Our top questions for the SEC, Big 12, Conference USA and more
College football season hasn’t begun, but here at Athlon we’re already hard at work in thinking about the 2012-13 basketball season. Believe us, the season will be here before you know it.
Every team has questions about the upcoming season, but some are bigger than others.
We’ll look at some of the biggest questions for 2012-13. Like the NCAA Tournament, we’re taking on 17 questions in each region of the country for our Great 68 questions. We’ve “seeded” our questions, too, for the biggest question in each region.
We start today with the South, which includes the Big 12, Conference USA, Ohio Valley, SEC and Sun Belt.
South Region No. 1 seed: The new bar is a national title. Can John Calipari do it again with a new cast of characters?
John Calipari answered last season if he could win a national title with a team full of freshmen on their way to the NBA. Now the question is if this is the new norm. The Wildcats missed out on Shabazz Muhammad, but the landed Nerlens Noel, who is now eligible. Noel joins star freshmen Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress along with sophomore holdover Kyle Wiltjer. After going from rookies Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, Brandon Knight to Marquis Teague, Calipari will have a veteran at point guard. Ryan Harrow was a top-50 recruit who started his career at NC State in 2010-11 before transferring to Kentucky.
No. 2: Are Elijah Johnson and Ben McLemore next in line for Stardom at Kansas?
Kansas is never short on elite talented players growing into their roles at the right time. Think Thomas Robinson, who went from part-time player to player of the year candidate. After averaging 13.3 points in the NCAA Tournament, the point guard Johnson is a top candidate to take the lead of the Jayhawks. Shooting guard Ben McLemore missed last season with academic concerns, but he should be worth the wait. Bill Self said McLemore may have been Kansas’ top pro prospect had he played, a major compliment considering Robinson was drafted fifth overall at the end of the season.
Related: Bill Self tops Big 12 coach rankings
No. 3: Will Patric Young make the most of his return to Florida?
Young has tantalized with his ability in two seasons at Florida, giving the Gators center reason to consider bolting for the NBA Draft. He returned to school with areas to improve. If Young can play to his potential, Florida could be a threat for a third consecutive trip to the Elite Eight or beyond. Young has struggled at times in the offensive end (his 10.2 points per game was fifth on the team), and he’ll need to prove he can be a go-to player on a team without Bradley Beal and Erving Walker.
No. 4: What can Isaiah Canaan do for an encore?
Canaan (19 points per game) returned to Murray State giving the Racers a chance for another gaudy record and wins in the NCAA Tournament. Canaan was undoubtedly the top player on a team that finished 31-2, but Murray State loses three starters. Power forward Ed Daniel (6.8 points, 5.5 rebounds) will give Murray State a quality inside-outside duo for a program that has won at least 30 games in two of the last three seasons.
No. 5: What does a full season of Jarnell Stokes mean for Tennessee?
Tennessee’s record with Jarnell Stokes (10-7) wasn’t all that different from its record without him (9-8), but his arrival was one of the keys to salvaging a season that started with losses to Austin Peay and Charleston. The 6-8, 250-pound forward will team with Jeronne Maymon for a bruising frontcourt. Coach Cuonzo’s Martin first trip to the NCAA Tournament is the expectation.
No. 6: Does Missouri have another surprise up its sleeve?
Marcus Denmon, Kim English and Ricardo Ratliffe are among five seniors gone from a team that unexpectedly won 30 games last season. The Tigers may be low in the preseason projections again, but National Coach of the Year Frank Haith may have another surprise season in him. Sophomore point guard Phil Pressey (10.3 points per game, 6.4 assists) is a budding star, and with Laurence Bowers healthy, Mizzou should have the inside presence it lacked last season. If Alex Oriakhi plays like he did during Connecticut’s 2011 championship run, Missouri should be in the SEC title mix.
No. 7: Memphis has veterans. Will that allow Josh Pastner to advance in March?
Memphis has had the most talent in Conference USA in three seasons under Pastner, but that hasn’t translated to dominance (36-12 in C-USA the last three years). Guard Joe Jackson is a junior, and forward Adonis Thomas is a sophomore. They’ll work with a third McDonald’s All-American, freshman Shaq Goodwin, on perhaps Pastner’s most complete team since he was hired. The next step is to win an NCAA Tournament game.
No. 8: Can Bruce Weber win with Frank Martin’s veterans?
The long-term question is if Bruce Weber can sustain the momentum built at Kansas State under Frank Martin and Bob Huggins. For now, he’ll have an NCAA Tournament-caliber roster in his first season in Manhattan. High-scoring guard Rodney McGruder is back as are forwards Jordan Henriquez and Angel Rodriguez. Contending for the Big 12 title and a run in the NCAA Tournament isn’t out of the question for the former Illinois coach in his first season at K-State.
No. 9: Will a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans carry Oklahoma State to the NCAA Tournament?
After leading Oklahoma State to the NCAA Tournament in his first two seasons, Travis Ford has struggled in the last two, including the Cowboys’ first losing season since 1987-88. Ford is counting on a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans -- sophomore Le’Bryan Nash and freshman Marcus Smart -- to return the Pokes to prominence. Nash (39.4 percent shooting from the field) needed some seasoning last season, but Oklahoma State is counting on Smart to be a leader and distributor from Day 1.
No. 10: Is Texas’ fate tied to Myck Kabongo’s development?
The last player to lead Texas in assists per game in consecutive seasons was D.J. Augustin in 2006-07 and 2007-08. Kabongo will have a chance to do so this season, but he’ll need to round out his game after shooting 39.1 percent from the floor last season (thanks to a 13-for-54 slump in the final seven games). The speedy guard might not be the only key to Texas’ season, but with so many sophomores and freshmen expected to play key roles, he’ll need to play like a veteran.
No. 11: Can Devonta Pollard lead Alabama to the next step?
Anthony Grant has led Alabama to 17 wins in his first season to 25 wins and an NIT bid in his second to 21 bids and an NCAA bid in his third. What’s next in Tuscaloosa? J’Mychal Green and Tony Mitchell are gone in the frontcourt, but five-star freshman small forward Devonta Pollard (6-8, 200 pounds) could take their place. With experienced point guard Trevor Releford and a talented 2011 signing class moving into its sophomore season, Alabama could be gearing up for even more in Grant’s fourth season and beyond.
No. 12: Can Atlantic 10 transfers help West Virginia make a dent in the Big 12?
Aaric Murray (La Salle) and Juwan Staten (Dayton) were considered recruiting coups when they signed with their respective A-10 schools, but they delivered mixed results and no NCAA Tournament bids. Now they’re on Bob Huggins’ roster (along with Boston College transfer Matt Humphrey). Huggins has been one of the nation’s most consistent coaches in reaching the Tournament and remaining competitive in any conference in which he’s coached, but all these new faces in Morgantown presents a challenge.
No. 13: Is Tony Mitchell an All-American for North Texas?
North Texas lost its successful long-time coach Johnny Jones to LSU, but the Mean Green didn’t lose its star player. The 6-8, 235-pound Tony Mitchell, a former Missouri signee before he was an academic nonqualifier, may be North Texas’ top player since the 1970s and could make a run at some postseason hardware after averaging 14.7 points and 10.3 rebounds last season.
No. 14: How will Baylor’s veteran backcourt mesh with the young frontcourt?
In between two Elite Eight trips, Baylor went 18-13 and missed the NCAA Tournaments, so it seems anything is possible with the Bears. Perry Jones, Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller are gone, but Baylor brings in highly touted freshman center in Isaiah Austin and power forward Ricardo Gathers. Senior point guard Pierre Jackson and junior Brady Heslip are in the backcourt, making for an interesting dynamic in Waco.
No. 15: Can Marshall make the field for the first time since 1987?
The Thundering Herd won 21 games and reached the NIT last season. With stat-sheet stuffing guard DeAndre Kane (16.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists) and double-double threat Dennis Tinnon (10.2 points, 10 boards) returning, Marshall could threaten Memphis in Conference USA.
No. 16: What’s left at Vanderbilt?
Jeffery Taylor, John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli were the foundation of the last two Commodores teams and key players of the last three. All are gone plus Brad Tinsley, Lance Goulbourne and Steve Tchiengang, leaving Kedren Johnson (3.1 ppg) as the top returning scorer. After three consecutive Tournaments and six seasons without a losing record in the SEC, an inexperienced Vandy could be one of the bottom three teams in the conference.
No. 17: Will another batch of transfers continue to lift Iowa State?
Minnesota transfer Royce White carried Iowa State back into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven seasons by leading the Cyclones in scoring, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. There might not be another Royce White in Ames, but third-year coach Fred Hoiberg is looking to transfers Will Clyburn (Utah) and Korie Lucious (Michigan State) to keep Iowa State relevant.