Posted: Tuesday November 29, 2005 12:43PM; Updated: Tuesday November 29, 2005 12:43PM
Return of the Pickoff
Last year, I decided to add a Friday column pitting me against my faithful Hoop Thoughts readers. The idea was to select 10 games at the start of the week and invite a reader to predict the scores of all 10. Then, I would pick those same 10 games, and we'd keep track of who was more successful throughout the season. Well, it should have dawned on me that there are thousands, indeed millions of faithful readers of this very space, and I am but one writer. I was out-numbered and, in the end, out-picked. The final tally was: readers 75-43, me 72-46.
Now I am back for my redemption, beginning with this weekend's games. Once again, I ask my readers to abide by the standard ground rules. Pick a SCORE for each game, not just a winner. Give me a few sentences explaining your pick on the Featured Game only. If you want to increase your chances of being picked, tell me your favorite song by The Radiators. And finally, personal cheap shots are not appreciated, unless they're directed at Grant Wahl.
Check back Friday to see the first edition of this season's Pickoff. Here are the games I've selected: Featured game: Oklahoma at Villanova
Other games: North Carolina at Kentucky
Arizona at Houston
Memphis at Cincinnati
Georgetown at Oregon
Nevada at Pacific
Michigan at Notre Dame
Virginia Tech at Duke
Gonzaga at Washington
Virginia at Georgia Tech
Seth Davis will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his Hoop Thoughts column.
Most Iowa State fans probably looked at the team's schedule and saw some easy wins early -- home dates against Iona and Northern Iowa, a road date with Drake. On Saturday night, however, those fans got a dose of reality when their Cyclones lost to Iona by 17 points. More comeuppance could be on the way: Northern Iowa, which visits Ames on Tuesday night, is 3-0 and has all five starters back from an NCAA tournament team. Drake, whom Iowa State plays on Dec. 5, almost knocked off eighth-ranked Boston College last week in Las Vegas before losing, 87-84.
Iowa State is far from the only power-conference school falling to mid-majors these days. Bucknell, the Patriot League team which slew Kansas in last year's NCAA tournament, won at Syracuse, 74-69, on Nov. 22. Winthrop knocked off Marquette in Milwaukee on Nov. 19, the same night UC-Irvine beat Stanford in Palo Alto. Drexel, meanwhile, put a scare into Duke and should have beaten UCLA last week at the preseason NIT. Wichita State took No. 12 Illinois to the wire last Friday before losing by one.
Take a look around the country. Nevada is ranked No. 20 in this week's AP poll. Bucknell, Northern Iowa and Hawaii are in the top tier of "others receiving votes." Old Dominion, Creighton, Ohio U. and Utah State can play with anyone. And, lest we forget, Gonzaga, which is currently ranked sixth and looking like a Final Four team, plays not in a power league but in the West Coast Conference.
What does all this mean? I believe it means we are in a genuine Golden Age for mid-major schools. This is not a one-year phenomenon. It is a fundamental change in the national hoops landscape that has been a decade in the making -- most notably since the NCAA reduced the scholarship limit per team from 15 in 1992 to 13 in 1994. "I've never seen anything quite like this. I'm telling you, anybody can beat anybody," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim says. "I guarantee you we didn't play that badly against Bucknell. The so-called mid-majors have moved up and the top teams have dropped quite a bit. These [mid-major] teams are pretty good now, and there's not just a few of them. There's a bunch."
To be sure, as a group, the mid-major schools will never completely eclipse the big boys' advantage in recruiting and scheduling. But there are three main reasons why the middies have been able to close the gap:
1. The talent differential isn't as big as you think.
Sure, the Dukes and Arizonas will have first dibs on the top 30 high school seniors every year, but there are plenty of guys who fall through the cracks -- only to end up being better college players than their higher-ranked counterparts. "A lot of times, the perimeter players at mid-major schools are just as good as the ones at high-major schools," Iowa State coach Wayne Morgan says.
Morgan correctly points out that the elite schools usually have better big men, but there are also numerous examples of mid-majors succeeding with big-man "projects" whom the power schools passed on. This is particularly true of foreign players like Bucknell's Chris McNaughton, a 6-11 junior center from Germany, and Old Dominion's Alex Loughton, a 6-9 senior forward from Australia. Mid-majors also excel at finding undersized post players whose guile and toughness make up for their lack of height. Current San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, who is 6-4, was just such a player when he led Kent State to the Elite Eight in 2002.