Wednesday, November 7, 2007

NCAA men's basketball preview: predicting the 65

ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

I've spent the past several days pondering how I want to handle my college hoops preview.

Should I predict all of the major conferences? Should I predict the All-Americans? What about the top freshmen? Coaches most likely to be fired?

But then it came to me: What, ultimately, is Division I college basketball about? What does it boil down to? When do the casual fans ditch their dinner dates to sit in front of the TV?

You guessed it — on Selection Sunday. No matter what happens during November, December, January, February and early March, if a team is selected to participate in the NCAA Tournament, all is good. It (and its fans) has a new life. Anything can happen. It controls its destiny.

Which is why, without further ado, I am embarking on the unenviable task of predicting each of the 65 teams which will play in the Big Dance. Let's get it started.

31 AUTOMATIC BIDS

Big East Conference
— Georgetown: Big man Roy Hibbert will have an All-American year, making his decision to return well worth it.

Atlantic 10 Conference
— Xavier: The Musketeers, led by diminutive guard Drew Lavender, could be even better than last year, when they were a last-second 3-pointer away from beating Ohio State and advancing to the Sweet 16.

Metro Atlantic
— Loyola (Md.): The MAAC's leading returning scorer, Gerald Brown, averaged 22 points last season.

Ivy League
— Cornell: Pennsylvania and Princeton have won or shared the title every season since 1962. Expect a big shift in power this season.

America East
— Albany: The Great Danes will repeat despite the loss of conference player of the year Jamar Wilson. Vermont, as always, will be their top challenger.

Patriot League
— Holy Cross: This is becoming a two-team league, with Holy Cross and Bucknell meeting in the conference tournament title game the past three seasons. Expect it to happen again.

Northeast Conference
— Robert Morris: No team has made back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament from this conference. Expect the same this season as the Colonials unseat Central Connecticut State.

Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC)
— North Carolina: Duke might challenge the Tar Heels, but there is simply too much talent and depth, and Tyler Hansbrough is the most determined player in the country.

MEAC
— Hampton: Rashad West, who led the league in scoring with 17.8 points per game, will help the Pirates back to the Big Dance.

CAA
— Virginia Commonwealth: Eric Maynor, who hit the game-winning shot against Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, is back for another run at it.

Big South
— High Point: Led by Arizona "AZ" Reid, who led the league in scoring with 21 ppg, the Panthers are ready to take over the top spot in the conference from Winthrop, which lost coach Gregg Marshall.

Southern Conference
— Davidson: No doubt about this. Led by Stephon Curry, the son of former NBA sweet shooter Dell Curry, the Wildcats should spend some time in the Top 25.

Southeastern (SEC)
— Tennessee: With Florida down and Kentucky rebuilding under Billy Gillispie, this is the Volunteers' season. Scoring point guard and All-America candidate Chris Lofton will lead the charge.

Ohio Valley Conference
— Austin Peay: Buoyed by the return of all their key players, the Governors will try to get the OVC its first Big Dance win since 1989.

Sun Belt
— Western Kentucky: The league should be strong thanks to the return of 80 percent of its top players, but the Hilltoppers will be the best of the 13 teams.

Atlantic Sun
— Belmont: Expect the Bruins to make their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

Big Ten
— Indiana: A week ago, I would have picked Michigan State, but after watching freshman Eric Gordon play in an exhibition game, I'm convinced he'll be special. And alongside D.J. White, he'll make the Hoosiers the league's best team.

Horizon League
— Butler: Sure, the Bulldogs lost their coach Todd Lickliter (to Iowa), but Brad Stevens inherits four of the Sweet 16 team's top five scorers.

Summit League
— Oakland: The league, formerly known as the Mid-Continent Conference, has a new name, and it will feature a different team in the NCAA Tournament, as the Golden Grizzlies take Oral Roberts' spot.

Mid-American (MAC)
— Ohio: This might be the toughest league to predict, but I'm going with the loaded Bobcats, who will be led by forward Leon Williams, who averaged 14.4 points and 8.8 rebounds last season.

Conference USA
— Memphis: The biggest no-brainer. The Tigers could be the No. 1 team in the country, and if their first two games are any indication, freshman guard Derrick Rose is as good as advertised.

Big 12
— Kansas: Frank Martin's young Wildcats will give the Jayhawks a scare, but ultimately experience will prove vital as Brandon Rush and a trio of steady guards lead Kansas.

Missouri Valley
— Southern Illinois: You know the Salukis will always play strong defense, and forward Randal Falker is a beast down low.

Southland Conference
— Texas-Arlington: With every key player back, expect the Mavericks, who were just 13-17 last season, to make a surprise Big Dance showing.

SWAC
— Grambling: The Tigers, who haven't won a share of the league title since 1989, return seven of their top eight scorers.

Big Sky
— Montana: Jordan Hasquet, who is the lone all-conference returning player, will take the Grizzlies to the tournament.

WAC
— New Mexico State: No Reggie Theus, no problem for the Aggies, who return loads of talent.

Mountain West
— BYU: All-conference Trent Plaisted will lead the Cougars in a down year for the conference, which lost several of its marquee players.

Pac 10
— UCLA: This conference is absolutely loaded, but there's no doubt who the top team should be. Keep an eye on freshman giant Kevin Love. He could be special.

Big West
— UC-Santa Barbara: Alex Harris, who averaged 21.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game last season, will lead the Gauchos, who will take advantage of the recruiting violations that have negatively transformed the Long Beach State program.

West Coast
— Gonzaga: Another easy pick. The 'Zags were able to make the tournament without suspended star Josh Heytvelt a year ago. Now a remorseful Heytvelt is back, along with several other key parts of that team.

34 AT-LARGE BIDS (BY CONFERENCE): WITH BETTER SEEDS LISTED HIGHER.

ACC (5)
— Duke
— N.C. State
— Clemson
— Virginia
— Georgia Tech

Atlantic 10 (1)
— St. Josephs

Big 10 (4)
— Michigan State
— Ohio State
— Wisconsin
— Minnesota

Big 12 (4)
— Kansas State
— Texas A&M
— Texas
— Oklahoma

Big East (6)
— Louisville
— Marquette
— Pittsburgh
— Syracuse
— Connecticut
— Providence

CAA (1)
— George Mason

Conference USA (1)
— UAB

Missouri Valley (1)
— Bradley

Moutain West (1)
— Utah

Pac 10 (5)
— Washington State
— USC
— Oregon
— Stanford
— Arizona

SEC (5)
— Florida
— Kentucky
— Arkansas
— Mississippi State
— Georgia

JUST OUT: Washington (Pac 10), Fresno State (WAC), Villanova (Big East), Alabama (SEC), Mississippi State (SEC), Illinois (Big 10), St. Mary's (West Coast), Maryland (ACC), Missouri (Big 12).

Whew! That's it, folks. Please respond with feedback on the selections/omissions you disagree with. I'm sure that come March I'll feel like an idiot.

Which is why, for now, I'll abstain from predicting the Final Four or the national champion. I'll make those picks once the field is set. Once I know for sure who's dancing and who's not.

As always, enjoy the madness.

1 comment:

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