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.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Going for Gold

It all comes down to this. There's just one more weekend of games to be played before the bowls start. And while it may seem that the 2005 season has come and gone faster than Phil Fulmer's last Big Mac, after attending 14 games in 13 weeks I surprisingly find myself somewhat welcoming the upcoming respite from the wearisome and stressful practice of giving my all for my team each Saturday in stadiums across the Southeast. In other words, to quote Forrest Gump, "I'm tired." But since I don't have a multibillion dollar shrimp company to start, I'm not throwing in the towel just yet. I'll go ahead and finish the year by divvying out the College Football Weekly 2005 Medals. Even though it may seem as if this season is a carbon copy of 2004 with USC facing the Big 12 champ for the national title (presumptious perhaps), a Trojan winning the Heisman (again presumably), Auburn being snubbed by the BCS, Alabama finishing on a losing streak, Mississippi teams losing more times than not, Notre Dame causing everyone else to hate them, etc... this go-around was entirely different, and thus deserves to be commemorated in its own right. Therefore, the Gold, Silver, and Bronze Medals will be handed out in various categories. And to see if I can get my 50th win on the year, which would get me in the postseason in the NBA, I'll throw some picks in at the end as well. So, start up the Star Spangled Banner, and get ready to congratulate these fine Americans...

(Note: I was going to do a Top 5 like I did earlier in the season, but I decided to go 3-and-out since that seems to be the standard M.O. around Tuscaloosa these days.)

Best Coaching Jobs

Gold: Les Miles. Most people would agree that just about anyone could win with the type of talent that Miles inherited when he took the job in Baton Rouge this season. But not everybody could put together 10 wins and a championship season under the circumstances that the Bayou Bengals encountered in '05. Even if you think the "Katrina factor" is blown out of proportion, Miles still deserves the gold based on the fact that his team won 5 games settled by 4 points or less, 3 of which were on the road. With the talent pool in Louisiana as deep as it is, SEC coaches will have to worry about Miles for a while to come.

Silver: George O'Leary. After being fired from Notre Dame before coaching a single game, it appeared that the situation couldn't get any worse for the former Georgia Tech head man. But assuming the reins at a program in utter despair and turmoil didn't seem to help too terribly much. During his 1st season with Central Florida, O'Leary went 0-11. This season, after starting 0-2 and expanding the losing streak to 17 games, the forecast in Orlando was looking even more disastrous, and not because of the hurricanes. However, not only did O'Leary end the Golden Knights' skid, but he won 8 of the last 9 games on the schedule and guided his new team to this weekend's C-USA championship in only their 1st season in the conference...A great story of redemption for someone who had taken the ultimate fall from grace in college football.

Bronze: Joe Paterno. Who said you can't teach an old dog new tricks? They obviously didn't tell JoePa. Over the last 5 seasons, Penn St. had averaged a mere 5 wins per year. Hopefully, though, by doubling his average this season and claiming the Big 11 title, Papa Joe will decide to go out on a winning note and save everyone the "When's he gonna retire?" discussions in 2006.

Worst Coaching Jobs

Gold: Phillip Fulmer. Is there really even a need to explain this one?

Silver: Dennis Franchione. For every A&M fan that was disappointed with the way the season turned out in College Station, there were 2 Bama fans who couldn't contain their excitement. With all the pieces in place to have a break-out season, Fran was supposed to finally make the Aggies a contender in the Big 12 South. However, not only did they have to play 2nd-fiddle to the Longhorns again, but they also were embarrased by Texas Tech. Fran should just be happy he didn't have to play that other team in the Lonestar State from Fort Worth, or he may have even been shown up by his former team. At least no one dropped 77 on them this year.

Bronze: Ed Orgeron. This week, Tulane coach Chris Scelfo went on the record and called Coach O "lower than dirt." To anyone who knows anything about the "Wild Man" in Oxford, though, this should come as no surprise. However, what is surprising is the fact that Orgeron didn't beat his face in. Even though there's still a remnant of hopeful Rebel fans who believe "The Coach" will win once he gets his own players and not Cutcliffe leftovers, even Coach Cut was able to win 4 games with 'em.

Best Players

Gold: Reggie Bush. Even if The President didn't have a Heisman Quarterback and another 1000 yard rushing tailback in his corner, he'd still be the most talented athlete to ever put on a college jersey. The Heisman ballots aren't due for another few days, but they could've all been sent to New York on November 20, the day after Bush single-handedly won the Fresno St. game by putting on the best offensive attack since D-Day. If the Trojans win a 3rd consecutive National Championship, some may actually begin to believe that this Bush really is the president since he'll have been to the White House more times in 3 years than the afore mentioned Gump.

Silver: DeAngelo Williams. Although his Heisman campaign was over after Labor Day, DeAngelo Williams' season wasn't. In fact, this Memphis tailback went on to rush for 1726 yards (6.2 per carry), becoming the NCAA's 4th best rusher of all-time. And in a few weeks, when the Tigers make their record 3rd consecutive bowl game, he'll have a chance to break Tony Dorsett's mark for career 100 yard games. Most impressively, Williams accomplished all of this while playing on a team that started 4 different quarterbacks and passed for -3 yards in its final game.

Bronze: Tyrone Prothro. Had Prothro not suffered a Joe Theisman-like injury on the 1st day of October, he might be receiving an invitation to the Downtown Athletic Club in New York next weekend. While Brodie Croyle may have received all of the credit for the Tide's fast start, it became apparent real quickly who was the real reason Sports Illustrated announced that Bama was Back.

Best Games

Gold: USC 34, Notre Dame 31. Trailing by 3, 4th and 9 from their own 18 with less than a minute left. This is what USC faced in South Bend as their 27-game winning streak appeared all but over. Then Matt Leinart and Dwayne Jarret connected on possibly the biggest play of the season for the Trojans as they not only gained the 1st down but moved the ball in scoring position. The rest is history...Watching the game in the Grove after Bama had escaped an upset by Ole Miss and Penn St. had lost to Michigan on the last play, I just knew that if the Irish could come through also that it would be the Tide's year. Well, neither one happened.

Silver: Alabama 6, Tennessee 3. This year's version of the battle which occurs on "the 3rd Saturday in October" epitomized the style of play in the SEC in 2005 as stingy defenses made points hard to come by. Case & Point: What appeared to be a sure touchdown for the Vols late in the 4th quarter instead resulted in one of the most legendary defensive plays in the storied history of Alabama football as Roman Harper forced Cory Anderson to fumble the ball through the end zone and give Alabama new life and ultimately another win to improve to 7-0. While the Florida game may have been the most enjoyable and electrifying game of the season for Alabama fans, no win was more fulfilling.

Bronze: LSU 20, Auburn17 (OT). I list this simply because this was the loss that kept the Tigers from winning the West. I'm sure, though, that they'll figure out a way to claim this championship. Maybe Golf Digest will award this one to them too. After John Vaughn missed his 5th field goal of the night to seal the deal, it was rumored that he tried to commit suicide by hanging himself. Fortunately, though, he couldn't kick the chair out from underneath him.

And in the spirit of the season, I'd like to make 3 Christmas wishes to wrap things up...

1. An Alabama win over Auburn.

2. For Notre Dame to earn a BCS bid.

3. For Fulmer, Fran, and Orgeron to be fired instead of making their coordinators take the fall.

Well, fans. That'll do it for this season. It's been a fun ride, and I appreciate everyone's willingness to humor me by taking just a few minutes out of each week to read this. Don't get too down, though, I'm sure some type of bowl preview will appear sometime. But in the meantime, I'd like to announce that due to just a couple of requests and to the fact that I want this to keep on going, I've enlisted a true college hoops insider, Jacob Batson (Vice President of Mark's Madness & uber-genius) to carry on the prediction practice for the basketball season. Starting next week with the Alabama-Notre Dame game, collegepicks.blogspot.com will no longer be limited to just football, but college basketball picks will also be featured. So, be sure and visit on Wednesday to see the test run. Thanks again, and ROLL TIDE!...

O yea, there were supposed to be some picks this week.

USC 41, UCLA 35.

Texas 45, Colorado 14.

Va Tech 31, FSU 13.

LSU 22, Georgia 21.

Army 28, Navy 24.