2021 NCAA Tournament Previews: Friday, Early Evening Games

#4 Oklahoma State (-8.5) vs. #13 Liberty
6:25 pm, TBS
Only Loyola-Chicago was more criminally underseeded than the Cowboys of Ok State.  Hard to imagine what The Committee was thinking here as a 4-seed over West Virginia, but that’s what happened.  And, now they have to endure the pure pain of playing Liberty here.

Oklahoma State
Cade Cunningham will very likely be only the 4th Big XII player since 1960 to be the Top Pick in the NBA Draft (Danny Manning in 1988, Blake Griffin in 2009, and Andrew Wiggins in 2014).  Cunningham is averaging 19.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.4 spg, 0.9 bpg, with shooting percentages of 46/43/86% and has been as good as advertised.  Cunningham is flanked by a legit Number Two in 6’5” JR Ice Likelele (9.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.1 spg, 50% FG, 41% from three), but they have both missed games down the stretch, allowing others to step up, most notably 6’3” SO Avery Anderson (11.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.3 spg, 48% FG, 85% FT), 6’9″ SO Kalib Boone (9.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.7 bpg, 65% FG), and 6’7″ Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe (9.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 53% FG), who have all really stepped up when Cunningham out.  This is not a one-man show, like many people thought.  And, it’s not a two-man show, like I definitely thought.  This team is legit.  They’ve only lost 3 of their last 13 games – one at Kansas, one at Baylor, and the Big XII title game against Texas.

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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)

The Friday Fourteen: Best Sport Rivalries

One of the most astonishingly unknown statistics in sports has taken center-stage this week.  Did anyone realize that the Packers and the Bears have not played a playoff game since…ONE WEEK AFTER THE ATTACK ON PEARL HARBOR?!?  That is absolutely astonishing, especially considering that this is, in my opinion, the greatest single rivalry in the National Football League.  So, with this game approaching, I figured it would be a good time to try and order the great rivalries that make sports so incredible.  With the snow not allowing me to post this as a “Tuesday’s Top Twelve,” I kept my allegiance to alliteration and made it a “Friday Fourteen” please forgive me and my idiosyncracies.    

As always, I want to set some parameters for the evaluation.    

To be one of the best rivalries, it has to continue from generation to generation

 

What makes a great rivalry?  First of all, I think it has to span generations to really be considered one of the best in sports.  So, you will not see any rivalries on the list involving the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Washington Nationals.  There are some great rivalries going on right now that could become epic and worthy of this list in another ten years, but are not yet.  If you talked to your grandfather about the great rivalries of the Steelers-Ravens or Patriots-Colts, he would probably look at you funny.  The same holds true for college football with Florida-Florida State.  These just have not been great for long enough to make this list.  On the flip side, there are some phenomenal rivalries whose most bitter times have past.  As great as the Steelers-Raiders rivalry was in the 1970’s, it no longer holds the same cache.  The same is true for Sixers-Celtics, Yankees-Royals, or Phillies-Pirates.    

The second component to a great rivalry is that it cannot be too one-sided.  As great as the big brother-little brother rivalries can be to the fans (especially those of the “big brother”), to be an epic rivalry, one side cannot routinely dominate the other.  So, no matter how fierce they may seem, you will not find the college football rivalries of Notre Dame-Navy or USC-UCLA on this list.  You will also not find in-state college hoops rivalries like Kansas-Kansas St. or BC-Harvard on the list because the “little brothers” just do not win enough.    

Third, a great rivalry cannot be overshadowed by another rivalry by that team.  In other words, as great as a rivalry might be, if one (or both) of the teams involved have even bigger rivals elsewhere, then we cannot consider it one of the best.  Rivalries that fall into this category, and therefore will not be on this list, include Duke-Maryland and UNC-N.C. State in basketball.  Texas-Texas A&M, Penn State-Ohio State, and Tennessee-Florida in football, and the budding (and WAY too new and “novel”) baseball rivalries of Yankees-Mets and Cubs-White Sox.    

As big as a rivalry may be to local fans, the greatest rivalries usually have great national intrigue

 

Further, as much as I believe that rivalries are MADE for the “locals,” I had to draw the line on some of the rivalries that were just too provincial.  I think as great as some rivalries may be to their specific areas, there has to be some aspect of national appeal.  This is why the “Civil War” in Oregon (Oregon-Oregon State) and the “Egg Bowl” in Mississippi (Mississippi State-Ole Miss) did not make the cut.  Also, many people do not realize how phenomenal some of these college hoops rivalries are.  Xavier-Cincinnati means everything in that city.  Memphis-Tennessee and Louisville-Kentucky are clearly more ferocious than anything you can image in their respective states.  And, basketball fans in and around Nashville, Tennessee, will tell you that “The Battle of the Boulevard” between Lipscomb and Belmont may be the best rivalry in all of sports.     

Because of the proviciality of evaluating rivalries, I have to recognize my own biases.  Growing up in the Philadelphia area, I wanted to put Phillies-Mets on the list, but I had no justification.  I also considered adding to the list the longest running high school football rivalry in the nation, Haverford versus Upper Darby, on the list, but other than my fellow Haverford alums, I am guessing that no one else cares all that much.    

I am also leaving off “niche sports” and their rivalries, like the Los Angeles Sparks and Houston Comets in the WBNA, the NY/NJ Metrostars and DC United in MLS, and the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL…oops, is that another gratuitous slap at hockey?  Sorry, puckheads.    

Further, I am not even going to touch the intense emotions involved in sports between nations.  In trying to keep this to sports on which I can effectively comment, I will respectfully recuse myself from weighing in on the passions of the great soccer rivalries of Argentina-Brazil, England-Germany, Italy-France, or Spain-Portugal.     

(And, to be honest, if we were really establishing the most heated, most passionate rivalries in all of sports, there is one that would stand out above all the rest:  Norway versus Sweden in cross-country skiing.  But, for the sake of the blog’s credibility, I will leave this one off of the list.  Trust me, though, there may be no rivalry on the planet more bitter, more intense, and more competitive than Scandinavian skiing.)     

A list of the "greatest" anything without The Greatest of All-Time?

 

Finally, and this was the hardest decision I had to make, I have decided to leave off individual rivalries.  It was easy to rule out individual rivalries in team sports.  Chamberlain-Russell, Brady-Manning, and even Willie, Mickey, and The Duke are not on the list.  With individual sports, though, it was more difficult.  It is hard to even consider the best rivalries in sports without mentioning Federer-Nadal, Palmer-Nicklaus, Evert-Navritalova, or maybe the greatest rivalry we have ever seen in any arena – Ali-Frazier.  But, in the end, I thought that individual rivalries are too fleeting.  The greatest individual rivalries of all-time, because they involve individuals, are either just beginning or long-gone.  As great as Palmer-Nicklaus or Ali-Frazier were, I never partook in the fun.  And, as great as Federer-Nadal is now, my kids will never experience it.    

Okay, now that we are 1,000 words in, let us get to the actual question here:  What are the greatest sports rivalries of all-time?    

Honorable Mentions:    

  • Real Madrid – Barcelona.  The only reason this is not on the actual list because, well, I don’t really know anything about club soccer.  But, if you take away the ethnocentricity of life in the U.S., this rivalry is probably not just on the list, but at the top.  Unfortunately, as a red-blooded American, I have been brainwashed to believe that everything happening here has to be better than anything happening anywhere else.
  • Pittsburgh – West Virginia.  “The Backyard Brawl” is one of the best rivalries in the sport that lives and dies on its rivalries – college football.  Unfortunately, this rivalry is just slightly too local to make a Top 12.
  • Georgetown – Syracuse.  A great rivalry in the Big East that has definitely passed the test of time.  It did not quite make the cut of Top 12, but should be mentioned.
  • Chiefs – Raiders.  The AFC West is a really underrated division, when it comes to NFL rivalries, as you can throw the Denver Broncos in the mix with either of these teams as well.  But, the Chiefs-Raiders is the ultimate rivalry in this division and deserves mention on this list.

The Top Fourteen Greatest Sports Rivalries    

14). Penn – Princeton.  This is a bit of a strange one to open the list with, but let me explain.    

While mostly seen as a basketball rivalry, there is great history in the Penn-Princeton football games, as well

 

The Ivy League may be the longest running athletic association in the world that has not changed its membership from its establishment.  These schools are obviously well-known as academic institutions.  Not only were seven of the eight schools founded during the Colonial Period (the exception being Cornell, the baby, which was founded in 1865), but all eight are ranked in the Top 15 in the nation for academic excellence – six of the eight are in the Top 10.  However, what people may not realize is that while these schools have lagged behind in the “big-money era,” this league was founded, in part, because of the schools’ elite athletic programs (as well as their elite academic programs and, well, elite elitism) and have fiercely competed in a wide range of different sports for the better part of a century now.  And, the one sporting rivalry that transcends all the other rivalries that the Ivy League creates (various Presidential races between Harvard and Yale grads, notwithstanding) is the Penn-Princeton rivalry on the basketball court.  The two dominant teams in the only conference without a conference tournament meet twice a year, with basically their entire seasons on the line.  The Ivy League has crowned 57 champions since its inception in 1954; 49 of those have been either Penn (26) or Princeton (23).  It really is “winner-take-all.”    

13). Cubs – Cardinals.  Once known as the “Route 66 Rivalry,” this is one of the best (and longest-running) rivalries of our national pastime.     

Generations of Midwestern kids have been taught to hate one side or the other

 

It does not get the esteem of some of the other baseball rivalries (namely that one in the Northeast that appears a little later on this list), but if you live in the Midwest, this is the rivalry and has been for generations.  While Missourians obviously tend to favor the Cardinals and Illinoisians prefer the Cubbies, there are a ton of baseball-crazed states in the middle of the country with no professional team, and the residents of those states are oftentimes directly split between allegiances to the Cubs and the Cards.  Having played each other an astonishing 2,000+ times, the Cubs have a slight lead in the head-to-head matchups, but the Cardinals have the clear edge in overall team success, winning 17 pennants and 10 World Series, while, as we all know, the Cubs have not won a World Series in more than 100 years.    

12). The Philadelphia Big Five.  Okay, I may have broken the rules here with this one.     

The Philadelphia Big Five: Something you have to experience to understand

 

This rivalry is mostly a local one; it rarely has any impact whatsoever on the national scope of college basketball; the greatness of the rivalry(ies) were at least one generation ago, if not two; and, it probably is only even under consideration because of my Philly roots.  HOWEVER, I will defend that it belongs on this list.  There is no other place in America with this many D-I basketball teams in such a small locale.  Back in 1955, the athletic departments of the five Philadelphia basketball teams (Temple, St. Joe’s, Villanova, LaSalle, and Penn) decided that they would have a round-robin competition every year to crown the best team in the city.  It forged rivalries that are unmatched in their competitiveness, passion, and electricity anywhere in sports.  And, to make it that much better, all games were played in double- and triple-headers in the greatest basketball arena on the planet – The Palestra.  Again, I know that this rivalry may appear, on the surface, to be much like the aforementioned Kentucky-Louisville or Lipscomb-Belmont rivalries, in that they are great for the locals, but not really for the nation.  But, you just have to trust me that the history and the passion that dominates every Big Five matchup is enough to put it on this list.  In fact, my concern over provincialism may have forced me to drop it too far down the list.    

11). Lehigh – Lafayette.  What?  Lehigh-Lafayette?  Really?  Yes, really.     

"The Rivarly" is the oldest...and maybe still the best

 

I did not believe it myself, until I ran this post idea across a friend of mine and he said “any list of the greatest rivalries is incomplete without Lehigh-Lafayette.”  And, he was right.  Known simply as “The Rivalry,” these two schools are 11 miles apart and have met more times than any two football teams in the world (146 times since 1884).  It is also the most longest uninterrupted rivalry, as they have played every year since 1897.  The rivalry is so old that it predates trophies.  The winning side gets to keep the game ball every year.  But, while the football rivalry alone would be enough to put it on this list, The Rivalry extends to any sport contested between the two schools.  ESPNU ranked this as one of the top 10 college football rivalries in the country, despite taking place in the low-major, no-scholarship conference, the Patriot League.    

10). Lakers – Celtics.  Now, because I was only alive for about 8 months of the 70’s and I did not watch more than a handful of NBA games in the 80’s, I might be underselling this rivalry.      

A rivalry so good that "Magic vs. Bird" is just another chapter

 

But to those who might say that, just know that it is the only NBA rivalry that made the list, so I do have respect for what this rivalry has meant over the history of the Association.  But, to be honest, if I had made this list prior to June 2008, I probably would not have even thought about this when considering rivalries.  But, the 2008 NBA Finals (and then again in 2010) rekindled some old spirit in the generation above me that forced this rivalry back into the limelight, and though, there can be an argument that, like the aforementioned Steelers-Raiders or Yankees-Royals, it is more of the memory of a rivalry than a real, bitter rivalry.  However, with the resurgence of the East vs. West wars in 2008 and 2010, the memories of West vs. Cousy, Russell vs. Chamberlain, and, of course, Magic vs. Bird are brought back to the forefront.  This was, for several generations, everything in the NBA.  Hearing stories of Larry Bird checking the Lakers boxscores every morning to see what Magic did the night before are epic.  Just hearing Jerry West talk about the Celtics is telling.  This rivalry is so good that it is spawned the “Beat L.A.” chants.  So, despite the fact that these two teams only play twice each year, the history of this rivalry (and, now its seeming resurgence in the past couple years) is enough to catapult it into the best of the best.    

9). Texas – Oklahoma.  “The Red River Shootout” is clearly one of the best in college football and, therefore, one of the best in all of sports.     

It has absolutely everything you would be look for in a sports rivalry.  There is geographical proximity – Oklahoma and Texas are separated by the Red River, hence the name.  This game is very often key in the national championship picture in college football, as both teams are perennial powerhouses (61 of the last 66 games has been played while at least one of the two teams was ranked in the Top 25, and 6 of the last 10 featured a team that played in the BCS title game).  The rivalry has been going strong for generations, as the first game between these two was played in 1900, when the Oklahoma territory was not even a U.S. State yet.  And, it is always competitive.  Since WWII, Texas has a slight lead in the series 33-30 (with 3 ties).  The passions that are evoked by this boundary war are electric and the whole country takes notice.  While only ranked #9 on this list, this rivalry might be the epitome of what sports rivalries are all about.    

8). Packers – Bears.  The impetus of this post comes in at #8.  As I said in the opening, it is, in my opinion, the single greatest rivalry in the NFL.     

Two of the flagship NFL franchises have not met in the playoffs since 1941

 

Basically, as long as people have been playing the game of football, the Packers and the Bears have been rivals.  The 181-game rivalry began in 1921.  The Bears lead the regular season series 92-83-6, and they lead the postseason series 1-0.  Yes, 1-0.  It is hard to believe that their only postseason meeting was in 1941, but we get to witness the second on Sunday.  The greatness of this rivalry comes in part from the history of the clubs and, in a strange part, in the harshness of the weather conditions.  Football, being mostly contested in the dead of winter, is especially authentic when the conditions are those that are so often present in blustering cold of Chicago and Green Bay.  Further, a large proportion of the game’s greatest all-time players have worn one of these two uniforms.  The Packers have 21 Hall of Famers, which is the second most of any team in the league.  They are second to…yep, you guessed it, the Bears.  There are 26 Bears in the Hall of Fame – the most of any team.  The only reason it is not higher on this list is because, well, they have not really played for “all the marbles…” until now this year.  This weekend’s NFC Championship Game is going to be great because it pits such bitter rivals.     

7). Michigan – Ohio State.  When a matchup comes to be known simply as “The Game,” you know that it has reached the pinnacle of rivalry games.     

However, the fact that I have this listed as #7 makes me feel like I have to defend why it is so “low” on this list.  In 2000, ESPN ranked it as the single greatest rivalry in North America in the 20th century.  In 2007, HBO Sports made a documentary entitled simply, “The Rivalry,” and it was all about this game.  Michigan recently fired coach Rich Rodriguez, presumably, simply because he could not beat Ohio State.  The period of time when Woody Hayes coached Ohio State and Bo Schembechler coached Michigan had been dubbed the “Ten-Year War.”  Hayes was famous for never actually saying the word “Michigan,” instead he would use phrases like “that team up north” or “that state up north.”  In fact, there is an old legend at OSU that says Hayes once refused to add gas to an empty gas tank until he crossed out of Michigan and back into Ohio, allegedly saying “…I don’t buy one goddam drop of gas in this state.  We’ll coast and the push this car across the Ohio line before I give this state a nickel of my money!”  Needless to say, with the emotion, the national championship impacts, and the two 100,000+-seat stadiums, this is rivalry is off-the-charts.  The only thing I can say to justify the #8 spot is that I believe, for reasons I am about to lay out, that as great and epic as this rivalry is, I think there are 6 rivalries in sports (including 2 college football) that are better.  I think the best days of this rivalry may have already occurred.    

6). Yankees – Red Sox.  If you did not think I was crazy for putting Michigan-Ohio State down at #7 (and not #1 in college football), then you are going to absolutely lose it with the Yankees – Red Sox here at #6 (and not #1 in baseball).     

If only the Red Sox had won SOMETHING for 86 years, this could have been #1

 

But, give me a chance to explain.  Yes, in the past decade (or, at least since the Red Sox finally beat the Yankees in 2004), this has been, maybe, the greatest rivalry in all of sports, let alone baseball.  And, yes, there is a long stretch of history between these two bitter rivals.  However, if we can (and I know it is hard) try to think back to the days before the Dave Roberts stolen base, we will see a bitter rivalry that was more like the bully and the nerd.  The Yankees always won.  Yes, they played each other a lot, and yes, the two fanbases hated each other, but the Red Sox did not win a World Series for 86 years.  The Yankees, during those 86 years, won TWENTY-SIX titles.  And, do the players really care?  Johnny Damon went straight from the ’04 comeback to wearing pinstripes.  Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs had no problem switching allegiances.  Could you imagine what Woody Hayes would say if one of his players said he wanted to transfer to Michigan?  I think, to be honest, that there can even be the argument made that this is too high for this rivalry, but I put it here because I have seen first-hand the vitriol with which the two fanbases treat each other.  When the Patriots won their first ever Super Bowl, there were chants of “Yankees suck!”  Also, on the field, there have been some thrilling moments.  Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone taking center-stage for some absolute stomach-punching Red Sox defeats, and then the 2004 comeback was one of the greatest sporting events in history because of the unlikeliness of the comeback and, more so, because of the social implications of the turning-of-the-tables in the rivalry.  I know this will not appease a large majority of fans who believe that this is the greatest rivalry in sports, but I am pretty comfortable with this right here in this spot.    

5). The NFC East.  Before you accuse me of being a homer with this selection, I want you to know that I am not delusional here, I know that the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry (not any of the Eagles rivalries) is the only one in this division that would be considered for this list, by itself, and even that one would fall below the Packers-Bears.     

Any way you slice it, these guys flat-out don't like each other

 

However, every different individual matchup in this division is such a great rivalry in and of itself, that I wanted to capture this as its own entity.  And I believe that this is where it belongs.  These three fanbases literally despise each other, and it is not like the cute, Midwestern, “I kind of hope your team loses” kind of hatred.  It is the hardened, Northeast, F-you kind of hatred.  I like to consider myself a pretty friendly, nice, personable guy.  But, I know, as an Eagles fan, if I see some random guy on the street with something on demonstrating that he is a Giants fan or a Cowboys fan or a Redskins fan, I instantly get a feeling dislike…for HIM, like, as a person.  When I see a car with a Giants license plate, I get some weird diabolical urge to slash the tires.  I am not proud of it, and I wish it was not like that, but it is.  And, the only thing that saves me from feeling like a total sociopath is that I am sure that, if he knew that I was an Eagles fan, he would have the exact same reaction.  I even find myself rooting against teams like the Rangers and the Nationals for no reason other than I know that if they lose, many Cowboy or Redskin fans will be upset.  I get some sick joy out of that.  But, again, I expect that they feel the same about the Phillies or Sixers.  If I’m messed up in a messed up world, then aren’t I just normal?  And, what I just described is “normal” when you root for a team in the NFC East.  That, my friends, is what “rivalry” is all about – and there are six different rivalries all wrapped into one here in this division, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Every game is a war and every war your team wins makes your life that much better.    

4). Giants – Dodgers.  Though you would never know it with the media attention shamelessly heaped upon the Yanks – Sox, the best baseball rivalry is almost undebatable.     

When a rivalry can span 120 years and a coast-to-coast relocation, you know it's one of the best

 

Spanning well more than a century and broiling on both coasts, the Giants – Dodgers rivalry is baseball’s best.  The rivalry started in New York City homes in the 19th century.  The Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants were both in the city of New York and both in the National League.  And…they were both great.  Now, 125 years later, both teams are 3,000 miles away from their birthplaces and, while the rivalry may not penetrate households like it did in the Big Apple, it is still as heated as ever.  Both teams look at the other as The Enemy and, usually, when one succeeds, it has to go through the other to do so.  That is the icing on the cake of this rivalry.  It has 125 years of history.  It had infiltration of households and fanbases that despised each other.  No, while that heat may not have completely traveled to the Left Coast, the quality of the teams keeps this rivalry alive and strong.  No professional sports franchise has more wins than the Giants; the Dodgers are third.  The Yankees have the highest winning percentage in the history of Major League Baseball; the Giants are second and the Dodgers are third.  The Yankees have the most pennants in baseball history; the Dodgers are second and the Giants are third.  Only one team has more Hall of Famers than the Dodgers, and it is not the Yankees.  It is the Giants.  And, head-to-head, it is almost incomprehensible how close it is.  The two teams have played 2,337 times.  The Giants have won 1,171, while the Dodgers have won 1,149 (with 17 ties), and astoundingly, the Giants 10-8 season series win in 2010 broke a 51-51 tie in season series (with 18 ties).  The Giants have finished with a better record 62 times, while the Dodgers have finished with the better record 59 times.  And, most amazingly, to me, is that of the 121 seasons of competition between the two teams, only SEVEN times did both teams finish below .500, as opposed to 46 times where both teams finished ABOVE .500.  In a sport that is often criticized for its marathon-like regular season, every game between these two always matters.  To sum it all up:  Jackie Robinson – clearly one of the classiest men to ever live – was traded from the Dodgers to the Giants on December 13, 1956.  That January, he retired from baseball.  Jackie Robinson decided to never wear a uniform again rather than put one on that said “New York Giants.” 

3). Alabama – Auburn.  Better than Texas-Oklahoma?  Better that Michigan-Ohio State?  Yes, for one reason and one reason only:     

Border wars are one thing, but when the rivalry infiltrates families, it is on a whole other level

 

“The Iron Bowl” carries all the cache, all the history, all the national title impacts, and all the fan hatred that these other two rivalries carry with one added “bonus.”  This rivalry divides neighborhoods, streets, and even families.  If you were raised in Michigan, you, most likely, love the Wolverines and hate the Buckeyes.  If you were raised in Ohio, the opposite.  If you were raised north of the Red River, you are a Sooner fan; south of it, a Longhorn fan.   So, neighborhood and families all across Michigan fly maize and blue flags.  There are clear dividing lines.  There is “Sooner Country” and “Longhorn Country.”  Obviously, there are opposing fans that have relocated or, for whatever reason, root for the other team, but there are clearly living in a hostile area.  But, Auburn and Alabama are in the same state.  They lay claim to the same turf.  Sure, you are probably more likely to be a Tide fan with the closer you are to Tuscaloosa, but these boundaries are very gray.  It is far too often that, in a family, one child goes to ‘Bama and the other to Auburn.  Or an Auburn fan falls in love and marries and Alabama fan.  This divides households.  There are countless blocks in the state of Alabama where you will see Alabama flags next door to Auburn flags and so on down the block.  This rivalry cuts are the soul of who are as an Alabaman.  We do not even need to go into the 75-year history of the rivalry (with a close 40-34-1 Alabama lead) or how the teams have combined for 37 conference championships and 15 national championships, along with 117 All-Americans and 4 Heisman Trophy winners.  This rivalry has all of that…but it also has the infiltration of the neighborhoods and even the families.    

2). Duke – UNC.  Only one rivalry in sports encapsulates all of the things we have discussed that makes up a great rivalry (with even more than that), and that is Duke-UNC.     

We'll be neighbors again tomorrow...but not today

 

First of all, these two schools are 8 miles apart in a basketball-crazed area of the country.  Secondly, they could not be more different institutionally.  While both schools are well-renowned for their academic excellence, Duke is a relatively small, private, elitist, incredibly expensive school that attracts a student body from all over the country and the world.  UNC is a very large public university, where in-state tuition is relatively inexpensive and 80% of the student body is made up of native North Carolinians.  So, despite these two schools being so close geographically, they often appeal to vastly differing fanbases.  And, maybe the most important aspect of this rivalry is that these two teams are both just so incredibly dominant in their sport.  Since its founding in 1953, the ACC has consistently considered as the strongest basketball conference from top to bottom.  Yet, despite the elite programs that round out this conference, Duke or UNC has been crowned champion in 80% of the ACC regular seasons.  One of the two has also won 61% of the conference tournaments, including 13 of the last 14.  And, they haven’t just dominated their own conference.  Only three programs have more D-I basketball wins than Duke, and one of them is UNC (#2 behind Kentucky all-time).  UNC has made 18 Final Fours (the most all-time), and Duke has made 15 (3rd most all-time).  And, both programs are in the top 5 in all-time championships (UNC-5, Duke-4).  If you have ever seen a game between these two, you know the passion with which they treat this rivalry.  There is no doubt that these games are the biggest games on either of their schedules.  With the 8-mile geographical proximity, the immense history (they have played every year since 1920), the infiltration of neighborhoods, and the divergent student bodies and fanbases, this rivarly is second to none.  Well, actually, in my opinion, it is second to one…    

1). Army – Navy.  While Duke-UNC has everything that I have deemed important in judging rivalries (and then some), it has to take a backseat to one rivalry and one rivarly only.  Incidentally, this rivalry is lacking in many aspects of how I am judging these rivalries.  However, when making this list, there was absolutely no doubt what would be #1, and I never wavered.  The Army-Navy Game.     

Sports' greatest rivalry...and it's not even close

 

This all comes down to what sport really is all about?  Why do we play?  We play for the competition and for the love of the game.  I would argue that this game embodies those two things more than anything else across all sports, in all the world.  Very few of the players in this game ever play professional football.  Never does this game have any national championship impacts (and oftentimes not even any Patriot League impacts).  These men are soldiers.  They play football for sport.  For the seniors, this is usually the last competitive football game in which they will ever play.  During wartime, it can be one of their final days before being deployed to battle.  At the end of every game, the two teams stand, in uniform, alongside each other, facing the student bodies as both alma maters are played – and all of this has happened for 120 years.  There is a cliche that I believe epitomizes a true “rivalry.”  And that is “if we only win one game all year, it’ll be a good year if that win is against ____.”  Well, that is not really true anywhere but here.  Duke can lose three times to UNC, but if they win the national championship, they will have had a successful year.  Michigan can lose to Ohio State, but if they go to the Rose Bowl and Ohio State is 5-5, Wolverine fans are happy.  But, it is absolutely true that if Army goes 1-10 and Navy goes 10-1, with that one win for Army coming in this game, both sides will agree that Army had the better season.  My friends, this is the ultimate rivalry.  And, honestly, it’s not even close…    

As always, these rankings are based on indisputable facts and have not been impacted in any way by opinion, bias, or perception.  Feel free to debate the list as long as you understand that debate here is futile…

Charting A Course to March: North Carolina vs. Michigan St.

December 1st:  #11 North Carolina 89, #9 Michigan St. 82, at Chapel Hilled davis

North Carolina:

This team’s relying on a lot of underclassmen, and they’ll only get better as the season goes on, but they look pretty good already.  Deon Thompson and Marcus Ginyard are the unspectacular but rock-solid seniors providing much needed experience.  The big-name sophomores are Ed Davis, who’s showing a soft touch to go with his superior size and athleticism, and PG Larry Drew II.  Davis could be an All-American this year, and if he adds some muscle he could eventually be a force on the next level as well.  I’m not convinced that Drew will ever be a star, but he’s already a steady lead guard. 

The bench is made up almost entirely of first-year players (including soph. Tyler Zeller, who missed most of last season with an injury), but that doesn’t mean it’s not really good.  John Henson is the biggest name among the freshman.  He’s a rail-thin, athletic 6’10 forward, who allegedly can also shoot it pretty well.  He could be the key to this team if he can emerge as a force at the small forward spot.  PG Dexter Strickland showed a lot of ability in this game.  The Wear twins also come in with a lot hype.  As the year progresses, this could end up being one of the best benches in the nation.  They don’t have much depth at guard, and another question for this team will be whether or not the guard play from Drew, Ginyard, and Strickland is good enough to win it all in March.

Best-Case Scenario:  National Champions

Best Guess: Final Four

Michigan St:

The Spartans have almost everyone back from last year’s team that lost to UNC in the championship.  Junior PG Kalin Lucas is the team leader and reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, but he didn’t play a great game here.  F Draymond Green really stood out in this game as maybe the most improved player on the team.  They need his presence in the post.  Raymar Morgan has had a lot of injuries and illness to deal with and that probably explains why he’s a disappointment.  He led the team in scoring two years ago as a sophomore, but he doesn’t look like a guy that can create his own offense all that much.  He had 18 points, but almost all of them came in transition and on alley-oopsA key to this team could be F Delvon Roe.  He came in with a lot of hype last year but was underwhelming.  He shows flashes of being really good, but can he do it on a consistent basis?

The three returning guards along with Lucas, Durell Summers, Chris Allen, and Korie Lucious, are all capable of putting up a big game and give this team a level of talent and experience in the backcourt that most teams would love to have.  This team showed a lot of heart in coming back from a 16-point half-time deficit in Chapel Hill.  They’ll need Green and Roe to avoid foul trouble (both fouled out).

Best-Case Scenario:  National Champions

Best Guess: Elite Eight

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.

Tuesday’s Top Twelve – Best Matchup/Potential Matchups of the Weekend

The best sports weekend of the year–hands down–begins in earnest in less than 48 hours.  Yes, I am like little-kid-on-Christmas excited.  No, I’m not embarrassed by it.  Looking over the  brackets, there are a bunch of first-round matchups and potential second-round matchups that I am looking forward the most, so I figure this is a good topic for Tuesday’s Top Twelve.

#12).  3-Kansas vs. 14-North Dakota State (first round on Friday at 12:30 in Minneapolis).  In sort of a scan for “potential madness,” this one hit me right away.  I think the Jayhawks are vulnerable, and the Bison of North Dakota St. might be the perfect team to pull off the big upset of KU (ironically, Kansas was a 3-seed in 2005 and lost to a 14-seed nicknamed the Bison–Bucknell).  I contemplated putting Mississippi St vs. Washington here because I like that upset also, but it wouldn’t be nearly as fun/MAD as North Dakota St., in their first year of D-1 eligibility, taking out the defending champs.

#11). 4-Xavier vs. 5-Florida State (potentially second-round on Sunday in Boise).  This is just a potential game because they both have to get through their first-round opponents (which I think they both will), but if it happens, it should be very, very good.  I love the contrasting styles that this game presents.  The athletic, defense-oriented, extremely balanced-scoring Musketeers against the HUGE and athletic Seminoles who rely on one guy for a large portion of their offense.

#10). 1-North Carolina vs. 8-LSU or 9-Butler (potentially second-round on Sunday in Greensboro).  This might have been even more interesting had it been anywhere but in the state of North Carolina.  Then again, it would have been rather uninteresting if Ty Lawson were 100%.  UNC could probably beat Radford without any starters.  And, even if it’s close, there are so many things that go into a 1-16 game to glean anything about the top-seed.  So, Sunday’s game (against either LSU or Butler, because they’re both pretty tough as a 8/9) will be the real test to see if UNC is healthy and running on all cylinders.

#9). 6-West Virginia vs. 11-Dayton (first round on Friday at 3:00 in Minneapolis).  I think that this West Virginia team could really do some damage in this tournament.  But, then again, they might not make it out of the first round.  That is what makes this tournament so fascinating.  Dayton, who can be either overrated or underrated, depending on who you talk to, is indisputably a solid test for the Mountaineers.  Plus, if you buy into my belief that Kansas is vulnerable (either in the first round or beyond), there is a good chance that we will see the winner of this game playing next week in Indianapolis.

#8). 7-Boston College vs. 10-USC (first round on Friday at 7:20 in Minneapolis).  This is a fantastic first-round game between two relatively under-the-radar teams this year.  BC made some noise in the ACC, but was never really talked about nationally.  USC’s lack of national presence was warranted because they flat-out played poorly for much of the season and were not going to be included until they won the Pac 10 tournament.  There is also a lot of star power in this game with Tyrese Rice, Daniel Hackett, and Taj Gibson are all still in school (even though I seem to remember them all playing in the 90s).  Also, DeMar DeRozan is a flat-out stud freshman for the Trojans.

#7). 1-Michigan State vs. 7-Boston College or 10-USC (potentially second-round on Sunday in Minneapolis).  The winner of #8 (no matter who it is) will set up an even better matchup on Sunday against 2-seed Michigan St.  Either opponent for the Spartans presents a true test for a team that could only surprise me if they lost in the first round.  Anything else, from a bad second-round exit to a national championship is in the cards this year for this talented, but inconsistent team with a phenomenal coach.

#6). 3-Syracuse vs. 6-Arizona State or 11-Temple (potentially second-round on Sunday in Miami).  The winner of the first-round game between ASU and Temple will get to play in a very interesting game against Syracuse.  So much has been made of all the minutes that The Orange logged in their captivating trip to the Big East finals, but does it really matter?  Can top-flight athletes really be “tired” from anything (other than a marathon) that they did a week ago?  We will see because if Syracuse beats Stephen F. Austin, they are in for a battle, regardless of which team they are playing.

#5). 8-Oklahoma State vs. 9-Tennessee (first round on Friday in Dayton).  This is a big-time first round matchup.  These two teams should probably be playing in at least the second round, if not later.  But, they both struggled more than expected, then turned their seasons around and now find themselves across the battle lines from each other in a brutal first-round matchup.  It will be interesting on both ends, as a solid OSU defense tries to stop an awesome Tennessee offense, while a painfully awful Tennessee defense tries to stop a frustratingly inconsistent OSU offense.

#4). 1-Pittsburgh vs. 8-Oklahoma State or 9-Tennessee.  Whoever comes out of the great matchup listed at #5 will have another fantastic, must-see game against top-seeded Pitt.  The only real question mark surrounding the Panthers is will DeJuan Blair get into foul trouble or not.  And, it really all depends on how tight the officiating is because he is certainly not going to change his game.  Either way, this second-round matchup has the feel of a Sweet 16 or later game, especially if it’s immensely talented Tennessee.

#3). 2-Oklahoma vs. 7-Clemson (potentially second round on Saturday in Kansas City).  If you had told me a month ago that OU would play Clemson in the tournament, I would have said that it must have been at least a Sweet 16 game, if not an Elite 8 game.  But, OU slipped out of #1 position, and Clemson slipped all the way to #7 (personally, I think this is a pretty low seed for the Tigers, who have been in the top 15-20 all year long).  But, this game (which might not even happen, as Michigan has a real shot in the first round against Clemson) is going to be fantastic!  The up-and-down, pressing style of Clemson against The Griffins and a host of underrated perimeter players (led by the super frosh, Willie Warren).  I hope it happens.

#2). 6-UCLA vs. 11-VCU (first-round on Thursday at 9:50 in Philadelphia).  Just a fantastic first-round clash between two very good teams who I probably would have picked to beat almost anyone else, had they not wound up playing each other.  An experienced, defense-oriented UCLA team that has been to three straight Final Fours against a guy named Eric Maynor and the VCU Rams.  Anyone remember Maynor?  Yes, he was that freshman who single-handedly beat Duke in the tournament three years ago.  Now, he’s a senior, and even though he hasn’t been in the forefront of college hoops lately (because VCU hasn’t made the tournament since), he has gotten a lot better.  He is, in my opinion, the third best point guard in the country, behind Fields and Lawson, and will probably make a better pro than either of them.  The Rams also have a guy named Larry Sanders who has a 91-inch wingspan to complement his incredible athleticism.  As soon as this matchup came out, I got excited about it.  I don’t want to wait until Thursday night for it–can’t this be the play-in game tonight?

#1). 6-Arizona State vs. 11-Temple (first-round on Friday at 2:55 in Miami)Bias?!?  What does bias mean?  No, I’m not biased–this is a great game!  Okay, maybe I’m a little biased, but even thinking objectively (which I probably cannot do), this would have made the Top 12 list.  I love James Harden and have been saying for weeks now that ASU is my sleeper pick for the Final Four.  I even gave a professional presentation last week on March Madness and picked ASU to accompany UNC, Louisville, and Michigan State to the promised land.  But, now they get to face my beloved Owls in the first round.  Ugh!  I spent the whole selection show chanting “Give me Illinois,” thinking that Illinois would be a 5 and Temple a 12.  Then, when we got to the last bracket and Illinois came up on the 5-line, I went nuts, thinking Temple would be 12.  But, alas, they rewarded us with an 11-seed and a dreadful matchup with the Sun Devils.  Well, at least it gave me justification to put the Temple game in a Top 12 list.

First Impressions of the 08-09 College Hoops Season

The glory that is the college basketball season is well underway, and I’m looking forward to settling in tonight for two top teams in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, when Duke travels to Purdue.  Baseball is the only sport I look forward to more than college basketball, and they really get things started right with all these Invitationals in exotic locales and conference vs. conference challenges.  I’ve been catching as many games as I can so far, and here are my thoughts:

-The best start to finish game I’ve seen was Oklahoma’s win over Davidson.  Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin has established blake griffinhimself as the early Player of the Year favorite, averaging a ridiculous 26 points and 19 rebounds for the 6-0 Sooners.  Griffin was a favorite of mine last year, but I’ll have to share him with everyone now because he is just too good.  He has an amazing combination of size, strength, quickness, and all-around athleticism.  If he can keep improving his mid-range jumper, he will be an All-Star on the next level.  Of course, Stephen Curry was also featured in this game, and all he did was drop 44 points on the Sooners.  Curry’s season averages of 29 points and 7 assists could land him with Griffin on the 1st Team All-American roster by seasons end, as long as more teams don’t use the Loyola defense on him.  Also keep an eye on Oklahoma’s freshman guard Willie Warren.

-I’ve seen the best team in the land, North Carolina, dismantle Kentucky and a very good Notre Dame team.  The Tar Heels have the potential to be one of the very best college teams I’ve ever seen.  Ty Lawson is one of the most fun players to watch, as he blazes by defenders and leaves them in the dust with one the best crossovers on the planet.  The frontcourt depth did take a little hit when freshman Tyler Zeller, who started the first two games in place of Hansbrough, went down for the season with a broken wrist.  As for the Irish, they will pile up points with Luke Harangody down low and an array of long-range bombers, led by Kyle McAlarney, who will jack up a three from just about anywhere on the court.

-Syracuse topped Florida in an entertaining game.  The best player in that game was Florida’s Nick Calathes, a 6’6″ swingman who can do it all.  Last year as a freshman, he led the SEC in assists and averaged 5 rebounds.  He can score inside and out and is averaging 2.5 steals per game so far this season.  He’s one of the best pure passers in the country, and he isn’t even a point guard.  I’m often skeptical of Syracuse, but they are loaded up with a lot talent this year, especially on the perimeter, and Jim Boeheim even took his team on the road in this one and beat Florida.  Shocking.

daye-Gonzaga put the major conferences on notice last night when they beat down Tennessee to win the Old Spice Classic.  This might be the best Gonzaga team ever, and that’s saying something.  All five starters can shoot from long-range, and then they bring maybe the best shooter on the team, Steven Gray, off the bench.  But they’re not completely perimeter-oriented either, because Austin Daye and Josh Heytvelt give excellent low-post presence.  Tennessee will recover from this loss.  Tyler Smith is a superstar and they have plenty of depth to keep pressing and running like Bruce Pearl likes to do.  They were lucky to get transfer PG Bobby Maze to replace Ramar Smith, who was kicked off the team after last season.  These two teams will meet again in an interesting rematch in January.

-I caught Georgetown’s rout of Maryland yesterday.  Maryland’s Greivis Vasquez is a great player in the same mold as Nick Calathes, but Georgetown kept him completely under wraps.  The Hoyas should stay in the Top 25 mix all season.  John Thompson III has done a fantastic job of resurrecting that program.  He recruits well, they always play tough defensively, and the Princeton-style offense is often a thing of beauty. 

-Duke just completed a comfortable win over Purdue, relying on some great defense and some not-so-great offensive execution by the Boilermakers.  Obviously, Duke has loads of talent and I think the weight and muscle that Kyle Singler has added will be a boost for them, but the jury is still out on whether or not they are deserving of their current #4 ranking.  A win at Purdue is impressive, but I’m not sold on Brian Zoubek as the lone starting big man for a title contender. 

Looking Ahead to Next March

One of my favorite columns to read every year are the ones where, in the aftermath of the championship game, the writers project the top teams for next year’s college basketball season.  I’ll attempt to beat them to the punch this year, although my research probably won’t be as exhaustive.  One of the reasons the columns are interesting is because you have to guess which underclassmen will leave for the NBA, and assess how that will affect the team.  The top two teams on my list are very much in the “wait and see” category.  As a basic rule of thumb, if I think a player is questionable to come back, I’ll rank his team as if he is coming back.

hansbroug1. North Carolina: I’m assuming that Tyler Hansbrough returns for his senior year and that Ty Lawson moves on to the League.  Even without Lawson, this would be the team to beat.  Hansbrough would be joined by the likes of Wayne Ellington, Deon Thompson, and Danny Green, and he would also be a man on a mission, with a national championship being the only thing missing from his college resume.  If he can pull it off, Hansbrough would go down as one of the most accomplished college players in the history of the game.

2. Kansas: This ranking could potentially drop like a rock, depending on the decisions of Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur, and Mario Chalmers.  Russell Robinson, Darnell Jackson, and Sasha Kaun are gone, but a nucleus of Rush, Arthur, Chalmers, and Sherron Collins would certainly contend again.  Players tend to leave early after a national championship, so Bill Self may have to turn his attention to bringing these guys back to school after he signs his re-worked contract some time soon.

3. Duke: This Duke team will probably still be lacking some inside muscle, but with everyone except DeMarcus Nelson returning to a team that earned a 2-seed in the tournament this year, they will be tough.  The nation’s top high school center, 7’2″ John Riek, is still considering the Dukies, and he would cement them as a Top 5 team heading into next season.

4.  Louisville: At first, you see that Louisville is losing some big-time talent, with David Padgett, Juan Palacios, and Earl Clark all moving on.  But, assuming Terrence Williams returns, they will probably be even better than they were this season.  Jerry Smith, Edgar Sosa, Andre McGee, and Derrick Caracter also return, and two blue-chip recruits, Samardo Samuels and Terrence Jennings, will be joining the front-court.

5. Tennessee: It looks like Bruce Pearl has this team in it for the long-haul.  Chris Lofton and Jajuan Smith exit, but nexttyler smith year’s team will feature a ridiculous junior class that includes Tyler Smith, Ramar Smith, J.P. Prince, Wayne Chism, and Duke Crews.  Top recruit Scotty Hopson will attempt to replace some of the perimeter scoring lost with the departure of Lofton and Jajuan Smith.

6.  Pittsburgh: Mike Cook graduates, but they were without him for most of the season anyway.  Guards Ronald Ramon and Keith Benjamin are also gone, but any team in the nation would be happy to have the trio of Sam Young, Dejaun Blair, and Levance Fields leading the way.

7.  UConn: Jim Calhoun brings his whole team back, so if A.J. Price can recover from the torn ACL he suffered in the tournament, he will join Jeff Adrien, Jerome Dyson, and Hasheem Thabeet on a team that could return UConn to national prominence.

8.  Gonzaga: The best team on the West Coast next season may very will be the Zags, not a Pac-10 team.  Only David Pendergraft graduates, meaning Mark Few will have Jeremy Pargo, Matt Bouldin, Josh Heytvelt, Austin Daye, and Micah Downs at his disposal.  The Zags will certainly look to make some noise early in the season with some big-name non-conference wins.

9.  Michigan St.: The Drews, Neitzel and Naymick, graduate but the Spartans will still have a boatload of talent, led by Raymar Morgan, Kalin Lucas, Travis Walton, and Goran Suton.  Excellent recruit Delvon Roe will also contribute.

10.  USC: This may seem like a strange choice, with O.J. Mayo definitely heading for the lottery, but USC will still have Daniel Hackett, Taj Gibson, and Davon Jefferson.  Maybe most importantly, they will replace Mayo with arguably the top guard in the Class of 2008: L.A. native Demar DeRozan.

Other Notes:

-The Big East will be the best conference in the country next season.  Besides Louisville, Pitt, and UConn, there will plenty of other top teams.  Notre Dame returns Luke Harangody and Kyle McAlarney.  Villanova returns everyone from a Sweet 16 team.  Marquette could be great if Dominic James and Jerel McNeal come back and West Virginia will be very tough if Joe Alexander stays.  Georgetown loses Hibbert, Wallace, and Ewing, but an amazing recruiting class, led by Greg Monroe, will keep them in the tournament.

-Memphis will be doing some rebuilding with Douglas-Roberts, Rose, and Dorsey gone.

-UCLA will be the hardest hit by early departures, with Love, Collison, and Westbrook probably leaving.  Josh Shipp and Luc Richard Mbah A Moute will be joined by top recruit Jrue Holiday.

-Purdue (everyone back) and Wisconsin (with Marcus Landry and Trevon Hughes leading the way) will challenge Michigan St. in the Big Ten again.

-Texas returns everyone but Augustin and will be poised to take the Big 12 from Kansas if the Jayhawks are hit hard by early departures.

-Clemson and Miami both return their top scorers, among others, and will be back in the tournament out of the ACC.

-Xavier will contend in the A-1o, but not nationally, with the departures of Duncan, Burrell, and Lavender.

-Other teams headed for a downturn: Stanford, Washington St., Butler, Vanderbilt, Indiana.

BSB Live Blog: The Sweet Sixteen

OK, welcome to the first ever BSB Live Blog!  I think these things are all the rage on sports blogs, so why the heck not try it? The first 45 minutes of this will be really bad though because, honestly, I’m more concerned with eating my dinner than posting on here.

First Games: West Virginia vs. Xavier and North Carolina vs. Washington St.

7:19PM: As I write this, Xavier has already jumped out to an 8-0 lead and Bob Huggins has called a timeout to get things under control. The best news so far is that Bill Raftery is calling the game.  I must note that Xavier is playing “mantoman” defense.

7:28PM: As expected, CBS is switching us over to the North Carolina-Washington St. game. I’m fine with this.  Dick Enberg and Jay Bilas on the call.  I’m also fine with this.  A lot of people seemed to have decided to hate Bilas this season, but I’m not one of them.  He’s ok. I swear this will get better when I’m done eating. This Jamaican Jerk chicken is better than the Sweet 16 right now.

7:48PM: Well played beginning to the game.  WSU has forced some turnovers and they look good.  Obviously a heavily partisan crowd in favor of the Tarheels, considering the game is in Charlotte. 13-12 UNC at the halfway mark of the first half.

8:00PM: Things have gotten sloppy now and that probably favors UNC.  Both teams have had some bad turnovers, but WSU isn’t going to beat many teams if they’re not taking care of the ball.  UNC can overcome it and, so far, they have.  They’re up 5 even though Hansbrough hasn’t scored yet.

8:08PM: Under 4-minute stoppage, and the WSU turnovers have continued, while UNC got two open looks at 3’s and knocked them down.  Danny Green had a WIDE open look, which is the other thing the Cougars cannot let happen in this game. And Wayne Ellington made one of those shots that make him look like an NBA player.  With his size and smoothness, he can remind you of Kobe Bryant at times, but he doesn’t go to the rim like Kobe at all.  Not many guards do. UNC up 27-18.

8:19PM: Well, I’m gonna call this game over.  Washington State gave up another wide-open 3 at the half-time buzzer, this one to Ty Lawson, to put the Tarheels up 35-21.  It looks like the WSU gameplan was all about stopping Hansbrough in this game but, unfortunately for them, UNC is certainly no one-man team.  You know you have a good team when your sixth man can go out and put up 12 points in the first-half against a defensive team like WSU.  Tony Bennett and his staff will have to come up with some changes during half-time, but it looks like they’re beat.

8:39PM: With West Virginia having stormed back from a 28-10 deficit, CBS makes the switch back to that game.  CBS has gotten light years better at deciding when to switch games.  It turns out people would rather watch two really good teams in close game than watch a great team blow someone out.  It took CBS about 20 years to figure that one out.  West Virginia had cut it to one point, Xavier now leads 44-40.

8:48PM: Joe Alexander is taking over in the second-half.  A lot has been made about how Bob Huggins turned him into a post-player this year, but it really is an indication of how good a coach Huggins is.  He sees this 6’8″ face-the-basket player and just knows that he needs that guy to learn how to post up.  With his quickness and strength, Alexander is now devastating when he catches the ball near the basket.  I think he has 11 points in the half, with 11:39 to play.

8:57PM: Back and forth, back and forth they go in Phoenix!  I think WVU and Xavier just changed leads about 5 times in 2 minutes of play.  Alexander and the other WVU post players need to go at Josh Duncan with his 4 fouls.  They already have the momentum, if they can put Duncan out of the game, they’ll have the clear upper hand.

9:05PM: That was an AWFUL charge call on the baseline just now.  I’m sure Bry didn’t like that one.

9:19PM: It’s Madness!  This second-half has been great.  Josh Duncan has single-handedly kept Xavier in it.  He’s been a monster.

9:25PM: I’m not sure what Drew Lavender was doing on that last possession.  It looked like he just wanted to be the hero.  Why would you not push the ball up and get it to Duncan?  And a great shot by Alexander to tie it up.  This has really been the Alexander and Duncan show.  Whoever plays better in overtime will probably win the game for their team.  Both have 4 fouls though, so that could be huge.

9:27PM: Alexander’s out. Advantage Xavier.

9:37PM: Big shot by Lavender.  When guys are that short, don’t you just cringe every time they shoot?  I’m thinking, “Why not just pass it to that guy a foot taller who can also shoot really well?”.

9:52PM: Great game, obviously. The nail in the coffin was WVU inexplicably leaving B.J. Raymond wide-open for a 3 off an inbounds pass with 2 seconds on the shot clock. Xavier (and the A-10!) is on to the Elite 8. Nice!

College Basketball Preview: The Contenders

At the beginning of the college basketball season, there are so many questions and so few answers. Even the most involved fan has to wait at least a month to really know a little of what to expect for this season of college hoops. However, the one question that can probably be, at least, discussed is which teams have a legitimate chance to win the whole thing. As Memphis coach John Calipari always says, at the beginning of every year, there are about 30 or so teams that think they can make the Final Four, but only about 6 or 7 that think they can win the national title. We here at Broad Street Believers have picked 8 that we think have a legitimate shot to cut down the nets in San Antonio next March.

THE FAVORITE: UCLA

If Kevin Love becomes the force in the paint that many people predict, this team will be 2008 NCAA National Champions. With that said, I think he will be and I think that this team is going to cut down the nets in San Antonio in April.STRENGTHS:

Balance. The Bruins are the most balanced team in the country. Despite the loss of Arron Afflalo to the Detroit Pistons, the backcourt is one of the best in the country. The sharp-shooting son of two world-class sprinters, Darren Collison (who actually ran a 40-yard dash faster than the fastest time at the NFL draft combine) may be the best point guard in the nation and a healthy Josh Shipp (which has rarely been seen) is a certifiable star at the SG or SF position. And, if Love can collisoncarry the scoring in the frontcourt, the rest of the Bruin bigs will take care of everything else. Cameroonian native, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute might be the nation’s best defender and Lorenzo Mata-Real (the center formerly known as simply Lorenzo Mata, I guess he got married in the offseason and kept his name) is a blue-collar rebounder, shot-blocker and presence in the middle.

-Depth. Coming off the bench, UCLA has guys like Michael Roll, Alfred Aboya, Russell Westbrook and highly-touted Nikola Dragovich. And, most of the major players on this team can play a variety of positions. Not only does this give Coach Howland great in-game flexibility, but he can juggle his starting lineup and crunch-time lineup depending on situation and matchups.

Experience. UCLA is probably the most experienced team in the country this year. Yes, the loss of Afflalo hurts, but most of the pieces are back from a team that has won 9 NCAA tournament games in the last years en route to their back-to-back Final Four appearances.

Coaching. Though I am not ready to make this claim myself, I would not argue vehemently with anyone who wanted to tell me that Ben Howland is the best coach in the country. The man simply wins. He won Big East titles at Pittsburgh with marginal talent and now he is on his way to winning national titles with great talent at UCLA. He preaches a methodical, calculated defensive brand of basketball, but somehow does it without sacrificing efficient offensive sets. Despite his slow, defensive-minded approach, somehow Howland keeps offensive stars bought-in to the system and keeps them happy on both ends of the court—something that is not easy to do with this generation’s superstars.

 QUESTION MARKS:

  –Freshman Love? Quite possible the biggest question mark of the entire season in college basketball this year revolves around the #1 ranked high school recruit, Kevin Love. If Love can adjust to the college game as well as everyone seems to think, this team has no holes and no real reason not to win the title. Love is not only a great scorer (33 points per game his senior year of high school in Lake Oswego, OR), but his passing ability has drawn comparisons to Wes Unseld and Bill Walton. Apparently, this kid is a can’t miss player. If so…wow, this team is good.

Lacking a True Small Forward? As it stands right now, it looks like the most probable starting lineup will be Collison, Shipp, Mbah a Moute, Mata-Real and Love. This means that Mbah a Moute will have to play the small forward position. This is not a problem on defense because he can guard just about any position on the floor, but offensively if really limits UCLA’s ballhandling ability. Collison is terrific and Shipp is adequate with the ball, but if a team can press effectively and get the ball into the hands of Mbah a Moute or Mata-Real, there are possibilities for turnovers.

Free-Throw Shooting? Aside from Collison and Shipp, this team has seriously struggled at the charity stripe, particularly Mbah a Moute (57%) and Mata-Real (37%–yes, 37%). This could really hurt them in tough games down the stretch. Continue reading “College Basketball Preview: The Contenders”