Here's why college basketball remains the most enjoyable sport there is to follow:
What's the connection? Actually, there is none, which is the beauty of it.
Gonzaga is the Little Team That Can. Forget last season's NCAA first-round tournament loss to Wyoming, none of the big-name teams wants to play the Zags, especially in March. Consider this statistic: Three teams entered the NCAA tournament last March having reached the Sweet 16 three straight years -- Duke, Michigan State and Gonzaga.
Then there's Holy Cross. Once, the Crusaders were college hoops royalty. They are one of a handful of schools to have won the NCAA championship (1947) and the NIT (1954). Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn and Togo Palazzi were the poster boys back then. These days, Holy Cross plays in a league that has never won an NCAA tournament game, much less the tournament. But the past two seasons, hopelessly overmatched, the Crusaders scared all heck out of Kentucky and Kansas in first-round games.
As for Arizona, think back 12 months. The Wildcats were unranked in the preseason polls. They had lost three non-seniors to the NBA and would be forced to play several freshmen extensively. There was talk that they might miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in almost 20 years. So, they ended up in the Sweet 16, and now, with everyone back, the freshmen battle-tested and Olson as lively as ever at 67, they enter this season as no worse than the co-favorites -- along with everyone's annual co-favorite, Kansas -- to win the national championship.
You can talk all you want about parity in the NFL, but only in college basketball can Holy Cross and Gonzaga get mentioned in the same paragraph with Arizona and Kansas. As for picking a Final Four in November, anyone who claims to be serious about such a task should not be taken seriously. Raise your hand if you picked Indiana last season. Oklahoma? How many had Missouri, Kent State and Oregon picked in preseason to go farther in March than Duke, UCLA and Kentucky? And if you knew in advance that North Carolina would lose 20 games, you go straight to the head of the class -- any class.
So, here we go again. The new season begins tonight with the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in Madison Square Garden: eight teams, four games, everyone plays just once. That's because of new rules concerning exempt games (those that don't count against a team's limit of 27) that are too complicated to understand or explain.
The defending national champion, as everyone around here knows, is Maryland, which moves into a fancy new corporate-named big bucks building that is likely to have all the charm of all the other corporate-named big bucks buildings. The Terrapins will miss Cole Field House almost as much as they will miss Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Byron Mouton. Nonetheless, with Steve Blake still around at point guard for seemingly a 10th season, and three battle-tested seniors -- Tahj Holden, Drew Nicholas and Ryan Randle -- joining a talented group of newcomers, Maryland will be a team to be reckoned with, especially in March, when it matters. So will Duke, in spite of losing three juniors to the NBA. Mike Krzyzewski seems to do his best work with young teams, and at least two freshmen will start for the Blue Devils.
The rest of the ACC is full of question marks, which is why Duke and Maryland are still picked one-two in spite of their losses. Carolina will be better -- how could it not be? The most likely team to challenge the big two is North Carolina State, but the Wolfpack will have to break in a new backcourt.
Pittsburgh is the heavy favorite in the Big East with everyone back from a Sweet 16 team, notably point guard Brandin Knight, and the Panthers are a popular pick with the alleged experts to play in New Orleans in April. Maybe. Let's see how the Panthers handle being a target. Connecticut, even without Caron Butler, is always tough; Notre Dame has one of the best point guards in the country in Chris Thomas; and Villanova has one of the best freshman classes in the country. Georgetown is also talented, even with Kevin Braswell gone.
Around the country Kansas is, as always, deep and experienced, and the Big 12 is loaded with Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech (coached by what's-his-name) returning key players from NCAA teams, notably the Sooners, who bring back four starters from a Final Four team. UCLA makes the Sweet 16 almost every year and should again this season, as should Oregon. The Big Ten has almost as many question marks as the ACC. The only certainty is that Michigan (on probation) won't play in postseason. Michigan State after a "down" year -- a first-round loss in the NCAA's after three Final Fours in a row -- should be the class of the league again. Ohio State, Iowa and Indiana are likely challengers although the Hoosiers would look a lot better if Jared Jeffries weren't playing for the Wizards.
The SEC is, as always, loaded. Florida has as good a chance to reach the Final Four as anyone this side of Arizona and Kansas, and Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi State return their key players. Kentucky is in a bit of flux because of player defections but always a threat -- as Maryland fans can attest after the Wildcats' game with the Terrapins last March.
Rick Pitino wasn't much of an NBA general manager, but he's a master recruiter, so look for Louisville to make a big jump this season. Wyoming is a good sleeper team out west, and Temple probably will look awful in December and be right there in March. There's a reason why John Chaney is in the Hall of Fame.
The leading returning scorer in the country, by the way, is VMI sophomore Jason Conley, who is well worth the trip down I-64 to Lexington, Va. Other than Conley, the best player who won't be on national TV 24 times is Western Kentucky center Chris Marcus, who, if he stays healthy, might be the second player chosen in the NBA draft next June. (High schooler LeBron James is as locked as the No. 1 pick as you can possibly be).
Of course the fact that James will never play college ball will have many wringing their hands, ruing the demise of the college game. Please. James comes fully equipped with an entourage that would have trouble fitting into Maryland's new building. Let the NBA have him. College ball will be just fine with Holy Cross, Gonzaga, Arizona and Jason Conley -- among others.