College basketball practices have started and the season will begin in less than a month. With another exciting season on the horizon, I will take a look at teams I expect to surprise and disappoint and preview all of the major conference races. The preview will culimnate in my projected NCAA Tournament field, Sweet 16, Final Four, and national champion.
In today's preview, I will present three teams that will surprise people and exceed expectations.
1. Tennessee: The Volunteers finally have a men's basketball program that can be featured. While I think of Bruce Pearl as a snake-oil salesman, the man can flat out coach and recruit. Inheriting Buzz Peterson's annual underachievers, Pearl led the Vols to a SEC eastern division championship, finishing ahead of defending national champions Florida during the regular season.
Four key losses, including rock solid point guard C.J. Watson, has led many prognosticators to predict a middle of the pack finish. However, this edition of the Vols will be more talented thanks to an outstanding five man recruiting class.
Chris Lofton, the best shooter a season ago not named Novak or Redick, will lead the Vols. Largely bypassed by hometown Kentucky and Louisville, Lofton scored 17 points a game last season, and has unlimited range. His improved athleticism has catapulted Lofton onto many preseason All-American lists, and he should be a strong candidate for SEC Player of the Year.
The versatile Dane Branshaw will move back to his natural wing position this season, and he should take some off the ballhandling responsibility off of the young guards. Having played both poitn guard and power forward, Branshaw will continue to be an excellent role player. One of the nation's best sixth men, JaJuan Smith, also returns to provide a scoring punch off the bench.
Detroit combo guard Ramar Smith will likely join Lofton and Branshaw in the starting backcourt. A strong scorer in high school, Smith may not be a natural point guard. However, Branshaw's playmaking ability will allow Smith to be more of a lead guard and not worry about being the primary distributor.
Freshman combo guards Marques Johnson, a top 100 player out of Indiana, and Josh Tabb, the talented former Southern Illinois signee, give Pearl a deep backcourt that will allow him to employ his trademark pressure defense.
The frontcourt should be ably manned by two heralded young big men, Duke Crews and Wayne Chism. Crews, the signature recruit in the SEC's top rated class, earned his reputation through his willingness to play strong at the basket. Chism will provide length and athleticism, and could be the rebounder and shot blocker the Vols lacked last season. Frontcourt depth will be an issue, but the attacking style and overall talent and athleticism should mask the problem.
While it may tough to predict how such a young team will perform in March, they will present significant match-up problems all season long and should contend for another SEC East title.
2. Florida State: Projected to finish in the middle of pack in ACC, it would not surprise me if they finished 2nd to North Carolina. While they may be college basketball's version of the Arizona Cardinals, annually underachieving despite a vast amount of talent, I think this season will be different.
The Noles finally have attitude, in the form of Auburn transfer Toney Douglas. Douglas's transfer was an extremely ugly one, and I look for him to have a big chip on his shoulder and silence his critics. Another lead guard who primarily looks for his offensive game, Douglas should give Leonard Hamilton the go-to guy he has searched for since coming to Tallahassee. Talented juniors Isaiah Swann and Jason Rich will likely join Douglas in the Noles three guard attack. Swann can play both on and off the ball, and Rich can fill it up from the perimeter.
One of the ACC's best returning players, Al Thornton, returns to lead the front court. He plays much bigger than his 6'7, 205 pound frame, mixing it up inside. He also does have a solid outside game, which makes him such a difficult match-up. His pro future is likely on the wing, but he successfully plays the four in college.
The other position upfront is still up in the air after Alexander Johnson's early departure to the NBA. A heralded spring signee, Uche Echefu failed to make much of an impact last season. However, he does have a lot of potential and could be the defensive presence down low the Seminoles need. If Echefu cannot get the job done, talented big man Ryan Reid could be the answer. Reid sat out last season due to eligibility issues, but was highly recruited and could be the inside presence that allows the Noles to live up to expectations.
This should be the season Florida State finally returns to the NCAA Tournament, with the ability to do damage when they get there. Of course, I'm the same person continually predicting the Arizona Cardinals as the break out team in the NFL.
3. Baylor: This will be the season when the Bears make headlines for their play on the court. Coach Scott Drew has done a miraculous job in getting top flight talent to Waco.
Their first ever McDonald's All-American, Demond "Tweety" Carter, will provide a huge spark. Although he's just listed at a generous 5'10, the little guy can light up scoreboards. The second all-time leading scorer in high school basketball, Carter should get significant minutes alongside Curtis Jerrells and Aaron Bruce. Jerrells had an excellent freshman season, leading the Bears in scoring and assists. This year, he'll have to focus more on being a creator and distributor, leading the Bears attack. After a huge freshman season where he averaged nearly 18 points a game, Bruce fell off a bit last season. He still finished right behind Jerrells in the aforementioned categories, and should bounce back with more talent around him and the chance to play a full schedule.
After a solid freshman campaign, Kevin Rogers returns to give the Bears a dependable post player. Rogers has the potential to double his 6 point, 4 rebound averages, and he should blossom with the perimeter talenter around him. Mamadou Diane and freshman Josh Lomers will compete for time alongside Rogers. Diane averaged 6 rebounds a game last season, and Lomers came to Baylor after choosing the Bears over instate powers Texas and Texas A&M. The 7'1, 250 Lomers will give the Bears someone who can bang with the talented post players in the conference like A&M's Joseph Jones.
Henry Dugat and Patrick Fields also return to give the Bears some needed depth. Dugat, who can play either backcourt spot, averaged 7 points a game his freshman year. A versatile senior, Fields can fill in on the perimeter and upfront, and gives Baylor an expereience veteran whose experienced a lot during his career. In an inexperienced Big 12, Baylor has a chance of making a Texas A&M like move to the top tier of the conference.
After getting screwed by the NCAA in having to sit out non-conference play last season, they deserve it.