Pitchers and catchers and everyone else are getting ready to arrive, the NFL produces a stunner of a story each and every day, the NBA and the NHL are in the middle of their seasons (I think). But there's no time for that now. It's time to take the covers off our college basketball "insight." You're looking at a guy who studies for an ‘F' each March when filling out his bracket, but this year is going to be different.
One year when my pal John Hewig was Commissioner of the Best Damned NCAA Pool in the USA (press releases, media guide, bribes to the commish, corrupt deputies, a press conference, an open bar) I had picked the Missouri Tigers to go to the Final Four. And, lucky me, Mizzou played the first game of the first Thursday. Naturally, one of my Final Four teams was as good as out before 20 tournament minutes had been played. I called John and said, "I'm dead, I'm a dead man." His response? "Well, don't wear plaid." (For those too young to know or too old to remember check this.)
Whereupon the commish went out and found a second-hand store and bought a ratty looking plaid sport jacket. (John buys all of his clothes at Paul Stuart; if you ask the price you can't afford it.) The plaid jacket became the prize for finishing last and guess who won that? Each year the jacket passed on to the next genius. And although I never won it again, and the jacket itself has disappeared into oblivion along with John's pool, I'm getting that feel in the pit of my stomach. Tournament time's coming. March Madness. The greatest three weeks in sports where everyone you know and everyone you don't know has one goal in common: fill out the winning bracket.
If you're looking to me to tell you who's going to win you might look again. Doesn't mean I don't have some good opinions. This college hoops season has been wide, wide open and there are lots of questions to ask, lots of teams to think about. And any one of those teams could win the tournament (a tournament pool, on the other hand, anyone can win except me).
Here's who I'm thinking about:
NBA Redshirts: Greg Oden and Mike Conley at Ohio State and Kevin Durant at Texas are waiting for their call to the NBA draft podium by gracing college basketball courts with more than could have been expected. Durant, who is so young he may actually have to play a second college season before he's NBA draft eligible, has shown some signs of cooling (or tiring). His team is out of the Top 25 and is so young it's hard to imagine them taking it all the way to Atlanta. The Ohio State babes, on the other hand have played better in tandem as the season has gone on and they played together in high school (jeez). So we're thinking that the No. 2 Buckeyes have a great chance to make it to Atlanta where they can ‘avenge' the football team's BCS debacle.
The Repeater: It's easy enough to say that Ohio State and Florida will make the Final Four but it's also hard to avoid. The No. 1 Gators have five starters (that's all of them you visitors from Mars) back from last season's National Champions. These guys (senior Lee Humphrey and juniors Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Taurean Green and Cory Brewer) have been together forever. They're the sons of talented and successful athletes, they seem to have kept their edge and not finding them in Atlanta will surprise.
Second Fiddle: Wisconsin has the leading candidate for player of the year in Alando Tucker, who has managed to do just about everything anyone could expect of a student-athlete, including being a student-athlete. And while Wisconsin and Ohio State make for a pretty strong tandem for one conference, the Big Ten, this conference pretty much stinks this season and there's no reason to think the Big Ten will have two in the Final Four. Wisconsin plays, wins, but goes home from a regional.
This Year's George Mason: So two are in and they're 1 and 2 in the country right now. Is there a George Mason out there to get us giddy late next month? (As an aside, George Mason will surely not be George Mason this season: the Patriots come to Valentine's Day at 13-12 overall, 7-8 in conference.) So who fills those shoes? Knowing that now would be ridiculous, knowing even who fits that potential role is too obscure. But here are my five to play the part of the Patriots: from the Horizon Conference Butler (who may be too highly rated to fit but is too little known among all those who pay attention to the tournament not to); Missouri State and Southern Illinois from the MVC; Nevada from the WAC (similar to Butler in its presence but also in its under-the-radar position), and Air Force out of the Mountain West (everyone knows Air Force; few know the Falcons as a basketball team). Will one make it? Not this year.
Meet the Coach: From the west: the Oregon Ducks have spent most of this season moving up the rankings until the last few games and a predictable stumble. But the Ducks also have the coach everyone will be talking about late next month in Ernie Kent. Kent is not a newcomer; in fact he's in his ninth season as head man in Eugene. But with his best team, he's sure to attract attention for that and for his resume that started as a player and freshman coach at Oregon and has included stops as a coach in high school, for a club team in Saudi Arabia and five years at St. Mary's University. Every year one coach gets long overdue attention. This season it will be Ernie Kent. Oregon's in.
The ACC Imperative: You need four for a Final Four and one month before the tourney we like Boston College. Why, when BC sent its starting center Sean Williams packing last month? No better reason than some team has to come out of the ACC for the Final Four, it's a rule. BC has won five of seven since dismissing Williams, the Eagles have gotten good production and vet leadership from Jared Dudley and Tyrese Rice and even Tyrelle Blair has come through filling Williams's spot, finishing a victory over Florida State this week with his only basket of the game, but one in which he blocked six shots. The Eagles are home against Duke (out of the top 25 for the first time since Bill Clinton's first term) and No. 4 North Carolina this week. Big week for the Eagles but the really big weeks are still to come.
Don't say I didn't tell you.