50 Bold Predictions for College Basketball in 2012-2013
The college basketball season isn’t even a week old, but it’s never too early to look ahead to what fans can expect around the country. From conference races and individual honors to NCAA Tournament upsets, there’s always plenty to forecast in the world of college hoops.
One of the most intriguing of the conference battles will come in the ACC, where the traditional head-to-head duel between North Carolina and Duke gets a third participant with the ascension of a loaded N.C. State squad.
Which Tobacco Road power will come out on top by season’s end? Read on for an answer to that question and 49 more projections, predictions and prophecies for the year to come in college hoops.
South Florida Will Play in the Opening Round for the Second Straight Year
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The South Florida Bulls spent most of 2011-12 walking a tightrope between the successes of the country’s No. 7 scoring defense and the travails of its 328th-best scoring offense.
The net result turned out to be a spot in the “Last Four In” on the NCAA Tournament bracket, and there’s little reason to expect major changes this year.
Coach Stan Heath certainly isn’t going to alter his defense-first philosophy, and he’s got most of last year’s personnel back to run his stifling system.
Most importantly, point guard Anthony Collins (5.2 assists per game) returns to provide a tiny spark of hope for the woeful offense—just enough to make the Bulls a bubble team yet again.
Tennessee Will Crack the Top 25
Randy Sartin-US PRESSWIRE
When Bruce Pearl’s Tennessee career imploded in 2010-11, it could easily have left the Vols program years away from national relevance.
Instead, Cuonzo Martin has led a shockingly quick recovery, tying for second in the SEC standings in his head-coaching debut.
Martin’s Vols aren’t yet among the three SEC teams with a spot in the Top 25, but they have too much talent not to make an appearance in the rankings before the year is out.
The inside-outside combination of Jarnell Stokes and Trae Golden will make Tennessee a dangerous SEC spoiler too, with a season-ending home date against Missouri that could wrap up an NCAA bid for the Vols.
Cincinnati Will Get Mick Cronin His 200th Career Win
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He took a few years to get up to speed, but coach Mick Cronin has now guided Cincinnati to back-to-back 26-win seasons. Another year like that is certainly within reach for the experienced Bearcats, and it would mean a milestone victory for their head coach.
With 23 wins in the year, Cronin will reach 200 for his career. He’ll have a decent shot to celebrate the mark at home too, with the Bearcats playing UConn at Fifth Third Arena on March 2 and South Florida on the same floor a week later.
Oregon Will Be One of the “First Four Out” on Selection Sunday
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Dana Altman’s reclamation project in Eugene made impressive progress last season, and the Ducks have added a pair of major talents to a 24-10 squad that already featured the dangerous E.J. Singler.
Freshman Dominic Artis has quickly shown what a good fit he is for Altman’s offense, and if rebounding ace Arsalan Kazemi gets his transfer waiver as expected, he’ll do as much to bolster the frontcourt, as Artis has in the backcourt.
Despite all that good news, though, Oregon is no match for loaded Arizona and UCLA, leaving them to compete with a crowded second tier in the Pac-12 (Colorado, Cal, Stanford).
A middle-of-the-pack conference finish, plus a schedule that could easily feature zero meaningful non-conference wins, will leave the Ducks on the outside looking in when the field of 68 is announced.
Bruce Weber Will Struggle in the Postseason with Kansas State Too
Scott Sewell-US PRESSWIRE
In four NCAA Tournament appearances since making the national title game with Illinois, Bruce Weber has won a grand total of two games. Great recruiter though he is, his teams have rarely played up to their potential under the bright lights of March.
Weber shouldn’t have much trouble getting another shot at the Big Dance in his Kansas State debut, as he’s inherited a solid roster from Frank Martin.
However, once K-State arrives in the NCAA Tournament (and faces a defense that can force someone other than Rodney McGruder to score), Weber’s shaky X’s-and-O’s history will catch up to him again.
Lehigh Will Set Another School Record for Wins
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Few fans noticed Lehigh before the staggering upset of second-seeded Duke last March, but the Mountain Hawks are coming off a terrific regular season too. Their 27-8 record shattered the program's previous best, and that was just for starters.
Superstar guard C.J. McCollum is back for his senior year, coming off a performance in which he ranked in the top six nationally in both scoring and steals.
With 6’9” Gabe Knutson also back to anchor the frontcourt, Lehigh has a real shot to run the table in the Patriot League, and shouldn't have too much trouble earning its best-ever NCAA Tournament seed (beating last year’s No. 15).
Davidson Will Be a Bust as a Bracket-Buster
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Every season there are a few teams that look ideally suited to pulling off a major upset in March—veteran roster, size, strong regular-season showing. And every season some of those teams come up empty, as Belmont and Long Beach State did in 2011-12.
This year’s Davidson team appears to have all the earmarks of postseason success and they’ll be a popular pick with the memory of Stephen Curry still hovering in fans’ minds.
Curry, however, is in the NBA, and these Wildcats don’t have that same kind of transcendent scorer to bail them out when they face the likes of Creighton or Missouri.
Michael Carter-Williams Will Be the Big East Player of the Year
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Louisville looks to be the class of the Big East in 2012-13, so it’s little surprise that Cardinal point guard Peyton Siva got the preseason nod as the Conference’s Player of the Year.
By season’s end, however, it will be Syracuse’s floor leader who will put up a performance too good to ignore.
Michael Carter-Williams was an unproven commodity after sitting behind Scoop Jardine for most of his freshman season.
However, the 6’6” combo guard gave fans a pretty good idea of what to expect from him in the Orange’s season opener, torching a talented San Diego State backcourt for 17 points, four rebounds, four assists and five steals.
Illinois State Will Make Its First NCAA Tournament Since 1998
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Doug McDermott and Creighton are set to run away with the Missouri Valley title, but the MVC has room for more than one NCAA Tournament team.
One of the leading candidates for the runner-up spot in the conference is an Illinois State squad that’s gone a long time between NCAA Tournament appearances.
The last time the Redbirds played in March Madness, first-year head coach Dan Muller was playing point guard.
Now he’ll lead from the bench with a team keyed by seniors Jackie Carmichael (13.9 points and 9.7 rebounds per game) and Tyler Brown (13.7 points a night on .454 three-point shooting).
Mike Anderson’s Old Team Will Keep His Current Team Out of March Madness
In his second season at Arkansas, Mike Anderson has made a fine start in converting the team to his preferred brand of high-speed mayhem.
He’s got a first-class shooting guard to build around in B.J. Young (15.3 points per game as a freshman) and a mobile big man in Marshawn Powell to anchor the middle.
Unfortunately, what he doesn’t have is an answer to the far deeper team he left behind at Missouri.
Led by Anderson recruits Laurence Bowers, Michael Dixon Jr. and Phil Pressey, the Tigers are almost guaranteed to hand the Razorbacks two SEC losses—defeats that could easily mean the difference between sneaking into March Madness and a spot in the NIT.
UNLV Will Win Its First Regular-Season MWC Title in a Dozen Years
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UNLV basketball has been enjoying a renaissance since coming out of nowhere to win 30 games in 2006-07.
Somewhat lost in that recent success though, is the fact that the Rebels haven’t won their own conference since the Mountain West’s debut season of 1999-00.
This year’s UNLV squad though, has a veteran point guard in Anthony Marshall and a stacked frontcourt including Mike Moser and star freshman Anthony Bennett.
The Rebels’ size will give them a key advantage in the head-to-head match up with their toughest conference rivals, as No. 23 San Diego State has just one regular who stands taller than 6’7”.
Pitt Will Go an Entire Season Without Being Ranked in the Top 10
Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE
As painful as Pitt’s fall from grace in 2011-12 was, at least those Panthers started out at No. 10 in the national rankings. This year’s squad isn’t ranked at all and if they don’t climb back into the top 10, it will mean the end of an extraordinary streak.
The last time a Pittsburgh team failed to reach the top 10 at any point in a season it was 2000-01, and Ben Howland was in his second season as head coach.
This year’s Panthers will be a lot better than last year—a healthy Tray Woodall and 7’0” freshman Steven Adams will make sure of that—but a top-10 spot is out of reach for the first time in Jamie Dixon’s coaching career.
Tubby Smith Will Get His First Post-Kentucky Win in the Big Dance
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Minnesota fans had high hopes for Tubby Smith, but the one-time national champion coach hasn’t turned the Gophers into postseason regulars. After five seasons and an aggregate 0-2 NCAA Tournament mark though, Smith’s fortunes will turn in 2012-13.
Smith’s Gophers feature two of the nation’s most athletic forwards in Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams Jr.
Combine that talent with their experience from last year’s run to the title game of the NIT, and Minnesota will edge into the Big Dance with a No. 8 or No. 9 seed—and turn that match up into a much-needed win for its head coach.
Nerlens Noel Will Lead the Country in Blocked Shots
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There are plenty of ways in which the immensely talented Nerlens Noel won’t live up to the legacy of predecessor Anthony Davis. He’s not going to win a national title, the Wooden Award, or even lead his own team in scoring.
However, Noel’s defense is very nearly the equal of Davis’ game-changing prowess, as the freshman showed with three blocks in his college debut against Maryland.
Even in a season with some outstanding veteran shot-blockers scattered through the Top 25—Jeff Withey at Kansas, Gorgui Dieng at Louisville—Noel has the defensive instincts and the mobility to outpace them all and become the second Wildcat in a row to top the nation in blocks.
Northwestern Will Continue One of College Hoops’ Saddest Streaks
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The six major conferences of college basketball contain a total of 75 teams. Of those teams, 74 have played in at least one NCAA Tournament over that event's 73-year history—and Northwestern hasn’t.
The Wildcats have come painfully close in recent seasons (including last year’s 19-14 campaign), but they won’t have any hopes to dash on Selection Sunday 2013.
It’s not that they’re such a terrible team this year (high-scoring swingman Drew Crawford will make sure of that), but they are a mediocre team stuck in the country’s most daunting conference, one that currently features three of the nation’s top five teams.
St. Louis Will Make Its First Sweet 16
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The St. Louis Billikens have more than their share of problems to start the season, from point guard Kwamain Mitchell’s foot injury to the heart trouble that will keep coach Rick Majerus off the sidelines all year.
In spite of it all though, the team that nearly upset Michigan State last March will be back in the Big Dance (and then some) by season’s end.
St. Louis’ smothering defense (eighth in the country in scoring allowed) played a central role in last year’s 26-8 finish, and four starters return to maintain that level of play.
With St. Louis’ postseason experience and a balanced offense orchestrated by Mitchell, they should improve enough on last year’s No. 9 seed to win not only their opener but a second game as well—a feat that would be a first for this venerable program.
Aaron Craft Will Win the Bob Cousy Award
Greg Bartram-US PRESSWIRE
The Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s top point guard, has generally gone to players who (like the namesake Hall of Famer) dazzled with their offensive skills.
In 2012-13 though, one of the favorites for the prize is actually at his best when the other team has the ball.
Ohio State’s Aaron Craft is the best defender in college hoops, and his ballhawking skills are a central part of the Buckeyes’ Final Four hopes.
Now a junior, Craft finally has a chance to expand his offensive game in Jared Sullinger’s absence, and his season-opening showcase (20 points and seven assists against Albany) suggests big things to come for both Ohio State and its floor general.
Baylor Will Win the Big 12 Tournament
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As the Big East and SEC were reminded last year, conference tournaments are just as likely to go to a team that gets hot at the right time as to the team with the best record over the long haul.
Steady Kansas is a good bet to capture the regular-season Big 12 crown, but the league’s tournament will go to the explosive Baylor Bears.
The new-look Bear frontcourt, led by 7’1” freshman Isaiah Austin, has offense to burn and even the Big 12’s stout defenses will struggle to contain this team.
Baylor’s key weapon though, is point guard Pierre Jackson, a devastating clutch shooter who will pick up where he left off after saving several Big 12 games for last season’s squad.
Bob Huggins Will Miss the NCAA Tournament for Just the Second Time in 20 Years
Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE
The graduation of star forward Kevin Jones leaves West Virginia short on on-court leadership as it joins the Big 12.
The Mountaineers aren’t without talent—La Salle transfer Aaric Murray tops that list—but their 84-50 season-opening loss at Gonzaga shows how ill-prepared they are for the rigors of their new conference.
Kansas, Baylor and Texas have all claimed spots in the national rankings, and Iowa State and Kansas State aren’t far behind that trio.
Mediocre basketball isn’t going to cut it in this conference—a fact that will leave coach Bob Huggins (whose five NCAA Tournament appearances at WVU are part of a dazzling run of 19 such trips in his last 20 seasons) even less happy than usual.
Conference USA Still Won’t Have a Second Serious Contender
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Ever since the Big East plundered many of its top teams in 2005, Conference USA has limped along as a shadow of a mid-major.
The league has struggled to field viable NCAA Tournament teams aside from perennial powerhouse Memphis, and those troubles won’t be going away this season.
Southern Miss managed a No. 9 seed last year, but with several key players gone from that roster, the Golden Eagles barely escaped from Western Kentucky at home to open the year.
Other contenders for the runner-up spot include Marshall (thrashed by Villanova on Sunday) and Houston (a scant five-point winner over Florida A&M at home), none of which look suited to impress the selection committee.
Louisville Will Make Its Second Straight Final Four Trip
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Louisville's No. 2 ranking in the preseason polls didn't meet with much argument, and with good reason.
The Cardinals’ starting lineup includes three starters and the sixth man from a team that caught fire in the 2012 postseason, winning the Big East Tournament and clawing its way to the Final Four—a destination this year's roster is also well-equipped to reach.
The returnees include Gorgui Dieng, who finished in the national top 10 in blocked shots, and senior leader Peyton Siva as point guard.
Perhaps the most intriguing of the bunch is former sixth man Russ Smith, whose high-intensity style appeared to translate well to a starter’s role when he opened the season with a game-high 23 points against Manhattan.
Herb Sendek Will Keep His Job at Arizona State (Barely)
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
Herb Sendek arrived in Tempe after running off a string of five straight NCAA Tournament appearances at N.C. State.
Since he moved west in 2006-07 though, success has been hard to come by, with just one trip to the Big Dance and three years (including 2011-12) with no postseason at all.
The two best players from last year’s 10-21 team have transferred elsewhere, and even the belated arrival of Jahii Carson (redshirted a year ago) won’t be enough for the Sun Devils to post a winning record in a tough Pac-12.
Seven years is a long time for a power-conference team to wait for any kind of results from its coach, but Sendek’s reputation (and his one James Harden-fueled success in 2008-09) will keep him from getting fired…yet.
Marquette Will Go from a No. 3 Seed to Missing the Big Dance Altogether
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Marquette’s 27-8 record in 2011-12 was earned almost entirely on the backs of two players, Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom.
Both of those stars are gone and even veteran point guard Junior Cadougan won’t be enough to save Buzz Williams’ team in their absence.
Cadougan is a solid distributor (5.4 assists per game last year) but has little scoring punch.
Arizona State transfer Trent Lockett will help, but aside from Lockett the offense will be in the shaky hands of such players as Davante Gardner and Vander Blue, hardly a recipe for NCAA Tournament contention in the deep Big East.
LIU-Brooklyn Will Get Its First Win in NCAA Tournament Play
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Rooting for the No. 16 seed is always an exercise in futility, but LIU-Brooklyn gave its fans a rousing effort last March.
After hanging tough for a half against Michigan State, the Blackbirds return four starters from their high-speed offense to take another shot at March Madness.
Getting to the Big Dance won’t be a problem for a team that rampaged through the Northeast Conference at 16-2 last season.
With agile seniors Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere (a combined 34.3 points and 16.8 rebounds per game last year) leading the charge, they’ll get a more survivable seed and end their school’s 0-for-5 lifetime drought in the NCAA Tournament.
James Michael McAdoo Will Outperform Last Year’s Tar Heel Forwards
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The reason James Michael McAdoo spent his freshman year on the bench is that North Carolina’s entire frontcourt—Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Harrison Barnes—was on its way to getting picked in the top 17 spots of the NBA draft.
McAdoo can’t replace the whole trio by himself, but when it comes to filling in for any one of those current pros, he’ll actually be an improvement.
Like Barnes, McAdoo is a phenomenal athlete, and at 6’9”, 230 lbs, he’s nearly as big as Henson.
He’s well on his way to topping Barnes’ team high of 17.1 points per game, and even Henson’s Tar Heel-best 9.9 rebounds a night shouldn’t be too much trouble for the sophomore star to eclipse.
Murray State Still Won’t Be a Factor in March
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A stunning 30-1 regular season earned Murray State a mere No. 6 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament.
The Racers did little to convince their doubters that they merited better, getting stomped 62-53 by a bigger, stronger Marquette team in the Round of 32.
Now Isaiah Canaan and his mates have some postseason experience, but they still don’t have the size or muscle to hang with college basketball’s elite.
Expect the Racers to run away with the Ohio Valley Conference title, grab a No. 8 or No. 9 seed, then promptly get bounced from the tournament again before the opening weekend is out.
John Groce Will Miss Ohio More Than the Bobcats Miss Him
Bradley Leeb-US PRESSWIRE
New Illinois coach John Groce is in for an extremely rough debut season.
With star center Meyers Leonard gone to the NBA, the Illini will have to lean on one high-scoring guard—senior Brandon Paul—and a suspect frontcourt to carry them in the country’s strongest, deepest conference.
Groce’s old team at Ohio, in contrast, is set for a sensational year behind five returning starters.
Dazzling point guard D.J. Cooper (14.7 points, 5.7 assists and 2.3 steals per game) leads a group that upset Michigan in last year’s NCAA Tournament and should improve noticeably on their No. 13 seed after making mincemeat of this year’s MAC.
Gonzaga Will Find Itself on the Wrong End of a March Upset
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Gonzaga built its program as the ultimate Cinderella, but (with apologies to Gus Johnson) the slipper does not fit anymore. In their last 10 NCAA Tournament appearances, the Zags have opened as a higher seed seven times.
They’ll find themselves in the same position next March, as the combination of Kevin Pangos and Elias Harris should be more than enough to rack up a gaudy record in an unremarkable West Coast Conference.
However, they’re also a good bet to wind up in prime upset territory as a No. 4 or No. 5 seed, and their offense-first roster is tailor-made to get knocked off by one of the grinding defenses of a lower-tier Big East or Atlantic 10 at-large team.
Frank Martin Will Make South Carolina a .500 Team
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One of the offseason’s biggest surprises was Frank Martin’s decision to leave a thriving program at Kansas State to take over a floundering one at South Carolina.
The Gamecocks would do well not to look a gift coach in the mouth, because Martin can help them put last year’s 10-21 finish in the past.
Martin lured Southern Miss transfer LaShay Page to anchor the offense, and secured a promising five-man freshman class to add much-needed depth.
Turning a 2-14 SEC team into a contender in one year is beyond even Martin’s talents, but with a favorable schedule (two games apiece against LSU, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State) he has a real chance to earn enough conference wins to break even for the season.
Miami Will Return to the NCAA Tournament After a Four-Year Absence
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Jim Larranaga got the Miami head-coaching job largely on the strength of his brilliant NCAA Tournament performances with George Mason.
In his Hurricanes debut though, his team didn’t manage to get into March Madness to benefit from his postseason acumen.
That will change with the 2012-13 squad, which returns an astonishing 534 lbs of frontcourt muscle between seniors Reggie Johnson and Kenny Kadji.
They’ll provide enough of an inside game to make some noise even in a tough ACC, and classmate Durand Scott (12.9 points per game to lead last year’s squad) will take care of the perimeter firepower.
Kenny Boynton Will Break the Career Scoring Record at Florida
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Florida made the 2012 Elite Eight behind a fearsome three-man backcourt, but two of those stars are gone for this season.
That leaves Kenny Boynton to carry much of the Gator offense by himself—and earn an exalted spot in the record books for his trouble.
The 6’2” Boynton enters the season in seventh place on the Gators’ all-time scoring charts, well within striking distance of career leader Ronnie Williams.
Even if he doesn’t improve at all on last year’s 15.9 point-per-game average (an unlikely proposition), he’ll supplant Williams right around the time of the regular-season finale—maybe even at home against Vanderbilt on March 6.
Drexel Will Win Its Second-Ever NCAA Tournament Game
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Last year’s Drexel team set a school record with 29 wins, but a conference-tourney loss to Virginia Commonwealth (in the Rams’ CAA swan song) spoiled the party and sent the Dragons to the NIT.
Four starters from that group return and they should have little trouble dominating the CAA again after placing fifth in the country with 56.1 points allowed per game last season.
The offense is headlined by junior point guard Frantz Massenat (13.7 points and 4.8 assists a night), whose leadership should help the Dragons earn a manageable seed for the Big Dance.
That in turn, will let the team claim its first win on that stage since knocking off Memphis in 1996 behind future NBA player Malik Rose.
Mark Lyons Will Be Arizona’s Undoing in the Postseason
Casey Sapio-US PRESSWIRE
One of the top impact transfers of the year is Arizona senior Mark Lyons. The high-scoring former Xavier guard will provide a sensational offensive weapon on the perimeter, but he’s also likely to be his team’s Achilles heel by season's end.
Lyons, a career shooting guard, is being asked to run the point for the Wildcats, and while he got off to a fine start against Charleston Southern, the Buccaneers are hardly an NCAA Tournament-caliber foe.
Lyons’ career assist-to-turnover ratio is an ugly 1.2 and it won’t take more than a couple of ill-timed turnovers to doom Arizona in the postseason, even in spite of its talent-laden lineup.
The Horizon League Will Remain Relevant Even Without Butler
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Before Butler’s magical Final Four teams grabbed the spotlight, plenty of college hoops fans weren’t even aware of the Horizon League’s existence.
The conference's best-known team has jumped ship for the Atlantic 10, but the Horizon League should actually be in for an enviable season in 2012-13.
Detroit captured the conference tournament crown a year ago, and the Titans—who return NBA-caliber combo guard Ray McCallum—almost scored a major early-season upset in a three-point loss at St. John’s.
Valparaiso, meanwhile, won 22 games under former NCAA Tournament hero Bryce Drew, and the Crusaders have the experience and depth (led by international forwards Kevin Van Wijk and Ryan Broekhoff) to return to their coach’s bracket-busting roots.
Iowa Will Win the NIT
Bradley Leeb-US PRESSWIRE
It’s been seven seasons since the Hawkeyes’ last NCAA Tournament appearance, but Fran McCaffery has quietly put together a solid team in Iowa City.
Versatile junior Roy Devyn Marble and bruising sophomore Aaron White, already a tough pairing, will be even more dangerous once 7’1” freshman center Adam Woodbury gets up to speed at the college level.
Unfortunately, a solid team is nowhere near what will be needed to survive the loaded Big Ten, making Iowa a good bet to miss the NCAA Tournament.
Even if their record is a bit lacking, their Big Ten pedigree should get them an NIT berth, where their talent (and seasoning after a brutal conference schedule) will be enough to put them over the top.
South Dakota State Will Be a Major Cinderella Story in March
Kelly Lambert-US PRESSWIRE
South Dakota State was a Division II program as recently as eight years ago and they still gave Baylor a serious scare in their Division I March Madness debut last season.
Four starters return from that collection of three-point gunners, and the Jackrabbits will put their postseason experience to good use the second time around.
The return of star point guard Nate Wolters (21.2 points and 5.9 assists per game) will make a Summit Conference championship pretty nearly a foregone conclusion, and a team that opened the season with a near-upset of Alabama on the road is a safe bet to add some quality wins to its non-conference resume.
With an improvement over last year’s No. 14 seed, the Jackrabbits will just need one good night from their long-range shooters to take down a higher seed and earn their first NCAA Tournament win.
The Big East Will Get One Last Hurrah with Eight NCAA Tournament Bids
Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE
The end of the 2012-13 season means the disintegration of what has reliably been college basketball’s best conference over the last decade.
Before the Big East loses Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame to the ACC, the revered conference gets one more chance to show why it set the record with 11 teams in a single NCAA Tournament two years ago.
This year’s conference isn’t quite up to that level, but it should have little trouble sending half its teams to the Big Dance (even with UConn banned from consideration).
Look for Villanova, St. John’s and South Florida to scramble for the last couple of at-large spots right up until their respective exits from the conference tournament.
Virginia Commonwealth Will Beat a Higher-Seeded Team…Again
Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE
It’s hard to imagine that VCU could still be sneaking up on opponents two years after its stunning run to the Final Four.
Nevertheless, Shaka Smart’s scrambling, pressing defense is hard enough to prepare for, that his Rams just keep on winning (six straight years of 24 victories or better, dating back to Smart’s predecessor Anthony Grant).
Even so, a team that hasn’t gotten better than a No. 11 seed since the Reagan administration isn’t likely to jump three lines on the bracket this season (especially not as it joins the crowded Atlantic 10).
This means another March with VCU as a second-round underdog and another March with some unlucky “favorite” going home early thanks to such quick-handed guards as Briante Weber and Darius Theus.
The Big Ten Will Make Up Half of the Final Four
Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE
The baton has been passed when it comes to the dominant conference in college hoops, at least for this season. Three of the country’s top five teams in the early rankings hail from the Big Ten, and that high esteem from the pollsters will be borne out in March.
Top-ranked Indiana, with four starters back from its Sweet 16 run, is the most obvious pick to make the Final Four, but the Hoosiers won’t be alone.
Arch rivals Michigan and Ohio State will be jockeying for position in the conference standings (and seeding) all year, but the Wolverines are the pick here to battle their way to the national semifinals behind Trey Burke and a loaded offense.
Kansas Won’t Make It Past the Sweet 16
Paul Abell-US PRESSWIRE
Ranked No. 7 in the country behind three returning starters from the 2011-12 national runners-up, Kansas has to be considered a frontrunner for yet another Big 12 title.
For all their defensive talents, shot-blocker Jeff Withey and his mates won’t have history on their side when the NCAA Tournament rolls around.
Despite his 2008 national title, coach Bill Self has a terrible track record of March upsets (11th-seeded VCU, ninth-seeded Northern Iowa…), and this year’s Jayhawks are far from a flawless unit.
One of their vulnerabilities—and it’s one that could really come back to bite them in the Big Dance—is the lack of a crunch-time scorer, as emphasized in the final minutes of their painful loss to Michigan State on Tuesday night.
The Atlantic 10 Will Set a League Record for NCAA Tournament Bids
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Mid-major conferences normally top out somewhere around three or four representatives in the NCAA Tournament, but this year’s Atlantic 10 will rewrite that rule.
Expansion has bloated the league to 16 teams (bigger than any power conference), and there’s a staggering amount of talent in that oversized group.
In addition to traditional league power Xavier and rising St. Louis, a couple of typical also-rans, UMass and St. Joseph’s, have the star power to earn at-large berths to the Big Dance.
Add in high-profile newcomers Butler (with transfer standout Rotnei Clarke) and Virginia Commonwealth (the defending national leader in steals), and the A-10’s old record of five NCAA Tournament teams in a season is soon to be history.
The Reports of UConn’s Demise Will Prove to Be Greatly Exaggerated
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Jim Calhoun’s retirement prompted a double dose of sky-is-falling syndrome with regard to the program he built into a national power.
Not only was UConn supposedly doomed without its iconic coach, but replacement Kevin Ollie—despite his Huskies pedigree and long NBA career—couldn’t possibly be the right man to lead a program of this stature.
Ollie’s coaching debut made as emphatic a statement as one game can make that UConn—which rarely even trailed in taking down then-No. 14 Michigan State—will be just fine.
The 2013 postseason ban will keep the Huskies from making any noise in March, but a strong regular season in the tough Big East will more than serve notice that this team will remain a national power for the foreseeable future.
The Pac-12 Will Be Back to Its Old Self
Ed Szczepanski-US PRESSWIRE
2011-12 was such a wretched year for the Pac-12 that even the conference’s regular-season champion, the Washington Huskies, was left out of the NCAA Tournament field.
Fortunately for West Coast hoops fans, the league’s troubles won’t carry over into the new season.
Monster recruiting classes at Arizona and UCLA have propelled both programs back into the top 15, and they aren’t the only dangerous teams in this conference.
Colorado and Cal both feature veteran rosters with NCAA Tournament experience, while the young guns in Stanford’s backcourt are coming off an NIT championship.
Florida State Will Miss the NCAA Tournament
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Despite heavy graduation losses, Florida State sneaked into the last spot in the preseason Top 25 polls. The Seminoles then proceeded to fall flat on their nationally ranked faces, dropping their season opener to lowly South Alabama in Tallahassee.
Although Leonard Hamilton’s team has the talent to recover from that early fall—thanks especially to senior scoring machine Michael Snaer—they don’t have enough weapons to earn an NCAA Tournament bid in the deep ACC.
In addition to the three-headed Tobacco Road monster at the top of the conference, the Seminoles will be in the rare position of facing second-tier league foes who can match their physicality, thanks to the bruising frontcourts at programs such as Miami, Maryland and Georgia Tech.
Shabazz Muhammad Will Be Named National Freshman of the Year
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Even with that big a hole in his season, the explosive Muhammad will make enough of a difference to the No. 13 Bruins to prove that he’s the country’s top freshman.
The 6’6” Muhammad is an unstoppable offensive weapon (especially around the rim), and he’s sure to be among the top scorers in the Pac-12, if not the nation.
He should be around for the entire conference schedule, and a league title for the Bruins will be a major point in Muhammad’s favor when it comes to national recognition.
Doug McDermott Will Lead the Country in Scoring
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The only first-team All-American who returned to the college ranks is Creighton star Doug McDermott. After finishing third in the country last year with an average of 22.9 points per game, McDermott is the decisive favorite to take the top spot as a junior.
The 6’8” McDermott gets plenty of his points inside, but he’s also a lethal perimeter shot. He hit an absurd 48.6 percent of his three-point tries last year, a big part of the reason he’s the toughest matchup in college hoops.
N.C. State Will Win Its First ACC Title in Two Decades
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The ACC title is usually the exclusive property of Duke and North Carolina, and both programs have impressive teams again in 2012-13.
Despite the myriad talents of James Michael McAdoo in Chapel Hill and Rasheed Sulaimon in Durham, this year’s conference crown is going to a decidedly unusual suspect.
North Carolina State hasn’t won the league since point guard extraordinaire Chris Corchiani was setting up Rodney Monroe back in 1989, but this year’s squad returns four starters from a surprise Sweet 16 team.
In addition to that quartet—highlighted by the country’s best all-around point guard, junior Lorenzo Brown—the Wolfpack adds a pair of star freshmen, giving them enough talent to trump even the Tar Heels and Blue Devils and win the ACC.
Cody Zeller Will Win the Wooden and Naismith Awards
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It’s awfully tough to guard a 7’0”, 240-lb center under any circumstances, but even more so when he has the mobility and polish of Cody Zeller. The brother of Cavaliers rookie Tyler is set to be an even more overpowering pro than his older sibling.
The younger Zeller is off to a terrific start in 2012-13, outperforming even his gaudy freshman stats with 20 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game on the young season.
Of course it doesn’t hurt his Player-of-the-Year prospects that he also plays on the nation’s best team, which will give him plenty of opportunities for big-game heroics.
Kentucky Will Miss the Final Four
Mark Zerof-US PRESSWIRE
Despite the loss of all five starters from their national championship team, the Kentucky Wildcats landed a No. 3 ranking in the preseason polls.
However, skilled as Calipari is at combining freshman stars into a cohesive unit, there’s one problem he can’t outcoach this season: his lack of an elite point guard in a Top 25 loaded with them.
The Wildcats’ early loss to Duke was an extreme case, but even when ailing Ryan Harrow returns, they won’t have the kind of reliable floor leader who can save them in a tough tournament game—or carry them as far as the Final Four.
Indiana Will Win the National Championship
Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE
A preseason No. 1 ranking doesn’t mean a whole lot by itself, but Indiana has the talent to back up its spot in the polls with a national title run in 2012-13.
The Hoosiers’ biggest asset, of course, is 7’0” center Cody Zeller, an NBA star in waiting who put up big-time numbers even as a freshman.
IU has surrounded Zeller with a parade of veteran shot-makers highlighted by seniors Christian Watford (12.6 points per game last year) and Jordan Hulls (.493 long-range shooting a season ago).
That group has the benefit of postseason experience from last year’s Sweet 16 run, which is about all that’s missing from the portfolios of standout freshmen Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell (5.0 assists a night in the early going) and Jeremy Hollowell (13 points per contest).