On Newstands Now: The 2010-11 College Basketball Season
The college basketball annual preview magazines have arrived -- and, thus, so has college basketball season.
Devotees of the publications they deem, on one level or another, as the "bibles'' of the sport have never needed to wait for Midnight Madness or the official start of preseason practice to start immersing themselves in the upcoming season. The familiar, thick, stats-and-features-packed magazines -- in this instance, from The Sporting News (which took over the Street & Smith's brand a few years ago), Lindy's and Athlon -- appeared on bookstand shelves and in mailboxes a few weeks ago. The exception is the well-regarded Blue Ribbon yearbook, which was scheduled to ship Monday but has already released its Top 25 and All-America teams.
The aficionados may or may not have already pored over these volumes by now; nevertheless, this preview to the previews should serve them well. At some 200 pages each, the magazines can benefit from a little summarizing of their key predictions, prognostications and analysis. Just as a warm-up, of course, not to lure readers away from spending their money their instead of clicking here.
According to the aforementioned four full-fledged preview publications -- and the college basketball preview in November's issue of SLAM, which covers a wider range of basketball topics but in this case predicted only the Top 25 -- this is what fans can expect from the 2010-11 season in these categories:
Your national champion: Duke, in a landslide. All but The Sporting News (TSN, for brevity's sake) say the Blue Devils will become the second program in the last 19 seasons to repeat as NCAA champs. TSN picks Michigan State. They're also in widespread agreement on ...
The Final Four: All five magazines see Duke and Michigan State making return engagements (the Spartans fell to Butler in last year's semifinal). Four, all but Blue Ribbon, also have Purdue, which has all its key players back from a team headed for a No. 1 seed until Robbie Hummel tore his ACL in late February. Blue Ribbon and SLAM see Pittsburgh making it to Houston in April; TSN and Athlon envision Kansas, Lindy's says Kansas State makes it, and Blue Ribbon puts Ohio State in it.
Best player: Surprisingly, none picked a player of the year. But their All-America teams reveal plenty, such as the only player to make the first team in TSN, Lindy's, Athlon and Blue Ribbon: Duke forward Kyle Singler. SLAM did not pick an All-America team, and technically, neither did Lindy's -- it chose to rate the top players at each position, and Singler was its No. 1 at small forward. Other popular picks: Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen and BYU guard Jimmer Fredette on three of the four, while Kansas forward Marcus Morris and Purdue center JaJuan Johnson appear on two. Georgia center Trey Thompkins gets first-team love from Athlon and second-team respect from two others. Virginia Tech guard Malcolm Delaney is near-unanimous as a second-team All-American.
Best proof that timing is everything: Popping up on several of the first and second teams is Baylor guard LaceDarius Dunn, because no one could have predicted by the early publication date that he would be arrested this month on domestic violence charges, suspended from classes and questionable for the season.
Top freshmen: TSN is so impressed by the incoming class that it puts three members among its first two All-America teams. North Carolina's Harrison Barnes is on the first team, and Duke's Kyrie Irving and Ohio State's Jared Sullinger are on the second. Barnes tops Athlon's list of impact freshman, while Lindy's goes with Rivals.com's tabbing of Kansas' Josh Selby as the No. 1 incoming player.
Top sophomore: Lindy's position ratings say that the best power forward in college basketball this season will be ... North Carolina's John Henson. Not an enormous leap of faith for one of the most highly-touted recruits of last season -- but pretty big for a player who, last year, wasn't really a "power'' anything. Word is that the slender Henson bulked up since last season, and will be much more of a force inside than his aborted efforts as a long small forward. Besides, any debate about whether Henson was a tall "three'' or a wiry "four'' ended when Barnes, a natural small forward, announced he was coming to Chapel Hill.
Tar Heel turnaround: Speaking of North Carolina -- which went from NCAA champion to NIT runner-up in one disastrous meltdown of a season -- everybody's buying into its bounce-back. Unranked (and deservedly so) at the end of last season and with five players either graduating, transferring or going pro, the Heels are picked sixth (SLAM and Lindy's), eighth (TSN and Blue Ribbon) and 12th (Athlon). How these predictions might have gone if, again, the magazines had a crystal ball and foreseen senior swingman Will Graves getting kicked off the team last week, is anyone's guess.
Best conferences: As usual, it depends on one's criteria. Athlon says that in this first year of the 68-team NCAA field, nine Big East teams will make the cut. TSN sees eight from the Big East going. The consensus is that the Big Ten will get seven bids; the Big 12 will send six or seven. There's no faith, again, in the Pac-10 -- Lindy's is the most generous with four choices. As for actual tournament success ... this has the makings of an ACC-Big Ten stampede, with all the choices of Duke, Michigan State and Purdue getting to the Final Four. Lindy's sees the Big Ten getting four into the Sweet 16, and Athlon has three going to the Elite Eight (TSN, Athlon and Lindy's predicted the whole tournament field, with the latter two then picking results all the way to the final).
Major-conference champs: SLAM's picks are gleaned from its rankings; Blue Ribbon's choices in the ACC and Pac-10 have been released pre-publication and the rest come from its rankings, and the other magazines all pick the league races. Unanimous choices come from the ACC (Duke) and Pac-10 (Washington). A near-unanimous pick comes from the SEC (Florida in four magazines, Kentucky in TSN). Split decisions arise in the Big 12 (three for Kansas State, two for Kansas) and Big Ten (three for Purdue, two for Michigan State). Three different schools get tabbed to win the Big East -- three like Pitt, TSN goes with Syracuse, Athlon says Villanova.
Mid-major calls: Gonzaga is the favorite to do best -- three have the Bulldogs ranked 11th, the highest for a mid-major in their polls. TSN puts them at 14th (behind No. 12 Memphis), Lindy's at 16th (behind No. 8 Butler). Speaking of last year's "Hoosiers'' re-enactment, only Blue Ribbon fails to rank Butler. BYU is ranked in all but TSN, which also goes against the grain and passes on ranking Temple. Athlon says six mid-majors are top-25 caliber: the aforementioned five plus Richmond. Both Athlon (Temple and Gonzaga) and Lindy's (Butler and Gonzaga) put two mid-majors in the Sweet 16.
Major vs. mid-major in the expanded field: Among the three magazines that predict the field of 68, the final verdict is more of the same, and even a little bit less. Last March, eight of the 34 at-large bids to the 65-team bracket went to mid-majors. This time around? TSN and Lindy's say that with three extra berths, 37 in all, one fewer non-major program gets in -- they each pick seven mid-majors. Athlon is even more pessimistic, calling for six at-larges. In other words, the fears of the smaller schools when expansion was first discussed will be justified: Cinderella is going to have a harder time getting her slipper.