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Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Early Line on College Hoops

Most people like lists, and, most certainly, the popular media loves to publish the "top [you fill in the blank]" people who can decline Latin nouns while dunking a basketball with two hands, switch-hitting outfielders or wife-swapping pitchers (okay, so there were only two of those).  Well, not to be outdone, Andy Katz of ESPN has published his top 50 college hoops teams going into this season.  3 of the top 4 and 7 of the top 33 are ACC teams (which, yes, means that #33 is an ACC team), and those who fall into the top 3 are Wake, Carolina and Georgia Tech in that order.  Which just goes to show you that despite all of the laments about the best HS players going pro, the ACC is doing just fine (and, yes, Duke comes in at #10 despite losing Luol Deng and despite Shaun Livingston's not matriculating).  And, for those of you who were looking, Gonzaga (very much overrated last year) comes in at #22, Villanova (very much underachieving) comes in at #30 and Air Force (despite having lost Coach Joe Scott to Princeton) comes in at #39 (his replacement, Chris Mooney, was Scott's top assistant). 
SportsProf loves college hoops and will focus on them more closely once the season inches closer.  That said, because the best HS players aren't going to college and because many good college players are leaving, SportsProf contends that these lists don't have the meaning that they once did.  Why?  The talent level is more even than it was, say, when Patrick Ewing was at Georgetown or when Hakeem Olajuwon was at Houston.  Back then, say, twenty years ago, the talent really separated itself, and the elite teams were head and shoulders above the rest. 
Today, it's much harder to know.  The Ewings and Olajuwons are going straight to the pros, and without the super-elite players in the college ranks, perhaps 16 teams can win it all these days, instead of the three or four twenty years ago.
Now, Dukies may argue that their beloved teams have been head and shoulders above the rest within the last decade, and for certain seasons they might even win that point.  But, by and large, the talent is more even, and that makes the results more exciting.  Gonzaga thrilled people last year but laid a big egg in the Big Dance, proving that either they weren't great against top competition or that the competition they played against wasn't that great.  St. Joe's, though, more than held its own (and it made SportsProf wonder that had UConn's Josh Boone gone to his second choice, St. Joe's, whether the Hawks, with that wonderful backcourt, would have gone to the Final Four and perhaps beyond).
It's usually the case that many of the teams on these lists will be among "the chalk" at the end of the year, when it comes time to seed the NCAA Tournament, and that some of them will hit the hardwood with a "thud" hitherto best exemplified by Ivan Drago in "Rocky IV."  But it's also the case that there's some team out there that no one is counting on who could crash this party and cause trouble for the big names. 
Last year, that team was Air Force. 
Who will it be this year?
So thanks to Andy Katz for starting the armchair college basketball discussion in the middle of the dogs days of July.  SportsProf personally was interested in the heat of last night's Cardinals-Cubs rivalry and is confounded by the zero-sum baseball being played in the National League East.
That said, who will that surprise team be?  The Northwestern Wildcats, perhaps ready to make a permanent break out of the Big 10's second division?  The Temple Owls, returning from the ranks of the forgotten?  The Princeton Tigers, perhaps with their best squad in five years?  The Cal Bears, with tons of talent to burn but so far not too much to show for it?   And how about the St. Joe's Hawks, whom most are counting out because they lost 2 first-round draft picks in Jameer Nelson and Delonte West?  Maybe the Rutgers Scarlet Knights with their high-octane sophomore backcourt will break through the ceiling that has been the bottom of the Big East's first division.  Could Vermont, with heralded PF Tyler Coppenrath, go further than they did last year (when Coppenrath played in the first-round NCAA Tournament game with a huge cast and a barely healed, if healed, broken wrist)?  Who will be the relative unknown from the Mid-American conference who will give people fits?  And could the Rice Owls do some damage and show the world that Georgetown's and Ohio State's interest in their head coach, Willis Wilson, was justified?
Those teams are out there, motivated, no doubt, by the fact that they didn't make Andy Katz's radar screen.  Or Dickie V's, or, especially, Billy Packer's?
But come late November, you'll be reading about one of them, how they beat Kentucky in Lexington or Michigan State in East Lansing (which Bucknell would have done last year had they not shot something like 1-20 at the foul line for the game) or Maryland in College Park, and then a new buzz will emerge.  More powerful than the hum of the cicadas that comes every 17 years, more sonorous than your favorite diva.  That's what we love about the game, and that's what makes it so compelling.
So be patient a little longer, for the sound of the ball hitting the hardwood or the squeaks of the sneakers or the horn announcing that the game is ready to start.  It should be a great season (it usually is).


Blogger Kerry said...

The Northwestern Wildcats? ZUH!?

It might be a shock if they decided to show up to play all of their games this year...It takes balls to show up when you know you're that terrible.

3:59 PM  
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