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10 burning questions heading into 2011-12 college hoops season

If you think the answer is yes, then you are going to love the 2011-12 college basketball season. We are conditioned to expect every underclassmen to leap at the chance to be an NBA first-round draft pick, yet last spring a surprising number of uncommonly mature young men decided to return to school. North Carolina's Harrison Barnes, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Baylor's Perry Jones III all turned down the chance to be top-five picks. A host of other potential first-rounders came back as well, most notably UConn guard Jeremy Lamb, Kentucky forward Terrence Jones, North Carolina forwards Tyler Zeller and John Henson, Xavier guard Tu Holloway and Vanderbilt guard John Jenkins. That means we're headed for an uncommonly exciting season -- and we haven't even reached the start of practice.

That start arrives Friday night with the unfurling of the colorful, national spectacle known as Midnight Madness. College basketball still does not have an appropriate opening day for games, but it sure begins practice better than anyone. So as the Madness gets underway, your resident Hoop Thinker is once again on hand to present the 10 most burning questions I'm eager to see answered this season.

So step right up and feel the heat. Uncommon maturity not required.

How is the average diehard NBA fan going to spend this winter if the lockout doesn't end? Spend more time with his wife and kids? Take piano lessons? Read? Volunteer?

Please. He's gonna watch basketball and there will only be one place for him to turn. So the question is not whether college hoops will benefit, but by how much, and in what ways. Will we see a bump in TV ratings? Will attendance figures climb? Will there be more media coverage due to the vacuum left on the evening news and in the local newspaper? (Note to kids: Ask your parents what a newspaper is.) Maybe the benefit will manifest itself in that hard-to-measure but eminently critical category of buzz.

I love the NBA, but it is serendipitous that the work stoppage is occurring at a time when college hoops is flush with marquee players. So I expect this sport to win a lot of converts this winter, and I hope they'll stick around long after the lockout has ended.

It was truly incredible that in the very first expanded NCAA tournament in 26 years, Shaka Smart's VCU Rams made it all the way from the First Four to the Final Four. Could it possibly happen again this season?

It's doubtful, of course, but there's no shortage of candidates. For starters, I've got my eye on two teams from the Missouri Valley. Creighton boasts arguably the best player in all of midmajordom, 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Doug McDermott, whose father, Greg, is the Bluejays' coach. McDermott is not quite Jimmerific, but he's a heady, versatile scorer who shined over the summer for USA Basketball at the Under-19 world championships. Meanwhile, Gregg Marshall's Wichita State Shockers lost several starters from the group that won the NIT, but he has been stockpiling talent for years and his program is bound to break through sometime soon.

Elsewhere, Harvard brings its entire roster back from the team that came within a fallaway buzzer beater of reaching its first NCAA tournament in 65 years, and Detroit has an excellent chance to unseat Butler in the Horizon League thanks to the presence of 6-1 sophomore guard Ray McCallum, Jr. But the hands-down, set-your-DVR mid-major to watch this season is Belmont. Rick Byrd's Bruins play an exciting, up-tempo style that last year saw 11 players average at least 10 minutes per game. Belmont won 30 times and prevailed in the Atlantic Sun championship game by 41 points before bowing out to Wisconsin in the NCAA first round. That experience will be a boon for the nine players among those 11 who are back this season.

Belmont won't be easy to find on the tube, so be sure to give them a gander on Nov. 11. That's when the Bruins open the season at Duke. We won't have to wait long to see whether this team has the chops to pull a VCU next March.

I'm not sure the average college basketball fan -- or even the diehard fan -- is totally aware of the record Jamie Dixon has assembled. Over the last decade he has coached Pitt to eight straight NCAA tournaments, earned two No. 1 seeds, won three Big East titles and accrued the highest win percentage (.708) in league games of any coach in Big East history.

Yet, as Dixon is no doubt tired of hearing, his program has still never made it to the Final Four, and it is finding ever more creative ways to keep from getting there. In 2009, the Panthers reached the Elite Eight for the first time, only to lose on a last-second mad dash by Villanova guard Scotty Reynolds. When last year's tournament ended in the second round with that bizarre foul fest against Butler, it marked the third consecutive season that Pitt lost a game in the tournament by three points or fewer. You've heard of Team Heartbreak? This is Team Snakebite.

Is this the year Pitt finally is the biter instead of the bite-ee? Well ... why not? The Panthers are a much more likely candidate to win an NCAA title than UConn appeared to be entering last season. We usually think of the Panthers as a bunch of underrecruited overachievers, but this season the team will be anchored inside by two former McDonald's All Americans in 6-9 junior Dante Taylor and 6-9 freshman Khem Birch, who is arguably the best player Dixon has ever recruited. Throw in a veteran backcourt led by Ashton Gibbs and Travon Woodall and Pitt looks like a Final Four team -- again. All they need is a little more snake oil.

Or to rephrase: Who is Kentucky's best player? John Calipari has brought in his usual stellar haul in 6-10 forward Anthony Davis, 6-6 forward Michael Gilchrist and 6-2 point guard Marquis Teague. (The fact that Calipari swiped Teague from right under Rick Pitino's nose was a nice little bonus.) Those three could split the balloting when it comes time to vote for national freshman of the year, but that award pales next to the opportunity to win a national championship.

Freshman watching is always fun in college hoops, but this season features a particularly watchable crop. Uber-scorer Austin Rivers will step into the starting backcourt at Duke with the greenest of green lights. Point guard Josiah Turner (Arizona), shooting guard Bradley Beal (Florida), power forward Cody Zeller (Indiana), small forward Quincy Miller (Baylor) and power forward LeBryan Nash (Oklahoma State) will all have similar opportunities to make an immediate impact.

The smart money is on Rivers or Davis, but nobody ever accused me of being overly smart. So I'm going with the late addition at UConn, 6-11 center Andre Drummond. He isn't as offensively polished as the other top candidates, but he has the power and athleticism to dominate on the defensive end. He's also a good passer with a high basketball IQ, which means he could improve quickly. Yes, it helps to be old in college basketball -- especially during the tournament -- but talent still trumps experience. And no player in America has more pure talent than Andre Drummond.

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Remember that embarrassing fight that occurred two years ago between members of the Kansas football and basketball teams? You might not have heard about it if Taylor, a 6-3 guard, hadn't revealed on his Facebook page that he had dislocated a finger in the skirmish. Four months later, Taylor again took to Facebook to voice frustration over reduced playing time and suggested he might transfer. His decision-making on the court hasn't been much better, which helps explain why Kansas has exited the last two NCAA tournaments earlier than it should have.

Taylor is back for his senior season, and I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt that he has learned his lesson. But it's only a matter of time before another player does something foolish from behind his laptop. College students have always said and done stupid things (present company included), but in the past those transgressions were committed in private. Now all the world is a computer screen, so it's not a question of whether someone else will write something regrettable. It's only a matter of who and when.

I have long maintained that Cincinnati-Xavier was the most underrated rivalry in sports. The two teams have played annually since the 1927-28 season. The neighborhood brawl took on the name of the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout 23 years ago, long before the whole corporate sponsorship thing jumped the shark. Perhaps more people would be attuned to the intensity of this rivalry if the schools were in the same conference, but it also hasn't helped lately that Cincinnati has been going through an extended down period in the wake of Bob Huggins' firing.

However, when the two teams meet at Xavier's Cintas Center on Dec. 10, it could mark the first time in 19 years that both teams are entering the game ranked in the AP's top 25. If that's the case, it will truly be must-see TV. This rivalry has always been spicy, but it looks to me like it's about to get extra hot.

I wouldn't quite call it a trend, but as I scan the college hoops landscape, I see an awful lot of tall young men who played rather small last season. That's not surprising considering big guys usually have a harder time adjusting to college because they are not used to going against players their size. There are not many quality big men in college hoops to begin with, so a rapidly improving center can make a huge difference.

Duke junior Mason Plumlee looked like a lottery pick early last season, but he disappeared after point guard Kyrie Irving got hurt. Michigan State sophomore Adreian Payne never fully recovered from the shoulder injury that prevented him from lifting weights until January. Gonzaga junior Elias Harris regressed thanks to a host of nagging injuries and a conspicuous lack of toughness. UCLA center Josh Smith showed promise as a freshman but struggled with conditioning and foul trouble. Villanova's Mouphtao Yarou started every game as a sophomore and got plenty of rebounds, but he played stiff on offense.

Then there's the enigmatic (to put it kindly) Renardo Sidney of Mississippi State. When he wasn't missing practice, getting into fights with teammates or wheezing in pain from being so out of shape, Sidney actually showed flashes of brilliance. He surprised me by declining to turn pro last spring, but just when it appeared he might be coming into his own, Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury left him home from the team's summer exhibition trip to Europe. Sidney is talented, but would you wager your net worth that he has finally gotten his act together? Neither would I.

So that leaves Fab Melo, Syracuse's 7-foot sophomore center. If you had seen this kid play in the big high school showcases, you would have thought he was a can't-miss prospect. The Big East coaches thought so, too, which is why they tabbed the Fab One as the league's preseason freshman of the year. Once the games started, however, Melo looked dazed and confused, especially on defense. What little confidence he had was shattered by Jim Boeheim's inexplicable habit of keeping Melo in the starting lineup and then yanking him a few minutes after the tap.

I will be very curious to see whether Melo makes the textbook frosh-to-soph leap this season because a) he's good enough to do it, and b) it would exponentially increase Syracuse's chances of winning a national championship. So this isn't just a burning question, but a big one as well.

Every preseason ranking I've seen has North Carolina and Kentucky in the top two. Most every list also has Ohio State, UConn and Duke in the top five. So that's the consensus top tier, and forgive me if I stifle a yawn. If the 2011-12 season were a movie, we'd have to call it "The Usual Suspects."

I'm all for the blue bloods, but college basketball needs a variety of flavors. We like our sport to taste like ice cream, not bread. Remember how much fun those San Diego State-BYU games were last year? Isn't it cool when Butler or Gonzaga creeps into the conversation for a high seed? Even a power conference team that exceeds expectations can provide a nice jolt of excitement. Remember, in last year's preseason rankings UConn was picked to finish 10th -- in the Big East.

Who are the potential party crashers this year? Baylor and Memphis are on a lot of top-10 lists, and for good reason. Scott Drew and Josh Pastner have been recruiting way above their heads, and they both got lucky last spring when their top underclassmen decided to return to school. It would be pretty cool if Michigan was able to enter late February still in position to challenge Ohio State for the Big Ten title. Mike Montgomery is also going to have a nice team at Cal, thanks to the presence of ready-to-be-discovered swingman Allen Crabbe.

But the team that is both good and intriguing enough to break up the blue blood club is Vanderbilt. Over the past few years the Commodores have been a respectable but nonthreatening bunch. This year, however, they will excel in every category. They have size, depth, athleticism, experience and quality point guard play, and Jenkins is arguably the best pure shooter in America. Kevin Stallings is an excellent coach and a good guy, and Vanderbilt is one of the finest academic schools in the country. This will be a fun team to watch and an easy team to root for. Now all they have to do is knock off Kentucky and Florida.

I don't know the answer, but I hope it's more than one. The Gators return their backcourt tandem of Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton from the squad that reached the Elite Eight last season. To that mix they are adding Beal as well as 6-3 Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario. It's nice to have talent, but if you have too many guys who play alike, it doesn't work. In this case, those four guys have one thing in common: They all need the ball in their hands.

That's not to say that they're selfish. It's just that they are all true scorers, and none of them excels at spot-up shooting or coming off screens. Rosario, in particular, could have a hard time adjusting. He averaged more than 16 points per game during his two years at Rutgers, but he was the team's first, second and third option, and he often appeared allergic to moving without the ball. Rosario left New Jersey because he wanted a chance to win, but that means blending in with players who are as good, if not better than him. Easier said than done.

Even though Florida graduated senior forwards Alex Tyus, Chandler Parsons and Vernon Macklin, I expect them to be strong up front because they have Patric Young, the 6-9 sophomore who excelled for Team USA over the summer at the Under-19 world championships. The question, then, is whether the Gators will find the right chemistry among their little guys. Short of playing with an extra ball or two, that is going to be one tall task.

Regular visitors to this space know all about the legend of Wild Bill, aka Bill Sproat, the literally-larger-than-life senior at Utah State who dons hilarious outfits at home games in an effort to distract opposing foul shooters. The Aggies lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year, so Sproat did not get to unveil the blockbuster costume he promised at the Final Four. Sproat just turned 28, but he is still a couple of semesters from earning his bachelor's degree. So he'll be ready to break out his Wild Bill act again this winter, right?

Well, maybe. I caught up with Sproat this week, and he told me he believed it was time to hang up his teapot hat. "Wild Bill is done," he said. "I don't want to be that guy that's just kind of holding on while nobody likes it anymore. I had two solid years of it. I might as well go out like Barry Sanders and not like Brett Favre."

On the other hand, Sproat unleashed Wild Bill at the Utah State-Wyoming football game last week, when he dressed up as Braveheart and rode a unimog onto the field. So he's not completely closing the door on a cameo during hoops season. "I definitely won't do it every game, but maybe I'll do a couple of outfits sometime," he said. "I have endless ideas of costumes I want to do. It really is addicting. It's so much fun."

The same could be said for college basketball right now. It's addicting. It's fun. It's hot. And it will be the only game in town to ward off the chill of a long, hard winter.