Commentary

Top 25 things to look forward to

Originally Published: November 7, 2011
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Hope springs eternal at the start of a season, but curiosity blooms right alongside it.

As we -- finally, mercifully, thankfully -- get ready to start the 2011-12 season, the questions are closer to answers, and the truth is ready to be separated from the fiction.

So with the real games set to get underway, here is my preseason top 25 -- the top 25 things that I'm looking forward to figuring out this season, that is:

How exactly do you play a game on an aircraft carrier?

I get it. It's an aircraft carrier. You can, thereby, land planes on the thing, and as my 7-year-old's video explains, when an aircraft carrier is stood on its end, it's as tall as the Empire State Building. Still, a basketball game between North Carolina and Michigan State? Maybe this isn't an architectural wonder in line with the pyramids, but it's one heck of an interesting concept.

[+] EnlargeKendall Marshall
Bob Donnon/US PresswireHow will Kendall Marshall and the youthful Tar Heels handle the spotlight this season?

How will North Carolina handle pressure?

Ordinarily, the Tar Heels have the sneak-up-ability of an elephant playing a trumpet on roller skates. But last season, UNC was all but written off after a 20-point blowout loss to Georgia Tech on Jan. 16. One point guard change, a nine-game win streak and an Elite Eight berth later, Carolina now is to college basketball what Justin Bieber is to a teenybopper convention. Despite an embarrassing plethora of talent, this remains a fairly young team, so it will be interesting to see how the Heels handle the spotlight.

How will a slimmer Jared Sullinger change things for Ohio State?

The big guy got smaller in the offseason, dropping weight that he believes will make him more of a force. He can play facing the basket, but without him eating up the paint and the low post, Ohio State will have to change its offensive style.

How will BYU fare in the West Coast Conference?

There have been plenty of nonsensical conference moves this offseason -- Godspeed to those making the commute from Lubbock, Texas, to Morgantown, WVa. -- but the Cougars' quick move to the WCC after its football team went independent made good sense for everyone involved. The league gets better and the competition is good for BYU. This won't be the easiest season to start, though. The Cougars are without that Jimmer Fredette fella, while Gonzaga and Saint Mary's are loaded.

Who is the best mid-major in the country?

I reserve the right to redo this question frequently through March. Creighton and Wichita State head up a resurgent Missouri Valley. Belmont, top-heavy with upperclassmen, is a name no team will want to see on its dance card. Davidson -- remember the Wildcats? -- is back again. But my early pick is Iona. Double-double machine Michael Glover started at Seton Hall, Lamont "MoMo" Jones at Arizona. That's a Big East and Pac-12 player on one roster in the MAAC.

Is it Harvard's turn? What about Northwestern?

Northwestern is 0-and-forever, Harvard merely shut out since 1946. Could lightning strike twice and give both teams an NCAA tourney bid this season? The Crimson, with everyone back for coach Tommy Amaker, is in better position than the Wildcats, who will rely on John Shurna.

Who leads Connecticut now that Kemba Walker is gone?

Replacing the points is hard enough, but finding the substitute for Walker's leadership is every bit as critical. Asking Shabazz Napier or Jeremy Lamb to slide into that role is a tall order. My money on the go-to guy in the locker room: Alex Oriakhi.

Can coach John Calipari produce yet another great freshman point guard?

Calipari is a veritable Houdini, pulling one great rookie point guard out of his hat after another -- Derrick Rose to Tyreke Evans to John Wall to Brandon Knight. Now it's Marquis Teague's turn. How Teague plays as a facilitator and distributor on a team overloaded with talent will determine just how good a very good Kentucky team can be.

Can Vanderbilt get over the hump?

A few years ago, folks pondered if coach Bill Self could ever get to a Final Four. Then he won a national championship. Now the monkey sits on Kevin Stallings' back, perched there until Vandy wins another NCAA tourney game. It is 0-for-its-last-3, victimized by Richmond, Murray State and Siena.

Will the Colonial Athletic Association earn its respect?

The league has given us two Final Four teams in the past five years and four Sweet 16 spots since 2006. Yet last season marked the first time the CAA earned more than two NCAA bids. I get it. Three is a lot for a 12-member league that isn't among the BCS big boys. But the quality of the Colonial long has been superior, and the in-conference records are more reflective of that competitive consistency than crummy teams. This season, Drexel, VCU, ODU and George Mason all could have terrific seasons. Will they all be rewarded for it?

Can Michigan State bounce back?

I admit to being a holdout last season, convinced until the very end that the Spartans would get their act together because that's what Tom Izzo's teams do. Instead, it never happened, and Izzo has since lost Delvon Roe to a career-ending injury. Izzo has guys he likes -- Draymond Green, Keith Appling and Derrick Nix -- on this team. Now, can the coach get results he likes, too?

How will coach Fred Hoiberg handle the personalities at Iowa State?

Charged with retooling his alma mater, The Mayor has opted for the fast fix for now by turning Ames into Ellis Island, bringing Royce White (Minnesota), Chris Allen (Michigan State), Anthony Booker (Southern Illinois) and Chris Babb (Penn State) to campus. It's a huge risk -- White, Allen and Booker all come with baggage -- with the potential for huge reward.

[+] EnlargePerry Jones III
Peter G. Aiken/Kansas State/Getty Images Kansas is the coaches' co-favorite in the Big 12, but don't sleep on Perry Jones III and Baylor.

Is this the season someone else wins the Big 12?

When league coaches picked Kansas as one of the co-favorites to win the conference this year, plenty of folks chuckled. This is not a great Jayhawks team, not with two freshmen ineligible and little experience returning. But until someone else beats Kansas, it is their title to lose. Early favorite to end the streak: Baylor.

How many bids does the Big East receive?

On the heels of its record 11-bid haul, the Big East is heading toward a breakup and remix in the not-so-distant future. This will be an interesting season. There's plenty of power at the top (Connecticut, Syracuse, Louisville and Pittsburgh) and solid teams in Cincinnati and Marquette, but as some of the regulars (Georgetown, Villanova, West Virginia) regroup, the final bid count will be intriguing.

Will Oregon continue to improve for coach Dana Altman?

Quietly, Altman put together one of the finest coaching jobs of last season. The Ducks finished 21-18 overall and won the postseason CBI. The pressure ratchets up for Altman in Year 2 -- Oregon is picked fifth in the Pac-12 and another CBI date won't do -- but it's hard not to believe that he has things headed in the right direction.

Can Tu Holloway have a Jameer Nelson kind of season?

The Xavier guard has the ability and potential to have the same sort of explosive year that Nelson once did at Saint Joseph's. He is that good, as is his team. But it will be interesting to see if Holloway can break through the crowd of name-brand talent and earn the spotlight.

How will Robbie Hummel play?

Hummel scored 18 points in Purdue's first exhibition game, a good sign that his twice-repaired ACL is truly ready to go to work. The Boilermakers certainly need Hummel at his best but more than that, Hummel deserves a great senior season.

Can coach Mike Anderson get things going in Arkansas?

The right guy is in the right place in Fayetteville. He's got a great class of freshmen to work with and a style of play that Hog fans will recognize and adore. Arkansas fans just need to grant Anderson the one thing he doesn't have: time.

Who are some off-radar guys that we'll know by March?

Here's 10 names to tuck away: Andrew Nicholson, St. Bonaventure; Doug McDermott, Creighton; Kyle Weems, Missouri State; Orlando Johnson, UC Santa Barbara; Keith Wright, Harvard; Casper Ware, Long Beach State, Rakim Sanders, Fairfield; Ray McCallum, Detroit; Michael Glover, Iona and Kent Bazemore, Old Dominion.

Is this the season Indiana finally turns it around?

That's certainly the plan in place in Bloomington. With Cody Zeller on campus, the patient Hoosiers fans are pinning their hopes on this season as the first step out of their crater. But for every step forward, coach Tom Crean suffers one backward. He'll have to go forward without Maurice Creek. Again.

[+] EnlargeBrad Stevens
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesAfter losing Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack, this might be the season when Brad Stevens and Butler need to retool.
Is this goodbye for Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia?

The paper-pushing legal battle between the three schools and the Big East may lack the sexiness of on-court battles, but just how this tussle ends will go a long way toward determining the makeup of the game's premiere conference in the near future.

Does Butler have a drop-off?

A drop-off relative to what is probably the more accurate question. The Bulldogs have set a ridiculously high bar for themselves -- two straight trips to the national title game will do that -- but every team eventually needs to retool and this could be that season for Butler. A Brad Stevens-coached team will never be bad, but the Bulldogs struggled to score last season, and they lost their two best scorers in Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack.

Is Patric Young ready for the spotlight?

The Florida forward gave Gators fans reason to hope this summer, when he played well on the Under-19 national team. But Young has to be consistent all season if Florida is going to be as good as advertised. The Gators' perimeter depth and strength is a no-brainer. It's the inside game that is the question mark.

Is Memphis older and wiser?

The Tigers are a lot like their coach, Josh Pastner -- young and precocious. The question -- how much did Joe Jackson, Will Barton and Antonio Barton learn from last season, when they could be tantalizingly talented and aggravatingly foolish in the span of 30 seconds?

Who's celebrating in the Big Easy?

Besides me and my taste buds, that is. This is the million-dollar question. In a top-heavy top 25, there is no shortage of candidates to win it all at the Final Four in New Orleans. But which one will actually paint Bourbon Street in their team colors? The pick here: North Carolina.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.

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