Monday, November 10, 2008

2008-09 college basketball preview: predicting the 65

ON BASKETBALL

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, I was more than ready for college basketball season to commence here in the Triangle. So was everyone else in the area.

All three local college football teams stunk like a stunk. None of them were contending in the meek ACC, or even in the running for a half-decent bowl game. Hoops season couldn't come quickly enough.

Now, as I prepare for the first local game of the season tonight — when mighty Presbyterian visits Cameron Indoor Stadium to take on the Blue Devils — the main focus around here, at least for the moment, is on the gridiron.

North Carolina is 7-2, ranked No. 17 in the AP poll and tied for the Coastal Division lead. Duke has faltered of late, but its 4-5 record is remarkable considering the morbid seasons before David Cutcliffe arrived in Durham. N.C. State (3-6) still harbors hopes of three straight wins and a bowl game.

So for now, football retains the spotlight. But that doesn't mean I can ignore college hoops. Nope, definitely not down here. Just last Saturday, the Smith Center was almost filled to capacity as UNC played its one exhibition game sans Tyler Hansbrough against UNC-Pembroke.

And I expect a loud, boisterous crowd tonight inside Cameron.

So with that said, let me get this season underway, as I did a year ago, with my picks for the NCAA Tournament still four months away.

31 AUTOMATIC BIDS

Big East Conference
— Louisville: The Cardinals will hold strong in this absurdly loaded conference, led by four returning starters who came so close against UNC in the Elite Eight a year ago.

Atlantic 10 Conference
— St. Joseph's: The Hawks will take advantage of a depleted Xavier squad to win a tight title race, led by all-conference forward Ahmad Nivins.

Metro Atlantic
— Siena: A no-brainer. The Saints knocked off four-seed Vanderbilt in the Big Dance and return the goods to have an even better season this time around.

Ivy League
— Cornell: Yep, expect the Big Red to repeat as conference champs after winning all 14 league games a year ago. It has Ivy League player of the year Louis Dale back to lead the way.

America East
— Hartford: The Hawks appeared in their first conference title game a year ago, losing to UMBC. Now, with all five starters back, they take the next step to the Big Dance.

Patriot League
— American: Who knows what will happen in this upside-down league. The Eagles were supposed to be at the bottom of the league a year ago, then went out and won it. Now they've got guys like first-team all-league Garrison Carr back. They should win, right?

Northeast Conference
— Central Connecticut State: After a one-year hiatus, expect the Blue Devils to come out of the Northeast again thanks to the return of a trio of double-digit scorers.

Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC)
— North Carolina: Hey, anything can happen, and don't pencil this in. Duke, Wake Forest and Miami could make runs at the Heels, who will get everyone's best game. But if everyone gets healthy and there are no personal agendas, there's no stopping the country's consensus No. 1.

MEAC
— South Carolina State: I know it's a risky pick choosing a 13-20 team to turn things around and win its league tourney, but the Bulldogs return three double-digit scorers plus College of Charleston transfer Josh Jackson. Make me proud, Bulldogs

CAA
— Virginia Commonwealth: Rarely do you see a team from a conference such as the CAA face such great pressure to reach the NCAA Tournament, but after being left out of the NCAAs and the NIT despite a 24-8 record, Eric Maynor won't let the Rams be on the outside again.

Big South
— VMI: I wanted to pick Winthrop to advance to the Big Dance for a sixth straight season, but with nobody back from their core, the Eagles simply don't have the makeup. So I'm going with the Keydets, who not only have a cool name but led the nation in scoring.

Southern Conference
— Davidson: Every once in a while, it's nice to get a pick so obvious, I'd bet my house on it (if I had a house). Barring a bad injury to Stephon Curry, the Wildcats will win out in the league.

Southeastern (SEC)
— Florida: Anyone who saw how inspired the Gators, revved up by Billy Donovan's tongue-lashing, played in the NIT knows that they'll be a much-improved team. Nick Calathes will lead the way to the title in a down year for the SEC.

Ohio Valley Conference
— Tennessee-Martin: I'm basing this prediction on the ability of one man — Lester Hudson. The All-America candidate passed up the NBA to return, and he's the only NCAA player to record a quadruple-double.

Sun Belt
— South Alabama: The Jaguars' 26-7 record was good enough to get them an at-large berth in the tournament, a rarity for a team from such a low-profile league. This year, they'll have to win the conference tournament to go dancing, and they have enough talent to do just that.

Atlantic Sun
— Belmont: I was in Washington when the Bruins came within a basket of knocking off No. 2 seed Duke. Now, with almost everybody back, they'll make their fourth straight tournament appearance and, no doubt, scare another high seed.

Big Ten
— Purdue: The safe pick is to go with Tom Izzo's team in East Lansing, but I love what the Boilermakers have coming back, which is everybody. This team — and I emphasize team, because everyone contributes — won't settle for anything less than a Big Ten title.

Horizon League
— Wright State: It looks like Butler's strong run will end — at least for a year — with all of its key cogs off in the real world. That leaves the door open for the Raiders, who return all-league guard Vaughn Duggins.

Summit League
— Oakland: I picked the Grizzlies a year ago ... and they let me down. I'll give them one more chance. They return all of their key players, and Oral Roberts — winners of three straight titles — has a depleted roster.

Mid-American (MAC)
— Kent State: When I realized that the Golden Flashes have won at least 20 games in each of the last 10 seasons, I jumped on the bandwagon. With MAC player of the year Al Fisher returning, I'm certainly not jumping off.

Conference USA
— Memphis: The Tigers won't be as dominant as a year ago, but don't fool yourself — they're still, easily, the best team in this conference. It will be interesting to see who develops into the team's leader.

Big 12
— Texas: For the second straight year, the Longhorns lost an All-American, this time point guard D.J. Augustin. But with everyone else back, and Kansas down after losing almost every key player, the Longhorns have the makeup of a conference champion.

Missouri Valley
— Creighton: In a mid-major conference that is feeling the losses of coaches to bigger programs and the graduations of its top players, the Bluejays return seven of their top nine guys and should ascend back to the top of the standings.

Southland Conference
— Stephen F. Austin: Expect another stellar season from the Lumberjacks, who finished 26-6 but faltered in the league tournament. They bring back six of their top seven scorers.

SWAC
— Alabama State: The Hornets came out of nowhere to finish 20-11 and receive an NIT invitation. Now, with SWAC player of the year Andrew Hayles leading the way, there are higher expectations that will be achieved.

Big Sky
— Portland State: I'm expecting league MVP Jeremiah Dominguez to lead the Vikings to their second consecutive Big Dance appearance (and also just the school's second appearance ... ever).

WAC
— Nevada: The Wolf Pack figure to remain the class of the league despite losing another pair of standout performers. That's because they reeled in McDonald's All-American Luke Babbit and bring back a pair of double-digit scorers.

Mountain West
— UNLV: This league should be absolutely loaded, and the Rebels should lead the way thanks to a trio of returning seniors, including all-league guard Wink Adams.

Pac 10
— UCLA: What's new? Another season, another Pac-10 title for the Bruins. They might get a challenge from in-city rival USC, but senior point guard Darren Collison will keep them on the right path.

Big West
— Cal State Northridge: In a tough conference to predict, the Matadors — great name, by the way — return a pair of double-digit scorers plus the league's leading assists man in Josh Jenkins.

West Coast
— Gonzaga: I don't know if the Zags have entered a season with heavier expectations. They'll certainly be challenged by Patrick Mills and St. Mary's, but with WCC player of the year Jeremy Pargo, not to mention Mr. Great Potential Austin Day, back in the mix, (and I'm not even mentioning other key returnees), this team is destined for great things.

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

ACC (5)
— Wake Forest
— Duke
— Miami
— Virginia Tech
— Clemson

Atlantic 10 (1)
— Xavier

Big 10 (2)
— Michigan State
— Wisconsin

Big 12 (4)
— Oklahoma
— Baylor
— Kansas
— Missouri

Big East (8)
— Connecticut
— Notre Dame
— Pittsburgh
— Marquette
— Georgetown
— West Virginia
— Syracuse
— Villanova

Conference USA (1)
— UAB

Mountain West (2)
— San Diego State
— New Mexico

Pac 10 (4)
— USC
— Arizona State
— Washington State
— Washington

SEC (5)
— Tennessee
— Kentucky
— LSU
— South Carolina
— Alabama

West Coast (2)
— St. Mary's
— San Diego

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