Key storylines for all 32 D-I conferences ahead of 2023-24

ByMyron Medcalf ESPN logo
Thursday, October 26, 2023

The past six months of men's college basketball have been eventful.

Some of the game's prominent coaches have moved to other schools -- Ed Cooley to Georgetown and Rick Pitino to St. John's were two of the most intriguing moves of the offseason.

Reigning Wooden Award winner Zach Edey is back at Purdue after the upset loss to Fairleigh Dickinson in the 2023 NCAA tournament. But Hunter Dickinson, Max Abmas and LJ Cryer have all transferred, and they're all in the Big 12 now.

North Carolina needs a strong season to erase last year's turbulent ride from its memory.

And Bronny James' future in basketball is unknown after he collapsed during a summer practice this summer, though recent news suggests the USC freshman could return and join his teammates at some point this season.

Realignment is an ongoing storyline, too. The end of the Pac-12 seems imminent, with eight of its schools joining new leagues.

All this and more affects what will happen after Nov. 6, when the 2023-24 season tips. But with 362 schools across 32 Division I conferences, that's a lot to digest. Here, we've broken down the top storylines in every league to help.

Navigate to each league:

American | America East | ACC | ASUN | A-10| Big 12 | Big East | Big Sky | Big South | Big Ten | Big West | CAA | C-USA | Horizon | Ivy| MAAC | MAC | MEAC | MVC | MW | NEC | OVC | Pac-12 | Patriot | SEC | SoCon | Southland | SWAC | Summit | Sun Belt | WCC | WAC

American Athletic Conference

The AAC's new members will need to step up to stabilize the league

This is a different league this season. Although the conference lost Houston, Cincinnati and UCF, who are all in the Big 12 now, the arrivals of Florida Atlantic -- one of the 2023 Final Four teams, and capable of winning the AAC title in its first season -- North Texas, UAB, Charlotte, Rice and UTSA have seen the league through the chaos of realignment. But its ability to maintain its streak of earning multiple bids on Selection Sunday (nine consecutive seasons) could become more difficult. There's also fear surrounding Memphis, a program that could be a target for other leagues as realignment continues.

America East Conference

Will Vermont's dominance continue?

In March 2016, Rihanna's "Work" was the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100. That was more than seven years ago. That's also the last time Vermont lost an America East regular-season title. Coach John Becker will go for eight in a row in 2023-24. But a reloaded squad that lost four starters in the offseason will have to fend off Earl Timberlake (13.8 PPG, 8.4 RPG) and Bryant, as well as UMass Lowell, which returns three starters from a team that split the 2023-23 regular-season series with the Catamounts.

Atlantic Coast Conference

Is this North Carolina's redemption season?

The ACC is packed with storylines. Kyle Filipowski is a serious Wooden Award contender on a Duke team with national championship dreams. Norchad Omier and Nijel Pack are back after Miami's Final Four run. Reece Beekman anchors a Virginia team that turned to the transfer portal after losing three double-digit scorers. But UNC faces the most pressure to redeem itself after a historic season -- and not the good kind.

Last year, the Tar Heels became the first program in college basketball history to be the AP preseason No. 1 team and then miss the NCAA tournament. The fall unfolded just a year after Hubert Davis' squad lost to Kansas in the 2022 national title game. But Armando Bacot (first-team all-ACC) and RJ Davis are back. Plus, they're joined by Elliott Cadeau, a top-10 prospect in the 2024 class who reclassified to play this season. Cadeau is a future pro who could immediately help this team's redemption efforts.

Atlantic Sun Conference

Will the mojo continue with a new coach at Kennesaw State?

Amir Abdur-Rahim orchestrated an impressive four-year turnaround in Kennesaw, Georgia, elevating his stock and leading him to his new job at South Florida. Now, new coach Antoine Pettway, a former Alabama assistant, aims to keep the Owls on the right path with the help of returning standout Terrell Burden (13.5 PPG in 2022-23). Last year's achievements -- winning their first league title in 19 years, and making their first NCAA tournament appearance as a Division I school -- have set a high mark.

Atlantic 10 Conference

Anthony Grant and Dayton'squest to end their NCAA tournament drought

The A-10 saw several changes in the offseason: St. Bonaventure added key transfer Charles Pride (14.6 PPG at Bryant last season) while VCU hired Ryan Odom from Utah State to sustain its winning tradition. Dayton returns star DaRon Holmes II (18.4 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 1.9 BPG) and remains the team to beat. Since his arrival in 2017-18, however, coach Anthony Grant has not been able to will this program to the NCAA tournament -- the Flyers were set to secure a bid in 2020 before the event was canceled because of COVID-19. Grant has an opportunity to lead the program to the Big Dance for the first time in six seasons.

Big East Conference

Rick Pitino could make some noise

There's also a lot to discuss in the Big East. UConn will pursue another national championship with Donovan Clingan (6.9 PPG, 5.6 RPG) set to play a bigger role. Marquette has Big East Player of the Year Tyler Kolek and a cast that could win the league title again and make a run to the Final Four. Creighton and Villanova are elite programs with promise, too. But new St. John's head coach Rick Pitino is all anyone can talk about when it comes to this conference.

While most new coaches need some time to find a rhythm, Pitino turned to the transfer portal to accelerate that transition. Joel Soriano (15.2 PPG), the only key returner on the team, will be joined by Nahiem Alleyne (5.2 PPG at UConn), Sean Conway (12.1 PPG, 38% from 3 at VMI), Jordan Dingle (23.4 PPG at Penn) and Daniss Jenkins (15.6 PPG at Iona) in Pitino's first season with the Johnnies. That might not be sufficient to win one of America's top leagues, but it could get St. John's back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2019.

Big Sky Conference

Did Dillon Jones make the right decision to stay?

This offseason, the Weber State forward had a multitude of offers from Power 5 programs that were attached to name, image and likeness opportunities. But Jones, who averaged 16.7 PPG and 10.9 RPG last year, decided to return to help the Wildcats try to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016. Montana, which returns three starters, and Eastern Washington, last season's Big Sky champ, stand in Jones' path. But he is the top player in the conference. A title and tournament berth would confirm he made the right choice.

Big South Conference

Drew Pembercould become an All-American -- and make mid-major history

The reigning Big South Player of the Year led the UNC Asheville Bulldogs to both the regular-season and conference tournament titles last season. He is a unique force in college basketball. Pember is 6-10, but connected on 38% of his 3s while also averaging 21.0 PPG, 9.2 RPG and 2.4 BPG in 2022-23. Now, he has a shot to make history. Only one mid-major player outside the West Coast Conference -- Loyola Chicago's Cameron Krutwig in 2020-2021 -- has earned a spot on an AP All-America team since 2016. With another dominant season, Pember should earn serious consideration for the honor.

Big 12 Conference

New faces could determine the title race

The arrival of former Michigan star Hunter Dickinson (18.5 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 1.8 BPG) will make Kansas -- the AP preseason No. 1 team -- a top-three program in every reputable preseason poll. But he's not the only critical newcomer in the new Big 12, which adds Houston, BYU, Cincinnati and UCF this season. Houston has been an elite program under Kelvin Sampson, and the addition of LJ Cryer, who stays in the Big 12 after averaging 15.0 PPG and connecting on 42% of his 3-point attempts at Baylor last season, gives the Cougars the juice to challenge Kansas for the crown.

Don't forget Max Abmas, who has finished top 10 in scoring nationally for the past three seasons and will be the new star at Texas after averaging 21.9 PPG at Oral Roberts. Shooting guard Ja'Kobe Walter, ranked eighth by ESPN in the 2023 class, could help lead Baylor to the Big 12 championship. Kansas State's Arthur Kaluma (11.8 PPG at Creighton), Iowa State's Omaha Biliew (a 6-foot-9 forward ranked 11th in the 2023 class per ESPN) and TCU's Jameer Nelson Jr. (20.6 PPG at Delaware) will also make an impact and keep this expanded league competitive.

Big Ten Conference

Is this the year the Big Ten's national title drought finally ends?

During last week's Big Ten media day in Minneapolis, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said some of the criticism surrounding a league that hasn't won a national title since he led the Spartans to the championship in 2000 is valid. "I guess we get this negative part about the NCAA tournament," Izzo said. "I understand it. ... I know that one of us has to win an NCAA championship to get this thing straightened out."

The Big Ten's odds of winning a title should increase once USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon join the league next summer. But the drought could end sooner. The return of Zach Edey positions Purdue, which secured a top seed in the 2023 NCAA tournament, to compete for Matt Painter's first national title. Izzo's squad, meanwhile, returns four of five starters from last season and adds five-star recruit Xavier Booker, part of a strong recruiting class. Plus, Illinois is No. 25 in the AP preseason poll. Big Ten fans, coaches and players are tired of the drought talk. This could be the year the conference does something about it.

Big West Conference

Was UC Santa Barbara's finish last season a fluke?

Last season, the Gauchos made a run to the Big West regular-season and tournament titles and the NCAA tournament, weathering a 2-4 slide and then winning seven consecutive games before Selection Sunday. How? Joe Pasternack's team made at least 40% of its 3s in six of those seven wins. That came after Ajay Mitchell (16.3 PPG) & Co. were hitting 3s at less than 35% over the season. They got hot at the right time, before they lost to Baylor in the first round of the NCAA tournament. If UC Santa Barbara can hit shots from beyond the arc, it can, once again, be a Big West champion and enter March as a threat to pull off an upset.

Coastal Athletic Association

Speedy Claxton's squad aims to finish the job this year

The former NBA guard has put Hofstra back on the map with back-to-back 20-win campaigns in his first two seasons as a head coach. Still, the Pride, who won a share of the league's regular-season title, fell short of their goals when an overtime loss to UNC Wilmington in the CAA tournament ended their 12-game winning streak. With Tyler Thomas (16.5 PPG) back, they should compete for the league title again -- and perhaps their first NCAA tournament bid since 2001.

Conference USA

Ritchie McKay andLibertyeye a C-USA crown in the school's first year in the league

The C-USA lost multiple schools, including Final Four surprise Florida Atlantic, but then added the Flames, who have won at least 21 games for the past seven seasons under McKay. The consistency should continue even without Darius McGhee's star power. Kyle Rode (10.9 PPG, 40% from beyond the arc) is back for a squad that will not wait to make its presence known among the new group of conference contenders.

Horizon League

Looks like another tight race

Last season, Youngstown State won the league with a 15-5 record, but three teams (Northern Kentucky, Cleveland State and Milwaukee) were close behind, finishing 14-6 in conference play. Marques Warrick (18.8 PPG), who led Northern Kentucky to the league's tournament title, is back. Milwaukee returns the bulk of its starters from a team that won 22 games overall in Bart Lundy's first season. Youngstown State hopes to defend its league title with a fleet of transfers. Then there's Tanner Holden (20.1 PPG in 2021-22), who returns to Wright State following a rocky 2022-23 at Ohio State. Looks like another logjam at the top of the Horizon League.

Ivy League

Can Tommy Amaker get Harvard back on the winning track?

Prior to the 2020-21 season, which was canceled by the Ivy League because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Amaker had won at least 18 games in 10 of the previous 11 seasons. The former Duke star also led Harvard to its first-ever NCAA tournament win in 2013. But the Crimson have struggled in recent years, and haven't reached the NCAA tournament since 2015. For 2023-24, Amaker will turn to Evan Nelson (8.4 PPG, 39% from beyond the arc) to search for the momentum that has eluded the program.

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

What Rick Pitino's departure means for the MAAC?

In Pitino's three seasons in New Rochelle, Iona won the league's tournament twice and captured the regular-season title in back-to-back years. Every key player on those Gaels squads transferred when Pitino left. That might have opened the door in the title race this season. Mervin James (all-MAAC second team) could lead Rider through it a year after finishing second. Canisius returns the bulk of its starters from a team that shot 49% from inside the arc in league play. And first-year coach Tom Pecora will try to build on Quinnipiac's 20-win season. All three of those schools are probably glad Pitino is gone.

Mid-American Conference

The transfer portal will shape the league's title race

While most coverage of the transfer portal centers on Power 5 programs, the mid-majors are most disadvantaged in this new era, where continuity is now difficult to achieve for the smaller schools. Yet the portal also offers a chance to replenish a team's talent pool. Ali Ali, who averaged 13.9 PPG at Akron in 2021-22, is back with the Zips after a short-lived stint at Butler. He, along with All-MAC first-teamerEnrique Freeman, could lead Akron to the league title. Reggie Bass, who averaged 12.4 PPG at Central Michigan last season, moved within the conference and is a key player at Kent State. Meanwhile, Toledo will try to succeed again without RayJ Dennis, the MAC Player of the Year who transferred to Baylor. Those offseason moves could determine the final standings.

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

Will Howard's rise continue?

Kenny Blakeney, who played under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, led the Bison to a 4-29 finish during the 2019-20 season, his first season coaching in Washington, D.C. But he has continued to develop the talent at Howard, and led the program to the MEAC regular-season and tournament championships in 2022-23. And even though the team suffered a 96-68 loss to Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament, two players who reached double figures (Shy Odom, Marcus Dockery) in that game are back for Howard. Blakeney's trajectory looks to be going up.

Missouri Valley Conference

Can anyone catch Drake?

With the return of Tucker DeVries, last year's MVC Player of the Year, Drake will be difficult to beat. ButBradley coach Brian Wardle returns three starters from a squad that won 25 games last season. Cade Tyson (13.6 PPG, 42% from 3) could become Belmont's next star. And even though Northern Iowa finished last season with a sub-.500 record, four starters are returning to help Ben Jacobson go after his second league title in three years. That all sounds promising but, let's remember, Drake had an eight-point lead over Miami with six minutes to play in its first-round matchup in the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs will be a handful for any opponent.

Mountain West Conference

The future of the league is TBD

There are a multitude of fun storylines within this league. Lamont Butler is back for a San Diego State team that has regrouped since its Final Four run in the spring. New Mexico's Jamal Mashburn Jr. -- yes, the son of the former Kentucky and NBA star -- could finish the season as a top-10 scorer nationally. There are other key returnees in the Mountain West, too, to keep the competition intriguing.

But the biggest narrative around the MW centers on commissioner Gloria Nevarez reportedly talking with Washington State and Oregon State, the last two teams from the Pac-12 that haven't found a new home for 2024-25, in recent months. With reports that the Big 12 might still be interested in Gonzaga, we might be looking at the Mountain West as the new West Coast basketball power if it decides to expand across the region. The speculation looks like it will continue throughout this season.

Northeast Conference

Merrimackis finally eligible for the NCAA tournament

For the past four years, the Warriors have gone through the Division I transition, which made them ineligible to play in the NCAA tournament -- despite winning the NEC's regular-season and tournament titles last season. That's how Fairleigh Dickinson, which upset Purdue in the first round after losing to Merrimack in the NEC tournament title game, got there. But Merrimack is finally eligible. Joe Gallo's squad lost its top three scorers in the offseason, but a collection of newcomers should help the Warriors compete for another league title and their first spot in the NCAA tournament as a Division I program.

Ohio Valley Conference

League looks to continue a trend

It's difficult to find many flaws in Morehead State star Mark Freeman's game. He made 41% of his 3-point attempts in league play. He connected on 87% of his free throw attempts. He averaged 15.0 PPG and was named OVC Player of the Year. He's the reason the Eagles could win another league title. If he repeats as conference Player of the Year, he'll be extending a recent tradition. Since the 2007-08 season, five OVC players have won the award in back-to-back years.

Pac-12 Conference

Will we see Bronny James at USC this year?

After suffering cardiac arrest during a summer workout, James, the son of LeBron James, took a break from basketball to recover from surgery, according to his family. At Los Angeles Lakers media day, however, his father said Bronny was working toward playing at USC this season.

When Andy Enfield recruited James, a projected first-round pick in next summer's NBA draft prior to his medical event, he said he immediately noticed James' knowledge of the game, defense, maturity and leadership. With Boogie Ellis and freshman Isaiah Collier, the No. 1 recruit in the 2023 class per ESPN, the Trojans are expected to compete for a Pac-12 title and a spot in the NCAA tournament before they move to the Big Ten in 2024-25. That won't be an easy task with Arizona, Colorado and UCLA all prepared to chase the championship, too. But the return of James would be a boost for USC.

Patriot League

How long can Colgate keep Matt Langel?

The 45-year-old head coach has been at Colgate since 2011, and has earned five consecutive Patriot League crowns and NCAA tournament bids. And with Keegan Records (13.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.3 BPG), he could take the Raiders to another tournament championship and return to the NCAA tournament this season. If that happens, Langel's stock will continue to rise, and he might have to make some key decisions about his future if he's a target for bigger schools.

Southeastern Conference

John Calipari must find a way to keepKentucky fans happy

Coach Cal boasts another top-ranked recruiting class and a group of players with NBA futures, including five-star freshmen D.J. Wagner and Justin Edwards. He often says Kelvin Sampson once told him he always has a chance to win a national title because of the talent he recruits to Lexington.

Yet the Hall of Fame coach hasn't been to a Final Four since 2015. He last won a national title in 2012. He has one SEC title in six years -- a stretch that includes a nine-win season in 2020-21 and a 2021-22 upset loss to Saint Peter's in the NCAA tournament. The response from the rabid fan base has been lukewarm at best in recent years. Calipari has a giant multimillion-dollar buyout. And he's still one of the best coaches in Kentucky's storied history. But another rocky season could lead to an unlikely conclusion from both sides: Maybe it's best for everybody to start fresh.

Southern Conference

Could Western Carolina make history?

The last time the Catamounts played in the NCAA tournament, they nearly became the first true Cinderella: The 16-seed came within seconds of beating top-seeded Purdue in 1996. This season, the return of Tre Jackson (15.8 PPG) and Vonterius Woolbright (14.5 PPG) could help Western Carolina get back to the tournament for the first time in 28 years. Coach Justin Gray was just 12 years old the last time the Catamounts went to the Big Dance. The school might build a statue of him if he's able to take it back.

Southland Conference

Will Wade's second chance in college basketball

Earlier this year, Wade was hit with a two-year show-cause penalty after misconduct allegations that surfaced in the FBI's investigation of men's college basketball that began in 2017. Wade had lost his job at LSUas a result of the accusations, but McNeese Statehired him to restore its program. With Christian Shumate, a 6-6 guard who averaged 15.1 PPG last season, and multiple newcomers, Wade could win the Southland title in his first season in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Summit League

Can Oral Roberts contend without Max Abmas?

A lot has changed for the Golden Eagles, who have reached the NCAA tournament via the league's tournament championship in two of the past three seasons. But Abmas, the star of that run, transferred to Texas while Paul Mills, the coach who orchestrated that success, is now at Wichita State after being named conference Coach of the Year. With them, ORU finished 30-5. Now it's time for Issac McBride, an All-Summit League second-teamer, to ascend to a leadership role on a team that will try to prove it can still compete for a conference championship under new head coach Russell Springmann, a former assistant under Mills.

Sun Belt Conference

Is this the end of the Cliff Ellis era at Coastal Carolina?

In 1975, Ellis earned his first head-coaching gig at South Alabama, then a Division I independent -- the same year Mike Krzyzewski became Army's head coach. Entering 2023-24, he is one of the most tenured coaches in college basketball, but a string of challenging seasons recently could forecast the end: The 77-year-old coach is coming off an 11-20 (5-13 Sun Belt) campaign to start his 49th year in the sport. The good news? Seven times previously, after recording losing seasons his teams have bounced back with .500 or better records the next season.

Southwestern Athletic Conference

Will Johnny Jones' streak continue?

In 2017, LSU fired Johnny Jones after he finished 19-14 with a team that featured future NBA All-Star Ben Simmons. Jones eventually found a new gig at Texas Southern, where he's content. That's not surprising. Jones has led the Tigers to three consecutive SWAC tournament titles and NCAA tournament appearances. Making it 4-for-4 this season could be his greatest challenge after losing three starters, however.

Western Athletic Conference

First-year coaches hold promise

Grand Canyon, which returns Rayshon Harrison (17.8 PPG), is the team to beat in the WAC. But some of the new faces in the league have their own dreams. Southern Utah's Rob Jeter won seven games in his first season at Western Illinois in 2020-21, then 16 in each of the past two campaigns. He'll need that magic for a team that does not return a single starter from last year. K.T. Turner, an assistant under John Calipari at Kentucky last season, could immediately launch a turnaround at UT Arlington, which won 11 games in 2022-23. And Todd Phillips, an assistant under Mark Madsen last season, is rebuilding Utah Valley after losing all five starters from the 2022-23 team that won the WAC regular-season title.

West Coast Conference

Will this be the end of Gonzaga's WCC run?

For just the second time in 22 years, the Zags were not picked to win the WCC title in the conference's preseason poll -- Aidan Mahaney (13.9 PPG) and his Saint Mary's teammates instead earned the votes. The Bulldogs potentially breaking an 11-year regular-season title winning streak is not the only point of conversation, though. There have been recent reports that the Big 12 remains interested in adding Gonzaga to the fold. At WCC media day last week, Mark Few acknowledged the talks and said, "If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't."

Sure, Gonzaga has a new group led by former Creighton star Ryan Nembhard (12.1 PPG, 4.8 APG) in the post-Drew Timme era. And history suggests the Bulldogs will still be a competitive team with Final Four aspirations. If the realignment wave hits, however, this could be the last time Few's program competes for a WCC crown, a move that would alter the strength of the league.

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