Heading into the college basketball season, some familiar faces should stay atop the polls. Many of these teams will be expected to fare well in the NCAA tournament again: Duke, Michigan State, Villanova and Kansas State.
However, some of last year's contenders will struggle to repeat the solid performances of a year ago. And there will also be some fresh faces in March who didn't make the cut last year. Here are my lists of the teams that I predict to be the biggest risers and fallers for the 2010-2011 season.
Five 2010 Contenders That Made the Sweet 16 and Won't in 2011
The loss of Ekpe Udoh defensively and Tweedy Carter as an experienced leader will hurt Baylor more than most experts predict. The trio of Udoh, Carter and LaceDarius Dunn scored 62 percent of the Bears' points last year. Dunn will return, although he and the Baylor program have had an unsettling offseason, and there is no telling what will come of his suspension or the pending NCAA investigations that hang over the Baylor program.
The Bears will add one of the best freshmen in the country in PF Perry Jones, but another freshman will likely start at PG.
Baylor will still have enough good pieces to finish toward the top of the Big 12 standings, but I expect a slow start, a lot of turnovers and a step backward defensively. Overall, this is a team that should make the NCAA tournament, but more likely as a bubble team than a solid contender—and bubble teams rarely string together two consecutive wins in the tournament.
2. West Virginia
WVU will compete in the Big East behind good coaching and gritty defense. However, there wasn't a better leader in the Big East last year than Da'Sean Butler. His departure along with that of the matchup nightmare Devin Ebanks will leave the 'Eers without two of their top three scorers.
The offense should often be stagnant and West Virginia will have difficulty hanging with the higher scoring tournament teams. I predict WVU will finish among the top third of the Big East and earn an 8-9 seed in the NCAA tournament.
There is not much to be said here. The program is in disarray. The coach may not last the season. And they lost four of their five leading scorers (all seniors) from last year. Tennessee will not make the NCAA Tournament this year.
I cannot argue with Kentucky’s lofty preseason ranking despite losing five players to the NBA draft. It is difficult to find another threat in the SEC aside from Florida, so Kentucky should rack up a lot of wins.
The starting five definitely will not be as good as last year, and Brandon Knight will not be John Wall part II. However, if Enes Kanter ever suits up for the Wildcats, they will have five solid freshmen who should contribute and overpower the rest of the SEC.
Three-point and free-throw shooting will still be a weakness. With Kanter, I predict a 2-3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Without him, Kentucky will struggle and a No. 4 seed is more likely. Either way, they should have a much tougher path in March and a lack of leadership and good shooting will make it difficult for the Wildcats to return to the Sweet 16.
Coach Boeheim will undoubtedly have the Orange prepared to challenge for the Big East crown again, Fab Melo will be one of the best freshmen in the country and the Orange still have a couple experienced young guards in Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine as well as a returning frontcourt presence in Kris Joseph and Rick Jackson.
However, senior leadership is critical in March, and Syracuse returns one senior.
The Orange will sorely miss Wes Johnson, an All-Big East selection and great defensive player, and Andy Rautins, a senior and the team's leader who was the team's only reliable shooter. Johnson and Rautins were upperclassmen and the leading scorers on last year’s team who now play in the NBA. I expect the Orange to return to the big dance, but these losses will prove to be too significant for them to make a Sweet 16 run.
Five Non-Tournament Teams in 2010 That Will Be Dancing in 2011
Considering the 2009 offseason that brought a head coaching vacancy and the decommits of Xavier Henry and DeMarcus Cousins, Memphis responded admirably under new head coach Josh Pastner.
This year, Pastner brings in the fourth-ranked recruiting class, according to ESPN, headed by SG Will Barton, PG Joe Jackson, and SG Jelan Kendrick. The freshmen will join Wesley Witherspoon to create instant offense that should be enough to propel Memphis to another Conference USA title. The Tigers won’t be sweating it out again this year on Selection Sunday.
2. Virginia Tech
The Hokies were dealt a blow when sixth man, JT Thompson, and Florida transfer Allan Channey were both lost for the season for health reasons. The loss of two frontcourt players will be costly and will mean freshman Jarrell Eddie will be asked to contribute early off the bench.
Under Coach Seth Greenberg, Virginia Tech is a perennial bubble team that returns its entire starting five—four seniors and a junior. The senior guard play of Malcolm Delaney and Dorenzo Hudson should be a significant advantage to Tech in ACC play where most other teams will be starting young guards.
Which team is most likely to make the NCAA tournament this season?
The Hokies were criticized last season for a soft out-of-conference schedule. It should be more impressive this year, and with a favorable ACC slate they should be able to string together enough wins to earn a 6-7 seed.
3. North Carolina
Although Harrison Barnes should be the most talented freshman in the country, it is a lot to ask for a freshman to carry a team so desperate to return to national prominence. Regardless of its talented incoming class, I’m not sure how a team that underperformed horribly a year ago and lost nearly 70 percent of its scoring and 77 percent of its rebounding should be considered a potential top-10 team.
UNC will definitely improve from an embarrassing 2009 performance, but a 25-win season seems unrealistic. I predict a top-four finish in the ACC and a 5-6 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
4. NC State
Possibly the most improved team entering the season, the Wolfpack gain much more than they lost with standout PF C.J. Leslie heading up the incoming class. Also arriving in Raleigh are PG Ryan Horrow and SG Lorenzo Brown who will both be expected to contribute this season. Leslie, Horrow, and Brown will join Tracy Smith (16.5 PPG, 7.3 RPG) and a solid supporting cast.
The Wolfpack may start out sluggishly as it experiments with the starting lineup early in the season, but it should overpower enough of its conference competition to finish within the top five in the ACC. I predict an 8-9 seed in March.
Although three significant backcourt players were lost from a year ago, the return of leading scorers Chris Johnson and Chris Wright as well as senior guard Paul Williams will enable the Flyers to challenge for the Atlantic-10 title. They will also need solid contributions from newcomer Juwan Staten, a 4-star recruit who should start the season as the team’s point guard.
Two seasons ago, Dayton upset No. 6 seed West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament. Last season, though underachieving and going 8-8 in the A-10, the Flyers finished with a victory over North Carolina to claim the NIT title.
Brian Gregory coaches solid defense and generally has the Flyers playing an up-tempo pace. With this style of play Dayton typically doesn’t look like a mid-major team, and this year they won't play like one either. By outscoring Temple and hanging with a beaten up Xavier team, Dayton should earn a top-three finish in the A-10 and an NCAA Tournament birth.