Despite the NCAA tournament field's expansion to 68 teams last season, the drama and controversy ensuing the announcement of at-large bids was no different from any other year.
There were a couple surprise teams outside of the power six conferences selected with questionable resumes, such as VCU and UAB, causing many college basketball analysts and fans to quickly scrutinize the committee.
And of course, there were a few teams with tournament-worthy resumes from within the power six that were stood up by the committee, such as Alabama and Colorado, leaving many scratching their heads.
This upcoming March, we'll likely see many new faces along with a few of last season's bubble teams back in the same predicament.
Here are five teams from within the Big Six conferences that will have their tickets punched to the dance after not making it last season.
Head coach Anthony Grant is proving his worth as one of the best hires in college basketball back in 2009 as the defending SEC West division champions look to take the next big step into the postseason.
And he’s doing it the best way he knows how—on the recruiting trail.
Known as a top recruiter during his days as an assistant, Grant continues his success in Tuscaloosa after rounding up the No. 5 ranked recruiting class in the country, according to Rivals.com. Four of the five Tide commits are ranked in the top 100.
Heading the class are five-star guards Trevor Lacey and Levi Randolph, ranked No. 24 and No. 30 overall, respectively.
The 6-foot-5 Randolph is a versatile wing with a pure stroke who can play all three guard positions. He has a long, wiry body with a lot of bounce and can blow by his defender off the dribble or utilize his size to shoot over smaller defenders.
Lacey is a strong 6-foot-3 homegrown shooting guard who has shown the consistent ability to knock it down from long range. He can hit the catch-and-shoot jumper rolling off screens, dribbling off ball-screens and spotting up in transition, but lacks the athleticism and foot speed right now to blow by defenders at the SEC level.
Rounding out the class are four-star 6-foot-5 slasher Rodney Cooper, four-star 6-foot-8 power forward Nick Jacobs and JUCO 7-foot center Moussa Gueye.
Cooper is a left-handed catch-and-shoot guy from beyond the arc with a sweet stroke. He creates havoc defensively through his length and athleticism and can guard multiple positions.
Jacobs is another left-hander who is physical and possesses a nice back-to-the-basket game including a go-to jump hook. He does a great job working for position on the block and clearing space for himself with an advanced drop step.
Gueye, out of Lake Land College in Illinois, was the No. 5 ranked JUCO prospect in the country according to JucoJunction.com. The 7-foot 225 pounder from Senegal is a shot-blocking defensive presence in the paint and has a relentless motor on the glass. He also has a developing offensive skill set and could make an immediate impact for the Tide.
Alabama will return their top three scorers from last season’s 2011 NIT runner-up team, including two of the top forwards in the SEC.
Leading the way for the Tide will be 6-foot-8 power forward JaMychal Green, who led the Tide in scoring (15.5 PPG), rebounding (7.5 RPG) and blocked shots (2.1 BPG). Green received first team All-SEC honors as a junior.
Junior-to-be 6-foot-6 small forward Tony Mitchell averaged 15.2 points on 52.2 percent shooting, 7.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocks, earning second team All-SEC honors. Mitchell had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on April 1 and should be healthy this summer.
Sophomore-to-be point guard Trevor Releford established himself as one of the best freshmen in the conference last season as he was named to the SEC All-Freshman team after averaging 11.0 points on 47.9 percent shooting and 3.4 assists per game. Releford had surgery to repair a sports hernia that was diagnosed early last season and should be cleared and fully recovered by the end of June.
Returning redshirt junior-to-be combo guard Andrew Steele missed the first 13 games last season with a knee injury and just when it seemed he was turning a corner after 18 games of action, he suffered a concussion against Kentucky in the SEC tournament semifinals causing him to miss the Tide's run to the NIT championship game. It was the fourth concussion for Steele, and he suffered lingering effects such as migraines and the inability to sleep in the following month, leaving his playing career in jeopardy.
With Charvez Davis graduating as last season’s best three-point threat, Grant did a successful job on addressing his team’s need for a couple perimeter shooters. Alabama was a sub-30 percent three-point shooting team last season, by far their greatest weakness.
The Tide also lose seniors Senario Hillman and Chris Hines from last season.
Overall, Alabama will once again be a physical, grind-it-out team that thrives defensively and if the heralded recruiting class can live up to their ranking, you’ve got a group that will not only compete for the SEC crown, but could make a lot of noise in the big dance.
Potential 2011-2012 Starting Lineup:
PG: Trevor Releford
SG: Levi Randolph
SF: Tony Mitchell
PF: JaMychal Green
C: Moussa Gueye
Head coach Jim Larranaga, 61, packed his bags for South Beach in late April after a successful tenure at George Mason.
Larranaga inherits a deep, talented roster that former Canes' head coach Frank Haith put together over his five-year tenure.
Other than senior Adrian Thomas departing, Miami is set to return everyone from last season’s rotation.
The veteran backcourt scoring tandem of senior-to-be combo guard Malcolm Grant and junior-to-be point guard Durand Scott will lead the way for the Canes.
Built like a running back at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, Scott is a pure scorer with great size and athleticism. He worked hard the summer prior to last season on his perimeter shot and was able to increase his three-point percentage to 39.1 percent, up from 27.6 percent, as well as his free-throw percentage to 83.7 percent, up from 67.0 percent. Scott ranked second on the team in both scoring (13.6 PPG) and assists (3.1 APG). Now that he’s improved his perimeter shot to match his strong ability to finish around the rim, he needs to take a step forward in the maturation process on the court and become more of a leader.
The former Villanova transfer, Grant, led Miami in scoring (14.8 PPG), assists (3.2 APG ), three-point percentage (42.3) and free-throw percentage (85.3). Grant slid over from his natural position of point guard over to the two upon arrival from Villanova.
Grant and Scott are both fearless guards that can handle the ball and shoot, but the duo made one too many questionable decisions with the ball throughout last season. Both of their assist-to-turnover ratios decreased from the season before last, and the Canes ranked 10th overall in assists in the ACC last season.
Since the backcourt mates are both New York point guards by nature, they tend to struggle coexisting and getting their teammates involved. There’s no doubting their passing abilities, but if the two can improve upon their decision-making and work the ball around and into the post more frequently, they’ll find that the offense will open up more and in return create better looks for themselves.
They got a 6-foot-10, 290 pound space eater by the name of Reggie Johnson, who flirted with the NBA draft this spring, but withdrew his name after being projected as a second rounder at best. Johnson is a beast in the paint and one of the more underrated players in the ACC. He could turn out a big year, boost his NBA value and help propel the Canes to the dance in Larranaga’s first season.
Playing alongside Johnson in what could form pound-for-pound the biggest frontcourt in the country will be 6-foot-9, 260-pound power forward Julian Gamble. The senior-to-be has steadily improved each season for the Canes and shot a team-high 59.8 percent from the field in 15.2 minutes per game in 36 games played (started 13).
Six-foot-eleven Florida transfer Kenny Kadji could be an asset for Larranaga if he can give the Canes some valuable minutes in the frontcourt whenever Johnson gets into foul trouble or if they need to go bigger against frontcourts such as North Carolina's.
Another key to success will be the play of Dequan Jones, a 6-foot-7 220-pound freakishly athletic small forward who battled injury last season and will need to step up with big minutes in the three-spot now that Thomas has graduated. Six-foot-six wing Garrius Adams will more than likely start at the three because of his versatility on offense, but Jones brings a defensive element to this team that nobody else can.
Returning two-guard Rion Brown and small forward Erik Swoope should both make strides from their freshmen seasons.
Larranaga was able to retain incoming three-star guard Bishop Daniels out of God’s Academy in Raleigh, NC. Daniels is known for his athleticism, leaping ability, electric dunks and has become a YouTube sensation.
UMKC transfer shooting guard Trey McKinney-Jones will be eligible for Miami after sitting out last season per NCAA rules. McKinney Jones, a 6-foot-5 junior-to-be, averaged 11.0 points on 47.6 percent shooting during his sophomore year at UMKC.
Larranaga must first develop team chemistry and teach his two lethal guards how to get their teammates involved (especially Johnson) and cut down on the turnovers, which has been a strength of his George Mason teams over the years. If he can get these players to buy into his system and quickly adjust, I believe he'll have the Canes dancing in his first year at the helm.
Potential 2011-2012 Starting Lineup:
PG - Durand Scott
SG - Malcolm Grant
SF - Garrius Adams
PF - Julian Gamble
C - Reggie Johnson
California-Berkeley has much to be excited about for the upcoming 2011-12 campaign as the program returns four starters from last season, including the best wing tandem in the Pac-10 (Allen Crabbe, Jorge Gutierrez).
The emergence of 6-foot-5 205-pound Allen Crabbe last season made the rebuilding Bears one of the tougher games on the Pac-10 schedule.
Crabbe, a Los Angeles kid and former California high school player of the year, broke onto the scene after fellow heralded freshman guard Gary Franklin left the team. It more or less opened the door for Crabbe as he became more aggressive offensively in a less crowded backcourt. He went on to average 13.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists and shot at a 40 percent clip from beyond the arc, earning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors.
Known for his hustle and scrappiness, combo guard Jorge Gutierrez led the Bears in scoring (14.6 PPG), assists (4.5 APG) and steals (1.6 SPG). The 6-foot-3 senior-to-be plays with a relentless motor on both ends and sees the whole floor very well. His size and length make him a match-up nightmare offensively and one of the best defenders in the Pac-10 (1.6 SPG). Gutierrez was named first team All-Pac-10 and All-Pac-10 defensive team.
Junior-to-be point guard Brandon Smith vastly improved from his freshman season and did a commendable job taking over the role of floor general for Jerome Randle, averaging 3.9 assists per game. Smith did an excellent job of accelerating the pace when it needed to be pushed and running the halfcourt offense in more grind-it-out type of games. He showed a lot of maturity and leadership qualities as Cal's floor general.
Minnesota transfer Justin Cobbs will be eligible after the fall semester and will share time with Smith at the point. Cobbs is a Los Angeles kid who transferred to Cal to be closer to home.
Another player who should make an impact this upcoming season is 6-foot-6 redshirt freshman shooting guard Alex Rossi. Rossi can flat-out stroke from the perimeter as he was a top 10 shooter in the class of 2010. He redshirted last season and underwent hernia surgery in late January.
The addition of Cobbs and Rossi to the backcourt will provide valuable depth for head coach Mike Montgomery, something he didn't have last season. Cobbs could eventually take the starting job from Smith when he becomes eligible.
After missing 2009-10 with a knee injury, Harper Kamp returned last season to earn second team All Pac-10 honors after averaging 14.2 points and 5.6 boards despite battling through the season with a bad back. The 6-foot-9 lefty has great hands, passing skills and a soft touch in the post. He also showed the ability to knock down the mid-range baseline jumper, making him a tougher guard for bigs.
While the Bears are sure to miss power forward Markhuri Sanders-Frison, 6-foot-10 sophomore-to-be Richard Solomon showed a lot of promise as the season progressed and should see his production double from last year. Solomon was a late bloomer out of high school and was ranked No. 101 in the class of 2010 by Rivals.com. He'll help balance out the Cal frontcourt playing alongside Kamp at the five.
Redshirt sophomore-to-be 6-foot-9 power forward Bak Bak came into last season considerably stronger and played very well in limited minutes for Cal. He'll be sure to see his minutes increase if not doubled from last season and should be the first frontcourt man off the bench. Bak Bak is a versatile face-up power forward with a nice mid-range jumper and will be a valuable asset given Cal's questionable frontcourt depth.
Montgomery inked two prospects in three-star 6-foot-9 205-pound center David Kravish and 6-foot-8 190-pound power forward Christian Behrens. Out of the two, Kravish will likely be the one to make an immediate impact. He's a bouncy center that plays with a relentless motor and does a great job crashing the glass and playing above the rim. Both need to try putting on weight this summer to avoid getting pushed around in the post.
With the league having undergone its biggest talent drain since 2008, Cal should be right in the mix with the likes of UCLA, Washington and Arizona. Mike Montgomery is one of the best college coaches in the country, and I expect him to get maximum production out this group and back to the dance as they did in 2009-10.
Potential 2011-2012 Starting Lineup:
PG - Brandon Smith
SG - Jorge Gutierrez
SF - Allen Crabbe
PF - Harper Kamp
C - Richard Solomon
Despite the departure of dynamic guard and leading scorer LaceDarius Dunn, the Bears should make drastic strides from last season.
On paper, this is the most talented Baylor roster I’ve ever seen.
The main man behind this optimism is 6-foot-11 220-pound super-sophomore-to-be Perry Jones.
To the surprise of many analysts, Jones passed up the opportunity to be a surefire NBA first-round draft pick to return to Baylor.
Jones is a terrific athlete with more upside than any player in college basketball. He can knock down the mid-range jumper with consistency, pick-and-pop, post-up smaller defenders, play above the rim and beat you coast to coast in transition.
Jones didn't see nearly enough touches as he should have last season. He averaged 13.9 points on 54.9 percent shooting (9.8 field-goal attempts p/g) and nearly had one-half less shot attempts than Dunn, who averaged 19.5 points on 39.8 percent shooting (15.2 field-goal attempts p/g).
Baylor ran out one of the tallest teams in the country last season and this year they’ll be even taller.
Along with Jones, Baylor returns 6-foot-7 225-pound power forward Quincy Acy, 6-foot-10 195-pound center Anthony Jones and adds 6-foot-9 200-pound small forward Quincy Miller.
Acy, pictured above, may not have the ideal height for a power forward at the next level, but he possesses nearly a 7-foot-3 wingspan and has the strength of an ox. He averaged 12.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game and shot 53.5 percent from the field last season.
The other Jones, senior-to-be Anthony Jones, has gradually improved each year under head coach Scott Drew. He showed off his versatility last season converting at just under 40 percent from beyond the arc.
The addition of heralded high school teammates Quincy Miller and Deuce Bello puts the Baylor program on a completely different level.
Miller, a 6-foot-9 wing, is the most versatile player in the 2011 class behind Kentucky’s Anthony Davis. Miller is an inside-out scorer that can play facing up or with his back to the basket. Given his size, athleticism and basketball IQ, Miller’s upside is off the charts.
Bello, a 6-foot-4 bouncy wing player, is arguably the most athletic player in the 2011 class. His quickness, speed, bounce and vertical leap allow him to attack in transition and finish with electric dunks, several of which can be seen on YouTube.
JUCO prospect Pierre Jackson might be the most important recruit out of the three, considering Baylor was one of the most turnover prone teams in the Big 12 and their dire need for another ballhandler. The 5-foot-9 Jackson was a first team JUCO All-American at College of Southern Idaho. He’s a lightning-quick point guard that makes his teammates better but can also score when need be given his nice perimeter stroke. He’s a tough competitor that plays through contact and has a great feel for the game.
Returning junior-to-be starting point guard A.J. Walton was put in a tough spot last season having to fill the shoes of Tweety Carter with no backcourt depth to help him. Walton was the only player capable of being that guy, and he wasn’t quite ready to handle the role from a maturity standpoint. Lace Dunn was a great scorer, but wasn’t a great ball-handler and decision-maker. The backcourt just never gelled for Drew last season.
Drew will also have more help in the backcourt with transfer guards Brady Heslip (Boston College) and Gary Franklin (California).
Heslip is a 6-foot-2 shooting guard and more of the catch-and-shoot type. He possesses a quick release, pure stroke and deep range. He could play the role of three-point specialist and zone-buster, something Baylor lacked last season behind Dunn.
Franklin is a 6-foot-2 physical combo guard, the guy I previously mentioned leaving Cal after the first 13 games. He was rumored to have left Cal because he wanted to strictly play at the point. I see Franklin playing more two-guard, given his scorer’s mentality and perimeter stroke. And with Jackson and Walton sharing the duties at point, I don’t his wish being granted when he becomes eligible after sitting out the spring semester.
With the frontcourt depth returning and the influx of backcourt talent arriving, in my opinion, Baylor is the best team in the Big-12 and a national title contender.
Potential 2011-2012 Starting Lineup:
PG: Pierre Jackson
SG: A.J. Walton
SF: Quincy Miller
PF: Quincy Acy
C: Perry Jones
This may be the final opportunity for Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury to get the program back into the postseason as many have placed him on the coaching hot seat.
The Bulldogs return point guard Dee Bost and power forward Renardo Sidney, one of the best inside-out duos in the SEC.
Sidney displayed poor body language and questionable effort at times on the court, which was to be expected given his maturity issues coming in. He's also had his fair share of issues off the court, including the fistfight in the stands with team captain Elgin Bailey at a tournament in Hawaii last season.
Sidney went on to average 14.2 points and 7.6 rebounds in 19 games played last season for State after sitting out his freshman season and first nine games of his sophomore season for his family receiving improper benefits in California. He wasn't in the best of shape upon return to the court from suspension, but the more Sidney played, the better shape he got into, and the better shape he got into, the better he played. If the Mississippi native works hard this summer to get into game shape and can mature on and off the court, sky is the limit.
Bulldog basketball fans received great news before last season when Bost learned he could regain his eligibility following a nine-game suspension. Bost was ruled academically ineligible for the fall semester so the the nine game suspension started in December. He returned January 8 and went on to play 17 total games, averaging 15.3 points, 6.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game, earning second team All-SEC honors.
Joining Bost and Sidney will be power forward/center Arnett Moultrie, a projected second round NBA draft pick and one of the biggest impact transfers in the country.
Moultrie is a 6-foot-11 220-pound transfer from UTEP who sat out last season per NCAA rules and will suit up in 2011-12 for State. Moultrie averaged 9.8 points and 6.7 rebounds during his sophomore season at UTEP. He’s a quick and mobile face-up power forward that can play in the post or out to the perimeter. His size and athleticism give Stansbury a lethal weapon playing alongside Sidney.
The frontline of Moultrie and Sidney will be undoubtedly one of the best in the country.
Stansbury continues to show why he's one of the more consistent, underrated recruiters in the country after landing three big-time homegrown recruits. The Bulldog incoming class is ranked No. 12 in the country by Rivals.com.
Heading the class is 6-foot-7 190-pound small forward Rodney Hood, a Mississippi native and five-star recruit ranked No. 16 overall by Rivals. Hood is a left-handed do-everything perimeter player that can roll off screens and pull-up in transition from beyond the arc or from mid-range and convert. He’ll be a headache for many teams given the way he uses his length to score over smaller defenders.
D.J. Gardner, another highly-rated Mississippi recruit, was convinced to sign with State by the aforementioned Hood. Gardner, a 6-foot-6 wing ranked No. 64 overall by Rivals.com, is one of the top shooters in the 2011 class. His range is said to be unlimited and reminds me quite a bit of departing senior Ravern Johnson.
These two perimeter oriented wings will fill the void and then some of Johnson.
The third highly-rated homegrown recruit is 6-foot-0 180-pound Deville Smith, a speedy and athletic four-star point guard.
Rounding out the class is Roquez Johnson, a long, athletic combo forward and 6-foot9 power forward Shawn Long from Morgan City High School in Alabama.
Returning sophomore-to-be Jalen Steele should provide backcourt depth off the bench after rehabbing back from knee surgery. Steele was starting to show flashes of potential before blowing out his knee in late February against LSU.
Brian Bryant should also provide depth in the backcourt as he logged 17.8 minutes per game last season while posting 4.9 points on 44.4 percent shooting from the field.
Six-foot-eight junior-to-be center Wendell Lewis could be the sleeper on State's roster. He made great strides last season and was very active on the glass while showing the ability to block shots. Lewis appeared in all 31 games, averaging 3.7 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.0 blocked shot in 15 minutes per game.
The Bulldogs should give Alabama a run for their money in the West Division and their starting five is just about as good as any starting five in the country. Stansbury must regain control of his team this season and pray that Sidney makes strides in the maturity department. Depth will also be a concern for State as guys like Lewis, Steele, Bryant and Johnson must step up with quality minutes off the bench for this team to advance on to the postseason.
Potential 2011-2012 Starting Lineup:
PG: Dee Bost
SG: D.J. Gardner
SF: Rodney Hood
PF: Renardo Sidney
C: Arnett Moultrie