Ten brave ESPN experts agreed to make their predictions concerning the 2009-10 season. Here's what they think:
Jay Bilas: The Big Ten will end up being the best league in the country in 2010. In the past decade, the winner of zero ACC-Big Ten Challenges has had eight Final Four berths, one national title (2000 Michigan State) and five NCAA championship game appearances (losing twice to North Carolina and once apiece to Florida and Maryland). Yet people seem to think the Big Ten is no big thing. While the Big 12 will be a bear and the Big East and ACC will be outstanding, I think this might be the Big Ten's year.
Butler will make the Final Four. The Bulldogs bring back everybody from a 26-win team, took a chemistry-enhancing August trip to Italy and are expertly coached by Brad Stevens. In forwards Matt Howard and Gordon Hayward and guard Shelvin Mack, they have a trio of college-level star players. The experience gained last season will propel Butler through some difficult NCAA tournament matchups against more athletic teams, and its shooting and defense will see it through to a homecoming in Indianapolis.
Cincinnati's Lance Stephenson will be the Big East's highest-drafted player after this season. Georgetown's Greg Monroe might have something to say about this, but reports out of the Queen City have been extremely positive about Stephenson. There's no denying his NBA potential as a swing man. He has had the body of a pro since he was 16, and he gets to the lane at will, scores like he breathes and is a deceptively good passer. The usual maturity issues will hang over Stephenson's head for a while, but if he can keep his emotions in check and develop into a good teammate, he could be the catalyst for a Bearcats resurgence this year -- and Mick Cronin's gamble will have paid off for everyone involved.
This will be the year of the revival of programs that either haven't been to the NCAAs or have been in a serious drought. I'm looking for Northwestern to get its first bid ever, Oregon State to go to the NCAAs for the first time since 1990, Seton Hall for only the third time since 2000, Cincinnati for the first time since 2005 (after 14 straight) and Ole Miss for the first time since 2002 (longest drought in the SEC).
What if the next scandal in college basketball has nothing to do with point shaving, academic fraud or extra benefits? What if the sculpted bodies and ripped athletes now prevalent on the hardwood aren't simply the result of extra time in the weight room? I would love to be wrong (and probably am about most of this), but my prediction is that a significant performance-enhancing drugs story will emerge this season in major college basketball. Just look at a few old photographs one day and tell me what you see (or, more specifically, don't see).
Indy-residing Butler will turn Indianapolis into the set of "Hoosiers" by bringing mid-major Cinderella dreams to the Final Four -- although calling the Bulldogs a Cinderella might be a stretch. With everyone back from last season's squad, Butler more resembles a legit power team than anyone's classic underdog. Call the Bulldogs whatever you want. I call them one of the last four teams standing in April.
I'm with my colleague Jay Bilas on this one. The much-maligned Big Ten -- not the ACC or Big East -- will be the best conference in the country. As many as eight Big Ten teams (even Northwestern) will be in position to make the NCAA tournament's 65-team field.
The fans in Indianapolis could be celebrating big-time as a little guy, Butler, has a legit shot to make it to the Final Four. Brad Stevens has good chemistry and experience returning with Gordon Hayward, Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack. By the way, Purdue is close by and could make it, as well!