With the 2011-12 NCAA men's basketball season under way, ESPN Insider Jay Bilas weighs in on 10 pressing questions hanging over the college hoops landscape, starting with a look at the nation's elite teams.
1. They say this season will mark the return of the blue bloods and the truly elite teams. How many teams do you see on that top tier? Who are they and why?
I think the first tier of teams includes North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio State, Syracuse, Connecticut and Duke. After that, there may be some separation, but those teams are capable of developing into challengers. Teams like Florida, Louisville, Vanderbilt, Memphis, Pittsburgh, Baylor and Xavier. Those teams may not have quite as much power or as many difference makers, but will be very good.
The difference is high-level talent and depth. Each of the top-tier teams (for the most part) has talent, experience and a lot of bodies. The depth provides the ability to compete in practice every day. Too many teams and coaches are shorthanded this year, and that means practices without five-on-five and without great competition. It is one thing to bust it against a walk-on, and quite another to be pushed to the limit by a comparable talent. That is how players and teams get better through a season.
2. Last season Kemba Walker emerged from being merely a good player to a national phenom. Can anyone from off the radar last season make a similar jump to stardom this coming season?
Perhaps, but I certainly wouldn't expect it. Players like Terrence Jones of Kentucky and Jeremy Lamb of UConn come to mind as players who can have great years and make big jumps. Kemba Walker had a great summer before last year, but few could have predicted the success he would have, and the high level of consistency and toughness he would show over the course of an entire season. Doing what Walker did was more than talent; it was heart and determination. Walker had an extraordinary year, but I would not expect anyone else to duplicate it. That is how great his year was.
3. Which team in the Top 25 poll is the most overrated?
Probably Vanderbilt, although I believe the Commodores are poised to have a great season. The truth is, Vandy has not been tough enough to reach its full potential in recent years. Vandy has been very good and has won a lot of games, but has not finished. The Dores have not been consistently tough and won the really hard games. They are winners, but not champions. With so many experienced players who have been there and fallen short, perhaps Vandy has the chops to finish stronger. This year, Vandy is good enough to be champions. They just need to do it.
4. Which non-tournament team from last season has the best shot to make the Dance and do some damage this season?
Alabama. The Crimson Tide have a really good recruiting class, and have a couple of seasons of Anthony Grant's system under their belts. With JaMychal Green, Tony Mitchell and Trevor Releford, Alabama has some horses and should break through to the NCAA tournament. And when there, Alabama can win games.
Yes. Anthony Davis is the real thing, and is very skilled and productive. He has amazing hands and does not need the ball to play. Andre Drummond is a freak, and has the ability to run, block shots, finish and he goes after every ball on the glass. Drummond will compete, and will be a ferocious force in the paint for Jim Calhoun. Both are difference makers, but neither will lead their teams in scoring. They will, however, make major impacts.
6. Which less-celebrated freshman will appear to be a recruiting steal by the end of the season?
Who is not celebrated these days?! Two freshmen I would keep an eye on are Louisville's Chane Behanan, who is a bruising interior player with explosiveness and skill, and Washington's Tony Wroten Jr., who is the best freshman passer in the country. Both will have good years if they stay healthy. Of the celebrated freshmen, watch Oklahoma State's LeBryan Nash. He will put up some big numbers and do it in spectacular fashion.
7. What team was most hurt by ineligible players this season?
Kansas. The Jayhawks lost Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor because they were deemed nonqualifiers by the NCAA. Both actually qualified, but the NCAA turned them down. As a result, both are separated from the team, unable to work out, practice or interact with the team in any organized setting. They cannot even go over to the coach's home at a team function, nor are they allowed to get a job with any help from the program. How is that for NCAA logic? The program can help get a job for those practicing 30 to 40 hours a week, but cannot help those who are not allowed to practice and have the time to work. The loss of McLemore and Traylor really hurts Bill Self's depth and athleticism, but is also hurts the people we are supposed to help ... McLemore and Traylor.
8. Which conference figures to earn the most bids in March?
The Big East will get eight or nine bids, which seems like an annual minimum. The league secured 11 bids last season, but that was not because the Big East was so great; it was more because the rest of the country was not as good as it has been. This year, a few leagues are a bit down. The ACC, Big 12, and Pac-12 have very good teams and competitive depth, but not the strength they have seen in years past. The numbers suggest the Big East will again have the most NCAA teams.
9. Everyone knows about Duke-Carolina and their collection of stars, but what's the best rivalry game no one knows about this year?
UCSB and Long Beach State. The Gauchos and 49ers will be the top two teams in the Big West, and stars Casper Ware and Orlando Johnson will be battling again for player of the year honors. But they are not one-man teams. Johnson can do it all, and has 6-foot-5 senior James Nunnally, a strong interior threat who can step out and knock in open shots. And Ware has T.J. Robinson and Larry Anderson, both of whom are among the Big West leaders in several categories. Robinson can really rebound and score, and Anderson can do it all. This may not be Duke-Carolina or Cincinnati-Xavier, but it will produce the best games out west this year.
10. Which elite team seems most likely to suffer an early-season upset?
All of them will lose. The last great team we had in college basketball was North Carolina in 2009, and that team lost four games and was 0-2 in ACC play before going on to win the NCAA championship. Actually, all are likely to lose early, and one reason is the better competition played earlier by each team. Nobody is going unblemished this year.