LOCICERO: Cardinals will reign, mid majors could slip

Last week, I wrote about how “thrilled” I was that the NBA was back. However, the NBA takes a back seat to college ball this Friday when the 2012-13 season kicks off with Eastern Michigan hosting the mighty Rochester College Warriors at 11 a.m.

The nonconference portion of the college basketball season is always filled with tournaments and, more recently, showcases, as teams try to figure out who they are and where they’re going this year.

For those of you living under a rock, the Marquette men’s team opens its season Friday night on the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier against No. 4 Ohio State.

The Buckeyes lost Jared Sullinger to the NBA but bring back All-American guard Deshaun Thomas and pesky Aaron Craft, among others. The Buckeyes should be in contention to win a Big Ten championship and in the conversation for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in March.

I won’t give away my thoughts on this year’s men’s basketball team here at Marquette (you’ll have to check out our beautiful Golden Eagle preview insert in today’s Tribune), but this should be an interesting year for the Golden Eagles.

If the first coaches’ poll rankings are any indication, this could be a bit of a down year for the mid major programs that have made a serious splash in the college basketball scene over the last few years.

Creighton is the highest ranked “mid major” at No. 15, but I don’t really consider them an underdog any more. Neither are Memphis (16), UNLV (19), San Diego State (20) or Gonzaga (22). In fact, there are no teams I consider an outlier in the Top 25.

A few under-the-radar teams to look out for this year are Saint Louis, Murray State and Drexel. And don’t think Butler won’t give Marquette a scare in the first round of the Maui Invitational on Nov. 19, either. As you’ll see in my All-American predictions, there is plenty of good talent to go around.


Cody Zeller, 7-foot sophomore center, Indiana

Zeller’s decision to skip the NBA for one more season is the biggest reason why the Hoosiers enter the season No. 1 and are expected to win their first national championship since 1987, which is like an eternity in Bloomington. He averaged 15.6 points per game and 6.6 rebounds per game last year.

C.J. Leslie, 6-foot-9 junior forward, North Carolina State

Leslie is the biggest reason why North Carolina and Duke aren’t projected to win the ACC this year. He poured in 14.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game for the Wolfpack last year and a No. 6 preseason ranking have the folks in Raleigh pretty high on N.C. State’s potential this season.

Doug McDermott, 6-foot-8 junior forward, Creighton

McDermott showed last year he could do just about everything for the Bluejays and will be counted on to do so again. He averaged 22.9 points per game, the No. 3 mark in the country, while also pulled down 8.9 rebounds per game. The Bluejays will be expected to hold off Northern Iowa and Wichita State for the Missouri Valley title.

Isaiah Canaan, 6-foot-1 senior guard, Murray State

Canaan averaged 19 points per game on 46.8 percent shooting last year, including 45.6 percent from three-point land. He helped the Racers to a 30-1 regular season record before they got bounced in the third round by Marquette. Canaan is in range when he steps off the bus and should wow the college game with his style of play again this year.

C.J. McCollum, 6-foot-3 senior guard, Lehigh

McCollum isn’t a household name yet, but he will be by season’s end. He poured in 21.9 points per game last year and ripped down 6.5 rebounds per game, an impressive number for a player with his stature. He poured in 30 points in the Mountain Hawks’ 75-70 stunner over Duke last year.

Final Four

Kentucky over Indiana

Imagine this contest between two blue-blood college basketball programs with rabid fan bases. The Final Four is in Atlanta, the heart of SEC country, which gives the slightest of edges to the Wildcats.

Louisville over North Carolina

My darkhorse in the Final Four this year is the Tar Heels. Roy Williams’ team lost its core from last year, with Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall and John Henson departing. But returnees like Dexter Strickland and James Michael McAdoo, along with a stellar freshmen class led by Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, will have the Tar Heels back in Atlanta. It won’t be enough to get past Peyton Siva and the Cardinals, however.

NCAA championship

Louisville over Kentucky

These teams couldn’t be more opposite in how they play. The Cardinals like to slow things down and grind an opponent to death. At least they did last year when they went to the Final Four. The Wildcats lost everything, much like North Carolina, but a top recruiting class including No. 1-ranked Nerlens Noel will help Kentucky reload again. The leadership of Siva will be just enough for Louisville to earn its first national championship since 1986.