And we thought that parity talk only pertained to college football.
Shame on us for thinking that Cinderella only showed herself when there was a Big Dance to go to. Of course, that shame is being acutely felt out in Kentucky where Gardner-Webb University of the Atlantic Sun Conference ruined the debut of new Wildcats' coach Billy Gillespie. Fortunately for Gillespie, upsets dampened the debuts of some other highly regarded faces in new places, including freshman O.J. Mayo's USC Trojans. The Trojans suffered another case of Atlantic Sun-burn with a 91-86 to Mercer, despite Mayo's game-high 32 points.
In the season's early stages we already have a pair of compelling storylines competing to characterize the 2007-08 campaign. If these first few days have been any indication, these themes are going to be worth exploring all season long.
The Year of the Freshmen
Last year we had Greg Oden and Kevin Durant serving as the billboard-worthy ambassadors of the sport. This year there are about 12 of them.
Mayo, Kansas State's Michael Beasley (32 points, 24 rebounds), Syracuse's Jonny Flynn (28 points, nine assists), UCLA's Kevin Love (21 points, nine rebounds), Indiana's Eric Gordon (33 points) and Memphis's Eric Rose (17 points, six rebounds, five assists) all turned in NBA-ready performances in their collegiate debuts … albeit against far worse than NBA-caliber teams. Given that these guys are putting up the sort of large numbers that give opposing coaches (and English majors) headaches, the emphasis should be put on the second word of the section header above and that's a shame. There are so many talented freshmen playing for so many different programs this season that if they stayed in school for more than one year, the caliber of college basketball could rise to a level we haven't seen since the early 1980s when declaring early for the draft was almost unheard of. Instead we'll probably just have one season to savor this talented group, but it will be thrilling to see if Flynn and Gordon can return those programs to prominence, or if Love and Rose are the final pieces to their schools' championship picture.
Back in the good old days, Gardner Webb and schools of its kind would have had to be peeled off the floor after Kentucky got done steamrolling them. This year? The winningest programs of all time in D-IA football (Michigan) and D-I men's basketball (Kentucky) drop their openers to “no-name” programs. No one is going to be forgetting Gardner Webb's name now. I suspect several of my peers have already stashed a post-it to remind themselves of the Bulldogs come March.
USC drops to Mercer. Cincinnati falls to Belmont and Bowling Green, and only beats Western Carolina by two points. UNC Greensboro tripped up Georgia Tech. Morgan State nearly stops UConn and Hampton just missed upsetting Maryland. And the clock is nowhere near Midnight.
With appetizer matchups like the ones we've been having, I can't wait for the Tournament. I feel like someone is going to make some serious coin on a No. 1 vs. No. 16 matchup this year.
George Mason University has had a full year now to let its feet grow out of those glass slippers the Patriots donned to reach the Final Four. What's more, they return their entire starting five this season and added some new talent to their arsenal, including freshman Vlad Moldoveanu from St. John's in D.C. Bad Vlad came off the bench in his first game of Mason to score five points and snag nine rebounds. That helped compensate for a bad shooting night from senior Folarin Campbell (3 of 16 from the floor). When Campbell hits his stride (he averaged 13.9 points per game last year) Mason has a very good shot to return to the Dance.
Those that follow Georgetown through the national media lens may think the best news the Hoyas heard this offseason was that 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert was returning for his senior season. Those who have seen the program's recent “ups,” as well as the rapidly receding “downs,” from the early part of this decade would instead point to the news of a long overdue contract extension for John Thompson III. No one — not Hibbert, not the departed Jeff Green — has been more responsible for the Hoyas' resurrection than JTIII. Had he hit this season without an extension, it may have been his last with the University — especially if Eddie Jordan can't right their Wizards' badly listing ship.
Instead, the coach that returned the Hoyas to the Final Four for the first time since 1985 is in the fold and already paying dividends, landing a verbal commitment from consensus top Class of 2008 prospect Greg Monroe.
The Hoyas started their season with a win at home over a tenacious William & Mary team and ought to get an even sterner test on Thursday when they face Michigan at Verizon Center. Georgetown's starters led the way against the Tribe, which did little to cast light on the Hoyas' season ahead. A few quick shots from the hip: DaJuan Summers needs to avoid cheap fouls, as the Hoyas' frontcourt depth is limited; Jesse Sapp's ability to penetrate will be a great weapon when teams pack in a zone defense around Hibbert; Big Roy appears every bit the beast you'd expect a pre-season All-America selection to be. He ought to feast on a diet of smallish centers in the Big East this year.