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November 8, 2010
Ready or not, the season begins tonight, and here's a quickie look at the top story lines in each league as the season tips off.
The Big Six leagues get five questions each.
So how much of a down year is this, anyway? You can make a good case that the Big Ten, Big East and Big 12 are stronger than the ACC this season. But even though Duke is the only clear-cut Final Four contender, the league still might be deep enough to garner six or seven NCAA tournament bids.
Are N.C. State's freshmen good enough to save Sidney Lowe's job? They very well could be. C.J. Leslie headlines a group that seems almost as good as the freshman class that helped Georgia Tech go from last place in the ACC standings to the second round of the NCAA tournament last season. This class might not have a player quite as good as former Georgia Tech star Derrick Favors, but it should make enough of an impact to keep Lowe around beyond this season.
How does Maryland replace Greivis Vasquez? It can't. The Terps have nobody quite as versatile as the standout guard who did a little bit of everything as the ACC player of the year last season. Without him, the Terps become more of a frontcourt-oriented team led by Jordan Williams. They also become a bubble team.
How much of an impact will Harrison Barnes make? The North Carolina forward was the first freshman to become a first-team Associated Press preseason All-America selection, so he ought to establish himself as one of the nation's top players immediately. North Carolina's hopes of bouncing back from an NIT season depend on whether he lives up to the hype.
Which of the first-year coaches has the best shot of getting to the NCAA tournament? It depends on Herb Pope's health. If Pope plays as well as he did last season and Jeremy Hazell improves his shot selection, Seton Hall's Kevin Willard has a great shot of leading the Pirates to an NCAA bid. If Pope can't match his 2009-10 success, St. John's coach Steve Lavin has the better opportunity. Rutgers' Mike Rice has a much longer rebuilding project, though his recruiting success indicates he could turn things around faster than most people expected.
Does Connecticut rebound from a disappointing season? The Huskies lack much experience beyond star G Kemba Walker and didn't bring in a heralded recruiting class, so it's tough to see Connecticut returning to Final Four contention anytime soon. After settling for the NIT last season, the Huskies look like a bubble team this season.
Can Notre Dame thrive without Luke Harangody? The Irish already answered that question last season when they played their way into an NCAA tournament at-large bid after their star performer got hurt. The Irish know they can replace Harangody. They still must prove they can succeed without departed PG Tory Jackson, a four-year starter.
Will any Big East team get to the Final Four? The lack of a clear-cut favorite may mean the Big East doesn't get a No. 1 seed in this season's NCAA tournament, but this league is deep enough to produce a Final Four team for the third consecutive season. Just don't ask us to predict which Big East team gets that far.
Can freshman Perry Jones fill the shoes of Ekpe Udoh at Baylor? Jones, the ninth-ranked prospect in the class of 2010, has the ability to replace Udoh, but there is a gap in experience between a freshman and a 22-year-old forward who helped lead the way to the Elite Eight. Jones needs to live up to his hype if Baylor is to make another long run in March.
How does Missouri's pressure defense replace Zaire Taylor, Keith Ramsey and J.T. Tiller? For the first time under Mike Anderson, Missouri has preseason accolades (ranked 15th in the AP and coaches' polls), but the Tigers lose their top three players in steals. While the Tigers' return their top three scorers, Anderson's style of play requires a passion for defense, and it's still unknown whether the players stepping into those roles have that passion.
Can Texas recover from the disastrous second half of last season? Freshman Cory Joseph, the No. 8 prospect in the class, could solve the Longhorns' point guard woes, but sophomores J'Covan Brown and Jordan Hamilton need to play like veterans. The pressure is on Rick Barnes to develop some team chemistry.
Is it NCAA tournament or bust for Texas Tech coach Pat Knight? He seems to think so. The Red Raiders started 12-2 before going 4-12 in the Big 12 last season. John Roberson and Mike Singletary are back, lending hope that the Red Raiders will be dancing in March.
Can Ohio State be better without Evan Turner? Freshman Jared Sullinger is a major addition in the frontcourt, but David Lighty, Jon Diebler and William Buford they may need to share the point guard role. If Sullinger lives up to the hype, the Buckeyes have the talent go get to the Final Four -- which is further than they went last season with Turner.
Will Northwestern play in its first NCAA tournament? The key is absorbing the loss of F Kevin Coble. With John Shurna, Michael Thompson and Drew Crawford, the Wildcats have some talent. They are the only Big Six school never to receive a tourney bid, and we're thinking that streak continues.
Will Illinois find the right chemistry between its seniors and its youth? The core of the Illini is Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis. They will need to mesh with sophomores D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul as well as the 13th-ranked signing class. The talent is there as long as McCamey plays consistent basketball.
How far along is the Indiana rebuilding project? After winning 16 games overall and only five in the Big Ten in two seasons, Tom Crean has rebuilt the Hoosiers' roster around Maurice Creek, Verdell Jones II and Christian Watford. The NIT is a realistic goal. The NCAA? At least another season away.
Will Arizona and UCLA be Arizona and UCLA again? Neither will be national championship contenders, but sophomores Derrick Williams at Arizona and Tyler Honeycutt at UCLA could lead their teams back to the NCAA tournament. That the Pac-10 is down should help both pile up some wins.
How can Washington replace Quincy Pondexter? The Huskies should have the best and deepest set of guards in the Pac-10. Still, they have high hopes for Matthew Bryan-Amaning and freshman center Aziz N'Diaye in the frontcourt. The Huskies head into the season as the Pac-10 favorite even without Pondexter.
How far will California fall? Jorge Gutierrez (13 starts, 5.5 ppg) is the top returnee. The impact of freshmen Allen Crabbe and Gary Franklin could determine whether Cal heads to the NIT or finishes eighth or ninth in the league.
Can USC remain competitive while on probation? The Trojans did last season, but they lose some veterans. Nikola Vucevic is an all-conference player, while Fordham transfer Jio Fontan might be the league's best newcomer. Don't count our coach Kevin O'Neill; if nothing else, his team will play extremely hard.
Is Georgia as good as advertised?The return of SEC preseason player of the year Trey Thompkins at forward and Travis Leslie at guard have Georgia just outside the preseason national rankings. Whether the Bulldogs actually live up to this attention depends on whether PG Gerald Robinson -- a Tennessee State transfer -- adapts to SEC competition and whether they finally learn how to win on the road.
Can Tennessee deal with the off-court drama surrounding Bruce Pearl? Recent history suggests as much. The Vols reached a regional final last season even after Tyler Smith was kicked off the team and three other players were suspended. If Pearl's able to remain focused, his team likely will follow suit.
Will the conference be as imbalanced as it was last season? All four of the SEC's NCAA tournament teams last season were from the East Division: Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida. The East again will be the much stronger division, though Mississippi State should assure that the West gets at least one NCAA bid, thanks to the addition of Renardo Sidney and the return of Dee Bost.
SEC media picked Florida to win the league. Is that the right call? It depends on Kanter's status. If Kanter plays, the talent of Kentucky's freshman class should outweigh Florida's experience. If Kanter misses the season, Florida should indeed win the conference title.
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