As a new week begins (two weeks until tip-off, everyone!), I'll present the second half of my two-part series on intriguing bracket teams after the jump.
Northwestern: Will this finally be the season when the Wildcats finally make the NCAA Tournament?
Sure, Kevin Coble won't be returning to the program, even after a protracted recovery from a foot injury that cost him the 2009-10 season and appeared to torpedo Northwestern's postseason hopes before the ball had been tipped last season.
But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. John Shurna proved a more than adequate replacement for Coble, Michael Thompson shined at the point, and Drew Crawford became a force. The Wildcats won games, got themselves into the rankings (albeit briefly), and gave their fans hope. However, the bottom fell out when it became apparent Bill Carmody's team had issues on the defensive end. A pitiful 2-5 run, featuring losses at Iowa and Indiana and a sweep at the hands of Penn State, relegated the Wildcats to the NIT.
A year later, most of the cast is back (except for the team's fourth-leading performer, Jeremy Nash, who graduated), and with three extra spots up for grabs, hopes are again high in Evanston.
If the Wildcats can take advantage of a soft non-conference slate (the toughest games are home contests against Creighton and Georgia Tech and a potential Holiday Festival final against St. John's at MSG), they'll be in the discussion in time for the Big Ten slate. At that point, Northwestern fans better hope the defense is a little tougher and the team doesn't collapse at the worst possible time, also known as the span between February 9 and 24, which looks like this: at Michigan, at Penn State, Iowa, at Indiana, Penn State. A tournament team would go 5-0 against that slate, but as its fans know, such success has eluded NU in the very recent past.
Purdue: Last season, the Boilermakers were cruising to a number 1 seed and a potential Final Four in Indianapolis, just about 80 minutes from campus, then Robbie Hummel tore his ACL in a game against Minnesota.
This season, Purdue was in everyone's top five and a Big Ten co-favorite alongside Michigan State. Then the news broke during the first half of the football Boilermakers' game against (wait for it) Minnesota that Hummel again tore the same ACL during practice.
Without Hummel to close the regular season, the Boilermakers flattered to deceive and fell from a 1 to a 4 seed and managed to get to the Sweet 16--thanks to a convincing win over Siena (a game basically everyone, including yours truly, thought they'd lose) and a victory over Texas A&M in an OT slugfest--where they lost to Duke.
In 2010, a 4 to 5 seed would appear to be this team's ceiling. The Boilers could potentially fall a bit further, since two of last season's key character players, Keaton Grant and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Kramer, are gone from the backcourt. However, two promising freshmen Anthony and Terone Johnson (no relation) come in to give E'Twaun Moore some help, and sophomore Kelsey Barlow will be called on to make plays.
The frontcourt will miss Hummel's production, but expect to see soph Patrick Bade, frosh Travis Carroll, and redshirt freshman Sandi Marcius, a Croat who missed last season with a foot injury, make an impact.
A manageable early season schedule, highlighted by an appearance at the Chicago Invitational Challenge (Southern Illinois, followed by Richmond or Wright State), a game at Virginia Tech, and a home contest with Alabama, could give the youngsters more experience and confidence before the Big Ten slate (with a game at West Virginia mixed in). While Purdue must prove they can win without Hummel, if they do, the preseason concerns will be long forgotten.
Finally, next season, just to be safe, Purdue best sit Hummel out of basketball activities when any Boilermaker team plays any Minnesota team in any sport. Just sayin.'
San Diego State: The Aztecs, who've found themselves on the bubble more than once since Steve Fisher arrived in Southern California, took the decision out of the Committee's hands last season by winning the Mountain West Tournament. Since SDSU bucks the trend in this season's Mountain West and returns all of their key performers from last year's squad, the Aztecs look to be the conference favorites.
The frontcourt will again be San Diego State's strength, with Kawhi Leonard coming off a freshman year where he just missed averaging a double-double (12.7 ppg, 9.9 rpg) and Malcolm Thomas and Billy Whte also impressed. Senior D.J. Gay will provide veteran leadership at the point. The Aztecs certainly have the roster to make a run and earn a seed higher than the 11 they received in 2010. (It would help if they improved their absolutely atrocious team free throw percentage of 61.9%, good for 333rd nationally. Oof.)
Can they go as high up the S-curve as last year's regular season champ, New Mexico? At first glance at SDSU's non-conference schedule, you'd think "No." But if you compare the Aztecs' slate to the Lobos' 2009-10 one, you'll find quite a few similarities in terms of the level of competiton, and one significant difference. Last season, New Mexico played just four true road non-league games and one semi-away contest (Texas A&M in Houston).
This year, the Aztecs open with a five-game road trip, thanks in part to their disadvantaged status in the CBE Classic, where they play at Gonzaga, then travel to Oxford, Ohio to play in the "subregional" round. Sure, the Aztecs' second best non-league game takes place at home (Wichita State), but they do travel to Cal and play two mid-majors San Francisco and IUPUI (for the second time in a month). That's eight road/neutral non-conference games, which should provide an RPI boost, with the requisite number of wins, of course.
If San Diego State can survive their early road gauntlet and claim victories in their winnable road contests, they should be able to rise up the rankings and RPI table and get in good position. The fact the conference should continue to be competitive this season will help the Aztecs' case as well.
Southern Mississippi and UTEP: If Memphis is destined to rule the Conference USA roost yet again, the Golden Eagles and Miners are the two teams with the best at-large hopes of the "11 dwarves."
From a roster perspective, the Golden Eagles have a slight advantage, as Larry Eustachy has seven of his top eight performers from a year ago back, led by 6-8 forward Gary Flowers. The Miners, meanwhile, return Preseason C-USA Player of the Year Randy Culpepper (http://utepathletics.cstv.com/sports/m-baskbl/spec-rel/101310aaa.html) as well as Jeremy Williams, Christian Polk, Julyan Stone, and Claude Britten out of last season's leaders, but they'll need to replace interior forces Derrick Caracter and Arnett Moultrie.
On the schedule side, Southern Mississippi's best shots at making national noise come with road games at Cal and Mississippi, and in the Cancun Governor's Cup, where the Golden Eagles could meet the Rebels on the final day. UTEP, meanwhile, takes on Georgia Tech and either Syracuse or Michigan at the Legends Classic in Atlantic City, visits BYU, and has their traditional home-and-home with New Mexico State.
If 2011's at-large pool is as unimpressive as last season's, non-league schedules may not matter much, if either team can make it through the league relatively unscathed (that is, no silly losses to Rice or Tulane). Remember, UTEP earned a bid with an unimpressive performance in the non-conference portion of the schedule. The Miners' best win was over New Mexico State, who they promptly lost to in their next game. That can't happen this season, as the Atlantic City trip falls between the two games.
Texas: Last season's Longhorns' squad was an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a question wrapped in a white and burnt orange System of Dress uni. No team in recent memory has taken its fans on such a roller coaster ride as Rick Barnes' team did between January and March of 2010, going from 17-0 and number 1 in the country, to dropping games at Kansas State, UConn (!), and Oklahoma (!!) en route to a 24-9 mark and 8 seed in the NCAAs. That's where the season ended with a 81-80 OT loss to Wake Forest in round one.
Many of the key players from last year's debacle (Damion James, Dexter Pittman, Avery Bradley) are gone, leaving a lot for the returnees, most notably J'Covan Brown, Gary Johnson, Dogus Balbay, and Jai Lucas, to do. Making matters more difficult is the fact there are only three newcomers on the roster, two true freshmen--Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson, a pair of Canadians out of Nevada's Findlay Prep--and redshirt freshman forward Shawn Williams. There's a lot of room for growth among Rick Barnes' roster, and there could be plenty of pain if it doesn't happen quickly.
Why? Because the Longhorns' schedule is difficult, as usual. Games three and four are in New York as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament, where Texas will open with Illinois, then face either Maryland or Pitt. Texas takes on North Carolina in Greensboro one week before Christmas, before visiting Michigan State three days before the holiday. Early January home games against Arkansas and UConn look like wins now, but both teams have caused Texas pain over the past two seasons.
However, if the Longhorns gel quickly, the schedule gives them plenty of opportunities to make amends for last year's collapse.
Virginia Tech: The Hokies were my one miss last season, as I put them in ahead of UTEP, figuring their ACC slate would give them the advantage, since both non-conference schedules were unimpressive.
It looked like Tech would have less to worry about this season, as nearly the entire roster from last year was set to return, bolstered by the addition of Florida transfer Allan Chaney to the frontcourt. However, Chaney's future is in doubt because of a heart ailment that cropped up during the spring and forward JT Thompson tore his ACL a little more than a month ago.
That news makes the road to the Tournament more difficult for Malcolm Delaney and Co.
Seth Greenberg did boost the schedule after last season's snub, which will help the Hokies' case this season if they end up in a similar position in mid-March. The Hokies' second game is against Kansas State in Manhattan, as part of ESPN's tip-off marathon. The team will spend Thanksgiving at the delightful 76 Classic in Anaheim, where Oklahoma State, Murray State, and UNLV are potential opponents. Purdue visits, as does Penn State (an original member of the Anaheim field). The Hokies will also face Mississippi State, another of last season's First Four Out, in the Bahamas a week before Christmas. They even play St. Bonaventure, a likely easy win in Blacksburg, in Rochester.
The conference slate is a double-edged sword, making a good non-league performance vital. Duke comes to Blacksburg for the two teams' only meeting, while Tech visits UNC, and Maryland is the marquee home-and-home. However, there are a pair of games against each of Boston College, Georgia Tech, Virginia, and Wake Forest--four teams likely to find themselves in the ACC's bottom third. Unless one or two of those surpasses expectations (entirely possible), any loss in those eight contests could hurt.
Wichita State: Northern Iowa carried the Missouri Valley flag into March each of the past two seasons, shocking the world by beating Kansas and reaching the Sweet 16 in 2010. Now, a team nicknamed the Shockers could very well be the next Valley team to make national noise.
Wichita State will hope that they have a bit more luck in the exempt tournament department than the Panthers did. UNI went into 2009-10 with the hopes of facing Tennessee and Purdue in the Paradise Jam; however, a quarterfinal loss to DePaul relegated them to the consolation bracket, where victories over East Carolina and Boston College didn't provide any RPI bump, which ultimately hurt the Panthers' seeding.
The Shockers will at least open the Maui Invitational with a name opponent, Connecticut. However, if they don't defeat the Huskies, a game against Chaminade would likely follow in the losers' bracket (unless the Silverswords can go all 1982 on Michigan State). The prospect of playing the Spartans, then likely either Kentucky or Washington, is a bit more tantalizing than Chaminade, followed by Virginia or Oklahoma. A road trip to San Diego State, a virtual road game with LSU (in Bossier City) and a home tilt with Tulsa are the other non-league highlights, making that Maui trip all the more important.
The Shockers are a veteran team, with eight of last season's top 9 back. The lone departure is not insignificant as Hannah Clevin was a statsheet stuffer (12 ppg, 4.7 apg, 42.5% on 3s, 90.4% on FTs). However, guard Toure' Murray (11.9 ppg, 5 rpg)--a power on both ends of the court--and forward J.T. Durley (11.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg) lead the impressive set of returnees.
The nation have been surprised by Northern Iowa at the end of last season, but if the Shockers' have their way, even casual fans will know about them long before the calendar turns to March.
On Tuesday, I'll be back with a 68-team 2011 NCAA Tournament primer.