The 2011-12 NCAA Men's Basketball Season is right around the corner. From November to March, teams will compete for the 68 coveted spots in the "Big Dance". Last year, I attempted my first ever Pre-Season Field of 68, correctly picking 44 of the 68 teams. That becomes my goal to beat this year.
We go into the 2011-12 season with a clear favorite in North Carolina. The story for the Tar Heels might be whether they can complete an unbeaten season. Behind them will be worthy challengers. So who will those challengers be? Let's take a look....
ACC (6 bids) - I have already mentioned clear-cut #1 North Carolina, who should win the ACC and overall #1 seed in the tournament barring a significant injury. Duke should be their main competition in the ACC, especially if Austin Rivers is the real deal. Florida State is my last pre-season lock from the conference, but the Seminoles are going to win ugly this year, so be advised. 4th to 8th in the ACC could go any which way between Clemson, Miami, North Carolina State, Virginia and Virginia Tech. The ACC could go as a 5 or 6 bid league depending on overall non-conference results and of course, conference tournament upsets. My pick for #4 is a veteran Virginia team that appears ready to re-enter the dance under Tony Bennett. Miami is hoping Jim Laranaga can bring some of his George Mason magic to South Beach and returns a veteran roster. My final ACC team in, but squarely on the bubble is perennial bubble loser Virginia Tech, who has one of their strongest recruiting classes ever, one that I think is going to break the NCAA jinx.
Big 12 (6 bids) - The Big 12 looks to be wide-open this year, with conceivably six teams that could win the conference title. I am going with the sheik pick for first with Baylor, a team that missed out on the Big Dance a year ago, but adds super frosh Quincy Miller to super soph Perry Jones. Texas A&M will be solid and a sleeper in a year when there is potentially no Big 12 superpower. That is because Kansas might be down with the Morris twins in the NBA, errr, playing pick-up games, and two freshman suspended as non-qualifiers. The cupboard is never completely bare in Lawrence and the Jayhawks should still be relevant in the Big 12 race. Missouri returns almost everybody from a 23-win team, but were dealt a big blow recently with a season-ending injury to forward Laurence Bowers. My pick for national freshman of the year is LeBryan Nash, who should lead Oklahoma State back to the dance after a one-year hiatus. And what to make of Texas, who lost a ton to the NBA, but always seems to re-load with great freshmen like Myck Kabongo. Iowa State will be known as team transfer and will be bubblicious come March. Kansas State is the last team with a tourney shot from the Big 12, but the loss of Jacob Pullen leaves them without a proven go-to player.
Big East (8 bids) - After snatching 11 bids a year ago, the Big East should settle back to the 8 or 9 range this season. Defending National Champ Connecticut should lead the way this year despite the loss of Kemba Walker and be in the running for a #1 seed. Syracuse and Pittsburgh will be right there challenging UConn for the Big East crown with veteran squads and a mix of talented newcomers. Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette should also be safely in the tournament and one could emerge with a top 3 finish. I really like the Bearcats if they can find enough offense and Pitino's Cardinals are always dangerous. The final lock from the Big East is Villanova, who struggled late last year, but has a good mix of returning players and freshman to stay relevant. The Big East bubble teams reside at Notre Dame, St. John's and West Virginia, as Georgetown lost way too much and Rutgers appears a year away. The Fighting Irish are going to find it tough to replace Ben Hansborough, among others. The Mountaineers return Kevin Jones, but a tough schedule and loss of some glue guys will make it a tough mountain to climb in 2011-12. I am going out on a small limb and going with St. John's for the final Big East bid, despite losing almost everybody from a season ago. The Red Storm add 6 top 100 recruits and a JUCO All-American in God's Gift Achiuwa. Seems wrong not to trust God's Gift.
Big Ten (5 bids) - The Big Ten looks to be Ohio State and then anyone's guess. The Buckeyes are loaded again and are primed for a #1 seed and potentially the biggest challenger to the Tar Heels. Wisconsin and Michigan appear next in line behind Ohio State, but each have flaws that will make a top 4 seed a challenge. I have a hard time figuring how Michigan State will be better, but you don't doubt the Izzo, so they will likely be dancing. Spots 5 to 9 are wide open and the main reason I am not sure the Big Ten will go beyond 5 bids. Many think Illinois will be in the hunt, but former role players, freshman and transfers must emerge. Minnesota has a top-notch frontcourt, but we all know what happens in College Basketball when your backcourt is subpar. Northwestern has been on the verge of their NCAA breakthrough, but keeps coming up short. I really liked Indiana, with the addition of Cody Zeller, but another Maurice Creek injury leaves them a little shy on talent. Finally there is Purdue, who loses JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore, but gets Robbie Hummel back from injury. Still, where are the points going to come from for the Boilermakers? In the end, it will be Northwestern that does not come up short in 2011-12.
PAC-12 (5 bids) - The PAC-12, like the Big 12, looks to be a wide-open race. While the league has struggled a bit in perception the past few years, talented teams still reside here. The bottom of the conference is a bit weak and the additions of Utah and Colorado in what appear to be down years will not help. The key to 5 bids will be for the 5 top teams to take care of business against the bottom half of the league. UCLA and Arizona once again appear as though they will lock horns for conference supremacy. Both teams suffered personnel losses but also add incoming talent. California returns more key players than the aforementioned two and could easily supplant them at the top. Washington also suffered key personnel losses, but now seems to be a program in re-load vs re-build mode. The team most likely to take a step forward is Oregon, who is returning and building talent to make an NCAA run this season. The Ducks and Huskies may be around the bubble for much of the season, but in the end, they make my field.
SEC (6 bids) - The SEC may be second to the Big East in conference strength this season and it starts at the top with 3 Top 10 teams that could all win the conference title and a likely #1 seed. Kentucky is up to their usual tricks, adding a superior group of freshman to a few key returning players and star Terrence Jones. Vanderbilt returns all five starters from a solid but disappointing team a year ago. If Vandy can get better in close games and make one small leap forward, they could dislodge UK from the top spot. If you want guards, Florida has them. The Gators will be led by an experienced and talented backcourt that adds transfer Mike Rosario. If the frontcourt can find some pieces, it might be Florida in the SEC. Alabama is not far behind in talent and the non-conference schedule is definitely stronger this year for the Tide. Mississippi State was an enigma a year ago, but if Renardo Sidney can be the talent all expect, the Bulldogs will be safely in the dance. The final SEC team I am projecting is Arkansas, who under new coach Mike Anderson might be ready to make the leap. The Razorbacks have a fairly soft early non-conference schedule and the key to their resume will be notching victories over Vandy, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi State and/or Michigan when they visit Arkansas.
Atlantic 10 (3 bids) - The A-10 would appear to be a lock to have two teams dancing in March. Due to the strength of those teams, a 3rd team will have a good chance at joining them. Xavier appears loaded this year, with Tu Holloway leading the way and the addition of some talented transfers and freshman. The Musketeers will be right there for a top-4 seed. Not far behind will be Temple, who looks to build off Fran Dunphy's long awaited tourney victory. Four starters return for the Owls, who will be right there challenging Xavier all season long. A third bid is out there for George Washington, St. Louis or St. Bonaventure. The Colonials and Bonnies have the flashy stars in Tony Taylor and Andrew Nicholson, respectively. The Billikens return all five starters and get a sixth back from 2009-2010, but must make a leap from 11th in the conference. The schedule lines up for St. Louis, as they have GW, the Bonnies and Temple at home in their only meetings and have enough decent non-conference games to have an at-large opportunity.
Colonial (2 bids) - Two Final Four runs in 6 years have officially put the Colonial on the map. Regular-season champ George Mason is the favorite once again and should be good enough to earn an at-large bid if they falter in the Colonial Tourney. Drexel, Old Dominion and last year's darling, Virginia Commonwealth figure to battle for the #2 spot in the conference. Both ODU and VCU suffered big graduation losses, but these two always seem to be in the mix in the Colonial. Drexel is a popular pick for the second spot and a tourney berth, but has anyone looked at the Dragons non-conference slate? Fairfield is not a resume-builder, and yes, that is the strongest non-conference opponent. VCU has a stronger schedule and Shaka Smart will once again get the Golden Rams into the tournament, potentially in the First Four once again.
Conference USA (2 bids) - Even in a down year, C-USA was able to get two teams into the NCAA Tournament last year. This year, Memphis should be back challenging the nation's elite and the conference will likely receive multiple bids once again. The Tigers return a slew of talent and will once again have impact newcomers that should put Memphis in the running for a top-4 seed. The three challengers for the second bid should be Central Florida, Marshall and Tulsa. I look for a veteran Marshall team to make their first NCAA Tournament since 1989.
Missouri Valley (2 bids) - The Missouri Valley seems to reside as about the 10th best conference on an annual basis, typically sending one or two dangerous teams into the tournament every few years. This may be one of those years with Creighton. The Blue Jays return four starters and add some quality newcomers to establish themselves as a favorite in the MVC after a 23-win season a year ago. The second bid out of the MVC should go to Wichita State, who returns a veteran, balanced team that needs to avoid the disappointing and devastating upset losses from last season. The non-conference schedule has games against Colorado, UNLV, UAB, Tulsa and Utah State, which should give them ample opportunity to build a decent resume.
Mountain West (2 bids) - The defections of BYU and Utah will hurt the MWC and San Diego State will take a step back after their break-out season in 2010-11. I still exepct the MWC to garner multiple bids, with New Mexico and UNLV being the recipients.
West Coast (2 bids) - The addition of BYU strengthens the conference profile in the WCC and should provide enough quality wins to get 2 or 3 teams in the dance. Gonzaga is the favorite with Elias Harris and Robert Sacre leading the way for the Bulldogs. The race for second should be interesting, with BYU, St. Mary's and Santa Clara vying for that spot. The Cougars are adjusting to a new conference and LWJ, Life Without Jimmer. St. Mary's has a lot of veteran pieces and Santa Clara was an improving force toward the end of last season. I wanted to give this bid to Santa Clara, but BYU has the far superior resume building games for me to make that call at this point in time.
One Bid Leagues (19 bids)
America East - Boston U.
Atlantic Sun - Belmont
Big Sky - Weber State
Big South - UNC-Asheville
Big West - Long Beach State
Horizon - Detroit (sorry, no Butler this year)
Ivy - Harvard
Metro Atlantic - Iona
Mid-American - Western Michigan (sleeper two-bid league with Kent State)
Mid-Eastern - Coppin State
Northeast - Long Island
Ohio Valley - Tennessee Tech
Patriot - Bucknell
Southern - Chattanooga
Southland - Texas San-Antonio
SWAC - Alabama State
Summit - Oral Roberts
Sun Belt - Florida Atlantic
WAC - Utah State
(1) North Carolina vs (16) Coppin State/Texas-San Antonio
(8) George Mason vs (9) Washington
(5) Michigan vs (12) BYU
(4) Cincinnati vs (13) Detroit
(6) Temple vs (11) Marshall
(3) Pittsburgh vs (14) Bucknell
(7) Texas vs (10) Virginia
(2) Florida vs (15) Long Beach State
(1) Connecticut vs (16) Boston U.
(8) Mississippi State vs (9) Kansas
(5) Wisconsin vs (12) Harvard
(4) UCLA vs (13) Western Michigan
(6) Oklahoma State vs (11) Oregon
(3) Xavier vs (14) Oral Roberts
(7) New Mexico vs (10) Villanova
(2) Duke vs (15) Chattanooga
(1) Ohio State vs (16) UNC-Asheville/Alabama State
(8) Missouri vs (9) Creighton
(5) Florida State vs (12) St. John's/St. Louis
(4) Louisville vs (13) Iona
(6) Arizona vs (11) Northwestern
(3) Baylor vs (14) Utah State
(7) Gonzaga vs (10) Miami
(2) Vanderbilt vs (15) Tennessee Tech
(1) Kentucky vs (16) Weber State
(8) Michigan State vs (9) UNLV
(5) Marquette vs (12) Virginia Tech/Virginia Commonwealth
(4) Texas A&M vs (13) Belmont
(6) Alabama vs (11) Wichita State
(3) Memphis vs (14) Florida Atlantic
(7) California vs (10) Arkansas
(2) Syracuse vs (15) Long Island