Who'll be the
player of the year? The next George Mason? This year's Florida? Here are
answers to college hoops' key questions
THIS WEEK marks
the midway point of conference play, when college hoops heads into the final
turn toward March. Here are seven pressing questions facing the field.
Who are the
leading candidates for national player of the year?
This year's race doesn't have the same focused suspense as last year's battle
between J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison, but it does promise to be the most
wide-open POY scramble in recent memory. Wisconsin forward Alando Tucker (who
was averaging 19.6 points and 4.9 rebounds at week's end), Nevada forward Nick
Fazekas (20.4 points, 11.6 rebounds) and Oregon point guard Aaron Brooks (19.1
points, 4.5 assists), all seniors, each can make a strong case for the honors,
but a pair of freshmen are closing fast. Greg Oden, Ohio State's 7-foot center,
has averaged 15.6 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.6 blocks while shooting 63.7% from
the floor—despite playing with a brace on his right wrist, after undergoing
off-season surgery that kept him out of action until Dec. 2—and Texas forward
Kevin Durant has averaged 24.4 points and 11.0 rebounds. But if you want a
sleeper pick, how about Butler guard A.J. Graves? The 6'1" junior has
scored 18.8 points per game for the 19--2 Bulldogs (missing just three of his
101 free throws along the way) and has been even better in the clutch,
averaging 22.3 points in wins over Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee and
Can a team that starts three freshmen win a national championship?
Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara started as freshmen for Syracuse's 2003
champs, but three first-year starters make it even harder to win. However, if
any tenderfoot trio can break through, it's North Carolina's Wayne Ellington,
Tywon Lawson and Brandan Wright, who account for 42% of the scoring and 41% of
the assists for the 18--2 Tar Heels. The only Final Four contender younger than
the Heels is Texas, which has six freshmen among its top eight scorers.
Can UConn get it together?
The Huskies have won two national titles in the last eight years and have
missed just three NCAA tournaments since 1990, but after falling to 2--5 in the
Big East with last Saturday's 84--72 loss to Providence, they might not even
make the conference tournament. (Only the league's top 12 teams play in the Big
East tournament.) UConn doesn't start any upperclassmen, and even its
sophomores (such as point guard A.J. Price, who did not play for two seasons
because of illness and suspension) are woefully inexperienced. The Huskies
(13--7) still have plenty of time to make a late rush, but with a nonconference
strength-of-schedule ranked 237th, they will not get the benefit of the doubt
if they are on the bubble come Selection Sunday.
Who is this year's Florida?
Many people forget that when the NCAA tournament began last season, the Gators
were ranked 11th in the AP poll. If you're looking for a modestly ranked team
that has the chops to make a similar surge to the crown, you could do worse
than No. 14 Marquette. The Golden Eagles dropped their first two Big East games
to Providence and Syracuse, but they have since rebounded with six straight
wins, including a 77--74 overtime victory at then No. 6 Pittsburgh on Jan. 21.
With a trio of speedy guards, led by dynamic 5'11" sophomore point guard
Dominic James, Marquette has the ability to create mismatches regardless of
whom it plays.
Can another George Mason make a miracle run to the Final Four?
Virginia Commonwealth, which sits atop George Mason's conference, the Colonial
Athletic Association, with a 10--0 record (18--3 overall), has Cinderella
potential. First-year coach Anthony Grant has brought the same up-tempo,
pass-happy system to VCU that he learned from Billy Donovan as a Florida
assistant for the last 10 seasons. The Rams are smallish up front (none of
their top seven scorers are taller than 6'7"), but they can spread the
floor and give opponents fits with a three-guard offense that features 6'2"
senior B.A. Walker (15.9 points per game), 6'4" senior Jesse Pellot-Rosa
(14.4) and 6'2" sophomore Eric Maynor (14.3). That formula worked well for
the Patriots, who nearly went all the way with a similarly strong backcourt
trio of Lamar Butler, Tony Skinn and Folarin Campbell.
Will other mid-majors make another strong showing in the NCAA tournament?
If anything, the pool of talented mid-majors is even deeper this year. Butler,
Air Force (19--3) and Nevada (19--2) have spent most of this season ranked in
the Top 25, while Oral Roberts (which shocked No. 3 Kansas), Gonzaga (which
beat No. 2 North Carolina), Missouri State (which stunned No. 7 Wisconsin) and
Wichita State (which outlasted sixth-ranked LSU) have all shown that they can
sting a heavy favorite. The Missouri Valley Conference, which last year sent
Wichita State and Bradley to the Sweet 16, again may be difficult to reckon
with. The league has five teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI, led by No. 10
Southern Illinois (17--5).
Just how bad is the Big Ten?
Only once in the last 23 years has the Big Ten sent fewer than five teams to
the NCAA tournament. That was in 2004, when it got three bids. With only
Wisconsin (21--1), Ohio State (18--3) and Indiana (15--5) assured of berths
this year, it's possible the conference could repeat that dubious feat this
ONLY AT SI.COM
Seth Davis's Hoop Thoughts every Tuesday and Thursday.