The National Junior College Athletic Association tips off its annual Division I National Championship on Tuesday in Hutchinson, Kan. This year figures to be as competitive as any with seven of the nation's top 10 (four of the top five) programs making the final field of 16. Can the College of Southern Idaho repeat? That's just one of many story lines we'll be watching over the next few days in Hutch.
1. Is Chris Jones the best player in junior college?
Originally signed to attend Tennessee, point guard Chris Jones ranked No. 47 in the final 2011 Rivals150. When academics forced him to go the junior college route, the 5-foot-10 native of Memphis followed the guy who recruited him to Tennessee, Steve Forbes, to Northwest Florida State College. As a freshman at Northwest Florida, the tough, high-scoring guard has led his team to a No. 2 national ranking scoring a team-high 18 points per game while adding more than four rebounds and assists per night. He's surrounded by plenty of talent and plays in a high-octane system that caters to his strengths, but Jones just may be the best junior college player in the country and is only a freshman.
2. Can CSI repeat as champions?
Last year, point guard Pierre Jackson was the story of the national championship as he exploded onto the scene while leading the College of Southern Idaho to a title. Now at Baylor, Jackson has led his current team to the Sweet 16 and his former team is back in Hutch. Led once again by one of the top guards in junior college basketball - sophomore Fabyon Harris - Steve Gosar's crew arrives in Hutch as the No. 4 team in the country and a legitimate title contender. If the Eagles are to win the title, though, they will have to make it through a brutal half of the bracket that also includes the nation's Nos. 1, 3, 7 and 8 teams.
3. Can South Plains complete a perfect season?
In the top half of CSI's half of the bracket is the nation's top-ranked team, undefeated South Plains College. Led by 12th-year head coach Steve Green, the Texans have emerged from a tough Region 5 with a 32-0 record and a huge target on their back. A high-scoring team led by former Utah signee and current Ole Miss-bound shooting guard Marshall Henderson, they love to let it fly from deep and push tempo.
During Monroe College's 2011 run at the national championship, 6-8 power forward Orlando Sanchez looked the part of a potential high major prospect. Now a sophomore, he has made good on his potential and established himself as a bona fide high-major target who is attracting interest from Cincinnati, Providence, Pittsburgh, St. John's and Texas A&M among others. He's mobile, rebounds and has become an effective scorer while averaging 10 points and more than seven rebounds per game on a very balanced team that enters the tourney ranked No. 3. Of any of the available bigs in the tournament, he may have the most established reputation and just how good he is will be a big factor for Monroe as it makes a run at the title.
5. What will the rumor mill say?
Outside of the Final Four, there may not be a single stop on the circuit that brings together more college coaches under one roof than the first two days of the juco national championship. Given that the event always falls right in the middle of the college coaching hiring/firing season, there is always plenty of speculation about who the leading candidates for particular jobs may be. Southern Illinois, Illinois, Mississippi State, South Carolina and countless other spots have openings available and it will be interesting to see what the word on the street is among college coaches.