Midnight Madness is here, and college basketball is back. A few of our writers from around the country answer five big questions before the season unofficially gets under way:
1. As college hoops returns, what storyline are you most intrigued by?
Eamonn Brennan: Looking at the overall landscape, I think we have a rather sudden and distinct shift away from last season, when there was a clear handful of elite teams. Three of those went to the Final Four, and the fourth, North Carolina, might well have done so if not for the Kendall Marshall injury. Now that the lockout fallout is fully behind us, I think we're shifting back to where we were a few years ago -- when the landscape felt less hierarchical and much more fluid. Indiana and Louisville are obvious favorites. Kentucky is (always) in play. But other than that, I think the title chase is wide open, much more so than it appeared in 2011-12.
Andy Katz: I'm most intrigued by this small pocket of the country that has so many title contenders. What about Kentucky's ability to reload? The Wildcats don't have the veteran leadership they've had in the previous three John Calipari seasons. What are the chances that Indiana and Louisville can continue the momentum from late March? Remember, neither team was elite in the regular season, yet they were on a roll toward the end and now are 1-2 in some form in the polls. As a side note, I'm also really intrigued by the player of the year race. It might be more wide open than I can remember in my 22 years of covering the sport.
Dana O'Neil: Is this another season of mid-major supremacy? A year ago, we celebrated the big boys' return to excellence. Now the cycle seems to be turning the other way. Murray State and Creighton are virtual locks for every top 25; VCU will get more than its share of votes; Butler might turn some heads; and if Doug McDermott and Isaiah Canaan aren't on every short list of first-team All-Americans, something is wrong. But will it stick? It's easy to fall in love with Cinderella, but no one ever said whether the fairy tale had lasting impact.
Myron Medcalf: I'm most intrigued by North Carolina State's potential to conquer Tobacco Road. North Carolina is still talented, but the Tar Heels lost the core of last season's squad. Duke has plenty of McDonald's All-Americans left, but the program will miss its top playmaker, Austin Rivers. As for Mark Gottfried's squad, it returns All-America candidate C.J. Leslie, perimeter threat Lorenzo Brown and the meat of his rotation from last season's Sweet 16 run. Plus, the Wolfpack adds elite freshman Rodney Purvis. NC State is talented enough to grab the ACC title and make a run to Atlanta.
2. What's one question you'd like answered before the start of the regular season?
Brennan: Will UCLA be whole? Will Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson be eligible? With all due respect to Kentucky's Nerlens Noel, that is the single biggest personnel question hovering over the preseason. If both or even one of Ben Howland's star freshmen is cleared to play, UCLA is arguably a top-five team. (I'm not totally convinced, but it's hard to argue with the talent.) If neither one is available, the Bruins are basically a slightly better version of last season's very disappointing bunch.
O'Neil: Who is eligible, and who isn't? I'm sure I'm not alone in this wish, but it would be nice to know who is going to play and who isn't. I understand the NCAA's snail pace here. Wading through the various pieces of paperwork and issues to clear a player is painstakingly tedious and certainly we'd rather the NCAA make a definitive answer rather than a knee-jerk one that retroactively ruins a season (see: Derrick Rose). That said, it would be nice if we could know whether Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson were going to play at UCLA and make the Bruins a legit title contender, and it would be helpful if there were some sort of clarification to the reports that Kentucky's Nerlens Noel, although cleared academically, remains in eligibility limbo.
3. Between freshmen and transfers, what player are you most looking forward to seeing in his new jersey?
Brennan: Butler's Rotnei Clarke. There are a host of freshmen I can't wait to see suit up, but I have to admit it will be fun to see a pure shooter like Clarke get serious run at Butler, which struggled so much in 2011-12 precisely because the Bulldogs just flat couldn't shoot the ball. Coach Brad Stevens has intimated that he'll use Clarke a lot, not only as a shooter but as a ball handler and playmaker, and, if the rest of the lineup continues to make strides, this should be a very solid Butler team led by a lethal outside scorer.
Katz: A 7-footer from New Zealand with an intriguing backstory? I'm in. Incoming Steven Adams has a quirky personality, but he's the sort of character college basketball fans might fall in love with. And Pitt, after its worst season in years, is really going to need him. Adams might not be a superstar right away, but there's a reason he vaulted to No. 6 in the ESPN 100 once our scouts saw him play. He has the type of talent to help the Panthers bounce back.
O'Neil: This might be cheating, but I need to go with the Missouri conglomerate here. The Tigers have a chance to be as good as if not better than last season's highly successful team, but will do it in completely different fashion. Instead of seasoned players embracing a new system, this time Frank Haith will have a bunch of fresh faces who have experience, just not with him or at Missouri. I want to see how the concoction of Jabari Brown, Keion Bell, Earnest Ross and Alex Oriakhi adds up to for the Tigers.
Medcalf: Baylor's Isaiah Austin. I watched him on the AAU circuit in high school. In one game, he dunked over three guys, knocked down a 3-pointer and played point guard. You just don't see many 7-footers/freshmen enter the collegiate ranks with his skill set. He's thin (although Scott Drew says Austin has added about 10 pounds to his frame this offseason), but he's very aggressive at the rim. The Bears need him to play tough in a physical league. Sure, he'll get pushed around at times. But good luck dealing with his versatility and size. Can't wait to see this kid suit up.
4. What coaches are feeling the heat as the season gets under way?
Brennan: Arizona State's Herb Sendek. ASU fans have a reputation for tuning out the basketball team unless it's good, so maybe they haven't noticed, but the Sun Devils haven't been watchable since James Harden was on campus. Sendek has Jahii Carson on the court this season, and I think he's a good coach -- probably about as good as Arizona State could find, all things considered. But he has to show marked progress soon.
Katz: Ben Howland. The Bruins have to show improvement, especially if Howland gets Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson eligible. UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero has been in Howland's camp throughout the recent turmoil, but a poor start and then a sub-standard Pac-12 in a newly renovated Pauley Pavilion won't go over well in Westwood.
O'Neil: There is nothing worse than going in one direction in your conference while everyone else is going the other. Welcome to Wrong Way Street, Jeff Bzdelik. With the soon-to-be additions of Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame, plus the resurrection of NC State and Virginia and the emergence of Florida State, the ACC is being reborn into what it's long been advertised as -- the best college basketball in the country. Which leaves Bzdelik, 21-42 in his first two seasons at Wake Forest, swimming upstream. Between player exiles, bad losses and five league wins in two seasons, the Demon Deacons are worse than bad; they are irrelevant. That's not going to fly for long.
Medcalf: Ben Howland. I mean, if he can't make a run with Shabazz Muhammad and the top recruiting class in the country, the Wear twins, Josh Smith and a veteran point guard (Larry Drew II), it's probably time to go, right? Last season's collapse and the Reeves Nelson drama certainly increased the fire underneath Howland. But the promise of this prestigious freshman crew turned down the temperature on his job status. Expect everything to heat up again, however, if the Bruins fail to meet expectations this season.
5. Is there one sleeper player or team we should jump on the bandwagon for?
Brennan: Kansas State. I know the Wildcats' talent won't jump out at you, but this was a very good, hard-nosed team on the defensive end and the glass last season. With the exception of Jamar Samuels, everyone is back, and the squad seems perfectly predisposed to excel under new coach Bruce Weber, who is at his best guiding players who commit fully to the his stringent man-to-man system. In a Big 12 with one overriding favorite and plenty of question marks, I'd buy K-State stock.
Katz: I could go with BYU because I think the Cougars are being undervalued. But I'm going to give you a traditional power to track: Georgetown. The Hoyas lost Hollis Thompson and Henry Sims, but Otto Porter could end up being the Big East Player of the Year. Markel Starks is a steady leader. The rising sophomores have all had tremendous summers, and the freshman class will be viewed favorably by March.
O'Neil: Tony Mitchell and North Texas. The two go hand in hand. If Mitchell can be the player many suspect he can be, the Mean Green will be a big sleeper worth watching. Originally targeted for Missouri, Mitchell didn't have the grades to make it there, so he ended up in the Sun Belt Conference, where he averaged 14.3 points and 10.7 rebounds as a freshman. Plenty expected him to jump to the NBA -- his raw athletic ability alone made him worth the risk -- but he opted to stay, even after his coach, Johnny Jones, bolted to LSU. Don't be surprised if Mitchell doesn't turn Denton, Texas, into a college hoops destination visit this season, much like Isaiah Canaan lured folks to Murray last season.
Medcalf: Tell your friends about the Iowa Hawkeyes. Yes, they lost Matt Gatens, but the Hawks should be deeper and more versatile. Look for Roy Devyn Marble to become a star. The team is bigger now with freshman center Adam Woodbury in the mix. Sophomore Aaron White (11.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg) is a young stud. Iowa lost multiple Big Ten games by single digits last season. A more mature team, however, won't stumble as often. Fran McCaffery is cooking something good in Iowa City right now.