2008-09 record: 2-14 ACC, 12-19 overall
Reason for optimism: The Yellow Jackets brought in arguably the best freshman center in Derrick Favors. He'll team with Gani Lawal to form a formidable frontcourt. Georgia Tech is healthy on the perimeter and deeper than it was a year ago. The Yellow Jackets also should finally know how to close out games. (Yes, I know they needed overtime to hold off Indiana of Pennsylvania in an exhibition game.) They're the only team in the ACC that will play North Carolina and Duke twice, so they should have the best power rating of any of the 12 ACC teams.
What could happen: Georgia Tech could win the ACC. Yes, the talent is in place for the team to go from two wins to the league title.
What's likely to happen: The Yellow Jackets should win nine to 11 games in conference play. That would be at least a seven-win swing, good enough to get them into the NCAA tournament.
2008-09 record: 4-12 Big 12, 15-17 overall
Reason for optimism: Craig Brackins returns to the Cyclones, and he has the potential to be a Big 12 Player of the Year candidate and All-American. Add junior college transfer Marquis Gilstrap, and the Cyclones could have one of the best one-two scoring punches besides Kansas and Texas in the Big 12. Iowa State's Hilton Coliseum also is one of the best home courts in the country. Don't be surprised if the Cyclones knock off one of the big boys at home this season.
What could happen: The Cyclones could pluck off a few key wins -- perhaps winning at least one game among Duke, Kansas (twice) and Texas to earn an NCAA tournament berth.
What's likely to happen: Iowa State should improve to at least a nine-win team in the Big 12 and be squarely on the tourney bubble in March.
2008-09 record: 2-16 in the Pac-10, 8-23 overall
Reason for optimism: Coach Ernie Kent is billing Jamil Wilson as one of the top freshmen he has coached. If Wilson is as good as advertised, the Ducks have a real shot to climb in what should be a shaky Pac-10. The return of senior point guard Tajuan Porter and the likely improvement of a sophomore class that underachieved last season should give this team hope. Adding assistant Mike Dunlap should help in game management, too.
What could happen: The Ducks have enough talent to finish third in the Pac-10, jumping from two wins to 10 or 11.
What's likely to happen: Oregon probably will be in a tussle with Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona to finish in some order of 3 through 6 in the conference and be on the NCAA tournament bubble. The problem is the Ducks' nonconference slate might not be ranked high enough to earn a bid.
2008-09 record: 6-12 Big East, 16-18 overall
Reason for optimism: The Red Storm are the only Big East team that returns all five starters. Coach Norm Roberts has focused on this season to be his best. Losing Anthony Mason Jr. for the start of the season hasn't hurt as much because Mason didn't play last season or on the team's trip to Canada during Labor Day weekend. This team already has learned how to play without him. The other thing going for St. John's -- if the Red Storm are ready to handle the pressure -- is the Big East is open to change this season. Plenty of moves could happen, with teams such as Marquette and Providence sliding to the bottom of the league, and that should allow the Red Storm to climb. That challenge will be daunting but nowhere near as imposing as it was a year ago.
What could happen: This is still the same group of players who finished 6-12 in the Big East, albeit in a stronger conference. Moving ahead of Seton Hall, Cincinnati, Pitt, Notre Dame and Syracuse would be quite a feat.
What's likely to happen: The Red Storm will be in the mix for a top-10 finish in the Big East and could move into the eight- or nine-win range in the league. But even that is likely to mean more of an NIT berth than an NCAA one.
2008-09 record: 1-17 in the Big Ten, 6-25 overall
Reason for optimism: The carnage of the Kelvin Sampson era has finally subsided, and under the leadership of coach Tom Crean, the Hoosiers finally can begin to rebuild. Indiana adds an experienced transfer in former Georgetown guard Jeremiah Rivers, who will team with sophomore Verdell Jones III. The Hoosiers still will be one of the youngest teams in the Big Ten, but there is plenty of fight in this group.
What could happen: The Hoosiers could move past Iowa and Penn State to finish at least ninth in the Big Ten with possibly five wins in the league.
What's likely to happen: The problem is the league may be the best it has been this decade. The Hoosiers draw tough road games at Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue and Minnesota. The only break is that Michigan State will visit Indiana, but the Hoosiers won't make a return trip to East Lansing. Indiana probably won't make the postseason, but it will show an improvement in the win-loss record in the league and be a peskier putout.
2008-09 record: 5-11 Atlantic 10, 11-20 overall
Reason for optimism: The 49ers are banking on Boston College transfer Shamari Spears to be their go-to inside scorer. He already proved to have soft hands during exhibition play. Finishing in practice was never an issue for Spears at BC, but when the lights were on, his fingers became butter at times. If he can be a lock for the 49ers inside, he'll prove to be the perfect balance to guards Ian Andersen and DiJuan Harris. Losing Lamont Mack hurts the scoring pop, but this team may be better-balanced.
What could happen: The Atlantic 10 will be dominated by Dayton, with Xavier and Richmond on the Flyers' heels. But don't dismiss the 49ers. They have the potential to make a significant jump into the nine- or 10-win mark. Charlotte will play Xavier twice and get two shots at Richmond. Playing at Dayton won't help, but the 49ers will have a chance to compete with the others for second.
What's likely to happen: Charlotte still should finish no higher than fourth, but it will earn enough good will through its record and ranking (playing at Louisville, at Old Dominion, home against Georgia Tech and at Tennessee) to earn a postseason berth of some kind.
2008-09 season: 3-13 WAC, 13-21 overall
Reason for optimism: Paul George. Can I say it again? Paul George. He is a star and one of the NEXT athletes ESPN has been pushing. The Bulldogs under Steve Cleveland have been all over the place, but there is a sense that things should settle down in a league that doesn't have an intimidating team. Sure, Utah State is the favorite in the WAC, and Nevada has Luke Babbitt, but it's not as if Fresno State can't climb from three wins to at least eight in the league.
What could happen: The Bulldogs should be in the mix, at least in the middle of the pack.
What's likely to happen: Expect Fresno State to affect the WAC race but fall short of a postseason berth.
2008-09 season: 4-12 in CUSA, 10-22 overall
Reason for optimism: The Owls recruited well under Ben Braun. The freshman class should increase the talent quickly in Houston.
What could happen: If the freshmen can produce quickly, a four-win improvement isn't totally out of the question.
What's likely to happen: The problem with moving up to eight wins is that the league is even more balanced this season with Memphis, UTEP, Tulsa and Houston capable of winning the conference.
2008-09 season: 2-16 in the Sun Belt, 6-26 overall
Reason for optimism: Owls coach Mike Jarvis is talking up freshman point guard Raymond Taylor as the next Shawnta Rogers, his former diminutive but highly productive scorer at George Washington. The Owls will be one of the youngest teams in the league, but they should be more talented and productive.
What could happen: The Sun Belt will be led by Western Kentucky, North Texas and Denver, but it's not as if any of those teams is intimidating. There is room for FAU to climb significantly in the league standings from two wins into the seven or eight range.
What's likely to happen: FAU will climb, but it won't be enough to yield a postseason berth. If there is improvement this season, then postseason could be in the discussion in 2011.
2008-09 season: 2-14 in the America East, 7-26 overall
Reason for optimism: Let's start with Binghamton's implosion. That should send last season's champ down to the bottom of the league, pushing up a team like Hartford. The rest of the conference is solid and has some noteworthy players, including Vermont's Maurice Joseph and Marqus Blakely. New Hampshire and Boston University should be in the mix for the title, too. But there is room for advancement for the Hawks. Newly named assistant Rick Brunson, a longtime NBA player, was added to Dan Leibovitz's staff and has raved about junior college transfer Milton Burton. Having a healthy Joe Zeglinski on the perimeter will help the balance. If this team can defend and rebound, it will have a shot to move into the eight-win range in the America East.
What could happen: Remember, the Hawks played for the America East automatic berth in 2008, and they'll host the first two rounds of the conference tournament this season. So a run to the title game isn't out of the question if they can make the Chase Arena at Reich Family Pavilion rock.
What's likely to happen: The Hawks will improve their win total but won't reach the postseason.
And it's obvious with the turnover of rosters that Louisville and Pitt should drop out of the top two slots from last season to make room for a contender that finished in the bottom six.
Connecticut, which was tied with Pitt, a game behind Louisville, will slide down a peg, too, albeit maybe just out of the title chase.
Upstart teams like Cincinnati, Seton Hall and St. John's all say they're going to make runs at NCAA berths. If that's the case, a team from the top eight of the Big East has to drop to the bottom seven, right?
Picking Providence to drop makes sense because it lost five key players off last season's team. The Friars didn't make the NCAA tournament but did win 10 league games. Second-year coach Keno Davis has to put his own imprint on the roster this season.
But that's still not enough if those other teams are going to climb higher in the Big East. Another team has to drop.
The consensus among the rest of the league is that team probably will be Marquette, which lost a trio of guards (Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Dominic James), the driving force in Tom Crean's and Buzz Williams' success on the court the past three seasons.
"Everyone is making that push, and in order for someone to go up, someone else has to go down,'' second-year Golden Eagles coach Williams said late Wednesday as he finished an exhausting day that started with a 5 a.m. boot camp wakeup call with his team. Marquette is preparing for Friday's first official day of practice. "If Providence and Marquette are those teams, then maybe that's what it will be.''
With Cincinnati's addition of highly touted talent Lance Stephenson, the healthy return of Anthony Mason Jr. for a veteran St. John's team, and the impact of transfers Herb Pope and Keon Lawrence for surging Seton Hall, Williams isn't dismissing the expected turnarounds.
He's not going to argue any of those points.
But it would be hard to push the Marquette staff into thinking it isn't finishing somewhere in the top eight with the current roster, despite a turbulent offseason.
Marquette's staff exhibits pride, albeit somewhat privately, and its members believe there's no reason the Golden Eagles should be seen as any less deserving of consideration among possible postseason teams than Pitt, which lost four of five starters and two key players for this season (Jermaine Dixon and Gilbert Brown, who currently are shelved with a broken foot and a fall academic suspension, respectively).
The Pitt comeback is hard to debate, considering the Panthers do have an immense talent in 6-foot-9, 235-pound big man Dante Taylor to replace DeJuan Blair, a gold-medal-winning (Under-19 U.S. team) point guard in Ashton Gibbs and a coach in Jamie Dixon who has a stellar 163-45 record in his first six seasons as a head coach. With Dixon's track record, the expectation is he won't slide out of a top-eight finish.
The Golden Eagles' case would be stronger had freshman point Junior Cadougan not ruptured his right Achilles tendon, which will keep him sidelined for the season. Their case to stay relevant this season would have been nearly impossible had senior guard Maurice Acker not flip-flopped and returned to the team after deciding earlier in the summer to focus on his academics. Acker's minutes jumped from three a game to more than 27 after Dominic James went out with a foot injury in the final six games of the 2008-09 regular season.
Williams said it was déjà vu that Acker was in the same position from last winter to now, standing idle until an injury opened up an opportunity for him.
The other point Marquette was counting on was sophomore Darius Johnson-Odom, who injured his left foot in a workout last month. The hope is Johnson-Odom can come back next week.
The off-court news got worse last month when 2010-11 committed recruit Monterale Clark was arrested and charged in an alleged sexual assault at Hill College in Hillsboro, Texas. The 6-foot-10 Clark was a highly touted junior college player who was being heavily pursued by schools in the Big 12 and SEC. Clark hadn't signed a national letter of intent yet (until the November signing period), so the Golden Eagles can't comment on him. However, privately they say that regardless of what happens with the case, Clark will never play for them.
Despite all the body blows that seem to be coming, the Golden Eagles don't seem to be wilting. There are high expectations for senior Lazar Hayward, who averaged 16.3 points and 8.6 rebounds a game last season, and won a bronze medal for the U.S. at the World University Games. And the returns of Acker and sixth man Jimmy Butler, who averaged 5.6 points and 3.9 rebounds last season on the wing, certainly help.
"Lazar will be one of the better players in the league,'' Marquette assistant coach Tony Benford said. "Acker, Hayward and Butler all averaged 25 minutes or more toward the end of last season when James went down, and we have experience at the right spots -- point guard and the 4 man. Everybody is going to pick us [as the team that drops]. We'll see.''
While Johnson-Odom is expected back, not having Cadougan is a blow. The expectation that senior point David Cubillan will cushion some of it means the Golden Eagles will have two seniors sharing the point, even though neither was projected to be the main distributor at the end of last season.
If junior college stud Dwight Buycks can make an impact on the perimeter, freshman wing Jeronne Maymon can produce, and there is helpful depth behind Hayward with Fulce, sophomore center Chris Otule, freshman Erik Williams and Mbao (assuming his eligibility is resolved and he doesn't miss games), there will be quality depth, as Benford professes.
Benford isn't shying away from the Golden Eagles' needing Otule to score on the block, Maymon to be the strong power body inside or Mbao to be the skilled big man who can run the floor and defend. "Everybody thinks it's going to be us, the team that slides,'' Benford said. "But we'll defend. And you know a Buzz team is going to play hard.''
Getting an early read on this squad could come in late November at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla. Marquette opens with Xavier and then plays either Creighton or Michigan on Thanksgiving weekend.
Playing rebuilding NC State and at Wisconsin in December also will tell a tale about where this team is headed before it opens the Big East with easily the hardest first four games of any team in the league. Marquette faces three favorites who might win the league: at West Virginia, Villanova, Georgetown and at Villanova. That slate alone could push Marquette to the cellar. Whether it stays there will be determined by how much the newcomers have matured by January.
Williams was facing a daunting task of filling the roster with high-profile recruits after the expected departures of Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and James.
He did that.
He couldn't control the injury to Cadougan, and the 2010 recruiting took a major hit with the Clark situation. Getting Jamail Jones (the No. 13 small forward in the ESPNU Top 100) out of Montverde Academy in Decatur, Ga., helps.
But the long-term success of this program might be determined by how Williams handles this season now that Cadougan is gone and the focus will be on whether or not the Golden Eagles fall in the league.
Since the expectation is that they will drop, finishing in the top 10 in the Big East will be seen as a major accomplishment that proves the Golden Eagles have sustaining power even in a transition year.
• Equal time for the rest of the America East is due after all the negative words focused on Binghamton's issues. Albany returns two all-conference players, Tim Ambrose (14.3 ppg) and Virginia transfer Will Harris (12.9 ppg), to a team that was fourth nationally in rebound margin. Boston University first-year coach Pat Chambers is loaded with 91.5 percent of the scoring back from last season, including John Holland (18.1), Corey Lowe (17.2) and league rookie of the year Jake O'Brien (12.5). New Hampshire coach Bill Herrion made the America East semifinals last season for the second time since 1995, and Alvin Abreu (12.8 ppg), Tyrone Conley (8.9 ppg) will ease replacing two-time all-conference player Tyrece Gibbs. With 16 wins last season, Stony Brook's total was its most in Division I, and it should be a factor again with Muhammad El-Amin (15.7 ppg) and all-rookie players Tommy Brenton (6.7 ppg, 8.9 rpg) and Bryan Dougher (11.2 ppg). SBU held teams to only 60.9 points a game last season. Vermont returns the America East player and defensive player of the year, Marqus Blakely (16.1 ppg, 9 rebounds per game and 2.7 blocks per game), and Michigan State transfer Maurice Joseph (8.1). The Catamounts averaged a league-best 76.1 points a game. Hartford's Dan Leibovitz is hopeful he'll have an injury-free team this season. Leibovitz got his team motivated by proving he can stay in shape, too. He ran and finished the Hartford Marathon on Saturday -- his first.