The Hype Machine: Believe it or not?
I was 9 when I fell for college basketball -- and its possibilities -- in a Chevy van near downtown Milwaukee, my hometown.
On April 5, 1993, I sprinted from choir practice (I'll explain once we get to know one another better) and jumped into the family van to catch the final moments of the Fab Five's victory over North Carolina.
My parents wanted and needed a way to entertain seven kids on 18-hour road trips to family reunions in the South, so they pimped our ride with a 13-inch TV, an original Nintendo and a VCR. Years later, those accessories became the standard.
But back then, they were a big deal. The built-in TV meant I wouldn't miss the triumph I had anticipated all season. Michigan, the coolest team I had seen, would finally achieve its dream and win an NCAA championship.
That obviously didn't happen.
Chris Webber called the phantom timeout -- after officials missed his traveling violation -- and the Tar Heels pulled off the upset. Michigan got a documentary. North Carolina grabbed the rings.
All that buzz, all that hype meant nothing after tipoff. I got caught up in the madness and ended up confused and disappointed. Everything leading up to that game suggested that the Fab Five would win, so I latched onto that notion.
Lesson learned. Sometimes it's best to adhere to Public Enemy's words and "Don't believe the hype."
That event was the precursor to The Hype Column. That night I realized that college basketball offered a level of parity I couldn't find in other sports. Five guys always can beat five other guys despite the accolades attached to either squad. Not that it happens often, but the diversity within the game offers a multitude of avenues for success.
So the team we expect to win might fail. And the team without a shot might shock us.
Virginia Commonwealth proved as much last season. Butler in 2010 and 2011 and George Mason in the 2005-06 campaign did, too. They overcame big odds -- impossible odds in other sports.
Based on what I saw in that van in 1993 and what I've witnessed as a college basketball fan since that time, I know that projections (preseason, in-season and postseason) can get crazy and unrealistic, a product of an environment where the Hoopla Yields Preposterous Expectations.
I'll do my best this season to play the role of equalizer as the Hype Machine gets rolling in 2011-12.
The Hype: Believe it or not?
• It's North Carolina and everyone else
DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE: The Tar Heels have a special assembly. Harrison Barnes leads one of the most imposing rosters since Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer guided the Gators to their second consecutive NCAA championship in 2007.
Many assume that the Tar Heels will win Roy Williams' third national championship in eight seasons. If that happens, it will not be easy. The other contenders have legitimate title hopes, too. Kentucky has an athletic, speedy backcourt that could give the Tar Heels fits in March or April. Baylor has the frontcourt savvy to stifle John Henson and Tyler Zeller inside.
Vanderbilt's experience gives it an edge over its youthful adversaries. William Buford, Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft comprise a balanced trio who can take Thad Matta to his first NCAA championship. This season's UConn team could be better than the 2010-11 NCAA title squad. Ohio State, Duke, Pitt, Florida and Syracuse also could vie for the crown. The Tar Heels are at the top of the heap, but they're certainly not alone.
• Kansas is talented enough to win its eighth consecutive Big 12 title
BELIEVE THE HYPE: In Lawrence, Kan., Big 12 titles are routine. For the past seven seasons, the Jayhawks have managed to win all or a share of the conference's championship. They're definitely down this season with the Morris twins and Josh Selby off to the pros. But offseason reports suggested that Thomas Robinson blossomed against some of the top players at the collegiate and pro levels in various camps and workouts.
TyShawn Taylor is ready for a starring role, and the Jayhawks have enough experience (Travis Releford) and incoming skill (Naadir Tharpe) to stay in contention. Plus, Allen Fieldhouse is a special building that turns sour for the opposition. (Bill Self's Kansas squads have a 129-7 record in eight seasons there.)
This should be the season that another squad takes the Big 12 crown. But there are just as many questions about the other contenders. Who will handle the rock for Baylor? Will Missouri be tough enough inside sans Laurence Bowers? Will the Aggies play consistently at a high level? There will be a scrap for the Big 12 championship. Look for the Jayhawks to throw their fair share of haymakers in their effort to win conference title No. 8 under Self.
• This season will be one of the best in recent college basketball history
BELIEVE THE HYPE: The NBA lockout is killing the professional basketball product, but it's been a blessing for the collegiate game. Players who would've gone pro decided to stay put in part because of the stalemate at the next level. For the first time in the one-and-done era, we get to see the encore. We were left with what-ifs after the one-year stints of Derrick Rose, Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Kevin Love and others. This season, Jared Sullinger, Harrison Barnes, Jeremy Lamb, Terrence Jones and Perry Jones III returned for another round.
The sophomores have secured the bulk of the preseason attention. But experienced leaders such as Pitt's Ashton Gibbs, Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor, Cal's Jorge Gutierrez, Michigan State's Draymond Green and Syracuse's Scoop Jardine could help their respective squads spoil the sophomores' party.
With so many talented sophomores and a brood of skilled veterans playing together for the first time in the one-and-done era, the college basketball landscape is as intriguing as it has been in recent years. It's a fantasy fulfilled for college basketball fans. They should be thrilled this season, because it will be great.
• Jeremy Lamb is the most pivotal player on the UConn roster:
DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE: Last year's post-NCAA championship frenzy centered on Lamb, who played a respectable Robin role to Kemba Walker's Batman. Lamb's offseason development and the addition of Andre Drummond spurred legitimate preseason talk of a repeat. While Lamb might be the Huskies' star, he's not their most pivotal player entering the season. Shabazz Napier earns that distinction.
The returning pieces from last season's championship squad have the necessary talent to go after a second consecutive NCAA title. But without Walker, they're missing a true catalyst and creator. Napier has to step into that role immediately for UConn to fulfill its potential, especially with Ryan Boatright's eligibility in question. He has to put the highly touted players around him in positions to excel, à la Walker.
Napier has a better supporting cast than Walker with Drummond and an improved Lamb on the roster. But his performance will dictate the trajectory of a UConn squad with the tools to get back to the Final Four. The Huskies will make it to New Orleans if Napier can be the on-the-floor leader they need him to be. If he struggles, they'll fall short of preseason expectations. Napier is that crucial.
• 2011-12 will be the year of the big man:
BELIEVE THE HYPE: Sullinger slimmed down. Joshua Smith tried to watch his waistline during the summer. But the two players still represent a critical group of athletes: college basketball's true big men (think listed weight "around" 270, actual weight usually somewhere above it). Smith could carry a resurgent UCLA to a Pac-12 title and more. Sullinger leads an Ohio State squad that deserves more national buzz because it's certainly a Final Four contender.
Yancy Gates is ready to shake up the Big East with Cincinnati. Kenny Frease has been reinstated, so Xavier is prepared to smash the Atlantic 10 and make a strong run in March. Vanderbilt's postseason potential hinges upon Festus Ezeli's recovery from a knee injury. Yep, big (really big) is in this season.
Myron Medcalf covers college basketball for ESPN.com.
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