SCS.com’s final conference preview will be all over the place. The Big East is easily the nation’s best basketball conference, with several Final Four threats and more than ten teams with NCAA tournament aspirations. The SEC, on the other hand, may be the worst BCS conference other than the Big Ten. The Pac-10 is more toward the middle, with some strong teams at the top in UCLA, Arizona State, and USC, but several rebuilding teams at the bottom, like Washington State and Stanford. So keep reading as SCS.com finally finishes the 2008-2009 basketball preview. It was a fun preseason, but let the games begin!
Predicted Champion: Connecticut Huskies
Connecticut’s prospects for the 08-09 season hinge largely on A.J. Price’s return from the ACL injury he suffered last March. Before the injury, Price enjoyed a breakout season and established himself as one of the better point guards in college basketball. The rest of Connecticut’s guards will compliment Price very well. Jerome Dyson and Craig Austrie bring experience to the backcourt and the reviews are positive for freshman Kemba Walker. Hasheem Thabeet, the 7’3 junior center, is known for his defense and rebounding skills, but also provides the Huskies with an improving offensive game. He decided not to enter the NBA Draft to continue developing under Jim Calhoun, and this year he may highlight his progress on the offensive end. Senior Jeff Adrien, who has started every single game the past two seasons, gives Connecticut a tough and grizzled warrior in the paint. Last season ended with disappointment after a first round loss to San Diego, and the Huskies barely have any post season experience on their roster. That doesn’t matter. UConn defends well, plays a balanced offensive game and gets to the free throw line better than anyone in the nation. This is Connecticut’s year in the loaded Big East.
The one question mark for Rick Pitino’s team is how it will deal with the loss of last season’s unquestioned leader, David Padgett. His statistics weren’t eye-popping, but during Padgett’s injury early in the year, Louisville clearly struggled. The big man had a great career for the Cardinals, but this program will be fine without him. Samardo Samuels, a 6 foot 8 freshman power forward, is expected to contend for Big East Freshman of the Year honors, and Louisville also brings back the strength of their team from last year—hybrid small forwards Earl Clark and Terrance Williams. The tandem gives this team two unique options on offense. Louisville doesn’t have any All-Conference guards, but Jerry Smith, Edgar Sosa and Andre McGee are all capable starters in the Big East Conference.
Things are looking good for Pitt even though Mike Cook was denied an extra year of eligibility. The Panthers still have a fearsome trio of point guard Levance Fields, forward Sam Young and center Dejaun Blair. Ronald Ramon will be missed because of his perimeter shooting, but Gilbert Brown, a sophomore swingman, played well in limited action last year. Brown is injured, however, and will miss a few weeks. Jamie Dixon has created a monster program at Pittsburgh, but he has never reached the Elite Eight. These Panthers could change that trend.
It’s obvious that Notre Dame is a top four team in the Big East. Luke Harangody, despite putting up Tyler Hansbrough-like numbers, will never get the publicity of Psycho-T. But that hardly matters—‘Gody is still the man that makes everything work for the Irish on the offensive end. Kyle McAlarney leads the way in the backcourt for Notre Dame as a sharpshooter from the perimeter. Most of the Irish’s roster can stroke it from three, in fact, and their outside shooting is one of their main strengths. With basically the same roster that lost to Washington State by 20 points last March, however, Notre Dame may not be the top 5 team many analysts are predicting. Defensively, there are still issues, and Rob Kurz, a productive forward, also graduated. Nonetheless, Mike Brey has created one of the top programs in the Big East and the Irish can easily duplicate last year’s 25 win season.
Just a Step Below
Buzz Williams doesn’t have much head coaching experience, but with guards like Wesley Matthews, Dominic James and Jerel McNeal playing for him, he will be just fine. Lazar Hayward is undersized as a 6 foot 6 power forward but he can hold his own in the paint and even averaged 6.5 rebounds per game last year. Marquette lost a heartbreaker to Stanford in the NCAA tournament’s second round last year, and with most of that team back, the Golden Eagles could go even farther this March.
You can’t just replace players like Roy Hibbert and Jonathan Wallace, who meant so much to this team last year. It helps ease the transition, though, when you have a talented group of returners and some impressive recruits. Jessie Sapp, DeJuan Summers and Austin Freeman were all starters last season, and Greg Monroe enters Georgetown as one of the most celebrated recruits in America. Also, though Wallace ran the point with efficiency, John Thompson’s system doesn’t require a playmaking lead guard to have success offensively. The point guard simply needs to limit mistakes and play within the system. That will help Georgetown get over Wallace’s graduation.
Last year’s surprising Sweet 16 run has the West Virginia fan base fired up, and the 08-09 season should continue the momentum. The Mountaineers may not have what it takes to advance far in the NCAA tournament, but Bob Huggins has enough to work with to at least get them to the Big Dance. Forwards Devin Ebanks and Kevin Jones are the big name recruits coming in this season, and they will mix well with veterans Alex Ruoff and Da’Sean Butler. West Virginia, who in addition to Ebanks and Jones brought in four other newcomers, will have a lot of bodies and the necessary depth to keep up in the Big East.
It almost doesn’t seem possible that Syracuse has missed the past two NCAA tournaments. Jim Boeheim had an injury-riddled, beaten down team last year, and that’s why he should make it back to the Dance with this year’s team. The Orange had four players—almost the entire starting lineup—playing an average of 30 or more minutes per game last year. The rotation consisted of basically seven players. Boeheim would never use that as an excuse, but it’s a pretty legitimate reason for his team’s struggles. This season, Andy Rautins and Eric Devendorf will return from injuries, and several freshmen will help out off the bench.
Jay Wright took this program to an Elite Eight a few years ago, but the Wildcats sat on the bubble for almost the entire year in 07-08. Finally, they broke through at the end of the season and even made the Sweet 16. Villanova will have almost the exact same roster, led by star junior Scottie Reynolds. On one hand, that means we can expect a natural maturation from this team, which was pretty young last season. However, that also means that there hasn’t been much of an upgrade from a 9-9 Big East team that earned just a 12 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Cincinnati and Providence are two teams that could contend for NCAA tournaments. This conference is just so loaded, though, so I don’t see either sneaking in. The Bearcats will be dangerous to the rest of the conference with Deonta Vaughn (17.3 ppg) returning and the arrival of a highly anticipated freshman forward, Yancy Gates. In the end, Cincy is probably just too young... Providence has a lot of experience and a new coach in Keno Davis, but he’s not the answer to all of the Friars problems. An NIT berth would be progress and that’s an attainable goal… DePaul’s Dar Tucker is an underrated player in this conference, and Jerry Wainwright has assembled a promising team that could compete in this league over the next few years… Rutgers has done the same after landing an impressive recruiting class. That program needs to show some signs of progress, however, and that means on the court—not just on Rivals.com… Seton Hall doesn’t have a poor team, and Bobby Gonzalez is landing some high-level transfers, but this year isn’t going to be the Pirates’ year… St. John’s and South Florida will spend their days in the Big East cellar this winter. The Bulls may actually put up a fight, with a large group of newcomers including Georgia transfer Mike Mercer. St. John’s’ prospects don’t look so good, however.
G: A.J. Price, Connecticut
G: Jonny Flynn, Syracuse
Standings Projection1. Connecticut
4. Notre Dame
8. West Virginia
12. Seton Hall
15. South Florida
16. St. John’s
Predicted Champion: UCLA Bruins
After three straight Final Fours, how can you doubt Ben Howland? The former Pittsburgh coach has established himself as the best coach in America at UCLA, one of the most prestigious basketball schools in history. This year’s Bruins may actually be worse than last year, but their goal of a Final Four still remains a real possibility. Darren Collison is an efficient and well-rounded point guard who can do it all—that’s why he’s one of the top players in the nation at his position. Jrue Holiday, Malcolm Lee and J’Mison Morgan are three freshmen with NBA potential, and Josh Shipp returns as well as a productive wing player. UCLA will have some inexperienced players at several positions, especially up front, and that may be the reason why the Bruins fail to make their fourth straight Final Four. However, playing in the Pac-10, which is considerably weaker than last year, UCLA is a clear favorite.
Outside of Jeff Capel, who gets Blake Griffin back for a second season, Herb Sendek has to be the most excited coach in America. You see, he gets to use James Harden for another year, a versatile guard with all the physical talents you could ask for. Jeff Pendergraph is the veteran leader for this team as the only senior, but Arizona State also has juniors Ty Abbott and Jerren Shipp returning to play key roles.
DeMar DeRozan may be just as good as O.J. Mayo, but Davon Jefferson is a player coach Tim Floyd surely wishes he could have back. Three starters return from last year, though, in juniors Taj Gibson, Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis. The Trojans had an outstanding season last year, despite the first round flameout to Kansas State. In the toughest conference in the nation, USC finished 11-7 and 21-12 overall. USC can push Arizona State for the second spot in the Pac-10, but UCLA is too strong for either of those teams.
As you probably know, things are just awful in Tuscon right now. Future recruits are bailing left and right and Lute Olson has flushed all of his hard work down the toilet in a matter of a few weeks. The only good news from all of this—yes, there’s actually good news—is that Arizona hasn’t lost anyone on the court for the 08-09 season, though freshman center Jeff Withey’s status seems to be questionable. The Wildcats still have two future pros in Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill. In fact, those two will most likely be first round picks. Nic Wise is a capable point guard and sophomore Jamelle Horne is a skilled forward as well. There may not be a whole lot of depth, but Arizona could avoid a disaster this season even with all of the turmoil. The next few years could get ugly, so enjoy it while you can Arizona fans.
The Huskies are the trendy pick as a sleeper in the Pac-10, and why not? They have senior big man Jon Brockman, a ferocious frontcourt presence, a promising forward in Quncy Pondexter and some nice young talent. Lorenzo Romar has recruited well but has hit a bit of a dry spell with this program. An NCAA tournament is a good goal for this year’s team, and it would mean a lot for Washington’s future to play in the Dance.
Oregon won’t be as strong as the past two years, but Tajuan Porter is a game-changing player… California has one of the best coaches in the business, but Ryan Anderson and DeVon Hardin left a big hole in the frontcourt for the Bears. New coach Mike Montgomery can help this team overachieve, and he does have two skilled guards in Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher… Tony Bennett has surprised everybody by taking Washington State to two straight NCAA tournaments, but it’s easy to look good when you have players like Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver. It will take Bennett a couple of years to get back to last year’s level… Stanford’s entire frontcourt is gone, and that includes the Lopez twins. Mitch Johnson and Anthony Goods aren’t bad, though, so Johnny Dawkins should at least field a competitive squad… Oregon State just needs to win one Pac-10 game. Just one! Head coach Craig Robinson is actually luring some top recruits to Corvallis, but for this year, a Pac-10 win is all the Beavers should focus on.
G: Darren Collison, UCLA
G: DeMar DeRozan, USCStandings Projection 1. UCLA
2. Arizona State
9. Washington State
10. Oregon State
Predicted Champion: Tennessee Volunteers
A lot of turnover took place for Tennessee this off-season, and the 08-09 Volunteers will look very different from the 07-08 version. Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism, and J.P. Prince are familiar faces, but that’s about it. Tennessee’s newcomers will be important this year, and luckily Bruce Pearl brought in some top-notch players. Freshman Scotty Hopson will be one of the best freshmen in the SEC and junior college transfer Bobby Maze is good enough to start at point guard from day one. Pearl seems confident in Maze, and that’s a good sign, because he’s an integral part of this year’s team. As for the returning trio of players, Smith will be the leader offensively for this squad and Chism brings experience to the frontcourt. J.P. Prince can play several positions, but with Maze in the mix, he probably won’t be relegated to point guard anymore. The SEC is a struggling conference, and though Tennessee will have some fierce competition, the Volunteers are in position to once again win the league.
Billy Donovan won two straight NCAA titles—and then missed the NCAA tournament altogether last season. The Gators still won 24 games and had an encouraging run in the NIT with a young team, but it was a disappointing season overall. This year, Florida figures to be better, with everybody a year older, but this is still one of the youngest teams in the conference. Every player besides senior Walter Hodge and junior Dan Werner are underclassmen. Plus, with Marrese Spreights leaving for the NBA, Florida also lost its leading scorer. The pre-season optimism for Donovan and the Gators is understandable, since they do have some of the nation’s top recruits from 2007 and 2008. However, can Florida develop a killer attitude and mature as a team after missing the NCAAs last year?
While the nation is gushing over Florida, the Wildcats are being overlooked. Yep, that’s right-- Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky, one of the top programs in college basketball history, is underrated. Critics will point to the loss of guards Ramel Bradley, Joe Crawford and Derrick Jasper, and it’s true that the Wildcats’ backcourt is pretty depleted this year. Still, they are forgetting that Patrick Patterson, one of the best big men in the conference, returns for his sophomore season, and Kentucky still has Jodie Meeks at guard. Meeks battled injuries last year and only played in 11 games, but he’s supposedly healthy now. He will carry the burden in the backcourt as the lone returning guard besides Michael Porter, who averaged just 2.0 points per game last season. Also, the Wildcats have some exciting freshmen led by Darius Miller, Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball last year.
There will be a lot of new faces for coach Kevin Stallings this season, but he will still have big man A.J. Ogilvy and point guard Jermaine Beal, who averaged 4.6 assists per game last season. With a lot of newcomers, Vanderbilt may struggle early. There will only be two juniors on this team—the rest of the roster will be sophomores and freshmen—so the Commodores will be incredibly young. By the end of the year, SEC teams won’t want to play Vanderbilt, who may be able to play its way onto the NCAA tournament bubble as a best case scenario.
Like Providence in the Big East and Washington in the Pac-10, Alabama is the SEC’s sleeper pick. Freshman JaMychal Green has a lot of people excited and Alonzo Gee returns after averaging 14.5 points per game and 6.8 rebounds per game. But remember, Richard Hendrix and Mykal Riley are gone, and Mark Gottfried’s program has really fallen the past few years… LSU has been tabbed as a contender in the West Division, but that’s because the division is just so poor. LSU and Alabama will likely battle for the division title (and perhaps Mississippi), but the winner of the SEC East will be vastly superior. Anyway, the Tigers have a chance to be decent, with Trent Johnson at the helm and Tasmin Mitchell back from injury. Marcus Thornton also returns after an outstanding junior campaign. But, just like Alabama, remember that LSU won 13 games last season… Mississippi has sophomore guard Chris Warren back, and Andy Kennedy is coach on the rise. The Rebels will be in contention for a WestDivision title, but as I mentioned earlier, that wouldn’t be much of an accomplishment… Devan Downey is a name many fans do not recognize, because he plays for South Carolina, but his performance last year ranked up there with the nation’s best point guards. An NIT would be a good step for the rebuilding Gamecocks… Georgia will likely finish dead last in the SEC East. The SEC tournament run was a nice story last year, but it saved Dennis Felton’s job, and that may be worse in the long run for the Bulldogs. Georgia lost most of its top players from a year ago, including Sundiata Gaines and Billy Humphrey, so this might be the year that finally axes Felton… Auburn is in a similar position to Georgia in that its two top players from last year, Quan Prowell and Frank Tolber, are both gone. The similarities don’t end there, as Jeff Lebo’s job is also in question, much like Felton… Mississippi State and Arkansas were the two favorites to win the West last year, but this year is a different story. The Razorbacks are will be Indiana-like because they will play a team of almost entirely newcomers, and even though the Bulldogs have some talent (including Jarvis Varnado, the shot-blocking big man, and guard Barry Stewart), they won’t overcome the loss of Jamont Gordon, Ben Hansbrough and Charles Rhodes.Standings Projection East 1. Tennessee
5. South Carolina
West 1. LSU
4. Mississippi State