Special to Page 2
The past few weeks have been jam-packed with excitement for sports fans.
Shawne Merriman got busted for steroids and no one made a peep, keeping the double standard between the NFL and MLB alive and well. The Orioles cemented their status as the boneheads of baseball, paying the gross domestic product of a small island nation to 78 middle relievers. Isiah Thomas proved incompetent coaches and general managers can be thugs, too. Even fans of the international sports scene got a thrill, after a runner competing in the Asian Games as a woman failed a gender test.
Meanwhile, despite Bomani Jones' best efforts, you channel-surfed right past college basketball. You missed an NIT run for the ages at the Garden and Bill Raftery in Hawaii (Onions!). Most of all, you missed the best collection of early-season marquee matchups maybe ever. The heavy emphasis placed on strong nonconference schedules by the NCAA Tournament's selection committee has prompted coaches to schedule Final Four-caliber games four or five months before the real thing. Keep that in mind for next year once the Halloween candy's gone, start looking for college hoops. You won't be disappointed.
With conference play starting next week in many conferences, here are five story lines to watch.
The NBA's year-and-a-half-old rule that prohibits players from entering the league before age 19 has its share of faults. But the rule, combined with a bumper crop of graduating high school stars, has produced the most exciting group of impact freshmen in years. Even casual fans know about 7-foot Ohio State center Greg Oden by now. Surrounded by a killer supporting cast, Oden's got the best chance to pull a 'Melo with a national championship one-and-done college career. But the best college center since Shaq isn't even the best freshman in the country, bum wrist or not. That honor goes to Kevin Durant, who has taken a Texas team that was supposed to be rebuilding and made it an instant contender again (Big Baby's still having nightmares about Durant's recent stomp job on LSU).
Some other freshman names to know:
Brandan Wright, North Carolina: Might be a better pro prospect than Tyler Hansbrough he has already outplayed his All-American running mate in several games this season.
Javaris Crittenton, Georgia Tech: He's the latest in a long line of Yellow Jackets point guard legends that includes Mark Price, Kenny Anderson, Travis Best, Stephon Marbury and Jarrett Jack.
Darrell Arthur, Kansas: Leads Jayhawks with nearly 14 points a game, despite getting less than 22 minutes a game.
Chase Budinger, Arizona: Second-best all-around game of any freshman (behind Durant) makes the 'Cats the sleeper Pac-10 Final Four contender.
Jon Scheyer, Duke: Bad news for Redick haters Dickie V's gonna love this skinnier, better-passing version of young J.J.
Tajuan Porter, Oregon: Five-foot-six, 160 pounds and completely unstoppable.
Also: Thaddeus Young, Georgia Tech; Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson, North Carolina; Patrick Beverley, Arkansas; Paul Harris, Syracuse.
The next George Mason
Does the Patriots' amazing run last season mean we now need a mid-major to make the Final Four to impress us? Even at that impossibly high standard, two teams have shown enough so far this season to at least enter that discussion.
Wichita State has already beaten half of last season's Final Four (LSU and George Mason), both on the road. The Shockers lost the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year in Paul Miller, yet they're better than last season's Sweet 16 team. Kyle Wilson can score inside and out. P.J. Couisnard is the team's best all-around player and a nightmare matchup. And Sean Ogirri is a worthy third banana, both for his skill and the best hair in Division I.
Butler took Madison Square Garden by storm last month, blazing past Tennessee and Gonzaga in winning the Preseason NIT. A.J. Graves leads a highly experienced squad whose top eight scorers are all juniors and seniors. According to Ken Pomeroy's highly informative and highly addictive Web site, kenpom.com, the Bulldogs are the second-best free-throw shooting team in the country, and they turn the ball over less than anyone in America. Does this sound like a team you want to play in March?
Want a deeper sleeper? Wisconsin is No. 4 in the latest AP poll, boasts a Wooden Award candidate in Alando Tucker, has already knocked off two Top 20 teams this month in Marquette and then-No. 2 Pitt and has lost just once this season. That loss was to Missouri State, another highly experienced MVC squad with a strong résumé and a prolific scorer in Blake Ahearn. The Bears became the team with the highest RPI not to make it into the tournament last season. They'll get in, and they'll scare the bejeezus out of people.
Master motivator or overzealous disciplinarian and ticking time bomb? Whatever your view of the General, his run at Dean Smith's all-time coaching record makes for good theater. Better still is Knight's ability to get the most out of lesser talent. The Red Raiders don't attract the kind of recruits that other schools do, partly because they're Texas Tech, and partly because a lot of kids don't want to be harangued by Knight. But the ones who do come get to play in a motion offense that made a star out of undersized NBA nonentity Steve Alford a style that remains just as effective 20 years later.
Three drop-everything-to-watch-them teams
bag of tricks this season.
Tennessee: The Vols run a version of the flex offense, a finely tuned system that has players darting back and forth, around and through opposing defenses. They'll trot out a half dozen different pressure defenses a game, completely flummoxing opponents and triggering fast break after fast break. But the best reason of all to watch Tennessee might be Chris Lofton. His 34-point effort against Memphis on Dec. 6 (one of Lofton's four 30-point performances this season) had to be seen to be believed. Lofton would nail an open three. Memphis would stick a defender closer to him. Lofton would step farther back and hit another three. Near the end of his 21-point first half, it looked like one of those vintage Larry Bird games, where Bird would try some new trick shot just because he was bored. Only 6-foot-2, there's no player in the country who can hit more shots with a man right in his face than Lofton.
North Carolina: It doesn't hurt that the Heels have more talent than any other team. The 'Heels are one of the fastest-paced teams around, yet they're also the third-most efficient team in the country according to Pomeroy's metrics. Hansbrough might be the best half-court player at the collegiate level virtually everyone else has the potential to come flying down the wing on the break and dunk on someone's head. Carolina gets extra credit for having Roy Williams the most entertaining coach anywhere. In any given game, there's a 50-50 chance he'll pull all five starters at once before the first TV timeout, ignore them for eight minutes, turn and yell at them until veins pop out of his forehead, then send them back out while staring them down. Here's the scary part: The starters usually dominate as soon as they step back on the court after the second unit has opened up a double-digit lead.
Air Force: You'll need to live in Colorado or buy a college hoops package to watch them, but it's worth it. Former Denver Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik has a simple rule for playing on his team: Learn how to knock down threes, or apply elsewhere. The Falcons always have five able, long-range bombers at any given time, including their big men. Air Force leads the nation in raw offensive efficiency, adjusted offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage, which basically means it runs as close to a flawless offense as you'll ever see (read here for more on these stats). Swingman Dan Nwaelele never seems to make a bad decision. Nick Welch has returned after missing all of last season to injury and is starting to look like the same player who won co-Mountain West Player of the Year honors in 2004-05. After losing by 23 to Air Force last week, Norfolk State center Calvin Brown said the Falcons are "the best shooting team I've ever seen."
is one of the players to watch in the talent-laden ACC.
Boston College vs. Tobacco Road: After years of fierce battles with the class of the Big East, BC muscled its way into the ACC's elite last season. The Eagles are more dangerous this season, even with bruiser Craig Smith now playing in the NBA. BC plays host to UNC and Duke back-to-back Feb. 14 and 17. Will either team stop Jared Dudley? Can Sean Williams neutralize both Hansbrough and Josh McRoberts in a four-day span? Will Flutie come off the bench and go to a scramble offense? It should be high drama.
Marquette vs. UConn, Pitt, Georgetown, Syracuse: He can take over a game himself, has more than one buzzer-beater to his credit and gives Marquette a chance to knock off anyone in the country. That description could easily apply either to Dwyane Wade during his college days, or the 5-inches-shorter version, Dominic James. Marquette is another team that has quickly climbed toward the top after joining a new power conference. It might take awhile for a specific Big East team to emerge as Marquette's biggest rival. But if the Golden Eagles carry their win over Duke last month into conference play, we could have another G'town-'Cuse-type rivalry or two in the near future.
Texas A&M vs. Kansas: Kansas has Phog Allen, Wilt Chamberlain, Danny Manning and Rock Chalk Jayhawk. Texas A&M has one of the worst track records of any team in the recent history of college basketball. But Billy Gillispie has engineered one of the most startling turnarounds in recent memory, and the Aggies are now good enough to go toe-to-toe with anyone, including the Big 12's traditional power in Kansas. A&M will match its stifling defense against the Jayhawks' army of high-flyers when the teams meet Feb. 3 in Lawrence. This could be the beginning of a beautiful hatefest.