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Is it “Final Four or Bust” for Jamie Dixon and his Pittsburgh basketball program? Hardly, but the ninth-year coach is aware of an antsy fan base. “I know everyone wants us to win a national championship,” says Dixon, who’s advanced to three Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight during his tenure. “We want it just as badly.” Pittsburgh was a legitimate Final Four contender last season after winning the Big East regular-season title and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but a deflating 71–70 loss to national finalist Butler in the Round of 32 left a stinging feeling. It was Pittsburgh’s second consecutive defeat on the first weekend of the NCAAs. It also marked the second time in three years that the Panthers failed to advance to the Final Four, despite earning a No. 1 seed.
Dixon’s reaction? “We won’t stop going after it, I can tell you that.”
Despite losing talented starters Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee from a 28–6 team, Dixon returns one of the top shooters in the nation in Ashton Gibbs and enough depth for the Panthers to extend their 10-year streak of 20 overall victories and no fewer than 10 Big East wins. And, as always, the sum is greater than the parts for these Panthers.
Key Panthers Stat: 3.2
Pitt's six losses last season came by an average of 3.2 points per game. The Panthers' most lopsided loss was by seven points to Tennessee.
Junior center Dante Taylor looks to fulfill the hype that surrounded his arrival three years ago as a McDonald’s All-American. And even though he’s been more Chicken Nugget than Big Mac thus far, he was a force in a local Pro-Am league over the summer, unveiling a slimmed-down and more powerful frame. A relentless offensive rebounder, Taylor can be a legit 12-point, eight-rebound player. Should he emerge, Taylor and freshman Khem Birch, the top-rated Pittsburgh recruit in 25 years, could be a formidable 1-2 punch on the blocks. Birch, who will likely come off the bench, is a leaper who can change a game with his shot-blocking and rebounding prowess. He is the best pure athlete of the Dixon era and was rated a top-10 recruit according to several recruiting services.
At power forward, senior Nasir Robinson is a no-frills, undersized powerhouse who specializes in defense and rebounding, yet managed to score 21 points in a win over Syracuse. His toughness personifies Dixon-coached Pittsburgh teams.
An X-factor offensively could be high-flying J.J. Moore, who received limited playing time as a freshman last season. Moore attacks the rim frequently and possesses a scorer’s mentality. Veteran Lamar Patterson is another quality small forward, while the intriguing Talib Zanna provides a two-way threat off the bench.
Gibbs withdrew from the NBA Draft to improve on a skill set that features dead-eye shooting (he ranked third in the NCAA in 3-point percentage at 49.0), unquestioned leadership skills and an unrivaled competitive drive. Gibbs famously went shot-for-shot with Connecticut’s Kemba Walker in a Big East Tournament loss last season, going 10-of-13 from the field and 6-of-7 from 3-point range. He embraces the big stage, and that confidence rubs off on his teammates.
Junior point guard Tray Woodall is a brash Brooklyn native who confidently sets the tempo, evidenced by an assist-to-turnover ratio that ranked second in the Big East. He and Gibbs could form the best backcourt tandem in Dixon’s nine years. Freshman John Johnson, an aggressor who’s been compared to former Villanova star Scottie Reynolds, could force Dixon to give him extended playing time, while redshirt freshmen Isaiah Epps and Cameron Wright provide quality depth.
Pittsburgh might be challenged to reach that elusive Final Four due to three new starters, but history reminds us that the Panthers will win. A lot. Consider: Dixon has won more games in his first eight years than any coach in history, averaging 27.0 per season. He also is the only active coach to lead his team to at least one victory in each of the past six NCAA Tournaments.
Much of Dixon’s past success has been achieved with good, but not great talent. That is changing, though, with top-notch recruits like Birch, Taylor and Gibbs now dotting the roster. The program is climbing closer to elite status with each successful season, though Dixon and the Pittsburgh fan base realize that the true breakthrough arrives when a Final Four is achieved. This version of the Panthers isn’t likely to get there, but never count them out.
Big East Prediction: 4th
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Sweet 16
by Josh Kipnis
Game 5 of the World Series was a disaster for the St. Louis Cardinals; they couldn’t hit with runners in scoring position, they couldn’t take advantage of Chris Carpenter’s great outing, and manager Tony La Russa lost his mind.
In the most pivotal game of the series, La Russa, a two-time World Series Champion and the 3rd ranked manager on the all time wins list, complicated things beyond measure. His list of mistakes covers essentially every aspect of the game, including, unbelievably, a telephone conversation gone haywire. But hey, everyone makes mistakes right? We just have to learn from them. So here is a checklist La Russa should think about posting in the dugout for the Game 6 matchup:
1) Unleash the beast that is Albert Pujols
Don’t take the bat out of his hands, ever. Twice, a hit-and-run was called when Pujols was at the plate, and each time the runner on first was thrown out. I understand the Cardinals have set a franchise record in double plays this year, but you can’t play scared. Trust the man that has taken you to the Promised Land. Albert Pujols is a machine, seriously. If we refer to Calvin Johnson as “Megatron,” what are we supposed to call Pujols? Super-Jumbo-Ginormous-Humongo-tron? (I think we’re on to something here). Let him hit! He might just go 5 for 6 with 6 RBI and 3 HR. Wait, he already did that?
2) Don’t bet on a horse with three legs
A hit-and-run was called twice in Game 5, and both times Allen Craig was the runner on first. While the batter is supposed to make contact, he is also told to leave any “unhittable” pitches alone. So when a ball soared out of the strike zone, Pujols, wisely, decided not to swing. But how slow can Allen Craig be? Mike Napoli, the catcher for the Texas Rangers, had to leap up and turn his back just to catch the ball; and he still threw Craig out by a mile. If you can’t steal a base on a pitch like that, don’t even bother tying your shoelace. It might be less embarrassing to just trip over your own leg and fall face first into the dirt. No more gambling on the base paths.
3) A massive beard is the key to winning playoff games
Brian Wilson taught us to “fear the beard” in San Francisco’s run at the championship last year. This year, closer Jason Motte, is sporting his own frightening facial hair. Motte has been nearly perfect, shutting down opponents in every appearance except his slip-up in the 9th in Game 2. In Game 5, Cards killer, Mike Napoli, approached the plate in the bottom of the 8th with one out, the bases loaded, and the game tied--meaning a simple sac fly would score a run and win the game. With this in mind, La Russa decided to keep his lefty reliever, Marc Rzepcynski, in the game to pitch to the righty hitter. But why? Once again, La Russa abandoned the simple strategy that has consistently worked in the past; he refused to go to a righty-righty matchup with Motte. Motte strikes out nearly all of his victims, a turnkey solution for the predicament. Instead, clean cut Rzepcynski stays in and gives up the lead on a 2-RBI double by Napoli. Stick with consistency; facial hair trumps all. (By the way, Derek Holland of the Rangers? Sorriest attempt at a moustache I’ve ever seen, but it seemed to work. Last start: 8 IP, 2 H, 0 ER)
4) Make sure the delivery man knows your exact order
Ok, this is the most pathetic excuse I have ever heard. In the eighth inning, La Russa picked up the dugout phone and called his bullpen coach to tell certain players to warm up. Only problem: he didn’t speak clearly enough for the bullpen coach. Really? That’s the best you got? Instead of requesting Jason Motte, the coach thought he heard Lance Lynn. Honest mistake, I confuse those names all the time. What’s worse? La Russa called a second time to get Motte up and ready and there was yet another miscommunication. I offer two pieces of advice:
a) Think of it as ordering a pizza. If I order a delicious “za” and they get it wrong the first time, no way am I messing it up a second time. Mandate that you want some pepperonis. After all, it does sound a lot like sausage.
b) If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Think of all the ways you can get a message across nowadays. You can email, text, or Skype. If the phone lines are down, lets get a little creative in the dugout. Pull up your Facebook or Gmail and instant message the bullpen. Open up your twitter account and tweet whoever you want in the game. By far the most flawless plan-go to Hogwarts, pay a first-year for his owl, and let him sit atop the railing of the dugout next to Dave Duncan. No way Hedwig doesn’t get the message delivered.
Listen, hindsight may be 20/20, but come on; we should be able to expect a little bit more out of a hall of fame manager.
Baylor coach Scott Drew has spent the last two years assembling one of the most talented teams in all of college basketball. Now comes the next step: Doing something with it. Not many teams enter the 2011-12 season with an opportunity as golden as the one facing the Bears. Four Big 12 schools have first-year coaches, seven-time defending league champion Kansas is in rebuilding mode and the conference as a whole appears to be down. Baylor is the one exception.
The Bears’ roster features two players — forwards Perry Jones and Quincy Miller — who are projected as top-10 picks in next summer’s NBA Draft. Forwards Quincy Acy and Anthony Jones have pro potential as well. Mix in junior college point guard Pierre Jackson and Boston College transfer Brady Heslip in the backcourt, and Baylor, on paper, touts an arsenal superior to any team in the Big 12.
“We’ve definitely got a good group,” Drew says. “But it takes more than talent to win in this league or any league. It’s all about how your guys play together, how they mesh. Hopefully things will work out for us in that regard.”
Key Bears Stat: 5
The Bears have five players who stand 6'9" or taller. And all of them — Quincy Miller, Perry Jones, Anthony Jones, J'mison Morgan and Cory Jefferson — are expected to either start or contribute significantly.
For the second straight season, the Bears will boast an extraordinary blend of size, length and versatility down low. The most notable name is Perry Jones, who shocked the college basketball world in April when he announced he would bypass the NBA Draft — where he likely would’ve been a top-five pick — to return to school. Jones stands 6'11" and weighs 235 pounds, but he is hardly the typical forward. It’s not uncommon for Jones to bring the ball up the court or handle it on the perimeter before exploding toward the basket. He has excellent touch from midrange but still needs to be more assertive and play with more ferocity. Still, Jones may possess more pure talent than anyone in the college game.
Jones isn’t the only Baylor big man with a multi-faceted game. The 6'9" Miller was ranked as one of the top-10 members of the Class of 2011 by virtually every recruiting service. He has a wide array of moves both inside and outside of the paint and is an excellent long-range shooter. Miller missed his senior season of high school with a torn ACL but is expected to be healthy by the start of the upcoming season.
Returning at small forward is 6'10" senior Anthony Jones, an excellent 3-point shooter and penetrator who, like Perry Jones and Miller, handles the ball extremely well for his size. Acy is a dunk machine who will come off the bench after averaging 12.4 points as a junior. J’mison Morgan, who is 6'11", will also contribute after averaging 12.5 minutes last season.
LaceDarius Dunn, the Big 12’s all-time leading scorer, is gone, and that’s a good thing. Dunn’s poor and often selfish shot selection was one of the main reasons Baylor failed to reach the NCAA Tournament last season. With Dunn out of the mix, forwards such as Perry Jones, Anthony Jones, Miller and Acy will get more scoring opportunities — assuming, of course, that Jackson, Heslip and A.J. Walton get them the ball.
Baylor is hoping Jackson becomes the standout point guard it so sorely lacked in 2010-11. Jackson was the National Junior College Player of the Year at the College of Southern Idaho. His backcourt mate will likely be Heslip, a Canadian who has drawn comparisons to former Bears guard Aaron Bruce. Baylor’s coaches are hoping Heslip will definitely exhibit a “take charge” mentality and become the team’s vocal leader and “glue” that holds everything together. Walton will likely come off the bench along with Cal transfer Gary Franklin. The wild card is freshman Deuce Bello, a high school teammate of Miller’s tabbed by one media outlet as one of the best dunkers in the world.
Drew has orchestrated quite a turnaround in Waco. Less than 10 years after narrowly avoiding the NCAA death penalty following Patrick Dennehy’s murder, Baylor is in prime position to win the program’s first conference title since 1950. The key will be whether Drew can keep his stable of talented players happy and get them to co-exist. There are only so many minutes to go around. The other factor will be whether this group accepts coaching and learns to play with the discipline and structure that have long been missing in Waco. Street-ball won’t cut it in the Big 12.
Big 12 Prediction: 1st
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Sweet 16
Josh Pastner learned last year that relying almost exclusively on first-year players — even first-year players oozing with talent — isn’t as simple as those who ranked Memphis in the Top 25 of most preseason polls must’ve believed. His Tigers struggled before Christmas and after Christmas, limped through the C-USA portion of their schedule and suffered embarrassing losses to SMU, Rice and East Carolina. It was bad.
But then Joe Jackson started playing like the McDonald’s All-American he was supposed to be, and Memphis reeled off three consecutive victories in El Paso to win the C-USA Tournament and earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. A week later, they played Arizona tough before losing at the buzzer. So now Pastner is dealing with high expectations again — the only difference being that those first-year players are now second-year veterans.
“We have 99 percent of our guys back, but we’re not going to worry about other people’s predictions,” Pastner says. “We have to earn it.”
Key Tigers Stat: 2
Josh Pastner lost two assistants this offseason. Glynn Cyprien left to become the associate head coach at Texas A&M, and Willis Wilson is now the head coach at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
One of the few Memphis freshmen who exceeded expectations last year was Tarik Black, a 6'8" forward who entered college as a borderline top-50 recruit and is now projected as a future first-round draft pick. Black averaged 9.1 points and 5.0 rebounds. He’ll start in the middle and be backed up by Stan Simpson — a 6'10" former Illinois player who spent last season averaging 14.0 points and 8.5 rebounds in junior college.
“I think Tarik can be a terrific force inside, but the key to that is going to be us making shots from the perimeter,” Pastner says. “We’re going to need to be a good 3-point shooting team because otherwise the middle will be too clogged.”
Memphis will use two versatile wings at the other forward positions — Wesley Witherspoon and Adonis Thomas. Witherspoon, a 6'9" senior, battled injuries and attitude issues and was buried on the bench for parts of last season. Still, he’s talented, and with proper focus he could be an important piece to Pastner’s puzzle. Thomas is the second straight high-profile local star to enroll at Memphis. He is, like Jackson, a McDonald’s All-American. The 6'6" forward brings a winning pedigree, strong leadership and the all-around talent to be Memphis’ latest one-and-done candidate.
Ferrakohn Hall will add depth in the frontcourt when he becomes eligible in December. The Memphis native is a 6'8" transfer who began his college career at Seton Hall.
Jackson started at point guard for USA Basketball’s U19 team this summer, and he’ll do the same for the Tigers. Pastner’s hope is that the Jackson who averaged 18.7 points during the C-USA Tournament is in uniform, as opposed to the Jackson who struggled so mightily that he was actually replaced in the starting lineup last season.
“I knew it would take some time for him to get it, and he had some ups and downs,” Pastner says. “But Joe got it towards the end of the year and helped us get to the NCAA Tournament, and he played well this summer with USA Basketball, too. So I think he’s going to be good, and we need him to be good.”
Jackson’s backcourt mate is Will Barton, a 6'6" sophomore who also experienced ups and downs last season but emerged as the Tigers’ leading scorer. He averaged 12.3 points and 4.9 rebounds while showing a unique ability to create his own shot.
“Will being a year older is going to benefit us,” Pastner says. “He’s more mature and more focused now, but that’s the case for all of our guys.”
Chris Crawford, Antonio Barton and Charles Carmouche provide depth in the backcourt. All of them are talented enough to start at some point. Together, they’ll allow Pastner to teach lessons and Memphis to endure whatever turned ankles and pulled hamstrings that might pop up.
While struggling to a 10–6 finish in C-USA last season, the Tigers showed that having more talent than everybody in the league guarantees nothing. Everything was new for everybody — from Pastner to Jackson to Barton to Black. But now the coach is a year older and so are the top six scorers, all of whom return. The byproduct should be an easy C-USA title, another trip to the NCAA Tournament and, perhaps, the first Sweet 16 of Pastner’s young career.
“But predictions are for the birds,” Pastner says. “We want action — just production and action and nothing else.”
Conference USA Prediction: 1st
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Sweet 16
Bill Self isn’t sugarcoating the situation. After a 35–3 season and an NCAA Tournament run that ended a win shy of the Final Four, the Kansas basketball coach can’t see his 2011-12 team being any better than last year’s Big 12 championship squad. But that doesn’t mean the Jayhawks will take a step backward, either. “I think we’ll take a step sideways,” Self says.
That certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing in Lawrence, where Kansas has won seven straight Big 12 titles and averaged 33 wins over the last five seasons. Equaling that success in 2011-12 will be a bit more difficult. NBA Lottery picks Marcus and Markieff Morris are gone along with one-and-done Josh Selby and savvy veterans Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed.
Still, even with only one returning starter (point guard Tyshawn Taylor), the Jayhawks are confident that the emergence of forward Thomas Robinson and the offseason strides made by players such as Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford will keep them in the hunt with Baylor, Texas A&M, Missouri and Texas for the top spot in the league standings.
Key Jayhawks Stat: 4
In Bill Self's eight-year tenure, the Jayhawks haev suffered four postseason losses to teams from mid-major conferences. Bucknell (2005), Bradley (2006), Northern Iowa (2010) and VCU (2011) all defeated KU in the NCAA Tournament.
Robinson likely would’ve been a first-round pick in the NBA Draft had he chosen to leave school. Instead, the 6'9", 237-pounder will spend another season enhancing his game under Jayhawks big man coach Danny Manning, who has helped develop seven post players into draft picks in the last five years. The 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds Robinson averaged last season are underwhelming until you consider that he played only 14.6 minutes off the bench. Robinson is a chiseled, athletic specimen who uses his power game to score on worn-down opponents. He and Baylor’s Perry Jones enter the season as the top two candidates for Big 12 Player of the Year.
The problem is that, beyond Robinson, Kansas is as thin in the post as it has been in Self’s eight years in Lawrence. Jeff Withey is a 7-footer who has been limited to mop-up duty the last few seasons. Justin Wesley, the half-brother of former Jayhawks standout Keith Langford, sat out last season after transferring from Lamar, where he averaged 1.2 points as a freshman. Luckily, Self was able to sign 6'8" swingman Kevin Young during the spring. Young started for two seasons (2008-10) at Loyola Marymount before taking a year off to attend junior college. He has two seasons of eligibility remaining.
The Jayhawks aren’t as deep on the perimeter as they’ve been in the past, but they certainly tout a strong one-two punch in Taylor and Johnson. Hailed as one of the fastest guards in the country, Taylor is entering his fourth season as a starter. He averaged 9.3 points and 4.6 assists on a loaded team in 2010-11. His biggest task this season, though, will be taking over the leadership role that was left vacant by the Morris twins. Taylor has had a handful of minor off-court incidents during his time in Lawrence, but his attitude and work ethic were impressive at the end of last season and over the summer. Johnson — who was stuck behind Taylor, Reed, Morningstar and Selby as a sophomore — may have improved more than any Kansas player during the offseason. His 3-point shooting stole the show in the Jayhawks’ annual alumni games and, defensively, he’s proven to be a pest.
The 6'5" Releford was a highly touted recruit when he signed with the Jayhawks, but he’s had to wait his turn behind other talented players with more experience. Now he’ll get his chance as Kansas’ small forward. He’ll likely be pushed by incoming freshman Ben McLemore, the jewel of Self’s 2011 recruiting class. While he’s certainly a talent, McLemore is viewed as a “project player” who may take some time to adjust to the structure and X’s and O’s of Self’s system.
This will be far from one of the best teams of Self’s tenure, but KU will still be good enough to contend for a conference title in what appears will be a down year for the Big 12. Along with a lack of leadership and experience, one of Kansas’ biggest obstacles will be surviving a brutally tough non-league schedule that includes a trip to the Maui Invitational as well as tilts with Kentucky, Ohio State and USC. If Self’s players can make it through that gauntlet with their confidence intact, they’ll be more than capable of doing some damage in the NCAA Tournament.
Big 12 Prediction: 2nd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Sweet 16
In the spring of 2010, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan delivered a blunt message to forward Jon Leuer: The rising senior would have to lead the 2010-11 team. With Leuer gone — he was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the NBA draft in June — the baton has been passed to senior guard Jordan Taylor. A second-team All-American who last season led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.83 (161 assists, 42 turnovers), finished fourth in the Big Ten in scoring (18.1 ppg) and was on the league’s all-defensive team, Taylor will be the most indispensable player on the UW roster this season.
“It is his team,” Purdue coach Matt Painter says of Taylor, who has 51 starts and 100 games played for UW. “Bo’s lead guard — whether it is Kammron Taylor or Trevon Hughes or Devin Harris — he always seems to have that key guy that understands you do not turn the ball over and get (the team) a good shot every time.”
Leuer and Taylor helped UW finish third in the Big Ten — UW was picked as low as seventh — and reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2008. Can Taylor lead UW to greater heights this season? Given the loss of three senior forwards, that appears to be a daunting task. However, there is no doubt that Ryan’s 11th UW team will be Taylor’s to lead.
Key Badgers Stat: 171
The three forwards who must be replaced — Keaton Nankivil, Jon Leuer and Tim Jarmusz — combined to start 171 games over the last two seasons.
The departure of Leuer and Keaton Nankivil means the only proven playmaker is junior Mike Bruesewitz, who can make the Energizer bunny appear lazy. Bruesewitz began to blossom last season and averaged 8.7 points and 6.3 rebounds in three NCAA Tournament games — despite playing on a painful right knee he sprained in the Big Ten Tournament. Bruesewitz has always provided instant energy on both ends of the court, but last season he became a more consistent scoring option by improving his shooting to .471 from .333 as a freshman.
Bruesewitz can’t carry the load alone, however. Junior Jared Berggren and perhaps redshirt freshman Evan Anderson will have to provide low-post scoring and physical play, two traits the Badgers lacked last season.
Berggren, like most of UW’s big men, is comfortable shooting from the 3-point line. However, he is equally at ease playing with his back to the basket and has the best post moves on the team. He must, however, stay out of foul trouble. Last season Berggren averaged one foul every 5.4 minutes.
Anderson displayed a nice mid-range jumper during practice last season. His post moves need work, but he can punish foes with his physical play.
“One thing coach looks for is … we’ve been a little too reliant on jump shots,” Berggren says. “He is always looking for a post presence.”
Senior Rob Wilson, junior Ryan Evans and sophomore Duje Dukan are wild cards. Wilson continued to struggle defensively last season and saw his playing time dip; Evans struggles because he too often tries to force plays on offense; Dukan, a prolific scorer in high school, wasn’t physically ready to compete as a freshman.
Taylor and sophomores Josh Gasser and Ben Brust should give the staff the option of using a three-guard lineup if necessary.
Taylor has improved dramatically since his freshman season and should be one of the top guards in the country. Gasser is a skilled all-around player who started 30 games as a freshman and recorded the first triple-double in program history (10 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) at Northwestern. His only weakness is 3-point shooting (.302).
Brust, who worked on the scout team as a freshman, could provide another scoring option. He has deep range and is tremendous coming off screens and shooting or attacking the basket.
No one was pleased with the forgettable performance in the 61–54 loss to Butler in the Sweet 16. UW had the potential to reach the Final Four for the first time ever under Ryan. For some fans, that loss overshadowed a solid regular-season run, which included handing then-No. 1 Ohio State its first loss. UW can contend for the league title and win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament, but several things need to happen: Taylor must stay healthy; Berggren and Anderson must give UW production on the interior; Bruesewitz must continue his rise; and the Badgers must get some production from an unexpected source.
Big Ten Prediction: 2nd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Sweet 16
The biggest issue facing Xavier this season is managing expectations. After all, Xavier has won five straight A-10 regular-season titles and made the NCAA Tournament 10 times in the last 11 years with four trips to the Sweet 16 and two to the Elite Eight. Coach Chris Mack welcomes back three starters who earned all-conference honors — including A-10 Player of the Year Tu Holloway. And the Musketeers are adding young talent to their experienced and tested upperclassmen.
“There’s a tradition the guys are well aware of,” Mack says. “It actually fuels their motivation over the summer to live up to the expectations, especially as an older player. It’s a healthy pressure on our veterans.”
Key Musketeers Stat: 5
Xavier has won five consecutive A-10 regular-season titles. Ironically, the last year they won the A-10 Tournament (2006) was also the last year they didn't win the regular season.
Xavier has the ability to run multiple bigs with varying bodies and skills at opponents — a tremendous luxury. The frontcourt is held down by massive 7'0" senior Kenny Frease. The honorable mention All-A-10 selection was among the most improved players in the league last season, and Mack believes he can get even better.
“He has to be in great shape, more mobile and athletic and impact us around the basket,” Mack says. “He’s so big other teams won’t be able to handle him if he’s more mobile. He can be a tremendous offensive rebounder if he gets on the glass instead of laying on the other guy’s back when a shot goes up.”
Two 6'7" transfers are expected to make significant contributions. Travis Taylor, who spent his first two years at Monmouth, plays hard and can score around the basket or step out to medium range. Andre Walker is a post-graduate transfer from Vanderbilt who can do a little bit of everything. He isn’t a big scorer, but he handles the ball well and is a terrific passer.
Redshirt freshman Justin Martin, also 6'7", will challenge for playing time. Mack can also turn to a pair of 6'9" players. Jeff Robinson has been productive in spurts, and Griffin McKenzie can step out and shoot the three effectively.
The discussion obviously begins with Holloway, who’s thrived in the lead role. Holloway led the team last year in scoring (19.7 ppg) and the A-10 in assists (5.4 apg). He can fill a stat sheet; so what does Mack want Holloway to do in his senior year?
“He has to be more vocal and be more of a leader,” says the third-year head coach. “He’s always been a hard worker and gotten better each and every year, but I think it’s important to improve his teammates and raise their level of play and their work ethic.”
The conversation doesn’t end there. One of the few areas in which Xavier struggled last season was behind the 3-point line. They shot just .329 and scored only 22.5 percent of their points from beyond the arc (288th nationally). That’s why Mack is particularly excited about the return of Brad Redford, who was one of the nation’s top 3-point shooters as a freshman and sophomore but sat out last season due to a knee injury.
“I tell people all the time he’s the best shooter I’ve ever been around,” Mack says. “It’s uncanny because it’s difficult for him to get his shot off sometimes. But if he’s open, there isn’t another player I’d want shooting.”
The versatile and athletic Mark Lyons earned third-team All-A-10 honors as a sophomore and is the team’s second leading returning scorer and assist man. Dezmine Wells arrives as a 6'4" freshman with a college-ready body. Mack is cautiously optimistic. “We recruited him to be an impact player,” he says, “but there’s a difference in who you are on paper and who you are on the floor.”
Mack, who signed a new contract over the summer to remain at Xavier through the 2017-18 season, feels the excitement surrounding the program. He knows expectations are high, and he embraces the infectious nature of winning.
“We are very well aware that we have a talented group of returning players and newcomers,” says Mack. “We sense the excitement from our fans.”
But Mack also knows that excitement won’t win them one single game, that a sense of entitlement could sink his team’s high aspirations. He knows the clichés of hard work, chemistry and “the little things” are the keys for a deep NCAA Tournament run.
“That’s what makes a great team,” he says. “Certainly we’re talented, and we recognize that, but we need to sacrifice some individual things to reach team goals that we set out.”
A-10 Prediction: 1st
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Sweet 16
Last season, Alabama became the first SEC team to win more than 10 games in league play — the Tide went 12–4 — and not make the NCAA Tournament. Anthony Grant’s club was done in by a bloated RPI (No. 80) that was a product of some bad losses in non-conference play and a very weak SEC West. This season, Alabama shouldn’t have to worry about an NCAA snub. With a strong nucleus that includes three All-SEC candidates — point guard Trevor Releford and forwards Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green — joined by a top-flight recruiting class, the Crimson Tide figure to be among the better teams in the SEC and appear to be a safe bet to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.
Key Crimson Tide Stat: 19
Alabama finished the 2010-11 season undefeated at home, winning all 19 games. The Tide haven't lost at home since February 2010.
The Tide’s front line is led by Green, a 6'8", 225-pounder from Montgomery who bypassed the NBA Draft for his senior season in Tuscaloosa. Green, a former McDonald’s All-American, led the Tide in both scoring (15.5 ppg) and rebounding (7.5 rpg). He responded to an early season suspension by playing the best basketball of his career over the final four months of the season. His size and athleticism make him a difficult cover for opposing big men.
Mitchell emerged as one of the better players in the league during his sophomore season. The 6'6" small forward averaged 16.4 points in SEC games. During one six-game stretch in February, Mitchell averaged 21.5 points while shooting .596 from the field. He has the ability to be a first-team All-SEC performer.
Bama expects an immediate contribution from freshman Nick Jacobs, a 6'9", 250-pound power forward from Atlanta. “He brings a good deal of size and physicality to our frontcourt,” Grant says. “As he continues to develop, he’ll be a guy at the power forward spot for us that brings the physicality and interior scoring that we need.”
Grant also dipped into the junior college ranks for some help, signing Moussa Gueye, a native of Senegal who spent two seasons at Lake Land (Ill.) College. The 7'0" Gueye is raw on the offensive end but should help defensively and on the boards.
Fan favorite Carl Engstrom, a native of Sweden, played in 21 games last year but averaged only 5.3 minutes and did not score against SEC competition.
The youth movement at Alabama began last season as Grant let Releford run the offense from Day 1 as a freshman. The Kansas City native started 36 of 37 games and proved to be a solid scorer (11.0 ppg) and distributor (3.4 apg). He isn’t much of a threat from outside — he hit only 19 3-pointers for the season — but he made over 50 percent of his 2-point field goals because of his ability to get to the basket. Releford also proved to be a pesky defender, ranking third in the league with 1.6 steals per game.
Releford will be flanked on the wing by two freshman shooting guards who come to Alabama with outstanding credentials. Both Trevor Lacey and Levi Randolph were top-50 national recruits who had offers from established national powers.
Lacey, a two-time Mr. Basketball in Alabama, is not a high-level athlete, but he plays with a high basketball IQ and has a nice stroke from the outside. The 6'5" Randolph can handle the ball and, like Lacey, fill it up from the perimeter. Both freshmen should play significant minutes right away.
Ben Eblen played 9.2 minutes per game backing up Releford at the point last season. He isn’t much of a threat offensively. Swingmen Charles Hankerson and Rodney Cooper will battle for time in the rotation. Hankerson played sparingly as a freshman before breaking into the rotation late in the year. He averaged 14.4 minutes in the Tide’s five NIT games.
Alabama will be young and talented — and very exciting to watch. Grant’s team lacks proven depth, but when you’ve got three of the better players in the league on your team, you’ve got a chance to be pretty good.
If the Big 3 remain healthy and one of the two freshman guards — Lacey and/or Randolph — emerges as a scorer, the Crimson Tide could be poised to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
SEC Prediction: 4th
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Sweet 16
And the beat goes on for Marquette University. Looking for their seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, the Golden Eagles head into the 2011-12 season poised to build on last season’s surprise Sweet 16 appearance. That team relied heavily upon the versatility and experience of Jimmy Butler, who was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls. This year’s version of the Golden Eagles will feature a trio of similarly talented and interchangeable players in forwards Jae Crowder and Jamil Wilson and guard Darius Johnson-Odom.
Key Golden Eagles Stat: 64
Marquette received an at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament despite an RPI of 64. Only USC (67) had a worse RPI among the at-large pool.
Coach Buzz Williams used his connections within the junior college circuit to land Crowder, a 6'6" forward who was billed coming in as a virtual clone of Lazar Hayward, an undersized but tough inside-out player who preceded Butler as a first-round pick.
Crowder lived up to the hype for the most part, averaging 11.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while also knocking down 42 3-pointers. He’ll need to up those numbers this year while also becoming much better on the defensive end, as his penchant for getting into early foul trouble a year ago left MU shorthanded up front on a number of occasions.
Giving Williams and MU more firepower alongside Crowder will be Wilson, a native of nearby Racine, Wis., who left Oregon after a moderately successful freshman year in 2009-10. He used his redshirt year at MU to add both toughness as well as size to his 6'7", 220-pound frame, and he enters his first competitive season with the Golden Eagles expected to play anywhere from center in a small lineup to point guard, depending upon what Williams needs at the time.
Providing depth will be sophomore shooter Jamail Jones and freshman Juan Anderson, both of whom are athletic wings.
In the pivot, MU will hope for more progress from both junior Chris Otule and sophomore Davante Gardner, both of whom have developed from major projects into a promising two-headed monster at center. The 6'11", 265-pound Otule gives MU some intimidating size and shot-blocking capability on the defensive end and on the boards. The 6'8", 290-pound Gardner, meanwhile, is a surprisingly adept scorer on the block despite both height and quickness limitations.
Getting both to play at a consistently high level will be key for an MU team that has struggled for years against the bigger, stronger teams the Big East typically has to offer.
Johnson-Odom, a second team All-Big East selection as a junior, is poised to build on his success after a productive summer that saw him turn heads at LeBron James’ Nike Skills camp. The lefthander has become almost as adept at attacking the basket as he is at pulling up from long range, and the 15.8 points per game and 71 3-pointers he made last season should jump even further as Williams now puts the offensive onus on his shoulders.
Junior Cadougan enters as the unquestioned favorite to start at point guard. He gives the Golden Eagles their first true pass-first floor general in a few seasons, a trait the team seemed to thrive upon last year when he played in a backup role. His shot is improving, but with gunners like Crowder, Johnson-Odom and incoming freshman Todd Mayo (yes, O.J. Mayo’s brother) expected to fill that role, Cadougan will do well to continue to focus on distributing while also penetrating the lane when possible.
Adding depth in the backcourt will be Vander Blue, a highly rated in-state recruit who suffered through a forgettable freshman campaign, as well as incoming freshman Derrick Wilson, an undersized yet tough combo guard. Blue should earn plenty of minutes again based on his ability to defend multiple positions.
Last season’s Sweet 16 appearance energized a fan base that hadn’t experienced that type of excitement since 2003, when Dwyane Wade led the Golden Eagles to the Final Four. It also raises the expectation level heading into Year 4 of Williams’ tenure. Once again courted in the offseason by Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M, he received a big raise to stay in Milwaukee.
Now, with as much talent as he’s had, not to mention a frontcourt that finally looks like it will be able to hold its own against the Big East’s best, the belief is that the Golden Eagles should be able to make another deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Big East Prediction: 5th
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out
After playing in the NCAA Tournament last year for the first time since 2005, Cincinnati is now fully healed and ready to retake its place as one of the better programs in the country. Coach Mick Cronin, who was rewarded with a new six-year contract worth $1.25 million per year, begins his sixth season with a mix of veterans — led by senior forward Yancy Gates — a top-25 recruiting class and several young players with enough experience to flourish in the Big East.
“We have great potential,” Cronin says. “The key for us is going to be can we become the same defensive team or better than we were a year ago because that’s why we won. If you’re going to try to be a highly successful program, you’ve got to be able to play defense. I love our talent and our returning guys but we’ve got to have the new guys fill some roles for us.”
The Bearcats lost five scholarship seniors and a lot of experience from last year’s 26–9 team, but only starting forward Rashad Bishop could be considered a major loss. The 2011-12 team should be more talented overall and could be a factor in the Big East if several of the incoming freshmen — most notably forwards Jermaine Sanders and Shaquille Thomas — can make an immediate impact.
Key Bearcats Stat: 26
The Bearcats won 26 games last season, their highest total since 2001-02, when Steve Logan led them to a 31-4 record.
At 6'9", 265 pounds, Gates has been an above-average player the past few years but has yet to take that next step to stardom. The Bearcats are hoping that will happen this season after he averaged 11.9 points and 6.9 rebounds a year ago. He’ll be joined on the front line by newcomer Cheikh Mbodj, a 6'9" forward with solid offensive skills from Grayson (Texas) College and Dakar, Senegal.
Kelvin Gaines, a 6'10" post player, was redshirted as a freshman last year and is not yet polished offensively, but he could provide a shot-blocking presence the Bearcats sorely need.
Sophomore Justin Jackson, a long-limbed 6'8" forward who plays with a lot of energy, finishes well around the basket, but he needs to improve his overall offensive skills. Sophomore Sean Kilpatrick, who made the Big East All-Rookie team last year, is a swing player who averaged 9.7 points last year and should assume more of the offensive burden after coming off the bench for most of last season.
Junior point guard Cashmere Wright, who arrived with great expectations, has been brilliant at times, but he’s also been inconsistent as he has struggled with a knee injury that sidelined him for his entire freshman season. When Wright is healthy, he has the quickness to get to the rim, though he needs to do a better job of finishing once he arrives there. He’s also a capable 3-point shooter and ball-handler. If he can stay healthy, he could blossom into one of the Big East’s top point guards.
“If he’s full strength, I really like our chances,” Cronin says. “To have a guy that’s in his fourth year of college, and his third year playing, and he’s a talented guy, we all saw when he was healthy and he was at his best, how good he was at times.”
Senior Dion Dixon, who averaged 11.6 points last season, has developed into a reliable 3-point shooter and a leader on offense. Junior JaQuon Parker, who played very little as a sophomore, worked hard during the offseason and could provide the Bearcats with another veteran scoring presence in the backcourt.
Last year was a breakthrough for the Bearcats, who satisfied their fans by returning to the NCAA Tournament, where they had landed for 14 straight years before Bob Huggins was fired. The key now is for the program to continue to grow. From a pure talent standpoint, this team should be better than last year’s, but with so many newcomers it will be difficult to replicate the chemistry and resiliency that served Cincinnati so well last year.
If Cronin can get the newcomers to buy into the team concept the way last year’s seniors did, and if he can teach them to play the same inspired defense that was the Bearcats’ trademark, Cincinnati could go further than the second round of the NCAA Tournament. For that to happen, Wright must stay healthy, and Gates must become a dominant player.
Big East Prediction: 6th
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out
Michigan State will reload with an intriguing blend of talented newcomers in the backcourt and benefit from proven warriors in the frontcourt. Look for the Spartans to extend their streak of 14 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and reside in the upper half of the Big Ten, but Tom Izzo will have to wait a year or two for a run at a seventh Final Four.
The Spartans lose talented but enigmatic guards Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers from last year’s team, which was a preseason top-10 squad but finished with more losses (15) than any Michigan State team since Izzo’s first season as head coach in 1996.
“I have enjoyed this team more, already,” Izzo says. “We have some talent, some young guys who want to learn, want to get better. They are going to listen. They are going to be grittier. I think we are going to have better leadership and togetherness.”
Senior power forward Draymond Green has played in a pair of Final Fours and is driven to make the Spartans a national factor again. He will need sophomore combo guard Keith Appling and sophomore post player Adreian Payne to elevate their games to star status. Both are capable of it. Major contributions are likely from freshman forward Branden Dawson and skillful guard Brandon Wood, a senior one-year transfer from Valparaiso.
Key Spartans Stat: 10
Michigan State has won at least one NCAA Tournament game in 10 of the last 14 seasons.
Green is one of the best all-around power forwards in the college game. With crafty finishing ability around the rim, and 36.6 percent accuracy from 3-point range, he causes matchup problems and can deliver the drive and dish. The two-time third-team All-Big Ten honoree has 18 career double-doubles and a pair of triple-doubles. He needs to give better effort away from the ball.
“He has to be better defensively,” Izzo says. “That’s a big key. Last year we had to play him too many minutes. He is in better shape now.”
Delvon Roe, a gifted power forward who battled injuries throughout his career in East Lansing, was forced to retire from basketball in September due to ongoing issues with his knees. Roe had 73 career starts. His toughness and experience will be sorely missed.
The Spartans need the tall and athletic Payne to tap into his immense talent. At 6'10", Payne can score in the post, or facing up with style and grace. He was slowed by a shoulder injury prior to his freshman year but is capable of a major breakthrough. With Roe no longer able to play, the pressure is on Payne to produce.
“I think Payne is going to be much improved,” Izzo says. “He has worked his tail off. He’s into it.”
Wide-bodied junior Derrick Nix started for the 2010 Final Four team but saw his role reduced as he put on bad weight. He’s tough, smart and strong, with good moves and touch when in deep, and that’s when he has been overweight. The 2011-12 version of Nix might stun people, if he maintains better physical condition.
Appling deferred to veterans last year, but he will put his combo guard gifts on display as a sophomore. He can run the point, or swing to the 2 and light it up from range. He will benefit from summer experience with Team USA’s U19 squad.
Newcomers Travis Trice and Wood will audition as point guards. If one (or both) is adept at running the team, that could enable Appling to do more on the wing.
Wood, a good leaper who can shoot from 3-point range, averaged 16.7 points last year as a first-team All-Horizon League selection at Valparaiso. Dawson, a McDonald’s All-American, might be the best rebounding wing player Izzo has ever signed.
“I think Trice and Dawson are going to help us immediately,” Izzo says.
Although the Spartans are relying on several unproven ingredients, their potential ceiling is still high, allowing Michigan State fans legitimate reasons to dream.
“I haven’t had this many questions and x-factors in a season in the last 12 or 13 years,” Izzo says. “There are a lot of unknowns. Who is going to be the point now? Is he going to adapt? If Nix keeps his weight down, if the other guys grow like I think they will — Adreian Payne especially — I think we have a chance to be real good. If they don’t, we’ll be a decent team and that will be it.”
Big Ten Prediction: 3rd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out
No one would blame Leonard Hamilton and the Florida State men’s basketball team if they took some time to sit back and cherish the successes of the 2010-11 campaign. The Seminoles staked their claim as the third-best program in the ACC, behind only Duke and North Carolina, and they reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament (for the first time since 1992). Those are significant accomplishments for a Florida State program that had languished near the ACC cellar for several years before the Hamilton-led resurgence.
Yet, when talk in the Seminoles’ practice facility turns to last year, the general feeling is one of disappointment and frustration. “There was a certain amount of pain that these guys felt in the game that we lost,” Hamilton explains, referring to the Seminoles’ Sweet 16 defeat (in overtime) to VCU. “And that seems to be the driving factor.”
That motivation, combined with perhaps the most talented and experienced team he has fielded in his 10 years in Tallahassee, has Hamilton and his players believing that the coming season could be their best yet.
“Over the last six years, it’s generally accepted that we’re the third-winningest program in the ACC,” Hamilton says. “That’s fine if you are satisfied with being third. … We see no reason that we can’t be No. 1. We’re not going to be content with just being the third-winningest program in the ACC.”
Key Seminoles Stat: 51
It's been 51 years since a team in the ACC defended as well as Florida State did last season. The Seminoles led the nation in field goal percentage defense, as opponents shot 36.3 percent from the field.
There is no better indication of Hamilton’s ability to land quality big men than the fact that the Seminoles have had three frontcourt players selected in the last two NBA Drafts — forward Chris Singleton (first round, 2011), center Solomon Alabi (second round, 2010) and forward Ryan Reid (second round, 2010). And yet, this area remains the strength of the team.
Power forward Bernard James, who grabbed headlines initially because of his amazing personal story (he was a high school dropout who developed an affinity for basketball during six years in the Air Force), blossomed into a major force during the second half of the season. In only his third year of organized basketball, the junior college transfer finished the season with modest numbers (8.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.4 bpg), but he had some huge games down the stretch, including a double-double in the Seminoles’ NCAA Tournament upset of Notre Dame. And James’ teammates say he has shown even greater progress during offseason workouts and pickup games.
“His thing was never skill — it was getting to know the game,” senior shooting guard Deividas Dulkys says. “He hasn’t played a lot of competitive basketball. He’s getting so much better.”
“The leap you’re going to see in B.J. next year is gonna be tremendous,” senior guard Luke Loucks says. “It’s gonna be a whole different ballgame.”
FSU also returns 7-footer Jon Kreft and 6'11" Xavier Gibson at center, as well as several quality forwards, including emerging sophomore Okaro White.
As strange as it might sound, the Seminoles’ chances for another strong postseason could hinge upon the abilities of a point guard who will be playing for his third college in five years.
Former Iowa and Arkansas starter Jeff Peterson, who left each school after coaching changes, will be eligible to play immediately because he already has earned his bachelor’s degree. And with FSU’s uncertainties at the point — Derwin Kitchen graduated and there was no clear-cut replacement — Peterson will have an opportunity to step right in.
The Seminoles are loaded with experience in the backcourt, with Loucks, Dulkys, junior Michael Snaer and sophomore Ian Miller all returning. Miller might be the only one with star potential, though; he is an exceptional scorer but needs to improve his defense.
As experienced and talented as the Seminoles are, they clearly will have a tough time knocking North Carolina and Duke from their perch atop the ACC. The Tar Heels will be projected by many to win the 2012 national title, and the Blue Devils won’t be far behind. Yet Hamilton and his players insist they are closing the gap.
“I know a lot of our fans were excited about the Sweet 16,” Loucks says. “But we’re sitting back looking at it like, ‘Man, that could have been an NCAA championship — not a Sweet 16.’ A Sweet 16 is good, but in the end, we still haven’t won anything. We want a championship.”
ACC Prediction: 3rd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out
During the summer, new Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy took his team on a 10-day trip to Switzerland and France, where the Aggies played exhibition games and toured landmarks like Paris’ Eiffel Tower. Kennedy believes the tower tour will provide some foreshadowing. He fully intends on taking A&M to unprecedented heights. “My goal here is to win national championships,” says Kennedy, who coached the previous five seasons at Murray State. “(A&M women’s coach Gary) Blair was able to get a (national) championship here (last season). We need to be the next team that gets a championship here. How do you do that? You win Big 12 championships, and you put yourself in a position to win national championships.”
Kennedy inherits a program that has advanced to six consecutive NCAA Tournaments. He also assumes control of a roster that returns three starters, including six of the top eight scorers, and a couple of potential impact newcomers.
Realistically, the Aggies don’t appear to have enough overall talent yet to duplicate what the A&M women did, but it would not be too surprising to see Kennedy and Co. scale some lofty heights during March. Just as they did last summer.
Key Aggies Stat: 51
Texas A&M has 51 Big 12 victories since 2007. Prior to that, the Aggies had totaled only 43 victories in the first 10 years of Big 12 play.
Athletic forward David Loubeau considered entering the 2011 NBA Draft before deciding to return for his senior season. It was probably a wise decision, as the Miami native had an up-and-down junior year. While he averaged 11.8 points per game — second-highest on the squad — and ranked in the top three on the team in blocks, field goal percentage, free throw percentage and rebounds, Loubeau also scored seven points or fewer in five regular-season Big 12 games. “I’d like to be a lot more consistent this year,” Loubeau says. “That’s a top priority.”
Leading scorer Khris Middleton has identical goals. In his sophomore season, the slender, smooth-shooting swingman occasionally took over games. In an overtime win against Arkansas, he scored 31 and added 28 in an overtime victory over Missouri. But physical defenders occasionally took Middleton out of his game. In a home loss to Texas, he was 0-of-9 from the floor and did not score. Middleton needs to be more assertive, and Loubeau must become a dependable go-to scorer for the Aggies to take the next step.
Likewise, the tremendously athletic Ray Turner needs to add to his offensive game. Turner, who showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman, injured an ankle last year and averaged only 4.0 points and 3.2 rebounds. Turner possesses the athleticism to be a great shot-blocker and solid scorer, while sophomore Kourtney Roberson has the frame (6'9", 235) and tenacity to be an enforcer. Roberson was the top freshman last year, averaging 5.6 points and 3.8 rebounds, while fellow freshman Keith Davis made steady progress as the season unfolded.
Starting point guard Dash Harris returns for his senior season, and the Aggies are hopeful that he will be a much better scoring threat. Harris had surgery on his right (shooting) wrist in the summer of 2010, and the injury hampered his shot, as he connected on only 26.8 percent from the floor and 16.7 percent from 3-point range. As a result, defenses sagged off him and dared Harris to shoot. If he can’t make more shots, A&M will turn to true freshman Jamal Branch, a talented playmaker who can score in a variety of ways, for more minutes.
The Aggies lose clutch shooter B.J. Holmes, but they may be more versatile with the addition of transfer Elston Turner. At 6'4", Turner provides more size than the 5'11" Holmes. Toward the end of his sophomore season (2009-10) at Washington, Turner showed he could shoot much like Holmes, draining 54.5 percent of his 3-point attempts in NCAA Tournament games. A&M is also hopeful that junior Naji Hibbert can have a breakthrough season. He’s played in 67 games but has only shown glimpses of being an impact player.
Mark Turgeon didn’t leave the cupboard bare when he departed for Maryland. In fact, this appears to be one of the more athletic teams A&M has fielded, perfectly suited for Kennedy’s more up-tempo offense and pressure-oriented defense. Plenty of questions still must be addressed, especially in the backcourt. But this is a program that has won at least 24 games five straight years. Kennedy’s first team in Aggieland is quite capable of matching that, contending for an upper-echelon spot in the Big 12 and making a nice run in March.
Big 12 Prediction: 3rd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out
The mood among Missouri basketball fans was a blend of disappointment and disbelief when they learned athletic director Mike Alden had tapped Miami’s Frank Haith to succeed Mike Anderson last April. Only days earlier, they’d started dreaming about Purdue’s Matt Painter, a three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year, taking the reins, but after taking 24 hours to mull over a move to Columbia, Mo., he signed a lucrative extension to remain at his alma mater.
So Alden turned to Haith, thought to be on the hot seat with the Hurricanes after seven seasons that included one NCAA Tournament appearance and a 43–69 mark against ACC competition. Most fans wondered why they should believe he’d fare any better in the Big 12.
That still might be a reasonable question to ask long term. But Haith, a one-time understudy of Rick Barnes at Texas, is set up fairly well for success in his first season at Missouri. The Tigers feature a senior-laden nucleus, highlighted by first-team All-Big 12 guard Marcus Denmon, that reached the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season.
Key Tigers Stat: 24
With 24 more victories, seniors Marcus Denmon, Laurence Bowers, Kim English and Steve Moore will make up the winningest class in Missouri history. They have won 77 games in their first three years.
Haith prefers attacking opponents inside-out, a change from Anderson’s more wide open motion attack. The shift could benefit senior Ricardo Ratliffe, who showed an effective back-to-the-basket game last season when teammates looked to him on the low block. The 6'9" Ratliffe isn’t overly athletic, which can prove limiting against taller defenders.
The Tigers suffered a significant setback in early October when high-flying senior Laurence Bowers went down with a torn ACL in a pickup game. Bowers, a lightly recruited Memphis native, had developed into one of the top big men in the Big 12 — a force on both ends of the court.
Bowers’ absence will require senior Steve Moore to make a larger-than-expected contribution. He provides good size and is a sound, albeit slow-footed, defender. He was used primarily as a screener in his limited time (11.4 mpg) last season, but he will be asked to contribute a bit more on the offensive end in his final season.
Redshirt freshman Kadeem Green, a native of Canada who is finally healthy after rupturing his Achilles tendon as a high school senior, is raw but could prove useful off the bench because of his shot-blocking skills.
Denmon, a breakout star last season when he averaged 16.9 points, was quite simply one of the most efficient players in the country, shooting 50 percent from the field and 44.8 percent from 3-point range while committing 32 turnovers in 34 games. A Big 12 Player of the Year candidate, Denmon will be even harder to guard if he can incorporate a mid-range jumper into his game with more regularity.
Denmon is sure to see more attention, so the Tigers will need a better year from classmate Kim English, who saw his scoring average drop from 14.0 points as a sophomore to 10.0 last season. Never a high-percentage shooter, he shot a career-low 36.6 percent from the floor.
The Tigers have solid options directing the offense in junior Michael Dixon and sophomore Phil Pressey. The 6'1" Dixon was one of the Big 12’s leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio and averaged 10.3 points. The 5'10" Pressey, a crafty playmaker with exceptional quickness, showed a better than expected jumper, hitting 41.8 percent of his 3-point attempts in league play. Their lack of size can hurt defensively as they sometimes struggle to keep opposing guards out of the paint.
Senior Matt Pressey should provide depth on the wing.
Missouri appears to have plenty of offensive punch, as it did last season when the team ranked 10th nationally in scoring (80.8 ppg). But how good the Tigers can be will depend on how quickly they adjust to the slower pace Haith will have them playing and if they can do a better job rebounding and getting stops. During Big 12 play, they were outrebounded by an average of five per game and allowed opponents to shoot better than 45 percent from the field. If the new coach can shore up those weaknesses, Missouri has enough talent and experience to contend in a rebuilding Big 12. Anything less than an NCAA Tournament appearance would be a disappointment, and seniors Denmon and English — part of the Tigers’ Elite Eight team in 2009 — would really like to make a long run in their final college season.
Big 12 Prediction: 4th
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out
Sean Miller restored Arizona to prominence with unexpected swiftness, requiring two seasons to turn the Wildcats into Pac-10 champions and 30-game winners. Yet the offseason was marked with uncertainty. Miller briefly pursued the coaching vacancy at Maryland; Pac-10 Player of the Year Derrick Williams left school, opting for the NBA Draft; and starting point guard Lamont “Momo” Jones transferred to Iona.
But Miller has recruited so well since moving to Tucson in the spring of 2009 that the Wildcats are unlikely to miss Jones, and they have enough depth and incoming talent to contend for the first Pac-12 title even without Williams. “We’re going to continue to win,” says junior forward Solomon Hill. “This is just the start of another long run at Arizona.”
After flirting with Maryland, Miller accepted a contract extension through 2015-16 and, in a burst of damage control, assured Arizona fans that he would remain in Tucson “unconditionally” and “for the long haul.”
This was met with great relief in Tucson, which remains edgy following a bumpy coaching transition from Lute Olson to Kevin O’Neill to Russ Pennell and finally to Miller.
“We’re not yet where we’re going to get,” says Miller. “We’re going to have more talented teams, and more experienced teams, than the one that reached the Elite Eight.”
Arizona was a failed 3-point attempt from beating eventual national champion UConn and advancing to the Final Four. Its roster is stocked at levels typical of Olson’s glory days.
Miller is not taking his foot from the accelerator. He donated $250,000 of a $3 million project to help the school add a basketball-only strength and conditioning center in its relatively new practice arena adjacent to McKale Center. By doing so, he insisted that all of his players spend the summer in Tucson to work out together. “It’s easier to work in the summer knowing what the prize is,” he says. “Once you’ve had a taste of success, as we did, you’d be surprised how eager and hungry all of our guys are to get back to that level.”
Key Wildcats Stat: 34
Since 1988, Arizona has had 34 players selected in the NBA Draft, the most in the nation in that period. Fifteen of those have been first-round choices.
Seven players will compete for three spots, including the one vacated by Williams. Juniors Kevin Parrom and Hill are interchangeable and versatile, playing on the wing and inside. Both have averaged at least 20 minutes per game in each of the past two season and seem ready to become all-conference-type players.
They will be in a mix with senior Jesse Perry, whose first season in the Pac-10 was a success. In about 20 minutes per game, Perry averaged 6.6 points and 4.4 rebounds and was a useful defensive player.
The most intriguing inside player is 6'11" junior Kyryl Natyazhko, who has now played 69 college games and will be given a chance for an expanded role as a defensive player, screen-setter and rebounder. He has a surprisingly good shooting touch from 12 to 18 feet.
Freshmen Sidiki Johnson and Angelo Chol are expected to challenge for immediate playing time, pushing Parrom, Hill, Perry and Natyazhko.
With Jones gone, Arizona loses an aggressive, vocal player who often got by as much on bravado as he did talent. It seemed to work with such a young team. But now that sophomore combo guard Jordin Mayes appears ready to take on an expanded role, challenging senior Kyle Fogg for minutes, Jones became expendable. Mayes is a skilled 3-point shooter and ball-handler. Fogg is the club’s defensive stopper and a reliable scorer who has 85 career starts. Senior Brendon Lavender, a role player, is the team’s top 3-point shooter, according to Miller
Arizona’s two marquee newcomers are point guard Josiah Turner and shooting guard Nick Johnson, a pair of top-30 national recruits who could play their way into the starting lineup.
Miller’s third Arizona team has a roster that goes 11 deep and doesn’t appear to have many holes. The most telling challenge will be how long it takes the four freshmen to become capable Pac-12 performers. But even if the process takes a bit longer than expected, Miller can lean on seven returning players with considerable NCAA Tournament experience.
Don’t look for the star-power from one player the way Williams led the team last year. This time, if Arizona has a star or two, it is likely to be a freshman guard.
Pac-12 Prediction: 3rd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out
They weren’t exactly pouring champagne around Westwood last year, but after UCLA rebounded from one of its worst seasons in six decades, the bubbly might just be back on ice. And with Derrick Williams and a host of other top players in the Pac-12 off to the NBA, Ben Howland and Co. might be set to uncork another conference championship. While the Bruins weren’t immune to the latest league-wide jettison of talent — they lost junior shooting guard Malcolm Lee and sophomore small forward Tyler Honeycutt to the NBA — they return budding big man Joshua Smith, feisty power forward Reeves Nelson and steady senior point guard Lazeric Jones, while adding former North Carolina forwards David and Travis Wear.
The key will be backcourt depth, as a slew of transfers and recruiting misfortunes has landed Howland in precarious territory. If he’s able to navigate a traveling road show as Pauley Pavilion undergoes renovations, Howland could be looking at his first league championship since winning three straight from 2006-08.
Key Bruins Stat: 0
With Pauley Pavilion undergoing long-overdue rennovations, the Bruins will play precisely zero true home games as they take their show on the road.
If Smith is able to spend more time cleaning the glass and less time cleaning his plate, he could be up for conference Player of the Year honors come season’s end. After a freshman season in which he dazzled with his raw power and savvy around the basket, Smith was called upon to shed even more weight in order to boost his minutes and productivity. But he reportedly gained 10 pounds over the offseason, and it seems that the extra pounds may keep him from reaching his full potential.
Nelson, meanwhile, is one of the top physical specimens in the game and gets every last drop of production out of his 6'8", 235-pound frame. One of the more intimidating players in the conference, with an icy stare and a snarl to match, Nelson was at times a one-man wrecking crew for the Bruins, boasting 12 double-doubles. Nelson plays with a chip on his shoulder, and if he can harness his frustrations into positive energy, he’ll also be in the conference POY race.
That is, if he can fend off the Tobacco Road Twins, David and Travis Wear, the formerly highly coveted forwards who spent a year with the Tar Heels before heading back out west. The Wears grew weary of the Carolina hoops scene and longed to return home, to Howland’s delight, as they bring a pair of big bodies with fundamental skills. Their numbers weren’t overwhelming with UNC, but they are expected to make an instant impact in Howland’s deliberate system, and along with backup center Anthony Stover and power forward Brendan Lane, they’ll add crucial depth.
Hailed as one of the jewels in what was expected to be a game-changing recruiting class in 2008 — alongside Lee, Jrue Holiday, Drew Gordon and J’mison “Bobo” Morgan — Jerime Anderson was projected to play a major role for the Bruins throughout his career. Now the only one of the five to remain, Anderson will indeed determine UCLA’s fate this year, but for all the wrong reasons. Anderson was arrested on charges of grand theft after allegedly stealing a laptop on campus in late July, and his status for the season is in doubt.
Now the onus is on Jones to blossom into a top point guard in the conference, which he showed flashes of doing before numerous bumps and bruises caught up to him late in the year. The former junior college standout averaged 9.1 points and a team-high 3.6 assists but shot only 38.6 percent from the field as a nagging wrist injury altered his release. Fellow junior college transfer De’End Parker could see extended time at point guard if Howland throws the book at Anderson, but Parker is more natural at the off-guard and small forward spots.
Freshman Norman Powell is in line for major minutes at shooting guard.
If Lee and Honeycutt had returned, the Bruins could have been looking at another Final Four run for Howland; as it stands, UCLA should be projected to win the inaugural Pac-12 championship with the league’s top frontcourt, although the lack of backcourt depth will be a concern.
But after a 14–18 season in 2009-10, UCLA fans are understandably enthused that the downfall did not spiral even further, and that the Bruins appear to be heading back to the top of the conference standings.
Pac-12 Prediction: 1st
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out
A year ago, after losing four senior starters from the school’s first Pac-10 championship team in a half-century, the Golden Bears were expected to finish near the bottom of the conference. They wound up tied for fourth, and with four starters back this time, no one is counting them out again. “One would assume, if we improve a little bit, we should be able to make a little stronger push,” coach Mike Montgomery says.
The Bears have tough-minded seniors in Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp and a budding star in sophomore Allen Crabbe. How far they climb the Pac-12 ladder will depend on their ability to match up in the frontcourt and develop better depth than a year ago.
But the backcourt is excellent, no team in the league has more experience, and Montgomery provides an edge on the bench in almost every game. Don’t be surprised when the Golden Bears return to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four seasons.
Key Golden Bears Stat: 82.9
The Golden Bears return 82.9 percent of their scoring from 2010-11 conference play. No team in the Pac-12 can match that number.
Kamp may not be quite 6'8" like he’s listed, but he’s smart, tough and efficient. He played all 55 minutes and scored 33 points in a triple-overtime loss to Arizona. “We ran him into the ground last year,” says Montgomery, noting that Kamp needed much of the spring to heal up. “We expect him to still have a leadership role and be a very effective player in our league.”
The Bears need a leap forward from sophomore forward Richard Solomon, who is quick and athletic but must develop a back-to-the-basket game. “Richard has got to be better,” says Montgomery. “He’s young, and he will be better.”
Junior Bak Bak has made slow progress, but he will be the first post player off the bench. He must become a player the Bears can depend on. Freshmen David Kravish and Christian Behrens will get the opportunity to show what they can do from the start. Junior walk-on Robert Thurman is the Bears’ only true center.
The Bears feature two all-conference caliber players at the wings in Gutierrez and Crabbe. Gutierrez has evolved from purely a defensive pest to an all-around talent. He plays with a fast motor, loves to disrupt the opponent’s flow and has steadily improved his offense to the point where he scored 34 points in a win over UCLA last season. “Jorge gets about all the mileage out of himself that he can,” Montgomery says. “He does so many things to help you win.”
While Gutierrez perhaps has been underrated, Crabbe earned Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors last season after averaging 16.4 points in conference play, including 30 in a win over Washington State. He owns a great perimeter stroke and showed signs of being more effective off the dribble.
Brandon Smith took over the point after freshman Gary Franklin Jr., transferred one game into the Pac-10 schedule. Smith solidified the club, allowing everyone to settle into roles that made the offense more efficient. “Brandon really saved our bacon,” Montgomery says.
Sophomore Justin Cobbs, a transfer from Minnesota, can play either guard spot. Sophomore Emerson Murray hopes to be quicker after offseason surgery to have a plate removed from his foot. Alex Rossi, regarded as an excellent 3-point shooter, returns after sitting out last season with groin and hernia ailments.
The Bears got the chance to test-drive their new model during an August tour of Northern Europe, which afforded them 10 extra days of practice and five exhibition games. Montgomery wanted to see how the team would function without 6'7" widebody Markhuri Sanders-Frison, the club’s only departed senior. He wanted a look at Solomon’s progress, and he got his first glimpse of what he can expect from his two freshman forwards, Kravish and Behrens.
Montgomery acknowledges that there are variables that could impact how the season unfolds. “Depth was an issue for us last year,” he says. “We need Rossi to be able to play. We need Emerson to come back strong. Harper has to be 100 percent. Right now, we don’t know those things.”
Even assuming good health, Cal won’t overpower most Pac-12 foes. But there is a mix of grit, smarts, experience and skill that should keep the Bears near the top of the conference and punch their ticket for the NCAA Tournament.
Pac-12 Prediction: 2nd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out
Tony La Russa poo-poo'd the bullpen phone debacle that may have cost the St. Louis Cardinals game five of the 2011 World Series against the Texas Rangers. In his mind it was not that big of a deal, but seeing as it was the biggest game of the series (so far), it seems like kind of a huge mistake to us.
So here's how it seems like that Tony La Russa call to the bullpen went. Sounds about right.
by Josh Kipnis
My favorite baseball colloquialism to call out to a teammate at the plate is “Right man, right spot.” It is the ultimate pick-me-up; it says, you are the man for the job and the time to do that job is now.
Going into the potential last game of the World Series, the Texas Rangers have taken this motto to heart in every one of their wins in this big showdown.
Texas has essentially trailed the entire series. The St. Louis Cardinals captured an early series lead in Game 1 and it looked as though the Cardinals’ pitching was going to continue the dominance they have displayed all postseason. But the Rangers proved what is possible with just three outs left in a game. Trailing 1-0 in the top of the 9th, Ian Kinsler hit a single, stole a rare base off catcher Yadier Molina, and was later driven in on Josh Hamilton’s sacrifice fly. The very next batter, Michael Young, drove in the go-ahead run on a sac fly of his own. The right men at the right time.
The next two games proved to be the most lopsided of the series. Albert Pujols put on a clinic in Game 3, arguing his case as Senor Octobre and becoming the third player in MLB history to have three bombs in a World Series game. Game 4, however, Texas' pitcher Derek Holland took center stage and watched the roses fall to his feet in his 2-hit, 0 ER dominant performance.
And in Game 5, the Rangers synced their watches once more. Trailing 2-0, a pair of solo home runs by Adrian Beltre and Mitch Moreland put Texas back in striking distance. With the game still tied in the bottom of the 8th, Mike Napoli continued his tear on the Redbirds by smashing a 2-RBI double to right center, sealing the deal for Texas.
In a game where timing is everything, the Rangers’ game was as sound and smooth as Beethoven’s 5th, while the Cardinals’ sounded more like nails on a chalkboard.
The Cardinals were a pitiful one for twelve with runners in scoring position last night. St. Louis had a total of seventeen base runners but were only able to send two all the way home. The Cardinals stranded runners on second and third in the 5th, 6th, and 7th inning, while also stranding one on second in the 8th. If you have that many opportunities to score, you have to take advantage-you have to convert.
“We did have a lot of chances,” said Lance Berkman. “But for whatever reason, we didn’t capitalize. If you’re going to beat a good team at their ballpark, you’ve got to capitalize when you have the opportunity.”
Expect the Cardinals to turn this demise around; but nevertheless, if they repeat this performance, if they are unable to string those hits together, this series will be over Wednesday night-crowning the Texas Rangers as World Champs for the very first time.
If you haven't been to Tebowing.com, then this post probably doesn't make much sense. If you don't know, Tebowing is taking a photograph of yourself in the Tebow kneeling pose. It's sort of like planking, except with Tebow. And since it's sort of silly, we decided to take it a step further and create a gallery of something we call Teblowing (which is pretty self-explanatory.)
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Defections have hit the Big East hard over the last few months and it appears the conference is going to lose another team: West Virginia has decided to leave the Big East for the Big 12. With Missouri all set to become the 14th member of the SEC, the addition of the Mountaineers returns the Big 12 to 10 members.
West Virginia’s arrival date into the Big 12 is uncertain. The Big East plans to make Syracuse and Pittsburgh honor the conference’s 27-month waiting period to leave for the ACC, so it’s likely the Mountaineers will have to follow the same path. In other words, it could be a few years before West Virginia actually plays its first Big 12 game.
Losing West Virginia is a huge blow to the Big East. The Mountaineers were the conference’s top program, finishing in the Associated Press top 25 six out of the last nine seasons.
In addition to losing West Virginia, the Big East has dealt with the departures of Pittsburgh and Syracuse, along with TCU over the last few months.
Had the Mountaineers stayed in the Big East, it’s likely the conference would have survived.
Now, it’s uncertain if the Big East will survive as a football conference or keep its automatic spot into the BCS.
The Big East has only five members committed to the conference: Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Rutgers and South Florida. And there could be future defections.
The Big 12 has committed to a 10-team conference for the immediate future, but Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida could be targets for future expansion. Connecticut and Rutgers are also interested in joining the ACC.
Although the Big East plans to invite Boise State, Houston, SMU, UCF and a couple of others to get to a 12-team conference, it’s uncertain if that would be able to keep an automatic spot in the BCS. And with West Virginia’s departure, it’s fair to wonder if Boise State, Houston, SMU or UCF are concerned about the long-term viability of the Big East and decline an invitation.
West Virginia will be an odd fit in the Big 12, as it will be the eastern-most member of the conference by a wide margin. All of the Big 12 teams were located in the middle of the country and in four states: Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. However, realignment has eliminated geography as a factor with conferences.
The Mountaineers were the Big 12’s best option when it came time to deciding a replacement for Missouri. West Virginia has recruited Florida well as a member of the Big East, but expect it to try to build pipelines into Texas as a member of the Big 12.
The move to the Big 12 is a homecoming for West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. The first-year coach is from Iowa, and coached under Mike Leach at Texas Tech and Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State.
The move is a win for both sides. The Big 12 gets a program that is a top 25 contender in football and basketball in most seasons. This move helps the Mountaineers exit a conference that is on life support, for one that is surprisingly stable after potential defections in the summer. Although the geographic fit is strange, this move is good for West Virginia and the Big 12.
Distance from Morgantown to Big 12 teams
Baylor: 1,297 miles
Iowa State: 871 miles
Kansas: 901 miles
Kansas State: 982 miles
Oklahoma: 1,138 miles
Oklahoma State: 1,084 miles
TCU: 1,235 miles
Texas: 1,398 miles
Texas Tech: 1,465 miles
West Virginia’s Record Against Current Big 12 Teams
Baylor: Have not played
Iowa State: Have not played
Kansas: Mountaineers lead series 1-0
Kansas State: Series is tied 1-1
Oklahoma: Series is tied 2-2
Oklahoma State: Mountaineers lead series 2-1
TCU: Mountaineers lead series 1-0
Texas: Mountaineers lead series 1-0
Texas Tech: Mountaineers lead series 1-0
When Minnesota Vikings defensive end Brian Robinson launched his foot into the goods of Green Bay Packers offensive lineman T.J. Lang, NFL fans across the nation recoiled in horror. But a quick look around the sports landscape proves that attacking your opponents privates has been in practice since the dawn of competition. Don't believe us? Just check out our tribute to below the belt cheap shots.
It has been quite a successful decade for the Utah football program. The Utes have made a bowl game in every season except 2002 over the last 10 years, including undefeated seasons in 2004 and 2008. Under Urban Meyer and current coach Kyle Whittingham, Utah became the classic “BCS buster” as it challenged schools like Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Alabama in the postseason and won. But those were one-game scenarios, and life in a BCS league has been rough on the Utes. They are 0-4 in Pac-12 play and 3-4 overall. For a squad without Oregon or Stanford on the schedule, it would be highly disappointing to not be playing football in December.
Does Utah make a bowl game?
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Utah has been one of the more difficult teams to figure out this season. The Utes have been very good at times — most notably in a 54–10 win at BYU and a 26–14 win at Pittsburgh — but they are 0–4 in the Pac-12 and have failed to score more than 14 points in any league game. But at 3–4 overall, this team still has a very good chance of playing in a bowl game. Why? The schedule is very, very kind down the stretch. To reach six wins, Utah has to go 3–2 against the following slate: Oregon State, Arizona, UCLA, Washington State and Colorado, and three of the games (OSU, UCLA, CU) are in Salt Lake City. The key will be the play of quarterback Jon Hays, who was inserted into the starting lineup three weeks ago after Jordan Wynn went down with an injury. Hays played well in the win over Utah but has a 1-to-6 TD-to-INT ratio in his other two starts, losses to Arizona State and California. If Hays can limit his mistakes, which he should against weaker competition, the Utes should be able to win at least three of their remaining five games and return to a bowl game for a ninth straight season.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Utah’s first season in a BCS conference has been a struggle. The Utes have dealt with an injury to quarterback Jordan Wynn, while trying to build their depth to match up with other Pac-12 teams. Running back John White has been a bright spot, the offense still has a lot of question marks with the offensive line and a group of inexperienced receivers. With five games to go, Utah needs to find three wins in order to reach a bowl game. The Utes have favorable matchups remaining against Oregon State, UCLA, Washington State and Colorado. It’s not going to be easy with a lackluster offense and a backup quarterback, but I think the Utes will find a way to get to six wins. If Utah can’t get bowl eligible, there’s a strong possibility the Pac-12 will only have four teams play in the postseason.
Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden)
The Utes have figured out real quick what life in a BCS conference is all about. Utah has four conference losses (0-4) and will likely lose six games for the first time since 2002. However, with two quality non-conference wins over BYU and Pitt, and the easier half of their schedule still ahead of them, there is reason for optimism in Salt Lake City. Utah has to win three of its last five to get to its ninth straight bowl and on paper it seems very feasible. Oregon State, UCLA and Colorado visit the Utes while Utah has to travel to Arizona and Washington State. They will finish 3-2 over the final five and sneak into a bowl game at 6-6.
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I think Utah makes the postseason based on the upcoming schedule, but it would not shock me to see Kyle Whittingham’s club miss a bowl game. There have been injuries, but much of the current record reflects finally playing an entire BCS-level slate. With the Utes struggling to score points, I’m not sure they will keep up with Arizona in Tucson. Home games with UCLA and Colorado should produce wins, so that would leave Utah needing one win against either Oregon State at home this weekend or at Washington State. The Beavers and Cougars are one-dimensional throwing teams, but both can put points on the scoreboard if the Utes are not ready to go. I’ll cautiously say Utah gets in at 6-6, but the Utes have not inspired much confidence with their recent play.
By Mitch Light
Utah and Colorado are two proud programs that were both welcomed with open arms to the new-look Pac-12. With two BCS Bowl appearances in the past seven years, Utah was regarded as one of the elite non-AQ conference teams in the nation. And while Colorado has fallen on hard times in recent years, the Buffaloes won four Big 12 North Division titles from 2001 through 2005 and won a national title as recently as 1990. Clearly, this is a program that has proven it can win at a high level.
The transition to a new league, however, has not been kind for Colorado or Utah, which are a combined 0–8 in the Pac-12. Utah has some solid wins in non-conference action, most notably a 54–10 victory at rival BYU and a 26–14 win at Pittsburgh, but the Utes have been alarmingly uncompetitive against Pac-12 teams. They are getting outscored by 17.8 points and outgained by 117.7 yards per game. It’s been worse for Colorado, which is really struggling under first-year coach Jon Embree. The Buffs have lost their four league games by an average of 29.0 points have been outgained by a staggering 244.3 yards per game.
“It is hard,” said Embree, a 1986 CU alum, after the Buffs’ 45–2 loss vs. Oregon last week. “I’m smiling because you have to smile to keep from crying. It is hard because I feel that we have missed opportunities.”
Colorado missed a huge opportunity back in early October in its first Pac-12 game. The Buffs led Washington State in Boulder, 27–17, late in the fourth quarter but gave up two touchdowns in the final 2:35 of the game en route to a 31–27 loss.
CU plays the top two teams in the North Division, Arizona State and USC, the next two weeks, but the schedule softens a bit down the stretch, with Arizona, UCLA and Utah over the final three weeks.
Utah, despite its struggles, is still in position to reach a bowl game for the ninth straight season. The Utes, at 3–4 overall, will need to go 3–2 against the following slate: Oregon State, Arizona, UCLA, Washington State and Colorado, and three of the games (OSU, UCLA, CU) are in Salt Lake City. The key will be the play of quarterback Jon Hays, who was inserted into the starting lineup three weeks ago after Jordan Wynn went down with an injury. Hays played well in the win over Utah, but has a 1-to-6 TD-to-INT ratio in his other two starts, losses to Arizona State and California. If Hays can limit his mistakes, which he should against weaker competition, the Utes should be able to win at least three of their remaining five games and end their first season in their new league with yet another trip to a bowl game.
AROUND THE PAC-12
• True freshman Malcolm Agnew has only played in three games this season but still leads Oregon State in rushing by more than 200 yards. Agnew has rushed for 375 yards on 66 attempts for a healthy 5.7-yard average.
• Prior to last week, Arizona had given up at least 37 points in every game vs. a FBS opponent. The Cats, however, held UCLA to 12 in their 36-point win over the Bruins in the first game under interim coach Tim Kish.
• Only one of Stanford’s seven wins have come against a team with a winning record. The Cardinal, however, did beat that one team (Washington) by 44 points.
• Colorado has punted 52 times. Stanford has punted 16 times.
• Stanford is 9-of-9 on fourth down this season.
• Washington State and Oregon share the Pac-12 lead with five plays from scrimmage of at least 60 yards. Oregon is one of only four teams nationally that has two plays of at least 80 yards.
• Arizona’s Nick Foles leads the Pac-12 and ranks third nationally with 45.7 pass attempts per game.
• Andrew Luck has completed 80 percent of his passes on first down this season.
By Mitchell Light
There’s been some debate in the Athlon Sports offices — and on our web site — about the strength of the Big 12 as compared to the SEC. Most assume that the SEC, with its five straight national titles, is the nation’s premier conference.
There’s no debate, especially after Oklahoma’s loss on Saturday, that the SEC is stronger at the top with Alabama and LSU. But you can argue, which I did, that the Big 12 is better in the middle and has more overall depth than the SEC.
There is, however, one point that is not negotiable: The Big 12 is far more offensive-minded than the SEC. A look at the national stats is quite telling: The Big 12 is home to five of the top seven teams in the country in total offense — Baylor (No. 2), Oklahoma State (No. 3), Oklahoma (No. 4), Texas Tech (No. 5) and Texas A&M (No. 7). And Missouri, at No. 12, is not far behind.
Compare that with the SEC, which has only two of the top 40 teams in total offense, No. 22 Arkansas and No. 23 Alabama.
This begs the following question: Are the Big 12 teams really good on offense, or do they simply feast on bad defenses? It’s a question that is probably impossible to answer, but I embarked on a stats-driven study that, to no surprise, was inconclusive.
The 10 teams in the Big 12 have played a total of nine teams from other BCS leagues in non-conference action. I compared the point total scored by the Big 12 teams vs. those non-conference foes with the point totals those teams allowed vs. other BCS teams on their schedule to date. For example, Oklahoma State scored 37 points vs. Arizona, but Arizona has given up an average of 38 points to the other five BCS conference teams it has faced.
Of the nine teams, Big 12 schools scored higher than the average of the other opponents five times (A&M vs. Arkansas, Kansas State vs. Miami, Iowa State vs. Iowa, Missouri vs. Arizona State and Texas vs. UCLA) and lower than the average four times (Oklahoma State vs. Arizona, Oklahoma vs. Florida State, Iowa State vs. UConn and Kansas vs. Georgia Tech).
The sample size is too small to draw any conclusions, but I would have expected a higher number of the Big 12 schools — more than five — to have outscored the average of their opponents’ other BCS conference opponents.
I hope this all made sense.
Around the Big 12
• Iowa State is having a ton of trouble on the defensive end in recent weeks. The Cyclones have given up an average of 566.7 yards in the last three games after allowing a respectable 369.2 in their first three games vs. FBS opponents (Iowa, UConn and Texas).
• The losing team has scored at least 34 points in each of Texas Tech’s last five games.
• Collin Klein, the starter in each of Kansas State’s seven games (and seven wins), has yet to hit the 1,000-yard passing mark this season. With the exception of Texas, which has played three quarterbacks, every other team in the league has a quarterback who has thrown for at least 1,300 yards.
• Oklahoma State has forced 20 more turnovers (24 to 4) than Kansas.
• Of the top six players in the league in rushing attempts, two come from Kansas State (Collin Klein, 151, and John Hubert, 122) and two come from Texas A&M (Cyrus Gray, 134, and Christine Michael, 111).
• Kansas has allowed its opponents to enter the Red Zone 42 times in seven game, the most in the nation. The Jayhawks have allowed 32 touchdowns and seven field goals.
• Five Big 12 teams are averaging 40 points or more in league games — Oklahoma State (45.8 ppg), Oklahoma (44.5), Texas A&M (40.5), Kansas State (40.0) and Texas Tech (40.0).