One of the few sure things next year will be the day Mike Krzyzewski surpasses Bobby Knight to become winningest coach in NCAA history. (Photo courtesy of Newark Star-Ledger)
Since it's the last day of the year, what better way to recap it than by previewing the year ahead? In honor of 2011, the following are eleven items of interest to even the slightest of college hoops fans going into the new year.
1) Mike Krzyzewski - Coach K enters the second year of the 2010s with 880 career wins, (second all-time) and there's a good chance that Krzyzewski will pass Bobby Knight's mark of 902 before the nets are cut down in Houston on April 4th. If Duke runs the table and goes undefeated, he'll end up with 908, which means the Blue Devils can afford five losses over the next three months. With games against Florida State and Maryland upcoming, not to mention archrival North Carolina, the chance of Coach K having to wait until next season to reach the summit is likely, but the possibility of him doing it this year is much higher.
2) Jared Sullinger - The man I thought was the most overrated freshman at the start of the year still has my vote for first-team All-American. Even after an off night (by his standards) tonight against Indiana, (19 points, 9 rebounds) Sullinger will only take his talents to another level as the Big Ten season progresses. One matchup where the 6-9 rookie will be particularly showcased is at home against Michigan State on February 15th.
3) Notre Dame - The Irish opened their Big East season with a 69-55 upset of Georgetown Wednesday night, and they ring in 2011 at the Carrier Dome against Syracuse. While the Orange may look like a major hurdle for Mike Brey and company, Notre Dame gets their next two after that at the Joyce Center against UConn (who narrowly escaped USF at home earlier tonight) and St. John's. Brey told me that the homecourt advantage his team has enjoyed in recent years still helps them, and if the Irish can get two of their next three, they will be in the driver's seat for an NCAA Tournament return appearance in March.
4) St. John's - My alma mater seems to be the New York Jets of college basketball. Some games you think the Johnnies will dominate don't go the way you hope, and some games where the Red Storm appear to be overmatched end up being wins for Steve Lavin's bunch. Examples include the loss to Fordham three weeks ago and the win over West Virginia Wednesday night in Morgantown. Heading into Providence tomorrow night, St. John's has ridden momentum from a hot-shooting Dwight Hardy to an 8-3 record while not having to rely solely upon team leader D.J. (The Hitman) Kennedy. Justin Brownlee is still my pick for the most improved player in the country, and he gives the boys from Union and Utopia a clutch performance every night.
5) Cincinnati - While we're in the middle of the Big East, let's take a moment to recognize the undefeated Bearcats. At 13-0, Cincinnati currently leads Seton Hall as I write this, and it's nice to see Mick Cronin finally enjoy some well-deserved success with this team after being rumored to be on the hot seat for all the wrong reasons. Cincinnati should (barring a meltdown) be a tournament team for the first time since the Bob Huggins administration, and Cronin's big test will come against Xavier on Thursday in their annual crosstown shootout. In fact, that game will be a test for casual fans who watch, as those new to the game will find it difficult to tell Cronin and Xavier coach Chris Mack apart.
Separated at birth? Maybe Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin (left, photo courtesy of GoBearcats.com) and Xavier head man Chris Mack (right, photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated) were.
6) Kalin Lucas - The Big Ten player of the year in preseason voting and one of the most explosive (definitely the most complete) players in the country when he's healthy. Lucas still isn't 100 percent, and he'll be the first to admit that as one of the reasons why the Spartans started 9-4 this season, the most recent of those nine wins being a 71-62 Big Ten opener against Minnesota this afternoon at the Breslin Center. The good thing about this is that Lucas can take his time to recover with Durrell Summers and Draymond Green leading the charge for the rest of Tom Izzo's group. One thing is for certain, and that is when Lucas is completely healthy, Sparty is one of the best units in the country.
7) The Missouri Valley - The best conference to watch as a fan of pure, old-school college hoops. Yes, the Big East is the strongest league from top to bottom; but if you're like me and you enjoy watching teams play knock-down, drag-out battles for forty minutes while leaving everything out on the court, the Valley is for you. Right now, Wichita State looks to be the class of the conference, a credit to Gregg Marshall and his standing as one of the most underrated coaches in the land. If you're still not sold, look back at what he did with Winthrop. Long story short, it will be fun to watch teams like Northern Iowa make their usual run in what should be a two-bid league come March as opposed to the traditional one.
8) North Carolina - Almost everyone assumed this would be the year Roy Williams and the Tar Heels broke down the door and re-entered the NCAA's elite. Maybe not just yet after their showing against Rutgers Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. Even though Carolina won by 23, they looked like a team that still hasn't hit their best stride yet, something that will prove costly when the heart of the ACC schedule comes around to Chapel Hill. Harrison Barnes has also yet to come into his own. While UNC will indeed make the tournament, (they're way too talented not to in my opinion) don't expect anything higher than a 7 seed in the Big Dance.
9) Tennessee - The Vols have been this year's Texas Longhorns, with their share of big wins (Villanova and Pitt on neutral courts) and upset losses. (Jacksonville, UNC-Charlotte, USC, College of Charleston) Bruce Pearl also starts his suspension for the first eight games of the SEC schedule, but returns to the bench for the Vols' last remaining big non-conference tilt against Kemba Walker and UConn. While the Vols should still be good enough to be a tournament team, an appearance in one of the 8/9 games would be their likely destination.
10) Mike Rosario - Currently sitting out after transferring from Rutgers, the Jersey City guard returns to the court for his junior season in November as a member of the Florida Gators. Rosario will be the second Big East expatriate to play for Billy Donovan, following former Georgetown forward Vernon Macklin. In a coincidental twist of fate, one of Rosario's first games comes at the RAC next year when Florida travels to Rutgers to face off against the highly touted recruiting class Mike Rice brings into Piscataway in the fall.
11) St. Francis College - I'll pay homage to one of my employers with the last mention by referencing the Terriers and their surprising start to the season. While Glenn Braica doesn't have the most glamorous record at 7-5, St. Francis is a perfect 6-0 on their home court at the Pope Center; and has veteran leadership in the backcourt with senior guards Akeem Bennett and Ricky Cadell. To make it even better on the corner of Remsen and Court, super sub Akeem Johnson continues to impress off the bench. Think of him as a poor man's version of former Marquette forward Lazar Hayward, only without the outside shot and a more imposing paint presence. The Terriers are also undefeated in NEC play, and could be in the mix for a home game in their conference tournament if the chips fall in the right places.