Seventy years ago Jorge Luis Borges strung together the following words: “I have known what the Greeks did not: uncertainty.” These days, Borges’s sentiment would be far more fitting coming from University of Kansas head basketball coach Bill Self or NCAA president Mark Emmert. For a sport filled with staunch tradition, college hoops is currently facing some unexpected changes. To start with, the game’s power structure is in flux; the push to realign the “major” conferences is disrupting classic basketball rivalries and creating all sorts of strange bedfellows. Meanwhile, it seems likely that the sport’s biggest stars—the so-called one-and-done freshmen—may be allowed to once again bypass school for the NBA. Most fundamentally, however, the tenuous premise of amateurism that the NCAA has so long sought to uphold is being threatened as never before. In 2012 college basketball and uncertainty will go together like March and madness. In a season filled with question marks, these 12 story lines will produce the defining answers.
12. Will the Big East dominate, or is it doomed? The 2011 calendar year has already been a wild ride for the Big East. In March, the conference received an unprecedented 11 NCAA tournament bids, and the Connecticut Huskies did the league proud by winning the national title in April. More good news arrived in August: UConn scored a coup when it persuaded six-foot-10-inch all-everything recruit Andre Drummond to forgo a final year of prep school and report directly to Jim Calhoun’s office. Yes, the Big East seemed to be on a roll…until September, when Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced they will leave the league to join the Atlantic Coast Conference—exact date to be determined. Speaking of conference realignment…
11. How many times can the Big 12 cheat death? Bill Self and his Kansas Jayhawks represent one of the sport’s most storied programs. The only problem is they’re storied in the wrong sport. Football is driving conference realignment, and each year KU has to wonder if its conference, the Big 12, is about to go the way of Pan Am, American Motors and the Whig Party. Last year Nebraska (Big Ten) and Colorado (Pac 12) headed out the door, and Texas A&M (SEC) recently followed. Someday soon Kansas may have to take comfort in the example set by Butler—i.e., come tourney time, you don’t need to be affiliated with a supposed power conference to win games.
10. Will Butler ever lose a tournament game besides the NCAA Final? Amazingly, Brad Stevens’s Bulldogs have reached the national championship game in each of the past two seasons—making the team more successful in March than any other program in Division I basketball, at least in terms of total tournament wins (10). Repeat: Butler, a Horizon League school with a total enrollment of about 4,000 students, has won more than twice as many tournament games in 2010 and 2011 as North Carolina, UCLA and Louisville combined. Can the Bulldogs make it back to the national championship game in 2012? Probably not. The core of the team is too young—particularly in the backcourt.
9. Is Mike Krzyzewski the best coach of all time? As far as stats and tallies go, Coach K will soon be considered the greatest. With 900 career wins, he will definitely pass Bobby Knight’s record of 902 this season—and he may do it against Tom Izzo and Michigan State at Madison Square Garden on November 15. Krzyzewski played for Knight at the U.S. Military Academy in the 1960s, but unlike his mentor, Coach K has often shown a willingness to change his strategies according to his personnel. This stylistic flexibility is reminiscent of the situational genius displayed by another legend, former UCLA coach John Wooden. If Krzyzewski isn’t as good as Wooden, he’s close—and he still has a lot of years left to add to his already-sterling résumé.
8. When will the SEC get some love for its hoops? You may have heard that the Southeastern Conference is pretty good at football—as in five-consecutive-national-titles good. But it’s not too shabby at basketball, either. The league’s standard-bearers, Kentucky and Florida, are always among the top teams in the country. Meanwhile, don’t sleep on Vanderbilt, as Jeffery Taylor, John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli are perhaps the SEC’s finest three-headed scoring monster. Or Alabama’s Crimson Tide, which last year held conference opponents to the lowest per-possession scoring figure the league has witnessed in years.
7. Which First Four team will be the next to make the Final Four? The 2011 NCAA tournament marked the rollout of the new 68-team field, whereby eight teams collide in the tournament’s opening four games, known as the First Four. No one could have predicted, however, that the new bracket would have such an immediate impact. Somehow Virginia Commonwealth played its way from the First Four to the Final Four, beating USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas in the process. In theory, the teams that play in the First Four are the lowest-seeded at-large entrants in the tourney, so it may be a long time before another team repeats VCU’s journey.
6. Is the West Coast about to return as a hoops power? Since UCLA reached its third consecutive Final Four in 2008, the Pac 12 (formerly the Pac 10) has seen its star dim. In 2011 the conference received just four tournament bids, putting the league on near equal footing with the likes of the Mountain West Conference. And when the Pac 12 sneezes, West Coast basketball catches a cold. Saint Mary’s College of California made a nice tournament run in 2010, and Arizona reached the Elite Eight last year, but that’s been about it from programs west of the Mississippi. The times may be changing, however. With Arizona, Oregon and Washington all bringing in strong freshman classes, the Pac 12 may be back sooner rather than later.
5. How good can Jared Sullinger be? Since the NBA changed its eligibility rules following the 2006 season, more or less forcing the nation’s best prep players to spend at least one season dominating college basketball, no player as good as Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger has ever returned for his sophomore season. But he did, so watch out. Many freshmen who didn’t return to school—Kevin Love and Derrick Rose come to mind—starred immediately upon their arrival in the NBA. Following that logic, the guess here is that Sullinger will be a man among boys this season.
4. Is one-and-done done? About those pesky NBA eligibility rules: You may have noticed they’re up in the air at the moment. A point of contention—albeit a minor one in the ongoing labor battle between team owners and the players association—is the one-and-done rule by which players are required to reach the age of 19 before they can enter the NBA draft. The players association doesn’t like the rule and wants high school stars to be permitted to proceed directly to the NBA. While it may be an afterthought in the heated negotiations between the players and owners, it will have huge implications for the college game.
3. How many more Ponzi-scheme scandals are looming? This year has already seen two. First, before killing himself in July, Houston-area AAU coach J. David Salinas reportedly bilked millions of dollars from college coaches such as Texas Tech’s Billy Gillispie, Baylor’s Scott Drew and Gonzaga’s Mark Few in return for either big financial gain, an inside track on future all-conference selections or both. (As yet, neither has materialized.) Then in August Yahoo! Sports published a report alleging that University of Miami booster Nevin Shapiro used his Ponzi funds to shower Hurricane football players—and, reportedly, at least one basketball recruit—with cash, gifts and favors. Which begs the question…
2. Is the notion of amateurism dead? With such scandals, talk of reforming college sports is as rampant as ever. So rampant, in fact, that the NCAA has joined the conversation. In August 50 university presidents met in Indianapolis for a special meeting about the future of college sports. Meanwhile, interested onlookers have suggested a raft of reforms, the most popular of which is to pay college athletes. That could work but only if the salaries don’t come from the universities, many of which are strapped for cash. The big money is in TV rights, and that money is big because networks can turn around and make even more money from advertisers. Therefore, the biggest college stars should be allowed to sign endorsement deals with those advertisers. Now, thankfully, back to basketball.
1. Will North Carolina be as good as everyone expects? Roy Williams’s Tar Heels are the consensus favorites to win the 2012 national title. With a front line anchored by Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes, UNC has a veteran nucleus that excels at both scoring and preventing points. Of course, nothing is certain—just ask Kansas how it fared the past couple of times it was given a top seed. But with UNC’s talent, this much is certain: The Tar Heels will win a lot of games in 2012.