Battle-tough teams might be trouble in March
Identifying a favorite or two is the easy part. You look at rosters, at statistics, at which teams return or lose the most production. You consider coaching and a program's tradition. You sometimes are influenced by the letters across a uniform's chest or a respected recruiting class.
If all that fails, base everything on cheerleaders.
Either way, more often than not, predicting the top or top two teams of a college basketball conference often is less complicated than first-grade arithmetic. The tough part: forecasting the next best one.
It's no different this season within many of the nation's top leagues. There are favorites -- Duke in the ACC, Villanova and Connecticut in the Big East, Michigan State in the Big Ten, Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12 -- yet all have worthy teams standing directly behind them.
Which makes you wonder which is a more enviable role to play: the favorite who might encounter just a handful of close games before the NCAA Tournament or the lesser-heralded side that, while struggling for parts of the journey, will be better prepared for the rigors of March.
Think about it: Is it better to be 13-3 in the ACC and not pushed much or 10-6 and severely tested when tournament time arrives?
Here are six teams that, over the course of the season, could benefit from being second- (or third-) best in their respective leagues.
Boston College has something all new members of a conference seek: instant credibility. But as extraordinary as last year's 20-0 start seemed, the Eagles never quite convinced America they were a legitimate Final Four contender. Their losing to Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the second round of the NCAAs only validated that skepticism.
But though its record might not reach the 25-5 mark of last year, Al Skinner's team should make the transition from the Big East fairly smoothly. The early conference schedule won't be as trouble-free as the Big East's was in 2004-05, allowing for immediate toughness to develop. If there is a team that at least can make Duke players sit up and concentrate during film sessions, it is BC and its four returning starters.
"I don't know the league well enough to know if [second place] is where we belong [today]," Skinner said. "But I can appreciate the fact of why someone would select us there. The good thing about it is we're coming into this league with some respectability. That's important."
The college game might be foremost about guards, but having a frontcourt of forwards Craig Smith and Jared Dudley should provide the Eagles an advantage on most nights. And if suspended center Sean Williams gets his act together, second place in the ACC just might translate into something much larger in the days and weeks after Selection Sunday.
"For people to be talking about Boston College in a town that also has the Boston Red Sox and the New England Patriots is quite an accomplishment," Skinner said. "This has put a little more juice in our punch."
One of the reasons Louisville made the Final Four this past March was its uncanny way of rallying for several key second-half wins.
One of the reasons it did that was a wealth of experience.
Most of that is gone now, but a heap of new talent has arrived.
Louisville won't yet scare Villanova or UConn into thinking one of them won't emerge as conference champ, but Rick Pitino's team certainly is promising enough to turn more and more heads as the season progresses.
"With the exception of maybe Villanova, I don't think it's possible yet to know who the next-best team is in the Big East," Pitino said. "Who is better -- Louisville or Notre Dame? Louisville or West Virginia? Syracuse or Connecticut? No one knows. This conference will be exciting for fans and the media, but you will have no clue who's going to win each night. It is as strong a conference as I have ever seen."
Louisville is the perfect example of a team that might finish second but surpass the league champion in the NCAAs. Pitino has strong leadership in senior Taquan Dean and Kansas transfer David Padgett, but will seek significant contributions from some freshmen as he looks to replace the numbers of Francisco Garcia, Larry O'Bannon and Ellis Myles.
"That's a lot of points and rebounds and minutes and experience," Pitino said. "We can probably make up the points and rebounds and will obviously make up the minutes, but the experience is another matter. We won almost every close game last year because of it. We don't have the look right now of a Final Four team, but that doesn't mean we can't get back there."
There's usually nowhere to go but down from 37-2.
And that might not be the worst thing for Illinois.
Picked to finish behind Michigan State, the Illini probably won't have to deal with the pressures of being expected to repeat last year's incredible run to the NCAA final, which could allow young players to learn and grow around preseason conference player of the year Dee Brown.
Not that Illinois fans will expect anything less than 20 or more wins, a Big Ten title and being alive the second week of the NCAA Tournament.
After all, it's not asking for the world.
"We have a lot of spots open," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "Maybe we're not as good. We were certainly skilled last year. But I think now we're a more physical and aggressive team. Every little experience pays off. You hope last year will help you down the road in this one. We always talk about carrying the torch to the next group.
"This will be like two years ago. If things go right in the NCAA Tournament, if we get the right matchup, if there are upsets, we're ready to take advantage."
That season, Illinois advanced to the Sweet 16. This one could conclude in a similar spot if Brown (foot) indeed proves himself fit and fellow returnee James Augustine improves on his 10.1 points per game scoring average.
Texas Tech has quietly -- an odd word when discussing Bob Knight -- managed four straight 20-win seasons under its head coach. A fifth is more than possible, but it will take some effort to get Knight the 26 he needs to surpass Dean Smith as the winningest coach in major college history.
Still, the Red Raiders likely have the best chance at joining Texas and Oklahoma atop the standings.
Eight new faces dot the roster, but one thing probably won't change: Texas Tech wins at home under Knight at an 86 percent rate. It's the kind of consistency that can overcome the loss of such a reliable threat as departed guard Ronald Ross.
"I have had teams that had leadership from underclassmen, good teams on occasion," Knight said. "[Ross] was not a born leader. Ronald became a good leader. And I would like to think that in what he did, in that role, our other players looked at and saw and understood that it was important and those kids come forth a little bit this year using Ronald as an example."
Knight was asked recently whether his team had a captain.
"Me," he said.
LSU coach John Brady figures preseason conference rankings -- Kentucky picked to win the East and Alabama the West -- are based on backcourts across the league.
Makes sense, then, that the Tigers still must prove they can hang with the Wildcats and Crimson Tide.
But if LSU finds some consistency at the point -- junior Tack Minor will serve an early-season suspension, leaving the spot to redshirt freshman Garrett Temple and true freshman Ben Voogd -- and McDonald's All-American forward Tasmin Mitchell becomes the program's third straight SEC freshman of the year, challenging for a league title is more than possible.
"If our point guard play stabilizes, we could have a real good team," Brady said. "I like our leadership. I like our depth. I like our approach. I like our attentiveness and receptiveness to coaching. We have good, young talent."
He also has seven freshmen in need of leadership. Glen Davis should provide it. The sophomore forward has dropped 25-30 pounds and is down to 308. He knows what to eat and when to eat it now. He looks and feels much better, traits that should help the preseason all-conference player become LSU's focal point.
"We don't have a lot of time to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves," Brady said. "We have a real tough early schedule. We need to grow up and do it on the fly."
Toss a coin. Arizona is heads. Stanford is tails. It's that close.
But if you have to go with a favorite, Stanford gets the edge with senior point guard Chris Hernandez. Which means Arizona -- with four potential all-conference players -- just might start out as the nation's best team behind a conference opponent.
"We have spent a lot of time on offense," Arizona coach Lute Olson said. "The intent is to spread the court a little more, open driving lanes, utilize our quickness."
The Wildcats want to move more offensively to take advantage of perimeter depth, to make sure senior wing Hassan Adams and junior point guard Mustafa Shakur -- plus sophomore guard Jawann McClellan, when eligible -- are put in positions to attack. They are changing things a bit now that Channing Frye has departed the middle and Salim Stoudamire's nearly automatic 3-point shot is gone from the outside.
Ivan Radenovic is more comfortable as a junior and one of the league's more versatile forwards. Isaiah Fox is a fifth-year senior forward who seems intent on putting past troubles behind him and making the most of his final chance. J.P. Prince is a 6-6 freshman guard who could push often erratic Shakur.
"I think the offense will be much more balanced by nature of the type of team we have," Olson said. "We're trying to mix guys up daily so they all get a chance to show what they can do. We're certainly not disappointed with anyone and their efforts."
Translation: The gap between Arizona and Stanford is dental floss thin.
Ed Graney of The San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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