Monday, April 21, 2008

A Few Updates

I just wanted to update some of the bigger college basketball stories of the past week. I know it's been a long time since my last post, but I really needed a bit of time to decompress after writing all of those previews in such a short time. If you're a college basketball fan, you probably know most or all of the stories I'm going to discuss. But I'll try to give you a bit of my own spin:

NBA Draft surprises: A few of the NBA defections were no-brainers. Kevin Love, Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, et cetera. I was surprised by Luc Mbah a Moute declaring, but my guess is that he'll still come back to college next year. He'll go to the draft camps and hopefully find out how low he'll go in the draft (if he'd get drafted at all). One definite surprise on the other side of the coin is Earl Clark, who has declared his intent to return for another season. Most draft analysts considered him a lock for the draft. I guess he feels that another season of improvement could push him into the top ten or fifteen of the draft, something that definitely isn't out of the question. His return will be a big boost for a Louisville team that was in danger of falling all the way back to the bubble in 2009.

Travis Ford to Oklahoma State: A great signing for Oklahoma State. Ford is an outstanding coach, and the Cowboys really needed one. Ford has been a good recruiter, although I'm not sure that's entirely a proven skill yet. Ford is a big name with big connections, and guys like him can be successful at smaller schools just by getting the scraps that his friends at better schools couldn't use. At Oklahoma State he's going to be on his own. Expect him to be active in the Juco market, a place where he got much of his UMass talent from. Even without any big new signings, Oklahoma State is a team with the talent to make a Tournament run. Expect to see them on the bubble next season.

Providence gambles on Keno Davis: Probably the highest profile coach signing of the season. It is probably a very good signing, but I don't see it as a sure thing. Keno Davis has had just one year as a head coach. It was a great season, but it's impossible for anybody but a true Drake insider to know just how much was Davis and just how much was his great set of seniors. Even if you accept him as a good in-game coach (Davis is especially good at called plays out of timeouts), I don't see where he's obviously a great recruiter. He certainly hasn't blown the Valley away with his recruiting abilities, and Providence is a school where recruiting will be incredibly important. The Friars are in a kind of recruiting purgatory. They haven't been able to steer the big time blue chips away from Boston College, UConn and other more successful programs. But at the same time, they lose out to a lot of the second tier recruits that would rather have a chance to star on a winning team in a mid-major than come off the bench for a losing team in the Big East. They are squeezed from both sides, and have a really hard time bringing in elite players. Only time will tell if Keno Davis can recruit to the level necessary to compete with the Rick Pitinos and Jay Wrights of the world.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Preseason BP65

Here we go, the first BP65 of the 2008-09 season. The next update will be right after the NBA draft:

1. TEXAS (BIG 12)

2. UCLA (Pac 10)
2. Wake Forest
2. Notre Dame

3. Duke
3. Georgetown
3. Baylor
3. Purdue

4. Kansas
4. Clemson
4. Michigan State
4. Kentucky

5. USC
5. Tennessee
5. Villanova

6. Arizona State
6. Wisconsin
6. Oklahoma

7. Marquette
7. Arizona

8. Syracuse
8. Virginia Tech
8. LSU
8. Washington State

9. Louisville
9. West Virginia
9. Michigan

10. Maryland
10. UAB
10. UMass

11. Pittsburgh
11. Miami (FL)
11. Oregon
11. Missouri

12. South Carolina
12. San Diego





Other teams considered, but that missed the cut:
Boston College, Georgia Tech, NC State, Virginia, Charlotte, St. Louis, Xavier, Cincinnati, Illinois, Minnesota, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, VCU, Southern Miss, Butler, Miami (OH), Bradley, Creighton, Drake, BYU, UNLV, San Diego State, California, Stanford, Washington, Alabama, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Saint Mary's, New Mexico State

Other teams I'm keeping my eye on:
Florida State, Dayton, George Washington, Richmond, Providence, Rutgers, Seton Hall, High Point, Winthrop, Indiana, Penn State, Kansas State, Nebraska, Texas Tech, Cal State Northridge, Hofstra, Old Dominion, Houston, Marshall, UTEP, Cleveland State, Marist, Rider, Ohio, Western Michigan, Northern Iowa, Wichita State, Air Force, Utah, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Appalachian State, Middle Tennessee State, Western Kentucky, Pepperdine, Fresno State, San Jose State, Utah State

2008-09 Preview: ACC

Atlantic Coast Conference

In my opinion, North Carolina was the best team in the country last season. But the NCAA Tournament is not designed so that the best team wins - it's designed for the enjoyment of the fans, and UNC ended up going home a bit early. Still, it's not like UNC is the type of program that has to wait years between national title chances (like Memphis, for example). So, will the Tar Heels be back as a title contender next season? That's going to depend on a few things. UNC's roster was a bit odd last season in the makeup of its classes. Because Roy Williams is able to bring in so many good players at a time, he can't fit them all on his roster, and he basically took a year off of bringing in new kids. Last year's team was made up almost exclusively of juniors and sophomores. The only senior or freshman that got over 6 minutes per game of playing time was Quentin Thomas, a senior that averaged about 16 minutes per game. With another top ranked recruiting class coming in, the only thing keeping Carolina from being a national title contender again is NBA defections. Honestly, at least four different UNC players are considering going pro, but there is a real possibility that all of them will stay. For the sake of this preview, I'm going to guess that Hansbrough finally leaves but everybody else stays. That means another season of Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Marcus Ginyard, Danny Green and more. In other words, they'll definitely be national title contenders again.

So what about the Dukies? DeMarcus Nelson graduates, and Taylor King is transfering out, but everybody else is expected to return. Duke also solves one weakness in recruit Elliot Williams (Rivals: 16, Scout: 4 SG), who is a very quick attacking guard who can create his own shot at will. Duke probably has the best set of three point shooters in the nation, but they really need an elite creator to open up more shots. So, one problem solved. And Duke's pressure defense will again be great. But their achilles heel last season was no secret: size. And I don't see any solution on the horizon. The recruiting class lacks any serious size, and there is no extra size waiting on the bench. The one possibility that I see is Brian Zoubek. The 7'1" Zoubek was very highly touted when he came out of high school, and seems to be the ideal solution to Duke's problems. But for whatever reason, Coach K just is not big on the guy. As a sophomore he got only 11 minutes per game, and even less against the better opponents. It's possible that Zoubek will have a renaissance during the off-season and make the All-ACC team next year, but if not I just don't see how Duke is much better than they were this past year. They'll still be a great team that will spend time in the Top Ten, but I don't see them as a serious national championship contender.

What about the third best team in the conference, Clemson? They lose two starters to graduation, but neither loss is devastating. I think Trevor Booker showed flashes of being an unstoppable inside force late last season, and the emergence of rising-sophomore Terrance Oglesby provides a nice complement. The Tigers also bring in three national ranked recruits - another Top 25 recruiting class for Oliver Purnell. I don't see them in the same stratosphere as Carolina, but the Tigers should be near the top of the conference yet again. One team that everybody will be hyping as an elite team is Wake Forest. They graduate nobody from their roster, and nobody is expected to turn pro either. In other words, they're already looking like a probably Tournament team before we even get to the recruiting class - and that's where the real upside is. The Top 5 recruiting class features two of the 25 best high school players in the country: 6'11" Tony Woods, and Al-Farouq Aminu. I haven't seen Aminu play, but those who have say that he's the real deal and could lead this team as a freshman. Wake will be very, very good next year.

Two other teams that should look to be improved are Virginia Tech and Miami. Hokies fans worried that some of their recruits would bail after last year's tragedies, but their freshman class turned out just fine. Four of them got 18 minutes or more of playing time per game. With only one starter graduating, and a nice recruit in 6'8" Victor Davila, I don't see why Tech won't be better next year. Miami loses slightly more to graduation, but they're still going to have most of their points back from last year. Jack McClinton has really started to establish himself as a below-the-radar star in the ACC (if there is such a thing). If he can continue to improve in his final season with the Canes, Miami will be dancing once again.

This past year was a rebuilding season for Maryland, and a number of their young players stood out as potential stars in the future. The team will be improved next season if they can convince Greivis Vasquez to stick around for another year. The reports I've seen suggest that he will most likely return, which will be welcome news for Terps fans. Gary Williams doesn't have his greatest recruiting class by any measure, but it's decent and should help make the team deeper. A team that disappointed last season was NC State, and it unfortunately looks like star freshman J.J. Hickson is going pro as well. Gavin Grant will graduate as well, meaning that Sidney Lowe is going to have a pretty young team next year. It's a very mediocre draft class (when you compare it to their ACC competition, at least), so I don't see why State will be any better next year than they were this year.

One last team to look at is Boston College. The Eagles don't lose much to graduation, and would be primed for a return to the Tournament if Tyrese Rice sticks around. The problem is, there's at least a 50% chance that he won't. If Al Skinner can convince his star scorer to stick around for his senior season, he'll really have a pretty good team to work with. If not, then they might be near the basement yet again. Here's how I see the full conference playing out:

1. North Carolina - Hard to pick against them.
2. Wake Forest - I haven't seen any of this recruiting class first hand, but if they're half as good as the hype then Wake is going to be an elite team next year.
3. Duke - They may not have any size, but they didn't have any size this past year either and were still a pretty darn good team.
4. Clemson - Another solid team.
5. Virginia Tech - We'll see if those young guys improve in year two.
6. Maryland - A very inexperienced team with a lot of upside potential.
7. Miami - The Canes faded a bit down the stretch. We'll see how they respond early next season.
8. Boston College - Next season will be incredibly dependent on the draft status of Tyrese Rice.
9. North Carolina State - I just don't see why they're going to be any better than they were last season.
10. Virginia - It might take a while for somebody to step up and fill the void left by Sean Singletary.
11. Georgia Tech - Lose their only two double-digit scorers to graduation.
12. Florida State - Could be a very long year unless Toney Douglas makes the leap and becomes one of the top players in the ACC.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

2008-09 Preview: Big East

Big East Conference

No reason to start with anybody other than Georgetown, the team which has dominated the Big East for two straight seasons. The Hoyas will be good again next season, but it's hard to see another Big East title coming. Roy Hibbert, Jonathan Wallace and Patrick Ewing, Jr. will all graduate. Still, JT3 will have plenty of good guards left at his disposal. A key will likely be Vernon Macklin. He will need to stay out of foul trouble and dominate the inside, as Georgetown's inside defense and rebounding will really suffer without Hibbert and Ewing. He will have help, however, in the form of #1 national recruit Greg Monroe. And Monroe isn't the only piece of a recruiting class that is certainly one of the five best in the nation. Georgetown is a near lock to get back into the Tournament next season, but I think they'll be a little short of experience. It's very hard to win the Big East depending so heavily on players without any starting experience.

Notre Dame is a team that should contend for the Big East title. They lose very little to graduation, and it's expected that both Luke Harangody and Kyle McAlarney will be back. Not only will they return almost all of their points from last season, but it will come in the form of experienced players. The entire Fighting Irish starting lineup should be made up of juniors and seniors, which will mean a whole lot as far as pulling out tight games all season. Another team that will be greatly improved if the NBA doesn't get in the way is UConn. At least four Huskies are thinking about going pro early, but it's expected that all of them will stick around for one more year. Without a single senior on the roster last year, UConn will probably have the most pure talent and athleticism of any team in the Big East next year.

Two teams that will be question marks are Louisville and Marquette. Louisville loses only David Padgett to graduation, but both Earl Clark and Derrick Character are locks to go pro. Still, Terrence Williams, Jerry Smith, Edgar Sosa and Andre McGee will be back, and Rick Pitino brings in a Top Five recruiting class. Louisville could easily have as much pure talent as they did last year, but I don't know how they'll respond to losing Padgett. He was such a key team leader, and you never know how teams will respond when they lose a piece like that from their locker room. Another team with a lot of uncertainty is Marquette, with the loss of Tom Crean. Ousmane Barro is the only key graduation, so barring any last temptation of the NBA the Golden Eagles will return Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, Wes Matthews and Lazar Hayward. If all of their recruits stick around even with Crean gone, Marquette will have Top 25 talent yet again. I don't think they're going to win the Big East, but they should be Tournament bound again.

West Virginia and Pitt are two teams that are going to have to deal with big losses. West Virginia was an even better team than their record, as they proved in their strong run to the Sweet 16. But Darris Nichols graduates, and Joe Alexander is expected to go pro early. Bob Huggins will still have plenty of talent to work with (including a very nice recruiting class), but it's hard to see them being as good as they were this past season. Pitt loses two starters to graduation, the most important being Ronald Ramon. His clutch scoring and leadership will be impossible replace. Still, Pitt did have a lot of young talent, and they won't fall too much if it all in 2008-09.

One team that could really be elite next season is Villanova. They lose nothing to graduation, and expect nobody to go pro early. Scottie Reynolds really took this team on his back late in the season, and has the potential to be the Big East player of the year in 2008-09. Another team that should be improved is Syracuse. Donte Greene has declared for the NBA, but it's expected that all of their other stars will be back. Jonny Flynn and Paul Harris were already a good duo, and will just be more comfortable with each other in year two. Syracuse probably would have been a Tournament team this past season if not for all of the injuries. If Eric Devendorf can be healthy next season, his shooting should be a great complement to Flynn's abilities to get to the hoop and draw defenses in. Throw in a solid recruiting class, and we really might not have to see Jim Boeheim on ESPN complaining about the Selection process again next year.

A final team to keep an eye on is Cincinnati. They do lose four regular rotation players to graduation, but Mick Cronin brings in an outstanding recruiting class. He's putting together a very nice program, and I expect Cincy to continue to improve year after year. They certainly won't challenge for a Big East title in 2009, but they could be a bubble team. As that covers every team with a good shot to finish near the top of the Big East, here's how I see the full conference playing out:

1. UConn - The most talent in the conference.
2. Notre Dame - The Irish lack the overwhelming pure athleticism of a team like UConn, but they'll be more experienced and savvier in close games than the Huskies.
3. Georgetown - I can't drop this team far, even with all of the graduations. Greg Monroe has the potential to be a really dominant big man, even as a freshman
4. Villanova - Scottie Reynolds has really turned into a great player.
5. Marquette - The Golden Eagles were an up-and-down team all year. They were good enough to beat some elite teams, but also had some slip ups. We'll see if the Marquette stars are more consistent with one more year of experience under their belts.
6. Syracuse - This depends on the team staying healthy - something that they weren't able to do last year.
7. Louisville - Rick Pitino will always have his teams in the mix, even with a slew of NBA defections.
8. West Virginia - Just because I have them eighth doesn't mean I don't think they'll be really good. The Big East should get eight teams to the Tournament next year, and could get the unprecedented nine.
9. Pittsburgh - Have a good shot at playing their way back into the Tournament if Sam Young can become a more dominant post presence.
10. Cincinnati - A program that is improving every season under their excellent coach.
11. Rutgers - Probably the most talented Rutgers team in years. We'll see if Fred Hill can turn these guys into a bubble team.
12. Providence - Return almost everything from a team that wasn't that bad last year. But you never know how kids will deal with the ouster of a coach that had spent so many years in one place.
13. Seton Hall - There seems to be a lot of infighting going on at Seton Hall, but Bobby Gonzalez is a very good coach and should be allowed to keep his job even if his squad misses the Tournament again.
14. St. John's - A very good crop of freshmen last year that should improve as time goes on. It remains to be seen if Norm Roberts will be allowed to coach them for their whole careers, but I hope he does. He's done a good job in a tough situation.
15. South Florida - Slowly but surely, Stan Heath is building a team that can compete in the Big East. It will certainly be a couple of years before they'll earn a Tournament bid, but they're going in the right direction.
16. Depaul - Not a great team to begin with, and they lose three starters to graduation. Could be a very long season for the Blue Demons.

2008-09 Preview: Big Ten

Big Ten Conference

An obvious place to start a discussion of the Big Ten is with its defending regular season and tournament champion, Wisconsin. The Badgers outperformed everybody's expectations all season, and proved that nobody can do more with less than Bo Ryan. Still, he's not a miracle worker, and it's very hard to see a repeat performance coming next season. Michael Flowers was probably the best player on the team, so his graduation will obviously hurt, but I don't think Wisconsin's back court will be too bad. Both Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon are stellar guards, and Wisconsin had a few more decent guards off the bench (not to mention a couple coming in their recruiting class). The real problem for Wisconsin will be on the inside, where they lose both seven-footers, Brian Butch and Greg Stiemsma, leaving Marcus Landry as the only really capable offensive player down low. Bo Ryan brings in a nice duo of centers in Jared Berggren (Rivals: 58, Scout: 15 C) and Ian Markolf (Scout: 35 C), but freshmen usually get very little playing time in Ryan's complicated system. Without any good post players coming off the bench last season, I really wonder how the Badgers are going to pound with teams like Ohio State and Michigan State next year.

Ohio State suffered a bit of a down year in 2007-08, but not for lack of talent. The Buckeyes simply had to depend far too much on freshmen. It took a while for the young guys to get used to the system, and the weak schedule that Thad Matta was forced to use in the early part of the season hurt their Tournament resume. But as the cliche goes, there are no freshmen in March, and the Buckeyes looked dominant in running through the NIT. Kosta Koufus is already a very polished offensive player on the inside, and I think Evan Turner has first team All-Big Ten talent. Throw in David Lighty, Jon Diebler and arguably the top recruiting class in the nation and Ohio State will have a very, very good team next year. Jamar Butler's clutch scoring and Othello Hunter's inside toughness will be hard to replace, but Ohio State is going to be an outstanding team next year nonetheless.

The Buckeyes should be the chief competitor for the team that will probably be the unanimous favorites to take the Big Ten next year, Purdue. They had an outstanding set of players last season, including E'Twaun Moore, Robbie Hummel and Keaton Grant. The best part is that the five players who got over 20 minutes per game last year were all freshmen and sophomores, and none of them are expected to go pro. It's hard to imagine Purdue won't be improved next year. And don't be fooled by their poor RPI, because like Ohio State they were very young and struggled in the early part of the year. Purdue swept Wisconsin and came within one game of taking the Big Ten last year. They have the potential to be a Top Ten team next year.

It's hard to say that Michigan State will be as good as they were last year with Drew Neitzel and Drew Naymick gone, but the Spartans will still be very good as long as Raymar Morgan sticks around for another year (as he's expected to do). Kalin Lucas took a while to get going, but really looked great late in his freshman season. It wasn't really that absurd when Tournament commentators compared him to a young Chris Paul, as he really can get to the basket at will. Throw in an outstanding recruiting class and Tom Izzo is going to have a very good team yet again. Still, the Spartans might not be the best Big Ten team from their own state, as Michigan should be vastly improved. John Beilein's system is very complicated, and Michigan often seemed confused on offense last year. But most everybody will be back, and Beilein will be able to better adapt his system to his personnel in year two. And Manny Harris flew under the radar last year, but he is going to be a heck of a star.

One team that absolutely won't be very good next season is Indiana. D.J. White and Lance Stemler graduate, and Eric Gordon is going pro. It also remains to be seen if Armon Bassett will be allowed back on the team. Tom Crean is a great hire, but it's going to take him a year to bring in a top flight recruiting class. Barring some late Juco transfers, Indiana isn't expected to bring much in next season. Still, Crean will turn this program around. It just might take him a year or two to do it. As for Minnesota, Tubby Smith did a great job in his first season there. He did rely heavily on graduating seniors Lawrence McKenzie, Dan Coleman and Spencer Tollackson, which makes you wonder if the team will struggle to improve in Tubby's second season. But they did have a lot of nice young players coming off the bench, and Tubby brings in an outstanding recruiting class. Tubby has always been a great recruiter, and there's an excellent chance that he'll bring his new team to the Tournament in only year two.

The final team I'm going to talk about is Illinois, which was a lot better than its record indicated. It seemed like they found a way to lose every single close game all season. Demetri McCamey had a very good freshman year and looks to become a star in the Big Ten. Alex Legion is also expected to transfer in from Kentucky, and the Illini will get another season out of Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham. If Rodney Alexander and Mike Tisdale can ably fill the gap left by the graduating big men Brian Randle and Shaun Pruitt, Illinois has the potential to work their way back to the Tournament as well.

Here's how I see the conference as a whole stacking up:

1. Ohio State - Thad Matta might be the best recruiter in the country. His boys will be more experienced next season, and that should lead to a whole lot of success.
2. Purdue - I think it's a bit optimistic of Purdue fans to think that this team will just pick up where they left off. It's a whole lot different winning games when the pressure is on you than it is when you're pulling upsets. Still, they have a great shot to take the Big Ten.
3. Michigan State - No reason this team can't spend most of next year in the Top 25.
4. Wisconsin - Can't drop them too far. They lose a lot of this year's team to graduation, but is it really more than they lost after the 2006-07 season? Plus, this is one of the better recruiting classes that Ryan has ever had.
5. Michigan - I don't think Michigan will be too affected by the new three-point line. Beilein is smart enough to adapt his strategy to his team, and with athletic players like Manny Harris he is less dependent on the three than he was at West Virginia, anyway.
6. Minnesota - The Gophers will be very young next year, but they should improve greatly as the year goes on.
7. Illinois - Underrated last season, and could potentially work their way back into the Tournament.
8. Indiana - It's going to be a rebuilding year in Bloomington, but I expect the Hoosiers to be back in the Tournament in 2009-10.
9. Penn State - Return almost everybody, and are good enough to maybe even make a Tournament run if they play their hand right.
10. Northwestern - Kevin Coble needs to be a star if Northwestern is ever going to move up the standings.
11. Iowa - Could be a long year in 2008-09 but a good recruiting class could mean better things for 2009-10.

2008-09 Preview: Big 12

Big 12 Conference

Any discussion of the Big 12 clearly has to begin with the national champions: Kansas. It looks like Bill Self turned down the big money and will stay at Kansas (not that he won't parlay OSU's interest into a big pay raise in Lawrence). To be sure, next year's Kansas team will be immensely different from this year's squad. Darnell Jackson, Russell Robinson, Sasha Kaun and Rodrick Stewart all graduate. Meanwhile, Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers and Darrell Arthur are all expected to go pro early. Is anybody left? The only regular rotation player to return will be Sherron Collins (actually, there is some probability that he will go pro as well, but I'm going to guess that he won't). Still, it's not like the guys deep on the Kansas bench were total slouches - they were simply stuck behind a ridiculously good starting lineup (see: Florida, 2005-07). The Jayhawks bring in a couple of Juco transfers, as well as a few really nice high schoolers. The top recruits are Marcus Morris (Rivals: 37) and Travis Releford (Scout: 7 SG). There's no chance that Kansas will be a serious contender to be a repeat national champion, but I don't think they'll fall as far off the planet as Florida and Ohio State did this past season. They should be good enough to make it back to the Tournament.

The past few Big 12 seasons have been all about the duels between Kansas and Texas, but Texas could have a serious upper hand next season. The Longhorns don't graduate a single player that got more than five minutes per game last season. They have a bunch of players looking at potentially going into the lottery, but I'm going to guess that only D.J. Augustin will not be back next season. Throw in recruit J'Covan Brown (Rivals: 42, Scout: 9 SG) and Texas is likely to have Top Ten talent again next season. If Texas is going to make a serious run at being a national title contender, the key piece might be Connor Atchley. The Longhorns are going to have a lot of production out of their guards, but Damion James was their only elite inside presence last season. Texas needs Atchley to be a dependable double-double guy if they're going to take the next step.

One team that will almost certainly be improved is Baylor. The Bears return five players that averaged over 20 minutes per game, and lose only Aaron Bruce and Mark Shepherd from their regular rotation. I don't think anybody will be going pro, which means that the core of this team will be all back. They also bring in a potential NBA swing man in Anthony Jones (Rivals: 46, Scout: 14 SF). The team should be at least as talented as it was last season, and more experienced as well. Not only should Baylor make the Tournament again, but they should spend plenty of time in the Top 25 as well. Another team that should be at least as good as it was last season is Oklahoma. The Sooners lose two starters to graduation, but are expected to have Blake Griffin back. Griffin was probably the most underrated freshman in the country last season, and should be the most dominant big man in the Big 12 next season. My guess is that Oklahoma will only have one more year with him before he goes to the NBA, so they'll have to make the best of it.

Two teams that will take steps back are Texas A&M and Kansas State. K-State is obvious. Michael Beasley is expected to turn pro, and there's a good chance that Bill Walker will go as well. That's not to mention two other starters that will graduate. The Wildcats have a very deep recruiting class coming in, but no real blue chippers. Frank Martin is doing a good job of maintaining and building the Kansas State program, but his team will almost definitely miss the Tournament next season. As for Texas A&M, their offense is really going to struggle without Dominique Kirk and Joseph Jones. Not only that but DeAndre Jordan is most likely going pro as well. Jordan was one of the most highly touted recruits out of the state of Texas in a while, and despite not playing much as a freshman was expected to be a big part of A&M's team next year. The Aggies aren't going to fall all the way into the conference basement or anything, but they won't be as good as they were in 2007-08.

I like what Mike Anderson has been doing at Missouri, weeding the bad seeds out and cleaning up that program. They return almost everyone (other than Stefhon Hannah, of course) from last year's team. And they bring in an outstanding recruiting class to play with the likes of DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons. I don't want to underestimate the loss of glue guy Darryl Butterfield, but Missouri should be improved next season. I also think that we'll see more out of Oklahoma State if T. Boone Pickens can attract a decent coach to pull the team together. They have a lot of nice young talent that can become the base of a pretty good team in the next year or two.

Here's how I see the rest of the conference playing out:

1. Texas - Just way more talent than anybody else.
2. Baylor - It's possible that the Bears will suffer something of a "sophomore slump," after their stellar year in 2007-08. But if they don't, they could have a really good team next year.
3. Kansas - I can't drop them too far. The Jayhawks will be extraordinarily young and inexperienced, and they're probably due for one or two embarrassing losses next year, but their overwhelming talent should keep them near the top of the conference.
4. Oklahoma - Blake Griffin can carry this team far.
5. Missouri - Anderson should take his boys to the Tournament for the first time in 2009.
6. Oklahoma State - This position could change a lot after they announce their new coach.
7. Texas A&M - Mark Turgeon has done a good job at keeping this team together after the loss of Billy Gillispie.
8. Texas Tech - Let's see how well Pat Knight recruits without the name power of his father. He did a good job of coaching in the short time he was in control of this team, but he won't have that good of a team to work with in 2008-09.
9. Nebraska - Doc Sadler has put together a pesky team that should improve again next season.
10. Kansas State - Beasley is a goner, but the Wildcats will move up a few spots in the standings if Bill Walker decides to stick around for another season.
11. Iowa State - A bunch of their young guys have potential. It remains to be seen if they'll fufill it.
12. Colorado - A very nice recruiting class coming in, but there isn't a whole lot that they're coming into. I think Jeff Bzdelik will be able to turn this program into a Tournament team in the near future, but it's not going to happen in 2009.

2008-09 Preview: Pac 10

Pacific 10 Conference

Let's start with UCLA, a school that has an incredibly successful (and frustrating) last three years. Three consecutive Final Fours, but zero titles. The likelihood of the Bruins making a fourth straight trip to the National Semifinals will depend on the NBA draft, because Lorenzo Mata-Real is the only real loss to graduation. At the time of this posting, UCLA has no less than four players considering the NBA. To me, the most likely scenario is that Darren Collison and Kevin Love will go pro, but everybody else will stay. That means they'll still have Russell Westbrook and Josh Shipp capable of creating offense from the perimeter, and Alfred Aboya and Luke Mbah a Moute back as well. A key will likely be James Keefe, a player with NBA potential (he is considering going to pro now, but I think he'll make the smart move and come back for another year), but who was stuck behind Kevin Love this past season. He will be required to play the part of Love on next year's team, and his defense and rebounding will be essential to UCLA's success. As usual, the Bruins bring in a loaded recruiting class, featuring four blue chippers. The headliner is shooting guard Jrue Holiday (Rivals: 3, Scout: 1 SG).

Stanford had a great season in 2007-08, but will undoubtedly be down next season. They not only lose their head coach, but the Lopez twins are heading to the NBA draft. Mitch Johnson and Anthony Goods will continue to provide a solid backcourt, but this team was all about the Lopez twins last season. Another team that will probably take a step back is Washington State, which graduates Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver and Robbie Cowgill. Taylor Rochestie is a good scorer and will return, but it's hard to see how Wazzu will have a decent offense with the rest of the team around him. We know that Tony Bennett can coach, but now we're going to find out how his recruits pan out.

USC is a team that could be really good next season. OJ Mayo will obviously be going pro, but there's a good chance that everybody else will be back. They could have a starting lineup of Davon Jefferson, Taj Gibson, Daniel Hackett, Dwight Lewis and Angelo Johnson. That could be the most talented starting five in the whole conference. Throw in Demar DeRozen, a consensus top three national recruit, and USC should be a near-lock for the Top 25. Another team that should be improved is Arizona State, a team that will likely have every single regular rotation player back. James Harden and Ty Abbott will make a great back court, and the only question mark will be on the inside. Eric Boateng has the ability to bang with the elite big men on other teams, although Arizona State will probably benefit from the fact that a big man won't be as necessary next season as it was this past year. There will be no more Kevin Love & Lopez twins to deal with.

A big question mark next season will be Arizona. The team really collapsed down the stretch as the locker room was torn apart by the coaching struggle. With Lute Olsen back in charge, things should settle down. It's expected that Chase Budinger and Jerryd Bayless will go pro, but Arizona still has a ton of talent left. Jordan Hill, especially, has a real potential to star next season. He is absolutely ferocious inside, and he'll have to be even more dominant if Arizona is going to be a top team in the Pac-10 next season. They'll also benefit from the arrival of Brandon Jennings (Rivals: 8, Scout: 1 PG). Arizona will almost definitely be a Tournament team again, but they could end up being anywhere from Pac-10 champion to a bubble team. Definitely the biggest uncertainty in the conference.

Two final teams that will be rebuilding next season are Washington and Oregon. Both teams will lose a lot through graduation or the NBA, but both also bring in top 25 recruiting classes. With all of the successes of freshmen over the past few years, one good recruiting class can turn any team into an elite challenger, but I don't think either of those two teams will have enough to challenge for a title in this conference. Here's how I see the conference as a whole:

1. UCLA - Just can't bet against this team. I know that they lose a ton to the draft and graduation, but UCLA is just like Duke and Carolina at this point - they never have to rebuild, they always just reload.
2. USC - Definitely have a real shot to steal this conference next season. OJ Mayo got all the press, but he wasn't the best player on last year's team. If everybody stays healthy, this could be a Top Ten team.
3. Arizona State - This program continues to climb through the conference.
4. Arizona - They almost had their Tournament streak snapped this past season. I don't think it will be so close next year.
5. Washington State - Will continue to have great defense. This program got great news when Tony Bennett opted out of jumping to a larger profile school.
6. Oregon - They graduate a lot, but that recruiting class is amazing.
7. Washington - We'll see if Jon Brockman can fulfill his potential and lead his school back to the Tournament.
8. Stanford - Let's be honest, it was all about the Lopez twins last year.
9. California - A team in a lot of flux. Don't count them entirely out, however, if Ryan Anderson can take his game to the next level.
10. Oregon State - They should be a little bit better next year. So they've got that going for them, which is nice.

2008-09 Preview: SEC

Southeastern Conference

And we finally get to the BCS conferences. As usual, I'll begin with the bottom of the alphabet and work my way to the top. The SEC did have a bunch of interesting teams this past season. Both Mississippi State and Kentucky started poorly before playing great in conference, while Ole Miss started out great and then tanked against SEC competition. But before we get to those teams, we should start with the only consistently dominant team in 2007-08, Tennessee.

The Vols will certainly be hit by the graduation of Chris Lofton, who has been the star of the team for a few years now. JaJuan Smith is also gone, as is backup guard Jordan Howell. At the moment I am writing this preview, Tyler Smith is still undecided on the NBA draft. The rumors are that he will go, however, and so I'm going to assume that for the sake of this preview. Now, Tennessee will still have a couple of stars left. Wayne Chism and Ramar Smith will start next season. A backup who will be a key next season is 6'10" Brian Williams (3 ppg, 4 rpg). As usual, Bruce Pearl brings in a very nice recruiting class, headlined by 6'5" swingman Scotty Hopson (Rivals: 9, Scout: 3 SF). Tennessee will still be a Tournament team, and probably even Top 25. But they're going to take a step back - no recruit is going to come in and immediately replace Chris Lofton, it's just not possible.

As for Billy Gillispie's interesting Kentucky team, it was clear last season that it took a while for his influence to sink in. Early on, the team just did not want to play for him. I'd never seen a SEC team putting in that little effort on defense and offense. But at some point Gillispie found a way to get through, and Kentucky started playing up to their potential. They were probably one of the 25 best teams in the country over the last four-to-six weeks of the season. Now, Ramel Bradley is a tough player to lose to graduation, but no loss will be as big as Joe Crawford. He was the heart and soul of this Kentucky team and will be impossible to replace. It is expected, however, that all of Kentucky's underclassmen will return next season. Patrick Patterson had an outstanding freshman year and should be one of the best players in the SEC next season. Michael Porter and Derrick Jasper are going to have to step up and become an elite back court. Those two combined to average 3.5 assists per game last season, and they're going to have to more than double that for Kentucky to challenge the top of the SEC. Gillispie also brings in a Top 20 recruiting class, although an odd one at that. All three recruits are listed as 6'6" small forwards. Clearly, Gillispie has seen the future and it's teams like Tennessee and Memphis that can just throw out a whole bunch of athletic swing players that can get to the basket at will. Gillispie is a very good coach, and he'll have his guys ready to go next season.

As for Vandy's dream season, it won't be repeated. Shan Foster (20 ppg) is one of three starters that graduates, and they also lose more off the bench. Arkansas and Ole Miss will also be in rebuilding modes, as both teams lose a couple of seniors and will be very, very young next year. A team that might be very good, on the other hand, is Florida. I think Billy Donovan did a great job with his team this year. Teams so often have massive psychological down periods after a Final Four appearance or championship. Just look at the littered carcasses of successful schools this century: Maryland, LSU, Georgia Tech... I could keep going. But by the end of this past season, Donovan had gotten through to his kids that the national titles were a thing of the past. Now, Donovan's intensity isn't for everybody, and the lack of any seniors on last season's roster doesn't mean that everybody will be back. Marreese Speights has already entered the NBA draft (although as of this posting had not yet signed with an agent), and Jonathan Mitchell has transfered out. But Donovan can afford to lose a player or two, because he already had plenty of good talent on his bench, and he brings in five players off the Rivals 150 list. Florida has a real potential to be a Top Ten team again next season.

Another team I want to look at is LSU. I'm not sure whether the chemistry problems on this team were between the players and Coach Brady, or between the players themselves, but it was clear that this team has been severely underperforming when you consider the talent on the roster. Obviously Trent Johnson is a great hire, and the team was already showing signs of life towards the end of last season. Nobody in the regular rotation will graduate, although Anthony Randolph has signed with an agent and will be gone to the NBA next season. Still, LSU retains stars like Marcus Thornton and Garrett Temple, and they expect to bring in three nationally ranked high schoolers listed as power forwards or centers. So LSU will have the bodies to bang with the rest of the conference, and it will be a question of perimeter defense and scoring whether the Tigers can work their way back to the Tournament.

The final team I'm going to discuss before I get to the team rankings is Alabama, a squad which was not that bad despite the season-ending injury to Ronald Steele. Steele has declared for the draft, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense considering how he went through the effort to get the medical redshirt. Richard Hendrix has also declared for the NBA, and Mykal Riley will graduate. For the sake of this preview I'm going to assume that Hendrix stays in the draft but Steele comes back. If that's the case then the Crimson Tide will still have a nice starting lineup that will include names like Alonzo Gee and Brandon Hollinger. In addition, the Tide brings in a consensus Top 20 recruiting class featuring three of the top 50 players in the country, according to

With all of those facts in mind, here's how I see the SEC playing out:

1. Florida - Donovan brings in so many talented players, and also finds a way to make them play like a true team more than just about any coach in the country. Hard to see this team not being right back in SEC title contention next season.
2. Kentucky - Gillispie had his rebuilding year, and now they reload and will continue where they left off late last season.
3. Tennessee - The Vols will still be an outstanding team, mind you. The SEC East is just going to be beastly next season.
4. South Carolina - A couple straight solid recruiting classes have allowed the Gamecocks to steadily improve as a program. We'll see if Darrin Horn can be successful in a larger conference.
5. Vanderbilt - Too many graduations, and not enough top recruits coming in.
6. Georgia - A great run to win the SEC Tournament, but Sundiata Gaines is just absolutely irreplaceable. If they needed that miracle run to make the Tournament with him, I don't see how they will be any better next season without him.

1. LSU - This is probably a bit of a surprise pick, but I think this team has a potential to finally realize its potential next season. Of course, it helps that the SEC West stinks. There's almost no chance that LSU will be as good as Tennessee, a team which I've picked third in the SEC East.
2. Alabama - This depends on Steele coming back. Alabama is another team that has underachieved for two straight seasons, and is going to have to get out of that funk at some point.
3. Mississippi State - Really don't lose too much talent from last year's squad to preclude them from another Tournament run next season.
4. Mississippi - Another rebuilding year for the Rebels, who have a lot of young talent and could make another Tournament run in 2010.
5. Arkansas - Just lose too much to graduation.
6. Auburn - A decent recruiting class, but it will take a couple more of those to make Auburn respectable in the SEC again.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

2008-09 Preview: Mid Majors, Part III

Atlantic Ten Conference

Definitely the most interesting and successful season for the A-10 since the glory days of the mid-to-late 1990s. The headliner was Xavier, a solid Top 25 team all season long, and a team that showed an impressive ability to win so many games in such a tough conference. Unfortunately, they do lose a lot to graduation. Two double-digit scorers will go (Drew Lavender and Josh Duncan), but the biggest loss is probably play-maker Stanley Burrell. Obviously it will be important for Derrick Brown to stick around for another season, and if he does then Xavier will still be a very good team. The losses can't be replaced, but they will have a ton of talent. Amazingly, the Musketeers bring in five nationally ranked recruits, headlined by 6'11" Kenny Frease (Rivals: 41, Scout: 9 C).

Several of the other top A-10 teams could be improved, and I'll start with Temple. They do lose two 20+ minute-per-game players, but they were very deep to begin with. An interesting team will be St. Louis, which had such a weird dynamic last season. It was clear that Rick Majerus was not happy with his players, and they weren't happy with him. But next season he will really have some stacked cupboards. Majerus brings in four very good recruits, at least two of whom are clear blue chippers. There will be potential chemistry problems with such a rapid upheaval at a school, but I have no doubt that St. Louis will be improved.

Another interesting case will be Dayton, a team that was over-ranked, but still a very good squad. Obviously Brian Roberts will be a huge loss, but a healthy Charles Little will be nice. They will have a nice recruiting class, too. You never know how a team will bounce back from a heart-breaking end to a season, but Dayton will certainly be talented enough to be a bubble team yet again. Another bubble team (if the NBA doesn't steal Chris Lowe) will be UMass. Gary Forbes will be a tough loss, but I think Ricky Harris is good enough to lead a team to the top of the Atlantic Ten. He could average 20 points per game next season, if he has Lowe delivering him the ball.

Charlotte loses Leemire Goldwire and his 19 points per game, but every other key cog returns. Rhode Island, too, returns enough pieces to contend for a bubble spot yet again. They don't have the blue chip recruits coming in that Xavier and St. Louis do, but they have a very deep class and should get a lot of freshman production. There are a couple other teams to keep an eye on, but one for me is George Washington. The Colonials had a lot of problems getting their act together early on, but proved late in the season that they were still very tough to beat. The final record was atrocious, but A-10 fans know that the team was a lot better than where they finished in the conference standings. Add that to the fact that every single member of their regular rotation returns, and GW is a sleeper team to finish near the top of the standings next season.

The Atlantic Ten had a ton of parity last season, and that should continue again. I don't think they'll see five teams in the RPI Top 50 again, but the conference could be just as good as it was last season. And if the good teams don't beat up on each other again, the A-10 will probably be a multi-bid conference next season. Here's how I see the top shaping up:

1. Temple
2. UMass
3. Charlotte
4. Xavier
5. St. Louis
6. Richmond
7. Dayton
8. George Washington

Colonial Athletic Association

Not that bad of a season for the Colonial, although it obviously didn't live up to the massive successes of the previous two. VCU was a solid bubble team all season, and they won't be too decimated by graduations. But next season's success will come down to Eric Maynor. Every draft preview you look at says that Maynor is completely on the fence with regards to going pro. For the sake of this preview I'll assume that Maynor is coming back. But obviously VCU will be a vastly inferior team if he does in fact leave.

George Mason should also be a decent team yet again, although the last of the stars from their Final Four team (Will Thomas) graduates. They probably have the best recruiting class in the league, which is continued pay-off for that success in 2006. Another team that will see a changing of the guard is UNC-Wilmington. They had a very successful third place finish, but lose all four double-digit scorers to graduation. At the same time, they have a very solid recruiting class. No blue chippers, but enough solid players that at least one or two of them will surely prove to be solid starters eventually.

After this trio of teams, it's really pretty hard to read the rest of this conference. There will be a ton of parity in the CAA. A lot of teams that will finish with RPIs in the 100-150 range - not good enough for the bubble, but good enough to win a bunch of games. ODU has a very nice crop of youngsters that should really bloom in 2010, but that should be decent next year as well. Delaware and Northeastern both return almost everybody, although neither team has the kind of raw talent that VCU and George Mason are able to bring in. Hofstra loses star Antoine Agudio, but having a more balanced team next season could actually make them better. Towson will have an extremely senior-laden team, which is always a good thing. And Drexel has a nice recruiting class and should be improved as well.

But in the end, this conference is simply going to be impossible to predict. I could probably do a better job picking names out of a hat, but I'll try my best to call this conference:

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

2008-09 Preview: Mid Majors, Part II

Conference USA

Once again, the strangest conference in the nation. This huge differential between Memphis and the rest of the conference is obviously unsustainable - either John Calipari will leave and the his Tigers will drop into mediocrity, or the rest of the conference will start recruiting better talent. As for Memphis, obviously a dream season. They were within about five seconds of winning a National Championship. Only Joey Dorsey and Andre Allen graduate, but that's not what worries Memphis fans the most. Derrick Rose is almost definitely leaving for the NBA, and Robert Dozier and Chris Douglas-Roberts are on the fence. For the sake of this preview, I'm going to assume that CDR goes pro but Dozier sticks around for his senior season. Even with those losses, Memphis will still be easily the most talented team in C-USA. Antonio Anderson will be back, as will Shawn Taggert and a few others. And in a shock to nobody, Calipari brings in two more blue chippers. Both Angel Garcia and Matt Simpkins are among the Top 50 recruits in the nation. The class isn't that highly ranked because they lost Memphis high schooler Elliot Williams to Duke, but they still have a nice duo. A potential starting lineup of Anderson, Willie Kemp, Taggert, Dozier and Garcia would easily be able to out-talent anybody else in the conference. Memphis probably won't get another #1 seed, but they shouldn't fall out of the Top 25 altogether.

Will anybody in C-USA be able to step up and at least make Memphis work a little bit in one of their sixteen conference games? UAB stands out as a team that could be very good next season. They graduate almost nothing, and Mike Davis has put together a very talented squad. The difference between making the Tournament or not could come down to Robert Vaden's ambitions. He has declared for the draft to be given a chance to go to work out for NBA scouts. Hopefully they'll be honest with him and let him know that he has a better chance of going undrafted than being a first rounder, and he'll return for his senior season. For the sake of this preview, I'm going to assume that he'll be back for one more season. If that's the case then they'll return everybody that scored more than five points per game in regular action last season. They came closest to taking out Memphis of any team in the conference last season, and they will probably be their top contender yet again. UAB won't win the conference, but they'll have a great shot at earning an at-large bid or perhaps even shocking Memphis in the C-USA Tournament Finals.

As for the other bubble team in the conference, Houston, things are not as rosy. They lose five players to graduation that averaged 15 minutes per game or more. Tulsa and UTEP should be decent teams again, although I can't see either team being good enough to get on the bubble. Two challengers could be a couple of teams that haven't had much success in recent memory. Southern Miss finished with a very positive 19-14 record, and an RPI just near the Top 100. And they return every single starter, including three double-digit scorers. Another surprising contender could be Marshall. The Thundering Herd do lose two starters to graduation, but they still return a lot of talent while also bringing in the second best recruiting class in the conference.

Once again, Memphis will run away with Conference USA. But the gap should close at least a little bit next year. As I said, it's simply unsustainable for one team to be so much better than the rest of its conference for so long. C-USA fans can only hope that the gap is closed by teams like UAB moving up into the Top 25, rather than by Memphis falling back into mediocrity in the next couple of years:

1. Memphis
2. UAB
3. Southern Miss
4. Marshall
6. Houston
7. Rice

Mid-American Conference

A very disappointing season for the MAC. Another year or two like this and I'll have to drop them into my "small conferences" previews, and move up the Horizon in its place. Kent State obviously had a great season, but there weren't any other teams that were ever serious bubble contenders. If we start with Kent State, we see that it's not out of the question that they could be a Tournament team yet again in 2009. Obviously it's impossible to overestimate the loss of Haminn Quaintance. Nobody in the country filled out every column of a stat sheet like he did. But other than Quaintance, only one other player from their nine man rotation graduates. They had a very balanced team last season, and always had a lot of fresh bodies to throw into the mix. You never know if the loss of Quaintance will mess up their team chemistry, but there's no question that the Golden Flashes will have nearly as much talent on next year's team as they did on this year's team. Another Top 25 RPI? Probably not. But a Top 50 RPI? Very realistic.

As for the rest of the challengers, I'll start with Miami of Ohio. They do lose a starter to graduation, but the fact that their four returning starters will all be seniors next season is a big plus. They will have nice guard play, and will have a very nice team if Tyler Dierkers (6 ppg, 6 rpg) can fill a bit of the space that graduating big man Tim Pollitz (16 ppg, 7 rpg) will leave. They will also receive some big man reinforcements in the form of Julian Mavunga (Scout: 37 C). Next year's team isn't going to have Top 25 talent, but they will be solid and deep. Another team that will have a lot of experienced talent is Ohio, which returns four players that played more than 20 minutes per game as juniors. But if guard play manages to trump all, as is often the case in mid-major conferences, then Western Michigan can't be left out of the equation. They will have a slew of good guards, highlighted by rising-junior David Kool (16 ppg, 2 apg).

The MAC will probably be slightly improved, but still another one-bid conference next season. Here are the teams that should be in contention:

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

Missouri Valley Conference

By Missouri Valley standards, definitely a down season. Drake obviously had a magical season, but the traditional conference powers were all down. While it was a one-bid league for the first time in a few years, we can't forget that there were a few other good teams. Illinois State, SIU and Creighton were all bubble teams. In fact, I thought Illinois State should have been in the Tournament over Baylor, and they were probably the first team left out.

The first question to ask is whether Drake can repeat its remarkable season. Unfortunately, the answer is that they probably can't. They were not a supremely talented team and, rather, just had a great mix of players and team chemistry. Everybody and everything just fit perfectly together, and there's no way that they can repeat that again. Adam Emmenecker isn't the only player to graduate - Klayton Korver and Leonard Houston will as well. Still, they're not going to fall off the face of the planet. Jonathan Cox (12 ppg, 9 rpg, 44% 3-point shooting) is a star player, while Josh Young (16 ppg, 43% 3-point shooting) is a solid starter in his own right. I don't think anybody sees Drake repeating with another conference crown, but they'll still be a good team. I wouldn't be surprised to see them on the bubble in late February.

Southern Illinois has been the most successful Valley team for the past few seasons, even with a down season in 2007-08. This past season and this coming season will represent something of a changing of the guard as the stars of their most successful teams graduate, while the recruiting classes that were the pay-off for their successes start to come in. Randal Falker is probably the most recognizable SIU player, and he will graduate this year. Matt Shaw and Tyrone Green are also gone. The rest of the team returns, however, including star point guard Bryan Mullins (11 ppg, 5 apg, 2 spg). The Salukis also bring in what is unquestionably the top recruiting class in the Valley. The featured recruits include Anthony Booker (Rivals: 29, Scout: 16 PF), Kevin Dillard (Rivals: 135, Scout: 20 PF) and Torres Roundtree (Scout: 35 SG). Without a doubt, SIU will continue to have its patented defense, and these recruits have the ability to take their offense to a new level.

Like SIU, Creighton is in a rebuilding mode as well. The majority of their regular rotation in 2007-08 was made up of freshmen and sophomores, none being as successful as rising-sophomore P'Allen Stinnett (13 ppg, 45% shooting). If he sticks around for all four years, he has a great shot to win a Valley Player of the Year Award at some point. Illinois State's very positive season was overshadowed by Drake, but it can't be understated how far they improved as well. Unfortunately, this probably represents a high tide for the program, at least in the short term. They will be decimated by graduations and will take a step back in 2008-09.

One team to look out for will be Bradley, which should be improved next season. They lose less minutes and points to graduation than any of the teams ahead of them in the standings. A key for them will likely be whether rising-sophomore Sam Maniscalco (8 ppg, 3 apg) can make the leap and become an elite point guard. The defenses are so tough in the Valley that a capable ball handler is extremely important. One final team to discuss is Wichita State. You never know how much their epic collapse in 2006-07 affected their psychology, but that whole mess should be out of their blood system by next season. P.J. Couisnard graduates, and he was probably the face of the Shockers. But it seemed like he never really reached his potential - he was obviously a very good player, but earlier in his career it seemed like he could have been more. Other than Couisnard, the Shockers return most everybody. And they have a nice deep recruiting class - probably the second best in the conference after SIU. I doubt they'll finish in the top two or three in the conference, but they should finish higher in the standings next season. As for the teams that will finish at the very top, here's how I see it:

1. Southern Illinois
2. Bradley
3. Creighton
4. Drake
5. Northern Iowa
6. Wichita State

2008-09 Preview: Mid Majors, Part I

Mountain West Conference

Another nice season for the Mountain West, with two Tournament teams and a third on the bubble. The thing is that most of these teams will actually be improved next season. As you can see on the chart above, very few players are graduating. And the recruiting classes are absolutely outstanding - the best I've ever seen for this conference.

Any discussion of this conference has to start with BYU. They have become nearly unbeatable at home. They lead the nation with a 46 game home winning streak, although only technically. They did a lose what was essentially a home game this past season to Michigan State, but technically the game was not a home game as it was played at the Delta Center (where the Utah Jazz play - about 45 miles away from BYU's home court). Regardless, BYU is still incredibly tough to beat at home, and they're pretty good on the road as well. They don't lose much to graduation, but a key will obviously be the decision-making of Trent Plaisted. The best player on BYU, he has declared for the NBA draft but has not hired an agent. He would almost definitely not be a first round draft pick, which means it would probably be in his best interest to come back. He strikes me as a pretty intelligent guy, so I wouldn't be shocked if he chooses to come back for his senior season. Obviously this will be a worry for BYU fans for the next couple of months, but for the sake of this preview I'm going to assume that Plaistad comes back for one more year.

The most pleasant surprise for the Mountain West this past season was probably UNLV, a team that had lost so many players to graduation yet found a way to get back into the Tournament. This time around they get to keep more of their talent. They get one more season out of the exciting Wink Adams (17 ppg, 3 apg, 2 spg) and his backcourt mate Rene Rougeau (9 ppg, 6 rpg). UNLV will probably start three seniors next season and will be a very tough team to beat yet again. I don't think they'll be better than they were this past season, but they should be a bubble team. A very interesting team is New Mexico, which had a great season under ex-Iowa coach Steve Alford . The loss of star J.R. Giddens (16 ppg, 9 rpg) can't be underestimated, but most of their other regular players return. What makes this team interesting is Alford's first full recruiting class, which is pretty remarkable. The biggest names are Phillip McDonald (Rivals: 85, Scout: 17 SG) and Will Brown (Scout: 37 PF), but they are just part of this great recruiting class. You never want to put too much emphasis on freshmen, who can be unreliable, but there's a reasonable chance that this outstanding class can power the under-rated Alford and his Lobos into the Top 25.

Several other teams in the Mountain West will be improved. San Diego State was a bit below the radar this past season, but they were a solid RPI Top 100 team, and all five starters will be back. A sleeper team could be Air Force with a possibility of starting three seniors alongside a very solid recruiting class. No blue chippers coming in, but so many second tier recruits that you have to figure that some of them will turn out to be good (recruiting is a very inexact science, after all). Utah will also be a very good team with one more season of its powerful inside duo of Luke Nevill (15 ppg, 7 rpg) and Shaun Green (8 ppg, 5 rpg). TCU returns most of its talent and will be improved, but with the rest of the conference so good, just how much further up the standings could they possibly go? Even conference basement squad Colorado State will be back. This was a rebuilding season for them as five of their nine players that got double-digit minutes were freshmen. Their only senior was Stuart Creason, who did start when he was healthy, but missed much of the year to injury. I think it will be another year or two before the Rams can make a real Tournament run, but there's no doubt that their fans won't have to suffer through another 25 loss season.

With all of the improvement conference wide, I would be shocked if this was a one-bid conference next year. Most likely they will have about five or six teams on the bubble or better, with at least two getting in. Here's how I see the top of the standings:

1. New Mexico
2. San Diego State
3. BYU
5. Air Force
6. Utah
7. Colorado State

West Coast Conference

Possibly the best season ever for the WCC. With so many consecutive years of great seasons for Gonzaga, it is finally starting to attract top talent to some of the other schools in the conference. St. Mary's has become an extremely tough team to play in their home gym, and San Diego has also emerged on the scene as a very good squad.

Any discussion of the WCC, of course, must begin with the Zags. They have had several outstanding recruiting classes and just absolutely ooze with talent. One thing that was worrisome, however, was the way they seemed to underperform last season. Their trademark over the years has been a bunch of overperforming players. But this past season they seemed to have so much talent yet were unable to beat the elite teams in the nation - it just felt like they were underperforming for the first time in the nearly-decade long run. The problem is, I don't see any obvious reason why next year will be any different. Once again, the talent will be outstanding. Their most talented players will return, as it looks like all of their stars will skip the NBA and stick around one more year (Jeremy Pargo, Austin Daye and Josh Heytvelt were all mentioned as possible NBA draft entrants). But meanwhile their one graduation loss is their best glue guy - David Pendergraft. So will this be another year in purgatory - good enough to win the WCC, not good enough to beat anybody good or get back to the Sweet 16? I'm actually going to take the glass half full approach here. I think Mark Few is too good of a coach to let his team underperform again. Also, with all of the attention paid to other freshmen nationwide, I don't think many college basketball fans realize how amazingly talented Austin Daye is. He is listed at 6'10" but moves like an athletic guard. At times he seemed a bit unsure of himself, but he should be better incorporated into the Gonzaga scheme next season. I think this Gonzaga team will be outstanding next season, and a real threat to indeed go deep in the Tournament once again.

But as we learned this past season, you don't need to win the WCC to make the Tournament. So what about Saint Mary's and San Diego? Saint Mary's loses two of its regular rotation players to graduation, but they return their team anchor Diamon Simpson (13 ppg, 10 rpg, 2 bpg). Simpson also has a very nice sidekick in rising-sophomore Patrick Mills (15 ppg, 4 apg). I see no reason why Saint Mary's won't be improved next season. Of course, this past year's team did end up with a better RPI and ranking than they really deserved. They did struggle really badly away from home, and did a great job at scheduling almost all of their tough opponents at home. Next year's schedule (I haven't seen it yet) probably won't be so kind. But while Saint Mary's was overrated this past season as a Top 40 team in the country, they will probably actually earn that high seeding next season. They could finally win a Tournament game.

As for San Diego, you can see in the chart above that they return all five starters. But it's not just the starters - they graduate absolutely nobody. Their overall talent level will still be lower than the big two at the top of the conference, but they will definitely be improved. This team already took the WCC Tournament and made the second round of the Tournament, so an improvement means that there will be a very good team in the unfortunately-named Jenny Craig Pavilion yet again.

Will anybody else in the conference close the gap with the top teams? Santa Clara will still be a tough team to play with John Bryant (18 ppg, 10 rpg) returning for one more season. San Francisco returns almost all of its top talent, although you've really got to wonder if their messed up coaching situation is going to cause problems. I do not understand their thinking by hiring Eddie Sutton just so he could stick around for a few weeks and get his 800th win. To me, the top challenger will actually be Pepperdine. They graduate no starters and will hope to see even more improvement out of the stellar rising-sophomore duo of Tyrone Shelley (15 ppg, 6 rpg, 2 spg) and Malcolm Thomas (13 ppg, 9 rpg, 2 bpg).

The WCC is really starting to challenge some of the lower level Pac-10 teams in terms of its ability to attract top talent from the west coast. 2007-08 was probably the most successful season in the history of the conference, and I see no reason why 2008-09 won't be even better. here's how I see the top of the conference playing out:

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

Western Athletic Conference

Boise State pulled a couple of small upsets to sneak their way into the Tournament, but I don't think even the most fervent Broncos fan sees that coming again. They lose four starters to graduation, and don't have nearly the recruiting class coming in that some of the other WAC teams had. The fact was that they took advantage of a very, very weak season for a conference that has traditionally been pretty good. I have no doubt that the conference will be at least a little bit better next season.

The start of that improvement will be with Nevada, a school that has put together a pretty strong program. Certainly Marcelus Kemp (20 ppg, 5 rpg, 3 apg) will be a big loss, but none of the other key pieces will be graduating. Unfortunately for the Wolfpack, JaVale McGee (14 ppg, 7 rpg) is expected to go pro early. Armon Johnson ( 12 ppg, 3 apg) had a great freshman season and will be expected to star in Kemp's absence. But what is most encouraging for the Wolf Pack is the recruiting class, ranked in the Top 25 nationally by both and The gem of the class is Luke Babbitt (Rivals: 34, Scout: 6 PF), but there are others to go with him. As far as the inside situation with McGee gone, Wolfpack fans will probably be looking towards the young duo of Matt LeGrone and Malik Cooke. It remains to be seen if Babbitt will provide a big inside presence as a freshman, and if he can't it will be up to the aforementioned LeGrone and Cooke to hold down the fort inside. Nevada's perimeter players will almost surely be the best in the conference, which makes the frontcourt the key.

Outside of Nevada, the rest of the conference should converge with regards to talent. The bottom two squads should be improved. San Jose State could be a real threat at the top of the conference with five double-digit scorers returning. Without any recent experience at the top of the WAC, it's incredibly hard to see the Spartans actually winning the whole conference, but they could easily finish in the top four. Fresno State is a team that will be hard to read. They graduate five players that had 19.9 minutes per game or more last season. But at the same time, the cupboard isn't entirely bare. I like rising-junior Byran Harvey (11 ppg, 81% free throw shooting) and they have a blue chip recruit in the athletic Reggie Moore (Scout: 36 PG). In some ways it will be a rebuilding season for Fresno State, but I wouldn't be shocked to see them up at the top of the conference again.

Both Hawaii and Boise State should take a step back as they're completely decimated by graduations. utah State loses three starters as well, but has much more in reserve. With the possibility of a weak front line on a team like Nevada, a key for the Aggies will be rising-senior Gary Wilkinson (13 ppg, 7 rpg, 58% shooting). The final team to keep an eye on is New Mexico State, another squad which loses three starters. Their key will be a solid returning trio that should fill out the stat sheet. They've got a nice creator and outside scorer (Jonathan Gibson), a solid inside scorer (Herb Pope), and an inside force who could be a walking double-double next season (Wendell McKines). New Mexico State might be thin next season, but they'll have a good starting lineup.

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

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

2008-09 Preview: Small Conferences, Part IV

America East Conference

Another down year for the America East conference. The mediocrity did allow for a good story, as Maryland-Baltimore County earned its first ever trip to the Tournament. Will they follow up their great success with a repeat? Doubtful. They lose three double-digit scorers to graduation, and they will be playing with a lot more pressure as the defending conference champion. I just can't see them winning another title next season. I also don't see Albany getting their crown back, as they lose the rest of the stars from their '07 Tournament team.

One young team that I see improving is Boston University. The Terriers have had very little to brag about in recent years, but they have a nice crop of youngsters that should carry them into the top half of the conference next season. You also can't count out a Vermont team powered by rising-senior Mike Trimboli (18 ppg, 5 apg, 86% FT shooting).

But with the traditional America East powers in a down period, things opened up for UMBC this past year and will be wide-open yet again next season. Which is fertile ground for a rapidly improving program like Hartford. Rising-junior Joe Zeglinski is a very good shooter (16 ppg, 41% 3-point shooting). And rising-senior Warren McLendon (12 ppg, 5 rpg, 2 bpg) qualifies as an inside force as far as the America East goes. I think this will be a conference with a lot of parity next season, and any one of about five teams will be in the mix. But I'm going with the upset by picking Hartford.

Atlantic Sun Conference

Belmont has dominated the Atlantic Sun for the past few years and will be a contender again next season. They lose leading scorer Justin Hare to graduation, but return the rest of their regular rotation players. And it's not like the offensive revolved around Hare anyway, as they return four other players that averaged 8.8 points per game or more last season. They will continue to be a pretty small team, but it's not like they'll face a lot of elite post players in the Atlantic Sun.

A team to look out for will be East Tennessee State. Some of you probably remember their very exciting team from the 2003-04 season, and next year's senior class was the recruiting group that came out of that season. They will have a nice set of experienced players, and will definitely be in the mix when the calendar turns back to March yet again. Gardner Webb will also be a challenger with four starters returning, but I just don't see how they'll replace their loss of Thomas Sanders (18 ppg, 11 rpg).

Jacksonville fans are also excited about their returning lineup, which will have a slew of good sophomores and juniors. They will definitely challenge for the Atlantic Sun title, but I think their inexperience will do them in. They have a potential to be like a Cleveland State last season, that goes on a little run and then feels the pressure and falls back. If they can experience another pennant race, however, they could be in good position for a Tournament run in 2010.

A sleeper to me is Stetson, a team that returns every player that got more than 15 minutes per game last season. They will have a gaggle of athletic guards and swingmen, and could have a nice inside player in rising-senior Tim Lang (4 ppg and 3 rpg in only 15 minutes per game). They'll have their hands full with Jacksonville and Belmont, but for now I'm picking Stetson to take the Atlantic Sun.

Big Sky Conference

A bit of a down year for the Big Sky. Portland State dominated the conference all year and swept through the conference tournament, only to earn a #16 seed? Definitely a bit of disrespect (I thought they deserved a #15 seed), but it spoke to the weakness of a conference that has had good teams in the very recent past. Will the Vikings gets a chance to improve on that seed? It's very possible. They lose two starters to graduation, but the rest of their regular rotation returns. The big gap to fill will be 6'11" senior Scott Morrison. The only other player with more than four rebounds per game was a guard, Deonte Huff, who is the other graduating starter. So Portland State is going to have a real hole on the inside that one of the young players off the bench will have to fill. The biggest body returning will be rising-junior Alex Tiefenthaler, but he only got one start and only played 11 minutes per game.

Northern Arizona should contend yet again, but will also have a big hole to fill inside with the graduation of Kyle Landry (18 ppg, 8 rpg). I wouldn't count out Weber State either, but the most likely team to take back the conference has got to be Montana. They also have to deal with the graduation of a starting big man, but they do return a potential star in 6'9" Jordan Hasquet (14 ppg, 7 rpg). The key to me will be rising-junior Ryan Staudacher, who led the team in minutes last year but didn't put up a lot of stats. He did shoot 45% from behind the arc, which could make him a great complement for Hasquet. This won't be a repeat of the 2005-06 Montana tea that nearly earned a trip to the Sweet 16, but I think they'll be good enough to take a weakened Big Sky. Montana is the pick.

Big South Conference

Absolutely no team has dominated a conference like Winthrop has over the past few years. They are the only team in the entire nation that has won four straight conference tournament titles. So will they make it five? Well, a major problem will be graduations. The trio that led this year's team was Chris Gaynor, Michael Jenkins and Taj McCullough. All three graduate. Of the young guards that return, Byron Faison is going to have to step up to try to replace some of the graduates. And as Winthrop's offense is so dependent on the three-pointer, a key player in that regard will be rising-sophomore Justin Burton. The Eagles also have two very good recruits in Andre Jones and Gideon Gamble. They'll still be a good team, but not nearly as good as the past two years.

Which brings us to one of the oddest players to come through college basketball in years: Kenny George. While everyone probably knows him from his posterizing at the hands of Tyler Hansbrough, I'm actually very impressed in the way that he has a normal, athletic body. Super-tall baskeball players like Manute Bol and Gheorghe Muresan tend to be gawky and misshapen. But George has the body of a regular athlete - if you look at a picture of him without anybody or anything else in focus, he seems normal-sized. It's only when he has other players around him that you sense how tall he is. The only similar player I can think of is actually Mark Eaton, who was slightly more athletic but also three inches smaller.

Anyway, the point is that he has the potential to really dominate this conference if he can play more. He has improved his conditioning rapidly through his two seasons in the Big South. If he can play 30 minutes per game next season, UNC-Asheville might become the clear favorite to end Winthrop's reign.

Another good young team is High Point, which now has had three consecutive good recruiting classes. They could be a real contender in 2009-10, but I don't think they will have enough to finish any higher than third place again in 2008-09. To me, Winthrop just loses way too much next season, and I'm taking UNC-Asheville to win the Big South.