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Storylines to watch in college hoops
Just in time to fill the basketball void being left by the NBA's continued lockout, the college basketball season is upon us — and fully loaded with storylines, drama, talented teams and incredible players.
What is arguably the country's most prodigious basketball conference is about to be neutered, basketball games are now being played on aircraft carriers, Ohio State and Kentucky are loaded and the SEC might just be making its move as a power conference.
Ready to get excited about another season of college basketball? Here are 10 storylines to watch as we kick off another season on the hard courts.
1. Goodbye, Big East
The conference as we knew it — a basketball powerhouse to be feared and respected — is coming to an end. Basketball bulwarks Syracuse (No. 5 in the AP poll), Pittsburgh (No. 10) and West Virginia are leaving for greener pastures after this season. The league is reportedly adding Houston, SMU and Central Florida as replacements — basketball dregs to be sure. So, the power conference that helped serve as the sport's foundation for growth — that earned a berth to 16 Final Fours and won six championships — is going to become something we hardly recognize.
2. Whether John Calipari finally gets himself a championship
The master of one-and-done recruiting, Calipari has yet to turn his recruiting Midas touch into a championship. But this season, with a loaded crop of freshmen like Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague, it could happen. Throw in the fact Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones decided to forgo the draft for another season and you've got a Kentucky team ranked No. 2 in the country and as loaded as ever. The question, as it always is for a Calipari team, is whether talent can overcome youth. Which is the same as asking: can John Calipari win it all given the way he builds his teams?
Is Jim Calhoun's UConn program headed for rough times?Richard Mackson
3. The lingering problems for a Connecticut juggernaut that might be running out of steam
The defending champs start the season ranked No. 4 in the country, but it's the future further down the road that's worth noting. Head coach and UConn icon Jim Calhoun has battled health issues in recent years, and new NCAA rules that cracked down on academic performance mean his team won't be eligible to compete in the 2013 NCAA tournament. I'll let that sink in for a moment. All of this could take a toll on every aspect of the program, from recruiting to morale to the daily task of a basketball coach trying to keep his kids focused. It'll be worth following just to see how this talented team fares with so much uncertainty hanging above it.
4. The nation's best NBA prospect is …
Austin Rivers, Doc Rivers' son and leading candidate for newest Dukie who most of you love to hate? Perry Jones of Baylor? Harrison Barnes in his sophomore year at North Carolina? Jared Sullinger at Ohio State? One of Cal's young phenoms at Kentucky? This, as much as anything, will be beyond exciting for college basketball this year — particularly since it might be the closest we get to seeing NBA talent for a long time.
5. Speaking of which, does the NBA's lingering lockout mean good things for college basketball?
I think it does. Basketball is a beautiful game, and those fans who choose to channel much of their hoops love toward the pros are going to have to look elsewhere until the lockout is resolved. That means the magic of NCAA basketball could have a wider audience, more relevance and a chance to do the very thing the NBA is failing miserably at: Showing sports fans just how much it has to offer.
6. Basketball boldly going where no game's gone before
On Nov. 11, Michigan State and North Carolina will play a game aboard the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego. As in, on a great big ship. Can't wait to hear what they think of next. On South Beach, surrounded by sand, sun and LeBron's ego? At an iconic venue like Wrigley Field or Fenway? OK, OK, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's see how a game floating along on the ocean works out first.
7. Sean Miller and a burgeoning Pac-12
Something special is brewing in the desert. Miller, the former Xavier coach, has what many are likely to rank the No. 1 recruiting class for 2012. This year's Arizona team is ranked No. 16 in the country, and they're coming off an impressive NCAA tournament run to the Elite Eight that included eviscerating Duke and giving UConn — the eventual champions — all they could handle. Throw in the fact No. 17 UCLA also has an impressive recruiting class brewing, and the Pac-12 could be interesting for a long time to come.
8. Is this the rise of the SEC?
As my colleague Reid Forgrave wrote recently, the SEC could be on the verge of making itself into much, much more than a basketball conference. They have four Top 25 teams — Kentucky at No. 2, Vanderbilt at No. 7, Florida at No. 8 and Alabama at No. 19. Throw in Texas A&M at No. 20 (which joins the conference next year) and Missouri at No. 25 (which is expected to announce it too will join the SEC) and you've got some pretty good basketball teams. Conference realignment might be all about football, but the country's strongest and most secure conference is no joke on the hard courts. Don't sleep on SEC hoops.
Bill Self's Jayhawks are once again a favorite in the Big 12.Bob Donnan
9. The Big 12's battle between talented Baylor and consistent Kansas
Kansas (No. 13) just keeps winning conference titles. Baylor (No. 12) has the most talent in the Big 12 this season, but a history of underachieving raises concerns. That means the battle for the Big 12 may come down to who you'd rather bet on: Bill Self and his impressive past, or Scott Drew and his promising future. It'll be fun watching two very good basketball coaches and program builders battle for supremacy this season.
10. Ohio State, the sequel
These guys were the consensus pick a year ago to win it all. Now they get another shot. Sullinger is back, his team is loaded and the Big 10's best chance for a championship — to say nothing of Ohio State fans finding some success again — rests in Columbus. Ranked No. 3, with something to prove and the players to get it done, they could be as dangerous as anyone.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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