10 questions entering ’11-12 college hoops season
Preview magazines have hit the shelves, coaches are talking up their teams and, at schools throughout the country, plans are being made for midnight madness. Yes, the college basketball season is upon us. With the official beginning of practice less than three weeks away, here are 10 questions entering the 2011-12 season.
1. Can North Carolina go undefeated during the regular season? Probably not. It’s a feat, after all, that hasn’t been accomplished since UNLV ran the table in 1990-91. Still, this question pops up every season when a team gets off to a hot start and looks unbeatable. Some thought Duke had a shot a spotless regular season last year until Kyrie Irving was hurt. Star-studded as that team may have been, it doesn’t compare to this year’s Tar Heels squad, which could have a potential first-round pick at all five positions. The other thing working in North Carolina’s favor is that it appears the ACC will be incredibly weak in 2011-12. Duke is the only other conference team that will open the season ranked in the top 25. Virginia and Miami are on the rise, but they don’t have the horses to stop the Tar Heels. A tilt with Kentucky in Lexington is easily the toughest test on a non-conference slate that includes a home game against Texas and a neutral site game against Michigan State on an aircraft carrier.
2. Does Vanderbilt seriously have Final Four potential? Absolutely. The Commodores return every key piece from a squad that ended last season ranked No. 25 after going 23-11. John Jenkins is a potential lottery pick who may be the top 3-point shooter in college basketball. He averaged 19.5 points last season, while Jeffery Taylor chipped in 14.7. Center Festus Ezeli (13) and guard Brad Tinsley (10.6) also scored in double figures, while Lance Goulbourne averaged a team-high 7.3 rebounds. Vanderbilt will certainly enter the NCAA tournament battle-tested, as the SEC should be as strong as it’s been in years. The Commodores, though, will have to find a way to get rid of the postseason jitters that have plagued them in the past. Vanderbilt has lost in the first round in each of its past three NCAA tournament appearance (2011, 2010 and 2008) and has never advanced beyond the Sweet 16.
3. Is this the year Indiana finally gets over the hump? Yes – but only if we’re talking about a winning record and, hopefully, an NIT berth for the Hoosiers. Those are realistic and fair expectations for a program now operating in its fourth season under Tom Crean, who adds standout recruit Cody Zeller to a cast of returnees whose experience should help make up for physical shortcomings. That’s not to say Indiana doesn’t boast any talent beyond Zeller. Forward Christian Watford averaged 16 points and 5.4 rebounds last season and should be even better playing alongside Zeller in the paint. Fourth-year starter Verdell Jones returns on the perimeter, where he averaged 3.2 assists last season. Crean is hoping standout Maurice Creek bounces back nicely from knee injuries that have cut his last two seasons short.
4. How good are Kentucky’s freshmen? We’ll never know until they take the court, but this group is definitely as touted as the one featuring John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins in 2009-10. Anthony Davis is being hailed as a top-five NBA draft pick, while forward Michael Gilchrist and guard Marquis Teague could end up in the lottery as well. Even better is that the trio – along with freshman sharpshooter Kyle Wiltjer – will have the benefit of learning from veterans such as Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller, all of whom played integral roles in last season’s Final Four run.
5. Can Connecticut win another NCAA title? Heck, why not? Even without Kemba Walker, this year’s Huskies’ team should be better than the one that ended last season with 11 straight wins and a national championship. The Huskies return every other key piece of the team that won it all (Jeremy Lamb, Roscoe Smith, Alex Oriakhi and Shabazz Napier) and they add two of the country’s top recruits in DeAndre Daniels and Andre Drummond, a forward who some believe will be the top overall pick in next summer’s NBA draft. Connecticut will enter the season as the clear-cut favorite in the Big East. The Huskies should be ranked no worse than fourth.
6. Who will win the Pac-12? Who knows, but it should be fun to watch. The Pac-12 may be more wide open than any of the Big Six leagues. Duke and North Carolina will challenge for the ACC title. The Big East championship will likely come down to Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. Kansas and Baylor could be significantly better than anyone in the Big 12. The same goes for Ohio State and Wisconsin in the Big Ten and Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida in the SEC. But as many as five teams could vie for the Pac-12 championship. Some critics like Cal, others are going with UCLA, Washington or Arizona. The sleeper team may be Oregon. Along with five-star shooting guard Jabari Brown, the Ducks added a pair of quality transfers in forwards Tony Woods and Olu Ashaolu, both of whom should have an immediate impact.
7. Does Baylor have a point guard? The Bears better hope so if they want to avoid falling short of expectations for the second straight season. Last year’s starter, A.J. Walton, will likely come off the bench thanks to the addition of Pierre Jackson, a transfer who earned National Junior College Player of the Year honors at the College of Southern Idaho last season. Don’t be surprised if Jackson shares the backcourt with Boston College transfer Brady Heslip, a combo guard who could blossom into the Baylor’s vocal leader. The Bears could be a Final Four contender if they shore up their perimeter and cut down on the turnovers and poor decision-making that plagued them last season. The frontcourt of Perry Jones, Quincy Miller, Quincy Acy, Anthony Jones and J’mison Morgan is as talented and deep as any unit in the country.
8. Who will be the next Butler or VCU? Both of those teams should take a noticeable step back this season after reaching the 2011 Final Four. Instead, look for mid-major schools such as Memphis, Gonzaga, Belmont, Xavier, New Mexico and Wichita State to make some noise in 2011-12. The best of that bunch may be Xavier and Memphis. Xavier returns one of America’s premier scorers in guard Tu Holloway. The Musketeers have won at least a share of the last five Atlantic 10 titles. Memphis should be in great shape now that Will and Antonio Barton, Tarik Black, Chris Crawford and Joe Jackson are all sophomores.
9. Will Duke’s big men be any better? They’re going to have to be if Duke has any chance of threatening North Carolina in the ACC. Granted, the lack offensive production last year from Miles and Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly wasn’t entirely the players’ fault. The Blue Devils had a trio of standout scorers in Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler and Kyrie Irving. On that team it wasn’t the role of the big men to score. Kelly, though, proved during Duke’s exhibition tour of China that he’s more than capable of filling it up when called upon. Once projected as an NBA lottery pick, Mason Plumlee needs to step up and do the same.
10. Who will win the Wooden Award? There certainly seem to be more candidates than usual. Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, Baylor’s Perry Jones, North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes and Kentucky’s Terrence Jones could’ve all been NBA lottery picks but instead chose to return to school. Any of them could win it. So, too, could a senior such as Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor or an up-and-coming junior like Kansas Thomas Robinson. Then there are freshmen such as Connecticut’s Andre Drummond and Kentucky’s Anthony Davis. It certainly wouldn’t be out of the question for a first-year player to take home the award. It should be a wide-open race – and a wide-open season.
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