Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger and Perry Jones shocked us all by returning for a second season, North Carolina has what could be the best team of the Roy Williams era and coaches spent the offseason playing musical chairs at high-profile programs across America.
In a season that promises to be filled with flair, it only seems fitting that the 2011-12 campaign will begin in earnest Friday not in a gymnasium -- but on an aircraft carrier.
With President Barack Obama and thousands of servicemen watching from the stands, North Carolina and Michigan State will face off in the Carrier Classic on the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego. The ship is the same one that buried Osama bin Laden at sea.
Four days later, Michigan State will be in New York to face Duke in the Champions Classic, which also includes a tilt between Kansas and Kentucky. It should be a great week, folks -- and an incredible season. Here are a few nuggets to get you started in the first installment of "King of the Court."
In a zone
Bo Ryan's contract: The Wisconsin coach's new deal is worth just more than $2.1 million per season. Well done, Badgers. Ryan definitely belongs in the $2 million club. In 10 years under Ryan, UW has never finished lower than fourth in the Big Ten. The Badgers also haven't advanced past the Sweet 16 since 2005. Time to earn that money, Bocephus.
Juco transfers: It's tough to remember a time when so many were as heavily counted on as they'll be in 2011-12. From Pierre Jackson at Baylor to Dewayne Dedmon at USC to Nurideen Lindsey at St. John's, junior college transfers will command headlines across the country.
Snake bites: Nothing is good about being injured, but there's something kind of studly about getting bit by a copperhead snake and living to tell about it. That's what happened to Samford guard Will Cook, who was attacked by the slithery specimen after stepping outside his dorm three weeks ago. Hmmm … wonder whether opposing coaches will use the "reptile factor" against Samford in recruiting? Anyway, Cook spent two nights in intensive care but has since returned to the court with an upbeat attitude -- and a heckuva story to tell.
Tyler Zeller: I'm a bit surprised there wasn't more love for Zeller on preseason All-American teams. He blocks shots, snares rebounds, hits most of his free throws, runs the court like a guard and scores from both the paint and the perimeter. And, oh yeah, he's 7 freakin' feet. There aren't many big men as versatile as Zeller, who averaged 25.8 points and 8.8 rebounds in last season's NCAA tournament.
Ed Cooley: Was the first-year Providence coach the best offseason hire of 2011? He's definitely off to a fast start thanks to a recruiting class that includes guards Ricky Ledo and Kris Dunn, both of whom are ranked among the top 30 players in the nation by ESPN.com.
Missouri Valley Conference: The league hasn't been this strong since 2006, when four schools (Wichita State, Bradley, Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois) received NCAA tournament bids. Look for Wichita, Creighton, Indiana State and UNI to all be in the mix this season.
In a funk
No more Border War: I can't blame the Kansas administration for not wanting to continue to play Missouri once the Tigers leave for the SEC. The Jayhawks are peeved at Mizzou's decision to bolt, and rightfully so. Still, it's a shame this series has to end. Most wouldn't agree, but I think the Jayhawks-Tigers rivalry is the best in college basketball. It's certainly the most intense.
Bottom of the SEC: With Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida and Alabama all in the Top 25 and Arkansas on the rebound, the SEC is as strong as it's been in years. Still, as tough as the top half of the conference will be, the bottom tier may be equally as bad. Georgia and Tennessee are rebuilding. Mississippi State already lost to Akron. Ole Miss will struggle, and Auburn, LSU and South Carolina will be just plain bad. Again.
UTEP: Is any coach facing more of a rebuilding chore than Tim Floyd? The Miners lost eight seniors from a team that won 25 games and returns just three players who saw action in 2010-11.
Early-season tournaments: The Maui Invitational field may be the best in the event's history with Duke, UCLA, Memphis, Kansas, Georgetown and others. But you'll be hard-pressed to find many other tournaments deemed must-sees. Most events appear to have one or two good teams mixed with dregs. The Old Spice Classic features the likes of Arizona State, DePaul, Texas Tech and Wake Forest, each of whom are picked to finish at the bottom of their respective leagues.
Expectations for freshmen: Most times, they're simply out of whack. There are very few John Walls, Michael Beasleys and Kevin Durants out there. In other words, guys who are the best players on the court the minute they take the floor. Fans need to be patient. Just because Arizona's Josiah Turner is struggling doesn't mean he will in January. Same goes for any other freshman who experiences hiccups early.
Injuries: One season after Purdue's Robbie Hummel blew out his knee during the Boilermakers' opening practice, season-ending injuries have hit some of basketball's top players once again. Standout USC guard Jio Fontan and Missouri forward Laurence Bowers won't play this season because of torn ACLs. Louisville freshman Wayne Blackshear will miss at least six to eight weeks with an injured shoulder. Rutgers is hoping to get freshman Kadeem Jack (foot) back by February.
Questions for the King
Can't wait to see Kansas and Kentucky play at Madison Square Garden. Do Bill Self and John Calipari hate each other as much as most people think?
I don't think Calipari and Self will be playing pinochle any time soon, but even though they may not be the best of friends, there is certainly a mutual level of respect. I've heard Self praise Calipari on multiple occasions -- especially for how well his players defend. Years ago, after Self's Tulsa team won a road game at Saint Joseph's, Calipari delivered the postgame speech. He was an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers at the time. Larry Brown is a mentor to both coaches.
What's an under-the-radar game to keep an eye on during the next week?
The Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday will steal some of the attention away from what promises to be a great game in Columbus between Ohio State and Florida. Both are top-10 teams. It'll be interesting to see how rising star Patric Young of Florida does against Ohio State's Sullinger. And will the Buckeyes' backcourt be able to handle UF standouts Brad Beal, Mike Rosario, Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker?
Will BYU be able to dethrone Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference?
Yes -- but not this season. This could be one of the best squads Mark Few has had in years. Look for the Zags to win their 12th straight league title.
Good things come in threes
Three bold predictions
1. Two Kentucky players will earn first-team All-American honors.
2. North Carolina State and Virginia will be among the top five teams in the ACC.
3. Butler and VCU will miss the NCAA tournament.
Three teams no one is talking about but should be
1. Iowa State: Royce White, Chris Allen, Melvin Ejim, Scott Christopherson, Tyrus McGee consider this your warning, Big 12.
2. Oregon: Success depends on Tony Woods and Olu Ashaolu down low.
3. Creighton: Can Doug McDermott lead the Bluejays back to the NCAA tournament?
Three coaches on the hot seat
1. Andy Kennedy, Ole Miss
2. Jim Christian, TCU
3. Darrin Horn, South Carolina
Three of college basketball's deepest units
1. Memphis backcourt (Will Barton, Joe Jackson, Charles Carmouche, Chris Crawford, Antonio Barton)
2. Baylor frontcourt (Perry Jones, Quincy Miller, Quincy Acy, Anthony Jones, J'Mison Morgan, Cory Jefferson)
3. Florida backcourt (Mike Rosario, Kenny Boynton, Brad Beal, Erving Walker, Scottie Wilbekin)
Three reasons I can't wait to get back on the road
3. White Castle
*None of them exist in my current residence of Kansas City
A -- Steve Lavin: It was good to see the St. John's coach back on the sideline Wednesday night after an offseason spent battling prostate cancer. Lavin said his wife and mother nursed him back to health "English Patient-style." Great quote. Just like their leader, the Red Storm showed a ton of grit by fighting back from a 10-point halftime deficit to defeat Lehigh 78-73.
B -- Kansas big men: I'm not saying Jeff Withey and Justin Wesley will make up for the loss of the Morris twins. But both players are at least serviceable complements to All-American candidate Thomas Robinson in the paint. Withey, a 7-footer who originally signed with Arizona, had a triple-double in the Jayhawks' first exhibition game.
C -- Renardo Sidney: The Mississippi State forward certainly didn't look dominant in Wednesday's loss to Akron. But he wasn't terrible, either, and considering how he started last season, that's quite encouraging. Sidney had 12 points, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks in 25 minutes. He was going against 7-foot Akron standout Zeke Marshall, who had 10 points, 6 boards and 5 blocks.
D -- Baylor fans: Even though it was only an exhibition game, it's inexcusable that a measly 3,082 fans showed up to watch the Bears dismantle Abilene Christian last week. This is a top-15 team with two potential lottery picks and a legitimate chance to win its first conference title since 1950. Maybe Scott Drew needs to put Robert Griffin III on the roster to create some additional buzz.
F -- NCAA Eligibility Center: It's November and a decision still hasn't been made on the eligibility of Arizona State freshman guard Jahii Carson. Totally unfair to the player and his coaches and teammates.
Thoughts from press row
1. Smart move by UCLA coach Ben Howland to hold foul-prone Josh Smith out of the starting lineup -- at least during the early portions of the season. Howland said Smith will avoid picking up ticky-tack fouls at a time when referees are trying to set the tone.
2. I'll be interested to see what the chemistry is like between Florida's incumbent guards (Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton) and newcomers Mike Rosario and Brad Beal. Rosario and Beal are more talented, but Boynton and Walker have invaluable experience. Don't be surprised to occasionally see all of them on the court at the same time.
3. Here's how I rate the big six conferences: Big East, SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12.
4. I feel foolish for hyping Mississippi State so much during the offseason. Wednesday's loss to Akron was U-G-L-Y. Point guard Dee Bost, a preseason all-SEC pick, was terrible with his decision-making, Arnett Moultrie was 2-of-13 from the field and Mississippi State had 19 turnovers. Akron is extremely well-coached, but Rick Stansbury's team has too much talent to lose that game at home.
5. The early departures of Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph and Jordan Hamilton to the NBA were devastating blows for Texas. But the loss of senior Gary Johnson is being underplayed. Johnson was a scrapper who set the tone for the Longhorns in the paint.
6. Memphis coach Josh Pastner landed a pair of standouts -- Shaq Goodwin and Damien Wilson -- from the powerful Atlanta Celtics AAU squad. That had to be a bit of a disappointment for UCLA's Howland, who hired former Celtics coach Korey McCray as an assistant in hopes of luring players from his program. UCLA was able to nab small forward Jordan Adams, but it missed out on Goodwin and Wilson.
7. Speaking of recruiting, what in tarnation has happened to Kansas, which continues to miss out on nearly every high-major prospect it targets? Seven-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski, who spurned the Jayhawks for Arizona, is the latest player to break Bill Self's heart. Here are some players KU has lost out on the previous few years: DeAndre Daniels, Josiah Turner, Marcus Smart, Ioannis Papapetrou, LeBryan Nash, Harrison Barnes, Brad Beal, Terrence Jones, Michael Snaer, Trevor Lacey, Daniel Orton, Dominic Cheek, Jordan Hamilton and DeAndre Liggins.
8. Hats off to former St. John's coach Mike Jarvis, whose Florida Atlantic squad is the preseason favorite to win the Sun Belt Conference.
9. A few weeks ago, in my first column for ESPN.com, I mentioned that I thought Sean Miller was one of the top coaches in America along with standouts such as Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo, Bill Self and John Calipari. Even though the list wasn't meant to be a "ranking" of coaches, I still should've mentioned the two Jimmys: Calhoun and Boeheim. My apologies.
10. Finally, and most importantly, a heartfelt "RIP" goes out to Heavy D, whose music continues to be played in stadiums and locker rooms from coast to coast.
Twin Peaks, various locations in the Midwest and Southwest: Some folks have referred to my favorite sports bar as an "upscale Hooters." That's not doing it justice. Along with the, ummm, scenery, Twin Peaks prides itself on having the coldest draft beer in America. After multiple visits, I don't think it's lying.
Lucha Libre Taco Shop, San Diego: Took some advice from Man v. Food's Adam Richman and endured the 30-minute wait for the Surfin' California burrito. Ingredients: steak, shrimp, pico de gallo, chipotle sauce, guacamole and, among other things, french fries. Absolutely tremendous -- and the nachos looked even better. Loved the wrestling pictures and lucha libre masks decorating the walls. Colleague Dana O'Neil needs to pay this place a visit after covering Friday's Michigan State-North Carolina game.
Gus's Fried Chicken, Memphis: Best bird I've ever had, without question. And Memphis is one of my favorite food cities in the country. More on that another time.
Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKingESPN.