Inside the College Game
[img_assist|nid=4012|title=Jim Larranaga|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=250|height=353]There won’t be another George Mason this season.
Alright, I know that statement doesn’t shock people. In fact, believing there would be another George Mason in the next 5-10 years is pretty ludicrous. The thought that an 11 seeded mid-major whose inclusion in the tournament field was questioned by many would make the Final Four in consecutive years is just not realistic.
However, my point is that I truly do not believe we will see another unpredictable tournament with no top seeds in the Final Four and a completely unexpected champion. My feeling is that this is a year of predictability.
Why? The top teams in college basketball are outstanding this year. Florida and UNC are both outstanding teams, and a championship would either put them into the history books as truly great teams - a rarer title than some like to believe. Wisconsin, UCLA, Pittsburgh, and Kansas are all true elite level teams.
To some people, a top tier as strong as this season’s is a little more boring than last year’s wild unpredictability. Me, I almost prefer it. I truly believe we may be in for some of the highest caliber tournament play that we’ve seen. There are always thrillers and close games, but at times such close games are a statement of a more talented team playing under it’s ability.
UConn, for instance, had the talent last season to be a great team. They just never put it all together and really got around to caring. However, when I watch the aforementioned top teams this season, I see a group of teams that are playing up and, in some cases, beyond their potential. Wisconsin, for instance, has played near perfect basketball through the year. Badger’s fans must love this team, as they play together and can really defend.
Granted, there will always be a sleeper that makes a big March run. However, don’t be upset or surprised if no Cinderella story makes it into April. Instead, I suggest appreciating the outstanding talent at the top this season. We may be watching a truly great team.
Let’s get this started.
Unseen, Unheard, Unheralded
Who’s Flying Under the Radar?
1. George Washington Colonials (15-5, 6-2 Atlantic 10)
After a dominant regular season run last season, the Colonials lost four starters and were expected to fall back in the A-10 pack this year. However, riding the strong play of guards Maureece Rice and Carl Elliott, GW is in a three-way tie for league lead. Elliott was the most underrated player on last season’s team, as he is a big point guard who can really defend. Their two conferences losses, at Massachusetts and at Dayton, were tough losses. Karl Hobbs is a proven great coach, and this team may be more suited for his fast-paced system than last year’s.
2. Jimmy Patsos, Loyola (MD) Coach
Patsos took over after a one win season, and to say improvement has been noticeable would be an understatement. The Greyhounds sit squarely atop the MAAC at 9-2 in-conference, and could make their first NCAA Tournament in over 10 years, and only the second in program history. All this comes after losing top scorer Andre Collins, who averaged 26.1 points per game last season. Providence transfer Gerald Brown and sophomore Marquis Sullivan give the Greyhounds a pair of high scoring guards, and a tournament appearance would be huge for the Baltimore school.
3. J.R. Reynolds, Virginia Guard
Reynolds has been on fire in ACC play this season. After dropping 69 points total in back to back games against Wake Forest and NC State, the senior guard added 25 points against Duke in an overtime game. He is currently working on career highs in points, rebounds, and assists per game, to go along with all three shooting percentages. Reynolds has grown from a hot/cold shooter into a more complete and consistant scorer, and he and Sean Singletary give the Cavaliers one of the best starting backcourts in the country.
The Coaching Carousel
The Top Coaches Ready For Advancement
The college basketball coaching system is one of advancement. The average coach will get his first head coaching position with a low level mid-major or even lower, and then progressively move up and find their final job, that they want to hold until they retire.
Granted, not all coaches want to leave their small programs. Gonzaga’s Mark Few has seen his share of job offers, but he’s staying with the Zags, at least for now. However, here are some names that may be brought up at the next big program job opening.
1. John Beilein, West Virginia
Beilein is a great example of the process of career advancement. He’s gone from Erie Community College to Nazareth College to LeMoyne College to Canisius (his first Division 1 job) to Richmond and finally to West Virginia. At every level, he has excelled. Beilein uses a Princeton-based-offense involving a lot of passing around the perimeter and three point shooting, and in doing so has maximized his offensive talent. Meanwhile, he also has his teams playing tough zone defense as well as anyone in the country. Imagining what Beilein could do with premier recruiting power is exactly why he is in line for a top job in the near future.
2. Billie Gillespie, Texas A&M
Honestly, I couldn’t begin to decide who is a bigger name in the coaching world, Gillespie or Beilein. Neither are going to leave their current jobs easily. Gillespie has spent the last few years trying to make Texas A&M a basketball school. He’s done a great job, too. His understanding of maximizing his talent has been as efficient as anyone in the country. Here’’s the thing, as great a coach as he is (he’s a contender for the top 10 in my opinion), any program that wants him will have to throw a lot of money and a decent program at him. Even then, he may not be on the market for a new job. But as talented as he is, it’s probably worth a shot.
3. Mark Fox, Nevada
This is how you want to begin your coaching career. Fox is now 72-15 in his two and a half seasons in Reno, his first head coaching job. He has a very bright future, due largely to his understanding of his team’s strengths. Granted, the real test will be next season, when he will be Nick Fazekas-less. Still, he handled his team very well when the senior center was out earlier this season, and I can’t think of a reason why the Wolf Pack would fall off next season. I truly do believe that Fox is one of the top 20 coaches in college basketball, a pretty major distinction for a mid-major coach.
4. Tony Bennett, Washington State
A few weeks ago, I picked Bennett for Coach of the Year. Consider that Washington State was picked by just about everyone to finish in the bottom three of the Pac-10, and now could be in line for a top five seed. His father, Dick Bennett, is a legendary coach, and now Tony Bennett is looking like quite the coaching talent himself. It’s tough for me to imagine Bennett will get any bigger job with only one year of experience under his belt. However, it’s also tough for me to believe a coach this good will find himself stuck in Pullman for too long.
5. Chris Lowery, Southern Illinois
Similar to Beilein, Lowery has his team playing absolutely outstanding defense to make up for a lack of offensive talent. He has installed a great system for the Salukis, and his recruiting abilities are beginning to really show themselves as well, as Southern Illinois should be set for the future. I really believe Lowery is ready for the transition from mid-major to major, but pulling him from Carbondale may be more difficult than some realize. The Missouri Valley is known for being able to hang onto their coaches, so it may take a great opportunity to pull Lowery out.
Game Notes: I think I’m ready to make it official: Arizona State is the single worst power conference team in the country. Granted, Herb Sendek will be able to turn things around, although I’m not sure the Sun Devils will ever be nationally prominent. Right now, A-Staters might as well just watch the ranked women play… Some reflection on the depth of UNC: senior Wes Miller, who started last season, is essentially Roy Williams’ eleventh man… I really like the way Louisville has been playing lately. They have a lot of talent and depth, and if they get things going could definitely be a Sweet Sixteen team… Also underrated, Georgia has really come on lately. They’ve played very well at home and are a surprise tournament team… As far as the SEC, the West Conference teams are really beating each other up. I still believe LSU and Alabama are tournament teams, but they’’ve got to step up sooner rather than later… I feel like making a bold claim, so here it goes: San Diego State will win the Mountain West tournament, giving the league three bids (SDSU, Air Force, and UNLV). The preseason favorite have played below their talent level so far in conference play, but they are beginning to turn it around, and they are the most talented team in the league… That’s all for this week, have a good one.
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