College hoops teams on the rise in 2011-12

Jason King
Yahoo! Sports

The Syracuse basketball team opened the 2010-11 season with 18 straight wins and realistic hopes of an appearance in the Final Four. A few months later the Orange were sitting at home after a third-place finish in the Big East and a second-round loss in the NCAA tournament.

To a No. 11 seed.

From their own conference.

Ever since that heartbreaking 66-62 setback against Marquette, Syracuse's players have vowed that next season will be different, that they'll win the Big East title instead of merely competing for it. They've said that postseason performances such as the sloppy effort they turned in against Marquette are a thing of the past.

There's plenty of reason to believe them.

Glance at Syracuse's roster, and it's easy to see why so many believe the Orange will be one of the country's most improved teams in 2011-12. Other than star forward Rick Jackson, Jim Boeheim's squad returns every player who contributed to last year's squad.

That includes guards such as Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Dion Waiters and post players such as Kris Joseph, Mookie Jones, C.J. Fair and Fab Melo.

Mix in standout recruits Rakeem Christmas and Michael Carter-Williams, and Syracuse seems like the easy preseason pick to win the Big East.

Here's a list of other teams that should makes significant strides in 2011-2012. Some of these teams will make the NCAA tournament. Others may be a year or two away. But all of these programs should be noticeably better than they were last season.

Alabama – Cheated out of an NCAA tournament bid, the Crimson Tide showed remarkable resilience by advancing to the NIT championship game at Madison Square Garden, where it lost to Wichita State. Anthony Grant's squad is a safe bet to make the NCAA field next season, as leading scorer JaMychal Green returns along with point guard Trevor Releford, who excelled as a freshman. Tony Mitchell and Andrew Steele are also back, and Alabama has added standout recruit Levi Randolph.

Baylor – Not many teams in the country will boast as much talent as the Bears, who will feature two potential Top 10 draft picks (Perry Jones and Quincy Miller) in the frontcourt along with another future pro in Quincy Acy. The backcourt – last year's Achilles heel – should be much improved with the addition of freshman Deuce Bello, Cal transfer Gary Franklin, Boston College transfer Brady Heslip and junior college All-American Pierre Jackson. No team in the Big 12 will be able to match Baylor's talent.

Cal – The Golden Bears – who lost to Colorado in the second round of the NIT – return all but one player (Markhuri Sanders-Frison) from a team that finished 18-15 overall and 10-8 in the Pac-10 conference. Leading the way will be Jorge Gutierrez, who averaged team highs in points (14.6) and assists (4.6). Allen Crabbe earned Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors after averaging 13.4 points. Harper Kamp (14.2 points) is solid in the paint.

Central Florida – The Knights generated a buzz by opening the 2010-11 campaign with 14 consecutive victories. Even though they stumbled down the stretch, there is plenty of reason for optimism heading into next year thanks to the return of leading scorers Marcus Jordan (15.2 points) and Keith Clanton (14.2). Virginia transfer Tristan Spurlock should also provide a boost along with 6-foot-10 freshman Michael Chandler, a four-star recruit from Indianapolis. Another four-star recruit, Kevin Ware, committed to Central Florida last week but has yet to sign.

Creighton – The Bluejays return four of their top five scorers from a team that finished 23-16 under first-year coach Greg McDermott, whose son, Doug, averaged 14.9 points as a freshman last season. He'll team with Greg Echenique (10.5 points, 1.8 blocks) to form one of the country's more underrated frontcourts. Antoine Young averaged five assists last season.

Indiana – The Hoosiers were on this list last year and didn't exactly live up to expectations with a 3-15 Big Ten record. Part of that, though, was because of injuries, and Tom Crean is crossing his fingers that his players will remain healthy in 2011-12. Indiana features one of the league's better players in the paint in Christian Watford, who will be joined by standout freshman Cody Zeller, who is easily the most high-profile recruit Crean has lured to Bloomington.

Indiana lost just one senior (Jeremiah Rivers) from last year's team.

Iowa State – It may be time to start calling Iowa State "Transfer U," as Ames has become a landing spot for players seeking a fresh start. Even though their 3-13 Big 12 record suggests otherwise, the Cyclones were pesky and tough to beat a year ago. The addition of transfers Royce White (Minnesota) and Chris Allen (Michigan State) will enable Iowa State to compete with just about every team it faces in 2011-12.

Marquette – Even though they reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, the Golden Eagles finished a disappointing 9-9 in Big East play. Marquette lost its top all-around player in guard Jimmy Butler, but Darius-Johnson Odom returns along with standout forward Jae Crowder. The biggest difference-maker, though, could be former Oregon star Jamil Wilson, who sat out last season under NCAA transfer rules. Todd Mayo – O.J.'s brother – has also been added to the roster.

Memphis – The Tigers may not have made the NCAA tournament last season if they hadn't have won the Conference USA tournament. Earning a berth in 2012 won't be as difficult thanks to the return of players such as Will Barton, Joe Jackson, Tarik Black and Wesley Witherspoon. The Tigers' only significant loss is graduating senior Will Coleman, and they're replacing him in the paint with five-star recruit Adonis Thomas.

Michigan – The Wolverines have tons of momentum after winning six of their last eight Big Ten games last season. Then they opened NCAA tournament play with a 30-point win over Tennessee before bowing out with a two-point loss to Duke. Assuming guard Darius Morris returns (he has entered the NBA draft but hasn't hired an agent), the Wolverines won't lose anyone. And they've got one of the best coaches in the country in John Beilein.

Mississippi State – The Bulldogs could be one of the biggest "sleeper" teams in the country, as Rick Stansbury's squad could have as many as three future pros in his starting lineup with Renardo Sidney, Dee Bost and UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie. Then there's incoming freshman Rodney Hood, a five-star prospect who should step into the starting lineup. Chemistry and discipline – not talent and depth – are the biggest question marks surrounding Mississippi State.

North Carolina State – First-year coach Mark Gottfried should send Sidney Lowe a thank-you card for leaving him with so many talented players. Leading scorer Tracy Smith has graduated, but freshmen C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown and sophomore Scott Wood all return for a squad that will have a chance to win some games in a conference that should be below average for the second straight year.

Vanderbilt – Commodores should enter the 2011-12 season ranked in the top 10 thanks to the return of John Jenkins, Festus Ezeli and Jeffrey Taylor. The threesome combined to average 47.2 points for a team that finished 23-11 overall and 9-7 in the SEC. Guard Brad Tinsley and forward Lance Goulbourne will also be back. The battle for the SEC East crown should be intense with Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Florida all fighting for the top spot.

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