- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008

FIVE TEAMS THAT COULD SURPRISE

MINNESOTA

In case anyone was wondering, Tubby Smith can coach, and those 20 wins in his first year in Minneapolis provide plenty of evidence. Granted, the Golden Gophers are operating in a league with plenty of flotsam and jetsam. But even with the plankton to gorge on, Minnesota’s surge from bottom-feeder to possible NCAA bubble team should not go unnoticed.

SAN DIEGO STATE

When a 20-win team returns all five starters, it merits some sort of mention. So it is with the Aztecs, who should factor into the Mountain West title race with BYU and UNLV before the season is through. Forward Lorrenzo Wade does a little bit of everything for Steve Fisher’s team, and the surrounding talent is good enough to make an NCAA berth a possibility.

VANDERBILT

Remember these guys? Kevin Stallings quietly has things rolling in Nashville, Tenn., with back-to-back NCAA tournament berths. That could become three in a row despite the loss of Shan Foster. The nexus of this team is Aussie center A.J. Ogilvy, who figures to provide a steady presence for the Commodores. Vanderbilt resides in the wrong SEC division, but it might not stop it from making a postseason push.

VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH

The golden boy of the 2007 NCAA tournament, Eric Maynor, is still plying his trade for the Rams, who enter the season as the CAA favorites. But the guy who could make this season particularly special in Richmond is sophomore forward Larry Sanders. His size — and the rebounding and shot-blocking skills that come with it — have the potential to make VCU a giant headache come March.

WEST VIRGINIA

The Big East’s No. 9 team could have been so much better if Joe Alexander stayed in school. Instead, his dynamite March made him a lottery pick. But talent remains in Morgantown, and few coaches are capable of cajoling more out of what they’re given than Bob Huggins. Consider this a way of saying the Mountaineers easily could make the pundits look silly and go just as far as they did last season.

FIVE TEAMS THAT WILL DISAPPOINT

ALABAMA

Welcome to college basketball’s answer to “Waiting for Godot.” The Crimson Tide faithful patiently anticipated point guard Ronald Steele coming back at full health, but he didn’t play last year and flirted with the NBA anyway. Unlike Godot, Steele might actually show up. But will he be good enough to send Alabama back to the NCAA tournament and save Mark Gottfried’s job? That’s an ongoing mystery.

ARIZONA

The Wildcats have teetered on the precipice of collapse the past few seasons, yet always seem to find a way to squeeze into the NCAA tournament. Not this time, not after all the commotion surrounding the now-retired Lute Olson’s health and a total staff turnover. Brandon Jennings would have helped if he hadn’t gone to Europe instead, but a decline looks likely this winter.

GEORGIA TECH

The Yellow Jackets are five seasons removed from a national title game appearance, yet not much has gone right beyond a few recruiting coups since then. It’s probably not fair to say a team picked to finish eighth in the ACC will disappoint, but at the same time it’s confusing how so much talent has yielded so little. With questions at shooting guard, it will stay that way.

LSU

Are the Tigers talented? Sure. But it’s a little odd to hear a bunch of preseason hype about a team that went 13-18 a season ago in a division that isn’t particularly daunting. LSU should be better after making a coaching upgrade and bringing in Trent Johnson from Stanford, but even in the weak SEC West, it’s difficult to envision this being an NCAA tournament team.

MARQUETTE

The Golden Eagles were one of the easiest teams in the country to slot last year; they generally lost to the Big East’s elite but handled weak teams with aplomb. A good chunk of that team returns, particularly in the backcourt, but it remains difficult to envision Marquette keeping pace with the upper echelon teams in its own league. It just isn’t a top-15 team, even if plenty of fans and some voters feel differently.

FIVE COACHES WHO NEED TO WIN

Bill Carmody, Northwestern

This will be Carmody’s ninth season in Evanston, Ill., and here’s betting he doesn’t make his first NCAA tournament with the Wildcats this winter. It’s no crime Carmody hasn’t pulled a Captain Kirk and gone where no man has gone before; no coach has coaxed an NCAA berth out of the Wildcats. But at some point enough losses pile up that you just have to make a change.

Bobby Gonzalez, Seton Hall

If Bob Knight’s dark side proved anything, it’s that questionable behavior will be tolerated when you (a) win and (b) don’t completely antagonize a major decision-maker at your school. Gonzalez is 30-31 in two years and has a strained relationship with athletic director Joe Quinlan. Ruh roh! A .500 season might not be enough to get Gonzalez a fourth year.

Jeff Lebo, Auburn

The nice thing about working at a football school is four middling basketball seasons can be ignored. But, with the Tigers struggling on the gridiron and a new arena under construction, Lebo might be expected to lift Auburn in the SEC’s weaker division. Both Lebo and Georgia’s Dennis Felton are on the so-called hot seat, but at least Felton’s Bulldogs made the NCAA tournament last year.

Sidney Lowe, N.C. State

Patience is not a virtue of the Wolfpack’s fan base. The days of 20-win seasons and NCAA tournament appearances under Herb Sendek suddenly evoke a certain bit of nostalgia in Raleigh. Lowe presided over a surprisingly rough season in his second year on the job and might just need a significant surge to keep himself on the sideline.

Norm Roberts, St. John’s

The monster that is the Big East is sure to swallow one or two coaches every year; Roberts looks like the surest bet this season this season. The Red Storm finally have made up some of the talent deficit created by the tumultuous end of the Mike Jarvis years, but there’s little margin for error. This is Roberts’ fifth season, and it could well be his last.

FIVE DIFFERENCE-MAKING NEW COACHES

Tom Crean, Indiana

This one will take a while, but the Hoosiers might finally have found the long-term replacement for Bob Knight. It wasn’t Mike Davis, and it sure wasn’t Kelvin Sampson. Crean is in for a difficult first season since he inherits virtually no holdovers, but give him a couple years on the recruiting trail and the Hoosiers will be back at the top of the Big Ten.

Trent Johnson, LSU

Here’s the book on the Tigers: Athletes all over the place with hardly any significant plan to mesh them all together. Eventually, Johnson will change that reputation. There’s no shortage of talent in Louisiana and adjacent Texas, so there are some fertile recruiting grounds to work with. Johnson won at Nevada and Stanford and will in Baton Rouge, too — though maybe not just yet.

Derek Kellogg, Massachusetts

It’s a heck of a homecoming in Amherst, where one of the Minutemen’s stars from the 1990s returns to begin his head coaching career. Kellogg played under John Calipari at UMass, then served his old coach at Memphis. Expect the Minutemen to incorporate some of the flair of a Calipari team and resume contending for Atlantic 10 titles for the first time in a decade.

Mike Montgomery, California

Straight from the “old faces, new places” file, Montgomery stays in the Bay Area for his return to the college game. His NBA dalliance with Golden State didn’t work, but Montgomery still has a few good seasons left in him. Since no one in the Pac-10 but UCLA is entrenched as an annual contender, the Golden Bears soon could be a regular in the top half of the standings.

Craig Robinson, Oregon State

Meet President-elect Barack Obama’s favorite coach. Of course, Robinson is also Obama’s brother-in-law — and he even got to speak at the Democratic convention in August. That high-profile connection already has infused far more interest in the Beavers than years and years of losing capped by an 0-18 run through the Pac-10 last year. If nothing else, Robinson makes Oregon State relevant.

SIX NONCONFERENCE GAMES WORTH THE PRICE OF ADMISSION

Dec. 2: Duke at Purdue

Dec. 3: North Carolina vs. Michigan State in Detroit

Dec. 4: UCLA at Texas

Dec. 13: Memphis at Georgetown

Dec. 20: Connecticut vs. Gonzaga in Seattle

Feb. 7: Notre Dame at UCLA

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