October 15, 2010

Lots of questions as curtain rises

You've patiently waited a bit more than six months for this day.

Ever since Duke cut down the nets in Indianapolis, you've been looking forward to Oct. 15. Well, Oct. 15 is here, and that means college basketball teams officially hit the court for the start of practice.

Now, you just have to wait until Nov. 8, the official start of the season.

Here are 25 key questions to ponder as you count the days until the ball is tossed up at midcourt for the start of the 2010-11 season.

25. What will be the most-anticipated non-conference game?

How about Michigan State at Duke, on Dec. 1? It's a game matching two of the nation's four or five most pre-eminent programs. Think of it as an early Christmas present for fans.

24. Can Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie get Georgia back in the Big Dance?

This will be one of the best duos in the nation, even if few casual fans have taken the time to watch the Bulldogs play. Georgia made the NCAA field in 2008 only because it made a miracle run to the SEC tourney title; before that appearance, Georgia hadn't been since 2002. The Bulldogs aren't talented enough to win the SEC East, but the Leslie-Thompkins duo might be enough for a third-place finish in the division. Look for them to combine for about 35 points and 16 rebounds per game - and for Leslie to have one highlight-reel dunk each time out, as well. In addition, look for the Bulldogs to be barking in the NCAAs in March.

23. Who's the best player from a mid-major program?

We certainly don't want to step on any toes, whether they be high-major, mid-major or low-major. Thus, we're going to have two answers for this question. The best player in the nation from a non-Big Six school is BYU G Jimmer Fredette, who is a scoring machine. He can bomb away from 25 feet and he can get to the rim; he's also money from the line. As to the best player from a "traditional" mid- or low-major, we'll go with Morehead State F/C Kenneth Faried, a rebounding machine. Faried, a senior, has averaged a double-double in each of the past two seasons, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he leads the nation in rebounding this season. He understands his offensive limitations and generally worries only about scoring in the paint - and it's tough to stop him there because he can jump out of the gym.

22. How good is the SEC West? And is anyone in the division going to be able to challenge Mississippi State?

On the football field, the SEC West is the best division in the nation. On the basketball court? Not even close. No division team made the NCAA field last season, and other than Mississippi State, no division team should be making plans this season. The SEC East could have four teams better than any team in the West. Mississippi State needs big seasons from Dee Bost and Renardo Sidney, and because of NCAA issues, neither will play a full season. But if both are playing well in March, the Bulldogs will be dancing. Their division brethren, meanwhile, can only hope for NIT bids.

21. Can Xavier get back to the Sweet 16?

Xavier and Michigan State are the only teams to reach the Sweet 16 in each of the past three seasons, but the Musketeers could have a tough time making it four in a row now that Jordan Crawford and Jason Love have departed. Xavier shouldn't have a problem making the NCAA tournament, but the Musketeers will need a favorable draw and a huge season from junior guard Tu Holloway - who used to be known as Terrell Holloway - to make it back to the regional semifinals.

20. Is Florida ready to break through again?

After winning back-to-back titles in 2006 and '07, the Gators missed the NCAA tourney entirely in '08 and '09 before losing in the first round last season. The top players are back, and coach Billy Donovan has added a solid recruiting class that fills some holes. There's a lack of depth in the backcourt, though, which likely means Florida's ceiling is an appearance in the Sweet 16.

19. What happens if Purdue stays injury-free for once?

The pieces are in place for a Final Four run if the talented and experienced Boilermakers can stay healthy. That has been a particular problem for Robbie Hummel, who does a little bit of everything - score, rebound, pass, defend - for coach Matt Painter. If the Boilermakers are healthy in March, not making the Final Four should be considered a disappointment.

18. Everyone knows Duke is the best team in the ACC. Who's the Blue Devils' biggest challenger?

The answer probably depends on just how much of an impact North Carolina F Harrison Barnes makes as a freshman. If Barnes is as good as advertised, the Tar Heels could finish second in the ACC. If not, that honor probably goes to Virginia Tech, which didn't make the NCAA tourney last season.

17. How much does Gordon Hayward's departure hurt Butler?

The Bulldogs might have opened the season as a top-five team had Hayward stuck around for his junior year. Without Hayward, they're more like a top-20 team. Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack should form a dynamic inside-outside duo, but Hayward's absence prevents the Bulldogs from having the matchup advantages they exploited throughout their run to last season's championship game.

16. Who is the Big East favorite?

Syracuse showed the value of preseason rankings in the Big East when it won last season's title by two games despite being picked sixth by the league's coaches . Syracuse will be in the mix to repeat with Kris Joseph taking over for Wes Johnson as the go-to guy, but no clear favorite exists. Pittsburgh and Villanova are veteran teams that won 25 games last season, while West Virginia returns star F Kevin Jones from a Final Four team. Georgetown and Marquette are there, too.

15. Arizona's streak of 25 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances ended last year. Do the Wildcats start a new streak in 2011?

Arizona missed the tournament, but coach Sean Miller did lead the Wildcats to their best Pac-10 record since 2006-07 last season. That was more an indication of the weakness of the league, but Arizona at least set a foundation. F Derrick Williams was the surprise Pac-10 freshman of the year, and Miller now needs guys such as Jamelle Horne, Kyryl Natyazhko and Solomon Hill to become more productive and consistent. We're betting the Wildcats miss the NCAAs again before returning in 2012.

14. Memphis has top-10 talent, but will youth be its undoing?

Second-year coach Josh Pastner has answered any lingering questions about his ability to recruit; now, he just has to make sure all that talent meshes. Kentucky showed last season that young talent - no matter how good it is - can come up short at crunch time. Memphis should make a nice NCAA run, but to expect an inexperienced coach to guide an inexperienced team much past the Sweet 16 is asking a lot.

13. How does Ohio State replace Evan Turner?

It obviously will take a team effort to replace Turner, national player of the year who led the Buckeyes in scoring, rebounding and assists. Ohio State may actually have the talent and numbers to do it. William Buford finished second to Turner in scoring (14.4 ppg) and rebounding (5.6). Buford and David Lighty will provide veteran leadership but the biggest talent upgrade is freshman big man Jared Sullinger, a candidate to be the nation's best freshman.

12. Which new coaches have the best chance to get their teams to the NCAA tournament in their first year?

The class of first-year coaches has few, if any, slam dunks for immediate tournament appearances. St. John's Steve Lavin and Seton Hall's Kevin Willard have veteran teams, so they seem the most likely to reach the Big Dance in their first seasons. UTEP's Tim Floyd can coach and star G Randy Culpepper returns, but the frontcourt has been gutted. Clemson's Brad Brownell gets a break in that the ACC isn't as strong at the top as usual, so he and the Tigers might be able to snag a bid.

11. How will pending NCAA investigations affect Connecticut and Tennessee?

If we knew for certain, we would jet to Vegas, plop down a bundle, then retire young - well, relatively young, at least. You're nave if you don't think talk of the NCAA probe isn't going to follow these teams around; the players - and the coaches - will be constantly reminded. We say it will be tougher for UConn just because the Big East is deeper than the SEC. Tennessee will be able to win some games even if its focus isn't on basketball; that won't necessarily be the case for the Huskies. This could end up being a long season for both teams - and for both coaches.

10. Will the Pac-10 make a significant jump from a dreadful 2009-10?

The Pac-10 would be hard-pressed to be much worse than it was in 2009-10, when it flirted with being a one-bid league. While it looks to be, by far, the worst of the six major conferences, it should be improved. After reaching the Sweet 16, Washington is a clear favorite, though the Huskies must replace Quincy Pondexter. After shedding some bad apples, UCLA will rebuild around Tyler Honeycutt, Malcolm Lee and Reeves Nelson. Arizona and Washington State will hope for more consistency under second-year coaches Miller and Ken Bone, respectively. But nobody else needs to have any NCAA hopes.

9. What coach is on the hottest seat?

How about North Carolina State's Sidney Lowe ? The Wolfpack made five consecutive NCAA appearances (2002-06) under his predecessor, Herb Sendek. But there was grumbling about Sendek's style of play and he left for Arizona State after the 2006 season. The Wolfpack haven't been to the NCAA tourney since, and Lowe likely won't be around next season unless the Wolfpack reach the NCAA tournament this season. The good news for Lowe is that NCSU has enough talent to earn a bid. Three of the top 37 prospects in the 2010 recruiting class join a roster that already includes star F Tracy Smith. In addition, the ACC doesn't look nearly as strong as usual, so the Wolfpack should be good enough to go dancing.

8. Can any program from outside the six major conferences make a Butler-like run?

We probably won't see any of those teams reach the NCAA championship game, but plenty of them could - and maybe even should - make deep postseason runs. An outstanding freshman class should assure that Memphis returns to the NCAA tournament after a one-year absence. Gonzaga, Butler and Xavier will be as dangerous as always. BYU boasts one of the nation's top guards in Jimmer Fredette. And now that we're done with the usual suspects, keep an eye out for San Diego State and Temple.

7. Can Michigan State get back to a third consecutive Final Four?

Michigan State is on the short list of teams with legitimate reasons to think they can get to Houston, the site of this season's Final Four. Chief among the reasons is the presence of coach Tom Izzo, who spurned advances from the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers to remain with the Spartans. Izzo is a master at getting his teams primed for long NCAA runs - even when they don't have the talent to necessarily make those long runs. Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers and Korie Lucious are experienced guards, and Draymond Green heads what should be a solid frontcourt. The Big Ten is excellent this season, which may mean the Spartans lose a few more in the regular season than they're used to. But that should make them even more ready for March Madness. Izzo has taken three consecutive teams to the Final Four before, from 1999-2001. And UCLA did it from 2006-08. If we had our feet held to the fire right now, we'd say Izzo and the Spartans will get to Houston.

6. Can North Carolina bounce back?

The Tar Heels won the national title in 2009 - their second in five seasons - but failed to make the NCAA tourney last season. Still, UNC showed enough improvement during its drive to the NIT final that it's hard to imagine the Tar Heels going 5-11 in ACC competition again. The arrival of a highly touted freshman class that features Harrison Barnes - the No. 2 prospect in the nation - also should help. North Carolina will make the NCAA tournament and could finish as high as second in the ACC, but the Tar Heels still probably aren't good enough to make a legitimate Final Four run.

5. Will Josh Selby and Enes Kanter be eligible this season? And if not, what does that do to Kansas and Kentucky?

Both highly touted freshmen are waiting for the NCAA to rule on their amateur status. Selby is being investigated for his relationship with Carmelo Anthony's business manager, while Kanter's time with a pro team in Turkey is under scrutiny. Kansas coach Bill Self trotted Selby out for media day as if he were a member of the team (he's taking classes), so that seems telling. Kanter's position may be a little less certain. The loss of either freshman wouldn't preclude these teams from winning their conference, but their absences would cut into their national title hopes.

4. Are this season's Kentucky freshmen as good as last season's Kentucky freshmen?

This would be easier to answer if we knew Kanter's status. It's still an interesting enough question that we broached the topic to Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "It's debatable which class is better," Meyer said. "I think the star power and the elite talent of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins really put that past class ahead of this year's class. Also, [Eric] Bledsoe probably played better than his ranking. Overall, I like the 2009 class better, even if Kanter can play."

3. Are any of the freshmen national-player-of-the-year good?

Meyer said it would be tough to imagine a freshman as the nation's player of the year, but he mentioned North Carolina's Barnes and Ohio State's Sullinger as potential candidates, along with Kentucky's Kanter and Kansas' Selby, assuming they're eligible. Barnes would seem like the most likely contender because of the attention he'd receive if he leads North Carolina back into title contention one year after the Tar Heels failed to earn an NCAA bid.

2. What's the best conference?

It's going to be the Big Ten. The league has three legitimate Final Four contenders in Michigan State (just pencil the Spartans in; it'll save time later), Ohio State and Purdue. Illinois returns its core group and adds some touted freshmen and should make a long NCAA run. Wisconsin doesn't have the talent of the league's "big three," but coach Bo Ryan nevertheless will make sure the Badgers are near the top. Minnesota is another team to watch. The Big 12 is a bit too top-heavy to be considered the best, while the Big East is deep but looks to lack a truly elite team this season.

1. As good as Duke was in 2009-10, could the Blue Devils be even better this season with the addition of Gs Kyrie Irving and Seth Curry?

It's certainly possible. Duke could struggle to adjust to life without Jon Scheyer early in the season, but Irving and Curry eventually should more than make up for his absence in the backcourt. We're not as convinced Duke will be as dominant on the boards as they were during their run to the national title. Duke will perform at least as well in the regular season as it did last season, but that doesn't necessarily mean the Blue Devils will make the same type of run in March.



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