25 burning questions for the season
Every musical genre has an unforgettable party song. Take your pick.
Rick James is gone but "Superfreak" lives on. The Bee Gees had "Stayin' Alive." Jimmy Buffet's "Margaritaville" and the Village People's "YMCA" still frequent the weekend party circuit throughout the country. I like the Black Eyed Peas' "Let's Get It Started."
Preference, however, is irrelevant. The bottom line is that it's time to celebrate -- and music always helps -- because we're days away from the start of the 2012-13 season. It has been too long.
Here are 25 burning questions I've had in the months leading up to the new season.
1. Will Kentucky do it again? Just seven months removed from a national title run, John Calipari's squad is expected to compete for another championship. I think last season's crew had a unique blend of high-level talent, poise and depth. I don't know if Cal's latest group has the same mojo, but the pieces are there. Give it a few weeks and the college basketball world will rave about Archie Goodwin, Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress and transfer Ryan Harrow the way it did this time last year when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis debuted. The Wildcats are stacked again. But there's more talent and depth at the top this year. Hard to envision a run that equates to 2012, but Calipari continues to prove that he's capable of producing contenders driven by young stars.
2. What's UCLA's ceiling? Talk about a team in limbo. I don't know what UCLA will look like in the coming weeks and months based on Shabazzgate. Until Shabazz Muhammad's status has been determined by the NCAA -- and he heals from a shoulder injury -- we won't have the real answer to that question. But all extremes seem (potentially) accurate at this point. This offseason mess could re-create the chemistry problems that the program had last season and ruin its chances of playing up to its talent level. Then again, Muhammad & Co., at full strength, have the talent to make a run to Atlanta. The Bruins are a mystery right now.
3. Is Europe ready? Last year, college basketball was like, "Yeah, we're playing on a boat and you can't stop us." This season, college basketball is like, "That boat idea was cool. But Germany called. And we listened. Get the passports ready." That's not exactly how it unfolded, but the fact is Michigan State and Connecticut will kick off the 2012-13 season with a matchup at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Friday. All I can say is "Das ist erstaunlich." (Translation: That's amazing.)
4. Will the ground shake in San Diego on Jan. 16? That's the day that San Diego State and UNLV face off in the Aztecs' Viejas Arena. Both teams are ranked in the top 20 of the AP preseason poll. Both teams, who've staged one of the nation's top rivalries in recent years while battling for the Mountain West crown, enter the season with very talented rosters. And with SDSU moving to the Big West in 2013, there's no guarantee that this feud will continue. So the first meeting of the year -- and the next matchup in Las Vegas Feb. 16 -- should be explosive.
5. Will the Big Ten end the season with a national championship? Michigan State's 2000 national title was the league's last. This season, the Big Ten is the nation's deepest conference with Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana positioned as possible title contenders. They all have their respective strengths. And a deep run in March seems feasible for each program. But will they overcome the titans in the Big East (Syracuse, Louisville), ACC (NC State, Duke, North Carolina), Big 12 (Kansas), SEC (Florida, Missouri and Kentucky) and Pac-12 (Arizona and UCLA)? No guarantees. But the Big Ten's depth will be meaningless in April if the league isn't represented in Atlanta.
6. Can Doug McDermott improve? The Creighton star averaged 22.9 points per game (in the top five nationally). He led the Bluejays in rebounding (8.2 rpg) and finished the 2011-12 season with the second-highest mark in Ken Pomeroy's player ratings. But he reportedly spent the offseason dealing with his weaknesses: scoring off the dribble, defense and physicality in the paint. That's great for college basketball fans who could see a more complete player this season. That must be a scary thought for opposing defenders.
7. Will Oklahoma State and Baylor make the Big 12 interesting? Kansas is the favorite to win its ninth consecutive Big 12 title. But Oklahoma State and Baylor might make the league interesting again. Marcus Smart and Le'Bryan Nash lead a talented Cowboys squad that can beat top-level teams if its defense improves. Baylor is young inside but its veteran starting backcourt of Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip will give the Bears a shot in every game. Will that be enough to squash KU's title hopes? Probably not. But a little drama in the Big 12 wouldn't hurt anyone.
8. Will North Carolina State own Tobacco Road? The Wolfpack hasn't won an ACC regular-season title since 1989. But for the first time in nearly 40 years, Mark Gottfried's program is the media's pick to win the league crown. C.J. Leslie and the key pieces of last season's Sweet 16 squad return. Rodney Purvis is crucial member of a talented recruiting class. Duke and North Carolina are definitely equipped to spoil the moment for the Pack. But right now, NC State is the team to beat in the ACC.
9. Will Kevin Ollie overcome the odds against him? Connecticut's interim head coach is in a difficult position. He has been tapped as Jim Calhoun's (temporary) successor in a season that will not include any postseason participation because of a subpar APR. Plus, the program lost Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb to the NBA. How will Ollie succeed under these circumstances? And is there any chance he'll convince the Huskies to remove the interim tag? Stay tuned.
10. Will Nerlens Noel restore America's love for the high-top fade? Last year, Anthony Davis sparked a national love affair with the unibrow. His successor, Kentucky's Nerlens Noel -- and other standouts such as Wisconsin's Ryan Evans -- could instigate similar adoration for his preferred hairstyle, the high-top fade. One can only hope.
11. How will Indiana handle the expectations? Tom Crean essentially started from scratch when he left Marquette for Indiana in 2008. The program fell far from its distinguished legacy with its NCAA trouble, and it did little to restore it when it won only 28 games in Crean's first three seasons. The Hoosiers, however, are national title favorites and the No. 1 team in the country entering Crean's fifth season. Now they have to deal with grand expectations, a major reversal from the earlier years under Crean. Ignoring the hype and handling the pressure will be new challenges for the program.
12. Who's the next mid-major star? Last season, McDermott, C.J. McCollum, D.J. Cooper and Isaiah Canaan became national stars for mid-major programs. That group will have to make room for North Texas' Tony Mitchell (14.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg), a projected lottery pick who could lead the Mean Green to a few early upsets during the nonconference season.
13. How will Missouri (SEC) and West Virginia (Big 12) perform in their new leagues? Both schools need to incorporate key transfers to excel. But if they find that chemistry, the Tigers and Mountaineers will vie for an NCAA tournament slot and challenge the top teams in their respective conferences.
14. Will Harvard recover from offseason challenges to reach the Big Dance again? Last season, the Crimson ended an NCAA tournament drought that began in the 1940s. But the team's top scorer, Kyle Casey, and its floor general, Brandyn Curry, are gone for this season because of an alleged academic cheating scandal. So a repeat isn't as likely as it appeared to be in the spring, especially with Ian Hummer back for Princeton.
15. What will the additions of VCU and Butler mean for the Atlantic 10? The Atlantic 10 will be one of the nation's most competitive conferences with VCU and Butler entering the league. Shaka Smart's squad could win the conference crown in its debut. And Butler, which will feature Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke, will be tough too. Both finished last season with top-30 ratings in adjusted defensive efficiency. And that defensive toughness could lead to immediate results.
16. Will Arizona win the Pac-12? Like UCLA and Kentucky, Arizona has a team that will rely on a top-five recruiting class. The Wildcats also have former Xavier guard Mark Lyons. Sean Miller's squad hasn't received the same hype as the aforementioned schools, yet the Wildcats could overtake UCLA and earn the Pac-12 championship even if Muhammad is finally deemed eligible for the Bruins. They're that good on paper at least.
17. Can Florida upset Kentucky for the SEC crown? The Gators are the SEC's best option to end Kentucky's reign. Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy and Patric Young give the Gators a strong core and versatility. The SEC -- with Missouri and Tennessee in the mix, too -- could be interesting.
18. Will Louisville's offense disrupt its national title hopes? Louisville's top-rated defense fueled its run to the Final Four last season. But the Cardinals barely escaped with wins in multiple tight games. They're in a similar scenario this season, albeit without Kyle Kuric. A healthy Wayne Blackshear and talented freshman Montrezl Harrell will give Rick Pitino a pair of playmakers to alleviate those situations. But it's still the biggest question facing this well-rounded UL squad.
19. Can Jim Crews continue what Rick Majerus started? Majerus brought the Saint Louis program back, but his health will prevent him from coaching a program that reached the NCAA tournament in March. Crews, a former Indiana assistant and head coach at Army, takes over a roster that was recruited and molded by Majerus. If the Billikens buy into Crews' philosophy, then they'll have a chance to fulfill the projections that were made about the team after its win over Memphis in the NCAA tournament.
20. How will Ohio State change with Deshaun Thomas in charge? I expect Thomas to lead the Big Ten in scoring. He's a dynamic player who can impact the game inside and outside. He's a mismatch for most teams. But life without Jared Sullinger, one of the nation's top big men, might be difficult. The Buckeyes are clearly talented but their mentality will change with Thomas becoming the focal point of the offense.
21. Will Gonzaga regain its WCC title? For the first time in 15 years, Gonzaga failed to earn the regular-season or conference tournament title in the West Coast Conference last year. Its bid to recapture that championship, however, won't be an easy one. Saint Mary's and BYU are legitimate threats for the Bulldogs.
22. Is Tennessee the capital of college basketball? North Carolina probably deserves that status right now. And Kentucky has a pair of national title contenders and Murray State. But Tennessee is definitely one of the deepest states in college basketball. Belmont will battle Murray State for the top spt in its new league (Ohio Valley). Middle Tennessee State could represent the Sun Belt in the Big Dance. Same for ETSU in the Atlantic Sun. Jarnell Stokes and the Volunteers are an underrated group. And Memphis is the Conference USA favorite. Don't sleep on the state of Tennessee.
23. How will Pitt and Syracuse depart the Big East? The realignment push has shifted the entire collegiate sports landscape. With Syracuse and Pitt exiting the Big East to join the ACC in 2013, one of the nation's perennial powerhouse conferences will lose two valuable programs. Syracuse could end its time in the Big East with a conference title. It's deep (as usual), athletic and big. Pitt freshman Steven Adams could help the Panthers return to the NCAA tournament. The shift will strengthen the ACC but also deliver a blow to the Big East.
24. What keeps Coach K going? Mike Krzyzewski just led the United States to the gold medal in the London Olympics. And he's preparing for his 37th season in college basketball. He doesn't have an equal right now. Not in accomplishments or longevity. He'd go down as one of -- if not the -- greatest coaches of all time if he retired today. But he just keeps going. Someday, he'll stop. The fact that he continues, however, is simultaneously admirable and inconceivable.
25. You ready? College basketball is always unpredictable. And that's what makes it so captivating. This year's slate features a variety of squads with young talent, capable veterans and proven coaches. There's a great mix of contenders. No guarantees. And it all starts in a few days. You ready?
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