Articles By Mitch Light
By Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Take a quick look at Pittsburgh’s stats and you will notice that running back Ray Graham leads the nation in rushing with a 161.0-yard average. That, however, is one of the few bright spots.
Yes, the Panthers are 2–0, but it is a very soft 2–0, with a 35–16 win over Buffalo and a 35–29 win over FCS opponent Maine. Todd Graham’s teams at Tulsa were among the most explosive in college football, but that has yet to translate at Pittsburgh — despite the inferior competition. The Panthers rank 62nd in the nation in total offense (395.5 ypg) and are tied for 45th in scoring (35.0 ppg). Those numbers aren’t bad, but we expected to see much more production from Pitt after home games against a team that went 1–7 in the MAC last year (Buffalo) and team that went 4–6 against FCS opponents in 2010 (Maine).
Graham is remaining upbeat, but he admits the offense has been a disappointment.
“Offensively it’s just decision-making,” he says. “We’re really close. We sit there and watch the film but we’re not executing the system. Somebody asked me, ‘Are you where you thought you would be?’ No, I thought we would be doing better than how we are executing what we’re doing. In this offense you can’t ad-lib. You’ve got to be extremely disciplined every play to read your key and distribute the ball and this offense is a timing offense.”
Graham has placed some of the blame on the offensive line — “We’ve got two new guys playing up front on the offensive line that have made some errors which are not surprising,” he says — but Pittsburgh must get better play from quarterback Tino Sunseri. The junior has completed 58 percent of his attempts but only has one touchdown pass in 63 attempts. This offense simply needs gaudier numbers from the quarterback position. And Graham believes Sunseri can deliver — even though he temporarily pulled his quarterback in favor of Trey Anderson against Maine.
“Tino Sunseri is our quarterback,” he said earlier this week. “We’ve got confidence that he’s going to get it done. Has he played well? No, he hasn’t played well. He’s made some good plays, but he’s got to play better and execute our system, and I’ve got a lot of confidence in him. I’ve seen him do it in practice, I’ve seen him do it in games, and in this system there’s no question I think he can be successful and he’s a guy that has come a long way in his work ethic and all those things.”
Sunseri and the Panthers now dive into a very difficult part of the schedule. This weekend, they head to Iowa and then return home for dates with Notre Dame and South Florida. Despite the early season struggles, this is still a quality football team, one that should be in the hunt for the Big East title.
AROUND THE BIG EAST
• Connecticut has struggled offensively, but the Huskies appear to have found their next big-time running back. With expected starter D.J. Shoemate out with an injury, redshirt freshman Lyle McCombs, a lightly recruited 2-star prospect, has rushed for 259 yards on 51 carries through two games. Against Vanderbilt, McCombs accounted for 123 of the Huskies’ 193 total yards of offense.
• Louisville has scored a total of seven points in the second half of its games against Murray State (a win) and FIU (a loss).
• Rutgers’ four running backs netted 18 yards on 20 carries in a 24–22 loss to North Carolina. Through two games, prized freshman Savon Huggins has 32 yards on 17 carries.
• Cincinnati has given up at least 27 points in 13 straight games against BCS conference opponents.
• The West Virginia defense has yet to allow a touchdown this season.
• South Florida’s B.J. Daniels threw for a career-high 359 yards in the Bulls’ 37–7 win over Ball State. Daniels’ previous best was 286 yards in a win over Cincinnati last season.
By Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
We knew what Oregon State was missing. We were aware that the Beavers would be without arguably the most exciting offensive player in school history (Jacquizz Rodgers) and without a player considered by many to be the top defensive lineman in the Pac-10 in 2010 (Stephen Paea). And we understood that James Rodgers, one of the most versatile playmakers in college football over the past few years, would be out indefinitely while recovering from a knee injury.
Still, we expected Oregon State to be good. Not great. But pretty good — as in fourth in the very tough Pac-12 North, with a predicted conference record of 4–5 and an overall mark of 6–6.
Why the optimism? Mike Riley. The Beavers’ veteran head coach always seems to do more with less, somehow getting his team to remain a factor in the league race.
So when it was time to make our predictions, we simply gave Riley and the Beavers the benefit of the doubt, assuming they would find a way to thrive despite the loss of some great players.
Well, look who’s 0–2. It’s still early, but the signs aren’t good for Oregon State, which opened the season with a stunning loss to FCS foe Sacramento State (which lost the following week to Southern Utah) and a 35–0 defeat at Wisconsin.
It might not be time to panic in Corvallis — after all, the 2008 Beavers recovered from an 0–2 start to finish 9–4 — but it’s hard to find many expected wins when you take a look at the final 10 games on the Beavers’ slate.
So what’s the problem? Well, the offense has struggled to get going, even with the emergence of true freshman Malcolm Agnew, who rushed for 223 yards against Sacramento State before missing the Wisconsin game with a hamstring injury. And the quarterback situation is a mess. Strong-armed Ryan Katz, the 2010 starter, was pulled in favor of Sean Mannion during the Wisconsin game. On Tuesday afternoon, Riley announced that Mannion will start against UCLA, but both quarterbacks will likely play.
The numbers aren’t horrible defensively, but the Badgers did give up 29 points to an FCS school and have really struggled against the pass. Opposing quarterbacks are 40-of-57 for 485 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. Those numbers have resulted in a national ranking of 116th in passing efficiency defense. It hasn’t helped that senior cornerback Brandon Hardin, one of only three returning starters on defense, has yet to play due to a shoulder injury.
Riley, to his credit, isn’t panicking. He, better than most, understands that there is plenty of time to get his team turned in the right direction. Oregon State has had a winning record in six of eight seasons since Riley returned to Corvallis despite having a combined record of 15–17 in the month of September. Clearly, his teams have a knack for improving as the season progresses.
“I really have hopes for this team,” the coach said after his team was shut out by Wisconsin. “I think there was a lot of stuff today, particularly defensively that was better. So we can build on that. Offensively, I know we can do better.”
They better do better, or Oregon State could be headed for back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since the late 1990s.
AROUND THE PAC-12
• Washington State is 2–0 for the first time since 2005 after rolling to wins of 64–21 over Idaho State and 59–7 over UNLV. The level of competition has been very poor, but it’s clear that Paul Wulff’s program is making some progress. The Cougars went 2–10 last season, but ended the year with a shocking 31–14 win at Oregon State and a competitive 35–28 loss to rival Washington in the Apple Cup. The win over UNLV was especially noteworthy because Washington State had to play without quarterback Jeff Tuel, who is out 4-6 weeks with a broken collarbone. Senior Marshall Lobbestael, who had three starts as a redshirt freshman and three as a sophomore, stepped in and completed 24-of-32 for 361 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions.
• Colorado has already given up 13 plays of 20-plus yards, the most in the Pac-12.
• Washington’s Keith Price has attempted 25 passes in each of his first two games. He completed 17 for 102 yards against Eastern Washington and 18 for 315 yards against Hawaii. His yards per attempt jumped from 4.1 to 12.6 in one week.
• Not much went well for Arizona in last Thursday’s trip to Oklahoma State, but the Wildcats, who played without Juron Criner, did get some production from junior Dan Buckner. A transfer from Texas and former big-time recruit, Buckner caught 10 passes for 142 yards and scored a touchdown.
• Stanford has given up one offensive touchdown in two games, and it came in the final minute of a 44–14 win at Duke. The Cardinal’s opponents have converted only 6-of-30 third down attempts.
By Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
This might sound a bit obvious, but beating Georgia is a very good sign for South Carolina football. Consider the following: The Gamecocks are a combined 25–23 in the SEC in the six seasons in which they have defeated Georgia. On the other hand, they are 36–67–1 in conference games in the 13 seasons in which they have lost to the Bulldogs, and only once, in 2005, has South Carolina had a winning SEC record without beating Georgia.
So it’s clear that the Georgia game serves as a pretty accurate barometer for South Carolina. When the Gamecocks are good enough to beat Georgia, they are usually good enough to be a factor in the SEC East.
This season, Carolina will be more than a factor — I think at this point it’s clear to call Steve Spurrier’s club the favorite (despite what you might have read in Athlon Sports’ 2011 preview). Until we see what Florida looks like against a quality opponent, it’s hard to make the argument that South Carolina isn’t the best team in the SEC East.
Sure, the defense has been shaky, but Steve Spurrier’s club boasts some serious star power on both sides of the ball. South Carolina might have the best running back (Marcus Lattimore) and best wide receiver (Alshon Jeffery) in the SEC — and maybe the nation. Defensively, true freshman Jadeveon Clowney is already showing signs why he was one of the most hyped recruits of the past decade, and junior Stephon Gilmore is one of the elite cornerbacks in college football. And we can’t forget about Melvin Ingram, a 271-pound defensive end who recorded nine sacks last season and scored two touchdowns, one on a 68-yard fake punt, in the win over Georgia.
“I think Melvin Ingram deserves a lot of credit for making some huge plays,” Spurrier said after the game. “He’s a heck of an athlete.”
Lattimore, however, is the key to this team. The sophomore tailback carried the ball 27 times for 176 yards against Georgia, with 94 of his yards coming in the decisive fourth quarter. I’d estimate that a team that has its tailback rush for 90-plus yards in the fourth quarter has about a 99 percent chance of winning that game.
Lattimore’s heroics allowed South Carolina to win despite a subpar game from quarterback Stephen Garcia. In his first start of his senior season, Garcia completed only 11-of-25 passes for 142 yards, and he was intercepted two times. The Gamecocks will need Garcia to play well to win an SEC championship, but they don’t need him to be the best quarterback in the league. His supporting cast is good enough — especially at the skill positions — for his team to win without 300-yard, four-touchdown games each week.
With the Georgia hurdle behind them — and successfully cleared — the Gamecocks now return to Columbia for a four-game home stand against Navy, Vanderbilt, Auburn and Kentucky. It will be a surprise if South Carolina is not 6–0 (and 4–0 in the SEC) when it hits the road for dates with Mississippi State, Tennessee and Arkansas.
Around the SEC
• Tennessee ranks fourth in the nation with a 66.7 percent success rate on third down, having converted 20 of 30 opportunities through two games. Last season, the Vols ranked 88th in the nation on third downs (36.5 percent).
• UConn marched 72 yards on 13 plays in its first drive (ending in a field goal) against Vanderbilt, but the Commodores only gave up 121 total yards on 52 plays the rest of the game.
• The LSU defense has only given up one play of 20-plus yards this season — even more impressive when you consider that the Tigers opened up against Oregon.
• It’s not all bad news at Georgia. Freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell looks like he will be a major contributor this season. He rushed for 118 yards on 16 carries against South Carolina and has a healthy 5.7-yard average in two games against quality competition.
• Auburn is 2–0 but ranks 111th in the nation in total defense (489.5 ypg) and 118th in rushing defense (280.0 ypg). It’s still too early to put too much stock in national rankings, but defensive coordinator Ted Roof can’t be pleased with those numbers.
• Ole Miss will have to tighten up its run defense, as well, after Southern Illinois rushed for 223 yards on 38 carries in last week’s 42–24 Rebel victory.
• Alabama has allowed a total of three points in the first half of its two games this season.
• Kentucky coach Joker Phillips raved about Josh Clemons in preseason camp, and the true freshman came through with a 14-carry, 128-yard effort against Central Michigan on Saturday. Clemons gave Kentucky its first lead of the game late in the third quarter when he broke free for an 87-yard touchdown. In two games, he has 165 yards on 25 carries.
By Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Thursday, Sept. 8
No. 54 Arizona at No. 10 Oklahoma State
The Cowboys rolled up 666 yards of total offense under first-year coordinator Todd Monken en route to a 61–34 Week 1 win over Louisiana-Lafayette in Stillwater. The test will be more difficult this Thursday night when Arizona comes calling.
Oklahoma State 37, Arizona 24
Friday, Sept. 9
No. 28 Missouri at No. 31 Arizona State
James Franklin was a bit shaky in his first start at quarterback for Missouri. He will have to be much better this week against at very solid Arizona State defense.
Arizona State 21, Missouri 17
No. 90 FIU at No. 75 Louisville
The boys in Vegas have only made Louisville a four-point favorite. Not a huge surprise after the Cards only put 21 points on Murray State in the opener.
Louisville 20, FIU 14
Saturday, Sept. 10
No. 1 Alabama at No. 32 Penn State
Last year, Alabama handled Penn State with relative ease, cruising to a 24–3 in Tuscaloosa. The venue will be different this time around — Beaver Stadium in State College — but the result should be similar.
Alabama 27, Penn State 10
Northwestern State at No. 3 LSU
Northwestern State is a decent FCS program. LSU is a dominant FBS program. This figures to be one of the biggest mismatches of the week.
LSU 50, Northwestern State 3
Charleston Southern at No. 4 Florida State
This has to be the most lopsided matchup of the season. Charleston Southern is fresh off of a 62–0 loss at UCF in a game in which it managed only 119 yards of offense.
Florida State 61, Charleston Southern 0
No. 6 Virginia Tech at No. 79 East Carolina
Dating back to last October, East Carolina has given up 40 points or more in seven straight games. That streak might not end until Oct. 15, when the Pirates visit Memphis.
Virginia Tech 49, East Carolina 22
No. 81 Fresno State at No. 7 Nebraska
The locals aren’t pleased with Pat Hill after the Bulldogs managed only 218 total yards in a 36–21 loss to Cal last week. They can’t expect much this week against a Nebraska defense that figures to be among the best in the nation.
Nebraska 34, Fresno State 10
No. 65 Nevada at No. 9 Oregon
The boys in Vegas don’t seem to think Nevada can keep this game close — Nevada is a 27-point underdog. I disagree. The Colin Kaepernick-less Pack still has talent.
Oregon 40, Nevada 27
No. 11 Stanford at No. 86 Duke
Duke is still smarting after losing at home to Richmond last weekend. Stanford is feeling pretty good after a 57–3 win vs. San Jose State. It would be a surprise if the Blue Devils kept this close — even at home.
Stanford 38, Duke 13
No. 98 Oregon State at No. 12 Wisconsin
There was only one positive to come out of Oregon State’s 29–28 overtimes loss to Sacramento State last weekend: True freshman Malcolm Agnew rushed for 223 yards. Agnew, however, is out this week with a hamstring injury. Not good for the Beavers.
Wisconsin 38, Oregon State 14
No. 116 New Mexico at No. 13 Arkansas
The Lobos actually led Colorado State midway through the fourth quarter before falling 14–10 last Saturday. They won’t lead in the fourth quarter this week.
Arkansas 51, New Mexico 10
Norfolk State at No. 14 West Virginia
Dana Holgorsen’s offense has one more tune-up before back-to-back dates with Maryland and LSU.
West Virginia 47, Norfolk State 10
No. 88 UAB at No. 15 Florida
UAB was one of only two teams that did not play in Week 1 (Nevada was the other). The Blazers have a solid quarterback in Bryan Ellis and an outstanding running back in Pat Shed (questionable with a sports hernia). Keep in mind that UAB lost its two games to SEC teams last season by a combined eight points — by three to Tennessee in OT and by five at Mississippi State.
Florida 38, UAB 14
No. 67 Toledo at No. 16 Ohio State
Ohio State dismantled a team from the MAC (Akron) in the opener. Toledo, however, is far more talented than Akron. The Rockets will play two solid quarterbacks (Terrance Owens and Austin Dantin), and they have weapons at running back and receiver.
Ohio State 36, Toledo 20
No. 17 Notre Dame at No. 41 Michigan
Brian Kelly’s second season at Notre Dame didn’t exactly begin as planned, with a 23–20 loss at home to South Florida. But please be advised: Don’t jump off the Irish bandwagon just yet.
Notre Dame 31, Michigan 24
No. 48 Utah at No. 18 USC
Utah makes its debut in its new conference with a trip to the L.A. Coliseum. Both teams need to play well after lackluster wins in Week 1 — USC over Minnesota and Utah over Montana State.
USC 27, Utah 17
No. 19 South Carolina at No. 26 Georgia
It’s the biggest game in the history of Georgia football. Well, that’s what many Bulldogs fans will tell you after their team was outclassed at the Georgia Dome by Boise State last Saturday night. Georgia didn’t do much to give us reason to believe it can beat a good team, but it’s a bit too early to give up on Mark Richt and his Bulldogs.
Georgia 24, South Carolina 21
No. 20 Mississippi State at No. 47 Auburn
The defending national champs are a 6.5-point underdog at home to a team that went 4–4 in the SEC last year. Not a surprise, if you watched both Auburn and Mississippi State play last week.
Mississippi State 37, Auburn 24
No. 35 BYU at No. 21 Texas
Right now, one of these teams is an Independent and the other is in the Big 12. Next year? Who knows? Both teams could be in the Big 12 or the Pac-16, or possibly both could be in the Independent ranks.
Texas 24, BYU 16
No. 23 TCU at No. 36 Air Force
He’s not Robert Griffin III, but Air Force quarterback Tim Jefferson is very good. It wouldn’t be a huge shock if TCU is 0–2 after this week’s action. That said, I’m picking the Frogs to bounce back.
TCU 28, Air Force 24
No. 120 Florida Atlantic at No. 24 Michigan State
Michigan State posted a workmanlike 28–6 win over Youngstown State last Friday. This week, the level of competition won’t be much, if any, better. Florida Atlantic is arguably the worst team in the FCS ranks.
Michigan State 41, Florida Atlantic 0
No. 84 Ball State at No. 27 South Florida
The Pete Lembo era got off to a great start at Ball State, as the Cardinals upset in-state rival Indiana in Indianapolis in Week 1. South Florida is also feeling pretty good about itself after a huge win at Notre Dame.
South Florida 27, Ball State 14
No. 29 Iowa at No. 64 Iowa State
The Hawkeyes have won six of the past eight in this series, including the past three by an average score of 29–5. Expect more of the same.
Iowa 24, Iowa State 10
No. 33 NC State at No. 61 Wake Forest
It will be very interesting to see how Wake Forest bounces back from last week’s crushing overtime loss at Syracuse.
NC State 34, Wake Forest 27
South Dakota State at No. 34 Illinois
Illinois handled a pretty solid Arkansas State team in Week 1, churning out over 200 yards passing and 200 yards rushing en route to a 33–15 victory. This one shouldn’t be as close.
Illinois 41, South Dakota State 13
No. 70 Rutgers at No. 37 North Carolina
It was quite the debut for North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner, who completed 22-of-23 passes for 277 yards in the Heels’ 42–10 win over James Madison. Rutgers will provide a bigger test, but Renner is a big-time talent.
North Carolina 24, Rutgers 14
No. 56 Cincinnati at No. 38 Tennessee
Cincinnati rolled up 72 points in its Week 1 win over Austin Peay. Eight different Bearcats scored a touchdown and 10 different UC players rushed for at least 10 yards. Now, Butch Jones’ club must see what it can do against another, far more talented, team from the state of Tennessee.
Tennessee 30, Cincinnati 27
Wofford at No. 39 Clemson
New offensive coordinator Chad Morris was not happy with the Clemson attack in last week’s win over Troy. The Tigers have one more dress rehearsal before Auburn comes to town.
Clemson 44, Wofford 10
Maine at No. 42 Pittsburgh
I passed on Ray Graham in my fantasy draft because I was worried that former Wisconsin Badger Zach Brown would take away some his carries. I was wrong. Graham rushed for 209 yards on 29 carries against Buffalo last week. Brown? Two carries.
Pittsburgh 34, Maine 3
Eastern Illinois at No. 43 Northwestern
Northwestern recorded one of the more impressive victories of Week 1, topping Boston College, 24–17, on the road with starting quarterback Dan Persa on the bench. Persa is reportedly almost ready to return (Achilles), but the Cats won’t need him this week.
Northwestern 34, Eastern Illinois 10
Rhode Island at No. 44 Syracuse
Syracuse is very, very fortunate to be 1–0. The Orange trailed Wake Forest 29–14 midway through the fourth quarter before rallying to send the game into overtime. It better not be as stressful this week.
Syracuse 30, Rhode Island 10
No. 60 Hawaii at No. 45 Washington
Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt has been a busy man this week after watching Eastern Washington torch his boys for 473 yards passing. It doesn’t get any easier — in fact, it gets harder — with Bryant Moniz and Hawaii coming to town.
Washington 31, Hawaii 30
No. 46 Georgia Tech at No. 87 Middle Tennessee
MTSU hung tough with Georgia Tech into the third quarter last year in Atlanta — it was 14–7 at the half — before the Jackets pulled away on their way to a 42–14 win. The Blue Raiders had no answer for the Tech option attack, allowing 329 yards on the ground. This one is in Murfreesboro — quite a coup for MTSU — but Georgia Tech is still the better team.
Georgia Tech 34, Middle Tennessee 17
No. 117 UTEP at No. 49 SMU
SMU is eager to bounce back after a disappointing showing on a national stage vs. Texas A&M. J.J. McDermott will get the start at quarterback, but Kyle Padron will also play. It won’t matter.
SMU 49, UTEP 17
No. 50 California at No. 80 Colorado
Scheduled before Colorado switched conferences, this is a game between Pac-12 teams that is not a Pac-12 game. It’s also a game that California should win.
California 34, Colorado 14
No. 51 Houston at No. 113 North Texas
Case Keenum’s return was quite successful. The sixth-year senior completed 30-of-40 passes for 310 yards in the Cougars’ 38–34 win over UCLA. This one could get ugly early.
Houston 48, North Texas 10
No. 52 Boston College at No. 53 UCF
In week 1 vs. Northwestern, Boston College rolled up 455 yards of offense and did not turn the ball over — yet only scored 17 points. That is hard to do.
UCF 21, Boston College 17
No. 55 Southern Miss at No. 97 Marshall
The Southern Miss offense only put up 19 points on Louisiana Tech in a Week 1 victory, but Larry Fedora had to be pleased with his team’s defense. The Golden Eagles held Tech’s spread offense to only 244 yards and 17 points. This week, the USM defense will try to make life difficult for Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato, a true freshman making his second start.
Southern Miss 24, Marshall 10
No. 119 New Mexico State at No. 57 Minnesota
It was a rough start for New Mexico State. The Aggies lost at home to Ohio by 20 points and netted six yards rushing. Not good. Minnesota returns home after its near miss at USC. This one is almost a gimme.
Minnesota 40, New Mexico State 10
No. 58 Navy at No. 103 Western Kentucky
In classic Navy fashion, the Middies scored 40 points while completing only four passes in their Week 1 win over Delaware. Western Kentucky gave up only 190 total yards to Kentucky last week. This could be tricky for Navy.
Navy 24, Western Kentucky 17
No. 59 Connecticut at No. 74 Vanderbilt
For those interested in this sort of thing, UConn opened (in some places) as a one-point favorite. Vanderbilt is now a two-point favorite. Interesting.
Vanderbilt 17, Connecticut 14
No. 62 Tulsa at No. 107 Tulane
Tulane struggled to stop the pass last week (295 yards allowed) in a 47–33 win over SE Louisiana. Good luck slowing down the Golden Hurricane.
Tulsa 44, Tulane 20
No. 104 Central Michigan at No. 63 Kentucky
Both of these teams won in Week 1, but both struggled mightily on offense against teams they should have overmatched. Kentucky managed only 190 yards, including 58 on one play (a late scramble by quarterback Morgan Newton) in a 14–3 win over Western Kentucky, while CMU had 256 yards in a 21–6 win over South Carolina State.
Kentucky 17, Central Michigan 3
No. 66 San Diego State at No. 85 Army
Army was a bit of a disappointment in Week 1, falling behind Northern Illinois 49–6 heading into the fourth quarter before rallying for 20 meaningless points. The Black Knights gave up 289 yards on the ground. Good luck stopping San Diego State sophomore Ronnie Hillman.
San Diego State 38, Army 24
No. 68 Purdue at No. 99 Rice
It wasn’t always pretty, but Purdue gutted out a Week 1 win at home vs. Middle Tennessee. The trip to Rice is a key barometer for Purdue: It’s a game Danny Hope’s club simply must win if it wants to be a good team this season.
Purdue 21, Rice 17
No. 122 San Jose State at No. 69 UCLA
Rick Neuheisel isn’t exactly thrilled with his team’s effort of late. The Bruins can beat San Jose State by simply showing up, but it would be a bit alarming if UCLA doesn’t play with passion after being called out by the head coach.
UCLA 41, San Jose State 0
No. 71 Northern Illinois at No. 77 Kansas
Fresh off a dominating win vs. Army, Northern Illinois finds itself as a favorite on the road vs. a BCS conference opponent. That’s impressive.
Northern Illinois 31, Kansas 21
No. 72 Virginia at No. 89 Indiana
The Kevin Wilson era began with on a sour note — a neutral site 27–20 loss to in-state rival Ball State. Virginia rolled past William & Mary with ease, 40–3. This should be a more difficult test.
Virginia 27, Indiana 17
Southern Illinois at No. 73 Ole Miss
This might not be as easy as some Ole Miss fans would like. Southern Illinois is a quality FCS program that opened its season with a 38–10 win at SE Missouri State. One thing is for sure: Ole Miss will be ready to play, after losing last year’s opener to an FCS school, Jacksonville State.
Ole Miss 24, Southern Illinois 14
Weber State at No. 78 Utah State
Utah State came oh-so-close to a program-changing win at Auburn last Saturday. Gary Andersen needs to keep his team focused this week — Weber State is good enough to make the Aggies sweat.
Utah State 31, Weber State 17
No. 109 UNLV at No. 82 Washington State
It’s not a good sign for UNLV football that the Runnin’ Rebels are a 14-point underdog to a Washington State team that will be without its quarterback (who is arguably its best player).
Washington State 28, UNLV 17
Gardner-Webb at No. 83 Ohio
With Tyler Tettleton (son of former major leaguer Mickey Tettleton) at quarterback, Ohio beat New Mexico State on the road with ease last week.
Ohio 37, Gardner-Webb 14
Northern Colorado at No. 91 Colorado State
It’s not a good sign that Colorado State compiled only 260 total yards against New Mexico and had to rally in the fourth quarter to escape with a 14–10 win.
Colorado State 28, Northern Colorado 14
No. 94 Temple at No. 114 Akron
Temple was very impressive in a 42–7 win over Villanova. Bernard Pierce led the way with 147 yards and three touchdowns. Owls in a route.
Temple 38, Akron 10
Nicholls State at No. 95 Western Michigan
Western Michigan returns home for a two-game homestand after losing in a weather-shortened game at Michigan last weekend.
Western Michigan 31, Nicholls State 13
Central Arkansas at No. 96 Louisiana Tech
Louisiana Tech was held to 244 total yards in last week’s 19–17 loss at Southern Miss. That couldn’t have made head coach Sonny Dykes too pleased.
No. 96 Louisiana Tech 34, Central Arkansas
Morgan State at No. 100 Bowling Green
Bowling Green was one of only six FBS teams that won a true road game in Week 1. The Falcons cruised to a surprisingly easy 32–15 win at Idaho.
Bowling Green 41, Morgan State 12
No. 118 Memphis at No. 101 Arkansas State
Arkansas State is my sleeper in the Sun Belt. Memphis is headed toward another last-place finish in the C-USA East. Go with the Red Wolves. Big.
Arkansas State 37, Memphis 17
Texas State at No. 102 Wyoming
The Pokes’ victory over Weber State in Week 1 was far from easy. They gave up 463 total yards and trailed deep into the fourth quarter.
Wyoming 24, Texas State 14
No. 115 UL Lafayette at No. 105 Kent State
These two punching bags were defeated by a combined score of 111–41 and gave up by a total of 1,148 yards in their respective Week 1 games — UL Lafayette to Oklahoma State and Kent State to Alabama.
Kent State 13, UL Lafayette 10
Grambling State at No. 106 Louisiana-Monroe
The ULM offense had one thing going for it in last week’s 34–0 loss to Florida State — it was balanced, with 92 yards passing and 99 yards rushing.
No. 106 Louisiana-Monroe 17, Grambling State 3
North Dakota at No. 108 Idaho
Idaho was one of the Week 1 disappointments, losing at home to Bowling Green, 32–15. North Dakota shut out Drake 16–0 in its opener. Going with the first FCS over FBS prediction of the year.
North Dakota 21, Idaho 20
Stony Brook at No. 110 Buffalo
Buffalo played very well in a 35–16 loss at Pitt. The Bulls trailed 21–16 early in the fourth quarter before fading down the stretch. Stony Brook took UTEP to overtime last weekend.
Buffalo 28, Stony Brook 14
Alabama State at No. 111 Eastern Michigan
Eastern Michigan hasn’t started a season 2–0 since 1989, when Jim Harkema’s club jumped out to a 3–0 mark (and 5–0–1) en route to a 7–3 record. This is no gimme, however; Alabama State is 1–0 after a 41–9 win over Mississippi Valley State.
Eastern Michigan 21, Alabama State 17
By Mitch Light
Notre Dame (-3.5) at Michigan
Brian Kelly’s second season at Notre Dame didn’t exactly begin as planned, with a 23–20 loss at home to South Florida. But please be advised: Don’t jump off the Irish bandwagon just yet. Notre Dame outgained USF 508 to 254 and was the victim of some bad luck (Jonas Gray was stripped at the 1-yard line and USF brought it back 96 yards for a touchdown) and some questionable officiating (borderline pass interference call in the end zone on third down early in the fourth quarter). The Irish were far from perfect — they did lose the turnover battle 5-to-0 — but this is still a very good team that will win a lot of games. Michigan took care of business in the first game of the Brady Hoke era, rolling past Western Michigan, 34–10, in a weather-shortened game in Ann Arbor.
Notre Dame 31, Michigan 24
Arizona (+14.5) at Oklahoma State (Thu)
It was only one game — and the opponent was not very good (Louisiana-Lafayette) — but the high-powered Oklahoma State offense was as good as advertised in Week 1. The Cowboys rolled up 666 yards of total offense under first-year coordinator Todd Monken en route to a 61–34 win in Stillwater. The test will be more difficult this Thursday night when Arizona comes calling. The Wildcats struggled a bit in the first half against FCS Northern Arizona before flexing their muscles in the second half of a 41–10 victory. Their brand new offensive line paved the way for 487 total yards. We’ll find out this week if this group can get it done against Bill Young’s O-State defense. A player to watch for Arizona is Ka’Deem Carey. The gem of the Cats’ recruiting class rushed for 59 yards on nine carries in the opener.
Oklahoma State 37, Arizona 24
Missouri (+7.5) at Arizona State (Fri)
Arizona State, a popular pick to play in the first-ever Pac-12 title game, has a huge non-conference test on a national stage Friday night. The Sun Devils are 15–21 overall in the last three seasons and need to make a statement that the ’11 club is, as many expect, good enough to be relevant on the national scene. Missouri was a bit lethargic in its 17–6 win over Miami (Ohio) last weekend. James Franklin, making his first career start, completed 17-of-26 for 129 yards and added 67 yards on the ground. He is a dynamic playmaker who can put pressure on the Arizona State defense with both his arm and his legs. It’s dangerous to put too much emphasis on one game, but we will find out a lot about both teams Friday night in Tempe.
Arizona State 21, Missouri 17
Alabama (-10) at Penn State
This was one of the great intersectional rivalries of the 1980s, with the Tide and the Lions meeting every year in the regular season from 1981-90. Last year, Alabama handled Penn State with relative ease, cruising to a 24–3 in Tuscaloosa. The venue will be different this time around — Beaver Stadium in State College — but the result should be similar. Alabama, our pick at Athlon Sports to win the 2011 national title, boasts a dominant defense and a devastating running attack. We still aren’t sure about the quarterback position — it looks like AJ McCarron will get the start over Phillip Sims — but Alabama has proven it doesn’t need outstanding quarterback play to be an elite team. Penn State is solid, but not good enough to beat Alabama.
Alabama 27, Penn State 10
South Carolina (-3) at Georgia
It’s the biggest game in the history of Georgia football. Well, that’s what many Bulldogs fans will tell you after their team was outclassed at the Georgia Dome by Boise State last Saturday night. It’s imperative that the Dawgs show marked improved in Week 2. Against Boise, the offensive line was suspect and none of the veteran wide receivers stepped up and made big plays. South Carolina fell behind East Carolina 17–0 in Charlotte before rallying for a 56–37 win in a game that was marred by nine turnovers. Stephen Garcia came off the bench for an ineffective Connor Shaw and led the comeback with his arm (one touchdown) and legs (two TDs). It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this game for both teams. Georgia didn’t do much in Week 1 to give us reason to believe they can beat a good team, but it’s a bit too early to give up on Mark Richt and his Bulldogs.
Georgia 24, South Carolina 21
BYU (+7) at Texas
Right now, one of these teams is an Independent and the other is in the Big 12. Next year? Who knows? Both teams could be in the Big 12 or the Pac-16, or possibly both could be in the Independent ranks. BYU has to be feeling pretty good after stealing a win in Oxford, rallying from a 13–0 deficit to beat Ole Miss 14–13. But the Cougars have to be a bit concerned after totaling only 316 yards and scoring just one offensive touchdown against a Rebel defense that was among the worst in the nation last season. Texas struggled in the first half with Rice before putting the game out of reach early in the fourth quarter. The best news for the Longhorns was the play of true freshman tailback Malcom Brown, who rushed for 85 yards on 16 carries in his debut. UT will need consistent production from Brown this season.
Texas 24, BYU 16
Mississippi State (-6.5) at Auburn
Auburn deserves credit for keeping its focus and rallying for 14 points in the final three minutes of its 42–38 win over Utah State, but there were far more negatives than positives. Led by a true freshman at quarterback, Utah State rolled up 448 yards of offense and did not turn the ball over once. And on the other side of the ball, Auburn managed only 364 yards against an Aggie defense that allowed 428.8 yards per game in 2010. It’s not necessarily time to panic, but it’s clear — as we all knew heading into the season — that the ’11 Tigers are a work in progress. Mississippi State, on the other hand, looks like a pretty complete football team. Yes, Memphis is one of the worst teams in the nation, but MSU was dominant in its 59–14 Week 1 win. Go with the Dogs over the Tigers, even at Jordan-Hare.
Mississippi State 37, Auburn 24
Iowa (-6.5) at Iowa State
The Hawkeyes have won six of the past eight in this series, including the past three by an average score of 29–5. Iowa is a solid favorite to win its fourth straight over the Cyclones, but Kirk Ferentz’s club will need a better effort from tailback Marcus Coker. The hero of Iowa’s Insight Bowl win over Missouri last year with 219 yards on 33 carries, Coker was benched in the opener against Tennessee Tech after fumbling twice in the first half. He is back atop the depth chart this week, and he is a guy that will have to produce for this Iowa team to be successful. Iowa State, which edged Northern Iowa 20–19, will need new quarterback Steele Jantz to be more efficient in the passing game. The junior college transfer rushed for 75 yards and two scores but completed only 18-of-40 for 187 yards with three interceptions.
Iowa 24, Iowa State 10
Cincinnati (+6) at Tennessee
Cincinnati rolled up 72 points in its Week 1 win over Austin Peay. Eight different Bearcats scored a touchdown and 10 different UC players rushed for at least 10 yards. Now, Butch Jones’ club must see what it can do against another, far more talented, team from the state of Tennessee. The Vols are also fresh off of a win over an FCS school, but a 42–16 win over Montana is a bit more impressive than a 72–0 victory over Austin Peay. The key for Cincinnati will be taking care of the ball. Two years ago, when the Bearcats won the Big East, they ranked 13th in the nation in turnover margin (+0.69). Last year, when they slumped to 4–8 overall and 2–5 in the Big East (and also lost coach Brian Kelly), they were 119th in the nation in turnover margin (-1.25). This team still has a ton of firepower on offense, led by quarterback Zach Collaros and tailback Isaiah Pead. Tennessee is in for a stiff test
Tennessee 30, Cincinnati 27
Nevada (+27) at Oregon
The Ducks return home after a humbling 40–27 loss to LSU in Dallas. Oregon’s rushing attack, which churned out 286.2 yards per game in 2010, was held to 95 yards on 28 carries. Quarterback Darron Thomas did throw for 240 yards but was held to 4.4 yards per attempt — a number that Chip Kelly can’t be happy with. Nevada was one of only two FBS teams that didn’t play in Week 1 (UAB was the other). The Wolf Pack will be without Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, but Chris Ault still has some solid talent on both sides of the ball. The boys in Vegas don’t seem to think Nevada can keep this game close. I disagree.
Oregon 40, Nevada 27
Last week — 7–3 overall (7–3 against the spread)
The first week of college football action is complete in the Big 12. Here is our look at the week that was.
Team of the Week — Baylor
All 10 Big 12 teams won on the opening weekend, but no team made a statement quite like Baylor. On a national stage, the Bears outlasted TCU, 50–48, in what will likely be one of the most entertaining games of the 2011 season. Led by the dynamic Robert Griffin III, Baylor rolled up 564 yards of total offense against a TCU club that has led the nation in total defense in each of the past three seasons. Baylor, which jumped out to a 7–2 record last season before fading down the stretch, has a chance to be 5–0 when it visits Texas A&M on Oct. 15.
Disappointment of the Week — Kansas State
The Wildcats needed a Collin Klein to Chris Harper 33-yard touchdown with 1:45 remaining in the game to beat FCS foe Eastern Kentucky, 10–7, in Manhattan. The Wildcats were strong on defense (EKU managed only 129 total yards) but struggled to move the ball with consistency all night long. They had 303 total yards and only one of their drives went for more than 50 yards.
Player of the Week — Robert Griffin III, Baylor
Griffin was nearly flawless in the Bears’ memorable win over TCU. The junior completed 21-of-27 passes for 359 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for 38 yards and caught one pass — on a crucial third down — for 15 yards. He did commit one costly turnover, a fumble late in the game with Baylor clinging to a two-point lead, but he more than made up for it by leading his team on a seven-play, 46-yard drive that set up the game-winning field goal.
Freshman of the Week — Malcolm Brown, Texas
The nation’s No. 1 running back recruit, according to Athlon Sports, enjoyed a solid debut, rushing for 85 yards on 16 carries in the Longhorns’ 34–9 win over Rice.
Around the Big 12
• Steele Jantz, a junior college transfer, got the start at quarterback in his first game at Iowa State. He was productive on the ground (75 yards and two scores) but struggled throwing the ball. He completed only 18-of–40 for 187 yards with one touchdown and three INTs. Jerome Tiller, who came into the season with three career starts at quarterback, is academically ineligible this season.
• Oklahoma ran an astounding 100 plays from scrimmage — by far the most in the nation — in its 47–14 win over Tulsa. Oklahoma State was next at 87. Dominique Whaley, a walk-on transfer, led the way for OU with 130 yards and four touchdowns on only 18 carries.
• Texas A&M’s running game could be among the best in the nation this season if both Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael remain healthy. In the Aggies’ impressive 46–14 win over SMU Sunday night, Gray led the way with 131 yards on 21 carries while Michael added 85 yards on 14 attempts.
• Missouri scored only 17 points in its Week 1 win over Miami (Ohio). It was the Tigers’ lowest output against a non-conference opponent in the regular season since a 24–14 loss at Troy in September 2004.
• Texas Tech fell behind Texas State 10–0 late in the first quarter but responded by scoring the final 50 points of the game. Seth Doege was efficient in his first start since 2009, completing 23-of-33 for 326 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
• One year after dropping a 6–3 decision to North Dakota State in its season-opener, Kansas rolled up 42 points in an 18-point win over McNeese State. The Jayhawks rushed for 301 yards, their highest total since gaining 334 in a 2008 win over Northern Colorado.
• Texas beat Rice for the 12th straight time. The Longhorns have scored at least 34 points in all but one of the 12 wins, the exception being an 18–13 win over the Owls in 1999.
The first week of college football action is complete in the SEC. Here is our look at the week that was.
Team of the Week — LSU
The Tigers outclassed Oregon in the marquee game of the opening week of the college football season. The LSU run defense was dominant, holding Oregon to 95 yards on 28 carries. The Ducks did pass for 240 yards, but Darron Thomas averaged only 4.4 yards on his 54 attempts — a number that LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis would take every single week. LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee didn’t do much — 98 yards passing with one TD — but he didn’t make many mistakes, either. The Tigers’ offense was powered by tailbacks Spencer Ware (99 yards on 26 carries) and Michael Ford (96 yards on 14 carries).
Disappointment of the Week — Auburn
Auburn deserves credit for keeping its focus and rallying for 14 points in the final three minutes of its 42–38 win over Utah State, but there were far more negatives than positives. Led by a true freshman at quarterback, Utah State rolled up 448 yards of offense and did not turn the ball over once. And on the other side of the ball, Auburn managed only 364 yards against an Aggie defense that allowed 428.8 yards per game in 2010. It’s not necessarily time to panic, but it’s clear — as we all knew heading into the season — that the ’11 Tigers are a work in progress.
Player of the Week — Vick Ballard, Mississippi State
All he does is score touchdowns. After leading SEC running backs with 19 rushing scores last season, Ballard reached the end zone three times on only 10 carries in Mississippi State’s 59–14 win at Memphis. The senior leads the league in rushing after one week, with 166 yards on a gaudy 16.6-yard average.
Freshman of the Week — Trey Depriest, Alabama
It was a relatively quiet week for freshmen in the SEC, but Alabama’s Trey Depriest played very well in his collegiate debut. The true freshman from Springfield, Ohio, led the Tide with 10 total tackles and added one quarterback hurry.
Around the SEC
• Nine of the league’s 12 teams played more than one quarterback in the opening week. Some were by design (Alabama, South Carolina and Ole Miss) while most the of the others were due to the lopsided scores. Some of the notable relievers were Arkansas’ Brandon Mitchell, who completed 10-of-11 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown, and Vanderbilt’s Jordan Rodgers, who threw a 30-yard touchdown on his first pass attempt of his FBS career.
• Kentucky had only 190 yards of total offense in its 14–3 win over Western Kentucky, with 58 coming on a late scramble by quarterback Morgan Newton.
• Ole Miss’ defensive effort against BYU looks pretty good on paper — the Cougars scored only one offensive touchdown and had a total of 316 yards — but the Rebels struggled to get off the field in the second half. BYU’s two drives in the third quarter went for 67 yards and 59 yards and the first drive of the fourth quarter went for 72 yards and a touchdown.
• Utah State had five drives of 65 yards or longer against Auburn. Four of Auburn’s six second-half drives went for 43 yards or more.
• Alabama’s defensive effort against Kent State — 90 yards allowed — is even more impressive if you consider that the Golden Flashes ran 70 plays from scrimmage. The Crimson Tide allowed an average 1.29 yards per play, by far the best in the nation in the opening week.
• There were a couple positives for Georgia in its 35–21 loss to Boise State. Tight end Orson Charles caught six passes for 109 yards, and true freshman wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell caught three passes for 64 yards and had one carry for 18 yards.
• Bruce Ellington, the starting point guard for South Carolina’s basketball team, had the first two carries of his Gamecock career, running for a total of 18 yards in USC’s 56–37 win over East Carolina. Ellington did not play football for South Carolina last fall.
• Vanderbilt redshirt freshman wide receiver Chris Boyd became the first Commodore to catch two touchdown passes in the same game since D.J. Moore scored twice against Kentucky in November 2008. Moore, an All-SEC cornerback, played sparingly as a wide receiver late in the ’08 season.
• LSU did not play a game against a Pac-10 opponent from 1982-2003 but has played five since. The Tigers have defeated Oregon State (2004), Arizona State (’05), Arizona (’06), Washington (’09) and Oregon (’11) over the past seven-plus seasons.
Team of the Week — California
Of the Pac-12’s eight wins in Week 1, only three came against FBS opponents. Of those three, Cal’s 36–21 win over Fresno State was by far the most impressive considering that Stanford beat a San Jose State team that won one game last season and USC struggled with Minnesota, which won three games in 2010. The Golden Bears nearly doubled up Fresno in total yardage (413 to 210) and showed some nice balance, with 147 yards on the ground and 266 through the air. Zach Maynard, a transfer from Buffalo, was solid in his debut, throwing for 266 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He only completed 16-of-35, but coach Jeff Tedford seemed relatively pleased with the play of his quarterback. One negative for Cal: It appears the Bears will struggle to create a home-field advantage this season while playing at Candlestick Park. The opener drew an announced crowd of 31,563, with Fresno State fans reportedly outnumbering Cal fans.
Disappointment of the Week — Oregon State
This one is easy — even in a week in which the Pac-12 struggled. Oregon State lost at home to Sacramento State, an FCS school that lost its opener last year to Stanford, 52–17. The Beavers are trying to bounce back from their first losing season since 2005. It won’t be easy, with non-conference tests remaining at Wisconsin and vs. BYU at home, along with a nine-game Pac-12 schedule.
Player of the Week — Robert Woods, USC
Woods’ sophomore season began in style, with a school-record 17 catches for 177 yards and three touchdowns in the Trojans’ closer-than-expected 19–17 win over Minnesota at the L.A. Coliseum. Woods, who led USC with 792 yards as a freshman, scored on catches of 7, 50 and 2 yards.
Freshman of the Week — Malcolm Agnew, Oregon State
The Beavers have apparently found the replacement for Jacquizz Rodgers. On an afternoon that will be remembered more for a loss to Sacramento State, Agnew rushed for 223 yards (an OSU freshman record) on 33 carries. The true freshman from St. Louis, Mo., Agnew was a 2-star recruit (by Scout.com) who picked Oregon State over Colorado State.
Around the Pac-12
• In two career games against SEC teams, Oregon tailback LaMichael James has 31 carries for 103 yards. His 49 yards against Auburn in the 2010 BCS National Championship Game and his 54 yards in last week’s loss to LSU are his two lowest totals since he emerged as the Ducks’ primary ball-carrier early in the 2009 season.
• Arizona received solid production from true freshman Ka’Deem Carey in the win over Northern Arizona. Carey, who picked Arizona over Arizona State and USC, rushed for 59 yards on nine carries.
• Joseph Fauria, a former transfer from Notre Dame, had his most productive afternoon in a UCLA afternoon, catching six passes for 110 yards and one score in the Bruins’ loss at Houston. Fauria caught a total of three passes in 2010, his first season at UCLA.
• Stanford’s rush defense was highly effective in the 57–3 win over San Jose State. The Spartan had two running backs carry the ball more than three times, and both averaged less than one yard per attempt. Brandon Rutler and David Freeman combined for 14 yards on 18 carries.
• Washington gave up more than 500 yards of offense to defending FCS national champion Eastern Washington but managed to win the game, 30–27, thanks to a 4-to-0 edge in the turnover battle. EWU quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, a former starter at SMU under June Jones, completed 39-of-69 for 473 yards and three touchdowns. Washington’s Keith Price wasn’t nearly as productive. Making his second career start, Price completed a more-than-respectable 68.0 percent of his passes, but his 4.1 yards-per-attempt average was alarmingly low.
• Colorado is going to need to get more production from senior tailback Rodney Stewart. In Saturday’s loss at Hawaii, Stewart netted only 52 yards on 18 carries for a 2.9-yard average. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry last season, when he rushed for 1,318 yards and 10 carries.
• Utah has to be a bit concerned that it only gained 292 yards against an FCS foe (Montana State), but the Utes did get a break out performance from tailback John White. The diminutive (5-8, 186) junior college transfer rushed for 150 yards on 19 carries.
Name a team from a Big Six power conference that you believe could surprise in 2011-12.
Mitch Light: I believe California will emerge as the biggest threat to Arizona in the new-look Pac-12. Mike Montgomery’s club welcomes back its top three scorers, led by the underrated backcourt of veteran leader Jorge Gutierrez and sophomore sharpshooter Allen Crabbe. Cal lost four double-digit scorers from the 2009 club that won the Pac-10 crown, yet Montgomery still had his team competitive in the league last season; the Bears tied for fourth with a 10–8 mark and advanced to the second round of the NIT. In two years, Montgomery is 23–13 in league games. The guy is a proven winner, and he figures to have the ’11-12 Golden Bears back in the NCAA Tournament after a one-year hiatus.
Nathan Rush: Former George Mason giant killer Jim Larranaga takes over a Miami roster that has all of the pieces in place for a “Cinderella” run in the ACC. The New York City backcourt of junior point guard Durand Scott (13.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.1 apg) and senior Villanova transfer Malcolm Grant (14.8 ppg, 42.3 3PT%) gives the U a solid, veteran foundation to build on. Ever-improving 300-pound junior center Reggie Johnson (11.9 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 59.1 FG%) should be hitting his prime. If enigmatic highlight-reel high-jumper DeQuan Jones can finally rise to the occasion for his senior year or another wing steps up to replace departed sixth-year senior Adrian Thomas, then the Heat won’t be the only team making noise on the hardwood in South Florida.
Patrick Snow: I think a surprise team on the national scene for the 2011-12 campaign is Cincinnati. While much of the Big East preseason talk will revolve around Syracuse, Louisville, Pittsburgh and defending national champion UConn, Mick Cronin’s squad returns its top four scorers from a 26–9 team. The Bearcats won 11 conference games a year ago and finally bought in to Cronin’s defensive style. They should have a solid nucleus with those top four players — Yancy Gates, Dion Dixon, Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright — and newcomer Shaquille Thomas could provide some added scoring punch. It took five years for Cronin to get the UC program back to a top level, and he should have a quality team that will make some noise during the upcoming season.
What was the most questionable hire of the offseason?
Patrick Snow: I thought this offseason’s most curious hire was Frank Haith at Missouri. Athletic director Mike Alden was very ambitious in his pursuit of Purdue’s Matt Painter after Mike Anderson left for Arkansas. But after Painter turned down Mizzou, Alden seemed to settle immediately on Haith instead of interviewing other qualified candidates. Haith never had a winning ACC record and went 43–69 in league games during seven seasons at Miami. While he did inherit a below-average program from Perry Clark, Haith only took the Hurricanes to the NCAA Tournament once in his tenure at the U. It’s easy to understand the early struggles in Coral Gables, and things looked to be turning around in Haith’s fourth season when the Canes won 23 games and made the NCAA Tournament. However, over the next three seasons, Miami went just 17–31 in league play and made two NITs. While he may wind up recruiting well at Missouri, you have to believe the Tigers could have hired a coach with a better track record.
Mitch Light: I will go with Brian Gregory at Georgia Tech. A former Tom Izzo assistant at Michigan State, Gregory has an outstanding reputation among college coaches, but his record at Dayton — a school that should win at a high level in the A-10 — isn’t overly impressive. He went to the NCAA Tournament only two times in eight seasons and had a league record of 48–48 over his final six seasons. If you are Georgia Tech, a school that colossally underachieved under Paul Hewitt, do you really want a coach who underachieved at his previous stop? For a more under-the-radar choice, I will go with Rod Barnes, who was hired by Cal State Bakersfield after being let go at Georgia State. Barnes went 44–79 in four years at GSU with a mark of 24–48 in the Colonial. Prior to that, Barnes had an eight-year run at Ole Miss, his alma mater. His overall record was a solid 141–109, but he had a losing record in each of his final four seasons and was 28 games under .500 in the SEC.
Braden Gall: I find the Frank Haith-Jim Larranaga-Paul Hewitt merry-go-round very curious. I think Missouri will be good in the short term, but Haith doesn’t strike me as the man to lead the recently reenergized Tigers program into the future long term — no matter how good they might be in 2011-12. Miami is a tough gig and bringing in an elder statesman like Larranaga — who is no doubt a fine coach — won’t exactly fire up a fanbase that is notorious for its lack of support. The U seemed like a job for a young, brash, fiery recruiter rather than a grizzled vet.
Which offseason coaching hire do you like the most?
Patrick Snow: I think the slam dunk hire of this offseason was Mike Anderson at Arkansas. He obviously knows the school and culture in Fayetteville after 17 seasons as an assistant under Nolan Richardson, but Anderson has also proved himself as a head coach. The new Arkansas boss was 200–98 in nine seasons at UAB and Missouri, with six NCAA Tournament appearances. And just as important as his coaching record, Anderson brings an identity back to Hog basketball for the first time since Richardson’s departure. He was the key assistant during Arkansas’ amazing run in the early-to-mid ‘90s, when the Razorbacks went to three Finals Fours and won it all in 1994. The fans will love his excellent recruiting prowess and “Fastest 40 Minutes of Basketball” style of play. After a year of installing his system and bringing in players to fit it, expect Mike Anderson to put Arkansas back on the national map.
Nathan Rush: Billy Gillispie is a perfect fit at Texas Tech. Sure, Gillispie’s act didn’t go over well during his two years at Kentucky — where he went 40–27 overall, 20–12 in the SEC, lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and went to the NIT before getting the axe. But prior to being burned by the spotlight in Lexington, Billy Clyde turned a 6–24 UTEP team into a 24–8 WAC champion during two years in El Paso and was a two-time Big 12 Coach of the Year in three seasons at Texas A&M — where he went 70–26 overall, 31–17 in the Big 12 and made the NCAA Tournament twice, including a Sweet 16 run in 2007. Gillispie is a native Texan with a proven track record in the Lone Star State. The Red Raiders were savvy to buy BCG stock at its lowest point; the hire will pay off sooner rather than later in Lubbock.
Mitch Light: I’m going off the radar a bit with Ron Hunter, the new head coach at Georgia State. Hunter only made the NCAA Tournament once during his time at IUPUI — losing as a No. 16 seed to Kentucky in 2003 — but his teams were consistently among the best in the Summit League. The Jaguars were 106–56 in their 10 seasons in the Summit, with only one losing record — 6–8 in ’01-02, their first year in the league. Hunter is very charismatic, and he will do his best to promote the Georgia State program in the city of Atlanta. The Panthers have struggled to compete in the ever-improving CAA, but that should change with Hunter in charge.
Do you like Texas A&M's decision to go with Billy Kennedy to replace Mark Turgeon?
Mitch Light: I do like the Billy Kennedy hire. He might not be a household name, but the guy is a very good basketball coach who has been a consistent winner. His record at Murray State was outstanding (70–24 in the OVC in five seasons), but I’m more impressed with what he did in his six seasons at Southeastern Louisiana. Kennedy inherited a program that won a combined five games in the Southland in the previous two seasons. He slowly built the Lions into a winner, culminating with back-to-back conference titles in ’03-04 and ’04-05. In ’05, he led SE Louisiana to its first and only NCAA Tournament appearance. Kennedy has only spent one season of his career in the state of Texas (he was an assistant at A&M in the early ‘90s), but he has coached in Louisiana, which borders Texas, for 13 seasons, with stops at New Orleans, Northwestern State and Tulane, in addition to SE Louisiana. Recruiting the state of Texas should not be a problem.
Braden Gall: I do like the fact that Kennedy has ties to the school and the region of the country, and he claims he would like to retire in College Station. After Texas A&M lost its last two coaches to more high-profile schools, finding a coach who appears to be a long-term fit with the Aggies was likely a high priority. I am not in love with the fact that the 47-year-old Kennedy has a 211–179 record as a head coach (a good but not great .541 winning percentage) and has 12 previous stops (10 as an assistant). But if he can continue the trend of aggressive defense — something Mark Turgeon mastered — the transition should be relatively painless in the short term.
Patrick Snow: Yes, I think Billy Kennedy is a solid choice for Texas A&M. He has won regular-season and tournament titles in two different conferences (OVC and Southland), and he has taken home Coach of the Year three times in those leagues. In his last six seasons as the head man at Murray State and Southeastern Louisiana, Kennedy’s teams won at least 13 games in conference play. He worked briefly as an A&M assistant 20 years ago, and his strong recruiting ties to Texas and his native Louisiana will be key in having success in College Station. I’m not sure he ‘won the press conference,’ but Billy Kennedy is a quality hire in Aggieland.
In the wake of Gary Williams’ retirement, there has been considerable debate about the quality of the Maryland job as it relates to the rest of the college basketball landscape. Like most, I believe it is one of the top 10 in the nation. I would put four at the top of the list — North Carolina, Duke, Kansas and Kentucky (in no particular order) — and slot UCLA in at No. 5. After that, Maryland is in a select group that includes Texas, Ohio State and Illinois. Michigan State and UConn could easily be in the second tier, as well.
What makes Maryland such a good job? A history of sustained success, affiliation in an elite conference, fan support and an extremely fertile recruiting area.
But if Maryland is such a good job, then why have the Terps been so mediocre in recent years? Williams was one of the most respected coaches in the nation during his stops at American, Boston College, Ohio State and Maryland, but it’s a fair question to ask if the Terps underachieved during the latter years of his tenure.
The answer is yes and no, depending on how you interpret the numbers. In the nine seasons since winning the national title in 2002, Maryland compiled a 78–66 record in ACC games, an average of 8.6 wins per seasons. At first glance, that’s pretty mediocre, but consider the following: The Terps’ 78 wins rank third in the league over that stretch, behind Duke (107 wins) and North Carolina (97).
Is it fair to label a coach who has won the third most games in one of the top conferences in the nation as an underachiever? Yes, if that coach is the boss of a program that most believe is one of the 10 best in the nation. Since that title season, Maryland has only had a winning record in the ACC three times (11–5 in ’03, 10–6 in ’07, and 13–3 in ’10) and the Terps failed to make the NCAA Tournament four times. In the five seasons in which Maryland did make the tournament, it was seeded no higher than fourth.
So at no time in the past nine seasons have the Terps been regarded as a top-12 team at the conclusion of the regular season — not good for a school with the resources of Maryland.
— Mitch Light
By Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Houston — It’s the most unlikely Final Four since the NCAA Tournament expanded in 1985. We have a No. 3 seed that finished in a three-way tie for ninth place in its own league (UConn), a No. 4 seed that went 2–6 on the road in its conference (Kentucky), a No. 8 seed that at one point this season lost consecutive games to Milwaukee, Valparaiso and Youngstown State (Butler), and, finally, a No. 11 seed that lost its final four conference games of the regular season, three of which were at home (VCU).
So who’s going to advance to the National Championships game on Monday night? Who knows. At this point, all we can do if offer an educated guess. Here’s mine:
Game 1 — Butler over VCU
My first thought was to pick Butler. The Bulldogs are a seasoned group that has proven itself in the NCAA Tournament over the past two seasons. They advanced to this point by beating four very good teams — Old Dominion, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and Florida. Those were my thoughts earlier in the week. Then, I switched over to the VCU camp. The Rams, after all, didn’t just beat some good teams to get to the Final Four — they beat them thoroughly. Any team that is good enough to beat Georgetown and Purdue by 18 points and Kansas by 10 is surely good enough to beat Butler. Right? The answer, of course, is yes, but only if this team continues to play at the same extraordinarily high level. Only if this team continues to bury the 3-point shot at such a high rate and continues to rebound the ball so effectively and continues to play defense with such tenacity. The guess here is that VCU will be unable to maintain the same level in all three phases. It’s been a magical ride for the Rams, but it will end Saturday night. I’m back with the Butler Bulldogs.
Game 2 — Kentucky over UConn
At some point late in the season, Kentucky developed into a complete basketball team. Sure, John Calipari would prefer to have more depth and another low-post scorer would be welcomed, but this team that we all thought was flawed earlier in the season looks pretty darn good now. With Josh Harrellson producing around the basket (14.8 ppg, 9.0 rpg in the NCAA Tournament) and veteran wing players DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller playing at a high level to complement the talented freshmen, there’s not a lot this team isn’t doing well. Connecticut, however, will have the best player on the floor in junior guard Kemba Walker. The Huskies will need big a night from Walker, but he must be efficient as well. Kentucky will gladly allow Walker to score 30 points if he needs 25 shots to get his points. UConn must get production from its role players, and big man Alex Oriakhi must provide some scoring around the basket. In four NCAA games, he has scored a total of 25 points. That won’t get it done Saturday night. This figures to be a thrilling game played at a high level. Take the team with the better roster over the team with the best player.
1. There are four great point guards in the Final Four. Which one is your favorite?
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch): I don’t want to over-think this one. I’ve got to go with Kemba Walker, a first-team All-American who has been playing at an amazingly high level for the past few weeks. Joey Rodriguez at VCU, Shelvin Mack at Butler and Brandon Knight at Kentucky are all very, very good, but Walker is the best.
Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden): As talented, and clutch, as Brandon Knight has been and as entertaining as Joey Rodriguez can be, how do you not go with Kemba Walker? The step-back buzzer beater against Pitt in the Big East Tournament was a thing of beauty. He is the best scorer of the bunch and has been simply unbeatable (12-0) in any tournament he has played in this season.
Nathan Rush: I’ve been a fan of VCU’s Joey Rodriguez since he, Chandler Parsons and Nick Calathes were the state title-winning “Three Amigos” of Orlando’s Lake Howell High. Florida’s Billy Donovan snatched up Parsons and Calathes, while former Gators assistant-turned-VCU coach Anthony Grant (who is now at Alabama) was able to sign Rodriguez to the Rams. J-Rod has been as valuable as any player in this year’s NCAA Tournament — averaging 10.2 points, 7.6 assists (compared to only 2.0 turnovers), 2.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals over five games. It’s good to finally see Rodriguez getting the national exposure he deserves. He’s my favorite point guard in the Final Four.
2. What is more of a surprise: Butler in its second straight Final Four or VCU making the Final Four?
Mitch: Well, I am more surprised that VCU is in the Final Four, because the Rams were a No. 11 seed and had lost their last four regular-season games in the CAA. But I think Butler making it the Final Four for the second straight season is a bigger story. It is very difficult for make the Final Four once. Just ask BYU, Missouri and Alabama, three schools with over 20 trips to the NCAA Tournament without a Final Four appearance. Butler has now done it two times in a row. It’s truly one of the most amazing stories in college basketball over the past two decades.
Braden: VCU is more surprising in my mind. They have played one more game than everyone else as one of the last teams to make it into the bracket. It really isn’t a shock that a team that played for the national title last season made it back to the Final Four the following year.
Nathan: VCU making the Final Four as a controversial “First Four” at-large bid is definitely more surprising than Butler advancing to the Final Four for the second straight season. The Bulldogs lost Gordon Hayward to the NBA Draft — where he went No. 9 overall to the Jazz — but returned a brilliant coach (Brad Stevens), blue-collar big man (Matt Howard) and clutch lead guard (Shelvin Mack). The Rams, however, lost five of their last eight games before making the NCAA Tournament field of 68. Since then, Shaka Smart’s team has knocked off USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas. That’s Shaka-ing to me.
3. Name a role player who will have to step up for his team to win two games in Houston.
Mitch: Kentucky’s Josh Harrellson is one guy who will need to play well, but I will go with Butler freshman Khyle Marshall. He plays about 20 minutes, gives the Bulldogs a little bit of scoring (7.7 ppg in the NCAA Tournament) and some quality work on the boards (6.7 rpg). Marshall, who signed with Butler before last year’s amazing run to the Final Four, is the type of under-the-radar recruit who has put the Bulldogs in position to compete on a national level.
Braden: Anyone named Lamb. Whichever Lamb shows up in the Kentucky vs. UConn game will win the national title. Both UK’s Doron and UConn’s Jeremy can shoot from long range, both are solid passers and both can handle the ball.
Nathan: Kentucky freshman Doron Lamb undoubtedly will shadow Connecticut’s Kemba Walker for much of the UK-UConn showdown. And the Oak Hill product from New York City must play the type of lockdown defense he played for key stretches against North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes in the Elite Eight victory. Offensively, Lamb must continue to knock down open shots from long range — where he shot 48.1 percent (65-of-135) this year, including 62.5 percent (5-of-8) in the NCAA Tournament. Lamb must play great defense and hit big shots under pressure in order for the Cats to advance to the title game and, ultimately, cut down the nets in Houston.
4. Should the NCAA reseed the teams in the Final Four?
Mitch: No. Bad idea. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Braden: Great question. The answer to that question 99 out of 100 times is absolutely not. This would be the only year that even raises the issue. An 8 vs. 11 match-up has never happened in the Final Four and may never happen again. It’s unfortunate that the national title will be determined on Saturday in the Kentucky-UConn game, but those are the cards basketball fans — and CBS — have been dealt. The best we can hope for on Monday night is that Butler will give us another great effort.
Nathan: Absolutely not. All region champs are created equal at this time of year. Any team that wins four straight games (or five, in VCU’s case) in the Big Dance has proven it belongs. These are the four No. 1 seeds, in my opinion. Plus, reseeding could backfire. If UK and UConn were split up, they could both lose. Then, there would be a Butler-VCU title game. As it stands, at least one member of basketball royalty will be playing an underdog for the crown on Monday night in Houston.
5. Who will win it all?
Mitch: Right now, I think Kentucky is the best team. If the Cats continue to get solid play from Josh Harrellson, a perceived weakness is a strength. Kentucky is getting great play from its veteran wing players Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins, and the entire team is hitting big shots in the big moments.
Braden: The experience and will power of Kemba Walker will give the Huskies the slight edge over Kentucky. However, something tells me that this is John Calapari’s year. Every time North Carolina got to within one or two points, Brandon Knight would knock down a huge shot. These Cats can shoot the ball better than any of Cal’s past teams, and it appears the coach has finally learned that you have to run half-court sets to win a championship. Even if the banner is pulled down in three years.
Nathan: Kentucky over Butler. This is not John Calipari’s most talented collection of players but it may be the best “team” he’s ever had, not to mention the best coaching job he’s ever done. The emergence of senior junior college transfer Josh “Jorts” Harrellson — who stepped up when the NCAA suspended five-star freshman Enes Kanter for the season — has provided championship-caliber heart and soul for the Cats, while juniors DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller add athleticism and experience to a core trio of freshmen — point guard Brandon Knight, wingman Doron Lamb and forward Terrence Jones — who are playing with poise beyond their years. Butler is no easy out but if Coach Cal can avoid a repeat of his Memphis-Kansas Monday night meltdown — when he let a championship slip through his fingers — UK will raise the eighth banner in school history.
By Ken Davis
When Jim Calhoun embarked on his career as a NCAA Division I basketball coach at Northeastern in 1972, he was 30 years old — even younger than Butler’s Brad Stevens or VCU’s Shaka Smart as they head to the 2011 Final Four.
Fourteen seasons at Northeastern gave Calhoun an understanding of the whole mid-major, David vs. Goliath issue, but the hurdles were much different back then for the young coach from Boston.
“Making our way through, we always felt the elite were the elite and just to play them was great, never mind beating them,” said Calhoun, who is now 68 and leading Connecticut to a Final Four for the fourth time since 1999. “Now, everybody can beat everybody. I think it’s good for the sport.”
Calhoun can say that without any trepidation, because his team is still alive and just two wins away from UConn’s third national championship. The Huskies still fall on the elite side, along with Kentucky, their semifinal opponent. But Kansas, Georgetown and Purdue actually feel the pain because they all lost to VCU. And the same goes for Florida, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh, who were Butler’s big-name victims in this tournament.
Since tournament seeding began in 1979, there has never been a Final Four like this. The school banners hanging over the festivities at Reliant Stadium in Houston will have a much different look and not just because Butler and VCU have crashed the power conference party.
The absence of either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed is unprecedented. With the benefit of time, we may look back on this Final Four as the one that changed all our previous perceptions.
“The teams that play the best basketball in the tournament are the teams that have a chance to win the tournament,” Stevens said. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from or how big your football program is or how much money is in your athletic department.
“It’s about a group of kids coming together, five guys playing on the court at once, hopefully believing together. … There’s no politics in this. There’s a 40-minute basketball game. That’s the beautiful thing about it.”
Calhoun says it is the cumulative effect of players leaving early for the NBA.
“This year we noticed,” Calhoun said. “I said all year there are some terrific teams. Pitt, Ohio State, Kansas … but there may not be a great team. It there’s not a great team, it opens up the field for everybody else. That’s what happened.”
Who needs further expansion? With 68-teams, better players and better coaches at all levels, the formula seems almost perfect.
Without a doubt, that is the top storyline for this Final Four. Here’s the rest of our Top 10:
Lighting A Fire
VCU has made history, going from the “First Four” to the Final Four in this first tournament with a 68-team field. No other team in history has had to win five games to reach the Final Four. And this is a team with 11 losses. The Rams were 3-5 in February. On March 1, Smart found a new way to light a fire under his team. Smart gathered his players together, took the month of February out of his desk calendar, used a lighter and set it on fire. “The guys watched it burn,” Smart said. “That was symbolic for us, putting the month of February behind us.” Said Calhoun: “I love it.”
Calipari Was Hired For This
Tubby Smith couldn’t please the fans in Big Blue Nation. The Billy Gillispie Era was a disaster and lasted two seasons. On April 1, 2009, Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart introduced John Calipari as the coach of the Wildcats. His critics call him Coach Vacate because Final Four appearances with Massachusetts and Memphis have been stricken from the NCAA record book because of rules violations. But Wildcat fans love Coach Cal for taking Kentucky to the Promised Land for the first time since the Comeback Kids of 1998. “I’m young enough that I am not worried about my legacy,” Coach Cal said. “I am trying to win one more game.”
Take The Money And …
VCU athletic director Norwood Teague says he’s going to keep Smart as coach of the Rams. How much cash will that take? Smart has gotten smarter and hotter as a coaching prospect as the Rams moved on in the tournament. With his aggressive and attractive style of play, you just know a school like NC State is ready to tangle big dollars in front of Smart’s eyes. Of course, Brad Stevens signed an extension after Butler’s big season and first Final Four last year. “There are so many factors that go into it,” Stevens said. “You have to figure out what’s best for your family, are you happy where you are, do you feel empowered when you go to work, do you like the people you work with, do you like the city you live in, and everything else.”
This stat worked its way through media rooms across the country over the weekend. Stevens, 34, and Smart, 33, combined are younger than Calhoun, 68. “My two sons plus my problem child [Calipari],” Calhoun said during a conference call Monday.
Cal vs. Calhoun
That “problem child” reference brings us to the prime-time coaching matchup in the semifinal round. Calipari and Calhoun are anything but strangers. They went at each other hard and strong when Calipari coached at UMass. Both were trying to mark their territory. The schools were old rivals from the Yankee Conference (and before), and the coaches hated each other. The fire doesn’t burn quite as strong any more, but there is still a feeling of dislike. They have met a few times since Cal left Amherst, most recently in Maui when UConn won. The bottom line is their personalities are so similar there’s no way they could get along. “John always has been an aggressive, incredible personality who has developed into a terrific basketball coach,” Calhoun said. Calipari said he would be shocked if Calhoun ever retires. “He’s as good as they get,” Cal said of the UConn coach.
It seems fitting that UConn point guard Kemba Walker will close out his college basketball career at the Final Four. Walker began his season of dominance at the Maui Invitational in November, which now seems like a lifetime ago. He had a little shooting slump when everyone started to doubt him, then he took the young Huskies on his back for this remarkable postseason run. Five wins in five days at the Big East Tournament. Now four more wins in the NCAA, to make it nine in a row. This is UConn’s second Final Four in three years, but last season was an NIT disaster, and the cloud of the NCAA investigation into recruiting violations hung over the Huskies all season. UConn’s Final Four run is almost as amazing as that of VCU or Butler.
This isn’t Indy
Butler was the home team at the Final Four in Indianapolis last year. It was remarkable. The Final Four hadn’t seen anything like it since Danny Manning and his Miracles at Kansas won the 1988 championship in Kansas City, Mo., and Kemper Arena. But Lucas Oil Stadium was on a whole different scale. Duke had to win the national championship playing a road game. “Nothing will be like Indy. Indy was crazy,” Stevens said. “If there's 30,000 people [at open practice] they're going to try to be getting whoever else's autographs are there in Houston. It's not going to be for our guys. ... But trust me, we will play anywhere they send us and we are thrilled to go to Houston."
Get the point
Walker, named to first team Associated Press All-America team Monday, may be the star of this Final Four. But the other three teams have talented point guards who direct the traffic, call the signals and provide the leadership. Can you remember a Final Four team that didn’t have that? The Butler-VCU game will match Shelvin Mack of Butler against Joey Rodriguez of VCU. Mack wasn’t highly recruited, but he fits the Butler system perfectly. Rodriquez is a senior who never backs down. His distribution to his teammates was a key in the win over Kansas. And Walker will be going against freshman Brandon Knight, the Most Outstanding Player in the East Regional and the king of the buzzer beater in this tournament. The Kentucky media guide says Knight chose the Wildcats over UConn, Florida, Kansas, Miami and Syracuse. It should say about 300 other schools wanted him. “If I spent all my time on the kids we lost, I’d fantasize and we would have won a lot of championships because we’ve lost a lot of good players,” Calhoun said. “I’m more interested in the kids we get.”
Fans say they love the Cinderella teams. But do they really? We will find out Saturday when the semifinals play out on CBS. Butler vs. VCU first and then the bluebloods, Kentucky vs. UConn. The ratings for this tournament have been off the charts so far, but will the viewers embrace this Final Four? By this time, the Cinderellas have usually turned to pumpkins. “It’s going to be fine,” Mike Aresco, CBS Sports executive vice president, told USA Today. Aresco likes Butler as a “big story” and the two young coaches. He didn’t mention Calhoun’s “problem child” but you can be sure the ratings will be high in Kentucky.
Ken Davis is the author of Basketball Vault books covering the history of the University of Kansas and the University of Connecticut. Both are available through the publisher
(http://www.whitmanvaultbooks.com/) and autographed copies are available at Ken's web page (http://kendavis55.wordpress.com/).
1. Which Sweet 16 matchup are you most looking forward to watching?
Mitch Light: There are a bunch of good ones, but I’m interested in the Duke vs. Arizona game in Anaheim. There’s star power with Arizona’s Derrick Williams and Duke’s Nolan Smith — two All-Americans — and then there is the Kyrie Irving storyline: How much of an impact will he have on the game? I think the key will be Williams vs. the Duke front line. He will need to have a monster game for Arizona to move on.
Nathan Rush: BYU-Florida will either be Jimmer Fredette’s final college contest or a repeat of last year’s first-round upset — when the Jimmer scored 37 points while leading the Cougars to a 99–92 double-overtime victory in Oklahoma City. I don’t know which one it will be, but I expect Jimmer to go out in style — the Naismith Player of the Year Award finalist is averaging 37 points, 4.8 assists and 3.5 rebounds over his last four games.
Braden Gall: BYU and Florida. This Gators team is big inside, has veteran guards and an extraordinary coach. And don’t forget about the extremely versatile Chandler Parsons, the SEC Player of the Year. Jimmer-mania got the Cougars out of the first weekend — something I did not anticipate, I will admit. So I won’t miss any game with Fredette — especially since it will be his last. Patric Young is playing the best ball of his young career. The Gators have too much interior size.
2. What National Championship matchup would you most like to see?
Mitch: A Butler vs. Duke rematch would be wild, but I don’t believe that will happen. I will be boring and go with Ohio State vs. Kansas. These were the two best teams for the majority of the season, and I would love to see them play each other for a national title.
Nathan: Ohio State and Kansas are the two best teams. And since North Carolina and Duke can’t meet in the title game, I’ll go with the top two rosters. But I do wish the Tar Heels and Blue Devils could go toe-to-toe with everything on the line. Maybe one day. If so, I want Gus Johnson on the mic.
Braden: North Carolina v. Kansas would certainly have some storylines. Florida and Kentucky would too. But Duke vs. Ohio State would be my pick. I think they are the best two teams in the nation, and I would love to see them battle it out in Houston — it just won’t be in the title game.
3. Which team are you most surprised is not playing this weekend?
Mitch: Well, anytime a No. 1 seed doesn’t make it to the Sweet 16 it’s a surprise, so Pitt is one answer. But I’m more surprised that Texas will not be playing in the Sweet 16. I really thought Rick Barnes’ team was ready for deep run. This edition of the Longhorns had enough talent to win a national championship, but they simply didn’t make the smart plays in crunch time against Arizona. Major disappointment.
Nathan: Rick Barnes did it again. Every year, I take Texas too far in my bracket. I was feeling pretty good when Cory Joseph prepared to inbound the ball with a 69–67 lead over Arizona and 14.5 seconds on the clock. Then, a failed timeout call and controversial five-second violation resulted in an opportunity for Pac-10 Player of the Year Derrick Williams to make a hero play, which he did. The rest is busted bracket history. But look out for the Longhorns next year; I’ll probably pick them to make the Final Four and maybe even win it all.
Braden: I am sure Texas would get a lot of votes, but the Horns consistently underachieve in the tourney (I had Zona). My pick is Notre Dame. A veteran, defensive-minded team that can shoot the lights out? There is no way that team should have been knocked out — especially the way they were.
4. If you were an A.D. and had a job opening, which coach would be higher on your wish list: VCU’s Shaka Smart or Richmond’s Chris Mooney?
Mitch: Mooney. Smart has done a great job guiding VCU to the Sweet 16, but he’s only been a head coach for two seasons and he didn’t recruit the key players on this team. And don’t forget, VCU lost its last four CAA regular-season games when it was — we thought — playing for its NCAA Tournament life. The sample size of Mooney’s work, however, is far greater. He went 18–12 in his lone season at Air Force (2004-05) and has built Richmond into a consistent winner. The Spiders have reached the NCAA Tournament in two straight seasons — which isn’t easy to do coming out of the A-10.
Nathan: I’ll go with the “Havoc Ball” full-court defensive pressure and fast-breaking offensive style of VCU’s Shaka Smart. Like his predecessor at VCU, current Alabama coach Anthony Grant, Smart coached under two-time national champion Florida coach Billy Donovan — who is the star of Rick Pitino’s extensive coaching tree — before arriving in the Commonwealth. I’d hire Smart, a coach cut from the Donovan-Pitino mold, over Mooney, a former wedding planner with a Princeton pace. But make no mistake, neither the Rams nor Spiders would be in the Sweet 16 without their top-flight point guards — Joey Rodriguez and Kevin Anderson.
Braden: Unfortunately, we just don’t know enough about Shaka Smart. Mooney has a much longer track record and built this Spiders squad himself. He has increased his win total four years in a row, building to this tournament. And his team took advantage by making it to the second weekend. Smart certainly looks the part, but Anthony Grant deserves most of the credit for the construction of this VCU team.
5. Who will win the national title?
Mitch: I’ll stick with Ohio State, my pick before the NCAA Tournament. There are plenty of teams that can beat Ohio State, but the Buckeyes are the best team in the country when they are playing well. They’ve got the big man in the middle in Jared Sullinger and a bunch of shooters on the perimeter. They will be tough to beat.
Nathan: After watching Ohio State crush UT-San Antonio, 75–46, in the opener and stomp on George Mason’s Cinderella dreams, 98–66, there’s no reason to go against my pre-Tournament national title pick. Jared Sullinger and the Buckeyes will cut down the nets in Houston on April 4.
Braden: Duke. Duke. Duke. I picked them to cut down the nets before I learned Kyrie Irving would be back. This team is just as talented as Kansas, just as physical and athletic as Ohio State and has more experience than both. Give me Coach K.
By Ken Davis
So, how’s your bracket holding up? Don’t want to talk about it? I understand. I’d rather not talk about mine either, but I have no credibility without full disclosure.
I filled out half a dozen and they were all about the same, with minor tweaks here and there. Two emerged as my best efforts. On one, I have nine of the Sweet 16 (Kansas, Richmond, Wisconsin, BYU, Ohio State, Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke and San Diego State) correct with three of my Final Four teams (Ohio State, Kansas, Duke) still alive. The other has eight from this round.
Of course, there are those who made their picks based on mascots, celebrity fans, school colors and other important factors. Those people are ahead of me. That’s OK. I hope to finish strong and make a decent showing.
We’ve made that remarkable transition from 68 teams to 16, so now it is time to regroup and evaluate these teams. We offer the Sweet 16 power ratings, based on what we expected last week at this time and how the teams performed in the first week.
1. Ohio State – The Buckeyes were more than impressive. Ohio State took the court against Texas-San Antonio and George Mason and simply took care of business. That should make Buckeye fans confident and Ohio State opponents nervous. The Buckeyes outscored their two opponents 89-47 in first-half play alone. George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said his gameplan was to stop Jared Sullinger and Jon Diebler and then pray no one else got hot. So David Lighty was 7-of-7 on threes and had 21 points. William Buford scored 18. OSU has too many weapons. Kentucky is up next. Ohio State has a big advantage in experience, but this should be a great game. With Syracuse out of this bracket, I think Ohio State is headed to the Final Four.
2. Duke – Kyrie Irving is back. If you didn’t have the Blue Devils going to the Final Four, things have changed. Duke found a way to beat Michigan despite 25 percent shooting from 3-point range. Before heading to Anaheim, the Blue Devils can work on the specific roles of Irving and Nolan Smith, who had 24 against Michigan. Not a bad problem to have at this point in the season. Mike Krzyzewski won his 900th game and he may have started a personal tour of past national championship game opponents with Michigan (1992). Arizona (2001), and possibly Connecticut (1999), are waiting in Anaheim.
3. Kansas – Everyone can start breathing again in Lawrence. The Jayhawks got past the second round on the one-year anniversary of that loss last season to Northern Iowa. The weight of that memory was obvious in victories over Boston University and Illinois. Kansas started slowly in both victories, then executed offensively and dug in defensively for outstanding performances after halftime. Twins Marcus and Markieff Morris (the “Marcus twins” as Marv Albert refers to them) have been outstanding. They helped coach Bill Self put Illinois in the deep past. As long as the Jayhawks get the ball inside first, instead of settling for quick jump shots, they will be hard to beat. The road to Houston has opened up with No. 12 Richmond, No. 11 VCU and No. 10 Florida State joining Kansas in San Antonio.
4. BYU – The Cougars “Jimmered” Gonzaga and that was rather impressive. Jimmer Fredette scored 34 points and BYU made it back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1981. The Cougars have handled the loss of Brandon Davies better than anyone could imagine. BYU defeated Florida in the first round last year. The Gators are much improved, but can anyone stop Jimmer?
5. San Diego State – The more I watch the Aztecs, the more I’m convinced they could reach the Final Four. Kawhi Leonard is a great athlete who can beat you at both ends of the floor. D.J. Gay is a true leader at the point. But Malcolm Thomas and Billy White have had eye-opening performances for Steve Fisher’s team. They deserve more respect than they will get in a regional with Duke, UConn and Arizona.
6. North Carolina – Freshman Harrison Barnes says the Tar Heels make up for a lack of experience by playing with heart. North Carolina needed a little luck and some free throws to get past a hungry Washington team. With Tyler Zeller and John Henson playing bigger roles, the Tar Heels should beat Marquette and reach the East Final against Ohio State.
7. Florida – Tiny Erving Walker has played big for the Gators. That shouldn’t be a surprise on a team coach by Billy Donovan. The Florida victory over UCLA was impressive. And Walker came through when Kenny Boynton went down with his ankle injury. Chandler Parsons and Vernon Macklin have the Gators back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007.
8. Butler – About a month ago it seemed the Bulldogs might not make the field after reaching the Final Four last season. Now Butler is two wins away from a return trip. The victory over Pittsburgh ranks as one of the strangest games in Tournament history. Matt Howard is one of those guys you can’t help but root for. And I’ve run out of words to describe coach Brad Stevens.
9. Connecticut – For the Huskies, this is just a Big East Tournament with days off. No kidding. UConn had to beat Big East member Cincinnati again for the right to play in the Sweet 16. That’s the earliest meeting between two teams from the same conference in NCAA Tournament history. UConn hasn’t shown any signs of being tired after that Big East run. Jim Calhoun loves going West to reach the Final Four, so the trip to Anaheim is no big deal. Oh yeah, Kemba Walker is still driving the bus.
10. Kentucky – John Calipari’s young Wildcats just keep getting better. Kentucky survived two different styles to defeat Princeton and West Virginia. Brandon Knight seems more than comfortable in postseason play. Kentucky is good enough to reach the Final Four, but Ohio State is just too big a roadblock.
11. Arizona – Can’t you just see Arizona coach Sean Miller stepping out of a dugout, walking to the mound and signaling for his closer. That’s what Derrick Williams has become for the surprising Wildcats. Williams blocks shots, grabs rebounds, makes baskets, completes three-point plays. He is Mr. Efficiency. And the Wildcats love having him on their side.
12. Florida State – The return of Chris Singleton couldn’t have come at a better time for the Seminoles. Singleton and Derwin Kitchen are the stars, but Leonard Hamilton’s team is winning with the toughest defense around. If you saw the look on the face of Notre Dame’s Ben Hansbrough, you understand the stifling feeling of going against Florida State right now.
13. Wisconsin – Raise your hand if you had Belmont over Wisconsin in the second round. I did. Coach Bo Ryan didn’t allow that. Then Jordan Taylor and Jon Leuer sent Kansas State packing for home. Butler will be the sentimental pick over Wisconsin, but this should be a game played at a high level.
14. Marquette – Where’s Al McGuire? Marquette is playing North Carolina. Did someone turn the calendar back to 1977? Buzz Williams has done a remarkable job at Marquette. The Golden Eagles may have been the last of the Big East 11 to get into the field but they one of the last two still around (joining UConn). Great story.
15. Richmond – Coach Chris Mooney gets another week of exposure, then interviews and then he will be off to NC State or Georgia Tech or Oklahoma. He’s the best young coach around and already is in high demand. If you haven’t watched Kevin Anderson play, do so before he’s in the NBA. The Spiders may not advance but Kansas is in for a fight.
16. VCU – If you were ranking the hottest teams in the tournament, VCU would be at the top. The Rams crushed — I mean crushed —Purdue. This is what happens when a team gets hot at the right time. Of course, so many felt VCU shouldn’t have been in the tourney. Now more history will be made with the first 10 (Florida State) vs. 11 (VCU) matchup ever. The Rams took down USC, Georgetown and Purdue last week in the NCAA version of what UConn did in the Big East tourney. Coach Shaka Smart has likely found his ticket out of the Colonial. And VCU’s speedy, attacking style is hard for anyone to match.
EARLY ROUND REVIEW
It’s a good thing the NCAA is off until Thursday. I’m bleary-eye. I probably watched a dozen games start to finish in four days, but all together I think I can remember seeing parts of about 44 games.
After this week, I think HBO might be working on a miniseries about John Adams, not the former U.S. president but the NCAA coordinator of men’s basketball officials. And, I definitely, have the N-N-N-N Napa Know How. (Enough already.)
I like the move to four networks. It puts me in control and I can make the switches I want. But I’m lucky to have all four on my cable system. I feel bad for those who don’t have truTV or TNT or TBS. I know people who couldn’t watch their favorite teams. Something has to be worked out.
And I’m disappointed in Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley. They brought nothing to the table. They knew they were going to be on. Study the teams a bit more. Learn something about the players, not just the coaches who are “your friends.” Give me Seth Davis back in a prominent role. I know I can still find Jay Bilas and Hubert Davis after the game, but I can’t any more of The Jet and Sir Charles, especially Barkley’s juvenile attack on the Big East.
How many Big East teams needed to be in the Sweet 16? Eight? Four? What would prove to Barkley that it was the best conference during the regular season? I’m on my way to my 27th consecutive Final Four. I’ve never had anyone stop me right after the championship game and say, “Well that proves [the champion] plays in the best conference.”
How about this perspective: UConn and Marquette tied for ninth in the Big East. They are in the Sweet 16 and they had to beat another Big East team to get there. Sounds like a pretty tough conference to me. The Big East was the toughest. If had 11 good teams, no great teams — and that’s what most of us were saying all season.
MEMORIES AND PREDICTIONS
Best Buzzer Beater: The 3-pointer by Demonte Harper of Morehead State against Louisville.
Biggest Upsets: Morehead State over Louisville; Butler over Pittsburgh; Florida State over Notre Dame.
Biggest Disappointments: Louisville (should have reached Sweet 16); Vanderbilt (when will the Commodores get past their first game?); and Pittsburgh (why can’t the Panthers beat lower seeded teams?).
All-Sympathy Team: Nasir Robinson, Pittsburgh (for that foul against Butler); Jacob Pullen, Kansas State (for playing his heart out and not getting any support); Scoop Jardine, Syracuse (for not stepping into the backcourt to receive that inbounds pass), Venoy Overton, Washington (for that premature 3-point attempt); and Cory Joseph, Texas (five-second call against Arizona).
Regional Championships: Ohio State over North Carolina (East); Duke over San Diego State (West); Kansas over VCU (Southwest); BYU over Butler (Southeast).
By Ralph Vacchiano
The NFL schedule for the 2011 season is still supposed to be released some time in mid-April. At the moment, though, there’s only one thing on the slate that really matters: An April 6 court date in Minneapolis.
It’s sad and unfortunate that it’s come to this, but that’s where we are with the NFL labor mess that imploded on March 11 and is now headed toward a possibly lengthy and likely ugly court fight. The NFL Players Association decertified as a union. The NFL owners followed suit by locking out the players.
There will be injunctions and motions and hearings galore before the next ball is snapped on an NFL field. The legalese will be as mind-boggling to outsiders as the terminology in the Green Bay Packers’ playbook. All that fans know for sure is that there will be no NFL football for a while because the owners and players couldn’t figure out how to divide $9 billion up.
“Regrettably, the parties haven’t achieved an overall agreement or been able to resolve strongly held competing views that separate them on core issues,” said federal mediator George Cohen after the labor talks blew up. “After reviewing the situation, it is the considered judgment of yours truly that no constructive purpose would be served by requesting them to continue mediation at this time.”
That’s the most important, rhetoric-free statement about how far the sides are from reaching an actual agreement. Everything else the two sides have said has been nothing but finger-pointing. Saints quarterback Drew Brees says the owners’ attempts to negotiate was “all a front, all a show, with no real intent to get a deal done.” Giants co-owner John Mara countered that the NFLPA wasn’t serious, that they negotiated “like they were in a hurry to get out of there on Friday and get into a Minneapolis courtroom.”
The result of nearly three weeks of mediation was pretty much nothing. They inched closer on some key issues — like a rookie wage scale, no 18-game season, and the all-important revenue split — but not nearly close enough considering they’ve been at this for two years.
That’s why George Atallah, the union spokesman, agreed with Cohen.
“The perception is that we were really, really close,” he said a few days after talks imploded. “The reality is: We really, really weren’t.”
So where does the NFL go from here? And is it possible there won’t be a 2011 season?
The answer, at this point, is they go slowly into uncharted waters. And sadly, anything is possible.
THE NEXT STEPS (in fluent legalese … or something close)
The April 6 showdown is a big one. Now that the union has decertified, it has filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL — famously titled Brady v. NFL with nine NFL players and one college player as co-plaintiffs in the class-action suit. The biggest part of that suit is a request for an injunction that would block the lockout. The union needed to decertify — essentially reorganize as a “professional trade association” — to file that suit.
Chances are a decision in that suit won’t come immediately. Legal experts say it could be 2-4 weeks before Judge Susan Nelson delivers her decision. There is also the possibility — or likelihood — of an appeal after she does.
In other words, we might not know which way any of this is going until after the April 28-30 draft.
If the lockout-blocking injunction is granted, the NFL can actually resume, using the 2010 CBA rules — no salary cap or floor, six years to unrestricted free agency, etc. If it’s not, the players will be locked out indefinitely, meaning they’ll likely be forced to reform as a union and restart negotiations.
There’s also another wrinkle: The NFL has filed papers with the National Labor Relations Board trying to block the NFLPA’s effort to decertify. They claim it’s a “sham” based on the correct assumption that the NFLPA still exists and will eventually re-certify when this mess is over. If the NLRB sides with the owners, then they have no legal right to file a lockout-blocking injunction, which would also mean the lockout remains in effect.
WHAT TO EXPECT (in plain English)
Both sides seem to agree on one thing, at least privately: The only way this is going to get settled is to resume negotiations. Nobody really thinks Brady v. NFL will ever make a long and expensive trip through the legal system. The presence of it is simply about blocking the lockout and gaining leverage.
After April 6, when the lockout is either blocked or not, things will be a lot clearer. But it still seems to be most likely that the NFL will eventually temporarily re-open under the 2010 CBA rules while the two sides get together in a room somewhere and try to hammer out an agreement.
Could it last longer? Sure. There could be appeals or the lockout could be upheld. And yes, the season — or at least the start of it — could be in danger if the two sides dig in, instead of trying to find a middle ground.
Most people don’t think it will get that far. The players don’t want to lose the paychecks that start in September. The owners don’t want to lose the revenue from TV deals and games, etc. There’s too much money at stake for this to be much more than a painful offseason squabble.
At least, that’s what everyone hopes.
1. Which first-round (or I guess we have to call it second-round) matchup interests you the most?
Mitch Light: I’m intrigued by Michigan vs. Tennessee, the 8-9 matchup in the East Region. Michigan has played extremely well over the last six weeks, with a 9–4 record in its last 13 games. Tim Hardaway Jr. has emerged as a consistent scorer, and point guard Darius Morris has done a great job running the show. This team is difficult to prepare for on both ends of the court. Tennessee has been one of the most schizophrenic teams in the nation, but the Vols do have talent. They are limited on the offensive end — Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris are the only consistent scorers — but have played very well on the defensive end. I’m picking Tennessee, but nothing would surprise me.
Nathan Rush: I’m looking forward to Washington-Georgia in the East Region’s 7-10 matchup. The Huskies are a fun team to watch, having most recently won the Pac-10 Tournament on a last-second buzzer-beater by Isaiah Thomas in overtime. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs were a supposed “bubble team” that ended up getting much more respect by the Selection Committee than anyone anticipated. The Dawgs should be hungry to prove they deserve their spot, while UW looks to continue its recent run of success.
Braden Gall: I can’t wait for the UCLA-Michigan State game. Both coaches have loads of Final Four experience and talented rosters. Each plays solid defense, and both coaches have proven to be tournament wizards. Kalin Lucas is playing the best basketball of his career, so I am taking the Spartans and the Izzo March magic to move on. However, a national championship rematch is looming with the Florida Gators in the second round regardless of who wins this game.
2. Which third-round (formerly second-round) game do you most want to see?
Mitch: I think Texas vs. Arizona in a 4 vs. 5 showdown in the West would be fun to watch. Texas is my pick to make it to the Final Four from this region. I believe we will see the Longhorn team that raced out to an 11–0 start in the Big 12 — not the team that went 2–3 in its final five regular-season games. Sean Miller has done a tremendous job at Arizona, guiding the Cats to a Pac-10 title in his second season. Derrick Williams has been sensational, with his ability to crash the boards (8.1 rpg) and score around the basket and on the perimeter (.603 from 3-point range).
Nathan: Charles Barkley already has his heavily buttered popcorn ready for Arizona-Texas and so do I. These are two teams with difficult first-round matchups (Memphis and Oakland, respectively) who are capable of challenging Duke — assuming Coach K advances to his 20th Sweet 16 this season. Chuck implied that UA-UT was all but a done deal when he previewed the bracket on the NCAA Tournament selection show. If the Wildcats and Longhorns don’t play each other on the second weekend, that would be terrible.
Braden: Washington-North Carolina. Few teams finished the season as hot as the Pac-10 tourney champs did. Lorenzo Romar has a deep and experienced backcourt to go with athletic big man Matthew Bryan-Amaning in the post. North Carolina has elite NBA talents, but the Tar Heels have zero tourney experience. Look for the Huskies to pull the second-round upset — if they can get by Georgia. I would love to see the different styles in a Vanderbilt-Louisville game as well as another potential upset in an Old Dominion-Pitt meeting.
3. Name a player who needs to step up for his team to do well in the first two rounds.
Mitch: Vanderbilt forward Jeffrey Taylor must play well for the Commodores to avoid a first-round exit for the third time in their last three NCAA Tournament trips. When Taylor scores with consistency — as he did in the SEC Tournament (20.3 ppg) — John Jenkins gets more looks on the perimeter and Festus Ezeli has more room to operate in the paint.
Nathan: Jimmer Fredette has to play like Steph Curry in order for a Brandon Davies-less BYU squad to make the type of Tourney run fans were hoping for. And if anyone is capable, it’s The Jimmer, who averaged 28.5 points in 34 games this year. In the five games since Davies’ suspension, however, Fredette is averaging 35.4 points — including a 52-point night against New Mexico. The Cougars have taken a long fall from “potential No. 1 seed” to “early upset candidate” since Davies was kicked off the team. But BYU could still make an Elite Eight run — and Jimmer-mania could go out in a blaze of glory — if Fredette keeps pouring in 30, 40 or 50 points per game.
Braden: Lamont Jones, and to a lesser extent Kyle Fogg, of Arizona. A tricky first round match-up with Memphis will take patience and discipline, should Zona should move on with solid backcourt play. But facing Texas in the second round will take big games from the guards. The Horns are deep and talented on the perimeter, so if Sean Miller expects to move into the second weekend, he will need excellent games from his guards.
4. Do you have any double-digit seeds advancing to the Sweet 16?
Mitch: I do. The Belmont Bruins. I realize Belmont has emerged as a very popular pick, but I’ve been on the Bruins’ bandwagon since November. The Bruins have great depth and are tenacious on the defensive end. And please don’t use the word deliberate to describe Belmont’s offense: The Bruins average over 80 points per game.
Nathan: I don’t have any double-digit seeds advancing to the Sweet 16. I strongly considered No. 10 Michigan State in the Southeast Region. But the Gators playing in Tampa is too much of a homecourt advantage to pick against, especially with the inconsistent Spartans — who could have a tough time clawing their way past UCLA in the first round. Still, I’ll be kicking myself if Tom Izzo’s team makes another bracket-busting run in March.
Braden: Missouri could easily beat Cincy and then a worn-down UConn team to advance. The high-paced style of play could wear down a Huskies team that has played a ton of basketball in the last two weeks. Penn State and Michigan State could both pull upsets against Florida and San Diego State — who I view as the weakest two-seeds. Belmont, Richmond and Marquette could all make it to the second weekend as well.
5. For the national title, you can pick Ohio State or Kansas vs. the field. What’s your pick?
Mitch: I so like Texas, but I would have to go with the Ohio State/Kansas combo vs. the field because those are the two teams I have matching up in the national title game (with Ohio State winning).
Nathan: I’m picking Ohio State to win it all in my bracket but I’ll go with the field on this one. There are too many good teams out there with a chance to cut down the nets in Houston.
Braden: I will take the field. Duke is my pick to cut down the nets. And that was before we found out Kyrie Irving is likely to play.
By Ken Davis
Let’s give the NCAA Tournament committee some positive feedback. That group had a rough Selection Sunday.
At least they got the top four seeds right. And that wasn’t as easy as it might have looked. In the past two weeks, Ohio State and Kansas were the only teams that played with the obvious confidence of No. 1 seeds. They secured things by winning their conference tournaments.
Pittsburgh and Duke were wobbly but made it into the other two spots. In large part, that’s because other candidates, such as North Carolina, BYU, Notre Dame and Purdue, didn’t take advantage of their opportunities.
That’s about it for the positives.
Other than some unbalanced brackets, the committee had done its job reasonably well in recent seasons. Not so in 2011. When the post-selection debate focuses on the teams that were snubbed, that’s a pretty clear indication the committee didn’t do its job (kinda like those officials in the St. John’s-Rutgers game last week).
Once the games begin, most of us will move past the snubs, but at places such as Virginia Tech, Colorado, Harvard and Alabama, the hurt will linger all summer. It won’t feel better until everyone gets back on the court next October, and then the mission will be renewed. If you haven’t noticed, there is an obsession with making the NCAA Tournament. When you are kept out for unknown reasons, frustration turns to anger.
Virginia Tech and Colorado have the biggest gripes. And since this has become an annual thing for Tech, coach Seth Greenberg really couldn’t contain himself. Instead of going national on TV, Greenberg met with his local beat writers in his office. He voiced his concern that someone on the selection committee has an “agenda” when it comes to Virginia Tech.
That’s likely nonsense. But you cannot blame Greenberg for feeling that way. He has been told he needs to strengthen his non-conference schedule, so he did so. His Hokies beat Duke near the end of the season, but all that wasn’t enough.
“I totally wonder if someone in that room has an agenda,” Greenberg said. “The explanation was so inconsistent with the result that it was almost mind-boggling.
“I guess they even brought up our non-conference schedule. Kansas State, Purdue, Oklahoma State, UNLV, Penn State, St. Bonaventure that was supposed to be big and Mississippi State that was projected to win the SEC. I’d say that’s a pretty significant slate and challenge. So they must not have looked at it very closely. But I guess they did. I feel for these kids. Doesn’t take away from what we accomplished this year ... but it’s extremely disheartening. You would hate to thing that politics would be involved, but it makes you wonder.”
It would be one thing if Gene Smith, Ohio State’s athletic director and NCAA Tournament committee chairman, offered any direct and specific explanations when asked about particular schools. But that never happens. It is chair tradition to answer questions without really answering them. They hide behind the “15 indicators” used to judge a team and then say, “That’s the way the vote turned out.”
Schools that have been left out should be provided with specific feedback and data, reasons that they missed the field. Without that, how can coaches and programs use this as a learning process?
The message sent to Colorado and Alabama was that their improvement over the course of the season didn’t matter. Both the Buffaloes and the Tide were much more successful in conference play than non-conference play. There was a time when one of the committee’s “indicators” was performance in the past 10-12 games. They say that isn’t used any more. I’m not sure it should have been dropped completely.
I watched all or part of probably 10 Colorado games on TV this season. The Buffaloes are NCAA worthy. So is Alabama, champion of the SEC West. Did you see Tommy Amaker’s face as Harvard walked off the floor after losing to Princeton in that playoff game Saturday? He probably knew right then that the NCAA committee wouldn’t take two Ivy League teams.
On the other hand, UAB evidently was rewarded for winning the Conference USA regular-season title. The Blazers got a First Four game against Clemson Tuesday at Dayton. (Don’t even get me started on Clemson’s resume.)
The winner in all this? The NIT. Alabama, Virginia Tech, Colorado and Boston College received No. 1 seeds in the NIT.
“I just feel like the way we’re playing right now, we’re one of the top 68 teams in the country,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “I know that. But we’re not in the tournament. We have to deal with it and move on. We have to make a statement in the NIT.”
Welcome to Move On Monday, the day after Selection Sunday.
Florida really got a gift with a No. 2 in the Southeast. The Gators were clobbered 70-54 in the SEC championship game by Kentucky. Florida won the SEC East but still lost to Kentucky twice. The Wildcats got a No. 4 seed. That makes no sense.
Just a few weeks ago, Texas was being called the best team in college basketball. Then the Longhorns struggled a bit offensively and lost three of four (including one to Colorado). Then they lost to Kansas in the Big 12 tournament championship game and suddenly they are a No. 4 seed. That’s quite a tumble. Texas will play more like a No. 2 or No. 3.
Call this a weak tournament if you wish, but when you have Kentucky, Texas, Louisville and Wisconsin as the No. 4 seeds … well, that’s not too shabby.
All the snub talk Sunday took some pressure off the Big East Conference. It was no surprise the league landed 11 teams in the field but the anticipated criticism was reduced a bit by the other distractions.
Sir Charles Barkley was about the only analyst leveling shots at the Big East. That wasn’t a surprise either, but this time his soap box was the CBS set. Joined by his TNT/TBS/NBA buddy Kenny Smith, Barkley launched his CBS invasion by continuing his complaint that one conference shouldn’t have 11 teams. (This merger will be good viewing, but I’m not sure about the commentary.)
And while everyone else was praising Kemba Walker and UConn for winning five straight games to capture the Big East tournament, Barkley was saying something about a 9-9 team not deserving the opportunity to play five games. Never did quite understand that point.
One problem the Big East has created for itself is third-round (formerly known as second-round before expansion) matchups against conference foes. But something had to give. Possible third-round games include: Marquette vs. Syracuse and Cincinnati vs. Connecticut.
“That’s a double-edge sword,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun told The Hartford Courant. “They know you; you know them. It does take away a little bit of preparation or adjustments.”
Smith said the committee didn’t struggle too much with that wrinkle.
“They have a conference scheduling format where they don’t play each other twice, some schools that only play once,” Smith said of the Big East. “When we did that bracketing, knew that we’d have rematches, we tried to match up the one plays and not the two plays. That created a slight challenge, along with all the other regular season matchups of other teams we were bracketing.
“It was a little bit more challenging than normal, but it wasn’t as bad as I anticipated it would be. It worked out very well. Actually, that question speaks to why a particular team is not always in its true seed. As you well know, teams can be moved one line. We try to avoid that when possible because we want to stay true to the integrity of the seeding process. But when you are in those scenarios, inevitably teams get moved.”
Georgetown guard Chris Wright has been cleared to play in the NCAA Tournament. A healthy Wright makes the Hoyas a different and better team. Wright broke his hand late in the season, and the Hoyas averaged 53 points in three games without him. The Hoyas are the No. 6 seed in the Southwest and will open against the winner of the USC vs. VCU game in the First Four. It will be interesting to see how limited Wright will be and whether he is wearing a cast.
St. John’s will be without senior forward D.J. Kennedy, who suffered a torn ACL in the loss to Syracuse in the Big East tournament. Coach Steve Lavin said Kennedy will travel with the team and assist with coaching duties. The problem for the coaches will be splitting up his minutes and finding production to make up for Kennedy, who was the top rebounder and third-leading scorer for the Red Storm.
Duke guard Nolan Smith seemed to bounce back quite well from the toe injury that sidelined him temporarily during the semifinals of the ACC tournament. The big mystery continues to surround freshman guard Kyrie Irving, who told reporters Sunday that it is possible he could return to action in the NCAA Tournament. Coach Mike Krzyzewski downplayed that possibility but Irving raised eyebrows working out before ACC games Friday and Saturday. If he is cleared medically, you can bet Coach K will use him.
Florida State is still waiting on clearance for forward Chris Singleton, who has missed six games with a foot injury. He dressed and went through warm-ups in the ACC Tournament. Coach Leonard Hamilton said he never considered playing Singleton. The Seminoles are the No. 10 seed in the Southwest and play Texas A&M in the second round. They desperately need Singleton.
West. No. 1 Duke should still reach the Final Four. But this region is loaded with No. 2 San Diego State, No. 3 UConn, No. 4 Texas, and No. 5 Arizona. I like Duke over Texas and San Diego State over UConn in the Elite Eight. San Diego State will have a home crowd in Anaheim for the final, but Duke will prevail.
Southeast. Top-seeded Pittsburgh gets to Houston by beating Butler, Belmont and surprising UCLA, the No. 7 seed. I have UCLA beating No. 10 Michigan State, No. 2 Florida and No. 3 BYU. No. 13 Belmont is the Cinderella team of the tournament. The Bruins are going to stun No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 12 Utah State, a winner over No. 5 Kansas State.
BEST SECOND-ROUND GAMES (formerly first-round games)
East: No. 6 Xavier vs. No. 11 Marquette
West: No. 7 Temple vs. No. 10 Penn State
Southwest: No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 13 Morehead State
Southesast: No. 8 Butler vs. No. 9 Old Dominion
UPSET SPECIAL (5 vs. 12, of course)
Utah State over Kansas State
THIRD-ROUND GAMES WE WANT TO SEE
East: No. 7 Washington vs. No. 2 North Carolina
West: No. 5 Arizona vs. No. 4 Texas
Southwest: No. 7 Texas A&M vs. No. 2 Notre Dame
Southeast: No. 3 BYU vs. No. 6 Gonzaga
FINAL FOUR PREDICTIONS
Duke over Syracuse; Kansas over Pittsburgh
Duke over Kansas
Final five in: Penn State, Virginia Tech, Clemson, USC, Colorado
First five out: Alabama, Saint Mary’s Boston College, Harvard, UAB
In: Clemson, Duke, Florida State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech
America East (1)
In: Boston University
In: Richmond, Temple, Xavier
Big 12 (6)
In: Colorado, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Texas, Texas A&M
Big East (11)
In: Cincinnati, Connecticut, Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, St. John’s, Syracuse, Villanova, West Virginia
Big Sky (1)
In: Northern Colorado
Big South (1)
In: UNC Asheville
Big Ten (7)
In: Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin
Big West (1)
In: George Mason, Old Dominion
Conference USA (1)
In: St. Peter’s
In: Indiana State
Mountain West (3)
In: BYU, San Diego State, UNLV
In: Long Island
In: Morehead State
In: Arizona, Washington, UCLA, USC
In: Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt
In: Texas-San Antonio
Sun Belt (1)
In: Arkansas-Little Rock
In: Alabama State
In: Utah State
Final Five In: Saint Mary’s, Richmond, Virginia Tech, Michigan State, Alabama
First Five out: VCU, Clemson, Penn State, Colorado State, Baylor
In: Boston College, Duke, Florida State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech
Worth a Mention: Clemson
Notes: Boston College, Virginia Tech and Clemson were each in the final pool of teams. Ultimately, Boston College and Virginia Tech sneaked into the field while Clemson (barely) missed the cut. It is very difficult to differentiate these teams. Boston College gained an advantage with its neutral site win vs. Texas A&M and road win at Virginia Tech late in the year. Virginia Tech has a win over to Duke to brag about. Clemson? It was hard to find something that stood out about the Tigers. A win over Boston College in the ACC quarters would help the cause.
America East (1)
In: Long Island
In: Richmond, Temple, Xavier
Worth a Mention: Dayton, Duquesne
Notes: Richmond is one of the final teams in the field. That win vs. Purdue in late November is the difference; without that win the Spiders would be on the outside looking in.
Big 12 (6)
In: Colorado, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Texas, Texas A&M
Worth a Mention: Baylor, Nebraska
Notes: Colorado has a bad RPI (76), but it’s hard to ignore the Buffs’ quality wins — Texas, Kansas State (home and away) and Missouri. CU avoided a bad loss by beating Iowa State in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament on Wednesday. Baylor’s resume is highlighted by two wins vs. Texas A&M. The Bears will need to advance to the Big 12 title game — and they are capable of doing so.
Big East (11)
In: Cincinnati, Connecticut, Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, St. John’s, Syracuse, Villanova, West Virginia
Notes: Marquette limped to the finish line, losing at home to Cincinnati and at Seton Hall in its final two regular-season games. The win over Providence on Tuesday did nothing but avoid a bad loss. Losing to West Virginia on Wednesday hurts, but the Eagles should still get in.
Big Sky (1)
In: Northern Colorado
Big South (1)
In: UNC Asheville
Big Ten (6)
In: Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin
Worth a Mention: Penn State
Notes: Michigan beefed up its resume by completing the season sweep over Michigan State. The Wolverines can take another step forward by beating Illinois in the Big Ten quarters on Friday, but they will still be in decent shape with a loss. Michigan State cannot lose to Iowa on Thursday. That would be too much to overcome. Penn State has some good wins (Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan State), but they are all at home, and the Lions already have 13 losses.
Big West (1)
In: Long Beach State
In: George Mason, Old Dominion
Worth a Mention: VCU
Notes: VCU advanced to the CAA Tournament title game but lost to rival ODU. The Rams are very, very close but just missed the cut. There are some things to like — wins at Old Dominion and vs. UCLA — but there are a lot of losses (11) and some struggles down the stretch of the regular season (1–4 in final five games).
Conference USA (1)
Worth a Mention: Memphis, UTEP
Notes: UAB has a solid case even if it doesn’t win the C-USA Tournament. Memphis will need to get to the finals to be in the discussion for an at-large invite.
Notes: Harvard and Princeton play on Saturday to determine the Ivy’s automatic bid.
In: St. Peter’s
In: Kent State
In: Indiana State
Worth a Mention: Missouri State
Notes: Missouri State doesn’t have a single win vs. a top-60 RPI team.
Mountain West (3)
In: BYU, San Diego State, UNLV
Worth a Mention: Colorado State
Notes: Colorado State has floated in and out of the bracket this year. This week, the Rams are out. Bottom line: They have only one win vs. a team that is currently in the field (at UNLV).
In: Long Island
In: Morehead State
In: Arizona, Washington, UCLA, USC
Worth a Mention: Washington State
Notes: USC is among the final teams in the field this week. The Trojans have 13 losses, but they also have some really nice wins — Texas, Arizona and UCLA at home and at Tennessee. And keep in mind, the losses to Rider, TCU, Nebraska and Bradley occurred before point guard Jio Fontan became eligible. Washington State has some good wins (two vs. Washington, Gonzaga, Baylor), but the Cougars’ RPI is 75 and they have three losses to teams ranked 130 or worse.
In: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt
Notes: Alabama closed the regular season with a win over Georgia, a team the Tide will likely play in the quarters of the SEC Tournament on Friday. A win would be huge for Anthony Grant’s team.
In: McNeese State
Sun Belt (1)
In: Arkansas-Little Rock
In: Texas Southern
In: Utah State
In: Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s
Notes: The Gaels, who lost in the WCC finals to Gonzaga, will be sweating on Selection Sunday. The loss at San Diego late in the season is very troubling, but that is the Gaels’ only bad loss.
1. Which bubble team would scare you the most as a possible first-round opponent?
Mitch Light: I wouldn’t want to play Colorado — assuming CU gets in to the tournament. First of all, the Buffs have proven they can beat good teams, with a 91–89 victory over Texas in late February and two wins over Kansas State, which went 10–6 in the Big 12. Secondly, Colorado features some skilled players, most notably sophomore guard Alec Burks, who averaged 19.5 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. The Buffs aren’t great on defense, but they can score.
Braden Gall: Facing Richmond, with the sharpshooting Kevin Anderson and big man Justin Harper, would concern me. The Spiders have won eight out of nine and could beat anyone in the nation. Michigan State would also scare me as an 11- or 12-seed. I know the Spartans have played some terrible basketball this season, but they also have enough — or had at one point — talent to be a preseason top-five team. No one wants to see Tom Izzo on the other bench in March.
Nathan Rush: No team wants to see an at-large Alabama squad that plays under-your-jersey defense and is coached by Cinderella Man TKO artist Anthony Grant. Everyone remembers VCU-Duke (79–77 upset win) and VCU-Pitt (84–79 loss in OT) back in 2007, right? The Crimson Tide crested at the end of the season — going 15–4 after a 5–6 start — and will almost certainly crash down on whichever fading, overrated team that the Selection Committee “randomly” matches them with. It won’t happen, but a Brandon Davies-less BYU squad and Bama would be a nice yin-yang 4-13 first-round matchup.
2. If you were on the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee and had to differentiate between some bubble teams, what would be the most important aspect of team's profile — road wins, lack of bad losses, strength of schedule, etc.?
Mitch: I’m always looking for good wins. All bubble teams are going to have some warts — that is why they are on the bubble. I can overlook some bad losses as long as a team has proven it can beat a quality opponent. Playing a tough schedule is nice, but it doesn’t mean much if you haven’t defeated any of those good teams.
Braden: This may be a cop out, but I look at the entire package. That probably pushes me closest to overall schedule. Certainly, wins are what counts, but generally speaking, a 6–9 team against the RPI top 50 is probably a better overall team than one that went 3–1. I always lean towards the eighth- and ninth-place “power” teams over second- and third-place mid-majors.
Nathan: In my opinion, the last 10 games plus the conference tournament should be weighed the most. If a team is trending in the right direction — a la George Mason in 2006 (despite Billy Packer’s strong and outspoken objections) — it has a better chance of making an NCAA Tournament run. Also, fair or not, I think the coach should be considered. All things being equal or reasonably close, any Tom Izzo team should win a head-to-head argument behind closed doors; he (and his five or so peers) have proven an ability to X-and-O or flat-out beat the heat come Tournament time.
3. Which of the Big Six conference tournaments intrigues you the most?
Mitch: I’m very interested to see what Florida can do in the SEC Tournament. There was a perception early in the league season that the Gators, with three overtime wins, were lucky to be on top of the SEC East standings. Well, after winning the division by three full games over Kentucky, nobody is throwing around the L-word anymore. The Gators, who can put five scorers on the court at the same time, are very hard to guard. If they win the SEC Tournament, they could play their way up to a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs.
Braden: Without a doubt, the Big East Tournament is a special event. The depth and talent level is unlike that of any college basketball league ever assembled. The ninth- and 10th-place teams (UConn and Villanova) in this league were both, at some point this year, in the top-10 nationally. We’ve got the son of a legend (John Thompson III), two Hall of Famers (Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim), one former ESPN analyst (Steve Lavin), the best dressed coach in hoops (Jay Wright), two more potential Hall members (Rick Pitino and Bob Huggins) and the most famous arena in all of sports. There is just nothing like MSG at this time of the year.
Nathan: Mark my words, Vanderbilt, Florida or Kentucky will make a run in the NCAAs. All three are two-faced and flawed. But the talent and coaching are undeniable. If the Commodores, Gators or Wildcats find their rhythm in the SEC Tournament, look out.
4. Do you like the format of the Big East Tournament, with the inclusion of all 16 teams and the double-byes?
Mitch: I do like it. I think it’s good that all 16 teams are invited to the Big East Tournament, and I like how teams that do well in the regular season are rewarded with a bye or a double-bye. The coaches don’t like the double-bye — they voted 16–0 last summer to get rid of it — but I think it is the best format for a 16-team tournament.
Braden: See answer to No. 3.
Nathan: I’m still thrown off by the fact that Big East basketball deserves one-third of the at-large bids in the NCAA Tournament, but Big East football (arguably) doesn’t deserve even one berth in the BCS bowls (Connecticut lost to Oklahoma, 48–20, in the Fiesta Bowl this year, FYI). Honestly, I’m fine with it. The more Madison Square Garden, the better. Double-byes, sure. Six overtimes (see: Connecticut over Syracuse, 127–117, in 2009), even better. Bring it, Big East.
5. Name a player on an automatic qualifier that you are looking forward to watching in the NCAA Tournament (and don't say Kenneth Faried of Morehead State).
Mitch: Wofford’s undersized power forward Noah Dahlman is fun to watch. The brother of former Michigan State Spartan Isaiah Dahlman is averaging 20.0 points and 5.0 rebounds while shooting over 60 percent from the floor. Last year, Wofford gave Wisconsin a scare in the first round before losing 53–49, but Dahlman only scored 10 points. He will no doubt be eager to be a bigger factor this time around.
Braden: I am excited to see Nashville’s own Belmont, and its 30 wins, get a shot to knock someone off in the first round. However, with 11 players averaging double-figure minutes, it’s tough to single out one player. Indiana State’s Jake Odum, a freshman from Terre Haute, Ind., has earned the ball-handling duties in the second half of the year for the Sycamores. He is averaging nearly 12 points over the last 11 games and is leading the team in assists — with a very sound 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio. He also plays the baseline in the ISU zone defense — which is impressive for a point guard.
Nathan: I’m looking forward to watching Oakland’s 6’11” NBA first-round prospect Keith Benson — who goes for 17.7 points, 10 rebounds and 3.7 “get that outta heres” on an average night.
By Mitch Light
Favorite — North Carolina
The Tar Heels have been one of the hottest teams in the nation over the past month. This team doesn’t shoot it well from the outside (league-low .292 from three in ACC games), but there are few other weaknesses. Since Kendall Marshall was inserted as the starting point guard, North Carolina is 12–1, with the only loss coming at Duke.
Dark horse — Clemson
The Tigers, the No. 4 seed, closed the regular season with three wins in their last four games, and they played well against North Carolina — their likely opponent in the semifinals — during the regular season, losing by two at home and by 10 in Chapel Hill.
Prediction — North Carolina
Roy Williams’ club is playing just about as well as any team in the nation.
BIG 12 TOURNAMENT
Favorite — Kansas
The Jayhawks claimed their seventh straight Big 12 regular-season title by beating Missouri 70–66 in Columbia on Saturday. Kansas has been remarkably efficient on the offensive end — KU shot over 50 percent as a team and over 40 percent from three in Big 12 games — and also ranks near the top of the league in field goal defense and rebounding.
Dark horse — Kansas State
The Wildcats played their way off the NCAA Tournament bubble in the final three weeks of the season by winning their final six, highlighted by an 18-point win over then-No. 1 Kansas and a 75–70 win at Texas. Guard Jacob Pullen has averaged 25.5 points during K-State’s winning streak.
Predicted winner — Texas
The Horns showed some toughness in the win at Baylor Saturday night. This team has a ton of talent.
BIG EAST TOURNAMENT
Favorite — Pittsburgh
The Panthers won the Big East title playing Pittsburgh basketball — great defense (league opponents shot 38.7 percent), rebounding (league-best plus-7.2 margin) and efficient offense (46.4 percent shooting, third-best in the Big East). The Panthers went 9–2 in the Big East Tournament from 2006-08 but have lost their first game in each of the past two seasons.
Dark horse — St. John’s
The Red Storm won seven of their last eight games overall and for the season went 7–1 at Madison Square Garden (5–1 in Big East games). Steve Lavin’s club has the necessary experience and depth to win four games in four days.
Predicted winner — Louisville
Since Jan. 12, the third-seeded Cards are 10–5, with four of the five losses by five points or less or in OT.
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT
Favorite — Ohio State
The Buckeyes are playing great basketball at the right time of the year, winning their final four games by an average of 22.3 points. During this stretch, Ohio State is shooting an astounding 57.0 percent (41-of-72) from 3-point range.
Dark horse — Michigan
The Wolverines like to shoot from long range, but they aren’t as reliant on the 3-point shot as you might think. They averaged 8.6 made threes in their nine Big Ten wins and 7.5 made threes in their nine league losses.
Predicted winner — Ohio State
The Buckeyes are the best team. No need to overthink this one.
Favorite — Arizona
Sean Miller captured the Pac-10 title in his second season as the boss in Tucson, leading the Wildcats to a 14–4 record in league play. Arizona endured a mini-slump late in the year, losing back-to-back games at USC and UCLA, but bounced back to beat both Oregon schools at home in the final weekend of the season.
Dark horse — USC
The Trojans played very well down the stretch, winning five of their final six games, including three on the road. Junior Nikola Vucevic is one of the nation’s most underrated players. He averaged 19.4 points and 10.8 boards in 18 league games.
Predicted winner — UCLA
The Bruins very quietly played solid basketball in the final two months of the season, losing only three games (at Arizona, at Cal in overtime and at Washington) since Jan. 9.
Favorite — Florida
The Gators went wire-to-wire in the wide-open SEC East and clinched the outright title by winning at Vanderbilt on the final weekend of the season. Florida won the close games early in the SEC season — three in overtime, three others by six points or less — but asserted their dominance late in the year.
Dark horse — Mississippi State
The enigmatic Bulldogs were good enough to beat Florida and win at Tennessee yet also lost at home to LSU and blew a 19-point second half lead at Auburn. Any team with Dee Bost, Ravern Johnson and Renardo Sidney is capable of winning three games in three days — or losing by 20 points in its first game.
Predicted winner — Florida
The Gators, who can put five scorers on the court at once, are hard to guard in the half court. Chandler Parsons, now healthy, is playing extremely well.