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20 things we’ve learned in 2008 …

We’ve completed the 2008 part of the ’08-’09 NCAA men’s basketball schedule.  Before we look forward, let’s look back and see 20 things we’ve learned through the first two months.     

We’ve learned …

1)  North Carolina is strong as advertised.  The Tar Heels’ depth and talent puts them on a level by themselves – as any “eye test” proves.  So, yes, UNC is still the favorite to win it all.

2) Less than we should about teams like … Illinois State (No. 273 SOS), Wake Forest (No. 278), Baylor (No. 236), Texas A & M (No. 215), Creighton (No. 268), Penn State (No. 293), Stanford (No. 187), Southern Cal (No. 170), and even Notre Dame (No. 201).  We’re not saying the Irish can’t contend in the top half of the Big East, we’ve just seen nothing to suggest they won’t be middle of the pack.  If you break down the Irish, they are 1-2 (Texas, North Carolina, Ohio State) against teams ranked under 100 in the RPI.  Now, beating Texas counts for a lot and the ND can score with anyone (if the 3s are falling).  But can they defend?

3) Wake Forest can beat Baylor on a neutral court.  Can they beat BYU in Salt Lake City and play with North Carolina in Winston-Salem?  Those are the Deacons’ next two opponents.

4) Baylor can beat Arizona State on a neutral court, and they are winning by wide margins in other games.  But the Bears only Top 100 wins are the State’s (Arizona and Portland).  Baylor has also played only one true road game (win @ Washington State).

5) Louisville is off to another slow start.  Our faith in the Cardinals’ ability to rebound in January and February is waning.  Pitino is a great coach, but right now, the Cardinals are out-of-sync at both ends of the floor.  The game against rival Kentucky this weekend looms large.

6) Arizona State looks like a team that’s over-ranked.  Not that polls mean a whole lot (especially at this point), but the Sun Devils just don’t have the “look” of a strong team.  Perhaps they are just inconsistent.  But we’re not sold on BYU and that’s the best win ASU has to date.

7) Illinois and Butler are the two biggest surprises.  The Illini were 16-19 last year and field a team that was supposed to be rebuilding.  Yet, they are two points (Clemson) from being undefeated with wins at Purdue and over Missouri.  Butler graduated five seniors and is 10-1 with a three-point loss at Ohio State (before David Lighty’s injury).  They also won at Xavier and just beat UAB at home.

8) Gonzaga lacks mental toughness and defense.  The Zags have enough talent to be a Top-3 seed, but currently miss the desire and defense to be consistent.  Before losing four of five, they struggled to beat Indiana at Lucas Oil Stadium.  If the Bulldogs played every game as if the other team was Connecticut, they’d have at least two fewer losses.

9) Purdue’s free-throw shooting could be problematic.  They are shooting .698 as a team and were 15 of 27 in the home loss to Illinois.  That’s a formula for losing close games. 

10) The Big East won’t get 10 teams in the tournament and maybe not even nine.  With West Virginia healthy, these teams should be in the NCAA conversation … Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Connecticut, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Louisville, Marquette, West Virginia, and Villanova.  That’s nine.  No one else fits the profile.  It won’t surprise us to lose one of the contenders.  Marquette and Villanova lack any inside power and may struggle when games get physical.

11) The Big 10 is much improved.  Overall, the ACC and Big East are better, but the Big 10 has to be next.  The improvements from Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota are the reasons why.  Teams in NCAA consideration include: Michigan State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan and Minnesota.  That’s remarkable. 

12) The Big 12 is top heavy.  Texas and Oklahoma are very good.  Baylor could be there (we just don’t know).  After that, it gets a bit questionable.  Others in the mix are Missouri, Texas A&M, and Kansas.  Can we say with confidence that any of the three will make it?

13) The Pac-10 and SEC aren’t very strong.  There are more questions than answered.  If you take away UCLA, Arizona State, and Tennessee, what do you have?  Now, these conferences will earn more than two bids (total).  But there are too many questions to know whom.  Stanford hasn’t played anyone, Arizona can’t win away from home, Southern Cal is an enigma, California’s had a nice start, but lacks speed.  In the SEC, Kentucky might be the second best team and they lost to VMI.  Florida hasn’t beaten anyone, but has talent, and other than the upset of Oklahoma at home, Arkansas is young.  LSU lacks a noticeable win.

14) Memphis will win Conference USA despite struggles.  The Tigers are good, but vulnerable.  Then again, UAB has lost any depth and no one else has stepped up.  End of story.

15) Mid-major conferences may fall short when it comes to extra at-large bids.  At this point, the Mountain West appears in the best position with UNLV and BYU (but we’ve already told you our doubts about the Cougars). In the Missouri Valley, Illinois State and Creighton are at the top, but they’ve done nothing out of conference.  The West Coast Conference has Gonzaga and St. Mary’s, but San Diego has fallen away.  And St. Mary’s isn’t a lock.

16) The Atlantic 10 may be a two-team race.  Ironically, neither team is anywhere near the Atlantic.  Xavier and Dayton have separated themselves at this point.  Temple and Rhode Island have a lot of conference work to do.

17) The ACC is a three-tier league.  Carolina  and Duke are at the top; a second level includes Clemson and Wake Forest.  Then you have level three – Florida State, Miami, Maryland and Boston College. 

18) The new three-point line is irrelevant.  One foot doesn’t make much difference for great shooters, and doesn’t deter the others.

19) Several one-bid conference teams could be tough outs in the opening round if they make the field.  This group includes … Portland State (Big Sky), Belmont (Atlantic Sun),  VMI (Big South),  Siena (MAAC), North Dakota State (Summit), and Utah State (WAC).

20) Preseason rankings are brackets are useless.  Okay, so we already knew that one.

Happy New Year.  Thanks to Jerry Palm at CollegeRPI.com for the data. Send us a rebound and see on the road to March Madness – Bracketguy.

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