The Baylor Bears (28-8, 11-5 Big 12) made it to the Big Dance last year, a place they’d been only five times before and just once since the dawn of the new millennium. They had a good run in the tournament as the Bears, who had tied for second in the Big 12, beat Sam Houston State 68-59, Old Dominion 76-68 and St. Mary’s 72-49 before losing to Duke 78-71 in the Regional Finals. Baylor had never before been to the Elite Eight or the Sweet 16. It was the best season the Bears had seen under head coach Scott Drew who has been at the helm for seven years. It looks like despite some important loses that Baylor will have the manpower to compete for the Big 12 title and go deep into the NCAA Tournament again.
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The Gators of Florida (21-12, 9-7 SEC) won back-to-back NCAA Championships in 2006 and 2007 and then fell off the map for two seasons, going to the NIT on 2008 and 2009. Last season, the Gators were fourth in the East Division of the SEC and made it back into March Madness for the first time in two seasons.
When you consider what the Villanova Wildcats (25-8, 13-5 Big East) have to deal with, the loss of three major contributors from last season, you can see why there’s a disparity amongst those evaluating andwriting about the Big East concerning where they will finish—first, secondor third. One thing just about everyone agrees with is that this team is a top 25 performer. Last year, the Wildcats tied for second in their conference and then went two and out at the Big Dance as they lost to St. Mary’s 75-68. This season, there appears to be enough returning talent and a few new guys to make this a club that has the potential to go deep into the NCAA Tournament.
The Tar Heels of North Carolina (20-17, 5-11 ACC) won the NCAA Tournament in 2009 but in 2010 ended up at the NIT. The NIT appearance happened after the Tar Heels accumulated a losing conference mark of 5-11, finishing tied for ninth. It was a bad season for a club that had won two national titles over the past five seasons and had also been to the Final Four and Elite Eight in two of the other three years. If you’re a Tar Heels fan, there’s good news because the team looks like it is back in contention.
The Kansas Jayhawks (33-3, 15-1 Big 12) won the National Championship in 2008 and in 2009 they made it to the Sweet 16. So last season after winning the Big 12 regular season title and the tournament championship, the Hawks were extremely surprised and disappointed to be knocked out of March Madness in the second round by Northern Iowa 69-67. The last time Kansas missed the NCAA Tournament was in 1989. Most of their present players weren’t even born then. And despite the fact that since last season they lost center Cole Aldrich (11.3 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 3.5 bpg), guard Sherron Collins (15.5 ppg, 4.5 apg) and guard Xavier Henry (13.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg. 1.5 apg), this team looks poised to win its seventh straight Big 12 crown and go deep into the Big Dance. They are loaded.
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.
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.