Writer roundtable: Three big questions
Our writers go around the country to answer three big questions about the upcoming season:
1. Of the major conferences, what's one tussle at the top you're especially looking forward to?
Eamonn Brennan: I was hesitant to go in this direction, because the answer almost feels too obvious: It's the ACC. This is nothing new -- Duke and North Carolina have been waging an ACC title-bragging rights blood feud for two decades. But this season, more than ever, the conference title chase feels confined to these two talented behemoths. Carolina will take its turn as the more experienced, talented bunch; Roy Williams has at least four future first-round picks in his rotation. Meanwhile, Coach K will look to incorporate a hyper-talented freshman class that includes top guard Austin Rivers. UNC is the favorite, but can Rivers upset the balance? I don't know, but I'm going to have a lot of fun finding out.
Andy Katz: It sounds almost scripted that the two conferences that nearly caused a realignment apocalypse around the country would be the most hotly contested races, but it's true. The Pac-12 and Big 12 should be wildly entertaining to follow this season. I have no issue if you want to make a case for Arizona, UCLA, Cal or Washington for the Pac-12 title. I wouldn't be surprised if any of the four ends up winning it. The Big 12 is even more wide open in its only year as a 10-team league with this current membership. The favorites are Baylor, Missouri and Texas A&M with Kansas as a legit sleeper (yes, I said that in the same sentence). And it would be foolish to assume Texas, which has plenty of young talent, won't be in the mix. There are a few unknowns like Oklahoma State and Kansas State and a real darkhorse in Iowa State. This may be the strongest conference from 1 to 10 in the country.
Diamond Leung: Much of the hype has gone to Kentucky this offseason with the arrival of its top recruiting class on the heels of a run to the Final Four, but remember that the young Wildcats struggled on the road during the regular season and finished three games behind Florida in the SEC. Vanderbilt and Alabama have experienced returning players, while the Gators have their starting backcourt back to defend the title. Can the veterans trump the tremendous amount of talent that John Calipari has assembled? I can't wait to find out.
Dana O'Neil: Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida might all start the season in the top 10. That's good enough for me. With its latest crop of ridiculous rookies, UK has its eyes on back-to-back Final Four trips and you'd be pressed to find anyone to argue. Meantime at Vandy, Kevin Stallings has perhaps his best squad thanks to the return of Festus Ezeli, John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor. And in Gainesville, the Gators have a little more room to grow but if Patric Young plays in season as he did in the summer, Florida will be right in the mix.
2. Which mid-major conference race are you most looking forward to?
Brennan: Few mid-major conferences, if any, can boast the combination of intriguing stories and quality basketball that you'll find in the 2011-12 version of the Colonial Athletic Association. There's Paul Hewitt taking over at defending champ George Mason, Old Dominion trying to break through without four seniors (including star forward Frank Hassell) and Virginia Commonwealth's first season after one of the most unlikely Final Four runs in college hoops history. And don't sleep on Drexel and James Madison. The basketball is top-notch and the rivalries are real. It should be another fascinating year in the CAA.
Katz: The race between Wichita State and Creighton for the Missouri Valley title will be one of the more interesting in the country. The Shockers and Bluejays are veteran squads with momentum as Wichita won the NIT and CU is coming off a summer when two key players -- Doug McDermott and Greg Echenique -- had an impact on their respective national teams (USA and Venezuela). The WSU-Creighton games in the Valley should provide plenty of theater for a regular-season chase that will go down to the final weekend. The curveball in this conference could be Indiana State again. The Sycamores shocked everyone with a league tournament title last season. Greg Lansing has a bit of the Midas touch in Terre Haute and Indiana State shouldn't be taken lightly in this race.
Leung: Gonzaga goes for its 12th straight West Coast Conference title, but the pool of challengers to its supremacy gets deeper this season. BYU under coach Dave Rose has consistently finished either first or second in the Mountain West, and the Cougars are a threat even without Jimmer Fredette to knock off the Zags in their first year in the WCC. Saint Mary's had its chances last season to topple Gonzaga, and the Gaels will give it their best shot again. Randy Bennett is very high on his squad. San Francisco and Santa Clara are sleeper teams that could make noise in the race as well.
O'Neil: Anyone who thought Paul Hewitt jumped into an easy retirement gig at George Mason hasn't been paying attention to the Colonial Athletic Association. VCU made it to the Final Four last season after finished fourth in the league. So while Hewitt, with three starters returning from the regular-season CAA champs, might be favored to start the season, his road won't be Easy Street. Expect the CAA to be very good and very deep again this season. Along with Mason, Old Dominion brings back two starters, including Kent Bazemore, and Bruiser Flint has four guys back (Chris Fouch will miss the start of the year due to knee surgery) from a Drexel team that almost stopped VCU's run in the CAA tournament. Don't sleep on Hofstra, even without Charles Jenkins, and Bill Coen has four starters back at Northeastern. Oh and there's always VCU.
3. What's one conference POY race that will be fun to track throughout the season?
Brennan: I think the best two-player conference POY race in the country will go down in the Big Ten, and I think it could be one of those races that divides fans along ideological lines. On one side? Dominant Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger. On the other? Ruthlessly efficient Wisconsin point guard Jordan Taylor. Sullinger has an advantage -- his team is almost certainly better, and he's likely to post the gaudier stats. But according to advanced efficiency stats, Taylor was the best player at his position in 2010-11. Mix that quietly effective performance with Taylor's noted knack for the big shot, and I foresee an assuredly entertaining, and potentially acrimonious, race for Big Ten player of the year.
Katz: The SEC. There are a slew of candidates for this award, just like a year ago when Chandler Parsons took home the honor. Kentucky could have a number of candidates, with freshman Anthony Davis and sophomore Doron Lamb leading the way. Florida could end up having an MVP player in Rutgers transfer guard Mike Rosario. Vanderbilt has a pair in John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor. If Alabama is a serious player for the SEC title, then that will mean JaMychael Green had a sensational season. I also wouldn't sleep on the possibility of someone emerging from Mississippi State, like transfer Arnett Moultrie or, yes, Renardo Sidney -- if he can stay on the court and out of trouble.
Leung: Long Beach State's Casper Ware and UC Santa Barbara's Orlando Johnson will battle it out in the Big West, and given that both seniors have won the award before, it should be an interesting race. Johnson (21.1 ppg) is the nation's second-leading returning scorer and looking to play in his third straight NCAA tournament after withdrawing his name from the NBA draft. Ware is the reigning player of the year who was also named the conference's top defender. His 49ers have been denied a trip to the NCAA tournament by UCSB in each of the last two seasons.
O'Neil: Point guard versus big man, upperclassman experience versus underclassman hunger. You won't find a better race between two equally talented but entirely different players than Jordan Taylor and Jared Sullinger for Big Ten POY honors. Sullinger scored tons of press and attention during his Big Ten freshman of the year season. Now a slimmer version of his former self, Sullinger is expected to have an even more impressive repertoire this season. Taylor, in the meantime, played with so little fanfare that he was inexplicably left off the Naismith watch list at the beginning of the season. With plenty of people expecting big things out of the Badgers, Taylor will have plenty of chances to shine.