The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year (NCAA Basketball Preview)

The Dukies look to go back-to-back for a second time.

In all of my madness and melancholy of covering football from college to the NFL I almost forgot what time of year it was… THE START OF THE COLLEGE BASKETBALL SEASON!!!

It happened last night as I was watching the Bengals season go down in flames (still can’t believe I picked them to win it all), I look over and what do I see? Number 4 ranked Pittsburgh taking on Rhode Island. Hmm, I love the excitement of the crowds, the college kids from the Oakland Zoo to the Little Apple to The Kennel all going crazy with the prospectus of their team somehow going for the glory come March.

You see college basketball trumps the NBA to me in so many ways; 1. The atmosphere, there are no places in the NBA like Cameron Indoor Stadium, Rupp Arena or Hinkle Field house. The crowds are right on top of you and the energy is surreal. Even when watching it on TV at half volume you can feel buzz, the stadium shaking, and the kids going bonkers. Maybe Madison Square Garden and maybe Arco Arena do that in the NBA and that’s it.

2. The rivalries. It doesn’t matter if it’s Kansas-K-State, Syracuse-UCONN or Duke-Maryland, every time interstate enemies or inter-conference rivals go at it its must see TV. Last year I watched Memphis play Tennessee in a down year for both programs and t didn’t matter. The game was still full of energy and passion and don’t turn your head away action that made for an awesome night especially when you’re procrastinating as to stall yourself from studying for a meaningless exam. Not that I ever did that in college.

Kansas- K-State. One of the many rivalries that make college basketball so awesome.

(speaking of which, the greatest sporting event from my college years had to be the 6 overtime marathon between the Cuse and UCONN about 20 months ago. I was struggling through that quarter of school badly, I’m talking Carolina Panthers quarterback situation badly, and I absolutely needed to focus on getting at least a 2.0 that quarter and it was finals week. So what did I do instead of study for an Italian final or write my medieval poetry final paper, I watched Jonny Flynn, A.J. Price and a cast of thousands go hard for nearly 4 hours of grueling basketball that left my roommate Ian wanting to kill me for yelling so loud at 1230am and had me up until 4am watching highlights and trying to figure out what the hell just happened. That one game is the reason you watch college basketball, because the unexpected is always bound to happen. You never know when the next ESPN Classic moment will happen. Side note: I did pass all of my finals that quarter but it wasn’t pretty. I blame the referee for blowing the Eric Devendorf call on the three that was clearly good before the buzzer and the fact that St. Patrick’s Day fell during finals week.)

3. The fact that college basketball is changing. The elite programs are still there… sort of. Last year UCLA, Arizona, UCONN and North Carolina DID NOT MAKE THE TOURNAMENT. Yeah you read that properly, four of college basketball’s best programs didn’t even sniff the tournament. There was a point in the tourney where we were looking at a final four that could’ve consisted of Northern Iowa, Butler, Xavier (hi Sean Miller) and Baylor. Yeah that’s where we are at. Granted UNC won it all in 2009 and Duke took home the crown last year, but the game itself is no longer the top heavy huge program dominated juggernaut it has been for the last 20 years.

The top 3 teams expected to make a run at the crown for this year are Duke, Michigan State and… KANSAS STATE! Yes the same Kansas State who you couldn’t name one single player from their roster for a 20 year period. The same Kansas State who wasn’t even a factor in the BIG 12 until Bob Huggins convinced a guy named Michael Beasley to come to Manhattan, Kansas three years ago and then left before Beasley arrived. The same Kansas State that was Kansas’s whipping post for every season that I’ve been alive and they are now viewed as the best team in Kansas. Time’s they are a changing.

What Frank Martin has done at K-State is amazing, he got great results from Beasley and Bill Walker and he is now able to bring in excellent recruits to Manhattan and leave the folks in Lawrence feeling a little salty. Led by Jacob Pullen and his beard and guys like Wally Judge and Curtis Kelly, the Wildcats have what it takes to overpower the Jayhawks and get to the Final 4. Yep, Kansas State, believe it.

Then of course there is last year’s darling the Butler Bulldogs who were two inches away from pulling off one of the greatest upsets sports has ever seen against Duke in the title game. The Dogs proved that they belong in the hunt for the crown for a long time to come with a run that stunned everyone in the sport that included wins over K-State, Syracuse and Michigan State. They return with no Gordon Haywood but pretty much same team from Ronald Nored and his tough defense and Matt Howard and his inside post game. They have replaced Gonzaga as the best little guy in the game and will be a tough draw in the tourney for anyone.

(With that said Gonzaga is ranked higher and with Robert Sacre at center they still aren’t a team to be messed with. Also the recruiting class they have for 2011 is stupid silly good. You think Mark Few is happy he stayed at Gonzaga instead of take the Kentucky job a few years ago? Yeah, me too.)

So what about the big dogs? Oh they’re just fine thank you. Ohio State behind one of the silliest recruiting classes including Jared Sullinger since the “Thad 5” is primed to go toe-to-toe with Sparty for the Big 10 and the national title. They have a date in November with SEC rival Florida which finally seems to have shaken the title hangover of a few years ago and are expected to rule the SEC this year behind do it all forward Chandler Parsons. They still have Kentucky hanging around in the background however. Yes they lost John Wall, Demarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe and Enes Kanter is still awaiting eligibility pending an NCAA investigation (hmmm, another investigation involving John Calipari? No way), however they get another top flight point guard for John Calipari to groom in Brandon Knight and swingman Terrance Jones from Oregon. They’re young again but if anyone knows how to get the best out of a young squad then its John Calipari.

Now I know what you’re wondering, Kevin, you haven’t even begun to wax poetic over the Mighty Big East yet. You know the conference you love so much that you’re willing to through any other program under the bus when playing them. You know the conference that you think is so much better than everyone else but last year underachieved in mostly every big out of conference matchup. Yeah yeah yeah I know. I know they struggled last year with off years by UCONN, Georgetown and Louisville and honestly past Syracuse, Villanova and Pittsburgh every team is the same. G’Town, Marquette and Seton Hall all have shots to make an impact behind guys like Austin Freeman, Jeremy Hazell and others and Steve Lavin may finally bring St. John’s back to where it belongs in the picture of college basketball. Yet I’m not sold that the conference is better than the Big 10 who have 3 teams who could make a Final 4 run including Purdue who I think is getting undervalued because of the loss of Robbie Hummel. In the Big East I think only Syracuse and maybe Pitt has a shot at the Final 4. However, even though it might be a down year for the conference the games will still be a blast to watch.

Something about the words Melo and Syracuse just sounds good together.

(Side note: I really like this Syracuse team. They are deeper than last year’s squad and they have a guy in the middle that will be a huge problem for everyone in the future, Fab Melo. Hmmm, an impact freshman in Syracuse named Melo? Smiley face.)

However with all of that said, from the little guys to the big ones, from the “Thad 5” part two to the beard, from Indianapolis to Spokane the two teams to beat come from tobacco road and (ugh) the ACC, Duke and UNC.

Duke brings back everyone from last year’s team including the soon to be player of the year Kyle Singler and they get Kyrie Irving, a lightning quick guard, and Seth Curry, yep there’s another one of them running around. Plus the Plumlee twins return to roam the middle with their size and athleticism which is going to be a problem for anyone to handle.

As for UNC you knew that last year’s flame out was only an aberration. Roy Williams returns with a team that has a year of experience under its wing, a healthy Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes one of the most talked about freshmen in the nation. Barnes as well as Reggie Bullock should help shoulder the load left by Ed Davis and the Wear twins who transferred to Stanford.

Both Duke and UNC should have little trouble running the ACC with one exception, Maryland might be back. Gary Williams has escaped the firing that seemed eminent years ago and has his best team since the Steve Blake, Juan Dixon days.  Sean Mosley and Jordan Williams provide a great in and out game and Mychal Parker and Pe’Shon Howard will provide some pop off of the bench.  If he can find the right rotation for this team then it should be happy times in Gary-land for the Terps.

With all of this said who should be playing in the Final 4 come March? How about Duke, Ohio State, K-State and Syracuse with Ohio State winning it all. No it’s not a cop out because I went to OSU it’s because OSU has the best mix of under classmen and youth of any team in the nation. David Lighty, Dallas Lauderdale and Willie Buford all return to blend with the aforementioned Sullinger, Jordan Siebert and Deshaun Thomas. I think Michigan State is a tad overrated with no Kalin Lucas and the Buckeyes should steamroll through the tough Big 10 behind their talent level and Thad Motta’s defensive scheme.

So there you go, even in the changing landscape of college basketball where the little guys are getting bigger, the top dogs still reign supreme. However, don’t be surprised if everything I said gets blown to smithereens and the landscape changes again. That’s the beauty of the college game, and I’m so happy that it’s back.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR- KYLE SINGLER

BIG EAST WINNER-SYRACUSE (SLEEPER: VILLANOVA)

ACC- DUKE (MARYLAND)

BIG 12- KANSAS STATE (TEXAS)

BIG 10- OHIO STATE (ILLINOIS)

PAC 10- WASHINGTON (ARIZONA)

SEC- FLORIDA (TENNESSEE)

THE NEXT BUTLER- San Diego STATE

ATLANTIC 10- XAVIER (mark my words; you will take the A-10 seriously again. The league is too good to be considered a mid-major)

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