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ISSUE 120 VOL 7 PUBLISHED 11/10/2006

Inside the Lines: Keys to college hoops dreams

By Matt Tiano
Sports Editor

Friday, November 10, 2006

With just five college football Saturdays left, the NFL well underway, the Fall Classic in the books and the amusing NBA now in progress, true sports fans can now turn their focus to an uplifting cultural phenomenon –one that begins mid-November and concludes April 2. Look for improbable upsets, coaches on the hot seat, buzzer beaters, the gusto of the pep band, emotional television calls and a tournament that always fulfills expectations.

College basketball possesses characteristics that other sports lack and is a unique institution. Unlike college football, basketball fans can count on at least two competitions per week. For college football fans, 85 percent of their week is spent twidling thumbs while their team sits idle.

We see how college football teams beat up on smaller, hopeless mid-majors during their preseason. This is not the case in college basketball, as Cinderella stories frequently emerge. Where else is UW-Milwaukee feared on a national stage?

As we turn to 2006-2007, keep in mind the formula for success come March: a proven coaching staff, tenacious half-court defense and a balance of front-court and back-court offense. That said, here are seven storylines for this year’s Road to Atlanta.

1. Bob Huggins: Recently hired at Kansas State, Huggins hopes to turn around a program that has finished no better than sixth in 10 seasons of Big 12 basketball. After a DUI arrest during his tenure at Cincinnati, the university bought out his contract. The school’'s president forgot to consider that the graduation rate of Huggins’' players over four (out of nine) reporting years was zero. Good fire, Cincinnati. Bad hire, Kansas State.

2. Defense wins championships: A key formula for success come March is the desire to play in-your-face defense. A season ago, the UCLA Bruins gave up just 55 points per game en route to a national runner-up finish. More impressive was the fact that 13 ranked teams were on the Bruins'’ schedule – count on UCLA coming back for more.

3. Talent wins: While chemistry and intangibles are important, talent is the deciding factor in predicting a title. North Carolina’'s Roy Williams has the most talented group he has ever coached during his 18-year career. Teamed up with Wooden Award candidate Tyler Hansborough and senior leader Wes Miller, freshman point guard Ty Lawson will not play like a freshman when it counts. His counterpart will be Wayne Ellington, another first year, giving Chapel Hill fans the nation’'s most talented team.

4. “Preseason” tournaments: Over a five-month season, some of the best match-ups happen right away. These non-conference tournament games do count to a team'’s overall record and are definitely taken into consideration for RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) ratings and tournament seeding down the road. The Maui Invitational (Nov. 20-22) will host powerhouses UCLA, Kentucky and Memphis. The 2K Sports Classic (played over the next two weekends) provides a Texas-Michigan State match-up, while the preseason NIT tourney consists of UNC and Gonzaga.

5. The commentators: The way Bill Raftery describes a perfectly executed bank shot goes beyond the mere words, "And a little kiss off the glass!"” Hearing Gus Johnson’s call of UCLA'’s improbable 17-point turnaround in last year’s Sweet Sixteen was surreal: “"What…a…game! Unbelievable! Are you kidding me? Holy mackerel!"” And then there’s Jim Nantz, who captivated the emotion of Madness: "“It started in March, ended in April and belonged to May.”"

6. Beware of mid-majors: I refuse to apply a mid-major definition to Gonzaga due to the fact that bandwagoners cling to the Zags for this reason. Therefore, let’'s establish a timeline for mid-major consideration: After seven years in the top-25, you are no longer a mid-major and no longer an “underdog.” Size doesn'’t matter at this point – you are one of the big boys! One of the best games of the early season will be a 2005 Sweet Sixteen rematch between Witchita State and George Mason, two emerging mid-major powers. Bradley and Bucknell round out my list of small schools with big potential.

7. Back to the formula for success: For the first time, UCLA head coach Ben Howland has players that he himself brought into the program. Therefore, he will not have to instill toughness into players that he inherited from underachieving former coach Steve Lavin. Advancing to the title game a year ago, Howland proved his commitment to bringing college basketball glory back to L.A. The offensive and defensive balance for the Bruins will be the best since the John Wooden years.

Look for the Bruins to cut the nets down in early April and for a record 12th banner to reign above Pauley Pavilion.

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