Bracketography's 2005-2006 Season Preview
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by David Mihm
Billy Packer mentioned numerous times last season that he thought it might have been the most impressive coaching job of Mike Kryzyzewski's long career. Well, Billy, there's nowhere to go but down. Unless K brings a national title back to Durham this year, the season has to be considered a disappointment, if only because of the ridiculously high standards that he's created for the program during his quarter-century on the sidelines.
Other highly regarded teams deserving of their hype:
Texas Gibson, Aldridge, Buckman, Tucker...this team may have even more talent than the one RIck Barnes led to the 2003 Final Four. Look for the 'Horns to dominate in Dallas through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Beyond that, they'll need a bit of luck, but they're a great pick to cut down the nets on the last Monday of the season.
Villanova Personally, I'm not convinced this team will be as good as most analysts say, but on paper, this team has the chops to win it all. They showed a lot of potential in last year's loss to North Carolina in Syracuse. Jay Wright will really have a chance to make a name for himself in the Bigger Big East. Anything less than a second straight Sweet 16 will be a tremendous disappointment.
UConn Newly-elected Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun will get this team to focus on its opponents. Don't be surprised if the Huskies lose two games to start the season in Maui, but look for them to be strong when 2006 goes around. Kudos to Calhoun for being one of the few old-guard Big East schools to attempt a difficult nonconference schedule. Connecticut opens at Pepperdine (Wisconsin fans know all too well the difficulty of starting the season in Malibu) before traveling to Maui. The Huskies then travel to Maui, and host LSU and travel to Indiana in the middle of the Big East season. This could easily be the #1 ranked team in the RPI on Selection Sunday.
Boston College Al Skinner has GOT to be the most underrated coach in the country. A great recruiter (though you wouldn't know it by the rankings of his recruits) and a solid X's and O's man; he will have BC ready to tackle their new conference foes in the ACC. By now, everyone knows about Smith and Dudley, but I think guard Louis Hinnant will be the biggest surprise on this year's team, and will be the key to the Eagles' success in March.
Michigan State Don't get me wrong: the Spartans are the class of the Big Ten. But this team is not as dangerous as Izzo's squads in 1999 and 2000. Looking back to last year, this team went through numerous, L-O-N-G stretches, both within games and over the course of the season, where the offense was completely stagnant. In order for the Spartans to achieve their potential and return to the Final Four, Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager will both need to average more than 15 points per game, and Paul Davis will need to play consistently in the paint. Unlike last year's Illinois team, this year's Spartans team is vulnerable, because it will have nights where even the Izzone will turn green watching Michigan State shoot from the outside.
Louisville Injuries aside, I'm still slightly confused as to why so many analysts have picked Louisville in the top 10. Doesn't anyone remember what this team looked like last year when Francisco Garcia was on the bench? (Granted, it didn't happen very often because he averaged 32 minutes per game.) Louisville has a great front line, with Oak Hill recruit Brian Johnson providing a nice complement to Palacios and Padgett inside, but Taquan Dean will need to step up, become a true leader, and avoid foul trouble in the Tournament if a return to the Final Four is in the 'Cards.
Syracuse More mind-boggling than Louisville is Syracuse. Boeheim has set up his typical xenophobic schedule, as the Orange don't leave the state of New York in the non-conference season, save for a trip to play (gasp!) Towson, in a game played A) in Gerry McNamara's home area of Scranton, PA and B) all of an hour's drive outside the state. For a "Hall of Fame" coach to be this worried about taking a team on the road is SHAMEFUL. Don't tell me any major conference opponent (or even mid-major, for that matter) wouldn't LOVE a home-and-home with the Orangemen. Getting back to the team, however, the aforementioned McNamara will keep Syracuse in a lot of games, but without Warrick and Pace inside this year, teams will be keying on G-Mac. Terence Roberts and Demetris Nichols will really need to step up, and I don't see it happening. You heard it here first: Syracuse will be no better than a double-digit seed in March, and Boeheim may even get the opportunity to keep his team in the state of New York in the postseason NIT.
Pretty much the entire PAC-10 Commissioner Thomas Hansen owes Lute Olson a big thank-you gift. Without him (Olson has won the PAC-10 regular season title an astounding 11 times in his 22-year tenure as the Arizona's head coach), the "Conference of Champions" would be IRRELEVANT in basketball. Arizona is the only Pac-10 team since UCLA's run to the title in the mid-90's to make a name for itself in the NCAA Tournament. This year is no exception. Olson's stereotypically athletic squad will be conference's lone representative in the "protected seed" region of 1-4 come March. Stanford, like Michigan State, has problems on offense, and at times last year looked just as bad on defense (the second half of last year's blowout NCAA Tournament loss to Mississippi State might be the ugliest half of basketball I've ever seen). Getting Grunfeld back will help, but it should be clear by now that Chris Hernandez is not quite the floor leader ESPN.com hypes him to be. UCLA has no one inside, and will be vulnerable in games against Cal, Washington, and Stanford. And I'm not sold on their guards Farmar and Afflalo anyway, given the mediocre record they assembled in a downright abysmal conference last year. Cal and Washington will be competitive, but with a poor showing in conference play, this will be Ben Braun's last season at the helm, and you can almost hear Lorenzo Romar saying "wait 'til next year." Oregon has chemistry issues. All of these teams will have a chance to prove me wrong, because they all play pretty decent non-conference schedules, with the notable exception of Cal.
Kansas This team is not in the top 25?! Like Connecticut, this team may lose a couple of games in Maui, but by the end of the season, Bill Self will have this young squad firing on most of its cylinders. Granted, Kansas lacks senior leadership, and may not make a deep run in March, but in Big XII play, I'll take Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush, and Julian Wright against any established trio this side of Austin.
Illinois There's no question Illinois will fall off last year's blistering pace. You can't lose two NBA first-round guards and two of your best big men (Roger Powell and Jack Ingram) and expect to win another 37 games this year. But make no mistake about it, Illinois will challenge Michigan State, and maybe even Indiana for the Big Ten title. Seniors Dee Brown and James Augustine have played three years together, and mutual success will help them get drafted in the NBA's first round. "Freakishly athletic" Brian Randle returns from a hand injury, transfer Marcus Arnold adds some beef inside, and word out of Champaign is that sharpshooters Jamar Smith and Rich McBride have had unbelieveable summers. It's not time to run Bruce Weber out of town just yet for his failed recruiting efforts...the man might be the top X's and O's coach in basketball right now, and a "surprise" season this year may just push him over the edge in the minds of the class of 2007.
LSU How hard the SEC has fallen. Gone are the days when the conference held a stranglehold on six tickets to the NCAA Dance. This year, even more than last, the conference is absolutely wide open. Big Baby Davis, Tack Minor, Tasmin Mitchell, and the rest of the Tigers should finish no worst than second in the SEC West. Given their strong nonconference schedule (at West Virginia, home against Northern Iowa, a neutral game against Cincinnati, at Ohio State, and at Connecticut), this team could easily move into a protected slot on Selection Sunday.
Texas Tech Martin Zeno, Darryl Dora, Jarrius Jackson all return. Bob Knight is on the sidelines; he's no doubt brought in a boatload of talent no analyst knows about (myself included). The nonconference schedule is medium-soft, but includes a trip to the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament in New York. They're not getting much attention right now, but look for this team to be right there in March, yet again, when it matters.
San Francisco Here's a team that literally no one is talking about. Nor would I, except that I'm based in the Bay Area, have seen this team in person, and know it's capable of some pretty good things this year. This was one of only two teams to defeat Pacific prior to last year's NCAA Tournament, it beat Gonzaga at home, and was very competitive in the return matchup at the Kennel. Connecticut transfer Antonio Kellogg is a huge addition, and Johnny Dukes and Alan Wiggins inside are a formidable duo. Dommanic Ingerson reminds me a lot of Cincinnati's Tony Bobbitt...a streaky shooter who could really do some damage in the big games. And there are plenty of opportunities for the Dons this year. Somehow, USF has roped Bobby Knight's Red Raiders into a game at its own War Memorial Gym; San Francisco also hosts Pacific and Wichita State, and travels to Fresno State and Stanford (whom it took to overtime in last year's season opener) before play in a vastly underrated WCC. Look for the Dons in the NCAA Tournament.
Minnesota This team is laden with senior guards, including Maurice Hargrow and one of last year's breakout players, Vincent Grier. Williams Arena is one of the toughest places to play in the Big Ten. A couple of big-name local recruits have signed up to play with Dan Monson...all things are pointing towards Minnesota's return to basketball prominence after a number of years under NCAA penalties and sanctions. This should be the year the Gophers break through and return to the Big Dance.
Georgetown The Hoyas were last year's darling, and probably gave Illinois its closest nationally-televised test until Iowa came to Champaign. So why isn't anyone talking about Georgetown this year? The Big East, as we know, is very deep, and there's certainly room for seven or even a record eight teams to make the NCAA's at the end of the season. The Hoyas' conference schedule is pretty soft (Cincinnati, Pitt, and Syracuse are all home games), and there are a couple of big-name nonconference scalps there for the taking (Illinois again, Oregon, and Duke). Brandon Bowman and Ashanti Cook are back, and so is the buzz in the DC area. It may spread across the nation with a couple Georgetown upsets.
Charlotte The National Runner-up to BC's Al Skinner for Bracketography's "Most Underrated Coach" award, Bobby Lutz's Charlotte teams always seem to surprise. In their first year in the conference, the 49ers are a great pick to win the A-10 title. Behemoth Eddie Basden and sharpshooter Brendan Plavich are gone, but Curtis Withers returns and Oklahoma transfer DeAngelo Alexander highlights a solid backcourt. Lutz will make yet another "surprise" appearance in the NCAA's this year.