College Basketball Nation: Horizon
Let's take a moment to consider the past two seasons of Harvard Crimson men's basketball. In 2011-12, after a couple of seasons spent knocking on the door and a few more than that spent getting the Crimson to ever-so-slightly nudge their still-brutal academic restrictions in the direction of player accessibility, Tommy Amaker's work in Boston paid off. Harvard won the Ivy League and visited its first NCAA tournament since 1946.
Not a bad starting point, but arguably not even as crazy as what came next: In late August 2012, Harvard revealed one of the largest academic scandals in school history, which, considering Harvard was founded in 1636, is saying something. Over 100 students were accused of academic dishonesty, and dozens of them were forced to endure a year's suspension before they could return to their degrees.
Unfortunately for Amaker, not only did two of his players end up involved, it was his two senior captains for 2012-13: guard Brandyn Curry and forward Kyle Casey. They, too, were forced to serve a one-year academic suspension. It is a testament to the depth Amaker has built that most people accurately assumed Harvard would win the Ivy League last season (despite a 20-10 overall record). No one expected what happened in March, when the Crimson toppled No. 3 seed New Mexico, their first modern-format NCAA tournament win. "Bonus" doesn't really begin to describe it.
Now Curry and Casey are back. They'll join a team that worked hard in their absence last season: Rising junior Wesley Saunders and sophomore guard Siyani Chambers both played more than 92 percent of their team's available minutes last season and were in the top 10 in that category nationally. Senior wingman Laurent Rivard shot 40.2 percent from 3 in 2012-13 (and played 87.4 percent of his available minutes). Steve Moundou-Missi was a beast on the glass. And while it's still in a different galaxy from the Kentuckys and North Carolinas of the world, Amaker is nonetheless a lock to add to his team every summer in a way Harvard never has before.
The end result is a team that is deep, young, talented and now, strangely enough, experienced -- a team that has every reason to be just as good as the Crimson were in 2012, when they broke that 60-year-old Ivy League streak for the first time. Frankly, they should be better. Now Harvard has a different sort of streak going. Not bad for a couple years work, eh?
Here are previews for each team in the Horizon League:
Cleveland State Vikings
Green Bay Phoenix
Oakland Golden Grizzlies
Wright State Raiders
Youngstown State Penguins (free)
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: a speed injection in the Horizon.
In the 2010 and 2011 NCAA tournaments, when America received its introduction to the Butler Bulldogs, they got a lot in the exchange: a feel-good underdog story two years running; an up-close view of the most impressive young coach (Brad Stevens) in the sport; proof that belief, guile and luck were sometimes enough; and proof that a mid-major really could win the whole enchilada one day, with the right breaks, or just a few more inches of backboard.
Whether basketball fans realized it or not, or even cared to, they also got a primer on Horizon League basketball. The Bulldogs won in the NCAA tournament two years running because they ran smart, focused offense and lockdown defense. One couldn't work without the other, and the pace was deliberate -- it allowed Butler to grind more talented and more athletic opponents into second-half dust, but it also kept opposing teams from using their athleticism on the break. Butler always beat you back on defense.
This is, by and large, the way the rest of the Horizon League has traditionally played its basketball. Deliberate, defensive. Last season, the Horizon League was its usual self -- except for Detroit, which cracked the vaunted 70-possessions-per-game mark, and Youngstown State, which finished at around 67 per. Five teams averaged fewer than 64 possessions per game. Six fell below 65, and Valparaiso finished at 65.4. This is not a fast league. Could it become one?
The question is worth asking thanks to, you guessed it, realignment. This season is former Summit member Oakland's inaugural campaign in the Horizon, and there are several reasons why this is an exciting change. For starters, it sets up the possibility of a fantastic local rivalry with Detroit (Oakland is in Rochester, Mich.). It adds another quality mid-major program, full stop -- Greg Kampe's team has been the toast of the Summit League for most of the last half-decade. But more than anything, the Grizzlies bring speed. Over the last four seasons, Kampe's teams have averaged 71.03 possessions per game. Oakland is a different kind of team than the usual Horizon squad, with a different philosophy. If Detroit plays just as fast this season (and it might not, having lost point guard Ray McCallum Jr. to the NBA draft), the rising possession tide could lift all HL boats. If not, then Oakland will be a singularly speedy oddity in an otherwise homogenous conference. Either option could prove interesting.
The Horizon League is in an interesting place now. Butler got so good it outgrew its old denizens, moving to the A-10 and now the new Big East, but according to Ken Pomeroy's conference rankings, the league was still the 11th-best top-to-bottom last season, just behind a now-decimated Conference USA. What Oakland can do for that overall league strength, and for the nightly entertainment value, is entirely worth watching.
The Cha-Cha Slide has everything: Simple moves, an emcee providing helpful, simple directions, a chance to actually do a bit of dancing, and, of course, the oft-sampled "Everybody clap your hands," at which point everybody claps their hands. Who doesn't like clapping their hands really fast with a bunch of other people? The Cha-Cha Slide is pretty awesome.
Illinois-Chicago coach Howard Moore knows what I'm talking about. Via the Flames athletics staff comes this video of Moore getting his Cha-Cha Slide on at the school's Freshmen Welcome Dinner on Wednesday night:
I love this video. Usually, getting a college basketball coach to dance publicly requires some sort of zany Midnight Madness costumed affair. Moore just looks like a guy who couldn't pass up a chance to do a little cha-cha-ing.
He acquits himself quite well, too. I might even have to take some pointers and put them to use at a wedding I'm attending this weekend. I won't be submitting any video footage, though. Better for everyone that way.
Top 10 teams that will tumble in 2013-14:
10. Gonzaga: For the first time in school history, the Zags recorded a No. 1 ranking and a top seed in the Big Dance. Their early tournament exit ended their season on a sour note, but the program reached new heights in 2012-13. Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk comprised one of the toughest frontcourts in America. Harris (14.6 PPG, 7.4 RPG) was a rugged forward who had finesse and power. Olynyk (17.8 PPG, 7.3 RPG) was the best combo forward in America. He had an underrated post game too. The duo created matchup problems for every team they faced last season. And now both players are gone. Kevin Pangos and multiple members of a respectable backcourt are back, but that Olynyk-Harris combo was special. There’s still enough talent in Spokane to win the WCC and reach the NCAA tournament, but the Zags won’t be the national title contenders they appeared to be through the 2012-13 campaign.
9. Cincinnati: Coach Mick Cronin had one of the nation’s top backcourts last season. Now, two members of a trio that anchored his 22-win NCAA tournament team -- JaQuon Parker and Cashmere Wright -- are gone. Sean Kilpatrick, the team’s leading scorer, returns. But a Cincinnati squad that struggled with consistent scoring benefited from Parker’s and Wright’s ability to stretch the floor. Both shot better than 36 percent from behind the 3-point line. Kilpatrick could be a one-man show in 2013-14, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The toughest void for the Bearcats (14th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) could be the defensive deficit created by the departure of Cheikh Mbodj (2.6 BPG). There are holes everywhere for this Bearcats squad.
8. Detroit: Ray McCallum Jr. turned down offers from powerhouse programs to play for his father, Ray McCallum Sr. With McCallum at point guard, Detroit reached the NCAA tournament in 2012 after the Titans won the Horizon League tournament. But he’s gone now. And he’s not the only key player that Detroit will miss. The Titans have lost their top four scorers from last season. Somehow, Detroit must find respectable offensive contributors who can make up for the loss of McCallum (18.7 PPG), Nick Minnerath (14.6 PPG), Jason Calliste (14.4 PPG) and Doug Anderson (12.1 PPG). McCallum could face his toughest season as a head coach in 2013-14.
7. San Diego State: It’s fair to say that San Diego State underachieved last season. The Aztecs finished in a tie for fourth in the stacked Mountain West Conference. Then they were stopped in the third round of the Big Dance by Florida Gulf Coast. Not a shameful showing, but their potential suggested that they had a higher ceiling. Well, that ceiling is lower now with the loss of four of the team’s top six scorers from last season. Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley were two of the Aztecs’ top defenders too. Franklin wasn’t the game’s most efficient player (3.4 TPG, 28 percent from the 3-point line), but he was the guy with the ball in his hands when the Aztecs needed a big play. Whom will they turn to next year? Steve Fisher seems to have more questions than answers right now.
6. Butler: Rotnei Clarke (16.9 PPG) and Andrew Smith (11.3 PPG) have moved on. That’s a challenge for the program because they formed a potent inside-outside combo. But Roosevelt Jones, Khyle Marshall and Kellen Dunham remain. So Butler can find buckets in 2013-14. The Bulldogs are on this list, however, because Brad Stevens will not be on the sideline next season. Brandon Miller has a strong pedigree. I don’t doubt his coaching acumen. But Stevens is making millions in the NBA because he has the rare ability to extract every ounce of talent from his players. At Butler, they were devoted to him and his system. That combination of buy-in and strategy led to amazing highs in recent years. Even though Miller is in the Butler family, this is still a transition. And it’s a transition without the mastermind who made Butler a household name. The Bulldogs may fall before they establish their footing under Miller.
5. Georgetown: First, Otto Porter turned pro. Then Greg Whittington tore an ACL, jeopardizing his status for next season. Yes, three starters from last season's squad return, and former UCLA standout Josh Smith will join the team at midseason. And that helps. Markel Starks' presence is a major boost for the program too. But who will create offensive opportunities for a team that registered just 64.6 PPG (247th nationally) with a lottery pick running the show? That number doesn’t tell the full story of Georgetown basketball in 2012-13. The Hoyas were fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. But Porter’s versatility eased the defensive responsibilities of his teammates. With a healthy Whittington, however, the latter will be a minimal concern for John Thompson III’s program. But there’s no guarantee that Whittington will be ready in time to help Georgetown in 2013-14. And that’s a problem.
4. Indiana: Yogi Ferrell is back. That’s the good news for Tom Crean. The bad news? Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo are in the NBA. Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls are gone too. Although Indiana entered last season as a preseason pick by many to win the national title, similar hype will not follow the Hoosiers into the 2013-14 season. They have three top-100 kids, including five-star recruit Noah Vonleh, in their incoming class. And multiple players who contributed in spurts last season will earn more minutes. So there’s enough talent in Bloomington to register another NCAA tournament bid. But the Hoosiers were the No. 1 team in America in multiple stretches last season. I can’t imagine the young program rivaling that effort next season.
3. Temple: Remember when Khalif Wyatt dropped 31 points in Temple’s win over NC State in the NCAA tournament? Remember when he did it again versus Indiana two days later? Wyatt’s offensive explosiveness helped Temple beat teams that were more talented than the Owls last season. He scored 33 points in his team’s win over Syracuse in December. He recorded 30 points when the Owls defeated VCU in early March. Now, Wyatt and sidekick Scootie Randall have left the stage. That’s a combined average of 31.8 PPG, 2.7 SPG and 6.1 APG.
2. Minnesota: Can a team that went 8-10 in the Big Ten tumble? Yep, especially if that team is implementing a new system with a limited talent pool. Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins could be all-Big Ten performers next season, but the void created when Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams exhausted their eligibility will be a challenge for new coach Richard Pitino. Plus, Joe Coleman transferred from a team that reached the Big Dance and beat UCLA in the second round. Pitino’s fast-paced, pressure system could work in the Big Ten, but he needs the right pieces to make that happen. He just doesn’t appear to have them yet.
1. Miami: Last season, Miami had it all. The hoopla that followed the surging Hurricanes included courtside appearances by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. It was a great ride for the program. But a new reality will soon take hold as Miami coach Jim Larranaga attempts to replace Shane Larkin, Julian Gamble, Kenny Kadji, Reggie Johnson, Trey McKinney Jones and Durand Scott. Those veterans were responsible for one of the ACC’s and the nation’s top defensive attacks (28th in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com). His rebuilding effort will commence in a league that will add Pitt, Syracuse and Notre Dame next season. Hard times ahead for the Hurricanes.
It strikes me, as we head into the home stretch of our Realignment Reality week, that college basketball fans could relate. (Stay with me.)
We fans like to think of sports as essentially pure, free from the messy and confusing nature of day-to-day life, a world apart from the distressing politics and economics that dominate our lives from birth until death. They are not. They are as beholden to money as anything else. If the past three years of conference realignment have taught us anything, it is this: When the fight card pits nostalgia versus cash, cash always wins in a knockout.
Once you can wrap your head around this fact, it's a lot easier to shrug at the casual manner in which realignment has gutted some of the most enjoyable, most heated, most psychologically-invested rivalries of the past 50 years. Money always wins.
Beyond spending as much time as possible watching the actual basketball itself -- my favorite remedy for just about everything, with the possible exception of "The Big Lebowski" -- the best we can do, I'd wager, is to try to look on the bright side. There are always new rivalries to be formed.
In that spirit, let's see if we can scout out a few worth watching in the years to come:
Duke vs. Syracuse
This one is awesome enough on its face: Duke and Syracuse are both really good at basketball. Now that they're in the same league, they're guaranteed to play at least once a season, and any combination of familiarity and excellence is a guarantee to produce healthy, thrilling distaste.
There's much more to it than that. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is the winningest coach in the history of college hoops. Syracuse's Jim Boeheim ranks No. 2. The men are friends, frequent USA Basketball colleagues, cheap dinner companions, and fellow enthusiasts of acerbic wit. But they are also obsessive competitors, and you can bet that for however long both of them have the chance to coach against each other in the coming years -- Boeheim is 68, Coach K 66 -- there will be a little something extra on the line.
The men might be similar, but the schools are vastly different. Syracuse is a private research institution that nonetheless feels like a state school,* and plays its hoops in a cavernous football arena; Duke is an elite private institution with the world's best boutique gym. Syracuse feels (from afar, at least) tightly woven into the culture of the community around it; Duke's looming Gothic facades might as well be Hogwarts. About 40 percent of Syracuse's 2010 class hailed from New York state; roughly 90 percent of Duke students come from somewhere that isn't North Carolina. These are the kinds of sociocultural and perceptual differences that breed hatred beyond basketball. They are fuel for the rivalry flame.
There is also the matter of regional rivalry. That seems weird to say, given that one school is 45 minutes from the Canadian border and the other is 350 miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But there is a reason Duke is sure to schedule at least one nonconference game in the New York/New Jersey area every season: There are a lot of Blue Devils alumni in the Northeast. In the past five years, Syracuse has made a concerted effort to market itself as "New York's college team."
If it were just as simple as "two really good programs suddenly in the same conference," then we could just as easily look forward to the North Carolina-Syracuse rivalry. But a great rivalry has to be about much more than that. Duke-Syracuse has all the makings.
Memphis vs. Cincinnati
Another benefit to conference realignment: rivalries reborn! The Millennials among us might not remember it too well (OK, guilty as charged), but in 1991-92 Memphis and Cincinnati joined UAB, DePaul, Marquette and Saint Louis as charter members of the Great Midwest Conference. (That's just a a fantastic name, by the way. I've been giving the new American Athletic Conference a tough time lately, but the more I think about it, the more I've come to believe that pretty much any conference nomenclature sounds completely silly if you think about it for longer than five seconds.) The six-member GMC was short-lived; it merged with the Metro Conference in 1995, which both Memphis and Cincinnati had left in the first place, to form Conference USA. Ah, realignment. Never change.
Anyway, it was in the early '90s, in the GMC, when Memphis and Cincinnati managed to pack in some truly rivalry-worthy stuff. In 1991-92 the Tigers, led by Anfernee Hardaway and David Vaughn, met the Bearcats in the inaugural GMC tournament and again during their thrilling Elite Eight run, losing to a sublime Nick Van Exel both times. Hardaway and Van Exel met again in 1993, when Memphis upset the No. 4-ranked Bearcats 68-66 to notch the program's 1,000th win. The fact that there is no video of this game on the Internet is a shocking crime against humanity. In 1995, Memphis clinched the final GMC regular-season title over the Bearcats (thanks to 33 points from Michael Williams) on the road, and the rivalry continued on into Conference USA.
If you think either of those basketball-obsessed cities forgot about any of that, you'd be wrong. That bodes well for the future, by the way: Memphis and Cincinnati are large metropolitan areas that, despite having professional sports franchises, nonetheless eat, breathe and sleep college hoops.
Memphis vs. Louisville
OK, so this doesn't really count: The return of the Memphis-Louisville rivalry -- exponentially more heated than Memphis-Cincinnati -- will last just one year in the American before Louisville sets off for the ACC. But I had to mention it anyway, because before we all wept for Kansas-Missouri and Syracuse-Georgetown, the Cardinals' departure from C-USA last decade put a hold on a blood feud dating back to 1967. Fortunately, these two teams put each other on their nonconference schedules the last couple of seasons, and it's likely we'll see that again going forward. But still, it will be fun to add a little intraconference hatred to the mix.
UCF vs. South Florida
Neither of these programs are likely to excite basketball fans individually. Historically, neither has been very good, or even all that concerned with trying to be good, at this funky roundball thing. Maybe that's just a fact of life. But the new American Conference configuration should keep them both in the same digs for a while to come. Here's hoping that the rise of collegiate basketball in Florida in the past decade, the inherent regional familiarity and state-school ties, and the massive student bodies (nearly 110,000 enrollees between them) make for an increased focus on the basketball side of things -- and, as a result, increased success.
Butler vs. Xavier
This one isn't totally new -- the Bulldogs did enjoy a one-year stopover in the Atlantic 10 before both teams jumped to the new Big East this summer -- but it has the potential to be awfully good. For one, there is a bit of shared coaching history: Ohio State coach Thad Matta left Butler in 2000 to move to Xavier, and his eventual successors (new Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, Arizona coach Sean Miller) moved on to become immensely successful in their own right. They really are natural enemies. Alongside Gonzaga and Memphis, Butler and Xavier are the marquee non-Power Six programs of the past decade, and they're poised just a couple of hours apart on I-74. Now both affiliated with something that looks like a power conference if you squint hard enough, they will no doubt be prospecting in many of the same talent-rich areas of Indiana. This could be a thing.
Pittsburgh vs. Virginia
Pittsburgh and West Virginia don't exactly get along. Never have. Why not extend that to West Virginia's eastern cousin? Sure, the geographic intensity might not be as immediate -- Morgantown sits just south of the Pennsylvania border, while Charlottesville is a five-hour drive -- but with Pittsburgh such a consistent hoops force, and UVa on the rise under Tony Bennett, who's to say what the relationship might become? At the very least, the slow-paced Cavaliers look best poised to prevent Pitt from totally grinding an otherwise finesse-first ACC on the glass in seasons to come.
Oakland vs. Detroit
Oakland's move from the Summit League to the Horizon is a step up in general, but it also lays the groundwork for a sneaky-fun city-suburbs dispute in the greater Detroit area.
Pacific vs. Saint Mary's and/or Gonzaga
Think it's going to be tough for Butler to move to the Big East without Brad Stevens? Imagine being Pacific, which just waved farewell to the greatest coach in its history (and one of the sport's most annually underrated), 25-year veteran Bob Thomason, on the eve of a move from the Big West to the West Coast Conference. The good news? If Pacific can rise a notch or two to the level of its best WCC competition, it will be not only a perfect fit for the WCC, but also an excellent candidate to form rivalries with Saint Mary's to its west and Gonzaga to its north.
It might be a stretch, but that's the case with a few of the entries on this list. But hey, if conference realignment can toss rivalries aside so easily, who's to say new ones can't grow just as rapidly in their wake? Let's hope so, anyway.
[*Correction: An earlier version of this post described Syracuse as a state school, not a private institution. My mistake. -- EB]
2. Two Wisconsin-Green Bay players released statements through the school Thursday after spending the past month wondering if head coach Brian Wardle would be dismissed due to verbal-abuse allegations. Keifer Sykes and Alec Brown said: “We are really happy that the investigation is over, and we are excited about playing together next season for Coach Wardle and our other coaches. This has not been an easy couple of months for our team and coaches to go through and we are ready to move forward. The character and communication in our locker room is really good right now, and we are focused on getting better this offseason and contending for a championship next year.” Lost amid these investigations are the players who were held hostage by uncertainty. Wardle was cleared of mostly everything, though he must have an adviser with the team next season to watch what occurs. UWGB has a legit shot to win the Horizon League.
3. New Mexico State will be the last team standing from the traditional WAC in 2014. The Aggies aren't 100 percent certain where they will be in basketball in two years. New Mexico State can't get in the Mountain West, and needs to find a way to get into Conference USA. That's the perfect fit for the Aggies, who have a historical rivalry with UTEP. If they can't move, coach Marvin Menzies' squad should get an NCAA bid or compete for a berth every season. There really is no excuse in such a weakened WAC.
2. Valparaiso picked up a key big man in Alabama 7-foot transfer Moussa Gueye. Gueye, according to Valpo coach Bryce Drew, can play immediately. Gueye originally committed to the Crusaders before going to Alabama. Gueye blocked 52 shots last season for the Tide. He'll be a major distraction for teams in the Horizon League and give the defending conference champs quite a frontline with 6-9 Bobby Capobianco, 6-8 Rice transfer David Chadwick and 6-10 big man Vashil Fernandez.
3. Colorado and Harvard have agreed to play in Boulder (contract still being signed) as the Crimson make their way to Anchorage, Alaska. The Crimson desperately needed another quality game on the schedule. The Crimson have quality local games at UConn and at home against UMass and BC. But the Great Alaska Shootout lost its other star power team when Iowa backed out of the event to go to Atlantis. Playing Fordham, BU, Northeastern, Rice on the road or Howard and Vermont at home and against Holy Cross at TD Banknorth Garden won't deliver the necessary power-rating pop. Harvard has a Top 25 team and needs as many tests as possible before Ivy League play, where their power rating will drop. Colorado coach Tad Boyle once again is scheduling up. The Buffaloes already had Kansas at home and Oklahoma State at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas as headline games.
It was news, bad news -- the school barely had time to open an internal investigation before a copy of the letter was shared with the Green Bay Press-Gazette -- but the Cougills weren't even the first family to accuse Wardle of mistreatment. In fact, the parents of former center Ryan Bross were the first to file a complaint with Harden's office. Their complaint wasn't made public, though, so whatever damage it could wreak on Wardle's reputation, if the allegations are true, for the moment was deferred.
That moment is over. Today, Bross made his own complaints public to the Press-Gazette's Rob Demovsky, and they aren't pretty -- literally or figuratively. They include allegations that Wardle used anti-gay and other derogatory slurs; told Bross to have sex with a girl to improve his performance; and ugliest of all, this story about a preseason workout drill known as "boot camp":
"Coach Wardle told me to stop being a p---- and to go into the woods," Bross told the Press-Gazette. "So I went into the woods and took a crap. I came back and he was like, 'Are you all done? Are you OK? Are you done being a p---- now, Ryan?' because they thought I was faking it, but I wasn't. So I kept running the hills. I finished one hill. I came back down, and I told them I was not feeling well again, and (Wardle) made me run another hill again because he told me that I was being a baby and that I was letting down the team and I was letting down myself, and that I was letting down everyone."
Bross continued: "I got down to the bottom (of the hill), and Wardle told me I was a piece of s--- and that he had never seen such a big p---- in his life and that I was the biggest piece of s--- he had ever seen."
It is important to note that Wardle issued a statement to the Press-Gazette, calling the version of the events in the newspaper "inaccurate":
"I can assure you the well-being of my players is foremost in my mind at all times," he said. "I cannot comment on the specific allegations under federal privacy laws. I can say the version of events [the Press-Gazette is] reporting is inaccurate. I have fully cooperated with the Independent Investigator, as have our players and coaches. I fully expect the eyewitnesses to these allegations you are reporting will contradict the version you are reporting."
It is also worth noting again that these are all merely allegations, and it is now the job of Harden and his independent investigator to get to the bottom of them. We don't know what is true in the complaints filed by Cougill and Bross.
But we do know this: Former Rutgers coach Mike Rice changed the game. For coaches and administrators everywhere, there is now zero room for lapses in oversight, no forgiveness from the public for physical and verbal abuse. There's even a tendency -- if not an outright willingness -- to react on behalf of players being treated poorly by an overzealous coach. Whether any of this new paradigm will apply to Wardle and Wisconsin-Green Bay remains to be seen, but the stakes are high.
Mike Muscala (Bucknell) -- The Muscala Monster is a dangerous creature. The Bison are capable of upsetting Butler in the second round Thursday in Lexington because they’re led by one of America’s most underrated stars. He scored 25 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in a two-point loss to Missouri in January. Muscala (19.0 PPG, 11.2 RPG) dropped 18 points in a win against NCAA tourney participant La Salle in December. He’s finished with 25 points or more in 10 games. He also has the strength of 10 men. Not really, but he’s legit and more than prepared to help Bucknell ruin brackets worldwide.
Will Cherry (Montana) -- Damian Lillard is arguably the top player in the NBA’s rookie class. When he was a Big Sky star at Weber State, Cherry was his top adversary. The senior is known for his defensive prowess (1.9 SPG), but he’s a talented offensive player, too. Cherry is averaging 13.9 PPG for a Montana team that will face Syracuse in San Jose on Friday. The Grizzlies don’t have top scorer Mathias Ward, who is out for the season with a foot injury. But Cherry is a proven leader. He’s tough, too. He missed a few games in early March after aggravating a foot injury that cost him the first few months of the season. But he hasn’t shown any signs of regression since his return.
Siyani Chambers (Harvard) -- The West Region is probably the easiest region. With Gonzaga as the 1-seed, it just seems more wide open than the other three. So expect the unexpected. Harvard could spur some madness in its second-round matchup against New Mexico in Salt Lake City on Thursday. The Lobos are the better team. But the Crimson have overcome adversity to reach this point. Stars Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry left the team prior to the season because of an academic scandal. Chambers (12.9 PPG, 5.8 APG, 44 percent from the 3-point line), just a freshman, helped Tommy Amaker’s squad recover from those losses and earn another automatic berth with its second straight outright Ivy title.
Matthew Dellavedova (Saint Mary’s) -- The senior was a member of the Australian national team in the London Olympics. He’s struggled in his past two games, but Dellavedova will be ready for the NCAA tourney. The Gaels will face Middle Tennessee in Dayton in the First Four on Tuesday night. If they get past the Blue Raiders, they’ll see Memphis in the next round. Dellavedova (15.8 PPG, 6.4 APG, 38 percent from the 3-point line) is not just recognized as a mid-major star. He’s one of the best point guards in America, regardless of level. He’s talented and experienced. And he might help the Gaels nullify your bracket.
Jamal Olasewere (LIU Brooklyn) -- I don’t think we’ll see the first 16-over-1 upset. But if it is to happen, I pick the Blackbirds to pull off the feat. Why? Because Olasewere (18.9 PPG, 8.5 RPG) is a tough matchup for any team in the country. The 6-foot-7 forward is active inside, and he’s efficient in transition. The Blackbirds must get through James Madison in the First Four in Dayton on Wednesday. If they do, they’ll see Indiana on Friday in Dayton. If something crazy happens, Olasewere will certainly be involved.
Ryan Broekhoff (Valparaiso) -- The 6-7 forward from Australia cracked ESPN's "SportsCenter" recently when his buzzer-beating 3-pointer knocked UW-Green Bay out of the Horizon League tournament. He’s one of the top mid-major players in the country. Broekhoff is averaging 15.9 PPG and 7.3 RPG for a Crusaders squad that will face Michigan State on Thursday in Auburn Hills. The atmosphere will favor the Spartans, but Valpo will be tough. The Crusaders are a versatile team with an offense that’s ranked 44th in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. And Broekhoff is the key to that success.
Doug McDermott (Creighton) -- The Bluejays might be the most dangerous 7-seed in the field. They certainly hit a few bumps during Missouri Valley Conference play. Overall, however, they’ve been one of the top mid-major programs in the country. They have wins against Wisconsin, Arizona State, Akron and Cal. They lead the nation with a 50.8 percent clip from the field. Their defense is suspect (78th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). But McDermott, their leader, is a legit star. He’s averaging 23.1 PPG and 7.5 RPG. He could really go off in the Big Dance. First, he has to lead his team through a tough opening-round matchup against Cincinnati in Philly on Friday. Creighton is definitely a sleeper in the Midwest Region.
Ian Clark (Belmont) -- On paper, there’s a lot to like about Belmont. The Bruins are a strong squad that’s faced some of the best teams in the country in nonconference matchups. Belmont can beat Arizona in the second round Thursday in Salt Lake City. And a Sweet 16 run isn’t a crazy concept for this veteran squad. Clark (18.1 PPG, 46.3 percent from beyond the arc) is just one of the weapons that the Wildcats will have to neutralize when the two teams meet. He’s a stud who could really disrupt brackets throughout the country.
- Kansas will not reach Atlanta -- The Jayhawks are certainly a No. 1 seed. I’m not sure they’re the second overall No. 1 after Louisville, but they’ve earned that slot. Their path to Atlanta is not that imposing. But I have bad news for Kansas fans: Don’t book those trips for the Final Four because the Jayhawks will not be there. I have the Jayhawks losing to a Georgetown team that will wear them down in the Elite Eight. But they could fall earlier to either VCU or Michigan. Florida might be the most complete team in the South Region, and they could give Kansas a fight, too. KU is hot right now. But at some point in the Big Dance, the Jayhawks will need their star, Ben McLemore, to shine in a big moment. And I’m not sure the redshirt freshman is ready for that. The bottom line is that KU’s NCAA tourney experience will end prior to the festivities in the Peach State.
- Big Ten national title drought will continue -- To date, the Big Ten has won the “best conference in America” argument. That league was a gauntlet in the regular season. Proof? Indiana, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan State are all in the field. That’s seven of 12 teams. The volume, however, puts more pressure on the league’s participants to win their first national title since 2000. Won’t happen. I think three or four Big Ten squads in the field could make a run to the Final Four. Indiana will probably be listed as the national champion in many brackets. The Hoosiers are certainly capable of that, but Louisville is so strong right now. Georgetown, Miami, Duke and Kansas are, too. The Atlantic 10’s best are also tough. The Big Ten’s physicality will prove beneficial when its members face squads from leagues that don’t play that rugged style. But they’re also going to encounter teams with more athleticism, speed and star power, too. The drought will continue.
- Marshall Henderson's performance won’t match his mouth -- In the days leading up to Ole Miss’ opening-round matchup against Wisconsin, Rebels star Henderson will be the subject of TV packages, front-page stories and web columns. He’s going to be who he is, and that’s great for the media. I can’t wait for the quotes and sound bites. Wisconsin will say little because that's just not the Badgers’ style. Their “style” involves quieting critics and silencing playmakers. They’re not only equipped to beat Ole Miss, they’ll pressure Henderson (20.0 PPG) into one of the worst performances of his career. Henderson's theatrics will be the story as the matchup approaches, but don’t believe the hype. That talk won’t lead to much action against the Badgers.[+] EnlargeDon McPeak/USA TODAY SportsOle Miss' Marshall Henderson is a charismatic guard who isn't afraid to show his emotions.
- Middle Tennessee will prove that it’s the best team in Tennessee, reach Sweet 16 -- The Blue Raiders remind me of the VCU team that made a run to the Final Four in 2011. Their inclusion in the field of 68 has been questioned by some, mostly because of their conference (Sun Belt) and lack of big wins. But they’ll be prepared for March Madness because they played one of the toughest nonconference slates in America (sixth in nonconference SOS, per Daily RPI on ESPN.com). The Blue Raiders are a veteran group that crashes the glass (30th in offensive rebounding rate, per Ken Pomeroy) and defends for 40 minutes (21st in adjusted defensive efficiency). I think MTSU will beat Saint Mary’s in the First Four to set up a meeting with Memphis in the next round. Vandy and Tennessee missed the tournament and I think Belmont has a tough draw in Salt Lake City. So bragging rights will be on the line when the Tigers and Blue Raiders meet. And with wins over Saint Mary’s, Memphis and the Michigan State/Valpo winner in the round of 32, the Blue Raiders will not only prove that they belong, they’ll also earn “best in the state of Tennessee” honors and a trip to the Sweet 16.
- Bill Self versus Roy Williams won’t happen -- The second-round matchup possibility between North Carolina and Kansas is intriguing. Williams against his former team. Again. I’m sure TV execs are salivating over the possibility. But I think Villanova will spoil those blue-blood plans with a round of 64 win over the Tar Heels. The Wildcats have defeated better teams within the past month (Georgetown, Marquette). Plus, they have a 6-foot-7, 260-pound bruiser named JayVaughn Pinkston who could be a problem for North Carolina’s small (quick) lineup. It’s a great storyline, Williams versus Self, given the history. Too bad we won’t see it.
- The Pac-12 will go 0-5 in the first (second) round -- Immediately after the 68 teams were announced, the Twitterverse was filled with chatter about the Pac-12’s seeding. Oregon’s slot as a 12-seed, despite its second-place finish in the Pac-12 and a tourney title, was the most puzzling placement. The league can prove its worth with a strong showing in the NCAA tournament. But I think it’ll do the opposite and struggle throughout its brief stay in March Madness. I could see the Pac-12 losing its five first-round matchups. Yep. Sounds crazy, I know. But Minnesota has the athleticism and strength inside to upset UCLA. I don’t think Oregon is better than Oklahoma State. I think Anthony Bennett will lead UNLV to a win over Cal, even though the game will be played in San Jose. Illinois will get hot and torch Colorado. And Belmont is a tough mid-major that won’t be intimidated in its upset over Arizona. That’s an 0-5 tally for that league.
- Michigan won’t reach the Sweet 16 -- What a daunting path for the Wolverines. They open the NCAA tournament with a matchup against a dangerous South Dakota State squad that’s led by NBA prospect Nate Wolters. And then they have to go against a VCU team (assuming the Rams beat Akron) that forces turnovers on 28.7 percent of its opponents’ possessions (first in the nation, per Pomeroy). That’s a rough path for the Wolverines. Trey Burke is a very talented athlete. And he’s surrounded by young standouts. But that Michigan defense has been a concern all season. It’s going to be magnified as the Wolverines struggle in the opening weekend.[+] EnlargeJerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsJohn Beilein, guard Trey Burke and the rest of the Wolverines will have their hands full in the South.
- Florida Gulf Coast will push Georgetown to the brink of an upset -- I’m not saying the Eagles will win the game. Save the emails. But they’ll come close. I think the Eagles have the talent, including guard Sherwood Brown, to contend with the Hoyas in the first round. They’ve played some of the top teams in the country, so they won’t be concerned with Georgetown’s seeding or the NBA scouts tracking Otto Porter Jr. They have a win over Miami, too. Again, the Eagles won’t win. Georgetown, however, should be very concerned about this game.
- Indiana will win every game, prior to the Final Four, by double digits -- I think the Hoosiers are a Final Four team. I also think they deserved the second No. 1 seed. But they were rewarded with a favorable path, in my opinion, to the national championship. Miami, Syracuse and Marquette could be their toughest tests in the East Region. But I think the Hoosiers will have few problems with their opposition. They’re talented enough to beat every team in the East Region by double digits. The Final Four will not be as easy, but I think Indiana will breeze through its region on its way to Atlanta.
- We’ll see multiple 40-point performances in the opening rounds -- We have so many players who are capable of just “going off” in the first two rounds. Doug McDermott, Wolters, James Southerland, Porter, Shane Larkin, Ryan Kelly, McLemore and more. Usually, the game slows down in the NCAA tournament because possessions are so precious. So teams are more cautious. But there’s so much parity that star power could be the separator in the early matchups. Get your popcorn ready. I think we’ll see multiple 40-point individual performances in the first weekend.