Conference Season Preview, Part Four: The Also-Rans

After 24 conference previews, we are now down to the final 8 conferences.  These are, most likely, going to be the competitors for the First Four 16-seed games and the other 16- and 15-seeds.  For the most part, these guys are going to be “happy to be there” and not provide much of an upset risk…but you never know.  And, there is one exception to that…

THE IVY LEAGUE

They Do It Right…
I am going to preface this comment with a statement of “it’s easy to ‘do it right‘ when making money is literally unimportant.”  But, with that being said, the Ivy League does it right – no conference tournament.  What they lose in drama and excitement in early March, they make up for by sending their best representative to the Dance in hopes that they can create even more excitement in mid- or late-March.  Oh, and you always have that rare season where there is a tie at the top and then you’ve got a winner-take-all game on the neutral floor like we had last year.

But…don’t expect that kind of drama this year.  Harvard (10-1, 27 RPI) is going to the Dance this year.  And, we can say that convincingly because there is no conference tournament, so not only would someone have to upset Big Red, but they would have to also navigate the rest of the Ivy schedule better than they do.  Highly unlikely because this team is loaded.

The biggest threat is probably Yale (8-2, 115), but they haven’t exactly shown anything in the non-conference that would lead anyone to believe they have any shot at upstaging Big Red.  There are always the dangerous Princeton (6-7, 189) and Penn (6-6, 144), who have the two best non-Harvard players in the Ivy League in Ian Hummer for the Tigers and Zach Rosen for the Quakers.  But, the rest of the rosters just aren’t good enough to compete with Tommy Amaker’s squad.

The biggests suprise of the non-conference would probably be Columbia (7-5, 138), who just had a 7-game winning streak snapped this week @Marist.  They beat North Texas, Holy Cross, and a pretty good Long Island team along the way.  Then again, they did just lose by 20 to Marist…

OVERALL:  Harvard will win this conference going away and make the Dance for the first time in 60 years.  Bank it.

THE PATRIOT LEAGUE

Another League With No Scholarships, Yet Pretty Solid Hoops, Considering
It is somewhat understandable that the Ivy League schools can sustain solid sports programs because the educational opportunities that those schools provide is a unique and rare commodity, so they are able to at least make a decent pitch to any player in America that can afford their tuition.  Now, taking nothing away from the educational quality at schools in the PL (to be honest, these schools are actually very, very good), they do not come with the cache of a Harvard or a Yale.  So, it is that much more impressive when these programs achieve any modicum of success in D-I sports.

Continue reading “Conference Season Preview, Part Four: The Also-Rans”

Conference Season Preview, Part Three: The Cinderellas

Okay, so we’ve previewed the top half of the country in college hoops, now let’s get down to the other half.  The next 8 conferences are more of the third tier, in that they are never looking at multiple NCAA tournament bids, but the top couple of teams in each league could present problems to some of the best teams in the country on a single given night – oh, say, around mid-March…

THE WAC

The Midnight Snack in the WAC
Not sure what this title means, but for anyone around my age that grew up a college basketball fan, I’m guessing the first thing you think of when anyone mentions the WAC is the old ESPN feature, “Midnight Snack in the WAC,” where one day a week they would play a WAC game after the 11:00pm SportsCenter.  Okay, maybe I’m the only one who remembers it, but whatever.

This year’s WAC season is probably going to be either a two- or three-team race between the usual suspects.  Nevada (9-3, 110 RPI), who hasn’t exactly been churning out NBA talent recently like they have in the past with Kirk Snyder, Nick Fazekas, Ramon Sessions, or JaVale McGee, but they have stayed relevant enough to compete for the WAC title every year or so.  And, this year, they were the preseason pick to win the conference and have looked decent in the non-conference, with their only 3 losses coming to decent teams (Missouri State, UNLV, and BYU).  They have also been playing their best ball as of late, including two wins over Pac-12 foes in Washington and Arizona State. 

New Mexico State (8-4, 77) is probably the biggest threat to unseat the Wolfpack.  The Aggies have played a pretty tough schedule so far and have managed an 8-4 record, but they don’t really have a signature win to their names, as cross-state rival New Mexico is probably their best W.

Utah State (8-5, 159) began the season with a bang – a 69-62 win over BYU, and it looked like they might be the team to beat in the WAC.  But, they have not been the same team away from home (1-4 outside of Logan, including some bad losses).  But, at 8-1 at home, including really struggled early in the season, including a 19-point beatdown of a good Kent State team means that this team could definitely cause some problems for the two assumed favorites in the WAC this year.

There is not much meat in the rest of the conference, though Idaho (7-6, 230) has been a pleasant surprise so far.  Hawaii (4-5, 261) was actually picked to finish ahead of Utah State this year (3rd place), and they did just beat Xavier over the holiday, but the Rainbow Warriors have some shaky losses so far, as well.

OVERALL:  While USU has absolutely dominated this conference in the past couple of years, they lost a ton to graduation and find themselves the underdogs this year.  Nevada and NMSU both look solid and this could be a real battle all year for the top spot.

THE MAAC

The Team to Beat
Like many of these mid-major conferences, there seems to be a sharp distinction between the contenders and the pretenders in the MAAC this year.  However, there is a subtle difference here.  Even among the contenders, there is one clear-cut favorite that everyone else is chasing.

Continue reading “Conference Season Preview, Part Three: The Cinderellas”

Conference Season Preview, Part Two: The Guys You Should Have Heard Of

Yesterday, we previewed the conference seasons for the “Big Six” conferences plus the A-10 and C-USA, who aren’t quite major, but not quite mid-major either.  Today, we are going to hit up the next 8 conferences, who are all admittedly “mid-major,” but play some of the best basketball in the country and, without a doubt, should not feel inferior to all but the best of the big conferences.  While these teams almost assuredly wouldn’t win the Big Ten or SEC, a lot of them could easily finish in the middle of the pack.  And, because early departures to the NBA are so abundant, I would argue that some of the most cohesive, “best” basketball is played in these conferences because they are really talented groups of kids that have stayed together for 2, 3, sometimes 4 years.

THE MOUNTAIN WEST

High-Major Basketball in Mid-Major Uniforms
Yes, I do LOVE Mountain West basketball, so I am often biased towards this conference, but here’s an objective statistic for you – the average RPI in the Mountain West is 88.  The average RPI in the ACC is 89; the SEC is 90; the Big East is 99; and, the Pac-12 is 133.  The average RPI in the Mountain West conference is the third lowest of any conference in America, behind only the Big Ten (64) and the Big XII (85).  Oh, and did I mention that this is the same conference that lost, arguably, its most accomplished program this offseason when BYU defected to the West Coast Conference?  Who needs them?

UNLV (13-2, 8 RPI) has proven itself to be one of the best teams in America, regardless of conference affiliation.  The Rebels 13 wins include an 11-point win over USC, a 10-point win over previously unbeaten North Carolina, a 16-point beatdown of previously unbeaten Illinois (in Champagne), and a 17-point drubbing of Pac-12 favorite, Cal.  The Rebels have established themselves as not only the best team in the Mountain West, but probably the best team in “The West.”

The one team that might be able to challenge the Rebels for the M-West title is San Diego State (11-2, 57).  The Aztecs lost a ton from last year’s Top Ten team, including NBA draft pick, Kawhi Leonard, but Steve Fisher has a couple holdovers (most notably, Chase Tapley) and has brought in a couple talented newcomers, and has the Aztecs playing really well.

New Mexico (10-2, 74) is another team that should be really good come conference play, and Colorado State (7-4, 46) is a really scary sleeper team out here, as they have played their way nicely through a brutal non-conference schedule that was set up because they expected the most talented roster in school history this year.

There have also been a couple teams that were not expected to do much this year that have had really promising non-conference seasons, particularly Wyoming (12-2, 99) and Boise State (9-4, 133).

OVERALL:  UNLV is not only the class of the conference, but almost certainly the best team west of the Rockies.  SDSU has reloaded and could present a bit of a challenge, and I wouldn’t rule out Colorado State (despite having the worst overall non-conference record), but it’s really the Rebels conference to lose this year.

THE MISSOURI VALLEY

Before There Can Be March Madness, There Has to be “Arch Madness”
It should be no secret to anyone that my favorite two weeks on the sporting calendar are actually the two weeks leading up to the NCAA tournament.  Don’t get me wrong – the four-day basketball nirvana that is the first two rounds is heavenly, but the conference tournament weeks that precede it provide nearly the same level of excitement on a game-to-game level with a LOT more games.  And, every year, one of the best of these conference tournaments takes place in St. Louis and is affectionately referred to as “Arch Madness.”  And, if you like hard-fought, intense basketball between some of the best teams in the country, you will love Arch Madness as much as you love March Madness.  And, this year might be the best version yet.  In fact, this year, if the top four teams somehow survive to play a semifinal double-header, that is appoinment viewing for any sports fan.

Continue reading “Conference Season Preview, Part Two: The Guys You Should Have Heard Of”

Conference Season Preview, Part One: The Big Boys

Major, High-Major, The Big Six, BCS Conferences, or my most common backhanded phrase, The Rich Conferences…whatever you want to call them, there are 6 conferences that garner the majority of the attention of the national media when it comes to college hoops, and we all know why that is.  I am not about to (in this post, at least) offer any opinion on the motives or validity of these conferences and their stranglehold on the nation’s attention, but, since they are the most visible, it only makes sense to start with them in this little preview series this week.  We will also add in the two conferences that would most likely step into the limelight if room was ever made for them in this Part One.

THE ATLANTIC TEN

Fallout from the Queen City Brawl
We will start with a little self-serving here.  It is no secret for which team I root – the Temple Owls – so, when I say that the A-10 is a “major” conference, I do so more hopefully than with any real belief.  But, that being said, there is little argument to be made that, outside of the 6 “rich conferences,” the A-10 is consistently the best league in the nation, by just about any measure.

Prior to the now-infamous brawl between cross-town rivals, Cincinnati and Xavier, this conference looked like it might be a fight for second-place.  But, the two schools have gone in very opposite directions since the fight, and XU may be “gangsta,” but they sure haven’t responded well to, literally, getting punched in the mouth.  The Musketeers, finishing off the drubbing of the Bearcats, were looking like a potential Final Four team, but since then have struggled mightily, included hitting their low point this weekend with a loss to Hawaii.  While, it’s still probably safe to say that Xavier (9-3, 64 RPI) is the class of this conference, it is no longer easy to say that they will run away with the conference, especially because any slip would open up room for a couple other solid teams to walk right through.

Temple (7-3, 26), objectively, has the second most talent in this conference and should be a tournament team.  A head-scratching loss to Bowling Green, aside, the Owls have navigated a good (but not great) non-conference schedule, headlined by wins over Wichita State and Villanova.  With Dunphy always showing improvement, the Owls are definitely one of the main contenders to the crown this year.

While Temple and Xavier have been good, the two most impressive A-10 teams through the non-conference have probably been teams that not many people gave much credence to before the season started.  Phil Martelli’s St. Joe’s Hawks (9-3, 22) and Rick Majerus’s St. Louis Billikens (11-1, 52) seem to have established themselves as clearly the favorites for the other two bye spots in the A-10 tournament.  Though, neither team has an eye-popping win (unless you count Villanova, who has lost to both teams), but they should contend for the A-10 title this year alongside the two perennial favorites.  And, UMass (10-3, 86), is the only team other than St. Louis to register double-digits wins thus far.

Another surprise this year has been Charlotte (7-3, 125), who was supposed to be somewhere near the cellar, but have navigated a somewhat decent slate.  St. Bonaventure (6-5, 97), Dayton (9-4, 49), Duquesne (6-5, 88), and Richmond (7-6, 90) have all been relatively disappointing, but should all present tough road tests to anyone in the conference.

The biggest disappointment this year has been Rhode Island (1-11, 272), who have been one of the worst teams – not only in the A-10, but in all of Division-I.

OVERALL:  This conference is still Xavier’s to lose, but if they decide to lose it, there are a few teams other than Temple (St. Louis, St. Joe’s, even UMass), that might just take it.

THE BIG TEN

Simply the Best
In my humble opinion, there is absolutely no debate about what the best conference in the country is this year.  It’s the Big Ten…hands down.  Any way you slice it, the Big Ten is the best – they have power at the top that can play with anyone in the country, and they are incredibly deep, from top to bottom.

Continue reading “Conference Season Preview, Part One: The Big Boys”

Here We Go: It’s Conference Time!

Every year, when the calendars are about to turn, many people are busy assessing their past resolutions before quickly adjusting their thoughts towards new ones for the upcoming year.  The die hard college hoops fan is, on the other hand, busy assessing non-conference performances before quickly adjusting their thoughts towards the conference seasons that are about to begin in earnest all across the country.

So, in honor of the start of conference play, I am going to try and give some quick opinions on what we’ve seen in the non-conference and what we can expect in conference play.  There are 32 conferences, so I figure I’ll try and break it down into a 4-part series that will feature eight separate conferences each day.  So, look for Part One later today and then a different installment each day this week.

The Top 15 Point Guards in College Basketball

15) Juan Fernandez, SR, Temple: OK, so I put Fernandez in the last spot on last year’s list, too.  I can’t possibly claim 100% objectivity, but I don’t see why he doesn’t deserve a spot on this list.  I think he nailed down a spot with a 23 point game vs. Rice the other day.  As announcers will constantly point out, he’s slow but extremely “crafty”.  He’s a good, not great, shooter, with an incredible feel for the game and how to get the ball into the hoop and into the right people’s hands at the right time.

14) Peyton Siva, JR, Louisville: Siva can’t shoot a lick, but he’s played a very key role for the undefeated, 4th-ranked Cardinals.  He’s very quick and strong defensively, with 70 steals last year.  He’s averaging 10 points and just under 7 assists.

Bill Self hasn't always been happy with his point guard.

13) Tyshawn Taylor, SR, Kansas: It’s been a disappointing career at KU for this North Jersey native, mostly because of a poor attitude and a seeming unwillingness to be coached and play within Bill Self’s system.  That being said, he probably needs to be on this list just based on pure talent alone.  He is putting up 15 points and 5 assists a game for the 12th-ranked Jayhawks, but he’s been a turnover machine, which is especially disappointing for a senior with his amount of experience.  His outside shot has shown improvement this year too, so he very well may find a place in the NBA next year, but he still has a long way to go in a lot of ways.

12) Marquis Teague, FR, Kentucky: Hard for me to say where to put Teague on this list.  On the one hand, he’s a supreme talent that has pretty ably handled PG duties for a top team.  On the other hand, I just haven’t been very impressed with him, and how hard is it rack up some assists when you’re tossing the ball to guys like Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis?  He’s clearly got high level quickness and good size, but his decision-making has been pretty poor a lot of the time.  He doesn’t appear to be a Brandon Knight or a John Wall, but he should improve a good bit as the season goes on.

11) Damian Lillard, SR, Weber St.: It’s probably an understatement to say that Lillard is a “shoot-first” point guard, considering he’s leading the nation in scoring at over 25 points a game.  I won’t compare him to Jimmer Fredette, but if there is a Jimmer in college hoops this season, he may be it.  He’s shooting 46% from 3, even while attempting 8 per game.  He put up 36 points against a strong St. Mary’s team and followed that up with 41 vs. San Jose St.

10) Travon Woodall, JR, Pitt: A classic NYC point guard: short but strong and very quick.  In his first year as a starter, he’s averaging 14 points and 8 assists.  He’s also shown some shooting ability that he did not show the last couple years, shooting 46% from long range so far.  He’s hurt right now and has missed the last five games, but Jamie Dixon has another solid PG from NYC, following in the footsteps of Levance Fields and Carl Krauser.

9) Maalik Wayns, JR, Villanova: It’s been a disappointing season so far for Nova (which is awesome), but it’s pretty hard to put any of the blame on Wayns.  He’s averaging 17 points/5 assists and even in Nova’s two Big 5 losses he’s played very well.  He put up 19 pts/4 ast/0 turnovers vs. St. Joe’s and 23 pts/7 ast/2 turnovers vs. Temple.  He should stop shooting so many 3’s but, other than that, he’s becoming an elite college point guard.

8. Erving Walker, SR, Florida: He’s probably about 5’6″ but he’s got a ton of experience as an SEC point guard that can do a little bit of everything on the offensive end: pass, drive, and shoot.  He’s averaging 14.5 points/5 assists for the 11th-ranked Gators.

7) Casper Ware, SR, Long Beach State: Ware’s team has played an unbelievably hard schedule so far and they picked up a win over Xavier a few days ago (though Xavier was without two starters) to go along with their November defeat of Pitt.  Ware is undersized but put up 28 points in that win at Pitt and scored 29 in a loss at UNC a couple weeks ago.  As Bry has mentioned, LBSU will be a team to watch out for in March.

6) Shabazz Napier, SO, UConn: Napier is the only player on this list that can say he started for a national championship team.  He never really wows you with anything he does, but often you look at the box score after the game and his stat line is full, like when he had 22 points, 13 assists, 12 boards vs. Coppin St. this year.  He also hit 6 3’s, scoring 26 points, against Florida St., a strong defensive team.  He’s averaging 15.5 points and 7 assists for the 10-1 Huskies.

5)  Scott Machado, SR, Iona: I’m gonna go ahead and put a guy I’ve never seen play into the Top 5.  Machado is averaging 14 points and over 10 assists a game.  His season highlights include 33 points/10 assists vs. a solid St. Joe’s team, 14/11 vs. Purdue, 15/15 vs. Maryland, and 13/15 vs. Richmond.  Iona is 10-2 and the odds-on favorite in the MAAC.

4) Aaron Craft, SO, Ohio St.: When you play with as much talent as Craft has in his two years at OSU, it makes playing point guard a lot easier.  But he’s also had to handle the pressure of quarterbacking one of the nation’s top teams and has never looked anything but very capable of handling it.  He may never score a ton, but he can do it when he needs to.  He’s only scored in double-figures in 6 of 13 games this year, but he’s done it in all three of their games against ranked teams, including 17 points/8 assists vs. Duke.  He’s also an elite defender and ranks 7th in the nation in steals, with just under three a game.

3) Kendall Marshall, SO, North Carolina: Can a guy that only averages 5 points a game really be the third-best PG in the country?  Well, for one, this isn’t a particularly strong year for college point guards.  But also, Marshall is such an incredibly gifted passer and fits so perfectly with what his team needs that it’s hard to rank many guys ahead of him.  He can start the break with a pass as well as anybody, he can make the obvious, simple pass that so many guys just don’t make, and he can make the spectacular pass in the halfcourt offense that leave you shaking your head.  If you like passing, you love watching Kendall Marshall play.  His 10.1 assists average ranks second to Machado in the nation.

2) Jordan Taylor, SR, Wisconsin: Coming into the season, Taylor would’ve easily been #1 on this list, but it’s been a big adjustment for him following the graduation of Jon Leuer and a couple other solid players.  There’s a lot of pressure on him to score and pass and his shot just hasn’t been there so far.  He averaged 18 points and shot 43% from 3 last year, and those numbers are 12 per game and 31% so far this year.  But the Badgers are still 10-2.  He should get it going soon though, and his assists are actually up a bit from last year and he’s a great rebounder for his size, averaging over 4 a game over the last two years.

1) Tu Holloway, SR, Xavier: The reigning A-10 Player of the Year has firmly established himself as the top PG in the country.  He puts up numbers in an array of categories: points, assists, rebounds, steals.  But he’s also shown this year that he steps it up when it really matters, hitting big shots at the end of comeback wins over Vanderbilt and Purdue.  Holloway is averaging 18 points, 5 assists, and 2.5 steals for the Musketeers.

Honorable Mentions: Myck Kabongo (Texas), Joe Jackson (Memphis), Scoop Jardine (Syracuse), Seth Curry (Duke), Lewis Jackson (Purdue), Matthew Dellavedova (St. Mary’s)

The Phils Lineup Construction

Nothing like thinking about lineup construction in the middle of December,  huh?

Well, honestly, there are very few things that are more interesting to think about (at least to me), so why not turn off the NFL playoff scenario part of the brain and reroute it to the 2012 Phillies starting lineup.

And, though I think about that topic more often than I care to admit, Sam Donnellon actually proposed something in his column this morning that I had never thought about before and think is actually rather brilliant.

I have been saying – pretty much since the beginning of this blog’s existence – that Jimmy Rollins is a fantastic player, who is as important to this team as anyone on the roster…but clearly should NOT be a leadoff hitter.  But, I kind of let my mind wander away from that because, well, every time I thought about, the only guys I could think about putting there instead were Victorino and, even more desperately, the slow-footed Placido Polanco.  But, both of those guys present the same major problem that Rollins does – a total lack of patience at the plate.

But, Donnellon presents a new candidate for the job and, quite frankly, I love it:  Chase Utley.

Now, before we simply reject the idea, let’s think about for a minute.  First of all, Chase has been a pretty patient hitter for his entire career, which, to me, is the single most important quality in a leadoff man.  Secondly, Chase, while not seen as the stolen base threat of a Rollins or Victorino, is still a pretty solid stolen base guy and, more importantly, clearly the best baserunner on the team.  Thirdly, this is a pretty nice solution to the problem of having your 3-4 hitters both from the left side.  It would be nice to be able to filter in the switch-hitting Rollins and/or Victorino into the middle of the lineup somewhere.  And, finally (and most likely the reason it may not have dawned on a lot of us in the past), we need to start to face the fact that Chase is not the guy who hit 146 home runs over the 5 seasons from 2005 to 2009.  He is not even the guy who hit 5 home runs in the World Series in 2009.  Because of injuries and maybe simply age, Chase’s power has been depleted, so the run production that would be lost by moving the “Old Chase” to the leadoff spot isn’t an issue now because the “Old Chase” may not exist anymore.

So, to expound upon Donnellon’s column today, I would probably say that come October (assuming a return to health for guys like Howard and Polanco), the best Phillies lineup might look like this:

  1. Utley
  2. Polanco
  3. Pence
  4. Howard
  5. Rollins
  6. Mayberry/Nix platoon
  7. Victorino
  8. Ruiz

With bench guys like Thome, Wigginton, Valdes, and potentially Freddy Galvis, this team looks a good bit better than last year’s version.

Oh, and in case you haven’t heard, their pitchers are pretty good too…

All in the Family: Playoff Preview

The BSB fantasy football league – All in the Family – is not your average fantasy football league (mostly because it’s, well, actually interesting) and has now finished the regular season and enters the playoffs this week.

Let’s give a really quick synapsis of the season and a look ahead to the playoffs this week.

Regular Season Champion/First-Round Bye:  Black Smiths (10-3)
Mirroring his real team’s season, QB Alex Smith is just simply getting the job done.  Without any real flash, the better of the only 2 QBs in the league, Alex led the Black Smiths to an incredibly improbably regular season championship.  At 10-3, they were a full 3 games better than any other team, despite being outscored by 3 of the other 5 teams, including two teams outscoring them by well more than 125+ points on the season.  But, to quote the late, great Al Davis, “Just Win, Baby.”  And, that’s what they did, and have earned a first-round bye.  Other than having a legit QB, the Smiths were bolstered by a receiving corps that came out of nowhere to become one of the best in the league.  The Cam Newton explosion brought WR Steve Smith back into elitism, while the Ravens Torrey Smith came out of nowhere to be one of the best WRs in the league.  They got very little from their RBs, but it looked like they might get a huge boost from Kevin Smith, who came out of retirement to be the feature back in Detroit, before getting hurt.  If he is healthy for the playoffs, this could be a tough team to beat.  Their defense was also VERY solid.

Second-Place, First-Round Bye:  Charlie Brown (7-6)
Erasing a two-game deficit in the final two weeks and coming from WAY behind to win the tiebreaker, Charlie Brown caught the reeling Jack-O’s for second place and the all-important first-round bye.  But, they did earn it, as the revamped Charlie Brown squad scored the most points in the league this year, led mostly by a couple of surprisingly great seasons from their RBs, Shonn Greene and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.  They also have a terrific WR corps with the emergence of rookie WR A.J. Green to join established star, Roddy White.  And, now Antonio Brown is blowing up in Pittsburgh, giving Charlie Brown the league’s best trio of receivers.  The ole stalwart of the team is that they have a kicker, Josh Brown, but the defense is questionable.  This is a very good team and may be the favorite to win it all this year.

#3 Jack-O’s (7-6) vs. #6 Big Willie Style (2-11)
For about 10 weeks, it looked like the Jack-O’s would be the biggest threat (and maybe the actual favorite) to compete with the Black Smiths to win the title, but about Week 11, the wheels completely fell off and now this team enters the playoffs after blowing a seemingly insurmountable lead for the 2-seed and simply taking on water.  Their bell cow, Fred Jackson, went down with a season-ending injury around the same time that co-captain DeSean Jackson decided he didn’t like catching passes any more.  The other co-captain (and heart and soul of the team), Steven Jackson, is on a miserable team, and Vincent Jackson‘s quarterback is throwing the ball to the wrong team.  The lone bright spots on this team were QB Tavaris Jackson (who was just good enough to stay a starter – which is huge in this league), and LB D’Qwell Jackson, who has emerged as one of the best defensive players in the league.  But, the rest of the defense is terrible and without Freddy and DeSean, this team is pretty poor.

Their opponent in the first round is the disappointing Big Willie Style.  After a phenomenal season last year, Big Willie was the doormat of the league this year, winning just 2 games all year.  The breakout stars of last year just didn’t come through this year, as Cadillac Williams and Seattle’s Mike Williams took backup roles this year.  DeAngelo Williams struggled, and Tampa’s Mike Williams wasn’t as good this year either.  They have been bolstered recently by Tennessee’s WR Damian Williams, but they still are underdogs even against the reeling Jack-O’s in the first round.  But, their defense is decent, so they might be able to pull off the upset this week.

#4 The Dix (7-6) vs. #5 Football Jones and the Last-Name Crusade (6-7)
This first-round matchup is a rematch of last year’s Super Bowl, which Football Jones pulled off the monumental upset.  This year, though, it wouldn’t be as big of an upset because of the struggles of the Dix this year.  But, they are hitting their stride at just the right time and still have a shot to take the title.  The emergence of Chris Johnson is huge for the Dix, while Calvin Johnson continues to dominate.  While they are still missing Andre Johnson, there is a chance that they get a starting QB, as Josh Freeman is questionable for Tampa.  Josh Johnson is his backup.  A 6-loss season was SHOCKING for the league’s juggernaut, but they can make everyone forget about that if they can put together three good weeks to take the title.

Football Jones & the Last-Name Crusade has found it tough sledding to defend their championship, but they are still in it and ready to roll into the playoffs.  The downslide of Football Jones may be a result of the diminished roles of very important RBs Felix Jones and Thomas Jones, as opposed to last year.  But, they added a very important piece in rookie WR Julio Jones.  Adding Julio to James Jones and Jacoby Jones (and Donald Jones before a season-ending injury) gives FJ a much better WR corps this year than last.  Plus, they still have their franchise player, Maurice Jones-Drew, who is still a stud.  While the defense is still pretty poor, the rest of the league better take them out this year because there is chance that this team could start an absolute dynasty because one of the best QBs entering the draft this year is Oklahoma’s Landry Jones.

Quick Predictions (Most Likely to win the Title):
Here is, in order, my picks to take the title

  1. Charlie Brown – Despite being the 2-seed, this team is red-hot and very good
  2. The DIX – Still the most talented team in the league, despite 6 losses and a 4th-place finish
  3. Black Smiths – Hey, they did win THREE more games than anyone else in the league, right?
  4. Football Jones & the Last-Name Crusade – The defending champs have some fight in them
  5. Jack-O’s – It’s hard to imagine they can actually put a run together, but they did score over 700 points this year
  6. Big Willie Style – It’s been a rough year for Big Willie; they might pull off an upset, but they is probably their ceiling

BSB College Hoops Conference Preview: SEC

Not sure why I decided to go to the SEC next, but I guess I can pretend it is because we started with the conference with the preseason #1 team in the country, so it’s only logical to move on to the conference with the current #1 team in the country (and preseason #2).  Either way, it should be an interesting year, as always, in the SEC, especially because the conference finally made the obvious decision to do away with the divisions and just have one 12-team conference.  There is still an unbalanced schedule, but at least it won’t wreak havoc with the SEC tournament seedings and whatnot.

The Favorite – Kentucky

For an unbelievable fifth consecutive season, John Calipari will coach a team that starts a freshman point guard.  And, as usual, point guard is not the only position that will manned by a teenager for Coach Cal this year.  And, also as usual, these are not your ordinary teenagers…they are on the verge of becoming household names.  And, the talent that seems to grow on trees in Lexington is so immense that this UK team is, along with the loaded rosters in Chapel Hill and Columbus, one of the true favorites to cut down the nets this April.

The Guy.  It is hard to say who “The Guy” is going to be come March because of all the young talent that could explode, but the smart money is on one of the “elder statesmen” in Lexington, sophomore swingman Terrance Jones.  Jones,  named as a preseason All-American, is the frontrunner for SEC Player of the Year, and on the short list for the Naismith Award.  He is a ferocious scorer, who has the looks of easily scoring in double-digits on the next level.  Plus, his long arms and elite athleticism and quickness make him a great candidate to develop into a big-time defender here in his second year on the collegiate level.

The Newcomers.  As unlikely as it was the Jones is back for his sophomore year, and despite all of the hype that has accompanied him, the talk around town in Lexington has to do with this ridiculous recruiting class that, somehow, did the unthinkable, and is even better than the class that included Jones last year.  The guy that has gotten the most noteriety is point guard Marquis Teague.  Teague, an Indiana product who spurned Purdue, Kansas, and his father’s head coach, Rick Pitino at Louisville, chose Kentucky to make it five straight for Coach Cal.  And, like his predecessors, Rose, Evans, Wall, and Knight, Teague can flat-out fly.  His quickness is said to exceed all that of Rose, Evans, and Knight, and maybe even Wall.  The brother of NBA lottery pick Jeff Teague, Marquis needs to live up to the billing, though, and some say that he is a little overhyped.  Fortunately for Wildcat Nation, he is surrounded by a couple of other freshmen who may actually be underhyped.

While Teague was ranked as the #3 overall recruit in the nation, he actually was not the top-rated recruit to even choose Kentucky!  As a sophomore in high school, Anthony Davis was a 6’2″ shooting guard, who was being recruited by several of the better mid-majors in the country.  Two years and TEN INCHES later, Davis was the #2 recruit in the country.  At 6’10”, Davis has retained all of his perimeter skills and just added a power forward’s body.  And, unlike others who have had these late growth spurts (Matt Harpring is the one that comes to my mind), Davis didn’t just go froma 6’2″ perimeter player to a 6’10” perimeter player.  His game, even at 6’2″ was a physical, aggressive game, which he enjoyed taking down low on both sides of the floor.  Now, he has the 6’10” physique to match the style.

It is understandable that with the talent of Teague and Davis, the rest of the class would be overlooked, but that doesn’t mean that they should be.  As good as Teague and Davis will be (and probably will be on the next level), the other two guys that round out this stellar class may provide as much punch to this team as the two blue chippers.  This is especially true for 6’7″ swingman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.  In fact, I will make the bold statement now that Kidd-Gilchrist is the better suited right now for domination on the collegiate level than either Teague or Davis.  He has elite quickness and a soft jumper, so he must be guarded on the outside, but at a strong 6’7″, 232 pounds, he is not scared to back down any smaller defender.  Now, while incredibly athletic 6’7″ wings are basically the norm in the NBA, they are pretty hard to come by in college, so on all but a handful of nights, Kidd-Gilchrist is going to be an absolute nightmare for his opposite number.  (Oh by the way, he was the #5 overall recruit in the country and was a complete afterthought in his own class.)  The other prize of this class is exactly what Coach Cal seems to never be able to land – a straight-up pure jumpshooter.  Kyle Wiltjer won the three-point shooting contest at the McDonald’s All-American game last year as a high school senior from Oregon.  Did I mention he is 6’9″?  A total stud, yet forgotten, Wiltjer can provide just about anything UK needs off the bench, particularly someone to stretch the defense and give room to the scoring machines that abound on this roster.

What a class!

The Holdovers.  While UK again produced a slew of NBA draft picks last year, and brought in an epic recruiting class, the cupboard wasn’t exactly bare in Lexington, providing the Wildcats with something else they have been lacking in recent years – actual depth.  The one guy that has taken far too long to garner mention here is 6’4″ sophomore guard, Doron Lamb would probably be the star (and possibly a legend) on 99% of D-I programs in the country, but here at UK, he’s just another star that cannot be forgotten about.  In fact, Coach Cal has said, on several occasions, that he believes that Lamb might actually be the best all-around player on this team.  A very heady, multi-dimensional player, Lamb can dominate on either end of the floor and could thrive with all the attention given to the other stars. 

And, then there are the seniors.  If you are still at Kentucky as a senior, that means you just weren’t good enough to jump ship, right?  Yes, that’s probably right, but it doesn’t mean that you aren’t immensely talented.  And, UK has two seniors that could play really prominent roles on the team this year in big-bodied and high-energy center Elroy Vargas and smooth, versatile swingman Darius Miller, who will probably find himself coming off the bench this year, after averaging 11 points per game last year.

Their Strengths.  It is hard to envision a collegiate roster in the country this year (or in the past decade, even) that can honestly say to themselves that they match up well defensively with the collection of offensive talent in Lexington this year.  The versatility and flat-out elite scoring ability of guys like Jones, Teague, Kidd-Gilchrist, and Lamb is scary.  Throw in the inside presence of Davis, and I definitely don’t see anyone being able to man-up and stop them for 40 minutes.  And, while maybe not the most disciplined team on the defensive end, the length and athleticism on the wing, and the unbelievable shotblocking ability of Davis on the inside will give teams fits on their “weaker” end.

Weaknesses.  It seems it is the same thing every year with Coach Cal, whether it be at UK or Memphis.  What can sink this ship is inexperience and inconsistent shotmaking.  While Wiltjer helps a lot in stretching defenses, and Lamb actually proved to be a much more capable shooter than expected, a good zone could cause problems to a team that prefers to go to the hoop.  And, then there is the free-throw shooting.  Would it shock you is I said Teague was a really poor free-throw shooter?  Well, if you know anything about Rose, Evans, Wall, or Knight, you shouldn’t be surprised at all.

The Ceiling.  There is no doubt that this team can be just as bullish on the 2011-12 season as anyone in the country.  Anything short of a national championship will leave many people disappointed.  While the reality is that six straight wins in March requires a lot of good fortune, it is true that coming up short before at least the Final Four would be, from any objective measure, a disappointment, considering the talent.

My Favorite – Vanderbilt

As you can probably tell, I developed my “rankings” for each conference before any games were played, and if I wanted to redo it, I probably would downgrade this Vandy team, based on their early-season results.  But, I want to stick with my preseason thoughts here, and I really like this Vandy team…a lot.  With experience and talent at several key positions and, quite possibly, the nation’s most underrated head coach, the Commodores might be able to make some real noise this year in both the SEC and on the national stage.

The Guy.  This choice might surprise you because it is not the defending SEC scoring leader whom decided to forego the NBA to return to Nashville.  It is also not the 6’11” elite athlete whom will most likely be an NBA lottery pick come April.  Nope, I honestly believe that the best – and most important – player on this team is 6’7″ senior forward Jeffrey Taylor.  The best passer and most versatile defender on this team, I think Taylor gives the Commodores so much in every aspect of the game that he is truly the star of the show.

The Other Two Elites.  Surrounding the do-it-all Taylor is one of the country’s best scoring point guards and one of the most gifted frontline athletes anywhere.  At 19.5 points per game last year, John Jenkins led the SEC in scoring and is, without question, on the short list for the best scoring guards in the nation.  Manning the frontline is Festus Ezeli, an elite shotblocker and interior defender, who has developed an all-around, refined offensive game that could boost him into the lottery this year.  Ammassing an incredible 87 blocked shots last year (including 15 games with 3+), Ezeli is one of the best post defenders in the nation.  But, he also was second in the SEC in field goal percentage at 58.8%.  The Taylor-Jenkins-Ezeli combination is pretty much the perfect purely balanced trio you can have.  In fact, I am having a hard time coming up with a better guard-wing-center threesome in the entire country.  I might pick Vandy to win the 3-on-3 championship this year.

The Supporting Cast.  Now, that we’ve established that this roster contains a lights-out shooter, a do-it-all wing player, and a force inside, what would you add to the mix now if you could?  Personally, the next thing I would add would be a pure pass-first point guard that can make the open shot, but generally plays good defense and allows Jenkins to run free on the offensive end.  Enter:  Brad Tinsley.  Pretty much typecast for the role of point guard on this team, Tinsley is a steady, smart point guard who shoots too well leave unguarded, but mostly looks to orchestrate the offense.  He also is an outstanding free throw shooter and a decent on-ball defender.

Okay, what do we add next?  A big-bodied power forward who just loves to attack the glass.  May I introduce Lance Goulbourne.  Coach Stallings has been quoted as saying that Goulbourne, a 6’8″ senior power forward, truly has the ability to lead the league in rebounding.  And, if Goulbourne doesn’t pan out like predicted, Stallings has a couple other options to play the “bruiser” role, most prominently is a 6’9″ senior from Cameroon, Steve Tchiengang, who is a real blue-collar interior player who is never going to make you notice him, but is a really nice guy to have.  There are also a couple other nice pieces for Stallings to play with, but overall, this team will go as far as their “Big Three plus Tinsley” can take them.

Their Ceiling.  This team should still be playing during the second week of the tournament and has a real chance to finish right behind Kentucky in the SEC standings.  But, realistically, the talent is probably going to fall just short from being able to take them to the Final Four or beyond.  And, it’s hard to imagine them winning enough games to seriously challenge Kentucky for the SEC title, though I would love to see it.

Elite – Florida

The Gators lost a lot from last year’s team – SEC Player of the Year, Chandler Parsons, as well as two very good big men in Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin.  But, trust me, Billy Donovan is not phased.  This is not the first time he has had to replace a lot of talent.  And, this time, unlike the two-year tournament hiatus that followed the departure of the core from the back-to-back title team, this team shouldn’t miss a beat.  In fact, they might even be better than last year’s version.

The Guy.  This might be another surprise because it is still up in the air whether he is going to start right away or not, but I think that by the time the meat of this season rolls around, the one guy the Gators will lean on most is 6’4″ freshman Bradley Beal.  Beal, last year’s Gatorade High School Player of the Year, is one of the best jumpshooters you will see on any level.  If he is able to adjust his game to get himself open against elite SEC defenders, the sky is the limit for how much this kid can score.  And, fortunately for him, he is not the only Gator that teams have to pay attention to.

The Backcourt.  Joining Beal in the backcourt is a cast of guards that can rival any backcourt in America.  In fact, I am hard-pressed to pick a backcourt anywhere in the country better than this one.  As good as Beal is, he will not be the focus (at least right away) of opposing backcourt defenders.  They have another trio of lights-out shooters that cannot be left alone anywhere inside halfcourt.  Erving Walker, at just 5’9″, seems to be able to shoot over just about anyone and has unlimited range.  Running the point for the first time last year, Walker broke out and was named the first-team all-SEC point guard.  His running mate seems to alternate from enigmatic, frustrating gunner to unstoppable, electrifying scorer on almost a possession-to-possession basis.  Kenny Boynton is one of the more fascinating players in the country to watch because, usually in just a matter of a few minutes, he will have you saying “he’s one of the most lethal shooters I’ve ever seen” just shortly after thinking “this guy is a total gunner who is just killing them out there.”  Either way, Boynton can definitely put it in the basket and cannot be left alone.  And, just when you start to think you might be able to stop the downpour of threes, the Gators can now turn to a guy who scored 1,000 points in just two seasons in the BIG EAST before transferring to Florida last year.  Mike Rosario averaged 16.7 ppg as a sophomore for Rutgers two years ago, after averaging 16.2 as a freshman the year before.  He is, as should come as no surprise, a deadly outside shooter who never saw a shot he didn’t like.  And, with the additions of Beal and Rosario, the guy who seems totally lost in all of this is one of the most talented guys on the roster, Scottie Wilbekin.  A heady guy who graduated high school early and, as such, is still an 18-year old sophomore, Wilbekin’s lightning quickness can compensate for his slight build.  While still a kid, he seems to have a real calming influence on his elder backcourt mates.  There is really no way to guard all of these guys all the time, so the only way to stop the Gators this year is to hope that the shots aren’t falling and that you can make some hay on the inside.

The Frontcourt.  So, the backcourt is loaded and should be a steady force for the Gators.  (Yes, I know that it’s hard to use the word “steady” when describing a unit with a jumpshooting freshman, a 5’9″ point guard, a transfer who sat out a year, and, well, Kenny Boynton, but the combination should be pretty consistent from night to night, actually.)  But, it is the frontcourt of this team that will probably dictate where this team finishes – and it could be anywhere from championship contender to flop.  And, it really revolves around two – maybe three – guys.  With the roster composition, there is no way that Donovan won’t play at least three guards almost at all times, and the best lineup assuredly includes Erick Murphy and Patric Young – both of whom could be stars.  Young, a 5-star recruit last year, didn’t get all that much playing time because )Tyus and Macklin were so good inside, but it wasn’t hard to see how good he could be when he was in there.  He is truly man-sized, but has an agility that could make him scary good at this level and the next.  Murphy is a true inside-outside threat (like they need more shooting prowess?), who is not afraid to mix it up down low.  The third possible option in the frontcourt, as a starter or, more likely, a rotation player, is Casey Prather.  Prather, who has espoused many a comparison to former Gator star Corey Brewer, did not exactly put the numbers with the hype last year as a freshman.  But, the athleticism is there, so if he puts it together, he could be a gigantic addition to a team that could use just what he can potentially bring.

Strengths.  No team in America has as many unafraid jumpshooters as the Gators.  If there wasn’t a three-point line, they might be a middling SEC team.  If there was a 4-point line, they might be the best team in America.

Weaknesses.  While it’s hard to say a frontcourt with Murphy and Young is a “weakness,” it certainly is a question mark.  They are both supremely talented, but the debate remains as to whether or not their performance can match their talent.  If so, the sky is the limit this year.

Their Ceiling.  This team has Final Four talent if it all comes together.  In fact, if Beal is as good as advertised and the frontcourt guys – Murphy and Young – come into their own, this team could be as good as anyone.  But, there are too many if’s to put them in the conversation with the UNCs and OSUs, as well as UK in their conference.  I would say that, from what we know now, it’s safe to say that this team is probably the second-best team in the SEC and a legit Top 10 team.  But, there is a wide potential variance with that assessment.  It wouldn’t surprise me to see them grab another 2-seed in March, and it also wouldn’t surprise me to see them hoping just to play against a 2-seed in the second round.

Contender – Alabama

Anthony Grant can flat-out coach, and he has resurrected this program quicker than even I thought he would.  And, this might be the year that he plants his Crimson flag among the perennially elite programs in America.

The Guy.  Jamychal Green, aside from having one of the best names in college hoops, he also has one of the best games.  This 6’8″, 240-pound senior is a serious contender for SEC Player of the Year for all the right reasons.  He plays big and strong when he needs to, as well as agile and quick, if need be.  He is about as true a “go-to guy” as there is in the SEC – probably the most reliable guy to get you a bucket when you need it.

The Frontcourt.  Alongside Green inside is another incredible talent – 6’9″ forward, Tony Mitchell.  Mitchell, who averaged 15 points and 7 rebounds last year, is probably best suited as a small forward, can easily man the power forward position in a small lineup.  However, after Green and Mitchell, the frontcourt can get scarily thin, which runs the risk of foul trouble curtailing the Tide in the one-and-done world of March Madness.  Off the bench, they will have to lean on 7’1″ Swedish project (and former handball star), Carl Engstrom, and still developing (though highly-rated and possibly super-talented) freshman Nick Jacobs.  Engstrom is an athletic 7-footer who is very raw, while Jacobs is an excellent face-up shooter, who could use a few pounds of muscle and a few notches of “mean.”

The Backcourt.  A potentially excellent backcourt will be led a really steady sophomore point guard, Trevor Relaford.  Relaford, who was named to the SEC All-Freshman team last year, and should grow into maybe the league’s most complete point guard by season’s end this year.  And, Relaford, who might be leading a 3-guard attack all year, will truly be the senior statesman because he is flanked by a trio of incredibly talented freshmen, highlighting one of the best recruiting classes in Alabama history.  Joining Relaford in the starting lineup will be either (or both) the Gatorade Player of the Year in Alabama last year, Levi Randolph, or the consensus top-rated college recruit coming out of Alabama, Trevor Lacey.  Both Randolph and Lacey were top-50 recruits and broke a dubious streak of eight straight top-50 recruits from Alabama that left the state to play elsewhere (including, most recently, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, who went north to UK).  And, it was almost a backcourt triumverate, as the Tide also landed instate product, Rodney Cooper, who was ranked just outside of the top 50.  With Relaford running the point, Grant can now pick and choose the matchups he wants on both ends with these three outstanding freshmen.  Randolph and Lacey will most likely start with Relaford in a three-guard attack that is made possible by the stellar frontcourt combination of Green and Mitchell inside.

Strengths.  A halmark of Anthony Grant teams is their dedication on the defensive end, and that is where this team will earn its keep.  Offensively, with Green and Mitchell inside and Relaford distributing, they present a daunting task for any defense to try and combat.  If this stellar recruiting class can come through, then this team could really shine.

Weaknesses.  Depth in the frontcourt could ultimately derail what, otherwise, is an elitely talented team.  After Green and Mitchell, there really isn’t much there, unless Jacobs surprises people right away.  Also, playing in a league with some of the best guards in the country, it will be interesting to see just how quickly this stable of freshmen acclimates to the college game.

Their Ceiling.  It might be a bit of a stretch to say that this team could make a Final Four run, but I do think that they will be heard from before it’s all said and done this year.  Green is too good to go quietly, and Grant’s stellar recruiting efforts can pay dividends.  I like the Tide to crack the top 4 in a very good SEC and maybe pick up a 4- or 5-seed from the Committee.  The NIT might just be a thing of the past for this sleeping giant of a program that landed itself a top-notch head coach.

Sleeper – Mississippi State

Given their talent, it probably wouldn’t surprise anyone if Mississippi State won 20+ games this year.  Given their history, it probably wouldn’t surprise anyone if they lost 20 games either.  There is little reason to believe that this team can’t contend in even a solid SEC, but there is just as little reason to believe that they will because to do so, they will be relying on two of the most unreliable players in the nation.  But, as good and underrated of a coach as I think Kevin Stallings is at Vandy, I think just as highly of Rick Stansbury here at MSU.  And, if anyone can make this work, it’s Stansbury.

The Guy.  Renardo Sidney.  Just say the name to any avid college hoops fan and you will probably get the same reaction – a slow head shake coupled with either a wry smile or a frown of disappointment.  And, to think – there are still several chapters to be written.  If things don’t change for the 6’10”, 275-pound junior, he will be this generation’s poster-child for wasted talent.  A world of potential (many thought he would end up being called by David Stern as the #1 overall pick) has been completely washed away – up to this point – by immaturity on and off the court.  If weight issues were the only thing that derailed what could have been a brilliant career, it might be easier to feel some sympathy for a guy trying to emerge from a rough upbringing, but much of what has brought him down can be blamed on nothing else but immaturity (at best) and an utter lack of personal character (at its worst).  To keep the focus on basketball, let us assume, for a minute, that Sidney has realized that he is running out of time before the expiration date on his talent is up, and he dedicates himself to the game.  If so, the Bulldogs may have one of the best inside players in America.  And, with that, a legit shot to make something of a season that could otherwise follow along the disastrous route that the first two years of the Sidney Era in Starksville have taken.

The Other Guy.  If not for Sidney’s lightning rod of a college career, we may be spinning similar tales of disappoinment and wasted talent about the brilliantly talented 6’2″ point guard, Dee Bost.  Bost, who can score with anyone in the country – you know, when the NCAA academic qualifications don’t swallow him up – is also a very underrated floor general and leader on the court.  But, he has also shown signs of immaturity and a complete lack of commitment to the game.  If he can focus and put together the senior year that his talents allow, he might even find himself on one of the All-American teams come March, and even an NBA team come April.

The New Guy.  While Sidney clearly suffers from a distinct lack of “want-to” on the court, at times, Stansbury brought in another big guy to play alongside him that clearly does NOT suffer from the same anti-hustle affliction of his more-talented teammate.  6’11” junior Arnett Moultrie is eligible to play for the Bulldogs this year after transferring from UTEP and sitting out last year.  Moultrie has great size and athleticism, but was also blessed with a non-stop motor and scrappy will that might be the ignition to light the fire under some otherwise undisciplined teammates.  He can score and rebound inside, but he also loves to get after it on the defensive end.  He is the quintessential scrapper on which Stansbury built this program up to the level that enabled him to pursue the bigger fish that now threaten to tear down what he built.

The Rest.  After Sidney, Bost, and Moultrie, this roster is populated with a lot of unproven guys, who may have to learn on the job to develop their roles.  Senior Brian Bryant is a steady point guard who doesn’t do anything spectacularly, but is a nice card to play if Stansbury wants Bost to be able to score off the ball.  Other backcourt options are a pair of highly-touted freshmen, Deville Smith and Rodney Hood.  While Hood, last year’s Mississippi Mr. Basketball, is probably more ready to step in and play right away, Smith may more talented and prove to be the better player down the road.  The frontcourt will also exhibit a nice battle of semi-coveted freshmen, Roquez Johnson and Shawn Long, along with a Latvian import, Kris Zeidaks.  All in all, after the Big Three, there are a lot more questions than answers on this roster, but if Sidney and Bost can be who they are capable of, Stansbury might not need all that many answers from this bunch.

Strengths.  It’s pretty clear what MSU needs in order for this season to be a success.  They need full buy-in from their mercurial stars.  If so, this team can give even the best teams in the country a run for their money because their coach is that good.

Weaknesses.  These are also pretty clear – they are rather thin all over and the “meat” that they do have is far from reliable.

Their Ceiling.  All things considered, this team may have the widest range from ceiling to cellar of any team in America.  If things go right, this could be a legitimate Sweet 16 team and possible contender for one of the top spots in the SEC.  If things fall apart, this team could be a true train wreck…

The Others

As good as this league is at the top – and I think it’s one of the two or three best – it is borderline embarrassing how bad it is down bottom.  And, after the five teams mentioned above (and maybe two or three more), it’s hard to find any other relevant teams from the SEC this year.

  • Tennessee – While the Vols probably won’t be relevant on a national level this year, it should be really interesting to see how they turn out in the first year post-Bruce Pearl.
  • Georgia – I am also really interested to see if Mark Fox can continue building down in Athens.  This team almost made it into the “relevant” category for me, but are still probably a year away.
  • Arkansas – Speaking of “sleeping giants,” this program might be the biggest sleeping giant in the country.  There is a ton of interest and resources available in Fayetteville, they just need the right spark to ignite the kindling.
  • South Carolina – The fact that there are two teams in a high-major conference that will probably finish behind the Gamecocks is a glaring indication of just how bad the bottom of this league is.
  • LSU – I thought Trent Johnson was a great coach?  Wha’ happened???  This team is abysmal.
  • Auburn – Good news for Auburn basketball fans – they have nowhere to go but up after last year’s unmitigated disaster.  The bad news – they might have to wait until next year to start that ascent.