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THAT TIME OF YEAR AGAIN: COLLEGE HOOPS RETURNS
November 16, 2009

SCS.comItís been seven days since college hoops officially tipped off.

Iowa, Alabama, Oregon State, Mississippi State and Stanford already lost to non-BCS opponents. Evan Turner and Manny Harris both logged triple-doubles. Harvard beat William and Mary in triple-overtime on a three-pointer by Jeremy Lin as time expired. Baylor and Seton Hall needed buzzer-beaters to avoid massive upsets.

And Rotnei Clarke is averaging 51 points per game for Arkansas after making 13 three-pointers against Alcorn State.

Yep, college basketball season is back. And so is SouthernCollegeSports.comís weekly coverage of the greatest sport on the market.

That means youíll have to listen to me blabber for the next five months about every hoops topic imaginable. Might as well get started now, right?

OPENING THOUGHTS

Since Iím a narcissistic ego-freak with a need for attention, Iíve decided to add an ďOpening ThoughtsĒ section to my weekly column here at Southern CollegeSports.com. This section will include my general observations and opinions from the world of college basketball. Essentially, Iíll be doing my best Jim Rome impression.

For those of you that didnít scram at the very mention of Jim Rome: enjoy the first edition of Opening Thoughts.

Thought 1: Just when you thought it couldnít get worse for IowaÖ

Todd Lickliter can coach. Thatís evident from his 131 wins in six years at Butler, which included two Sweet 16 appearances. But Sundayís surprising 62-50 home loss to Texas-San Antonio just highlights the complete turmoil in Iowa City these days. Iowa has been decimated by transfers under Lickliter. First, Tony Freeman jumped ship after leading Iowa in scoring in 2007-08. Heís now a central figure at Southern Illinois, a Missouri Valley contender. Last yearís leading scorer Jake Kelly transferred to Indiana State this off-season, and Jeff Peterson started 25 games in 2008-09 and then decided to head to Arkansas. Lickliter doesnít have much to work with this year, though he does have a strong scoring duo in guards Matt Gatens and Anthony Tucker and a large class of newcomers. Competing in an outstanding Big Ten with a lack of frontcourt talent, Iowa will finish dead last in the conference. When that happens, Lickliterís name will surface on the ever-lurking ďHot SeatĒ list this off-season.

Thought 2: Creighton Gave it a Shot

Thanks to a stream from ChannelSurfing.net, the greatest invention in the history of the internet, I was able to (illegally) watch the Creighton/Dayton game on Saturday. Iím glad I risked prosecution from law enforcement to tune in. Playing without injured forward Justin Carter, the Bluejays hung 46 points on the normally stout Dayton defense en route to a five-point halftime lead. The Flyers dominated the opening minutes of the second half to seize control of the game and eventually win 90-80, but I saw enough from Creighton to believe that Dana Altmanís squad could return to the NCAA tournament after narrowly missing the Dance last year. With so much competition in the much-improved Missouri Valley Conference, Creighton probably isnít a likely pick to win the league, especially after losing standout guard Booker Woodfox to graduation along with starting point guard Josh Dotzler. Defending champ Northern Iowa returns all five starters, Osiris Eldridge still suits up for Illinois State and Southern Illinois and Wichita State should factor into the race as well. Even so, Creightonís roster stacks up with anyone in the MVC. Woodfox might be impossible to replace, but this is PíAllen Stinnettís team nowóand I expect colossal improvement from the junior guard. JUCO transfer forward Wayne Runnels scored 16 points and grabbed nine rebounds on Saturday, and heíll provide a huge boost to a team that lacked frontcourt toughness last season. Junior center Kenny Lawson is a skilled big man who plays an important role alongside Runnels this year. Antoine Young showed flashes of scoring ability during conference play in 2009. He did not score in 19 minutes off the bench on Saturday, but he did dish out four assists. A strong defender, Young will fight for minutes with senior Cavel Witter, who briefly quit the team this off-season.

Thought 3: Props to ESPN

Iíll criticize ESPN as everything thatís wrong with America on many occasions this year. Iíll use grand hyperbole and exaggerate without mercy. However, I have to congratulate ESPN for once again sponsoring a college basketball marathon on Tuesday, which will include ongoing hoops action for almost 24 hours. Last yearís inaugural marathon was a huge success, and since college basketball lacks any type of opening celebration of the season, itís a great way to capture the interest of casual sports fans still operating in football mode. Most of Tuesdayís games arenít especially notable, and the best match-ups donít take place until the evening. Still, ESPN deserves credit for creating a marketable concept that will give college basketball some much-needed early exposure. Iíve always been bothered by the fact that college hoops is often ignored until the conference season begins. March Madness captivates me as much as the next guy, but some of these November and December match-ups are truly golden. The only losers in this ESPN marathon are the teams scheduled to play early in the morning on Tuesday. Iím not sure how Monmouth and St. Peterís will function with a 6 a.m. local start time. At least Drexel and Niagara have an extra hour to sleep in, as theyíll get underway at 7 a.m.

Enough of my long-winded opening thoughts. Hereís what you need to see this week:

WEEKLY PREVIEW

GAME OF THE WEEK

Memphis at Kansas
Tuesday 9 p.m. in St. Louis ESPN

20 months later, they meet again. In a rematch of the unforgettable 2008 National Championship game, Kansas and Memphis will face off at a neutral site in St. Louis Tuesday night. This game isnít quite as evenly matched as that 2008 contest, however. Bill Selfís Jayhawks are the consensus favorite to win another title while Josh Pastner and Memphis look to recover from the loss of John Calipari to Kentucky. KU looked title-worthy in its season opener, as Xavier Henry scored 27 points in his college debut to help his team to a 101-65 win over Hofstra last week. Henryís big night is an important development for Kansas and Bill Self, who will be searching for another reliable scoring option after All-American candidates Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich. Kansas will likely win handily on Tuesday, but the Tigers arenít totally devoid of talent. In fact, many of the names on Memphisí roster will sound familiar to you, as players such as Wesley Witherspoon, Doneal Mack, Robert Sallie and Pierre Niles-Henderson all played key roles for Calipari. Duke transfer Elliot Williams has received the pre-season publicity with good reason, but the returning players are the reason why Pastnerís squad may return to the familiar confines of the NCAA tournament.

Prediction: Kansas 79, Memphis 68

PRE-SEASON TOURNAMENT ACTION

Pre-Season NIT
Notable Teams: North Carolina, Connecticut, LSU, Arizona State, Western Kentucky
Monday and Tuesday

Duke and Connecticut wonít have much trouble reaching next weekís semi-finals. LSU and Arizona State will use the tournament as an education in how to replace respective stars Marcus Thornton and James Harden.

Puerto Rico Tip-Off
Notable teams: Dayton, Georgia Tech, George Mason, Villanova, Indiana, Mississippi, Boston University, Kansas State
Thursday through Sunday

If a basketball tournament takes place and nobody is there to see it, does it still happen? The Puerto Rico Tip-Off has gained a notorious reputation in its first two years in existence for having, well, pathetic attendance numbers. The brave souls that do travel to beautiful San Juan this weekend will witness a loaded field that includes three top-25 teams. Iím expecting to see a Dayton/Kansas State final on Sunday night, but Iíve been wrong before.

Charleston Classic
Miami, Penn State, South Florida, Davidson, South Carolina, La Salle
Thursday through Sunday

If weíre lucky, Penn State and South Carolina will meet in the finals Sunday, which would give us an individual match-up of prolific scoring guards Talor Battle and Devan Downey. Donít overlook La Salle, who returns four starters from an 18-win team and will face the Gamecocks in the first round.

Coaches vs. Cancer Classic
Notable teams: Syracuse, California, North Carolina and Ohio State
Thursday and Friday

Hereís the tournament of the week. Fans at the Garden will be treated to quite the double-header as Syracuse will face California in Game One Thursday night before North Carolina and Ohio State battle in the nightcap.

Paradise Jam
Notable Teams: Purdue, Boston College, Saint Josephís, Northern Iowa, Tennessee, DePaul
Friday through Sunday

The Paradise Jam is a small-scale tournament played in a tiny high school-like gym in front of a gigantic viewing audience on the obscure Fox College Sports channels. And somehow, itís able to draw some of the top programs in the nation. Good thing I have FCS on my cable box.

GAMES TO KEEP AN EYE ON

Virginia at South Florida
Monday 6:30 p.m.

Iíve decided to tout Virginia as my sleeper pick for this season, mostly because I like Tony Bennettís hair. And because I condescendingly want you to know that I understand how good Sylven Landesberg is.

Prediction: Virginia 72, South Florida 66

Gonzaga at Michigan State
Tuesday 7 p.m. ESPN

Gonzaga starting center Robert Sacre is a 7 foot behemoth from British Columbia. Incidentally, his last name is also a form of brutal profanity in Quebec. Perhaps I should forward this column to Tom Izzoís inbox.

Prediction: Michigan State 77, Gonzaga 66

Arkansas at Louisville
Tuesday 7 p.m. in St. Louis ESPN2

Iíve already mentioned that Rotnei Clarke scored 51 points in Arkansasí season-opener. His breakout game has been well-documented by almost every major sports media outlet in America, but the sophomoreís performance was so brilliant that it warrants yet another mention. Seriously, 13 threes? Clark would have still scored 38 points if this were 1986 and the three-point line didnít exist.

Prediction: Louisville 83, Arkansas 77

Northeastern at Siena
Tuesday 11 a.m. ESPN

If youíre skipping work on Tuesday to watch ESPNís hoops marathon, make sure to catch this game between a CAA contender and the MAAC favorite.

Prediction: Siena 73, Northeastern 71

Temple at Georgetown
Tuesday 3 p.m. ESPN

Sophomore guard Jason Clark scored 13 points and dished out five assists in Georgetownís season-opening win over Tulane. Not bad for his first collegiate start.

Prediction: Georgetown 66, Temple 55

Butler at Northwestern
Wednesday 7 p.m.

I realize that picking a better-than-people-realize Big Ten team to beat a top-15 opponent at home isnít all that bold. I donít careóBill Carmodyís program will take a gigantic step forward on Wednesday when Northwestern pulls the upset.

Prediction: Northwestern 55, Butler 54

Nevada at UNLV
Wednesday 9:30 p.m.

I really want to see how UNLVís new-look roster fares against WAC frontrunner Nevada and its stud forward Luke Babbit.

Prediction: Nevada 75, UNLV 71

Seton Hall at Cornell
Friday 6 p.m.

Seton Hall needed a one-handed 28-foot three-pointer to beat Monmouth in its season opener. Cornell, on the other hand, handled Alabama in Anthony Grantís coaching debut. The Pirates could really use suspended guard Keon Lawrence right about now.

Prediction: Cornell 68, Seton Hall 65

Last weekís prediction record: NA
Overall prediction record: NA

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