This year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball season kicks off on November 7th, but the ESPN/Coaches Pre-Season poll is already out:

ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll
1 North Carolina (30) 0-0 774
2 Kentucky (1) 0-0 721
3 Ohio State 0-0 702
4 Connecticut 0-0 655
5 Syracuse 0-0 649
6 Duke 0-0 635
7 Vanderbilt 0-0 567
8 Louisville 0-0 514
9 Memphis 0-0 482
10 Florida 0-0 474
11 Pittsburgh 0-0 471
12 Baylor 0-0 358
13 Kansas 0-0 331
14 Wisconsin 0-0 313
15 Xavier 0-0 277
16 Arizona 0-0 269
17 Alabama 0-0 194
18 Michigan 0-0 187
19 Texas A&M 0-0 161
20 UCLA 0-0 147
21 Marquette 0-0 145
22 Cincinnati 0-0 141
23 Gonzaga 0-0 125
24 California 0-0 111
25 Missouri 0-0 110
  • Others receiving votes: Florida State 108, Texas 107, Michigan State 73, Temple 59, Washington 29, Butler 25, New Mexico 22, Creighton 19, Villanova 18, Purdue 17, UNLV 16, West Virginia 13, George Mason 12, Mississippi State 11, St. John’s 11, Saint Mary’s 5, Virginia 5, Virginia Commonwealth 4, Drexel 2, Kansas State 2, Long Beach State 2, Notre Dame 1, Brigham Young 1
  • Dropped from rankings: Butler 2, Virginia Commonwealth 6, Brigham Young 13, Notre Dame 14, Texas 16, Purdue 17, Florida State 19, Washington 23, Kansas State 24

Top-Team Breakdowns:

After a late season surge, an Elite-8 appearance, star player Harrison Barnes not entering the draft and a stellar recruiting class, UNC sees itself as the (almost) unanimous favorite going in to the 2011-2012 season.  With Tyler Zeller, John Henson and breakout point guard Kendall Marshall also returning, it’s hard to argue that the ‘Heels are the team to beat.  Don’t be fooled though, this group isn’t the reincarnation of the championship 2008-2009 squad by any means and the 2012 NCAA championship can be won by a number of teams on this list (or perhaps one or two that aren’t).

One of those teams that can surely topple UNC is 2nd ranked Kentucky.  I haven’t seen a recruiting class this good since Michigan’s Fab-Five.  The Wildcats have 3 top 10 recruits (4 in the top 20), including the #1 overall ranked Anthony Davis and #4 ranked Michael Gilchrist.  While #8 ranked Marquis Teague is no John Wall or Derek Rose, he’s the top ranked point guard in this class of incoming freshmen.  With Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb sticking around for another year, look for Kentucky to spend some time at the top of the polls.  The Wildcats have Final Four written all over them, and Terrence Jones is my sleeper pick for Player of the Year.

We all know why Ohio State is ranked so highly- it’s all about Jared Sullinger.  Sullinger was a lock for the #1 overall draft pick in the NBA but decided to avoid the lockout mess and clean up some unfinished business.  He’s not alone though, guards Aaron Craft and Will Buford return as well this season.  Look for the Buckeyes to get back to the Elite-8, but fall short yet again.  The crop of good teams is just too deep.

At #4 is the defending champion Uconn Huskies.  Catalyst Kemba Walker has moved on to the NBA, but man-child Andre Drummond has arrived on the scene this year.  Analysts compare him to Alonzo Mourning, but at 6-11 275 I see flashes of Shaq back at LSU (with a better handle/jumper).  Just check out the kid’s latest mixtape.  He’s a difference maker on both ends of the court and will be the key to UCONN making another run in March.  If Jeremy Lamb gels with this kid, look out.

In the words of my coworkers, “Cuuuuuuuse” is back in the mix this year after a disappointing end to an otherwise solid 2010-2011 campaign.  In my opinion, the Orange have the best coach in college basketball.  Jim Boeheim is a genius when it comes to utilizing the talent he has, and this year should be no exception.  Scoop Jardine has been at Syracuse forever and is poised for a solid season.  Kris Joseph and Brandon Triche will be huge contributors as the Orange return 4 starters and gain 2 McDonalds All-American freshmen.  No way this group gets bounced in the Sweet 16 again.

Now I know sports writers aren’t supposed to be biased, but here at TSB it’s our teams, our opinions.  I’ve been a Duke fan since I found out what college basketball was and I still am (although I admit, I do cheat on them from time to time with Kentucky… please don’t tell).  This is a team that is losing 3 starters but is still absolutely STACKED.  Diaper-dandy Austin Rivers was ranked #1 overall for the majority of the year until Kentucky’s Anthony Davis took over near the end.  The kid can straight up ball (sorry Andre Dawkins).  Quinn Cook is also a star recruit, but this season is all about former role players stepping up.  The Dukies have one of the biggest, whitest frontcourts in all of college basketball.  With the addition of freshman Marshall they now have 3 Plumlee brothers on the roster who can (and will) dunk on your head at any moment.  Ryan Kelly aka the ugliest man in college basketball got some solid minutes last year and will have an even bigger role this season.  This team isn’t a favorite to win the National Championship this season, but then again, was the 2009-2010 squad?  They’ll go as far as Rivers takes them.

The Rest:

The remainder of the top 10 is talented but doesn’t really stand out as big-time title contenders.  Vanderbilt will be a tough team but are sure to drop out of the top 10 (and possibly the top 25) at some point this season.  Rick Pitino is the main reason Lousiville is ranked #8.  Peyton Siva just isn’t as much of a bigtime player as Pitino needs to be, but look for Kyle Kuric to deliver if the Cardinals make it past the Sweet 16.  Memphis and Florida are both strong teams that have the potential to go deep this year, but neither of them scare me too much.

Outside of the top 10 there are some contenders but even more pretenders.  Pittsburgh is well coached and will rely on Ashton Gibbs HEAVILY.  Baylor has very talented athletes but never seem to put it together.  I really like Wisconsin, Xavier and Arizona’s chances to make some noise this year, but you can forget about Michigan or Gonzaga.  This isn’t the 90’s or early 2000’s anymore.

Unranked Sleepers:

2011 eventual champion UCONN wasn’t even ranked until Week 3 last year.  Things have changed in the NCAA.  If Butler can make it to the final game 2 years in a row and VCU can gain a Final Four birth, anything can happen.  That’s why it’s important to take a look at the teams with the potential to be great.  The squads without the hype who have a shot at putting things together.

I read up on Kemba Walker early last November.  He spent his summer going to camps, honing in his game.  The kid had fire and carried his team in every single tournament throughout the 2010-2011 season.  I’m one of the few who were high on UCONN early, because of Kemba, and there’s one team that stands out to me this year in a similar mold.

Texas incoming freshman point guard Myck Kabongo is a stud.  In my opinion, he should have been ranked the #1 over Teague, but we’re splitting hairs here at #2.  This kid has the ability to put a team on his back at any moment and the success of Texas this season is all on him.  After losing 3 players to the NBA draft, he’s got his work cut out for him, but come March I’ll be saying “told you so”.

St Johns has a stellar, super athletic group of freshman/Ju-Co transfers coming in.  They’re one of the youngest teams in college basketball but in an age where you can’t jump from high school to the NBA, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  With a great coach and talented players, this should be the best St Johns team since the Ron Artest aka Metta World Peace days.

Michigan State’s roster doesn’t stand out this year, but you can never count out Tom Izzo.  The Spartans will make the tournament this year, you can guarantee it.

All-American/Player of the Year Predictions:

First Team:

Tu Holloway, Xavier

Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin

Austin Rivers, Duke

Terrence Jones, Kentucky

Jared Sullinger, Ohio State

2nd Team

Kendall Marshall, UNC

Harrison Barnes, UNC

Perry Jones, Baylor

Andre Drummond, UCONN

Anthony Davis, Kentucky

Player of the Year: Terrence Jones, Kentucky

Everyone and their mother has either Jared Sullinger or Harrison Barnes taking PoY honors this year.  You may think that I’m thinking outside the box when I say Terrence Jones is going to be the man, but hear me out.  He can score.  He can rebound.  His maturity from the beginning of the season last year to the Final Four was nothing short of remarkable.  With a full season under his belt and a great supporting cast, the sky is the limit for Jones and the Wildcats.

Final Four/National Championship Predictions

Kentucky, Duke, Syracuse, St Johns.

Championship Game: Duke vs Kentucky

2012 National Champions: Kentucky

St Johns is an absolute longshot to make the Final Four, but so were VCU and Butler last year.  I’m definitely going out on a limb here, but Coach Lavin’s got a top 3 recruiting class (behind Kentucky and Duke) that includes several ESPNU Top 100 players and 2 Ju-Co transfers including God’sgift Achiuwa.  Not since God Shammgod has there been a better name in college sports.  Let’s just hope Coach Lavin gets well soon in order to lead this group of talented youngsters.

Syracuse is deep, talented and has a ton of experience.  In the age of 1 and dones that’s hard to come by.  The Orange are due, and this is the year they make it back to the promised land.

Duke may be deep, but they lack the experience of ‘Cuse.  One thing they do have over the Orange is star-power.  The Blue Devils have so many McDonalds All-Americans on their roster I’m pretty sure Mayor McCheese and the Hamburglar are walk-ons.  They’ll go very far this year, only to break the hearts of Cameron Crazies everywhere in the finals.

I’ve been betting on Kentucky ever since John Calipari came to town and this is his best recruiting class yet.  Pair that with the fact that two of his best players stuck around for another year and you’ve got a powerhouse in the making.  If it wasn’t for the heroics of Mario Chalmers, Cal would have won a championship with Memphis in 2008.  I thought the John Wall/DeMarcus Cousins team was going to bring it home, and I like this crop more than that squad.  Calipari and the Wildcats are my favorite to cut down the nets in 2012.

Keep in mind not a single game has been played yet and my opinions can and will change throughout the season.  For example, if UNC rolls on December 3rd in Rupp Arena, I’ll be singing a much different tune.  Be sure to check in throughout the season as I update my All-American and Final Four predictions.

Important Dates/Matchups:

The following dates feature must-watch NCAA Basketball.

November 11 UNC VS MSU and 18 other games featuring the top 25

November 15 Kentucky VS Kansas, Ohio St VS Florida, Duke VS MSU

November 21 Memphis VS Michigan

November 29 Ohio St VS Duke

November 30 UNC VS Wisconsin

December 1 Kentucky VS St Johns

December 2 Syracuse VS Florida

December 3 UNC @ Kentucky

December 7 Florida VS Arizona

December 10 Ohio St @ Kansas

December 17 Lousiville VS Memphis, Florida VS Texas A&M

December 31 Kentucky VS Louisville, UCONN VS St Johns

January 8 Wisconsin @ Michigan

January 16 Syracuse VS Pitt

January 18 Baylor @ Kansas

February 4 Ohio St @ Wisconsin, Syracuse @ St Johns, Vanderbilt @ Florida

February 6 UCONN @ Louisville

February 8 UNC VS Duke

February 11 Uconn @ Syracuse

February 13 Syracuse @ Louisville

February 25 UCONN VS Syracuse

March 3 UNC @ Duke, UCONN VS Pitt, Syracuse VS Louisville

March 6-10 Big East Tournament

March 8-11 ACC Tournament

March 13-April 2 NCAA Tournament