This year was packed with intriguing storylines, but 2011 is shaping up to be just as interesting. Here are 10 predictions (in quasi-chronological order) for big stories coming in college basketball next year:
1. Mike Krzyzewski will pass Bob Knight this season for the all-time Division I wins mark. Through Tuesday, Coach K needed 24 wins to eclipse Knight's total of 902. With 20 more in the regular season, as many as three ACC tournament and up to six NCAA tournament games, Duke (11-0) has a maximum of 29 opportunities to get those 24 wins. With the huge gap between the Blue Devils and the rest of the ACC this season, expecting a regular season of two losses or fewer seems reasonable. If they then win the ACC tournament, an Elite Eight appearance would be enough to get him there. There's enough wiggle room to overcome an unexpected loss or two, even if No. 6 on this list happens.
2. The rise of the true eggheads. You know all about Duke, and Vanderbilt has another very capable team under Kevin Stallings that should end the season in the NCAAs. But what about Northwestern and Harvard? The Wildcats, quite famously, have never made the NCAA tournament -- the only major-conference school with that distinction. The strength of the Big Ten could mean 10-8 (or even 9-9 with the right wins) in the league may be enough for Northwestern, which started 8-0 before a disappointing loss to St. John's on Dec. 21. Harvard has been to one NCAA tournament (in 1946, when there were only eight teams) but has never won the Ivy League. In fact, the Crimson have only three double-digit-win seasons in Ivy history, but they are a co-favorite entering league play. At least one of those two schools will makes the Dance.
3. Extra mid-majors will struggle to make the NCAAs. If you discount the Mountain West and the top of the Atlantic 10 as not-quite-as-moneyed competitors of the BCS leagues, there's not a lot left this season as far as at-large hopefuls. It seems very unlikely that the Missouri Valley can conjure up one after Wichita State's nonconference failings, the Colonial is never a lock for one despite Old Dominion's being very solid, and even normal stalwarts like Butler and Gonzaga are rapidly running out of rope to save themselves in case of a conference tournament loss. A year after there were eight non-BCS conference at-large teams in the NCAAs, that number could be halved, with all of the bids coming from the Mountain West and A-10, even with three more at-larges available for the new field of 68.
4. There's going to be a "First Four" leak. One of the NCAA's annual secrets is the identity of the last teams omitted from the tournament field. That's going to be much harder to keep under wraps now that four at-large teams are involved in play-in -- er, sorry -- first-round games in Dayton, Ohio. The selection committee will need to give teams in contention to play in those games advance notice to help them handle travel plans. If we get cases like last year, when multiple upsets the day before Selection Sunday tightened the bubble considerably, there's a real chance that a team will be informed it should start preparing to get to Dayton and then miss the NCAAs entirely. I doubt that kind of news will stay a secret.
5. Someone from outside the preseason top 15 will make the Final Four. This one is cribbed from my preseason predictions and still is a solid bet to happen. Teams in this pool include Illinois, Washington, Butler, Memphis, Tennessee, Georgetown, Temple and all of the Mountain West. Most of those teams have flaws and remain longish shots to make it to Houston, but with a clear dropoff after the top handful of teams, this could be another NCAA tournament in which multiple low seeds make it to the season's final weekend. The 2010 tournament featured two 5-seeds (Butler and Michigan State) getting that far.
6. Neither Duke's men nor UConn's women will win the national title. Even before Kyrie Irving's injury, you weren't worse than a 2:1 underdog if you took this wager. If he's done for the season, you're now likely not much worse than a coin flip. People misinterpret the term "prohibitive favorite" all the time when it comes to large-scale fields. Even based on its performances so far with Irving, Duke had less than a one-in-three chance to win the national title. Assuming no Irving, it would be significantly less than that, even if the Blue Devils are still considered to be the nation's best team. As for the Huskies, having the nation's best player in Maya Moore may not be enough with quality teams like Baylor (already a one-point loser at UConn this season) and Stanford lurking. If Duke wins it all 20 percent of the time (still a very high expectation rate on the men's side) and UConn is at 50 percent (which feels really generous), neither would capture a title in four out of every 10 iterations.
7. Some name program will give Brad Stevens a tough decision to make. Yes, Stevens signed a 12-year extension at Butler after last season's run to the national title game, but that was before he knew Gordon Hayward was leaving two years early and went through this season's early struggles with a less experienced and banged-up roster. Butler is an excellent job with strong institutional support and a legacy of producing terrific coaches and solid teams. Stevens also is a unique personality who, like Gonzaga's Mark Few, very well could be happy enough to stay where he is. But with junior Shelvin Mack an early-entry possibility to depart along with senior Matt Howard, next season could be a down one (relatively), and the miss on local stud recruit Cody Zeller underscores where Butler still stands in that landscape. Wouldn't Stevens at least have to listen if a really big name came calling?
8. Bruce Pearl will get hammered by the NCAA. Pearl cannot be pleased with the recent words from new NCAA president Mark Emmert, who said coaches who lie to NCAA investigators should be punished similarly to student-athletes who do so. Former Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant missed practically his entire final season after misleading the NCAA during an investigation. Pearl already has admitted to breaking NCAA recruiting rules in addition to lying to the NCAA and coercing others to do so. It would not be a surprise if the NCAA greatly expanded on Pearl's eight-game league suspension handed down by SEC commissioner Mike Slive or even if Pearl was given a show-cause penalty that would effectively cost him his job at Tennessee.
9. The threat of an NBA lockout won't keep all that many kids in school. It's possible (although not likely) that the collective bargaining situation will be solved early enough to resolve any questions, but the running assumption will be that the NBA will have basketball at some point next season, so does it pay to spend another full year in college when you could be making seven figures before Christmas, at the latest? As a sports fan, I don't want massive NBA discord to ruin the momentum the league is building this season. But as a college hoops fan, if this year's underclassmen were forced to stay an extra season, the 2011-12 college basketball season likely would have its deepest concentration of talent since the late 1990s.
10. Kentucky will be the 2011 preseason No. 1. Duke is losing Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and very likely Irving. There's no obvious second team that will retain talent that can match up with what the Wildcats are bringing in. Both Scout.com and ESPN.com have three members of Kentucky's Class of 2011 -- forward Anthony Davis, wing Michael Gilchrist and point guard Marquis Teague -- ranked in the top six of their national rankings. That doesn't even count top-25 recruit Kyle Wiltjer, nor does it account for whomever is going to stay from this season's freshman class, which is not as strong as last year's and likely won't see everyone bolt for the NBA. Depending on who stays, and how many, UK could have the best college team (on paper) in at least a decade.
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