It’s College Basketball Season!

As we draw toward the unexciting close of what can only be described as a woeful college football season, it’s high time we shifted our sights to the only flawless sport left in America: college basketball. Oh sure, the naysayers point out a deterioration in the quality of play, the untenability of the one-and-done rule, and recruiters’ blatant disregard for the rules.

But college basketball is the only sport that manages to maintain a meaningful regular season and an exciting postseason (and doesn’t kill its players, ruling out the NFL). It’s played in the loudest environments in the country and has been, for most of the last decade, the most intriguing sport to watch on an everyday basis.*

*Little-celebrated fact: Thanks to really low ratings (and, you know, its lockout), the NHL wasn’t renewed on ESPN in the middle of the decade, freeing up time every night of the week for college basketball on the Worldwide Leader.

Here are the six best storylines of the 2009-2010 season:

1. Uncertainty!

I know, we all pretended like there was some doubt last year. We all pretended that North Carolina—by somehow bringing back ALL of its players from a Final Four team the year before—might not win it all. We all pretended that maybe there’d be some chemistry problems, that maybe those two early losses to Wake Forest and Boston College were signs of things to come, and that maybe injuries to Marcus Ginyard and Tyler Zeller were harbingers of a season that wouldn’t go right.

But we all knew deep down that the odds of the Tar Heels losing in the Tournament were slim to none. Even Barack Obama picked them to win, and from what I hear, that guy hasn’t done anything right since. Not only did UNC win it all, but they did so without being seriously challenged. Their biggest scare in the NCAA Tournament came from LSU in the second round.

Those same two paragraphs pretty much apply to Florida’s championship season in 2007. And that’s why it’s refreshing this year, where, even with a fairly consensus No. 1 in Kansas, it feels a lot more open at the top. No consensus All-Americans are back this season, with only second-teamers Sherron Collins and Luke Harangody returning (the latter to an NIT team).

Kansas is the favorite, but there are a boatload of contenders, including…

2. Butler!

Wait, what?

Butler—you know, that school in Indianapolis with the cool gym from Hoosiers (it’s called Hinkle Fieldhouse)—enters the season as a top-ten team for the first time. In fact, Butler enters the season as a ranked team for the first time. You may remember that the Bulldogs were a Sweet 16 team in 2003 and 2007 and pushed Tennessee to overtime in Round 2 in 2008. With a young team last year, they won 26 games and lost in the first round to LSU.*

*Butler’s last three Tourney losses have all come to SEC teams.

The Bulldogs return just about everyone from last year’s squad, including Horizon Player of the Year Matt Howard—a triumph of fundamentals over athleticism in the post. Butler also has swingman Gordon Hayward, whose freshman year last season reminded me a lot of Adam Morrison’s freshman campaign at Gonzaga.*

*I’m not saying Hayward will be as good as Morrison was in college. When Morrison was a freshman, I just remember thinking, “This guy is really good.” I didn’t foresee 28 ppg game good or third overall pick good or crying before the end of his last game good. All I’m saying is that Gordon Hayward looks really good himself.

Butler has also gone out and made itself a major non-conference schedule that includes games with Northwestern, Minnesota, Georgetown, Ohio State, and Xavier—not to mention potential contests with UCLA and West Virginia in the 76 Classic. All this raises the question: If Butler manages to survive that run with only a loss or two (very possible; they’ll likely be favored in all but a bout with the Mountaineers), how high a seed can they get in March? Where would a one-loss Butler team fall on the S-curve? More tantalizingly, what if they enter conference play in the mediocre Horizon undefeated? What if they run the table?

This is the best non-power since St. Joe’s in 2004, and their season could be just as intriguing.

3. A Wide Open Big East

With major losses at Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Louisville, and Syracuse, it’s returning semifinalist Villanova and non-traditional West Virginia topping the preseason Big East standings. I think we can all pretty much agree that the Big East is the most fascinating conference on a year-to-year basis because it boasts more than two traditional powers—UConn, Louisville, Syracuse, and Georgetown at least qualify. The annual preseason discussion is whether the Big East can get nine teams into the Tournament, and again, this year is as promising as any, with Cincinnati, St. John’s, and Seton Hall all improving drastically from a season ago. The five days at the Garden in March will be gooooooood watchin’.

4. A Good Big Ten

Thanks largely to Ohio State’s BCS failings, the Big Ten’s reputation as a competent football conference has really taken a hit in recent years. Somewhat strangely, not only did that perception translate to the hardwood, but so did the reasoning: The Big Ten was too slow in both sports. It couldn’t stop the spread offense, and it couldn’t score 80 points.

The latter may still hold true, but the conference in basketball—fresh off getting six teams in the Tourney last season—is in the midst of a minor renaissance.* Michigan State returns the core of its runner-up/Detroit-saviors from a year ago (passing that torch on to first the Red Wings in the NHL and then the Tigers in the AL Central). Purdue should fulfill the top-ten promise of last season with a healthy Robbie Hummel, and John Beilein will continue to work his magic at Michigan.** Even Northwestern could contend for its first-ever NCAA Tournament bid.

*Here’s where you point out that it was just 2 ½ years ago that the Big Ten boasted the top two teams in the country—Ohio State and Wisconsin—for much of the season, and I point out that one of those two teams was WISCONSIN.

**Did you know? John Beilein is the best coach in college basketball.

5. Duke’s Caucasian Duo

Can’t go too far here without bringing up the Blue Devils, who suffered three excruciating off-season blows: the departure of Gerald Henderson to the NBA, the loss of John Wall to Kentucky, and the transfer of Elliot Williams to Memphis. As a result, Duke is left with essentially two good players, and they are both very white. Kyle Singler is a preseason All-American, and Jon Scheyer takes over full-time at the point after spending the last dozen games there in 2009. Sure, Nolan Smith is there, but it would be a surprise if he is anything more than a secondary scorer on offense.

This all leads to the question: Who is the last great basketball team whose TWO best players were white? Fittingly, the first team that comes to mind is the 1998 Utah team that advanced to the National Championship and blew a double-digit lead to Kentucky in an underrated finals. But it’s easy to forget those Utes were not led by Keith Van Horn, who graduated a year earlier, but instead by Andre Miller (and Michael Doleac).* This means we have to go back to at least the ’92 Blue Devils with Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley, although most would argue that Grant Hill was at least on the same level as those two.**

*Those tempted to go with the 1998 Utah Jazz and their backcourt of John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek (who I almost called John Havlicek) are forgetting Karl Malone.

**If Henderson had returned, Duke would have had virtually the same dynamic this season as in that ’92 campaign, with their three best players at PG, SF, and PF (with worse players at each position, of course).

I’d venture to say that this Duke team has the chance to be the best team this decade led by two white players—a title currently held by Mike Gansey and Kevin Pittsnogle’s West Virginia squad in 2005 and 2006 (take your pick between those two teams). Their coach? Yeah, John Beilein.

6. The Announcers!

After sitting through McCarver, Buck, and Caray in the month of October, it’s more than refreshing to watch a sport with the best announcers in the business. There’s no analyst who’s more fun than Bill Raftery, regardless of whether he’s working with Verne Lundquist or Sean McDonough, themselves two of the best play-by-play guys in any sport (they both do a fine job in college football, as well).

There’s always a lot to like about Gus Johnson, even if his reputation has gotten a little out of hand lately. Gus is as good as there is calling a frenetic final minute, and Dick Enberg, flawed as he is as he ages, still calls upsets better than anyone.

4 responses to this post.

  1. My first thought was: “yeah, I guess the arrival of Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee is a good story…”


  2. […] Diego State, St. Mary's, UCLA. Leave a Comment Tim has already announced his excitement for the start of the college basketball season. Well, he’s not the only one who’s excited: ESPN is covering college basketball […]


  3. […] Hey Butler! Wha’ happened? I talk you up in the preseason as a team with a chance to enter the Tourney with only a loss or two—hell, maybe even […]


  4. […] know, I know: Last year, I listed “Uncertainty” as the best thing about the 2009-2010 season. But these things go in cycles, and one year after having it wide open at the top, we have a […]


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