College basketball is far from perfect, but still worth following

By John Feinstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2010; 12:43 AM

Gary Williams has been around the college basketball block long enough to know that preseason polls are about as valuable as Confederate war bonds. Yet when his Maryland team didn't receive a single vote last month, he didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

"Let's see, we tied for first in the ACC last season with the team that won the national championship," he said. "I know we lost three seniors and one of them was a first-round draft pick. But not a single vote? I look at some of the other teams that are ranked, and I honestly wonder if the guys voting even know who's on their teams."

The way college basketball is these days, it's entirely possible they don't. At least one panel of experts picked North Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes as a first-team all-American before he has played a college game. Of course, some folks who follow prep basketball nationally are asserting that the five best players in the country this season might be freshmen.

That's what one-and-done has done to the college game. Great players flash through college gyms so fast that if you blink you miss them. Hey, Kentucky fans, did you enjoy John Wall? Does anyone realize that, in a different era, Derrick Rose would be a Memphis senior this season?

Williams's disgust with the preseason polls makes absolute sense. People aren't voting anymore on what they know or what they've seen; they're voting on what they've heard. John Calipari, the same coach who recruited Rose to Memphis and Wall to Kentucky, has another freshman class full of guys who likely will be in the NBA at this time next year. How good are they? Who knows?

In the meantime, the college hoops season begins Monday night. Maryland is one of four teams hosting games in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. This event has become part of a disturbing trend in early-season hoops in which four teams are actually designated to play in the so-called "semifinals" even if they lose. Why? TV, of course. These events are much more marketable when the big-name teams are playing. The only way to guarantee that: Win and you advance; lose and you still advance (just as Texas will do, even if it falls to Navy on Monday night).

The good news: There's a real tournament at the end of the season, and it will not have 96 teams playing in it. (Selection Sunday is in 125 days, in case you are counting).

Duke, which won the championship last season because it played remarkable half-court defense, is the consensus choice to repeat even though three seniors who were keys to that defense are gone. Why is everyone so ga-ga for the Blue Devils? Because they have a freshman point guard named Kyrie Irving who most people have heard is great. Meantime, in an exhibition against 2010 Division II champion Cal Poly-Pomona last Thursday, Duke was up by six at halftime. The Blue Devils are good without question, but don't pick out a spot in the trophy case for Mike Krzyzewski's fifth championship plaque just yet.

Most of the other teams near the top of the rankings are the usual suspects. Michigan State gets Kalin Lucas back to go with most of the cast that took Tom Izzo to a sixth Final Four last season. Kansas State, which quietly reached a regional final last season (losing to Butler), has all-American Jacob Pullen back and another strong recruiting class. Pittsburgh was rebuilding a year ago and still competed for a Big East title, and Jim Boeheim is reloading again at Syracuse.

The same is true of North Carolina, where Roy Williams went through the worst season of his coaching career but has added Barnes and a very strong freshman class and likely won't go 5-11 in the ACC again anytime soon.

If Gordon Hayward had returned to Butler for his junior year, the Bulldogs might very well have been picked No. 1 . Without Hayward, they're probably more likely a round-of-16 team than a Final Four team. Brad Stevens may look 25, but he coaches like he's a wise 55.

Want a dark horse? How about Temple? Fran Dunphy will bring his veteran team to the District on Dec. 5 to play Maryland in the BB&T Classic, the charity event I help organize.

Locally, Maryland already has been overlooked, which is usually when Williams is at his most dangerous. The Terrapins will miss the wild-and-crazy but extremely effective Greivis Vazquez, but as their young back court improves, so should their fortunes. This season, everything should go through the post, where sophomore Jordan Williams is ready to become a major star. Sean Mosley might be the ACC's most underrated player.

Georgetown has a lot to make up for after its remarkable NCAA tournament flameout against Ohio University. Even though Greg Monroe jumped to the NBA, leaving Coach John Thompson III without his best big man, senior guards Austin Freeman and Chris Wright will make the Hoyas dangerous in the Big East.

George Washington made the Atlantic 10 tournament for the first time in three seasons, but that's a far cry from the three straight NCAA tournament bids it ran off between 2005 and 2007. With Lasan Kromah reutrning with the rest of last season's freshmen, Coach Karl Hobbs's team should improve considerably.

American took a step down last season after back-to-back Patriot League titles but is again one of the league favorites with the best forward tandem in the conference in sweet-shooting Vlad Moldoveanu and Stephen Lumpkins. Navy regularly gets picked near the bottom of the conference and then finishes near the top, but the Midshipmen haven't been able to win a conference tournament game since 2001.

Howard fired Gil Jackson after his fifth straight 20-plus loss seasons with a 37-118 record. The new coach is Kevin Nickelberry, who grew up in the area and will bring a lot of energy to a place that desperately needs it.

And last but not least? George Mason. The Patriots lost six of their last seven to finish a disappointing 17-15 last season, but with plenty of talent returning including star guard Cam Long, this could be Jim Larranaga's best team since the 2006 Final Four squad.

So with all due respect to preseason polls and recruiting rankings and college basketball's aristocracy, that's why it's worth playing the games: because in the 21st century, George Mason has played in one more Final Four than Kentucky.

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