No true major-conference heavyweights equals big opportunities for others.
In a year where the coaching carousel was relatively tame, the biggest news was that none of the coaches of these elite programs were poached by a bigger school. We still get to enjoy Brad Stevens at Butler, Shaka Smart at VCU, Mark Few at Gonzaga, etc. The only coach who won't be on the sidelines this season from a top-10 team below is Rick Majerus, due to illness. Continuity is always a key for programs in this category and we have a really strong batch of returning talent this season.
In other news, the conference realignment puzzle jumped up and bit a few of the leagues outside BCS world. The Mountain West welcomes in Nevada and Fresno State from the WAC. The Atlantic 10 admits Butler (from the Horizon League) and VCU (from the CAA). A number of teams (like San Diego State and Memphis) enter their last season in their current leagues, so the picture will change significantly again next season.
A lot of the success teams in this category have comes from the development of less-heralded recruits into major-college talent. That said, highly-regarded players are finding their way to more off-the-standard-path programs, lured by strong coaching and available playing time. For the Class of 2012, 10 of ESPN's top 100 ranked recruits ended up outside the six BCS football leagues. UNLV, Houston and VCU nabbed two potential stars apiece. Here is the full list of guys who should make immediate impacts (in order of ranking):
If Anthony Marshall can capably handle the lead guard role, the sky is the limit for the Rebels. They have a ridiculously deep frontcourt, solid enough shooting and depth that should allow them to defend while still pushing tempo.
The Aztecs very easily could win the league in their final season. The two meetings with UNLV and the contrasts of (relative) frontcourt and backcourt strength should be sensational.
Have every rotation guy back except for Bradford Burgess? Check. Still have Shaka Smart on the bench? Check. Two highly-touted recruits? Check. The Atlantic 10 is not going to enjoy visits to this side of Richmond, either. The Rams should contend strongly in their debut season.
Even without Rick Majerus on the sideline, the Billikens are the likely A-10 media poll favorite. Kwamain Mitchell and Cody Ellis provide enough shooting to supplement the very stingy defense. The pressure is on interim coach Jim Crews to get this team playing to its potential.
Last season's almost-unbeaten Cinderella returns a lot of talent, including probable preseason All-America Isaiah Canaan. With Belmont now in the OVC, though, this won't be a cakewalk to the crown.
If Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham shoot like they are capable of, this is a whole new Butler team and one that could be very good. Inside guys Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall should be much more effective with better spacing. Can they hold up to the Atlantic 10 grind?
There are really no more excuses for Josh Pastner and this now-experienced core. Adding Shaq Goodwin to the mix is a bonus, but there's enough talent here even without Will Barton to have a big season.
A young team last season that is a sleeper in the Missouri Valley this season. Ben Jacobson can really coach and the Panthers' tempo control could be the antidote to Creighton's high-powered O.
I like what Saint Mary's has coming back, but I like the Zags' personnel a bit better. One of the better conference rivalries will again come down to the wire, and probably a third game in Vegas in March.