NCAA Men’s Hoops About to Get Crazy

Ask a diehard NBA fan what the true tragedy of the NBA lockout is, and they'll tell you it comes at the worst possible time. Just as the league is coming off one of its most-compelling seasons in more than a decade, it goes and blows itself up in the name of pride and ego.

(They might say it's about equity and creating a sustainable business model that protects idiot owners from being idiot owners, but make no mistake — this is nothing more than a big dick contest.)

But you know what? Fine. Owners want to act like they're a laid-off construction worker trying to make the mortgage payment? Fine. Players want to pretend like they're businessmen and ownership partners, when all they are is well-compensated employees? Fine. Go ahead. I don't give a crap.

And you want to know why?

Because we are three weeks into what's going to go down as a legendary men's college basketball season.

All the elements are there. We've got several of the major powerhouses — North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, Ohio State — loaded with big-time playmakers.

We've got some lower-tier schools like Iona and Cleveland State with some quality talent, which will almost surely translate into some huge upsets come March Madness.

And there are so many teams loaded with highly skilled young players playing big minutes (Kentucky again, Arizona) that the season promises to feature a steady dose of unpredictability.

If you haven't yet jumped into the season, let me catch you up with some lessons and observations:

* North Carolina is absolutely the favorite to win the championship. They are loaded. And though you can never put it past a John Calipari team to flame out to a disciplined and experience team with lesser talent, Kentucky still has to be considered a strong favorite for a Final Four spot, along with Ohio State.

* Kansas, which lost to Kentucky by 10, will be fine through the regular season, but they are not Final Four-caliber. They don't have the talent inside to deal with the top teams in the nation.

* Florida freshman guard Brad Beal leads the Gators in minutes at over 31 per game, is second in points per game (16.3), third in rebounding (5.0), and second in steals (1.5). Not only that, but he's only committed seven turnovers in 127 minutes of play time. Kentucky's Anthony Davis may be a lock as the first pick in next year's NBA draft (assuming there is one), but Beal will give him a serious run for biggest impact by a freshman in the SEC.

* Michigan State may have gone 0-2 against the Kings of the ACC (Duke and UNC), but those were 80 minutes of invaluable teaching time for Tom Izzo. Keep an eye on how the Spartans develop — this team could be very sneaky come March. Their true road game at Gonzaga on Dec. 10 will provide a good measuring stick.

* Watch out for Arizona in the Pac-12. They've trailed in each of their wins — over Valparaiso, Duquesne, Ball State, and St. John's, but come back in the second half of each. They weren't able to overcome Mississippi State in the finals of the Cancer is Bad Classic, and Sean Miller is still figuring out his rotation without Derrick Williams and LaMont Jones, but when you have a mix of experience and talented young guys, have a half-dozen players who can hit the three, a couple of bangers down low, and have a great teaching coach in Miller, you've got a chance (and a run-on sentence).

(By the way, if you haven't read Dana O'Neil's piece on Kevin Parrom, you should. It's much better than this column.)

* Speaking of teams to watch out for, keep a close eye on Alabama. They blocked 14 shots against a good Wichita State team, then held Purdue to 35% from the floor to win the Puerto Rico Tip-Off title. Anthony Grant's team is no joke.

* It's not unusual for major-conference programs to lose to schools from lower-tier conferences at this time of year (Presbyterian over Cincinnati, anyone?), but UCLA losing to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee — at home no less — borders on the absurd. And now that Ben Howland has suspended star Reeves Nelson for being late to a team meeting, then re-instated him after one game only to have him miss the team flight to Hawaii for the Maui Classic — and then letting him play in the first-round win over Chaminade anyway. He's at risk of totally losing credibility with his team.

Translation: UCLA is screwed. This has the potential to turn into an unmitigated disaster that would cost less well-established coaches their paychecks.

* While I don't think Howland is at risk of losing his job with the Bruins, Southern Illinois' Chris Lowery and LSU's Trent Johnson will be lucky to last the season. The Salukis have lost to Ohio Dominican, St. Louis, and Northeastern, and will be lucky to finish in the middle of a strong Missouri Valley Conference. LSU, meanwhile, has lost to Coastal Carolina and Northwestern, although they at least beat Georgia Tech on Sunday. The Southern Illinois loss to SLU doesn't look as bad in the wake of St. Louis' beat-down of Washington over the weekend (a mild shocker), but there is no reason for either Southern Illinois or LSU to expect anything less than sub-mediocrity for as long as either coach remains at the helm.

* Oh, and since we're on the subject of coaches on their last breath, Southern California's Kevin O'Neill had to be even more apoplectic than normal after the Trojans lost 42-36 to Cal Poly. That was after a double-overtime loss to Nebraska and a two-point loss to San Diego State. There have been a lot of bad losses this year, but Cal Poly 42, USC 36 about as pathetic as it gets. Then again, it's a Kevin O'Neill team. Losing your cool and panicking in a tough spot comes with the territory.

* Other notable mid-major wins: Akron at Mississippi State, Cleveland State at Vanderbilt (Vandy streak of untrustworthiness continues), Pepperdine over Arizona State, Montana State over Utah, and of course Long Beach on the road over Pittsburgh.

* If Creighton makes it out of the Missouri Valley, watch out for them as a double-digit seed making an NCAA tournament Sweet 16 run. This team is straight out of the Butler mold, led by sophomore forward Doug McDermott.

* Stop me if you've heard this one before, but the West Coast Conference looks to be a two-horse race between Gonzaga and Saint Mary's again. It'll be interesting to see if BYU's entrance into the mix makes a difference. Oh Jimmer, where art thou Jimmer?

* Game I really wish I'd seen: Oregon State 100-95 over Texas in overtime. The Beavers got 37 points and 9 rebounds from junior guard Jared Cunningham, who hit 20-of-23 free throws in the effort. With a fairly easy schedule after Monday's last-minute 64-62 loss to Vanderbilt, Oregon State could be looking at heading into Pac-12 play at 11-1.

* St. John's is very talented and athletic, but they play with a lack of control and maturity. Basically, they're Memphis last year, except instead of getting to learn playing a Conference USA schedule, they have to play a Big East schedule. Best case is they get to make a deep NIT run, then get all their guys to come back.

And as for Memphis this year, their 73-61 loss to Michigan on Monday showed precision and execution still beats raw athleticism in college basketball. That game should prove to be a great coaching tool for Tigers coach Josh Pastner. We'll see whether his players have the ability and willingness to learn the lesson.

* Because sharing is caring — NC State had 26 assists on 33 made field goals in a 30-point blowout win over Morehead State, then 14 assists on 20 made field goals in a 77-74 comeback win over Texas on Monday. The Wolfpack have assists on over 66% of their made field goals, and lead the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.4. I'm not saying NC State is going to challenge Duke and North Carolina for the ACC title, but this is a much better team than they're getting credit for (not a single vote in either poll this week).

I know we're in the midst of football nirvana. There's Thanksgiving football, which ranks only second to the first weekend of the NCAA tournament in my rankings of favorite sports days. There's the mad dash to BCS Armageddon starting this Friday with LSU/Arkansas, then continuing on Saturday with Alabama/Auburn and Notre Dame/Stanford. So I can understand if a few early-season college hoops games haven't crossed your sports radar just yet.

But know this — college hoops is off to a great start. And when they put away the footballs after the Super Bowl and there's no NBA to turn to, college basketball will be there to fill the void.

Now there's something to be thankful for.

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