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November 22, 2005

SCS.comThink back to late October. Midnight Madness passed two weeks ago, and you are in the mood for college basketball. You go to the local bookstore or even the convenience store and head straight to the magazine section. There it is, exactly what you were looking for: college basketball previews. Sporting News, Street & Smith's, Lindy's, CBS Sportsline, Athlon Sports, and the list goes on. You pick up every publication you can find. Then you go and order Blue Ribbon's $25 dollar preview bible just to get even more to quench your thirst for college basketball. You are now set for the remaining time until the ball is tossed up.

Fast forward to the present. Where are all those magazines now? Aside from the occasional reference to them, you really don't use them at all anymore. That is because preseason predictions are meaningless the second the season starts. Various rankings are not very useful once the games actually get underway. Even I'm not exempt to this epidemic though. I always fall victim to the frenzy that occurs when I see the release of a new preview magazine, but this year was different. On my website, I devoted two months of work and 53 articles to the 2005-2006 season. Looking back, it might have been a waste of time. It was helpful for about two weeks. As soon as games start being played, people can make their own observations and formulate their own opinions, rendering previews essentially irrelevant.

The early-season games support the theory that prognostications are basically useless and will eventually seem like complete guesswork as the season continues. Look at Stanford and Michigan State, teams that were picked in the top ten by several publications. During the first week, both were blown out by teams from lesser conferences. The Cardinal lost by 16 at home to UC-Irvine (they were without star post player Matt Haryasz, though), while Michigan State fell at Hawaii by 22. I can't find any preview that predicted that.

Middle-of-the-pack major conference teams also were part of the magazine bandwagon. ACC clubs Miami and Virginia Tech were projected by many to make the jump from the NIT to the NCAA. Based on their opening weeks, neutral observers wouldn't agree with that opinion. The Hurricanes lost to Air Force, albeit on the road without point guard Anthony Harris. On the other hand, though, Virginia Tech lost at home to MAC also-ran Bowling Green. On the West Coast, California was supposed to make noise in the Pac-10, but went to Eastern Michigan and lost by two. They were without star Leon Powe.

If one looks at a few of the aforementioned examples, a common theme arises: injuries. You can't predict injuries. In addition, if a magazine attempted to predict injuries, that could get really awkward if that actually happened. Imagine this scene after, say, J.J. Redick, breaks his wrist: "Yes, we predicted it! Redick got hurt and is out for an extended period of time!" I'm sorry, but unless you live in Tar Heel country, that sort of reaction is fairly unacceptable. Several teams have already been affected by the injury bug. Villanova lost inside-outside threat Curtis Sumpter until at least February, and potentially the whole season. Indiana won't get D.J. White or A.J. Ratliff back until December; Louisville didn't have either Juan Palacios or David Padgett for the start of their season. As stated above, Cal and Stanford did not have their key inside players for their respective openers, while Miami did not have their point guard. Injuries happen in basketball; it's part of the game. However, they are unpredictable and no publication is going to make picks based on the potential of an injury occurring.

The point of this column is not to dissuade you from purchasing college basketball-related literature at the bookstore. Heck, when I begin turning my website preview into a print publication, I sure hope you buy it. I'm just saying not to put too much stock into various preseason picks. After a favorite loses in the early part of a season, a casual fan always blurts something out like "Oh wow! Look at this magazine, they had them first. First! Can you believe that?" That is another reason that preseason picks mean nothing currently; it's less than two weeks into the season. Wait until February or March to start calling certain prognosticators idiots for having so and so win the conference or make it to the NCAA Tournament. Even then, it does not make sense to denigrate someone's opinions from five or six months ago. Prior to the season starting, everyone had the same information available to them. There were statistics, game film, scouting reports from high school evaluators, and more. No one had a huge advantage over anyone else; it is not as if Andy Katz had some secret tape of Josh McRoberts going up against North Carolina.

In essence, preseason picks are a crapshoot. You can't predict how freshmen are going to perform; you can't predict who is going to suffer from an injury and when; and you can not foresee intangibles, like chemistry problems. Until a definitive source comes out that knows more than the rest of the prognosticators, preseason publications are going to continue to be devoured at the newsstand and then tossed aside two weeks later. That's just the way things are in the sports world.

Game of the Week: LSU at West Virginia

Some people are going to look at that choice as the game of the week and laugh. What about Duke vs. Memphis in the Preseason NIT? Or how about Texas vs. Iowa? Or the always-fun what about the final of the Maui Invitational? For the Game of the Week, one needs to choose a game that will definitely happen. Upsets happen; I can't just pencil in the favorite to move on to the next round. I can't just say The Maui Invitational Championship is going to be a phenomenal game, no matter who plays. This column would be useless if that happened. With all the games from the Thanksgiving week tournaments pushed to the side, this meeting between two NCAA Tournament teams from last season sticks out the most.

Both teams have already started their season, with West Virginia having played three games, going 2-1, and LSU having played two games, with a record of 2-0. The Mountaineers had easy wins over Lousiana-Monroe and Wofford before falling in the final seconds to #2 Texas in the semi-finals of the Guardian's Classic. They play Kentucky tomorrow in the consolation game. The Tigers have had two blowout victories against Southern and Nicholls State.

West Virginia looks like they could potentially make a repeat Elite Eight run. Even without a legit low-post option, the Mountaineers seem to be able to score against whoever they play. Big man Kevin Pittsnogle is an excellent long-range shooter that creates mismatches because of his ability to hit the jumper. The Mountaineers are a perimeter-oriented team. Mike Gansey is developing into a star, and is averaging 19 points a game thus far this season. Sixth man Patrick Beilein is a phenomenal long-range shooter, hitting almost 50 percent of his threes. Johannes Herber is a versatile wing that does a lot of the little things, but can also put up numbers, as demonstrated by his 9 points, 5 rebounds, and 8 assists per game averages. Frank Young is an undersized power forward at 6-5, but he is athletic and creates match-up problems. Point guard J.D. Collins is very quick and gets the ball to the shooters around the arc.

LSU is playing without point guard Tack Minor, who is suspended until the end of the first semester. However, a trio of freshman forwards and another freshman guard are more than picking up the slack for him. Tasmin Mitchell, my pick for National Freshman of the Year, is averaging a double-double from his small forward spot. Another highly-touted newcomer has also contributed. Magnum Rolle is performing well off the bench, going for about 7 and 7 per game. Tyrus Thomas was not as well-known as the aforementioned two, but he has out-produced them both. He is averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, and has been coming off the bench. Garrett Temple is holding the freshman torch in the backcourt. He has been a decent player on the wing. Freshman point guard Ben Voogd was supposed to step in for Minor in his absence, but he has not impressed much. The returnee duo of guard Darrell Mitchell and Glen Davis has been outstanding. Davis has had a double-double in each game, and has dominated, while Mitchell has played some point guard, and has averaged 13 points and 8 assists.

This should be a decent barometer for both teams, although more so for LSU. It will be their first test of the season, and it is going to be interesting to see how the freshmen respond. West Virginia is experienced and their almost Princeton-like offense gives defenses fits. In addition, their perimeter shooting mixed with the lack of experience of the LSU team gives the Mountaineers an advantage. LSU has a huge size edge in the frontcourt, but Texas had one too and nearly lost. The Mountaineers will run their offense to perfection, leading to open three-pointers the entire game. Gansey will have another big night in a WVU win.

Prediction: West Virginia 78, LSU 72

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