Friday, November 09, 2007
ESPN - Sixty-five reasons to gorge on college basketball
Sixty-five reasons to gorge on college basketball
By Kieran Darcy, ESPN
November 9, 2007, 12:03 AM ET
But never fear, college basketball is here! And there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the upcoming season. In fact, here are 65 (and I hope you know why we picked that number):
1. The games are under way! On Monday, Maine and Richmond -- two teams predicted to finish in the cellars of their respective conferences -- tipped off the season, with Richmond winning a 44-42 barn burner. (Note to NCAA: Can't you come up with a better way to start the season?) But at least the road to the Final Four has officially begun.
2. Memphis -- a national championship contender -- has already won two games, getting stellar play from 6-foot-4 freshman Derrick Rose (rated the No. 1 high school point guard in America last season). Rose can shoot the 3, explode to the rim and distribute the ball equally skillfully. Enjoy him while you can, college hoops fans, because he's a virtual lock to be in the NBA next season.
3. Kentucky kicked off its season by thumping Central Arkansas Tuesday night -- with new coach Billy Gillispie garnering plenty of applause. But if Gardner-Webb keeps things close Wednesday night, Gillispie will start hearing some other things, too. Welcome to the Lexington pressure cooker, Billy!
4. Former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith landed at Minnesota. If you're looking for somebody to pull for this season, choose Tubby, one of the class acts in college hoops. He'll recruit enough talent up north to get the Gophers back to the NCAA Tournament within a couple years.
5. You also can't help but pull for Wake Forest this season, after the death of head coach Skip Prosser. The Deacons won't win too many games in the ACC -- they're relatively inexperienced, and they'll struggle emotionally -- but they'll be sentimental favorites all season long.
6. North Carolina, meanwhile, is the class of the ACC -- and ranked No. 1 in the country in the preseason ESPN/USA Today coaches poll. Roy Williams' roster is again loaded with talent, and the Heels will run people ragged offensively. In addition to national player of the year candidate Tyler Hansbrough, watch sophomore shooting guard Wayne Ellington have a breakout season.
7. The team facing the toughest road trip in the ACC this season? It's not even an ACC team. Intrigued? Stay tuned to Page 2 during the season for more on this mystery squad.
8. There's only a handful of games the first four days of the season -- but starting Friday, you'll be deluged almost every single day until March. Most intriguing game of the opening weekend? Either Vermont at George Mason (two recent NCAA tourney Cinderellas) or North Dakota State at Florida (NDSU won at Wisconsin two years ago and at Marquette last season.) The Bison could embarrass the rebuilding but defending national champ Gators in Friday's opener for both teams.
9. The first couple months of the season are littered with exciting tournaments. The best of the bunch this year? The CBE Classic -- if only because the championship game in Kansas City, Mo., on Nov. 20 will probably feature UCLA versus Michigan State, a potential Final Four preview.
10. Speaking of Michigan State, we're lucky to get to watch Drew Neitzel play one more season. He's one of the guttiest guards you'll ever see -- the kid will run through a brick wall for ya, and knock down a big 3 in the clutch. He should lead a talented young Spartans team a long way this season. (But first the Spartans need to reclaim their locker room.)
11. Neitzel will have his hands full on Nov. 20 though, if the Spartans and Bruins meet -- because Darren Collison will be guarding him. Collison is probably the quickest player in the country -- no surprise, considering both his parents were world-class sprinters. What an individual matchup that would be.
12. Forget football this Thanksgiving -- there are college basketball games on TV practically all day long! Kansas State-George Mason and Gonzaga-Western Kentucky are the best two, but top-25 teams NC State, Southern Illinois, Villanova and USC will also be in action.
13. You might not like Bill Belichick's bunch of Patriots, but the George Mason Patriots are lovable, ever since their Final Four run two seasons ago. And returning all five starters, George Mason is the favorite to win its conference title this season.
14. The mid-major receiving the most hype this preseason is Davidson. And Bob McKillop's crew could indeed make some noise this March as well, propelled by shooting guard Stephen Curry (son of Dell). Curry was the second-leading freshman scorer in the country last season (21.5 ppg), behind Kevin Durant. We'll get a read on the Wildcats early; they face North Carolina, Duke, UCLA and NC State before Christmas. (Yikes.)
15. Davidson is good, but it won't have a walkover to earn the Southern Conference's automatic bid. Conference mate Appalachian State won 25 games last season (the Mountaineers aren't good at only football!) and will be very competitive again this season after bringing in a strong recruiting class.
16. If you love mid-majors (as I do), how about this four-pack on Saturday, Dec. 1: Davidson vs. Duke (noon), Gonzaga vs. UConn (3:30 p.m.), Ohio State at Butler (7:30 p.m.) and Indiana at Southern Illinois (9:30 p.m.). All four games will be televised on ESPN networks.
17. If you prefer to watch powerhouses go toe-to-toe, North Carolina plays at Kentucky the same day -- a matchup of the two winningest programs in college hoops history.
18. I'm biased, but I'm even more excited for Tuesday, Dec. 4, when North Carolina travels to Philadelphia to play Penn at the Palestra -- the cathedral of college basketball. Kudos to Roy Williams for making this trip.
19. The Ivy League -- the last conference in America that (properly) awards its automatic bid to the regular-season champ -- will be more wide open than it's been in many years. For the first time since 1988-89, neither Penn nor Princeton is the preseason favorite. Cornell is projected to come out on top.
20. I'm biased (again), but Madison Square Garden has an incredible college hoops slate this season. Coming to New York, all before Christmas: the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic (likely UConn, Kentucky, Memphis and Oklahoma), the Preseason NIT (likely Ohio State, Syracuse, Texas A&M and Washington), the Jimmy V Classic (Kansas State vs. Notre Dame, USC vs. Memphis) and Pitt vs. Duke on Dec. 20.
21. There's still a reason to hate Duke: Just watch Greg Paulus sprint to Coach K's huddle after a timeout has been called on the floor. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for hustle. But Paulus oozes "teacher's pet."
22. There's also a reason to love Duke: Kyle Singler. The 6-foot-9 freshman, who's got a great feel for the game and a nice outside shooting touch, will be a star. Mark it down.
23. Tennessee's Chris Lofton is already a star -- and the best shooter in the country. You can't leave him open anywhere inside half court.
24. Another great shooter: Tajuan Porter of Oregon. Imagine if he were 6-5 instead of 5-6.
25. Speaking of shooting, enjoy the current 19-foot, 9-inch college 3-point line while you can -- next year it moves back 1 foot. And we probably won't see as many treys.
26. Georgetown has a star, too, but he's a little taller than Tajuan Porter: Roy Hibbert. With former teammate Jeff Green gone, the 7-2 Hibbert will take center stage. fill up the box scores, and be the best true center in the country.
27. Meanwhile UCLA's Kevin Love -- the best freshman big man in the country -- will swarm the glass and give fans a new appreciation for the outlet pass. Plus, it's good to see Mr. Love knows his history.
28. Across town, USC's O.J. Mayo is the most publicized freshman in the country. Enough with the hype. Let's see if he can live up to it.
29. Florida plays Ohio State -- a national championship game rematch -- on Dec. 22. Of course, we won't see Joakim Noah or Al Horford or Corey Brewer or Taurean Green or Lee Humphrey or Greg Oden or Mike Conley or Daequan Cook or … you get the picture.
30. Ohio State doesn't have Oden anymore, but the Buckeyes have added 7-1 Kosta Koufos -- a more polished offensive player and a potential NBA lottery pick.
31. "Kosta Koufos" has a nice ring to it -- but it's not the best name in college hoops this year. That award goes to 7-1 Chief Kickingstallionsims of Alabama State -- who's eligible this season after transferring from Stetson and sitting out a year.
32. The runner-up for college hoops name of the year: Longar Longar of Oklahoma. And Longar (Longar) is a much better player than Kickingstallionsims, averaging 10.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game a season ago for the Sooners.
33. Best nickname in college hoops: Psycho T.
34. It doesn't have a nickname like "Lethal Weapon 3" or "Run TMC" but Marquette's trio of guards -- Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews -- is a very special group. All three are strong on both ends of the floor. The Golden Eagles have lost in the first round of the last two NCAA Tournaments. Not this season.
35. Virginia Military Institute will be employing its run-and-gun style again this season -- the Keydets led the nation in scoring last season (100.9 ppg) -- which is always fun to watch if you get a chance. They also have Reggie Williams back, the leading individual scorer in the country last season (28.1 ppg).
36. Unlike Thanksgiving, college basketball takes off Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But thanks to Louisville, we'll be without college hoops for only two days. The Cardinals will host Morehead State on Dec. 26, the only game in the country that day. Seems as though Rick Pitino likes to play a game right around the holidays -- two years ago, Louisville played the only game in the country on Christmas Eve.
37. Louisville plays at Kentucky on Jan. 5. That game will be a little bit more intense for Billy Gillispie than the Central Arkansas and Gardner Webb A&M games. Pitino's crew is a Final Four contender.
38. After New Year's Day, conference play will kick into full gear -- and the Pac-10 will be the best league in the land. The Pac-10 has gotten six teams into the Big Dance twice, including last season. There's a good chance seven teams will go this season, maybe even eight. Get ready to stay up late, East Coasters. It'll be worth it.
39. The Big East and the Big Ten will join the Pac-10 this year in playing an 18-game regular-season schedule. Thus, Big East teams will actually play every other conference foe at least once. It's about time.
40. There's no better way to cap off a night on the East Coast than one of those midnight ESPN games. (Even if it seems as if every one features Gonzaga.)
41. Don't forget about Dickie V. Love him or loathe him, Dick's an institution.
42. Two of the most heated conference games in the country will be Indiana vs. Illinois on Jan. 13 and Feb. 7. There's bad blood between these programs, particularly the coaches, regarding the recruitment of the Hoosiers' star freshman, Eric Gordon. Watch out for raucous crowds.
43. Speaking of Gordon, with him and a healthy D.J. White, Indiana is a Final Four contender for the first time in a while. Guess all those phone calls paid off.
44. Illinois coach Bruce Weber doesn't have a freshman nearly as good as Gordon, but he does have basketball royalty: Jeff Jordan, son of MJ. Don't expect Jordan to play very much (he elected to walk on at Illinois, rather than take a scholarship at lower-profile Valparaiso). Do expect some serious heckling.
45. Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl is used to hearing some heckling. He's good for at least one outrageous publicity stunt per year. Let's just hope it doesn't involve him going bare-chested this season.
46. We also get Rick Majerus back on the sidelines this season, at Saint Louis. We've heard plenty from him the last couple years as an analyst on ESPN, but the best Majerus sound bites come when he's coaching.
47. Chris Lowery signed a contract extension at Southern Illinois, and Dana Altman (eventually) decided to stay at Creighton, meaning their Missouri Valley rivalry will be alive and well for years to come -- and meaning not every successful mid-major coach feels compelled to move up the proverbial coaching "ladder." That's a good thing.
48. Brandon Rush, star swingman for Kansas, should be back in the lineup by Dec. 1, after tearing his ACL in late May. The Jayhawks need Rush if they're going to get to their first Final Four under Bill Self.
49. Kansas will be pushed by intrastate rival Kansas State -- which is ranked in the AP top 25 for the first time since 1993. Bob Huggins flew the coop after one season, but 6-10 freshman Michael Beasley, rated by some as the No. 1 high school prospect in the nation last season, will be an instant star. Another potential NBA lottery pick, Bill Walker, will be back from an ACL injury.
50. Huggins, meanwhile, has taken over at his alma mater, West Virginia. That situation should be interesting to watch -- especially when the school that fired him, Cincinnati, comes to Morgantown on Jan. 30.
51. It's going to be entertaining watching particularly "animated" coaches like Bobby Knight and Jim Calhoun abide by the new NCAA bench decorum rules. We'll set the over/under on techs by the General at 23.
52. There's no person more fun to watch sweat than Gary Williams.
53. Kevin Durant is gone, but there's still a big reason to watch Texas: D.J. Augustin. The Longhorns' point guard somewhat quietly posted 15.5 points and 7.4 assists per game last season, but was overshadowed by fellow freshman Durant. This season he will shine -- as long as he doesn't hoist up 30 shots per game.
54. Texas A&M is still very dangerous, despite losing coach Billy Gillispie and point guard Acie Law. The Aggies still have Joseph Jones inside, Josh Carter outside (nation's top 3-point shooting percentage last season) -- plus top-10 recruit DeAndre Jordan, a talented 7-footer from Houston.
55. Arizona will play much better defense this season, now that Lute Olson has brought in former Marquette, Tennessee and Toronto Raptors coach Kevin O'Neill as essentially his defensive coordinator. Watch out, folks -- things worked out pretty well at Florida when Billy Donovan brought in Larry Shyatt in a similar role in 2004. (Of course, the Wildcats will suffer if Olson's leave of absence lasts a long time.)
56. If you're having trouble getting tickets to a college game, you're guaranteed to get good seats to see UC Riverside out in the Big West. The Highlanders averaged only 736 fans per home game last season -- think the roaches have something to do with it?
57. Looking for a rare blockbuster nonconference clash late in the season? Mark this intrastate battle on your calendar: Tennessee at Memphis, Feb. 23. Both teams could be in the top five in the country.
58. Despite playing in a bad conference, Memphis will be on TV a lot. Take a closer look at the Tigers' offense when you get a chance. It's referred to by different names, but we'll refer to it as "Attack, Attack, Skip, Attack, Attack," and it's a fast-paced system based on dribble drives and kick-outs, as opposed to the more traditional screens and picks. It was originally conceived by current Pepperdine coach Vance Walberg, but Memphis coach John Calipari has adapted it to his team, and you could see many more teams using it the next few years.
59. Tony Bennett could have looked for a better gig after Washington State's sensational run last season. Instead, he agreed to a contract extension. Now, can he do it again? (The answer is yes.)
60. Who will be this season's Washington State -- the team that comes out of nowhere to be a top-10 team? It won't be quite as shocking, but watch out for Clemson. The Tigers return four starters from a 25-win team that made the NIT championship game.
61. And don't forget about the women. Tennessee is the preseason No. 1, and the UConn women are No. 2. Of course, they're no longer playing each other in the regular season. But if they end up meeting in the NCAA Tournament -- with the tension between the two head coaches -- that's must-see TV.
62. There are only 130 days until Selection Sunday.
63. The Final Four is in San Antonio this year, meaning a trip down the River Walk, a visit to the Alamo and maybe even an Eva sighting?
64. What teams will make it to San Antonio? One man's humble opinion: North Carolina, UCLA, Kansas and Tennessee.
65. Who will play in the final game of the season, Monday, April 7? North Carolina and UCLA. Who'll win? I don't know.
But I know it'll be a much better game than Maine versus Richmond.
Kieran Darcy is an editor for Page 2. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.