College Basketball: 10 Bold Predictions for the 2011-2012 Season
The academic year is in full swing, and though the gridiron is currently the prime focus on campus, it's only a matter of time before the hardwood takes center stage.
With an NBA lockout looming and a highly-touted group of freshmen waiting to shine, next year's college basketball season could be one of the most memorable in recent history.
As we count down the days until early November, let's take a look at 10 truly bold predictions for a surely unforgettable season.
1. The States of Kentucky and Tennessee Will Each Have Two Teams in the Elite 8
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We always hear about the two powerhouse programs from North Carolina, but this year two other states will give them a run for their money.
In Kentucky, both the Kentucky Wildcats and the Louisville Cardinals should have enough star power to make deep runs in March.
The Wildcats will be stacked as they return Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller and welcome four top-20 recruits to Lexington.
A few miles down I-64, Louisville looks to have another competitive team for head coach Rick Pitino. The Cardinals return eight players that averaged more than ten minutes per game last season and add four top-100 recruits.
Move a state south to Tennessee, and you have two more teams that should be just as talented.
In Nashville, the Vanderbilt Commodores return essentially everyone to a team that went 23-11 last season and in addition bring in two top-100 recruits.
Across the state, the Memphis Tigers bring back their top six scorers, eight players that averaged more than six points per game and a top-10 freshman in homegrown talent Adonis Thomas.
Look for each of these four teams to contend for a Final Four berth in March.
2. Iowa State Will Make the NCAA Tournament
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Second-year head coach Fred Hoiberg has his work cut out for him, but several transfers should help him lead the Cyclones to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005.
The Cyclones welcome in former Big Ten shooters Chris Allen and Chris Babb, Southern Illinois big man Anthony Booker and highly touted ex-University of Minnesota commit Royce White. And that's not mentioning their lightning-quick freshman point guard Tavon Sledge.
Add in the veteran experience of Scott Christopherson and the double-double potential of Melvin Ejim, and Iowa State has its most competitive team in years.
While they won't be at the top of the conference, the Cyclones certainly have enough talent to turn some heads.
3. A Point Guard Will Be the Naismith College Player of the Year
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Before you call blasphemy on account of Jared Sullinger, Harrison Barnes or any one of a number of talented freshmen, hear this.
Players from elite teams like North Carolina and Kentucky have too strong of supporting casts to win the award. These squads simply have too many weapons to continually rely on a single player.
In Jared Sullinger's case, the departures of three-point sharpshooters Jon Diebler and David Lighty will likely allow defenses to collapse on Sullinger on the block, possibly hurting his stat line.
And for the freshmen argument, well, Kevin Durant is the only newcomer in the award's 43-year history to win the prestigious honor. Despite loads of talent, I just don't see it happening again this year.
Point guards, on the other hand, won the Naismith Award three consecutive years from 2002-2004. These winners include Jason Williams of Duke, T.J. Ford of Texas and most recently Jameer Nelson of St. Josephs.
This season, there are several elite point guards, but the two front-runners are Xavier's Tu Holloway and Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor.
Last year both players put up numbers that are eerily similar to the aforementioned Naismith winners.
In fact, Holloway's stats from last year are almost identical to Jameer Nelson's during his award-winning season. Both A-10 point guards averaged between 20-21 points per game, 5.3-5.4 assists per game and 4.7-5.1 rebounds per game. True, Nelson was a better defender who turned the ball over a bit less, but there is certainly potential for improvement during Holloway's senior year.
The other candidate, Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor, is generally regarded as the nation's best point guard, and though his stat line isn't as pristine as Holloway's, the Big Ten competition he faces blows the Atlantic 10 out of the water.
Entering their senior seasons, both of these guys look primed to put up monster numbers.
Look for either Taylor of Holloway to take home some hardware.
4. Belmont Will Make the Sweet 16
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Last season Belmont completely dominated the Atlantic Sun conference, finishing 19-1 and capping off a wonderful season with a 40-point rout in the championship game.
Though they lost in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament, the Bruins return six of their top seven scorers and nine players who averaged more than ten minutes per game last season.
The undisputed favorite in the Atlantic Sun, Belmont looks to repeat as champions and improve on its 30-5 overall record from last year.
With a slot in the Maui Invitational and games already scheduled against Duke and Memphis, the Bruins look to gain big-game experience for a tournament run in March.
They have all the essentials: a front line with size, guys who can hit the three, a veteran senior point guard and an experienced coach in Rick Byrd who has won over 600 games in his career.
Add in the fact that the Bruins could play their opening round games in their hometown of Nashville, and Belmont has a chance to make some serious noise come March.
5. Cal Will Win the Pac-12
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I thought long and hard about this one, as the new-look Pac-12 has three teams in Cal, UCLA and Arizona that could all contend for a conference title.
Realistically, each of these teams has a shot, but when it's all said and done, the Golden Bears will finish on top.
I wouldn't say Arizona was overrated last season because when they played well...well, just as the Duke Blue Devils. But before their dominant Sweet 16 victory, the Wildcats had only won their two previous tournament games by a combined three points, and before the big dance, they were 0-3 against the top 25 (including blowout losses at BYU and at Washington).
In short, Arizona was not your typical Elite 8 team last season, and the departures of their two leading scorers Derrick Williams and Momo Jones hurt. Four top-100 recruits will certainly ease the pain, but don't expect to see the Wildcats repeat as conference champs.
Moving to UCLA, the team with arguably the most talent in the conference. With potential Pac-12 player of the year candidate Reeves Nelson, Josh Smith and former Tar Heels twins Travis and David Wear up front, the Bruins should have one of the best frontcourts in the entire country.
They have questions in the backcourt, however. Lazeric Jones is a reliable guard, but the recent suspension of Jerime Anderson could be costly. If Anderson struggles to get back on track, UCLA could have a big hole in their lineup.
And that leaves Cal.
The Golden Bears bring back their three top scorers and a total of six players who averaged more than 15 minutes and five points per game.
They have a pair of outstanding senior leaders in point guard Jorge Gutierrez and forward Harper Kamp, a super soph in Allen Crabbe and a veteran coach in Mike Montgomery.
Don't be surprised to see Cal on top of the Pac-12 by season's end.
6. But Gonzaga Will Be the Best Team Out West
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Despite the aforementioned trio of talented teams, the team in the west that makes it farthest in March won't hail from the Pac-12 in 2011-2012.
In each of the last three seasons, the consensus best team on the West Coast hasn't come from a power conference. With the strength of the Zags' lineup this year, there's reason to believe that the streak will continue.
They lose Steven Gray and Demetri Goodson, but the Bulldogs return everyone else to a team that went 25-10 last year and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
To make matters worse for the rest of the West Coast Conference, head coach Mark Few brings one of his best recruiting classes in recent memory to Spokane.
Gonzaga should have enough returning talent to win the conference, and with potential NCAA tournament games in Portland, look for the Zags to make a late-season run.
7. Robbie Hummel Will Leave Everyone Wondering "What If"
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Fans in West Lafayette have probably been asking themselves this question for over a year now.
What if Robbie Hummel hadn't torn his ACL...twice?
Alongside current Boston Celtics JaJuan Johnson and E'twaun Moore, Hummel was one of the big three that made Purdue a serious national title threat.
The Boilermakers were rolling before his injury in early 2010. Ranked No. 3 in the country, they were 23-3 overall and had just recently won games at No. 10 Michigan State and at No. 12 Ohio State.
Purdue ended up receiving a four-seed in the NCAA tournament and was bounced in the Sweet 16 to eventual national champion Duke. But all hope wasn't lost in West Lafayette, as Hummel's recovery coupled with the returns of Johnson and Moore gave head coach Matt Painter reason to smile about the upcoming season.
That was, until Hummel retore his ACL prior to the 2010-2011 season.
Now a year and a half removed from his initial injury, Hummel returns to a foreign Purdue lineup, looking to once again take charge for the Boilermakers.
With career averages of about 13 points, seven rebounds, two assists, a block and a steal per game, Hummel should be an immediate contributor and leader for a young Purdue team.
Look for him to start right where he left off and leave everyone wondering how good Purdue could have been had he remained healthy.
8. The Winner of the Maui Invitational Will Make the Final Four
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Believe it or not, since 2000 the winner of the Maui Invitational has made it to the Final Four six out of twelve times. (It would have been seven had George Mason not upset UCONN to make it to the Final Four in 2006)
This year's Maui Invitational field features several teams with Final Four aspirations.
The two front-runners are probably Duke and Memphis, but they are followed closely behind by Kansas and Michigan.
Other talented squads include Tennessee, Georgetown, UCLA and Belmont.
Last year's Connecticut team first gained steam in Maui, and while I won't predict another national title from the invitational's victors, we could very well witness an elite team start the season with a bang.
9. Northwestern Will Finally Make the NCAA Tournament
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The Big Ten's lovable losers, Northwestern, have yet to hear their name called on Selection Sunday. Ever.
But that all changes in 2012, when the Wildcats make the big dance for the first time in team history.
Led by senior forward John Shurna, Northwestern returns four starters and seven of their top eight scorers to a team that went 20-14 last year and finished seventh in the Big Ten.
The Wildcats look to improve on their 7-11 conference record that left them two games behind a quartet of teams (Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Illinois) that all made the NCAA tournament.
With Penn State and Illinois both losing a number of key players, the doors of opportunity are wide open for a hungry Wildcats team.
Expect Northwestern to hover around .500 in conference, win upwards of 20 games and most importantly play some meaningful basketball in March.
10. Years from Now the 2012 NBA Draft Will Be Compared to the 2003 NBA Draft
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Though it may not directly relate to the 2011-2012 season, the plethora of elite talent in college basketball next year is worth noting.
While there doesn't appear to be a LeBron James in this year's crop, there are certainly a number of players who should go on to have stellar NBA careers.
Super sophomores Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger and Perry Jones all probably could have been top five picks last year, not to mention other stars like Jeremy Lamb, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones.
As for the upperclassmen, guys like Thomas Robinson, Trevor Mbakwe, John Henson and Tyler Zeller all project to have bright futures as well.
And then there are the freshmen. While it's no guarantee that they'll leave after one year, studs like Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague, Austin Rivers and Andre Drummond will likely trade in their textbooks for a fat paycheck at the end of the season.
Other highly-touted freshmen include Bradley Beal, LeBryan Nash, Quincy Miller, James McAdoo and Michael Gilchrist, just to name a few.
When you put all of this talent together, you should get a draft class that rivals the likes of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony and the draft class of 2003.