68 things to watch this season

OK, I admit it. I almost forgot and did a 65 Things to Watch, but with the new tourney format expansion, we had to toss in a trio more to make it 68.

The first was easy.

Who will be No. 69?: I can’t wait to see which coach on Selection Sunday is crying, whining and complaining that his team deserved to be included in the field, the one that was 69th on the board and didn’t get into the Big Dance. Then we’ll hear all about how the field should expand to 96 again. Blah bah blah blah blah.

Kyrie Irving is an upgrade over Jon Scheyer. I know Scheyer was a veteran and was critical in Duke winning the national title a year ago, but he wasn’t a true point guard. Irving is a pure floor leader who can make this year’s Duke team a dominant one. In fact, Irving just may be the best point guard in America by the time March rolls around.

Can young second-year Memphis head coach Josh Pastner handle the expectations – and his players? The Tigers have brought in arguably the most talented recruiting class in America and Pastner is already dealing with issues involving one of his top freshman, Jelan Kendrick. It could be too much to handle for the young new head man.

If Gordon Hayward had returned to Butler, the Bulldogs would have been everyone’s No. 2 team in the land. Now that Hayward is in Utah with the Jazz, Brad Stevens’ team isn’t getting much respect. However, Butler will still roll through the Horizon League and Shelvin Mack will become a star.

The Florida Gators are nationally relevant again after three years of virtual obscurity. I know Billy Donovan’s team got back to the Big Dance last season, but this year is different: Chandler Parsons will emerge as a star and the Gators could well make a play to get back to, gulp, the Final Four.

Can Purdue remain a Big Ten contender despite the loss of versatile forward and leader Robbie Hummel? The Boilermakers will rely even more on E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson, but Matt Painter will need someone to emerge to take pressure off his veteran duo.

Jim Calhoun. UConn’s Hall of Fame coach has battled health issues, is in the midst of an NCAA investigation and has a team that is picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big East. What kind of year will it be for Calhoun, and despite an offseason extension, could it be his last in Storrs?

Rick Pitino’s offseason turmoil appears behind him, but now the Louisville coach may be irrelevant for this season with a team that is mediocre and picked to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack in the Big East. The Cards will open a new arena with a ho-hum team. Maybe there’s no need to watch these guys after all.

Can N.C. State coach Sidney Lowe save his job with a heralded freshman class? The Wolfpack return one of the ACC’s top big men in Tracy Smith and bring in a talented freshman class led by C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown and Ryan Harrow. If Lowe doesn’t go dancing this year, he’ll have plenty of time to learn The Dougie on the unemployment line.

Will Bruce Pearl survive? The Tennessee head coach endured a rough offseason in which he took a hefty pay cut and the school also self-imposed sanctions that he wasn’t allowed to go off-campus recruiting for a full calendar year after he was caugh lying to the NCAA. Now there’s plenty of pressure on Pearl to produce on the court and stay out of trouble off of it.

Harrison Barnes: He’s the savior down in Chapel Hill. The UNC freshman wing can do it all, but the question is whether the Iowa native can get the Tar Heels back to a Final Four. He’s capable of being The Guy as a frosh, but he’ll need some help.

National Player of the Year Watch: It’s wide open entering the season. There’s Duke senior Kyle Singler, Harrison Barnes, the freshman down the road in Chapel Hill – or maybe another frosh, Ohio State big man Jared Sullinger. Guys like Kansas State’s Jake Pullen, Kansas’ Marcus Morris and maybe even one of Singler’s teammates – Nolan Smith or Kyrie Irving – could make their way into the equation.

Enes Kanter: The Turkish freshman big man is a difference-maker, but the NCAA is looking into his amateur status and has yet to determine whether he’ll be eligible to play for John Calipari at Kentucky this season. If he plays, watch out. He could be the top big man in the entire country and the difference for Kentucky being just another team or a Final Four-caliber club.

Josh Selby: Just as Kentucky’s Final Four hopes hinge on the determination by the NCAA on Kanter, Bill Self’s season rests on whether his freshman point guard, Josh Selby, is cleared by the NCAA. Selby is an elite floor leader who could make the Kansas Jayhawks legit Final Four contenders.

Marcus Morris: Can he be The Guy and also lead the Kansas Jayhawks this season? He’s as versatile a player as Self has coached in Lawrence, but the jury is still out whether he can carry a team.

Pac-10: The question is whether the league will still be a virtual joke in college hoops circles – as was the case a year ago. Washington and Cal were the only two teams that received NCAA bids. I’m not sure the league will get any more than two this time around, either. The conference will be improved – marginally.

Steve Lavin in New York: The former UCLA coach and ex-broadcaster is now the head coach at St. John’s, where the Red Storm have a shot to make the NCAA tournament with nine seniors left by former coach Norm Roberts. More importantly is to watch the talent Lavin is assembling on the recruiting trail.

Hoosier Hysteria: Indiana coach Tom Crean is in Year Three and it’s difficult to imagine the Hoosiers cracking the top six or even seven in the Big Ten. His recruiting efforts have picked up, but this IU team will need to show strides this season. If they don’t, Year 4 will be a make-or-break one in Bloomington for Crean.

Will Seth Greenberg be campaigning again the weekend of the Selection Show? The Virginia Tech head man should be able to relax this season with a veteran group led by Malcolm Delaney, but I hope he’s on the bubble – because Greenberg is pure entertainment.

Ben Howland: It appears as though the UCLA coach wants to let his Bruins run more, but we’ll see whether this actually occurs once the season starts. The Bruins flopped last season – and the key question is whether they can contend for the Pac-10 title.

Best scout team in America: Iowa State gets the nod over UMass. New Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg has assembled a second unit (which can’t play this season) of Royce White (Minnesota), Chris Allen (Michigan State), Anthony Booker (Southern Illinois) and Chris Babb (Penn State).

Phil Pressey: Missouri’s pint-sized freshman point guard is a Must-Watch Guy. In fact, he may be The Must-Watch Guy. The son of former NBA-er Paul Pressey is jet-quick, athletic and is a human highlight reel.

Buzz Williams’ look: He buttons the shirt up all the way and a year ago he grew his hair out and resembled a Chia-Pet. The bottom line, though, is that the Marquette coach is one of the most underrated guys in the business and gets his kids to compete harder than most. Can he get the Golden Eagles towards the top of the Big East again?

Kentucky: John Calipari lost five guys to the first round of the NBA draft a year ago – and the Wildcats didn’t even reach the Final Four. Can UK get there this season with a team that isn’t quite as talented, but is still young?

Will Providence guard? A year ago, the Friars were an abomination defensively – and didn’t even appear to want to stop anyone. Keno Davis has made it a point to stress defense this season.

Seton Hall’s circus: Now that Bobby Gonzalez is history, it’s Kevin Willard’s task to try and keep the Seton Hall players under control. Good luck, Kevin. You’ll need it.

‘Nova’s leadership: It wasn’t pretty last season and that’s why Jay Wright’s team bowed out early in the Big Dance. Now it’ll fall on the Coreys – Fisher and Stokes – and Antonio Pena. I won’t lie; that scares me.

All about the Joneses: I’m talking Kevin, who assumes the status of West Virginia’s go-to guy now that Da’Sean Butler is gone. Jones was somehow left off one of the preseason awards lists of the Top 50 players in America, but he could wind up as the Big East Player of the Year. He’s my pick.

Finally dancing: Is this finally the year that Northwestern makes an appearance in the NCAA tournament? Even after Kevin Coble quit the team in the offseason, the Wildcats could get a bid with John Shurna leading the way. Some even say Northwestern is better off without Coble.

Hot coach: Last year it was Brad Stevens; who will it be this season that everyone is clamoring about next April? Here’s a name for you: Fairfield’s Ed Cooley. Now that Siena’s top players have moved on, Cooley’s Stags are the favorite to win the MAAC.

A-10: Who comes out as the premier team in the Atlantic-10? Temple is the favorite going in, but the league is wide open. Xavier, Dayton and Richmond all have stars on their roster and could win the league title. It may depend on which star – Lavoy Allen, Tu Holloway, Chris Wright or Kevin Richmond – shines brightest.

Kalin Lucas: Keep an eye on the speedy Michigan State senior floor leader since he’s coming off a ruptured Achilles that he injured in the NCAA tournament. If Lucas isn’t back at 100 percent, the Spartans’ dreams of cutting down the nets in Houston are difficult to imagine.

Mountain West: Four teams went to the Big Dance last year and the league could duplicate that feat this season. BYU, San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico could all return.

Gael Assault: Just because Omar Samhan is gone doesn’t mean Randy Bennett’s Saint Mary’s Gaels will fall off the map. In fact, this year’s team could be tougher with the addition of transfer Rob Jones and the backcourt of Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova.

Who will wind up being the dominant team in the Big East? I’m not sure anyone will emerge. Pittsburgh and ‘Nova start the season as 1A and 1B, but let’s face it. Neither one is overpowering. I wouldn’t be shocked to see someone else win the league title.

Just keep your eye out for a Bobby Gonzalez sighting. The flammable ex-Seton Hall coach could be running out of a store with a man-purse or yelling at a cab driver on a street corner. But trust me, Gonzo will surface – and it’ll be truly entertaining when he does.

Renardo Sidney: The NCAA didn’t allow him to play last season and he’ll sit the first nine games this year for Mississippi State, but the skilled big man – if he’s in shape – is one of the most talented players anywhere. Can’t wait to see which Renardo shows up.

Kansas hoops: There could be legitimately a trio of Top 25 teams from the state of Kansas – K-State, the Jayhawks and Wichita State, the favorites to win the Missouri Valley Conference.

Who is the first coach fired? Someone will be cut loose during the season since it’s become a trend over the last few years.

Arizona’s absence from the NCAA tournament last year was its first in 25 years. Can the Wildcats get back to the Big Dance despite an uncertain point guard situation? I think Sean Miller will be right on the dreaded bubble.

Let’s see if Tommy Amaker can lead Harvard to its first-ever Ivy League crown. Jeremy Lin is gone, but if Kyle Casey comes back healthy, the Crimson has a chance to make history.

Can Loyola Marymount or Saint Mary’s challenge the ‘Zags this year for WCC supremacy? Gonzaga still has Elias Harris, Steven Gray and Robert Sacre, but LMU is loaded and Saint Mary’s still has a terrific backcourt.

Will Texas mesh this year? A year ago, the Longhorns jumped out of the gates but then wilted largely due to a lack of leadership. Jordan Hamilton is talented, but needs to mature – and Canadian freshman Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson need to come in with a team-first attitude.

Georgia and the hype: Some have Mark Fox and the Georgia Bulldogs in the Top 25 – largely based on Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie. The problem is Georgia plays in the SEC East, where there are no easy wins.

Top marksman: Who is the best shooter in college basketball? Two guys stand out: Arkansas’ Rotnei Clarke and Vandy’s John Jenkins. Will someone else emerge?

Maui: There’s truly no early-season tournament that stands out, but the Maui Invitational has Michigan State, Washington and Kentucky – a trio of Top 25 teams – and also Wichita State, the favorite in the Missouri Valley.

Jimmer Fredette: Can the under-recruited kid from Glen Falls, N.Y., keep BYU atop the Mountain West? Some have the senior guard on their preseason All-American first teams and it’s not unfathomable he could be on the one at the end of the year.

Irrelevant Oklahoma hoops: Just a couple years ago, both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State were locks to make the NCAA tourney. Now the Sooners will be dreadful this year and Travis Ford’s Cowboys are likely an NIT bunch.

Let’s see if anyone steps forward as a leader in Champaign. If Demetri McCamey or Mike Davis grow into the role, Bruce Weber’s Illini could challenge for the Big Ten crown. If not, even with the wealth of talent up and down the roster, this could be a team sweating it out on Selection Sunday.

Are John Beilein’s Michigan Wolverines really going to be that bad? It’s always hard to discount Beilein, but I just don’t see any way that a team that lost Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims will go dancing – or even make the NIT. It’s a young team with a bunch of unproven guys.

Will there be a Wesley Johnson or an Ekpe Udoh this year? Johnson starred at Syracuse after transferring from Iowa State while Udoh found greener pastures at Baylor after things didn’t work out in Michigan. The highest-profile transfers are Seth Curry (Duke) and Drew Gordon (New Mexico), who becomes eligible at the break. I doubt any transfer has the level of impact of Johnson or Udoh.

The bearded man: Jake Pullen excelled a year ago while playing alongside Denis Clemente at Kansas State. This season the Wildcats have the bulls-eye firmly planted on their backs – and Pullen will need to do it all, be a leader on and off the court and also balance scoring and making his teammates better.

Which one of Iowa’s Fran McCaffery or Oregon’s Dana Altman regrets leaving their quality mid-major gigs first? Both teams will likely finish in the cellar in their respective leagues. Are the increased paychecks worth it?

Gonzaga’s point-guard situation: Can Demetri Goodson or this new junior college kid, Marquise Carter, lead the ‘Zags further than they’ve ever been before – and maybe even to a Final Four? The other pieces are there with Elias Harris, Steven Gray and Robert Sacre. But point-guard play is suspect.

Perry Jones: Baylor’s freshman forward just may be the player with the highest ceiling of anyone in the nation. He’s 6-foot-10, is exceptionally versatile and will even be asked to play some point guard for Scott Drew. But can his production match his potential?

Jared Sullinger: Thad Matta has had Greg Oden and Kosta Koufos, but this year’s likely one-and-done big man to come through Columbus may be his most productive. Sullinger is a beast and my gut is he’ll put up numbers on par or maybe even in excess of Oden’s 15.7 points and 9.6 boards per game.

Best league in America: Prior to the Robbie Hummel injury, I would have said the Big Ten – and it still may be the case. But now the Big 12 is right there – and the ACC, Big East and SEC aren’t far behind. This is clearly something to watch and argue about throughout the season.

Jamie Dixon and Jay Wright: These two guys are the future of the Big East. With Jim Calhoun, Rick Pitino and Jim Boeheim in the twilight of their careers, look for Dixon and Wright to emerge as the leaders in the conference.

FSU point guard: The Seminoles have everything else – a talented veteran forward in Chris Singleton, a talented scoring guard in Michael Snaer, a shooter in Deividas Dulkys and plenty of size up front with Xavier Gibson, Bernard James and Jon Kreft. If Leonard Hamilton can get solid point-guard play, the ‘Noles could be one of the ACC’s best.

Kris Joseph: In order for Syracuse to be successful, the talented junior forward must step up and become a big-time player. Wesley Johnson, the team’s most talented player, is gone – and so are fellow starters and leaders Andy Rautins and Arinze Onuaku. The ‘Cuse surprised many last season; can Jim Boeheim’s team do it again? Joseph will be critical.

Coaches’ kids. Little Ray (aka Ray McCallum Jr.) opted to spurn the big boys and play for his dad at the University of Detroit. McCallum’s buddy, Trey Zeigler, did the same and opted to go to Central Michigan. Can these two Top-100 players take their daddies’ programs to the postseason?

Post-Gody: That’s what’s being talked about in South Bend now that Luke Harangody has graduated. Mike Brey will also need to replace point guard and leader Tory Jackson, but he’s got a veteran group back – and he adds Purdue transfer Scott Martin, who has missed the past two seasons after sitting out and suffering a torn ACL.

Tubby Smith: After Smith was basically run out of Lexington, Ky., few figured he’d be nationally relevant at Minnesota. However, Smith can coach and now he’s got enough talent to compete towards the top of the Big Ten.

Isiah Thomas:  It’s Year Two of Isiah’s regime down at Florida International. He signed a big-time recruit in Dominique Ferguson, but Ferguson likely won’t be eligible until after the first semester. Can FIU challenge for the Sun Belt once Ferguson and former Kentucky and Illinois guard Alex Legion get on the court in the winter.

Steve Fisher: Remember, this was the guy who helped bring the Fab Five together at Michigan. Now he’s 65 years old and has a San Diego State program ranked in many people’s preseason Top 25s. In fact, the Aztecs just may be the elite team in the Mountain West this season.

Floyd’s return: Former USC coach Tim Floyd, who was at the center of the O.J. Mayo fiasco, is back in college hoops and has returned to his old stomping grounds at UTEP. Don’t put it past Floyd to get to the NCAA tourney since he’s got one of the top players in C-USA in Randy Culpepper.

Mr. Underrated: Looking for a guy that just doesn’t get enough respect? How about a guy who plays for a program that rarely gets enough respect? It’s Vanderbilt’s ultra-athletic wing Jeffery Taylor, who could be a lottery pick next June.

Pat Knight: He’s already admitted this is a year in which he’ll likely be fired or receive an extension. The Texas Tech head coach is brutally honest and he’s got a veteran group that could surprise in the Big 12.