Here is what I am looking forward to seeing as we start the 2010-11 college basketball season:
Whether San Diego State is for real. With five returning starters, including a star in Kawhi Leonard and a talented supporting cast in rebounder Malcolm Thomas, assist leader D.J. Gay and all-around athlete Billy White, the Aztecs can go get the ball off the glass and should be the best team in the Mountain West.
Whether Purdue can absorb the loss of Robbie Hummel and still contend for a top-three spot in the brutal Big Ten. I think it is the best league in the country this year, and Purdue would have been in my preseason Final Four with Hummel. There is considerable talent remaining, but it will take toughness and grit more than talent. I will also be interested to see how Purdue's motion offense fares this year. With so few teams running it, instead running ball screens and sets, Purdue will be tougher to guard.
Whether Duke's Kyrie Irving can lead the Blue Devils to the national championship as a freshman. There are not many first-year playmakers who can lead a veteran team, but Irving has extraordinary talent around him. He has Jay Williams-type ability and Mike Krzyzewski will encourage him to use it.
Whether Virginia Tech can take the next step. The Hokies have been among the ACC's winningest teams in conference play over the past few seasons, but do not have an NCAA tournament berth to show for it. This year, with an upgraded schedule, Virginia Tech will be in the NCAA tournament. But this team should be better than just one of 68. Malcolm Delaney is special, Jeff Allen has numbers that compare favorably to those of any big guy in the league and Dorenzo Hudson has terrific scoring ability. It is time for Virginia Tech to show it. The Hokies are worthy of the NCAA tournament and need to take advantage of the opportunity. Everything is in place for a great year in Blacksburg.
Whether Illinois will compete among the nation's elite. The makeup of this team is exciting for Illini fans and scary for opponents. There is talent at every position and very good depth. Demetri McCamey led the Big Ten in assists last season and should compete for Big Ten Player of the Year. Mike Davis led the Big Ten in rebounding. Mike Tisdale led the Big Ten in field goal percentage. With a freshman who can really play in Jereme Richmond and two sophomores who should be improved in D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul, Illinois could lead the Big Ten in conference wins, too.
Whether Michigan State can cut the nets down in Houston. Tom Izzo has been knocking on the door and could reach his third straight Final Four for the second time in his career, which is absolutely remarkable. The Spartans have the talent to win this thing in 2011. I believe they have the team chemistry to do it, too. As long as they stay healthy, this could be Izzo's second national championship season.
Whether the NCAA will clear Kansas freshman Josh Selby and Kentucky freshman Enes Kanter to play this season. Both should be cleared. Nothing is gained by forcing kids to sit out that (A) want to play in college and (B) are full-time students and academically qualified. Kanter could earn hundreds of thousands of dollars playing professionally overseas. He wants to go to college. Who benefits by making him sit out?
Whether Kansas State can follow up on its 2009-10 success. I did not see a team play harder last season than the Wildcats, and they guarded and rebounded on every possession. Losing Denis Clemente was no small thing, but this year's K-State team should contend for Houston and could very well win the Big 12. Jacob Pullen is a courageous player, and he plays at both ends.
Whether North Carolina, UCLA, Arizona and UConn will bounce back. The Tar Heels will be one of the nation's better teams and will put last year's inexplicable season in the rearview mirror. For UCLA, Arizona and UConn, it will be a tougher process. The dips experienced by these programs shows how tough it is to stay on top in today's game.
Whether Gonzaga can do what Butler did last season. I think that many believed the mid-major that would make the most legit run to the Final Four with the chance to win it all would be Gonzaga. But the Zags have fallen short ever since that first great run to the Elite Eight in 1999. Along the way, Gonzaga has won 239 games over the past nine years (best by a mid-major by far), including 10 straight conference titles, and has become a national brand. Could this be the year Gonzaga gets to the Final Four? Maybe, but the Zags will have to get great point guard play from Demetri Goodson.
Whether Washington State's Klay Thompson is as good as I think he is. I believe Thompson can establish himself as the best player in the Pac-10 this season. He can really shoot it and really score, and is a vastly underrated defender. Thompson impressed me this past summer at the Nike Skills Academy, and he needs only to play stronger to be a first-team All-American. Similarly, I am looking forward to seeing whether Colorado's Alec Burks can continue his upward trajectory toward being a special player. He is one of the most underrated players in the country.
Whether Tennessee freshman Tobias Harris can establish himself as one of the nation's elite freshmen. Harris is really talented and he can be a beast in the SEC.
Whether Missouri can challenge Kansas and Kansas State this season for the Big 12 title. The Tigers have really good guards and a go-to scorer and rebounder inside in Ricardo Ratliffe, but Missouri needs to take care of the ball. If Mizzou can play fast and value the ball, the Tigers, who are one of the better passing teams in the country over the past two years, could very well give KU and K-State a run for it.
Whether Kansas' Marcus Morris will turn into a big-time star. Morris has ability and consistency and is a hard worker with a great attitude. He has everything it takes to be Big 12 Player of the Year.
Whether Pittsburgh can win the Big East. The Panthers have won 245 games over the past nine years (best in the Big East) and even won 25 games last season in a "down year." The main threat to Pittsburgh winning the Big East comes from Syracuse (which may be more talented than last year, but not as old or experienced) and Villanova (which will be bigger and more athletic).
Whether St. John's can capitalize on its depth and experience to make the NCAA tournament in Steve Lavin's first year. Lavin has already made his mark recruiting, but taking a veteran team to the NCAA tournament right away would be a nice springboard for the building of a program.
Whether Wichita State will be this season's it mid-major team. The Shockers get a chance to show everyone just how good they are in Maui, and they have the players to be a factor there.
Whether Florida State's Chris Singleton, BYU's Jackson Emery, Duquesne's Damian Saunders, Kansas State's Jacob Pullen, Utah's David Foster, Charleston's Jeremy Simmons, Ohio State's David Lighty and Butler's Shelvin Mack are among the nation's top defenders.
Whether Wisconsin forward Jon Leuer will be noticed as one of the elite players in the college game. He isn't fancy and doesn't fit the suit, but that kid can play, and he will play in the NBA.
Whether non-BCS conference players like Hofstra's Charles Jenkins, Morehead State's Kenneth Faried, Tulsa's Justin Hurtt and Duquesne's Saunders get the credit they deserve. Those guys can play anywhere.
Whether there is a six-pack of better shooters anywhere than Washington State's Klay Thompson, Duke's Seth Curry, Ohio State's Jon Diebler, Arkansas' Rotnei Clarke, Saint Mary's Mickey McConnell and Vanderbilt's John Jenkins.
Whether UConn's women's team can match the incredible feat of UCLA's historic 88-game winning streak. It isn't the same thing because we are talking about different games, but it is similarly amazing. Absolutely amazing.
What others are looking forward to
Dick Vitale: I love the start of each season. I always look forward to the diaper dandies making an impact, and this class coming in has excitement galore. Look at North Carolina's Harrison Barnes, who was picked preseason All-America by AP. Personally, I don't like putting freshmen on that team before they put on the uniform, but Barnes will be a positive force down in Chapel Hill. Then I look at Jared Sullinger, Kyrie Irving, Brandon Knight, and I see guys with an immediate impact at top schools. These guys will be difference-makers. Texas has a couple of key newcomers as well. I am looking to see how these guys fare on the collegiate level.
Dana O'Neil: Picking up right where we left off. When we left the game of college basketball, it was wreaking havoc on our brackets. Northern Iowa eliminated Kansas and about 60 percent of the pool-playing households in the United States. Ohio University, Cornell and Saint Mary's took care of the other 39. It was beautiful mayhem. I suspect there will be more this season. and we won't have to wait until March to enjoy it. So I'm looking forward to a topsy-turvy season, with teams like Wichita State, Richmond and yes, Butler, pulling off upsets that aren't really upsets, and players like Kenneth Faried and Kawhi Leonard becoming household names.
Andy Katz: Despite an initial overreaction to Purdue losing Robbie Hummel to a season-ending injury (probably should have put them at 14 instead of 23 in my revised Top 25 rankings), the Boilermakers do have enough to make an interesting run. If Purdue can lean heavily on JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore enough to be in contention for a Big Ten title, it will be another outstanding job by coach Matt Painter. I wouldn't be surprised to see any of five teams win the Big Ten -- Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue, Illinois or Minnesota -- with Wisconsin and Northwestern pushing from behind. At least one Final Four team (likely MSU) will come out of this league, but it's hard to see that team without at least three or four conference losses in the best league in the country.
Diamond Leung: Watching John Calipari's new batch of freshmen grow up before our eyes should be a treat after last season's class brought the swagger back to the program. Brandon Knight gets the next chance to shine by playing the glamorous point guard position in Calipari's dribble-drive offense, and he's already displayed his athleticism and intelligence. Forward Terrence Jones is blessed with playmaking ability the average 6-foot-8 player does not possess. And if the Wildcats can get forward Enes Kanter cleared by the NCAA, that's a 6-11 probable-future-NBA-lottery-pick they'll be adding to the lineup.
Eamonn Brennan: Big East intrigue. The conference is not nearly as strong as it has been in recent years, but it has a handful of teams that could either flame out by February or make deep runs into March. The two most notable candidates are Syracuse and Villanova, both of whom lost major stars from last year's teams and both of which will rely on oodles of young talent in 2010-11. Many are picking Pittsburgh as the Big East favorite, but I have a feeling that's because, with all those returnees, everyone basically knows what Pitt is. The rest of the league is far less staid: Georgetown is suddenly guard-heavy without Greg Monroe; West Virginia will need Kevin Jones to become a star; the post-Bobby Gonzalez Seton Hall Pirates could be a dark-horse candidate; and even Notre Dame is reeling from the loss of four-year stud Luke Harangody. The non-Pitt contenders in this league all feature major turnover, and though the conference will lack the strength of the Big Ten (and, probably, the Big 12), watching that chaotic process unfold is going to be a lot of fun.
Joe Lunardi: Duke failing to defend its national championship. I say this not from a dislike of the Blue Devils, but from the reality which, more often than not, befalls the consensus back-to-back titlist. There's a reason only Duke (1991-92) and Florida (2006-07) have repeated in the 64-team era: It's really, really hard to do. Think of all the "obvious" repeat champions who didn't: Georgetown, 1985; UNLV, 1991; North Carolina, 1994; Arkansas, 1995; Kentucky, 1997; and Arizona, 1998, to name a half-dozen. All were heavily favored, all came up short and all (it says here) were better teams than the 2010-11 Blue Devils.