Thursday, November 12, 2009
2009-10 college basketball preview: predicting the 65
I love and live March Madness as much as the next college hoops fan — or bracket fanatic — but I've got to be honest here: The level of "Madness" has really died down the past three years.
Since the George Mason surge to the Final Four in 2006, there hasn't been much drama. The big schools, the money schools, the schools with the kids whom had been recruited since kindergarten, have dominated. The little guys haven't been invited, for the most part, to the second weekend of the Dance.
And then the big guys have beaten each other up, not even providing us fans and media with dramatic moments (yes, the '08 title game was thrilling — because Memphis decided to stop making free throws — and, yes, Villanova's last-second win over Pitt last year was as exciting a way as possible to make the Final Four).
But name me another memorable game late in the Dance the past few years? I've got nothing.
Bottom line: The sport hasn't been quite as heart-pounding as it usually is (and, to add to the negativity, there have been several off-the-court issues that have stolen attention from the games).
However, this new season's underway (yes, believe it; I was even shocked by the Monday-night start) and will undoubtedly provide plenty of drama in some parts of the country (although the big guys will still, for the most part, rule).
So with that said, here's my annual prediction of the 65 teams that will make the NCAA Tournament:
THE CHAMPIONS (31 teams)
Villanova: The Wildcats made it to the Final Four last year, and they'll follow it up with a Big East title thanks to the leadership and guard play of Scottie Reynolds.
Siena: This conference is loaded, but I can't pick against the Saints, who made the Big Dance the past two years and took down Ohio State in the first round a year ago.
Vermont: The Catamounts are still stinging from blowing a 25-point lead and the regular-season title a year ago. Won't happen again.
Dayton: Coming off an NCAA win over West Virginia, the Flyers return all but one starter. In a down year for the conference, they'll stand out.
Cornell: Most. Obvious. Pick. Ever. Seriously — the Big Red have won two straight titles and return their starting lineup. Enough said.
Holy Cross: I look forward to attending some American games here in DC, but the two-time defending champions lost everyone. So the league is open, and the Crusaders have enough talent to claim the bid to the Dance.
Long Island: The conference is loaded with returning talent. The Blackbirds return the most.
North Carolina: This isn't as obvious of a pick as it was a year ago, but the whole conference is down and the Tar Heels still have the most talent and the ability to put it all together.
Morgan State: The Bears will put together their third straight regular-season title behind Reggie Holmes.
Radford: The Highlanders return a host of top-notch players and will be able to hold off pesky Winthrop.
Virginia Commonwealth: The Rams lost Eric Maynor and coach Anthony Grant, but they return all their other players from another NCAA Tournament squad.
Wofford: This season will bring great unpredictably to the conference, as Davidson is normal again sans Stephen Curry. Expect Wofford to grab the tourney berth.
Kentucky: We all know John Calipari can coach when he has talent (I'll leave out the part about how the talent is recruited), and guess what he has a lot of at Kentucky? Yep, talent.
Morehead State: Expect the Eagles to make their second NCAA Tournament appearance in as many years. Who saw that coming?
Jacksonville: The Bears have reached the past two conference title games and will finally break through thanks to the return of three double-digit scorers.
Western Kentucky: It's hard to pick against the two-time defending champion, which demolished Illinois in the Big Dance last year. The Hilltoppers return three double-digit guys.
Oakland: If the Golden Grizzlies don't break through this year, they simply won't. After losing the title in heartbreaking fashion last March, they return almost everyone while other teams lose a lot.
Michigan State: Wow, this conference is loaded — and the Spartans are the kings until they're knocked off. They'll miss Goran Suton and Travis Walton, but return loads of talent.
Akron: The McKnight brothers, Bret and Chris, will lead the Zips back to their second consecutive NCAA Tournament in a weak conference — what happened to the better days of the MAC?
Tulsa: And, finally, Memphis isn't a lock to dominate the conference. The Golden Hurricanes will gladly assume the mantle, led by 7-foot stud Jerome Jordan.
Butler: You'd have to be an idiot, a joker or blind to not type "Butler" here. The Bulldogs return everyone from a 26-6 NCAA Tournament team. They're a legit Final Four contender.
Kansas: The Jayhawks won't waltz through the conference — not with Texas right beside them as a national-title contender. Still, they've clearly got the best class of talent in the nation.
Northern Iowa: The Panthers surprised by reaching the Dance last March, and they return everyone to make a second straight run.
Nicholls State: Who knows what will happen here? It's a crapshoot after Stephen F. Austin lost two former conference players of the year.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff: The Golden Lions did well a year ago despite the departures of four key players. Now boosted by the return of their top guys, expect a conference title.
Utah State: The Aggies will remain atop the conference, boosted by a pair of double-digit scorers and, of course, the confidence that comes with usually winning this league.
Weber State: The Wildcats dominated last year, winning the regular season by four games, and freshman of the year Damian Lillard will lead them to a similar result.
BYU: The Cougars lose big-time forward Lee Cummard, but little else. The rest of the league's contenders lose more, which leaves BYU there to take the automatic bid.
California: Jerome Randall and Patrick Christopher are the lone all-league players returning, and they're on the same team. Sounds like the makings of a championship squad.
Long Beach State: The 49ers return four consistent performers, who all averaged double figures or close to it, plus gain Providence transfer Dwain Williams.
Gonzaga: It's tempting to pick Portland, which returns its 10 best players from a very solid team. But the Zags, despite heavy losses, have one of the nation's best coaches in Mark Few.
THE AT-LARGE BIDS (34 teams)
*In order of higher-seeded teams