Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Basketball Season Has Returned

Well, it's December, and that means several things, but perhaps most importantly, it means that college basketball is in full swing. The preseason tournaments have ended and we have some idea of who is the real deal (Connecticut) and who is not (Stanford). Now, teams are gearing up for the grueling conference season usually by playing a mix of cupcakes and tough games. Fans are once again loathing the color commentary of Dick Vitale and Billy Packer, yet they do not seem to stop watching. Why? There is something special about college basketball. College basketball is the sport where differences in natural ability can most be eliminated by smart, tough play. College basketball is where tradition remains more important than anywhere else, where living in the past isn't criticized. It is Allen Fieldhouse, The Palestra, Assembly Hall, Pauley Pavilion, and Cameron Indoor Stadium. This is what college basketball is all about. How can you not be excited?

Note, teams will take a week off generally for final exams in the next couple of weeks. This being the case, I will be discussing games for the next two weeks in this week's edition.

Kyle will return in a couple of weeks with his much anticipated college football bowl selections. However, for now, take a look at predictions for these big-time matchups in college basketball.

Alabama 72, Notre Dame 64. How Tide and Irish fans long for this matchup to be a reality every year? Well, I guess they're thinking football, but this will have to do for now. The Irish are a middle-of-the-road team in the stacked Big East. They are coming of a tough home loss to Michigan on Saturday and hungry to get back in the win column. However, they face a tall test, literally and figuratively, in Alabama at Coleman Coliseum on Wednesday. Jermareo Davidson and Chuck Davis have been tearing it up thus far for the Tide on the inside, with Davidson averaging a double-double, and Richard Hendrix seems to be learning more and more to use his extraordinary athleticism to his advantage. Meanwhile, Ronald Steele has been playing with a sore back which has obviously affected his game, and the Tide is still trying to find other reliable perimeter options. Look for Evan Brock to return to the starting lineup on Wednesday, as Jean Felix only logged four minutes in the Tide's victory over Winthrop and suffered a twisted ankle in Monday's practice. As for the Irish, offense has been hard to come by thus far. Chris Quinn has been very impressive, averaging 17 points and five assists per game, but Notre Dame must find another scoring option, a position Mike Brey hopes will be filled by big man Torin Francis or wing Colin Falls. However, it is too much to ask against Alabama, and the Tide will prevail in the second half due to superior depth on the interior.

Alabama 68, Temple 65. Will John Cheney ever retire? That is the question that comes to everyone's mind when they think about Temple Owls basketball. The man is a living legend and one of the great men in basketball, but he has also drawn criticism for some of his more outrageous moments. Most recently, he sent in a "goon" to take out a player late in last year's St. Joseph's game to prove a point, and a player ended up with a broken arm. That was the lowpoint of the last four years, in which Temple has failed to make the NCAA Tournament once. Well, this is a new year, and Cheney's Owls look to be on the upswing. All five starters return from last year's NIT team, and swingman Mardy Collins might be the best player in the Atlantic 10. The Owls took Alabama to the wire last year in Tuscaloosa, but came up just short. Don't think the Owls don't remember that one. However, Alabama has a decent memory as well, and hopefully last year's experience will prepare the Tide to face the tough matchup zone again. Turnovers have been an issue for Alabama, but the Tide is improving with each game. This will be a tough, defensive battle, with Alabama winning in the final minutes with sound post play from Chuck Davis.

Alabama 84, Georgia State 63. Another monster game for Jermareo Davidson as the Tide comes back from exam week.

Boston College 75, Michigan State 70. This is the biggest game of the midweek, and why not play it as the Jimmy V Classic game. I love this game every year because I get to see the "Don't give up" speech from the Espy's again. And I can't think of two other teams that exemplify that toughness than BC and Michigan State. The Eagles have arguably the top frontcourt in the nation with beasts Jared Dudley and Craig Smith and swingman Sean Marshall all returning from outstanding seasons. The Spartans will always be known for their rebounding prowess, but this year, they have a more guard-oriented team built around wings Maurice Ager and Shannon Brown, two of the best athletes in the college game. Tom Izzo would love to go inside more with big man Paul Davis, but he has been known to disappear in some games while being great in others. If Davis reaches his potential, this could be a special year for the Spartans. However, the combination of Dudley and Smith for BC will prove too difficult for Michigan State to stop on Tuesday night.

Texas 78, Duke 71. Who could ask for a better matchup in December than #1 vs. #2 in Madison Square Garden? These two teams are the consensus picks as the best teams in America right now. However, only one will emerge as #1 in the nation on Saturday. Duke has shown flashes of brilliance at times this year, as in the preseason NIT, where they defeated a much more athletically gifted Memphis team. However, they have had some issues as well, as in Sunday night's near collapse at home against Virginia Tech. J.J. Redick is as good as everyone expected, and Shelden Williams is staying out of foul trouble. However, for the Devils to live up to their preseason billing, another scorer must step up and take some of the load off the two seniors. Frosh Josh McRoberts appears to be the prime candidate, but he is still learning the speed of the college game. Lee Melchionni must start making his 3s as well. Meanwhile, Texas has been rolling thus far with the only hiccup being a close victory over West Virginia. Lamarcus Aldridge is the best true center in major college basketball, and he has a running mate inside in Brad Buckman who is a load to handle as well. Swingman P.J. Tucker has been scoring in bunches, and sophomore point guard Daniel Gibson is playing more like a senior right now. Currently, the Longhorns are better than Duke, but in March when the games really matter, I believe Duke would win a rematch.

Indiana 77, Kentucky 68. Speaking of great early season matchups, it is sure to be a war when these two traditional college basketball powerhouses meet. The pressure is on Tubby Smith, as he has not led the Cats back to the Final Four since his inaugural season as coach eight years ago. That ties the longest drought in UK history. He isn't in danger of being fired, but he isn't exactly on the fans' good side. It isn't good enough just to win the SEC in Lexington. Rajon Rondo has improved offensively this year, but he hasn't looked like a leader thus far. Sparks is still too inconsistent from the perimeter. Kentucky must find an inside player who wants the ball. Bobby Perry just won't cut it. On the other hand, the Hoosiers have been fairly impressive thus far, although most Indiana boosters would still buy out Mike Davis' contract if given the opportunity (and who can blame them--it is ridiculous for Indiana to ever not make the NCAA tournament). Marco Killingsworth could be the best transfer in recent memory (obligatory "Sorry, Auburn" aside). He has been savoring his shot on the national stage for a year, and he is making the most of it. When D.J. White gets back from his broken foot, the Hoosiers might be the team to beat in the Big Ten. There will be a raucous crowd in beautiful Conseco Fieldhouse, and the Hoosiers will roll behind Killingsworth.

Boston College 75, Maryland 69. In one of the ACC's strange December conference games, we find BC playing its first ever ACC game at one of the tougher venues in college basketball. Too bad the Terps' talent doesn't match its fans' enthusiasm. I am not convinced D.J. Strawberry is ready to lead this team, and Nik Caner-Medley is one of the most overrated players in college basketball. Maryland has a chance to prove me wrong, but I once again think that Dudley and Smith will lead the Eagles to victory.

Louisville 82, Kentucky 70. As much as I despise him, it is good to have Rick Pitino back in the college game up to his old tricks. No team in America gets away with more blatant fouls than a Pitino-coached team, making it all the more frustrating for Wildcat fans to see him on a rival's sideline. Even though he lost leading scorers Larry O'Bannon and Francisco Garcia, Pitino fields an outstanding team again this year, led by Taquan Dean, one of the best perimeter scorers in the game. Meanwhile, Kansas transfer David Padgett has picked up where he left off in Lawrence, showing great range and touch for a 6'11" center. If guard Brandon Jenkins and forward Juan Palacios continue to improve, this years version of the Cardinals could find themselves playing in late March again. This was one of the more entertaining games of last year, with the Wildcats prevailing on Patrick Sparks free throws in the waning seconds. Kentucky still hasn't found a replacement for Chuck Hayes, and that will spell doom against the high-flying Cards.