John Feinstein on what to expect in the new college basketball season

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

When we last left college basketball, North Carolina was cutting the nets down in Detroit, Tyler Hansbrough was ending his collegiate career having won the national title he craved, and Michigan State was the story of the 2009 NCAA tournament, giving the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan a much-need emotional lift by reaching the championship game.

Since then, UNC Coach Roy Williams has written a book, Memphis Coach John Calipari has signed a contract worth $32 million to coach at Kentucky while a second of his Final Four coaching appearances was being vacated (one more and he retires the non-trophy), and most of the usual suspects have appeared in the preseason top 25. Wait, there's more: Isiah Thomas came back to college basketball (at Florida International) and began screaming about unfair treatment before coaching his first game. And Mike Krzyzewski signed up to coach the Olympic team again in 2012, no doubt making his book publishers almost as happy as it made Roy Williams.

So what can we expect from this season, one that began Monday night because going more than four days between the end of the World Series and the start of college basketball would no doubt be more than ESPN could bear.

One of the preseason tournaments that started Monday night -- the (something-or-other-

corporation) Coaches vs. Cancer Classic -- is especially intriguing because it may represent a new trend. Put aside for a moment the event's worthy cause, and consider what the folks running it have done. They've decided that taking a chance on letting a no-name team make it to the semifinals at Madison Square Garden is something that simply can't be allowed. Never mind that a tournament is supposed to be, you know, a competition, the kind of thing where winners advance and losers don't.

That's not how it works in the "Whatchamacallit Coaches vs. Cancer Classic." You see, North Carolina, Ohio State, California and Syracuse have already advanced to the semifinals, regardless of whether they win in their early games. In fact, Maryland, which is scheduled to play in this event in two years, has already advanced to the semifinals that year.

"I'm really improving with age, aren't I?" Gary Williams said upon learning his team had advanced even while some of those who will play on it are still in high school.

Call this the Gardner-Webb rule. A few years back, Gardner-Webb went into Kentucky and beat the Wildcats to advance to Madison Square Garden. If the same thing happened this year, Gardner-Webb would receive a hearty pat on the back and a ticket home. Kentucky would move on to the Garden.

We can only hope the NCAA doesn't decide this is a good idea. Under this concept, George Mason never would have gotten past Michigan State in the 2006 tournament. Heck, North Carolina, the team the Patriots beat in the second round that year, might have won the national championship. Davidson certainly wouldn't have reached the region final two years ago. And that great Siena-Ohio State game last year? Hey, nice win, Saints; have a nice trip home to Albany.

Okay, let's move on from corporate/TV greed and on to, well, corporate/TV greed. Who will end up in Indianapolis next April? Who knows, but based on the last three years, it won't be a dark horse. Call it the revenge of Jim Nantz and Billy Packer, but ever since George Mason stuck it to the CBS duo with its run four seasons ago, the tournament has been awash in chalk. In 2007, two No. 1 seeds and two No. 2 seeds made the Final Four. In 2008 all four No. 1s made it, and last year it was two No. 1s, a No. 2 and a gritty No. 3 (out of the underdog Big East) making it to Detroit.

In fact, the last three Final Fours have produced only one game worth watching until the finish: Kansas-Memphis in the '08 final. Last year's championship game was over somewhere between the first and the second TV timeout.

So maybe we're due for something good to happen in March and April. Maybe Butler, with all five starters back from a 26-6 team, will make it to the Final Four in its home town. (If that happens, the NCAA should at least hold the Friday practices in Hinkle Field House, Butler's home court, and the place where Milan won its historic state championship in 1954).


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