College basketball season finally gets under way soon and I, for one, couldn’t be more excited. Chances are, you aren’t quite as excited as me, and haven’t given college basketball much thought since you’ve had football
and the start of the NBA season to keep you occupied, but luckily for you, I’m here to get you up to speed. And by that, I mean that I’m here to give you previews of each of the major college conferences (and one collective mid-major preview), and then spend the next five months of my life reading tweets and e-mails from those of you who feel the need to point out how terrible the predictions in these previews are and how you could’ve done so much better. This will be fun.
Best Team — Syracuse
Before I talk about Syracuse, I feel obligated to discuss the reasons I didn’t pick UConn as the best team in the Big East despite the fact that the Huskies are the defending national champions and have added the potential no. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft to their roster this year with freshman Andre Drummond. But my guess is that most Huskies fans have already closed this blog post because they were so appalled at the Syracuse pick that their heads exploded or they started uncontrollably vomiting. So defending myself now would be kind of moot. Instead, I’ll just get to why I like Syracuse and cross my fingers that UConn fans aren’t too upset, or at least have a trash can or something nearby.
Ben Detrick already outlined why Syracuse will win the national championship this year, so I don’t need to go into too much detail again. But I will offer this simple argument: The Orange were one of the best teams in the Big East last year, they have virtually everybody back, and they have a couple of stud recruits coming in who should play huge roles for them. There just aren’t any other teams in the conference that can say that.
Except for UConn, of course.
Best Player — Andre Drummond (UConn)
Like I just mentioned, most people who have any sort of idea of what they’re talking about will tell you that Drummond will probably be the top pick in the NBA draft no matter when he chooses to make himself eligible. And rightfully so, considering he possesses everything NBA teams look for in franchise big men — size, athleticism, the ability to rebound and block shots, and countless YouTube videos featuring terrible hip-hop music and clips of him trying to rip the rim off the backboard.
Drummond is incredibly skilled for a young guy; he already runs the floor, handles the ball, passes (both out of the post and on fast breaks), and can knock down 10- to 15-foot jumpers better than anyone would ever expect from a big man. The only real question mark surrounding his otherwise complete game seems to be his ability to make back-to-the-basket post moves, but this has less to do with whether he can make these moves and more to do with the fact that he never had to make post moves in high school since kicking defenders in the chest as he dunked on them was always much more effective than doing up-and-unders or baby hooks. But even if he doesn’t have too many moves in his arsenal, it’s likely that Drummond will still be the best interior player in the country this year not named Jared Sullinger, which might not seem like much until you realize just how few interior players in the country are named Jared Sullinger. (Hint: There’s only one.)
Most Overrated Team — UConn
That sound you don’t actually hear (but let’s pretend you do) is the sound of hundreds of UConn fans simultaneously sending me the vitriolic e-mails they wrote after they saw me pick Syracuse as the best team but held off on sending when they noticed I tagged Drummond as the Big East’s best player. I can take your hate, Huskies fans, but just know that when I say UConn is overrated, I don’t mean the Huskies aren’t good. They absolutely are good. In fact, thanks to the addition of Drummond, they might even be more talented than their national championship team from a season ago. But they’re still overrated, for the simple reason that they lost their best player from last year’s team that wasn’t even really that good to begin with.
Just because the Huskies were a quintessential tournament team, went on a historic streak at the end of the season, and added one of the best recruits in the country over the offseason, it’s easy to get caught up in thinking that they’re one of the five best teams in college basketball this year. But that’s because we forget about the flip side to their season last year. Play dumb for a second and act like you don’t know I’m talking about UConn as you think about this: What if I told you there was a preseason top-5 team this year that finished in the bottom half of its conference a year ago with a .500 conference record, was swept in the regular season by a team that eventually lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, was swept in the regular season by a team that eventually was blown out in the second round of the NCAA tournament, lost four of its last five games heading into the postseason, and lost the best player in all of college basketball to the NBA? And what if I also told you that it added only one McDonald’s All-American recruit (so it’s not like it's reloading with top recruits like Kentucky always does)? Along with wondering why Doug Gottlieb was the only person who got to vote in the preseason poll, wouldn’t you also think that team was just a little overrated? How could you not, right?
The bottom line is that while the Huskies did win the national championship last year, they did so by surviving one of the weakest NCAA tournament fields in history. But even ignoring that, in every game UConn plays this year, it will have an enormous target on its back as the defending champ. The Huskies didn’t have that last year. Sure they’ll still be really good and are definitely one of the 10 best teams in the country, but considering they weren’t exactly dominant last year and now they have to deal with every team giving them their best shot, I just don’t see how the Huskies could possibly live up to the astronomical expectations that come with defending a national championship.
Sleeper Team — Marquette
I’m defining “sleeper team” as a team that nobody in their right mind would think is the best team in the conference but is still good enough to make some noise in March, and possibly even win the conference tournament, and if a ton of things went its way, and it got incredibly lucky, could even briefly be a threat to win the regular-season conference title. (Yes, I know it’s a long-winded definition.)
In the Big East, Marquette is that team. The Golden Eagles were picked in the preseason to finish sixth in the conference this year, but I wouldn’t exactly be shocked if they ended up third or fourth in the standings by year’s end. This is predominantly because with Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder, Marquette returns two of its three best players from last year’s Sweet 16 team that beat third-seeded Syracuse in the NCAA tournament. Sure last year’s team was less than stellar during the regular season, but it finished with the same conference record as UConn, so you could argue that it wasn’t that much worse than the national champs.
Plus, here’s a statistic that I cherry-picked to help support my argument: Since joining the Big East, Marquette is one of only two teams in the conference to have never won the regular-season conference title and to have never finished 10th or worse in the conference standings (West Virginia is the other). This means that — along with Digger Phelps overvaluing Notre Dame and the rest of the country having to be reminded that DePaul, South Florida, Rutgers, Seton Hall, and Providence are all still in the conference — the one thing you can count on every year with Big East basketball is Marquette being a good-but-not-great team. In other words, it is good enough to stir the pot and make things interesting, but it’s probably not going to be good enough to be the champ. And that, I just decided, is exactly how I would define a sleeper team.
Team You Wouldn’t Realize Was Pretty Good If You Haven’t Been Following College Basketball for the Past Few Years — Cincinnati
Here’s a brief timeline of Cincinnati basketball:
- Oscar Robertson
- Back-to-back national titles in 1961 and 1962
- Nick Lachey’s birth
- Irrelevance in the '80s
- Bob Huggins hired in 1989
- Final Four in 1992
- Best team in 2000 until Kenyon Martin broke his leg and destroyed its national championship hopes
- Huggins forced out in 2005
- Pretty bad for first four years after Huggins was replaced by Mick Cronin
- Lost in second round of NCAA tournament in 2011
Bearcats fans don’t want to hear this and will surely think otherwise, but to the rest of the country Cincinnati isn’t exactly considered a great basketball program. Instead, it is considered a program that Oscar Robertson played for back in the day and Bob Huggins made relevant again in the '90s and early 2000s. So when Huggins was arrested for a DUI in 2004 and consequently forced out by university president Nancy Zimpher, most college basketball fans assumed Cincinnati would return to the same level of mediocrity they were at before Huggins took over. And for a few years, that’s exactly what happened. But Mick Cronin and Cincinnati had their breakthrough last season when they started the year 15-0, finished sixth in the conference, and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament before losing to eventual national champion UConn. Excluding a 48-point curb-stomping at the hands of Notre Dame in the Big East tournament, the Bearcats held their own against college basketball’s best all year long and showed signs that they were a program on the rise. With their top four scorers returning, including their best player and senior leader Yancy Gates, there is plenty of reason to expect them to build off of last year’s success and make some serious noise this year.
Team to Cheer for If You Don’t Have a Favorite — Pitt
These last two categories (and even the one before this one) are more or less tailored for the NBA fans who don’t typically watch college basketball but are going to watch this year because of the lockout. My guess is that while you probably hate everything about Duke (as you should), you most likely don’t have a favorite team to follow this year. Well, that’s about to change, because if it’s a Big East team you’re after, then the Pitt Panthers are your team.
The single most inexcusable thing you can do if you’re a fan of a new sport (or in this case, a new level of a sport) is pick a team that’s considered a title contender as your new favorite team. Even if you pick the team without having any idea of how good it is supposed to be (like I did when I decided to follow hockey in 2010 and randomly picked the Blackhawks as my favorite team right before they won the Stanley Cup), people will still accuse you of glory hunting, so you want to find a team that’s not getting a lot of buzz heading into the season. But you also don’t want to pick a terrible team, because then you run the risk of losing interest in the sport as a result of regularly watching subpar play.
Even though Pitt is the defending Big East champion and has the conference’s preseason player of the year in Ashton Gibbs, it’s doubtful that people will accuse you of glory hunting by jumping on the Panthers’ bandwagon, because they’re picked to finish just fourth in the conference this year. Plus, it’s common knowledge among college basketball fans that there isn’t a team in the country that underachieves in the NCAA tournament more than Pitt, so you can always play that card if anyone calls you out. (Just bring up the ending of the Butler game from last year’s tournament. That’s really all you’ll need.) Over the past six years, Pitt has been the best team in what is widely considered the best conference in college basketball and has twice earned a no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, yet they never made the Final Four and only made two Sweet 16s in that span. But don’t misinterpret their choking — since they actually do well in the regular season and just can’t seem to do much of anything in the postseason, they are more like the Phoenix Suns or San Diego Chargers of the past decade than they are the Chicago Cubs or the city of Cleveland as a whole.
So don’t get too discouraged, because Pitt will be good this year. It’s just that, if history is any indication, the Panthers most likely flame out early in the NCAA tournament. Sure, that sounds a little depressing and might even make you question why you should cheer for them, but think about it this way: Everybody loves cheering for an underdog, and thanks to constantly underachieving in the postseason, that’s kind of what Pitt has become. Only unlike your typical underdog, Pitt will actually be really talented and should be exciting to watch all season long.
Player to Cheer for If You Don’t Have a Favorite — Darius Johnson-Odom (Marquette)
I’ll be honest and tell you that I watched only a handful of Marquette’s games last year, but that handful was more than enough for me to fall in love with DJO’s explosively entertaining game. (There’s no way people don’t call him DJO, right?) He’s a preseason All-Big East first team selection who averaged 15.8 points per game last year, but here’s all you really need to know about the guy: He’s a senior who transferred to Marquette from a junior college two years ago and, at just 6-foot-2, he’s kind of small for a basketball player. Translation: He has most likely been told his entire life that he’s not good enough, which ironically is probably exactly why he is so good, and why it looks like he plays with a chip on his shoulder. Simply put, pretty much every college basketball player rises these days, but what sets DJO apart from all of them is that when he rises, he also grinds. That’s something I admire about the guy.
Mark Titus is the founder and author of the blog Club Trillion. His book, Don't Put Me In Coach, chronicles his career as a walk-on benchwarmer for the Ohio State basketball team and is scheduled to be released in March. You can follow him on Twitter at @clubtrillion.
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