Dec. 31, 2003
Let's look at some of the nation's early surprise teams and disappointments. Some squads have come out of nowhere based on their preseason projections.
As we embark on the second phase of the college basketball season -- the conference schedule -- we'll find out which teams were pretenders and which are contenders. We'll find out which clubs are legitimate now that coaches have had time to adjust their rotations and discover their teams' strengths and weaknesses.
Yes, it's time to make a run at conference championships, followed by phase three -- otherwise known as March Madness, the drive to get the gold trophy at the Final Four in San Antonio (the first phase was the early-season preconference schedule).
FLORIDA STATE -- Coach Leonard Hamilton's team is on the rise. The Seminoles have one of the three hottest programs moving forward, along with Louisville (with Rick Pitino and recruit Sebastian Telfair) and Michigan (closing the gap on Michigan State). I was impressed with FSU's win over Maryland in the ACC opener, and Hamilton's team gave a tough Pittsburgh squad a scare.
GEORGIA TECH -- After losing Chris Bosh to the NBA early, and with Ed Nelson transferring to Connecticut, the Yellow Jackets were picked in the ACC's second division in the preseason rankings. Coach Paul Hewitt has done a tremendous job. Winning the Preseason NIT title, with victories over top-ranked Connecticut and then Texas Tech, opened a lot of eyes. B.J. Elder and Jarrett Jack have formed an outstanding backcourt.
STANFORD -- Imagine how strong this team will be when Josh Childress is back from his foot injury! Coach Mike Montgomery, along with Hewitt, has done the best coaching job early this season. Stanford has wins over then-No. 1 Kansas and Gonzaga.
VANDERBILT -- The Commodores have stunned two Big Ten teams, Michigan and Indiana. I said before the season that Matt Freije could be the premier player in the SEC. Vanderbilt is a dangerous team, and the SEC has much more balance than some experts expected. The Commodores join Mississippi State and LSU as early unbeatens capable of making some noise.
ST. JOHN'S -- Granted, the expectations weren't as high based on the Big East preseason poll (picked 10th out of 14). But this once-proud program lost at home to Fairfield and Hofstra. Mike Jarvis has already lost his job as coach. It has been a tough, tough year for Red Storm followers, who long for the days of former coach Lou Carnesecca. There is a lack of enthusiasm and excitement surrounding the program. St. John's needs to find a coach to bring some life back into the Storm. Manhattan coach Bobby Gonzalez would be a perfect fit; judge him on what he brings to the table and don't just question the fact that he's at a smaller school. Gonzalez would bring the excitement back to St. John's.
MICHIGAN STATE -- The Spartans were in the top five in almost every preseason poll. Coach Tom Izzo would have to admit it's disappointing that his team went 0-for-5 in the games against the biggest opponents (Kansas, Duke, Kentucky, Oklahoma and UCLA). But something tells me this team will break out in Big Ten play. The conference is not that strong from top to bottom. The Spartans will contend in the Big Ten.
MISSOURI -- There were such high expectations going into the campaign, much like Michigan State. Coach Quin Snyder's team has felt some pressure on and off the court. There is a world of potential, but already Missouri has four defeats (Gonzaga, Illinois, Memphis and a real shocker, Belmont ). The Tigers haven't looked good in a number of wins (they rallied late against Indiana and struggled against Oakland). But they are capable of breaking out and getting back on track.
CALIFORNIA -- There were expectations with the addition of diaper dandy Leon Powe. This was supposed to be an upper-echelon team in the Pac-10. There were a few close calls, two-point losses to St. Joseph's and UNLV, and a one-point win against BYU. The disappointment comes in home losses to Cal-Poly and Air Force.
USC -- I thought Henry Bibby's Trojans would push the top teams in the Pac-10. There was a lot of returning experience and versatile athletes. It looks like a sub-par season right now with losses to Western Michigan, Cal-Poly and BYU (all by double figures).
NOTRE DAME -- It was a tough year in football, and there were all sorts of expectations on the hardwood with point guard Chris Thomas returning after considering the NBA. The Irish lost at home to Central Michigan, lost by 13 at Marquette and struggled against American. Coach Mike Brey's team can bounce back with Thomas and Torin Francis leading the way. Brey can make adjustments as Notre Dame prepares for Big East play.
Coaches can schedule whomever they want in November and December. Come January, conference play sets the agenda, so we learn who the contenders and pretenders are. How good are UTEP, South Carolina, Georgetown and others with good records but few real tests? It should be exciting as we go into league play.
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