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College Basketball Offseason 2024 Primer

John Calipari, Arkansas

The 2023-24 college basketball season concluded in much the same way the 2022-23 campaign did: with the UConn Huskies standing alone as the sport's National Champion. It's a miraculous feat, becoming the first team in nearly two decades to repeat as college basketball National Champions, made all the more impressive against the backdrop of thetransfer portal and NIL. Dan Hurley and the Huskies will certainly take their time to enjoy their achievement, as they should, but the quest for a third straight begins now. And, for the rest of the 350-plus Division I basketball teams the goal is clear, to topple the Huskies and take their own place atop the college basketball world.

With the transfer portal in full swing, the coaching carousel spinning, and NBA Draft decisions looming in a few short months, it will be another busy offseason in the college basketball world. With that in mind, I've decided to develop my own offseason primer, distilling all the important information and storylines you should be keeping an eye on over the coming summer months. 

Transfer Portal

The Kentucky Exodus?: John Calipari's shocking decision to move inside the SEC from Kentucky to Arkansas sent shockwaves through the college basketball world over the weekend and into Monday. Calipari's recent March struggles were well-documented, but it still felt like we would enter 2024-25 with him once again patrolling the sideline in Lexington, albeit under more pressure. Instead, one of the most attractive jobs in college basketball opened, and the full fallout from the decision is yet to come. It's likely we'll see a bunch of Wildcats hit the portal to either follow Calipari or seek out their own opportunities, with big man Aaron Bradshaw and wing Adou Thiero already garnering interest. How many more Wildcats join them remains to be seen, and with roster spots set to open for the new head man in charge, Mark Pope, the situation in Lexington is easily the most significant storyline to watch as things stand in mid-April.

The Mid-Major Stars: One of the great things about March Madness, and college basketball in general, is seeing stars emerge from small schools and make their presence felt on the sport's biggest stage. Take Indiana State's Robbie Avila as an example - he was a little-known, two-star prospect out of Illinois who became a viral sensation over the past few months for a Sycamores team that played for an NIT Title. With the realities of the transfer portal and player movement in college basketball today, these mid-major stars are often seizing newfound opportunities, jumping at the opportunity for open spots at power programs, and the NIL funds that often come with it. Avila has already hit the portal, although he's a special case as he joins up with his coach moving on to Saint Louis, but he's far from the only mid-major star set to change schools this offseason. Oakland's Trey Townsend, the reigning Horizon League Player of the Year, Furman guard J.P. Pegues, Stetson's Jalen Blackmon, and South Dakota State's Zeke Mayo (who has already committed to Kansas) are a few of the names to watch likely to jump up in competition and have an immediate impact next year.

The Bronny Factor: It's rare we see a player who averaged 4.8 PPG on 36% shooting for a bad USC team garner the type of attention Bronny James has, but when your dad is one of the greatest basketball players of all-time, it becomes understandable. Yet, as things stand in mid-April, Bronny's future is completely up in the air. He has entered his name into the NBA Draft and the portal simultaneously, confirming we are almost certainly not going to see him wearing a Trojan jersey in 2024. There will be some NBA interest based solely on his name, but how much stock can you put in a guy who averaged just 19 minutes per game over 25 games in his lone college season? It may help that this is one of the weakest NBA Drafts in recent memory, but my guess is that Bronny will be back in college basketball next year. Where, however, feels like a complete mystery - does he stay at the power conference level? Or, drop down at all? Either way, it will be worth keeping an eye on as we inch closer to the NBA Draft deadline.

The Coaching Carousel

John Calipari to Arkansas: What's amazing about the John Calipari situation is that exactly a decade ago, there were rumors of a potential departure to the Los Angeles Lakers, and Cal could have had his pick of just about any basketball coaching job in America, college or pro. A move to Arkansas just never felt like the way things would end for Calipari, but you can understand why it's attractive for him. It's clear that he needed a change of scenery from the microscope at UK, and at Arkansas he will have unlimited resources in building a winning basketball team, including a hefty NIL fund to toy with. Arkansas is still a rabid fanbase, but it's certainly not the pressure cooker Kentucky is, and a program with ample potential. Things may take a bit of time to get truly rolling, but Cal has won everywhere he's been in the college ranks and this feels like the type of fresh challenge he needed to get back on track.

Kentucky and Mark Pope: Calipari's abrupt departure opened up arguably the most attractive job opening in all of college basketball. But, many of the big names thrown for the job decided to stick at their respective schools, namely Scott Drew at Baylor and Nate Oats at Alabama. So instead, Kentucky AD Mitch Banhart made an out-of-the-box hire by bringing on Kentucky alum Mark Pope, head man at BYU for the last five seasons. It's certainly not a hire that is going to have many around Big Blue Nation celebrating - the fact of the matter is that Pope is not even comparable in terms of name recognition as others that were on the Kentucky shortlist. However, it feels like the type of hire that was in direct response to the frustrating end of the Calipari years. Pope is a coach who knows this program, isn't flashy but is effective, and seems to have the right temperament to handle the pressures of the job. Of course, it will still be a major step up, and Pope will need to adjust to a school with significantly more resources than he had at his disposal at Utah Valley or BYU. But give it time, and this may just be the type of hire that isn't popular at the time, but ages like fine wine.

Pat Kelsey to Louisville: With all the drama unfolding around Kentucky over the last week, it's easy to forget that the other power program in the Bluegrass State also made a coaching change. After a disastrous two-year stint with Kenny Payne at the helm, Louisville is starting anew with Pat Kelsey, who comes over from Charleston. Kelsey feels like an understandable direction to go in for the program - he's still young at 48 years of age but has accomplished aplenty, including 58 wins over the last two seasons with Charleston. Louisville will have significant resources at their disposal and be major players in the portal and NIL game but more importantly, the ACC feels as wide open as ever. Sure, Duke and UNC will remain at the top, but behind those two there doesn't feel like a strong third contender in this league, NC State's Final Four run aside. This is the perfect opportunity for Kelsey to hit the ground running, turn over this roster, and compete right away.

Dusty May to Michigan: I was a bit surprised Michigan decided to fire Juwan Howard this offseason, even after a rough couple seasons with the former "Fab Five" star at the helm. But at the end of the day, the Wolverines made the move and landed one of the bigger names in the coaching carousel, Florida Atlantic's Dusty May. May was a hot commodity on the carousel last season after leading FAU to a Final Four, and the fact that another NCAA Tournament trip and eight seed was considered a "disappointment" by some just goes to show how much May had elevated the floor in Boca Raton. Michigan and the Big Ten is an obvious step up, and the Wolverines will be without their floor general in Dug McDaniel, who has since transferred to Kansas State. But, May should be able to reload, and is likely to bring several key pieces from FAU with him, including big man Vlad Goldin. Growing pains in Year One are almost a certainty, but May seems up for the challenge, and as an Indiana native and Hoosier alum, he knows what it takes to win in this conference.

Eric Musselman to USC: Following three consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament's second weekend at Arkansas, Eric Mussleman and the Razorbacks suffered through a frustrating 2023-24 campaign. Injuries played a huge role but things just didn't work out, and the result was an ugly 16-17 season that saw them finish tied for 11th in the SEC. But instead of retooling and gearing up for another year with the Razorbacks, Mussleman decided to head out west and take over things at USC, which opened up after Andy Enfield's move to SMU. In some ways, it feels like a bit of a lateral move, but the Trojans move to the Big Ten makes it a much more valuable job and it's in prime recruiting territory. Musselman has never been one to stay at a job long and it's unlikely this will be a forever gig, but with Musselman, you always know it's going to be exciting.

The NBA Factor: We don't see college coaches take the jump to the NBA quite as often these days, but I do wonder if this offseason we could see that change. With the portal and NIL changing the collegiate landscape, it's no secret that college jobs are considered more stressful and time-consuming than ever before - likely a major reason for the recent retirements of Coach K, Jay Wright, and Roy Williams. That could be enough to entice a big-name college coach or two to make the jump, and several jobs have already opened with the Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, and Washington Wizards. Of course, the NBA operates on a completely different calendar than college, which makes this less likely, but this is a storyline to keep an eye on as we hit the summer. 

Conference Realignment

Oklahoma and Texas Join the SEC: The move that originally kicked off this fresh wave of conference realignment in recent years, Oklahoma and Texas will be stepping up to compete with the big boys of the SEC this winter. It's a move that seems more important in a football context, but both the Sooners and Longhorns have long had respectable basketball programs in the Big 12, and they add depth to one of the top conferences in America. However, both programs are looking for a bit of a bounce-back as they look ahead towards 2024, with Texas losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament this spring, and the Sooners not even making the Big Dance.

A New-Look Big Ten: It's going to take awhile, perhaps years, to fully adjust to USC, UCLA, Washington, and Oregon all being members of the Big Ten. Yet, it was an understandable decision by the conference to add four power players on the West Coast, putting them in direct competition with the SEC and expanding their brand to both coasts. With that being said, I'm very interested to see the logistics that are going to have to be in play here for these four as they transition to the league. Travel time is one thing for football when you typically have a full week in-between games, but how is this going to work out for a basketball schedule that looks significantly different? Of course they'll figure things out, but you do wonder if that's going to end up being a factor to watch this year, particularly when we get deep into the regular season.

The Big 12: The Big 12 may have only been in position to pick up the scraps that the SEC and Big Ten didn't want among the now-defunct Pac-12, but they actually come out as winners in a basketball sense. Adding Arizona, one of the most powerful brands on the West Coast, is a huge win for the conference and sets up a couple juicy rivalry opportunities in the new Big 12, with Kansas most notably. Colorado, Utah, and Arizona State are all quality pickups as well, even if they don't move the needle very much on a national scale. All three programs have been generally respectable over the last decade-plus, and the trio should all have a chance to compete right away in the conference in 2024-25. In fact, this is going to be a super fun league once more next winter, with even more depth added to one of the deepest and well-balanced conferences in the sport.

Then, There's the ACC: The worst kept secret in college sports is that Florida State and Clemson are almost sure to be leaving the ACC within the next few years, so the league performed a pre-emptive backfill of sorts by adding Cal, Stanford, and SMU to their ranks, set to take effect in 2024. The geographic questions are one thing, but none of the additions feel like significant upgrades on the hardwood, especially with Stanford and Cal both suffering through two of the worst stretches in program history. But, there is hope that all three programs could be on the upswing, as Cal looked much improved under Mark Madsen in Year One, Stanford has a new head man in Kyle Smith from Washington State, and SMU brought in Andy Enfield from USC. 

The Smaller Leagues: Sure, the big realignment moves among the power conferences have grabbed all the headlines and will likely have a major impact on college basketball in 2024, but they aren't the only changes to keep an eye on next year. Across the country, there are ample changes, creating new rivalries, opportunities, and excitement throughout Division I basketball. Here are a few more to be aware of:

- Washington State and Oregon State, who were left out to dry when the Pac-12 collapsed, are set to join the West Coast Conference as two-year affiliate members. It's a move that makes sense for both sides, as OSU and WSU land in a quality mid-major league with one of the sport's powers in Gonzaga, while the WCC bolsters its reputation with a pair of former power conference foes.

- The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) will add Merrimack and Sacred Heart, two quality mid-major programs from the Northeast Conference.

- The Northeast Conference responded by adding Mercyhurst, who will move from the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference and the Division II ranks, to Division. The NEC will also add Chicago State, the final independent remaining in Division I basketball.

- Kennesaw State will make the move from the Atlantic Sun Conference to Conference USA.

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