Old school revival: Traditional powers at top of college hoops heap

With new season set to tip off, nation's balance of power weighted toward traditional powers

11/06/2012 8:40 PM

11/07/2012 5:56 PM

Call it a throwback year.

Tom Crean has the storied Indiana Hoosiers basketball program back in the national championship conversation. Larry Brown, who led Kansas to a national title a quarter-century ago, is back on collegiate sidelines at SMU. UNLV and North Carolina State could make their first Final Four runs in more than 20 years.

But, with all the nostalgic feelings going into the season that starts Friday, there's also a reminder of the ever-changing scene in college athletics. Great conference rivalries, such as Syracuse-Georgetown, will come to an end with Syracuse -- and Pittsburgh -- joining the ACC next season.

Regardless, there's nothing quite like the drama throughout a college basketball season capped off with the most entertaining postseason in sports. March Madness is five months away, but here's a snapshot of the national landscape to get you ready for it.

Five players to watch

Jack Cooley

(Senior, F, Notre Dame) The 6-foot-9, 244-pound Cooley has a chance to become a household name. He emerged as one of the best big men in the Big East last season, averaging 12.5 points and 8.9 rebounds a game.

Branden Dawson

(Sophomore, G, Michigan State) Replacing Draymond Green won't be easy for Tom Izzo, but Dawson is a versatile wing man who is back from an ACL injury and has worked on his shooting mechanics.

Michael Snaer

(Senior, G, Florida State) He is an All-American contender and might be the best pro prospect in the ACC this season. Snaer, known for his defense, came through offensively last season, averaging 14 points a game.

Phil Pressey

(Junior, G, Missouri) A case could be made that Pressey is one of the top point guards in the country. He averaged 10.3 points and 6.4 assists last season, and should help the Tigers rebound from their 86-84 loss to Norfolk State in the first round last year.

Elston Turner

(Senior, G, Texas A&M) The Aggies didn't fare too well in their parting season from the Big 12, but Turner was the most reliable and consistent starter. He is the top returning scorer, as he averaged 13.6 points a game.

Breaking down the Big 12

Favorite

Kansas. The Jayhawks have dominated the Big 12 the past decade, and are the odds-on favorite to win the conference for a mind-boggling ninth consecutive season. There aren't many coaches better than Bill Self, who reloads his team year after year. KU lost anchors Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor, but expect senior guard Elijah Johnson and freshman Ben McLemore to lead the offense.

Underdog

Kansas State. The Wildcats went from laughingstock to contender under Frank Martin, and it should have never let him go to South Carolina. The Wildcats brought in Bruce Weber, who was fired by Illinois after it collapsed down the stretch last season. Weber inherits a solid team that could make a run for the conference title. Rodney McGruder is a consistent scoring threat, and Will Spradling and Angel Rodriguez form a respectable backcourt. And Jordan Henriquez is a shot-blocking force down low.

Storylines

Baylor loaded again: Baylor coach Scott Drew hasn't lost his touch recruiting, landing Arlington Grace Prep's Isaiah Austin. The Bears' success might depend on how the 7-footer adjusts to the physical play in the Big 12. Also expect Pierre Jackson to make a run for Big 12 player of the year, and sharpshooting guard Brady Heslip to put up impressive numbers.

Who replaces J'Covan Brown? Texas lost shot-happy guard J'Covan Brown, which might be a blessing in disguise to get more players involved. One of those should be sophomore Myck Kabongo, who is under NCAA investigation and has not been cleared to play. Freshman center Cameron Ridley should make an impact immediately and was a good pick-up for Rick Barnes.

Huggins' return: How will Bob Huggins fare in his return to the Big 12? West Virginia isn't expected to do too much, but Huggins, who coached at K-State from 2006-7, always has his team playing well by March.

Young talent at OSU: Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford had a sub-.500 team last season, and has missed the past two NCAA tournaments. He could be fired if the Cowboys miss it again. But OSU signed Flower Mound Marcus guard Marcus Smart, and LeBryan Nash could have a breakout sophomore season.

Will recruiting lift TCU? TCU will get much-needed exposure in the Big 12, and the key will be for first-year coach Trent Johnson to parlay that into a boost in recruiting.

Five notable nonconference games

Nov. 9: North Texas at Creighton

Tony Mitchell vs. Doug McDermott. Two NBA-caliber players shining in Omaha during football season. Mitchell is the Mean Green's do-it-all man and is coming off a season in which he was the freshman of the year and a first-teamer in the Sun Belt Conference. McDermott is getting hyped as a potential player of the year following a sophomore campaign in which he set a school record with 801 points.

Nov. 14: Wisconsin at Florida

Florida is fresh off an Elite Eight run and has Kenny Boynton returning for a senior season. Billy Donovan has a well-balanced team, too, with a post presence in Patric Young and Erik Murphy. Wisconsin, meanwhile, doesn't have the preseason hype but Bo Ryan always gets the most out of his team.

Nov. 19: UCLA vs. Georgetown (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

Ben Howland is on the hot seat at UCLA after a Sports Illustrated article came out last season on how he lost control of the program, but he has recovered for the time being. He landed the top recruiting class in the country, led by Shabazz Muhammad, who is out for two to four weeks with a shoulder strain and also faces eligibility issues. He also landed Kyle Anderson, a 6-foot-9 point guard from New Jersey. Georgetown doesn't have the deepest roster, but sophomore forward Otto Porter is a star in the making after averaging 9.7 points and 6.8 rebounds a game as a freshman.

Dec. 29: UNLV at North Carolina

The Runnin' Rebels are loaded with talent, and fans in Vegas -- like tourists -- are thinking big. UNLV forward Mike Moser is arguably the best rebounder in the country. The Rebels will provide a stiff home test for the Tar Heels. UNC has a new look to it with the losses of Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Tyler Zeller and Kendall Marshall. Expect James Michael McAdoo, along with Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald and freshman Marcus Paige, to carry the load.

Jan. 19: Gonzaga vs. Butler (Indianapolis)

There's nothing quite like the two former Cinderella teams -- each nicknamed the Bulldogs -- who have shed that label. Is this the year the Zags finally get to the Final Four? They have a strong inside-outside combo with guard Kevin Pangos and forward Elias Harris. Butler might not have the national title contending team of a few years ago, but it is still a threat with Rotnei Clarke, who transferred from Arkansas, in the backcourt and Andrew Smith down low.

Surprise teams

Memphis

Coach: Josh Pastner 2011-12 season: 26-9, lost to St. Louis in Round of 64

Why this year: Juniors Joe Jackson and Tarik Black are a nice inside-outside combo, as both averaged about 11 points a game last season. The Tigers added depth to the front court, as well, with McDonald's All-American Shaq Goodwin. Josh Pastner has kept Memphis relevant, and is on the verge of winning his first NCAA Tournament game and making a run before his team joins the Big East.

San Diego State

Coach: Steve Fisher 2011-12 season: 26-8, lost to North Carolina State in Round of 64

Why this year: Steve Fisher has developed and maintained something special in San Diego. The Aztecs aren't a fluke, and they have a NBA-caliber player in guard Jamaal Franklin. Franklin averaged 17.4 points a game, and is joined in one of the top backcourts by Chase Tapley, who averaged 15.8 points. And they will get inside help from top recruit Winston Shepard.

Michigan

Coach: John Beilein 2011-12 season: 24-10, lost to Ohio in Round of 64

Why this year: The Wolverines might not be under the radar, but the expectations are higher than they've been in a while. Trey Burke is a preseason All-American, and there are highly touted freshmen in Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III. John Beilein is one of the better coaches in the game, and his matchup zone defense will pose problems to even the best offenses.

North Carolina State

Coach: Mark Gottfried 2011-12 season: 24-13, lost to Kansas in Sweet 16

Why this year: How can the sixth-ranked preseason team "surprise" anybody? Well, maybe it won't. But the surprise is that NC State is the best team -- over perennial powers North Carolina and Duke -- in the ACC to start the season. Speaking of surprises, the Wolfpack made the Sweet 16 last year as a No. 11 seed. They should build off that this season behind forward C.J. Leslie, a potential lottery pick, and guard Rodney Purvis, who should start immediately as a freshman.

Best bets for Final Four

Indiana

Coach: Tom Crean 2011-12 season: 27-9, lost in Sweet 16 to Kentucky

What's working for the Hoosiers: Cody Zeller. One of the, if not the, best players in the country, Zeller enters his sophomore season after averaging 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds a game. Zeller, along with senior forward Christian Watford, could have left for the NBA but returned to try and lead IU to its first title since 1987.

Cause for concern: There's no question the Hoosiers have the talent and coaching to win it all. And they might. However, they could have a pair of weaknesses. They relied on the 3-pointer last season, and it could be hard to shoot 43.1 percent from the beyond the arc again. And they didn't play great defense, ranking 10th in the Big Ten by allowing 66.4 points a game.

Ohio State

Coach: Thad Matta 2011-12 season: 31-8, lost in Final Four to Kansas

What's working for the Buckeyes: Junior Aaron Craft is a gritty point guard who excels at defense and showed some offensive life last season by averaging 8.8 points. Junior Deshaun Thomas has a chance to step out of the shadows and become a star after averaging 15.9 points. Craft and Thomas might be a strong enough 1-2 punch to carry Ohio State all the way.

Cause for concern: Replacing Jared Sullinger and William Buford isn't easy. Those were two staples for the Buckeyes last season, and Evan Ravenel has the tall order of filling in for Sullinger. And Craft needs to become more of a scoring threat, especially with Buford gone.

Louisville

Coach: Rick Pitino 2011-12 season: 30-10, lost in Final Four to Kentucky

What's working for the Cardinals: They have momentum going into the season after last year's Final Four run. Senior point guard Peyton Siva is in charge, as the speedy playmaker averaged 9.1 points and 5.6 assists last season. The Cardinals also have a post presence with Gorgui Dieng, who averaged 9.1 rebounds, and Chane Behanan, who pulled down 7.5 boards a game.

Cause for concern: Siva has all the natural talent, but his jump shot needs to improve. Sophomore wing Wayne Blackshear had surgery on both shoulders last season, but has great potential when healthy. Finally, the Cardinals could go a long way if their 3-point shooting improves from 31.8 percent last season.

Kentucky

Coach: John Calipari 2011-12 season: 38-2, won national championship

What's working for the Wildcats: They lose their top six players from a national championship team but, however John Calipari does it, the Wildcats are in position for another championship run. They have another top-flight recruiting class led by center Nerlens Noel, who has the difficult task of replacing Anthony Davis. Alex Poythress, another freshman, has potential to be an NBA lottery pick.

Cause for concern: John Calipari has had a long line of elite point guards, but might be lacking in that department. Kentucky's success could ride on how well Ryan Harrow, a transfer from North Carolina State, runs the show. Calipari showed he can lead a young team to a title last season, but it'll be difficult to make it two straight.

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