Top leagues will dominate men's college hoops

Posted: Sunday, November 07, 2004

The premier conferences will live up to their reputations this college basketball season, not only dominating the Top 25 but gobbling up most of the at-large berths to the NCAA tournament.

That means there will be some great conference matchups during the regular season, but the mid-major conferences may feel pinched when it comes to NCAA tournament selections.

The Atlantic Coast Conference is top heavy with Wake Forest, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Duke. The Big East has Syracuse and defending champion Connecticut. The Big 12 has Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma State.

Michigan State and Illinois are the headliners in the Big Ten. The Pac-10 has Arizona and Stanford, and Conference USA has Louisville and Memphis. The Southeastern Conference has a top threesome of Mississippi State, Kentucky and Florida.

''There are 30 or 40 teams that could be in the Top 20,'' Syracuse's Jim Boeheim said. ''That's not just a coach complaining, that's a fact of life.''

This season also features more changes in conference lineups. The Atlantic Coast Conference goes to 11 teams with the additions of Miami and Virginia Tech from the Big East. And next season is when the real shuffling starts with the Big East, the Atlantic 10 and Conference USA undergoing major changes.

There won't be any significant rules changes this season, although a wider lane and a more distant 3-point line will be experimented with in some early games.

As always in college basketball, the coaches draw most of the attention as the season approaches.

Cincinnati's Bob Huggins was suspended by the school after a DUI arrest in June, but he's back with the Bearcats looking for a final Conference USA title, his ninth in 10 seasons, and a 14th straight NCAA tournament spot.

Larry Eustachy gets his second chance at Southern Mississippi. A recovering alcoholic, he was hired less than a year after he resigned at Iowa State when photographs were published showing him at a college party holding a can of beer and with one arm wrapped around a coed.

''Sometimes until you totally bottom out, you don't really see what's going on in your life,'' Eustachy said. ''I hit rock bottom with nobody to blame but myself.''

At least one coach gets to take a farewell tour this season.

This will be Gene Keady's 25th and final season at Purdue. His successor already has been chosen Matt Painter, who played under Keady and was head man at Southern Illinois, will be next to him as an assistant every game.

''It's been great, I've really enjoyed it,'' Keady said. ''I like the way things are going. Now if we win at the level I want to, things will be perfect.''

The same arrangement will be going on at Oklahoma State but Eddie Sutton, 68, hasn't said when he will turn the program over to his son, Sean.

''I want him to coach as long as he wants to coach,'' Sean Sutton said. ''He deserves that.''

Three familiar faces won't be in front of a college bench this season. Rick Majerus of Utah and Don DeVoe of Navy retired, while Mike Montgomery left Stanford for the NBA's Golden State Warriors.

Among the 38 new Division I coaches this offseason, one has a very familiar name John Thompson III went from Princeton to Georgetown, the school his father brought to national prominence in the 1980s.

Two first-team All-Americans return from last season forwards Lawrence Roberts of Mississippi State and Ryan Gomes of Providence. Two others could have, but Emeka Okafor of Connecticut and Josh Childress of Stanford left early for the NBA. And four high school players were lottery draft picks.

This year should see an end to the Atlantic 10's two-year run on national players of the year. David West of Xavier and Jameer Nelson of Saint Joseph's were runaway winners the last two seasons, but the league doesn't have anyone on that level this season.

Saint Joseph's could be in for the biggest fall, even if the Hawks have a good season. In 2003-04 they didn't lose until the conference tournament and rose to No. 1 in the country, pretty heady ground for a small Catholic school in Philadelphia.

''Last year was magical, but it's over. We've got to forget it,'' forward John Bryant said. ''It's not going to help us win any games. We can remember what we did and move forward.''

A small Catholic school from Spokane, Wash., should keep its place with the big boys. Gonzaga, which was ranked as high as No. 3 last season, has two starters back and a brand new building to replace the 4,000-seat Kennel.

Missouri also will have a new building, as a $75 million arena replaces the Hearnes Center. This week, the program was put on three years' probation for NCAA recruiting violations. There was no ban on postseason play, but the infractions committee took away three scholarships over two years and limited all basketball coaches to recruiting on campus until November 2005, a ban the NCAA had not used since 1990.

The nation's leading scorer last season is back. Keydren Clark, a 5-foot-9 junior, averaged 26.7 points for Saint Peter's.

Connecticut opens defense of its second national championship in five years without Okafor and Ben Gordon, underclassmen who were the second and third picks in the NBA draft. But coach Jim Calhoun still has plenty of returning talent, especially in the front court.

''With some teams you get a good feeling and I had it here as a freshman,'' Huskies forward Charlie Villaneuva said. ''I'm getting that feeling again.''

The title will be decided April 4 in St. Louis. The last time the Final Four was held there was in 1978, when champion Kentucky, Duke, Arkansas and Notre Dame were there.

Schools from power conferences played on that final weekend in 1978 and that sounds like what should happen again this season.

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