Damion Lee, and Chris Fouch will provide plenty of firepower on the offensive end.
Horizon: Valparaiso – The Crusaders return all five starters from last year’s regular season champs, including conference Player of the Year candidate Ryan Broekhoff.
Ivy: Princeton – An academic scandal knocked Harvard off its perch atop the Ivy League, and the Tigers look poised to take advantage. Senior forward Ian Hummer does a little bit of everything for Princeton and is a heavy favorite for the league’s POY.
MAAC: Manhattan – The Jaspers made huge strides in Steve Masiello’s first season, finishing with 12 league wins. Thanks to the prolific scoring of George Beamon, I like their chances of taking the next step this year.
MAC: Ohio – The Bobcats lost their coach, but they return all five starters from last year’s Sweet Sixteen squad, including stud point guard D.J. Cooper and backcourt mate Walter Offutt.
MEAC: Savannah State – With their top nine players back, the Tigers look like the prohibitive favorite in the MEAC. Expect Rashad Hassan to lead a balanced attack.
Missouri Valley: Creighton – All-American Doug McDermott is the headliner, but the supporting cast is pretty impressive as well. The Bluejays need to replace point guard Antoine Young, but the offense should be potent once again.
Northeast: Long Island – With Julian Boyd, Jamal Olasewere, and C.J. Garner reinstated after an offseason incident, the Blackbirds are the favorite to repeat in the NEC. Junior point guard Jason Brickman will be among the nation’s leaders in assists thanks in part to one of the country’s fastest paces.
Ohio Valley: Murray State – Belmont and Tennessee State have solid teams as well, but I’ll give the edge to the Racers thanks in large part to the toughness and play-making ability of All-American candidate Isaiah Canaan.
Patriot: Lehigh – Star guard C.J. McCollum had a coming out party against Duke last March. He’ll team with Gabe Knutson as the Mountain Hawks try to hold off a Bucknell team that has won two straight regular season titles.
SWAC: Texas Southern – First-year coach Mike Davis landed the gig late in the offseason, but he inherits a few talented players, most notably Omar Strong who can fill it up from long range. Don’t count out Prairie View A&M though.
Southern: Davidson – The frontcourt duo of Jake Cohen and De’Mon Brooks is the best in the league and should propel the Wildcats to another tournament berth.
Southland: Oral Roberts – The Golden Eagles jettisoned the Summit League in the offseason and look to be the favorite in their first year in the Southland. Warren Niles, Steven Roundtree, and Damen Bell-Holter give Scott Sutton a strong nucleus to go with Utah transfer Shawn Glover.
Summit: South Dakota State – Efficiency marvel Nate Wolters leads the Jackrabbits, who are looking to get back to the Big Dance for a second straight season. Three other starters return as well, including 6-8 forward Jordan Dykstra, who can step out and hit from long range.
Sun Belt: North Texas – This should be a great race between the Mean Green and Middle Tennessee State, but I’m giving UNT the slight edge based solely on the presence of Tony Mitchell, double-double machine and future lottery pick.
WAC: Denver – Expect New Mexico State and Utah State to be in the mix as well, but I’m giving the nod to the Pioneers, who will be spending their first year in the WAC after leaving the Sun Belt. Forward Chris Udofia excels on both ends of the floor, but Denver will need to play big with just two players over 6-7.
Follow me on Twitter (@andybottoms) for more thoughts on college hoops.