Is it “Final Four or Bust” for Jamie Dixon and his Pittsburgh basketball program? Hardly, but the ninth-year coach is aware of an antsy fan base. “I know everyone wants us to win a national championship,” says Dixon, who’s advanced to three Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight during his tenure. “We want it just as badly.” Pittsburgh was a legitimate Final Four contender last season after winning the Big East regular-season title and earning a No.
Baylor coach Scott Drew has spent the last two years assembling one of the most talented teams in all of college basketball. Now comes the next step: Doing something with it. Not many teams enter the 2011-12 season with an opportunity as golden as the one facing the Bears. Four Big 12 schools have first-year coaches, seven-time defending league champion Kansas is in rebuilding mode and the conference as a whole appears to be down. Baylor is the one exception.
Josh Pastner learned last year that relying almost exclusively on first-year players — even first-year players oozing with talent — isn’t as simple as those who ranked Memphis in the Top 25 of most preseason polls must’ve believed. His Tigers struggled before Christmas and after Christmas, limped through the C-USA portion of their schedule and suffered embarrassing losses to SMU, Rice and East Carolina. It was bad.
Bill Self isn’t sugarcoating the situation. After a 35–3 season and an NCAA Tournament run that ended a win shy of the Final Four, the Kansas basketball coach can’t see his 2011-12 team being any better than last year’s Big 12 championship squad. But that doesn’t mean the Jayhawks will take a step backward, either. “I think we’ll take a step sideways,” Self says.
In the spring of 2010, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan delivered a blunt message to forward Jon Leuer: The rising senior would have to lead the 2010-11 team. With Leuer gone — he was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the NBA draft in June — the baton has been passed to senior guard Jordan Taylor.
The biggest issue facing Xavier this season is managing expectations. After all, Xavier has won five straight A-10 regular-season titles and made the NCAA Tournament 10 times in the last 11 years with four trips to the Sweet 16 and two to the Elite Eight. Coach Chris Mack welcomes back three starters who earned all-conference honors — including A-10 Player of the Year Tu Holloway.
Last season, Alabama became the first SEC team to win more than 10 games in league play — the Tide went 12–4 — and not make the NCAA Tournament. Anthony Grant’s club was done in by a bloated RPI (No. 80) that was a product of some bad losses in non-conference play and a very weak SEC West. This season, Alabama shouldn’t have to worry about an NCAA snub.
And the beat goes on for Marquette University. Looking for their seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, the Golden Eagles head into the 2011-12 season poised to build on last season’s surprise Sweet 16 appearance. That team relied heavily upon the versatility and experience of Jimmy Butler, who was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls.
After playing in the NCAA Tournament last year for the first time since 2005, Cincinnati is now fully healed and ready to retake its place as one of the better programs in the country. Coach Mick Cronin, who was rewarded with a new six-year contract worth $1.25 million per year, begins his sixth season with a mix of veterans — led by senior forward Yancy Gates — a top-25 recruiting class and several young players with enough experience to flourish in the Big East.
Michigan State will reload with an intriguing blend of talented newcomers in the backcourt and benefit from proven warriors in the frontcourt. Look for the Spartans to extend their streak of 14 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and reside in the upper half of the Big Ten, but Tom Izzo will have to wait a year or two for a run at a seventh Final Four.