At the dawn of college basketball's 2011-2012 season, Mike Rutherford gives ten bold predictions about what will take place between now and the first Monday of April.
College basketball's 2011-2012 season begins in earnest on Friday with a slate of 130 games, highlighted by the Carrier Classic matchup between No. 1 North Carolina and Michigan State.
So we know where it starts, but let's try and fill in some of the blank slate that is now through April 2. If we're wrong, we erase it and pretend it never happened. Just like the '80s.
1. Kentucky will win the national championship
Probably should have saved this for last, but delayed gratification has never really been my thing.
I can understand the near-unanimous love North Carolina is receiving as preseason national champion...until I watch a replay of last year's Elite Eight game between the Tar Heels and Kentucky. It's true that Carolina was within striking distance for most of the final ten minutes of the game, but they also always appeared on the verge of being blown out. The teams traded baskets for much of the second half, but UK's points came much, much easier, which is generally the sign of being a better team.
Kendall Marshall was the biggest reason UNC was a dual ACC champion last season, but the lack of quickness that will keep him from being a lottery pick has never been more apparent than it was against Kentucky. Athleticism prevails more times than not in the big dance, and no one has more athletes than the Wildcats.
This UK team isn't as complete (or John Wall-occupied) as the '09 squad, but it should be better than the 2010 team that made the Final Four and probably should have cut down the nets. If the Cats can get just semi-consistent post play then they should claim their 8th national title.
2. No one will "crash" the Final Four
When someone "crashes" an event, the implication is that they don't belong there. Everyone loved seeing VCU and Butler do the unthinkable for two weeks last March, but I'm not sure folks were as enthusiastic about watching them actually play in the Final Four, especially since the Bulldogs had achieved the feat the season before.
The mid-major talent pool hasn't fallen off dramatically, but the top seeds in this year's NCAA Tournament figure to be more veteran-heavy than they have the past two or three years. With that being the case, it's hard to see an overlooked 11 seed from the Colonial or the Missouri Valley advance past the second weekend this March...unless they draw three other mid-majors and Kansas.
3. People will complain about the Carrier Classic
The decision made by several of last season's most exciting players to return to school has flair and star power back in college basketball. With that being in the case, it's only fitting that the season is being kicked off (again, in earnest) with a game being played on an aircraft carrier and attended by the President of the United States.
The concept is pretty sexy and the videos and pictures of the setup have attracted some significant attention over the past few days. This, of course, can only mean one thing: people are going to be massively disappointed.
Go ahead and get acclimated with these complaints: weather caused poor shooting; ESPN completely overhyped this; it was just bad basketball. Of course it's going to be bad basketball. This is November. It's every bit as much a part of the month as turkey and "Over the River and Through the Woods."
Unless there's a secretly planned fireworks show that will be capped off by Ryan Gosling flying onto center court wearing a jet pack, come Saturday morning "Carrier Classic" and "sucked" are going to spending a significant amount of time next to one another.
4. The Missouri Valley will be mid-major king once again
The Valley's reign as the unquestioned poster conference for mid-major basketball reached its peak on Selection Sunday in 2006 when the league placed four teams in the field of 65. That same reign essentially ended three weeks later when the Colonial Athletic Association's George Mason shocked Connecticut to become the lowest-seeded team ever to make the Final Four.
Since then, the CAA has gotten back to the Final Four (with VCU last year), and Butler has come out of the Horizon League to reach a pair of national title games. Meanwhile, the Valley has sent a grand total of zero at-large teams to the NCAA Tournament.
That should change this season, as six of the league's top ten scorers are back and Creighton, Wichita State and Indiana State all look more than capable of making the big dance without being victorious at Arch Madness.
5. The last unbeaten will be someone other than North Carolina, Kentucky or Ohio State
The Tar Heels, Wildcats and Buckeyes are the unquestioned top three teams in the country heading into the season, and deservedly so. Each has a first team preseason All-American, and each returns a handful of other key players from teams that were elite a year ago. Still, because of the difficulty of the trio's respective non-conference schedules - a move which should be applauded - it's hard to see any one of them making it deep into January without a loss.
I'm not saying that these three aren't the best teams in college basketball or that the national champion won't come out of this group (Actually, I already said Kentucky would win it all. Focus here. Eyes on me. This is why our country's test scores are so low), I just think it will be someone with a less challenging early season slate, like Connecticut, who will carry the flag of being the sport's final unbeaten.
6. Orlando Johnson will lead the nation in scoring
The Santa-Barbara senior averaged 21.1 points per game as a junior and shot 40.5 percent on 3-point attempts. Obviously he's not going to attract Jimmer-level attention from the national media, but the green light he'll have this season is going to even bigger than the one Fredette had a year ago.
And he can dance.
Always a good thing.
7. VCU will not make the NCAA Tournament
I know a lot of people were saying the same thing about Butler this time a year ago, but if Shaka Smart can get this VCU team back to the dance in his second year then he deserves even more hype than he received this offseason.
Joey Rodriguez, Jamie Skeen, Brandon Rozell and Ed Nixon are all gone, and the Colonial Athletic Association is not a forgiving conference. Drexel, George Mason and Old Dominion are all teams that should be competing for at-large bids, and the strength of the middle of the league is drastically underrated. It's also worth nothing that the Rams were an unpopular tournament format change away from playing in the NIT last season.
8. Louisville/Kentucky will be the most intense game of the regular season
The rivalry between the Wildcats and the Cardinals was already the most hate-filled in college basketball before John Calipari and Rick Pitino started lobbing thinly-veiled insults at one another. Now it's reached a level where I fear Rupp Arena may spontaneously combust before the ball can even be tipped on Dec. 31.
The hate has always been there, but for the first time in a long time, the hype is back. Both teams figure to enter this year's game with a top ten ranking and national title aspirations. Every moment will be loud, every dribble will be contested and every second will be worth watching.
9. Kansas will not win the Big 12
Penciling Kansas in as the regular season champion in the Big 12 has become about as much of a no-brainer as taking a 1 over a 16 when filling out your NCAA bracket. The Jayhawks have won eight straight league titles, and have complimented that by winning the conference tournament title in four of the past five seasons.
That will change this year as the Jayhawks lack both experience and star power. Two of Bill Self's most promising freshmen were declared ineligible before the start of the season and the team's lone returning starter, senior Tyshawn Taylor, responded to his coach's call for leadership by getting himself suspended...again.
Unless Thomas Robinson is even better than expected and at least one relatively unheralded player on the roster steps up and has a breakout season, then this will be the year someone else wears the crown in the Big 12.
10. Jared Sullinger will win National Player of the Year
OK, nine bold predictions. Sometimes you can't fight what's comin'.