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InsideHoops [NCAA HOME] Jan. 14, 2004

College Basketball: The Spin





The Spin - Surprise, Surprise!

Each conference has its share of surprises - some pleasant and others not so much. And although conference play is in the early stages, some teams have already seen their bubbles burst, while others have forced the nation to take them seriously.

ACC: Georgia Tech's Emergence

Picked to finish no better than fourth or fifth in the conference, Paul Hewitt's Yellow Jackets pulled off an early beating of top-ranked UConn and ever since, there has been no doubting the legitimacy of that victory. Superb guard play and oodles of athleticism will make the Ramblin' Wreck a tough out.

Big Ten: Spartans Sputtering

Tom Izzo takes full blame for putting such a taxing schedule on his troops. But I'm sure he never thought his squad would lose every single game against quality competition. Michigan State may have dug itself a hole too deep to climb out of, barring a Big Ten tourney title, but coach Izzo is one of a handful of sideline generals that you should never count out.

Big 12: Mizzou Fizzle

For a team picked in the preseason Top 5, these Tigers may be hard-pressed to finish in the upper half of their own conference. The Ricky Clemons situation this summer didn't get things off on the right foot, but Quin Snyder's bunch simply isn't functioning properly. Seniors Arthur Johnson and Ricky Paulding have played well below expectations and finding any measure of consistency has been a major challenge, as evidenced by Missouri's .500 record. Don't even take this team seriously again until they win consecutive games - something they haven't done since starting the season 3-0.

Horizon: Butler Didn't?

Maybe I'm just used to seeing the Bulldogs overcome the graduation of key players and the changing of head coaches and still somehow churn out 25 wins. One look at the Horizon League standings isn't enough. You're sure to do a double take - don't see Butler? Look toward the bottom…0-4. Surprised? I am, even if all four losses have come against the top three teams in the current Horizon League standings.

Todd Lickliter has followed in the large footsteps of Barry Collier and Thad Matta before him to continue the winning tradition at Hinkle Fieldhouse. But this season, they've been unable to overcome the loss of four starters from last season's Sweet 16 team.

MAC: What in the name of Saddi Washington is going on in Kalamazoo?

Should I be surprised that a Mid-American Conference team that won 20 games and advanced to the second round of the NIT is the class of the league? No, but I am because I had some questions about this Western Michigan team entering the season.

After Robert McCullum left to coach South Florida following that NIT berth, Steve Hawkins stepped into his first Division I head coaching job inheriting a talented group. But how long would it take him to get these guys on the same page with him? I think wins over USC, Miami (OH), UAB and Arizona State (in its own tournament) answer that question quite succinctly.

And could Ben Reed return to his form of two seasons ago when he was MAC Freshman of the Year before tearing his ACL? Reed, like many NFL running backs, has come back stronger in his second season after surgery. He's teamed with senior Mike Williams, who has really blossomed in his second year out of junior college. The pieces have all fallen into place for coach Hawkins and this team won't be surprising anyone by the time March rolls around.

Mountain West: No one wants to play Air Force

Excuse opposing Mountain West coaches and players if you see them look at their upcoming schedules, sigh and roll their eyes. It's just that Air Force must be coming up soon and it's no fun playing them. Despite being one of the worst rebounding teams you'll find in the country, they just don't make a lot of mistakes and head coach Joe Scott finally has his program headed in the direction he wants it to go.

After losing 27 of its 28 Mountain West road games entering this season, Air Force took out Colorado State in Fort Collins in its MWC opener. The Falcons are 10-2 and hope to finish with their first winning record in 26 years. With additional victories over California and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, this team finally has the confidence to do it, and should find its way out of the basement in the conference.

Pac-10: No more than 3 NCAA bids this season?

When you think Pac-10, you think Arizona and Stanford. Stanford and Arizona. But there's usually a solid second layer to complement them. Not this season. In fact, there's no guarantee that a third Pac-10 team will be dancing come March.

Right now, it would appear UCLA will be that third team, although their 4-0 conference record is deceiving, considering its come against three of the worst teams in the conference (Washington, Washington State and Oregon State), along with a win over an Oregon team scuffling to find its identity. The next two weeks will be a better gauge of how seriously we can take Ben Howland's crew.

California, USC and Arizona State have been very disappointing and all three need mouth-to-mouth if their tourney hopes are to come back to life.

SEC: Alabama much better than expected

Maybe it's because Alabama has been perceived as an underachieving team the past couple of seasons. Or because the Tide lost four of its five starters from last season's successful, but disappointing team that was bounced in the first round of the NCAAs. Ever heard of addition by subtraction?

That could very well be the case, as Mark Gottfried has an inexperienced, but hungry group of guys to complement a go-to scorer in Kennedy Winston. This is the best job Gottfried's done in Tuscaloosa and, despite being picked at or near the bottom of the SEC West, he has the campus thinking of a third straight NCAA bid. The same result as last season - a first-round NCAA defeat - would have been considered quite an accomplishment before the season began.

WAC: Rice is Nice

Willis Wilson has a solid junior tandem of Michael Harris and Jason McKrieth poised to take Rice to its first NCAA Tournament since 1970. This is a team that won 19 games last season and could've received NIT consideration had it been able to get out of the first round of the WAC Tourney.

No such worries this season, but in order to get that NCAA bid, point guard Rashid Smith will need to minimize turnovers and the Owls can rely on the efficiency of Harris and McKrieth for the rest. Rice already owns a 20-point victory over a solid Boise State team, but it's most likely competitor for the conference crown is Nevada, whom the Owls will meet up with in two weeks.

Box Score Bit/Random Thoughts

We'll soon see what Bob Huggins' Cincinnati Bearcats are made of now that they are forced to play more teams with a pulse. They have looked very good, albeit against largely outclassed competition.

Last Wednesday, Ohio knocked down 20 three-pointers against Duquesne - and lost.

And although much of the Player of the Year talk will center around players like Emeka Okafor and Jameer Nelson, Louisville's Francisco Garcia certainly deserves to be mentioned, even if he's got a snowball's chance in hell of actually being recognized as such.

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