CTC: Here We Go…

It’s that time of the year again.  The BSB Conference Tournament Challenge.  Every year since I can remember, Doogan, J, and I have been picking every conference tournament bracket from the ACC to the Patriot League.  Stri joined us about 6 or 7 years ago.  Stri was shortly followed by Ina.  Then, Alexi joined us three years ago.  And, Waters and Lynch jumped in two years ago.  Last year, we had another wide expansion, as we added KA, Lynch, Teddy, and a pair of Lohses.  We are hoping to have everyone back. 

And, all are welcome.  All it takes is filling out a ton of brackets when you get them in your email and sending them back to me before the games start.  Then, follow along on BSB and see if your pick of Oral Roberts to win the Summit League takes you to eternal bragging rights (or at least for one year).

Every day (multiple times a day), the games will be updated and the scores will be tallied.  We’ll try and preview the upcoming action, complete with who has the big upset picks and who needs a favorite to survive.  It is pretty much wall-to-wall basketball from all angles.  There is no official entry fee, but feel free to make any side bets you’d like.  It’s a good way to get the most out of the best month of basketball you can possibly imagine.

Leave a comment or email me if you want to have some real Madness…

Live Blog: Phils’ Spring Opener, BYU-San Diego State

Every winter, baseball fans keep their eyes on the calendar, looking toward the date that pitchers and catchers report for the start of spring training.  Once that day comes, though, it’s anti-climactic.  It’s not until the spring training games get started a couple of weeks later that you can feel the baseball season and the spring and (if you really concentrate) summer on the horizon.  That day is today, as the Phillies play their first game of the first season in a generation that they enter as the favorites to win the World Series. 

The game (against the Yankees) starts at 1 PM on MLB Network, and an hour later the re-match of BYU-San Diego St. airs on CBS, giving us a rare glimpse at the two Mountain West powers.  So, this seemed like a good time for our first live blog in a good while.

Cole Hamels gets the start for the Phils, and he’s actually been the talk of the team’s camp in the early going, with observers claiming that he’s picked up right where he left off from his dominant second-half of 2010.  We’ll get our first chance to judge for ourselves today.

Charlie’s line-up for today: 

1) Jimmy Rollins, SS
2) Ross Gload, DH
3) Raul Ibanez, LF
4) Ryan Howard, 1B
5) Ben Francisco, CF
6) Domonic Brown, RF
7) Jeff Larish, 3B
8 ) Brian Schneider, C
9) Wilson Valdez, 2B

The most notable thing about the line-up is the absence of Chase Utley because of “soreness” from working out too hard, apparently.  He also missed Thursday’s exhibition against Florida St., so there’s a tiny bit of reason to be concerned that he’s missing this game today, but not really.  It seems like there’s always those concerns that Utley is hiding an injury, but let’s not create something to worry about.

Jeff Larish is the lone odd name in the line-up.  He’s a 28-year-old who had cups of coffee with the Tigers and A’s in each of the last three years, hitting a combined .224 with 8 home runs in 245 at-bats.  Those numbers, combined with the fact that he bats left-handed, suggest to me that he has very little shot at making the major league roster.

I’ll be back later on for the start of the game….

1: 05 PM:  Alright, the game is about to get  underway.  It’s a beautiful, sunny day in Tampa and a beautiful, sunny day here on Long Island, so I’ll just pretend that the temperatures are the same, as well.  I’ll be watching the game on the Yankees YES Network, which is a little unfortunate, of course, but oh well.

1:13 PM:  Unfortunately, the start of the game is being delayed so the Yankees can honor George Steinbrenner and keep up this charade of acting like he was some great human when, in fact, he was just some jerk that was successful in business and bought the Yankees and continued to be a jerk for the next 40 years before he died last year.  What a hero.

1:25 PM:  Slight change to the Phils’ lineup, as J-Roll is out and Pete Orr will lead-off and play second, with Valdez moving over to short.  The line-up will face former Cy Young winner Bartolo Colon, who is actually not as fat as I would’ve thought, but is still fairly ginormous.  Michael Kay reports that Colon would like to lose 25 pounds before the start of the season.  Ha!

1:35 PM:  It looked like Howard didn’t hit that ball well at all but he still just missed putting it over the left-field wall, as Brett Gardner makes a leaping catch to end the top of the 1st.  Not sure how far it is out there, but still nice to see the big guy going the other way with some power right out of the gate.  The Yanks are going with basically their normal starting nine.

1:42 PM:  It’s funny watching these early spring games.  Cole blew away Swisher with a high fastball, then I look at the radar reading and it was 87 MPH.  Cole doesn’t have his normal fastball yet, but the batters don’t have their normal bat speed either.  It’s a bit of a slowed down game at this point.  Though Cole did hit 89 later in the inning, which seems really nice to me for late-February. Continue reading “Live Blog: Phils’ Spring Opener, BYU-San Diego State”

BracketBusters Preview

I have always been intrigued by the mid-major college basketball.  But, up until recently, it has been very difficult (and, pre-internet, basically impossible) to even keep up with these smaller conferences, let alone “follow” them.  But, then digital cable and its 8 million channels came to me a couple of years ago, and all of a sudden, the world opened up, and my intrigue began to morph into a mild love affair.  This year, for the first full college hoops season, DVR has officially entered my life and we have ourselves a full-fledged mid-major romance on our hands.  And, if the first week of the conference tournaments is an annual week-long romantic getaway to a beautiful deserted island, then BracketBusters weekend is our Valentine’s Day.  It is not the full-fledged, hot and heavy week-long affair that the conference tournaments are, but it is just a time to sit back, amidst our daily lives, and acknowledge our mutual affections.  (Wow, is it me or did this blog just get weird…?)

Anyway, having followed a lot of mid-major basketball this year, I am pretty excited for the BracketBusters games this year.  Here is a quick rundown of what we have in store for us, starting tonight, when the best mid-major teams go out of conference and head-to-head against each other to try and establish their possible tournament-worthiness (though, in this regard, it has kind of backfired…more on this possibly in a future post), represent their leagues among the ranks of the mid-major conferences, and, at the very least, get some national exposure on the WorldWide Leader.

So, here are the 11 televised games this weekend, in order of their broadcast (W-L record, RPI in parentheses):

Friday
VCU (20-8, 64) at Wichita State (22-5, 48) – 7:00 pm, ESPN2
Right off the bat, we get a fantastic one.  The main question here is where is VCU’s psyche after the week they have had?  They were cruising along in the CAA at 12-2 and first place, when they got rocked in back-to-back games AT HOME by Old Dominion on Saturday and then George Mason on Tuesday.  Granted, those two teams are probably the two best teams in the CAA and both heading for the tournament, but two home losses in which the Rams were not even that competitive.  Those two losses probably played the Rams off the bubble and into auto-bid only territory.  On the other hand, Wichita State has really hit their stride, highlighted by a big win at Northern Iowa on Saturday, and is at least in the conversation for an at-large.  That Saturday game was the first time I actually got to see the Shockers this year, and I was so impressed that I had to text Doogan just to tell him how impressed I was. 

Players to Watch:  6’9″, 240-pound Jamie Skeen (VCU) is one of the most dominating bigs in the CAA, but has all the skills of a perimeter player.  Strange?  Somewhat, until you realize that he actually started his collegiate career at Wake Forest, where he played on the wing.  With that physique transferring into the CAA, he moved to the pivot and it is almost unfair.  I will make a bold statement:  Wichita State is the deepest team of all mid-majors.  But, that doesn’t mean they don’t have any stars.  They actually have several.  Toure Murray is a flat-out scorer on the perimeter; Graham Hatch is a hard-nosed, do-it-all kind of wing; Ben Smith is a dead-eye shooter; Gabe Blair has post moves that look too agile for his size; David Kyles is a solid all-around player; and, Garrett Stutz is a gigantic man.  But, the best of all is J.T. Durley (WSU), who is an incredibly skilled big guy who can score inside and out and rebounds with tenacity.

The BSB Pick:  Wichita State in a close one at home.

Kent State (17-8, 94) at Drexel (17-9, 81) – 9:00 pm, ESPNU
While lacking the overall cache of the first game, the nightcap on Friday should also be rather interesting.  Drexel, the fifth CAA team to get a televised BracketBusters game had a great non-conference run, including a big win at Louisville, but has seen relative struggles in a very tough CAA this year.  But, they are still 9-7 in the best conference participating in the BracketBusters and have suffered a couple heartbreakingly close losses or it could be a very different story.  The Kent State story is similar.  They had a good non-conference run (though, no win anywhere near the equivalent of the Louisville win), but have not run away with a MAC that is not all that good this year.  Either way, both teams could really use this game to put a stamp on an otherwise good, but not great season.  As much as I like the Dragons and think that Bruiser has done a really good job this year, I think the Golden Flashes are the better team, even on the road. 

Players to Watch:  While the Golden Flashes are pretty deep and don’t really have one star, Justin Greene (KSU) has developed his game so much that he would have to be considered the best of the bunch.  Not gifted with a ton of “skills,” Greene just plays – and plays hard.  As gifted of a shooter as Chris Fouch is for the Dragons, Samme Givens (Drex) is probably their best all-around player.  A monster on the boards and a handful in the post, Givens is a pretty tough matchup for mid-majors, who generally do not have a ton of size.

BSB’s Pick:  Kent State on the road.

Saturday
Hofstra (18-9, 87) at Wright State (16-12, 115) – 11:00 am, ESPNU
The Flying Dutchmen (I know that that is no longer Hofstra’s nickname, but it always will be to me) are “that team” in the CAA.  They are the team that no one is really talking about, but just keep on winning.  Overshadowed for most of the season by George Mason, VCU, and ODU, they have put together a conference season that can rival any of them, even beating George Mason head-to-head.  Wright State, one of the teams that contributed to the 5-loss conference campaign of Butler, might be “that team” as well in their own conference.  At 9-6 in conference play, they are still 2 games back of earning that double-bye, but have played teams tough all year and are really tough at home, having only lost one conference game (to league-leading Valpo) in their own gym.  While Hofstra is the better team from the better conference, this game could really go either way because of Wright State’s homecourt advantage and the early start time. 

Players to Watch:  I might not have to tell you who to watch for on Hofstra because you may already know him.  Charles Jenkins (Hof) is one of the best players in the country – at any level.  Jenkins is 4th in the nation in scoring at just under 24 ppg, and is known as a “power guard” because of his style of play and its aversion to the “finesse” that typically comes with being a mid-major guard.  While you can simply watch Jenkins and know he is a star, the best player on the other side of this game probably would not stand out until you checked the box score and saw a line like 17-6-3.  Vaughn Duggins (WSU) doesn’t look like a star; he doesn’t move like a star; he doesn’t act like a star.  But, trust me, despite his seemingly awkward dribbles and interesting floor game, this guy is really, really good.

BSB’s Pick:  Wright State in an upset at home.

Austin Peay (17-11, 132) at Fairfield (21-5, 101) – 1:00 pm, ESPNU
It is interesting that the powers that be chose Austin Peay to be in the spotlight game for the OVC, when both Murray State and Morehead State are considerably better teams (they both drew middling Valley teams, Evansville and Indiana State).  But, that being said the Colonels have had a really good year and have beaten both Murray and Morehead this year, so they know who to win big games.  The problem is that they have also lost some games that they should not have lost.  Fairfield, on the other hand, has pretty much dominated the MAAC from day one and have already clinched the regular season MAAC title and the tournament’s #1-seed (which happens to be played on their home floor, so it would be a shock if we do not hear their name called on Selection Sunday).  The Stags, though, despite running through the MAAC so far, were rather unimpressive in the non-conference, as their only decent win was home against Vermont.  But, the MAAC is probably a slightly better conference than the OVC, and FU is leading their conference, while AP is 3rd in theirs. 

Players to Watch:  The Governors thought they were going to get a breakout year this year from junior Anthony Campbell, but Campbell has been mired in a season-long shooting slump that could have killed Austin Peay’s season.  Instead, they turned to a southern kid who left town for the big lights of New York City.  After one year at St. John’s, Ty’Shawn Edmondson (AP) transferred back to the south and is now Austin Peay’s leading scorer at almost 18 ppg.  Derek Needham (FU) is a flat-out star for the Stags.  This do-everything guard is only a sophomore, so he will be dominating the MAAC for two more years to come.

BSB’s Pick:  Fairfield.

Iona (17-10, 112) at Liberty (19-9, 131) – 3:00 pm, ESPNU
Liberty is one of the two big stories in the Big South this year, as they have already clinched second place in the conference, behind the other big story – the 25-win Chanitcleers of Coastal Carolina.  Iona, who is tied for second in the MAAC, behind aforementioned Fairfield, have had a decent year, as well, albeit not as unexpected as Liberty’s.  This would be a more interesting game if the Big South gave us their top team, but for some strange reason, the Chanticleers are not participating in BracketBusters this year, and Liberty, while good, is a bit of a step down.  I would absolutely have taken Coastal here, but not sure I can pick Liberty to beat a solid Iona team – though they have been doubted all year long and come through. 

Players to Watch:  The two best players in this game are younger brothers of some pretty good ballplayers.  Michael Glover (Iona), little brother of former St. John’s standout Lucas Glover, will be the best player on the floor this Saturday.  Glover, a JUCO transfer, who would be at Seton Hall right now if not for an eligibility issue with the NCAA, is a big fish in the pretty small pond of the MAAC, averaging almost 19 ppg and is shooting 61% from the field.  The Flames leading scorer is Evan Gordon (Lib), the little brother of former Indiana star and NBA lottery pick of the L.A. Clippers, Eric Gordon.  This younger Gordon is leading Liberty in scoring at 15 per game in this only his sophomore season. 

BSB’s Pick:  Iona.

Missouri State (21-6, 49) at Valparaiso (19-8, 54) – 5:00 pm, ESPN2
One of the classics of this event that really speaks to the significance of this setup.  Both of these teams are probably on the outside of the bubble right now and what they really could use to bolster their resume is one more really solid win.  Well, they now have a chance to get one – against each other.  Valpo, who were sort of dismissed at the beginning of the year because everyone just handed the Horizon to Butler, have recovered from a shaky start to put together a pretty nice season.  While, they still have a lot of work to do to get into the at-large discussion, they are currently leading a pretty good Horizon League, including wins over the two teams everyone is talking about – Butler and Cleveland State.  Missouri State has been one of the mid-major teams to watch all year long.  They had a solid non-conference slate, including a 16-point win at St. Louis and a near upset win at Tennessee.  At 13-3 in a tough Missouri Valley, they are tied for first with Wichita State.  This game will go a long way towards establishing one of these teams as a potential at-large, particularly if Missouri State – the better team with the better resume – can get a road win here. 

Players to Watch:  Though the Bears start a host of seniors, their best player – by a wide margin – is junior forward Kyle Weems (MSU), who is averaging 17 points and 7 rebounds per game.  Most of the Crusaders’ offense comes from a pair of seniors in only their second year at Valpo after transferring in as juniors.  Cory Johnson is a strong post scorer, but the best Crusader is 6’2″ do-everything guard Brandon Wood (Valpo).

BSB’s Pick:  Missouri State in a thriller on the road.

Vermont (22-5, 74) at Charleston (19-7, 77) – 5:00 pm, ESPNU
Picked for fifth in the America East, Vermont has run away with this conference from the very beginning and have already clinched the regular season title and the tournament’s top-seed.  The Catamounts have just five losses all year:  @UConn, BYU, @Fairfield, and the next two teams in the conference standings, BU and Maine.  They also have some very decent road wins in the non-conference (@Siena, @Quinnipiac, @Iona).  This team is very good and could be a savvy upset pick in the first-round, depending upon their draw.  But, the same can be said for their opponent this weekend.  The College of Charleston is one of those teams that no one wants to see opposite them in the Dance.  Bobby Cremins has prepared his guys for the big boys by playing the big boys (and playing them tough).  Their schedule this year was riddled with power teams, and his kids responded.  They lost on a buzzer-beater at Maryland and only by 5 in the Dean Dome against the Tar Heels.  Then, they finally broke through, winning by 13 at Tennessee in December.  And, they also took care of some of the better mid-majors in the country, beating Coastal Carolina by 16, East Tennessee State by 20 and Charleston-Southern by 8 on the road.  This game will say a lot about two teams that could both give us memories on some Thursday afternoon in the middle of March. 

Players to Watch:  You might remember the story of a player on last year’s Vermont team losing his mother to cancer just days before his teammates rallied around him and won the America East title and an NCAA tournament bid.  Well, that player was Evan Fjeld (UVM), a minor part of a senior-laden team last year who has now broken out in a big way to lead the Catamounts back to the top of the America East, despite massive losses to graduation.  Mid-major schools are known for their guard play, but Bobby Cremins might have the best of them all this year in 6’2″ senior Andrew Goudelock (CoC).  A potential NBA draft choice, Goudelock is an absolutely sensational scorer, who has four 30-point games this year, including dropping 31 in Knoxville in the Cougars upset win over Tennessee.

BSB’s Pick:  Charleston – the better team and the home court.

George Mason (22-5, 20) at Northern Iowa (18-9, 79) – 7:00 pm, ESPN2
I wonder how many people would agree with the following statement:  the 2010-11 George Mason Patriots are the best team in school history.  Bold, I know, considering they have a Final Four banner hanging from the RAC in Fairfax, but this team just might be better.  Cam Long is one of the best players no one has ever heard of and the frontcourt of Pearson and Morrison can play with anyone.  Northern Iowa, trying to build upon a thrilling Sweet 16 run just last year, has felt the losses of graduation a bit this year.  Gone is Adam Koch, the MVC Player of the Year.  Gone is cult hero, Ali Farokmanesh, who showed balls of steel in last year’s tourney run.  However, there are some guys that are still here.  With all the attention given to Koch and Farokmanesh last year, people may not have realized that Kwadzo Ahelegbe may have been their best all-around player, and was certainly their best defender.  He is back this year and is the leader of this team.  The Panthers also have had a bit of a breakout year from a familiar name – Koch.  Adam’s little brother, Jake, is a slick-shooting big man.  They took a big blow when they lost a gigantic man – a decent player – in Lucas O’Rear to injury, so they are a bit thin, but still very good, especially at home.  But, are they up for the task of a George Mason team that is a lot better than anyone realizes? 

Players to Watch:  The aforementioned Cam Long (GM) is an absolute star for the Patriots, as his athleticism, size and scoring touch are rarely seen in guards outside the power conferences.  As good as Adam Koch’s little brother, Jake, has been this year, this Panther team starts and ends with Kwadzo Alehelgbe (UNI), the do-everything senior swingman, who might be the best mid-major defender in the country.

BSB’s Pick:  George Mason, maybe easily.

Utah State (23-3, 25) at St. Mary’s (22-5, 39) – 9:00 pm, ESPN2
Not only does this game probably have the most bubble implications, but it might just be the best game to watch as well (personally, I am partial to VCU-Wichita and Mason-UNI, because those games match up my two favorite conferences).  The only two BracketBuster teams that have had a ranking this year meet up on the west coast.  And, think about this – what if the NCAA tournament actually followed its “regions” when laying out the tournament?  There would have to be a Final Four participant from the West Region.  If that were the case, I could make the argument that this could be the Elite Eight game to decide that spot.  Obviously, Arizona or Washington fans might have something to say to the contrary, but it is enough of a compliment to these two unheralded programs just for their names to be in the discussion of the best team in the entire western region of the country.  Specifically, this matchup is a fantastic constrast of styles.  On one side, you have St. Mary’s, whose up and down style makes for an incredibly entertaining game, particularly with the shooter that they have all over the court.  Two Gaels (both Australian), in particular, are must-sees – Mickey McConnell and Matthew Delavadova.  If you are a fan of The Jimmer, then you will love these two.  Obviously not as dynamic as the Player of the Year frontrunner, these two both combine in-the-gym range with a tenacious slashing style that keeps defenses constantly guessing.  On the other side of this matchup is a team that specializes in half-court defense.  The Aggies are 7th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just over 58 points per game, and just flat-out winning games.  Aside from head-scratcher at Idaho last week, the Aggies only two losses this year were @BYU and @Georgetown.  Not exactly “bad” losses.  This game will give them a chance to show the country that, despite playing in the long-lost WAC, they are one of the nation’s elite and, with their fans’ crazy chants of “We believe that we will win…We believe that we will win,” boast one of the best homecourt advantages in the nation.  Either way, this game could go a very long way to one of these teams claim for an at-large bid, and after both suffered puzzling losses this week (St. Mary’s lost to woeful San Diego Wednesday night), they both might need it. 

Players to Watch:  Tai Wesley (USU) is the Aggies best all-around offensive player, who is unselfish enough to keep the offense moving, but talented enough to get his when the team needs them.  Patty Mills success at St. Mary’s opened coach Randy Bennett’s pipeline to the Land Down Under and he has brought back some stars.  The latest in this increasingly long line of Aussie stars are Matthew Delavadova and Mickey McConnell (StM).  McConnell, the real leader of this team, has an amazing handle and in-the-gym range to go along with a grit and tenacity that seems inborne in the Aussies.

BSB’s Pick:  Utah State just does not lose at home.

Montana (20-7, 109) at Long Beach State (16-10, 100) – 11:00 pm, ESPN2
In the nightcap (and West Coast undercard), the Big Sky’s best team takes on the Big West’s best team.  The Grizzlies, who won the Big Sky tournament last year in one of the most exciting games I have ever seen, look like they might ride that momentum to an unexpected regular season Big Sky title this year.  Another unexpected regular season title is probably in the works for Dan Monson’s Long Beach State 49ers.  Neither team really has much hope of at-large consideration, but they can play this game as a representative of their individual conferences – two conferences at similar levels that recruit in the same areas. 

Players to Watch:  Montana has some issues in the backcourt, but their frontcourt is probably the best in the Big Sky, led by Brian Qvale (Mon), a 6’11”, 260-pound senior, averaging 15 and 9 this year.  The 49ers have a fantastic junior class, including Casper Ware (15 pts, 5 assists), Larry Anderson, and Eugene Phelps, but the best of the bunch is 6’7″ PF T.J. Robinson, who is an absolute nightmare for low-post defenders because of the combination of his quickness and size.

BSB’s Pick:  Long Beach State.

Sunday
Cleveland State (21-5, 34) at Old Dominion (21-6, 31) – 1:00 pm, ESPN
When you have the stage all to yourself, you better deliver.  And, there is little doubt that this game – the only Sunday game – will do just that.  Both teams have serious at-large arguments (I think both should get in, but that’s just me) and are currently bunkered in for some big-time conference races.  But, they get a break here to go out of conference and play one of the best teams in the country.  And, even if you are not a big fan of mid-major basketball, you need to tune into this one if, for nothing else, just to get a glimpse at Norris Cole.  The Cleveland State senior guard is averaging 21 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists per game this year.  And, last Saturday, against Youngstown State, Cole had one for the ages:  41 points, 20 rebounds, 9 assists.  A guard with TWENTY rebounds to go with 40 points and, oh by the way, was 1 assist shy of a triple-double.  Uh…wow!  The rest of the team is pretty good, too, as the Vikings sit at 21-5 and bubblicious RPI of 34.  But, if you are expecting another 40-20 from Cole, you might want to tune in next week when CSU returns to the Horizon because, on Saturday, Cole and company will travel to Norfolk and they will be met by one of the best defensive teams you will see.  The Monarchs of ODU pride themselves on solid, halfcourt defense and have ridden that to their own bubblicious RPI of 31.  And, the Monarchs are not afraid of the big games.  They have owned the Atlantic 10 this year, with wins over Xavier, Richmond, and Dayton.  They have also knocked off an upper-division ACC team, Clemson, and only lost by 3 to an upper-division Big East team, Georgetown.  They also stayed with Missouri for a half on the road before succumbing to the Tigers pressure in the second half.  Their style is not pretty, but it is awfully effective.

Players to Watch:  Norris Cole (CSU) probably won’t replicate his 41-20-9 performance last Saturday, but the guy is a flat-out star and a must-see for any college hoops fan.  While Frank Hassell is ODU’s leading scorer, Darius James (ODU) is the guy that makes it all happen offensively and defensively.

BSB’s Pick:  Old Dominion

The Lineup: College Hoops’ Games to Watch For Today

There are few things better than Saturdays in February with dozens and dozens of college hoops games running all day.  Today, there are 141 D-I games on the docket.  Some of which, like Tennessee Tech at Tennessee-Martin, will probably come and go without anyone really noticing, but others might change the outcomes of conference titles, conference tournaments and that great thing we call Madness.  So, here are a few of the 141 that you might want to try and catch, if you can:

Pittsburgh at Villanova
The national game of the day is on the Main Line in prime time on ESPN.  A rematch of one of the greatest Elite Eight games ever from two years ago, pits two of the top four Big East teams and two top ten national teams.

Temple at Dayton
While America is most concerned with the Big Five team that hosts Pitt, BSB will be focused on their Big Five team on the road in a very tough place to win.  The Owls are back in the national rankings, and the Flyers have been struggling, but Dayton is not exactly a place you go into expecting to come out with a W.

Ohio State at Wisconsin
I am predicting that the undefeated season ends here.  The Badgers have been off-the-charts good at home under Bo Ryan.  Look up their home winning percentage under Ryan one day – you will be amazed.

Tennessee at Florida
Not sure if anyone has taken notice, but the Gators are very, very good this year.  Billy Donovan probably has the SEC’s best team, but Tennessee is not far behind, especially with Bruce Pearl back at the helm.

Kentucky at Vanderbilt
Two other really good teams in the SEC East do battle today, as Kentucky (the 9th youngest team in the nation) visits the strangest gym in America to take on an often overlooked Vandy team, coming off a nice win over ‘Bama Thursday night.

North Carolina at Clemson
Will the Tar Heels be affected by their collapse in the second half at Cameron?  Don’t look now, but Clemson has emerged as the ACC’s 4th best team, which surprisingly probably will not equate to a tournament berth without big wins like this one would be.

Baylor at Texas
The Bears are starting to play better and are making a late run towards the tournament.  Texas might be the best team in the country right now.  This is a great setting for a suddenly rejuvenated in-state rivalry.

San Diego State at UNLV
The Aztecs take their 24-1 record to the Thomas & Mack Center, which is never an easy place to play.  The Rebels have been grossly overshadowed by SDSU and BYU this year and could very much use a big win like this to put a stamp on their season.

Southern Mississippi at Memphis
Larry Eustachy is back with S.Miss and they are competing for the top spot in Conference USA.  Memphis has all the talent to be a tournament team, but have not really put it together.  This should be an interesting “show us where you are” kind of game for both teams.

Wichita State at Northern Iowa
After a slow start to conference play N.Iowa is starting to play like the Sweet 16 version of the Panthers last year.  With all due respect to Missouri State, the Shockers are probably the best team in a decent Valley this year, but UNI is not far behind.

St. Mary’s at San Francisco
For a late night treat, see if you get the Gaels versus the Dons.  Surprisingly, since Gonzaga is not involved, this game pits the top two teams in the WCC.  If USF can pull off the upset, they will be tied for first and have wins over Gonzaga and St. Mary’s in their pockets.

Wright State at Valparaiso
Valpo holds a slim lead in the Horizon League, but three teams, including Wright State are breathing down their necks.  Valpo already beat WSU in Dayton, so they will be trying to complete the sweep and take another step towards homecourt advantage throughout the Horizon League tournament.

Coastal Carolina at Winthrop
CCU is four wins away from completing a perfect regular season in the Big South and this one is probably the toughest game they have left.  Winthrop has not been nearly as good as their teams of the past, but they are still never an easy team to beat on their home floor.

IPFW at Oakland
The top two teams in the Summit League square off.  Oakland, who holds a three-game lead, has already beaten IPFW in Indianapolis.  The Golden Grizzlies can actually become the first team in the country to clinch at least a share of their conference regular season title if things go right for them on Saturday.

Northern Colorado at Montana
UNC, fresh off a win at Montana State, could open up a two-game lead if they can complete the sweep of the Montana schools.  On the other hand, the Grizzlies, with a win, will draw even with UNC in the Big Sky.

Texas Southern at Jackson State
Far and away the best two teams in the lowly SWAC square off on Saturday.  Texas Southern won the first meeting, in Houston, but JSU can regain first place if they earn the season split.

On to Hoops: Assessing the 32 Conferences in College Hoops

The Super Bowl is over.  Congrats to the Packers.  Now, the sports world shifts from the gridiron to the hardwood.  And, that is great news because, here at BSB, if football is our occupation, and baseball is our love, then college hoops is our religion.  It is the omnipresent sport whose dominance of our sporting conscience waxes and wanes throughout the year, but always holds a place of utmost importance to our lives.  Well, now that the month of February has begun, we enter our religion’s equivalent of Ramadan or Lent.  Our sporting lives will be almost entirely consumed with college hoops for the next 6 weeks, leading up to the greatest celebration on the sports calendar – March Madness.  So, as we sit here on the precipice of another celebration, I wanted to run down the surprises and disappoinments of the college hoops season, conference-by-conference.  As a lover of the mid-majors (and low-majors), I will try to touch all 32 D-I conferences (in varying detail), in order of my own personal conference power ranking.  I know that Doogan disagrees with at least my #1 conference in power rankings, so this could be interesting.

(NOTE:  This post was written to include games played through Wednesday night.)

1). Big XII
Top to bottom (which is how these conferences are going to be ranked), the Big XII is the nation’s best conference.  Iowa State and Texas Tech are its two worst teams, and they solid teams.  Nebraska and Colorado can beat anyone in the country on any given night and they are #9-10 in this conference.  And, despite the slow starts of K-State and Baylor, they still have a TON of talent.  Throw in the emergence of Texas as one of the best three or four teams in the country, and you have yourself the nation’s best conference.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Texas (21-3, 9-0)
    I thought about Texas A&M here, but could not get past just how good this Texas team is.  It can be argued (and has by Doug Gottlieb) that this is the best team in the country.  They are 9-0 in the Big XII, including a decisive win AT KANSAS, and their out-of-conference schedule was brutal.  Their losses were by 1 point to UConn, by 2 points AT Pitt, and a shaky game at USC.  They have also beaten Illinois and Arkansas (by 33) at home, and UNC and Michigan State on the road.
  • Most Disappointing:  Kansas State (16-8, 4-5)
    This one is easy, considering they are probably the most disappointing team in the country.  They were in the top 5 in the preseason polls and are just 4-5 in conference.  But, assuming they don’t lose Curtis Kelly for the year, there is still hope for this team, as they have won three of their last four, with that only loss at Kansas.

2). Big East
If the Big East did not have a ridiculous 16 teams, they would EASILY be #1, but I cannot overlook the awfulness that is the bottom of this league.  DePaul is probably the worst Big Six team in the country, while USF, Providence, Seton Hall, and Rutgers are feisty, but not very good.  I also think that, after Pitt, there is not another legit Final Four contender in this conference, whereas the Big XII, Big Ten, ACC, and even the Mountain West have at least two teams that would not shock me if they ended up in Houston.  That being said, the depth at the top of this league is incredible.  Syracuse (7th place) is one of the best 15-20 teams in the country; Marquette (10th place) is one of the 30-35 best teams in the country.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Notre Dame (20-4, 9-3)
    This could have gone to a number of teams, including Louisville for their in-conference performance, Cincinnati for their out-of-conference performance, or St. John’s for their amzing resurgence.  But, I went with the Irish because they are currently the 2nd place team in what many believe is the nation’s best conference, and they haven’t exactly racked up their 9 wins against the dregs of the conference, either.  They have already beaten Pitt, UConn, Georgetown, and Louisville along the way.
  • Most Disappointing:  West Virginia (15-8, 6-5)
    This was tough because the bad teams in the conference were supposed to be bad and the good teams were supposed to be good.  I considered throwing Villanova in here because they’re not the top 5 team that many thought they might be, but I never really considered them a top 5 team to begin with.  As for the Mountaineers, they are coming off a Final Four run and have a decent amount of talent returning, and they just have not really hit their stride.  A lot has to do with a team-imposed suspension of their only real offensive threat, Casey Mitchell.  And, to be honest, they do not have any bad conference losses, except maybe a home loss to St. John’s, but that is at least negated by a win at Georgetown.  I just really didn’t have anyone else to pick.

3). Big Ten
Before the season started, it looked like the Big Ten was going to be far and away the best conference in the country, and that was before Ohio State was thought of as clearly the #1 team in the country and before Wisconsin was even nationally ranked.  However, one thing has happened that no one, anywhere, could have possibly predicted – Michigan State stinks.  But, even moreso, Illinois has underperformed and Northwestern has bottomed out.  On the bright side for Midwesterners is that there are three really good conferences and then a bunch of other leagues, and the Big Ten is clearly one of those three.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Wisconsin (18-5, 8-3)
    This could have been Purdue because they are really, really good, and it could even be Ohio State because, even though they were thought of as a potential Top 5 team, no one had them as the far-and-away #1 team in the country.  And, it could even go to those great Nittany Lions in State College, but I decided to peg the ole Philly boy, Bo Ryan’s team as the the most surprising in the Big Ten because they are elite.  I thought they would be good because, well, they are always good, but I did not expect them to be THIS good.  Jordan Taylor is a certifiable star and this team has Final Four potential.
  • Most Disappointing:  Michigan State (13-10, 5-6)
    This one is the easiest choice in the country.  What the hell is going on out in East Lansing?  This team is loaded with talent and has, arguably, the nation’s best coach roaming the sidelines,  but they just keep on losing, including a 30-point debacle in Madison this weekend.  I really don’t get it at all.  After coming into the season #2 in the country, they in a dogfight just to make the Dance.  Wow!

4). Mountain West
Okay, I know, this is where I lose the casual reader, but I believe that the Mountain West is better than the ACC, the SEC, and the Pac-10.  And, do you know who else thinks so?  Mr. RPI.  The MWC has the #4 conference RPI and boasts top teams in the TOP FOUR in team RPI (BYU is #1 and SDSU is #4).  And, the league is actually a good bit deeper than people give it credit for, as UNLV, New Mexico, and Colorado State are all in NCAA tournament discussion.  That is five teams with a shot at The Dance from a “mid-major” league of only 9 teams.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  San Diego State (24-1, 9-1)
    I almost put Colorado State here because they are having a great year and coach Tim Miles is really building a program there, but then 24-1 hit me in the face.  The Aztecs were supposed to be good, but not this good.  I also want to give a shout-out to the Air Force Academy, who has actually been pretty tough this year, sitting in the middle of the pack in a very good conference.
  • Biggest Disappointment:  Utah (10-14, 3-7)
    While there have not really been any major disappoinments here in the MWC, I would have to take Utah because of their historical success and their real disappoinment this year.  They have not even been that competitive and have an outside chance of playing in the Mountain West tournament’s pigtail game that pits the bottom two regular season teams in a play-in game.

5). ACC
Historically the best basketball conference in the country is having a real down year.  Duke is fantastic, but is not quite the dominant team that everyone though, and UNC has been very good, but other than that, it has not been pretty for this proud conference.  Wake Forest (not all that surprisingly) is one of the worst major conference teams in the country.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  North Carolina (17-6, 7-2)
    It is hard to defend any statement that calls the North Carolina Tar Heels a “pleasant surprise” in a basketball season, but I think this is the obvious choice here because (a) the Tar Heels were really bad last year, (b) they are really good this season now that the super-freshmen have adjusted, and (c) the rest of the conference kind of stinks.  But, either way, watch out for the Heels come March – they are very good and playing very well.
  • Biggest Disappointment:  N.C. State (12-11, 2-7)
    Freshman C.J. Leslie guaranteed an ACC title for the Wolfpack this year (probably his only year) and, from the way it is going, Leslie will be lucky if they get an NIT bid.  This team has completely imploded, and it is clearly time for the Sidney Lowe experiment to end mercifully in Raleigh.  Give an honorable mention here for the disappoinments of Virginia Tech and Miami, as well, but at least Va Tech’s have more to do with injury than anything else, and they still have some time to straighten it out.

6). SEC
Like the ACC, one of the perennial powerhouse conferences in the country is having a down year.  However, the problems are different.  The ACC does have two legitimately elite teams, but really falls off in quality after that.  The SEC, on the other hand, has a decent amount of depth in the league, but they lack any true title contender, and I would be shocked if the SEC is represented in Houston in the Final Four.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Alabama (15-7, 7-1)
    It is hard for me to choose a team from the SEC-West here because that division is so dreadful when compared to the East, but Alabama has proven itself, thus far, against both divisions.  The Tide is 3-0 against the East, including home wins over Kentucky and South Carolina anda win at Tennessee.  They are also, expectedly, putting it to the West teams, as well.  Florida gets a nod here, as they are 8-2 in conference, including wins over every other SEC-East team already.
  • Most Disappointing:  Auburn (8-15, 1-8)
    It is hard to say that they are the most disappointing when everyone had already expected them to finish last in the conference, but they have been HISTORICALLY bad this year.  The Tigers were 7-8 in their out of conference schedule, which might not be that bad, if they had played a decent schedule.  But, well, you can be the judge of the first 11D-I games of the 2010-2011 Auburn Tigers:

L (70-69) home to UNC-Asheville (7-6, tied for 3rd place in the Big South)
L (78-67) home to Samford (4-8, 10th place in the SoCon)
L (61-54) home to Campbell (5-9, tied for 7th place in A-Sun)
W (68-66) home against Middle Tennessee (7-4, tied for 3rd in Sun Belt)
L (69-55) home to Jacksonville (10-4, 3rd in A-Sun)
W (66-62) home against AK-Pine Bluff (4-7, 6th in SWAC – 4-19 overall)
L (64-53) at Rutgers (4-8, tied for 12th in Big East)
L (61-49) at South Florida (2-10, 15th in Big East)
L (62-59) home to Presbyterian (4-9, 8th in Big South)
W (68-54) home against USC-Upstate (3-11, last in A-Sun)
W (88-84) home against Ga-Southern (0-12, last in SoCon)

So, yes, of these first 11 games, the best win for AN SEC TEAM was a 2-point home win against a 7-4 Sun Belt team.  Their other two wins were home wins against the worst team in the Atlantic Sun and the worst team in the SoCon.  The latter was a 4-point win against Ga-Southern, who is 0-12 in the SoCon, with all 12 losses by at least 4 points.  And, of the nine teams that beat Auburn, only two of them having winning records in their own league.  They have HOME LOSSES to the 7th place team in the A-Sun, the 8th place team in the Big South, and the 10th place team in the SoCon.  Wow!  And, yes, somehow, they went into South Carolina and got a victory.  By the way, even with a tough SEC schedule, the Tigers have an RPI of 281 (out of 341), just above South Alabama and UC-Davis.  They are only slightly worse than Stony Brook, Savannah State, Florida Gulf Coast, and Samford.  But, then again, they did lose at home to Samford, so I guess it makes sense.

7). Atlantic 10
The A-10 boasts four teams that should make The Dance and at least four or more solid postseason teams, before falling off to a combination of bad teams, underachieving teams, or both.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Duquesne (16-6, 8-1)
    An easy choice, as the Dukes are one of the most surprising teams in the country this year.  Just this week, they dropped their first conference game – at St. Bonaventure – but up until then, they were undefeated including wins over Temple and Dayton.  However, we should wait to dub them that good, as they have yet to play either Xavier, Richmond, Rhode Island, or UMass, and their Temple and Dayton wins were at home.  Either way, a 16-6 Duquesne team that sits atop the A-10 standings is a surprise in anyone’s book.
  • Most Disappointing:  St. Louis (8-15, 3-7)
    As bad as St. Joe’s and Fordham have played and as utterly disappointing as Charlotte has been, Rick Majerus’s Bilikens have to be the most disappointing A-10 team this year.  After a strong finish to the season last year, with all underclassmen, SLU was supposed to contend for an A-10 title this year, but had a dreadful run through the non-conference and have not really found any magic during conference play.

8). Pac-10
For the Pac-10 to be the 8th best conference is a real statement as to how fall this league has fallen.  And, the worst part is – this conference is better this year than it was last year. 

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Arizona (20-4, 9-2)
    Sean Miller has quickly revitalized the Arizona program and is heading back to the tournament after only a one year absence.  The best team in the Pac-10 was not supposed to be this resurgent this quickly, but Derrick Williams is an absolute stud, who will be taking his talents to The Association next year.  But, for now, the ‘Cats are back.
  • Most Disappointing:  Arizona State (9-14, 1-10)
    The other team from the desert has not exactly had much of a season.  1-10 so far in conference play has made many forget that this team was in the NCAA Second Round as recently as 2009.  Herb Sendak’s team has an RPI of just 158 – lower than such teams as Quinnipiac, Northeastern, and Yale.  The professors at ASU (at least the ones I know) might be on a par with those at Yale, but their basketball team should be a lot better.

9). Colonial
My love for the next two conferences on this list runs deep, so I have to admit, I may have overrated them a bit, but I will defend vehemently that games in these two conferences – particularly the CAA – are absolutely brutal with the depth and talent in the league.  I would challenge any team in the country, including Ohio State or Duke or whomever, to 16+ games in this conference.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Drexel (16-8, 8-6)
    There is a clear separation between the top four teams in this conference (VCU, George Mason, Old Dominion, and Hofstra), but after that there is another cluster of teams that is really tough and can play with anyone nationwide, led by Drexel and James Madison.  I think the Dragons have had the most surprising season this year, as they were picked for 10th in this league in the preseason, but the Dragons had a very good non-conference run (wins over decent teams in Loyola, Md and Rider and the big one at Louisville) and, despite a couple heartbreakers in conference play, sit tied for 5th at 8-6.
  • Biggest Disappoinment:  Towson (4-20, 0-14)
    No one expected Towson to compete for a CAA title, but they have been monumentally bad.  A bad non-conference has spilled into a 0-14 conference record.  And, this team was picked in the middle of the pack in the preseason…ouch.

10). Missouri Valley
The other conference for which I have a strange affinity is The Valley.  I just think this conference is brutal to run though every year and the conference winner is usually so battle-tested that they are ready to take on the big boys under the bright lights, which has resulted in four seperate Valley programs reaching the Sweet 16 in just the last five years (Northern Iowa in 2010, Southern Illinois in 2007, and Wichita State and Bradley in 2006).  This year might be no different, as if I were a “big boy,” I would be terrified to see Missouri State or Wichita State in my section of the draw.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Indiana State (13-12, 8-6)
    This is likely to change because the Sycamores are falling back to earth after an unbelievable start to the season, but for now, they will edge Evansville (also 8-6 in conference) for the most surprising Valley team.  Larry Bird’s alma mater has conference wins over Creighton, Northern Iowa, and Missouri State.  They have fallen back recently and this conference is brutally tough, so their tournament chances are very slim, but still a great season for a team picked last in the conference.
  • Most Disappointing:  Bradley (8-17, 2-12)
    Creighton, at 7-7, has also been disappointing, but the Braves of Bradley have certainly been the most disappointing.  They have rebounded to actually win back-to-back games against Creighton and at Southern Illinois, but it is far too little and far too late after losing their first TWELVE conference games.

11). Conference USA
Thanks to a pretty solid non-conference season for the conference, as a whole, C-USA actually sits at #8 in the conference RPI pecking order, but I do not believe that they are the eight best conference in America, and it will probably be best shown on Selection Sunday when all ten conferences that I have ranked ahead of them get multiple bids, while the C-USA sits and wonders how they only got one.  The perennial dominator of this conference, Memphis, is supposed to have had the talent to dominate again, but it just has not come together for the young Tigers team.  A lot was expected of UTEP and Larry Eustachy’s Southern Miss this year, and, though they have both been “good,” neither has been “great.”  And, then there is UCF – more on them in a minute.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  UAB (17-6, 7-3)
    The Blazers were supposed to take a step backward (even from a disappointing season last year) because of three key losses to graduation and the biggest loss of all, Elijah Millsap, who turned pro after his junior year only to see himself go undrafted and forfeit his senior year of eligibility.  But, Mike Davis has done a good job with the holdovers, as they are right in the hunt for a conference title having already knocked off UTEP and swept Marshall.
  • Most Disappointing:  UCF (14-8, 1-8)
    Everyone probably knows what Marcus Jordan and UCF did in the non-conference.  The Knights entered C-USA play undefeated (13-0) and nationally ranked (#19).  Then, people may know that they then picked up a nice home win over Marshall to start conference play.  But, after their second conference game – a 5-point loss at Houston – knocked them out of the rankings and off the national radar, most people probably do not realize just how bad things have spiraled out of control.  Wednesday’s 1-point loss to Memphis was the Knights eighth straight loss and they currently sit DEAD LAST in Conference USA, with a 1-8 conference record.  Overall, because of their great start and relatively low preseason expectations, this season might not be as disappointing as the rough year for the promising Marshall and Tulsa programs, but considering where they were on January 5th, this has been a devastating month for the Knights program.

12). Horizon League
A league that might not get the attention it deserves because of the struggles of its flagship program, Butler, is actually having a terrific year, even if the Bulldogs have been inexplicably bad.  Valparaiso, Cleveland State, and Wright State are all capable of beating anyone in the country on any given night, and this conference, as usual, is a tough place to get road wins.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Cleveland State (21-5, 10-4)
    The Vikings of CSU have been very good from the opening tip this year.  They currently trail Valpo in the Horizon standings, but had a better non-conference and their consequential gaudy RPI (33) should put them into at-large discussion.
  • Most Disappointing:  Butler (16-9, 8-5)
    Was Gordon Hayward that good?  While it is not quite as bad as it seems for Butler right now, they really have put themselves behind the eight-ball here in an effort to repeat a Final Four run from a year ago with basically the same team minus Hayward.  Home losses to Evansville and UW-Milwaukee might be the killers in their at-large campaign.  Also, when your best wins are home wins over Florida State and Stanford (albeit by 33), you may have trouble making a case.  The key for the Bulldogs (and everyone else in this conference) is finishing in the top 2 in the league, as the Horizon has the brilliant layout of awarding the top two teams double-byes in the conference tournament.  Right now, it is Valpo and CSU, but Butler and Wright State are both knocking on the door.

13). West Coast Conference
Typically the Gonzaga Conference, this year has been a lot different, and (probably thanks to the ‘Zags) this conference is much-improved top-to-bottom.  The two San Fran area teams – USF and Santa Clara – are tough and Portland is pretty good, as well.  But, there is a new dominant WCC team:

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  St. Mary’s (20-4, 8-1)
    The Gaels have followed up their Sweet 16 run with another fantastic season, even though they lost the folk hero, Omar Samhan.  Mickey McConnell and Matthew Delavadova are a pair of Jimmers without the noteriety.  They can score from anywhere on the court, and St. Mary’s runs a great uptempo offense to take advantage of their skills.  This team is dangerous.
  • Most Disappointing:  Gonzaga (15-9, 5-3)
    While Loyola Marymount has probably been even more disappointing than the Zags, what fun would it be to pile on a 1-8 team that was picked 2nd in the WCC?  Also, San Diego is dreadful, but that is no fun to talk about either.  It is more fun to pick on the team that was supposed to continue its domination of this conference only to lose at home to St. Mary’s and then get swept in a trip to NoCal by USF and Santa Clara.  And, the non-conference was not a ton better and the NCAA tournament streak for the Bulldogs is in a lot of trouble.

14). WAC
It is getting harder to actually rank these conferences against each other, so I am going with the one conference that has a legitimate national power this year.  Utah State is nationally ranked and deservedly so (even with their loss at Idaho this week).  They are going to be a force come March…if they make it out of the WAC.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Idaho (14-10, 7-5)
    Utah State is easily the best team in this conference – and it is not even close – but they were expected to be.  Idaho was supposed to be one of the worst teams in D-I, but the Vandals have circled the wagons and are playing some really good basketball.  After ending the conference unbeaten record of USU this week, the Vandals now find themselves only one-half game out of second place (and a double-bye in the conference tournament) in the WAC.  The Kibbie Dome is rocking in Moscow, ID, this year.
  • Most Disappointing:  Nevada (9-14, 6-4)
    While the Wolfpack has righted the ship a little in the non-conference, this team was really bad in the non-conference and should have given USU more of a run for the regular season title.

15). Ivy League
Not sure how many people watched the Penn-Princeton game Tuesday night, but I did, and it was fantastic!  As much as I love the conference tournaments (and I DO love them), there is still something to be said for a winner-take-all regular season and what that does to random Tuesday night games in the beginning of February.  That game looked like a semifinal or final of a conference tournament and, honestly, may have the same ramifications.  In case you didn’t see it, Penn went on a 14-3 run to send the game to OT only to lose on a questionable technical foul call at the end (with less than a minute to play, Penn had the ball with no timeouts in a tie game…diving for a loose ball, a Penn player recovered it, yelled to his teammates NOT to call a time out and the ref mistakenly heard “time out” and blew the whistle – crazy).  The Ivy League has three outstanding teams this year, and whichever one wins the auto-bid will give whomever they face in the first round a real test.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Harvard (16-4, 5-1)
    Harvard has followed up a terrific non-conference with a very good start to conference play.  They went 11-3 in the non-conference, including wins over Colorado (by 16), Fordham (by 23), BU (by 16) and @Boston College (by 11).  And, of their three losses (@George Mason, @Michigan, and @UConn), none of them would even resemble a “bad loss.”  Now, in conference play, the Crimson is 5-1, with their only loss to league-leading Princeton in New Jersey.  They won at the Palestra on Saturday, 83-82, in a double-OT thriller to put them in a position to possibly win this conference.
  • Most Disappointing:  Cornell (5-15, 1-5)
    No one expected anything close to what Big Red did last year, as everyone graduated and Coach Donohue was too tempted by ACC riches and left for BC.  But, no one expected them to be this bad, either.  A brutally bad non-conference has spilled over into an equally bad start to conference play for Cornell.

16). Ohio Valley
While the depth of the OVC is something to really question, this conference has a top half that can challenge any mid-major, particularly its two best – Murray State and Morehead State

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Austin Peay (15-11, 9-5)
    While the Colonels have come back to life here recently, they were leading this conference for most of the first 6 weeks of conference play and have beaten both Murray and Morehead already.
  • Most Disappointing:  Eastern Illinois (8-15, 4-9)
    Supposed to at least make it interesting for the top teams in the OVC this year, the Panthers have been really bad, including being swept by lowly SE Missouri State.

17). Summit League
I might be a little higher on this league than most because I get some of their games on TV and love watching the best of this league battle, but I do believe that Oakland would test anyone in the country on any given night, and IUPUI, Oral Roberts, and IPFW are all solid programs with good teams again this year.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  IPFW (16-8, 9-4)
    This league was expected, as usual, to be a three-team race between Oakland, Oral Roberts, and IUPUI, but IPFW has made it a four-team affair, mostly on the strength of a season sweep of ORU.
  • Most Disappointing:  Centenary (0-25, 0-13)
    This team was supposed to be last in the conference, so their last place position now is not disappointing, but any time you are 0-25 for a season, you have to be considered a disappoinment.

18). Mid-American
The MAC had the potential to rise up to true mid-major status (similar to the CAA or MVC), but they just have not sustained any momentum for whatever reason.  Kent State, clearly the best team in this conference, is not even close to the at-large radar.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Buffalo (14-7, 7-3)
    The MAC’s divisions are, like the SEC, very unbalanced.  The East is FAR superior to the West and yet Buffalo is still very much in contention for the Eastern title.  They also had a decent non-conference, though their two highlights were their close road losses – 8 points to BYU and 2 points to St. Bonaventure, who is pretty tough in Olean.
  • Most Disappointing:  Ohio (12-12, 5-5)
    While Central Michigan and Akron have also been major disappointments, Ohio has to be the most disappointing, considering they returned most of the team that beat Georgetown in the tournament last year.  They have rebounded to get back to .500, but they still sit in last place in the East.

19). Southern Conference
The SoCon is probably best known for Stephen Curry and the Davidson Elite Eight team a couple years ago, but this is a solid conference every year, with this year being no exception.  Probably the three best teams are all in the South Division (College of Charleston, Wofford, and Furman), so it is going to make for an interesting conference tournament, but Chattanooga, who leads the North, is also had a solid season.  And, then there is Davidson – hanging around in fourth place in the South, but with some talent.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Furman (17-7, 9-4)
    The Paladins might be on their way to a 20-win season in a year where they were picked for fifth out of six in the tough South Division.  They have already swept a decent Citadel team and beaten preseason favorite Wofford on the road.  However, they currently sit third in the South, which means that they would, as it stands now, not have a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
  • Most Disappointing:  Appalachian State (10-13, 6-7)
    App State was picked to win the North Division and, despite a bad non-conference season, looked like they were on their way to doing so when they went 3-1 in their first four conference games with three on the road.  But, since then, the wheels kind of fell off, capped off by a terrible home loss to 5-18 UNC-Greensboro.  But, they are only 1.5 games out of second-place (and a first-round bye in the conference tournament) and all five of their remaining conference games are at home, so we will see if they can yet turn this around.

20). Big South
The next two conferences are very, very close, and it was very hard to pick one for #19 and one for #20.  I went with the overall depth of the conference over a strong, but top-heavy conference.  But, in the end, what probably propelled the Big South to #19 was the fact that they have one of the best mid-major teams that no one is talking about.  The Coastal Carolina Chanticleers are 23-2 and 13-0 in a decent Big South.  Their only two losses all year were road games at Georgetown and College of Charleston.  At least one of the nation’s best teams is going to be keenly aware of how good this Chanticleer team is come March.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Liberty (17-8, 11-2)
    It was not supposed to be like this for Liberty this year.  They lost several key members to graduation and one key member to transfer – you may have heard of him, Seth Curry, I think he plays for some team named Duke.  But, the Flames have regrouped and been, clearly, the second-best team in the Big South this year.  Their only two conference losses are to Coastal Carolina and they sit four games ahead of a pack of teams in third place.
  • Most Disappointing:  Presbyterian (10-15, 4-9)
    It is hard to blame the players at Presbyterian for their utterly disappointing season, as they had strived for what this year could have been for five years only to find out that their dream had become a nightmare.  As recounted nicely by Dana O’Neill, the Blue Hose seniors came to Presbyterian (then a D-I transitional school) five years ago with the plan to redshirt one year and by the time they were 5th-year seniors, the team would have full D-I status and they would compete for a chance to play in the Big Dance.  Well, the administration dropped the ball and they are not eligible, so it is hard to blame them for their terribly disappointing season, but it is still, well, a terribly disappointing season.  This team should be challenging for the conference title, but they are mired in 8th place, with a 4-9 conference record.

21). Atlantic Sun
The A-Sun is a bit top-heavy, but its top is, by low-major standards, very, very good.  Belmont is a legitimate threat to pull off a first-round upset, while East Tennessee State, Jacksonville, and Lipscomb are among the better low-major teams in the country.  The rest of the conference is a bit shaky, especially the bottom, as USC-Upstate, Kennessaw State, and D-I newcomer, Florida Gulf Coast are not really very good at all.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Belmont (22-4, 14-1)
    They were supposed to compete for the title…not run away with the title.  Belmost, from the very beginning of the season, has been the A-Sun’s best team and they are two full games ahead of anyone else in the conference.  Their only loss was to their arch-rival across town, Lipscomb, in a rivalry game that warranted mention in a recent BSB post about the best sports rivalries.
  • Most Disappointing:  Kennessaw State (6-17, 4-9)
    After a shocking first-round upset of top-seeded Lipscomb in the A-Sun quarterfinals last year, KSU was looking to parlay that into a possible run at a regular season title this year.  However, they have been rather bad and, as it stands now, would not even qualify for the A-Sun tournament this year.

22). MAAC
I am not sure if I have undersold the MAAC here, as their conference RPI is actually #16, but I just do not see that many real contenders for national attention in this conference.  Fairfield is the best team in the conference and Rider, Iona, St. Peter’s, and Loyola (Md) are having good seasons, but nothing to really shine nationally.  What I do see, however, are some really, really bad teams at the bottom, as Marist, Manhattan, and Niagara have to be three of the worst D-I teams in America this year.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Loyola (Md) (12-11, 8-5)
    A underwhelming non-conference for the Greyhounds has now given way to a surprisingly good conference season.  Picked 7th in the preseason, Loyola is only a game out of second-place, and they are the only team in the conference with wins over Fairfield, Iona, and St. Peter’s.
  • Most Disappointing:  Siena (10-13, 7-6)
    There was expected to be a dropoff in Albany with the departure of coach Fran McCaffery to Iowa, but it was not supposed to be a cliff.  The Saints have been barely mediocre this year, after dominating the MAAC for several years now.  Sitting at sixth place in the conference, they are in jeopardy of actually playing in the first-round of the MAAC tournament (if they fall to seventh).

23). Big West
It has been an incredibly strange season in the Big West this year.  It seems like every team has been up and down the standings all year…except one.  Long Beach State has been atop the Big West from the very beginning, and Dan Monson’s team continues to hold on to the top spot, even as the rest of the league shuffles, seemingly, every week.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  CS-Northridge (9-14, 6-4)
    The non-conference went the way most people expected the whole season would go for the Matadors, as they were a lowly 3-10 entering Big West play.  Picked for last in the conference, no one expected anything else.  But, then conference play began and the team started playing really well.  Right now, they sit in a tie for second place in the conference.
  • Most Disappointing:  UC-Santa Barbara (12-9, 5-5)
    This could easily have go to Pacific also, as the two teams were picked 1-2 in the conference and both are mired at 5-5.  I went with UCSB because they were the preseason pick to win the league and have been swept by Pacific.  There is still a lot of time to right the ship here, so expect the Gouchos (and the Tigers of Pacific) to get right back into the thick of it here, but for now, it has just been one disappointment.

24). Big Sky
It was supposed to be a grueling four-team war for Big Sky supremacy this year between Weber State, Northern Arizona, and the two Montana schools.  And, while those four are in the mix, they are all chasing someone else…

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Northern Colorado (13-9, 9-2)
    The “other UNC” has come out of nowhere to take a full game lead in the Big Sky this year.  And, with the tournament played at campus sites, the top spot is that much more important.  UNC has already beaten both Montana school and Weber State, but have yet to beat any of the “big four” on the road, so their tests are still ahead of them.
  • Most Disappointing:  Montana State (11-12, 5-6)
    Off to a 4-0 start in conference play, it looked like the Bobcats might be the class of the Big Sky.  But, a 1-6 record since, including a devastating loss to last-place Idaho State, has left MSU in fifth-place and staring at having to win three straight road games to win the Big Sky’s auto-bid.

25). NEC
I love the NEC.  Twelve teams with travel partners, who play every Thursday and Sunday, and, even though the quality of basketball is not top-notch, league games are fiercely competitive.  This year, the favorite, Quinnipiac, had a fantastic non-conference season, but has not brought that dominance to the NEC.  Long Island and Central Connecticut State have been the two dominant teams in the NEC this year.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Wagner (12-12, 8-5)
    How is a .500 team the most pleasantly surprising?  Well, first of all, they were picked 10th in the conference.  Secondly, they currently sit in third-place in a jam-packed conference, with some stellar wins on their resume.  Will they be able to sustain this play?  Nobody knows, but for now, they have to be the pleasant surprise of the NEC.
  • Most Disappointing:  Farleigh Dickinson (4-20, 2-11)
    The Dukes of FDU were picked to be somewhere in the middle of the pack and, if everything broke right, may have even competed for a conference title.  But, the reality is that they are simply awful.  An RPI of 323 (out of 345) is downright embarrassing, and they are headed for not even qualifying for the NEC tournament.

26). America East
Back to what we know about the America East – Vermont is the team to beat.  BU, Maine, and Stony Brook were getting the love in the preseason, but UVM has risen to the top yet again.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Vermont (20-5, 11-2)
    Ho-hum another 20-win season and, most likely, another AmEast regular season title for the Catamounts.  But, this year is different.  They were picked for 5th place in the league in the preseason, but, from the very beginning, showed that they were still the team to beat.  A good non-conference schedule led right into a, thus far, dominant AmEast campaign.  Expect the Catamounts to be a somewhat scary 15/16-seed come March.
  • Most Disappointing:  UMBC (5-20, 4-8)
    It has only been two-plus years since the Retrievers ran away with the America East and earned themselves a first-round date with Roy Hibbert, Jeff Green, and the rest of the Final Four-bound Hoyas.  Now, though they were not expected to really contend, they are faced with a 20-loss (and counting) season.

27). Sun Belt
With the loss of New Orleans to the D-III ranks, the Sun Belt now has a more normal 12 teams – in two divisions.  But, abnormal is what made this conference great.  Now, it just falls into the ranks of any other low-major conference.  And, with down years from the two preeminent programs of the Sun Belt (and easily two of the best nicknames in the country), the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and the Ragin’ Cajuns of LA-Lafayette, the Sun Belt is just plain ordinary this year.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Florida Atlantic (18-7, 10-1)
    FAU has come out of nowhere to fill the void of a down WKU team this year and have pretty much dominated the Sun Belt from day one.  They lead the Eastern Division by three games, with their only loss coming to the Hilltoppers (who are currently 5-5 in conference play).
  • Most Disappointing:  North Texas (16-7, 5-5)
    While WKU and LA-Lafayette have definitely been disappointing, the disappointment of the Mean Green runs a little deeper.  They had a terrific non-conference and must have seen the wide-open situation in the Sun Belt with no real dominant teams at all this year.  But, they have had a very disappointing first 10 games of conference play, capped by a really bad loss to Troy.  There is time to recover and a wide-open conference tournament to play, so this might yet be the season they expected, but right now, it is just a big disappointment.

28). Patriot League
The more the Patriot League changes, the more it stays the same.  Bucknell and American have been battling for the better part of this decade for PL supremacy, and they are doing it again.  Bucknell is two full games ahead, though, as a result of a season sweep of the Eagles.  The rest of the league, as usual, is jam-packed.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Bucknell (17-8, 8-1)
    Honestly, much like UVM in the AmEast, it is hard to really be surprised by Bucknell leading the Patriot League.  But, the preseason predictions had the Bison at #5, and they have clearly been the best team in the PL this year.  The non-conference was decent (wins over BU and LaSalle were the highlights), but their domination in a decent PL this year has been pretty thorough, as they just completed a season sweep of second-place American.
  • Most Disappointing:  Holy Cross (5-18, 4-5)
    One of the teams picked ahead of Bucknell in the preseason prognostications was Holy Cross, and while the Crusaders have been okay in conference play, their non-conference was absolutely dreadful.  They were 1-13 outside the PL, and it is not like they played a brutal schedule.  Yet, somehow their 305 RPI is not the worst in the conference (Colgate is 306).

29). MEAC
And, now we get into the really low-majors.  The MEAC, while not a very good conference may actually have risen this year to being closer to the Sun Belt and Patriot League than it is to the Southland and SWAC.  There are at least three pretty good low-major teams (Morgan State, Hampton, and Bethune-Cookman) in this conference and at least three or four more decent teams (Coppin State, Delaware State, and maybe N.C. A&T or Norfolk State).

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Coppin State (11-11, 6-4)
    Picked 8th in this conference, no one really expected much from Coppin this year (which is sad because they pour a decent amount of money, considering the conference, into the basketball program), but the Eagles have been pretty good all year.  Their conference season is highlighted by good road wins over Bethune-Cookman and Delaware State, and they enter the second-half of conference play in fourth place and only two games back of league-leading Hampton.
  • Most Disappointing:  MD-Eastern Shore (6-17, 3-7)
    There were two very good choices for this selection here, as South Carolina State returned most of the team that went to the MEAC finals last year, but sits dead-last this year, which is pretty disappointing.  But, for the most disappointing, I went with MD-Eastern Shore because of a bit of history.  This team has been the doormat of the MEAC since its entrance into the league.  But, last year, they finished 8-8 in league play and sixth place (out of last-place for the first time).  They even won their first-round MEAC tournament game over Coppin State before bowing, by three, to eventual finalists South Carolina State.  And, this year, they set their sights on possibly even competing for a MEAC title.  But, it has gone very wrong, as their bad non-conference turned into a bad conference season, as well.  Now, they are 3-7 in league play and only one game ahead of S.C. State for last place – a spot that they could not bear to fall back to after last year’s rivival.

30). Southland
The Southland this year is like flipping coins.  With the exception of Central Arkansas, who is a dreadful 1-9, the whole rest of the league is separated by just three games.  Texas A&M – Corpus Christie is in 11th place and only 3 games back of the two league leaders, Northwestern State and Texas State – San Marcos.  The problem for the Southland this year is that they have three decent low-major teams, Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State, and Southeastern Louisiana, and all three have been rather disappointing in conference play.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  UT-San Antonio (12-10, 5-4)
    Not expected to much this year, UT-San Antonio is only one game out of first-place and has wins over both league leaders.  They have some big games upcoming, so we will see if the Roadrunners are truly contenders.  And, yes, that last sentence was just to get their awesome nickname in this paragraph somewhere.
  • Biggest Disappointment:  Lamar (9-13, 3-5)
    Yes, Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State, and SE Louisiana are far and away the three best teams in this league and are in the bottom half of the standings, but they are all in striking distanace and should be able to at least qualify for the Southland Conference tournament, so they can play their way in.  Lamar, despite lofty preseason expectations, and a 3-0 start to the conference schedule, has lost five in a row and is in serious jeopardy of not even making the trip to Katy, TX, for the tournament.

31). SWAC
It is hard to imagine that a conference could be worse that the SWAC (and there really is not, as they are the worst of the conferences that receive auto-bids).  This conference is just routine cannon fodder for the SEC and the Big XII in the non-conference (not sure why they all schedule such ridiculous opponents).  And, they even provide easy W’s for the Big South and the A-Sun and SoCon.  However, there three relatively decent low-major teams in the conference (Jackson State, Texas-Southern, and Mississippi Valley State).  Other than those three, though, all seven other teams are among the bottom 43 teams in RPI, including four of the bottom 14.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  Texas-Southern (11-10, 9-1)
    Texas-Southern was not exactly picked to compete in the SWAC this year, but they have led the conference from the start.  Their only loss was at Mississippi Valley State (a strong choice for this spot, too considering they were picked 7th in the SWAC and are only 1.5 games out of the top spot), and they beat preseason favorite Jackson State in their first meeting.  We will learn a lot about this conference on Saturday when Texas-Southern visits Jackson State with the SWAC’s top spot on the line.
  • Most Disappointing:  Prairie View A&M (6-17, 3-7)
    A veteran team that was supposed to push Jackson State for the conference title was terrible in the non-conference and has been just as bad in conference play.  Sitting at 335 in the RPI is not what you expected from a team that was supposed to compete for its first ever conference title. 

32). Great West
This almost does not count, as the Great West is not a conference that receives and automatic bid, and only has seven teams.  But, it is a D-I conference, and I love D-I college basketball, so we should at least talk about it.  First of all, it is very strange in its composition.  Even though it is called the “Great West,” it incorporates all directions of the USA.  One of the teams in the Great West is the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Jersey City, NJ.  Two of the other teams are Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, TX, and the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, ND.  UTPA is about 20 miles from the Mexican border, while UND is about 75 miles from the Canadian border.  So, this conference has teams on the easternmost, southernmost, and northermost border of the United States.  In fact, the only “direction” not really covered is, well, west.  In fact, Utah Valley is the only school that could even be considered western at all.  Very strange.

  • Most Pleasantly Surprising:  North Dakota (11-10, 4-1)
    Not a great non-conference, but UND has swept their neighbors and rivals South Dakota and picked up two other wins en route to a 4-1 start to conference play.  They trail Utah Valley, clearly the best team in the conference, by just 1 game and none in the loss column.
  • Most Disappointing:  Texas-Pan American (4-21, 1-7)
    Well, it is official, the worst D-I basketball in the country is played in the Great West conference in the state of Texas.  Houston Baptist has the worst RPI in the country, but is not in last place in their conference.  That ignominious distinction belongs to Texas-Pan American, which has the second-worst RPI in the country and trails HB by a full game in the Great West standings.  In case you are dying to know, the two teams split the season series, each winning at home.  Unfortunately, these games were not televised in my area…

Thoughts on Super Bowl XLV

Usually the Super Bowl excited me for the commercials first and the game a distant second.  But, this year is all about the game.  This one is going to be fantastic!  We have two incredible teams who have a great divergence in strengths, making for a fascinating matchup.  So, a couple random thoughts leading up to what should be, beneath all the ridiculous pageantry of this day, strictly a great football game.

Not to Toot My Own Horn, But…
It is very rare that I will talk about any great personal “predictions” on this site (not by choice or humility–by a lack of any good predictions), but this one I have to bring up.  On September 11, 2010 – before Week One – I wrote a post laying out my playoff predictions for the upcoming season.  And, my Super Bowl prediction was Green Bay over Pittsburgh.  What does this mean?  Absolutely nothing.  In fact, when I realized this and told my wife that I nailed this Super Bowl prediction more than 4 months ago, she cooly responded with “If you’re so smart, why didn’t you put money on it?”  Good point…I’ve got nothing in response.

My Pick Now
In that preview section, I predicted a blowout Green Bay win, 31-7, with Aaron Rodgers having a big day and Roethlisberger having a karmically terrible day (mostly because I can’t stand the stories of that night in Georgia).  However, I am going to completely ruin my “great pick” here by flip-flopping in the 11th hour.  I really like the Steelers tonight.  Maybe not by a lot, but I think the Steelers are just a better team.  Most of why will be expressed in the following post, but put me down for Pittsburgh 24 – Green Bay 20.

Aaron Rodgers – Am I Missing Something?
Look, I think Aaron Rodgers is great.  Before the season started, I thought he would be league MVP and Super Bowl MVP.  I think he’s going to be a top five (or better) quarterback in this league.  But, let’s really look at this playoff run.  If you listen to just about anyone with an opinion, you will think he has completely recreated the quarterback position by playing better than anyone ever has.  Is it me or is this crazy?  Am I the only one who thinks that he has been “good,” but not “great” in two of the three playoff games to which everyone refers.  In fact, I have watched all 12 playoff quarters of Rodgers this year, and I thought he was absolutely fantastic in 7 of those quarters (4 of which were in that Atlanta game).  But, in 5 of the 8 quarters not played in Atlanta, he was dowright mediocre.  He was outstanding in the first half of the Eagles game, but he was not very good in the second half, including a sack-fumble and a couple of bad three-and-outs, that led them to only an underthrown Vick pass away from being eliminated in the first round.  In fact, in that whole game, he only led three drives into scoring position, they just were fortunate (or good) enough to convert those three into 21 points, while the Eagles turned 6 drives into scoring position into only 16 points (2 TDs, 1 FG, 2 missed FGs, and one INT in the endzone).  Then, in the Bears game, Rodgers was TERRIFIC in the first 19 minutes, going up 14-0, but was very mediocre after that, as the offense didn’t score a single point in the final 41 minutes, as they nearly blew the game to some guy named Caleb Haney.  I think we might be a little fooled by the quick starts and the almost perfect game in Atlanta.  But, honestly, Rodgers has definitely been good this postseason, but all in all, most of his numbers were against a questionable Atlanta defense that clearly wasn’t ready to play – the Steelers are a different animal.

The Year of the Defense
2010 in baseball was famously the “Year of the Pitcher.”  Well, not so famously, the 2010 NFL season may have been the “Year of the Defense.”  The 4 best defenses were the final four teams alive in the NFL, with the best two defenses playing on Super Bowl Sunday.  In fact, with the exception of the strange Seattle win over New Orleans, I would argue that the better defense has won all 10 playoff games this year.  And, that is another reason why I think the Steelers will win – they are the only team in the NFL with a better defense than Green Bay.  With all due respect to Stewart Bradley (huh?), the argument can be made that the FOUR best defensive players in the world will be playing today, in the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year (James Harrison), the 2009 Defensive POY (Charles Woodson), and the top 2 for this year’s Defensive POY (Troy Polamalu and Cla Matthews).

The Steelers D
This defense is incredible.  The Pack got a great game from James Starks against the Birds.  Do not expect that today, even though we will see a lot of attempts.  Mike McCarthy (surprisingly, since he is from the same school as Coach Reid), believes in rushing attempts regardless of the success.  So, expect a combined 25 carries for 48 yards from Starks and Brandon Jackson tonight.  I do not expect much more, so it is all on Rodgers.

Packers D
This defense is also fantastic and has not gotten as much credit as they deserve because of Rodgers.  But, Matthews and Woodson are absolute studs.  They will attack Ben on every play.  B.J. Raji might be the most important player on this side of the ball, and he gets to attack a backup center (more on this later).  Plus, the Packers do have better corners, so they are freer to bring the heat with no problem.  Tramon Williams is a complete stud and we all know everything about Woodson.

Rashard Mendenhall
On the other side, the Steelers have a running back in whom I do trust.  Mendenhall (at least for the first half) was by far the best player on the field against the Jets in the AFC Championship Game.  The Jets are one of the best tackling defenses in the NFL, and Mendenhall shredded them, breaking tackles left and right.  This O-line for the Steelers is questionable, but Mendenhall has the ability to create yards without big holes.  He is something that the Packers just do not have.

Doug Legursky
A lot has been said about the loss of Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers rookie Pro Bowl center.  And, honestly, this is a HUGE loss.  However, it might not be quite as big as it may initially appear.  Yes, there were snap issues (especially in pressure situations – like at the goal line) last week when Legursky came in to replace Pouncey.  But, this is much different.  Legursky came in to replace Pouncey in the AFC Championship Game against a ferocious defense.  He was so green and worried about blocking schemes, having only taken mental reps all week.  But, with Pouncey out, Legursky has now taken the physical reps with the first team for two weeks.  Snap issues probably won’t be a problem.  What might be a problem, however, is recognition of blitz schemes (a 3-4 is very difficult to read and very dependent upon the center) and the on the second level.  The difference between Legursky and Pouncey may not be recognizable to the fan that knows nothing about the o-line (including Yours Truly), but from what I have heard the big difference between the two is that Pouncey is a freak athlete.  So, the difference will probably be in the Mendenhall runs that go for 4 yards behind Legursky that may have been sprung for 13 (or more) with Pouncey, who can get into the second level and lay out a LB or DB.

The Most Interesting X-O Facet of this Game – Will the Packers Spread the Steelers Out?
The Green Bay offensive coaching staff has a very interesting dilemma here.  Do they throw out 4- or 5-receiver sets in an attempt to exploit mismatches by getting guys like Greg Jennings or Jordy Nelson on linebackers?  Or, do they throw in a lot of max protection packages to try and keep their QB upright?  It really is a fascinating dilemma and a decision that I am glad I do not have to make.  The Steelers are so relentless and so aggressive that you want to protect Rodgers (who has been concussed twice – at least – this year).  Also, Rodgers looks a lot different after big hits (like the Peppers hit in Chicago).  But, if you can get Jennings in the slot on a LB, you might have an 80-yard touchdown.  Personally, I would probably side to max protect early and see if we can move the ball with 2 receivers on short slants and if not, then roll the dice and throw Jordy Nelson and James Jones on the field.

Heath Miller
The “experts” all say that the Packers biggest weakness on defense is how they handle the tight end, so Heath Miller might play a huge role in this game.  In fact, Vegas is rooting against that, as they seemed to set a pretty bad line on Heath Miller here.  They had a prop bet on total receiving yards for Miller that opened at 21.5.  Over the two weeks of betting, apparently there was HEAVY money on the over and the line has nearly doubled to 42.5 today.

The Packers Team Photo
First of all, I hate this story.  Who cares?  They fixed it and it is over.  However, it is telling, and what it shows is the difference between a team that has been there (the Steelers) and a team that has not (the Packers).  Mike Tomlin and company would know exactly how to deal with this, while the Packers seemed “too focused on being focused,” if that makes sense.  Experience counts and coaching…give me the Steelers – on both fronts.

Great Super Bowl
No matter what happens, I think we are in for a great Super Bowl.  There are two cities that absolutely LIVE AND DIE with their football teams.  The residents of Green Bay actually own the team.  These are two cities in the middle of the rust belt and hit hard by the economic downturn.  As annoying as the bandwagon Steelers fans are, the true fans are maybe the best in the entire NFL.  And the Packers fans are right there with them.  There are two FANTASTIC teams, and this going to be a classic.

Wait…Who?!?

I don’t even know how to express an opinion on this one.

The Eagles promoted offensive line coach, Juan Castillo, to defensive coordinator.  Yes, you read that right.  Offensive line coach promoted to defensive coordinator.

Yesterday, when I got home from work, I loaded up my iTunes and I saw a podcast pop up that was a Mike Missanelli interview with Eagles beat reporter, Tim McManus.  The label on the podcast said “Mikey Miss talks with Tim McManus on the Eagles naming Juan Castillo as defensive coordinator.”  My first thought was:  “Interesting I have heard a lot of different names bandied about – Winston Moss, Darren Perry, even Seth Joyner – but haven’t heard that name out there.”  My second thought was:  “That is weird I think that our new D-coordinator has the same name as our current O-line coach.  I guess it is a popular name in coaching.”  Then I thought:  “Maybe I am wrong.  I thought Juan Castillo was the name of our O-line coach, but maybe it is Julio Castillo or Felix Castillo or Juan Casilla or something like that.”  Not for one second did I think that the Eagles promoted the Juan Castillo to DC.  And, I am not embarrassed to admit that because, well, HE WAS OUR OFFENSIVE LINE COACH.

Now, for the interesting part of this whole thing:  I am not totally sure it is a bad move.  I may be the only one left out there (and I am certainly not given a lot of reasons to bolster this opinion), but I trust the Eagles front office, and, in particular, I trust Andy Reid.

Why could it be a good thing, even though it sounds, on the surface, so utterly ridiculous?

  1. He is, by all accounts, one of the best and brightest assistant coaches in the league.  He was always talked about as being one of the best two or three o-line coaches in the league.  Granted, that does not necessarily translate into being able to coach anything, but it is nice for the Eagles to be able to keep such a talented young assistant.
  2. Somehow, they did this without downgrading his old position.  One of the things I was worried about here was the loss of Castillo as such a great O-line coach.  But, as I said above, Castillo is widely considered one of the best two or three O-line coaches in the league, and the Eagles somehow replaced him with a guy just as highly considered – Howard Mudd from Indianapolis.
  3. Even though he has not coached defense – at any level – since 1990, Castillo is, at heart, a defensive guy.  After all, in his playing days, he was an excellent linebacker at Texas A&M – Kingsville, who went on to play linebacker and then coach linebackers in the USFL.
  4. The scheme, most likely, will not change.  When the Eagles had not moved on this vacancy, it looked more and more like they were targeting one of the assistants in the Super Bowl.  The reason that is scary is that both of those teams play the 3-4 scheme, and the Eagles do not seem to have the personnel to play the 3-4.  Trent Cole might be the best 4-3 defensive end in the NFL, and it is uncertain as to whether he is big enough to play 3-4 DE or quick enough to play 3-4 OLB.  Brandon Graham showed a lot of promise before his injury, but he clearly is not fit for 3-4 DE or OLB.  Juqua Parker is exclusively a 4-3 guy.  And, aside from that, there are two things you must have to play an effective 3-4:  (1) playmaking outside linebackers and (2) a gigantic havoc-creator nose tackle.  Look at the Steelers and Packers.  Casey Hampton is an absolute beast in the middle for Pittsburgh, and everyone knows now about the dominance of B.J. Raji for Green Bay.  And, then you get the OLBs.  Ever heard of Cla Matthews or James Harrison?  Ya, they are the playmaking OLBs that I was talking about.  Do you think either Ernie Sims or Moise Fokou are the next Lawrence Taylors?  Me neither.  So, I think that if the Eagles were to switch to a 3-4 defense, it could take upwards of two, three, even four years of good drafts and other personnel moves to accumulate the right mix of defensive players.  I am not saying that we are stuck in the 4-3 forever, but I think a switch would lead to growing pains that we may not be prepared to go through right now.
Clock management? No. Choosing assistant coaches? Yes.

So, all in all, while this move is absolutely, completely STUNNING, let us not jump off buildings yet.  Say what you will about Andy Reid’s clock management or ability to “win the big one,” he has been incredibly successful in many areas over his 11-year coaching career, and one of his most successful areas is evaluating assistant coaches, from Morninwheg to Harbaugh to Spagnuolo to Childress to Jauran and even to guys like Castillo and other positional coaches that have yet to truly be heard from.  I have complete trust in his decisions when it comes to choosing assistants, so I give him the benefit of the doubt here.

It is just really strange…

Top 15 2nd Round NBA Draft Picks of the Last 20 Years

This is a totally random list inspired by nothing, but hopefully just a tiny bit interesting to just a few people.  Why 15?  No reason.  Why the last 20 years?  Mainly just because that’s about as far back as my first-hand NBA knowledge goes.  As most people know, the NBA draft has just two rounds, and 2nd Round picks aren’t guaranteed any sort of contract, and are often cut before ever appearing in a game.  It’s really the rare player that ends up having a long, productive career.  Guys that clearly should’ve been 1st Rounders fall through the cracks for a bunch of reasons: they played at a mid-major college, they skipped college altogether, they had an injury history, or they didn’t have an “NBA body.”  Some guys fall for almost no reason at all.  But what they all have in common is that they weren’t expected to make it in the NBA, but all of these guys listed below did anyway, for whatever that’s worth.   

Two quick fun facts about 2nd Rounders in the NBA this year:  there is a current rookie having a surprisingly excellent season, and the team with the best record in the league has started two of them in every game this season, with one of them leading the team in scoring.  All three appear on the list below.  As a final note, it was a little difficult comparing guys who have played 13 years in the league to ones that have played just one or two, but I gave it my best shot.

15. Landry Fields (39th Overall Pick, Knicks, 2010):  So we start things right off with the above-mentioned rookie.  Impossible to say where he fits just 47 games into his career, but he really looks the part of a solid small forward.  He’s started every game and averaged 10 points for the resurgent Knicks, while shooting 52% from the field and 38% on 3’s.  He’s also been a suprisingly good rebounder for a guy that’s a slender 6-7, averaging 7 boards.  It goes to show how down the Pac-10 (and Stanford) has been, because I had NEVER heard of this guy that averaged 22 points for the Cardinal last year.

13 (TIE). DeJuan Blair (37th Pick, Spurs, 2009) and Paul Millsap (47th Pick, Jazz, 2006):  This is the first of three pairs of players that are ranked together, not just because they are similar in quality, but also because they’re similar players.  Blair fell because he was an undersized PF witha history of knee injuries, but he’s a high character guy with a natural talent for pulling down rebounds.  So, it’s no huge surprise that he’s started every game for the 40-7 Spurs in just his second season.  He’s playing just 21 minutes a game though, but averaing 8 points/7 boards.  Millsap played at a small school (Louisiana Tech), where he was a rebounding machine, averaging just under 13 for his career.  Most teams didn’t see that translating to the pros, but he’s developed nicely and is averaging 17 points/8 rebounds this year for Utah.  Those are numbers that Blair might be matching in a few seasons.

11 (TIE). Mo Williams (47th Pick, Jazz, 2003) and Nick Van Exel (37th Pick, Lakers, 1993):  Two solid NBA point guards who each made one All-Star appearance.  It’s actually a little surprising that they weren’t 1st Rounders.  They both were good in college at major conference schools, both pretty athletic and quick, good distributors, and underrated long-range shooters.  Though Williams probably never would’ve made an All-Star team if he hadn’t been lucky enough to play with LeBron.

10. P.J. Brown (29th Pick, Nets, 1992[there were only 27 teams at that point]):  Unlike the above two, he never came close to making an All-Star team, but there’s a lot to be said for being a winner and doing it over a long period of time.  He played 15 years and was a key part of some very good Heat teams in the late-90’s, some solid Hornets teams in the middle-00’s, and he made some clutch plays in the playoffs for the Celtics in their ’08 title run.  He averaged 8 points/7 rebounds for his career and was named to the 2nd Team All-Defensive Team three times.

8 (TIE). Mehmet Okur (37th Pick, Pistons, 2001) and Marc Gasol(48th Pick, Lakers, 2007):  Two Europeans that turned out to be legitimate NBA centers.  Okur played a key supporting role for the ’04 Pistons championship team, averaging 10 points/6 boards, before moving on and making an All-Star team with the Jazz in ’07, when he averaged 19/8.  Not many 6-11 guys can shoot if from deep like Okur.  Since being traded to Memphis for his brother, Gasol has been solid, especially last year when he averaged 15 points/9 boards.  He’s taken a step back this year, but the future still looks bright.

7. Rashard Lewis  (32nd Pick, SuperSonics, 1998):  As one of just three players on this list to make multiple All-Star teams, you might think Lewis would be higher than #7, but I put him here partly just because I don’t like him and think he’s overrated.  He’s 6-10 with a ton of talent, but he’s too often content to just jack up 3 after 3, rarely setting foot inside the arc for a drive or even to rebound.  Still, he had a 3-year run with Seattle of averaging over 20 points a game before making his second All-Star appearance as a Magic in ’09.  He’s averaged 16.5 points for his career, while shooting 39% from 3.  He came straight from his Texas high school to the pros.

6. Michael Redd (43rd Pick, Bucks, 2000):  Redd was one of the premier long-distance shooters of the past decade, with a 20 point per game career average, an All-Star appearance in ’04, and a 27 point per game average in ’06-’07, but he gets knocked down a peg or two because the teams he’s led have never been good and he’s missed a lot of time with injuries. 

5. Stephen Jackson (42nd Pick, Suns, 1997):  Anyone who’s followed Jackson’s tumultuos NBA career is probably not surprised to learn that, even though he was a McDonald’s All-American at powerhouse Oak Hill Academy, he was unable to get eligible for D-I basketball, and ended up at a junior college for a year before entering the draft.  That partly explains why a 6-8 wing player with his skill ended up in the 2nd Round, but the Suns actually cut him, and he didn’t make it to the league until three years later.  Two years after that, he was starting and averaging 12 points for the ’03 Spurs championship team.  In the 8 seasons since then, he’s averaged 18.5 points, posting his best season in ’08-’09 with Golden State, when he averaged 21 points/6.5 assists/5 rebounds.

4. Gilbert Arenas (30th Pick, Warriors, 2001):  For two years (’05-’06, ’06-’07), Arenas was one of the top scorers in the league, averaging close to 29 points a game those two seasons combined.  He added 6 assists, over 4 rebounds, and 2 steals a game as well.  But since then, his career has been derailed by injuries and off-the-court mishaps.  Not sure why NBA scouts missed on him.  Watching him at Arizona, I thought he looked like an NBA player with his combination of quickness, strength, and shooting touch.  I’m usually wrong about those things though, so I guess that doesn’t mean much.

3. Monta Ellis(40th Pick, Warriors, 2005):  Ellis snuck into the draft in the last year that high schoolers were allowed to go pro, and just a few years later he was averaging 20 points a game.  Over the past two seasons, the lightning-quick guard is averaging 25.3 points/5.5 assists/2.3 steals.  Granted, he’s doing it for a not-very-good team that plays an uptempo style, but he’s also still only 25 years old.  He gets the nod ahead of Arenas because he hasn’t self-destructed like Gilbert has. 

2. Carlos Boozer (34th Pick, Cavs, 2002):  This name appearing as a 2nd Rounder was the biggest surprise to me.  Boozer is a 6-9 behemoth of a man who played at the premier college basketball program of the last 20 years (Duke), won a title there as a starting sophomore, then averaged 18 points/9 boards as a junior.  Just a few of the players chosen ahead of him were Vincent Yarbrough, Robert Archibald, and Ryan Humphrey.  Seems like the scouts out-smarted themselves just a little bit.  Boozer was averaging a double/double (15.5/11) by his second season, and he’s been nearly a 20/10 guy over the past 5 seasons combined, while making the playoffs every one of those years.

1. Manu Ginobili (57th Pick, Spurs, 1999):  Looking at the stats and the number of All-Star games alone, it would seem like Ginobili doesn’t belong at #1 on this list.  He’s actually only started about half the games of his career.  But if I could take the whole career of any guy on this list, I’ll take Manu’s.  He’s the epitome of a “do-it-all” guard, with career averages of 15 points, 4 assists, 4 rebounds, and 1.5 steals.  He’s also great on the defensive end and one of the most sneaky, unorthodox offensive players, but can also knock down a long-range shot.  He’s no Tim Duncan, but he’s a HUGE reason why the Spurs have won 3 titles in his time there, and he could possibly make it #4 this year, and this time as their leading scorer, at 18.8 per game right now.  The Spurs laid the foundation for those titles when they took Duncan with the 1st overall pick in ’97, but they may have sealed the deal when they took this Argentinean with the second-to-last-pick of the draft two years later.

Honorable Mentions: Trevor Ariza, Anderson Varejao, Ryan Gomes, Carl Landry, Kyle Korver, Lou Williams, Rasual Butler, Chris Duhon