- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Do you hear it? Leather bouncing on hardwood, shoes squeaking in a quiet gym -- these are the glorious sounds of basketball practice, and they are finally, mercifully, upon us.
On Friday night, teams from around the country will host their first official practice of the season. Some will do so with gusto and flair; others will eschew Midnight Madness and get started with, you know, actual practice -- no dunk contests allowed -- the minute the clock strikes 12 a.m. Or 7 p.m. Or maybe a couple of hours after that. The start times vary these days.
What matters most is that basketball is back. The season is just a few short weeks away, and we have much to learn in the meantime. In that spirit, let's take a look at three of the biggest questions surrounding college hoops as we inch closer and closer to real, actual basketball. (Eat your heart out, NBA.)
Will college hoops get its moment in the sun?
And I don't mean the NCAA tournament. Everybody loves the NCAA tournament. If you don't love the NCAA tournament, something is wrong with you. Please seek help. You're not well. This is science.
No, I'm talking about college basketball from November through February. In recent years, a few factors have conspired to make the college regular season -- particularly the games in the first two months -- feel like an afterthought to most casual sports fans.
The one-and-done era made it more difficult to recognize the college game's incoming stars. The booming popularity of the NFL and college football drowned out college hoops' attempts to earn the attention of casual fans. The NCAA tournament selection committee weighted teams' last 12 games more heavily than their early-season efforts, creating the impression that November and December didn't matter. (That provision no longer exists, thankfully.)
Also, the lack of a designated collective start to the college hoops season made the first few weeks feel more like exhibitions than meaningful competitions. In 2011, the frenzied NBA free-agency period, the subsequent interest in Miami's Big Three and the emergence of young stars like Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant stole the attention of many hoops fans. The NBA was really fun to watch. College hoops? I'll check it out when the tournament starts.
This year, things may be different. Sure, the NFL and college football are still uber-popular. (Every time you think NFL ratings can't go up, they do. It's insane.) But the other factors are trending well.
In 2011-12, the hoops season effectively begins with two marquee events. The first is a game on 11-11-11 between Michigan State and North Carolina on an aircraft carrier. (Yes, an aircraft carrier. It's going to be every bit as cool as it sounds.) The second is the newly created Champions Classic, hosted in Madison Square Garden this year, featuring Michigan State, Duke, Kansas and Kentucky. Meanwhile, the ESPN College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon is back again, and this year's Maui Invitational Field is one of the best in the tournament's history.
The second is the name recognition in college hoops. Thanks to the somewhat surprising returns of Jared Sullinger, Harrison Barnes, Perry Jones, Terrence Jones and the like, college basketball's elite players are no longer early-season mysteries. And the best teams in the country -- North Carolina, Kentucky, Connecticut, Ohio State, Duke, Syracuse, take your pick -- are all household names.
The third? It begins with "N" and ends with "BA lockout." As of this writing, NBA commissioner David Stern told the media there's a chance the lockout could last until Christmas, if not longer. Things just keep getting worse. That's bad news for basketball fans, of course. But if I know hoops heads -- I should, because I am one -- I know they'll have to get that fix somewhere. (Those folks will complain; hardcore NBA fans love to complain about college basketball. But rest assured, they'll be watching.)
Taken as a whole -- the recognizable names and household teams, the exciting season-opening events, and the lack not only of NBA basketball but of all its air-sucking hype off the court -- college hoops has lucked into what could be a watershed moment.
We'll see whether the lockout situation improves in the coming weeks. If not, the much-maligned college hoops regular season should get ready for its close-up.
Which freshmen will shine right away?
The 2011-12 college hoops season will be defined by stars. It's been years since the collegiate pool was this talent-rich. The majority of that talent comes from two places: a batch of sophomore stars who eschewed the NBA draft (and have to be thoroughly pleased with that decision now) and a stellar incoming freshman class.
Consider the personnel breakdowns of the consensus top four teams in the country:
1. North Carolina returns Harrison Barnes, a likely top-five pick, as well as guard Kendall Marshall and forwards John Henson and Tyler Zeller, all of whom are likely to play in the NBA one day. But coach Roy Williams also added two top-tier prospects -- James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston -- who could push this team over the top. (As if it needed any more help.)
2. Kentucky coach John Calipari is welcoming a stacked recruiting class to Lexington this fall. That's nothing new for Calipari, of course; he's had the top-ranked recruiting class in each of the past three seasons. But this one is extra-special. It features the No. 1-ranked player at three different positions: point guard (Marquis Teague), small forward (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) and power forward (Anthony Davis), and it even tacks on No. 5-ranked power forward and McDonald's All-American Kyle Wiltjer for good measure. But this team isn't all about the freshmen. Sophomore Terrence Jones -- who was frequently Kentucky's best player in 2010-11, and at times played like a potential SEC Player of the Year candidate -- ignored the NBA draft and returned for his sophomore season instead.
3. Connecticut lost Kemba Walker to the draft, sure, but it retained sophomores Jeremy Lamb -- a major key to UConn's postseason run -- and Shabazz Napier, as well as junior forward Alex Oriakhi. Then, late this offseason, UConn signed the No. 2 player in the country, home-state phenom Andre Drummond, to round out its talent.
4. Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger would have been a top-five pick had he decided to leave college hoops for the NBA, but he meant business when he said he was returning to school. Sullinger spent his offseason shrinking his body -- he's trimmed dozens of pounds of baby fat and replaced it with well-defined muscle -- and expanding his game, and he's the main reason the Buckeyes are one of the above handful of national title contenders. But he's not the only reason: Besides the returns of sophomores Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft (as well as senior guard William Buford), OSU coach Thad Matta also acquired the sixth-ranked recruiting class in the country. Two players -- center Amir Williams and guard Shannon Scott -- are likely to crack Matta's infamously tight rotation this season.
And those four teams don't even tell the whole story. There's Baylor, where potential No. 1 overall pick Perry Jones returned for his sophomore season to combine forces with highly touted freshmen Quincy Miller and Deuce Bello. Duke's is a largely retooled lineup, but its fate will rest in large part on the play of top-ranked incoming shooting guard Austin Rivers. Memphis is considered a top-15 team for two reasons: the return of its talented sophomores and the arrival of freshman Adonis Thomas. Washington coach Lorenzo Romar recently compared star freshman point guard Tony Wroten Jr. to Magic Johnson. Wroten might end up being the best player in this whole class.
You get the point: This season's elite programs will be defined either by their talented sophomores or this loaded freshman class. The question is which of these freshmen will shine right away? Which will mesh with their talented counterparts best? How will this season be defined on the floor?
It'd be foolish to rush to judgment after a handful of practices, but the glimpse we'll get in the next few weeks should provide a few helpful hints. (I'm so excited I started sweating when I wrote this, and I didn't even eat Chipotle for lunch today. It's going to be awesome.)
Can we be done with realignment now? Please?
If Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is to be believed, conference realignment won't settle down in the next five years, let alone in the next three weeks. It remains a constant sidelong concern for college basketball fans in the near- and long-terms.
First, a recap: The 2010 offseason nearly brought the downfall of the Big 12. The same came in 2011, when Texas A&M bolted for the SEC. The dominoes were poised to fall: The Pac-12 strongly considered annexing Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, a move that would have sealed the Big 12's fate and accelerated the seemingly inevitable consolidation of BCS schools into fabled 16-team superconferences.
The Pac-12 relented, fortunately, and the Big 12 lived on to fight another day.
Whatever calming influence the Big 12's continued existence exerted on the landscape was summarily brushed aside a little while later, when Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced their intention to leave the Big East for the ACC.
Soon thereafter, Connecticut made it fairly clear its desire to do the same. The ACC reportedly wants two more teams. The SEC is still looking to expand to 14, and Missouri has made overtures in the hopes of being one such team. The Big 12 is doing its best to batten down the hatches. The Big East is just trying to survive. The confusion swirls unabated.
What's especially unfortunate about conference realignment is how little basketball matters to the schools and conferences doing the realigning. That's the nature of the modern sports landscape: Football does the earning, so football does the talking. But while realignment ignores college basketball, college basketball is massively affected by realignment.
The Big East is (for now) the country's premier hoops league, not just because of its depth or quality but because it was, more than any other conference in the country, a truly basketball-oriented league. Almost by accident, by losing Nebraska and Colorado, the Big 12 became the best pound-for-pound hoops conference in the country. In the meantime, storied long-standing rivalries -- Syracuse-Georgetown, Missouri-Kansas -- have given way to cold financial calculations.
That's where we are now. The question is where we're going.
The answer? I don't know. But with Missouri in flux and the Big East-ACC turf war ongoing, college hoops as we know it seems destined to change again -- and sooner rather than later.
So I guess we'll just have to enjoy it while we can and revel in what should be a stellar season.
There are worse ways to spend the next six months.
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog. To contact Eamonn, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him on Twitter (@eamonnbrennan).
With the NBA locked out and the stars aligning in college basketball, Eamonn Brennan is giddy with anticipation of what could end up being a stellar season for the sport.