2021 NCAA Tournament: First Four Preview

So, BSB might actually be back this time.   Doogan and I started this as an alternative to sending each other overly wordy, unabridged emails about sports.  And, since it’s been a long, hard winter for all of us, Doogan and I and our master admin, J, are in need of an outlet for “thoughts.”  So, let’s fire up the BSB machine again and even if it’s just a glorified email exchange, it will be cathartic for the three of us.

And,  is there a better time of year to start back up?  The NCAA Tournament, a Sixers playoff chase, the start of an interesting Phillies season…and, a ton of tennis tournaments and the Summer Olympics for me to write really long posts about to no one but myself!!!

So, let’s get this started with a preview of Thursday night’s First Four games.  I’ll get another one up tomorrow previewing Friday’s First Round games and then we’ll go from there.

#16 Mount Saint Mary’s (+1) vs. #16 Texas-Southern
 5:10 pm, truTV
Alright, alright, I recognize that these 16v16 games are kind of like tennis or the biathalon in that I care about and enjoy them WAYYY more than most of even the most ardent sports fans.  So, I’ll try and be short on them…I will probably fail at that attempt.  This game is one of those classic First Four games (if that phrase even means anything) with a (SWAC/MEAC) team vs. a non-champion from a bad league.  The winner of this game gets to get destroyed on national TV by Michigan on Saturday.

Mount Saint Mary’s
The best story from this game is the 5’7″ point guard on Mount St. Mary’s, Damian Chong-Qui.  Chong-Qui, who turned into the go-to guy just 6 games into the season when they lost Jalen Gibbs for the season, has a ridiculous backstory.  The Sun article is really good, but in summary, when Qui was 4, his family was the victim of a home invasion where his dad was shot once and stabbed five times and lost the use of his left hand.  Just TWO MONTHS LATER, his mother was randomly murdered, being mistaken for someone else.  When he was twelve, Qui’s dad dropped Qui off and went to get dinner for them.  While waiting for food, someone fired shots into a crowd and one of the random bullets struck the older Qui in the back and he is now paralyzed from the waist down.  And, a just year later, his son Damian, won the starting point guard job for powerhouse McDonough despite being only a freshman and standing a mere 4-feet-9-inches tall.  Qui, who says he “doesn’t believe in height” is now a budding star for MSM, averaging 14.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg (again, at 5’7”), and 5.6 apg.  He’s incredible!  They also have a strong, athletic frontline of 6’9″ JR Nana Opuku (10.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 2.0 bpg), 6’9″ JR Malik Jefferson (8.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 58% FG), and 6’8″ JR Mazie Offurum (9.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.0 apg).

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The New Year Report: Conference Previews – Part One

New Year’s Eve is right around the corner.  Some people think of resolutions.  Others think of champagne corks.  Still others reflect back on another year gone by.  But, for me, one of the things I think of first when I think of the calendar changing is the start of the college hoops conference season.  We have almost 2 months of non-conference play in the books (some of which has been spectacular), and now we get to go into the meat of the season.  And, not to leave any stone unturned, we are going to give quick previews of all 32 D-1 conferences as to what has happened in the noncon schedule, as well as what to possibly expect going forward for the next 3 months.  This will be a 4-part series with 4 conferences previewed in each.  So, with 32 conferences to do, let’s get started with the 4 best basketball conferences in America this year – the Big Ten, ACC, Big XII, and Pac-12.

Big Ten

The best league top to bottom in America last year – by a somewhat wide margin – is, again, the best league in America this year.  With several legit national title contenders, the Big Ten goes at least 8-deep as far as tournament-caliber teams.  But, possibly the real strength of this league is that there is never a night off.  All 12 teams are solid, with tough styles of play and strong homecourt advantages.  The Big Ten may have fallen off on the gridiron, but it is thriving on the hardwood.

  • Preseason Favorite:  Michigan State
    The Spartans were everyone’s pick to be the class of this league from the jump and when they beat Kentucky at the Champions Classic, it looked like they were the clear-cut best team in the country.  But, they struggled against some inferior competition (Columbia and Oakland, in particular) and were soundly beaten on their home floor by UNC.  This is still a team that should be right there in the end, but they have shown some alarming signs, particularly lack of leadership (which is odd considering they are a veteran team with a Hall of Fame coach) and lack of frontcourt depth.
  • Most Impressive:  Ohio State, Wisconsin
    Both the Buckeyes and Badgers are undefeated so far and #3 and #4, respectively, in the AP Poll.  Whether they have supplanted MSU as the Big Ten favorites or not, these two teams have certainly added some real intrigue to the Big Ten race
  • Most Disappointing:  Michigan
    The disappointment in Ann Arbor is because of other people’s expectations.  I, honestly, am not surprised by the Wolverines apparent struggles because they have played a rough schedule and aren’t really all that good.  Remember they had to replace two NBA draft picks, including the national POY (who was their point guard).  Despite the apparent “experience” from bringing back most of the team that played for a national title last year, the Wolverines are much younger than people think – #336 out of 351 in experience.
  • “My” Favorite:  Iowa
    This is the spot where I will just spend time on the team I like most in any particular conference.  I love this Hawkeye team and honestly think that they are Sweet 16 good.  They have a TON of depth and are very, VERY well-coached.  I’m not sure they can win this league, but I’m also not sure they should be completely ruled out.
  • Potential Sleepers:  Minnesota, Indiana
    No one is talking about this Gopher team, but they do have talent.  The Hollinses are special and now that Tubby is gone, maybe they won’t underachieve.  As for the Hoosiers – it’s strange to think they are a “sleeper,” but they are under the radar and still VERY good (I am smitten for both Yogi Ferrell and Noah Vonleigh, so I might be biased here).
  • Also Relevant:  Illinois
    The Illini are doing again what they did last year – flying under the radar and winning, despite little to no hype.  I’m not entirely sure it will sustain itself, but I wouldn’t rule them out of national relevancy just yet.
  • Dregs: None
    That is what makes this conference so good.  While Northwestern, Penn State, and Nebraska won’t be competing for any conference titles, they are still really solid teams that could beat anyone on any given night.  Northwestern is probably the worst of the bunch, as they are in total rebuild mode, but Coach Collins should turn them around quickly.  Penn State is the typical cellar-dweller here, but they have Tim Frazier, who is one of the best players in the country.
  • The Pick:  Ohio State
    It is hard for me to pick against Tom Izzo, particularly with the level of talent he has there, but I see alarming signs from the Spartans and am totally sold on the OSU defense.  I think MSU is the better Final Four contender, but OSU is the better pick for Big Ten champ…if that makes any sense.

ACC

The self-proclaimed “best conference ever” might be just that next year when they add Louisville to the fold and currently down programs like Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, and freshman-laden programs at N.C. State and Miami continue to rebuild.  As for this year, they’re knocking on the door, but I still think they are second to the Big Ten.

  • Preseason Favorite:  Duke
    Ho-hum…another year, another ELITE team for Coach K down in Durham.  But, being elite isn’t the only familiar feel to this Blue Devil team.  They also have a very familiar flaw – they are so top-heavy on athletic wings…yet again…without a dynamic point guard or big man.  I’ve heard this comment (I think Doogan may have made it actually) – “Duke is so good this year that Rasheed Sulaimon comes off the bench.”  That is a good point, but one that is a little weakened by the fact that they have to start Josh Hairston or Amile Jefferson at the 5.  Sulaimon is clearly one of their 5 best players, but his skills are totally overlapped by guys like Parker and Hood.  Even Dawkins and Thornton are rendered somewhat useless because Hood and Parker are so good.  Now, this is a total nitpick because this team is fantastic.  But, another concern might be greater – they have been pretty bad defensively (#101 in DefEff).  Now, that is partially inflated because of the atrocious performance against Vermont, but still it’s very un-K-like.
  • Most Impressive:  Syracuse
    If you take the Duke flaws seriously, then you have to consider Syracuse a real threat to the Devils in the Orange’s first ACC campaign.  They are special.  I don’t understand why no one is talking more about C.J. Fair because he is as good an all-around scorer as there is in the country.  And, with the incredible breakouts of freshman Tyler Ennis and, to a lesser extent, sophomore Trevor Cooney, this team is loaded for bear.
  • Most Disappointing:  Boston College
    I considered putting Noter Dame here, but only briefly because it’s pretty obviously who the biggest ACC disappointment is so far.  The Eagles were supposed to be on the brink of contention here, but are just 4-6 right now.  Granted, their losses to UMass, UConn, and even Toledo don’t look as bad as they did at the time because all three of those teams are better than advertised, but still this team should not be 4-6 right now no matter what.  Even their wins were unimpressive (a 3-point win over a bad FAU team, an overtime win over a worse Sacred Heart team, and an unimpressive win over an NAIA school). 
  • “My” Favorite:  Pittsburgh
    Jamie Dixon is on that short list of coaches that I believe in implicitly.  Now, it’s hard to tell just how good this team is because the only tough game they’ve played was their 1-point loss to Cincinnati.  But, I expect this team to be right in the thick of things all year.
  • Potential Sleepers:  Virginia
    It was hard to pick a sleeper here because I think the top of the league is clearly at the top, and there probably won’t be much challenge from the “others.”  But, I like the Cavs here because I love Coach Bennett, and I think they will cause issues all year.
  • Also Relevant:  North Carolina, Florida State, Notre Dame, Maryland, Clemson
    This conference has a ton of relevant teams, including the Jeckyll & Hyde Tar Heels, the gigantic Seminole team, the disappointing-but-talented Irish, the incredibly-well-coached Terrapins, and the sneaky Tigers.
  • Dregs: Virginia Tech, Miami
    Total rebuilds in Blacksburg and Coral Gables will lead to some bad basketball in each place.  Last year’s Miami season seems like a strange blip in the program’s trajectory, but maybe Larranega can make that not so.
  • The Pick:  Duke
    I thought long and hard about taking the ‘Cuse, but I think that the Dukies come through in the end and win this conference.  It’s just so hard to make all these road trips for the first time, so that might catch up to Boeheim’s team.  Then again, many guys in this conference are seeing that zone for the first time, so the edge might actually be with the Orange.  I still trust the talent in Durham, though, to win this league.

BIG XII

Just a solid all-around league yet again this year, the Big XII has it all – multiple championship contenders, depth (almost) top to bottom, and what should be a great race all year.

  • Preseason Favorite:  Kansas
    All of the talent that descended upon Lawrence this year bolstered them to not just Big XII favorites, but potential championship favorites.  But, KU being the “team to beat” in the Big XII just comes with the season.
  • Most Impressive:  Oklahoma State
    Kansas has sputtered and OK State – who actually received as many 1st-place votes from Big XII coaches as Kansas – has played the best ball in the league so far.  For a while, Marcus Smart looked like far and away the best player in the country.  He has come back to Earth a little, but the rest of the team continues to roll.  With the exception of a Memphis team taking revenge after being dominated two weeks prior, the Cowboys have been VERY impressive.
  • Most Disappointing:  Kansas State
    The Wildcats weren’t really supposed to challenge for a Big XII title, but they have made themselves almost entirely irrelevant.  It is too early to count them out, but there is very little evidence that his team will be anything but an also-ran in the conference race this year.
  • “My” Favorite:  Iowa State
    This team is fantastic.  Mayor Hoiberg has done such a great job assembling talent in Ames and really employing them in a way that completely maximizes his personnel and minimizes his exposure to poor matchups.  It won’t be long until Hoiberg is coaching in the Association, but the Cyclones should enjoy this ride while they’ve got it.
  • Potential Sleepers:  Texas
    Just when it looked like Rick Barnes may go the way of Mack Brown, the Longhorns are putting together quite an impressive non-conference slate here, highlighted by a win in Chapel Hill on Wednesday.  They probably aren’t Big XII title contenders, but they could play themselves into Tournament discussions at this rate.
  • Also Relevant:  Baylor, Oklahoma
    Baylor actually looks really good and should really make that middle-to-top area of the Big XII race incredibly interesting.  And, don’t look now, but the Sooners are 10-1 with their only loss coming to Michigan State.
  • Dregs: TCU, Texas Tech
    Texas Tech is bad, but TCU is utterly dreadful – as evidenced by a HOME loss to LONGWOOD (who will appear in the “Dregs” section of one of the worst conferences in the country).
  • The Pick:  Oklahoma State
    “The Fire Swamp?  We’ll never survive…” 
    “Nonsense, you’re only saying that because no one ever has.”
    Beating Kansas in the Big XII?  That is about as tall an order as dragging Princess Buttercup through the fire swamp, but Marcus Smart may just be the Dread Pirate Roberts, and I am going to go out on a limb and take the Cowboys here to more consistently navigate the murky waters of Big XII play than the youthful (and excessively talented) Jayhawks.

PAC-12

The Pac is back, folks.  I think that you could easily make the case that this is the 3rd-best (and possibly the single deepest) conference in the country – all of a sudden.  There won’t be a single easy game this year out West and any number of teams could make a tournament run.  All that said, there is one clear favorite.

  • Preseason Favorite:  Arizona
    The “forgotten” Top-6 team in the preseason because they weren’t invited to the Champions Classic.
  • Most Impressive:  Arizona
    And, it’s not really that close.  The ‘Cats have been the best team in the country, let alone the Pac-12.
  • Most Disappointing:  Washington
    When do we start talking about Lorenzo Romar the same way we talk about Rick Barnes and Tubby Smith?  The dude can flat-out recruit (look at the NBA careers of Romar’s alums – Brandon Roy, Klay Thompson, even Sixers rookie Tony Wroten – just to name a few), but he really struggles to win games.  This team, while very talented all around, doesn’t have that one transcedent talent and might be the worst team in the league.
  • “My” Favorite:  Arizona
    In a strange twist, I am actually picking “the” favorite as “my” favorite because this team is that good, #1 in the polls, and still underrated.  Their frontcourt is off the charts good, and I still believe that Nick Johnson is the most valuable player on that team.  Throw in the enormously underappreciated T.J. McConnell (who I’ve watched a ton of times as a Duquesne Duke) and you have yourself the best team in the nation.
  • Potential Sleepers:  Utah
    I considered pretty much every other team for “sleeper” worthy, but kept coming back to the Utes mainly because of just how under-the-radar they are, as opposed to the other possibilities.  Maybe I’m basing this too much on one single result (an 81-64 pummelling of a really good BYU team), but I am ready to say that the one team that is consistently overlooked in this league that will come up and bite you might be the Runnin’ Utes.
  • Also Relevant:  Oregon, UCLA, Arizona State, Cal, Stanford
    This upper-middle portion of the Pac is sensationally interesting.  Oregon is probably the best of the bunch with transfers James Young and Mike Moser seemlessly folding into this team.  But, UCLA looks exceptional, as well.  ASU has possibly the league’s best player, while Cal has possibly the nation’s best coach, and Stanford is talented enough to save Johnny Dawkins’ job this year.  What a race this is going to be.
  • Dregs:  None
    I’m not a huge fan of the teams in Washington, but it would be hard to characterize them as “dregs.”  Outside of Tempe, this conference doesn’t have the top-notch firepower to really join the conversation of best conference, but in terms of top-to-bottom quality, only the Big Ten even has an argument and they might actually lose it.
  • The Pick:  Arizona
    I would probably pick the ‘Cats in any conference in the country, but here in the Pac, I didn’t even have to think about it.

COMING SOON:  PART TWO (which includes the SEC, Big East, American, and A-10)

College Hoops Looking Like a Two-Horse Race

As Bry noted below, the end of the baseball season means more time to focus on the NFL.  But it also means there’s a new sport coming back for our viewing pleasure: college basketball.  The season gets underway tonight, and the first game is actually a pretty good one, as 4th-ranked Pitt takes on a Rhode Island team that is looking to get over the hump and into the tournament after a couple straight near-misses.

Great coaches, great teams, bad news for everybody else

Back in April, following Duke’s national title win, I ranked the Top 20 teams for the 2010-11 season.  On that list, I had Michigan State at #1 and Duke at 2.  On further reflection, I have to agree with just about everyone else and say that Duke belongs at #1, with the Spartans right behind them.  The loss of Jon Scheyer shouldn’t be underestimated, but with plenty of experience returning, a handful of impact newcomers, and Coach K pulling the strings,  the Blue Devils are a legit #1 team.  Tom Izzo’s team is in a similar position, with tons of experience returning from a team that has been to back-to-back Final Fours.

The question coming into this new season is what teams, if any, can challenge the supremacy of Duke and Michigan St.?  The three teams that I had lined up behind them in April have all lost their best player since I made the list.  Gordon Heyward and Greg Monroe left Butler and Georgetown, respectively, for the NBA, and Purdue lost Robbie Hummel for the year when he re-tore his ACL a couple weeks ago.  A few other teams that I had highly-ranked also lost key players that I thought might be back (West Virginia’s Devin Ebanks, Xavier’s Jordan Crawford, and Baylor’s Ekpe Udoh).

So, who is the third-best team in the country?  I was certainly surprised when the rankings were released and Kansas State was 3rd.  I admit that I probably had them too low in my April rankings (14th), but K-State’s weakness last year was their scoring ability, and they’ve lost Denis Clemente, who averaged 17 points and led the team in assists.  Jacob Pullen, Clint Kelly, and Jamar Samuels is a nice trio, but that roster just doesn’t looke like a Top 5 team to me.

The above-mentioned Pitt Panthers are ranked 4th, but they also have an underwhelming team.  Jamie Dixon is a great coach that always has his team over-achieving, but this team would get run off the floor by the Pitt teams of a couple years ago that featured Sam Young and DeJuan Blair, and I don’t remember those teams making any Final Four trips.  The headliners for this Pitt team: Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker.  Nice college players, to be sure, but that doesn’t sound like a title-contending team.

For me, a more impressive returning group than K-State’s or Pitt’s can be found on the Main Line.  Nova’s potential starting five of Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes, Maalik Wayns, Antonio Pena, and Dominic Cheek could definitely be Final Four-caliber by March if Wayns and Cheek continue to build on their solid freshman seasons.  The unexpected loss of Taylor King hurts them, but you know Jay Wright will have some talent to choose from on his bench, as well.

The other team that I would put in my potential Final Four as the season gets underway is Ohio State.  William Buford, David Lighty, and Jon Diebler is an under-rated trio, and they’re joined by arguably the top recruiting class in the nation.  There seems to be little doubt that PF Jared Sullinger is ready to be a star right away.  The one big question for the Buckeyes is who will handle the point guard duties that were mostly handled by Evan Turner last year.

The script for this season has Duke and Michigan State squaring off for the title at the Final Four in Houston.  During the non-conference slate, I’ll be looking to see which teams have the goods to force a re-write in March.

The Sweet Sixteen – Day Two

7:07 on Friday in Indianapolis, IN
#1 Louisville vs. #12 Arizona

The one “Cinderella” is one of the winningest programs in NCAA history–Arizona.  A 12-seed, who very few thought should even have made the tournament proved themselves and now gets a chance to crash the Big East party (aka the Elite Eight).  But, to do that they will have to knock off the #1 overall seed, Louisville.  This year is strange because, when trying to analyze a game (or fill out a bracket, even), all I keep thinking about are the flaws of each team.  Every team is flawed–even the best teams–in pretty significant ways.  I can’t imagine this Louisville team winning it all with their awful free throw shooting and mediocre guard play.  So, I want to pick Arizona, but then I think about the ‘Cats abysmal RPI away from home and the fact that outside of their three NBA prospects (including two potential lottery picks), they are pretty bad.  I am going to go with Louisville here, but only because I think their run-and-gun style forces opponents to use more guys and Arizona is pretty weak after Budinger, Hill, and Wise.  Oh, and I do have a legitimate man-crush on Terrance Williams, so what?

7:27 on Friday in Memphis, TN
#2 Oklahoma vs. #3 Syracuse
You know after that 6-overtime game, you would think that Syracuse is pretty tir…if I hear that one more time.  It was TWO WEEKS AGO!  This group of 18-21 year olds are not still tired from a game two weeks ago.  As far as this game goes, I am (like everyone else, including just about every NBA scout, agent, and general manager) in love with Blake Griffin’s game.  I picked Oklahoma as “My Favorite” to win it all in my preseason preview and still believe that they can.  I took them, in Vegas in December, at 25-1 to win the championship, and I still like that bet.  That being said, I think this is a bad matchup for the Sooners.  The Orange are playing with incredible confidence and have a made-for-college team with shooters like Devendorf and Rautins, a not-so-big-but-big-enough-for-college big guy in Paul Harris, the wide bodies down low, and the consumate college drive-and-kick point guard in Jonny Flynn.  And, the worst part for the Sooners is that the biggest weakness in Syracuse’s game–their incredibly high turnover rate–is something that Oklahoma has not been good at capitalizing on all year long because their perimeter defense is mediocre.  Plus, how do you beat Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone?  Ball movement and outside shooting, which puts all the impetus on good guard play.  Griffin might be frustrated all night because he just can’t get the ball.  As much as I HATE to do it (and I do HATE to pick any Boeheim-coached team, especially over “my favorite” of the year), I have to go with Syracuse to pull off the upset and put an incredible FIVE Big East teams in the Elite Eight.

9:37 on Friday in Indianapolis, IN
#2 Michigan State vs. #3 Kansas
Two of the nation’s best coaches square off in Indianapolis tonight.  I think that Bill Self might be the national coach of the year for what he has done with these baby ‘Hawks.  And, Tom Izzo should probably be in the running every year because, well, he is Tom Izzo.  I have been down on this Jayhawk team all tournament, and I haven’t really seen anything that has changed my mind.  They struggled with a good 14-seeded North Dakota State team and then played well to beat an 11-seeded Dayton team.  Yes, Aldrich looks fantastic, but I’m not sold on Collins’s ability to bring it every night.  And, on the other side, it’s a Tom Izzo team with multiple seniors and a lot of talent.  You what that sounds like?  A Final Four team.  I’m picking Michigan State, as the only easy pick of the night.

9:57 on Friday in Memphis, TN
#1 North Carolina vs. #4 Gonzaga
For the second straight night, the nightcap is the game I am most interested to see.  UNC is clearly the most talented team in the country, but the most talented team does not always win these things.  In a topic for a post later today, I love this Gonzaga team and think that they have a real, legitimate shot at “shocking the world” tonight and beating the Tar Heels.  This team is no longer just a well-coached, mid-major with one star mid-major player that teams take lightly.  This is a well-coached, mid-major, BIG-TIME program, with a roster full of big-conference players.  Then again, they are playing THE big-time program these days.  Ty Lawson is healthy and don’t forget that Tyler Hansbrough is still on this team (you know, the all-time leading scorer in the ACC?).  I really want to go the other way, but North Carolina is just too talented.  It’s a shame because in any other region, I would have like the ‘Zags in the Final Four, just not here.

Oh, What a Day!

So, as of Wednesday night, my semester is over.  With all this newfound time, I was worried that I would not be able to find something to do to keep me busy on a lazy Saturday (you know, other than planning a wedding or packing to move or shopping for Christmas).  So, thank you, college hoops.  There is a quintuple-header on the ESPN family of networks today and it is incredible.  I do not know just how many of the five games I plan on watching (they’re all good), but I will definitely be watching the first two, so I will give my thoughts:

GAME 1:  Memphis 85, Georgetown 71
Each team is, by my account, a legitimate title contender.  This game showed why.  However, this game–maybe because of the opposition–also showed some flaws in the two teams.

First of all, Memphis looked really, REALLY good.  They are so athletic; they played incredible, hard-nosed, pressure defense; and, they controlled the offensive glass.  They would have beaten anyone in the country today.  Plus, as hyped as Roy Hibbert, DaJuan Summers, Derrick Rose and Joey Dorsey are, the underappreciated, Chris Douglas-Roberts, was easily the best player on the floor today.  Easily. 

There are two serious flaws that were on display today for the Tigers, however.  One, they are a really bad free-throw shooting team.  Second, they lack discipline.  They went down early and started looking at each other.  This team is good enough to win most of their games without any adversity, but the few games that they are challenged, it will be interesting to see how they respond.  They responded well today, so they passed test #1.

On the other side, the Hoyas may have displayed more serious flaws in this game.  Granted it was only one game, and it was on the road at the #2 team in the country, but without Jeff Green, they truly lack a go-to guy.  Roy Hibbert will be a lottery pick in the 2008 NBA Draft.  He is a first-team pre-season All-American and may well be a first-teamer at the end of the season.  But, he is not a go-to, put-his-team-on-his-back kind of player.  That was obvious today.  Furthermore, the Hoyas, whose style is not one which will ever blow anyone out, will need to win close games.  They showed today that they really struggle on the free-throw line.  A combination of poor free-throw shooting and lack of a go-to guy will probably lead to a team that struggles to close out close games. 

The good news for Hoya fans, though, is that they have Jonathan Wallace and DaJuan Summers.  They also play incredibe defense and are one of the best coached teams in the country.  They showed today how disciplined they are on both ends of the floor.  They had effective possessions, on both ends, coming out of timeouts and their guards are terrific.  Plus, the future is incredibly bright for this team because of the freshman backcourt of Chris Wright and Austin Freeman.  They are both special players that will step right in for Wallace and Jesse Sapp when they graduate.

Overall, though it is not time to overreact to one December game, but I think we did learn that Memphis is extraordinarily talented and a true threat to win the title.  I also think that we learned that Georgetown is going to be in the discussion and will probably improve with every game they play.  This is the first of a 4-year agreement between these two teams to play non-conference games, so this matchup should be fun for the rest of the decade.

Okay, Game 2 is on.  I’ll be back with a Xavier-Tennessee recap…

GAME 2:  Tennessee 82, Xavier 75
Other than my Temple Owls, my two favorite teams to watch in the 2007-08 college basketball season squared off in Cincinnati last afternoon.  It was an incredibly exciting game between two immensely talented teams.

What this game showed is that, while both are extremely important, there is a distinct difference between balance and depth.  Xavier is an incredibly balanced team.  The five starters plus 6th-man C.J. Anderson all average in double-figures.  They have a lot of talent with Drew Lavender, Josh Duncan and Stanley Burrell.  You need five good defenders on the floor at all times to stop the X’s offense.  However, today, it was Tennessee’s depth that overcame Xavier’s balance.

As I described in choosing Tennessee as the sleeper of this college hoops season, they have so much talent it is scary.  And, in choosing them as “my favorite,” I did not even know that J.P. Prince was such an impact player.  Prince, who has sat out the past 2 seasons because of injuries and transferring from Arizona, scored 21 points off the bench today in only his 3rd game as a Volunteer.  Prince’s 21, coupled with 12 from Wayne Chism, was enough to overcome the relative struggles of leading scorers Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith.  And, this is all not even mentioning the star power of point guard Ramar Smith and Iowa transfer, Tyler Smith.  Tennessee’s depth clearly wore down the Musketeers today, as they ended the game on a 13-2 run, turning a 73-69 deficit into a 82-75 victory.

Both of these teams have immense talent and each should be considered the favorites to win their respective conferences.  They each have the potential to be second-week participants in the big tournament in March.  They are that good.

Okay, on to Texas Tech versus Stanford…

GAME 3:  Stanford 63, Texas Tech 61
Okay, I have to admit, I was Christmas shopping during a lot of this one, but I do have to say that this g.ame was between two tournament-caliber teams.  The Lopez twins, especially Brook, are phenomenal for Stanford, and Bobby Knight will flat-out coach the “Tech-sters” to the tournament because, well, he’s the best.

Sorry I didn’t see the whole game (remember I don’t get paid for this stuff), but at least I’m done my shopping.  Ya, get jealous.  Another great one is on now–Michigan St. versus Texas…

GAME 4:  Michigan St. 78, Texas 72
We saw today (and have been seeing all year) why Tom Izzo is indubitably the best coach in the country whose name does not start with k-r-z, as his Michigan St. Spartans took it to the previously-unbeaten Texas Longhorns.  Izzo’s teams are perenially the best inch-for-inch rebounders in the country and this year is no exception.  Though they do not have outlandish size, this team averages one offensive rebound in every two offensive possessions.  In fact, over 47% of their missed shots are rebounded by their offensive rebounders.  That is absolutely unbelievable; and, that is coaching.

Above in the recap of the second game of the day, we talked about the difference between depth and balance.  Well, Michigan St. has both, and they proved that today.  They have pre-season All-American Drew Neitzel and highly-touted freshman Kalin Lucas (who had a breakout game with his 18-point career high today).  They also have solid point guard Travis Walton and a pair of big men that can range from “solid” to “exceptional” in Drew Naymick and the much-improved Goran Suton.  But, what people do not realize is that the best player on this team, in my opinion, is Raymar Morgan.  Morgan had 18 quiet points today and is averaging almost 17 points and 8 rebounds per game this year, while shooting almost 60% from the floor.  This team is loaded and they showed it today.

Texas should not be too discouraged by this loss.  They have had a dream start to this season, with wins over Tennessee on a neutral court and UCLA on the road, en route to their 11-0 start, triggering Andy Glockner (probably my favorite college hoops analyst) to talk about them being better without Kevin Durant.  Now, this is a somewhat ridiculous opinion because (as Glockner freely acknowleges) it is not because Durant is gone, but because guys like D.J. Augustin and Damion James are a year older.  Either way, though, this Texas team continues to impress and surprise people with how good they are, and I do not think that today’s game in Detroit against a true Final Four contender is any step backwards.  Oh, by the way, did you know that Rick Barnes has made 12 consecutive NCAA tournaments?  The last time he missed the tournament was his first year at Clemson when he had an over-.500 record and NIT appearance with a team called by some as “the worst team in the history of the ACC.”  Can we officially say that Barnes is one of the 10 best coaches in the country?  I think so.

Expect both of these teams to be playing into the second week (maybe even the second weekend) of the tournament in March.

Okay, after almost 9 hours of hoops, Ina insists on watching something else.  Fortunately, she has reminded me why I asked her to marry me with her insistence on watching the football game.  Sacrifices–they are tough.  So, I will have to bail on assessing the Missouri-Illinois game (a game that I actually think is going to be a terrific game).

After a long, great Saturday of hoops, we saw some really, really good teams.  Throw in the great Pitt-Duke game from Thursday night, we have seen a half dozen teams that will be very difficult outs come March.  This is going to be a GREAT season of college hoops.