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Thursday, November 13, 2008
What's hot (and not) for 2008-09

By Dana O'Neil

Stephen Curry? Red-hot. The SEC? Not so much. North Carolina? Blazing into the season. Chicago? Its college hoops teams are as cold as the city in February.

There's no better time than November to take the temperature of college basketball and see who's starting on a fever pitch and whose game is on ice.

Here's a closer look at what's hot and what's not for the 2008-09 season:

What's Hot and Not for the College Basketball Season
Big East Big East: The league is cooking up quite a send-off for commissioner Mike Tranghese. The Big Beast has a record seven teams in the preseason poll and owns 40 percent of the top 10. Come March, don't be surprised if the Big East breaks the bracket bank with as many as 10 teams in the NCAA tournament. SEC: Of the six teams that made the NCAA tournament last year, only one -- Tennessee -- would seem a natural again this season. Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi State remain major wild cards. The league is pinning its hopes on Florida, and while the Gators ought to be smarter than last year's crash-and-burn crew, they still don't have an experienced, reliable big man now that Marreese Speights is in the NBA.
Darren Collison Upperclassmen: With the exception of sophomore Blake Griffin, the preseason All-American team looks like a group of grandpas. Two seniors (Tyler Hansbrough and Darren Collison) and two juniors (Stephen Curry and Luke Harangody), classes usually picked over by the NBA by this point, serve as the front of a marching band full of older, talented players. In college basketball, 20 constitutes old; 21 and 22 is positively geriatric. Tyreke Evans Rookies: The current class of freshmen -- Tyreke Evans, DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, B.J. Mullens, Devin Ebanks -- would be considered a fine group in normal years. Unfortunately these guys had the bad luck of following the uber-rookies who stuffed the last NBA draft.
DavidsonDavidson: Tyler Hansbrough might be the best-known player in North Carolina but Stephen Curry is arguably the most popular. The college basketball world fell in love with the baby-faced guard in March and can't wait to see its crush again this season. Thanks to Curry, the Wildcats are ranked 20th -- the first time Davidson has earned a preseason ranking since prior to the 1969-70 season. SoConThe rest of the SoCon: Counting the conference tourney, Davidson has won 36 conference games in a row and dropped just one SoCon game in its past 48. In a one-bid league that's a run that can only spell one thing for everyone else -- N-I-T.
Comebacks: Fans nationwide will raise a glass to toast continued health to returning injured players. In a few places, they will cross their fingers for extra luck because the guys coming back could mean the difference between a prosperous year and one that free-falls faster than Wall Street: Ronald Steele (Alabama), Andy Rautins and Eric Devendorf (Syracuse), Sharaud Curry (Providence), Korvotney Barber (Auburn), Patrick Patterson (Kentucky) and A.J. Price (Connecticut). Cursed: Ever since Kenyon Martin tripped over Justin Love's leg in 2000, Cincinnati has been trailed by a cloud of doom. And that's not even including the Bob Huggins mess. Last year forward Mike Williams ruptured his Achilles tendon in the preseason and Cincy got killed inside all season. Williams is back, but now rookie point guard Cashmere Wright is gone with a torn ACL. With no other experience at the position, Deonta Vaughn will move over. "We're just not going to play with a point guard," Mick Cronin said.
Arizona State: The program is so rising so quickly, its former radio analyst is now the head coach at Arizona. Bah-dump-bump. But seriously folks, Herb Sendek engineered the nation's best turnaround last season (from eight wins to 21) and with James Harden leading a pack of five returners, the Sun Devils are as hot as their desert address. Arizona: Lute Olson left, came back, left, came back and left for good. We think. Nic Wise rolled his ankle; an attack of teamwide leg cramps cut short an exhibition game; and the new head coach, Russ Pennell, spent last year talking about games rather than coaching them. Honestly, Susan Lucci needs to get on the bench of this soap opera. Chase Budinger and Wise have an awful lot of melodrama to overcome to keep the Wildcats' string of 24 consecutive NCAA bids alive.
North Carolina hoops: No, we don't just mean the Tar Heels. We mean the state. There are four schools from N.C. in the Top 25 -- UNC, Duke, Davidson and Wake Forest. If NC State can get its act together by March and the other four live up to their billing, North Carolina could boast five schools in the Big Dance. New York/New Jersey hoops: The area is still top-heavy with talent, but the talent isn't staying home. A glance at the rosters of the Top 25 teams reveals 34 players from the NY/NJ area. Yet the schools in and around the city can't get it together. Rutgers, Seton Hall and St. John's won a combined 15 Big East games last season, and this year they are picked to finish 12th, 13th and 14th, respectively, in their league.
Tom Crean Tom Crean: He got a raise and an extension before he even coached a game, has 10 years to pull Indiana out of its Kelvin Sampson quagmire and is such a hero in Bloomington, he ought to ride a white steed to the sidelines and rescue a cheerleader from a villainous mascot. Best of all, he gets a mulligan this year. If Crean wins five games with a roster that endured more casualties than Pickett's Charge, his name should be etched on the Coach of the Year trophies. Bill Carmody Bill Carmody: He signed a big contract with the charge of bringing his whip-smart Princeton offense to the brainiacs of the Big Ten. Eight years later Northwestern is 103-135 overall and 36-94 in the Big Ten and remains the only league school to never -- as in never, ever, ever -- make it to the NCAA tournament.
Maui: It's a toss-up between Maui and Orlando for the best November tourney, but we'll give the edge to Maui because it has Mai Tai instead of mouse ears. Along with the first look at North Carolina, Maui offers the return of Ronald Steele to Alabama; the reigning Big East player of the year in Luke Harangody; a Texas team that is out to prove it's every bit as good without D.J. Augustin; Phil Martelli's quotes; guaranteed ugly Oregon uniforms and the train wreck that is Indiana. Did we mention Mai Tai? Alaska: Party at Sarah Palin's to watch the Great Alaskan Shootout. Otherwise, you aren't seeing it. Done in by tourneys easier to get to in warmer climates, the shootout, which began in 1985, is no longer on national television and seems destined to follow the Top of the World Classic to the tourney graveyard. The field this year includes Hampton, Louisiana Tech, Northern Illinois, Portland State, San Diego State, Seattle and Western Carolina.
Non-BCS Contenders: We're not talking about Gonzaga, Memphis, UNLV and the other schools that have basketball tradition. We're talking about the 'mid-majors' that have no football cash, no cast of thousands in the alumni bank, yet will scare the bejesus out of the big boys this season: Davidson, Siena, Temple, Virginia Commonwealth, Dayton and Cornell. BCS Bottom-feeders: They have all the benefits, luxuries and stuffed pocketbooks of big-time conferences with deep pockets and yet for whatever reason can't get out of their conference basements: Auburn, Penn State, Colorado and St. John's.
Barack Obama Barack Obama: The first African-American in the White House is also a legit hoops player who detoured from the campaign trail to bring his game to the No. 1 team in the country. "I think one of our guys fouled him pretty hard,'' Tyler Hansbrough said about the pickup game. Craig Robinson Craig Robinson: Or for now at least. With the flurry of the campaign over, the president-elect's brother-in-law now gets back to the hard reality of his day job -- righting the Titanic that is Oregon State. The Beavers have had one winning season since 1990 and last year enjoyed the ignominious distinction of becoming the first Pac-10 team in 30 years to go winless in the conference.
3-point line: College hoops set new records from beyond the arc last year, launching 19 treys per game and connecting on 6.72. That equated to 35.2 percent from the arc, the best shooting percentage since 1993. The NCAA this season pushed the line back a foot; that could drastically hurt those numbers, or it could mean only people who should really be taking 3s will take them. Free throw line: The clang you heard is the sound of rims reverberating everywhere. Of the 65 teams that made the NCAA tournament last year, only 13 ranked in the top 50 nationally in free throw shooting (73.3 percent or better) while 18 were in the bottom 200 (67.9 or worse), including 11 in the basement of plus-250 (66.5). Memphis epitomized the decline of the gimme shot, all but surrendering a national championship at the uncharitable stripe, where it went 1 of 5 down the stretch in regulation.
Steve Donahue Coaches on the rise: When the coaching carousel invariably creates openings, who's got next? Here are three from the low mid-majors who ought to be considered: Siena's Fran McCaffrey took a team picked dead last in the MAAC to NCAA tournament first-round winner in three years; Cornell's Steve Donahue has changed the Ivy League landscape, pulling the title out of its Penn-Princeton geography; Navy's Billy Lange led the Midshipmen to a second-place finish in the Patriot League and their first winning season in seven years. Norm Roberts Coaches on the hot seat: Along with the aforementioned Carmody at Northwestern, these guys might want to run from their athletic directors by January: Maryland's Gary Williams, St. John's Norm Roberts, Alabama's Mark Gottfried, Florida State's Leonard Hamilton.
Los Angeles: UCLA is good enough to make its fourth consecutive Final Four appearance, and Southern California replaces freshman talent O.J. Mayo with freshman talent DeMar DeRozan. Chicago: The Windy City shoots an airball when it comes to college hoops. DePaul, Northwestern and Loyola combined for a 31-60 record last year, and there's not much reason to expect things to improve this season. The city needs to send a bouquet to Illinois-Chicago for keeping the city afloat with an 18-15 finish.
Saint Joseph'sVillanova Red River Rivalry: The hardwood version hasn't exactly lived up to the football entity. Texas hasn't just won the past six; the Longhorns have waltzed to victory, winning by an average 18.3 points per game (including last season's Big 12 tourney game). But this year things are different. The Sooners were picked to win the conference for the first time in league history … even though the Longhorns received more first-place votes. So circle the dates: Jan. 12 in Norman and Feb. 21 in Austin. Saint Joseph'sVillanova Holy War: Once a rivalry week staple and a gripping slugfest to the final shot, the fight between Saint Joseph's and Villanova has become a yawner now relegated to December. It's not that the rivalry has tilted to one side. It's that the games haven't been close. The past seven games have been decided by an average of 17 points. Last year the Hawks smoked the Wildcats by 22, reversing Villanova's 17-point beatdown win the season before.
Waiver welcomes: Christmas will come to South Florida on Dec. 14. That's when Gus Gilchrist becomes eligible. The NCAA granted a hardship waiver for Gilchrist, a 6-foot-10 rookie ranked among the top 50 players in the country. Gilchrist got out of his letter intent at Virginia Tech after the on-campus shootings, transferred to Maryland but never played for the Terps and now takes his game to Tampa. Waiver woes: Despite an appeal and Bobby Gonzalez's vocal arguments, Herb Pope won't be playing at Seton Hall this season. The NCAA turned down his hardship request. Unless Missouri transfer Keon Lawrence applies for and is granted immediate eligibility -- and that's even more of a long shot than it was for Pope -- the Pirates will have nine players on their roster, two of whom are true freshmen. In the Big East, that's about five guys too few for survival.
Ford Field Detroit: The NCAA will set a Final Four attendance record this season. That's a guarantee, since the court will be dropped in the middle of Ford Field for a sort of game in the round. Granted, people with binoculars in their Kalamazoo backyards might have a better view of the action, but don't doubt for a minute that the more than 70,000 seats will be filled. Ford Field Detroit: It's still Detroit. Average temperature in early April? 47 degrees.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for and can be reached at