Inside the College Game
By Adi Joseph
Texas A&M, welcome to the world of the true contenders.
[img_assist|nid=4033|title=Acie Law - AP Photo: Paul Zoeller|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=250|height=387]With their sixteen-point defeat of Texas on Monday, A&M is now one of the hottest teams in the country (interestingly enough, the last team to beat them, Texas Tech, is one of the coldest). Acie Law has emerged as a likely All-American, and big men Joseph Jones and Antanas Kavaliauskas combine to be one of the better big men combos in the nation.
Billy Gillespie, who I wrote about yesterday as a coach that may move on to an even bigger program, has successfully turned Texas A&M from a team with ZERO Big 12 wins in Law’’s freshman year to a true title contender by his senior season. That’s a truly amazing turnaround.
Meanwhile in the Big 12, Kansas State lost their premier recruit for the season, and yet Bob Huggins has them playing great basketball. The job that Huggy is doing this season should have him in contention for Big 12 Coach of the Year. He’s a legend - as great as a coach can be without an NCAA Championship under his best - and in K-State he’s proving that his reputation is earned.
Combine those two program rebuilding efforts with the most exciting player in the country, Kevin Durant, and one of the most talented teams in the country, Kansas, then add in Sean Sutton’s surprise Oklahoma State Cowboys and the winningest coach in NCAA history’s struggle on the bubble, and the Big 12 is really exciting this season. Despite the relative lack of depth in the league, some of the best story lines we have are coming out of the Midwest.
Which leads me into talking about the most boring league in the NCAA. I feel like Conference USA’s regular season is worthless. No one will beat Memphis, no one will be good enough for an at large except Memphis. Let’s just get to the tournament already. CUSA was one of my favorite conferences before the Big East raped it. Way to ruin a league.
I’m just hoping Morris Almond drops 60 on Memphis in the CUSA Tournament Finals, and Memphis still wins so an at large isn’t taken from a deserving team. It’d be fun to see.
Just thinking about CUSA’s decline just gets me frustrated, so let’s move on with the show.
Unseen, Unheard, Unheralded
Who’s Flying Under the Radar?
1. Virginia Commonwealth Rams (21-4, 13-1 CAA)
The Rams have taken control of the CAA. They are clearly the surprise team of the league, after starting the year with middle of the pack expectations. Hofstra, Drexel, and Old Dominion are all very good teams looking to work their way into at large consideration, but VCU probably will be an at large if they don’t win the tournament. I really like Eric Maynor, an up and coming mid-major star. This is a veteran team that will be very difficult to make a good read on in the NCAA Tournament.
2. Jeff Capel, Oklahoma Coach
No offense to Capel, but I really thought Oklahoma was making the wrong hire when they gave him the job after Kelvin Sampson left town. The Sooners struggled early in the season, but Capel’s got his team playing well. They are slowly moving their way onto the bubble, and a tournament would probably be a pleasant surprise for Sooner Nation. This is a team without a ton of talent, but Capel is getting the most out of his team. Nate Carter is developing into a very good player.
3. Tyrese Rice, Boston College Point Guard
I really like Rice, BC’s quick scoring point guard. He has a great jumper and a very good jump shot, though I do question his shot selection at times. Rice has been especially good since Sean Williams was kicked off the Eagles, and in ACC games the little man is averaging 17.5 points per game. BC is probably second best team in the ACC, and Rice is, in many ways, as key a player as superstar Jared Dudley. With Rice and Dudley, Al Skinner has a team that could make a tournament run similar to Florida last season.
Who’s In and Out?
For the college basketball fan, February is the month of the bubble. Here, I’ll take a look at several teams said to be on the bubble, and decide whether I believe they will find their way into the Big Dance.
1. Syracuse Orange (16-8, 5-5 Big East)
Syracuse was definitely in a few weeks ago. However, the Orange have slipped lately, losing four of their last five. They also have a rather tough stretch of games coming up. I really like the Orange, especially senior Demetrius Nichols and freshman Paul Harris, two of the Big East’s top swingmen. However I have to believe that ‘Cuse fans are nervous at this point. An 8-8 record in a weak Big East may not be good enough to make the tournament, and even if it was there aren’t enough easy games to guarantee that Syracuse splits their final six. It also doesn’t help that they don’t have a top tier win out of conference. The key game that could help put them in is a win at Marquette. Verdict: OUT.
2. Michigan State Spartans (17-8, 4-6 Big Ten)
You want to talk about a disappointing loss, Michigan State really needed to beat Purdue to end their losing streak, which has now extended to four games. After being talked about as potentially the fourth best team in the Big Ten going into Jan. 30’s game at Illinois, the Spartans are hurting and Tom Izzo needs to regroup. The real issue for MSU is that Drew Neitzel seems to be their only top notch player ready to make an impact. I love Neitzel, but there are definite question marks about the players surrounding him. The schedule ahead is tough (specifically Wisconsin twice), but I do believe Tom Izzo will gather his team and help push them through. Call it blind faith but this is the reason this column isn’t about what would happen if the season ended today, it’s what I believe will play out. An 8-8 conference record should put the Spartans into the Big Dance. Verdict IN.
3. Arkansas Razorbacks (15-8, 4-5 SEC)
I’m not even sure there is a team on a more generic bubble than Arkansas. Every time they pushed themselves ahead (see Alabama win), Stan Heath and company pushed themselves back onto the bubble with a loss like a home game against Georgia, another buble team. With the SEC’’s insane depth, no one has an easy schedule, ever. So now Heath is forced to hope that his team can gel at all the right times and win games they aren’’t necessarily supposed to win. Four of the Razorbacks’ final seven games are on the road, and the SEC has proven that is nearly impossible to win on the roard. Next year, the Razorbacks could be scary, but for right now they are simply too inexperienced. Verdict: OUT.
4. Wichita State Shockers (16-9, 7-7 Missouri Valley)
You may remember this team being ranked in the top 10 of both polls. However, after starting conference play with an atrocious record of 1-4, the Shockers were not feeling strong about their positioning to make the tournament. Fact is, this is a very talented team that simply fell apart when star P.J. Couisnard was injured, even after he came back. Now, the Shockers have turned things around. Winning four of their past five games, including two road trips, Wichita State is very much back on the bubble. Also nice is the very favorable schedule down the stretch for the Shockers, who really are too talented not to make the tournament anyway. Then again, so is LSU who might not even be in contention. Verdict: IN.
Game Notes: Saturday’’s game at Kentucky will go a long way to determining whether Florida can keep a #1 seed without winning the SEC title. The Gators have poor computer numbers and Kentucky is the second best team in the conference… I feel like USC may be the second best team in the Pac-10. Nick Young may be the conference’’s best player, and Gabe Pruitt has done a fantastic job distributing from the point guard position… Winthrop generated some buzz when they held close to UNC early on, and now the Eagles have dominated the Big South and could make for an interesting tournament team… Wisconsin at Ohio State later this season should be a very intense and important game, with conference supremacy and potentially a #1 seed on the line… Southern Illinois is really a great defensive team, and they can score well enough that they are extremely dangerous come tournament time. If the Salukis were to make the Elite Eight or even Final Four, don’t compare it to George Mason, though. Southern Illinois should be receiving a top five seed at this point, compared to Mason’s eleven seed… Don’t look now, but Bucknell is clawing their way back into the tournament. I really wouldn’t be surprised if they won a tournament game for the third season in a row… The fact that interim head coach Jim Molinari has taken Minnesota to three conference wins is a big deal. They should consider keeping him… That’s all for this week, see you later.