Over the past few days, I've been ignoring all of the faux Midnight Madness excitement, reading up on the upcoming season and putting together a few (at last count, eight) preseason projections. Thanks to some early season eligibility questions (Josh Selby, Enes Kanter, Tre`Von Willis, LaceDarius Dunn, Dee Bost, Renardo Sidney) and injuries/health problems (Robbie Hummel, DaShonte Riley, Herb Pope, JT Thompson), there are a lot of roster issues, some unresolved, that will impact the upcoming season.
So, I'm going to mothball all of those brackets for another couple of weeks and take a different tact. In a pair of posts, I'm going to take a quick look at the conferences (or group of them) and rate each team's chances at making the field of 68 here in mid-October. Then, I'll have a couple of posts examining the most intriguing teams from a bracketology perspective.
As for the preseason bracket, I'm going to do something a bit different this season. Since I haven't had the time to put together a big season preview like I did in 2009. Just before the season tips off, I'm going to release the bracket region by region, with a short capsule on each team, over four posts. A fifth post will include the completed bracket (with comically early game picks) and a look at the first group of teams left out. This will serve as a preview of sorts for the new format for bracketology posts over at SB Nation. Those will take on a 68-team capsule format (though the capsules will only be one-to-two sentences, so I can fit them all in one post).
After the jump, I'll take a look at the Big Six conference bid landscape. Tomorrow, I'll look at the other 25 leagues.
ACC: Who Joins Duke?
It's clear the Blue Devils are the conference favorites far and away, and most the rest of the league is divided between teams who look to be ready to make a move up and those in various states of transition. In the first group, North Carolina should be back after a down year that ended with a loss in the NIT Championship, while Virginia Tech and NC State have been building to this season (particularly the Hokies, who likely would've been in last season had the field been 68). The second cluster features teams in a state of transition, either replacing marquee players (Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland) or breaking in new coaching regimes (Boston College, Virginia [2nd year], Wake Forest). Miami is the lone outlier, as they're just trying to build on a strong finish.
It's going to be tough for the three with new bench bosses to make it through, but the other nine should be in the race right up to the end.
Pencil 'Em In: Duke, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, NC State, Florida State
Bubble: Maryland, Miami, Clemson, Georgia Tech
Outside Looking In: Wake Forest, Boston College, Virginia
Big East: Eight, Nine, or Ten (Or Less)?
Based on the past few seasons, expect half of the Big East to make the Dance, but it's possible that the last team of the group may have to play in Dayton. Pitt, Villanova, and Syracuse look to be the class of the conference, though each team has issues (Panthers: scoring, Wildcats: replacing Scottie Reynolds, Orange: frontcourt depth with Riley's injury), with Georgetown and West Virginia occupying the second tier. Notre Dame will be in good position without Luke Harangody...if they can play an entire season as well as they played their closing regular season stretch without him. And much like their in-state rivals, Wisconsin, it's silly to write off Marquette, thanks to the coaching of Buzz Williams.
UConn can't be as bad as they were last year, right? But the prospect of NCAA sanctions is hanging over Storrs. Louisville lost a lot of talent from a team that was only average last season, so Rick Pitino has his work cut out for him. St. John's, Seton Hall, and Cincinnati were relatively close last season. While the Pirates could be ready to break through under Mike Rice, and the Red Storm have a significant roster for Steve Lavin to work with, the Bearcats have their work cut out for them, thanks to personnel losses. That's the story for USF too, especially with Dominique Jones bolting early for the Dallas Mavericks. DePaul, Providence, and Rutgers are all a ways out of the Tournament discussion, much like last season.
Pencil 'Em In: Pitt, Villanova, Syracuse, Georgetown, West Virginia
Bubble: Notre Dame, Marquette, Connecticut, Louisville, Seton Hall, St. John's, Cincinnati
Outside Looking In: South Florida, Rutgers, DePaul, Providence
Big Ten: With Hummel Hurt Again, Wither Purdue?
The brackets I put together late last week and Saturday morning all featured the Boilermakers on the top line, with Purdue and Michigan State swapping places at the top of the Southeast Region. However, with the devastating news of Robbie Hummel's ACL tear in the first practice of the season, the Spartans moved to the top of the league, and the Boilers took a tumble.
Yet Purdue should still make the field of 68, though they'll be hard pressed to reach the ranks of the protected seeds, as they did after Hummel's first knee injury. Remember, defensive stalwart Chris Kramer graduated, which doesn't help. Ohio State, who will look to replace Evan Turner with someone from one of the country's strongest recruiting classes, and veteran-laden Illinois should finish ahead of the Boilermakers in the standings, and Wisconsin should be about even. Minnesota (if they can score) and Northwestern (if they can stop someone) will be in the bid hunt too. Penn State hopes to make Talor Battle's senior year a good one, but their schedule may prevent that.
Indiana's youth makes the NIT a more realistic goal. Things simply look bleak for Michigan and Iowa, though the Wolverines could surprise if they learned anything from their summer trip to Belgium.
Pencil 'Em In: Michigan State, Ohio State, Illinois, Wisconsin, Purdue
Bubble: Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State
Outside Looking In: Indiana, Michigan, Iowa
Big 12: Can The Short-Timers Make A Final Run?
Perhaps, but it's more likely to be Colorado, who returns serious players (Cory Higgins, Alec Burks, Marcus Relphorde) and gets freshman point guard Shannon Sharpe back from a redshirt year, than Nebraska.
As for the other 10 teams, this season will serve as a preview for how difficult this conference will be when it drops the II for next season. Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, and maybe Baylor (if Dunn gets his legal issues resolved and Perry Jones III can serve as an adequate replacement for Ekpe Udoh) look to be national powers, while Texas, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma State will join CU in the race for a bid. Texas Tech better join them; otherwise, Pat Knight could be looking for another job.
Oklahoma will look to avoid NCAA sanctions in the Tiny Gallon/Willie Warren scandal and the league basement. The good news for the Sooners is that the Cornhuskers and Iowa State, under new coach Fred Hoiberg, are around.
Pencil 'Em In: Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Baylor
Bubble: Texas, Texas A&M, Colorado, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech
Outside Looking In: Nebraska, Iowa State, Oklahoma
Pac-10: Will the Conference Earn More than Two Bids?
Yes, but don't expect much more (or for the seed numbers to be terribly high). Coming off a Pac-10 Tournament title and Sweet 16 appearance, Washington looks to be the class of the conference. However, things aren't quite so rosy for regular season champion Cal, who lost a lot of production from last season's squad. UCLA and Arizona look to be in best position to challenge the Huskies, if their youngsters can step up.
Washington State has a chance if Klay Thompson gets some consistent help, and Herb Sendek's Arizona State squad will win their share of games thanks to their defensive prowess. Oregon State, Stanford, and a USC team that looked to be on their way to the Tournament last season--until self-imposed sanctions --all look to have a better chance in 2011-12, while it could be far longer for Dana Altman's Oregon Ducks.
Pencil 'Em In: Washington
Bubble: Arizona, UCLA, Washington State, Arizona State
Outside Looking In: California, Stanford, USC, Oregon State, Oregon
SEC: Will the West Catch the East?
Considering that the West went 9-27 against the East during the 2010-11 regular season, with none of those victories coming against the league's four tournament teams, that's doubtful. (Plus, five of those nine victories came against a Georgia team who's found themselves on a few preseason top 25 lists.) Mississippi State, who did beat two of the Eastern contenders--Florida and Vanderbilt--and almost defeated a third, Kentucky, in the conference tournament, looks to have the best shot at breaking through, especially with Bost and Sidney available for the league slate. Their in-state rivals, Mississippi, look to once again be a bubble team, as do Alabama and Arkansas. LSU and Auburn, on the other hand, don't have much of a chance, though at least fans on the Plains have a new arena to look forward to visiting.
So, once again, the East should dominate. Hopes are high at Florida after a first tourney appearance in three years; Kentucky will be young, but good, once again; and Tennessee will look to build on a season that ended just shy of a first Final Four, all while (like UConn and Oklahoma) looking out for the NCAA hammer. Georgia has high hopes, especially with Trey Thompkins and Leslie Travis on the roster. Vanderbilt will also be in the race if they can make due without AJ Ogilvy and Jermaine Beal. Things aren't so rosy at South Carolina; however, as the Gamecocks must replace their four leading scorers from a campaign ago.
Pencil 'Em In: Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Georgia
Bubble: Vanderbilt, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas
Outside Looking In: LSU, South Carolina, Auburn
Check back tomorrow for part two, a look at the rest of the country.