1-ATLANTIC COAST CONFERENCE
Well, let’s see how this turns out. With two new members, the ACC isn’t the cozy “we play everyone twice” conference it used to be. Wake Forest and UNC meet only once this year….January 15. There are four teams that have a shot at winning the national championship….and a few more that could sneak into the Final Four. The cream of the crop is Wake Forest, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Duke. Wake is ranked #1 in many preseason publications. They have their 5 starters returning that averaged double-digits last year. They own preseason player of the year Chris Paul who shares the backcourt with Justin Gray, their leading scorer. Right with them are North Carolina, who returns everyone from last year. They add the top high school player that didn’t go pro, Marvin Williams. Marvin Williams will bring size to the Heels, who can move Jawad Williams to small forward and Rashad McCants to the off-guard. This will be the third year this team has been together, second with Coach Williams…so excuses are running out. Many people sleep on national runner-up Georgia Tech, who only significant loss was guard Marvin Lewis. This team has talent everywhere….as 5 different guys led the Jackets in scoring in their 6 NCAA tourny games last year. Duke is down a little, but not much. They don’t have depth and unlike the past 15 years, they have no point guard. Duhon graduated and Shaun Livingston went to the NBA instead ofDurham. Luol Deng bolted…so formerly prized recruits Randolph, Melchionni and Dockery MUST perform. Still, it’s hard to bet against them in the tournament. Remember, Maryland won the ACC tournament last year. The team is young….4 juniors and a sophomore start. But the battlegrounds of the ACC really helped their games and will make them a very tough team. NC State lost two starters…but still have Julius Hodge who is 2-time ACC player of the year. This could be Pete Gillen’s last chance to turn around Virginia, who has been known to falter in ACC play and on the road. Florida State would be a contender in other conferences…but not here. The loss of Tim Pickett hurts as well. The bottom of the barrel finds Clemson, as usual, and ACC newcomers Virginia Tech and Miami….who will find that the tables are turned away from the gridiron.
2-BIG EAST CONFERENCE
This is the year of finality of the Big East…and the effects will be quite swift. Due to the defections of Miami and Virginia Tech, the Big East is down to 12 teams….but will swell to 16 next year [adding 5, losing Boston College]. This threatens schools like Georgetown and St. John’s….former Big East powers that are breaking in new coaches and my become irrelevant once Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette, DePaul and South Florida arrive on the scene next year. Syracuse is the team to beat. All 5 starters return, including Hakim Warrick and Gerry McNamara. They are a tough team to guard…and play well defensively. Possible suitors to the Cuse crown will be Pittsburgh with the inside-out duo of Taft and Krauser. Connecticut is defending national champions….but lost Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon and Taliek Brown. They have talent to replace them….albeit unproven. Notre Dame has a loaded team with Chris Thomas, Torin Francis and Chris Quinn back. Mike Brey could make quite a run with this team. Villanova, Seton Hall and Providence tend to make some noise every year….especially the Friars with Ryan Gomes coming back. This is Boston College’s final Big East season…and may have some tricks up their sleeve from coach Al Skinner. The bottom feeders are G’town and St. John’s….along with Rutgers and West Virginia. Rutgers made noise last year…winning 20 games and getting to the NIT Final. Winning at the RAC is a tough thing…and the Knights could break a few hearts of opposing teams.
3-BIG XII CONFERENCE
This conference has seen major ups and major downs the past few years. The ups were great: in 2002 and 2003, the Big XII sent two teams each season to the Final Four, last year they sent Oklahoma State. The downs were almost as great: the murder scandal at Baylor, the investigations into Missouri’s program, Larry Eustachy’s partying at Iowa State, Roy Williams leaving Kansas, and anything Bobby Knight does. While the Baylor and Missouri issues are still ongoing…so is the on the court success. Kansas is the preseason #1...and has loads of talent with Final Four experience. Keith Langford, Aaron Miles, Wayne Simien and JR Giddens provide tough matchups everywhere. Oklahoma State went to the Final Four last year…and was 31-4. They lose Tony Allen…but still have John Lucas, Joey Graham and Ivan McFarlin. Like the Jayhawks, Okie State is a veteran team. Texas’ fall from TJ Ford leaving wasn’t that great. But they lose Boddicker, Ivey and Mouton….all huge parts of the Horns winning ways. They’ll need their big recruits to step up if they want to compete with the big boys. Oklahoma was a freshmen laden team last year….so they all should be much improved this season. Iowa State was an solid team….that beat Kansas, Texas and Xavier last year. They lost two starters that is breaking in 5 newcomers. Missouri and Texas Tech will be in the hunt…as they hold very strong home court advantages. Missouri still has a cloud over them…but still had a great recruiting class. Tech lost Mr. Everything Andre Emmitt and Knight’s teams struggles when they don’t have that one guy that can make things happen. The bad teams are bad. Kansas State, Texas A&M, Nebraska, Colorado and Baylor won’t provide much competition for the Big XII elite.
Well, this seems to be a one-horse races…with a bunch of horses fighting to “place”. Kentucky is the cream of the crop. They did lose 4 guys who made huge impacts on the team last year [Barbour, Daniels, Fitch and Hawkins]….but had one of the best recruiting classes in the nation. Leading that charge is centerRandolph Morris…who might be playing his only college season. Joining him is freshman Joe Crawford and transfer Patrick Sparks. All will start and will need to realize their potential fast to keep Kentucky SEC champs…especially with such a tough non-conference schedule. Mississippi State is strong…especially with their big man, Lawrence Roberts. He is surrounded by three other seniors and an awesome sophomore guard, Gary Ervin. After the Wildcats and Bulldogs, there is a dropoff. Florida has loads of offensive talent…but at times won’t playany defense. David Lee will need to shine to make the Gators into a top 15 team. Alabama made a surprise trip to the Elite 8 last year. They lost their poing guard [and replaced him with Alabama’s Mr Basketball]….but no one else. After that, there isa list of “well…we have the talent to do this” teams. South Carolina will press and trap their way into the tournament. Tennessee has senior leadership in McFadgon and Crump and needs to make the next level of the SEC. LSU has talent…but that talent seems to have agendas. Vandy lost Matt Freije…which is huge. But, they return everyone else. Arkansas has a strong recruiting class to go along with 4 returning starters [imagine if Al Jefferson went to Fayetteville]. Georgia is one of those teams that can beat Kentucky one night…then lose to Western Kentucky the next. Auburn lost three guys to transfers after Cliff Ellis was canned. Ole Miss will have problems scoring.
This is the final season of the C-USA as we know it. A conference made up of basketball schools who had nowhere to go….football dreams have pushed the conference all over the place. TCU to the Mountain West. Charlotte and St. Louis to the Atlantic 10. Louisville, South Florida, Marquette, DePaul and Cincinnati will be in the Big East. So, a conference made up of schools from big cities [Chicago, Memphis, Cincinnati, Charlotte, St. Louis, Louisville, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Houston, Tampa] will now be a team of small towns and lower delta schools. Marshall, Central Florida, SMU, Rice, Tulsa and UTEP will replace those departing. None are traditionally solid hoops programs [Tulsa and UTEP are good…but they are not Cincy, Louiville or Marquette]. So, here is the last go-round. Louisville is the team to beat. They are athletic and deep…and have that one guy [Francisco Garcia] that could be like a Dwyane Wade and take his team to the Final Four. Memphis, who stands to be the new C-USA power, is poised to begin that before the defections. Antonio Burks is gone…but the team has athleticism all over the court. The team really lacks an inside game, however. Cincinnati will be their normal tough team selves…but the team also will be their normal offensively struggling team. If they don’t have high flyers, big dunkers or quick point guards…they can’t score. They will win a lot of 64-60 games. This is a season where the Bearcats must look in the mirror…because although they win a lot of conference games…they tend to fail in the tournament because of these shortcomings. That doesn’t bode well for their Big East experience. Charlotte, on the other hand, could be a dark horse to win the conference. They bring back Iti and Withers…giving them one heck of a frontcourt. Plavich is this year’s patented 49er that will pull the trigger from anywhere. Marquette’s Travis Deiner always gives the Eagles a chance to win any game. His brother, Drake Diener does the same thing for DePaul. UAB shocked everyone by beating Kentucky in the NCAA last year. They lost three starters….but keep that up tempo style that can wreck havoc on anyone. TCU can beat anyone…but lost it’s point guard. The “biggest guy” in the conference…290-lb Jasper Johnson resides in Southern Miss and could teams comical fits inside. But, their defense is horrible. St. Louis will rely on its clogging defense for wins. Tulane, East Carolina and Houston are all waiting for the New C-USA to emerge so they may have a chance. South Florida will be the red-headed stepchild in the Big East move….with their 7-20 record from last year.
6-PACIFIC TEN CONFERENCE
The Pac 10 isn’t a conference with greatness…nor is it a conference of nobodies. There is no elite team…nor is there a stinker. The 10th team can beat the 1st team any day. Only three teams went to the tournament last year…and Stanford, it was thought, ran thru the conference because it sucked. It may not get much better. Stanford’s Mike Montgomery went up the street to coach the Golden State Warriors…and Josh Childress went to the Atlanta Hawks. The league also lost Luke Jackson, Andre Iguodala and Trevor Ariza….not to mention USC recruit Robert Swift to the NBA. Arizona seems to be the top team…but they has some teamwork issues. Frye, Shakur and Stoudamire are still there…so they are just plain more talented then the rest of the league. But, that doesn’t always equate to wins. Stanford will be in a ‘renovating’ year with the losses of Montgomery and Childress. Washington could make a run for the roses. Everyone is bank….and the team did win 14 of their final 18 last year…including popping Stanford’s undefeated season. Oregon is athletic and has size…not to mention the Pit...which is worth a few wins. UCLA has talent, but seems to get in their own way. USC is the same way….with big victories and humiliating losses. Oregon State’s Davis Lucas is one of those players who can win games just because teams can’t deal with him. Cal, Washington State and Arizona State are looking at possible NIT seasons.
7-BIG TEN CONFERENCE
The Big Ten, like the Pac-10, is having a down period. It happens. This old conference received only three bids into the tournament last year. The league doesn’t have the premiere players either. Only Devin Harris and Kris Humphries were attractive Big Ten exports in the draft. That also could mean that there are some talents still around in the Midwest. We’ll see. The top talents reside in Illinois…where their starters all return from a Sweet 16 team. This is one of the most balanced teams in the league, led by a dynamite backcourt of Deron Williams and Dee Brown. Tom Izzo will have Michigan State in the hunt. This could be the year Paul Davis emerges into a force. They still have holes at point guard and power forward…which really hurt them last year. But you know the team will be well coached. After the Spartans, it is a crap shoot. Wisconsin is always tough defensively…which will keep them in games. But, the aforementioned Harris is gone…and Bo Ryan relies on a tough minded and skilled lead guard. Michigan won the NIT last year and seems poised to make a run at the Big Dance this year. They are great on the boards and can swat some shots….but at timeslook timid on offense. Indiana will be breaking in two freshmen starters….tough to do in Bloomington. So expect Bracey Wright’s shoulders to be weighed down. Steve Alford may start to get some heat in Iowa…where they’ve only had one winning Big Ten record in his five years there. Purdue will be in a state of change…as Gene Keady is set to retire and Matt Painter is learning on the job to take over. The players could give their all and try to send Keady out a winner…or feel the local pressures and wilt. Minnesota lost Humphries and welcomes, get this, 11 new comers - 7 freshmen and 4 transfers. Thad Motta takes over a mess in Ohio State. And Northwestern will try to build on an 8-8 conference record last year. Penn State blows.
8-ATLANTIC 10 CONFERENCE
This is a conference that could be capable of breaking out….but seems to shoot itself in the foot. Every time something on the court goes well….something off the court hurts it. Massachusetts gets to the Final Four!!! Well, it has since been stricken from the books due to “benefits” to Marcus Camby. St Joseph’s had a magical season last year…the year after St. Bonnaventure’s players walked out on the school. In the wake of all of the conference expansions…the A-10 landed St. Louis and Charlotte. Two solid schools that bring both new geographic grounds as well as good programs. But, LaSalle gets embroiled in a sexual assault mess that has accusations of cover-ups by the coaching staff. There are really great programs here. St. Joseph’s, Temple, Rhode Island, Xavier, George Washington, Dayton and Richmond all crack the tournament from time to time. Even Massachusetts gets in on the fun. But, St. Bonnie, Fordham, Duquesne and LaSalle bring the conference down…but bring in New York, Philly and Pittsburgh markets into the mix. The league would be so much better if they could cut away that bottom excess. Just like many years, A-10 teams will have to prove they are good. St. Joe’s loses Jameer Nelson and Delonte West. Temple loses David Hawkins. Xavier lost Lionel Chalmers and Romain Sato. Dayton lost Keith Waleskowski and Ramod Marshall. Richmond lost Mike Skrocki. All were HUGE contributors to their teams. The conference tends to throw someone out the to scare everyone. Remember, the A-10 had two teams [Xavier and St. Joseph’s] in the Elite 8 last year. This year’s best bet is George Washington. There is tremendous talent here…and most of it was there last year. St. Joe’s, Temple and Xavier may make a tourny run.
9-MOUNTAIN WEST CONFERENCE
Don’t look now…but the MWC is a tough conference. No, it isn’t the ACC…but it is a league that is tough from #1 to #8. Utah will be strong with Andrew Bogut back on board even after Rick Majerus’ retirement. The Utes have size, as usual, that puts them over the top in the MWC. UNLV has tons of talent, too….including Blassingame, Beck and Blankson. Blankson averaged over 17 pts and 10 rbs last year. The Thomas & Mack Center tends to steal them a few wins as well. Air Force game UNC a scare in the tournament last year. They lose coach Joe Scott….but Tim Keller and Nick Welch are still there. New Mexico played well down the stretch last year and boasts the MWC’s best player in Danny Granger. They could have the Pit rocking again. Colorado State has talent at every spot, but center Matt Nelson is injury prone…and anything prolonged really hurts the Rams. BYU will need to find someone to fill Rafael Araujo’s big shoes. San Diego State can play spoiler on many nights…especially home ones. Wyoming has talent at point and center…but little surrounding them.
10-WESTERN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
The WAC will be another league that will feel the effects of the realignment. UTEP, Tulsa, SMU and Rice will bolt to the Conference USA….and New Mexico State and Utah State will fill their places. Not quite the fair tradeoff…since UTEP and Tulsa are two of the conference’s powers [though Tulsa won‘t be this year]. This could be a conference that may slip further and further into the “mid-major” column very quickly. UTEP is the WAC team that looks like it could do the most damage. Filiberto Rivera is one of the best guards in the west…and the team has high expectations. Their only tough non-conference game is against in-state rival Texas Tech. Rice boasts two awesome players…Michael Harris and Jason McKreith. Beyond that, however, they have offensive question marks. Nevada will fall a bit after losing All-Everything Kirk Snyder. Snyder is playing for the Utah Jazz now….and the Wolf Pack will have trouble replacing him. They also need to replace Todd Okeson and Garry Hill-Thomas. Boise State, Hawaii and Louisiana Tech could make some noise in the WAC. Each team can score and have guys they can count on. SMU underachieved mightily last season and is looking to rebound. Tulsa is rebuilding and playing a very young team. Fresno State is dealing with NCAA sanctions….and house only three guys who played last year. San Jose State was a horrible 6-23 last year.