Ten things I can't wait to see in 2011-12
Cheer up, college basketball fans. Only 156 days until Midnight Madness!
It'll go quickly, I promise. There will be some recruiting news, a Bruce Pearl show-cause ruling and a TBD controversy or two to keep you occupied through the summer. Tough it out through September and you can almost hear the basketballs bouncing again.
When the sneakers finally do start squeaking once more, these are the 10 things I'm most looking forward to seeing:
1. The return of good teams: The mantra all last season was No Great Teams. It was correct, regardless of intermittent efforts to sell us on Duke, Ohio State, Kansas and the Big East Team du Jour. When the season ends with the ninth-place team in the Big East beating the No. 2 seed in the Horizon League tournament, there were no great teams.
That should change in 2011-12. The talent level is back up, and some big names will have their best teams in several seasons.
With the return of every potential pro at North Carolina, Jared Sullinger at Ohio State and Terrence Jones at Kentucky, we have three teams that should be very good -- possibly great. In Harrison Barnes, Sullinger, Jones and Perry Jones III from Baylor, we've got 80 percent of a flush preseason All-America team. Just shopping for a point guard to round it out. (Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor, perhaps?)
I'm going to call it now: The national champion will have to score more than 56 points to win two Final Four games in 2012.
2. Nonconference basketball: So many November and December games are eclipsed by football that a lot of fans don't even notice that college hoops exists until January. But there are two early games that are simply must-watch:
Nov. 11, 2011. North Carolina vs. Michigan State on an aircraft carrier, on Veteran's Day, in San Diego. Fabulously cool idea -- as long as it doesn't rain. According to federal weather statistics, San Diego averages five rainy days per November. If that happens, the game moves "below the flight deck" and surely loses some of its outdoor, scenic appeal.
Dec. 3, 2011. That's my guess for when North Carolina will visit Kentucky in a game that rematches their East Regional final from March. The rumble at Rupp could not only match No. 1 against No. 2, but could be the premier nonconference matchup in many years. I'm guessing there will be a minimum of seven 2012 first-round draft picks on the floor, maybe more.
3. A remodeled ACC: Mark Turgeon steps in at Maryland. Mark Gottfried rekindles his career at North Carolina State. Brian Gregory takes over at Georgia Tech. Jim Larranaga heads south to Miami. Add those changes to the second year for coaches at Boston College (Steve Donahue), Clemson (Brad Brownell) and Wake Forest (Jeff Bzdelik) and you have a conference radically remaking itself.
The big question is whether anyone is good enough to even annoy big dogs Duke and North Carolina. Gary Williams' time was up at Maryland, but at least he relished taking on the Blue Devils and Tar Heels. Does anyone else?
4. The answer to the Calhoun Question: Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun moved himself into a truly exclusive club when he won his third national title last month. The question now is whether he will move himself out of his office and into retirement before the Huskies begin their title defense.
Calhoun has always done things his way -- and an October retirement announcement that guarantees he would be succeeded by one of his assistants would certainly be the Calhoun Way. It would also handcuff athletic director Jeff Hathaway, and you get the feeling that would be fine with Calhoun, too.
Or, what the heck, he could keep coaching until he's 90. Stay tuned.
5. Whither Butler?: The Bulldogs backed up an incredible 2010 march to the national title game by doing it again in 2011 -- defying both logic and historical precedent. It's one of the great feats in college basketball history.
But now what?
Butler has now lost two players to NBA draft early entry in two years, with Shelvin Mack following Gordon Hayward. Its most inspirational player, Matt Howard, has graduated. It's time for a new nucleus to form and see whether it can keep the program on an elite plane.
Having the brilliant Brad Stevens as coach certainly helps.
6. Indiana as a viable member of the Big Ten: It's time for the Hoosiers to finally crawl out of the Kelvin Sampson smoking crater and rejoin the ranks of the competitive. Not necessarily the ranks of the good, but the competitive.
After three straight 20-loss seasons, Indiana should finally have the players to at least threaten to be .500 and arise from the Big Ten basement. Prep All-American Cody Zeller will not -- repeat, will not -- be an immediate savior, but he joins an experienced cast in a league that will hardly be impossible to handle.
College basketball isn't as much fun when Indiana stinks. Time to change that.
7. Shaka Smart's encore: He was the coaching revelation of 2011, a young guy in his second year at Virginia Commonwealth who took an NCAA tournament bubble team all the way to the Final Four. Along the way, Smart impressed everyone with his aplomb, acumen and ability to motivate his players. Then he surprised everyone by staying in Richmond.
Smart loses most of the stars of the Rams' run, so don't expect a repeat of it. But if he's as good as most people think, don't expect VCU to shrivel up and disappear, either.
8. A change at the top of the Big 12: Kansas has treated the league the way Gonzaga has treated the West Coast Conference -- like its own personal playground. But after seven straight conference titles, it might be time for someone else to have a turn.
The Jayhawks lose six of their top eight scorers and do not have the usual star-studded recruiting class. That opens the door for others -- Missouri and Baylor being the prime candidates, unless coaching holds them back.
The Tigers return all five of their double-digit scorers but now are led by Frank Haith, who was merely 26 games under .500 in ACC play at Miami from 2005-11. If you want my nominee for most nonsensical hire of 2011, it's Haith.
The Bears return Jones III, who should blossom now that gunnilicious guard LaceDarius Dunn has moved on, and bring in a hotshot recruiting class. Just don't count on Scott Drew to X-and-O Baylor to greatness.
9. Arizona, upholding the battered honor of the West: The Wildcats made a stirring NCAA tournament run in March and look primed for a full-time return to national prominence. They lost presumptive top-five pick Derrick Williams, but retained coach Sean Miller after his flirtation with Maryland. Miller is the total package and will have Arizona at the top of the Pac-12 for as long as he stays.
And really, somebody from out West needs to represent. BYU and San Diego State had their turns this past season, but don't count on seeing a repeat of those special seasons. With all the early defections to the NBA, the newly expanded Pac-12 looks like it will be embarrassingly weak again.
10. Another powerhouse year in the Big East: After several March missteps by top teams, UConn validated the Big East hype by winning the national title. Next season, four teams could start out with Final Four aspirations: Syracuse, Louisville, Connecticut and Pittsburgh. (I know, putting Pitt and the Final Four in the same sentence is antithetical. But the Panthers will be good again. At least until March.)
Then we'll see who gets picked 10th in the preseason and finishes ninth in the regular season -- pick that team to win it all. That's what UConn was in 2010-11.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.