Monday, April 16, 2007

Marshall Out, Other News

A few interesting tidbits from around the nation:

The most interesting story for me is Gregg Marshall leaving Winthrop for Wichita State. Obviously from his point of view it's a great promotion, he's moving to a significantly better conference where he'll be able to recruit better players, and his salary will triple. Winthrop had offered to move his salary from $270k per year to $400k, but the Shockers offered $750k. For one thing, I was surprised to see how quickly Winthrop fans turned on Marshall for the fact that he didn't inform his players in person before the news broke in the media. Forget being loyal for all the winning he has done there, but there was also the fact that he only had a few days to run full practices before he is forbidden by NCAA rules. There's no point to waste two of those days flying back home when the news would probably break before he landed anyway. Rumors are that he atleast texted his players before the news broke, which is all that you can really ask of him.

Moving onto the more important issues, I do question how successful Marshall will be in the Valley. Without question, he's a great coach, and I loved what he did with Winthrop. But the Valley is a much different style of play. In the Big South, Marshall was successful by using a lot of athleticism and a slew of outstanding three point shooters. Dice and slice, then kick out for the three as Clyde Frazier would say. The Valley, however, requires a much more deliberate style. Excellent defense, big guys to rebound, few easy and open three pointers. The Valley is more like the Big Ten than the Big South. I still think Gregg Marshall will be successful, but he's not going to dominate like he did at Winthrop.

Meanwhile, a lot of news on the Will He Go Or Not front. You can see ESPN's updated list here. Honestly, ESPN is always so afraid of jumping to conclusions, and they have guys "50-50" that we pretty much know for a fact aren't going pro (like Chase Budinger). A much better website is this one. Most of the recent entrants have been as expected, though some are a little more surprising. For example, a lot of people thought Jeff Green wouldn't go pro after his awful last game. Still, if he does stick with the draft, he will definitely be a first rounder. And you can't criticize anyone who wants to cash in. You can get injured at any time, so it's natural to take the money when you can get it. As for the "One foot in the door" crowd, everyone and their sister knows that Greg Oden will go pro. I expect Conley to go also. And since it seems apparent that Mike Conley Sr. will represent all of the OSU kids, I'm thinking more and more that Daequan Cook will go pro with his two friends. I think it would be in his best interest to stick around another year, however, as I don't see him as a likely first rounder. Still, it just seems like Cook, Conley and Oden will all be a package, leaving at the same time with the same agent. And we all know Oden's going pro. Once that is announced, I think the chips will fall.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

More brackets

For comparison, Joe Lunardi has now released his own bracket. He disagrees on one #1 seed: Louisville instead of UCLA. The problem I have there is that the #2, #3 and #4 teams in the Big East will be better than those in the Pac-10. So even if Louisville ends up being better than UCLA, they will still lose more conference games and probably have a lower RPI. He agrees with my high seeding of Michigan State and Mississippi State, and is even more excited about NC State than I am. He also gives a high seeding to Georgia Tech. Some mistakes that I think he makes:

Tennessee as a #3 seed. There's a reason that I separate things out by conference first, to make sure I don't make the mistake of having something like the SEC champion as a #3 seed. Whoever wins the SEC is guaranteed to have a top 5 RPI and atleast a #2 seed.

Texas A&M as a #3 seed. I don't see why there is so much love for the Aggies. Do people remember what this program was like before Billy Gillespie and Acie Law?

New Mexico State as the WAC champ but at #13. I'm glad that he agrees with me on the winner, but this conference is too good for its best team and champion to only get a #13.

That's all I can really notice in a quick glance.

Any other comments people have on Lunardi or my own? I certainly am willing to discuss what I'm wrong about (although let's try to keep posting standards high on this website. I will delete posts again if the language gets too poor).

Monday, April 09, 2007

Preseason BP65

Here it is, the first BP65 of the year. The next update will be within a week of the NBA Draft:

1. KANSAS (BIG 12)
1. UCLA (PAC 10)

2. Michigan State

3. Georgetown
3. Duke
3. Arizona
3. Texas

4. Indiana
4. Alabama
4. Marquette
4. Georgia Tech

5. Oklahoma State
5. UConn
5. Washington State
5. Mississippi State

6. Pittsburgh
6. Missouri
6. USC

7. Kentucky
7. Clemson
7. Washington

8. Wisconsin
8. Wichita State
8. Syracuse

9. North Carolina State
9. Arkansas

10. Michigan
10. Depaul
10. Texas Tech

11. Virginia Tech
11. Illinois
11. Stanford

12. Florida
12. Northern Iowa
12. LSU
12. Oregon



15. YALE (IVY)


Other teams considered, but that missed the cut:
Boston College, Florida State, Maryland, Virginia, Rhode Island, Xavier, Cincinnati, Villanova, West Virginia, Iowa, Minnesota, Purdue, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Drexel, George Mason, Houston, Indiana State, New Mexico, San Diego State, California, Auburn, Vanderbilt, Nevada, Utah State

Other teams that can believe they have a plausible shot at an at-large bid:
Miami (Fl), Wake Forest, Fordham, Massachusetts, Notre Dame, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall, Penn State, Baylor, Iowa State, High Point, Hofstra, Old Dominion, Alabama-Birmingham, Southern Miss, UTEP, Wright State, Central Michigan, Miami (Ohio), Toledo, Bradley, Creighton, Illinois State, Missouri State, Colorado State, Utah, Arizona State, Bucknell, Appalachian State, Georgia, Ole Miss, South Carolina, South Alabama, San Diego, Saint Mary's, Fresno State, Hawaii

2007-08 Preview: ACC

Atlantic Coast Conference

After years of UNC/Duke domination, the ACC had a surprising amount of parity in 2006-07. The conference ended up with five teams finishing within one game of first place, and that didn't even include Duke. Any discussion should begin with the best team, and despite the parity in conference records the best team was clearly North Carolina. While Brandan Wright is going pro, everyone else is expected to stay. Another year of Psycho T, along with Wayne Ellington, Marcus Ginyard and others. They will have size, scoring and rebounding to spare. Without a doubt, this team should remain a serious contender for a #1 seed yet again.

Duke's struggles were a huge surprise in 2006-07, and the obvious problem was experience. Duke is a team that relies on players sticking around until their Junior and Senior seasons. They always have experience and maturity in boatloads. This past year they were younger than they have ever been in recent memory. Only one Junior or Senior got more than 1 minute per game (DeMarcus Nelson). Josh McRoberts will be going pro, but that's not as big of a loss as you might think. Last year he was expected to be The Man when it came to crunch time scoring, and he just wasn't able to fill that roll. With him gone, the final shot will more often be taken by DeMarcus Nelson, who I'd rather have taking the shot anyway. Duke also struggled a lot with backcourt turnovers, and another year of experience for Greg Paulus and Jon Scheyer should turn the backcourt from a liability to a strength. Nelson should be an elite scorer and playmaker. The only question mark will be size on the inside. Without the presence of McRoberts, added pressure will be on Brian Zoubek to live up to his potential. As usual, Coach K brings in a Top Ten recruiting class (not many people can remember the last time Duke didn't have one of those). Expect Duke to be back with a vengeance.

The biggest positive surprise in the ACC last year was Virginia Tech (at least from my point of view, since I predicted Virginia to finish 3rd and Va Tech 11th). Another year this good might be too much to ask, but I don't see this team falling too far off either. Obviously, Zabian Dowdell was The Man on the offensive side of the floor this years, especially during Tech's biggest wins. His loss, along with double-digit scorer Jamon Gordon will be tough to replace. But there will still be a lot of key players returning, and the Hokies also bring in a Top 20 recruiting class. The biggest question mark for this team will likely be on the inside, with their only starter over 6'7" (Coleman Collins) graduating. Either Lewis Witcher, Cheick Diakite and Robert Krabbendam needs to become an elite inside force, or else Jeff Allen (Scout: 9 PF, Rivals: 17 PF) or Augustus Gilchrist (Scout: 11 C, Rivals: 26 PF) will have to pick up the slack right off the bat.

A team that could be really dangerous if no one goes pro will be Georgia Tech. They lose only one Senior (Mario West) off of a team that made the Tournament as a 10 seed already. It is, however, quite likely that either Javaris Crittendon or Thadeus Young goes pro. For now, I'll assume that Young goes and Crittendon stays. If they can keep even one of those guys, they will continue to have elite scoring and could contend at the top of the ACC if Ra'Sean Dickey can fulfill his potential on the inside. Especially if their solid recruiting class pans out.

Two good teams that should take a step back are Virginia and Maryland. This past season, the Cavaliers could always depend on a big performance by either Sean Singletary or JR Reynolds in big games. Singletary should stay for another year, but Reynolds graduates. Unless another elite scorer steps up to the plate, Singletary can't do it all every night. This team will still be good, but I can't see them being a Top 25 team unless some of their young freshmen or recruits become surprise stars. Maryland, meanwhile, is absolutely decimated by graduations. DJ Strawberry, Ekene Ibekwe and Mike Jones all graduate. In all, more than 40 points per game need to be replaced. The recruiting class is decent, but not good enough to come close to making up for all of those losses.

Boston College, too, should suffer without Sean Marshall and Jared Dudley. Sean Williams won't be allowed back (he'll likely enter the draft, even though he might not get drafted at all, because he really doesn't have any other options). They have a good recruiting class, but this feels like a rebuilding year. Clemson, on the other hand, could be improved. It's just hard to predict how that team will respond to their epic collapse. Which team shows up in November, the team that started 17-0, or the team that finished 4-10? If they show up recharged after their strong NIT performance, they will have almost every piece back. Only Vernon Hamilton graduates, and they return their leading scorer (KC Rivers, 14.0 per game), rebounders (James Mays and Trevor Booker, both 6.4 per game) and assist man (Cliff Hammonds, 4.1 per game). Throw in a slew of experience as far as ACC teams go (as many as three Seniors could start next year) and this team has the potential to be really good.

Two final teams that have decent shots at Tournament bids are NC State and Florida State. Both teams lose a star (Engin Atsur and Al Thornton, respectively). Both teams have Top 25 recruiting classes. Both teams have a group of returning starters ready to be stars (Brandon Costner, Gavin Grant and Ben McCauley for the Wolfpack. Toney Douglas and Jason Rich for the Noles). I can see both teams making the Tournament next year. Here are the full preseason ACC rankings:

1. North Carolina - Should be pretty unanimous in the press. This team will be elite unless there is some major unexpected change on the NBA front.
2. Duke - Too many members of the media are underestimating this team. Josh McRoberts had such a bad year this past year that they really don't lose all that much other than rebounding when he goes pro. Especially since McRoberts' absence could propel Nelson to take his offensive game to another level. Another year of experience for Scheyer and Paulus will do a world of good. Coach K should have this team back at the top of the ACC.
3. Georgia Tech - Could finish even higher if they can convince both Crittendon and Young to stay. This team played really well despite all of the youth. They were practically unbeatable at home in '06-'07 (17-1) but awful on the road (1-8). I attribute that to inexperience. Another year of preparation should make this a much savvier team. I see big things for the Jackets in 2008.
4. Clemson - I think the Tigers will use last year as a motivating tool. With pretty much everyone back this will be a very talented team. And this won't be the type of team that will panic because of a loss or two - they will have learned all of the lessons you can learn in that regard during 2007.
5. North Carolina State - Sydney Lowe got his team to overperform last year, and they came within a few minutes of a miracle ACC Tourney title. Engin Atsur will be missed as a leader, but in all honesty his game was more suited to Herb Sendek's style than to Sidney Lowe's. He sometimes tried to do too much, and won't really be missed as a scorer. The only question will be the point guard position, which could be thin without Atsur bringing up the ball. If they can find a decent pair of point guards, the Pack should be able to get back to the Tournament.
6. Virginia Tech - A good team with a lot of talent. But almost every big win they had last year came on a huge Zabian Dowdell performance. It might be a while before they find their new crunch-time scorer. I don't see them having enough consistency to finish at the top of the conference again.
7. Florida State - Will again have flashy scorers and Sportscenter highlights. But the Noles need to prove that they can win when they are expected to win. Too many times they have come up just short of the Tournament. They just seem too much like the Michigan of the ACC.
8. Maryland - A clear rebuilding year for a Maryland team that is still struggling through its post-Championship malaise. With a new crop of young stars, Gary Williams should be able to get off to a fresh start. This team could be back in 2008-09
9. Boston College - This team could finish in the top half of the ACC again, but they could also really struggle to score. Other than Tyrese Rice they don't return a single double-digit scorer. And you need the ability to score 80+ points on a semi-regular basis if you want to be able to compete in the ACC.
10. Virginia - This team has the potential to get back to the Tournament, but they could also be a Sean Singletary injury away from last place in the ACC. Other than him, they have no double-digit scorers returning. Without an elite defense, which the Cavaliers don't have, that just won't work. So many of their wins in 2007 came down to Singletary and Reynolds in crunch time. No one player on this side of Kevin Durant can do that by himself on a consistent basis.
11. Miami - Few major graduation losses and a good recruiting class mean an improved team. But there is still a talent gap between them and the rest of the ACC.
12. Wake Forest - This program needs to rebuild. They struggled last year and graduate two starters. The recruiting class is good, so the cupboard isn't entirely bare. I just can't see this team winning consistently.

2007-08 Preview: Big East

Big East Conference

Pitt was the best team in the Big East for most of the year until Georgetown came on strong near the end of the year. It was a surprisingly good year for Pitt, but the Panthers yet again lose a lot to graduation. Aaron Gray's play on the inside set up the three-point attack that was the meat of Pitt's offensive attack. Levon Kendall was a great glue guy that won't be replaced easily. Levance Fields is going to have to be more aggressive on offense to open things up for Ronald Ramon on the outside. They should still have some decent inside scoring with Sam Young and Tyrell Biggs, but nothing too exciting. As you'd expect, Pitt's recruiting focused on big men. DeJuan Blair is one of the top power forwards in the nation, and the Panthers also add not one but two centers - both 6'9" or taller. With a lot of talented size in the Big East, it will be imperative that some of these big guys contribute immediately if Pitt wants any chance of returning to the top of the Big East.

Georgetown played like the top team in the country for much of February and March before puttering out in the Final Four. Roy Hibbert deserved a lot more attention than he deserved, even outplaying Greg Oden in their head-to-head matchup. Unfortunately for the Hoyas, I think that NBA scouts have noticed what Sportscenter has ignored, and his draft stock is skyrocketing. I would be surprised if he's not a lottery pick at this point. He could even go Top Ten, depending on his draft workouts. But even if he leaves, Georgetown will return basically everyone else. Jeff Green's awful Final Four performance probably made his draft decision for him. Jonathan Wallce, DeJuan Summers and Jessie Sapp will all provide ballhanding and scoring. Even Patrick Ewing, Jr. came on towards the end of the year as a great glue guy. JT III brings in a recruiting class ranked 11th by, which represents exactly what they need. They don't need to have a bunch of good recruits, because they already have so many good players in place. What they need are one or two really elite recruits, which is what they got in Austin Freeman (Scout: 3 SG, Rivals: 4 SG) and Chris Wright (Scout: 6 PG, Rivals: 7 PG). While they can't possibly replace Hibbert's inside presence, this is going to be an incredibly athletic team that will be able to score a lot of points and rebound.

Another really good team will be Louisville, which returns basically everybody. Only one Senior got more than ten minutes per game (Brandon Jenkins), and no one is expected to go pro early. Rising-Sophomore Edgar Sosa, especially, has a chance to establish himself as one of the elite players in the Big East. David Padgett also finally became an inside force this past year. It's not a coincidence that Louisville became an elite team late in the year when they figured out how to run their offense through Padgett.

Two other improved teams will be Marquette and UConn. Marquette was a very young team in 2006-07, and the inexperience showed as they tailed off down the stretch. They struggled when Dominic James wasn't on, and he did have some awful shooting days. I expect he'll return for another year and be more consistent. A healthy Jerel McNeal for one more year will be incredibly important on the other end of the floor. With their top seven scorers returning, Marquette will have an excellent set of athletes on the perimeter. Star recruit Trevor Mbakwe (Scout: 28 PF, Rivals: 36 PF) will hope to add some more size, as Marquette too often struggled with the size of schools like Georgetown and Pitt. Meanwhile, UConn was so young and inexperienced last year that they made Marquette look like a bunch of wily veterans. They lost a slew of close games because they just didn't know how to win, but with all of that talent returning they should be able to exact a lot of revenge on the rest of the Big East. Hasheem Thabeet, especially, should dominate. He is a poor man's Greg Oden, and his 7'3" frame has NBA scouts drooling. If he can get his game under control (and another year under Jim Calhoun can't hurt) he could be a real elite player.

That sums up all the teams with any chance at winning the conference. Let's get to the full preseason rankings:

1. Louisville - The top of the Big East will be really close, but I'm giving the edge to Louisville. Just look at how this young talent improved throughout 2006-07. They will just keep improving further. Edgar Sosa and David Padgett will probably be the best inside-outside combo in the entire conference. I can't bet against Rick Pitino here.
2. Georgetown - Roy Hibbert is a big loss, but with everyone else back this will still be a top team. Jeff Green needs to take the leap and be more aggressive if they want to steal the conference from Louisville.
3. Marquette - Yet another team I think has a real shot at winning the Big East. Assuming Dominic James returns, this team will have the talent to run against anybody, with a good mix of elite scorers and elite defenders. I worry if they have the size to deal with G-town and the Cardinals, which is the only reason I put these guys third. Plus, they still have to prove that they can score and win when James has an off night.
4. UConn - These guys have enough talent to win the Big East if they can get their act together. This is an important year for Jim Calhoun, as he has now had two consecutive years where he has underperformed with top tier talent. A third year in a row and he'll start getting called the rich man's Rick Barnes.
5. Pittsburgh - They lose a lot, but I can't drop them too far. Pitt tends to have a well-balanced team, with depth and experience and solid coaching. They should still easily make the Tournament again.
6. Syracuse - Should bounce back after getting robbed by the Selection Committee. They graduate Demetrius Nichols and Terrance Roberts, but with a Top 3 recruiting class (according to both and they should again have elite talent. It will be up to more experienced players like Eric Devendorf to help the young guys develop.
7. Depaul - A team really taking advantage of being in the Big East. They have a Top 20 recruiting class, which should soften the blow from the graduation of star Sammy Mejia. This team has a good shot at getting back to the Tournament.
8. Villanova - Won't be as deep with talent as they have been in recent memory, but Scottie Reynolds alone could drag this team back to the Tournament. He is a really special player in every sense.
9. West Virginia - You know how they say that you shouldn't want a woman to leave her husband for you, because you don't want to be with a woman who would do that to her husband? Well I wouldn't want to hire a coach that would go to the only school that would hire him, bring in a ton of kids from tough backgrounds who only want to play for him, and then jump ship at the first opportunity after only one year. Huggins has so much baggage that I just don't think he's going to fit in at a school used to John Beilein's style. I'm sure Huggins will find a transfer or two, but he's not going to have enough talent from Day One to do too much.
10. Cincinnati - A rapidly improving program under Mike Cronin, an excellent coach that I loved when he was at Murray State. He does a good job of winning with inferior talent, and he is bringing in an outstanding recruiting class - much better than he ever could have imagined before he joined the Big East. Within a few years, Bearcats fans might completely forget Bob Huggins. Or even better... they might get a good chance to exact revenge.
11. St. John's - A program improving under Norm Roberts, even if the changes aren't happening lightnight quick. With a decent recruiting class, this team should move higher in the Big East standings. I expect a sub-100 RPI for the first time in a few years.
12. Notre Dame - A lot of graduations are going to ravage this team. I have trouble seeing this team returning to the Tournament.
13. Seton Hall - Should improve in their second year under Bobby Gonzales. They return their top five scorers and should soon be at the point where they can atleast qualify for the Big East Tourney.
14. Providence - A team that had a tough year in '06-'07, and then loses its star (Herbert Hill) and brings in a mediocre recruiting class. With the Big East expected to rebound after a down year, I can't see Providence not dropping several spots in the standings.
15. South Florida - An improving program, but with so many other teams improving in this conference it's hard to see South Florida narrowing the talent gap enough to qualify for the big East Tourney.
16. Rutgers - Could be a long year for a team that is compounding a 3-13 record with losses of two of their top three scorers.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

2007-08 Preview: Big Ten

Big Ten Conference

The most talented team in the Big Ten next year will probably be the same as the most talent this past year: Ohio State. Oden will go pro, and there's a good chance Conley will go also. And Ron Lewis and Ivan Harris are out of eligibility. But Daequan Cook and Jamar Butler wil be back. And Othello Hunter will be a real force on the inside with the increased playing time he should expect. David Lighty should also develop into an elite player, and that's before we get to the Top Ten recruiting class that Thad Matta has brought in yet again. Expect this team to still have an outstanding starting five even if Conley leaves. Don't, however, expect them to be as deep. The new freshman class won't be quite as good as last year's. They will have less overall experience. And not only will Oden be gone, but Conley was probably more important to this team than Oden was (even though he got approximately 1/1,000,000th the hype). So, don't expect another trip to the Finals. But this team has as good of a shot as anyone at winning the Big Ten.

Looking at the rest of this conference, there's no question that the Big 10 will be vastly improved. Many of the top players will return. No conference had a better crop of recruiting classes. And a slew of new, top-tier coaches have shown up to pull up the weakest links. One team that should be elite will be Indiana, on the back of their Top Ten recruiting class. DJ White should be back, along with Armon Bassett, AJ Ratliff and others. The real key will probably be Eric Gordon, who is first Indiana's greatest coup in years. Remember, the best local talent had escaped Indiana over the last five years, going all the way back to Sean May.

Meanwhile, declarations of Wisconsin's death are definitely premature. They lose the Big Ten player of the year, but I expect the team to be improved at every other position. Bo Ryan has built a very deep program, and has a slew of replacements. Kam Taylor will be easily replaced by increased playing time for Trevon Hughes and future-star Jason Bohannon. If Brian Butch can stay healthy he'll be an offensive force, to complement the defensive force of Greg Stiemsma. They don't have a sexy recruiting class, but Bo Ryan never gets sexy recruiting classes. As usual, expect no freshmen starters, but expect some of them to contribute off the bench. If Marcus Landry can fill some of the Alando Tucker role, this team could return to the Top 25. Hard to see them missing the whole Tournament.

A vastly improved team will be Michigan State. With everybody returning, this will again be one of the most ferocious defensive and rebounding teams. Between Goran Suton, Marquise Gray, Drew Naymick and Idong Ibok, that's a lot of fouls to throw around. Nobody outmuscles those guys. The only reason they struggled at times this past year was because their offense was completely nonexistent outside of Drew Neitzel. When he was on, they beat Wisconsin and almost took out North Carolina on a neutral floor. When he was off, they would go and score 50 points. Either Raymar Morgan, Travis Walton or Maurice Joseph has to emerge as Neitzel's sidekick - the guy who can take over games when Neitzel is on the bench or having a bad night. The Spartans also bring in two elite guards in a Top Ten recruiting class (PG Kalin Lucas and SG Chris Allen), so there will be even more options for points. If they can put together even an average offense, this team could win the whole Big Ten.

Another improved team will be Michigan, which adds a Top Ten recruiting class (I know it feels like half of the conference has one of those) and an excellent new coach in John Beilein. They lose their top four scorers, but it's not like those guys went to a Tournament anyway. Michigan will still have a lot of undeveloped talent - probably as much as West Virginia ever had. Beilein is good at getting more out of less, so he should have an excellent shot at getting this team back to its first Tournament since 1998 (that's not a typo).

The final big story in the Big Ten is Minnesota, under new coach Tubby Smith. I've read all about how hard Minnesota wooed Smith, but I still don't understand how they got him. He is one of the best coaches in the nation and will make this school better immediately. The state of Minnesota produces a lot of high school talent, but they just don't stay in state. In 2007 the three most talented recruits got stolen by Wisconsin, Marquette and Kansas. In the 2008 class, the two most talented recruits have already orally committed to Wisconsin. If Tubby can start to steal some of these kids back, and even put some kind of a fence around the state, Minnesota can quickly return to being a Big Ten power. Throw in all five starters returning and maybe a transfer or two and this team will be vastly improved next year alone. Hoping for a Tournament bid next year might be a bit too much, but I think it's a reasonable expectation for Tubby's second season.

Here's how I see the whole conference:

1. Ohio State - Should have the most explosive talent, even if Conley goes pro.
2. Michigan State - Last year's Round of 32 appearance represents a down year for Tom Izzo. With most key players returning and a lot of good recruits, they should be able to find an elite scorer or two to complement Neitzel.
3. Indiana - Kelvin Sampson always gets great recruits, and Eric Gordon might be the best he's ever gotten. This team might even start the season ranked in the Top Ten nationally.
4. Wisconsin - Can't move these guys back any further. Will still be a deep and well-coached team.
5. Michigan - Lose a lot of starters, but bring in an excellent set of recruits and a better coach. They've had Tournament-level talent for years, and Beilein should be able to put all the pieces together.
6. Illinois - Bruce Weber has been dogged for being unable to get elite recruits, and losing Eric Gordon has been the worst of all. Lost in the fuss over that, Illinois does bring in several other blue-chippers. This team will still have an excellent shot at the Tournament.
7. Purdue - An improving program, but this team was Carl Landry And The Others this past year. Even with an amazing recruiting class, it's hard to see this team doing any better than they did last year.
8. Minnesota - All five starters returning and Tubby Smith as the new coach? Gopher fans should be excited for the first time in years.
9. Iowa - Adam Haluska will be really hard to replace, but Tyler Smith had a chance to be First Team All-Big Ten if he can live up to expectations.
10. Penn State - This team was better than their record last year. And most of their key parts return. But with the conference being so improved all over you can be a better team and not move up in the standings at all.
11. Northwestern - They just don't have enough athletic talent. Tim Doyle was a one-of-a-kind player that will be impossible to replace. The only hope for the Wildcats will be if Kevin Coble can become an elite scorer in the post.

2007-08 Preview: Big 12

Big 12 Conference

Amazingly enough, the story in the Big 12 is now Kansas State. Bob Huggins, as usual, acting like a degenerate and leaving the school after a year. Which would be fine except that he brought in a slew of transfers and the #1 recruiting class in the country, all of whom came to play with him. Those kids weren't coming for Kansas State. So now the fans of the school are in a panic, burning effigies of Huggins and worrying about which players will transfer out. First of all, I don't have much sympathy for Kansas State fans. They sold their soul to the devil in hiring Huggins, and had to know it would be messy in the end. They wouldn't have had a chance at any of those recruits anyway - if even half of them decide to stay then this team will be better off than before Huggins. A huge mistake would be if the Athletic Director follows through with his threats to not allow players out of their commitments. Not only would it be absurdly unfair to these recruits, most of whom couldn't have cared less about K-State until Huggins asked them to come, but it would set a bad precedent and hurt future recruiting. And who wants to have kids on the team that don't want to be there anyway?

Moving to other topics, let's just say it will be digusting how much talent Kansas is going to have next year. They had arguably the most talented team in the nation last year, and will definitely be even better next year. It's expected that only Brandon Rush will go pro, which would make him the only member of last year's team not to be back. And let's remember, at schools like Kansas you aren't supposed to have that many players return. You're supposed to have your stars go pro early to make room for the new insane recruiting class (see: Ohio State). To be fair, this isn't the greatest recruiting class Bill Self has ever had. I see two clear bluechippers, in Cole Aldrich (Scout: 4 C, Rivals: 5 C) and Tyrel Reed (Scout: 10 PG, Rivals: 16 PG). With Mario Chalmers, Darrell Arthur, Julian Wright, Sherron Collins and others, this will likely be the most talented team in the country. The knock on Bill Self has been that he is a great recruiter, but a poor bench coach. This year he no longer has any excuses, because next season will be a failure if this team doesn't make the Final Four.

Texas should also be an outstanding team next year, even without Kevin Durant. DJ Augustin is expected to stay, and a Top 20 recruiting class will join in as well. Texas also didn't have a single Senior getting double-digit minutes per game last year, so other than Durant this team will be improved at every other position. In a lot of ways, Durant held back this offense's development anyway. He would go stretches where he would be disinterested and Rick Barnes wouldn't care about getting him the ball. That would be followed by periods where Durant would take the ball up and try to do everything himself while the rest of the team watched. It wouldn't be unprecedented for a team to get better after losing a star like that. Rick Barnes, like Bill Self, has been tagged as a great recruiter and bad bench coach. And like Self, Barnes will have a ton of talent next year. Not quite as much as Self has, but enough that a Final Four trip isn't out of the question. This team could be really good if Barnes doesn't mess it up.

Texas A&M, on the other hand, could really struggle next year without Billy Gillespie. Acie Law and Antanas Kavaliauskas were really the heart and soul of this team, and will be missed. Without a great recruiting class, it's hard to see those guys being easily replaced. Texas Tech, too, will struggle finding ways to score without Jarrius Jackson, Jon Plefka and Darryl Dora.

Oklahoma and Oklahoma State should both be improved after off years, as both bring in top-ranked recruiting classes. Missouri, too, should be better with another year under the outstanding Mike Anderson. His 40 Minutes of Hell Version 2.0 was a double-edged sword last year as his team couldn't handle the pace on offense either. With another year in the system (every key player returns for another year) the team should be much more mature. Expect fewer turnovers and a better team, even without a Kansas- or Texas-level recruiting class. That covers all of the teams that will finish near the top of the Big 12, so let's get to the final predictions:

1. Kansas - This will most likely be unanimous in the media. Probably the most talent of any team in the country.
2. Texas - The only other team in the Big 12 with the talent to run with Kansas at all.
3. Oklahoma State - Should have a great backcourt with JamesOn Curry and Byron Eaton. Throw in a top recruiting class and this team should be improved in its second full season under Sean Sutton's control.
4. Missouri - One of the best teams to watch play. Mike Anderson should add to the excitement in the state of Missouri by bringing this team back to the Tournament for the first time in five years.
5. Texas Tech - The offense should be more balanced with Jarrius Jackson gone. If they can find a way to score points off of Charlie Burgess and Martin Zeno, this could be a dangerous team.
6. Oklahoma - Lose a lot to graduation, and this could be a rebuilding year, but on the back of the 15th ranked recruiting class (according to this should be a pretty talented team. Expect them to struggle early and improve as the year goes on and the freshmen become more mature.
7. Texas A&M - They won't fall totally off the side of the Earth, but I can't see anything but a big drop without Gillespie and their two most important players.
8. Kansas State - This team could finish anywhere between third and 11th, to be honest. We have to see which players end up staying and which ask out of their commitments. You just can't help but view the situation here as a car wreck, and nothing good comes out of situations like that.
9. Iowa State - They return their starting five, which alone makes them a better team next year. But with no obvious stars, I can't see how they're going to duel with the big boys.
10. Baylor - A fast-improving program with another good recruiting class. We will have to see how these guys play together early on in the season, but it's not out of the question that this team makes a run up the standings and has a shot at an at-large bid.
11. Nebraska - No big time talent, but with a bunch of Junior College pickups, this team should be able to steal a few games.
12. Colorado - Jeff Bzdelik is a very good coach, but the cupboard is bare. They should improve in 2008-09, but fans should go into this coming year only looking for young talent to develop. They have no chance at a Tourney bid.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

2007-08 Preview: Pac 10

Pacific 10 Conference

UCLA ran away with the Pac-10 yet again in 2007, and was arguably the best team in the country before they fell on their face in the Final Four. But the story in the Pac-10 next year might just be USC and its polarizing recruit, OJ Mayo. I'll have a longer post on him after the preseason previews are done, but the attention for Mayo is really unprecedented. There have been high school recruits with more overall hype (Oden and Lebron come to mind), but no one who comes out of high school already hated by millions of basketball fans. After the story broke about how he chose USC, Mayo was immediately annointed the new "what is wrong with basketball," and Youtube is filled with videos both glorifying and bashing him. Again, I'll explain this more later in a longer article, but in general I think that USC is a bad decision for Mayo. He should have learned from this past year that Oden marketed himself just fine from Columbus, Ohio. And he needs a strong coach who can keep him in line, someone who he can't undercut with his behavior. Tim Floyd doesn't strike me as someone in the Pitino/Calhoun/Knight mold of being able to control any player who comes before him.

So, there is a very real possibility that USC's recruiting class blows up in its face. In actuality, it's not that great of a class outside of Mayo. Davon Jefferson is the only other blue-chipper. Almost nobody from this past year's team graduates, but Gabe Pruitt and Nick Young are expected to go pro a year early. That also means that the only remaining key rising-Seniors will be gone, making almost the entire Trojans rotation freshmen and sophomores. They will be immature and are bound to lose a bunch of close games. There is a lot of hype about USC being a Top 5 team next year, but I don't buy it. If they can get Pruitt and Young to stay then I'll buy this team as the second best team in the Pac-10, which could possibly mean a seed as high as a #2. But without those two players they lose not only a ton of scoring but also their experience and leadership. I see this team actually underperforming last year's team.

Moving to a team that we know will be good: UCLA. Of course, just how great they will be depends on their NBA defections. They had no Seniors on last year's team, but Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison are both expected to go pro. Josh Shipp also is expected to test the waters, but for now I'll assume he stays for another year. Either way, there are still a lot of excellent players that will return for this team: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Lorenzo Mata and others. And they have a recruiting class that both and have as a Top 15 class. The key player will be Kevin Love, a 6'9" center already being called the next Bill Walton.

The surprise in the Pac-10 this past year was obviously Washington State, a team that amazingly returns almost every key player from last year's team. As usual they have a mediocre recruiting class, but who needs new recruits when you have Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver and Daven Harmeling. On the other hand, a team that underperformed but should be better on the back of its recruits will be Arizona. They lose two starters to graduation, and are expected to lose a third (Marcus Williams) to the NBA. But Chase Budinger is expected to return for another year, and as usual Lute Olsen has a powerful recruiting class (Rivals: 4th overall, Scout: 8th).

Two other teams that should contend for the Pac-10 title will be Oregon and Washington. Oregon loses star Aaron Brooks, but returns everyone else. They should have a very balanced offensive attack, and a fairly experienced team by Pac-10 standards. Washington, meanwhile, is expected to lose only Spencer Hawes to the NBA. They will still have Jon Brockman as a force on the inside, and Ryan Appleby remains a good shooter. The biggest reason the Huskies underperformanced this past year was youth/inexperience (which should be helped by another year in the NCAA) and the lack of an explosive scorer off the dribble. They have some potential candidates for that roll already on the bench, and they also bring in their typically strong recruiting class. The key will probably be the two point guards, Isaiah Thomas and Venoy Overton. If Isaiah can play as well as Isiah once did for Indiana, the Huskies will be an outstanding team. Appleby is better suited to play the 2, and Washington's offense struggled when he was the primary ballhandler. One of these recruits should be able to shoulder the load when Justin Dentmon takes a rest. Also, the offense should be a little bit more opened up since they won't have their twin towers clogging up the lanes anymore.

1. UCLA - Just way too much talent here. If Kevin Love is as good as advertised, and Josh Shipp stays for another year, this is a true National Championship contender.
2. Arizona - Remember that this was a better team than their record this past season. They will likely lose three starters, but Chase Budinger is just scratching the surface of how good he might become. And Lute Olsen will, as always, have a great array of athletic talent.
3. Washington State - How can you move this team down when they basically return the whole team? It's remarkable looking at their old recruiting classes - none of these guys were bluechippers. Somehow they put together something special, and I expect them to contend for a top NCAA seed yet again.
4. USC - I put them this low because I assume that Pruitt and Young will both jump ship. If that's the case this team will be just too immature to not blow a lot of winnable games. USC's biggest strength this past year was their toughness and maturity in winning close games. They won't have that next year, even if OJ Mayo does become an elite player.
5. Washington - Should be an elite team if they can find a slashing scorer. With all of the players on their bench and in their recruiting classes, I can't believe they won't find one or two.
6. Stanford - A good enough team this past year to contend for an at-large bid, although they definitely didn't deserve one over Syracuse. Either way, they only had one Senior getting anything more than garbage minutes, and aren't expected to lose anyone to the NBA. The Lopez brothers will be a real force for anyone to try to deal with.
7. Oregon - A team that will be continue to be really good, even though they will miss Brooks. I expect the Pac-10 to be really deep next year, so even though I have Oregon as only the 7th best team, I still expect them to qualify for another Tournament.
8. California - A decent team that simply is going to be stuck in a really good conference. The only way they move up further in these standings is if Ryan Anderson takes his game to the next level.
9. Arizona State - Should start to see the results of the good Herb Sendek hire. They return most of their best players, and also bring in an outstanding recruiting class (by Sun Devils standards) that is ranked in the Top 25 in the nation by both and
10. Oregon State - This team might actually be better than they were last year, but the Pac-10 is just going to be too good for a team like this to finish high enough in the standings for a postseason bid.

Friday, April 06, 2007

2007-08 Preview: SEC

Southeastern Conference

It's time to get to the BCS conferences, and we'll begin with the home of the two-time defending National Champions, Florida. Certainly they'd be a favorite to repeat again if they could get another year out of their "Big 4." But despite Billy Donovan's commitment to another year, the same can't be said for the rest of his team. Including the NBA defections (not counted in the "Returning Starters" stat in the file above) the Gators will lose their six best players. The only remaining player who got any real playing time will be Walter Hodge. They did have some good recruits this past year and for this coming year, some of whom will shine with the increased playing time. Rising-Sophomores Marreese Speights and Dan Werner should be good when given the chance to play. The best and most important recruit will probably be Nick Calathes (Scout: 3 PG, Rivals: 3 PG), and with both and calling this a Top Ten recruiting class, there will still be a lot of talent in Gainesville.

The next best team in the SEC was probably Tennessee, a team which other than the NBA will lose only Dane Bradshaw. Most likely Chris Lofton will go pro, but I think that's all. That means JaJuan Smith, Wayne Chism and several other stars will all be back. The Vols will look to replace Lofton with star recruit Cameron Tatum (Scout: 20 SG, Rivals: 21 SG). Overall they won't have the best recruiting class in the land, but they might return the most talent in the SEC. Bradshaw, as a leader and energy-creator, will be missed. But Bruce Pearl is an excellent coach, and he'll have this team ready to make a run at the SEC title.

Vanderbilt was probably the surprise (in a positive sense) in the SEC this past year. It will also probably be a bit much to expect a repeat performance as they lose three key players. They will potentially start three Seniors next year, which will give them a lot of experience as far as SEC teams go, but I don't expect them to have the athletes to run with a school like Tennessee.

The surprise in a negative sense in the SEC, of course, was LSU. They were better than their record, but just couldn't put together a good run all year. They kept losing winnable games and played their way right to the bottom of the SEC. Big Baby is going pro, but most of the other key parts will remain. Tasmin Mitchell should be a real star, and the Tigers bring in a good recruiting class highlighted by Anthony Randolph (Scout: 5 SG, Rivals: 4 SF). They will definitely be improved - the only question is how far up the standings they'll move.

Some other stories for the SEC: I think Kentucky made the wrong move in pushing Tubby Smith out the door. Billy Gillespie is a good coach, but not necessarily any better than Tubby. And you never know if players will transfer out and if recruiting will suffer with coaching changes. Arkansas, meanwhile, really seemed to grow as a team as this past year went on. With all of their key players returning this could have been a really elite team next year. Of course, Arkansas screwed it up by firing Stan Heath and still hasn't been able to find a coach. They seem intent on becoming basketball's answer to Alabama football.

Two teams that should be improved next year: Alabama and Auburn. Bama loses only Jermareo Davidson, with Ronald Steele and Richard Hendrix supposed to return. This past year they had an immensely talented starting five but absolutely no bench. Inevitably they lost when they had close games, or fast-paced games, or too many games in a week, or just as the season went on and they got worn down in general. Next year they should have more of a bench. Last year's bench will be a year older and better, and they bring in the 14th best recruiting class in the nation according to Auburn, on the other hand, has a pretty poor recruiting class. But they return every key player from this past year, and that alone should mean an improved team.

Overall, here's how I see the SEC:

1. Tennessee - They return the most talent, bring in a decent class of recruits, and have one of the best coaches in the country. I can't see any reason this team shouldn't be ranked in everyone's preseason Top Ten.
2. Alabama - With their starting five, this would have been a Top 25 team with any kind of a bench and without any injuries. Add in an excellent recruiting class and this team should definitely return to the Tourney.
3. Mississippi State - This might be a reach, but this was probably one of the Top 50 teams in the nation last year and they return basically every key part. They don't have Tennessee-level talent, but they should be a mature team that works well together.
4. Kentucky - Only this high because Billy Gillespie is a pretty good replacement. They return a lot of talent - this is Kentucky, after all. I can't drop them any lower than this.
5. Arkansas - This could change depending on who they eventually hire. Whoever gets hired will have a complete team in place. With a good replacement they could win the SEC West.
6. Florida - Can't drop this team any further. Let's remember that a lot of the returning players could have starred on the team this year last year if given the chance. If all falls right, this team could still work its way back to the Top 25. They just need to make sure not to have the post-Championship malaise that affects so many teams.
7. LSU - Nowhere to go but up. They still have a lot of talent and a good coach.
8. Auburn - They have struggled to get top-flight talent to show up, but Auburn should be a decent team regardless next year. They even have a shot at making a run to the Tournament if all falls right.
9. Vanderbilt - A great season, but no reason to expect it to continue. We know this isn't exactly Kentucky or Florida in regards to recruiting prowess, so Vandy can't expect to contend for an SEC title year in and year out.
10. Georgia - Might have enough talent to make the Tournament, but I don't really see it happening.
11. South Carolina - A rebuilding year for the Gamecocks. ranks their recruiting class 20th overall, possibly the payout from their NIT Championship.
12. Ole Miss - Someone has to finish last. This team made a real run at an at-large bid, but many of their best parts are gone. Definitely will take a step back.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

2007-08 Preview: Mid Majors, Part III

Atlantic 10 Conference

It is good to see the Atlantic 10 getting stronger again. The key has been an influx of excellent coaches. George Washington has made great strides under Karl Hobbs, one of my favorite mid-major coaches. UMass has grown leaps and bounds under the young Travis Ford. Even Temple has managed to move forward under former-Penn coach Fran Dunphy. Let's take a look at the teams that should be competing for at-large bids and the conference title in 2007-08:

We can start with the defending regular season champions, Xavier. The Musketeers had a good array of athletic scorers, three-point shooters and rebounders. Their key graduation loss will be leading-scorer Justin Doellman (13.7 per game). They have several players who can fill his roll on the inside, including rising-Sophomore Derrick Brown (6 ppg, 71% shooting). They will also get more scoring through star wing player Dante Jackson (Scout: 21 SG, Rivals: 87).

UMass will be a hard team to predict next year. This past year they were outstanding, possibly the best overall team in the A-10, but it will be extremely hard to replace Stephane Lasme and Rashaun Freeman. They had a fairly deep bench this past year, but no obvious future-stars stand out. Their recruiting class is more of the same, with atleast five decent recruits coming in, but no stars to speak of (i.e. anyone ranked by or With a team like that, and a great coach in Ford, UMass should be a good balanced team. But it's hard to see them having enough star power to win the whole conference.

George Washington also loses its star (Carl Elliot). Overall, however, they don't lose as much as UMass. They also bring in the best recruiting class in the conference. Karl Hobbs always brings in good athletes, and their new recruits also represent some more size. Jared Cunningham and Jabari Edwards are both 6'8" or taller.

Some other intriguing teams? Rhode Island returns all five starters. Fordham not only returns all five starters, but they didn't have a single Senior getting more than garbage minutes. St. Joseph's and St. Louis also return most key players. All in all, the conference should be even better next year than they were this past year. Here's how I see it panning out:

1. George Washington
2. Rhode Island
3. Xavier
4. UMass
5. Fordham
6. St. Louis

Colonial Athletic Association

Yet again the Colonial was a Tournament story. No Final Four teams in 2007, but VCU took out Duke while Old Dominion played well in its own right. VCU, especially, should remain a good team next year. The key reason for that is Eric Maynor, the kid who almost single-handedly won the Colonial Finals and beat Duke. He is a real star, and someone that you can build a team around. Many of the other key parts from VCU's run remain, including Wil Fameni (9 ppg, 5 rpg, 48% shooting). VCU will have athleticism, size and experience in abundance. 2007 was not an aberration for the Rams program.

Another team I want to comment on is George Mason, which has really taken the appropriate response to their Final Four run. It would be easy to try to throw everything on the floor to make one more Tournament run this past year, but they recognized that with all their stars gone it would make more sense to rebuild. Now, they're staring at a team with no Senior starters that almost made the Tournament anyway. They still have players with Final Four experience, and are cashing in on their fame with a solid recruiting class. There's no question this team will be improved next year.

Old Dominion, on the other hand, should take a step back. That usually happens when you lose your three top scorers. Play in the Colonial is really starting to resemble the Atlantic 10 a lot in the abundance of athletic swing men and quick, undersized post players. You need to have elite scorers to excel, and the Monarchs will have a dearth next year - especially on the inside. Drexel could also take a step back with several key players gone. But they do have one more year out of star center Frank Elegar (16 ppg, 7 rpg, 54% shooting). He should be fairly dominant and be able to open things up on for the perimeter players. All in all, here's how I see things:

1. VCU
2. George Mason
3. Drexel
4. Old Dominion
5. Hofstra
6. Northeastern

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

2007-08 Preview: Mid Majors, Part II

Conference USA

In a lot of ways, Conference USA is at a crossroads. With the perennial powerhouses of Marquette, Louisville and Cincinnati gone, it's no surprise that Memphis has run roughshod over everyone. But with John Calipari not staying forever (he's on top of a lot of almost every coaching vacancy list), some of the other schools have to step up and improve the overall quality of the league. Bringing in coaches like Mike Davis will help. Houston and UTEP are improving as overall programs as well. There is a decent crop of recruits coming in next year, not even including the typical set of bluechips at Memphis (overall class ranked 7th on, 11th at Rivals). Rather than discuss who will win this conference (since Memphis is basically a lock), let's look at the best of the rest:

Houston was probably the second best team in the conference last year, and they certainly gave Memphis fits in the CUSA Finals. The good thing for Cougars fans is that this recent improvement hasn't been due to any one player, but because Tom Penders has done an excellent job. They were a deep team this past year, and that shouldn't change too much next year. They should have a slew of athletic scorers on the wing, including rising-Seniors Rob McKiver (19 ppg, 3 apg) and Jahmar Thorpe (11 ppg, 6 rpg). They will definitely lack size on the inside, but no one in Conference USA has a lot of seven-footers anyway.

UAB is another program that is improving, under coach Mike Davis. The criticism of Davis at Indiana was that he was a bad bench coach, and that is actually a pretty honest assessment. But he is definitely an excellent recruiter. This year's class is highlighted by Keenan Ellis (Scout: 24 PF, Rivals: 18 C). UTEP, also, brings in an excellent recruiting class including two players ranked by as Top 30 at their position in the country (SF Manuel Cass and C Claude Britten). Another improving program is Southern Miss, on the back of last year's recruiting class, which turned up several gems including Jeremy Wise (16 ppg, 3 apg) and Sai'quon Stone (10 ppg, 5 rpg). Putting it all together, here's how I see CUSA next year:

1. Memphis
2. Houston
4. Southern Miss
5. UAB
6. UCF

Mid-American Conference

There have been years in recent memory when the MAC competed for at-large spots and single-digit seeds in the Tournament. But 2006-07 wasn't one of those years. There weren't any real elite players or stars, and the overall quality suffered. I would expect the MAC to improve next year, mostly due to a lack of graduations. The recruiting classes aren't as good as Conference USA, for example, but the MAC should be full of experienced and deep teams.

Toledo owned the best record last year, but graduates three key starters. They should still be good, but I don't see a repeat. Akron was probably the best overall team in the MAC last year, and loses less than Toledo. They will have a good set of guards and forwards, and should fill their largest whole (size) with star recruit Steve Swiech (Scout: 29 C). Miami of Ohio was the team that actually won the MAC's automatic bid. They graduate two starters, but neither should be impossible to replace. I question their size, as they don't return anyone over 6'8", and that fact alone might preclude them from a repeat Tournament bid.

Another team I see improving is Western Michigan, which doesn't graduate a single player. Another directional-Michigan, Central, returns most of their key players as well. They also bring in what might be the best recruiting class in the MAC. Kent State is another rebuilding program, that I don't expect to win the conference next year but which could be very good in 2008-09. Overall, here's how I see it:

1. Akron
2. Central Michigan
3. Miami (OH)
4. Toledo
5. Western Michigan
6. Kent State

Missouri Valley Conference

The Missouri Valley is still listed as a Mid-Major because they don't quite have the name recognition of the BCS conferenes. But after several straight years of being ranked as high or higher than conferences like the Big 12, there's no question that the Valley has arrived. The conference only got two Tournament teams this past year, but that was almost unfair. Missouri State probably deserved a bid, and I would have preferred seeing a team like Bradley over a school like Stanford. Before Wichita State fell off the map they were ranked in the Top Ten in the nation. And let's not forget that Northern Iowa competed to win the whole conference for much of the year. Clearly, we can expect atleast two teams get in again, so let's look at it:

Southern Illinois loses star Jamaal Tatum, and that could really hurt their offense. Coach Chris Lowery has put together a great team defense at Southern Illinois, and that shouldn't change next year. It will continue to be a chore for anyone to score more than about 50 points against them yet again. So, no matter what scorers they graduate, the Salukis will continue to be good. But what made them a great team this past year was that they could get a basket when they needed it. That was what made that team better than the teams that came before and got 11 and 12 seeds. Time will tell whether a new player steps up and becomes elite at creating his own shot. But either way, as long as Chris Lowery is on the bench you can pencil Southern Illinois in as one of the top teams in the Valley.

Creighton got great news when Dana Altman decided to come back for another year. Honestly, he picked a good time to go as his team probably maxed out its talent. They lose Nate Funk, Anthony Tolliver and Nick Porter to graduation. So, no way will this team be as good next year as they were this past year. Missouri State, too, graduates a lot. A team that should be improved is Wichita State. They were a good team that just fell into an awful funk and couldn't get out of it until too late, like Clemson and LSU. They will continue to be in good hands with PJ Couisnard (12 ppg, 50% shooting).

A team that should be really improved next year will be Indiana State, which made a solid hire with Creighton assistant Kevin McKenna. They return all five starters, highlighted by rising-Senior Gabriel Moore (12 ppg, 4 apg, 2 spg). If you're looking for a surprise dark horse, Illinois State might make a move up the standings next year under their new head coach, Kansas assistant Tim Jankovich. Overall, here's what I see for the Valley:

1. Southern Illinois
2. Wichita State
3. Northern Iowa
4. Indiana State
5. Creighton
6. Missouri State
7. Illinois State
8. Bradley
9. Drake
10. Evansville

Monday, April 02, 2007

2007-08 Preview: Mid Majors, Part I

Mountain West Conference

This was an interesting conference this past year in a lot of ways. The year started with a seemingly invincible Air Force team playing great basketball and looking like an elite team on the national level. As they started to falter, however, UNLV took the front. They were soon replaced by BYU, and even San Diego State finished strong. Air Force eventually collapsed all the way out of the Tournament, while teams like Wyoming and Coloardo State finished strong. Honestly, there wasn't a real bad team to be had in this conference. And I don't expect that to change next year. In fact, it should be more of a free-for-all, since several of the top teams are crippled by graduations while many of the lower teams return tons of scoring and experience.

Let's start with the only Sweet 16 team of the bunch, UNLV. The team had a great season, and turned it on when it mattered most, but Runnin' Reb fans need to be honest with themselves about the near future. They aren't rebuilding the early '90's teams. This was a one-time shot, with a lot of players in their fourth or fifth years. Four players getting 20 minutes per game or more will be gone, including Wendell White and Kevin Kruger. The recruiting class isn't even all that great either. I think we have to expect UNLV to take a pretty big step back next year.

BYU, also, will probably take a little step back next year. They lose six Seniors to graduation, highlighted by leading scorer Keena Young (17.4 per game). They do have a decent crop of young players, and I would expect them to still be a contender near the top of the conference, but I think they just lose too much experience. If I was a BYU fan, I would view 2007-08 as a "Reloading year." They could be real good in 2008-09, especially if their recruiting classes pan out. The best recruit for next year is three-star recruit Chris Collinsworth.

Air Force, as well, is decimated by graduations. Including their top four scorers. If I had to pick one thing they're going to miss most, it's size. They need to find a big man who can play big minutes. They have a good coaching staff, but without a good recruiting class I just don't see where the talent is going to come from. Besides, nobody knows how they (or Clemson, for that matter) will deal next year with the psychological collapse they suffered in 2007.

An intriguing team could be Colorado State. Their trio of Jason Smith, Tyler Smith and Stuart Creason could be almost unstoppable. No team in the country can defend two seven-footers with talent playing 30 minutes a game each. Unfortunately, this team won't be building on what it did last year. Their athletic director overreacted (in my opinion) and fired the head coach. The replacement, Tim Miles of North Dakota State, is a good coach. But changing coaches will generally cause players to jump ship. In this case, Jason Smith is most likely going to jump into the NBA draft. A lot of people are predicting him to be a late-first round pick. If he stays, this immediately becomes a potential at-large team. But I'm assuming he doesn't stay, and Colorado State remains further down in the conference standings.

TCU and Utah will both be improved next year. New Mexico also brings in a good recruiting class, and has a lot of returning talent. They also get a good coach in Steve Alford, who may have struggled in the Big 10 but is absolutely a steal for the Lobos. But the most interesting of the remaining teams is San Diego State, a school that has continually brought in excellent talent. There's no replacing Brandon Heath and Mohamed Abukar, but they will have plenty left. A key will be the size (with Abukar gone) of 6'10" Jerome Habel (11 ppg, 6 rpg). Billy White (Rivals: 50 SF) will be a good recruit, but the key will be the younger players that will have to take a larger role next year. Rising-Juniors Lorenzo Williams and Richie Williams, along with Rising-Sophomore Jon Pastorek all have the potential to be stars. This team will definitely have a lot of depth next year, they just need a star to take the place of Brandon Heath.

All in all, it's really hard to separate out the top teams in the Mountain West. My guess is that there will be very little difference between the top team and the 6th team next year:

1. BYU
2. New Mexico
3. San Diego State
4. Colorado State
5. Utah

West Coast Conference

I don't think anyone is going out on a limb to predict Gonzaga back on top of the WCC again. They lose their best offense-creator in Derek Raivio, and the odds are that Josh Heytfelt is done playing basketball, but most of the other pieces remain. Jeremy Pargo, David Pendergraft, and Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes (who took a step back last year, but should be improved in '07-'08) should all remain elite players in the WCC. It's also not earth-shattering news that the Zags have another elite recruiting class (Rivals puts their class 13th in the nation). A lot of people are predicting Austin Daye (Scout: 14 SF, Rivals: 25) to be an elite wing scorer off the bat. That will take pressure off Pargo, who might otherwise have to do too much. Of course, the WCC as a whole has improved, so 14-0 records aren't to be expected from Gonzaga anymore. But they should have enough to continue their reign atop the conference.

Improved teams next year will inclue Portland and San Diego. Santa Clara loses too much to compete for a title again, but expect Saint Mary's to continue to contend. The young duo of Diamon Simpson and Omar Samhan should be dominant next year. Another interesting team could be Pepperdine, which graduates a ton of players from a starting lineup that didn't do too much last year anyway. They probably have the second best recruiting class in the WCC, so expect them to improve a lot as the year goes on. They could be a real contender by next year.

As a whole, the WCC graduates a lot of Seniors. But the conference also brings in a slew of good recruits, even at schools that don't normally see elite talent (like Pepperdine and San Francisco). That says to me that this conference will have a lot of teams that start out the year slowly and improve as the young players mature:

1. Gonzaga
2. Saint Mary's
3. San Diego
4. Pepperdine

Western Athletic Conference

Nevada has dominated the WAC for years, but it's very possible that the reign could be at an end. Obviously, Nick Fazekas will be a gigantic loss. But Nevada not only loses two other starters to graduation, but they could lose their other two starters to the draft. Both Ramon Session and Marcellus Kemp would be smart to stick around another year, and that's what I'll assume. Those two guys should be enough to keep Nevada near the top of the conference. But I'm sure that Wolfpack fans won't relax until the Draft comes and goes with those two guys still around.

One thing that can't be ignored when looking at the WAC is how many Juniors played significant roles this past year. That means we're going to have a lot of Senior-heavy rosters next year. Hawaii, Utah State and Fresno State could all start four Seniors next year. There will be a dearth of stars, but a lot of solid and deep teams.

One team that really interests me is New Mexico State, a team that got a little bit of at-large attention this past year but ended up not all that close to a bid. 2007 was really more of a building year for them. They return five rising-Seniors that scored 6 points per game or more last years, meaning that they should have a very balanced offensive attack. And not only do they return a lot of talent, but they also bring in the best recruiting class in the conference. That distinction is due to the coup that is Herb Pope (Scout: 8 PF, Rivals: 24), a 6'8" swing forward who plays like a guard. He won't be a big time rebounder or defender, but should be able to score a lot of points without much pressure as long as the Seniors around him can help nurture him. Anytime a WAC team stills a player who got offers from Pitt, Texas, Louisville and Maryland, that's a story for sure.

Here's how I see it:

1. New Mexico State
2. Nevada
3. Utah State
4. Fresno State
5. Hawaii

Sunday, April 01, 2007

2007-08 Preview: Small Conferences, Part IV

America East Conference

Albany pulled off the upset in the America East Tourney to qualify for their second straight Tournament. Three in a row would be quite a feat, but it will be difficult as the Great Danes lose their two best scorers. Jamar Wilson (19 ppg, 6 rpg, 5 apg), especially, will be missed. Albany will start to restock with a decent recruiting class, however. Boston University also has a great young core of kids. They had four freshmen this past year getting over 25 minutes per game. Seeing as how they already finished third in the America East this past year, it's sensible to expect that this team will be pretty hard to beat in three years. But I think they have too far to go in just one year. They will be better, but not that much better.

The key loss for Vermont will be 6'11" Chris Holm (11 ppg, 12 rpg), who really was a force on both sides of the floor on the inside. They won't have as much of a size advantage without him, but they will have a slew of guys in the 6'7" - 6'9" range, which is enough height for a small conference like this. The Catamounts still return a lot of scoring, including Mike Trimboli (16 ppg, 5 apg) and Joe Trapani (11 ppg, 40% 3-point shooting). Assuming they have another duel with Albany, they are still going to have enough size to win the rebounding battle. And with their improving young guards no longer having Jamar Wilson and Jason Siggers to deal with, they should be able to score more and keep Albany from scoring much at all. The fact is that Vermont loses less to graduation, probably has a slightly better recruiting class, and probably was slightly better this past year than Albany until that 1-point loss in the America East Finals. So it's just logical to expect Vermont to get back to the Tournament in 2008.

Atlantic Sun Conference

East Tennessee State ran away with the Atlantic Sun in 2007 before getting tripped up in the conference Tourney. They lose a couple of starters, but still return their best player for two more seasons. Courtney Pilgrim (18 ppg, 4 apg, 3 spg) will have to take his game to the next level for the Buccaneers to finish close to 16-2 again. Another intriguing young team is Jacksonville, featuring an excellent young freshman guard in 5'10" Ben Smith (10 ppg, 4 apg). They are building a good program in Jacksonville, and they could challenge for a conference title as early as next season.

Belmont has been a frequent visitor to the Tourney in recent years, and don't lose too much to graduation. The biggest loss is probably their second-leading scorer, 6'10" Boomer Herndon (11 per game). But they return almost all of the rest of their important players, including a potential star in rising-Senior guard Justin Hare (14 ppg, 3 apg). They should have the best athletes in the conference yet again. Honestly, they were a really good team (by Atlantic Sun standards) this past year, but just had a couple more blown games against easy teams than did East Tennessee State (the two teams split in their regular season matchups, before Belmont swept the floor with them 94-67 in the A-Sun Tourney Finals). Belmont should even be better next year, and East Tennessee State should be worse. Which makes the logical pick Belmont.

Big Sky Conference

Weber State took the Big Sky conference this past season, including its automatic bid, and I'm sure they expect to compete for another. They lose leading scorer David Patten (14 per game), but other than that return most everyone. Northern Arizona was an intriguing team this past year, but losing their three highest scorers is probably too much in a conference that should be better next year.

Portland State and Eastern Washington will also have enough experience to be serious competitors in what should be a wide-open conference. Montana, however, brings to the table not only athleticism but a slew of size. 6'8" Andrew Straight and 6'9" Jordan Hasquet (combined 28 ppg, 13 rpg) will continue to be forces inside. And Montana also brings in a blue chip recruit (by Big Sky standards) in 6'10" Derek Selvig (Rivals: 134, 41 PF). In other words, even if one of those three goes down with foul trouble, they will still have two other twin towers to dominate inside. Montana is going to be a really good team next year, and I pick them not only to win the Big Sky but to be a dangerous first round Tourney team.

Big South Conference

For completeness, I'll mention someone other than Winthrop in this preview. High Point was a really good team this past year - in other years they probably would have been good enough to win the conference. Next year they might even be better. AZ Reid had an outstanding season (21 ppg, 51% shooting), and along with Mike Jefferson (13 ppg, 5 apg) the Panthers should have an electrifying offense next year. They will prove to be a difficult opponent for anyone in the Big South.

Of course, Winthrop was just in another world last year. Their RPI is vastly deflated due to all the games they had to play against VMI, Radford and Charleston Southern. This school lost five games all season (including the Tournament), all to teams that received a #4 seed or better in the Tourney. They took Wisconsin to overtime at the Kohl Center, and led North Carolina at halftime of their game. In my mind, this was one of the top 30 teams in the country, which is an incredible feat for a conference that is... well, most college basketball fans can't even tell you what conference Winthrop is in. I think I witnessed the typical reaction to Winthrop when I attended their game at Wisconsin back in December in person. As Torrell Martin was going nuts (he finished the game 7-for-11 from behind the arc, scoring 31 points in all) a guy next to me exclaimed "Who the hell is this guy, and what is he doing at Winthrop?"

Fortunately for the rest of the conference, Torrell Martin is finally done terrorizing the league. They also lose their two best inside men in Craig Bradshaw and Phillip Williams. They do still return some excellent athletes in leading-scorer Michael Jenkins (14.8 per game) and Chris Gaynor. Their guards will still dominate the Big South. And they will receive some help on the inside with two incoming power forwards, 6'6" Charles Corvin and 6'7" George Valentine. The Eagles also probably received the best news of all this past week when head coach Gregg Marshall turned down South Florida, meaning he most likely will return for atleast another year.

All in all, there's no way we see another team like the 2006-'07 Winthrop team. We might never see another Big South team like that ever. But I think Winthrop returns enough pieces to make a return trip to the Tourney.