Old School – NCAA Basketball Look Ahead

    Basketball season is here, and the way labor negotiations are going in the NBA it looks like the only basketball we may get this year will be college ball. I don’t know about you, but that suits me just fine. Ever since my childhood NBA team, the Charlotte Hornets, left town I have had a hard time really caring about the NBA (I haven’t been able to love the Bobcats the same way, and of course, this lockout doesn’t help). I believe the college game is played with more passion and enthusiasm and has more unpredictability than the NBA ever does. Plus, college ball has chants:

    There’s the classic “Airball” chant, as seen above, pre-game role calls, the “Winning Team, Losing Team” chant that’s becoming popular everywhere, the foul-out chant, “Let’s Go Duke,” “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk,” the call and response with your team’s name, and many many more.

    I’m excited that the season is underway (even more so this week since it’s “Feast Week” on ESPN) but before I get to this season, I want to reflect on what happened last year, just in case you’ve forgotten.

    Last season, we saw:

    • - Teams get “Jimmered
    • - Bruce Pearl and Tennessee fall into oblivion
    • - North Carolina play like one of the worst and then one of best teams in the NCAA
    • - San Diego State win 34 games and get a No. 2 seed
    • - Every tournament game have a channel through CBS, TNT, TBS and TruTV
    • - Charles Barkley on NCAA Tournament coverage (do we get Shaq this year?)
    • - VCU become the first team to make it to the Final Four by winning five games
    • - A player who never played get the Undertaker entrance at Kentucky’s midnight madness
    • - Kemba Walker carry UConn to the Big East Championship and all the way through the NCAA tournament
    • - Brad Stevens and Butler do the unthinkable, again, and reach the National Championship game before succumbing to Kemba Walker and the UConn Huskies.
    • - Many talented NBA prospects decide to come back to play another season (Jared Sullinger, Terrence Jones, Harrison Barnes to name a few)

    So what will we see this year? Already, we’ve seen Duke’s legendary head coach Mike Krzyzewski pass mentor Bobby Knight on the all-time wins list with his 903rd win, and we’ve seen a game be played on a Naval aircraft carrier attended by military personnel and the President of the United States. I can’t wait to find out what will happen this season.

    The Tar Heels have been everyone’s number one, Kentucky recruited a bunch of guys who were number one at their position coming out of high school (PG Marquis Teague, SF Michael Davis, PF Anthony Davis), and Ohio State has the number one player in the nation (Jared Sullinger).

    With all of that being said, it’s time to make a few predictions. Most other places you will see pre-season top 25 rankings or some sort of bracketology, but I’m going to try and do the unthinkable and predict results of the NCAA tournament. Yes, in November. That’s why you may see some major programs missing in this list, because you know there will be some Cinderellas (why don’t we call them Cinderfellas like in that Jerry Louis movie?)

    But first, let’s take a look at some teams who I believe will be experiencing what I like to call “March Sadness.”

    March Sadness (adj): 

    • 1. The feeling you get when your favorite team misses the NCAA tournament. (ex. Virginia Tech under coach Seth Greenberg)
    • 2. The feeling you get when your favorite baseball team starts Spring Training without a hope of winning the World Series (ex. Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs)

    Definition number one applies here.

    Butler - Butler struggled to score in the National Championship game last year when Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard were shut down offensively, producing one of the ugliest championship games of all time. This season, Howard and Mack are gone and I think Butler will struggle to score all season long. Coach Brad Stevens instills tough defense into his teams, and I expect that to carry them this year in the Horizon League. Unfortunately, I don’t think this year’s Bulldog team will be able to put together a good enough NCAA tournament resume to be an at-large and I think Cleveland State will take the Horizon League tourney and auto-bid.

    VCU – Gone are the heroes of last year’s Final Four run in Jamie Skeen, Joey Rodriguez, and Brandon Rozzell. The Rams managed to keep coach Shaka Smart, but he will be molding a lot of young players this season.

    ACC trio – Georgia Tech, NC State, Wake Forest – Historically, these fan bases expect to make NCAA tournaments with ease and advance past the first weekend. However, in recent years, winning has not come easy. Georgia Tech and NC State will be breaking in new coaches and systems this year and are in total rebuild mode. Wake Forest is just in its second year under coach Jeff Bzdelik, who’s first year came under fire by the Wake fan base after the Demon Deacons set all kinds of program losing records.

    Indiana - This one is just for Sports Spectrum staff writer Steve Copeland. Cope’s favorite college team has not had much success since the Mike Davis era, which was not even deemed a successful era by IU fans. Coach Tom Crean is doing a terrific job turning the program around from the sanctions levied by previous coach Kelvin Sampson, but the talent is just now starting to come back to Bloomington. Freshman forward Cody Zeller comes in as a top 20 prospect (brother of UNC forward Tyler Zeller) but I don’t think he and the Hoosiers will be able to put together a good enough resume to make the tourney this season. Maybe next year Cope!

    Now that I’ve teased Copeland, take a look at some great moments from the NCAA tournament (in Lego form) and then on to the predictions! We’ll count them down from 16 to 1.

    • Key: Teams 9-16 make the Sweet 16
    • Teams 5-8 make the Elite 8
    • Teams 1-4 make the Final Four
    • Teams 1-2 are in the National Championship
    • Team 1 is the champ

    16. Temple – Coach Fran Dunphy has done an excellent job since taking over for the legendary John Chaney, reaching the NCAA tournament every year. They haven’t made it past the first weekend under Dunphy yet, but I expect that to change this year with the stellar play of senior guards Juan Fernandez and Ramone Moore.

    15. Michigan – Guard Tim Hardaway Jr. will look to build on the success that he and the Wolverines had last season, as they were just a shot or two from beating Duke and advancing to the Sweet 16 last season. If you watch a Michigan game this year, expect the obligatory cut aways to the famous dad in the crowd ala Steph-Dell Curry.

    14. Kansas – The Jayhawks have often been upset way too soon in the NCAA’s. Last year, as a one seed, they lost to eleven seeded VCU. In 2010, the one-seeded Jayhawks lost to Ali Farokhmanesh and the nine-seeded Northern Iowa Panthers in the second round. In 2006, 13 seed Bradley beat them in the first round, and in 2005, the Bucknell Bison, another 13 seed, beat them in the first round. This season the expectations are not quite as high, as the Morris twins bolted for the NBA. Coach Bill Self will have a lot of young players to mold and shape into a team. Though as I am typing this I realize that the youth factor is one of the biggest recipes for an upset…

    13. Cleveland State – Cleveland State already has a big non-conference win, beating Vanderbilt. The defending Horizon League regular season champs lose big-time scorer Norris Cole, but have four seniors who can help carry the load collectively in Trevon Harmon, Jeremy Montgomery, big man Aaron Pogue, and D’Aundray Brown, who’s returning for a fifth year after taking a medical redshirt. Besides, shouldn’t Cleveland win something every now and then? I mean, c’mon, they lost LeBron!

    12. Arizona - Derrick Williams left for greener pastures to the NBA last season, but the Wildcats should have another great year under coach Sean Miller. Miller helped build Xavier into a national contender and is well on his way to restoring Arizona back to one.

    11. Gonzaga - Every year I always waffle on the Bulldogs. I go back and forth with many of the same concerns every year. Do they play enough defense to win tournament games? Does playing in the West Coast Conference do enough to prepare them for the NCAA tournament? Is Adam Morrison (or insert latest Gonzaga great here) really that good? There have been many years when I have filled out my brackets and pushed Gonzaga to the Final Four, and every time they let me down. Can coach Mark Few finally get them over the hump this season? I don’t think this is the year they get to the Final Four but I do think they will get to the Sweet 16.

    10. Memphis – When John Calipari left for Kentucky many people probably thought that would be the end of Memphis as serious title contenders. However, coach Josh Pastner has continued the great recruiting and this year’s team seems poised for a great season.

    9. UConn – The defending champs lost their leader Kemba Walker, but Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier are back and will carry the scoring load. UConn also got another great recruiting class anchored by forward DeAndre Daniels, so expect more success from coach Jim Calhoun and company.

    8. Duke – Duke has three Plumlee brothers. Can you imagine the play calling if Coack K decides to play them all at once? Plumlee passes to Plumlee, who passes to Plumlee, back to the top of the key to Plumlee, Plumlee dumps it down low to Plumlee, out to Plumlee on the wing, Plumlee shoots, and it’s good! Basket by Plumlee, give the assist to Plumlee. Confusing huh? Even more confusing is that all three brothers first names begin with “M”: Mason, Miles and Marshall. On a serious note, the key to Duke’s season will be the play of guards Austin Rivers and Seth Curry. Early in the season it looks like both guys will split point guard duties. Will that work all season long? Or will Coach K need to decide on one primary ball handler?

    7. Baylor – Coach Scott Drew has done a magnificent job turning Baylor into a contender. Talented wingman Quincy Acy is back for his senior season as is sophomore big man Perry Jones III, who turned down the lure of the NBA draft. But the real key to the season will be how well Quincy Miller fits with this Bear ball club. So far it’s going well. He’s leading the team in scoring early in the season.

    6. Syracuse – Is it just me, or does it feel like the Orange are perennial underachievers? Maybe they are just overhyped….or maybe Jim Boeheim just doesn’t schedule a hard enough non-conference schedule (there are many seasons where Syracuse has not left the state of New York until conference play). Whatever the reason, I think that this experienced squad will meet expectations and make a good run into the Elite 8 this year. Guys like Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Kris Joseph have had a few seasons to play together and that can make a difference from bowing out early in the NCAA’s and making a deep run.

    5. Vanderbilt – The Commodores have three key returning starters in John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor and big man Festus Ezeli. Ezeli is the difference maker down in the paint, altering and blocking shots and pulling down rebounds in the paint. They need him to be healthy though, as he has not yet laced up the sneakers this year as he is dealing with a knee injury.

    4. Xavier – I am going out on a limb here and saying that this year will be the year that the Xavier Musketeers finally break that glass ceiling and make it to the Final Four. For the last decade they have made great runs in the tournament, reaching the Elite 8 twice and the Sweet 16 four times. This year, senior point guard Tu Halloway should lead the X-Men in scoring and assists and could be a first or second team All-American.

    3. Kentucky – John Calipari has another set of “one and done’s”, but this may be the most talented group of individuals he has brought into Lexington. How this team goes will be how well Calipari can mold these individuals into a team. He’s done it in the past, so I see no problem seeing him pull it off again. Unfortunately, come tournament time, experience always plays a factor, and you have to wonder if these freshmen will be able to pass the test. I think they will, but there is a lot of work to be done.

    2. North Carolina – Last season’s Tar Heels struggled the early part of the season, then freshman Harrison Barnes seemed lost, and big men Tyler Zeller and John Henson had trouble getting the ball in good scoring position. Then coach Roy Williams made a change at point guard, subbing the junior Larry Drew with freshman Kendall Marshall. That made all of the difference. Marshall excels at getting his teammates the ball in good scoring position in transition and in half court sets. Carolina will be tough to beat all season long.

    1. Ohio State – The Buckeyes have the best player in the country in Jared Sulinger and their best chance to win it all since 2007 when they had freshmen Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. It will be a disappointment if the Buckeyes fail to reach the Final Four this year. Considering the current shape of the football program, Ohio State fans, you’re now a basketball school (until Urban Meyer agrees to become the football coach).