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Posted at 1:57 PM ET, 01/24/2011

NCAA basketball's top story line: What a season to expand the tournament

By Eric Prisbell

Here are my top story lines to follow until selection Sunday arrives:

1) What a year to expand the tournament field: Yes, the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the Big East are strong leagues this season. But ... the Pac-10 continues to rebuild, the SEC West is totally irrelevant, the ACC is down and you can't name a non-BCS league other than the Mountain West that is particularly strong this season. Every season, a handful of teams make the NCAA tournament with flawed resumes. That will especially be the case this season because three more at-large berths will be handed out to middling teams. No one will have any reason to be angry if they miss the tourney. The field will be watered down. The question is how watered down. The one positive: At least it's not a 96-team tournament.

2) The three-man race for national player of the year: Brigham Young's Jimmer Fredette, Connecticut's Kemba Walker and Ohio State's Jared Sullinger are strong candidates for national player of the year honors. Each brings something different to the table. Fredette is not someone you'd want to play in H-O-R-S-E. He can score 40 at will. He can make 30-foot three-pointers. He leads the nation in scoring. Walker is the most dangerous player in the waning moments of a close game. He made clutch shots against Texas and Villanova. And Sullinger is the best overall player in the country.

3) San Diego State's run: As I will point out countless times over the next two months, I had the Aztecs in the Final Four before the start of the season. But I did not think they'd be in position to challenge for a No. 1 seed. Can they get it? And how long can they remain undefeated? Their most difficult test of the regular season comes Wednesday at BYU. They have to figure out a way to contain Fredette.

4) Eleven from the Big East? Really?: Let's put it this way, if the season ended today, 11 teams from the Big East likely would make the NCAA tournament. That's 11 out of 16 teams. My hunch is the final number may be nine or 10 because Big East teams are bound to beat one another up a little more in the next six weeks. As watered down as most of the country is, people are asking the question: How is the selection committee going to find 68 teams? Where are the 37 at-large bids going to come from? Answer: the Big East.

5) The (temporary) decline of the ACC:
You know the basic story line by now. Duke is still Duke but not the Duke everyone expected because Kyrie Irving is out indefinitely with a toe injury. And that is true. And you also know that everyone else in the league is not Duke and is playing for second place. That's also true. But here is the part that interests me: Whether the ACC gets four or five or even six bids, whatever. I'm watching the seeding. How poorly will those ACC teams not named Duke be seeded in the NCAAs? It could very well play out that Duke earns a No. 2 seed and the second-best team in the ACC earns a No. 9 or No. 10 seed. That would be pretty striking.

6) Will any mid-majors step forward?: I'm talking true mid-majors from mid-major leagues. The Missouri Valley is nothing special this season and Wichita State has faded. The Horizon may get two teams in the tournament but Butler may not be one of them. The Colonial Athletic Association could get two teams in, as well, if they don't beat one another up too much. Central Florida has tumbled. Gonzaga, a high major for more than a decade, is not Gonzaga this season. St. Mary's just got handled by Vanderbilt. I have liked Oakland from the preseason and still like Oakland as a potential No. 13 seed to knock off a No. 4. But I'm underwhelmed by most mid-majors this season.

7) Will Michigan State figure it out?:
This was, by most accounts, the second-best team in the country at the season's start. This was a team with designs on reaching its third consecutive Final Four. It would be foolish to count out a Tom Izzo-coached team, but few expected the Spartans' season to unfold like this. They are 11-7 against division I teams, having lost three of their last five. The two that they won during that stretch came in overtime. And most of February will be tough: Feb. 6 at Wisconsin, Feb. 10 Penn State, Feb. 15 at Ohio State, Feb. 19 Illinois, Feb. 22 at Minnesota, Feb. 26 Purdue.

Other story lines: Can Duke re-prove itself after losing Irving? Who is the real Tennessee? Can Gonzaga win an 11th straight WCC title? Is there a middling major program capable of winning the national title? How far can Purdue go without Hummel?

By Eric Prisbell  | January 24, 2011; 1:57 PM ET
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Next: Notre Dame upsets Pittsburgh with 'burn' offense


SDST isn't going to the final four (nor the elite 8) but you can bet you'll hear that they will about 100X on this blog for the next 2 months.

Posted by: Barno1 | January 24, 2011 7:00 PM | Report abuse

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