Friday, October 28, 2005

First Coaches Poll Out

Some coach(es) out there think that the WKU Hilltoppers are for real, too. The Tops garnered three votes in the season's first ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, which was good for a 42nd place tie with Vanderbilt. The Tops sit just behind Miami-FL and just ahead of the group of two-vote teams (Cal, UNLV, Ohio, Utah State, and Oral Roberts). If the Tops can string together some early season wins, then they will not have to come from completely off the radar to crack the Top 25. While the real value of polls is minimal, it sure helps with exposure and name recognition.

It is also nice to see that the coaches recognize that George Washington and Nevada belong in the preseason Top 25. Old Dominion and Bucknell probably deserve more votes than they got.

Can't get enough of Top 25 polls? Head over to YOCO's rankings composite. See what a lot of the experts think.

My distaste for polls has been well-documented here, but in case you missed the unveiling of my preseason brackets, here were my top 6 seeds (or my "Top 24" if you prefer)

1 seeds: Duke, Texas, Michigan State, Villanova
2 seeds: UConn, Oklahoma, Boston College, Arizona
3 seeds: Gonzaga, Louisville, West Virginia, Kentucky
4 seeds: Stanford, Illinois, UCLA, Iowa
5 seeds: Washington, Memphis, Iowa State, Maryland
6 seeds: George Washington, Alabama, Nevada, Wisconsin

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Early Season Tourney Preview

We are now just twelve days out from real college basketball games! I have written a preview of the early season tourneys for Hop on over and give it a read if you have time.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Sports, Music, and Gnus

1. Villanova's Curtis Sumpter is hurt again. With fellow big Jason Fraser battling injuries yearly, the Wildcats cannot seem to keep everyone healthy for a season. Even worse, it sounds like Sumpter may be gone for the year. This is a tremendous blow to 'Nova's Final Four hopes. They will need their freshman frontcourt players (especially Shane Clark, who will become eligible in January) to mature quickly if they are to remain the top team in the Big East.

2. I ran the Bowling Green 10k Classic in 40.34 on Saturday. I harbored hopes of breaking the 40 minute barrier, but the realist in me felt that it was probably a year away. Still, I took nearly two full minutes off of my 10k time from last year (42.23), so next year should be my coronation into the sub-40 group. My wife finished the 5k in 27.32, also a personal best and good for 7th in her age group. I have one major race left this year: the Rocket City Marathon in Huntsville, AL, on December 10.

3. Who wants to bet a gazillion dollars that Memphis does not live up to the preseason hype? Any takers? None? I did not think so.

4. In my heavy rotation of music right now:
Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger: if there is a better country album EVER out there, I have not found it.
Sufjan Stevens' Illinoise: just try not to bob along to one of the trumpet-ladened tracks. I dare you.
Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits: some form of Paul Simon is always in my heavy rotation.
Wilco's Woody Guthrie Songs: if it's remotely country/folky and my wife likes it, it's good.

5. On Thursday, my first piece on should be up. I will be talking about the slew of early season tournaments that kick off a mere two weeks from today. The following week, I will look at some of the experimental rules being used in many of these tourneys.

6. My band, Redfoot, has a page up and running now. There are a couple of shows listed and there are a couple of more dates to be added soon. An album is coming in the early spring (hopefully).

7. Some non-power conference names to remember this season: Yemi Nicholson, Denver; Jose Juan Barea, Northeastern; Christian Maraker, Pacific; Anthony Winchester, Western Kentucky; Courtney Lee, Western Kentucky; Bucknell (NOT a one-year fluke last year); Nick Fazekas, Nevada; Paul Millsap, La Tech; Daniel Kickert, Saint Mary's-CA.

8. For everyone who thought I was off my rocker, here is proof that The Great Space Coaster was a real TV show for kids in the early-to-mid 1980s. "No gnews is good gnews with Gary Gnu." I loved that guy.

9. Shameless WKU plug: the #1-ranked (in D-IAA) WKU Hilltopper football team will play conference nemesis #8-ranked Southern Illinois on ESPNU at 6:30 pm on this Thursday night, October 25. The Tops (sledge) hammered the Western Illinois Leathernecks 42-7 in Macomb, IL, last week and appear to be putting it all together as they head for the home stretch.

10. I give little to no time to the NFL here, but I should mention that I will be attending my first NFL game on Sunday. I will be heading to Nashville to watch the Oakland Raiders (a team I half-heartedly call my own) play the Tennessee Titans. Thanks to a buddy who landed free tix, I will be watching these two mediocre teams battle to get to not-quite-.500. Catch the fever! Honestly, I am excited about the experience. I might actually devote some blog time to this trip. Road trips to any sporting event are made of life's good stuff.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

On the Road Again...and Again

Ken Pomeroy, Lord of College Hoop Numbers, recently informed us that the New RPI did not impact the way that power conferences (ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-10, SEC) schedule home and away basketball games. In fact, teams scheduled home games at a HIGHER rate for the upcoming season, despite the fact that road wins are worth 1.4 wins in the "teams winning percentage" portion of the RPI and home wins are worth only 0.6. Teams from the power conferences scheduled 84% of their non-conference games at home this season (read Pomeroy's post for more data and a conference-by-conference breakdown). Do these teams not care? Do they just not get it? Do they simply value the home gate receipts over a high RPI and achieving the best NCAA profile possible?

Pomeroy went with the economic angle by stating:
"We can only speculate on the reason for the lack of change in scheduling practices, but to me it’s clear. Teams with the big budgets are not willing to trade two or three spots in the RPI for the money that home dates bring in. This may come back to haunt one or two teams each season, thereby costing them revenue they would get from the NCAA Tournament, but most schools are willing to take that risk."
That last sentence lifts my heart like a Sufjan Stevens song. That is truly all that the non-power conference teams need. There are NEVER more than one or two MVC, MAC, or other non-power conference schools that truly get the shaft. If this new road weight does open up one slot for last year's Buffalo or 2004's Utah State, then this adjustment to the formula betters the tourney.

How much does the adjustment help? Well, Syracuse plays 19 home games, 3 neutral games and 8 road games this year. Their maximum win value is (19*0.6=11.4) + 3 + (8*1.4=11.2) for a total of 25.6. That is Syracuse's maximum win value for their 30 games. In contrast, Bucknell plays 12 home games, 1 neutral game, and 14 road games (including Syracuse). Their maximum win value is (12*0.6=7.2) + 1 + (14*1.4=19.6) for a total of 27.8. Bucknell's max potential win value is a full 2.2 wins more than Syracuse...and the Bison play three fewer games. Granted, a team's win percentage is only 25% of the total RPI, but this is a substantial advantage...not that The Cuse figures to be worrying on Selection Sunday.

The Bison have the potential to be finish in the "bulletproof" zone in the RPI (no team better than #33 in the final RPI has ever been left out by the selection committee). They return all five starters from last year and play some high profile teams (Cuse, Villanova AT HOME, Saint Joseph's, Duke) in the non-conference. Furthermore, they will likely win nearly every conference game in the Patriot League, although Holy Cross usually has something to say about that.

None of this is to say that the New RPI will assuredly help the non-power conference teams. But, Pomeroy's statement about Big Sixers trading the plump home slate for a few RPI slots bears watching. If a team can win a bundle of road games, they can juice their RPI (see Old Dominion and UW-Milwaukee from last season), but we certainly do not have a good handle on what this means to the committee.

We've only had one year with the New RPI. It's still a wait and see game for now.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

So, you want to be a bracketologist?

Does Joe Lunardi drive you nuts with his projections? Can't understand the ramblings of the selection committee chair when he starts defending teams with terms like SOS, OOWP, and S-Curve? Bewildered by the seeding process? I have good news. You can answer a lot of these questions (or at least gain some context) by following TBB's Five Steps to Being a Bracketologist. (Enter sales pitch for three easy payments of only $39.99 each)

1. Forget the polls. The final AP poll is a fair predictor (better than the RPI, actually) of what seeds that the top 25 teams will get. Beyond that, the polls are mostly just a weekly list of what big conference teams are winning games. Conversely one can apply the NCAA selection criteria rules at any point during the season. Granted, they may not be any more accurate than the polls in December, but at least every team is evaluated under the same criteria.

2. Join Right now. Jerry Palm maintains the best RPI and bracketology info site anywhere. The RPI is updated daily during the season and the site has everything that you could ever want to know about past NCAA tourney results, historical team RPI data, past performances, and bracketology. It is well worth the $20.

3. Read and learn the NCAA Selection Criteria. Reading this document is about as entertaining as watching toenails grow for a lot folks, but for bracketologists it is scriptural. It will take awhile to get through, but readers will come away with a clearer understanding of how teams are selected, seeded, and assigned to their respective pods.

4. Consult TBB's "Bracketology/RPI section." It contains an explanation of the true purpose of the RPI, a philosophy of bracketology, and the "why's" of projecting brackets.

5. Now comes the fun part: watch A LOT of basketball. This is easier for some than others, but I teach, so I am off from Dec 10-Jan 23 this year. I travel to WKU games and set up a game watching TV schedule each week. The more hoops that a bracketologist watches, the more informed he/she is about what teams have improved and regressed. After combining all of the statistical data with what your eyes are seeing in games, it becomes much easier to split hairs between those closely bunched Bubble Boys. Of course, the data usually bears out who gets in and who does not, but momentum is a factor for the selection committee. An example, you ask? Here's one from last season.

UAB: 21-10 overall, 10-6 in CUSA, RPI #49
DePaul: 19-10 overall, 10-6 in CUSA, RPI #53

Both teams won one game in the CUSA tourney. Both teams were 5-5 in their last 10 games. Both teams had four losses to sub-100 RPI teams. DePaul actually had two Top 50 RPI wins while UAB had zero. UAB did have a better road record (10-7 to DePaul's 5-8), but that was the only glaring statistical advantage. That may have been offset by DePaul's good wins over Old Dominion and Cincinnati. This would seem to be a virtual dead heat.

The fact of the matter is, every serious bracketologist knew that DePaul was definitely out and that UAB was a classic bubble team (who wound up getting into the Dance). Why? UAB beat DePaul head to head in the CUSA Tourney. Although head-to-head matchups are technically not a part of the selection criteria, it had been proven on the court that UAB was a better team. The raw data says that teams were even, but from actually watching games late in the season, it was clear that UAB was a better team. Contrary to popular belief, common sense DOES play role in the selection process from time to time (although I still believe that Buffalo should have been in over UAB, but I digress).

So take this a charge to watch LOTS of hoops and go to lots of games this season. And the next time that you are watching paint dry or catch yourself mesmerized by a clock pendulum, dig out the NCAA selection criteria. It will come in handy on Selection Sunday.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Hilltopper Hysteria Causes...Well, Hysteria

Hysteria: a psychoneurosis marked by emotional excitability and disturbances of the psychic, sensory, vasomotor, and visceral functions (Webster's, 2005)

That accurately describes what Hilltopper Haven and much of Topper Nation experienced after Friday night's activities. The veterans looked primed and fit. The coaches were psyched and active. The newcomers met and even exceeded expectations. There are no injuries or academic casualties to report at this juncture. It is official: the expectations are officially off the charts for the 2005-2006 edition of Western Kentucky basketball.

The festivities began with a dunk contest. Everyone's favorite pterosaur, Elgrace Wilborn, took home the honors, but newcomer Benson Callier (6'6" junior Florida State transfer) gave The Great Red Pterdactyl a challenge. Callier also added a 360 degree dunk in the Red-White scrimmage. Sophomores Mike Walker and Boris Siakam wowed the crowd as well, but Wilborn and Callier were clearly a cut above. The contest aptly displayed the fantastic athleticism on this club. This teams lacks bulk and raw size, but they have a bevy of jumping jacks that will create havoc on the glass and on the full-court press.

Toppers and Lady Toppers were paired up to vie in the three-point shooting contest. Incoming FR Orlando Mendez-Valdez and Lady Topper Ashley Butler outgunned SR Anthony Winchester and LT Tifany Zaragoza. Mendez-Valdez possesses a sweet shooting stroke that had visions sugar plums dancing in the heads of the Topper faithful. It was difficult to not drink deep and long of the Topper Kool-Aid. However, this scrimmage lasted a mere 15 minutes and revealed little meaningful information in the grand scheme of the season. However, there are a few items that should not be ignored:

1. Orlando Mendez-Valdez owns some serious skills. After winning the 3-pt contest, 'Dez wowed the crowd with some slick passing and excellent dribble penetration. He is one of those guys that looks a bit slow, but he gets around people. His shot is quite fluid and he made a beautiful fading Three in the scrimmage that looked so comfortable and effortless. He may not start from Day 1 (JR transfer Joemal [pronounced jah-MEL] Campbell), but he is going to play serious minutes and may assume the starting role at some point this season.

2. The other newcomers are legit. Mike Walker, Benson Callier, Daniel Emerson, and Matt Maresca did dirty work inside and Campbell is a jet--all as advertised. Walker and Callier probably will contribute the most immediately due to their size and athleticism, but all five of these guys are going to play. Late signee Butch Jointer did not show much and may get pushed toward the end of the bench by the more polished newcomers. I do not see a Courtney Lee-type of impact from any of the newcomers, but Callier, Walker, Emerson, Maresca, and Campbell can all fill important holes from last season.

3. The returnees look fit and ready. Wilborn, Lee, Winchester, Rogers all look stronger and more confident. F Boris Siakam, a native of Cameroon, needs more seasoning and could possibly benefit from a redshirt year. He has a nice mid-range jumper, excellent hops and a strong, wiry frame, but needs more time to learn the game. He has only played organized basketball for three years. However, with all of the youth up front, a redshirt year for Siakam is unlikely.

4. This is the type of team Horn wants. He came into a program centered on half-court defense and a glacial big man (Nigel Dixon). The team went 15-14. Last year, he went super-small and scrappy, and played a faster pace. The team went 22-9 and won an NIT game. This year, he has added players with size and athleticism (Wilborn, Walker, Callier, Emerson, Maresca, the returning Siakam) to mix in with some extremely talented shooters (Winchester, Lee, Rogers, Mendez). Few teams on the Tops schedule will be able to match up favorably with them. This is the type of Hilltopper team for which Coach Horn played in the mid-1990s.

I have not put huge expectations on any Topper team since I have been a fan. The 2002 team was a bit of a surprise, and while I expected the 2003 team to be good, that team had some holes. This team cannot escape the expectations. They should make the NCAA tourney this year. There is simply too much talent to say otherwise. Beyond that, it is all about the matchups.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

TBB on

Fans can get an extra dose of my musings on this season. I will be writing a weekly college hoops column beginning sometime in November. It will be more "straight" writing than what I write here, but I am looking forward to the experience. The column will consist of a short feature story and then a spin around the southern conferences including the ACC, Atlantic Sun, Big XII, Big South, CUSA, MEAC, Mid-Continent, Ohio Valley, SEC, Southern, SWAC, and Sun Belt. That is a load of conferences to cover, but the emphasis will vary from week to week to keep things fresh.

In the meantime, it is homecoming week here at WKU, so I will be heavily involved in campus activities over the course of the next few days. First up, the annual Chili/Cheese Luncheon and Pep Rally at noon today in downtown Bowling Green. Tomorrow night, the men's and women's basketball teams will officially kick off their practice season with Hilltopper Hysteria at 8:30 pm. I will have a full report on Monday.

Here is a must read for fans of non-BCS-type basketball teams. CBS has inked the Missouri Valley Conference championship game in a plum time slot. Thanks to Yoni Cohen for linking this on YOCO.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Distraction...with a Capital "D"

Consider this Part II of my exhortation to enjoy sports as an active experience. A few days ago, I wrote about the impact of fantasy sports on me and on how we view sports. But, it is not simply the matter of a stats-crazy sports culture. There is also this small matter of actually watching what happens during a game. This sounds so simple, but distractions from the actual game constantly bludgeon the viewer/listener during the course of a college basketball contest on television. It is becoming increasingly more difficult to focus on what teams are trying to do on the court.

1. Media Timeouts
In TV-land, there are commercial breaks every four minutes during regulation. That is four per half in addition to team timeouts. I realize that bills have to be paid, but watching a game on television means eight sessions of being bombarded by thirty second clips for Efferdent, Miller time, Viagra, and local car dealerships, plus the 15 minute halftime show (and I use the term "show" loosely). The frequent media timeouts break up the flow of the game tremendously and distracts folks from the on-court happenings.

2. Sports Ticker/Scoreboard
My wife and I watched Four Minutes (the Roger Bannister story) a few nights ago on ESPN2. When the movie started, my wife's first comment was, "Is that annoying ticker on the bottom of the screen going to be there the entire time?" "Uh, yeah," I replied, realizing that I did not even notice the ticker unless I made a conscious effort to do so. It has become just another component of my distraction-riddled existence...AL, NL, NFL, CFB, Bottom Line, AL, NL, CFB, Golf, Tennis, Bottom Line, AL, is neverending. Do I really need the same scores every three minutes distracting me during a movie? Is it even a distraction if I have become immune to it? Let's just move on.

3. Dickie V-ism
Dick Vitale may be good for college basketball on some levels, but he is the ultimate distraction when attempting to watch the game. His incessant hyperbole and ACC-pimping sucks the marrow from the actual game. He is like a flashy preacher at a megachurch. He may care about his work, but he also seeks to be bigger than his message. What he is selling is fantastic: college basketball IS "awesome with a capital 'A'." But, do we need to here it at 175 decibels before every commercial break? Many color commentators are less about offense, defense, backscreens, and dropsteps, and increasingly about catch phrases, coach worshiping, and furthering their own agendas...and perforating eardrums.

4. Dipsy-doo Dunkaroos
Acrobatic slams and rejections into the 15th row do indeed pump up the crowd and create excitement. I am all for dunking with ferocity and throwing shots into the bleachers to send a message to the opposition. However, that is often how the game is defined in a Sportscenter clip. As a result, Joe Fan has come to define "exciting basketball" as windmill jams and shots pinned above the square. The beautifully executed pick-and-roll often goes unappreciated. Our desire for violent throwdowns has eroded our appreciation for crisp passes, solid screens, tenacious half-court defense, and backdoor cuts. I am not advocating a no-dunk rule, but it would be nice to see some love for sweet, mid-range jumpshooting or Pete Carril-quality back cuts.

Where does it end? Hologram ads in the paint or behind the backboard on free throws? How far away are we from these added distractions? How do we combat this distracted existence? One easy solution is to PHYSICALLY go to games. Across the nation, attendance at college basketball games is trending downward. More games are available on TV packages, which is not inherently bad, but the live experience cannot be replicated. There is a D-I college basketball game within a reasonable driving distance nearly every weekend for most everyone in America. The Mid-Majority houses a sortable schedule that displays games closest to your zip code. Sometime this season, punch in your zippy and take a road trip with family or friends. Furthermore, many smaller conference teams have very reasonable ticket prices. Chances are, you will have a great experience and possible even hit a gem of a rivalry game (Western Kentucky vs. Eastern Kentucky on Dec 3, anyone?) or see a great player that gets little national pub (Yemi Nicholson at Denver or maybe Christian Maraker at Pacific?).

The college basketball played on TV constitutes a small portion of the hoop world. There are 330 D-I basketball teams playing in 31 conferences. The "Big 6" conferences are but a fraction of the important college hoops being played on a daily basis beginning in November. Find a game, take your spouse/friends/family, buy a t-shirt at the game, and discover something special: a game experience free of TV commercials, Dickie V, Sports tickers, and the like. You will be surprised how much you enjoy the sounds, the smells, the crescendos and decrescendos of the crowds, and the experience of watching a game in its natural environment. True, you will not be able to distract yourself with 12 other sports channels, or flip between four different games, or watch Coach K peddle Am Express. However, what you will be able to do is to hear a college pep band play songs, smell popcorn in the air, and during timeouts you can actually THINK about what has taken place in the last few minutes instead of being buried by an avalanche of 30-second ads for toothpaste or a Swiffer.

Get involved with a local team. You can watch Duke or UConn anytime on TV and be distracted on any given Saturday during major network TV games. Go to UNC-Greensboro, Tennessee Tech, Montana, or Northern Arizona and experience a game away from the machine of "big-time" college basketball. You might have a big time away from the "big time."

Monday, October 10, 2005

Caves, Country Music, and Homecoming

I did not intend to take a weeklong hiatus from blawgin', but I have covered a lot of ground in in the last seven days. First, I had to wrap up a load of work-related stuff last Tuesday and Wednesday before Western Kentucky University's Fall Break kicked in on Thurs/Fri. I simply did not have time to write on those days. Then, my wife and I took advantage of our two extra days off to hike and picnic at Mammoth Cave National Park on Thursday. The park is about a 30 minute drive from our house. It was a gorgeous, warm Kentucky fall day as we saw temperatures in the mid-80s and I absorbed a vicious no-see-um attack resulting in 14 visible bites. It was worth it. We also went to Jackson's Orchard, a wonderful local farm in Warren County, KY, and bought a fall pumpkin. Friday, we did more pedestrian, but equally important, activities like golfing (rained out!) and shopping for furniture. I got in a 12-mile run on Saturday morning (good-bye achilles injury...finally!) and some hang-out time with my wife's family in Glasgow, KY.

Sunday, my music project, Redfoot, embarked on its maiden voyage at a show with another local post-country group called God's Lonely Man and Portland, Oregon native, The Wanteds. Great stuff. Folks responded to us pretty well and we had a blast. I'm hoping to play some more solo acoustic shows soon and record an album in the near future. I will link up the Redfoot page permanently on this site when we have more info.

All of this to say that I have had an enjoyable week. The good gets even better this week as WKU Homecoming festivities are in full swing as the football Toppers prepare for Missouri State on Saturday. A chili/cheese luncheon and pep rally kicks it off on Thursday, then a parade, WKU Streetfest, and Big Red's roar (pep rally) all happen on Friday. The football game commences at 4 pm on Saturday.

In the midst of the floats, tailgating, pep rallies, and football, Hilltopper Hysteria (fka Midnight Madness) will take place in Diddle Arena at 9:30 pm on Friday night. Basketball season is upon us, and I will have a full report next Monday of Hysteria happenings. I have laid out my preseason Sun Belt picks and I have pored over the Topper schedule. In just four days, I will watch real players on a real court with real fans in the building. National parks, playing in an band, homecoming, and Topper basketball all in a matter of a 10-day span. (Sound of me taking a deep breath and letting out a satisfying "sigh") I love my life.

More random stuff coming this week.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Sun Belt West Preview

The Sun Belt West should be a fairly competitive division this season. Teams at the top lost a good bit and some of last year's lesser teams return a lot or made nice additions. I like Denver and UL-Lafayette again, but UNO, South Al, and NT should all be improved.

1. Denver Pioneers (20-10, 12-3 conf., 1st West)
They return conference POY C Yemi Nicholson (18.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 92 blks) and F Antonio Porch (12.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg), but lost two key pieces in their starting backcourt in PG Rodney Billups and sharpshooting G Erik Benzel. The steady G Andrew Carpenter (8.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg) returns to anchor the backcourt. The Pioneers will lean heavily on Mount Yemi, as he will likely see even more touches this season. He was an honorable mention All-American last year and is set to challenge for full honors this season. Someone will need to fill Benzel's sniper role to keep defenses honest on the perimeter. No returning bench player averaged more than 9 minutes per game, so there will be a host of inexperience players looking to fill the backcourt gaps. Denver has non-conference tests at Stanford, a neutral court game against Colorado State, and a home game against Wyoming. The rest of the slate is fairly soft.

2. UL-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns (20-10, 11-4 conf., 2nd West)

Will oft-troubled Michael Southall really play this season? All indicators point toward a return by the 6'10" center. If he does play, it gives the Cajuns a talented nucleus, as he joins senior C Chris Cameron (8.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 39% 3-pt) and do-it-all G Dwayne Mitchell (10.4 ppg, 5.8 rpb, 3.3 apg). The Cajuns lost their three top scorers in G Tiras Wade, F Brian Hamilton, and G Orien Greene, so this Cajun team does not figure to be as good as last year's squad. If Southall is out, then UNO, South Al, and/or NT could challenge the Cajuns. However, if Southall can stay eligible, he could team with Cameron to form one of the more formidable frontcourt duos in the conference. Perimeter play is also a huge question mark for this team. If they get solid ball-handling and find a perimeter scorer to compensate for the losses of Wade and Green, the Cajuns will be tough. They have challenging road games at SIU, Tennessee, UTEP, LSU, and Nevada in the non-conference and host a solid Oral Roberts club.

3. New Orleans Privateers (13-17, 7-8 conf., 3rd west)
The Privateers had big plans to challenge for the West crown in the offseason, but Hurricane Katrina will have them displaced and out of sorts until at least January. UNO returns 1st-team SBC G Bo McCalebb (22.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.7 apg) who penetrates better than anyone in the league and finishes well. If McCalebb improves his perimeter jumper (26% from 3-land), he will be nearly unguardable. UNO also returns three other starters in G Jamie McNeilly (7.7 ppg), F Shawn Malloy (7.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and C Ben Elias (5.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg). This is a team in search of scoring, as McCalebb too often is the only option. The non-conference schedule packs some serious firepower, with games at Mississippi State, LSU, Purdue, Vanderbilt, Kansas, and Tulane twice (home and home). Wow.

4. South Alabama Jaguars (10-18, 6-9 conf., 4th[tie] west)
This year is do or die for coach John Pelphrey. The native Kentucky boy has been roughed up during his three year tenure at South Al, and he needs a good season to get off the hot seat. He has a couple of big guns that may help him do just that. G/F Mario Jointer (16.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg, .394 % from Three) is a first-team SBC caliber player. The Jags also have Clemson transfer Chey Christie (9.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg as a junior at Clemson) available this year in addition to SMU transfer G Demetric Bennett. The Jags return four starters total and should have more depth than they have had in awhile. I am picking them fourth, but they are my official SBC dark horse team. They have notable games at Purdue, at Tennessee and home vs. Houston.

5. North Texas Mean Green (14-14, 6-9 conf., 4th [tie] West)
Everyone keeps waiting for NT to make the big jump in the West. Slow and steady improvement has been more their style. They have improved in each of coach Johnny Jones' first four seasons, and the West is as open as it's been in awhile. I have the Mean Green fifth, but the gap between first and fifth in the West does not appear to be that wide. The loss of super guard Leonard Hopkins makes me doubt that this is the year for them to soar, but NT does look to be on the right track. G Calvin Watson is a nice player (11.3 ppg, .402 for Threes) and Arkansas transfer G Kendrick Davis has nice credentials. NT also returns C Jeffrey Simpson (7.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 51 blks) who came on strong late last season, and dynamo PG Isaac Hines (6.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.5 apg, 2.2 spg). They have big dates at Arizona State, at Texas A&M, and at Houston. Not to be a broken record, but NT can challenge, too. The West is wide open.

6. Troy Trojans (12-18, first season in Belt)
The Men of Troy lost three starters from last season, but do return leading scorer Bobby Dixon (14.7 ppg) and Jacob Hazouri (9.6 ppg). This is Troy's first season in the Belt, so I have not seen them play too often. They had a couple of nice teams a few years back, but went 10-10 in the Atlantic Sun last season (8th seed in the conf tourney) and lost three starters. Unless they brought in some great recruits, they likely will find it tough going in the competitive SBC West. They do return all of their important bench players, so maybe they can hang tough in the league. They have highlight non-conference games at Mississippi State (Are the Bulldogs an honorary Belt member?) and at Xavier.

Some random stuff is coming this week.