With the SCS.com Hoops Preview winding down, we turn our attention to three of the BCS conferences: the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12. The ACC will be the strongest league in the nation outside of the Big East, with two Final Four contenders (Duke and North Carolina) and several teams worthy of NCAA tournament consideration. The Big 12 and Big Ten are more top-heavy, but while the bottom of each league is questionable, these two conferences could feature the best title races once January begins.
Predicted Champion: North Carolina Tar Heels
Since the foursome of Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Danny Green and Wayne Ellington opted to stay in school, North Carolina is everyone’s consensus number one team entering the 2008-09 season. Still, UNC isn’t invincible by any means. The Tar Heels are an inconsistent defensive team and proved their vulnerability when Kansas embarrassed them in the Final Four. Although I’m not buying that North Carolina will have an easy ride to the title, I can certainly admit that the Heels deserve to enter this season as the top ranked squad and should be the hands-down choice to win the ACC.
Duke’s personnel hasn’t changed much from last year, as the Blue Devils still lack a dominating post presence. Those problems haven’t been fixed, but Duke’s perimeter-oriented attack has an abundance of guards and wings to successfully run the drive-and-kick offense that worked so well last year. Sophomore Kyle Singler averaged 13.3 points per game during his freshman season, and he could be one of the ACC’s top players in his second season. Although DeMarcus Nelson, Duke’s leading scorer last year, has graduated, scouts have evaluated incoming freshman Elliot Williams as one of the top small forward recruits in the country. Plus, juniors Gerald Henderson and Jon Scheyer are still around after productive sophomore seasons.
Last season, Wake Forest’s entire team basically consisted of underclassmen. The Deamon Deacons were led by a first-year head coach who took over for Skip Prosser, who tragically passed away last season. With all of that adversity, coach Dino Gaudio still led Wake to a decent 17-13 record. After exceeding expectations last year, Wake Forest enters the 08-09 season with much more fanfare. Prosser’s final recruiting class, made up of Al-Faroq Aminu, Tony Woods and Ty Walker, is one the best in college basketball. The addition of those three monster freshmen, along with an improving core group of returning players, means that the Deamon Deacons should be one of the ACC’s top teams by the end of the season.
Frank Haith’s Miami Hurricanes came out of nowhere to take college basketball by storm last year, racing out to a 14-1 start before eventually reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament. Miami loses its top post player in Anthony King, but does add playmaking wing DeQuan Jones, a highly coveted freshman. Another trip to the Big Dance is likely, but be careful about placing too many expectations on this Miami team. The Hurricanes finished just 8-8 in a weaker ACC conference last year and stumbled to a 9-10 record after that great 14-1 start. Jones is a nice addition, but nothing about this Miami squad suggests that it will markedly improve over last season.
I guess according to Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, I’m “certifiably insane.” That’s how he described anyone who doubted his team’s NCAA tournament credentials last March—and since a lot of people agreed with me, I guess we’re all certifiably insane. The fact is, Virginia Tech didn’t beat an NCAA tournament team until defeating Miami in the ACC tournament. The Hokies were led by mostly underclassmen last season and lose only one starter from that team (Deron Washington). Virginia Tech’s NIT berth last year with such a young team was a good step for this program, which is ready to compete for an NCAA tournament bid this year. But sorry Coach Greenberg, you’re going to actually have to beat a tournament team in the regular season this year to make the Big Dance.
Oliver Purnell has finally got this Clemson program rolling. It took five years, but the Tigers finally broke through in Purnell’s sixth year, earning a 5th seed in the NCAA tournament. Cliff Hammonds and James Mays, two integral parts of last year’s team, will be tough to replace, but many of Clemson’s key players return, including K.C. Rivers, Trevor Booker and Terrance Oglesby. Demontez Stitt had a decent freshman year at point guard, averaging 8.8 points and 3.0 assists per game, and he could be a player to look out for in the ACC as one of the conference’s more promising floor leaders.
Georgia Tech adds stud freshman Ian Shumpert and still has some proven returning players such as Lewis Clinch and Zack Peacock, but the Yellow Jackets don’t have much depth… Maryland has been steadily declining for years now, though Greivis Vazquez is one of the ACC’s top players… Florida State and Boston College will both be relying on a lot of newcomers, and North Carolina State still doesn’t have a point guard… Virginia leaned on Sean Singletary for everything last season, and without him things could get ugly for Dave Leitao.
G: Ty Lawson, North Carolina
G: Wayne Ellington, North Carolina
Standings Projection1. North Carolina
3. Wake Forest
5. Virginia Tech
8. Boston College
9. Georgia Tech
10. Florida State
11. North Carolina State
Predicted Champion: Purdue Boilermakers
Purdue plays throw-back basketball—in your face, dirty, rough and tough basketball. Fitting for the Big Ten, isn’t it? After winning just nine games in 2006, Matt Painter has transformed this program into a conference contender in just a few seasons, and the Boilermakers have been doing it with stifling half court defense and a balanced offensive attack. Purdue wasn’t even supposed to make the NCAA tournament last year due to its incredible youth, but the Baby Boilers shocked everyone by winning 25 games. With almost the exact same team returning this year, Purdue has an opportunity to be the king of the Big Ten.
Don’t give Purdue the title just yet, though. Michigan State has an athletic roster with playmakers all over the place, including small forward Raymar Morgan and an up-and-coming sophomore point guard in Kalin Lucas. Tom Izzo has built a program predicated on dominant rebounding and toughness on defense, but his team this season will be able to light up the scoreboard as well. The Spartans were prone to some letdowns last year, however, as they lost two perplexing games to Iowa and Penn State in the middle of the Big Ten season. Those types of losses kept Michigan State from winning a Big Ten title.
Like most Big Ten teams, Wisconsin will defend tenaciously, but Bo Ryan did lose some substantial scoring threats when Brian Butch and Michael Flowers left. Marcus Landry and Trevon Hughes will be the go-to players this season, but the supporting cast on offense may be a bit of an issue, though Jason Bohannon is dangerous from the perimeter and Joe Krabbenhoft can contribute in several areas. The Badgers don’t have the talent they did two years ago, when they earned a two seed in the NCAA tournament, and they aren’t even as strong as last season, but another trip to the Dance can be expected out of Ryan’s group.
One of the excuses for Ohio State last year, a team that missed the NCAA tournament after making the title game two seasons ago, was its youth. Nothing has changed, as the Buckeyes are actually a younger team this season. Junior David Lighty will be the leader of this group, and the sophomores from last season need to make progress. The good news for Ohio State, who did win the NIT last year, is B.J. Mullens is probably a better fit in the Big Ten than Kosta Koufos was last year, due to his physical style of play. An NCAA tournament appearance is within reach for Thad Matta, but it’s not a given, especially after last year’s disappointment.
Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota are all programs on the rise in this conference. But for this season, these three teams are a step below the top four of the Big Ten. Michigan showed improvement over the course of last season under new head coach John Beilein, and with a budding star in Manny Harris, the Wolverines could surprise some people. Illinois will benefit from the arrival of Alex Legion, who will be eligible in December, and Tubby Smith brought in some promising freshman to replace his departed senior class. The three aforementioned programs should all be NIT teams, and don’t be surprised to see one of them sneak into the NCAA tournament… Northwestern notched one of its highest rated recruiting classes ever, and Bill Carmody actually has his fan base fired up about this season… Penn State and Iowa just don’t have the horses to compete right now, and Indiana is a mess—but you know all about the Hoosiers situation, I’m sure.
G: Manny Harris, Michigan
G: Kalin Lucas, Michigan State
Standings Projection1. Purdue
2. Michigan State
4. Ohio State
9. Penn State
Predicted Champion: Texas Longhorns
Although Texas has no way of replacing point guard D.J. Augustin, the Longhorns still return the most loaded roster in the Big 12. If Rick Barnes can find anybody to play the point adequately, whether it’s A.J. Abrams, Justin Mason, or Dougus Balbay, a second straight Big 12 title may be in order. Up front, nobody in the conference can match the Longhorns’ depth and talent, led by Damion James, a do-it-all forward that can step out and shoot it or bang down low. Connor Atchley plays a finesse game but the 6 foot 10 senior had a breakout year last season, showing the ability to score from the perimeter and in the paint. Gary Johnson and Dexter Pittman provide the toughness on the block, and both will play key roles as backups this season. Remember, last season Texas played without Kevin Durant and actually improved, so why can’t the Longhorns win without Augustin?
So how can a team with Blake Griffin on it not be the predicted champions? The Big 12 title race may be the most intriguing in college basketball, especially when considering the implications of the Texas/Oklahoma rivalry. Griffin, the best player in the conference, will team with freshman Willie Warren this year. Warren will provide the Sooners with an explosive player in the backcourt, and he is the type of player Oklahoma could have used last season. Tony Crocker played steadily throughout last season, but his backcourt mate Austin Johnson was more inconsistent. As the team’s point guard, Johnson is a big key in how efficient the Sooners will be offensively this season.
Last season’s surprise team is ready for an encore presentation, and many analysts are ready to pencil Baylor in the top 25. Don’t be so quick to put the Bears in that conversation. With the Big 12 in somewhat of a down year, Baylor should finish in the top four of the conference, and another trip to March Madness will likely be in store. Still, this is the exact same roster from last season, and the Bears had some real issues last year with defense, shot selection and undisciplined play. Baylor will once again bury opponents with its offensive firepower, but the Bears will also be frustrating to watch as they take bad shots and play subpar defense. If Scott Drew can’t correct that type of play, Baylor won’t be a serious contender for the Big 12 title.
Rivals.com rated Kansas’ 2008 recruiting class as the best in the nation, but even that influx of talent won’t make up for what the Jayhawks lost. KU’s two major returnees are point guard Sherron Collins, a proven commodity entering his junior year, and Cole Aldrich, a sophomore center who showed flashes of brilliance last year, especially against Tyler Hansbrough in April. Those two players are great to build around for this season, but Kansas will have to find a way to mesh all of its newcomers together. By the end of the season, the Jayhawks could maybe even challenge for a Big 12 title if the new guys fit well together. However, the similarities to Florida and Ohio State, the two teams that met in the 2007 title game and did not make the NCAAs last season, are abundant. Kansas must look past its National Championship and realize that the 08-09 version of the Jayhawks is completely revamped.
Texas A&M could have used DeAndre Jordan this year, but Josh Carter gives them a big boost by coming back for his senior season. Point guard Dashan Harris and big man David Loubeau are two freshman that will help the Aggies right away, and look for junior forward Bryan Davis to continue improving. The parts are there for Mark Turgeon to finish in the top half of the Big 12 and make the NCAA tournament again… Missouri has a mix of old and new, with seven newcomers joining four returning starters. Senior forwards Leo Lyons and DeMarre Carroll team up for one of the conference’s top frontcourt duos. Lyons, who went on a tear to end the 07-08 season, has star potential, and his growth along with the production from the new players will largely determine how the Tigers fare this year… Oklahoma State lacks an inside presence, but Travis Ford has the guards to run a fast attack. The Cowboys were extremely inconsistent last season, but when they played well, it was usually because of point guard Byron Eaton. He’s a player that could thrive under Ford… After A&M, Mizzou and Oklahoma State, the conference falls off a bit. Texas Tech, who lost Martin Zeno, and Kansas State, who lost Michael Beasley and Bill Walker, will not be able to cope without their stars from last season… Nebraska has showed some progress under Doc Sadler the past two years, but the Cornhuskers don’t have enough playmakers to go anywhere higher than the NIT this year... Iowa State, who saw Wesley Johnson transfer, and Colorado, who lost its two best players to graduation (Marcus Hall and Richard Roby), are still in the harsh rebuilding phase.
G: Curtis Jerrells, Baylor
G: Byron Eaton, Oklahoma State
Standings Projection1. Texas
5. Texas A&M
7. Oklahoma State
9. Texas Tech
10. Kansas State
11. Iowa State
Next week: Check back for the final preview of the pre-season, which includes the Big East, Pac-10 and SEC.