Fifteen ESPN experts agreed to make their predictions concerning the 2011-12 season. They kindly ask that you do not reference this page in March (unless they're right, of course).
Stephen Bardo: Watch out for Iowa State come tournament time. It will take a while for them to gel and it may not come in time for a run at the Big 12 regular-season title, but if the four transfers (Royce White, Chris Allen, Chris Babb and Anthony Booker) can blend with Juco All-American Tyrus McGee and 3-point gunner Scott Christopherson, this is a dangerous team. Depth in the backcourt and athleticism in the frontcourt is a great combo.
The best conference player of the year race will be in the Big West, where Long Beach State's Casper Ware and UCSB's Orlando Johnson will have a knock-down, drag-out fight for the trophy. The 49ers and Gauchos should be the two best teams in the league and Ware and Johnson are clearly the two best players.
No one's entirely certain how the Pac-12 will shake out this season, but the common consensus pegs UCLA and Cal as the conference's two early favorites. That makes sense, I suppose, but what about Washington? The Huskies lost plenty this spring -- Isaiah Thomas was the heart and soul of a late turnaround -- but freshman point guard Tony Wroten Jr. is a hyper-talented guard who should pair well with sophomore breakout candidate Terrence Ross in Lorenzo Romar's fast-break system. The Huskies will have to grow up quickly, but by season's end, they might just be the class of the Pac-12.
The SEC will get three teams to the Elite Eight this season. Kentucky is a logical choice because Coach Cal's roster is loaded again this season and he's proven that his young teams get better in March. Florida and Vanderbilt will both be strong contenders for a spot in the Elite Eight, but I'll go with Billy Donovan's guards and an improved Patric Young. As for the third, on the strength of its defense and the potentially explosive duo of Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green, Alabama is my surprise team to get to a regional final.
Jared Sullinger will have the best season a college player's had in the past five years. I don't know why Sullinger is still here. Since the advent of the NBA's one-and-done rule, no big man with his ability has ever been a college sophomore. But Sullinger's back, and I can't wait to see what he does. Every scrap of information we have on the actual rookie-year performance of players like DeMarcus Cousins, DeJuan Blair and especially Kevin Love tells us that Sullinger would very likely be productive -- not sensational, of course, but productive -- if he were in the NBA this season. (If there were an NBA this season.) But he's not in the NBA playing against Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony. Instead, he's in the Big Ten playing against Jared Berggren and John Shurna. The result should be sensational.
The Elite Eight will be littered with teams outside the big six conferences, but only one will break through to the Final Four. This could be the year when Gonzaga, Creighton, Memphis and New Mexico make significant runs in March. My bold prediction, though, is that Xavier makes the most significant run of all and advances to the school's first Final Four.
For the first time in 22 years, Kansas will lose more than 10 games. The Jayhawks have a solid starting five, but a lack of depth and a brutal schedule will lead to the worst won-loss record in Lawrence since 1988-89, when Roy Williams' first team went 19-12. KU's nonconference slate includes games against Kentucky, Ohio State, USC, Georgetown and potentially UCLA. And for the first time since the Big 12's inception, the Jayhawks have to play all of the Texas and Oklahoma schools twice.
Neither North Carolina nor Kentucky, the top two teams in the preseason, will reach the NCAA championship game. Certainly the hype for the two teams is well-deserved -- no doubt about it. There are future pros everywhere. But even in a season when the traditional powers are expected to dominate, the NCAA tournament remains unpredictable and has featured surprise teams getting to the Final Four in recent years. Upsets happen, and I'll take the field to get to the title game over the Tar Heels and Wildcats.
This will be a season of "chalk" in college basketball. Forget Butler and VCU in the Final Four, or BYU and San Diego State in the top 10. The power conferences are back with a vengeance this year. Memphis and Xavier may crack the elite, but it's hard to call them anything but high majors. The big boys will dominate the polls and the late rounds of the NCAA tournament, and I like two of the big-boy coaches -- Jamie Dixon (Pitt) and Bo Ryan (Wisconsin) -- to make their Final Four debut alongside juggernauts Kentucky and North Carolina.
Tom Crean will orchestrate one of the top turnarounds in the country and guide Indiana to the NCAA tournament. The Hoosiers went 3-15 in the Big Ten last season, but they had to deal with a multitude of injuries throughout. With Christian Watford and freshman Cody Zeller inside, however, they're talented enough to contend with most of the squads in a young Big Ten. Minnesota, Michigan State, Michigan, Illinois, Northwestern and Penn State all lost veteran point guards. But senior point guard Verdell Jones returns for Indiana. His experience will help the Hoosiers dance for the first time since 2008.
I'd say picking a 6-foot guard from the Atlantic 10 as national player of the year is pretty bold, so I'll stick with that. Why do I think it can happen? Because Holloway is skilled and smart, because Xavier is loaded and because if the Musketeers reach their potential, it will be because Holloway led them there. If Jameer Nelson and David West can do it, why not Holloway?
My bold prediction for this year is that the newly formed Pac-12 will get five teams to the NCAA tourney. Cal, UCLA, Arizona and Washington will all be good, but Oregon and Stanford might both surprise. The Ducks somehow won 21 games in Dana Altman's first season and he brings in freshman Jabari Brown as well as transfers Devoe Joseph, Olu Ashaolu and Tony Woods. The Cardinal returns four starters and has the point guard Johnny Dawkins has been looking for in freshman Chasson Randle.
Rick Byrd's Belmont team is deep and seriously talented. Coming off a 30-win season in which they reached the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in six years, the Bruins have the talent and experience to cause a ton of havoc right out of the gate. Byrd's team will have 10-plus players averaging 10 minutes per game and could upset both Duke and Memphis in November. Watch out.