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WILL COLLEGE HOOPS' HOT STARTS LAST?
December 21, 2007

SCS.comLast season, the Clemson Tigers raced off to a scorching 17-0 start. Unfortunately, the fun stopped there, as Oliver Purnell saw his team drop 10 of its next 14 contests. Instead of heading to the NCAA tournament, which seemed almost guaranteed at one point, the Tigers were relegated to the NIT. Even with the disappointing finish, Clemson still ended up winning 25 games and even reached the championship of the NIT. For a school that hadnít been to the NCAA tournament since 1997 when Rick Barnes was coaching, the 17 game winning streak shocked the nation as the Tigers seemingly came out of nowhere.

Not just one, but several teams are off to surprising starts resembling the Tigersí run of last season. Clemsonís non-conference schedule last year included a few nice wins over Mississippi State, Old Dominion, Georgia, and Appalachian State. But only Old Dominion reached the NCAA tournament, and the Tigers completely fell apart when they had to face quality ACC competition. Who will travel down Clemsonís route and tank, and who will continue to perform at a high level?

Vanderbilt

The Commodores are riding last seasonís unprecedented success, but this Sweet 16 team of a year ago lost its star in Derrick Byars, which left Vanderbilt with severely tempered expectations. Byarsí fantastic season overshadowed the skills of Shan Foster, one of the nationís most underrated wings, and he has teamed with Australian freshman Andrew Ogilvy and the rest of the Commodores deep supporting cast to lead his team to a 10-0 start. To its credit, some of Vandyís wins include decent mid-majors in Bradley and South Alabama, and more familiar foes in Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, and Depaul.

Still, there isnít a single marquee win on Vanderbiltís early non-conference resume, and none of Vanderbiltís victories have been against definite NCAA tournament teams. The Commodores will face a stiff test when they welcome an 8-2 Massachusetts team to Nashville. Win that game, and Vanderbilt will prove just a little bit more to the college basketball world. Still, weíre going to have to wait until Jan. 17, when Vanderbilt faces Tennessee on the road, to find out exactly where this team stands.

The Commodores have not been truly tested yet, and may not get many more opportunities for big wins with a weak SEC schedule. This team will likely head into conference play with 14 or 15 victories, depending on the Massachusetts game, but unlike Clemson last year, Vandy wonít be competing in a conference as difficult as last yearís ACC. In fact, the only other nationally ranked team is Tennessee, and every single other team in the SEC is a winnable game for Vanderbilt. While it is inevitable Vanderbilt will slip-up somewhere along the way, 12 wins in the conference is not out of the question, which should give Kevin Stallings a tournament berth. But hereís a scary thought: a .500 record in a power conference such as the SEC and 22-23 overall wins may not be enough for the Commodores this year, especially if they donít get a win against the Volunteers. So Vandy fans better hope they take care of business in the SEC.

Final prediction for Vanderbilt: In the end, look for Vanderbilt to perform decently in the SEC, which will give them a nice-looking win total and a fairly high seed. A repeat of last yearís run isnít likely, though. 15-0 non-conference, 11-5 SEC. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. Bounced in the first weekend.

West Virginia

So far, Bob Hugginsí only loss as the head coach at West Virginia came by two points to Tennessee. Other than that, itís been perfection for him and his Mountaineers, who cracked the top 25 this week thanks to their 9-1 start. West Virginia is an intriguing team. Hanging with the Volunteers showed this team is ready to compete, but their wins have come mostly against mediocre opponents. Only Winthrop, Duquesne, and Auburn stand out in a schedule full of cupcakes, but like Vanderbilt, those three teams probably arenít NCAA tournament teams. At least the Mountaineers did beat that trio by a combined 93 points.

If Bob Huggins werenít coaching this team, it probably would not be garnering any attention. But Huggins is the head coach, and the credibility he brings to this team cannot be overlooked. His performance at Kansas State last season, mixing an underwhelming Wildcatsí roster into a NIT team, showed exactly how masterful he can be with lesser talent. West Virginia has some talent, though, and won the NIT last season. That is why even though the Mountaineers start appears inflated due to the weak non-conference schedule, Huggins has a great chance reach an NCAA tournament this season. Before it heads to Big East play, West Virginia will have a chance to face a good Oklahoma club, and this will give us a little more insight into how good this team may be. The Mountaineers will need to finish relatively high in the Big East and pick up some marquee wins along the way to improve its resume.

Final prediction for West Virginia: Huggins is combining former coach John Beileinís system with his to help his team acclimate to his style of play without overwhelming them. So far, itís worked, and Big East play should go pretty well for Huggins. 11-1 non conference, 10-8 Big East, 21-9 overall. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament. Bows out in either first or second round.

Miami (FL)

Picked to finish near the bottom of the ACC, the Hurricanes have stormed out of the gate with nine straight victories. Like West Virginia, Miami is now ranked in the top 25 and figures to seriously compete in the ACC. Miami has played a bit better competition than the two aforementioned teams, however, and has claimed victories over VCU, Providence, and Mississippi State. With nothing but cupcakes coming up to end non-conference play, Miami will enter ACC play with a 14-0 record.

How good is this team, though? Both Vanderbilt and West Virginia at least entered the season with a legitimate shot at reaching the NCAA tournament. Miami was left for dead in the ACC, as most assumed they would suffer through another rough season. Jack McClinton is enjoying a fine season as one of the conferenceís best shooters, and heís getting a great deal of help from many other players- the Hurricanes have 10 players averaging more than 13 minutes per game. Miami may not have been supposed to do much this year, but its three impressive non-conference victories prove Frank Haithís team may be able to finish higher than expected in a tough ACC conference. If the Hurricanes can take care of some of the conferenceís lesser teams, while finding a way to knock off a team like North Carolina, Duke, or Clemson, Miami may defy all odds and sneak into the NCAA tournament.

Final prediction for Miami: Against ACC competition, the Hurricanes will stumble a bit down the stretch, leaving them right on the fringe of the NCAA tournament bubble. While Miami will exceed everyoneís expectations in the ACC, Haith will be sweating it out with his team on Selection Sunday. Unfortunately, the Hurricanes will have a tough time taking out the powers of the ACC and will just barely miss out on the tournament. 14-0 non-conference, 8-8 ACC. NIT berth.

Mississippi

Andy Kennedy performed well as head coach at UM last season, taking his team to the post-season (although it was the less prestigious NIT). This year, with a relatively young team that entered the year without any pressure to win, Kennedy has led his team to an 9-0 start. The other teams listed in this column do not boast the greatest resumes, and Mississippi is no exception. Wins over Winthrop, South Alabama, Depaul, and New Mexico are the only wins of note for the Rebels. We get to find out right away if the Rebels want to make a serious run this year, though, as they take on Clemson on Saturday.

The only test UM will face in the non-conference is Clemson, and a weak SEC will provide limited opportunities for big victories. Just as Vanderbilt must do, the Rebels must not lose any games to inferior opponents, and must find a way to win a few games against the top of the league. Depending on the Clemson game, itís looking like UM will head into league play with 12 or 13 wins. It is imperative the Rebels finish well above .500 to be considered for the NCAA tournament, because a record around .500 will leave them on the wrong side of the bubble.

Final prediction for Mississippi: The Rebels will lose to Clemson, and then perform decently in the SEC, winning games against the teams they are supposed to beat. Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and even Arkansas are clearly superior to UM, though, and games against Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi State, and Florida arenít easy either. Mississippi will have trouble when it faces real competition and will not make the NCAA tournament. 13-1 non conference (one additional win against Presbyterian in February), 9-7 SEC. NIT berth.

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