2006-2007 College Basketball Season Preview
2006-2007 Pac-10 Basketball Season Preview
Yes, the Bruins lost Jordan Farmar and Ryan Hollins from a year ago, but with the exception of Florida, nearly every other team lost at least one critical component of its 2005-2006 team. Back are Arron Afflalo, everyone’s favorite Cameroonian Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Lorenzo Mata, Alfred Aboya, Darren Collison, and perhaps the biggest addition: athletic swingman Josh Shipp, who returns from a year-long injury. The Bruins have a top-ten-strength nonconference schedule, and they should end up near the top of the first RPI rankings even with a couple of losses. Look for a similar placement to last year from the Committee (either the #1 or #2 seed in the Western Regional). The Bruins should be a top-ten team all year, and for the next decade. Ben Howland has turned this program around.
The Wildcats were a bit of a disapppointment last year, but so was most of the Pac-10. Questions lingered about whether Lute Olson still had juice with his players, and perhaps more with recruits. Those murmurs should evaporate this year, as Arizona should once again challenge for Pac-10 supremacy with the addition of sensational freshman forward Chase Budinger and the improved play of now-sophomore J.P. Prince complementing Mustafa Shakur in the backcourt. Jawann
McClellan, Kirk Walters, Marcus Williams and Ivan Radenovic also return, and it’s a deep, versatile nucleus that should contend for a national title. Like UCLA, the Wildcats’ nonconference schedule should keep them near the top of the RPI all season long (it’s probably even stronger than the Bruins’) and any NCAA seed lower than a three would seriously surprise.
Always one of the more exciting teams to watch, the Huskies were a desperation three-pointer away from the Elite Eight last year. Yes, Brandon Roy is now in the NBA, but this team was far deeper than its All-Pac-10 swingman. 6’11″ Spencer Hawes and big 6’7″ John Brockman should form the most dominant inside tandem in the West, and ballhandler Justin Dentmon and Ryan Appleby form a solid backcourt. The question for Washington is depth, particularly with the uptempo style that Lorenzo Romar likes to employ. Games against Northern Iowa, LSU, and Gonzaga in the pre-conference and what promises to be a terrific February 17th game at
Pittsburgh give the Huskies’ schedule some bark, but its bite is pretty soft, with a sugar rush of cupcakes including Nicholls State, Southern Utah, and Idaho. Still, look for Washington to get a 3-4-5 seed, and a date in Spokane for the first two rounds.
An enigmatic team to say the least. At times last year (first half at home against UCLA), this looked like an Elite Eight-caliber team. At times last year (most of the rest of the Pac-10 season), they didn’t even belong in the NIT. Now that Leon Powe is gone, DeVon Hardin should have a terrific season inside. But at least one analyst (me) has questions about the consistency of Ayinde Ubaka at the point, and the lack of creativity that characterizes Ben Braun’s offense. Credit Braun, though, with beefing up Cal’s non-conference schedule this year, facing San Diego State, Kansas State, Nevada, and DePaul. There are no T-bone steaks there, but it at least approaches quarter-pounder status in terms of meat. Cal should be on the good side of the bubble again on Selection Sunday as the power rating of the top members of the Pac-10 elevates its RPI.
Analysts have been trying to figure out Ernie Kent’s Ducks for two years now. The talent is there, but is the chemistry? Kent’s team may break through to the NIT this year, but that might not be enough to save his job.
The troubles of Tim Floyd in putting together a backcourt to start the year have been well-documented over the course of the summer after Gabe Pruitt was declared ineligible, but it looks like freshman Daniel Hackett’s academic qualification have alleviated some of those concerns. Still, USC is a young team, and is probably a year away from the NCAA’s. The NIT is a strong possibility, however.
A young team playing and a deeper-than-usual conference don’t add up to a lot of wins for Trent Johnson’s club. Talented Fresno twins Brook and Robin Lopez could have some opponents seeing double, however, in more ways than one…
Jay John’s team won some suprising games in Pac-10 play last year, including back-to-back victories at Cal, and at home to Arizona. But the consistency wasn’t there for the Beavers, and I don’t think it will be this year either. Still, fans in Corvallis should be in for some competitive battles.
Rob Evans left a pretty bare cupboard for Herb Sendek starting out, and the Sun Devils are probably two to three years away from postseason play.
Tony Bennett (son of former head coach Dick Bennett, not the crooner) takes the helm this year in Pullman. Scoring will again be a problem, particularly with 2006 leading scorer Josh Akognon’s transfer to CSU-Fullerton, but if the Cougars can sweep their in-state rival again, it would have to be considered another successful season.
2006-2007 Big XII Basketball Season Preview
Once again, the Jayhawks are absolutely loaded with talent, and despite C.J. Giles’ off-court issues and Sasha Kaun’s injury, Kansas should dominate most of its early-season opponents. The game against fellow projected #1 Florida on November 25th should be a doozy. The Jayhawks were one of the most explosive teams in America over the second half of last season, and have added freshman phenoms Sherron Collins and Darrell Arthur to the back and front courts, respectively. There will be challenges in the Big XII, but the Jayhawks are in the weaker “North” division of the conference, and by the luck of the schedule, they get other conference favorites Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, and Texas all at home. Jayhawk fans shouldn’t have to worry about a third straight first-round exit, as KU will cruise to first-round date with a 16 seed on Selection Sunday.
It’s nearly impossible to over-credit Billy Gillispie with the incredible turnaround in College Station. The rest of the nation may be surprised to see A&M’s name come up as a protected seed on Selection Sunday, because it’s been close to a decade since the Aggies have been relevant. But hoops insiders know this team is loaded with returning talent, including Acie Law, Martellus Bennett, and Joseph Jones. Gillispie even beefed up his non-conference schedule, with games against Saint Louis, at UCLA, at LSU, and against Winthrop. There’s still a lot of sugar, but he avoids having Bracketography’s worst non-conference schedule award named for him this year.
Most analysts absolutely love freshmen D. J. Augustin and Kevin Durant, part of a seven-member (!) incoming class that replaces last year’s talented starting five of Buckman, Tucker, Gibson, Aldrige, and Paulino. I’m no different, except that I don’t see the ‘Horns being a top-twenty caliber team. They shouldn’t be in any danger of missing the NCAA’s with the great home-court advantage in Austin, but a high seed isn’t likely. I’ll get a closer look at them when they travel to Phoenix to play Gonzaga in the Naismith Classic. The rest of the non-conference schedule is no joke, either, with games home games against LSU and Arkansas and road games at Tennessee and Villanova.
Bob Huggins is on the sidelines. That’s all you really need to say about this team. The Wildcats were in the NCAA discussion after non-conference play last year, but fell off once the Big XII season began. “Huggy Cat” will keep his troops competitive for the full season this year, with Cartier Martin and Jermaine Maybank being the senior leaders. It looks like Bill Walker is now coming in mid-year, having been admitted to the school in late October, and he’ll provide another scoring punch to keep teams from keying on any one player. The non-conference schedule is weak by Huggins’ standards, but there are a lot of road dates, including Cal, USC, and Xavier. A terrible in-conference game against Chicago State could precipitate a disastrous late-season drop in RPI, however.
The major question for this team is the same as last year: can JamesOn Curry carry them? He was surrounded by talent his freshman year and excelled as a role player. Last year as the lead dog, he was just that at times, a dog. But it’s a new year, and there’s reason for optimism. The Cowboys’ early schedule is atrocious, with seven cupcakes in eight games, but it beefs up in a hurry with the next three on the road against Syracuse, Ball State, and Tennessee before a home date with Pitt. I’d pick the Cowboys to win that game at Gallagher-Iba, but will they have enough gas left in the tank? Nevertheless, they’ll get plenty more chances at quality wins playing the the Big XII “South” division once conference play begins.
As I stated in the Bracket Blog, enough cannot be said about the impact that Jarrius Jackson’s dismissal will have on this team. Defense and rebounding will become even more important that usual for Bob Knight’s team, because it’s going to be tough for the Red Raiders to out-score anybody. The non-conference schedule is no great shakes either, with an early season trip to El Paso, a game at Arkansas and a home date with Bucknell in mid-December being the only real matchups of note. TTU will be one of the last teams in the NCAA field, if they make it at all.
David Godbold and my favorite name in all of college basketball, Longar Longar, return for first-year coach Jeff Capel. And if Michael Neal can stay hot from the outside as he was at times last year, the Sooners could make a surprise NCAA, or at least an NIT, run.
The Cyclones were well-positioned for an NCAA run after last year’s non-conference season before a disastrous stretch of losses at Hilton Coliseum did in their chances. This year, the non-conference schedule isn’t quite what it was in 2005, but games at in-state rivals UNI and Iowa, along with Ohio State, will give an indication of this team’s competitiveness without Stinson and Blaylock.
Because of the NCAA sanctions imposed on BU last year, it was tough to get a gauge of the team’s performance based only on conference play. This year’s Bears are being talked about as one of the real sleepers in the Big XII, with Aussie Aaron Bruce providing most of the firepower.
Richard Roby decided to come back, which is good news for Buffs fans, but all of the controversy surrounding Ricardo Patton is not a healthy environment in which to win basketball games (just ask Indiana).
Once again Nebraska will be competitive in conference play, but Lincoln will always be a football town.
I’d “buy” Mizzou on the college hoops stock market right now, because Mike Anderson will quickly return this team to relevance after the disastrous Quin Snyder era. For it to happen this year might be a bit too much to ask, however.
2006-2007 Big Ten Basketball Season Preview
The Buckeyes surprised everyone except CBS Sportsline’s Gregg Doyel by winning the Big Ten title outright last season. This year, they’ve clearly got the targt on their backs as defending champions with perhaps the best recruiting class the conference has seen in a decade, led by Greg Oden, Mike Conley, David Lighty, and Daequan Cook. The Buckeyes’ non-conference schedule has a UConn-type look to it, preparing itself for play against teams it could meet deep in the NCAA Tournament (games at North Carolina and Florida), but not much else, save for a home date with Tennessee on January 13.
How far can a 6’4″ power forward take a team? He nearly drove the Badgers past eventual national champion North Carolina in 2005, and the unanimous All-Conference star has long had the respect of his Badger teammates and Big Ten foes. All Chris-Rock Team Captain Kammron Taylor also returns for Bo Ryan’s traditionally underdog squad. The Badgers will be in a relatively new role as a national favorite this year, tabbed as high as #8 in ESPN.com’s preseason poll. This team and the Kohl Center fans should be good for eight in-conference wins, but can the Badgers make the outside shot on the road consistently enough to take home a third conference title in six years? Bracketography salutes Bo Ryan for scheduling a game AT Missouri State, in addition to matchups with Winthrop, Marquette, Wis-Mil, Pittsburgh, Pacific, and Georgia.
Beginning with Illinois and ending with Penn State, you can essentially throw the next seven Big Ten teams in a hat and pick four that will make the NCAA Tournament. The Illini have lost senior rockstars Dee Brown and James Augustine, but Brian Randle returns full-strength after a wrist injury kept him out of a large portion of last year, and word out of Champaign is that gym rat Jamar Smith has improved his stroke over last year’s already impressive form. The real question for Illinois is at point guard–can Chester Frazier play significant minutes without turning the ball over? One thing not working in Illinois’ favor this year is its non-conference schedule, which is a pathetic diet of sub-300 RPI schools sandwiching Maryland and Arizona, though there is also a game at A-10 contender Xavier.
Will THIS be the year Tommy Amaker finally takes the Wolverines back to the NCAA Tournament? If he doesn’t, it could be the last time we see a turtleneck in Ann Arbor. I thought the Committee gave Michigan a raw deal last year, and one hopes that the returning ‘Wolves are itching for a chance to show that this year’s version deserves a chance. Probably the most athletic team in the Big Ten, Michigan’s front line will feature Courtney Sims, Brent Petway, and likely 6-8″ Freshman Kendric Price. If they can get out in transition, this team will win its share of games in a typically defensively-oriented conference. A road test at UCLA and a home game against Georgetown will be important PR statements on a schedule that features mostly quality mid-majors.
D.J. White is back and healthy, and Hoosiers finally have a coach they’re willing to support in Kelvin Sampson. The Hoosiers were good enough to win one game without White last year before falling to Adam Morrison and Gonzaga. This year, they’ll need the best guard play than they’ve had since the days of Tom Coverdale, but Roderick Wilmont started to make some serious noise late in Big Ten play last year, and he could become Indiana’s floor leader. Mark this date on your calendars: January 23. That’s the night that Indiana travels to Champaign, Illinois, where Kelvin Sampson will meet the most hostile crowd he’s ever faced after the outcome of the Eric Gordon recruiting saga was announced in October. If you’re in Vegas, take the Illini in that game, no matter what the spread is.
Few analysts know what to expect out of Michigan State this year, after the Spartans were decimated by graduation over the summer. But with Tom Izzo on the sidelines, there’s always hope in East Lansing. Izzo has scaled back his schedule considerably this year, but there is an early test at BC in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, and a home game against MWC power BYU in early December. I look for the Spartans to be one of the last teams in the 2007 NCAA field, but two of my favorite “honyaks” in all of college basketball, Idong Ibok and Goran Suton, will need to produce for MSU in the paint.
Like Michigan State, Iowa lost a lot of senior leaders from last year’s team, including Jeff Horner and Erek Hansen, but Adam Haluska and (in my opinion under-used) Mike Henderson are back in the lineup for the Hawkeyes. Steve Alford also returns, after many expected (and perhaps wanted) him to take the Indiana job. Making a return to the NCAA’s should be considered a great success for Hawkeye fans this year.
Carl Landry returns this year for Matt Painter’s team, and should complement fellow senior David Teague nicely. It’s reasonable to expect a trip to the NIT out of Purdue this year, and it should be a great matchup when the Boilers face Georgia Tech in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
Geary Claxton was recently named first-team preseason All Big Ten, and the Nittany Lions are looking for bigger things this year after shockingly ending Illinois 37-game home win streak at the end of 2005-2006 conference play. If some fans show up in the seats for Ed DeChellis, Penn State should make the NIT, and perhaps even the NCAA Tournament.
Not having Vincent Grier will make the winter seem even longer in Minneapolis for Dan Monson & Co.
Bill Carmody always does his best to make Northwestern competitive, but yet again, the ‘Cats are not going to make NCAA’s unless they can win the Big Ten Tournament.
2006-2007 SEC Basketball Season Preview
There’s not a lot you can say about a team that returns just about everyone to defend its national title. The Gators will be nothing short of great, and anything less than a #1 seed will be a disappointment. The SEC will be loaded, and nonconference games against fellow title contenders Kansas and Ohio State should prepare the Gators for another deep NCAA run. Florida, Bracketography salutes you.
The buzz all summer about LSU was around the fact that “Big Baby” Glen Davis is now “Not-As-Big Baby” Glen Davis. In addition to about 40 pounds, the Tigers also lost Tyrus Thomas to the NBA. But there’s plenty of talent left for another solid run for John Brady’s team, and some of last year’s freshmen that are now sophomores gained some incredible experience in their five NCAA Tournament games. The schedule is again one of the best in the country: Wichita State, Texas A&M, Texas, Washington, and UConn prior to SEC play.
After essentially getting called out publicly by the NCAA Selection Committee Chairman three years ago, Mark Gottfried had done an admirable job beefing up the Crimson Tide’s schedule. He reverted to his old ways this year, as a home game against Oklahoma is the Tide’s toughest nonconference test. But unlike previous years, the Tide shouldn’t be in any danger of missing the NCAA’s, as they return plenty of talent, including potential SEC Player of the Year Ronald Steele, and there is plenty of meat in the SEC portion of their schedule.
The Vols came out of nowhere last year to surprise everyone as a #2 seed at the NCAA’s. They don’t have that element this year, but they do have sharpshooter Chris Lofton and Dane Bradshaw returning, and there are a lot of young bodies for Bruce Pearl to run up and down the court. Pearl has again scheduled up, with consecutive nonconference games against Memphis, Western Kentucky, Oklahoma State, and Texas, along with a game in Columbus in 2007. The Vols should be a mid-to-upper tier NCAA team this year, and might be on the other side of a 7-2 upset in this year’s Tournament.
Tubby Smith might win the “smartest schedule” award this year. There’s little doubt the SEC will be the #1 RPI conference in 2006-2007, with plenty of top-ten talent. He also knows his team probably doesn’t HAVE top-ten talent this year. So what does he do? He schedules one great team (UNC) and several good ones (Indiana and Louisville, as always, plus DePaul, Miami (OH), College of Charleston, UMass, and Houston). Every one of those “good” games is winnable, and he’ll get the ‘Cats an RPI bump (and great experience) even with a loss to Carolina. Don’t count UK out this year despite the loss of Rondo…remember, Randolph Morris is back for a full season this year, and Ramel Bradley, Bobby Perry, Sheray Thomas, and Joe Crawford are an experienced nucleus.
The Gamecocks were one game away from an NCAA bid before falling short against Florida in the SEC Championship, an outcome that all bracketographers/ologists were secretly rooting for to stave off a major bracket shakeup on Selection Sunday. This year, though, I’ll be rooting for the ‘Cocks on the “good” side of the bubble, because there is plenty of talent returning for the defending NIT champs, even with the departure of first-round NBA pick Renaldo Balkman. The non-conference schedule is a little weak, but there are games at USC, at Baylor, and home games against Clemson, Charleston, and Kansas.
Ronnie Brewer is gone, but Stan Heath’s squad returns Gary Ervin and Darian Townes for upper-class leadership. Who will step up as the end-of-game playmaker this year? The schedule features a couple of marquee matchups, including Southern Illinois and Texas, but is mostly cupcakes…RPI could be an issue in March.
Dennis Felton has done an amazing job in turning this program around from the brink of the death penalty to a legitimate contender for an NCAA spot. The ‘Dawgs might have gotten there last year had a couple of close losses been replaced with close wins. Western Kentucky, Gonzaga, Georgia Tech, Clemson, and Wisconsin beef up an otherwise sugar-loaded non-conference schedule.
Vandy is perennially one of the hardest teams in the country to figure out. They continually “get up for” big games against the SEC powerhouses and marquee nonconference opponents, but seem to falter down the stretch. An home-opening statement win against Georgetown would keep the ‘Dores in the NCAA discussion for a LONG time…
New coach Andy Kennedy will get things going for the Rebels, but probably not for another couple of years.
There are plenty of chances for the Bulldogs to pick up wins in the nonconference, but probably not many in SEC play. Rick Stansbury is in full rebuilding mode, with Tyler Hansbrough’s brother Ben being the most notable name on the roster…
A .500 season would be a successful turnaround for the Tigers after last year’s 4-12 SEC finish.
2006-2007 Big East Basketball Season Preview
As much as I hate placing UConn in this position on principle (their pre-Big-East schedule is the following: Quinnipiac, Central Arkansas, Fairfield, Ole Miss, Albany, Sacred Heart, Texas Southern, Northeastern, Saint Mary’s, Pepperdine, Coppin State), Jim Calhoun has used this formula before to great effect. The Huskies do go to LSU and host Indiana once the Big East season is underway. Gone are Hilton Armstrong, Josh Boone, Denham Brown, Rashad Anderson, and Marcus Williams, but Calhoun does not rebuild, he re-loads. Suspended/injured guard A.J. Price is now eligible, and word out of Storrs is that he is meshing well with UConn’s EIGHT freshmen. There aren’t as many big names for Connecticut this year, but there should be better chemistry.
I may be a little high on Georgetown as well, but I just love the energy that John Thompson III has brought back to the Hoyas’ basketball program. F Jeff Green should be a first- or second-team All-American and C Roy Hibbert should be first- or second-team All-Big-East. Patrick Ewing Jr. is eligble now after transferring from Indiana, and although Brandon Bowman and Ashanti Cook are gone, the talent is there to replace them. The Hoyas don’t have a great non-conference schedule, but look for them to make a statement with their final three regular season games of the year: hosting Pitt, at Syracuse, and at home to UConn.
Getting Aaron Gray back was a huge relief for coach Jamie Dixon and fans at “The Zoo.” But does Pitt really deserve its preseason #5 ranking? Levon Kendall will help provide senior leadership with Gray, but to my mind, the Panthers are a bit thin at guard, particularly when you compare them to other top teams like Florida, UCLA, Kansas, Arizona, Ohio State, and North Carolina. Jamie Dixon has set the Panthers up with the typical Cupcake schedule in November and early December, but they do go to Madison and Stillwater before Christmas. And there is a phenomenal mid-season game at home against Washington.
Dominic James, Dominic James, Dominic James. Will he take the mantle from Dee Brown as the next college basketball poster boy? “All signs point to yes” says my magic 8-ball. There are a lot of unknowns with Marquette (such as how they’ll respond without Steve Novak putting up 40+ points in the Golden Eagles’ biggest games), but Tom Crean has always gotten the most out of his players, and I expect him to do the same this year. The non-conference schedule is disappointing, but the intra-state rivalry game with Wisconsin should be terrific.
I’m not sure Villanova can truly “surprise” anymore, but to the extent they can this year, they will. I’d call it a “re-grouping” year for the ‘Cats, rather than a re-building year. Mike Nardi and highly-touted freshman Scottie Reynolds should form a more conventional two-guard lineup this year, and Curtis Sumpter returns from injury inside to complement Will Sheridan. Jay Wright’s non-conference schedule is better than most of his Big East counterparts, assisted by the Big Five round robin in Philly. Texas also comes to town on January 20th.
A lot will be asked of freshman phenom Paul Harris and sophomore Eric Devendorf at guard, but Terrence Roberts and Demetris Nichols should alleviate some of the pressure on the perimeter/wings. It’s a typical Syracuse schedule (i.e. all-Empire-State until New Year’s), but Boeheim has scheduled Charlotte, Hofstra, and Wichita State to come to the Carrier Dome, even after losing to Bucknell last year, so I have to give him some credit for being willing to play iso-majors (new term for 2006-2007).
Gone is the senior leadership of Taequan Dean and former freshman phenom Juan Palacios is now a junior. Rick Pitino is now fully settling into his tailored suits at the ‘Ville, and expectations are rightfully high. 6-9″ Derrick Caracter should give Louisville some bulk inside…there are questions about whether or not it is TOO much bulk, however. Arizona, Ohio, UMass, and Kentucky highlight the Cards’ non-conference slate, and Louisville should make a strong run into the NCAA Tournament.
With the exception of Connecticut, perhaps no school lost such critical pieces of its arsenal from a year ago as West Virginia, though I have a feeling the term “Pittsnogled” is here to stay. But Gansey and Patrick Beilein are also gone from that magical Elite Eight and Sweet 16 squad, with Darris Nichols and Frank Young expected to provide leadership to the Mountaineers’ seven freshmen. Has John Beilein brought in more diamonds in the rough somewhere in that crew? We’ll find out over the course of the year as they get more and more accustomed to his intricate offensive system. The non-conference schedule is conducive to “bringing the youngsters along” and includes a date with UCLA in mid-season.
Everyone’s favorite Big East Sleeper should make some noise, as touted senior guard Sammy Mejia will be playing for plenty of NBA scouts. But can a team that was 12-15 last year (and 5-11 in conference play) really make the NCAA Tournament this year? That’s the reality of the topsy-turvy Big East, where any given night gives you a chance to pad your record against Top 50 RPI teams.
The Johnnies were more than competitive last year, single-handedly ending Louisville’s NCAA Tournament chances in February. Norm Roberts has this team on the right track again this year, and if the Red Storm can ever get out from under the stormcloud of NCAA sanctions, SJU will return to national prominence.
Streaky Colin Falls is back for Mike Brey, but not much beyond that. The Irish will need more than a little luck to make it back to the NIT this year.
If Providence can win some of the close games they lost last year, Tim Welsh’s team will again be competitive.
New coach Mick Cronin has his work cut out for him with the departure of Eric Hicks, James White, and Jihad Muhammad, and the transfer of Devan Downey to South Carolina.
Embattled coach Louis Orr led the Pirates to a surprise NCAA run last year, but Bobby Gonzalez will struggle to do the same this year in his first season at the helm. It’ll be interesting to see how well recruiter-extraordinaire Gonzalez can do without an on-campus arena.
The RAC won’t quite rock as loud without Quincy Douby on the floor this year…
Making the Big East Tournament would be a huge accomplishment for the Bulls.
2006-2007 ACC Basketball Season Preview
UNC goes from National Champion, to Surprise of the Season, to National Championship favorite (or one of them anyway) in consecutive years. Just about everybody’s back for the ‘Heels, including Freshman of the Year Tyler Hansbrough. Oh, and they’ve added the #2 recruiting class, with point guard (last year’s weakest link, by the way) Ty Lawson headlining. If the ‘Heels don’t make it to Atlanta, it will have to be considered a disappointment. Roy Williams’ schedule is strong, but not unmanageable, with games against Ohio State and Kentucky at home, at Saint Louis, and a terrific mid-season game at Arizona on January 27th.
Questions abound in Durham this year: Will Josh McRoberts live up to his potential? How (and how quickly) will Greg Paulus’ broken foot heal? Will DeMarcus Nelson lead this team? Is Jon Scheyer as good a shooter as advertised? How do you pronounce Martynas Pocius’ name? What’s the over/under on how many commercials will Coach K do this year? The jury is still out on all of these questions save for the last, which I’m putting at 3.5. On the docket for the Blue Devils are Indiana, Georgetown, George Mason, Kent State, and Gonzaga. This is the weakest Duke schedule in recent memory (and is still no slouch by any means), but then again, this is the least experienced Duke team in recent memory. That doesn’t mean you’ll want to face them in March.
Craig Smith is gone to the NBA, but guard play is once again for the question for the Eagles this year, as was the case last year until Louis Hinnant caught fire late in the year. Hinnant may be a bigger loss for BC than Smith, because Al Skinner has so many experienced players inside, including presumptive all-ACC member Jared Dudley and 6’10″ Sean Williams. Can junior G Sean Marshall assume the role of floor leader this year? If so, the Eagles will once again be flying high in March.
To say Maryland has underachieved since its national championship is an understatement. Well, I’m predicting that this is the year Gary Williams finally gets his team over the hump and back to national prominence. Tests come early and often for the Terps, who host Winthrop on November 20th, before heading to Illinois November 28th and starting ACC play at BC on December 10th. But the senior-laden Terps (Strawberry, Jones, Ibekwe) should be ready, and if Eric Hayes, their freshman point guard, can adjust quickly, it will be a successful season for Maryland.
At 7-9 in the ACC last year, Virginia was closer to the NCAA’s than most people realize. Dave Leitao returns a decent nucleus that includes guard Sean Singletary, but the recruiting class is getting most of the buzz. Virginia should be a national player for most of the year, and has a chance to make a great opening statement as Arizona comes to C’ville for the first game of the year.
The Ramblin’ Wreck features two of the more exciting, athletic freshmen in the country in G Javaris Crittenton and 6’8″ swingman Thaddeus Young, who is potentially a Carmelo Anthony type player…unfortunately for Paul Hewitt and the Yellow Jackets, the talent is not there on the rest of the team for a national title. But this team should gel quickly, and a return to the NCAA Tournament is highly probable. The nonconference schedule is pretty weak (home to Georgia is the best game), so Tech is pinning its hopes on its ACC finish. But 9-7, or better yet, 10-6, should be good enough.
Someone in the Seminoles’ Athletic Department got the loud and clear message sent by the NCAA Selection Committee last year: a #327 Non-Conference SOS will not cut the mustard. FSU has loaded up on major non-conference opponents (and on the road no less), playing at Pitt, at Wisconsin, and at Florida in consecutive early-season games. Even a 1-2 record in those games, along with a .500 ACC finish, should be good enough to get the ‘Noles a ticket to the 2007 Big Dance.
It’s hard to believe VaTech finished 4-12 in conference play last year, because it seemed like they were in almost every game with just a few minutes to go. Seth Greenberg’s squad seems poised to break through to the postseason in 2007, but it might be the NIT rather than the NCAA Tournament.
Oliver Purnell’s Clemson Tigers continue to improve, and may even reach the 20-win plateau this year. An NIT bid is conceivable, given Clemson’s great homecourt advantage
Engin Atsur and Gavin Grant are the lone returning members of the Wolfpack with significant experience. Sidney Lowe’s team will experience some growing pains this year without Cedric Simmons, Cameron Bennerman, and Ilian Evtimov.
It’s going to wind up being a tough year for the Hurricanes in both football and basketball.
Last year’s most disappointing team again finds a place in the cellar in the ACC. There’s very little that can be said for this season other than “learning experience.”
2006-2007 Mid-Major Season Preview
The Funk, as in Nate Funk, is back for the Creighton Bluejays. So too are their NCAA Tournament and MVC title chances. The 6’3″ Senior Guard is the hands-down favorite to win Player of the Year in The Valley. Dana Altman heads into another season at the jam-packed Qwest Center, whose fans rank Creighton 20th in the nation in attendance. The non-conference schedule isn’t great, but the depth of The Valley and a BracketBuster win should push CU close to the protected seed range.
Mark Turgeon’s Sweet 16 team featured a number of seniors last year, but returns plenty of experienced players, including wing P.J. Couisnard, G Sean Ogirri, and presumptive All-Conference forward Kyle Wilson. The Shockers won’t “shock” anyone with their fine play this year, but might make LSU and Syracuse more reluctant to schedule them again…there’s also a terrific rematch of last year’s Sweet 16 game with George Mason on November 18th as a result of the teams’ BracketBuster matchup last year.
With Creighton, the Salukis have carried The Valley’s banner longer than anyone, despite losing both Bruce Weber and Matt Painter to the Big Ten. Not surprising,y, major-conference schools aren’t as hesitant to play SIU; Arkansas and Indiana both jumped at the chance, and the schedule also features a date with Western Kentucky. 6’7″ rebounder extraordinaire Randal Falker is back, as is G Jamaal Tatum. If the Salukis can find a few options on offense, they’ll be back in the NCAA’s again.
Other At-Large Contenders:
MoState is now the answer to the “What’s the lowest RPI team ever to miss the NCAA Tournament field,” thanks to their shaft by the Selection Committee last year. As the season wound down, it became apparent that MoState’s individual profile wasn’t as solid as its RPI implied, and in the end there just weren’t enough head-to-head wins against good teams (in the eyes of the Committee) to merit inclusion. There are a couple of major opportunities this year, with Wisconsin coming to town on November 24th, and trips to UNC-W and Saint Louis also on the docket. “The J.J. Redick of the MVC,” Blake Ahearn, will need help from his less-heralded teammates if the Bears want any shot at the NCAA’s.
Grant Stout leads the Panther attack in 2006-2007 for new coach Ben Jacobson. If Northern Iowa can survive a tough non-conference schedule that includes Washington, Bucknell, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Iowa State, and Iowa, the Panthers should again contend for a Valley crown.
John Calipari has lost most of his team from last year, but returns enough talent to be the dominant team in C-USA again. Look for the Tigers to employ an uptempo, hectic style as usual, with sophomore Chris Douglas-Roberts leading the way in the backcourt. Freshman Doneal Mack should also see significant minutes. The Tigers’ nonconference schedule isn’t the behemoth it was last year, but does include games against Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Arizona, as well as a return date at Gonzaga late in the season. The Tigers should win the regular season crown in CUSA comfortably.
Turnaround Tommy Penders’ club was an early-season favorite last year after dumping LSU and Arizona, but couldn’t hold things together all the way through CUSA play, dropping critical late-season games at UTEP and Memphis by just 13 total points. The non-conference opportunities are there again this year, and this time with a more experienced team. Games at Saint Louis, Arizona, and Kentucky, along with a home date against Charlotte are great potential bonus points for the Cougars. Look for star guard Lanny Smith and the rest of the Cougars to make some noise in ’07.
Other At-Large Contenders:
Miners’ fans lobbied desperately for a projected bid on Bracketography late last year, and they may be in the same position this year, unless CUSA’s Conference RPI improves dramatically from its #14 slot a year ago. The problem is, the Miners’ pathetic nonconference schedule doesn’t look any better than last year, with a game against Texas Tech and a home-and-home with fellow bubble team New Mexico State the only notable matchups. New coach Tony Barbee’s troops will have to beat Memphis at home and win on the road at Houston in the final two games of the regular season to get serious attention from the Selection Committee.
The Mike Davis era begins in Birmingham, and the new coach looks far more comfortable in Blazer Green than he did in Hoosier Crimson. The Blazers play a solid nonconference schedule (@Wis-Mil., @Western Kentucky, DePaul, @ODU, @Florida), but gone is Squeaky and the rest of the upperclass-laden team of a year ago. How UAB’s six freshmen gel with each other (and how many minutes they will get) remains to be seen. But make no mistake, when sharp-shooting Robert Vaden becomes eligible next year, UAB will be back in the NCAA’s for sure.
By their own admission, the Musketeers probably should have made the NCAA Tournament last year as an at-large team. But bad losses in three of their final four regular season games made it necessary to win the A-10 Tournament, which they did in thrilling fashion over St. Joseph’s. Former Sooner Drew Lavender becomes eligible this year and should provide the X-Men with instant firepower on offense. Look for Xavier to make a strong showing against their challenging non-conference schedule, which includes Creighton, Bucknell, Illinois, and Kansas State. Also look for a 12-4 record in A-10 play and a top-half NCAA Tournament seed, with or without an A-10 Tournament title.
Four more points at the right times would have gotten the Billikens into NCAA Tournament field last year, but what could have been statement wins against Gonzaga and GW turned into heartbreaking defeats. But, Brad Soderberg returns most of his starting lineup from last year, including sensational Greek center Ian Vouyoukas, who nearly decided to enter the NBA draft. His return means SLU has the most dominant big man in the A-10, and if the Billikens can improve their three-point shooting percentage, they’ll be back in the NCAA’s. One thing is certain: SOS will not be a problem with this team, which plays at Texas A&M, Horizon favorite Loyola, Southern Illinois, and Pacific. SLU also hosts Houston, Missouri State, and North Carolina.
Other At-Large Contenders:
Bobby Lutz’s teams always seem to hang around the NCAA Tournament bubble well into championship week, and this year should be no different. Leemire Goldwire is pure “gold” from the outside at times, and backcourt mate and former Oklahoma Sooner DeAngelo Alexander is always explosive. Whether the 49ers can replace first-team all-conference Curtis Withers inside is the biggest question.
Yes, UMass has a chance at the NCAA’s. It’s been a long time since the Minutemen were in the NCAA discussion, but they’re back. “Babyface” Travis Ford has UMass poised for a return to prominence after a long dry spell under Steve Lappas and Bruiser Flint. The post play of former A-10 Rookie of the Year Rashaun Freeman and mate Stephane Lasme will be strong, as will the schedule, which features dates at Pitt, at home to BC (watch out for an upset in that one), at Louisville, and at Ford’s alma mater, Kentucky.
The Pride has to be considered one of the last teams left out of the 2006 NCAA Tournament after a season sweep of everyone’s new darling George Mason and a top-30 RPI ranking. With a chip on its shoulder this year (and a lot of talent returning), Hofstra is the prohibitive favorite to win the CAA. Loren Stokes, Carlos Rivera, and Antoine Agudio form a multi-headed monster that recalls Illinois’ of 2005 and Villanova’s of 2006.
Other At-Large Contenders:
Jim Larranaga’s Patriots sure didn’t have any trouble getting a game after their magical run to the Final Four a year ago. GMU plays Wichita State, Creighton, Bucknell, and Duke in its non-conference schedule before it even enters rugged CAA play. A lot of senior leadership is gone, including big man Jai Lewis and super-thug Tony Skinn, who should have been suspended by the school for far more than one NCAA game due to his groin shot in the CAA Tournament. Folarin Campbell and undersized big man Will Thomas will anchor the team, but it’s asking a lot to ask them to return the Pats to the Big Dance.
Benny Moss’s team hopes to get out and run a bit more than the Seahawks did in their first round exit against George Washington in last year’s NCAA Tournament, where they were “out-athleticized” in the second half against the Colonials. The defending CAA champs will not go down without a fight, and could very well make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Former conference player of the year Alex Loughton is gone, and so are the expectations for ODU. But who knows; maybe with the burden of expectation lifted from their shoulders, this team is ready for a return run to the NIT or perhaps more…
San Diego State
Brandon Heath and Mohamed Abukar return for their senior seasons with the Aztecs, and that’s good news for coach Steve Fisher. The highlights of SDSU’s non-conference schedule are a couple of Pac-10 teams, Cal and Arizona, both of whom will travel TO San Diego. But beyond that, there are a lot of cupcakes, and SDSU will once again need to dominate what is again a slightly “down” Mountain West in order to gain an at-large bid. It may not have been good enough last year without a victory in the conference tournament…and it might not be good enough this year with BYU on SDSU’s heels.
Other At-Large Contenders:
One of last year’s most improved teams, BYU surprised just about everyone with a run to the NIT. This year, the expectations are higher, particularly for lanky 6’11″ inside player Trent Plaisted, who’s poised to break onto the national scene. This team should contend strongly for the Mountain West title and has been picked as the favorite to win the conference by a number of analysts.
Last year’s most undeserving NCAA Tournament participant returns four starters and a former conference player of the year, Nick Welch, who’s back from a medical redshirt year. Antoine Hood impressed a number of Bracketography’s writers last year and should have a strong season again. The Falcons will be flying high once again this year, though once again they’ll have to earn their way in through conference play, as the non-conference schedule is pathetic, including a number of non-DI games.
Mark Fox has built a consistent Western power in Reno that may be approaching Gonzagesque (another new word for 2007) status. Fox has set up a couple of tough neutral tests that are really road games, including one in Oakland against Cal and a “Battle in Seattle” against Gonzaga. The Wolfpack plays a number of other solid iso-majors including Akron, Pacific, and UNLV. Nick Fazekas, Kyle Shiloh, and Ramon Sessions (the nucleus of last year’s team) all return, and Nevada should yet again see its name pop up in the upper half of a bracket on Selection Sunday.
Other At-Large Contenders:
New Mexico State
The Aggies are a legitimate sleeper to make the NCAA Tournament this year. Reggie Theus has built a solid nucleus of his own recruits, as well as big-name transfers Elijah Ingram (St. John’s) and Martin Iti (Arkansas). If NMSU can avoid the off-court distractions that plagued them in the off-season (forward Tyrone Nelson is alleged to have robbed a PIZZA man!), they can make a run at Nevada for a conference title and an NCAA bid.
Stew Morrill’s team may not have deserved to go to the Big Dance last year, but they surely paid their dues with snubs in previous years. While Morrill is a wonderful on-the-floor coach, he’s a terrible scheduler, and Utah State will once again have one of the nation’s weakest S’sOS. They’ll have to win at least 13 games in WAC play to make it as an at-large.
Riley Wallace just keeps on ticking at Manoa, and if the Rainbows could ever put together a winning streak on the mainland, they might just make the NCAA’s in what looks like his final season. It’s an ugly situation, by the way, and Athletic Director Herman Frazier should be ashamed of himself for not allowing Riley to leave UH on his own terms. Hawaii’s lost all-conference forward Julian Sensley, and probably won’t recover from it, but it sure would be a feel-good story if the ‘Bows win the WAC Tournament, much like Tom Brennan’s two years ago.
Predicting who’s going to win the MAC is like predicting which outrageous phrase Dick Vitale will use in describing the conference’s snub by the NCAA Selection Committee at the end of the year. But I’m putting the onus (curse?) on Akron this year. The Zips are coming off the school’s first ever postseason victory in last year’s NIT (over Temple), and might be poised for their first-ever NCAA Tournament victory this year. A healthy Nick Dials (Ohio State transfer) can provide the kind of floor leadership necessary to get Akron into its first Big Dance.
Other At-Large Contenders:
Last year’s edition of the Golden Flashes won’t be a flash in the pan. KSU is in the middle of one of the longest successive postseason streaks in “mid-major” history. The NIT is a certainty, and the NCAA is again a possibility for Jim Christian’s club.
The MAC’s most successful program, Miami always seems to play best when it matters most. With a number of chances at knocking off a big-time school in the pre-conference (Kentucky, Illinois, Xavier, Michigan), the RedHawks may not need a MAC Tournament title to make it to the NCAA’s.
As the only Iso-Major to have earned its own category, no season preview would be complete without discussing the ‘Zags’ odds. Yes they lost all-everything Adam Morrison, one of the absolute best college players in recent memory, and certainly one of the most charismatic. But returning stars Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes and Derek Raivio also hit big shots at times last year and will carry the mantle for Gonzaga, if not the facial hair. Look for Kansas transfer Micah Downs to have a big impact as well when he becomes eligible halfway through the year. The non-conference schedule for the ‘Zags is typically ambitious, with Texas, Washington, Georgia, Duke, Nevada, and Virginia all on tap. Another WCC crown will be Gonzaga’s for the taking, but once again they won’t need it to be assured of an NCAA bid.
And one final prediction: the San Francisco Dons will beat, and perhaps sweep, Gonzaga in the WCC regular season. Jessie Evans, one of the country’s most likeable coaches, has an experienced and talented team, that with the right chemistry could sneak in as a surprise entry to the Big Dance. The backcourt of BCS transfers (Armondo Surratt [Miami], Antonio Kellogg [UConn], and Manny Quezada [Rutgers]) will be among the best in the West, and the Dons have had Gonzaga’s number the past two years. USF beat Gonzaga in 2005 at War Memorial Gym, and lost both games against the Zags last year in the closing seconds.