A guide to the 2011-12 college hoops season

November 5, 2011 - 4:40 AM

The NBA season is on hold and seems as if it will never start.

No worries hoops fans, there will be plenty to watch — the college basketball season is upon us.

It didn't seem all that long ago that Connecticut and one-man gang Kemba Walker cut down the nets in Houston after beating mid-major monster Butler in its second straight trip to the title game.

Now, there's a new season with a new set of story lines — some pretty interesting ones, too.

The Tar Heels, Ohio State, Kentucky and UConn are among the front-runners to cut down the nets in New Orleans on April 2. Super sophomores Jared Sullinger of Ohio State and North Carolina's Harrison Barnes are the likely favorites to be the player of the year.

Many college hoops fans already knew that.

To get ready for a season that's actually going to start on time, here's a few other things to keep an eye on.

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STORY LINES

Can North Carolina go undefeated? No team has done it since Indiana in 1975-76 and the odds aren't all that good, particularly with games against Kentucky, Texas and Michigan State on the nonconference schedule. But the Tar Heels do have a lineup that could include five NBA first-round draft picks and the ACC isn't all that strong this season, so you never know.

The new stars. College basketball lost some big names, with Walker, Derrick Williams and The Jimmer off to play in the NBA. Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Harrison Barnes of North Carolina figure to be the best bets to be the ones to take their places, but there are plenty of talented players around the country, from UConn's Jeremy Lamb, Pittsburgh's Ashton Gibbs and Kentucky's Terrence Jones, among others.

Mike Krzyzewski's run at history. The Duke coach has 900 wins, leaving him two behind Bob Knight to become the winningest men's basketball coach in Division I history. Coach K can tie the record Nov. 12 at home against Presbyterian and pass Knight three nights later against Michigan State at Madison Square Garden.

Can Butler make it to a third straight title game? The Bulldogs pulled off one of the more improbable feats in college basketball history by coming a half-second shot away from beating Duke in the 2010 national title game, then making it all the way back to face UConn last season. Chances are the small school with the tough academic standards won't have much of a shot, but the Bulldogs have been the kings of proving everyone wrong, so don't count them out.

Big East blast off. This could be the final season of the Big East as we know it, with Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia all bolting for new conferences. The Big East is set to invite SMU, Houston and Central Florida — along with Boise State, Navy and Air Force in football — but it won't be quite the same, so we should enjoy it while we can.

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FABULOUS FRESHMEN

Every season, there are a handful of freshmen who have an immediate impact on their teams — half of those seemingly coming from Kentucky, sort of a clearinghouse for the nation's best 18 and 19-year-olds under coach John Calipari.

Well, he's got another stellar group and there are a few more fab freshmen who could play a big role for their teams this season. Here's a few:

Anthony Davis, Kentucky. Coach Cal has been hit with more than his share of one-and-done stars, but always seems to find another diamond to take their place. Davis is the latest freshman star in the making, an athletic and versatile big man who was rated the No. 1 overall prospect by many recruiting services.

Andrew Drummond, Connecticut. The Huskies lost King Kemba to the NBA. Drummond, a dominating center, gives them a realistic shot at repeating as champions.

Josiah Turner, Arizona. Wildcats coach Sean Miller has shown off his chops as a recruiter, consistently bringing in some of the best classes in the country. He did it again with a 2011 group that includes Turner, a big, pass-first point guard who should help ease the loss of Derrick Williams in the desert.

Austin Rivers, Duke. The son of former NBA player and current Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, Austin is, no surprise, a heady player. He knows how to get an offense flowing and has a good range of his jumper, which should help the Blue Devils after Kyrie Irving left for the NBA.

Jabari Brown, Oregon. The Ducks are a sleeper pick in the reconfigured Pac-12 and Brown is a key reason. The shooting guard is known for hit 3-point touch, but can drive to the basket as well.

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NUMBERS

2_Number of ACL injuries suffered by Purdue forward Robbie Hummel, who, cross your fingers, should be a dominant force in the Big Ten this season.

4_Number of guards Florida coach Billy Donovan could use on the court at the same time this season.

7_Straight times Kansas has won or shared the Big 12 title, a string that even Jayhawks coach Bill Self says could be in jeopardy.

7-2_Odds for North Carolina to win the national title this season, lowest from Bodog.com.

10_NCAA tournament wins by Butler the past two seasons, two more than Duke, the next closest team.

22.3_Points per game by Northern Illinois' Xavier Silas, the top returning Division I scorer.

34_Age of Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart, the hottest commodity in coaching who turned down overtures to remain with the Rams.

36.3_Shooting percentage allowed by Florida State to lead the nation for the second straight season, also best in the ACC in 52 years.

62_First-place votes out of a possible 65 for North Carolina in The Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll.

805_Consecutive games with a 3-pointer by UNLV, a streak that keeps going and going and ...

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MIGHTY MID-MAJORS

Butler has set the standard for mid-majors, making improbable runs to the national title games the past two seasons. Shaka and VCU made it a mid-major mash-up in Houston by making it to the Final Four with the Bulldogs.

So which mid-majors are poised to make the most noise this season? We're glad you asked.

Memphis. With the run the Tigers have had the past few years, they've reached a level above mid-major, perhaps into super-mid-major, or whatever you want to call it. Coach Josh Pastner has done a superb job in recruiting and with those young players becoming more experienced, Memphis could be ready for a deep run.

Xavier. Another are-they-really-a-mid-major program. The Musketeers have made seven straight trips to the NCAA tournament and regularly go deep, despite last season's disappointing first-round exit. Xavier has a versatile lineup filled with experienced players, led by Atlantic 10 player of the year Tu Holloway.

Gonzaga. No list of mid-majors is complete without the Zags. Gonzaga has had an impressive run under coach Mark Few, winning or sharing the past 11 West Coast Conference titles. The addition of BYU to the league could put that streak in jeopardy, but the Zags have that been-there-done-that mindset and are loaded up front, led by Robert Sacre and Elias Harris.

Butler. OK, we couldn't stay away. Whether it was the Bulldogs' don't-count-us-out run the past two years or wanting to get our paws on fan favorite Blue 2 again in New Orleans, we had to include them on the list.

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NEW COACHES

Every year, the reigns of a program are handed over to a new coach after the last one was either fired or left. Last season was one for the record books, with about four dozen programs bringing in new bosses.

Here's a few of the high-profile new hoops leaders:

Mike Anderson, Arkansas. The former Nolan Richardson protégé had a solid run away from Fayetteville, putting up winning records at UAB and Missouri while taking his teams to the NCAA tournament six times in nine years. He brings hard-nosed experience and nostalgia to the Razorbacks.

Lon Kruger, Oklahoma. Jeff Capel did a nice job of helping the Sooners rebound from the Kelvin Sampson era, but the past couple of seasons were a struggle. In comes Kruger, the steady coach who's had success pretty much everywhere he's been, leading four different teams to the NCAA tournament.

Cuonzo Martin, Tennessee. The Vols were left in disarray after an NCAA investigation and Bruce's Pearl's admittance that he lied to investigators, which eventually led to his firing. Martin turned Missouri State into the Missouri Valley Conference's top-scoring team with his frenetic offense, which should be a good fit for the Vols and the SEC.

Mark Turgeon, Maryland. For the first time since 1989, Gary Williams won't be screaming and sweating through his suit in front of Maryland's bench after retiring during the offseason. The Terps couldn't lure Sean Miller away from Arizona, but found a pretty good one in Turgeon, who led Texas A&M to four straight NCAA tournament appearances before he left College Station.