Everything will be peachy on April 6, 2020, in Atlanta, GA, when a new national champion will be crowned in college basketball.
The five months that lead up to that day will likely have many miracle moments. The roads that lead to Atlanta will be filled with many potholes. Many teams have the ability to pave their way to a championship.
It’s time to take a Two Cent style look at the 2019-20 college basketball season. There is a lot of balance across the board when it comes to conference strength. So in no particular order, here we go.
The conference with the defending national champs, Virginia, and Tobacco Road bullies Duke and North Carolina may have to head to the Bluegrass state to find its best team.
The Louisville Cardinals return a handful of solid veterans, including preseason choice for conference player of the year Jordan Nwora. They have added depth this year after head coach Chris Mack had a stellar recruiting class. Freshman Samuel Williamson may be the best freshman in the country. The depth and veteran leadership, mixed with excellent coaching from Mack makes the Cardinals my favorite in the ACC, not to mention a national title contender.
Best of the Rest
Surprise, surprise, Duke is loaded again. Stud 6’10” freshman Vernon Carey gives them punch inside, while Tre Jones leads the way from the perimeter. And don’t worry, they still have an annoying white kid on the roster in Alex O’Connell. The Blue Devils will be right in the mix for sure.
North Carolina is rebuilding its roster this year. A step back should be expected, but freshman guard Cole Anthony out of New York City may have other thoughts. If Roy Williams can find a solid rotation, and get some production from a couple upperclassmen then the Tar Heels could make some noise.
Virginia has to take a step back, right? Right? They already imposed their “pack line” will on Syracuse, holding the Orange to 34 points in the opener. The Cavs lost a lot from their championship team, and will lean heavily on diminutive sophomore Kihei Clark and senior Mamadu Diakite. Their style is tough to adjust to even when you’ve seen it over and over. Still, look for a step back for the Cavaliers.
I’m not sure Florida State is ever a sleeper after their tournament runs of late, but they seem to always be overlooked. Look for them to be lurking.
Jeff Capel has the Pitt program heading in the right direction. There is a good shot he will get the Panthers on the right side of .500, which will hopefully get “The Pete” rocking again. This weekend’s loss at home to Nichols State doesn’t bode well for sleeper status.
The Big East seems to always be the power conference that gets forgotten. Jay Wright has made it a point to make sure people don’t forget. He will get some push this year from others in the league.
It is blasphemous to not pick Villanova to win the Big East. I think their has finally been enough attrition on the Main Line to see them slip to second place.
My favorite is the veteran laden Seton Hall Pirates. Kevin Willard gets the most of his players, which means he will get a ton from star Myles Powell. Seton Hall will be attempting to win enough to avoid their usual 7 through 10 seedlings in the NCAA Tournament. I think this is the year for the Pirates to do just that. I love veteran teams.
Obviously Jay Wright will have the Wildcats of Villanova playing well come March. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl will infuse double-double type talent to a roster lacking the usual punch. Growth will be the key for Villanova.
Xavier is another senior laden team who I would not want to get matched up with in March. They continue to play a hard nosed brand of hoops that should keep them near the top of the standings.
Marquette lost the Hauser brothers to transfer, but they kept Markus Howard. This automatically makes them contenders. If they can get him enough help, they could potentially win this league.
The Providence Friars are the sleeper team here. Another veteran team led by Ed Cooley. Veteran seems to be a theme in this conference.
I’m not sold on this conference this season. There are a lot of question marks from top to bottom, and from on the court and off.
I guess I have to pick Kansas here, but I’m not sure about that. It’s crazy to go against the Jayhawks, winners(or shared winners) of 16 out of the last 18 conference crowns.
This year’s team has experience and strength, though I’m not sure they have enough shooters. Additionally they have a lot of injury history on this roster. I’m picking the Jayhawks and Devon Dotson to win the Big 12, but I’m not nearly as high on them as others. Keep an eye on their focus, with an NCAA investigation swirling around them.
Others to Watch
Chris Beard did a fantastic job leading Texas Tech to the National Championship game. He was a poor call or two away from winning it all. Only three players are back, the main piece being David Moretti. Beard is a master of bringing new players together to bond as a team. And he does it with defense first.
I’m never sold on Baylor, but at the end of the year they always seem to be in the mix. The Bears will do it with athletes, not necessarily basketball players. They will be long and strong. Look for them to make some noise in the Big 12.
One of these years Shaka Smart is going to maximize his talent at Texas. Either that or he is going to get himself fired. This year the Longhorns have a great story with Andrew Jones returning to the team after a full blown battle with cancer. Look for this to be Texas’ furthest advance in recent memory.
West Virginia is my sleeper. I have no real reason for it other than I love Bobby Huggins. He will push and push until he gets the most of his players.
The PAC 12 has faded into the woodwork in recent years, save for the Oregon Ducks who always seem to hit their stride at tournament time. As with the rest of the country, the PAC 12 seems more balanced with no real power team.
I have little confidence in this pick because I think these teams are all very similar. I’m going with the Oregon Ducks due to their head coach, Dana Altman, and experienced point guard Peyton Pritchard. Altman has always had a knack for mixing in new talent, which he will have to do this year. Pritchard is a gamer. He dives on the floor, he gets in your face, and he controls the floor for his team.
In the Mix
Washington is a tough team under Mike Hopkins. Much like his mentor, Jim Boeheim, Hopkins’ team isn’t deep. The Huskies are long and athletic, plus they play the matchup zone defense he learned at Syracuse. Already with an upset over a Baylor, the Huskies should lurk near the top of the standings.
Arizona has talent and a coach who wants to put the past behind him. Sean Miller will need big impacts from a good freshman class. How fast that happens will tell the tale. Guard Brandon Williams has already gone down with an injury so things aren’t off to a great start.
Colorado brings everyone back. Will lunatic coach Tad Boyle be able to push them further this year? It seems like a now or never year for Boyle in Boulder.
USC has injected several top 20 recruits, and has even more high end talent on the way next year. The onus is now on Andy Enfield to actually coach them up. His teams have been sloppy and undisciplined. How he blends the new talent with the returning starters will be the key.
The SEC dominates the football landscape, and it may just do that in basketball, too. This looks like a conference with the potential of having ten tournament teams.
Kentucky is always the favorite under John Calipari. Love him or hate him, he has developed a system of mostly “one and dones” that he uses to perfection. This year will be more of the same. Freshman Tyrese Maxey is a stud, and he will get plenty of help from a group of returning sophomores.
I’m not a fan of Calipari, but I must grudgingly admit he knows what he is doing. It has been four years since his last Final Four. That drought could end this year.
Lots of Others
Florida is next in line. An under the radar pick up for the Gators was the arrival of transfer Kerry Blackshear, formerly of Virginia Tech. Blackshear is talented and also always seems to irritate the opponent. Florida will make a run at this conference title.
LSU, another team in the NCAA crosshairs, should be good enough to challenge for a top three finish. Coach Will Wade has a great backcourt in Javonte Smart and Skylar Mays.
Auburn made a fantastic run last year. Bruce Pearl is another NCAA infractions darling. Don’t expect quite as much this year, but they will be fighting for top tier status in the SEC.
Tennessee lost key players, but will still rely on a lot of veteran players this season. They certainly have enough to expect a top half finish in the SEC.
I’m going to go with Arkansas. They have some good players led by sophomore Isaiah Joe. The newcomer is head coach Eric Musselman, fresh off a great turnaround job at Nevada. I wouldn’t put it past him to get this undersized team to the tournament.
Home of the preseason number one team in the country. Home of the first number one team in the country to lose. Just how many teams go to the tournament from the Big Ten?
Obviously Michigan State is the favorite. Tom Izzo will help the Spartans navigate injuries and a tough schedule and as usual have them playing their best basketball later in the season. To make it to a Final Four, Izzo will need a healthy Josh Langford. However, with senior Cassius Winston being the floor general, I wouldn’t put anything past this team.
The Next Wave
If the Spartans slip, the Maryland Terrapins will be there licking their chops. This is a team with a ton of returning players, led by Jaylen Smith. I really like this team’s chances for a deep run this year.
The Ohio State Buckeyes don’t have a Smith and Wesson, but they do have a Wesson and Wesson. Kaleb and Andre Wesson lead an experienced Buckeye team. They should easily be in the upper echelon of the Big Ten, though I’m not as high on them as others.
Purdue will be in the mix, but must find a way to replace the production of ultra scorer Carson Edwards. They are a well coached bunch, with Matt Painter at the helm.
Juwan Howard takes over at Michigan where he inherits experience, but not a ton of offensive talent. Therefore defense will remain the name of the game for Howard. A top five finish in his first season in the Big Ten should happen.
Brad Underwood’s Illinois team lost 21 games last year, but had a great finish to the season. The potential they showed, and the fact four starters return make the Illini an interesting team to keep an eye on.
Patrick Chambers has nine lives. He keeps getting one more chance to lead Penn State to an NCAA Tournament. This has to be the last life. He returns star Lamar Stevens, along with big man Mike Watkins, guards Myles Dread and Jamari Wheeler, and add freshman Seth Lundy. If this team receives better game coaching from Chambers, the talent is there for an upper tier finish in the Big Ten. That would mean Patrick Chambers’ last life would be extended.
Five Other Teams to Watch
Ho hum, Mark Few has another talented team at Gonzaga. A mix of veterans, freshmen, and a grad transfer will allow Few to continue his impressive run.
The Zags will get competition in the West Coast Conference from Saint Mary’s. Randy Bennett’s Gaels always seem to fly under the radar, then by season’s end they are in the mix for a tournament berth. This year the veteran Gaels start the season in the top 25, so sneaking up on people won’t work.
Memphis has the biggest impact freshman in the country, James Wiseman. How long he is eligible will determine how long they stay on this list. With the NCAA’s track record, don’t get on it being too long.
The Utah State Aggies will win a ton of games. Led by senior Sam Merrill, the Aggies should cruise through an improved Mountain West Conference.
VCU has a senior laden team, which should propel them to top billing in the Atlantic 10. That should be enough to get the Rams a decent seed in the NCAA tournament.
As the calendar rolls towards February there will be other teams emerging. Cinderella’s, teams from small conferences making their pitch, and even some slow starters who have finally kicked it into gear will jump into the fray. With the balance across the board it should make for an interesting college basketball season. Some interesting debates will no doubt emerge come March.
With that said, let me dust off the a Two Cent Cracked Crystal Ball(#TCCCB) and make my Final Four predictions.
- Michigan State
- Utah State
I don’t like betting against Tom Izzo when he has a senior point guard like Cassius Winston. Calipari hasn’t had a Final Four team in four seasons. That drought ends this year. Making it a Bluegrass special, Louisville will make a triumphant return to Atlanta. This was the scene of the crime for Rick Pitino’s 2013 championship. Yes, NCAA, I saw it with my own eyes. Finally Utah State will make a magical run out of the Mountain West to fulfill my Cinderella requirement. Oh, they’re good, too.
By Monday, April 6, 2020, a coach who doesn’t get nearly enough credit, Chris Mack, will return the Louisville Cardinals to the summit of college basketball with an epic final victory over bitter in state rival Kentucky. The Louisville Cardinals will cut down the nets in Atlanta, GA.
Okay, maybe as a Louisville fan I’m dreaming big. You know what they say, dream big or…well, I don’t really know what they say. I do know this dream is more plausible than the one I had the other night that involved Scarlett Johansson, a pitching wedge, and a vat of strawberry jam.
Two Cent Takes
~The season starts far too early. Thanksgiving would be perfect.
~Please stop reviewing every play in the last two minutes this year.
~NCAA, come off your high horse on eligibility violations. The Wiseman/Memphis thing was no big deal, nor was the Chase Young/Ohio State football situation.
~The new flop rule seems like another excuse to go review something. Call it, penalize the team, and keep things moving.
~Two early scores caught my eye. Utah 143 Mississippi Valley State 49 and Merrimack 71 Northwestern 62. That was just Merrimack’s second game as a division one program. Yikes on both scores.
~Ten best games between now and New Year’s Day:
- 11/13- Villanova at Ohio State
- 11/14- Michigan State at Seton Hall
- 11/29- Utah State at Saint Mary’s
- 12/3- Duke at Michigan State
- 12/10- Louisville vs Texas Tech(NYC)
- 12/18- North Carolina at Gonzaga
- 12/21- Kentucky vs Ohio State(Las Vegas)
- 12/21- Kansas at Villanova
- 12/21- Florida vs Utah State(Sunrise, FL)
- 12/28- Louisville at Kentucky
~Row the boat! Apparently Penn State doesn’t have a crew team. P.J. Fleck may be a gimmick, but he’s a darn good one. I love bleeding the clock between plays. I love the energy. And don’t underestimate the talent. That is one good set of receivers the Golden Gophers have.
~Penn State coach James Franklin has a habit of sticking his foot in his mouth. Last year it was the “elite” statement, this year he stated they have a championship defense. In reality, the Nittany Lions have only played two competent offenses in Michigan and Minnesota. Both teams left Penn State’s defense reeling.
~Franklin chased points Saturday midway through the third quarter. The way the game played out proved that to be a costly decision.
~Sean Clifford looked shaky for the first time this season. Three costly interceptions made the difference in the game.
~LSU did the unthinkable(actually I called this one in my preseason preview) in beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Neither defense was stout, and it led to a shootout. Not your granddaddy’s typical LSU/Alabama game.
~A look at the two coaches tells the story, and if you don’t like Ed Orgeron you just aren’t human. The guy throws himself into the university he is coaching full force.
~Joe Burrow is your Heisman Trophy front runner until further notice.
~Why the playoff reveal is stupid: What do you do with Minnesota? Starting them so low(17) was idiotic. It is easier to move a team down and/or out than it is to move them up. They have to be ahead of Penn State and should move ahead of Alabama.
~Let the next month of “But Alabama is one of the four best teams” nonsense commence.
~PAC 12 officiating always finds a way to be worse. In the Washington State/Cal game, Washington State returned a kickoff to midfield. A penalty for hands to the face was called on WSU, and they started the drive on their own 8 yard line. After the next play the referee realized he called it on the wrong team. WSU should have started the drive on Cal’s 35 yard line. The referee has received a one game suspension. Washington State still loses, but does get a finely crafted letter of apology, so there is that.
~USC hired Mike Bohn as new athletic director. He made an immediate positive impression at his press conference. He finished by saying he wants all teams to not just “Fight On”, but to “Fight On to a Victory”.
After holding on to a victory at Arizona State, embattled head coach Clay Helton mimicked those words in his post game interview. I’m actually starting to feel bad for Helton. He looks like he has been trapped in a torture chamber. It can’t be easy knowing you could find a cure for cancer and still will be fired.
~Florida State is finding out that job isn’t as highly sought after as it once had been. When Deion Sanders rumors surface, things aren’t great.
Gary Danielson proved my point from last week’s column that it is time for new blood on the SEC games on CBS.
“What a catch by Jeudy” – Gary Danielsen on an incomplete pass.
— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) November 9, 2019
~Two Cent Top Ten:
- Ohio State
- Penn State
~The Miami Dolphins are officially on fire. Oh, and they are terrible at tanking.
~The Dolphins should be taking notes on the Bengals for how to properly tank. Do you think Tua will like Cincinnati?
~Sam Darnold has been a disappointment in New York this season. Saquon Barkley said, “Hold my beer.” Barkley carried 13 times for 1 yard. One. He will get X-rays for a potential injury. After the game Barkley refused to address any possible injury. Moral to the story is a horrible team can potentially ruin a great player.
~Football in the snow is awesome!
~This is the best Pittsburgh Steelers defense since Troy Polamalu’s prime. Building on that statement, Minkah Fitzpatrick is the best safety in Pittsburgh since Troy Polamalu. They have to be, because the offense is playing with a back up quarterback and apparently have no skill players who can catch/hold on to the football. Expect a lot of low scoring football games.
~Left for dead at 1-4, the Steelers are now 5-4 with Cleveland(twice), Cincinnati, Arizona, Buffalo, New York Jets, and Baltimore. With Mike Tomlin doing one of his best coaching jobs, 10-6 and a playoff berth doesn’t seem out of the question. Right, Mike?
~It pains me to say, but the Baltimore Ravens may be the best team in the AFC.
~Just when you think you have things figured out, the Falcons smoke the Saints in New Orleans.
~The 3 on 3 overtime session is one of the best things in sports. That is all.
A Penny For My Final Thought…
We find Antonio Brown’s Twitter rants entertaining. Heck, I thanked him on my Two Guys Talking podcast for giving me more material.
Pittsburgh had their fill with Brown. Felipe Vazquez humiliated the Pirates this summer after getting arrested. Pittsburgh wants nothing to do with him. The Penguins haven’t always had choir boys on the roster.
We gravitate to this nonsense. It’s human nature.
The polar opposite of this stuff is Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby.
The list is just too long to mention the many things Crosby has done for individuals, groups, charities, and most importantly kids. He gives of his time, his fame, and his money. The latest example happened over the weekend.
Sidney being Sidney…
— Tim Clark (@TrojanTim66) November 10, 2019
As part of a Veteran’s Day celebration, Crosby decided to give up the new car he won at last year’s All Star game to a veteran whom he had heard about.
Madeline Malizio was an Army Specialist for five years. She attends college and is a single mother to a three year old. She didn’t own a car and had to use Uber and the bus to travel with her son from place to place. Sidney Crosby stepped in, and he took matters into his own hands to make her situation more bearable.
There are plenty of superstars who are also superstars off the field/ice. They all run behind Crosby. He had a great mentor in Mario Lemieux, who is equally generous. Crosby never seems to let an opportunity to give back pass him by. It’s refreshing, considering the other people I mentioned at the start seemingly always stealing the headlines.
Crosby is in the top five players who get booed in other arenas. He may be right at the top, as a matter of fact. “He’s soft”. “He’s a crybaby”. “He gets all the calls”. “He gets in cheap shots”. “He’s not as good as ________”. It’s sports, and we all know that’s how it is. If your opponent has a superstar, you probably won’t like them. This is especially true if it’s a rivalry.
Just remember the next time you boo Sidney Crosby, you may be booing the best human being in sports. You won’t find anyone kinder or more generous.
Oh, and you will also be booing the best hockey player in the world. It’s true. It’s damn true.
Just my two cents…
Tim Clark is a columnist and editor for PennSports.LIVE, and a wonderful writer of words. He is a lifelong sports fanatic with an eclectic mix of favorite teams including USC Trojans football, Louisville Cardinals basketball, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins in pro sports.