I'm doubtful that anyone is looking forward to the conference season in college basketball more than I. I keep seeing things that confuse me. (I know, I know, easily confused, so what?) But the music from that Corona Light commercial that keeps running on the games I watch is now running through my head more often... "It seems that everywhere I go, the more I see the less I know."
Take Thursday night, for example. Illinois scored 87 points to beat Iowa. When the score flashed on my screen I wanted to run over to my new HD set and bang the top so that the correct number would come into focus. Illinois hasn’t scored 80 points in a regulation Big Ten game since February, 2008. That was 50 games – including two in which they scored fewer than 40 points twice. That was after scoring 55 points in a loss to Illinois-Chicago – the Flames’ only win in their last six games.
And then there is Tennessee. A couple of weeks ago, the Vols made Pittsburgh look silly in Pittsburgh. So right about the time I wonder if maybe I've overlooked the Vols, they lose, at home, to Oakland. And then lose to Charlotte. And then to USC. Don't worry, they got back on track by beating Belmont. By one. And last night, they came back from a halftime deficit to whip Tennessee-Martin. By six. Martin has won four games – two against D-I schools!!
What I'm getting at here is that it's hard enough to make predictions when teams play consistently. It's pretty much impossible when nobody can be sure from one day to the next what kind of effort a team will put out there.
But I've decided that's not going to stop me.
So, here we go with a quick and dirty review of the BCS leagues with a likely champ, a team that's unexpectedly floundering, and a team to watch.
It's the last year of the Pac-10, and if you needed any indication of how much football drove this league's expansion, one need only look at the desperate addition of Colorado and Utah. These are only fair prospects in the cash-cow sport. Colorado is sliding toward a pit it hasn't occupied since Chuck Fairbanks coached there almost 40 years ago, and Utah is going well right now, but isn't even the best BCS prospect in its own state. But in basketball, they're even worse. Colorado long has been known as a killer of coaching careers, and Utah, which reached the national championship game under the unique Rick Majerus in the late '90s, is headed toward the bottom of the Mountain West this season.
We took that side road to avoid as long as possible the bad news that this is going to be a shaky league again this year. Washington looks like the best team, despite losing to the three teams on the non-conference schedule that had a legitimate shot to beat them (Kentucky, Michigan State and Texas A&M). They have seniors and played well at the end of last season. Hey, it beats a wild guess.
Either of the Oregon schools qualifies as the team struggling the most. Oregon couldn't give away its head coaching job after Ernie Kent figuratively set fire to the program over the last couple of seasons. So they hired Dana Altman from Creighton. Altman probably was looking for a soft spot of his own to land after backing out on Arkansas a couple of years ago, returning to the Bluejays, and never really getting it back together. The big concern I would have is how well Altman can recruit among the BCS crowd, but he seems to be doing OK. They'll have a new arena shortly. They need it.
Oregon State has had only one winning season in the last 20 years, and it doesn't look like Craig Robinson is going to be waking the echoes of Ralph Miller this year either. He's only been there three years, but it seems longer. At least last time out, the Beavers beat Illinois-Chicago by 20.
The team to watch, frankly, could be any of the remaining seven. Sean Miller seems to be putting Arizona back together, and Washington State looked good in Hawaii last weekend, beating Mississippi State and Baylor. But, the most interesting team may be UCLA. Going to three straight Final Fours polished Ben Howland's reputation, and despite some great recruiting that should have kept things going, the last year and a half has been ugly. Losing season last year, and a four-game losing streak this year, including a near-upset at Kansas, followed by a dismal home loss to Montana. All the starters score in double figures, so it's not a matter of selfishness. They rallied to beat Washington State at home last night in the league opener, so there's that.
Believe it or not, Jeff Sagarin actually ranks the SEC higher than the Pac-10. That's really great news for the SEC, which has Kentucky and, it appears, not a whole lot else. Florida could make a run, but Billy Donovan has been making much more of a mark in the NIT than in the NCAA since winning back-to-back national togas in '06 and '07. Kentucky has a new stable of freshmen after having five players drafted last year. The Wildcats have a little more experience on the floor this year, as Darius Miller, DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson are all upperclassmen, but this team will go as far as guards Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb and forward Terrence Jones will carry them. It's not out of the question that that could be back to the Elite Eight or to the Final Four.
The team that looks like it is about to fall out of the league is Auburn, which is struggling in basketball as much as the football team has succeeded. That may help Tony Barbee as he takes over for Jeff Lebo, in terms of not drawing any attention. However, it's not just that they beaten only one team ranked as high as 200 by Ken Pomeroy, but also that they've lost to three teams ranked below 200. For this, Trent Johnson and his LSU team are thankful, because it keeps attention off of them.
Have to wonder what Rick Stansbury thinks of all the trouble he's gone through to get Renardo Sidney on his Mississippi State team – a year's suspension, plus nine games from the NCAA, only to see Sidney basically flip him off in return, drawing a one-game suspension from the team for conduct, then, after the one game he played, getting in a fight with teammate-roommate Elgin Bailey that would have made any rassler proud. If Sidney doesn't last the season – that's looking pretty good from my point of view – then we should be paying attention to Vanderbilt, which again is putting together a solid record under Kevin Stallings, despite being, well, Vanderbilt. Jeffrey Taylor, the one-time Texas recruit, is up and down, depending on the competition, but if he's playing well, he's one of the best in the league.
Not much to say here. Duke is the defending national champ and the class of the league by a mile, as there are no other ranked ACC teams. Coach K manages to keep around the kind of not-quite-pro-yet players that Rick Barnes, to name one, keeps losing. Perhaps Krzyzewski's advice carries a little more weight because of his national titles, Final Fours and an Olympic championship. Who knows?
There are a number of underachievers. One is Virginia Tech, which upgraded its schedule in what appears to be a vain attempt to get off the bubble, as it has lost to Kansas State, UNLV and Purdue, as well as its league opener to an inconsistent Virginia team. Looks like more of the same for Seth Greenberg. Another is Georgia Tech, which made the national championship game in 2004 under Paul Hewitt, but has had only one other season of more than 20 wins under him, and has three losing seasons in the last six. If forced to guess today, I'm thinking that a team that lost to Kennesaw State on the road isn't going to make 2011 a winner. But the real loser here appears to be Wake Forest. which, in my view, correctly dumped Dino Gaudio despite two NCAA trips in three years. However, bringing on Jeff Bzdelik, the former Colorado coach, hasn't worked out yet. The Deacons have a 6-7 record, and have lost to Richmond, VCU, Stetson and UNC-Wilmington by double digits, and two of those at home. It's going to be a lonnnnng season.
The team to watch is Florida State. Chris Singleton looks like an NBA player, and proved it the other night at Baylor. They can get the ball inside, and they play defense first. I also think it will be interesting to see what Steve Donahue can do at Boston College, coming off a S16 last year at Cornell. I think he needs a few more players, but the Eagles did give A&M its only loss.
Kansas was not the coaches' preseason choice as the league champ this year, but the Jayhawks are looking pretty good right now, especially with the addition of Josh Selby after he served a nine-game NCAA suspension. He reminds me of Sherron Collins, although not quite as big – he demands the ball and he can score inside or at the arc. Offhand, I can’t think of a good defensive matchup in the league for him. Thomas Robinson looks like the kind of player that the Longhorns wished Dexter Pittman could be – strong and active. The Morris brothers are solid, and Bill Self brings guards off the bench that would be starting at several B12 schools. I’d call them a lock for the league title if it weren’t for the depth in the league and the fact that KU nearly coughed up its long home win streak to UCLA and USC.
The team that’s lost the most luster in the shortest amount of time is Kansas State. KSU has had a hard time scoring, and they appeared to lose focus after getting drilled by Duke in November. Now they’re dealing with suspensions of Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly. Baylor also has had a tough time against the better teams they’ve played. They’ve not gotten the ball to Lacedarius Dunn late in close games. That has to be fixed. Both teams may be learning the hard way about being a target.
Keep an eye on Texas A&M. The Ags don’t do a lot of things that make your jaw drop, but they’ve not played a dud yet. Khris Middleton is starting to look like a go-to guy, although they really could use a consistent scorer out of the backcourt, somebody that you have to account for. Four upperclassmen starting, and Hibbert and Turner off the bench… I’m willing to say they’ll finish better than sixth.
It’s still a walk-it-up league that can put you to sleep if you don’t care about the teams you’re watching. However, this looks like a competitive race with Michigan State and Illinois running into trouble, and Purdue having lost Robbie Hummel. For now, though, Ohio State is the team to beat. Jared Sullinger is the leading scorer and rebounder, but instead of putting up Oden-like stats with other freshmen, he has some upperclassmen to play with.
Michigan State is the team with the most to prove coming into conference play. Texas showed that if you can at least hang with MSU on the boards, you have a pretty good shot at winning. They’re also turning it over at an alarming rate. Still, we’re talking about a team that usually gets it together by tournament time.
Wisconsin is the slowest of the slow – not just in the league, but in the nation. The Badgers average just less than 60 possessions per game (the national average is 68). But it’s what you do with it when you have it that counts, and Ken Pomeroy ranks UW 10th in offensive efficiency. They have post guys who score, and guards who can shoot the three, and a couple of guys who can do both. Jon Leuer is going to be an all-league forward.
This probably is the most competitive league and therefore the pick with the least relevance. At this point, I like Pittsburgh. The Panthers have veteran guards who don’t turn it over much, and Pitt leads the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, according to Ken Pomeroy. Pitt’s Gary McGhee reminds me so much of James Thomas.
I think Steve Lavin teams always are fun to watch, so you won’t go wrong watching St. John’s. However, I think the team that might turn heads later on is Marquette. I want to dislike Buzz Williams, but I just can’t. They’ve lost four close games, and played Duke as well as anyone.
Who may be in trouble? Perhaps West Virginia, coming off the Final Four and at 8-3, with already a home loss in the BE to St. John’s. But they have Marquette at home tomorrow.