For many hoops fans the real basketball season starts tonight, as the NCAA's collegiate cagers tip things off. While I love watching the NBA (or any basketball for that matter), I'm particularly partial to the college version, due to many factors - the pageantry of it, the rabid crowds, the discovery of new, exciting NBA prospects. But, of course, the biggest reason to like NCAA basketball is March Madness and the Final Four. I was lucky enough to cover it live in Detroit last April for SLAM, and there is no other basketball experience that can top it in terms of excitement.
This year's Final Four takes place in Big Ten country again, in the hoops heartland of Indiana (Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis to be exact). And, because you were wondering, here is the Hoops Manifesto's preseason picks of the four participants that will lace them up in Indianapolis next April.
The Jayhawks have the most experience, talent and depth of any other college team on the planet. Most importantly, they have two of the nation's best players at the two most important positions on the court - point guard Sherron Collins and center Cole Aldrich. Add in a big, athletic supporting cast and a proven winner for a coach and the Jayhawks are the team to beat. (Please note: this pick is contingent on them not getting into any future brawls with their football team and/or driving drunk (which, as the past offseason shows, is not a given).
The only team that can challenge Kansas for the title, at least in terms of talent, is the Kentucky Wildcats. New coach John Calipari has the country's best recruiting haul, led by next June's no. 1 pick in the NBA draft, John Wall. But, more important than all of the newcomers is one of the team's few holdovers - junior big man Patrick Patterson. Patterson is a legit NBA prospect in his own right, and he provides the youngsters with a stable leader and a dominant presence in the paint. (Please note: this pick expires in two years, at which point Kentucky should be on probation and their Final Four appearance stricken from the records).
Kansas might be the early favourite to win the national championship, but they'll still be in a battle just to win the Big 12 conference. That's because Rick Barnes has a stacked crew down in Austin ready to go to battle. Like Kansas and Kentucky, the Longhorns, led by dynamic forward Damion James,have a solid mix of veterans and newcomers that make them a legitimate Final Four threat. (Please note: this pick is null and void if 300lb Texas center Dexter Pittman decides to haze top recruit Avery Bradley by eating him).
My wildcard pick. Michigan State is the trendy choice to make it back to the Final Four, but I prefer Purdue's team in the Big Ten. The Boilermakers' three-headed monster of Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore could be the best trio in the country. Plus, Matt Painter's boys should be motivated to make it to the Final Four in their home state. (Please note: this pick is not valid if the ghost of Glenn Robinson comes back to campus and ruins the team's chemistry by hoisting 30 shots a game).