We're now a mere six weeks from actual college basketball action. It's been one of the most tumultuous offseasons in recent memory, so I'm definitely ready for teams to hit the court. Over the next six weeks, I'll be taking a deeper look at the upcoming season, showcasing the key players and teams, both nationally and in each conference. But to start things off, I want to draw your attention to a few of the stories on the college basketball landscape that have caught my attention during the offseason. It's a year that features some big coaching changes, an almost consensus number one team, and some power shifts among the major conferences.
The first story is one that kept college basketball in the headlines even after UNC cut down the nets in Detroit.
The Calipari Era Starts in Kentucky
Maybe you've heard a little something about the University of Kentucky hiring a new basketball coach over the past few months. For those of you who have been living in a cave since April, John Calipari made the move from Memphis to rebuild a program that's a bit down after ill-fated hire of Billy Gillispie. The little matter of the Tigers having to vacate their 2008 National Runner-up season and the fact Massachusetts met a similar fate after Calipari's departure back in 1996 doesn't seem to have hampered UK fans' enthusiasm about the hire. (Though it is important to emphasize that Calipari wasn't specifically named in either case.)
And who can really blame the blue half of the Commonwealth, as perhaps "rebuild" isn't quite the right word for me to use to describe the situation Calipari has walked into. Even in an ultra-competitive SEC (which will be far better this year, as I'll talk about below), the Wildcats should be national contenders right away. Even though the Wildcats lose the sharpshooting Jody Meeks, star forward Patrick Patterson remains. He'll be joined by a recruiting class that rivals Michigan's Fab Five, led by consensus top five recruits John Wall, a 6-4 point guard, DeMarcus Cousins, a 6-11 center, and 6-10 forward Daniel Orton. The combination of Cousins, Orton, and holdover Perry Stevenson gives UK more inside depth than just about anyone in the country.
Thanks to the presence of teams like Florida, Tennessee, and LSU, Kentucky will never dominate the SEC as it did during the Rupp era. However, we're also far beyond the era where only one team from a conference could make the NCAAs. If Calipari can keep bringing in the recruits and keep NCAA Compliance Investigators out of the picture, he won't need to win 10 SEC titles in a row to keep his team a constant national contender.
After the jump are six more stories to watch as the season unfolds.
Memphis and Xavier Attempt to Stay on Top with New Coaches
Calipari's departure from Memphis means that program is now in the hands of former assistant Josh Pastner, who at 31 is one of the youngest coaches in Division I. (As I'm also 31, this information makes me wonder what I've done with my life to this point.) Pastner's transition hasn't been the easiest. There was the whole Derrick Rose SAT business, major roster changes (with Tyreke Evans and Robert Dozier entering the draft and getting picked, Shawn Taggart entering and not, and Antonio Anderson graduating), recruits following Calipari to Kentucky, Latavious Williams deciding to skip college for Europe, Angel Garcia tearing an ACL, and French recruit Martin Ngaloro also suffering a knee injury. Even though Duke transfer Eliot Williams, a shooting guard, was granted permission by the NCAA to play right away and center Will Coleman (a juco transfer) stuck with the school despite Calipari's departure, Pastner still needs players.
The presence of only eight scholarship players on the roster means that Pastner's task won't be easy, and the rest of Conference USA, led by Tulsa will be looking to take advantage of the league bully's problems.
Xavier is in a similar position in the Atlantic 10, but without the drama. Sean Miller left for Arizona, and assistant Chris Mack is the new man in charge of the Musketeers, a good move considering Mack's strong XU/city of Cincinnati roots. Local rivals Dayton are getting the most buzz in the A10 this year, but the X-Men should be very competitive. Even with the losses of Derrick Brown (NBA Draft) and C.J Anderson and B.J. Raymond (both graduation), the Musketeers have a lot of talent remaining (Dante Jackson and Terrell Holloway, to name just two) and coming in, including the guy featured in a famous video dunking on Lebron James, Jordan Crawford.
Re-Tooled North Carolina Attempts to Repeat
The Tar Heels naturally kept their coach, but Roy Williams will be without the services of Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, and Danny Green. So, it should be a down year in Chapel Hill, right? Probably not, thanks to a combination of returnees, recruits, and an ACC that lacks a clear-cut favorite. Deon Thompson will have to replace Hansbrough inside. He averaged nearly 10 points and 6 boards while playing for the bronze medal-winning US team at the Universiade in Belgrade this summer. The Heels also get Marcus Ginyard back after he missed much of last season with shin problems. Ed Davis also stuck around, to the surprise of many, after a great Final Four. Thompson and Davis will be joined in the front court by PF recruit John Henson, who may be 6-10, but needs to add some muscle to take the pounding of the ACC.
Larry Drew II has the unenviable task of trying to fill Ty Lawson's shoes at the point, with frosh Dexter Strickland filling in as well. How well the new point guards run the show will be a major factor in how quickly the Heels gel as a team. They'll face a huge test in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York, facing Ohio State in the opening round, then either Pac-10 favorite California or Syracuse in their second game.
Kansas Attempts to Win and Have Peace on Campus
Now that the Kansas hoopsters have apologized for recent scuffles with the football team, perhaps there can be peace between gridders and cagers in Lawrence after all. (I'll now send those terms back to the 40s when they were last used.) Actually, the Jayhawks can now focus on winning their second title in three years. Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich said no the NBA, the Morris twins should be a year better, and the Henry brothers (highly touted swingman Xavier and his brother C.J., a Memphis transfer and former pro baseball player) are along for the ride. Aldrich and Markieff Morris will get some help inside thanks to the arrival of PF recruit Thomas Robinson and 6-10 Arizona transfer Jeff Withey (eligible in January).
Tyshawn Taylor (hand) will miss the next month thanks to those aforementioned fights. When he returns he'll use the lessons learned during a summer leading the USA to a gold medal at the U-19 World Championship in New Zealand to spell Collins at the point. Highly touted recruit Elijah Johnson will also spend some time at the 1 spot.
With all of the talent available to Bill Self, it's not surprising KU is highly favored to cut down the nets in Indy in April.
'09-'10 Purdue Tries to Repeat '08-'09 Michigan State's Path
Last year, Michigan State's goal was to make it to the Final Four in Detroit, a mere 90 minutes from campus. This year, while the Spartans and Ohio State will have some say about this, Purdue is the team with the goal of playing in a backyard Final Four. The new stadium in Indianapolis is just a little more than 67 miles southwest of West Lafayette. The Boilermakers were able to make it to the Sweet 16 last year, and could've gone farther had they been healthier as a team throughout the season. The good news is Robbie Hummel stayed healthy while winning bronze in Belgrade. JaJuan Johnson should be extra motivated as he was among the last cut from that team. The Boilers biggest recruit (ltierally) is 6-9 Croatian center Sandi Marcius, who should fit in well with Matt Painter's motion offense and pressure defense.
Mid-Majors Attempt to Get Back in the Multi-Bid Habit
The 2009 season wasn't a great one for non-power conferences. The only teams from outside the BCS conferences to earn at-large NCAA bids were Butler, BYU, Dayton, and Xavier, and the Horizon only received two bids because of Cleveland State's win over the Bulldogs in the conference tournament final. The Colonial, Missouri Valley, WAC, and West Coast--conferences that are now almost used to multiple bids--only managed to send their league champions. The Mountain West only sent the two Utah schools. Creighton, San Diego State, and St. Mary's were the closest to getting in from this group, and the Bluejays and Aztecs should be in the discussion again this year.
On the other hand, the Gaels, sans Patty Mills, will have a harder time, but WCC fans shouldn't fret, as Portland could be an at-large threat, alongside perennial contender Gonzaga. The Pilots might get plenty of chances at the 76 Classic in Anaheim. They face UCLA in the opening round, then either Butler or Minnesota in the second round.
As usual, we should see some surprising upsets by non-BCS teams in the early part of the season. However, it takes a special team to turn an upset from a single, fleeting moment into a consistent championship season. If one or more teams can do that, they can find themselves in the same position where Butler, Gonzaga, and Xavier consistently are (with Siena joining this group last year). That would again lead to more nervous nights on the bubble during Championship Weeks. And you know there are always surprises during those two weeks.
Who Will Take the Lead Among the Conferences?
Last year, the Big East earned seven NCAA bids, three top seeds, and got two teams to the Final Four. However, Connecticut and Villanova happened to be the two teams who lost in Detroit. The ACC and Big Ten matched the Big East's bid total and supplied the national finalists. The Pac-10 and Big 12 managed six bids apiece, while the SEC only received three bids because of Mississippi State's run to the conference tournament title.
This season, there will be some shuffling among the BCS leagues. The Pac-10 lost quite a bit of talent, with tourney teams Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA, and USC the hardest hit. The SEC, thanks to expected resurgence of Kentucky, and good years expected out of South Carolina and Vanderbilt, should be able to rebound. (There are a few question marks surrounding Arkansas, Florida, and LSU, among others, however.) The Big East may not be as top heavy as last year, but the conference will still earn its share of bids. The ACC, Big Ten, and Big 12, meanwhile, should be just as competitive as last year.
Of course, the battle between the conferences won't be completely addressed until March and April, but it will be fun to see how they do against each other, and how perceptions develop, during the early part of the season.
Those are seven storylines I'll be watching, but there are undoubtedly some I've missed. I'm interested to hear about which stories are on your radar for the coming season.