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.

Continue reading “2021 NCAA Tournament Previews: Friday, Early Evening Games”

Sweet Sixteen Picks – Thursday

I can’t remember a better first weekend of the tournament (though, I expect I say something to that effect every year, but this one seemed different), and now I can’t explain how great this Sweet 16 is looking.  There isn’t one total mismatch and all 16 of these teams are playing very well and none should be just “happy to be there.”  And, yet, there is not a clear favorite or underdog.  Obviously, Dayton and Stanford are surprises to be here, but they play each other and both are playing really well.  There is only one team that is more than a 5-point underdog and that San Diego State, who spent most of the year in the Top 10 in the country and even cracked the Top 5.  At least a dozen (maybe even 13 or 14) of these teams are legit Final Four contenders where we wouldn’t look back and think it absurd that they made it.  And, about half of them are legit title contenders.  This is going to be spectacular.  So, let’s make some picks, shall we?  The stars rate my confidence – going by a 5-star scale where 5 stars is a mortal lock.

Memphis, TN – Thursday, 7:15 – Dayton vs Stanford (-3)

These are the two “Cinderella” teams of the bunch and they happen to play each other in the region that holds the #1 team in America possibly waiting for them in the Elite Eight.  But, these two teams (particularly Stanford) are not your typical “happy-to-be-here” underdogs that we see in most years (Florida Gulf Coast in 2013, Ohio in 2012, Richmond in 2011, Cornell in 2010…well you get the idea).  Dayton is a legitimately solid team that earned an at-large bid from a 6-bid league, while Stanford has top-level talent, even though they muddled through various parts of the season.  I might be the only one, but I really like this Stanford team and think they have the talent to play with the best teams in the country.  Chasson Randle is a special point guard, and Dwight Powell is a borderline star.  Plus, when they added Josh Huestis to the starting lineup, they got INCREDIBLY big.  Their starting lineup is 6’2″, 6’6″, 6’7″, 6’10”, and 6’11”.  That’s NBA size that I think will overpower Dayton here.  A game like this usually begs me to take the points, but I am going to lay the 3 here.
The Pick:  Stanford -3 (**)

Anaheim, CA – Thursday, 7:47 – Baylor vs Wisconsin (-3.5)

Did any team in the tournament look any better than Baylor last weekend?  They pounded a good Nebraska team before absolutely annihilating Doug McDermott and Creighton in the second round.  And, this after a blisteringly hot February that led into a run to the Big XII title game.  I am not sure anyone wants to play this Baylor team right now, but you know Wisconsin won’t be scared.  Bo Ryan’s teams are always prepared (though, they seem to underachieve a bit in the tournament) and this team, in particular, does something that Bo’s teams of the past didn’t do – score.  They do give it up defensively more than usual, but the Badgers can spread you out with all 5 guys showing long-range potential, even their 7-foot center Frank Kaminsky.  This should be a fantastic game, but I am not sure that Wisconsin can keep up with the athletes that Baylor has – if the Baylor of the past month shows up…which is still a question mark.  But, with Baylor playing so well, I feel you have to take the 3.5 here, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them win outright.
The Pick:  Baylor +3.5 (***)

Memphis, TN – Thursday, 9:45 – UCLA vs Florida (-5)

As good as the Baylor-Wisconsin game should be, this is probably the game of the night.  A game of contrasting styles to the max, as UCLA loves to get up and down the floor, as the 15th fastest team in the country on offense without sacrificing any efficiency, as they rank 12th in the country with 1.17 points per possession.  This team is so gifted offensively with matchup nightmares all over the court, most notably their 6’8″ point-forward Kyle Anderson, who is averaging a ridiculous stat line of 15 points, 8.5 boards, and 6.5 assists per game.  Those are outlandish numbers in a 40-minute game with a :35 second shot clock.  And, what makes this game so great is that this incredibly fast and efficient UCLA offense is going up against maybe the best defensive team in the country (they are actually ranked #2 behind Arizona in adjusted dEff).  When UCLA has the ball, this is going to be unbelievably intriguing.  However, the other side is where the mismatch occurs and probably where the game will be decided.  Florida – known for their suffocating defense – is actually a very efficient offensive team – which will be going up against UCLA defense that has taken its lumps publicly this year.  The fast-paced tempo of the Bruins offense actually belies the relative effectiveness of their defense, so I think they are very underrated on that end of the court, but it is still hard to make the case that they are any better than “decent” on the defensive end.  Because of this, I think Florida makes just enough plays to win the game, but, personally, I think the right side of this is to take the points.
The Pick:  UCLA +5 (**)

Anaheim, CA – Thursday, 10:17 – San Diego State vs Arizona (-7.5)

If you like defense, take a nap this afternoon so you can stay up and watch this one.  These two teams really get after it on the defensive end.  They don’t just hold teams down because they are slow and plodding and conservative.  These two teams have long, athletic defenders all over the court and they seem to absolutely love to play straight-up man-to-man, in-your-face defense.  And, the numbers reflect this, as both teams are ranked in the top 10 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency (Arizona is #1, SDSU is #7).  The problem for the Aztecs is that they really only have two scorers that they can rely on – Xavier Thames and Winston Shephard – and if you could pick any two guys in the country to take and matchup against those two, you might pick Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon, who both happen to play for Arizona.  So, the two big questions for this game are (1) can SDSU find offense from their gritty, hard-nosed role players like Josh Davis and J.J. O’Brien (or off the bench from guys like Dwayne Pollee), and (2) will the defensive efforts of Johnson and Gordon still allow them to contribute on the other end or will the offensive load fall on UA’s secondary scorers like Kaleb Tarczewski and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson?  Whatever ends up happening, this is another fascinating game and, as maybe the ultimate sign of how great this tournament continues to be, is the largest spread of the round…at only -7.5.  At the end of the day, I do think Arizona will win the game, but I don’t think I can possibly give 7.5 when the game is likely to be in the 60’s.
The Pick:  San Diego State +7.5 (***)

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)

2010 College Basketball Conference Previews: Big Ten

Known as more of a football conference historically, the Big Ten just might be the best basketball conference in the country this year.

Conference Tidbits

  • The Big Ten led the nation in attendence last year for an astounding 34th consecutive season, averaging more than 12,500 fans per game.  The conference has drawn more than 2 million fans every season since 1991-92.  The SEC was a distant second with an average attendence of 11,770.
  • Last year, the Big Ten won the ACC/Big Ten Challenge for the first time in the 11-year history of the event.  This year’s schedule is headlined by the marquee matchups of Michigan State at Duke, UNC at Illinois, and Ohio State at Florida State.
  • The only new coach in the conference is Iowa’s Fran McCaffery (proud alumnus of LaSalle High School in North Philly).  McCaffery, coming off five stellar seasons at Siena, will try to lead his 4th separate program to the NCAA Tournament.  Along with Siean in each of the past three seasons, McCaffery also went to the Big Dance with UNC-Greensboro in 2001 and Lehigh in 1988 (the #16-seed that lost to the #1 overall seeded Temple Owls).

Blue Ribbon’s All-Conference Teams

MVP:  JaJuan Johnson (Purdue)
E’Twuan Moore (Purdue)
Talor Battle (Penn State)
Jon Leuer (Wisconsin)
Draymond Green (Michigan State)

TOP NEWCOMER:  Jared Sullinger (Ohio State)

BSB’s Picks

  1. Ohio State
  2. Michigan State
  3. Illinois
  4. Purdue
  5. Minnesota
  6. Wisconsin
  7. Northwestern
  8. Penn State
  9. Indiana
  10. Iowa
  11. Michigan

Lock Tournament Teams:  Michigan State, Ohio State, Illinois, Purdue
Very Likely Tournament Teams:  Minnesota
Possible Tournament Teams:  Wisconsin, Northwestern, Penn State
Possible NIT Teams:  Indiana, Iowa
Unlikely Postseason Teams:  Michigan

The Favorite – Michigan State

With all apologies, Coach K, his name is just easier to spell...oh, and he just might be the best coach in the country

This is more of a what the national perception is, by calling them the favorite.  As you can see above, I picked Ohio State as the best team in this conference, but I think most people, coming into the season, would have pegged Michigan State as the favorite to win the best conference in basketball.  And, they are loaded, with the best coach in the country guiding this ship.

The Team
While, somehow, Blue Ribbon didn’t pick senior point guard Kalin Lucas as the player of the year (in fact, he wasn’t even on Blue Ribbon’s first-team all-Big Ten), I actually believe that Lucas is the best player in the conference.  He won the award two years ago, as a sophomore, and didn’t win it last year because of injuries.  If he is healthy (which, admittedly, is a significant “if”), then Michigan State has the best player in the conference, and maybe even the best player in the nation.  If Lucas does miss time or starts slow, Sparty can just turn to the guy they turned to last year in the most important of times, Korie Lucious, who filled in for an injured Lucas to lead the Spartans to an unlikely Final Four.  Lucious is back for his sophomore season, and both guys are absolute jets up and down the court.

The other starting guard will most likely be 6’4″ senior, Darrell Summers.  Summers had an up-and-down junior season, but came up huge in the NCAA tournament, averaging close to 20 ppg.  Summers is an excellent perimeter defender and a very good rebounder from the guard position.

As you can see with a starting backcourt of two seniors, not only is Michigan State talented, but they’re also experienced.  The frontcourt is no different, as they should start 2 more juniors at forward.  And, not only are these two forwards experienced, but they’re big and very, very skilled.  6’8″ small forward Delvon Roe is really big for a small forward and can easily slide to the 4, if Izzo wants to run small.  Roe is very skilled and a fantastic defender.  The other forward is 6’6″, 230-pound Draymond Green.  And, it’s hard to say the “other forward” because there is a really good chance, even as good as Lucas, Roe, and Summers are, that this team will revolve around Draymond Green.  He is truly a do-it-all kind of a player.  He has the junkyard dog kind of mentality, but he couples it with incredible skills.  He’s 6’6″, 230 pounds, but can put the ball of the floor like a guard.  He is also a phenomenal passer, as indicated by his 112 assists last year (third on the team, only 19 fewer than starting point guard, Lucas, and 6 fewer than backup point guard, Lucious).  But, he is also a tenacious rebounder and interior defender, who could play the 5, if needed.  He runs the floor well and should enable the Spartans to get out in transition a lot this year.

Obviously, this team will start Lucas, Summers, Roe, and Green, but the fifth spot could be anyone.  On some nights, Izzo might decide to go really small and run out two point guards and start Lucious.  Most nights, however, he will probably go conventional for most of the game, and that works because he has a trio of very good bigs that could fill that center position.  The most likely is 6’9″ sophomore, Derrick Nix.  Nix has dropped 60 pounds since arriving on campus at an incredible 340 pounds.  But, along with the weight, Nix brought with him some serious talent and should probably be the starting center by the time it really matters.  Another option is another big sophomore, Garrick Sherman.  Sherman is more of a solid, space-eater kind of guy, which might work well, considering the Spartans probably won’t need a lot of scoring from this spot.  The really intriguing option, however, is 6’10” freshman, Adreian Payne.  Payne was rated as the #3 center in this freshman class and the #20 overall prospect.  In fact, Tom Izzo was quoted as saying that Payne is “the most athletic big man we’ve ever had.”  Payne was supposed to be a one-and-done guy, but he got hurt early in the summer and has had to rehab ever since, so he might not be ready to make that jump, which may not be good news in the short-run for Michigan St., but is very good in the long run, if they get an extra year out of him.

Payne wasn’t the only top-notch recruit that Izzo welcomes this year.  Point guard Keith Appling, who also might end up starting in a small lineup, was last year’s Mr. Basketball in Michigan.  Appling can flat-out fill it up, but his real strength is his floor game.  There are some people who say that, if Appling stays a couple years under Izzo, that he might go down among the greatest point guards to play in East Lansing – you know a list that includes some guy named “Magic.”

Are They Better Than Last Year?
I would say that, yes, they are better than they were last year.  I know that last year’s team made the Final Four, but they weren’t nearly that dominant in the regular season.  This year, they could stay in the top five or ten all year long.  That being said, they do have some replacing to do.  Chris Allen ended his tumultuous Michigan State career by finally being dismissed by Izzo and ending up as a transfer to Iowa St.  While Izzo had bigs plans for Allen this year, he is replaceable.  One guy who might not be so easy to replace is Raymar Morgan.  Morgan may be the most underappreciated player I’ve ever seen in college hoops, and I don’t know why.  Ask any Michigan State fan how they feel about him and they will say something disparaging in some way.  But, every time I watched the guy play, he just seemed like he was something special.  He understood the game and played it with an unlikely combination of finesse and power on both ends of the floor.  I think Morgan is a tough guy to replace.  But, all in all, with a healthy Lucas, this is definitely a better version of the Michigan State team of a year ago.

Question Marks
Replacing Allen?  They knew that they were going to have to replace Morgan because he was a senior.  They did not know that they’d have to find someone to take the place of Allen so soon.  And, what they’ve lost is a really terrifying outside shoter.  Lucas is a good shooter, and Appling might light it up, but Allen was feared.

Health?  Lucas, mainly.  If he’s healthy, a lot of questions surrounding this team will be answered.  If not, who knows where they’ll end up.  There are also pretty serious health concerns surround Delvon Roe and, to a lesser degree, Draymond Green.  In tact, this is a great team, but in pieces, they will have to speed up the development of guys like Appling and Payne.

Their Ceiling
No doubt this team can win the National Championship.  Will they?  Well, that depends on many things, not the least of which is health.  But, they have the talent, the experience, and the coach to cut down the nets.

My Favorite – Ohio St.
Evan Turner is wearing a Sixers uniform, but the Buckeyes are loaded with young and old and may be able to surprise every again with another Big Ten title and long NCAA tournament run.

The Team
The Buckeyes have the always great college combination of veteran leadership and young, elite talent.  They also have go-to scorers on the perimeter and in the post, and, arguably, the best defender in the country, in fifth-year senior, David Lighty.  This is a pretty nice recipe for success.

Their backcourt is well stocked with returning players other than Lighty, including dead-eye shooter (and all-time leading scorer in the history of Ohio basketball) Jon Deibler and super-scorer William Buford.  With those two, the Buckeyes will have no problem scoring on the wing.

With the addition of Jared Sullinger (above), DeShaun Thomas, and Aaron Kraft, Ohio State may have the best combination of youthful talent and veteran experience in all the land

And, they should have no problem scoring in the post, either, with the addition of super-frosh, Jared Sullinger.  Sullinger, the co-MVP of the 2010 McDonald’s All-American game may push Kyrie Irving and Harrison Barnes in the freshman of the year race.  Starting alongside Sullinger down low is another veteran in massive power forward Dallas Lauderdale.  The Buckeyes have size and strength to go along with their veteran leadership and scoring ability.

And, Sullinger is not the only piece to the incoming class that should make waves.  In fact, Thad Matta, over the past 4-5 years, may have established himself as the best recruiter in the college basketball.  Along with Sullinger, the prize of the class, are some “other pieces” that would be the prizes of 99% of D-I programs.  DeShaun Thomas scored 3,018 points in his high school career, ranking him 3rd on the all-time scoring list in the state of Indiana – not exactly a state devoid of talent.  In fact, Thomas was chosen as one of 26 players on the Indiana State All-Century team, alongside guys like Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson.  Matta also landed a possible star point guard in local product, Aaron Craft.  Craft, also a star quarterback and valedictorian of his high school class, may just start right away for this team at the point.  They also added another top 40 guy in Jordan Sibert, who has been compared favorably to Buford and should step right in for him when he needs a breather.

Are They Better Than Last Year?
On the surface, it’s hard to imagine that they could be better without the national player of the year, but I think they are.  Turner may have had the best single season in the history of Ohio State basketball, but the rest of the team is all back, including some very experienced players (remember, Lighty was a key player on the Oden-Conley team that lost to Florida in the national championship game in 2007), and, more importantly, Thad Matta has brought in a ton of freshman talent with all sorts of complementing skill sets, including a flat-out stud in Sullinger.

Question Marks
The Meshing of Old and New?  Obviously, there is something to be said for supreme freshman talent (a Top 5 guy, a Top 10 guy, a Top 25 guy, and a Top 40 guy) wanting to play and play immediately.  With the exception of Sullinger and maybe Craft, there isn’t really room for starting spots with the return of Lighty, Diebler, and Buford (and even Lauderdale), so will guys like Thomas and Sibert be effective off the bench?

Defense?  Not usually a question mark for OSU and it’s surprising that it would be here because they have, in my opinion, the best all-around defender in the country, in Lighty, but the rest of the team, with the exception of Lauderdale, is either a little deficient or green or both on the defensive end.  I don’t think this is a huge concern because Matta teaches defense, but something to keep an eye on.

Ceiling
I agree with Doogan’s thoughts here, in that this team definitely has Final Four potential, and I even think that they have a legitimate shot to win the whole thing.  They are balanced, experienced, well-coached, and most of all, supremely talented.

Elite – Illinois
You might not know this, but Illinois hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2006 – their longest drought in 30 years.  That will most likely change this year, as this team is loaded.

The Team

The best player in the best conference might be the guy no one is talking about

The Illini have all five starters returning and back-to-back stellar recruiting classes.  The program is on the rise.  And, there are plenty of good-to-great players and potential stars on this team, but there is one guy that rules the roost in Champaign, and that is 6’3″ senior point guard, Demetri McCamey.  McCamey is a bonafied superstar who has an outside shot at Big Ten Player of the Year this year.  Averaging over 15 ppg last year, he also dished out more than 7 assists per game.  This is the year of McCamey in Champaign, and he seems ready to take it on.

Back in the starting lineup beside McCamey are backcourt mate, D.J. Richardson, and two frontcourt seniors, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale.  Richardson, last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year, is a lightning-quick slasher with a very good outside shot to keep defenders honest.  But, his real strength is on the defensive end, where he is a complete shut-down perimeter defender.  Davis added 20 pounds of muscle this offseason and is always ready to do the dirty work.  Tisdale is a soft, almost European-esque player, but is very skilled and stands tall at 7’1″.  Tisdale is not a good defender, but he is actually a very good outside shooter.  Can you imagine a 7-footer (not named Dirk) that can shoot the three-ball?  He will add that to his repertoire this year, after only missing one of the six threes he attempted in games last year.

But, there is one guy not yet mentioned that could make or break this Illinois season – Jereme Richmond.  Richmond, a 6’7″ freshman small forward from Chicago is going to start right away for Bruce Weber.  You may recognize the name.  He was the kid that committed to Illinois four years ago, as a freshman in high school.  Well, he followed through on his committment and now he’s here and he’s ready to shine.  Richmond, who was Illinois’s Mr. Basketball as a senior (and runner-up as a junior) is the first McDonald’s All-American to come to Illinois in the Weber Era.  He’s the real deal and can do it all.  With McCamey running the show, Richmond could really shine.

Another guy who could really shine this year is the guy who beat out Richmond for Illinois’s Mr. Basketball two years ago, Brandon Paul.  Paul is a supreme athlete who can jump out of the gym and shows up with a lot of energy.  However, he sometimes needs to reign it in, which if he can, he has all the skills to be a true star.  He will get a lot of minutes off the bench in both guard spots and look for him to maybe put up double-figure scoring numbers this year, as the Illini can get points from anywhere, it seems.

There are two valuable backup forwards that can contribute to Illinois this year.  The first is sophomore Tyler Griffey.  Griffey, an athletic defensive stopper has off-the-charts strength.  Senior Bill Cole should also provide some quality minutes because of his tenacious work ethic and strength.

Are They Better Than Last Year?
Without a doubt.  The Illini have everyone back and they’ve added the best recruit they’ve had since Derron Williams.  Watch out for Illinois this year.

Question Marks
Toughness?  They still seem a bit soft, particularly for play in the Big Ten.  Tisdale is 7’1″ and afraid of contact.  Davis is not exactly a bruiser down low either.  They will need significant “tough” minutes from Griffey and Cole off the bench to be able to stay with the bigger teams in the conference like Michigan State or Wisconsin.  But, they certainly have the skill to play with anyone.

A Top Dog?  I love McCamey and think he’s going to be a star, but are we sure he’s ready to be the best player on an elite team.  I think so, but I’m not totally sure yet.

Their Ceiling
This team is very good and, with a couple breaks, could vie for the Big Ten title.  I would say that they are clearly a Sweet Sixteen caliber team with, depending on just how good Richmond is, a very outside shot at a Final Four run.  Either way, they should break the five-year drought since winning their last NCAA Tournament game.

Elite – Purdue
It’s almost natural to want to write them off after losing Robbie Hummel yet again.  But, let’s be careful of that because we tried that last year when they went from everyone’s darling heading into the tournament to everyone’s first-round upset pick.  Well, they didn’t get upset in the first round, then won again in the second round, and then gave eventual champion Duke all they could handle in the Sweet Sixteen.  There is a lot of talent on this team not named Hummel, that is still very healthy.  And, this team is actually pretty deep this time around.

The Team
Four years ago, Matt Painter brought in an under-the-radar recruiting class and decided to play them right away, take their lumps, and get ready to shine as upperclassmen.  Well, the plan worked to perfection, except for that darn ACL of Robbie Hummel.  Fortunately for Painter and the rest of the Boilermakers, the other two guys are very, very good.  6’10” center JuJuan Johnson and 6’4″ shooting guard E’Twaun Moore are two of the best players in country and even if Robbie Hummel had never existed, this team would still be touted as one of the best in the country.  Johnson is on the short-list for potential national player of the year candidates, and Moore can flat-out fill it up.  Both should have decent shots at playing at the next level next year.  But, this team is not just these two.  Lewis Jackson is a phenomenal player who missed the second half of last year due to a foot injury.  He’s back and healthy and people will quickly remember just how good this guy is, even if they can’t see the little 5’9″ point guard because he’s moving too fast.

All you ever hear about Purdue is "if only they had Robbie Hummel last year..." Maybe, instead, we should be saying "if they only had Lewis Jackson last year..."

After Johnson, Moore, and Jackson, the other two starting spots may be decided on a night-to-night basis.  6’5″ sophomore Kelsey Barlow will almost assuredly find himself in the starting lineup on most nights.  A scrapper and great defender last year, Barlow could, eventually flourish into a decent scorer for the Boilermakers – they just don’t need that this year.  One of the guys that might take the Hummel spot in the lineup is 6’5″ sophomore, D.J. Byrd.  Byrd is a scrappy rebounder with a decent outside shot, but doesn’t really need to take anything more than the defense gives him.  6’8″ sophomore Patrick Bade was the backup center last year and could slide into the starting PF spot, aside Johnson.  Bade is a real bruiser (was offered a football scholarship as a tight end by Notre Dame, among others) with a nose for the ball, but like Byrd, won’t provide more than the occasional “flow-of-the-offense” scoring.  If Coach Painter is looking for scoring, he might find it in 6’2″ sophomore shooter, John Hart, who can light it up if given the opportunity.  Also, look for junkyard dog, hustler Ryne Smith to get a lot of action at the 2-guard, as well.  (See, I told you they were deep.)

The real intriguing part of this team this year, however, is probably wrapped up in two freshmen named Johnson.  6’2″ Terone Johnson is the prize of this year’s recruiting class and just may force his way into the starting lineup come season’s end.  Drawing many comparisons to teammate E’Twaun Moore, Johnson, like Moore, was runner-up Mr. Basketball in Indiana, and can flat-out fill it up.  The other Johnson, Anthony Johnson is another guy who will probably get a boatload of minutes on this team.  This Johnson can flat-out shoot and has played – and shined – at the highest levels of high school ball in Chicago.

Are They Better Than Last Year?
They are not better than last year’s team when Hummel was healthy because he’s just too hard of a guy to replace.  But, I think they are considerably than they were last year without Hummel.  JuJuan Johnson is ready to be a top 10 player in the country, and E’Twaun Moore has developed into one of the best “second-best” players on any team in America.  If either (or both) of the freshman Johnsons pan out, this team could be really good.

Question Marks
Depth?  This isn’t the same question that it was for them last year.  They have decent players.  The question here is do they have enough “elite” players to be an “elite” team?  Are Johnson and Moore enough to win a conference title in an absolutely loaded Big Ten?  Maybe

The Johnsons?  Can either of the freshman Johnsons emerge and fill at least a little of what they are lacking without Robbie Hummel?

Their Ceiling
Call me crazy, but even without Hummel, I think this team has the potential to be a Final Four team.  Everyone is so focused on what “could have been” with all three seniors and seem to be missing what “actually is” with the two that are still there.  It’s hard to find a better one-two combination than Johnson and Moore anywhere in the country.  Plus, I think people forget just how good Lewis Jackson is.  If they get anything from anyone else on this deep roster, they could be a really formidable team come March.  Look for the Boilers to make a run at a Big Ten title and then possibly a deep tournament run.

The Team to Watch – Minnesota
Tubby Smith can flat-out coach.  Maybe he can’t recruit well enough for a job like Kentucky, but there is a solid place for a guy like him at the college level, and he is going to bring the best out of the Golden Gophers this year, like he last year.

The Team

As happened again with Trevor Mbakwe, Tubby always seems willing to trade off-court issues for on-court baskets

One of the knocks on Tubby is a lack of discipline (or, maybe just a knack for ignoring character in recruiting), and no better example of that is their best player this year, Trevor Mbakwe.  Mbakwe, who has a decent shot at all-Big Ten honors this year, had to sit out last year after being charged with felony assault in Florida.  The case was settled out of court, so Mbakwe is cleared to return to the other court – the basketball court.  And, man, is he welcomed back.  After one year at Marquette, one year in junior college, and one year under suspension, Mbakwe is ready to start his Minnesota career.  He is a true post player that could really make a huge difference for a team that was sorely lacking a true inside scorer a year ago.  Don’t get me wrong, they have some talented frontline players, particularly Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson, but those two are tall and slow.  Mbakwe is the athletic frontline player that is needed in the college game that features so many quick power forwards.  Sampson and Iverson are very good in their roles and should be freed up to rebound, block shots and just be tall this year because of Mbakwe.

The backcourt is also strong for a seemingly overlooked team in the preseason.  They are led back there by senior shooting guard Blake Hoffarber, who led the Big Ten in 3-point shooting a year ago, shooting 46.7% from behind the arc and set a school record with his 85 treys.  The point guard duties are up in the air, but it’s a pretty good problem for Tubby to have.  6’1″ senior, Al Nolen started the first ten games last year, but then was declared academically ineligible.  Nolen is back now, hoping to regain his starting spot from 6’3″ junior Devoe Joseph, who might not give it up easily.  Joseph was 10th in the Big Ten last year in assist-to-turnover rate, filling in for Nolen.  There is also an incoming freshman, Maverick Ahanmisi who may get some minutes at the point in his inaugural tour with the Gophers.

Are They Better Than Last Year?
The Gophers did lose their best player off of last year’s squad, in Damian Johnson, but the added Mbakwe in the frontcourt and get Nolen back in the backcourt.  I think that they probably underachieved last year in barely sneaking into the tournament, so I’m not sure they are a lot better, but I do expect better results this year than they had last year (you know, before their amazing Big Ten tournament run).

Question Marks
How Will Mbakwe Fit In?  If he’s as good as advertised, the sky is the limit for this team.  If not, they might just struggle to score at all without Johnson.

Who is Going to Score?  Similar to the last question, other than Mbakwe and the three-point shooting of Hoffarber, the Gophers do seriously lack anything remotely close to a go-to scorer.  Sampson and Iverson are nice, tall players, but not reliable scorers.  Nolen and Joseph are distributing point guards.  If Mbakwe is not lighting up the scoreboard, they may struggle to score, even with Tubby’s fast-paced style of play.

Their Ceiling
I don’t think they have the horses to compete for a Big Ten title in the best year this conference has seen, but they should definitely be a tournament team.  I think that their ceiling is probably Sweet Sixteen, with the more likely scenario being a 7 or 8 seed and not making it out of the first weekend.

Contender – Wisconsin
The Badgers are always good for one reason – Bo Ryan.  I can’t think of more than 3 or 4 coaches in the country I would take over Bo, and I’m not even sure I’d take any of them for a program like Wisconsin.  The Badgers are never going to recruit all 5-star kids, but the kids that do go are ready to work and ready to play defense.  Bo loves that and does it as well as anyone around.  This team should be no different.  They have one star to lean on and a defensive style that give other teams fits.

A pale-skinned star at Wisconsin? Ya, right, the next thing you'll tell me is that the Utah Jazz are interested in drafting him

The Team
It all starts and ends with Player of the Year candidate, Jon Leuer.  Leuer, coming off of an injury-plagued junior season, appears healthy and ready to put this team on his back and carry them as far as he can.  Leuer, a bonafied star, is joined in the frontcourt by an unheralded returning senior, Keaton Nankivil, who can, at times, take the scoring load as he, with his deft shooting touch, fits perfectly into the Wisconsin offense.

The backcourt took a big hit with the graduation of Trevon Hughes and Brian Bohannon – two stalwarts for the Badger program.  They do have one holdover from last year, and it is junior point guard Jordan Taylor.  Without Hughes and Bohannon, Taylor will have to take on a much larger offensive role this year, and he’s very much capable.  Expect a big scoring jump from Taylor this year, as he and Leuer should play a really dangerous inside-outside game.  The rest of the backcourt is a bit choppy, as they will rely on senior Tim Jarmusz and junior Rob Wilson to fill in a lot of minutes, considering very few rotation players return from a year ago.

There are a couple young guys who will be given every opportunity to break out this year, including sophomores Ryan Evans, Jared Berggren, and Mike Bruesewitz.  They also have a little help in the frontcourt with 6’11” fifth-year senior, J.P. Gavinski.

The Badgers do have a couple promising freshmen, led by a top-100 recruit in center Evan Anderson.  They also have a slick shooting guard that was supposed to go to Iowa, Ben Brust, and a lanky Yugoslavian small forward, Duje Dukan.

Are They Better Than Last Year?
No.  Hughes, especially, but also Bohannon were just too good to replace with a bunch of guys who haven’t seen much Big Ten action.  Leuer is back and healthy, so that is a big plus, and Taylor should emerge as one of the Big Ten’s best point guards, but there just isn’t enough around them to say that they are better than they were last year.  Then again, Bo always does great things with rosters from which you don’t expect much.

Question Marks
Is there anybody else?  Leuer and Taylor are good.  Nankivil is decent.  What else is there?  Can Jarumsz or Wilson step up?  Will they get a breakout from someone like Bruesewitz or Berggren?

Can Bo do it again?  He has made a name for himself winning with smoke and mirrors.  This year, he has a stud in Leuer, so he can lean on that, but he’s pretty lean in other places.

Their Ceiling
I’ve been surprised before, so I think they’ll be in it, but I don’t think the Badgers can hang with the likes of Michigan St. or Ohio St. in the Big Ten race.  I think they will make the tournament, but the Sweet Sixteen would be the absolute maximum you can expect from the Badgers this year, I would say.

The Relevants
Two Big Ten teams that have lived almost their entire basketball lives as “irrelevant” round out the nine “relevant” Big Ten teams this year.  It would be phenomenal seasons if either of these teams made the NCAA tournament, but don’t rule it out because there is talent there.  In fact, I will be rooting for both Northwestern and Penn State to make the tournament, as both of their fan bases deserve it.

Northwestern

With a name like Juice, he has to be good

“That’s the fire swamp; we’ll never survive!”  “Nonsense, you’re only saying that because nobody ever has.”  I really wanted to talk about Northwestern as a “Contender” alongside Wisconsin.  But, Northwestern has been competing in men’s basketball since 1904 and, to this day, has never competed in the NCAA tournament.  So, I’ll say it here – I will not consider them a contender until they make the tournament.  So, they are stuck with “Relevant.”  But, the pieces are in place to make it so next year I might have the opportunity to make the a Contender, if I so choose.  This team can make the tournament.  Will they?  It’s hard to say.  They took a big hit backwards when one of their stars, Kevin Coble decided that his injured foot wasn’t healing correctly and was going to begin his “life after basketball” a year early.  But, there are plenty of leaders on this team and none more important to his team (maybe to any team in the county) than 5’9″ senior Juice Thompson.  Thompson, who has started every game of his college career and played over 93% of Northwestern’s minutes last year, is a phenomenal point guard.  Last year, he posted a 14.2 ppg average, a 2.4:1 assist-to-turnover rate, 88 three-pointers (41%), and 83% free throw percentage.  The guy is a star.  But, he’s not the only one.  The 6’8″ junior forward John Shurna lit it up last year inside and out, averaging over 18 ppg.   And, sophomore swingman Drew Crawford had an excellent freshman season and is ready to take another step this year.  The Wildcats also will get versatile 6’6″ senior forward Jeff Ryan back from an injury last year.  And, maybe most importantly, they have added the metro-Atlanta high school player of the year, JerShon Cobb, to the mix as a coup of a recruit.  Like I said, this team has all the pieces to end a Cubs-like drought for the Chicago institution, but are Thompson, Shurna, and Crawford enough to exorcise those demons?

Penn State
If there are two things that will bring a typically irrelevant college basketball program to relevancy – even if only for one year – they are (a) a load of seniors and (b) one special player.  Penn State has both of those things this year, so despite their disastrous season last year, I believe that this team

Talor Battle is trying to follow in the footsteps of the great John Amaechi...you know, as a Penn State alum making the NBA

can be relevant in a loaded Big Ten this year (much to the delight of my BSB compadre, Doogan).  It all starts with Talor Battle.  Battle is a stud, who will be playing professionally next year, somewhere, and it might even be The Association.  Battle is a do-it-all guard who has the ability to the be the best player on the floor on any given night.  When you have that, you’ve got a chance.  But, it’s not just Battle, as the Nittany Lions throw out three other seniors with a wealth of Big Ten experience under their belts (the 4 seniors have combined for 301 starts in the college careers).  David Jackson can score in bunches from the perimeter and, though he’s only 6’6″, is more than willing to mix it up down low with anyone on the defensive end.  6’10” Andrew Jones is a true back-to-the-basket player, who has the size and strength to make a difference.  He just has to be more consistent and take charge in the box.  Jeff Brooks has all the size and talent to be a star, he just has never really put it together.  Shot selection and defensive intensity have been real concerns for a 6’8″ wing who seems to prefer to take ill-advised jumpshots over driving to the basket and taking a hit.  If Brooks can learn to use his talents, he could be an excellent option.

The Irrelevants
As surprising as it is to see Northwestern and Penn State populate the “Relevants” category, it is eve more surprising to see Indiana as “Irrelevant,” but that is the case.  Iowa and Michigan should also struggle mightily this year, although Iowa is at least going in the right direction.

  • Indiana.  Man, it’s hard to talk about Indiana as being irrelevant, but that is what Mike Davis and, moreso, Kelvin Sampson have done to this program.  But, have no fear, Hoosier fans, the irrelevancy will not last long because you guys have one of the absolute best at the helm.  Tom Crean will turn this ship around in no time – maybe even sooner than people think.  If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen because of Maurice Creek, the do-everything sophomore guard who only played in 12 games before injury cut his freshman year short.  But, those 12 games were very impressive, as he led all freshmen in the country in scoring at the time of his injury.
  • Iowa.  The Hawkeyes have a new coach, and he’s a good one.  Philly’s own Fran McCaffery has landed in Ames to try and bring the Iowa back to prominence after the failed Todd Lickliter Era.  He’s got some talent to do so, but it might take a year or two.  Sophomore Cully Payne was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last year.  Junior Matt Gatens was on the All-Freshmen Team two years ago, and sophomore Eric May joined Payne on last year’s All-Freshmen Team.  So, there’s a decent, young nucleus around which McCaffery can build, but he took a big hit when a really nice recruiting class all deserted Iowa when Lickliter was relieved of his coaching duties.  Either way, I think this team will be okay, but not really in the race at any point…yet.
  • Michigan.  John Beilein is good, but I’m not sure he’s this good.  Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims are gone, and there is very little left in the cupboard for the great Beilein to work with.  This team is going to struggle mightily.  Thank god for Rich Rod or Beilein’s seat might be even hotter.  The only real shot Michigan has is that juniors Zach Novak and Stu Douglass play more like they did as freshmen than as they did as sophomores, and that sophomore Darius Morris can step up and be a true dynamic lead guard.

Sweet Sixteen: Day Two

Last night’s games were pretty exciting.  The West Virginia-Xavier game was a terrific game.  Western Kentucky’s run against UCLA was somewhat surprising and exciting.  The Louisville-Tennessee game was incredibly sloppy and somewhat disappointing as far as how the Vols did not show up in the second half.  And, how good does UNC look right now?  Answer:  VERY good.  That was a good team that they manhandled last night.

As for tonight, it should be another great quartet of high-quality basketball games.

curry2Friday 7:10:  #3 Wisconsin vs #10 Davidson
Cinderella, it’s getting close to midnight.  Is there one last dance left in the Davidson Wildcats?  That will be the question answered tonight.  Davidson and Stephen Curry have been, unquestionably, the story of this year’s tournament and probably the one non-champion that will be most remembered from this tournament.  They came from behind to knock off two ranked teams, including heavy favorite, Georgetown, in three days, and now their reward is a Sweet Sixteen matchup with the Wisconsin Badgers.

As good as Stephen Curry has been in the first two rounds, the most impressive thing in their two tournament games, for me (someone who, admittedly, did not watch one regular season SoCon game this year) has been the play of point guard Jason Richards.  I knew that Richards led the country in assists per game–by a wide margin at 8.0 per game–so he had to be a good player, but he has been terrific.  The other standout player for the Wildcats in the first two rounds has been big man, Andrew Lovedale.  Lovedale, like Curry and even Richards to a certain extent, does not play like a guy on a SoCon team.  At 6’8″, the guy has some solid post moves, a soft touch from as far out as 15 feet and is a tenacious rebounder.  He seems like he would be good enough to get a lot of minutes in a major conference.  So, this team is not just Curry–though without him, they certainly are not still playing.  Curry was absolutely terrific, scoring 70 points in the first two rounds (55 of those 70 were scored in the games’ second halves) and willed his team to victory.  It was obvious that he was the man that teams had to stop and two very well-coached teams still could not do it.  He may need a third straight career game tonight, though.

As good of a coach as Mark Few or John Thompson III are, I believe that there are a handful of coaches around the country that are head-and-shoulders above their peers in ability to maximize talent and flat-out win basketball games.  Bo Ryan is, without a doubt, on this list.  Ryan, a Philly guy through and through, has made a real name for himself in Madison.  If I were to ask:  “What Big 10 school has the most league victories since 2001?”  I don’t know how many people would answer Wisconsin with their first guess.  In fact, I probably would have said Michigan St.  Many may have guessed Indiana, but it actually is Wisconsin.  And Ryan (who arrived in Madison in 2001) has done it with how many “stars?”  Off the top of my head, I can only think of one Bo Ryan-coached player that is a really good NBA player–Devin Harris.  Alando Tucker was drafted by Phoenix, but has only played 12 minutes this year.  I don’t think Kammron Taylor is in the league, and Kirk Penny had a cup of coffee.  So, Ryan does it without pro talent–and he does it every year.

This year, he is led by seniors Brian Butch and Michael Flowers.  I have said many times that I believe Flowers to be one of the five best perimeter defenders in the country–more on this in a minute.  The Badgers have also seen production from junior Marcus Landry and sophomores Brian Bohannon (sharp-shooter extraordinaire) and rising-star Trevon Hughes.  Hughes, Landry, and Butch provide just enough offense to allow the defense to carry the day.  This defense is led by Flowers, a high energy guy who almost always draws the other team’s best perimeter scorer.  I wonder where this leads us…

THE PICK:  For Davidson to win this game, they are going to need another big-time performance from Stephen Curry.  Honestly, I just do not see that happening against Michael Flowers.  This matchup is the key to this game, and I give the advantage to the defender.  That combined with the fact that Bo Ryan had 5 days to prepare for Davidson leads me to believe that Wisconsin will win this game somewhat handlely, though the score may seem close because the Badgers do not really blow people out.  I expect Wisconsin to be playing again on Sunday.

Friday 7:27:  #2 Texas vs #3 Stanford
As I said when talking about the Louisville-Tennessee matchup yesterday, if you had told me that Texas and Stanford would meet in this year’s tournament, I would have guessed that it was at least an Elite Eight game, if not in the Final Four.  But, we get this game in the Sweet Sixteen.  As much as I was looking forward to the big 2-3 matchup yesterday, I have been even more excited for this one.

Stanford comes in with incredibly strong credentials for a #3 seed.  They were clearly the second-best team in the best barnesconference.  They played a decent non-conference schedule and only tripped up once (a road loss to Siena).  They then reached the finals of the Pac 10, before losing a close one to UCLA.  They were undefeated at home and 26-7 overall, with two of the losses in overtime.  This team is really, really good.  Everyone knows about the Lopez twins, particularly Brook (the All-American), but another guy who has been maligned all year is their point guard Mitch Johnson.  I watched a good amount of Stanford games and never understood why people were so down on him.  He is not a big-time scorer (less than 7 ppg), but he is a great floor general and a very good perimeter defender.  He will be tested tonight.  They also have some really nice parts other than the Lopez’s, in SG Anthony Goods and swingman Lawrence Hill.  This is an experienced, confident team with a superstar and a defensive mindset.  They play fundamental basketball and believe in each other–that all adds up to a tough draw.

On the other side, I will say it again–I think Rick Barnes is a fantastic coach.  I might be the only one outside of Austin, TX, who thinks that, but I really do.  I think he does a lot with not as much talent as people give him credit for.  Yes, he recruited Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin, but as we have seen often, one superstar on the college level is not enough anymore.  This team starts with Augustin, who is probably the best point guard in the country, but A.J. Abrams can really light it up, as evidenced by a pair of 26-point games in the tournament so far.  They also have incredible athleticism in Damion James (who has really developed into a big-time player in his own right) and Justin Mason.  Connor Atchley has also developed under Barnes to become a more than serviceable big man.  Atchley exhibits a rare combination of shot-blocking (69 on the year) and three-point shooting (38-87, 43.7%).  This team comes at you in all ways and can play different styles.  They are not that deep, but Stanford’s methodical offense should allow them to be okay in their 6-man rotation.

THE PICK:  In a really, really tough game to pick, I am going to go with the conference that I have been supporting all year–the Pac 10–and pick the Stanford Cardinal to win what is going to be a fantastic basketball game.  I obviously would not be surprised either way, but I just think that the experience and the heart of the twins, Johnson and Hill will be enough tonight.  I actually picked this team to go to the Final Four when the brackets came out and I am sticking with it.

Friday 9:40:  #1 Kansas vs #12 Villanova
The non-Cinderella 12-seed, Villanova, gets a dose of reality as they take on #1 seed Kansas.  The Wildcats pulled off a nice come-from-behind upset of Clemson in the first round and then caught a relative break with #13 Siena in the second round (though Siena is a really good team that will be easily the best mid-major next year–expect a 6 or 7 seed for the Saints in 2009).  However, I just do not see them with the horses to keep up with Kansas tonight.

reynolds2 As Scottie goes, so goes ‘Nova.  Scottie Reynolds is the heart and soul of this team, and the Cats rely on him to carry them–oftentimes they rely on him too much.  He takes a lot of shots and makes a lot of shots.  The rest of the supporting cast is, in my opinion, either too young or just not that talented.  This, the last team in the field, will probably find themselves quite overmatched at times tonight.  That being said, Reynolds can easily go off for 40 and Jay Wright gets his teams prepared.  They will need all of Reynolds’ points and a big game on the inside from Dante Cunningham , if they want to pull off the upset.

On the other side, not all that many people are talking about Kansas because of the dominating performances of North Carolina.  This team might be playing the best basketball in the country right now–at the right time.  I have heard several coaches in the field give interviews and just about every one of them, when asked the question, “If not your team, who is the best team in the country?”  And, every one that I have heard answer the question, has said “Kansas.”  Granted, these are coaches who are often only focused on their teams and the teams they are playing, but that is saying something.  With Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers, Darrell Arthur, Sherron Collins, Russell Robinson, Darnell Jackson, Sasha Kaun……….this team is just too deep and too good.  Plus, I think Bill Self is an excellent coach and will have them ready to play both tonight and on Sunday.

THE PICK:  I think it would take the game of Scottie’s life and then some for Villanova to pull off this upset.  They have had a very successful year, but I am pretty sure that it ends tonight.

Friday 9:57:  #1 Memphis vs #5 Michigan State
This is another very interesting game tonight.  Michigan St. has incredible talent (I even thought they were a national champion contender in my pre-season analysis), but has struggled at time incorporating the youth into the system.  They are finally playing at an incredibly high level and it may be just in time.  On the other side, Memphis, as they have for three years now, gone through a season of workman-like dominance.  Par for the course:  another 33-1 regular season, another Sweet Sixteen appearance, and no one believes in them.  This weekend will prove who is right and who is wrong.

For the Spartans, they are led by the inconsistent, but often brilliant, play of Drew Neitzel.  Neitzel, another much-maligned player, has put in two very good tournament games thus far.  They need him to continue to be that leader because no one else is really taking on that role.  Sophomore Raymar Morgan is probably the most talented player on the team and ought to be ready to be the leader of this team, but he does not seem to want that role.  Freshman Kalin Lucas is just that–a freshman–albeit, an immensely talented one.  Coach Tom Izzo has even said that Lucas is the fastest player he has ever coached, wow.  They have also started to get serious inside play from Goran Suton.  If he and the red-headed Drew Naimick can give State some bruising inside play, they have a shot tonight.

As I said in the opening paragraph, this Memphis team is a lot like its two predecessors, in that they had a dominating cdrregular season and just kept winning in the tournament.  The other two fell a game short of the Final Four, and I am not too sure that this one won’t have the fate, but for now they have to take care of Michigan St. before we find out.  A very deep team that has just about everything you need on a basketball team.  They have a terrificly talented point guard, in Derrick Rose, who can score, but prefers to pass.  They have outside shooters who, on any given night, can range from capable to deadly (Doneal Mack, Antonio Anderson, Willie Kemp).  They have two absolutely bruising, defensive-minded bigs, who are skilled offensively as well and who work in tandem, so they can limit foul trouble and fatigue (Robert Dozier and Joey Dorsey).  They have a high-energy swingman (Shawn Taggart) and a high-energy point guard (Andre Allen) off the bench.  And, to top it all off, they have a superstar who can almost score at will (and often does), but does not need to score to be effective (Chris Douglas-Roberts).  This team is stacked and we all know that Coach Cal will have them playing with the requisite chip on their shoulders.

THE PICK:  There is so much made of Memphis’s poor free throw shooting (and somewhat deservedly so, since they are the second worst in the country) that you would think that every game comes down to free throws.  Yes, Memphis shoots an abysmal and embarrassing percentage from the free-throw line.  However, they did shoot poorly all year and still went 33-1.  THIRTY-THREE AND ONE!  Yes, they played in Conference USA, but they completely rolled through that league and only lost one game in the MOST DIFFICULT non-conference schedule in the country.  A few of the teams that they beat this year:  Oklahoma, UConn, USC, Cincinnati, Arizona, Siena, Gonzaga, Richmond, etc.  If free throws were such a detriment to their ability to win basketball games, then don’t you think they might have lost more than one game against some of the better teams in the country?  I am not saying that it won’t be their demise eventually, but I am saying that they made it this far with bad free-throw shooting, so I am not picking against them now.  I think Memphis wins tonight, and fairly easily.