Vitale: Walk-ons can make an impact

Vitale: Big Ten race is wide open

Vitale: Point guards more vital than ever

Vitale: Surprises and disappointments

Vitale: Early-season records can be misleading

Vitale: SEC preview questions (plus 7 other league previews)

V-Mail: Nation's best conference?

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Who will win the Big 12?

Q: Who do you think will win the Big 12 this year? -- Sarah (Omaha, Neb.)
-- I still think you have to go with Kansas. The Jayhawks have size inside, with freshman center David Padgett providing an inside complement to junior forward Wayne Simien. Freshman guard J.R. Giddens will be an instant contributor now that junior guard Michael Lee is injured. Junior guards Aaron Miles and Keith Langford, together with their classmate Simien, provide a solid nucleus. Those three know about winning, having been a key part of Kansas' trips to the past two Final Fours. And I like coach Bill Self's track record at Illinois and Tulsa before coming to Kansas last offseason.


Q: What are your top four or five programs on the rise in the nation? Not traditional powers, but programs that haven't really challenged for anything in a while (if ever). Who do you see pushing the big boys in the near future? -- Jeff (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
-- There are some programs to keep an eye on that can make some noise. Michigan certainly is one now that the sanctions are off. I think coach Tommy Amaker will crank it up in recruiting and Michigan can become a dominant program. Amaker is a classy guy with a keen ability to recruit. He will get quality players.

Another program on the rise is Providence. Junior big man Ryan Gomes will have a big year, and coach Timmy Welsh's team will surprise some people. The Friars can create some excitement in a place where people are passionate about basketball. They can get on a roll.

Texas Tech could be on the rise despite a couple of struggles. Coach Bob Knight can get athletes to fit his system and his style of play, and the Red Raiders will force lots of turnovers to create offensive opportunities. Georgia Tech and Purdue made some noise in early-season tournaments.

Florida State is also on the rise; coach Leonard Hamilton is putting the talent together to compete in the ACC. With freshmen Von Wafer (at guard) and Alexander Johnson (at forward) joining senior guard Tim Pickett and junior forward Anthony Richardson, the Seminoles are moving in the right direction.


Q: Why is no one looking at Iowa to contend for the Big Ten title this year? The Hawkeyes have four returning starters (including last year's leading rebounder, senior center Jared Reiner) and also have regained sophomore guard Pierre Pierce after his redshirt season. I think that Iowa is as talented and deep as any team in the Big Ten -- and much better than the media is giving them credit for. What are your thoughts? -- Nathan (Iowa City)
-- Iowa took a blow last year with some off-court problems. This is a telling year, which so far has included a blowout of Drake (an emotional game with Drake coach Dr. Tom Davis back against his former team). Iowa followed that with an upset over Louisville, giving coach Steve Alford a positive start. I have been impressed with sophomore forward Greg Brunner. Pierce's return gives the Hawkeyes point production. Iowa and Michigan could be surprises in the Big Ten.


Q: Whatever happened to Lenny Cooke from Old Tappan High School? -- Kenneth (East Orange, N.J.)
-- Unfortunately, he has become a basketball vagabond, trying to hook on and revive his career. He had so much potential in high school, but it hasn't worked out. He played in the USBL last summer, then tried to make it with the Boston Celtics in the summer league but did not go further. He is bouncing around with a dream to make the big-time. Plenty of young players have been given bad advice. Look at D'Angelo Collins, who was undrafted after opting to pass on college.


Q: Do you think the NCAA Tournament field should be expanded beyond the current 65? I've heard this idea mentioned in the past, but that's about it. Thought I would ask the person who probably has the best answer. Your enthusiasm for the game is awesome. I would take NCAA basketball over the inconsistent NBA any day. -- Dean Wieting (Milwaukee)
-- I like it at 65 teams. Right now, almost everyone gets a chance to get into the NCAA Tournament by playing in a conference tournament, except for the Ivy. Everyone gets that last shot, and I would like to keep it where it is, giving us the best month in sports, March Madness. There is nothing like it.

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