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November 8, 2010

Storylines to watch in each conference

MORE: Rivals.com 2010-11 Countdown to Tipoff

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.

Who will challenge Duke for the conference title? In reality, probably no one. Then again, Duke shared last season's ACC title with Maryland before going on to win the national championship. North Carolina and Virginia Tech are the best candidates to challenge Duke this season, though the Blue Devils remain the most overwhelming favorites in any of the six major conferences.

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.

Who's the conference favorite? Good question. The Big East lost so much talent in the offseason that no one team stands out from the crowd. You could make equally strong arguments for Pittsburgh, Syracuse or Villanova, and it wouldn't be a shock if Georgetown or West Virginia won instead. If we have to make a guess, we'd say Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker make the difference for Pitt.

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.

BIG 12
Will Kansas win the Big 12 regular-season title for the seventh consecutive season? Kansas State and Baylor will make things interesting, but the Jayhawks' chances of extending their streak of seven outright or shared Big 12 regular-season titles go way up if freshman PG Josh Selby is eligible, as expected.

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.

Who will fill the shoes of Robbie Hummel at Purdue? JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore might need to score even more. Johnson could spend some time at power forward with Sandi Marcius, Travis Carroll and Patrick Bade playing center. If there is one positive about the injury, it's that Purdue enters the season knowing it will be without Hummel, which means players will know their roles when the season begins.

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 the Pac-10 return to "major conference" status? The Pac-10 slipped to eighth in the RPI last season, sending only two teams to the NCAA tournament. The conference didn't get an influx of talent, but several teams return more experience. Still, it is going to be the weakest of the Big Six leagues and could finish eighth in the RPI again, behind the A-10 and the Mountain West.

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.

Will these Kentucky freshmen make as much of an impact as last season's freshmen? Even if the NCAA allows Enes Kanter to play, it's tough to imagine this group of first-year players doing as well as John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Co. That said, it still should be the nation's top freshman class. Brandon Knight has proved he can score in bunches, and if Kanter is eligible, UK should win the SEC.

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.


Can Stony Brook break through? The Seawolves won the regular-season title, but they lost to a more-experienced Boston U. team in the tourney semifinals. There should be no such issue this season. Stony Brook returns four starters, including star F Tommy Brenton, and is the preseason favorite to make their first NCAA appearance.

Can the race possibly be as close as last season's? Four teams tied for the regular-season title by going 14-6 in league play and another finished 13-7. It's hard to see a four-team tie this season, but it looks as if it is going to be a scintillating three-team race between Belmont, Lipscomb and East Tennessee. ETSU won the league tourney last season, and Belmont and Lipscomb are about a mile apart near downtown Nashville. Our pick is Belmont, which is coached by Vince Gill's good friend Rick Byrd.

Can the league get four NCAA bids? The A-10 received three last season after Charlotte, Rhode Island and Dayton faded down the stretch. Temple and Xavier look good for repeat bids. Dayton, which won the NIT, underachieved last season and may have been burdened by high expectations. Well, expectations are high again, and we think the Flyers come through this season. We also think Richmond gets a repeat bid. The Spiders are well-coached, and in Kevin Anderson, they have the kind of guard who can do some damage in March.

Can Weber State finally get back to the NCAAs? The Wildcats have won the past two regular-season titles, but they have faltered in the league tourney, losing on their home court in each season. Weber returns star G Damian Lillard, but Montana and Northern Arizona look solid, too. While Weber State is the preseason pick, it wouldn't be a surprise if they don't win the league.

Will Cliff Ellis get another team into the NCAA tourney? Coastal Carolina won the regular-season title by two games last season but faltered in the league tourney. This season, Ellis' Chanticleers should win the league by three or four games. South Carolina transfer Mike Holmes has a chance to be the league's player of the year, which means Ellis -- who has taken Auburn, Clemson and South Alabama to the NCAAs -- will take his fourth school dancing in March.

Will the league's best player lead his team to the title? Junior G Orlando Johnson is the Big West's big star, and he again will lead the Gauchos to the NCAAs. UCSB has some nice complementary talent and is well-coached by Bob Williams.

Will the expansion of the NCAA field to 68 teams help the CAA get two bids? The CAA was 13th in league RPI last season and had four teams win at least 20 games. It should be more of the same this season. ODU is the preseason favorite, while George Mason, VCU, James Madison and Northeastern will be in the hunt as well. This league schedules well, so we say yes to it getting two NCAA bids.

Is Memphis going to return to its place atop the league? We don't mean to be harsh, but if the Tigers don't finish first, there will be questions about Josh Pastner's coaching ability. Pastner brought in a superb recruiting class, one of the best in the nation, and the newcomers give the Tigers a talent edge over everyone else in the league -- in some cases, a huge talent edge. UTEP, which won the league last season, lost coach Tony Barbee and two key frontcourt players, so expect the Miners to take a step back, opening the door for Memphis. There's no reason to expect the Tigers to leave anytime soon, either.

Can we expect another miracle run from Butler? The Bulldogs were a great story last season, but even with the return of coach Brad Stevens and three starters, the Bulldogs are going to take a half-step back. They still will win the league title, but they won't make another Final Four appearance. A Sweet 16 appearance would appear to be the ceiling for this team. Still, recruiting is a bit easier now, which means the Bulldogs aren't going away anytime soon.

What's going to happen to Cornell? The Big Red made a run to the Sweet 16 last season, impressing onlookers with their offensive capabilities. But coach Steve Donahue and four starter are gone, and it seems likely the Big Red are more like the Quasi-Big Red this season. Princeton looks like it as regained its stature as the league's best team, while Cornell should finish between second and fourth.

Is Siena's time at the top over? The Gaels lost coach Fran McCaffery and three key starters off a team that had made three consecutive NCAA appearances. F/C Ryan Rossiter and G Clarence Jackson will keep Siena in the title hunt, but it looks as if Fairfield has the talent to finish on top this season.

When is the league going to get back to its former status as one of the best mid-major leagues? It's certainly not going to happen this season. The MAC has been rather mediocre the past few seasons, mainly because the West Division teams have been uniformly weak. The East again is the stronger division, and it's hard to see the MAC being a top-15 league this season. Recruiting league-wide appears to be on an uptick, though, lending hope the MAC can be a top-12 or -13 league in 2011-12.

Can anyone end Morgan State's reign? Coach Todd Bozeman's Bears have won three consecutive regular-season titles and have won the league tourney in each of the past two seasons. They are the prohibitive favorite to do so again. There is a big-time frontcourt headed by F Kevin Thompson, and while the point guard spot is an issue, the Bears have too much talent for the rest of the league.

Who is this season's Northern Iowa? The Panthers won the regular-season title by three games last season, then won the league tourney, too. Despite all that -- and despite a No. 17 RPI -- they were "rewarded" with just a No. 9 seed. No matter: They stunned Kansas in the second round. UNI lost too much talent to be considered the league favorite this season; instead, that role belongs to Wichita State, which is well-balanced and well-coached by Gregg Marshall, the former coach at Winthrop. Wichita State made a Sweet 16 run in 2006 under Mark Turgeon and has the talent to do so again. Creighton and Missouri State, which has rebuilt quickly under former Purdue star Cuonzo Martin, also have legit NCAA hopes. We fully expect the MVC to get two bids this season -- and maybe even three.

Will the MWC again be the best league on the West Coast? Yes it will. The conference received four NCAA bids last season, and the same four teams -- BYU, New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV -- will be in the running again. Instead of New Mexico, though, look for San Diego State -- which has a big-time frontcourt -- to be the league's standard-bearer this season. BYU could have the nation's leading scorer in senior G Jimmer Fredette. UNLV generally plays tough defense under coach Lon Kruger, and the Runnin' Rebels again will be an athletic bunch. Steve Alford's New Mexico team, which earned a No. 3 seed last season, lost two key frontcourt players, but PG Dairese Gary heads a strong backcourt and transfers from UCLA (Drew Gordon) and Tennessee (Emmanuel Negedu) are expected to fill holes up front. Colorado State should continue to make strides under coach Tim Miles and, really, everyone but Air Force has postseason hopes of some kind.

Can Robert Morris three-peat? The Colonials lost three starters and coach Mike Rice, who moved on to Rutgers. The new coach is Andrew Toole, at 30 the youngest coach in Division I. Toole has a team that should contend for the title, thanks to the presence of a nice backcourt headed by Karon Abraham. But Quinnipiac, led by star F Justin Rutty, looks as if it will be the best team this season.

What can Murray State do for an encore? The Racers roared to a 17-1 regular-season finish in the OVC, won the league tourney, then shocked Vanderbilt in the first round of the NCAA tourney as a No. 13 seed. They lost to Butler by just two in the second round. Three starters return, including two in a backcourt that can hold its own with most in the nation. The Racers should be back in the NCAAs in March.

Is there a clear-cut league favorite? The answer is no. This should be quite an entertaining race. Lehigh has the best player in sophomore G C.J. McCollum. Bucknell returns nine of its top 10 scorers. American has a solid frontcourt and adds two backcourt transfers from SEC schools. Lafayette also has a big-time frontcourt and returns four starters.

The league's divisions become permanent this season; is there an imbalance? At least for this season, the answer is yes. A strong case can be made that the four best teams this season reside in the West. Sam Houston State has become the league's premier program, with Stephen F. Austin probably No. 2. They're both in the West. And this season, Texas State and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi -- while expected to finish behind SHSU and SFA in the division -- probably would be picked to finish first and second in the East.

Can Jackson State double-up this season? Jackson State ran away with the regular-season title last season, winning by three games. But the Tigers were shocked in the first round of the league tourney by eighth-seeded Grambling. Jackson State is the league favorite this season, and in Grant Maxey, Tyrone Hanson and DeSuan Dixon, the Tigers have three potential all-league players. We'll go ahead and say it now: If they don't get to the NCAA tourney, the season will have been a disappointment.

Can Keith Benson get Oakland back in the NCAAs? Benson, a 6-foot-11 senior, is one of the best big men in the nation and a potential first-round pick. He helped the Grizzlies make their second NCAA appearance last season, and he is one of three returning starters. But the Grizzlies lost star PG Johnathon(THIS IS CQ) Jones, and they need UMKC transfer Reggie Hamilton to be productive in that role. Oakland's top competition again will come from Oral Roberts, which returns four starters for coach Scott Sutton.

Can North Texas make a repeat trip to the NCAAs, which would be its third in five seasons? Coach Johnny Jones, who played guard at LSU for Dale Brown, has the best backcourt in the league and also has one of the best big men in George Odufuwa. The Mean Green have had four consecutive 20-win seasons, and this one should end up in the NCAAs.

Can the league again get two NCAA bids? Gonzaga is an NCAA lock and should win its 11th consecutive WCC title. Saint Mary's lost star C Omar Samhan, but the Gaels have a strong backcourt and should nab another NCAA bid.

Is Utah State going to win its fourth consecutive regular-season title? The Aggies are primed to repeat. Coach Stew Morrill has a good thing going in Logan, even if few seem to notice. The frontcourt is a good one, and Morrill's guards always produce -- and always hit the 3-pointer.

MORE: Rivals.com 2010-11 Countdown to Tipoff

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