The buzz around the SEC this year was how much stronger the conference would be, top-to-bottom, with so many key players returning and new faces ready to make an instant impact. A year after getting only three teams into the NCAA Tournament, this was supposed to be a rebound year, with as many as six or seven teams competing for berths in the Big Dance.
The stars for #2 Texas in the win over North Carolina on Saturday were Dexter Pittman and Damion James, who combined for 48 points and 30 rebounds. But what would Rick Barnes' team do if one of those two (in this case Pittman; James was the best player on the floor with 23 and 13, becoming the school's all-time leading rebounder) was saddled with foul trouble? We found out on Tuesday night in a late-game display that showed off the depth that makes the Longhorns a serious Final Four/national title contender.
You might think that an NIT team that lost it's leading scorer would be in for a rough season. Add in the fact that in addition to leading the team in scoring, that same player also led the team in minutes, steals and assists, and was second in rebounding, and you would almost be a fool to believe that the team wouldn't struggle this year. After all, college basketball is a game of stars right?
Well, as the 2009-10 Florida Gators are proving...maybe not.
The best thing about the proliferation of these conference challenges is the number of big-time games it brings to the non-conference season. The SEC/Big East Invitational features two of the pleasant surprises of November in #10 Florida and #7 Syracuse. Although I was higher on the Gators than most pundits in the preseason, not many expected them to defeat Michigan State and be undefeated at this point. As for Syracuse, the Orange dominated the NIT Season Tip-Off, handling California and North Carolina with ease.
If you're looking at Thursday's schedule from a national perspective there really isn't a reason to miss out on Syracuse taking on Florida in the SEC/Big East Invitational in Tampa. The two leagues split on Wednesday night in New York and the same could occur on Thursday with DePaul/Mississippi State being the opener. The Blue Demons have become a far more efficient club on offense and the departure of Dar Tucker (went pro but wasn't drafted), who dominated the ball last season, likely had something to do with the improvement.
Betting odds are a great guide to college basketball entertainment. Unlike fans, who often ride the wave of media predictions, betting lines tend to be a bit more focused and can give you an objective picture of how teams matchup (though lines too can get caught up in the wave of human emotion).
Friday afternoon's meeting between #7 Duke and #13 Connecticut had all the pregame hype of a championship bout. With the all-time series tied at four wins apiece (Connecticut having won the last four meetings) this was seen as the latest chapter in the short yet captivating novel being written by these two national powers. But by the end of the game it felt as if this were a hardwood replay of Manny Pacquiao soundly whipping Miguel Cotto.
A new era of Kentucky basketball begins, but will the likes of Mississppi St, Tennesse, or Vanderbilt spoil John Calipari's entrance. Perhaps no league is loaded with NBA talent like the SEC.