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August 28, 2009

Butler could be the best of the non-Big Six

While traditional heavyweights Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State figure to open the 2009-10 season atop the national rankings, this could represent a year of transition for teams outside the six major conferences.

Memphis and Xavier must withstand coaching changes and roster turnover, while Gonzaga also must overhaul its lineup. It wouldn't come as a surprise if all three programs slip a notch this season, though they still seem likely to earn NCAA tournament bids.

Xavier now finds itself battling Dayton for Atlantic 10 supremacy, while Memphis finally could get some competition from Conference USA rivals such as Tulsa.

Here's our prediction of the top 10 teams from outside the major conferences for this season.

1. Butler: The Bulldogs exceeded expectations last season by winning a Horizon League regular-season title and earning their third consecutive NCAA tournament bid while regularly starting three freshmen. This season, much more is expected. Butler returns its entire roster and should open the season ranked in the top 20. If the Bulldogs get the right kind of draw, they just might reach the Sweet 16 for the second time in the past four seasons. Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored figure to make major strides in their sophomore seasons, while junior Matt Howard already has established himself as one of the nation's top power forwards.

2. Siena: After advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament for two consecutive seasons, Siena returns with perhaps its best team yet. Edwin Ubiles, Alex Franklin, Ryan Rossiter and Ronald Moore give the Saints four returning starters. The lone first-year starter is 6-foot-3 guard Clarence Jackson, one of five Saints who averaged at least 8.0 points per game last season. After emerging as one of the biggest surprises of the past two NCAA tournaments, Siena won't sneak up on anyone this season and might even crack the preseason national rankings. If Siena holds off Niagara for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference crown, the Saints might earn a good-enough seed to be favored in their first-round tournament game this season.

3. Dayton: When forward Chris Wright decided to stay in school and former Xavier coach Sean Miller left for Arizona, it gave the Flyers a golden opportunity to unseat the Musketeers as the Atlantic 10's top team. Dayton returns 11 of its top 12 scorers from a team that gave the Flyers their first NCAA tournament victory since 1990 last season. Wright should emerge as the Atlantic 10's top player. Dayton squeaked into the tournament with a No. 11 seed last season; the Flyers should feel much more comfortable when the next "Selection Sunday" rolls around.

4. Xavier: A coaching change and plenty of roster turnover could cause Xavier to struggle a bit more than usual. B.J. Raymond and C.J. Anderson completed their eligibility and Derrick Brown entered the NBA draft, leaving the Musketeers without their three top scorers from last season. But the Musketeers still have enough firepower to make the tournament. Jason Love, Jamel McLean and Kenny Frease give Xavier plenty of size, and Indiana transfer Jordan Crawford should provide some scoring punch. Xavier already has proved in the past it can continue to thrive after coaching changes. The good news for the Musketeers is that new coach Chris Mack a Xavier alum seems more likely to stick around for a while.

5. Gonzaga: This represents a season of transition for the Zags, who already had to replace plenty of seniors even before Austin Daye decided to leave school early to enter the NBA draft. Gonzaga's only full-time returning starter is guard Matt Bouldin, though guard Steven Gray made 11 starts last season. A return to the Sweet 16 seems unlikely, but the Zags remain the class of the West Coast Conference. Gonzaga has won nine consecutive WCC regular-season titles and should make it 10 in a row, particularly since Saint Mary's guard Patrick Mills left school early to begin his pro career. Mills' departure leaves Portland as Gonzaga's toughest challenger in the WCC.

6. Memphis: The Tigers have so many questions. Is Josh Pastner, who turns 32 on Sept. 26, ready for his first head-coaching job? Now that the NCAA has granted a waiver making Duke transfer Elliot Williams eligible immediately, how will Pastner divide playing time among the Tigers' guards? And who is going to fill those frontcourt spots with Robert Dozier and Shawn Taggart gone? Although Memphis won't dominate an improved Conference USA the way it did for most of John Calipari's tenure, the Tigers still could scratch and claw their way to a league title. But it's tough to imagine this team making it beyond the first week of the NCAA tournament.

7. Northern Iowa: Depth and experience should allow the Panthers to win the Missouri Valley Conference and return to the NCAA tournament. Northern Iowa returns all five starters and forward Lucas O'Rear, the MVC's sixth man of the year last season. Adam Koch earned first-team all-conference honors last season, but the Panthers rely on teamwork more than star power. Koch led the team in scoring at just 12.1 points per game last year, which underscores how the Panthers aren't resting their hopes on one standout performer.

8. Tulsa: Memphis has been the only C-USA representative in each of the past three NCAA tournaments, but Tulsa could give the Tigers some company this season. Tulsa returns four starters from the team that went 25-11 and reached the second round of the NIT last season. The list of returning starters includes guard Ben Uzoh and 7-foot center Jerome Jordan, who led the league in field-goal percentage (.586) and blocks (2.5) last season. If Jordan improves his offense this season, Tulsa just might end Memphis' C-USA monopoly.

9. BYU: If the Cougars ever find themselves needing incentive this season, they need only look at their leader. Coach Dave Rose was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this summer, only to declare later that his cancer was in remission and that he intended to coach this season. BYU has the potential to deliver the kind of season that can put Rose's story back in the national spotlight in March. The return of four starters should allow BYU to win at least a share of the Mountain West Conference for a fourth consecutive season. BYU arguably has the MWC's top two players in guard Jimmer Fredette and swingman Jonathan Tavernari.

10. Western Kentucky: After reaching the Sweet 16 in 2007 and advancing to the second round last season, the Hilltoppers should make it back to the NCAA tournament in 2009. Western Kentucky loses 2008 Sun Belt player of the year Orlando Mendez-Valdez, but the Hilltoppers return their other four starters. Keep an eye on guard A.J. Slaughter, the most outstanding player in the 2008 Sun Belt tournament. Western Kentucky's successful postseason experience from the past two seasons gives it a slight edge over Creighton for the final spot on our list.

What's the problem?

Florida International is so bothered that it has to play North Carolina instead of Ohio State in the first round of the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament that it reportedly is trying to pull out of the early season event altogether.

And that begs the following question: Why?

Either North Carolina or Ohio State would be a prohibitive favorite against FIU. The only difference is that a North Carolina-FIU first-round game likely would garner more attention because of the Tar Heels' status as defending national champions.

With Ohio State returning all five starters while North Carolina breaks in four new starters, the Buckeyes actually might be a tougher matchup at that point in the season.

Pitino and the press

Why didn't someone talk Louisville coach Rick Pitino out of venting his frustrations with the media Wednesday in a bizarre news conference?

If Pitino wanted to sway public opinion in his favor and against Karen Sypher the woman accused of extorting him the news conference probably wasn't the way to do it. While some reports before the news conference had been sympathetic to Sypher's claims, the majority of the news accounts of this scandal have focused mainly on Pitino's admitted "indiscretion" in a Louisville restaurant while downplaying Sypher's claims about the incident. Ripping the media only makes Pitino look worse and keeps this scandal in the spotlight.

Pitino offered an apology two weeks ago in which he said he wouldn't comment publicly on the matter again and that the "truth will come out." He should have stuck to his original plan.

Tip-ins

Indiana officials deserve credit for inducting Bob Knight into the university's athletic Hall of Fame, a clear attempt to heal the division between the school and its former coach a decade after his firing. Whether the move pays off remains to be seen. Knight still hasn't indicated whether he will attend the Nov. 6 induction ceremony.

Mike Mercer is getting one more chance to live up to his considerable potential. Mercer, a 6-4 guard, was kicked off USF's team last January after he was charged with marijuana possession, which marked his second arrest in four months. But Mercer graduated from USF this month and was reinstated to the basketball team this week. Mercer, the No. 22 prospect in the 2005 recruiting class, originally signed with Georgia but was kicked off the Bulldogs' team in the fall of 2007.

Former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie figured to emerge as one of the key players when the coaching carousel started spinning again next spring, but his arrest early Thursday in Lawrenceburg, Ky., on a DUI charge could cause programs to shy away from him. This marks the third time Gillispie has been arrested on this type of charge. The case was dismissed in one instance, and he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of reckless driving on the other occasion.

Mississippi State is beginning construction this week on a 57,611-square-foot, $11.2 million practice facility. School officials said the building would include 23,500 square feet of court space, which would be greater than the facilities at SEC rivals Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee. Construction is expected to take 15 months.

Nebraska forward Chris Balham has ended his playing career because of recurring knee problems and will serve as a student assistant this season. Balham, who graduated from Nebraska with a double major in Spanish and international studies, made 23 starts last season and averaged 2.0 points per game.

Northwestern's hopes of earning its first NCAA tournament bid in school history may have suffered a blow last week when sophomore center Kyle Rowley fractured his left foot during a basketball clinic in Chicago. The injury leaves his status for the start of the season uncertain. Rowley made 28 starts and averaged 3.6 points and 1.8 rebounds last season.

Rutgers forward Gregory Echenique is playing for the Venezuelan Senior National Team in the FIBA Americas Championship this week in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Echenique, 18, will be one of the youngest players in the tournament. Echenique set a Rutgers freshman record last season by pulling down 268 rebounds. He ranked third in blocks (2.4 per game) and fourth in rebounding (8.4) among freshmen nationally.

Vanderbilt should have plenty of reason to play hard for Commodores coach Kevin Stallings this season. Stallings gave up a $100,000 raise so that the university could use the money to fund the Commodores' recent trip to Australia. "When he told us, it hit us like, 'Wow! He cares about this team enough to take a lot of money out of his own pocket,' " Vanderbilt guard Brad Tinsley told The (Nashville) Tennessean. "It would have been pretty disappointing for a lot of guys because we had gotten our hopes up. This shows his true character."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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