College basketball tips off tonight. How sweet it is. With that in mind, here is my college hoops preview. Since there are 300+ NCAA schools playing Division I basketball, I though the more prudent and time-conserving way to go about this would be to clue you in on a surprise and disappointment in each of the 6 major conferences, and also give you a heads up on some mid-majors who may bust your brackets come March.
04-05 Record: 16-16 (5-11)
In Oliver’s 3rd season at the helm of the Tigers, he seeks to twist out an NCAA tourney bid. Last season the Tigers snuck into the NIT and lost in the 1st round to Texas A&M. This was clear progress for a program that has sunk like a stone since Rick Barnes headed west. Unfortunately, the Tigers lose their best player from last season F Sharrod Ford and a stalwart defender in F Olu Babalola. However, incoming freshman F Julius Powell seeks to step in immediately and offset the losses of the 2 key big men. The backcourt looks to be in better shape than last season with the addition of G Troy Mathis who was expected to start last season, but was suspended for the year for an on-campus brawl. Mathis is currently recovering from knee surgery in the spring, but in his stead the backcourt will be manned by returning starters Vernon Hamilton and Shawan Robinson. Duke looks to be the class of the ACC, but almost every other tourney contending school was hit hard by graduation and early entry. This is Clemson’s chance to return to the NCAA’s for the first time since 1998.
Disappointment: Virginia Tech
04-05 Record: 16-14 (8-8)
There wasn’t a great deal of buzz about Virginia Tech’s first foray into ACC play, but many a publication is hyping their second season. The Hokies were highly competitive last year as they finished tied for 4th with Georgia Tech. The season highlight was probably a home court victory over NCAA arch-villain Duke. However, things need to be put into perspective. Although Virginia tech finished 8-8 in conference play, their expected record was actually only 4-12. As frequent readers know, point differential is a much better indicator of a team’s actual performance when prospecting forward. Therefore, even though the Hokies only lose one starter off of last year’s team (G/F Carlos Dixon), there are probably gonna be some growing pains this year.
04-05 Record: 20-9 (10-6)
Despite the loss of F/C Chris Taft and F Chevon Troutman, this Pittsburgh team will still be based around solid defense. That and they still have Sr. G Carl Krauser. He sounds like he should be a character on Hogan’s Heroes and his defense is Steel City blur collar. Combine that with the additions of 2 outstanding New York/New Jersey prep players in F Tyrell Biggs and G Levance Fields and you have a return engagement to the NCAA tourney.
Disappointment: West Virginia
04-05 Record: 24-11 (8-8)
Maybe its sour grapes, but why all the love for the Mountaineers all of a sudden? They are currently 14th in the AP poll and 15th in the Coaches poll. I understand they made the Elite 8 last season and we’re close to a Final 4 appearance, but look at their conference record. They finished 8-8 in a Big East that was nowhere near as jacked as it is now. Those 16 games are more indicative of their talent than a 4 game hot streak at the end of March. Think about who else is in the Big East now. UConn, the ‘Cuse, the ‘Ville, the ‘Nati, G-Town, ‘Nova. Marquette was in the Final 4 3 years ago! Thank goodness they didn’t lose Pittsnogle.
04-05 Record: 7-21 (3-13)
The Gene Keady ended on a down not at Purdue, but the Matt Painter era looks ready to begin on an upswing. Incoming freshmen Tarrance Crump will replace departing G Brandon McKnight. The entire starting frontcourt returns so it should not take long for this Purdue team to mesh and reach last season’s win total by late December. Matt Painter is a Gene Keady disciple, so this team will not go through the struggle of learning a new system.
Disappointment: Michigan State
04-05 Record: 26-7 (13-3)
By disappointment I mean not likely to win the Big 10 as many pundits are prognosticating. Michigan State will be a solid team, but a Big 10 championship is a bit of a reach. They lose 3 contributing seniors, two of whom (G/F Alan Anderson and G Kelvin Torbert) were starters. Departing G Chris Hill also started for much of the season, but had lost his job by tourney time. Tom Izzo will get the most out of this team if he’s not too concerned with Mariucci’s struggles with the Lions, but this team has the look of a 2nd round exiter.
Surprise: Texas A&M
04-05 Record: 21-10 (8-8)
Despite the loss of stud G/F Antoine Wright, Texas A&M under uber-reconstructionist Billy Gillispie will make it to the NCAA tourney on the strength of several JUCO transfers. F Antanas Kavaliauskas and G Eddie Smith (the NJCAA player of the year) will step in immediately and join holdovers F/C Joseph Jones and G Acie Law in the starting lineup. The Big 12 pecking order begins with Texas, but the Aggies have the talent to compete in the middle of the Big 12.
Disappointment: Texas Tech
04-05 Record: 22-11 (10-6)
Another team that outperformed their expected won-loss record from last season. The General’s Red Raiders lose big-time contributors G Ronald Ross and F Devonne Giles and will be hard-pressed to make in back to the Sweet 16.
Surprise: Washington State
04-05 Record: 12-16 (7-11)
The 3rd year of the Dick Bennett rebuilding plan begins in Pullman. Last season Bennet’s charges shocked Arizona in Tucson. They also underperformed their expected won-loss record last season. Instead of a 7-11 conference record, they should have gone 9-9. That would have ticketed them for an NIT bid and perhaps sleeper status heading into this season. As it is, they will fly under the radar which probably suits the ‘Cougs just fine. Bennett’s teams always play great defense even when you adjust for the slow pace at which the Cougars play. They might not be fun to watch, but with a few breaks they’ll be dancing in Pullman come mid-March. And if you don’t think the ‘Cougs are poised for a tourney run, well you don’t know Dick.
04-05 Record: 13-16 (6-12)
For a team coming off a record of 13-16, its tough to call this season a disappointment, but much was expected over the summer of this Cal team. However, several key members will not be on it. F Dominic McGuire is transferring to Fresno State (and their rigorous academic standards), F David Paris is academically ineligible, and F Kevin Langford is transferring to TCU. For those scoring at home, that’s 3 players who will not be suiting up for the Golden Bears this year.
04-05 Record: 20-14 (8-8)
The Commodores return 7 players who contributed significant minutes last season and a freshman G George Drake who finished 2nd in the Alabama Mr. Basketball voting. This may sound like a broken record, but the ‘Dores also underperformed their expected won-loss record last season. With a little bit of luck, Vandy will be going back to the NCAA.
PS: This guy and this guy have to be related somehow right?
04-05 Record: 20-10 (12-4)
With Brandon Bass leaving early for the riches of the NBA drat, the LSU Tigers will be not be nearly as dominant in the paint as they were last season. The Tigers still have C Glen Davis (6-9 310) to hold down the front court, but if he gets into foul trouble, depth will be an issue. This is the epitome of a bubble team.
Mid-Majors to Watch:
The mid-majors with their zany mascots, talented (but often overlooked) players, and old-school values (usually its win or no postseason in conference tourneys) are my favorite brand of basketball to watch outside of my Demon Deacons.
04-05 Record: 24-8 (13-5)
After several years of dominating the Big West, the other Aggies get a step up in competition as they enter the WAC. However, outside of Nevada and Nick Fazekas, Utah State should be on equal footing with the Hawaiis and Louisiana Techs of the world. Go ahead and mark em’ down for one of the last few at-large bids, an 11 or 12 seed, and one (or 2) very scared major conference foes come March.
04-05 Record: 21-11 (11-7)
Unlike other top-notch mid-major leagues the MAC can never seem to manage to get 2 teams in the dance. They always have 5 or 6 teams that win 11 or 12 conference games, and no team establishes itself as the frontrunner for an at-large bid. In other conferences, one team runs away and hides in the regular season and then loses in the conference tourney final resulting in 2 bids for that conference. This could be the year the MAC receives 2 invites as Ohio could be that dominant team the MAC has been missing. The Bobcats lose only 1 player from last years tourney team and they return uber-stud freshman F/C Leon Williams. Maybe he’s the Shaq of the MAC?
The Missouri Valley Conference:
The Valley is quickly becoming the best mid-major league. Last season The Valley got 3 teams in the dance. Could there be a repeat performance? Probably not, but Southern Illinois, Creighton, Northern Iowa, Wichita State, and Missouri State will all compete for an NCAA bid. I’ll go with Creighton as being the Lily of the Valley.