All week long -- in the wake of Sunday night's draft deadline -- we've been taking a sneak peek at the 2011-12 college basketball season. Among the highlights: Andy Katz's top 25, Joe Lunardi's Bracketology, Dana O'Neil's column on the lessons of this offseason and Pat Forde's 10 things he's most looking forward to next season.
For today, three of our writers -- Katz, Eamonn Brennan and Diamond Leung -- begin a series that we will have throughout the offseason, answering four big questions about the sport they cover.
1. Is college basketball better off with two blue bloods like North Carolina and Kentucky on top heading into the season?
Brennan: Frankly, guys, I'm not sure how we could argue otherwise. For the past few years, we've heard constant complaints from college hoops analysts and fans that the college game isn't what it used to be -- that all the best talent left for the NBA before programs had a chance to build something lasting and legendary. Call it the era of no great teams. Whether next season is a one-time thing or the start of a trend, the depth, talent and veteran greatness of North Carolina and Kentucky -- arguably the nation's two most recognizable programs -- will end that era. It'll be thrilling to watch, and I think most casual fans will agree. Andy, Diamond ... is there any way this isn't good for the sport?
Katz: Look, it's great for the game that Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson decided to return to school. I love that these three players see some unfinished business. Kentucky has the potential to be a special team. But that would mean the Wildcats are relying heavily on freshmen.
I still have UK at No. 2 on my list, but Marquis Teague now has to be the point guard without Brandon Knight as his mentor. That's asking an awful lot for Kentucky to have three straight special point guards as freshmen. I'm not convinced yet that Teague can follow up on what John Wall and Knight did for the Wildcats. That's my minor critique. But having UNC and Kentucky atop the rankings is good for the game. Familiar names help the sport, especially in gathering excitement leading into the season. Once you get to March, it's OK for a school like Butler to build momentum toward a title run. But the sport needs schools like Kentucky and UNC to set the table in October.
Leung: No argument here, as it's great for the sport that both teams will go into next season with big expectations. Coming off a Final Four appearance, Kentucky should be well-known to even the casual fan, and it's nice to see John Calipari and Terrence Jones getting a chance to team up for another chance at a championship. With North Carolina, it's Barnes and Roy Williams aiming for a title and a chance to add to the tradition. I bring up those names in particular because it's high-profile coaches and mega-talents who bring the star power. Eamonn's point about no great teams has been a knock on the sport since the one-and-done era. That Barnes and Jones are among those going against the grain by coming back for their sophomore seasons really adds intrigue to next season. I think the college basketball fan is one of the clear winners of the offseason.
2. Where does Ohio State fit into the equation? Are there three clear national title favorites?
Leung: Ohio State is right there with North Carolina and Kentucky because the Buckeyes have the best big man in the nation. Jared Sullinger is an absolute force and a national player of the year candidate. He bucked the one-and-done trend and sent a message by telling everyone how he couldn't stomach going out with a loss. Yes, Ohio State loses experience with Jon Diebler and David Lighty completing their eligibility, but it would seem that point guard Aaron Craft is more than ready to take on a larger role. The Buckeyes are the clear favorites in the Big Ten and definitely should be in the national title conversation. Andy had them ranked third in his preseason top 25 poll, and I think that's on the mark.
Katz: The separation begins after Ohio State. The Buckeyes have the talent to compete with North Carolina and Kentucky for the national title at the outset of the regular season. Sullinger will be the most dominant true big man in the country. William Buford should star whenever there is a double-team. Craft will only get better defending on the ball, and he's already a solid point guard for this club. Thad Matta continues to recruit at a high level and will have the necessary personnel to handle various matchups. Ohio State is the clear choice in the Big Ten and a top-three team.
Brennan: At the risk of being boring and agreeable, you guys are both right. Ohio State appears to be the clear No. 3 but well within striking distance of a national championship run, given the mix of talent and experience Matta will bring back this fall. Also keep an eye out for forward Deshaun Thomas. He played in spot duty last season and was better known for his propensity as a conscience-free chuck artist, but he's a big, strong, talented player. Thomas was one of the best recruits in the country last season but fell back in the shadow of Sullinger, and he should excel in a larger role next season.
3. Which new coach is set up to have the most success in his first season?
Brennan: I think it's Missouri coach Frank Haith. The Haith hire has been criticized up and down in these parts and elsewhere, and those criticisms are all valid. But in 2011-12 at least, Haith has a team capable of competing for the Big 12 title. Missouri returns basically everyone from last season's team, including all five of the team's double-digit scorers. Of course, those players are accustomed to Mike Anderson's run-and-gun style, and there could be an adjustment period as the players get used to playing a more conventional brand of basketball. But few coaches inherit situations quite this ripe for the picking. I'm not sure there's another new coach in the country with this good a chance at immediate success. Andy, what do you think?
Katz: I agree on Haith. But his situation is set up for him to win. My choice is actually Paul Hewitt. George Mason is a top-25 team, is the pick to win the Colonial and has the personnel to get to the Big Dance and beyond. Mason could pull a Mason (again) or a VCU and get to New Orleans. So this team is gift-wrapped for Hewitt to win right away. The veteran coach is getting a second chance quickly after being fired at Georgia Tech, and he'll have a better team next season with the Patriots than he would've had in Atlanta. Hewitt could have more NCAA appearances at GMU than Brian Gregory does at Tech.
Leung: I'll go with Dave Rice at UNLV, since Lon Kruger left him with a roster that has what it takes to win the Mountain West Conference championship. Oscar Bellfield, Anthony Marshall, Chace Stanback and Quintrell Thomas are back after starting last season. The Rebels also add transfer Mike Moser and should get back top 3-point shooter Kendall Wallace, who missed last season with a torn ACL. Rice has the personnel to play his up-tempo style and should be able to win right away with a team that is expected to be better than this past season's NCAA tournament team.
4. The Pac-12 took yet another hit from the NBA and adds two programs expected to be in rebuilding mode. Will the league be better or still stuck in a rut?
Leung: The Pac-12 in its first year won't look any better than the last couple of years of the Pac-10 -- not after nine underclassmen left for the NBA draft. Arizona, UCLA and Washington are NCAA tournament teams that took hits. The league is now left with only Cal's Jorge Gutierrez and UCLA's Reeves Nelson returning from its 10-member all-conference team. There is reason for optimism, though, because the young talent in the league remains good. Cal's Allen Crabbe, UCLA's Joshua Smith and Washington's Terrence Ross are soon-to-be sophomores expected to make big jumps. And the profile of the Pac-12 should improve as well, with storied programs Arizona and UCLA as the favorites and the league maintaining its reputation for churning out NBA prospects.
Brennan: The Pac-10 has been much-maligned in recent seasons, and there are good reasons for that common perception: The conference simply hasn't been as consistent top-to-bottom as the best leagues in the country. That said, the Pac-10 probably got a bad rap last season, at least until people realized that Arizona, Washington and UCLA were better, more efficient teams than everyone thought. I'll be interested to see whether there are any similar sneaky-good runs next season. Yeah, the Pac-12 won't be great. But it might not be totally horrible. That might be the best I can do.
Katz: The timing is once again off. The Pac-12 secured its future with a monster television deal for football and basketball, especially by diversifying its television partnerships with Fox and ESPN/ABC. But the early-entry departures crushed the league just when it had some momentum. UCLA will still be decent, but losing Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee will set it back. Washington State had some mojo going with an NIT semifinal appearance, then lost Klay Thompson and DeAngelo Casto, meaning the Cougars are in rebuilding mode. Washington is still deep but lost the face of the program with the early departure of Isaiah Thomas. Arizona is the most stable right now to withstand the departure of its star in Derrick Williams. USC will take a step back with Nikola Vucevic leaving. Even Stanford took a major hit when Jeremy Green decided to stay in the draft, stunting the Cardinal's rebuilding project. This all opens up a vacuum for an Allen Crabbe-led Cal to step in, along with a possible sleeper in Oregon, which ended up shockingly making the postseason (CBI) under first-year coach Dana Altman. It'll be difficult for the conference to get out of its regular-season rut with so much transition, but winning big-time games in November and December for the first time in three years certainly would change that perception.