Five Fearless Predictions - The basketball version
1. Michigan State will make its 10th straight NCAA tournament appearance - as a six seed. After watching the Spartans up close the last two days, in exhibition action Sunday and at practice Monday, I'm confident a healthy MSU team will top 20 wins this year. The Spartans are huge up front, and if Matt Trannon rejoins the team as expected - he's been invited to one postseason all-star football game, but basketball will be his best springboard to the NFL - MSU will have one of the most versatile and physical front lines around with six players 6-6 or taller: Trannon, Raymar Morgan, Goran Suton, Marquise Gray, Drew Naymick and Idong Ibok (a seventh, Tom Herzog, should be redshirted). The Spartans will win with defense and rebounding, things that play well in the knock-em-out Big Ten and for fiery coach Tom Izzo, but their eventual downfall will be a lack of perimeter scoring and penetration.
2. Michigan will extend its NCAA tournament drought to nine years. The Wolverines have serious questions at point guard. I don't trust Jerret Smith at the position, and Dion Harris would prefer to play off the ball. Still, with Harris, Lester Abram and Courtney and DeShawn Sims, Michigan should have enough scoring to get to the dance. So why won't happen? I'm predicting another late-season slide. Michigan plays eight regular-season games in February and March, two against Ohio State, Michigan State and Minnesota, and one against Indiana and Illinois. Minnesota is the only cupcake of the bunch, but a Feb. 24 trip to Williams Arena for Senior Day and what could be Gopher coach Dan Monson's last game will be tough to win. If the Wolverines don't steal one of their three big non-conference games (at North Carolina State and UCLA, home against Georgetown) I don't think they make the NCAAs.
3. Wisconsin will win the Big Ten, by two games over Ohio State, but the Buckeyes will represent the Big Ten in the Final Four. Wisconsin's always a tough tournament out because of its style of play, and both the Badgers (Chicago) and Buckeyes (Columbus) should have friendly first- and second-round sites. But Ohio State will be primed for a long March with freshman sensation Greg Oden set to re-join the team sometime late next month. Oden is a beast. He'll need some adjusting to get used to the Big Ten, but by missing all the preseason he'll avoid the freshman wall that most first-year players hit at some point. His one-and-done college career will end in Atlanta March 31.
4. UCLA, Kansas and North Carolina will join the Buckeyes in the Final Four. That's right, no Florida, no LSU, no Pitt, but no huge surprises either. I think UCLA forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is as solid a player as there is in the game, that's why I pick UCLA to win the Pac 10 and navigate through Spokane, Wash., and San Jose, Calif., tournament stops. North Carolina has a loaded freshman class and an All-American-caliber player in Tyler Hansbrough, and by the end of the year Kansas might have the game's best 1-2 punch in Brandon Rush and Julian Wright. If you're looking for a sleeper, look no further than Marquette and stud guard Dominic James.
5. So who wins it all? Ohio State (Oden) and North Carolina (Hansbrough and freshman Brandan Wright) each have lottery picks starting in their frontcourt, Kansas has some frontcourt issues with Sasha Kaun (knee) and C.J. Giles (suspension), so I'm going UCLA. The Bruins return to the Final Four, and this time Arron Afflalo and Co. get it done.