College Basketball Preview: No. 1 Indiana, UCLA, UNLV And Louisville's Rick Pitino Hope To Emulate Kentucky's Return To Glory

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on October 10 2012 5:38 PM

When Democratic Party nominee Barack Obama emerged victorious from the ’08 Presidential Election, the U.S. economy was cratering and the nation’s collective moral was plummeting faster than the Dow Jones.  The same could be said for many of college basketball’s powerhouses mired in mediocrity.

Four years later, during the final weeks of Obama's re-election bid, the unemployment rate has finally dipped below 8% and the economy’s trajectory is trending upward. The same goes for a number of once great programs. While prograns such as Illinois and Houston and have yet to find the elixir for their basketball woes, a few programs are on the cusp of regaining their lofty statuses.

However, instead of returning America back to its perch as the “Shining City On A Hill”, these programs seek their return to the NCAA championship's One Shining Moment.

Let’s tip-off with the incumbent champions in Lexington who will launch their repeat bid Nov. 9 at home against Maryland. After the calamitous Gillispie years, John Calipari’s one-and-done assembly line has given him the opportunity to recruit future NBA lottery picks more efficiently than the stimulus produced jobs.

Freshman Nerlen Noels replaces The Brow as Kentucky’s newest defensive general but the grass might be greener on the other side of the Bluegrass State where Louisville returns a proven core and welcomes George Mason transfer Luke Hancock into the fold.

Louisville begins the 2012 campaign as the Commonwealth’s superior team but this resurgence is credited to Rick Pitino, whose off-court reputation has been dragged through the mud since an extortion attempt revealed the sordid details of his brief restaurant bathroom encounter and affair with an equipment manager’s wife.

On the West Coast, UCLA is attempting to unseat Kentucky and halt their 18-year title drought. In February, an alarming lack of discipline and control exposed by a Sports Illustrated story had the hoops community pondering whether Ben Howland had worn out his Westwood welcome.

Truthfully, Howland’s job security was in more jeopardy over his 56-43 record during the three-year period chronicled in the report than it was over unruly player behavior. However, UCLA’s recent recruiting haul led by likely one-and-done phenom Shabazz Muhammad, forwards Kyle Anderson and Tony Parker give Howland a second chance to right his wayward ship.

More importantly, the Bruins return a deep reservoir of proven starters to surround his heralded freshman class with including point guard Larry Drew II, the third Tar Heel in two years to transfer from Chapel Hill to Westwood since 2010. Drew will join twin towers and fellow Tar Heel transfers Travis and David Ware in the starting lineup. If they do end up with a postseason White House invitation, the UNC refugees will have a lot of explaining to do to the Baller-In-Chief.

Regrettably, a looming cloud of uncertainty may derail the Bruins season as the NCAA’s continues to investigate the eligibility of Anderson and Muhammad, who have not been cleared to play. Losing Muhammad and Anderson for the season could be devastating for Howland.

However, no program reflects the U.S.’ upwards trajectory better than Indiana hoops. In the nation’s heartland, ‘Hope’ blooms anew in the heartland for the first time since the prosperous, yet tumultuous Knight regime ended in 2000.

Four years ago, Tom Crean took over a depleted Indiana roster and led it to a 6-25 record.  Four years later, the turnaround is almost complete.

Preseason All-American Cody Zeller will garner the accolades and freshman point guard Yogi Farrell will hear the Isiah Thomas comparisons but sharpshooter Christian Watford’s decision to forego the NBA Draft puts Indiana over the top as the nation’s preseason No. 1.

The Hoosiers have been liberated from mediocrity but unlike Obama’s predecessor Crean isn't resting on his laurels until they’ve returned from the 2013 Final Four in Atlanta with a national championship trophy in tow.

Like the arch of a downtown trey, what goes up must also come down. We explore whose Draft stock, poll rankings, at-large bid status or job security is trending downwards.

UConn – 18 months ago, the Huskies were celebrating their third national championship. This season, they‘re banned from the NCAA Tournament, Jim Calhoun retired, a pair of key contributors transferred and another pair of underclassmen became NBA lottery picks.

Harvard- The Crimson may tout both Obama and Romney as testaments to their academic prestige but the last few weeks they’ve been dealt a blow in the classroom and in the athletic department. One year after cracking the Top 25 for the first time, Tommy Amaker’s crew will be forced to play without their two co-captains were implicated in a widespread cheating scandal and elected to sit out the season.

Disciples of Jesus Shuttlesworth

Most of today’s student-athletes were in preschool when Ray Allen made his silver screen debut as high school hoops icon, Jesus Shuttlesworth. Here’s where we give praise to ballers who are playing well enough to make him proud….and pander to the evangelical vote.

Mike Moser (UNLV)- The ex-UCLA transfer doesn’t stack up to 'Grandmama' Larry Johnson’s lofty standards but the 6-foot-8 forward is an efficient scorer and one of the best rebounding forwards in the nation.

Cody Zeller (Indiana) - He won’t be awe-inspiring to watch but the 19-year-old is the best center in the nation. He has national championship expectations heaped onto his shoulders, however, Zeller’s collegiate legacy isn’t the only thing growing in Bloomington. Over the offseason, Zeller shot up an inch to 7-feet tall and added 15 pounds to his thin frame.

Doug McDermott (Creighton) - The Missouri Valley Conference’s Player of the Year has the athleticism of a rec league lifer but the combination of size and crafty inside-outside scoring ability that’s reminiscent of a young Nowitzki.

Pierre Jackson (Baylor) – Jackson’s insane athleticism makes him a staple of nightly highlight reels but with Quincy Miller, Quincy Acy and Perry Jones gone, his scoring responsibilities will increase. 

CJ McCollum (Lehigh)– The conversation for the nation’s top player is incomplete without March Madness’ returning mid-major star.  In 2004, State Senator Obama was propelled into the spotlight amid the afterglow of his rousing keynote speech at the DNC Convention. Likewise, McCollum’s will build off of his 30-point explosion in Lehigh’s first round upset of Duke to launch his Player of the Year candidacy.

Dribbling Out The Clock

Before the final buzzer sounds here are final thoughts and observations from lingering questions or moments from the week in college hoops.

Some programs climb out of a depression slower than most. What takes most programs years takes others decades.

UNLV basketball hasn’t been prominent on the national stage since the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s photo of convicted point shaver “Richie The Fixer” Perry kicking back with three UNLV players in a hot tub melted the thin ice that the Rebels’ controversial basketball program deftly skated on for more than a decade.

Until now.

Last November, the Rebels put the nation on notice by defeating then-No. 1 ranked North Carolina. Despite a 26-win season under first-year coach Dave Rice, a frenetic offense and a catchier nickname than anything the LA Clippers marketing department could develop (Lob Vegas), their season ended in the first round.

Chace Stanback, who scored 28 in the UNC win wore out his eligibility and Vegas talent Shabazz Muhammad may have opted for the allure of the UCLA legacy but Mike Moser’s decision to return for his senior season along with the steady scoring of Anthony Marshall assured that the Rebels would remain Mountain West Conference favorites. 

The additional contributions from USC transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones, ex-UConn guard Roscoe Smith, McDonald’s All-Americans Khem Birch and Anthony Bennett have many anticipating UNLV taking Win City dancing deep into March Madness.

As Nevada’s national powerhouse Findlay Prep continues to serve as UNLV’s pipeline to blue-chip talent, the rebirth of UNLV basketball should be an intriguing one to watch during the embryonic stages of their resurgence.

In the meantime, UNLV’s first litmus test will come in Chapel Hill on Dec. 29 against a revamped Tar Heels roster.

 

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