Miss us? Well we’re back. This week we’ll be previewing the six major conferences, beginning with the Big Ten.
1- Indiana. Not only will they be the team to beat in the Big Ten, but they will likely begin the season ranked No. 1 in the country. The Hoosiers bring back most of their team, including some talented newcomers, that went 27-9 in a breakout year last season. Cody Zeller, perhaps the favorite to win the Naismith Award, is back to man the middle, with Indiana also returning three more players that averaged at least 10 points per game (Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls, Victor Oladipo). This is as deep as any team in the nation, as Indiana will have Yogi Ferrell compete for the starting point guard position with Hulls. In what will likely be a 10 or 11-man rotation, the Hoosiers will likely get back Maurice Creek, who has had his share of injuries three years removed from leading Indiana in scoring. This may be Indiana’s best chance at getting back to the Final Four, and anything less would be considered a disappointment.
2- Michigan. I’m a firm believer that the Wolverines have the best backcourt in the country in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. Those two led Michigan to a 24-10 record a year ago, both scoring over 14 points a game. With Burke opting to come back for his sophomore year, expectations will be high in Ann Arbor. The frontcourt is a different story, as they had several graduate, but Mitch McGary will likely start down low and I think he will be one of the best freshmen in the conference. Burke and Hardaway, Jr. will lead the way, but for the Wolverines to make a run this season they will need guys like McGary and Glenn Robinson III to not play like freshmen.
3-Ohio State. The Buckeyes come into the 2012-13 season with maybe more question marks than anyone. Graduating Jared Sullinger will certainly hurt, but they also lost another solid starter in Willam Buford. But if Deshaun Thomas does what he did in last year’s NCAA Tournament, then there may not be much of a reason to worry. Thomas scored at least 14 points in four of Ohio State’s five tourney games, including 31 in their opening-round win over Loyola. He will get the ball often from Aaron Craft, who may be the best floor-general in the country. For the Buckeyes youngsters, including Shannon Scott and Amir Williams, it will be trial-by-fire because Thad Matta will need them to contribute right away.
4-Michigan State. The Spartans return most of their team, except of course Draymond Green, who was an All-American last year in his senior season. Replacing a player of Green’s caliber is tough, but Tom Izzo will look to Keith Appling to step up his production for his junior year, as he is the leading returning scorer at 11.4 a game. Branden Dawson, Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix all averaged at least seven a game, but Nix is coming off a rocky summer as he was involved in a drug arrest. Michigan State has one of the deepest teams in the country, along with Indiana, and will also look from solid production from freshman Gary Harris. Losing Green won’t be the end of the world for a Wolverine team as deep as any they’ve recently had.
5- Wisconsin. Even without Jordan Taylor, the Badgers will still contend for a top-five spot in the Big Ten thanks to Ryan Evans, a swingman who averaged 11 points and a team-high 6.8 rebounds a year ago. Jared Berggren (10.5 ppg., 4.9 rpg) will also be back, but Sam Dekker is who they’re really excited about in Madison. The talented freshman will likely make an instant impact, as he was rated the No. 17 recruit in the nation by ESPN.
Cody Zeller - The 7-foot big man did a little bit of everything last year, averaging over 15 points and six rebounds, while also getting one steal and one block per game. That was in his freshman year, and we can expect a big improvement for Zeller’s sophomore year. It has been said for five years that Cody is the most talented of the Zeller brothers, and with his older brothers graduated, the spotlight is on Cody to prove he’s not only the best Zeller, but the best player in the nation.
Trevor Mbakwe- Now in his sixth, yup sixth, year at Minnesota, this selection all depends on Mbakwe’s health. After already missing two years due to injury, he only played ten games last year, averaging a near double-double with 14 points and 9.1 rebounds. Last year it was his ACL, but he appears like he will be ready to go by the start of the season. If he’s fully healthy, a spot on the first-team Big Ten seems like a lock.
Aaron Craft- Is there a better point guard in the nation? You could argue Murray State’s Isaiah Canaan, but he is also counted on as the Racers’ go-to scorer.Pierre Jackson and Shabazz Napier are two more popular names, but I’m not sure if anyone brings what Craft brings. He’s not known for his scoring (8.8 ppg.) but with 4.6 assists to only 2.2 turnovers a game, Craft does a good job of managing the game. What he’s best known for is his ability to be a shut-down defender, averaging 2.5 steals a game a year ago. Thad Matta may count on more offense this season from Craft, but his defense will still be there.
Trey Burke- Perhaps the most talented freshman guard in the nation last year, Burke decided to come back for his sophomore year. He helped fuel a Michigan turnaround with nearly 15 points and five assists a game, and as a sophomore he will look to lead the Wolverines deep into the NCAA Tournament. He has a ton of weapons around him, and if he matures and improves on his decision maker, Burke could challenge Craft as the best point guard in the conference.
Deshaun Thomas- You can count on Thomas to provide the scoring that is lost for Ohio State after Jarred Sullinger’s departure. He scored 16 points a game a year ago with Sullinger, and for the incredibly athletic forward, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he upped that to the low-20s. Ohio State will need that out of Thomas, as they will be a very inexperienced team besides him and Craft.
Most Undervalued Team
Iowa- With 18 wins a year ago, I wouldn’t be surprised for the Hawkeyes to make a big splash this season. This will be a young team, likely starting two freshman, a sophomore and two juniors, and they lost their leading scorer in Matt Gatens, but the youngsters will carry them. The good thing for those young players is an easy schedule to begin the year. It would be tough for the Hawkeyes to go undefeated in their non-conference slate, but all of their games appear to be winnable. Iowa has a solid backcourt in Josh Oglesby and Roy Marble, and the frontcourt will be led by freshman center Adam Woodbury, a top-40 recruit, along with Aaron White. Iowa usually isn’t a team mentioned with the best of the Big Ten, but this team has all the talent to be in the top half of the conference and grab an NCAA Tournament berth.
Most Overrated Team
Northwestern- I don’t see Northwestern repeating their surprising year from last year when they went 19-14. 20-point per game John Shurma is gone, and starting two-guard JerShon Cobb has been suspended for the season for a violation of team policy. Drew Crawford will carry the scoring load, but I’m not sure if they have much behind him. They have two transfers manning their frontcourt in Jared Swopshire and Nikola Cerina, two guys who never did much impressing at their previous schools. David Sobolewski will be one quality big man for the Wildcats, but I just don’t think they have enough pieces to make a run at the NCAA Tournament. Even last year they didn’t impress me, only beating one ranked team all season. With losing their go-to guy, the 2012-13 season won’t be as pretty for Northwestern.
Sleeper Impact Player
Maurice Creek- The Indiana junior could be a huge x-factor this year for the Hoosiers. Three years ago when IU was the laughingstock of the Big Ten, Creek averaged 16 points a game in his freshman season. He got hurt just before Big Ten play began, and was out the rest of the season. He wasn’t his normal self for his sophomore season, clearly not at 100 percent. He only played half of that year, and none the past season. Creek appears to be healthy now, and no one expects him to average 16 points a game, but he still be a big weapon off the bench for the Hoosiers. If he stays healthy, Creek is a guy who provide 10 points a game in a reserve role. IU is a deep team, and to have a guy like Creek as your 7th or 8th man on the bench, they will be in good shape.
Michigan’s John Beilein, like Indiana’s Tom Crean, helped turnaround a dismal Michigan basketball program. But the thing with the Wolverines, no one quite expected it. They should be one of the top teams in the conference this year because a load of depth. They have stars in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., but also quality freshmen that will make this a special team. Michigan won their first Big Ten title since 1986 last season, and though they may not win it this year, they will be right in the thick of the race.
Photos courtesy of Fox59.com and whenlarrymetmagic.com
Since last week it is safe to say that Kansas State, Purdue, Iowa State and Mississippi State are virtual locks to make it into the NCAA Tournament. With just one regular-season game left for most of the power conference teams, who is close to making themselves a lock for the tournament?
Northwestern: They missed their chance, two of them in fact. In the past eight days the Wildcats have dropped two gut-wrenching games to some top Big Ten competition. First came a 67-55 overtime loss to Michigan State last Tuesday, and then tonight they lost a 75-73 heartbreaker to Ohio State. Just one of those losses may have been Northwestern over the top. To make it even worse, both of those games were at home, and the committee won’t give them many excuses for those games. There is still some hope left, however. Their regular-season finale is at Iowa, and that is obviously a must-win. Then they need to win a couple games in the Big Ten tournament, with hopefully one of them being against one of the five ranked Big Ten teams. This is a team everyone wants in the tournament, but at just 7-10 in conference right now, they are about out of chances. Feb. 29 status: Out
Miami: The Hurricanes got lucky. Their starting center Reggie Johnson only had to miss one game after NCAA violations. This puts Miami in a good position. They beat Florida State on Sunday, but a loss to NC State did them no favors. Miami now needs to beat Boston College this weekend, and then not get upset in the ACC Tournament. One upset and they are out. That’s how much Miami is on the bubble right now. Feb. 29 status: In
Connecticut: I definitely can’t figure out the Huskies. At this point I would say their resume doesn’t warrant an at-large bid. After that buzzer-beater win at Villanova, I thought the Huskies had a shot at turning things around. They lost a close one against Syracuse, and came back from that with a loss at Providence. No really, Providence. They have now lost nine out of 12 games, and the committee certainly won’t like that. They play a Pitt team this weekend that is playing better ball than them at the moment. A couple wins in the Big East tournament will be a must, but they don’t have a Kemba Walker to save them this year. Feb. 29 status: Out
Texas: Simply put, the Longhorns are hanging on by a thread. They continue to beat the teams they should beat (Texas Tech and Oklahoma most recently). A win at Kansas this weekend will make them a lock, but that will be a tough one. Assuming they lose that one, they will be 19-9 with a similar situation as Miami — right on the edge. There will be no room for error in the Big 12 tournament. A loss early on and there bubble will be burst. Feb. 29 status: In
South Florida: Their win over Louisville tonight may have put them over the top. Now they need to just not lose early on in the Big East tournament. But even with a first or second round loss, it will be hard for the committee to not give the fifth place team in the Big East an at-large bid. They have played arguably the easiest schedule in conference, but with wins over tourney teams Cinci and Louisville within the past three days, they seem to be in good shape. Feb. 29 Status: In
Colorado and Oregon: These two teams play each other tomorrow in what may be the biggest Pac-12 game of the year. Both teams look to be out at the moment, so whichever team loses will likely not have a shot at the NCAA’s. The winner may just be able to position itself as one of the last teams in to make it. The Pac-12 should get four times in the tournament — California, Arizona and Washington all seem like good bets to make it. No chance this conference gets five teams in, so that’s why the Colorado-Oregon game tomorrow is a must-win on both sides.
Xavier: The Musketeers have not played up to potential all year, going just 9-6 in the Atlantic-10. Non-conference wins against Vanderbilt, Purdue and Cincinatti are all solid, but they are 0-3 against the top two teams in the conference (Temple and Saint Louis). They have swapped between wins and losses there last 8 games, but those non-conference wins still hold. As long as they don’t lose early in the conference tournament they should be in a position to grab one of the last at-larges. Feb. 29 Status: In
St Joseph’s: I’m not sure if both the Hawks and Musketeers can both make it in. St. Joes had a big win vs. Temple over the weekend, but still will need a little help to get in. Their biggest non-conference win of the year game against Creighton. They lost their only game of the year to Xavier, and a 9-7 conference record won’t go well with the committee. If they run into Xavier in the A-10 tournament, that could be a win-and-you’re-in game. Feb. 29 Status: Out
We are in the Final Countdown of the regular season, so that means the final what to watch for because if you don’t know what you’re watching next week, well you need to turn in your fan card.
Monday: Notre Dame @ Georgetown (7pm ESPN) – The last Big Monday game of the season, always hate to see this happen since they have one of the best announcing crews. Back to the game the 3rd place Irish and 4th place Hoyas have the coveted double-bye, for now, at Madison Square Garden but can still drop to a single-bye so expect this to be a great game. If you wanted to the Daytona 500 may be on (I really need to invent a tarp for NASCAR) to flip to during the media timeouts.
Tuesday: Michigan St at Indiana (7pm ESPN) – Sparty comes to Bloomington where the Hoosiers have had some success (cue the Kentucky video) against ranked opponents.
Wednesday:The first conference tournament starts with the Atlantic Sun on ESPN3. Marquette visits Cincinnati (7pm ESPN), the Bearcats have played well ever since the fight vs Xavier earlier this season including wins over Louisville, Connecticut, Pitt and Georgetown. USF will be looking for a resume building win as they visit the KFC Yum! Center (can’t forget the !) to take on Louisville (7pm Big East Network). 8pm Iowa State travels to Missouri (Big 12 Network).
Thursday: Michigan takes on Illinois (7pm ESPN), in what could be Bruce Weber’s last game as head coach of the Fighting Illini. The Missouri Valley and the West Coast Conference tournaments appear on the screen.
Friday: Murray State is playing in the Semifinals of the OVC Tournament (7pm ESPNU). If you want to find me I’ll be watching a great college baseball series of Pepperdine vs Louisville (two weeks in a row with a baseball plug, sue me).
Saturday: The first tickets are punched as the Big South, OVC and Atlantic Sun all determine a champion. Memphis @ Tulsa (Noon CBS) in a C-USA match-up of the top teams in the league, Louisville travels to Syracuse (4pm CBS), who knows what Louisville team will show up.
Sunday: The last day of games for the regular season and Kentucky travels to Florida (Noon CBS) and in state rivals Purdue @ Indiana (6pm Big Ten Net). A champion will be crowned for the MVC (2pm CBS).
What happened to the Fighting Illini? Whatever it is, it’s pretty certain that Bruce Weber will not be there next year.
Illinois has now lost six straight games (and nine out of 10) in conference, falling to 5-10 in the Big Ten. This was a team with high hopes to finish in the top third of the conference, and that looked like a good bet after wins against not only Ohio State, but Michigan State as well. They are one of two teams in the nation (Michigan being the other) to beat those two Big Ten powerhouses.
Right before their big win against MSU back on Jan. 31, the Fighting Illini had lost three games by single digits coming off of the OSU win. Instead of that big win over the Spartans giving them confidence, it appeared to do just the opposite. In their current six-game losing streak, they have lost three of the games by double figures, including an 83-67 loss to the Buckeyes back on Tuesday. The defense has been especially bad during this stretch, as they have given up 80+ points three times. We knew the ‘S’ was silent in ‘Illinois’, apparently the ‘D’ is too.
There is still time for them to get on track, with games against Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin to end the year. The bubble has burst for this squad, but winning a couple of those games, most notably the latter two against ranked competition, could give them the momentum they need going into the tournament.
But no matter if they make a run in the conference tournament, Illinois will likely not be going to the NCAA’s, meaning Weber should be gone. Since Weber brought the 2005 Fighting Illini to the NCAA Championship game, he has failed to get his team past the first weekend in the NCAA Tournament. Simply put, they have choked. Also, they are just 60-56 in the Big Ten since that year — definitely unacceptable for Illinois.
Following a loss last week, Weber publicly said he has “coached not to lose all year.” The frustration is there from Weber, and that has carried over to his players.
Let’s not forget that Illinois has a new Athletic Director in Mike Thomas, who fired football coach Ron Zook soon after he was hired. Thomas appears to want to start fresh.
Weber did amazing things at Southern Illinois before he came to Champaign, maybe he’s just better at the mid-major level. He’s a class-act guy, but it’s time for him to pack up.
With Conference Tournament games just over a week away here is a look at some of the games that you should keep an eye on this week.
Monday: Connecticut @ Villanova (7pm ESPN) – ESPN’s Big Monday has a double-header worth watching. UConn and Nova both are in need of a confidence boost before they head to Madison Square Garden for the Big East Tournament. If you want a second game tonight, Baylor is at Texas at 9pm on ESPN
Tuesday: Kansas St at Missouri (7pm ESPN2) – The Big 12 leader host 5th place Wildcats. This games kicks off a tough week for both teams.
Wednesday: So many games to pick this week but a few to keep an eye on include West Virginia @ Notre Dame (7pm ESPN2), USF at Syracuse (7pm Big East Net.), Oklahoma State @ Oklahoma (8pm Big 12 Net.).
Thursday: Duke @ Florida State (7pm ESPN) – Two of the three teams at the top of the ACC meet in Durham. Murray State @ Tennessee State (8pm ESPNU), the top two in the OVC will battle it out, the Racers are coming off the win over St. Mary’s. Louisville @ Cincinnati (9pm ESPN) the long time conference rivals meet at Fifth Third Arena, both teams are currently at 9-5 in conference play.
Friday:Baseball is back; go watch your college program play our national past-time. If you really want to watch some hoops Butler @ Valparaiso (7pm ESPNU) and Marquette @ West Virginia (9pm ESPN) should settle that craving.
Saturday: Go on and clear your schedule it’s the last full Saturday of regular season basketball. The day starts with Vanderbilt @ Kentucky (Noon CBS), Iowa State @ Kansas State (1:30 Big 12 Net.), North Carolina @ Virginia (4pm ESPN), Creighton @ Indiana State (4pm ESPN2), and what could be the final meeting of Missouri @ Kansas (4pm CBS).
Sunday: It’s the Daytona 500 why do you want to watch basketball? Cincinnati @ USF (Noon Big East Net), Indiana @ Minnesota (1pm ESPN), Pittsburgh @ Louisville (2pm CBS), Florida State @ Miami (FL) (6pm ESPNU), Oregon @ Oregon State (7:30pm FSN).
If you can not find a game that peaks your interest this week then you might not be a college basketball fan.
Every week leading up to the NCAA Tournament we will feature several bubble teams with their current chances of making the tournament and key games ahead for them.
Illinois: The Fighting Illini have had a free-fall as of late, losing six of their last seven conference games. This is a team that has a solid resume though, with wins over Michigan State and Ohio State heading it. They still have three more games against top-20 teams. If they take care of the games they should win (Nebraska, Iowa) and win one of those three games against ranked teams, they should be in. If they don’t, losses to Penn State as well as fellow-bubble teams Northwestern and Purdue could be crucial. They play Purdue again on Wednesday night — a loss to them for the second straight time this year could be detrimental, especially if bracket-builders are forced to decide between the two. Feb. 14 status: In
Purdue: Speaking of the Boilermakers, they have a solid 6-6 conference record, but those six wins won’t impress many, as none of them have been against teams with winning records in the conference. They are 0-6 for the year against top-25 teams and aside from solid-but-not-astounding victories against Miami and Illinois, don’t have many wins to brag about. They face three more ranked Big Ten foes this year, which may be the difference for the Boilermakers. Feb. 14 status: Out
Texas: The Big 12 has been a very top-heavy conference, and surprisingly Texas has not been one of those teams at the top. They have lost to all of the teams at the top of the conference this year, the last three coming by a combined nine points. The Longhorns best victory this year is against Temple, but a win over the weekend against bubble-team Kansas State did help. They face both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State this week on the road, and although those two teams are in the bottom tier of the conference, they would still be two quality and much-needed wins. Feb. 14 status: Out
Alabama: The Crimson Tide could be on the down slope, as coach Anthony Grant suspended four of his top players over the weekend due to a violation of team rules. The timing was bad, as they have a home date with Florida tonight. Alabama is in desperate need for a big one — they have some of the top teams close, but haven’t gotten that marquee win. If they don’t beat the Gators, a win over the suddenly surging Tennessee Volunteers this weekend will be necessary to keep their chances alive. Feb. 14 status: Out
Connecticut: The reigning champion Huskies surely still have some work to do. They sport the top strength of schedule in the nation and the No. 19 RPI, but are just 15-9 for the year and 5-7 in the Big East. They’ve beaten Florida State, Harvard and Notre Dame, but they have double-digit losses in their last three games against ranked foes. They are sitting in the bottom-half of a weakened Big East, but a win against Marquette this weekend may put them in for the time being. Feb. 14 status: Out
Notre Dame: The Irish are rolling right now, winning six straight games, including three over top-15 teams. Right now they should be in, especially since they sit third in the Big East at 9-3. Five of their last six games are against unranked teams, and although that might sound good, if they drop a couple of those this is suddenly a team that might need to win a couple of games in the Big East Tournament to get into the dance. They have the victories (Louisville, Syracuse, Connecticut, Marquette) but have also suffered conference losses to Cincinnati and Rutgers. They face Rutgers tonight, which will be a big revenge game for the Irish. Feb. 14 status: In
Miami: The Hurricanes will always have that win over Duke, but that’s their only marquee win. They missed out on a chance against Florida State over the weekend, but will get another chance this month to beat them. Miami faces the Tar Heels at home tomorrow night, hoping to avenge a 17-point loss to them last month. If they upset the Tar Heels, there shouldn’t be much doubt about letting the Hurricanes in, but if not, there won’t be many more chances to impress the committee. Feb. 14 status: Out
Virginia: The Cavaliers sport a solid 19-5 record, but just one win over a ranked team (Michigan). If they win their four games against teams with sub-500 ACC records and one of their games against Florida State and UNC, it will be hard to bypass Virginia. I don’t see both Miami and Virginia getting in, however, so their 52-51 win last month over the Hurricanes could be a deciding factor. Feb. 14 status: In
Here is a quick look at a game each day this week that may catch your attention.
Monday: Syracuse @ Louisville (7pm ESPN) – ESPN’s Big Monday crew rolls into town with Louisville off a win at West Virginia, and Syracuse comes into the KFC Yum! Center with a five game winning streak.
Tuesday: Buffalo at Kent St. (7pm ESPN Full Court) – 2nd and 3rd place in the MAC East Division take the court in a Valentine’s Night game. The Bulls won by one point when these teams met January 7th.
Wednesday: Missouri St. at Wichita St. (8pm ESPN Full Court) – 1st place Shockers host 3rd place Missouri St., the Shockers took the previous match-up at the start of the month by seven.
Thursday: Wisconsin at Michigan St. (7pm ESPN) – 2nd and 3rdin the Big Ten, the Spartans won by three in Overtime last month in Madison.
Friday: Northern Iowa at VCU (7pm ESPN2) – The kickoff game of this years BracketBusters event, two teams that have been busting brackets in March make for a great start to the 10th year of the BracketBusters series.
Saturday: St. Mary’s at Murray State (6pm ESPN2) – The match-up that everyone wanted in BracketBusters. This game should still be a great game even without the Racers being undefeated, plus Dick Vitale is calling the game, should be a great atmosphere.
Sunday: Michigan State at Purdue (1pm CBS) – The Boilermakers get a shot to get a quality win over the Spartans under the lights of CBS.