For the past decade, the Pittsburgh Panthers (25-9, 13-5 Big East) have been very competitive. They are one of only seven teams in the country to qualify for the Big Dance each of the last nine seasons and over those past nine seasons, they have more wins than any other Big East club. Last year, they tied for second in the Big East with West Virginia and Villanova and for the 10thstraight year went to the NCAA Tournament. At the Big Dance, they went two and out, capping what was a good season but not as good as it might have been. In that second game, they lost to Xavier 71-68. This season Pitt welcomes back four starters, some seasoned reserves and a few fine frosh and redshirted players, all of whom may just take them deep into the tournament.
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The last time the Texas Longhorns (24-10, 9-7 Big 12) had double-digit wins within their conference was in the 2007-2008 season. That year they made it to the NCAA’s Elite Eight. The past two years they have accumulated identical Big 12 records of 9-7. Last year, after finishing tied for sixth in the conference, the team went two deep in the Big 12 Tournament and lost to Baylor 86-62. In the NCAA Tournament, they were out in the first round, losing to Wake Forest 81-80. This season the Longhorns should do better than last year record wise and against the college basketball point spread but they are still a good season or more away from being the top team in their league.
Last season after finishing fifth in the Big 10, the Illinois Fighting Illini (28-15, 10-8 Big Ten) went to the NIT. In round one they beat Stony Brook 76-66 and in round two they defeated Kent State 75-58. Then they met Dayton and lost 77-71. The Illini have been an uneven club over the past five years, going to the NIT once, the Big Dance three times and missing out on the tournament season entirely once. During that time, the deepest they went in the NCAA Tournament was round two. They did that just once. What type of team will Illinois put on the court this season? Will they sit out tournament time, go to the NIT or make it into March Madness. With a solid group of vets on hand and some fine new talent, it’s fairly safe to say that this version of the Fighting Illini will get to the Big Dance.
The Tennessee Volunteers (28-9, 11-5 SEC) continue to be a highly competitive team. Last year, after finishing third in the SEC East, they went to the conference tournament where they beat Louisiana State and Mississippi before losing to Kentucky 74-45. They did better in the NCAA Tournament, beating San Diego 59-49 and Ohio 83-68. Then they met Ohio State in the Sweet 16 and managed a 76-73 victory in that hard-fought contest. It all came to an end in the Elite Eight, when they lost by one-point to Michigan State 70-69. It was quite a ride.
Since 1995, the Gonzaga Bulldogs (27-7, 12-2 WCC) have made 13 NCAA Tournament appearances; they have not missed one since 1999. The furthest the Zags have ever gone is to the Elite Eight. That happened once in 1999. Since 1994, they have won their regular season conference championship 14 times, missing the title in 1995 and 1997, and they have won the West Coast Conference Tournament 10 times. Last year, they took both WCC titles and then beat Florida State in round one of the NCAA Tournament 67-60. Then the Bulldogs met Syracuse in the second round; they lost to the Orange 87-65. This year, it looks to be more of the same for the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
After being relegated to the NIT in 2009, the Georgetown Hoyas (23-11, 10-8 Big East) made it back to the NCAA Tournament last season. They did it after finishing tied for seventh in the conference and beating three teams in the Big East Tournament, including Syracuse. Even their loss in the championship game was a good one as they just missed beating West Virginia in the final 60-58.
It’s hard to find someone who does not believe that the Ohio State Buckeyes (29-8, 14-4 Big Ten) fit somewhere in the top five of college basketball. In 2009-2010, the Buckeyes tied for first in the conference, won the Big Ten Tournament and at the Big Dance made it to the Sweet 16. In that round, Tennessee eliminated them 76-73. This year, OSU will take to the court without the star power of swingman Evan Turner. Turner, who turned pro after last season, was a massive force with a huge amount of talent as he averaged 20.4 PPG, 9.2 RPG and 3.7 APG. Still, this team is filled with a boatload of returning talent and the best incoming class in the Big Ten, including center Jared Sullinger, who is considered to be one of the nation’s top three recruits.
The Cardinals of Louisville (20-13, 11-7 Big East) finished tied for fifth in the Big East last season. They were dispatched in one game in the Big East Tournament, losing to Cincinnati 69-66. They then went to the NCAA Tournament where they were upset by the California Golden Bears 77-62 in round one. That was the worst showing for the Cardinals in their last four Big Dance appearances. In the previous three, they made it to the Elite Eight twice and went two and out in another. For Louisville to succeed this season they are going to have to see a lot of young guys and rookies step up quickly. If there’s one coach in college basketball who can make that happen, it’s the Cardinals’ Rick Pitino.
For the past four years the Butler Bulldogs (33-5, 18-0 Horizon League) have qualified for the NCAA Tournament. Last year, the Bulldogs dominated their league in the regular season and also in the league tournament, winning both. At the Big Dance, they did something amazing; they ran the through the entire tourney to the title game.
For the Purdue Boilermakers (29-6, 14-4 Big Ten), who last season finished tied for first in the Big 10 and then made it into the Sweet 16, so much depends on the health of star forward Robbie Hummel, who last season suffered a torn ACL. Many feel that Purdue might have gone to the finals of the Big Dance if it had not been for his mishap. The bad news for the Boilermakers is that Hummel tore his ACL once again this October, which probably knocks him out for the season and diminishes much of the luster on Purdue’s potential championship season.