Fans who wait until the NCAA tournament to pay attention to college basketball don’t know what they’re missing. The regular season has provided plenty of thrilling conference championship races the past few seasons, and the 2011-12 campaign should be no different.
Whether it’s Duke and North Carolina in the ACC, Kansas and Baylor in the Big 12 or UCLA, Arizona and Cal in the Pac-12, the quest for various league titles likely won’t be decided until the final week.
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One of the most exciting races should be in the Big East, where Connecticut and Syracuse appear to be the class of the league. But don’t count out Pittsburgh, Louisville and Marquette. Such parity is why the Big East ranks at the top of preseason power rankings for Big Six conferences.
Outlook: The Big East may be even tougher than it was last season, when Connecticut won the NCAA title after finishing ninth in the conference standings. The Huskies went just 9-9 against Big East opponents, but that won’t happen this season, as Jim Calhoun’s team is expected to be even better thanks to the return of players such as Jeremy Lamb and Alex Oriakhi and the addition of touted freshmen Andre Drummond and DeAndre Daniels. Connecticut’s biggest challenge may come from Syracuse, which returns all but one key player (Rick Jackson) from a squad that finished 27-8 and third in the conference in 2010-11. Cincinnati is expected to have its best team in years, although the Bearcats and Yancy Gates won’t be able to sneak up on anyone after winning 26 games last season. Louisville welcomes a banner recruiting class led by top 40 prospects Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear. Marquette lost standout Jimmy Butler, but Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder lead a strong cast of returnees from last year’s Sweet 16 team. The wildcards are Notre Dame, Georgetown and Villanova, a trio of well-coached teams that each suffered significant losses. Other teams to watch include St. John’s, a squad that will be dominated by talented freshmen; and Rutgers, which improved more than any Big East team during the course of last season.
On the bubble: Georgia
Outlook: The days of bashing the SEC for being strictly a football conference are over. At least for now. It’s tough to remember the last time the top of the league was as strong as it appears to be entering the 2011-12 season. As many as five teams could be ranked in the initial top 25 poll. Leading the way as expected is Kentucky, which has reloaded with the nation’s top crop of freshmen for the third straight year. The Wildcats signed three of the top five players in Rivals.com’s Class of 2011 (Anthony Davis, Michael Gilchrist and Marquis Teague) and they return a potential lottery pick in Terrence Jones. Doron Lamb and Darius Miller are also back. Expect John Calipari’s squad to open the season ranked No. 2 behind North Carolina. Led by John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli, Vanderbilt returns every key member of last year’s 23-win squad. The Commodores have legitimate Final Four hopes along with guard-heavy Florida, which helped make up for the loss of Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus by adding Gatorade National Player of the Year Brad Beal and high-scoring Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario. JaMychal Green, Trevor Releford and Tony Mitchell are back for a surging Alabama team that made the NIT championship game last spring. Other than Kentucky, Mississippi State might be the most-talented team in the SEC with Renardo Sidney, Arnett Moultrie, Dee Bost, Deville Smith and Rodney Hood.
On the bubble: Oklahoma State, Iowa State
Outlook: Kansas has won seven straight Big 12 championships, but the Jayhawks will be hard-pressed to keep the streak alive following the early departures of Marcus and Markieff Morris and Josh Selby to the NBA and the graduation of savvy veterans Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed. Kansas’ backcourt should be salty with Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson, but there doesn’t appear to be much help for All-American candidate Thomas Robinson down low. One thing working in Kansas’ favor is that there won’t be many elite-level teams in the Big 12 this season, so a conference championship is still a very real possibility. The main challenger to Kansas’ throne will be Baylor. Other than Kentucky and North Carolina, there won’t be a team in the country as talented and deep as the Bears, who tout two forwards (Perry Jones and Quincy Miller) who could be among the first 10 players selected in next summer’s NBA draft. Mix in the return of Quincy Acy and Anthony Jones and the addition of standout guards Brady Heslip, Pierre Jackson and Deuce Bello, and it’s easy to see why Baylor is the popular choice to win the Big 12 title. New Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy inherited a talented team that will be led by NBA prospect Khris Middleton. And first-year Missouri coach Frank Haith walked into an excellent situation in Columbia, where Marcus Denmon and Laurence Bowers highlight an impressive list of returnees. Texas probably lost as much as any team in the conference but, as always, Rick Barnes signed a standout recruiting class led by point guard Myck Kabongo.
Outlook: The Big Ten was billed as the top conference in the country prior to last season. Even though Michigan State faltered, the league remained in the debate throughout most of a regular season that was highlighted by magnificent stretches by Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin. The momentum came to an abrupt halt during the NCAA tournament, when only two teams advanced beyond the opening weekend. And both of those squads (Ohio State and Wisconsin) lost in the Sweet 16. The Big Ten will probably take a small step back in 2011-12, although that’s not to say the conference will be weak. Led by national player of the year candidate Jared Sullinger, Ohio State is a legitimate national championship contender. Jordan Taylor will try to lead Wisconsin to its first Final Four berth since 2000. Yes, even without Jon Leuer, the Badgers could be that good. There could be a considerable dropoff after Ohio State and Wisconsin. Robbie Hummel returns to Purdue after missing last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, but the Boilermakers lost leading scorers JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore. Michigan State will adapt to life after Kalin Lucas and Illinois will try to find a way to win without Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis. The team to watch is Michigan. Despite the early departure of Darius Morris to the NBA, the Wolverines’ program has a ton of momentum. With Tim Hardaway Jr. leading a talented cast of returnees, John Beilein’s squad could finish as high as third in the Big Ten. Northwestern is hoping the league’s parity results in its first NCAA tournament berth in school history. Look for Indiana, which went 3-15 in the Big Ten last season, to make the biggest jump of any team. A .500 league record isn’t out of the question.
NCAA tournament teams: North Carolina, Duke
Outlook: For the second straight year, the tradition-rich ACC will likely rank among the worst of the Big Six conferences. Granted, there isn’t a league that’s as strong at the top as the ACC, which touts a pair of preseason top five teams in North Carolina and Duke. But the gap between the Tar Heels and Blue Devils and the rest of the league is a mammoth one. The good thing is that North Carolina should generate a ton of positive publicity for the league, as Roy Williams’ squad will almost certainly open the season as the top-ranked team in America. The Tar Heels boast as many as five players – Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Tyler Zeller, James McAdoo and Kendall Marshall – who could go in the first round of next summer’s NBA draft. It’ll be shocking if North Carolina loses more than two ACC games. They’re definitely good enough to go undefeated in conference play, which almost never happens these days. Duke will provide the biggest test for the Tar Heels, although the Blue Devils may not be quite as good without Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and Kyrie Irving. Look for standout freshman guard Austin Rivers to make an immediate impact on the perimeter. Miles and Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly will have to step up their games in the paint. One of the more interesting teams in the ACC is Miami, which will be playing its first season under former George Mason coach Jim Larranaga. The Hurricanes’ roster is loaded with talented players such as Malcolm Grant, Durand Scott and Reggie Johnson, but Miami went to the NCAA tournament just once in seven years under Frank Haith. North Carolina State (Mark Gottfried) and Maryland (Mark Turgeon) also inherited decent situations at their respective schools.
NCAA tournament teams: UCLA, Arizona, Washington, Cal
Outlook: The Pac-10 has taken some shots for its mediocrity the past two seasons, but things are beginning to change – and not just because the league added two teams. A case could probably be made to move the Pac-12 ahead of the ACC in these rankings simply because it has better parity. But the ACC got the nod because it boasts two Final Four contenders, while it can be argued that the Pac-12 doesn’t have any. Still, even without Derrick Williams, Arizona should be strong in 2011-12. The Wildcats lost point guard Momo Jones, but they actually upgraded at that position by adding five-star recruit Josiah Turner. All of the other key pieces from last season’s Elite Eight squad return, including Solomon Hill, Kyle Fogg and Kevin Parrom. UCLA will tout one of the top frontcourt rotations in the country with Reeves Nelson, Josh Smith and David and Travis Wear. Washington lost standout guard Isaiah Thomas, but it may not matter thanks to the addition of standout freshman Tony Wroten. If Abdul Gaddy bounces back from last season’s knee injury, the Huskies will be in the mix for the Pac-12 title along with UCLA, Arizona and Cal. The Golden Bears may actually be the favorite thanks to the return of Jorge Gutierrez, Harper Kamp and Allen Crabbe. USC took a major hit in August when team leader Jio Fontan tore his anterior cruciate ligament during an exhibition tour of Brazil. He’s out for the season, but Kevin O’Neill is still excited about his team thanks to the presence of 7-footer DeWayne Dedmon. Oregon could be the Pac-12’s surprise team. The Ducks added transfers Tony Woods (Wake Forest) and Olu Ashaolu (Louisiana Tech) in the post and five-star shooting guard Jabari Brown on the perimeter.