We all think of Thanksgiving as time for Football and yes, it does hold a special place for the Holiday. But, Thanksgiving has become increasingly known for College Basketball. Once upon a time there were only about two Thanksgiving Week tournaments, the Maui Invitational and the Great Alaska Shootout. Both tournaments still exist, but the Alaska event has for the most part turned into a mid-major type tournament.
Now there are at least 20 tournaments that use a bracket format that are played on a portion of Thanksgiving Week. Some schools get lucky and get to spend time in Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, Atlantis at Paradise Island in the Bahamas, or Cancun, Mexico. The Lucky Ones draw Las Vegas. The ones that aren’t living right get Kansas City or Corpus Christi, Texas. Nothing screams holidays like a little quality time on Texas’ Gulf Coast.
Schools want to play these type of in-season tournaments because the demands of back-to-back games prepare them for the most important tournaments, the Conference Tournaments and the NCAA Tournament in March. Fans get a look at who may be the contenders for a National Championship. And, that’s not an easy answer this year. If anything the beginning of this season has shown that there aren’t any great teams and March is probably going to be wild. There are about 15 teams that can realistically win a National Title, but first step is to do something in your conference. So with that, my predictions for some of the Conference races along with the Final 4 (which is of course, impossible to do since we don’t have tournament match-ups).
ACC – The Conference I grew up watching. I guess I discovered the ACC right about 1976. And, that’s the year Virginia won the Conference Title with Jeff Lamp, Lee Raker and Terry Gates. True confessions for this Va. Tech grad. I grew up a huge Virginia basketball fan particularly when Ralph Sampson played there from 1979 – 1983. To this day, I still have a framed Ralph Sampson poster from his Senior season. To this day, I still love those U.Va. teams. And since, Va. Tech basketball has largely been a dumpster fire over the past 20 years, can you blame me? In predicting an ACC winner there is one rule to remember: You cannot trust North Carolina. No matter how talented they are (and they are), the are prone to throw up a clunker like they did Saturday against Northern Iowa. Will I be surprised if North Carolina wins the conference? No. Will I be surprised if they lose twice to Duke? No. Anything is possible in the ACC, but did you realize that the last two seasons, Virginia has the best conference record at 32-4. That’s good enough for me. I like U.Va. to win the ACC. Now the issue for Tony Bennett is to find a way to get past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
SEC – I’ve been known to tell people that there is nothing more overrated that SEC Basketball. It’s not the conference’s calling card. That’s football and it always will be. But, Kentucky, Florida and Arkansas have all won National Championships since 1994. Arkansas in 1994, Florida in 2006 and 2007, and Kentucky in 1996, 1998 and 2012. That’s not a bad run for a football conference. This year’s hopes rest entirely on Kentucky so naturally the Wildcats are the pick for the SEC and maybe beyond. They may be young, but that doesn’t matter because they are un-godly talented. Throw in a couple of veterans like Tyler Ulis (who is just a sophomore) and Alex Porthress and you see why Kentucky is going to be a player in March. If you need a surprise, try Vanderbilt or Texas A&M. Kevin Stallings is pretty consistent at Vanderbilt and Texas A&M is not just a football school.
Big 12 – Another rule you can count one. Kansas wins the Big 12 and then chokes to death in the NCAA Tournament. Rock-Chalk-Jayhawk almost always turns into Rock-Chalk-Choke job in the Tournament. So, naturally Kansas will win its 12th straight Big 12 this year right? Wrong. I’m taking Oklahoma and the very understated but brilliant coach Lon Krueger. The guy wins wherever he goes: Texas Pan-American, Kansas State, Florida (who he took to the final 4), Illinois, UNLV and now Oklahoma. Like a lot of coaches he tried the NBA with a forgettable run with the Atlanta Hawks, but at Oklahoma he’s destined to go a Final 4 sooner rather than later.
Big-10: You pick against Michigan State at your peril and Wisconsin will always be competitive with Bo Ryan coaching. Ohio State is always a factor, but my pick is Maryland. I still can’t grasp them as Big Ten team, but they are and have all the pieces in place to make a deep run in March.
PAC-12 – California. Coached by the smoothest cat since Barry White…Cunzo Martin. The guy was made to feel unwanted at Tennessee and now Vol fans can just deal with a tired old re-tread in Rick Barnes while Martin has stocked his roster with Top 20 recruits and a team that should win the Pac-12 over Arizona. With Martin coaching, Cal will be in your shirt on defense and be both physically and mentally tough which is a reflection of a coach who beat Cancer 20 years ago. Martin bolted Tennessee in part because the administration failed to have his back when moron Vol fans were passing around petitions to bring back cheating Bruce Pearl and one prominent booster decided that Martin could no longer use his private jet to recruit. He wasn’t wanted here so he went somewhere where he was. Now Tennessee can struggle to go .500 while Martin will starting filing up Cal’s trophy case. We call that KARMA.
Big East – Villanova. Based on Wardrobe alone Jay Wright has the best in the Big East. But, his team’s pretty good also. Villanova was a number 1 seed last year and laid an egg in the Tournament against N.C. State. Frankly the new layout of the Big East doesn’t do much for me (I have a hard time getting excited about a February match-up between Creighton and Seton Hall), but it’s just like everything else. If you are good enough you’ll get into post-season play and Villanova is more than good enough to get there and win there.
American – SMU. The Mustangs are banned from post-season because ancient coach Larry Brown can’t follow the rules and has never been able to do so. He left Kansas a mess that Roy Williams had to clean up. He’s collected talent at SMU but unfortunately that talent won’t be on display in March thanks to his stupidity, and of course he denies knowing anything about it. Hopefully, the players don’t quit. This is a prime example of SMU going for a quick fix. Chances are that when Brown is gone – and he ain’t getting any younger – SMU falls right back to mediocre. I think the plan was to have his top assistant and former Illinois State head coach Tim Jankovic take over when he decided to quit at SMU, but if I’m SMU’s administration I’m telling these guys to get the hell off my campus. Hey, but at least SMU is in the nicest part of Dallas so they got that going for them which is nice.
There are just too many conferences to pick them all, but suffice to say it’s a given that Gonzaga wins the West Coast Conference and Wichita State the Missouri Valley.
As for my Final 4: No Duke isn’t one of them. If you follow the familiar Duke pattern, they’ll be out in the first weekend coming off a National Championship. I like Kentucky (because they have the best players), Virginia (because it is inevitable that they make it back to the Final 4), Oklahoma (because of Lon Krueger) and California (because I believe they have the right coach and right mix of players). I’m not afraid to be wrong and If I get one of those right I’ll be surprised. But, hey that’s the fun of it.