Wednesday, November 30, 2011

B1G/ACC Challenge: Day 2 - I *Know* The Tide Has Swung

Not much to say about last night that hasn't already been said.  Their best pasted our best and that kind of summed up the night.  Northwestern made a mockery of somehow being underdogs to GT, Illinois turned a 9 point first half road deficit in to a 9 point road win and Purdue kept Miami at arm's length all game.  Had it not been for a spectacular defensive and physical performance, particularly in the second half, by Virginia and Clemson having no problems with hapless Iowa, it would have been an even more embarrassing opening night for the once-proud ACC.

I'm a little late for tonight's early games but I had/have a Big Ten sweep.  Indiana/N.C. State and Penn State/Boston College are both at half and unlike last night, ACC home teams are holding serve so far.  I like second half comebacks by one or both of the Hoosiers and Nittany Lions, though.

To make up for not previewing today's games, I'll do a nice recap post tomorrow or Friday and I also wanna go in on the Boeheim situation like I mentioned earlier, particularly after that firecracker of a press conference after their win over Eastern Michigan last night...but I literally have three papers to do between now and Tuesday so we'll see.  I've got UNC over Wisconsin, Minnesota over Virginia Tech and Nebraska over Wake Forest in the late games.  More on them and the rest of the challenge hopefully sometime in the next few days.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

B1G/ACC Challenge: Day 1 - I Fear The Tide Has Swung

First, I'm happy that this is now a two day, six game a day event.  The fresh start on Tuesday is refreshing as opposed to being up 1-0 because N.C. State slogged to a win over Minnesota or down 0-1 because Virginia failed against Iowa on Monday.

And yes, this is a turf war for me.  Maryland basketball is a part of a larger ACC basketball culture.  Thusly, if my predictions are correct, it will be another sad example of the decline of ACC hoops.

Other than UNC and Duke, of course.

(and Florida State's pretty good this year too.)

On to tonight's games:

# 14 Michigan @ Virginia - The Cavalers are actually favored.  Would you believe that?  They've recovered well since the shock loss to TCU, suffocating Winthrop and Drexel.  Tony Bennett's begining to install the slowdown defensive system that he did at Washington State when he took over from his dad and took them to the tournament.  The Wolverines are the kind of team who can be sucked in to a poor shooting night, scoring just 59 against Ferris State and Western Illinois, but they placed an impressive third in Maui and if Memphis had trouble scoring on John Beilein's defense, Virginia probably will too.  The Wolverines won't play as well as when they went to the wire with ACC top dog Duke, but Tim Hardaway Jr. and Darius Burke will continue to be one of the best young backcourts in either conference.  Michigan 63-52.

Northwestern @ Georgia Tech - Wildcats won this matchup by twenty last year and have an even better 1-2 punch than their B1G rivals in Ann Arbor.  John Shurna and Drew Crawford are averaging a combined 40.2 a game and should be able to handle a Yellow Jacket roster that features little scoring talent other than Glen Rice Jr.  Particularly glaring in this matchup is the mismatch in terms of 3 point shooting.  Northwestern is 34th in the country with 8.4 threes a game.  Georgia Tech is 251st with 5.0.  As a team, the Wildcats shoot just 33% from deep but Shurna's 37% and Crawford's unrealistic 46.4% mean that the Jackets could get shot out of their own building tonight.  Oh, wait,, they're not playing in their own building because they're getting rid of the Thrillerdome.  This one's at Philips Arena.  Expect attendance in the vicinity of Hawks games circa 6 years ago.  Northwestern 73-64.

Illinois @ Maryland - Oh dear lord.  The good news is that the Illini have played no one.  Their strength of schedule is 332nd and their best win was a 70-61 triumph over a Richmond team that lost its entire backcourt and most of its core from last year's Sweet 16 team and is rebuilding.  They barely got by in-state rival Illinois State, a mediocre Missouri Valley program, in a holiday event.  But that's more than the Terps can say.  Blasted by Alabama and then blasted even more by Iona in Puerto Rico, my boys came home and beat Florida Gulf Coast by all of 6 points.  The Illini are 3rd in the nation in 2 point percentage defense (33.8%) and 226th in the country in 3 point percentage D (36.0%.)  Maryland's probably gonna have to hit its threes to win.  Ranking 235th in the country in 3 point percentage (30.7%), we need Sean Mosley to keep shooting 47.4% from beyond the arc.  We're screwed.  I'm going a bit cynical on the final score.  Forgive me, I just endured the worst collapse in the history of college football.  Illinois 71-54.

Miami (FL) @ Purdue - As an objective fan of college basketball, I'm particularly interested in this game.  The Boilermakers are 9 point favorites and KenPom agrees, giving it 69-61 to the home team.  Jim Larranega's boys are coming off of a heartbreaking Black Friday afternoon OT loss at Ole Miss and now they have to go in to the cauldron that is Mackey Arena.  Purdue won a shootout with Iona, which is much more impressive than people will give them credit for because people don't know about Iona yet, and Robbie Hummel is leading an offense that's clicked on all cylinders except for the Puerto Rico final against Alabama and not many D up like the Tide do.  Larranega has his team 40th in the country (40.9%) at defending twos...but 227th at threes (36.1%) and against Hummel and bandmates Ryne Smith and Kelsey Barlow, that could mean disaster.  If it does become a defensive war, the Boilers - as they always are under Matt Painter - are methodically dominant defensively; 13th in KenPom in adjusted efficiency.  I see a wide open game as Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant can match Hummel and co. for a time but they'll fade out in the second half.  Purdue 83-71.

Clemson @ Iowa - To be curt: Iowa is bad.  It lost by 16 to Campbell on its home floor a week ago and beat IPFW by just 10 over the weekend.  Of course, their opponents are third best in their own state at the moment as the Tigers have eaten home losses to Palmetto State rivals Charleston and Coastal Carolina.  An optimist would say that maybe leaving the confines of home for the first time all season will be an antidote.  Or maybe a moribund Hawkeye program is still struggling to find its footing under Fran McCaffery.  I like McCaffery, the coach of those Siena teams from a few years ago, but I like Brad Brownell too and the former UNC-Wilmington and Wright State man has proven he can win, nearly taking last year's underdog unit to the NCAA tournament.  Freshman Milton Jennings is more athletic and perhaps more talented than anyone on that team and he may be the best player on the court tonight by a healthy margin.  He put up 22 points and 14 rebounds in a 59-49 win over lethargically slow Furman.  I see him taking over in the second half.  McCaffery comes from the high tempo, high scoring MAAC so he's basically the antithesis of Todd Lickliter's typical B1G teams - which means there will be adjustments and growing pains, particularly on defense. Start with this and keep an eye on it during the commercials of that game that starts a half hour later at 9:30 if you want some offensive fun during commercials of that.  Clemson 89-79.

# 3 Duke @ # 2 Ohio State - 9:30.  That's when the early favorite for game of the 2011-2012 college basketball season tips off.  Two of the top four or five teams in the country in what should be an absolutely ridiculous atmosphere that Ohio State students have been waiting all day for.  This is why the people who say that college basketball doesn't matter until March simply don't get what the sport's all about.  Say what you will about the polls, but the fact that this is pretty much for the # 1 ranking if top-ranked Kentucky goes down at last week's # 1 North Carolina over the weekend makes both this game and that one all the more special.  A novel thought, all the top teams playing each other.  Anyhow, to me, this game is simple: it's your classic backcourt versus frontcourt war.  Duke does a better job of containing Jared Sullinger down low than the Buckeyes do Seth Curry and Austin Rivers, it will walk out of Value City Arena with a victory.  Ultimately, it could be the games played by the Ryan Kellys and Aaron Crafts that make the difference tonight.  Somewhat surprisingly, the Buckeyes are healthy favorites at home, with KenPom predicting an 8 point victory and Vegas favoring the hosts by 7.5, surprising considering how much the public tends to favor Duke.  The message to me seems clear - we all know that the Buckeyes are national title contenders and that means it's time for them to show it and win a home game like this.  Behind Sullinger and William Buford, Craft's workrate and some clutch Deshaun Thomas contributions, they will.  Rivers perhaps shies away a bit in his first hostile atmosphere as a college player and Curry cannot continue to shoot 57.1% from beyond the arc like he has.  But this should be absolutely terrific and I wish it didn't come on the same night as part 1 of the Sons of Anarchy finale to what has been an unbelievable season of television.  But the 9:30 tip means that I'll get the final 10 minutes in full, which is when this will be won.  Ohio State 88-81.

Conclusion: Unless the Blue Devils can snag the monster road victory - which will obviously have major seeding implications in March as well, lost in all of this - it's looking like a tough night for my ACC if superior B1G road teams take care of business like they should.  I'm calling a whopping 5-1 night for the B1G.

An even scarier thought: let's pretend the B1G/ACC Challenge is the first night of a two night presidential election and each of the games are states.  Here's how I'd classify my projections for tonight's "states" from the ACC perspective based on spreads, KenPom and my own opinions:

Strong ACC - Clemson/Iowa
Lean ACC: None
Lean B1G - Michigan/Virginia, Northwestern/Georgia Tech, Illinois/Maryland
Strong B1G - Miami/Purdue, Duke/Ohio State

That means that we need to take 2/3 of the lean B1G "states" and one of the strong B1G "states" to go in to Wednesday with the lead...and that's only if Clemson doesn't brick the relative layup in its first road game of the season in the one strong "ACC state."  Outlook: bleak.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to Comcast to hopefully be proven wrong.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Bracket Won't Look Like This: Early-Season Projection


(1) Kentucky
(16) Stony Brook/Alabama State

(8) Georgetown
(9) San Diego State

(5) Florida State
(12) Stanford

(4) Memphis
(13) Long Beach State

(6) Michigan State
(11) Cincinnati

(3) Baylor
(14) Utah State

(7) Gonzaga
(10) Tennessee

(2) Louisville
(15) Davidson


(1) Syracuse
(16) Long Island

(8) Harvard
(9) Temple

(5) Michigan
(12) Marshall

(4) Missouri
(13) Detroit

(6) UNLV
(11) Minnesota/Wichita State

(3) Wisconsin
(14) Oral Roberts

(7) Mississippi State
(10) Saint Louis

(2) North Carolina
(15) Weber State


(1) Duke
(16) UNC Asheville/McNeese State

(8) Indiana
(9) Belmont

(5) Vanderbilt
(12) UCF

(4) Marquette
(13) VCU

(6) Purdue
(11) Washington

(3) Florida
(14) Bucknell

(7) Creighton
(10) West Virginia

(2) Kansas
(15) Tennessee Tech


(1) Ohio State
(16) Morgan State

(8) California
(9) New Mexico

(5) Pittsburgh
(12) Virginia Tech/Dayton

(4) Alabama
(13) Akron

(6) Arizona
(11) St. Mary's

(3) Xavier
(14) Iona

(7) Texas A&M
(10) Miami (FL)

(2) UConn
(15) Middle Tennessee

Saturday, November 19, 2011

2011-2012 College Basketball Preview: The BCSers

Champion - North Carolina
Lock - Duke, Florida State
Bubble - Miami, Virginia Tech
NIT/CBI - N.C. State, Virginia, Clemson
None - Maryland, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Boston College

-Don't read too much in to the UNLV loss.  The Rebels hit thirteen 3's.  That won't happen more than two or three more times maximum to North Carolina this season.  Not coincidentally, the Tar Heels might not lose more than two or three more times maximum this season.  They're still the favorite to win this league and, in my opinion, the whole shebang.  If Kendall Marshall's gonna dish the rock like this, it might be curtains for everyone else.  We won't get 1 vs 2 at Rupp Arena on Saturday but at least we'll get to see how the Heels respond to their first adversity earlier than expected.  Fun fun fun.
-Duke continued its undefeated lifetime in Maui run but should they have been pushed as hard as they were by any or all of their three opponents?  It's not like Tennessee, Michigan or Kansas are Ohio State.  Good thing the Blue Devils go to Value City Arena to give us our first real clue as to whether or not they belong in the national title conversation.  Seth Curry has gotten much better and Austin Rivers looks like the real deal.  Those guards against Jared Sullinger and co. and it's not even the best game of the week.  Filthy.
-Florida State is a damn good team.  Too bad Harvard is one, too and the Crimson brought all of Leonard Hamilton's worst offensive nightmares back to life again.  The Noles then lost a heartbreaker in the what-should've-been-the-championship 3rd place game to UConn in OT.  The good news from that game though was that Bernard James (11 pts, 14 reb) and Xavier Gibson (9 pts, 2 reb) held their own against Andre Drummond (12 pts, 10 reb) and literally whitewashed Alex Oriahki, who didn't score or grab a rebound in just 10 minutes.  The Noles are one of the biggest, most physical teams in the country and if they further prove it by bullying Michigan State in the Izzone, the nation will take notice.
-It's these three...and then the conference falls off a cliff.  Miami lost a heartbreaker in overtime at Mississippi on Friday, a missed chance they may rue come March.  Speaking of missed chances, Virginia Tech couldn't land any haymakers on Syracuse and then barely escaped Oklahoma State.  Two more come this week in the forms of a trip to Minnesota and then a visit from Kansas State and perhaps the best news for this team so far is that Dorian Finney-Smith looks like the real deal.  N.C. State made a heroic comeback to cop 3rd place from Texas at the Legends Classic, a comeback that may be huge in March.  Now they welcome in flavor of the week Indiana in the Challenge on Tuesday in a measuring stick game for both.  Virginia ate a really bad loss to TCU in the Virgin Islands but Norfolk State made the final in that event so it was kind of fluky all around.  If Tony Bennett's boys keep D'ing up like they have, they'll be in the hunt for the tournament.  Clemson is the third best team in its own state right now, having lost at home to both Charleston and Coastal Carolina, but I still believe Brad Brownell will have that team in the mix.  Maryland sucks but gets mysterious unbeaten Illinois, who it owns historically in the Challenge, before a struggling Notre Dame team in the BB&T Classic, annually the team's bogey game.  Georgia Tech really sucks (again.)  Wake Forest really really sucks (again.)  And Boston College might be the worst BCS school in the country (and, potentially, one of the worst of all time.)
-Somewhere between two and four of the teams between Florida State and Georgia Tech in the conference pecking order (so that's MIA/VT/NCSU/UVA/CLEM/MD) will get in but basically only because the ACC has an unwritten quota.  It's not a great league this year and I fear this week will prove that.  The thinking here is that it could honestly be a skunking if Wisconsin wins at UNC and a few other games break incorrectly, as the Big Ten has the better team or the home court advantage in a relatively even matchup in every other game.  Of course it probably won't be but the Big Ten should win comfortably.

Big East
Champion - UConn
Lock - Syracuse, Louisville, Marquette, Pitt
Bubble - Georgetown, West Virginia, Cincinnati
NIT/CBI - Seton Hall, Notre Dame, Villanova, St. John's
None - South Florida, DePaul, Rutgers, Providence

-I'm sticking with the best team in the conference as the champion - UConn.  It collapsed horrifically against UCF, thanks in large part to Shabazz Napier showing Terrell Stoglin-esque care for the basketball, but that was a fluke.
-I'll get to Boeheim at some point later this week after things unfold further, but as for Syracuse, they survived game efforts from VT and Stanford to win the preseason NIT, but they'll get their first real big boy test this week when Florida comes to town.
-Louisville has conceded 48, 48, 53, 27 (!!!) and 54 in its first five games, but it's yet to face a team that can bring it offensively like Casper Ware and Long Beach State probably will tonight.  Still, the Cards showed a ton of resolve down the stretch in that Ohio game and have on the young season as a whole with all the injuries they've had to deal with.  And let it be known - the KFC Yum! Center is just as much of a cauldron as Freedom Hall was.
-There seems to be a drop off after the top three.  Marquette is a nice team but I'm not sure if it's a conference title contender like the Huskies, Orange and Cardinals.  Winning at Wisconsin on Saturday might be one way to change all of that, particularly if the Badgers can win at the Dean Dome midweek.
-The fact that Pitt is still a lock and Georgetown is still on the bubble goes to show you that this is still mostly projection at this point.  To this point, the Hoyas have clearly looked the better team but they're still virtual equals according to KenPom and I need to see more than one week of making it rain before I fully commit to the Jason Clark bandwagon.  Panthers need to keep working on their defense, though.
-Cincinnati has a pair of nasty in-state rivalry games with Miami (Ohio) and at Xavier wrapped around a trip to Georgia over its next three.  Add in a December 26th visit from Lon Kruger's revamped Oklahoma Sooners and suddenly, it's very easy to see the Bearcats ruing the Presbyterian and now Marshall losses, both awful in their own ways.  Blue Hose are 221nd in KenPom and Herd may be a bubble rival.
-Seton Hall showed surprisingly well in Charleston with valuable wins over VCU and St. Joseph's with a tight loss to Northwestern in the final.  If Herb Pope keeps playing like this, first team All Big East isn't out of the question and he and Jordan Theodore could carry these guys where Jeremy Hazell and Bobby Gonzalez never could.
-I'll make the relatively bold call that Notre Dame misses the field.  What a shame that Tim Abromaitis has become the Big East's answer to Robbie Hummel.  Real measuring stick week for the Irish at Gonzaga on Wednesday then vs Maryland at the Verizon Center on Sunday.  The latter, especially, can't be dropped.
Villanova and St. John's are really young but potentially talented teams going through early season growing pains but who have suffered bad losses.  The Red Storm might suffer another one Friday at Kentucky.  The other four shouldn't even make the conference tournament, honestly.
-By default, there should be at least 6 bids and it would take a perfect storm of failure for "only" 7.  8 is the realistic worst case scenario, 9 is the best bet, 10 would be a great year and 11 or (god forbid) 12 would mean everyone on the bubble got in.  There's a top four, bottom four and then parity and mystery among the other eight.

Big Ten
Champion - Ohio State
Lock - Wisconsin, Michigan, Purdue, Michigan State
Bubble - Indiana, Minnesota
NIT/CBI - Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois
None - Nebraska, Iowa, Penn State

-Ohio State has cruised so far, winning by 31, 44, 35, 33 and 33 in its non-Florida games.  The Buckeyes are clearly one of the four or five best teams in the country and thusly should be in the hunt for a 1 seed all season.  Will they get one?  Our first clue comes Tuesday night when they welcome in Duke.
-Nobody had scored more than 43 on Wisconsin until BYU got to 56...and still lost by 17.  Some goofy looking white kid named Ben Brust drained 7 threes in that game.  Bo Ryan just rolls them off an assembly line, doesn't he?  Hell, had I grown up in that state, I could've probably gotten a scholarship there if I worked on my trey enough, what with being 6'5 and all.  Sigh.  Anyway, Badgers go to UNC then welcome in Marquette this week.  Time to find out if they can make a run at the Buckeyes.
-Michigan had a great Maui, stifling Memphis and pushing Duke before thumping UCLA to go 2-1 and take a surprise 3rd place.  Darius who?  Trey Burke might fill his shoes and then some.  John Beilein remains one of the most underrated coaches in the game.  But they better not take tomorrow night's trip to Virginia too lightly before Iowa State comes to town.
-Purdue got stymied by Alabama in the Puerto Rico championship and looks to be a rung beneath the top two like Michigan.  Boilers draw Miami (FL) at Mackey for the Challenge, a game they might not win on a neutral floor but need to in their lion's den (particularly with the Hurricanes coming off a crushing OT loss at Ole Miss on Friday.)
-Michigan State is 3rd in the country in rebounds per game.  Shocker there.  This team doesn't look to be a Big Ten title contender on paper but who knows?  FSU at the Izzone is a must-watch game if you like physical basketball that will be determined by the big men.  Could be a game between two of the most underrated teams in the country as well.
-Indiana "only" beat Butler by 16 last night, their first win by <21.  They passed their first supposedly tricky road test at Evansville with said 21 point victory.  Now comes their second to another team who's started promisingly: N.C. State.
-Minnesota has three pretty nice wins already: Bucknell (112 in KenPom), Fairfield (101) and Indiana State (96) but getting blasted by Dayton in the Old Spice championship was ugly and they nearly blew the DePaul game.  Still, I like them, most particularly their interior defense and this league being BY FAR the deepest BCS league gets them one of the last spots in my bracket.
-I'm only keeping Northwestern out of the bracket because I want to see them against Baylor later this week (and the Gophers have a slightly better resume anyway.)  Before that, they have two layups against Georgia Tech and Mississippi Valley State.  If the field of 65 were created today, they have the resume to get in and John Shurna/Drew Crawford might be the combination that unlocks the school's first ever tournament bid.
-Illinois has been the completely forgotten team in the Big Ten so far this season.  That'll change this week when the unbeaten Illini head to Maryland before welcoming in Gonzaga.  If they're an NCAA tournament team, they win both.
-Iowa is 38th in the country in scoring under Fran McCaffery after being the epitome of Big Ten slow under Tood Lickliter but still sucks.  So do the other two.
-I personally think the Hoosiers, Gophers, Wildcats and maybe the Illini are all legitimate tournament teams...but it would be next to impossible logistically for all of them to get in.  I think three can if everything breaks right but probably not all four - that would be 10 out of 12 teams in the NCAA' way.  Too bad this league isn't the one with 16 teams this year because it's probably better than the Big East.

Big 12
Champion - Kansas
Lock - Baylor, Missouri
Bubble - Texas A&M
NIT/CBI - Oklahoma, Kansas State, Texas, Oklahoma State
None - Iowa State, Texas Tech

-For now, I'll keep Kansas as the champ but they didn't wow me in Maui, getting an expected second but unable to come through in the clutch against Duke and barely escaping Georgetown on night 1.  Would've loved to see them have to play a competent team in the semis a night after that Hoya game but alas, they got UCLA.
-Missouri, on the other hand, wowed me in Kansas City by destroying Notre Dame and then, far more impressively, destroying Cal.  The Tigers are small but Frank Haith has them playing just as tenaciously on D (no pun intended) as Mike Anderson did and boy, are Kim English and the rest of that team realizing its potential it failed to all of last season.  Can they win this conference without Lawrence Bowers?  It's looking far more possible than it did the day he got hurt.
-Meanwhile, Baylor has a chance to wow me in Evanston later this week.  Bears are inexperienced/immature and that's why I think people like me are wary to take them over KU at the end of the day, but one could argue that the Jayhawks have the very same issue (and with their 186th overall ranking in rebounding, they might have Mizzou's size problems, too.)
-The top three should be fine all season...but the rest of the conference, save for Lon Kruger's surprising Oklahoma (shock finalists in the 76 Classic), is having serious issues.  Texas A&M lost to Mississippi State and barely beat St. John's for third in the 2K Classic at MSG and has really struggled to score.  They need Khris Middleton back badly.  A week later in that same arena, Oklahoma State got demolished by Stanford then barely beat by Virginia Tech for third in the preseason NIT - two costly bubble losses.  Texas can't stop collapsing - hell, it can't stop anything.  Kansas State has only played 3 times and hardly been impressive but we'll learn about the Wildcats this week when a surprising George Washington comes to town before a trip to Virginia Tech.  Iowa State is bad, as losing to Drake proved.  Texas Tech is awful, as the Old Spice Classic proved.
-This will be a four bid league but it honestly doesn't look like much more at the moment, though you get the sense that somebody's snagging a fifth bid.  Anyone's guess as to who, though.

Champion - Arizona
Lock - None
Bubble - Stanford, California, Washington
NIT/CBI - Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State
None - Washington State, USC, Arizona State, Colorado, Utah

-Arizona clearly is a shell of the Derrick Williams/Momo Jones led team from last season.  It has endured back-to-back losses to Mississippi State in the Garden and San Diego State at McKale.  It has struggled in each of its four wins over the powerhouses that are Valparaiso, Duquesne, Ball State, and a completely rebuilding St. John's.  Fine, those teams aren't total pushovers but a top 20 team that's the heavy favorite to win a BCS league should be winning those games by more than 7 to 10 points.
-And yet, the Wildcats are still the easy pick for champ because right now, Stanford is the second best team in the conference thanks to its dominating win over Oklahoma State and surprising run at Syracuse in a tough loss in the Preseason NIT final.  But with all due respect to the great job Johnny Dawkins is doing on the Farm, they went 15-16 (7-11) last year and were picked to finish in the middle of this pathetic pack.  They have another potentially big bubble battle on Sunday when N.C. State rolls in.
-California beat the crap out of Georgia and looked like it was in for a real fight with Missouri for the CBE Classic...and then the Bears simply didn't show up for that game, losing 92-53.  Jesus.  Putting them on the bubble after a performance like that one might be generous and they better not overlook McNeese State before heading to San Diego State later this week.  And yet: (a) they're still my second choice out of this conference (maybe even first if the 'Cats don't get it together) and (b) they don't even have the most humbling Pac-12 loss in Missouri this year...
-...that honor goes to Washington, who trailed mid major flavor of the week Saint Louis by 25 at the half and got blown out of Chaifetz Arena.  That result looks slightly less embarrassing now that the Billikens won a weak 76 Classic but only slightly.  Next four: @Nevada, Marquette, Duke, UC Santa Barbara.  1-3 might be the best case scenario.
-Oregon picked up a decent enough win at Nebraska, particularly after super recruit Jabari Brown abruptly left the program.  He was one of the big reasons I had them as one of my last teams in my rough draft but obviously that changes now.  They've got a "neutral site" game against BYU in Salt Lake City over the weekend where we'll learn more.
-I don't even want to talk about anyone else.  I really don't.  Washington State just got 8th place out of 8 in the 76 Classic.  Utah just got 8th place out of 8 in the Battle 4 Atlantis and looks like it might be severely overmatched even in this awful league.  FIVE Pac-12 members - Colorado, UCLA, USC, Arizona State and the aforementioned Utes - are under .500. The only other BCS conference teams under .500 are Boston College and South Carolina, both of whom are affronts to the game of basketball.  Not much else really to say here.  I wish this would be a one bid league but it'll get three or four by default (and one will make the Sweet 16.)

Champion - Kentucky
Lock - Florida, Alabama, Vanderbilt
Bubble - Mississippi State, Tennessee
NIT/CBI - Ole Miss, Georgia, Arkansas
None - LSU, Auburn, South Carolina

-10.  Kentucky is 10th in the country in field goal percentage.  If that continues, forget it - pretty much only UNC has the horses to take them down.  I really believe if those two both play like they're capable of, we may see the most high quality college game in a long time on Saturday but we're probably not that lucky.  The Wildcats only beat Kansas and Old Dominion by 10 but have wrecked everyone else.  Also, Anthony Davis is averaging 4.3 blocks per game.  That's not human.  Hell, the team as a whole is averaging 10.  Ten blocks per game.  What a freakishly long and athletic team.  It's Kentucky, you know the issues - youth, free throws, perimeter shooting, will the NCAA hammer come down on Calipari this season, etc.  But this team might be Cal's most deep and complete.  God, I can't wait for Saturday.
-They say guards win in college basketball, right?  Well then maybe Florida is a national title contender because they're deeper at that position than anybody else in the country.  Kenny Boynton, Brad Beal, Mike Rosario and Erving Walker might not be the college basketball equivalent of the Philadelphia Phillies Halladay-Lee-Hamels-Oswalt staff but it's probably the closest we're gonna get.  All four of those kids can light it up and each bring their own specific strengths.  Walker and Boynton: slashing ability, chemistry/cohesion as they've been backcourt mates for a few years now, experience.  Rosario: pure scoring ability, Big East experience (transferred in from Rutgers, where he was the only good player of course), hunger to win after leaving a moribound program.  Beal: pure shooting, youth, raw talent that may exceed the rest.  They have a great shot at Syracuse on Friday with the Bernie Fine mess swirling around that program. Win that one and suddenly with Arizona, Texas A&M and Florida State all remaining on the nonconference schedule, a 1 seed becomes a real possiblity again.
-Alabama is doing pretty much the exact opposite of what it did last nonconference season.  It won a solid Puerto Rico field with two legit wins over Wichita State (in an NIT final rematch) and Purdue (in a rematch of OOC games the past couple seasons), avenging three painful losses in the process and took out VCU last night.  Anthony Grant might be the hottest young coach in the country and is among the best teachers of defense in the country.  Tony Mitchell looks like he's taken his game to another level as well, adding range to his jumper and working even harder on D and on the boards.  Him and JaMychal Green may be the most underrated 1-2 punch in the game and Trevor Releford has a case for most underrated point guard.  Regardless, if these guys keep playing the way they have, they won't be underrated for long.  Georgetown comes in in a real interesting mix of styles and philosophies on Thursday.
-I'm not sure why peole thought putting Vanderbilt in the preseason top 10 was a good idea but the team has clearly buckled under the pressure and only seems to be loosening up now that they've blown the Cleveland State game and struggled through the Legends Classic.  Of course, Xavier coming to town tonight will give us more definitive answers.  You kind of know the deal with the 'Dores already - great at home and/or when shooting well and not turning the rock over a lot.  Otherwise...
-Yes, Mississippi State is still a bubble team.  Wins over Texas A&M and Arizona aren't THAT great and there's still the home gaffe to Akron from opening day and the fact that MSU under Rick Stansbury has been inconsistent at best and a gross underachiever at worst.
-Tennessee has a chance to be one of the surprises of the 2011-2012 season if it plays like it has so far this season.  Much more competitive against Duke than many thought before a tough loss to Memphis in double overtime and their three wins are by 23 or more.  There's certainly more talent on the roster than anyone was giving credit for at the ignominous end of the Bruce Pearl era (Trae Golden in particular looks like he could make people forget about Chris Lofton very quickly) and Cuonzo Martin, who won the tournament at Missouri State before fielding last year's wunderteam that won the Missouri Valley regular season title and was a bucket away from the tournament title, seems like a really good hire who knows what he's doing and is getting the most out of his players.  They have a REALLY interesting test at Oakland tonight before welcoming in Pitt over the weekend in what will be a revenge game for the Panthers.
-Hasn't Andy Kennedy been on the hot seat at Ole Miss pretty much ever since he came over from Cincinnati?  Regardless, the Rebels have started life after Chris Warren well, save for that 30 point disaster against Marquette in a Paradise Jam semi.  But they rebounded nicely to beat TCU for third place the next night and then held off Miami (FL) in overtime on Friday.  Very good growth experiences for a team with 9 underclassmen and just 2 seniors on the roster.
-I like both Georgia and Arkansas because I like their coaches and I like their systems (even though they're very different in all aspects) but both have eaten some ugly early losses (Georgia to Cal by a lot in KC, Arkansas to a completely rebuilding Houston in North Little Rock) that have already hurt their bubble chances.  At least the Dawgs surprised Notre Dame for third place.
-As for the other just won a national title in football, one's probably about to and...well, poor South Carolina.

Friday, November 18, 2011

2011-2012 College Basketball Preview: The Mid Major At Large Threats

It looks to be a deep year in the BCS leagues. The Big East will be good for its usual eighth of the tournament at least and if West Virginia, Georgetown and Notre Dame all hold serve while one of the young, rebuilding St. John's or Villanova teams (or an even deeper sleeper) can break through then it could get in to double digits again (but hitting last March's magic 11 would be a real shock), the Big Ten and SEC could each get 6 or more and it's hard to see the ACC sending any less than 5 even though it's a really weak league this year after UNC, Duke and perhaps Florida State. That leaves only the Big 12, which drops off after the top 4 and the annually-weak Pac-12 as BCS leagues where at large bids may erode. More on the big boys later in the week.

That means the following seven leagues probably won't each have at large teams in this year's NCAA tournament but each of them is a major threat to have one or more. Again, major credit goes to my Sporting News preview mag, as well as the internet and my own noggin for the billions of words that follow on the top mid major leagues in the land. Specific teams I write about are bolded for convenience.

Atlantic 10
Champion - Xavier
Lock - Temple
Bubble - Saint Louis, St. Bonaventure, Richmond

13th ranked Xavier and slashing senior guard Tu Holloway (19.7 ppg, 5.4 apg) are the heavy favorites to win the league and the league's Player of the Year award, respectively. Chris Mack, now 50-17 in two years at Xavier after taking over for Sean Miller, has solidified the program as one of the top mid majors in the land and it might be the best team outside of a BCS league this season, although it's gotten off to a bit of a shaky start with closer-than-expected wins over Morgan State and Miami (Ohio) (dangerous low major teams in their own right) and the remaining nonconference games are against Georgia, at # 18 Vanderbilt, Purdue, at Butler, crosstown rival # 20 Cincinnati, Oral Roberts, Long Beach State and # 22 Gonzaga - not a single easy win in the bunch. But behind Holloway - the A-10's leading assist man and second leading scorer last season, a third team All American and arguably the best at getting to the foul line in the entire country - and backcourt mate Mark Lyons (13.6 ppg, 3.1 apg) should lead the Musketeers to their sixth consecutive regular season title. They went 24-8 (15-1) in a far stronger league last season so a perfect campaign isn't out of the question...

...if they survive February 11th's trip to Temple, the only other probable NCAA tournament team in the league. The Owls lose star big man Lavoy Allen but return four double figure scorers including the streaky Juan Fernandez (11.2 ppg, 3.9 apg), who on his day is second to only Holloway in the conference in terms of scoring ability. Leading scorer Ramone Moore (15.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.1 apg) and A-10 Most Improved Player Scootie Randall (10.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg) should ensure a second place finish and at large bid at worst. They've already secured a third place finish in the Puerto Rico Tip Off, beating Western Michigan and Wichita State and losing by just 8 to Purdue. Nonconference games against Big 5 rival Villanova, at Texas and home shots at Maryland and # 6 Duke in January give the Owls a real opportunity to secure a plum NCAA tournament seed.

The rest of the league is a jump ball. Don't expect more than 1-2 at large bids and even that might be pushing it, although Saint Louis may have helped its cause immensely with a 77-64 win over Washington over the weekend that the Billikens led by 25 at the half. They return all five starters from a team that was better than its 12-19 (6-10) record and has won at least 18 games in 3 of Rick Majerus' five years in the program. With all that experience and one of the biggest home court advantages in the conference, this looks like their time to make a real push towards the NCAA tournament. However, the "experience" may be a bit of a misnomer, as there are still only two seniors and seven sophomores on the roster. They play in the 76 Classic over Thanksgiving break and get two coveted shots at Xavier as well as Temple at home with no return trip to Philly. St. Bonaventure brings back Andrew Nicholson and it is he, not Holloway, who is the conference's leading returning scorer at 20.2 points per game last season. He led the Bonnies to a 16-15 (8-8) mark, their first winning season since 2001-2002 and he along with three other returning starters could see the team better its record and College Basketball Invitational invite from last season. They have nonconference shots at the ACC's Virginia Tech and N.C. State - the latter at home - but no home shot at Xavier in league play hurts. Richmond returns only one starter from last year's 29-8 (13-3) Sweet 16 team but Chris Mooney is somewhat surprisingly still on the bench, giving the Spiders credible hopes in this league. Mooney, 112-87 in 7 years coaching the Spiders, is a real intellectual who should get the most out of what he has and with the usual challenging Richmond OOC slate consisting of trips to Illinois, Wake Forest, city rival VCU, Bucknell and UCLA as well as home games against Iona and Old Dominion, there will be plenty of chances for resume-bolstering victories against teams that are in BCS leagues and/or should be in NCAA tournament contention but they too miss a home game against Xavier (and don't go to Temple either, so capitalizing on the OOC chances will be paramount.)

Champion - VCU
Lock - None
Bubble - Drexel, Old Dominion

For all the progress this league has made since George Mason's all-time shocker of a Final Four run in 2006 as an 11 seed to VCU replicating such a feat this past March, this season looks to be a down year for the league. The Rams themselves lose four of their top five scorers from that Cinderella team, which finished fourth in this league last season before getting to the conference tournament final, copping a probably undeserved bid to the NCAA tournament and using all the disrespect and scorn from pundits and fans alike as fuel for their magical run to Houston. Only Bradford Burgess (14.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg) is back but with Shaka Smart signing an eight year extension to remain the boss in Richmond, the Rams should remain at or near the top of this league. But to get back to the NCAA's, they'd do well to take a step further in the conference tournament this year, as they've already suffered shock nonconference losses to Seton Hall and Georgia Tech, both by double digits. And yet, they remain the favorites to take the league crown because of the strength of the program that Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant built over the past decade and that Smart has sustained.

Actually, the favorites to take the league crown - according to the preseason coaches poll, anyway - are Drexel, but the Dragons have gotten off to an even worse start than the Rams. Favorites to get to the Paradise Jam final according to Ken Pomeroy, they've wiped out in the Virgin Islands, losing to the MEAC's Norfolk State and then scoring just 35 points in a pathetic 14 point loss to Virginia. Always a solid top 4 program or so in this league, Bruiser Flint's boys will need to get better if they're to live up to expectations but the talent is there. Samme Givens (12.2 ppg, 10.1 rpg) is the only returning player in the conference to average a double-double and six of the top seven players from a 21-10 (11-7) team are back. But with the toughest remaining OOC game being probably Fairfield (not counting a potential BracketBuster game), the Dragons might need the auto bid at this point...the auto bid that Old Dominion won last March. The Monarchs are kind of the forgotten power in the CAA - they've never made a deep tourney run like VCU or George Mason (who is rebuilding in the wake of Jim Larranaga taking the Miami job and has already lost to both Florida International and Florida Atlantic) and they haven't been the center of some of the big victories/controversies that Drexel has (remember when the Dragons won at Syracuse and then got snubbed from the NCAA tourney anyway?) but they're always in the thick of things in this league and this year should be no different under old reliable Blaine Taylor. Defensive Player of the Year Kent Bazemore and his 2.2 steals per game are back but he's just one of six letterman returning from last year's squad, which bowed out in the NCAA tournament on a buzzer beater against eventual national runner up Butler. The fact that such an inexperienced team is still among the best teams in this league shows you its dearth of quality this season, but the Monarchs pulled off a big overtime win against South Florida before showing well in a 10 point loss against Kentucky in a tournament in Connecticut this past weekend and a December 30th visit from # 24 Missouri provides the opportunity for a big nonconference scalp.

Conference USA
Champion - Memphis
Lock - None
Bubble - Marshall, UCF, Tulsa

After a few years where the UTEPs and Houstons had their moments in the limelight, this league should officially be back to its usual "Memphis and the eleven dwarfs" status this season. The 10th ranked Tigers return pretty much everyone from last year's 25-10 (10-6) squad that won the conference tournament and came within a Derrick Williams block of taking out Arizona in a 12/5 special (that I called) in round 1 (technically round 2 now but screw the play ins.) Plus, super freshman Adonis Thomas should be the next Memphis lottery pick and will add even more pure athleticism to a group already overflowing with it. Leading scorer Will Barton (12.3 ppg), C-USA Tournament MVP Joe Jackson, All-Freshman Tarik Black (9.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and senior leader Wesley Witherspoon are the headliners but this is one of the deepest, most talented teams in the country that can make a legitimate Final Four run if it clicks. A big if, considering there are still only two seniors on the entire roster but if beauty comes before age, this Tigers team can and will go deep in the Big Dance. They've already fired a warning shot to the rest of the nation, smashing a Belmont team by 16 that Duke could only beat by 1 and they could see the Blue Devils in the Maui semifinals on Tuesday if they get by Michigan tomorrow. Add in trips to Miami (FL), Louisville and Georgetown as well as visits from Tennessee and Xavier, the Tigers should be thinking 1 or 2 seed in March.

If there's a clear # 2 in the league, it might be Marshall. The Thundering Herd return four starters from last year's 22-12 (9-7) team, including 5'10, 165 pound Damier Pitts who plays much bigger than his size, averaging 16.2 points and 4.7 assists a game last year and backcourt mate DeAndre Kane (15.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg), last season's Conference USA Freshman of the Year. They've got a couple of nice opportunities for big nonconference victories with trips to # 20 Cincinnati, # 5 Syracuse, Belmont and the annual rivalry game with West Virginia in Charleston. They also get two shots at Memphis in league play. Donnie Jones did a terrific job building up the Marshall program before jumping ship to UCF last year and taking the Knights to their first 20 win season since 2007. UCF won 21 games, but just six of them came in conference as a miraculous 14 game unbeaten nonconference run through the winter turned in to a monumental conference season collapse during spring that included an eight game losing streak at one point. This year, four starters return including Marcus Jordan (15.2 ppg, 3.3 apg), son of that Michael guy who's spending his time railroading the NBA Players Union these days. He's the leading scorer, assist man and face of the team but leading rebounder Keith Clanton (14.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg), who shot 52.9% from the floor last season (good for 3rd in C-USA) might be just as important to the team's success. He and other returning starters P.J. Gaynor and Dwight McCombs are all 6'8, so the Knights will present plenty of size and matchup problems all season. They already got crushed by Florida State and the biggest remaining nonconference game is against Old Dominion, so a repeat of last year's OOC run is probably necessary, but they too play Memphis twice. And then there's Tulsa, who has quietly established itself as a top C-USA program, making back-to-back conference semifinals and even being preseason favorites two seasons ago. The Golden Hurricane, like the league's other bubble contenders, have a host of key returning parts including senior center Steven Idlet (11.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg), All-Freshman Jordan Clarkson (11.5 ppg) and UConn transfer Scottie Haralson (10.9 ppg, 1.7 apg) who hit 82 threes last season, fifth most in school history. It suffered a couple of tough four point losses in Charleston to tournament champion Northwestern and St. Joseph's but still has games at Oklahoma State, Arizona State, Wichita State and Creighton before conference season so there are opportunities for resume-building wins. Unlike the other bubble contenders, Tulsa only plays Memphis once - but the game is in Oklahoma on Senior Night, March 3.

Champion - Detroit
Lock - None
Bubble - Butler, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Cleveland State

2005-2006. That's the last time Butler didn't win the Horizon regular season title. It came a year after a 13-15 (7-9) 04-05 campaign that might be the last time the Bulldogs finish a season under .500 overall and/or in conference play for many years and a year later, Todd Lickliter took the Iowa job after restoring the Bulldogs atop the conference. Some guy named Brad Stevens took over and the program took off even more. It's become so important, at least in this league, that I'm writing about it first even though I don't have it winning the conference title. That's because the much-maligned Ronald Nored, along with Andrew Smith and Chase Stigall are the only returning recognizable pieces from the back-to-back national runner ups. Stevens might be the best coach in the country and he took a team that returned only Matt Howard to a 26-6 (15-3) mark in 2008-2009 that set the table for the two Final Fours but the fact of the matter is that a Golden Generation just passed and there's going to be a significant rebuilding effort. Already, this Butler outfit has suffered a shock loss at Missouri Valley also-ran Evansville and got thumped on its home court by # 9 Louisville. They'll still be in the hunt for the conference title, if only by default, but they just might cede it this season.

Detroit used to be Butler. The Titans strung together nine straight winning seasons between 1995-1996 and 2004-2005 including back-to-back first round upsets of St. John's and UCLA in the 1998 and 1999 NCAA tournaments but that victory over the Bruins marks the last time the program that Dick Vitale once coached made the NCAA's. This year is the year to end the drought. Aside from Butler being as down as it will ever be, Detroit returns all five starters from last year's 17-16 (10-8) team, the first to win 10 Horizon games since 03-04. Like Creighton in the Missouri Valley (more on them in a bit), the coach's son is the star. Ray McCallum was doing a great job of reviving the program even before his son stepped on campus last year. As a freshman, Ray McCallum Jr. averaged 13.5 points a game and was third in the Horizon in assists (161) and steals (54) becoming the proud school's first ever freshman to make an all-conference team (2nd.) Joining him on that 2nd team was Eli Holman, the league's leading rebounder (9.6 rpg) and guards Chase Simon (13.5 ppg) and Chris Blake (10.9 ppg) give the team five returning double digit scorers. Couple that with McCallum's (father and son) defensive prowess and the Titans just may be able to slay Goliath and the rest of the Horizon. They only lost by 6 at Notre Dame and still have nonconference games against St. John's, at Alabama and Mississippi State so there are at-large chances as well.

Having already capitalized on its biggest at-large chance, Cleveland State can head in to its seven game road trip coming up knowing that a slip can be afforded after the 71-58 scalp at # 7 Vanderbilt. D'Aundray Brown showed in that game that he may be willing to fill Norris Cole's shoes. Cole was the Horizon Player of the Year last year, averaging a league-best 21.7 points per game while also leading the league in assists (191) and steals (80) but Brown came up with 18 points, 8 rebounds and SEVEN steals against the Commodores. Cole took the Vikings to the brink of the NCAA's, going 14-1 in 2010 and falling 76-68 to Butler in the Horizon semis. But Cole's team didn't pull off a win as good as the Vandy win, nor did it beat the Bulldogs once in three tries. Brown's team, also bolstered by the return of Trevon Harmon (13.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg), may very well do so - along with getting to the NCAA's. Last season, Wisconsin-Milwaukee had the opposite problems of Cleveland State. They were 6-8 (1-2) on New Year's Eve before catching fire in 2011, beating Butler twice en route to a 13-5 league mark and regular season crown. But they say it's next to impossible to beat a team three times and the Panthers proved that axiom correct when the Bulldogs beat them on their home floor for the automatic birth to the NCAA's. Three starters return from that team, as do a few key reserves, and the Panthers - probably the second best program in the conference over the past decade, thanks in large part to Bruce Pearl before he took off for Tennessee - are strong enough to contend again. And so far so good on the OOC front although a trip to Michigan State this week could change that and dates with in-state big brothers # 14 Wisconsin and at # 21 Marquette loom later.

Missouri Valley
Champion - Creighton
Lock - None
Bubble - Wichita State, Indiana State

One could argue that last March was the league's low point over the past decade at one point. The league produced only a 14 seed automatic bid, who was blown away by Purdue in the first round. But then it got teams to the finals of the NIT and College Basketball Invitational and if things break correctly, it could snag one or more at larges to this year's NCAA's. Creighton, the CBI finalist (losing to Oregon in a three game series best known for Oregon's court costing the Bluejays the title) is the favorite in the Valley this season, returning five of its top six scorers including the coach's son. Greg McDermott's son Doug is the Bluejays' leading returning scorer and rebounder at 14.2 points and 7.2 boards per game, good enough to help him become just the second freshman in Valley history to earn first team all-conference honors. Also back are Antoine Young, whose 5 assists a game and 2.4 assist/turnover ratio were both tops in the league (and his 13.1 ppg was second on the team) and Gregory Echenique, who shot the highest percentage from the floor (60.9%) in the league (McDermott was third at 52.5% - yeah, he's good.) Creighton hasn't won a Missouri Valley regular season title since 2008-2009 and it hasn't won an outright title since the beginning of the first (LOL) George W. Bush term but this year's outfit could change all that.

Their main challenger should be Wichita State, last season's preseason conference favorites and postseason NIT champions. The Shockers lose top scorer and first team all-conference pick J.T. Durley but return the top five scorers after him, most notably do-it-all guard Toure' Murry (9.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.4 apg), the team's leading returning scorer, rebounder and assist man. Ben Smith (6.7 ppg), the Valley's Sixth Man Award winner is also back and down low, the Shockers have a pair of seven footers in Garrett Stutz (7.2 ppg) and JUCO transfer Ehimen Orukpe, who only played sparingly last season. Speaking of JUCO, it's those ranks where Wichita State obtained perhaps its most talented player on this season's roster: 6'8, 215 pound Carl Hall, a first team JUCO All American at Northwest Florida State. The Shockers disappointed somewhat in Puetro Rico, losing tough battles to Alabama and Temple (in OT) and now cannot blow nonconference games against UNLV, Utah State, UAB and @Tulsa if they're to have at large hopes. In an interesting quirk, they host Creighton in the second game of conference season and head to Qwest Center in their penultimate conference game (their only road game in their final 4 league games.) The only other at-large threat from the league appears to be defending tournament champ Indiana State, who returns four starters including sophomore Jake Odum, who led the Valley in steals last year with 1.8 a game and was second with 4.1 assists per contest. Leading scorer Dwayne Lathan (10.9 ppg) is also back and among the reserves, Jordan Printy hit a league-best 47.7% of his threes last season. The Sycamores have a real shot to win a weak Old Spice Classic, starting with Thanksgiving's quarterfinal against Big 12 minnow Texas Tech, which would be paramount for at large chances and a big part of why they're even considered to be a preseason bubble team. There's also a trip to Vanderbilt and in conference play, the home shot at Creighton is Senior Night. A lot could be on the line that night.

Mountain West
Champion - UNLV
Lock - None
Bubble - New Mexico, San Diego State

The only question for UNLV might be Dave Rice. He replaces Lon Kruger, the man solely responsible for the revival of the Runnin' Rebel basketball program after the acrimonious end of the Jerry Tarkanian era in the early 1990s, after Kruger took on the responsibility of reviving Oklahoma's now-moribund program. Fortunately, Rice was on Tarkanian's 1990 national champion and has 11 years of assistant coaching experience at the Thomas and Mack Center under his belt. He'll have four returning starters from last year's 24-9 (11-5) team that smelled blood in the water when Brandon Davies was kicked off of BYU, beating them twice after the controversy and winning the conference tournament before a lackluster showing in round 1 of the NCAA's against Illinois. Chief among them is Chace Stanback (13.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg), the conference's second leading returning scorer, as well as Oscar Bellfield (11.2 ppg, 3.7 apg.) Also returning is Kendall Wallace, who blew out his knee before last year and may be the best pure shooter on the team, a good thing considering the team only shot 33% from 3 point range last season. With the Cougars no longer in the conference and the other contenders somewhere along the process of rebuilding, the Rebels may not have a better opportunity to seize the league than now.

Had Drew Gordon (13.0 ppg, 10.5 rpg) been eligible in November, maybe New Mexico has a different season. Instead, the Lobos went just 8-8 in Mountain West play (but 22-13 overall) after the UCLA transfer became eligible in December. However, Gordon and three other starters - including MWC Freshman of the Year Kendall Williams (11.6 ppg, 4.0 apg) who led the league in 3-point percentage (42.6) - have Steve Alford thinking this team might end up like his conference champion of two seasons ago with Darington Hobson and Dairese Gary leading the Lobos to a 30-5 overall mark. This season's outfit probably won't go 30-5 but it could win the conference title and definitely can get back to the NCAA's, although the New Mexico State loss wasn't pretty and a five point win over Pac-12 minnow Arizona State (who has already lost to Pepperdine) shows that this team has a ways to go and with the toughest remaining OOC game being at Oklahoma State, they may have to run the table and come up with a record ultimately close to Hobson and Gary's team anyway...or that of last year's San Diego State team, which had by far the best season in program history last year, going 34-3 (14-2) and winning the Mountain West regular season championship and its first ever NCAA tournament game(s) before a Sweet 16 loss to eventual national champion UConn. But now most of that team is gone. Kawhi Leonard, D.J. Gay, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White are all gone and it'll be up to Chase Tapley and James Rahon to pick up the slack. The guard duo averaged a combined 15.6 points per game last season - Tapley shooting 38% beyond the arc and Rahon hitting 43.4% of his threes so it could be a perimeter orientated team. But the Aztecs have started brilliantly, losing to # 11 Baylor by just 10 and already recording wins over USC and a Long Beach State team coming off a win at # 9 Pittsburgh. They get a shot at # 15 Arizona this week and games against Creighton and # 23 California also loom.

Champion - Gonzaga
Lock - None
Bubble - St. Mary's, BYU

And in just forty minutes of basketball, Kevin Pangos introduced himself to the world and might have just woke up the ghosts of John Stockton, Dan Dickau and Derek Raivio. Pangos, the true freshman point guard for Gonzaga, dropped NINE threes on Washington State, tying Dickau's school record, and scored 33 points while dishing out 6 assists in an enthralling 89-81 victory. The Canadian was one of the few question marks coming in to the season for this Gonzaga team, as its frontcourt is among the best in college basketball with Elias Harris (12.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and 7'0 Robert Sacre (12.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg) beasting down low. Ironically, Stockton's son David is the leading returning assist man, with 2.2 a game last season, but he'll be coming off the bench if Pangos keeps his form up. Add in WCC All-Freshman member Sam Dower (7.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg) and incoming freshman Gary Bell, Washington's Mr. Basketball, and the Bulldogs are as deep and talented as they've been since Adam Morrison was in school and are a clear favorite to take the WCC as usual.

Also as usual, it's Saint Mary's who will be fighting them tooth and nail. A 25 win team was left at the NCAA altar last season when it couldn't beat Mark Few's boys in the WCC final and now ringleader Mickey McConnell is gone. That means it's time for Matthew Dellavedova (13.4 ppg, 5.3 apg) to assume McConnell's - and before him Patrick Mills' - role as the superstar Australian guard who leads this team and lights it up from deep. Helping him down low will be Rob Jones, the San Diego transfer who averaged 13.8 points and 7.7 rebounds per game and is one of the toughest players in the league, if not the entire country. Apparently though, Randy Bennett still hasn't learned how to schedule because the only real nonconference game that will help the at-large profile is a trip to # 11 Baylor three days before Christmas in a Sweet 16 rematch of two years ago. And then there are the new boys. BYU, who is only in this league because it needed a spot to dump its non-football sports (and may not be here for long if the Big East or Big 12 come calling), may have picked the right year to jump to a cushier league because Jimmer's gone, as are backcourt mate Jackson Emery and forward Kyle Collinsworth. Brandon Davies (11.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg) is back on the team after the controversy I'm not going to let myself rant about and UCLA transfer Matt Carlino will become eligible in December, potentially taking over the point guard position at some point after. Other than that, it's up to Noah Hartsock (8.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Charles Abouo (7.2 ppg) to keep the ship sailing. The Cougars have already lost at Utah State but there's never any shame in that and have upcoming dates at Nevada, Oregon and at Utah before getting the 11th ranked Bears just like St. Mary's but they get them at home. There's also a late January midweek trip to Virginia Tech where they could make the Hokies pay for beefing up their nonconference slate for a change.

That is a lot of spilled ink and there's more to come. Boy do I like college basketball. BCS leagues and bracket coming later in the week, perhaps not until Thanksgiving break itself due to a glut of schoolwork between now and then (isn't that how it always happens though?) There will probably be less hard numbers and info and more pure analysis since: I don't need to rely on a magazine as much and you probably already have a base knowledge about the BCS leagues. See you then.

2011-2012 College Basketball Preview: The One Bid Leagues

If you missed the intro post, click here. We'll begin with the 14 leagues that are sure to be one bid as well as the four leagues with only one (or in the MAC's case, two) at large threat, meaning they too will almost assuredly be one bid. My pick to win the league is bolded somewhere in the paragraph. We'll get to the (probable) multi bid leagues, including the BCSers, later this weekend before putting out the projected bracket.

Major props and credit to my trusty Sporting News 2011-2012 preview mag, the source of most of the factual data in these paragraphs but unfortunately cannot be blamed for any wrong picks.

America East
Vermont and Boston University are the two programs almost always in the thick of the league title chase but each lost its coach in the offseason - the Catamounts' Mike Longeran went to George Washington and the Terriers' Patrick Chambers moved to Penn State (and to a program hopefully cleaner than the football one.) That means your preseason favorite is Stony Brook, who returns all five starters from a team that was the tournament runner up last year and the regular season champion two years ago. If Albany can replace leading scorer Tim Ambrose (16.8 PPG), they could be in the mix as well but the guess is that it's the Seawolves' time. As usual, this league should have one of the 16 seeds spoken for no matter who wins it.

Atlantic Sun
Belmont is the heavy favorite to not just win this league but to be this year's Cornell or (going back a few years) Bucknell as the low major that punches far above its weight and could very well lose less than 5 games all season and contend for a single digit NCAA tournament seed. They return 9 of their top 11 players from last year's 30-5 squad that got a 13 seed and while it's a team with no real standouts, Ian Clarke is the leading scorer (12.2 ppg) and the one who can hurt you from anywhere on the floor. When this team shoots well, it can play with anyone - just ask Duke. East Tennessee State and Jacksonville, the other two top programs from the past couple years and deep sleeper North Florida are their only real competition but the Buccaneers and Dolphins lose most of their best players and the Ospreys went just 10-10 in the league last year but return their top five scorers from last season.

Big Sky
It should be between Weber State and Montana as usual but the Wildcats are boosted by the return of Damian Lillard, the conference's Player of the Year in 2009-2010 who missed most last season with a foot injury. They return most of their nucleus and 6'6 230 pound Frank Otis, a transfer from Matt Doherty's SMU program should pitch in as well. The Grizzlies return four of five starters, losing only all conference center Brian Qvale, but he won't be nearly the loss that Anthony Johnson was going in to last season and Montana is a program that you can count on in both football and basketball to contend annually in this league. Last year's champion and tournament representative, Northern Colorado, lost most of its core from its golden generation of the past few years that was recruited by rising star coach Tad Boyle, who left for Colorado before last year and the Bears should start to feel that loss this season. If the 'Cats win it, they might sneak in to 14 seed range or so but the Grizzlies (or anyone else) won't do better than a 15.

Big South
This is a really bad league that's probably looking at a 16 seed no matter who wins the league and it would be absolutely stunning if it gets better than a 15. In an odd coincidence, arguably the two favorites are both opening new arenas this season. Actually, Coastal Carolina hasn't opened its yet - its upset over LSU last night was supposed to ring in the new Student Recreation and Convocation Center but its construction was delayed over the summer - but UNC Asheville got its marquee home opener played in the correct building, the brand-new Kimmel Arena (which only seats 3,200, to give you an idea of this league's place in the world.) Enough about gymnasiums, the Bulldogs return four starters from last year's tournament champion and the Chanticleers lose three of their most vital pieces from last year's regular season champ due to academics, graduation and an altercation with a teammate, which I don't think Cliff Ellis and the fantastic coaching job he has done since taking that job a few years ago can overcome. Liberty, VMI and its breakneck pace and old lion Winthrop will also have a real shot to win the auto bid in March.

Big West
So Long Beach State went to the Oakland Zoo and pulled off the upset it knew it could over Pitt. Now it faces FOUR more top 15 teams between November 28 and Christmas - Louisville, Kansas, North Carolina and Xavier. Of course all four games are on the road but with the Pitt win already in their pockets, the 49ERS can take their cuts with the knowledge that they're going to be in the at large conversation if they run the table - or come close - in conference play. That's very possible, considering they have been tournament runner ups the past two season, won the regular season title with a 14-2 mark in league play last season and return four starters, including Casper Ware, who became the first player in Big West history to win Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year last season and put up a career-high 28 points against Pitt. Like Coastal Carolina in the Big South, Long Beach State decided to trust its program to a coach who struggled with his shot at the big time and it's paying dividends as Dan Monson has come over from Minnesota and recaptured his Gonzaga magic. This year, he should turn it in to a tournament appearance for the 49ers, although UC Santa Barbara, the two time defending tournament champs who return Orlando Johnson (21.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg) - Ware's competition for POTY - among others, will be right there with them. When the conference tournament tips off in Anaheim, Cal State Fullerton and Cal Poly should fill out the top four seeds and will believe they have a real shot to take the crown. The sky's the limit for Long Beach's seed but the guess is that they'll be in a 5/12 or 4/13. Any who join (or replace) them in the tourney won't do much better than a 15.

Douglas Davis hit one of the more heartbreaking jumpers in recent college basketball memory to deny Harvard its first NCAA tournament since 1946 in a one game playoff and send Princeton to the NCAA tournament. It should be between the Crimson and Tigers again this season but Tommy Amaker's boys (there's another BCS retread - this may deserve its own post at one point) are the heavy favorites and although it won't happen, it's possible that if they sweep Princeton, they might not lose a game on their schedule other than a trip to UConn on December 8 - their golden ticket to real at-large opportunity should they need it again this season. As for Princeton, it returns 8 of its 10 top scorers but that pales in to comparison to Harvard bringing back its entire roster, including all 5 starters and 13 lettermen. Keith Wright, the 6'8 reigning Ivy Player of the Year and second banana Oliver McNally should lead the Crimson to their first NCAA tournament since the aftermath of World War II. The Tigers also have to deal with the shocking loss of head coach Sydney Johnson making a barely-upward move to Fairfield and new boss Mitch Henderson loses key starters Dan Mavraides and Kareem Maddox. Penn should be an interesting factor in the race as well with scorers Tyler Bernadini and Zack Rosen but when the dust settles, Amaker will finally achieve the manifest destiny he's been working toward since he took the job a few years ago. Expect a low double digit seed.

If you're gonna make an at large case, you might as well state it early, right? Well, both of this league's threats have done so, as Akron won at Mississippi State on the first night of the season and then Kent State surprised West Virginia at 10 AM in Morgantown during ESPN's 24 hour tip off marathon. It should be those two rival Ohio schools, who battle it out for the Wagon Wheel annually in football, going at it for this league's automatic bid and making sure its NCAA fate isn't left in the hands of the selection committee. In a parity filled league, Akron has somehow made five consecutive MAC title games and has won two of the last three, including an epic, physical overtime war against the Golden Flashes last March. The Zips bring back former top 50 recruit 7'0 Zeke Marshall (9 points, 13 rebounds and NINE blocks in said title game), leading scorer and rebounder Nikola Cvetinovic (11.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and a host of promising transfers and incoming recruits that makes this team a real threat to get back to the tournament and better its 15 seed and modest showing against Notre Dame from last March. Kent State, meanwhile, is the two time regular season champion and made an impressive run to the NIT quarterfinals and now the Golden Flashes return the MAC Player of the Year (Justin Greene), Defensive Player of the Year (Michael Porrini) and Sixth Man of the Year (Carlton Guyton.) Coach of the Year Geno Ford is the new man at Bradley but the Flashes have been through five coaches since 2000 and have remained at the top of the conference. There are a few other interesting sleepers in this league, including Miami Ohio, Buffalo and MAC Freshman of the Year Javon McCrea and Central Michigan and Trey Zeigler, the MAC's leading returning scorer and don't forget that Ohio team that's just a couple years removed from stunning Georgetown in the last 14/3 upset in the Big Dance. I don't see this league doing worse than that seed this year and either, or both, of the Zips and Golden Flashes can do a seed line or three better.

Call this, "The League of the Impact Transfer." Nowhere else will you find a low major league that is so exemplary of how transfers from BCS schools can come in and become superstars in small ponds. Iona was probably the favorite to win the conference title even before Arizona point guard MoMo Jones was granted a hardship waiver to transfer and play immediately in New Rochelle, which is much closer to home and his ailing grandmother. Jones, probably the best player on last year's Arizona team not named "Derrick Williams" solidifies the Gaels position as favorites to avenge last year's shock conference title loss to St. Peter's and get to the NCAA tournament. Fairfield, the regular season champions last season, should defend their title admirably - particularly with the boosts that new head man Sydney Johnson (who completely turned Princeton's program around and led them back to the NCAA tournament) and Boston College big man Rakim Sanders will give them. Also in the mix will be Loyola, led by former Maryland center Shane Walker and Rider, who adds former Virginia guard (and high school sensation) Jeff Jones to its roster this season. But the Gaels have to be considered the favorites with MoMo joining Mike Glover, whose 18.4 points and 10.1 rebounds make him the league's leading returning scorer, rebounder and favorite for Player of the Year as well as two other returning starters and a strong bench to form a team that has already pushed Purdue to the limit and can potentially do better than St. Peter's 14 seed last March (though I'm not sure if any other champion would.)

Always an unpredictable league, particularly when conference tourney time hits, the favorites are, by default, defending champions Hampton, who return three starters and a lot of size but they'll be challenged from each side of Baltimore as both Coppin State and Morgan State should be in the hunt. Fang Mitchell returns the core of a team that finished with a winning season for the first time in 7 years (although they were not shut out of the tournament during that time) and the Eagles will score the basketball all season, but the team topping the preseason poll and my pick to dance is the one who won three straight regular season titles and two straight conference tournament championships before stepping back last year and falling just short in the conference title game. The Bears, who somewhat surprisingly continue to be coached by Todd Bozeman, return one of the best double-double threats in the country in Kevin Thompson (13.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg), leading scorer DeWayne Jackson (14.5 ppg) and most of the rest of their nucleus. Look out for deep sleeper North Carolina Central in its first full year of membership in the league and Norfolk State has the kind of center in Kyle O'Quinn (16.4 ppg, 11.1 rpg 3.4 bpg) who can take over a league like this, particularly during the one week he needs to to secure an NCAA tourney bid. You know the drill though - it would be an achievement just for the champ to avoid one of the two 16 seed play-in game.

One of the nation's fastest paced, most high scoring and fun teams is back. Long Island returns 6 of its 8 top players from a team that went 27-6 overall and 16-2 in the league, the program's best campaign in three quarters of a century and finished fourth in the country averaging 82.7 points per game. They feature Julian Boyd (13 ppg, 8.9 rpg), NEC tournament MVP Jamal Olaswere (12.9, 6.8) and conference assists leader Jason Brickman (5.5 apg.) Returning NEC Player of the Year Ken Horton (19.5 ppg, 8.9 rpg) and Central Connecticut State should have something to say about the Blackbirds defending their crown and stalwarts Robert Morris and Mount St. Mary's should be in the mix as well. It's a strong league, returning 11 of its 16 top scorers, 8 of the top 11 rebounders, 9 of the top 14 assist men and 7 of the 10 best 3 point shooters but even if Long Island betters its marks from a season ago, a 14 seed seems like the absolute best case scenario and of course anyone else should be happy with a 15 and content if not in an opening round game.

Ohio Valley
Two straight years this league has pulled off a 4/13 special (which is becoming the new 5/12 special) in March and now it might be time for an even bigger Cinderella to show up at the Dance. Tennessee Tech, which hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 1963, is among the favorites to win the title despite assistant Steve Payne taking over for longtime head coach Steve Payne, who retired at the end of last season. This could be a Drake Geno Davis/Keno Davis situation, where the assistant steps in to the perfect position to win right away as the Golden Eagles, who lost to Morehead State and Kenneth Faried in the conference title game last season, return four starters including Kevin Murphy, who averaged 17 points a game last season and scored 30 in the title game. They also have Zac Swansey, who led the OVC in assists (6.4), steals (2.1) and assist/turnover ratio (1.8-1) last season. League powers Austin Peay and Murray State will be in the mix as usual despite the Racers - one of the bigger stepping stone programs for upward moving coaches in America - losing yet another head man as Billy Kennedy took over for Mark Turgeon at Texas A&M. The Governors' success might depend on how well TyShwan Edmonson, the OVC's second leading scorer last season (17.1 ppg) recovers from a torn knee ligament sustained in last year's conference tournament. Tennessee State's a real interesting wild card since they return all five starters including OVC Freshman of the Year Patrick Miller and while Faried-less Morehead will obviously be a shell of last season, Donnie Tyndall's still a good enough coach to coax an NCAA bid out of the group he has left. But we'll go with the fairytale story and take the Techsters. Expect somewhere between a 13 and a 15, probably a 14, for whoever cuts down the nets.

I sure do hope American, Lehigh and the rest of this league enjoyed the downtime between 2007 and last year because it looks like Bucknell might be back to reclaim its annual place at the head of this league's table. The Bison went from 14-17 to 25-9 last season, dominating the league in the regular season (aside from a bizarre 20 point loss against Army) but needing a controversial no-call in the waning moments of their tournament semifinal against Lehigh to get to the final against a Lafayette team that needed double overtime to win at American in its Patriot League semi (a game which this blogger attended!) No matter, Mike Muscala (14.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg), a 6'11 inside-out threat, should lead the Bison to another crown as he and three other starters return. C.J. McCollum (21.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg), last year's Player and Rookie of the Year will lead the Mountain Hawks and the Leopards, losers in two straight Patriot title games, will remain in the mix and keep an eye on Navy, who was the unexpected beneficiary of new head coach Ed DeChellis' shock move from Penn State. Bucknell has a shot at a 14 seed again, everyone else would do well to avoid the play-in.

A forgettable enough league this year that I literally forgot to do the preview before I was about to post this, only 2 of 10 players from last year's all conference team return. That means returning experience could be paramount for Davidson, who brings back seven of its top eight scorers (but unfortunately can't bring back Stephen Curry, even in the lockout) from last season's 18-15 (10-8) outfit to be the flagbearer in the South and Chattanooga, who returns four senior starters to carry the torch in the North division. Appalachian State and the College of Charleston, both of whom have consistently knocked on two time defending champion Wofford's door should all contend in a league that saw seven teams ring up double digit conference wins last season. It's really anyone's guess who wins this league, so I'll go with the brand name, the legendary coach (Bob McKillop) and all that returning experience. A 14 or 15 seed sounds about right, depending on the champion.

A weird league with a cool name and almost as much parity as there is random Texas schools (with a few Louisiana universities and Central Arkansas filling things out), this is one of the few conferences in which I can't name last year's NCAA tournament participant without looking it up...but on the rare occasion, this league's champ can be real dangerous in March. Anyhow, that champion that I didn't know - Texas San-Antonio - is one of three teams jumping ship to the WAC next year so if you believe in conspiracies, check out the officiating in their games in March since they're the favorites to represent the league in the Big Dance again. Four starters and twelve players return from last year's 20 win squad and the Roadrunners have the benefit of playing in the West, the weaker of the two divisions. The East has an interesting mix of contenders, including Pat Knight's Lamar and always dangerous Northwestern State and McNeese State, the defending regular season champs and tournament runners-up who return only one starter, but he's a good one in Patrick Richard (16.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg.) The prediction (more like a guess) is that the addition of transfers Will Brown (New Mexico) and Rudy Turner (Lousiana-Monroe) puts the Cowboys over the top, flipping last year's title game (which was decided by three points) script.

Speaking of leagues where the favorite is leaving next season, Oral Roberts is actually one of the Southland's reinforcements for Texas San-Antonio, Texas State and Texas-Arlington joining the depleted WAC. The Golden Eagles, annual stars in this league, should get back to the glory days of Ken Tutt and Caleb Green as they look to have the drop on Oakland now that Golden Grizzlies star big man Keith Benson has graduated. But the two time defending champs won't just cede their crown over, especially not when Reggie Hamilton (20.7 ppg over final 18 games, 25 against Texas in NCAA tournament) is still in town and Laval Lucas-Perry, a solid rotation player and occasional starter at Michigan, transfers in to join him. IUPUI might be in the mix as well but loses longtime coach Ron Hunter, who built the program to be at or near the top of the league annually, to Georgia State. The choice has to be Scott Sutton's boys though, who retain four of the league's top eight scorers including Freshman of the Year Steven Roundtree and not including Michael Craion, the Summit Newcomer of the Year in 2009-2010 before breaking his foot and missing all of last season. This league is starting to make a habit out of 13 and 14 seeds, which is a good thing considering its stature and the vast difference between a 4/13 game (twenty two 13 seeds have beaten 4's since the tourney went to 64 in 1985, the latest being Morehead State over Louisville in March) or a 3/14 (sixteen 14 seeds have beaten 3's, latest being Ohio over Georgetown in 2010)......and the 2/15 (only four 15 seeds have beaten 2's, latest being Hampton over Iowa State in 2001) or 1/16 (you know the stat) and either the Golden Eagles or Golden Grizzlies should expect more of the same.

Sun Belt
Depending on who you ask, Mike Jarvis might have destroyed St. John's program but he's now in Boca Raton building up Florida Atlantic's. The Owls, just 6-26 two seasons ago, return four starters to last year''s regular season champion but already establishing themselves as the favorites might be Middle Tennessee, who won by 20 at UCLA earlier this week and adds a couple of BCS transfers, Oklahoma State's Torin Walker and Iowa State's LaRon Dendy to a core of six returning top players. Arkansas State, enjoying a breakthrough year in football, may get the same in basketball as the West division co-champs return Player of the Year candidate Martavius Adams (11.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and conference tournament runner up North Texas loses four starters but adds Tony Mitchell, who was declared ineligible at Missouri and could be the most talented player in the league from the moment he steps on the court. The Blue Raiders have a real knack for coming up short on the big stage in this league in football but in basketball, they look like they might be able to win this league and be some 1 or 2 seed's fodder in March.

In what's probably the toughest league in the country to consistently win at, Lewis Jackson has put together something of a dynasty at Alabama State, winning back-to-back regular season titles in 2007-2008 and 2008-2009, capping the latter with a tournament title and NCAA tournament appearance before getting back to the Big Dance last season by winning eight of its final nine regular season games and surging through the SWAC tournament. The Hornets return most of their nucleus and should be able to hold off Mississippi Valley State - who got hit with APR sanctions like Grambling and Southern but are not banned from postseason play like those schools. Jackson State and last year's regular season champions Texas Southern will have their say and in a league where 12-21, 8-10 Grambling can make the tournament finals a year after a 5th seeded 17-16 (11-7) Texas Southern team did, the conference tournament is always wide open and always results in a 16 seed (and usually an opening round date) for the champion.

Boise State's gone and Nevada, Hawaii and Fresno State are next to join them. This is catastrophic for the football league but won't hurt nearly as much for the basketball league, which should retain its place as a middle-of-the-pack mid major. As long as Utah State stays put, things are in decent shape. Stew Morril's program has set up camp at the top of this league and despite losing four starters and the sixth man off last year's 30-4 (15-1) squad, the Aggies remain the favorites to win the league. It's as simple as the formula: efficient shooting, tough defense and beat everybody at home. The Wolfpack and Warriors are probably the top two challengers to the throne, as Nevada should bounce back from a rebuilding year last year and be Utah State's usual title challengers while there's something special brewing on the island where 19 games were won last season and three starters return, including Zane Johnson (15.8 ppg, 40.8 3%.) I got a good look at Hawaii during the ESPN 24 hour marathon and while I like them a lot, it's foolish to pick against Morril and his boys in what has become their league. New Mexico State would be in this conversation if Troy Gillenwater (18.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg) hadn't been declared ineligible for signing with an agent and if they can somehow replace him, they might be. Utah State is usually good for somewhere between an 11 and 14 seed but with all the turnover, it will likely be on the lower end this season.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

2011-2012 College Basketball Preview: Introduction

This is the year to go all in with college basketball.

For one thing, the NBA is probably going to be locked out all season. Games are already canceled well in to December and the players simply do not understand that they are mostly a group of young adults who never finished (or, in many cases, started) college going up against some of the wealthiest and best businessmen in the entire country in matters of business. Thus, they have decertified as a union months after they should have if they were ever going to make such a move and should continue digging their own grave until sometime in the spring or summer of 2012. Maybe we'll get lucky and this thing will end in January or so like 99 did so we can at least get an abbreviated season and the playoffs, but we haven't gotten lucky once in this whole thing and the players seem like they're going to keep burying themselves until the entire season is gone. Oh well.

Anyway, the NBA's loss has been college basketball's gain. Basketball is basketball and while the college game lacks the NBA's quality, it more than makes up for it by dressing up the game far better with its atmosphere that prefers screaming student sections to club beats during play, among other things. Furthermore, the lockout led to an abnormal amount of talent staying in college so the college game should be higher quality this season. Last year, a team that was a 9 seed in its conference tournament won the title, both an 8 seed and an 11 seed made the Final Four, the number one overall seed didn't even make its regional final and of the 14 lottery picks in the 2011 NBA Draft, exactly four came from top 3 seeds and three of those were Kansas' Morris twins as the last two picks of the lottery and BYU's Jimmer Fredette going 10th (the fourth was Duke's Kyrie Irving going number 1 overall, of course.) There simply wasn't much talent in college hoops last year and the teams that did have the most talent - Connecticut and Kentucky - did not harness it until March.

Expect different this year. Each of the top six teams in the country are absolutely loaded with star power, depth and legendary coaching. There are sleepers in the top 15 with nasty collections of shooters (Vanderbilt), scorers (Florida) and athletes (Memphis.) As usual, the Big East is the best top-to-bottom league in the country and will get the most bids to the NCAA tournament, including a few national title contenders who will fight it out for # 1 seeds, but it's the ACC who is home to the best team in the country: North Carolina. The Big 12 should be a four way dance between top 20ish programs battling in the league's first ever true round robin for the title and so should the SEC, which is officially a single table (but the East schools still play each other twice and the West once and vice versa) and might be the deepest it's been in years. And then there are the expansion boys - the Big Ten and Pac-12 - both with one clear favorite and a whole lot of fluidity underneath.

And that's just the BCS leagues. Among the mid majors, the Atlantic 10 (Xavier, Temple), CAA (VCU, one of Old Dominion/George Mason/Drexel), C-USA (Memphis, one of Marshall/UCF/Tulsa), Horizon (Butler, one of Detroit/Wisconsin Milwaukee/Cleveland State), Missouri Valley (Creighton, Wichita State, maybe Indiana State), Mountain West (New Mexico, UNLV, San Diego State) and WCC (Gonzaga, St. Mary's, BYU) all have multiple legitimate at-large threats and of the low majors, the Atlantic Sun (Belmont), Big West (Long Beach State), Ivy (Harvard) and MAC (Kent State, Akron) all have rare opportunities to send at large teams to the NCAA tournament. I can't ever remember a season where this many mid and even low major leagues had at least one team who has the talent to win 25+ games, likely a base requirement for at large consideration for any team from the non BCS conferences.

That leaves fourteen leagues that appear to be certain to send only their conference tournament champion to the Big Dance - America East, Big Sky, Big South, MAAC, MEAC, NEC, Ohio Valley, Patriot, SoCon, Southland, SWAC, Summit, Sun Belt and WAC. Of course, if Belmont, Long Beach State and one of Kent State/Akron win their conference tournaments and Harvard wins the Ivy title then those bids will be one league as well and obviously not all of the mid majors who have at large threats will send an at large team.

So buckle up for this mammoth multi-part season preview that will end with a whole bunch of words and a mock bracket that will be fun to look back at in March and laugh at.