Inside the College Game
By Adi Joseph
The second-half rally only sharpened the pain.
[img_assist|nid=4009|title=Jamar Butler - AP Photo: Terry Gilliam|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=250|height=370]As Clemson fell to Duke Thursday, the national audience was witness to a bubble burst. With 10,000 fans in attendance, the Tigers were dominated in the first half, 42-21, only to make a terrific second half run. A run that didn't matter, in the end.
Clemson has gone from a tournament lock to appearing dead in the water. Losing eight of ten games can do that to a team. Thursday's game against Duke only made the sting all the more real for Tigers fans, as they watched their team get back to the style of play that left them as the nation's last unbeaten, only to fall short in the end.
Now Clemson goes into the last three games of the regular season figuring that they will have to win at least two of their last three games to stay in the bubble discussion - with at Boston College and at Virginia Tech looming. But don't worry Clemson fans - you're not alone.
Wichita State, Gonzaga, Oklahoma State and Florida State have watched high hopes based on early season success disappear as well. LSU and George Mason fans will likely be left wondering how they went from Final Four to NIT so quickly. And Connecticut fans are being left bewildered, just glad they get a Big East Tournament shot.
Meanwhile, Michigan State fans can rejoice, as Drew Neitzel proved his worth, delivering a major win for the Spartans, and essentially locking up a spot for Tom Izzo and company in the Big Dance. Michigan State's upset of Wisconsin can be looked at as a blueprint for pulling yourself off the bubble rather than waiting until it bursts.
We're at the point in the season where the bubble watch has begun to clear up. We're separating true contenders from pretenders, and with conference tournaments approaching I'm going to evaluate the six power conferences in depth. Enjoy.
Dancing Teams: North Carolina, Duke, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Maryland
Player of the Year: Jared Dudley, Boston College
Coach of the Year: Seth Greenberg, Virginia Tech
Newcomer of the Year: Javaris Crittenton, Georgia Tech
Tournament Dark Horse: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
It's been a pretty crazy year in the ACC. Teams have shot up and down and consistency seems to be virtually nonexistent. UNC has the reigns as the best team in the conference. They've got so much talent and depth that they have the look of a champion. What's scary is how young they are, and how deep they are. They could be ransacked by the NBA and still be very good next season. Duke's seen a ton of adversity this season, and they may be better for it. They've got talent but lack athleticism to keep up with top flight teams. Virginia's got some of the best guard play in the country. J.R. Reynolds and Sean Singletary are outstanding scorers and ball handlers. Seth Greenberg's done an outstanding job this year with Virginia Tech. The Hokies have a good group of starters and Zabian Dowdell is one of the most underrated players in the country. Boston College hasn't fallen at all without Sean Williams. Jared Dudley has established himself as a college superstar. Maryland is playing their best basketball of the season lately and will be a tough out come the dance. Georgia Tech has slipped out of the tournament picture but has a ton of talent, most of which should be returning next season. I really like their potential, assuming Crittenton comes back. Clemson and Florida State are sob stories of teams that fell way off after strong starts. Florida State is going to lose a lot next season without Thornton, who is absolutely outstanding. Clemson should be better next year, on the plus side for Tigers fans. NC State has had a few surprise wins but struggled overall. They don't have the talent yet to really compete. Wake Forest is just bad. When Kyle Visser is carrying your team, that's not a good sign. Miami has some youth, but the question is whether the group is talented enough to win in the future. This is a mediocre year in the ACC, but it's also a wild year.
Dancing Teams: Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Notre Dame, Marquette, Syracuse, West Virginia, Villanova
Player of the Year: Russell Carter, Notre Dame
Coach of the Year: John Beilein, West Virginia
Newcomer of the Year: Eugene Harvey, Seton Hall
Tournament Dark Horse: Connecticut Huskies
When a conference has 16 teams, it's always going to be a mess. This year's Big East proves that once again, with a million and a half bubble teams. The conference lost a lot of its stars, but there is still a lot of talent here to build on. Georgetown, with Saturday's defeat of Pitt, has shown itself to be the top team in the conference. I love Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert, but I also think that they have more depth and a better backcourt than they are given credit for. Despite the loss, Pitt is still among the nation's elite teams. They have so many good players that they can afford to leave players like Sam Young and Ronald Ramon on the bench when they would be stars on other teams. Louisville has rebounded nicely and I really like their team structure. I also trust Pitino in the big games. Although they've been aweful at times, Marquette has shown more than their fair share of flashes of brilliance. Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews make for one hell of a guard combination. Russell Carter, my POY pick, has been a leader on an overachieving Notre Dame team that refuses to let itself go down like last year's team. Syracuse has a lot of talent and is probably going to be underrated after last year's bust out. I think they might be a sleeper to go far in the tournament. John Beilein is one of the best coaches in the country, and the job he's done with West Virginia is phenomenal. It's also worth saying, though, that he has more talent than people believed. I really like Frank Young, Alex Ruoff and Joe Alexander - they all play defense and shoot well. Villanova's got a decent team. I thought they'd be better than they are, instead they seem like a good bubble team that's still not solidly in by any means. They don't seem like they will be much of a threat in March. The fact that UConn isn't in the tournament picture is probably the most shocking revelation of them all. They've got a ton of talent and should be much improved next season. DePaul's been a minor disappointment, but I think a player like Wilson Chandler could burst out as a true star next season and they may be pretty good. Providence has a lot of great players, and it's pretty disappointing that they couldn't do more this season. On the plus side, they seem to be set for the future as almost all their best players are returning, with the exception being star Herbert Hill. St. John's may take a big step up next season, too. Anthony Mason Jr. has star potential, and any tournament hopes for the Red Storm ride on him delivering on that potential. Cincinnati had a really rough year. They made the wrong coaching hire, but maybe in the long run they will be fine. Maybe. Seton Hall has an outstanding freshman in Eugene Harvey and a few other good players, so they may turn it around in the future. South Florida is a football school. Rutgers is a football school. (It's fun to say that.) The Big East is in a down year but will still get seven or eight teams in the dance because it's such an enormous conference.
Dancing Teams: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan State, Illinois, Purdue
Player of the Year: Alando Tucker, Wisconsin
Coach of the Year: Kelvin Sampson, Indiana
Newcomer of the Year: Greg Oden, Ohio State
Tournament Dark Horse: Michigan Wolverines
It's a bit of a down year for the Big Ten, after being rated the top conference last season. Wisconsin and Ohio State have been outstanding - both are clamoring for a top seed in the tournament. Both teams are legitimate Final Four/NCAA Championship threats, and it wouldn't surprise many to see both in Atlanta in late March. Meanwhile, it has been a quietly strong year for Indiana. Kelvin Sampson has the Hoosiers playing great team defense while D.J. White has developed into a low post monster. Tom Izzo is, in my opinion, the best coach in college basketball, and the Spartans have overachieved thanks to Izzo and the will of Drew Neitzel, one of my favorite players in the country. Illinois and Michigan have similar team make-ups, with a lot of experience and little star power. The difference is that Bruce Weber is a very good coach while Tommy Amaker managed to underachieve every year. Illinois is making the tournament as they should, even though I don't look at them as a team with much of a chance to make any real NCAA tournament impact. I really like Dion Harris for Michigan, and he's part of a solid core of seniors which is the only reason I chose the Wolverines as a potential dark horse. For Iowa, the season is a case of too little too late. Purdue has surprised some people and played pretty well this season, leaving them as a true blooded bubble team and the last team in, by my account. Senior Carl Landry is one of the best players in the conference, though. Somehow, Adam Haluska has taken the Hawkeyes on his back and carried them to a strong Big 10 season, but a poor nonconference season will leave them out of the dance barring an auto-bid. I'm rooting for them to get that bid. Meanwhile, for Penn State, Minnesota and Northwestern, there's only up. I think Penn State could surprise some people next year. Overall, the conference has a strong top, a decent middle, and a bad bottom. Things could be worse for the Big 10 (see the Big Twelve, below), but the conference lost a lot of talent and it shows. Next season, expect things to be even worse, as many teams are senior heavy and few top recruits are showing up at schools like Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois (who lost two of the top five recruits in the nation - Derrick Rose and Eric Gordon).
Dancing Teams: Kansas, Texas A&M, Texas, Kansas State, Texas Tech
Player of the Year: Kevin Durant, Texas
Coach of the Year: Billy Gillespie, Texas A&M
Newcomer of the Year: Kevin Durant, Texas
Tournament Dark Horse: Oklahoma Sooners
I've talked up the Big 12 all season as the most interesting conference. It may be the worst of the major conferences, but the story lines are great. The first one worth mentioning is Billy Gillespie and the Texas A&M Aggies, who are as good a team as I've seen this season. I can't imagine a scenario where I don't put this team through to the Elite Eight at least in my bracket, as I believe Acie Law is the type of leader that can take a team to great heights - maybe even a national championship. With that said, a more popular pick to contend for the championship are the Kansas Jayhawks. Bill Self has surrounded himself with a ton of young talent and a first round exit would be completely intolerable. This team is deep and talented at every position, and should make for a tough March out. Texas has the most talented player I've seen in years, Kevin Durant. As he's grown, so have the Longhorns, and where he goes, so will Texas. Kansas State has been a bit of a surprise in conference, after losing star freshman Bill Walker for the year. However, Bob Huggins is carrying his team and has them looking like an NCAA team. Texas Tech has been a little disappointing lately. However, with a solid nonconference season and a win over Kansas and a sweep of Texas A&M, they are now on the right side of the bubble. Oklahoma State, on the flip side is one of the last teams I left out. Their nonconference season was very strong and they have a few very good wins, however they cannot win on the road and have been very disappointing in conference. Oklahoma's been a bit of a surprise under Jeff Capel, and Longar Longar has the coolest name in college basketball. Capel's a very good young coach who I believe will be a very good hire in the long run. Missouri showed some promise earlier this year, but settled into mediocrity - an improvement over the Tigers' preseason expectations. Look out for Mike Anderson in the future. Iowa State has had some big wins, and I get the feeling when I've watched them that Will Blalock or Curtis Stinson might be able to push them onto the bubble. They could then move current point guard Michael Taylor off the ball. At this point, you've got to wonder if Nebraska basketball is just a hopeless cause. After a surprisingly decent nonconference season, the Cornhuskers proved that they are staying a football school. No Big 12 team has been as disappointing as Colorado, and no one has hurt their draft stock quite as much as Richard Roby. I really do believe Baylor is in for a nice little program turn around, but this isn't the year. Tweety Carter should be fun to watch when when he becomes the first option. It's definitely a down year for the Big 12, but it's been fun while it's lasted.
Dancing Teams: UCLA, Washington State, USC, Stanford, Arizona, Oregon
Player of the Year: Aaron Brooks, Oregon
Coach of the Year: Tony Bennett, Washington State
Newcomer of the Year: Ryan Anderson, California
Tournament Dark Horse: Washington Huskies
This season has smiled on the Pac-10. Six of ten teams appear near-locks for the tournament, and UCLA looks like a true championship contender. Darren Collison is the Bruins' heart, proven when they slumped while he was out. He's athletic, talented, smart and efficient - what more could you ask of a college point guard. Oregon's got their own star point guard. Aaron Brooks gets my POY nod because he's hit so many clutch shots and has Oregon playing very strong basketball. Washington State wins the award of season's biggest surprise. Tony Bennett has done an amazing job with the Cougars. Tim Floyd is a great coach, as well. USC basketball is turning into a good program, and this year's team seems like one that could make a push in March. They've got an improving freshman (Taj Gibson), a legitimate star (Nick Young), and an underrated point guard (Gabe Pruitt). Stanford has the look of a team that will see huge strides of improvement next season, and could even join the nation's elite. Arizona's a team that you don't want to overlook, even though they've been a little disappointing this season. They've got a great offense and some senior leadership - potential ingredients for March success. Washington has been one of the season's biggest disappointments. They've got a lot of talent and are young, so I have no doubt that if everyone returns, they will vastly improve next season. Cal's got a good young rotation as well, and could definitely see some improvement. Arizona State and Oregon State are dreadful at the bottom. However, things are looking up for Arizona State. In a few years they could be a good team. The opposite seems to be true about Oregon State - I'm not very optimistic about their future.
Dancing Teams: Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Alabama
Player of the Year: Chris Lofton, Tennessee
Coach of the Year: Kevin Stallings, Vanderbilt
Newcomer of the Year: Sonny Weems, Arkansas
Tournament Darkhorse: Arkansas Razorbacks
Starting the year as virtually everyone's top conference, the SEC has met the demands and more. The conference is incredibly deep, with only one team below .500 on the season. Even without a star freshman during the "Year of the Freshmen," the SEC has proven to be the best conference top to bottom in America. Florida - well, they're Florida. I picked them preseason, and I'm sticking with them. Tubby Smith has done a hell of a job this year in Kentucky. This team seemed set up to underachieve, but he's gotten a lot out of former-highly regarded recruits Randolph Morris and Joe Crawford, and Ramel Bradley is an outstanding scorer. Making the surprise list this season has been Vandy. The swingman combo of Derrick Byars and Shan Foster is as good as any in the country, as both are versatile stars who can carry the team at times. Tennessee struggled mightily when Chris Lofton went out, but overall has had a good season and has the depth and talent to make a decent tournament run. Lofton's the best shooter in America. Alabama is the streakiest team in the country. Ron Steele's health has been a major question mark all year and Jermareo has (understandably) had his head in other places at times. However, when hot this team is very dangerous - I'm talking Final Four potential. Ole Miss has the feel of a team that's one or two years away - except that they're graduating three of their top four players. Mississippi State's Jamont Gordon is one of the best players in the conference, but he has a mediocre at best supporting cast that really kills him. Georgia's got a nice group of players, but they don't really stand out enough. They're a true bubble team right now, and a few more wins could put them in the tournament. Arkansas has a nice, athletic roster but lacks the scoring to consistently play with the best teams in the conference. South Carolina will not be repeating as NIT Champs, and this season will be looked at as a major disappointment. Finally, we bring up disappointments and no team comes to mind quicker than LSU. The Tigers never found consistency and never found a true point guard and now have found themselves out of the tournament. Glen Davis is a great player, but he couldn't carry this team all season, and now he's injured and the Tigers may end up finishing last in the conference one year removed from a Final Four. The SEC is an outstanding conference, even with only one true title contender. Three or four Sweet Sixteen teams wouldn't surprise me at all.
Side Notes: All projected teams are based on my projected bubble watch. Choices are based on projected season outcomes. The two mid-major conferences with more than one seed projected are the Missouri Valley (Southern Illinois, Creighton, Missouri State) and the Mountain West (Brigham Young, Air Force, UNLV).
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