Ten Non-NCAA Teams to Watch in 2011-12
(1) Alabama (25-12, 12-4 SEC)
Anthony Grant's Crimson Tide were ultimately done in by a non-conference schedule that featured losses to the likes of Iowa, Providence and Seton Hall, having to settle for a Postseason NIT berth as a result. But they took advantage of the extra games, getting all the way to the title game before falling to Wichita State. While Alabama will have three seniors to replace (Charvez Davis, Senario Hillman and Chris Hines) the top three scorers will be back, including forwards JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell. Guard Trevor Releford was one of the best freshmen in the SEC this season, and a four-player recruiting class led by guard Levi Randolph and forward Nick Jacobs will likely keep Bama atop the SEC West at the very least.
(2) Baylor (18-13, 7-9 Big 12)
Scott Drew's Bears were arguably the most disappointing team in America, going from a team some thought could make some noise to one that didn't play anywhere in the postseason. The Big 12's all-time leading scorer (LaceDarius Dunn) graduates but with Perry Jones III deciding to return to Waco next season look for high expectations once again. Quincy Acy and Anthony Jones will also return up front, and the addition of guard Deuce Bello and forward Quincy Miller will add even more talent-wise. But the biggest question is point guard play, something that cost the Bears dearly this season. If A.J. Walton and JUCO transfer Pierre Jackson can take care of the basketball look out. But if not, things could get sloppy.
(3) Harvard (23-7, 12-3 Ivy)
Tommy Amaker's Crimson put forth arguably the best season in school history but thanks to Doug Davis' shot at the buzzer that still wasn't enough to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1946. But for many who follow the Ivy League 2011-12 was supposed to be Harvard's year, and with everyone expected back that may very well be the case. Kyle Casey and Keith Wright will lead the way up front, and guards such as Oliver McNally, Laurent Rivard and Christian Webster can get it done on the perimeter. Add in the Ivy's best incoming recruiting class that's six-deep and should at the very least offer a challenge in practice, and Harvard could very well end up in the Big Dance.
(4) Iona (25-13, 13-5 MAAC)
Tim Cluess' Gaels picked the wrong time to go cold offensively, struggling to crack the tough Saint Peter's defense in the MAAC Tournament final and ending up in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament as a result. Iona reached the title game in that event as well, losing to Santa Clara but gaining valuable game and practice time as a result. The lone departures will be seniors Rashon Dwight and Alejo Rodriguez, and with point guard Scott Machado and power forward Mike Glover leading the way Iona could be the preseason favorite in the MAAC. The key for the Gaels: defense. If they can defend at a solid clip this will be a tough team to beat given all the offensive weapons at Coach Cluess' disposal.
(5) Kent State (25-12, 12-4 MAC)
Of the ten teams on this list Kent State is the only one to lose it's head coach, with Geno Ford moving on to take the Bradley job. But by no means does that kill the Golden Flashes' chances of getting to the NCAA Tournament. New head coach Rob Senderoff obviously knows the personnel having been promoted from assistant, and with just one of their top five scorers (Rodriguez Sherman) moving on Kent State can win a lot of games next season. Justin Greene and Carlton Guyton are the leading returning scorers, and incoming freshman Kris Brewer should help make up for Sherman's departure on the perimeter. Tough to peg the MAC given its wild nature, but look for the Golden Flashes to be one of the favorites.
(6) Long Beach State (22-12, 14-2 Big West)
Dan Monson's 49ers took on one of the toughest schedules in the nation last season, with Larry Anderson missing a decent portion of that stretch due to injury. But once he returned The Beach took control of the Big West, comfortably winning the Big West regular season title before falling to UCSB in the tournament final. The top three scorers all return and that includes Anderson in addition to guard Casper Ware and forward T.J. Robinson, and another tough non-conference schedule will prepare them for another run through the Big West. But for one-bid leagues one weekend in early March can undo all that hard work, something Long Beach State will be more than aware of.
(7) Montana (21-11, 12-4 Big Sky)
Wayne Tinkle's Grizzlies were one win away from representing the Big Sky in the NCAA Tournament, falling to regular season champ Northern Colorado in the title game on the road. But with the Bears taking on heavy personnel losses it's unlikely they're the preseason favorite to win the league, and with all that Montana has coming back they likely assume that role. The Grizzlies do have to replace big man Brian Qvale but Derek Selvig returns for his senior campaign, and the backcourt should be in good hands with Will Cherry, Kareem Jamar and Art Steward. It should surprise no one if Montana were to be the Big Sky's tournament representative.
(8) Oral Roberts (19-16, 13-5 Summit)
The last two seasons it's been Oakland who has won the Summit League, but despite the return of Reggie Hamilton the Golden Grizzles do have to account for important losses including big man Keith Benson. So who has the good to challenge Oakland if not dethrone them? Scott Sutton's Golden Eagles look to be in good position to do so, with Dominique Morrison leading the way. ORU's top five scorers are all due back and in Morrison they've got a tough scorer who most likely will be the preseason Player of the Year in the Summit League. It should be a good year for the Golden Eagles, and that may be a conservative statement.
(9) Santa Clara (24-14, 8-6 WCC)
There will be two major national storylines in the West Coast Conference to start next season: the arrival of BYU (football independence but all other sports in the WCC) and Gonzaga being the preseason favorite to win the conference. But people had better not ignore Kerry Keating's Broncos, who won the CollegeInsider.com Tournament and replace just one senior of note (Ben Dowdell). Kevin Foster, Evan Roquemore and Marc Trasolini all return for Santa Clara, and they also welcome in a four-member recruiting class with Robert Garrett having the ability to add some interior depth. If anyone in the WCC can prevent Gonzaga from coasting to the conference title it may be Santa Clara.
(10) Wichita State (29-8, 14-4)
Gregg Marshall's Shockers were the preseason favorites to win the Missouri Valley and while they didn't accomplish that feat in either the regular season (Missouri State) or postseason (Indiana State), Wichita State was able to win the Postseason NIT. There will be some key losses, most notably leading scorer J.T. Durley, but given the number of players due back and the offensive balance (eight players scored at least six points per game) the Shockers could make a run at the regular season crown. David Kyles, Toure Murry and Garrett Stutz all return, and with Coach Marshall giving so many guys a chance to play meaningful minutes this year the Shockers should be able to hit the ground running in 2011-12.
Five others: California (18-15, 10-8 Pac-10), UCF (21-12, 6-10 Conference USA), Drexel (21-10, 11-7 CAA), Florida Atlantic (21-11, 13-3 Sun Belt), New Mexico (22-13, 8-8 Mountain West).