The national runners-up lost Mo Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahman, but this blog believes head coach John Beilein knows what to do with what returns. Those returnees are the trio of guards senior Charles Matthews, junior Zavier Simpson and sophomore Jordan Poole. The Wolverines also brings in a top-20 recruiting class featuring Ignas Brazdeikis. Plenty for Michigan to, at least, be one of the top teams in the league.
A better non-conference strength of schedule and this team probably would’ve been in the Big Dance last season. They weren’t, but the Cornhuskers have a lot returning from a team that won 13 conference games last season. They’ll be led by seniors James Palmer, a player of the year candidate, and Isaac Copeland as well as junior forward Isaiah Roby. Those three will lead the best Cornhusker team since the 1990’s – a team that will be a threat to win the program’s first ever NCAA tournament game.
3. Michigan St
Last season was one of the strangest in Tom Izzo’s tenure as head coach at Michigan St. From the team being overshadowed by the school’s mishandling of the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal to the team’s early exit from the tournament. Two first-round draft picks in Jaren Jackson and Miles Bridges are gone so it will be up to juniors Cassius Winston, Nick Ward and Joshua Langford to step up. This probably won’t be the best team Izzo has coach, but he’ll probably enjoy not having to answer questions that needed to be asked.
Wisconsin fans are used to winning so last season was such a departure for them. This season should see a return to the tournament because so much of the roster returns including senior forward Ethan Happ, who will be an all-American candidate. Happ is the leader of a lineup that sees its top eight scorers from last season returning. The Badgers look to be back.
Speaking of teams that could be back, Indiana had an up-and-down season last season, but look to be headed for greener pastures. Coach Archie Miller brought in one of the best recruiting classes in the country led by Indiana high school legend, guard Romeo Langford. He’ll be asked to be a key member of the supporting cast around senior forward Juwan Morgan, who will be one of the best players in America. This program is certainly on an upward trajectory.
The Boilermakers are at the tail end of the second great run under Matt Painter. They have to find replacements for Isaac Haas, Vince Edwards and Dakota Mathias in a hurry. Fortunately, national player of the year candidate, junior guard Carsen Edwards doesn’t leave the cupboard completely bare. He’ll be plenty good enough to carry the load for Purdue this season.
With everything going on at Maryland, the start of basketball season has to be a welcome respite. That being said, it better be a good season for head coach Mark Turgeon. He enters this season needing to usher his team to the tournament and the talent is there to do it. Junior guard Anthony Cowan has to be the leader of a team that returns sophomores Darryl Morsell and Bruno Fernando. Five-star freshman Jalen Smith leads an incoming class that also features Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala. There will be nowhere to hide if this doesn’t work.
Head coach Fran McCaffery is going to have to get a better defensive performance out of this team to prevent a repeat of last season’s disappointment. I think he can and with the firepower returning in juniors Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook and sophomore Luka Garza. Those three in addition to freshman Joe Wieskamp should have the Hawkeyes in the mix for a NCAA tournament berth.
Injuries and other types of roster attrition plagued the Gophers last season. They’re healthy now and there is enough talent here to get back to the NCAA tournament. The story is whether there will be another scandal to derail, not only the season, but also coach Richard Pitino’s tenure at the school. Senior Jordan Murphy will be an awesome weapon for a Minnesota team that could finish much higher than this prediction if everything goes right.
10. Penn St
Tony Carr declaring for the draft is keeping the Nittany Lions from being a top-5 team in this league. He and Shep Garner are huge losses. The cupboard isn’t bare as juniors Lamar Stevens, Mike Watkins and sophomore Josh Reaves return. Freshmen Myles Dread and Rasir Bolton will provide depth and will be great pieces for the future.
Two years ago the Wildcats made the program’s first ever NCAA tournament and had people thinking the team would be even better last season. Then the season started and it was clear that people overrated their talent. This season Northwestern will be aided by returning to Welsh-Ryan Arena for home games after playing in Rosemont last season. Seniors Vic Law and Dererk Pardon should be steady hands for head coach Chris Collins.
12. Ohio St
Head coach Chris Holtman put together one of the more surprising seasons in all of college basketball last season. The Buckeyes had no expectations, but led by Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate they earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. They’re both gone and leave a sizable hole to fill. Sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson and senior guard C.J. Jackson will attempt to fill that hole along with freshmen Luther Muhammad and Jaedon LeDee.
Coach Brad Underwood’s first season was not a good one, but there’s reason to be optimistic here. Sophomore guard Trent Frazier and junior forward Kipper Nichols return to a team that’ll also feature one of the best freshmen in the country in Ayo Dosunmu. It’s a little too soon to expect a tournament run this year for the Illini, but it’s coming.
Rutgers gave its fans a glimmer of hope during its run in the Big Ten tournament last season, but the fact of the matter is this team still won’t be competitive in the league this year. Sophomore Geo Baker and Freshman Montez Mathis could be a solid backcourt in the future.
In the Big Ten, the newest team is the fastest team and last week Wisconsin found out just how good it was. The Maryland Terrapins are blazing a trail along the midwest guns blazing.
Leading the Terps is their backcourt, specifically their freshman phenom Melo Trimble. He’s been outstanding for Maryland averaging over 16 points and 3 assists per game. Joining Trimble is senior Dez Wells who has been having an outstanding season himself scoring over 15 points per game himself.
Coach Mark Turgeon was on the hot seat before the season started, but he’s squelched any thoughts about his lack of job security. He has his backcourt to thank for that. It’s one that could take Maryland to the Final Four
Conference Tournaments start this week so here are some previews.
ATLANTIC SUN: The Atlantic Sun has gone in a different direction and is holding the entire tournament at campus sites. North Florida won the regular season title and the only team to beat the Ospreys on their homecourt is the South Carolina-Upstate Spartans. The good news for the Ospreys is the Spartans are on the other side of the bracket. I expect North Florida to ride homecourt to the NCAA tournament.
HORIZON LEAGUE: Last year, Milwaukee shocked everyone and made a run to the Big Dance. This year it doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Valparaiso, Green Bay and Detroit are all capable of winning this tournament. Given the fact that the tournament will be played on Valpo’s homecourt and the format protects the higher seeds and I think we’ll see Green Bay and Valpo in the final. In that scenario I expect the Green Bay Phoenix to go dancing.
PATRIOT LEAGUE: This has been a disappointing year overall for the Patriot League. In the past, this has been a league that provided upsets in the tournament. There’s little chance of that happen as the champion will most likely have to play in the First Four. Bucknell is the best program in the league and routinely navigates this tournament. That’ll happen again and the Bison will go dancing.
OHIO VALLEY: Murray St has been the class of the OVC for decades. This year the Racers have been special. They blew through the conference finishing 16-0 in league-play. The next closest teams, Belmont and Eastern Kentucky, have five losses. That means there was no one even close. I don’t expect there to be anyone close to Murray St this week in Nashville. The Racers are going dancing.
BIG SOUTH: This should be one of the better tournaments of the early part of championship week. Charleston Southern and High Point finished atop the league with 13-5 records while Coastal Carolina, Radford and Winthrop all had 12-6 records. In total, seven teams had winning conference records. The tournament will be played at the home of defending champion Coastal Carolina so expect the South Carolina teams to have a strong presence. It will be a Coastal vs. Charleston Southern final with CSU heading back to the tournament.
NORTHEAST: If there has been any truth here its that the homecourt in this tournament has never really mattered. Teams have gone on the road and won in this tournament on a consistent basis. St. Francis (NY) won the regular season title, but I’m willing to bet the Terriers don’t want to see Mount St. Mary’s. The Mountaineers beat the Terriers at home and took them to overtime on the road. I expect the Mountaineers go dancing.
On to the bracket.
Last Four In: UCLA, Texas A&M, Michigan St, Purdue
The return to prominence of Arizona has been remarkable under second-year coach Sean Miller. The Wildcats, who were thought to have fringe NCAA Tournament chances, are now almost at lock status with a high seed.
Miller came to Arizona after a successful run at Xavier. He kept that program afloat after replacing Thad Matta, and now has Arizona back on top in the Pac-10 after years of turmoil at the coaching position.
The trouble can be traced back to the beginning of the 2007-2008 season when it was announced that legendary coach Lute Olson was taking a leave of absence from coaching for the season. Journeyman coach Kevin O’Neill replaced Olson on what he believed to be a promise that he’d be Olson’s successor.
That season, despite great talent, the Wildcats struggled. At a postseason press conference, Olson became very agitated with reporters and announced that O’Neill would not be returning to coach at Arizona in any capacity.
Olson was then set to return to the bench, but just before the season began, he abruptly retired; citing health concerns. Russ Pennell coached another Wildcat squad that barely made the tournament, but parlayed their selection to the Sweet 16.
Enter Miller. Anyone who knows college basketball knows that he was going to turn this program back around. He’s one of the best young coaches in the game and has great contacts.
Arizona is back and soon, so will the Pac-(12)10.
Stock Up: Princeton. The first-place team in the Ivy League looks poised to reclaim its dominant position as the class of the conference. Coach Sydney Johnson’s Tigers have performed very admirably for team out of the Ivy – already recording four RPI top-100 wins. It’s already beaten it’s primary challenger, Harvard, at home with a return trip set for later in the season. If this keeps up, the Tigers may be heading for a pretty nice seed in the tournament.
Stock Down: Maryland. Get ready to hear Gary Williams complain about more NCAA tournament berths for the ACC because his team didn’t get the job done on the court. Maryland has had golden opportunities to get quality wins, but just haven’t been able to do so. There’s no weight to Williams’ argument if he even has one this season. The Terrapins are just going to have to win the ACC tournament to get in.
Stock Up: Texas. Could this be the best team in the Country? It seems the chemistry problems that plagued last season’s uber-talented Longhorn squad are long gone. Rick Barnes has found a way to get his guys to play certain roles. It also doesn’t hurt to have a guy like Jordan Hamilton, who is one of the best players in the nation. Texas seems poised for a Final Four run reminiscent of its 2003 team.
Stock Down: Michigan St. I don’t like this team any more than Tom Izzo does. This is not the way Michigan St plays basketball. The Spartans are always tough and rugged. They kill teams on the glass and play in your face defense. This team lacks all that toughness and it’s very surprising. This is a veteran group that many saw as the favorite to win the national championship. At this point, this team might have to set its sights on winning the NIT.
This Week’s Bracket Projections:
Last Four In: Gonzaga, Alabama, Memphis, Cincinnati
Last Four Out: Virginia Commonwealth, Baylor, Virginia Tech, New Mexico
Good for Games through 2/14
1.Texas16.Long Beach St/McNeese St Tulsa
5.North Carolina12.Memphis/Alabama Washington, D.C.
6.Kentucky11.Michigan St Charlotte
7.St. John’s10.Utah St Tucson
2.San Diego St15.Bucknell WEST
5.Xavier12.Boston College Tampa
6.Missouri11.Colorado St Washington, D.C.
7.St. Mary’s10.Marquette Charlotte
1.Pittsburgh16.Murray St Cleveland
8.Kansas St9.Old Dominion
7.Florida St10.Georgia Denver
1.Ohio St16.Long Island/Texas Southern Cleveland
5.Texas A&M12.Missouri St Tucson
2.Notre Dame15.Florida Atlantic
1. Kansas Jayhawks Location: Lawrence, Kan. Record: 32-2 Automatic Bid: Big XII Conference Champions Key Players: Sherron Collins (15.6 ppg), Xavier Henry (13.6 ppg), Marcus Morris (12.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Cole Aldrich (11.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg) Strength: The Jayhawks are talented and deep. Led by Sherron Collins, the No. 1 team in the nation can do multiple things right. Now that coach Bill Self has settled on a rotation, it has just made them even more dangerous. It is just simply going to take an out-of-this-world performance to defeat the Jayhawks. They’re great offensively, defensively, and their best is just downright better than anyone else. Weakness: Team chemistry has been an underlying issue for the Jayhawks this season. They seem to have solve those issues down the stretch, but it’s still has to be a concern for Self. This is still a young team for the most part so it can be unpredictable at times. If they come out with the focus to win a national championship, they’ll be difficult to beat. However, if they’re worried about other things, they might be in trouble.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes Location: Columbus, Ohio Record: 27-7 Automatic Bid: Big Ten Conference Champions Key Players: Evan Turner (20.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 5.9 apg), William Buford (14.5 ppg 5.6 rpg), Jon Diebler (12.8 ppg), David Lighty (12.7 ppg), Dallas Lauderdale (5 rpg) Strength: There’s no doubt what (who) the strength of the Buckeyes is. National player of the year candidate Evan Turner does it all for Ohio St. He’s a 6’7” point guard who scores, rebounds, runs the offense and defends. Basically, he does everything for the Buckeyes. He leads them in every major statistical category and can will them to a national championship all by himself. Weakness: The Buckeyes have virtually no depth. There have been games when coach Thad Matta has only trotted four players out on the floor. If someone gets in foul trouble, they may be toast. They just don’t have the bodies to come in off of the bench to produce. If any of Ohio St’s tournament games are called tightly, they might have a shorter stay in the Big Dance then they’d like.
3. Georgetown Hoyas Location: Washington, D.C. Record: 23-10 At-Large Bid: Big East Conference Key Players: Austin Freeman (16.7 ppg), Greg Monroe (16.1 ppg, 9.5 rpg), Chris Wright (14.8 ppg), Jason Clark (10.6 ppg) Strength: The “Georgetown” (with Princeton principles) offense is already one of the most difficult offenses to defend. Georgetown throws three McDonald’s All-Americans into it and it becomes almost unstoppable. Greg Monroe, Austin Freeman, and Chris Wright are 3/5 or what many to be perhaps the best starting five in all of college basketball. When all three are playing well, the offense can’t be defended. If they play like they did in the Big East tournament, they can cut the nets down. Weakness: The Hoyas have been inconsistent all year long. They have big wins against Duke, Villanova, Syracuse and Temple and have had bad losses against South Florida and Rutgers. It appears that they may have corrected that issue, but if it rears its ugly head again, they could make an early exit from the Big Dance. That’s not a situation Hoya fans look forward to.
4. Maryland Terrapins Location: College Park, Md. Record: 23-8 At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference Key Players: Greivis Vasquez (19.5 ppg, 6.3 apg), Landon Milbourne (12.5 ppg), Eric Hayes (11.1ppg), Sean Mosley (10.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Jordan Williams (9.2 ppg, 8.3) Strength: While everyone knows about Greivis Vasquez, its Maryland’s presence in the paint that has given them an edge this season. Jordan Williams has arrived on campus and has joined with Landon Milbourne to give the Terps one of the most underrated frontlines in the ACC. They’re outstanding on the boards and Williams is an absolute load to guard in the post. The Terps have balance now and that makes them a legitimate threat to make a run in this year’s tournament. Weakness: Maryland is only as good as its star, Greivis Vasquez. When he’s on, the Terps are very good. When he’s off, the Terps are very mortal. Vasquez can be explosive, but he can also shoot them out of the game. He’s streaky and if he gets on a cold streak at the wrong time, it makes them very easy to guard. Maryland better hope that Vasquez is able to put up huge numbers.
5. Michigan State Spartans Location: East Lansing, Mich. Record: 24-8 At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference Key Players: Kalin Lucas (14.9 ppg), Raymar Morgan (11.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Durrell Summers (10.1 ppg), Draymond Green (10.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg), Chris Allen (9.1 ppg), Delvon Roe (5.2 rpg) Strength: As with all Tom Izzo-coached teams, this edition of the Spartans really crash the boards. Michigan St is the best rebounding team in a conference that values the art of owning the backboard. By out-rebounding their opponents by nine per game, the Spartans are once again showing the kind of toughness Izzo loves. It’ll take a special team to be able to compete with them on the boards. Weakness: Kalin Lucas is a great player, but the Spartans showed what kind team they were without him. Most teams depend on a great player, but even the Spartans secondary players like Raymar Morgan and Durrell Summers struggled without Lucas. This is not an explosive offensive team as it is so any dip in Lucas’ production could be the death of the Spartans.
6. Tennessee Volunteers Location: Knoxville, Tenn. Record: 25-8 At-Large Bid: Southeastern Conference Key Players: Wayne Chism (12.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg), Scotty Hopson (12.5 ppg), Bobby Maze (9.6 ppg), J.P. Prince (9.3 ppg), Brian Williams (5.7 rpg) Strength: Tennessee is one of the best transition teams in the country. Triggered by their full-court press defense, the Volunteers love to get out on the fast break. Bobby Maze expertly controls this team finding many of the great athletes he has at his disposal. They have guys who can finish at the basket and they have guys who can pull up on the wings and knock down threes. If the Volunteers are able to play at their pace, they’ll be tough for anyone to deal with. Weakness: The free-throw line has been rough on the Volunteers all year long. At a little under 67 percent, they’re among the worst free-throw shooting teams in the SEC. This team is very talented, but they leave too many points at the line. It’s part of the reason why they only score 73.6 points per game. We saw Memphis lose a title game at the free-throw line two years ago and it could kill Tennessee’s chances for a deep run this year.
7. Oklahoma State Cowboys Location: Stillwater, Okla. Record: 22-10 At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference Key Players: James Anderson (22.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Obi Muonelo (13.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Keiton Page (10.7 ppg), Marshall Moses (8.7 ppg, 8.2 rpg), Matt Pilgrim (8.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg) Strength: Led by James Anderson, the Cowboys have one of the best backcourts in the country. Anderson, the Big XII player of the year, along with Obi Muenelo and Keiton Page combine for close to 47 points per game. They are explosive and can put up big numbers in a hurry. The team goes as they go and fortunately for Oklahoma St, they’ve been going pretty well all year. Weakness: Shooting under 69 percent, free-throw shooting has been an issue for the Cowboys all year. Muonelo, Marshall Moses and Matt Pilgrim all shoot in the low-60’s in terms of percentage. Oklahoma St relies on those three players too much for them not to deliver at the line. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again, if the Cowboys don’t convert from the charity stripe, it will have a short stay in the tournament.
8. UNLV Rebels Location: Las Vegas, Nev. Record: 25-8 At-Large Bid: Mountain West Conference Key Players: Tre’Von Willis (17.3 ppg), Chace Stanback (10.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Oscar Bellfield (9.2 ppg) Strength: UNLV is one of the most efficient teams in America. The Rebels lead the Mountain West in turnover margin and assist-to-turnover ratio. They also shoot a respectable 46.2 percent from the field. They like to control the tempo and make their possessions count. They can frustrate teams with their patience and precision on offense and that could help the Rebels make some noise in the tournament. Weakness: The Rebels are not a good rebounding team. Fortunately for UNLV, the Mountain West doesn’t have solid rebounding across the board or it could’ve been in real trouble. It won’t have that luxury in the Big Dance as it is highly likely that no Mountain West foes will be in the Rebels’ path. If UNLV does play a team that is solid on the boards, than it is really going to have to fight on the boards because it leaves itself little margin for error.
9. Northern Iowa Panthers Location: Cedar Falls, Iowa Record: 28-4 Automatic Bid: Missouri Valley Conference Champions Key Players: Jordan Eglseder (12 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Adam Koch (11.8 ppg), Kwadzo Ahelegbe (10.7 ppg), Ali Farokhmanesh (9.3 ppg) Strength: UNI’s opponents are only averaging 54.3 points per game. Any team that is playing defense like that is doing something right. Part of that low number is the slow pace the Panthers like to play, but another part of it is the 40.3 percent field goal percentage they’re holding their opponents to. They switch on everything and don’t let opponents get clean looks at the basket. This is one team that will frustrate whoever it plays. Weakness: This is a team that might be susceptible to an athletic opponent. The Panthers play great position and help defense but there aren’t many guys in the MVC like they’ll be facing in the NCAA tournament. They’ll not only have to face teams that’ll be able to take them off the dribble, but they’ll be facing teams that can defend them better than any team in the MVC. This may be an Achilles heel for the Panthers.
10. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Location: Atlanta, Ga. Record: 22-12 At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference Key Players: Gani Lawal (13.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg), Derrick Favors (12.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg), Iman Shumpert (10.1 ppg), Zachery Peacock (8.7 ppg) Strength: The Yellow Jackets may have the best frontcourt in the nation. Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors are quite possibly NBA lottery picks. Zach Peacock gives them another complementary piece up front. When Georgia Tech gets the ball down low, they look like world beaters. In the tournament, great players carry teams to great results and the Yellow Jackets have two players who can do that. Weakness: Georgia Tech’s guards are nowhere near where their frontcourt is. as a matter of fact, they actually hurt the team. Georgia Tech turns the ball over 16.4 times per game which is the second most in the ACC. The Yellow Jackets are 11th in the conference in turnover margin and 10th in assist-to-turnover ratio. There’s too much talent in the paint for Georgia Tech for its guards to hurt it this much.
11. San Diego State Aztecs Location: San Diego, Calif. Record: 25-8 Automatic Bid: Mountain West Conference Champions Key Players: Kawhi Leonard (12.8 ppg, 9.9 rpg), Malcolm Thomas (11 ppg, 7.8 rpg), Billy White (11.2 ppg), D.J. Gay (10.3 ppg) Strength: On a toughness scale, the Aztecs may be No. 1 in the Mountain West. The Aztecs are one of the conference’s best defensive teams; holding its opponents to 40.4 percent shooting from the floor. In addition to that, the Aztecs lead the conference in rebounding margin as well by out-rebounding their opponents by 6.7 boards per game. This team has taken on an identity that it will be the bad guy on the block and it has paid dividends for it. Weakness: San Diego St is one of the worst free-throw teams in the tournament. At just 61.7 percent, the Aztecs will be very vulnerable in late-game situations. There some key players in their rotation who aren’t even shooting 60 percent. When the best free-throw shooter on the team is shooting just 72.2 percent, there’s a serious issue there. If Aztecs expect to be successful, they have to shoot a respectable percentage from the charity stripe.
12. New Mexico State Aggies Location: Las Cruces, N.M. Record: 22-11 Automatic Bid: Western Athletic Conference Champions Key Players: Jahmar Young (20.5 ppg), Jonathan Gibson (17.5 ppg), Troy Gillenwater (14.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg), Wendell McKines (10.8 ppg 9.9 rpg), Hamidu Rahman (10.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg) Strength: Across the board, this is one talented team. The Aggies have put up over 78 points per game this season and that’s because they have a lineup loaded with scorers. Five guys average in double figures led by Jahmar Young. Young along with his backcourt mate Jonathan Gibson are the main options for the Aggies, but there’s plenty of other scorers to worry about. This team is going to be a real problem for opponents this March. Weakness: Defensively, New Mexico St is one of the worst teams in the WAC. Teams are scoring a staggering 77.8 points per game on the Aggies. It’s amazing that they’ve been able to have this level of success given those numbers. There’s no doubt that they have some outstanding scorers. However, in this tournament, teams that defend are successful. The Aggies don’t and that might doom them.
13. Houston Cougars Location: Houston, Texas Record: 19-15 Automatic Bid: Conference USA Champions Key Players: Aubrey Coleman (25.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Kelvin Lewis (15.3 ppg), Maurice McNeil (8.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg) Strength: The Cougars have the luxury having the nation’s leading scorer in Aubrey Coleman. Coleman is an outstanding scorer who can hit the occasional three, slash and get to the free-throw line. The Cougars showed they could win without him having a banner game in their C-USA title game victory over UTEP. However when he’s on, they’re very good and could cause a lot of trouble. Weakness: The Cougars have been pounded on the boards all year. They’re dead last in C-USA in rebounding margin getting out-rebounded by over eight boards per game. What compounds the problem is their poor shooting numbers. They’re only shooting 42 percent from the field. The fact that they only rebound 30.6 percent of their misses only exacerbates the issue. They have to attack the backboard to be competitive this March.
14. Ohio Bobcats Location: Athens, Ohio Record: 21-14 Automatic Bid: Mid-American Conference Champions Key Players: Armon Bassett (16.9 ppg), D.J. Cooper (13.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 5.9 apg) , DeVaughn Washington (11.2 ppg), Tommy Freeman (10.1 ppg), Kenneth van Kempen (6.9 rpg) Strength: Indiana transfer Armon Bassett is one of the most underrated mid-major players in America. Many forgot about him after he had to sit out last season, but he’s got plenty of talent. He started the year slow but has it going now. He averaged over 29 points during the MAC tournament carrying the No. 9 seeded Bobcats to the title. He’s explosive and capable of winning a game all by himself. Weakness: The Bobcats are one of the worst rebounding teams in the MAC. Their opponents are out-rebounding on the year by close to half a rebound per game. The fact that this is a poor shooting team makes matters even worse as they’re in the bottom half of the conference in offensive rebounds. They need to sure this up against the big, athletic teams in the tournament or they may get punished on the boards in the Big Dance.
15. UC-Santa Barbara Gauchos Location: Santa Barbara, Calif. Record: 20-9 Automatic Bid: Big West Conference Champions Key Players: Orlando Johnson (17.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg), James Nunnally (15 ppg, 5.7 rpg), James Powell (9.4 ppg), Jaime Serna (8 ppg) Strength: The Gauchos are the best three-point shooting team in the Big West and it’s not even close. They’re shooting 37.9 percent on the year from downtown which really makes them dangerous. They’re a team that likes to control tempo, so they’re scores are lower, but that just magnifies the importance of the team’s overall range. They’re going make teams guard them for long stretches and then knock down outside shots. Weakness: The Gauchos are the worst team in the Big West on the Backboards. The Gauchos are being out-rebounded by over two boards per game. They don’t have quality size inside and that’s a huge part of the problem. Teams in the tournament see that weakness and they will exploit it to the fullest. If they’re not able to find a way to rebound the basketball, they’ll be one-and-done.
16. Lehigh Mountain Hawks Location: Bethlehem, Pa. Record: 22-10 Automatic Bid: Patriot League Champions Key Players: C.J. McCollum (18.9 ppg), Marquis Hall (11 ppg, 5.7 apg), Zahir Carrington (10.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Gabe Knutson (9.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg) Strength: Shooting 40 percent, the Mountain Hawks are the best three-point shooting team in the Patriot League. They were able to stretch defenses all year with their long-range shooting. C.J. McCollum, Lehigh’s best player, along with Marquis Hall are the primary threats shooting 46.6 and 37.3 percent respectively. If they’re able to continue this kind of shooting in the tournament, they may be able to give a team a scare. Weakness: While they’re not the worst defensive team, Lehigh allows teams to score over 70 points per game. Given up that kind of number might be ok against the Colgate’s and Navy’s of the world, but the Mountain Hawks will be facing a totally different caliber of competition in the NCAA tournament. They have to keep those numbers down if they expect to compete this March.
The Maryland Terrapins, who welcome Duke on Wednesday, are one of the hottest teams in the nation. They’ve won five in-a-row and 11 of 13.
Everyone knows about the guard ACC fans love to hate, Greivis Vasquez, but the revelation for the Terps has been freshman post player, Jordan Williams. Williams is averaging nine points-per-game, but what’s more impressive is the 8.4 rebounds a game. He gives the Terrapins a legitimate presence in the paint that they can rely on in a half-court game.
Gary Williams has been criticized a lot in the Washington, D.C. media and by Terrapin fans, but now is the time for folks to be quiet and give Gary Williams a round of applause for the job he continues to do in College Park. This team is playing hard and playing well and people should thank Gary for that.
We’re forgo the Stock Report this week for conference tournament previews.
BIG SOUTH: For some reason, this might be my favorite low-major conference. Whenever I watch a Big South game, it’s always entertaining. I expect more of the same from the tournament. I killed Coastal Carolina earlier this season for not beating Radford at home. Well, Coastal went traveled to Radford on Valentine’s eve and shut me. At 26-5, it’s Coastal Carolina’s year. Expect the Chanticleers to go dancing for the first time in 17 years.
OHIO VALLEY: On Bracketbuster Saturday, I finally got a glimpse of Murray St and boy was I impressed. They were running through the OVC and took a pretty good Morgan St team apart down the stretch. Then the Racers paid a trip to Morehead St to play the Eagles and had their quest of a perfect league record eliminated. After a disapointing loss in the the OVC semi-finals and the recent loss to Morehead St, expect to see a very motivated Murray St team this week. Motivated for a trip to the Big Dance.
ATLANTIC SUN: It’s hard to find words to describe this season in the Atlantic Sun. The first place team changed weekly it seemed so it was only fitting that there was a four-way tie for first. Lipscomb, Belmont, Jacksonville and Campbell finished with identical 14-6 conference records while East Tennessee St was just a game back at 13-7. No program in the Atlantic Sun knows how to navigate this tournament like Belmont. It had a down year last year but it’s back this season and will make a return to the NCAA Tournament.
HORIZON LEAGUE: Butler completely dominated the Horizon this season. It was the only team to finish with an undefeated league record in conference. The Bulldogs are six games ahead of their closest competitors. There is no reason to believe that someone is going to be able to beat them at home this weekend. Butler will win the Horizon League tournament and make a bubble team somewhere very happy.
This week’s bracket projections:
Last Four In: San Diego St, Notre Dame, Minnesota, Connecticut
Last Four Out: Mississippi St, Virginia Tech, Mississippi, Rhode Island
Villanova at Syracuse: Clearly this is the game of the day. The two best teams in the Big East all year finally go toe-to-toe. Villanova really needs to score in transition because Syracuse’s zone is too good for ‘Nova’s smaller guards to penetrate and finish. The Orange can get out and run but I’m not sure it wants to test the quicker Wildcats. I like Syracuse in a REALLY close game.
Kentucky at Tennessee: After its performance in Gainesville, Tennessee needs this game. Kentucky has been vulnerable on the road the past couple of weeks and Tennessee has already beaten a top-5 team at home this season. Something isn’t right with the Volunteers and playing the Wildcats isn’t going to fix it. Kentucky by 10…at least.
New Mexico at BYU: This one has the opportunity to be the best game of the weekend. Not a lot separates the two teams and their meeting a month ago was decided by four points. This game will have a similar outcome. I just pray that most of you have Versus, because I don’t. BYU wins in overtime.
Maryland at Virginia Tech: The Hokies need this game. There’s no two ways around it. If they don’t win, it might bury their at-large chances. They had the worst lost of any bubble team this week when Boston College beat them by 20. They have to win this game, but I like the way Maryland is playing. I like the Terps.
Michigan St at Purdue: Nothing breaks my heart like the late-season injury. I really feel badly for Purdue. It’ll still be a good team without Robbie Hummel. I don’t know how good yet, but I do expect an inspired Boilermaker team to show up and beat Michigan St.
Richmond at Xavier: I have watched both these teams play recently and let me tell you something, they’re good enough to hang with anyone. This will be one heck of a game. I think Richmond is the better team, but they won’t be in the Cintas Center on Sunday. Xavier wins.
Louisville at Connecticut: I don’t know who needs it more but I expect both squads to leave it all on the court. UConn has been strong for a couple weeks now and outside of been attacked by Austin Freeman, Louisville has been playing well too. However, the Huskies are the one team I’d hate to have to play right now. I like UConn in this one.
I have a bracket for you too!
Last Four In: Virginia Tech, Cincinnati, Old Dominion, Saint Mary’s
Last Four Out: Charlotte, Mississippi St, Notre Dame, Minnesota
Dan Issel, Pat Riley, Jamal Mashburn, Antoine Walker, Rex Chapman, Kenny Walker. He beat all of them the way he beat Tennessee. He beat all of them the way he beat history. A college game is on 40 minutes, so to score 54 points in that amount of time is extroardinary. Of course, Jodie Meeks is proving to be an extroardinary player.
Just think of long history of Kentucky basketball. The great teams under Rupp and Pitino. All of the national championships. All of the All-Americans. Jodie Meeks 54 points is a number that no one had touched. The crazy thing is, he’s capable of doing it again. He’s posted 39, 37, 32 and 46-point games as well this season and is light years ahead of anyone in the SEC player of the year race. I’ll definitely be watching for the rest of season because he’s going to put up numbers the SEC hasn’t seen in a long time.
Stock Up: Marquette. Quietly, the Golden Eagles have been going about there business in a workmanlike fashion. They’ve won eight in a row including a 22-point pasting of a good West Virginia Team last weekend. Marquette hasn’t gotten into the teeth of it’s Big East schedule yet, but they’ve set themselves up quite nicely.
Stock Down: Maryland. I feel sorry, but I’m not sure who I feel sorry for. I could feel sorry for Gary Williams because he looks like he’s working so hard to everything out of his team. I could feel sorry for the fans because it’s pretty obvious there are players on that roster which shouldn’t be seeing the light of day on an ACC basketball team. In any case, the Terps have lost three of their last four including a game to Morgan St and blown lead of 17 points to Miami.
Stock Up: George Mason. Here come the Patriots again. Clearly Jim Larranaga has a stranglehold over the CAA now. He’s definitely making the most out of going to the Final Four. They’re currently undefeated in conference play with two tough road games coming up at the Northeastern and Virginia Commonwealth. If they can get past those, we’re looking at an at-large bid for the Patriots.
Stock Down: Missouri Valley. I’m used to seeing at least one team from the MVC with a strong case for an at-large bid. Right now, it looks pretty grim with just Illinois St as a possibility and the Redbirds’ case is weak. Might be time to go back to the drawing board at league headquarters.
This week’s Bracket Projections:
Last Four In: UNLV, Arkansas, BYU, Utah
Last Four Out: USC, Stanford, Texas A&M, Illinois St
This bracket is good for games played through Sunday, January 18, 2009.