Name a team from a Big Six power conference that you believe could surprise in 2011-12.
Mitch Light: I believe California will emerge as the biggest threat to Arizona in the new-look Pac-12. Mike Montgomery’s club welcomes back its top three scorers, led by the underrated backcourt of veteran leader Jorge Gutierrez and sophomore sharpshooter Allen Crabbe. Cal lost four double-digit scorers from the 2009 club that won the Pac-10 crown, yet Montgomery still had his team competitive in the league last season; the Bears tied for fourth with a 10–8 mark and advanced to the second round of the NIT. In two years, Montgomery is 23–13 in league games. The guy is a proven winner, and he figures to have the ’11-12 Golden Bears back in the NCAA Tournament after a one-year hiatus.
Nathan Rush: Former George Mason giant killer Jim Larranaga takes over a Miami roster that has all of the pieces in place for a “Cinderella” run in the ACC. The New York City backcourt of junior point guard Durand Scott (13.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.1 apg) and senior Villanova transfer Malcolm Grant (14.8 ppg, 42.3 3PT%) gives the U a solid, veteran foundation to build on. Ever-improving 300-pound junior center Reggie Johnson (11.9 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 59.1 FG%) should be hitting his prime. If enigmatic highlight-reel high-jumper DeQuan Jones can finally rise to the occasion for his senior year or another wing steps up to replace departed sixth-year senior Adrian Thomas, then the Heat won’t be the only team making noise on the hardwood in South Florida.
Patrick Snow: I think a surprise team on the national scene for the 2011-12 campaign is Cincinnati. While much of the Big East preseason talk will revolve around Syracuse, Louisville, Pittsburgh and defending national champion UConn, Mick Cronin’s squad returns its top four scorers from a 26–9 team. The Bearcats won 11 conference games a year ago and finally bought in to Cronin’s defensive style. They should have a solid nucleus with those top four players — Yancy Gates, Dion Dixon, Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright — and newcomer Shaquille Thomas could provide some added scoring punch. It took five years for Cronin to get the UC program back to a top level, and he should have a quality team that will make some noise during the upcoming season.