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The Magic Eight

We've crunched the numbers, pulled out our slide rule and worked the phones ....

Wait, let's be honest. When it came time to name the Eighth Annual Magic Eight -- our list of the eight teams from which we guarantee the national champion will emerge -- the 'Bag just sat down in a cramped Economy class airplane seat next to a wailing baby and pulled the gilded octet out of the ether.

All the same, we like our picks. And we're pretty good at this too: In only one of the Magic Eight's previous seven editions (Syracuse in 2003) have we failed to name the eventual champ in January.

Before we dive in, the usual caveat: this is not our list of the nation's eight best teams. (Otherwise Ohio State would be in here.) But that would be boring, and since when did the country's eight best teams all reach the Elite Eight? (Answer: never.)

So welcome to the Magic Eight, Washington State. Take a bow, Tennessee. Without further ado, here's the 2007 edition (in alphabetical order):

Don't be scared off by the OT loss at Washington State. The Wildcats' combination of talent and chemistry reminds us a lot of Florida's title run last year. It starts with the huge improvement of point guard Mustafa Shakur, whose pass-first mentality extends to superfrosh Chase Budinger, whipsmart wing Jawann McClellan and the underrated Ivan Radenovic. Against Washington last week they found Marcus Williams open for reverse-layups almost at will in the second half, leaving the 'Bag speechless. The only concerns are defense and depth -- can Arizona survive when five guys are logging almost all the minutes?

The Gators' title defense hasn't been the tour de force some had expected, but their beat down of Ohio State showed Florida at its best is still better than anyone else. Taurean Green is another underrated point guard who has saved his team's bacon more than once, and now that Al Horford and Corey Brewer are back at full strength, we expect the Gators to hit their stride in the SEC. (They're certainly not lacking in motivation after last year's 10-6 conference mark, including sweeps by Tennessee and South Carolina.) Plus, Florida gets bonus points for the tournament experience it gained last year.

One of the nation's most maddening teams, the Jayhawks have the kind of talent that swamped Florida in Vegas but also the inconsistency that fed losses to Oral Roberts and DePaul. For some reason Kansas just doesn't defend the three-point shot very well, which will have to change if SI's preseason No. 1 wants to win it all. But, we're sticking with Bill Self's crew, which forged an identity during last year's Big 12 season and should do so again in '07. Julian Wright has shown flashes of the superstardom we think he's capable of -- now it's time to do so on a regular basis.

Would everyone quit bagging on Tyler Hansbrough as some sort of "disappointment" just because he may not win Player of the Year? Psycho T is doing just fine (averaging 18.6 points and 7.8 boards, almost identical to last season), and his unselfishness is the hallmark of a team that employs the hoops version of the Powell Doctrine (i.e., go to battle with overwhelming force). We can't wait for the Tar Heels' showdown with Arizona in Tucson on Jan. 27 for two reasons. Not only will it feature two of the nation's top teams, but we'll also see how a five-man rotation (Arizona) performs against a 10-man rotation (UNC). Does depth matter? We'll find out.

In last year's Magic Eight we picked an under-heralded SEC team nobody thought had a chance to win it all, and look at what then-unranked LSU accomplished, taking down Duke and Texas and reaching the Final Four. Tennessee may not be big, but Chris "The Dagger" Lofton is the nation's most dangerous shooter and Bruce Pearl's Vols are relentless on defense. We love the swagger on this team, too, which has come through loud and clear in wins against Oklahoma State, Memphis and Texas.

We could write an entire ode to Lorenzo Mata, this year's winner of the Nick Smith Memorial "Random Big Guy We Love" award, but the fact remains that the Bruins are a little thin inside. Still, we like nearly everything about Ben Howland's crew, from its lockdown defense to its scrappy depth to the nerves of steel owned by guards Darren Collison and Arron Afflalo (whom we've been a fan of ever since we saw him play on a glorious night of high school hoops in Pauley with LeBron James, Sebastian Telfair, D.J. Strawberry and DeMarcus Nelson in 2003). It certainly helps that Howland is a heck of an in-game coach, too.

We can already hear you: Three Pac-10 teams in the Magic Eight? And you're leaving out Ohio State for Wazzu? Trust us, we're not saying Washington State is better than the Buckeyes. But the 'Bag does like to go out on a limb every once in a while, and first-year coach Tony Bennett's suddenly-mighty Cougars are on a roll, boasting wins over Arizona, Gonzaga and USC, a near-miss at UCLA and a 3-1 mark in the nation's best conference. Something is afoot in the Palouse, where the Cougs have developed a newfound consistency under Bennett the Younger while retaining the hard-to-prepare-for quirkiness that could serve them well in the NCAA tournament.

The 'Bag is feeling pretty good about its preseason Final Four prediction of Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina and Wisconsin. Remember, there were big questions heading into the season about the point guards at Arizona (Shakur) and Wisconsin (Kam Taylor), but both have proven up to the task so far. Meanwhile, all Alando Tucker has done is establish a sterling candidacy for national Player of the Year, playing at his best against the best by lighting up Marquette (28 points), Pittsburgh (32), Missouri State (26), Georgia (29) and Ohio State (17).

So who got left out?

Ohio State: Easily the toughest omission from the Magic Eight, the Buckeyes are the nation's most fascinating team because of their surpassing talent and the giant unknown of what they may yet become. But we actually disagree with our own headline writer for the 'Bag's recent Greg Oden story in Sports Illustrated: Ohio State is not the team to beat, not even in its own conference. (That would be Wisconsin, as we've said from the start.) Long story short: OSU's potential is off the charts, and this could come back to haunt us, but potential doesn't equal accomplishment.

Alabama: That 27-point loss to Arkansas threw up some warning flags, even though the Crimson Tide came back with a nice win at home against LSU on Tuesday. We're still a little concerned about Ronald Steele's bum wheel.

Texas A&M: The Aggies are still a solid sleeper Final Four pick, not least because they can defend like crazy. But we still think coach Billy Gillispie is a year or two away from something really big.

LSU: Glen "Big Baby" Davis still has his mojo, but we thought Magnum Rolle would have done more to fill in for the departed Tyrus Thomas. The Tigers also miss the calming influence of Darrel Mitchell.

Pittsburgh: The Panthers are now the favorites in the Big East, but they just don't strike the fear into you that Arizona, North Carolina and Florida do.

Oklahoma State: It was awfully tough to leave the Cowboys out of the Magic Eight, but making hard choices is part of the game, right? Mario Boggan is having an All-America-caliber year, though we still have some lingering questions about the point guard spot.

Butler: The one-loss Bulldogs certainly deserve to be in this company with wins over Tennessee, Notre Dame, Gonzaga, Indiana and Purdue. We just don't think there's going to be another George Mason in this year's tournament.

Duke: We still think the Blue Devils will finish second in the ACC, but youth, turnovers and the lack of a go-to superstar make a national title highly unlikely.

Clemson: Give Oliver Purnell's Tigers a ton of credit for being the nation's last undefeated team and pulling off some solid wins. This is a team that can make the NCAA tournament's second weekend, but beyond that? We don't see it.

We promise we'll get to your questions next week in a Mailbag blowout, so send in your best queries, mind-benders, etc., on the college hoops racket. In the meantime, for your continued enjoyment, we present the next installment of ...

Week 1 got the B-B Challenge off to a rousing start as the 'Bag attempted to match wits with ESPN's Jay Bilas -- no small task considering the multitalented Bilastrator's achievements include playing in a national-title game, appearing in a White Shadow episode and winning a case against Barney the Dinosaur in a court of law. (No lie, dude's a lawyer, too.) This time it was Jay's turn to suggest a topic, and given its nature we decided to expand responses to a 500-word max. The envelope, please:

Question: If you were crowned Omnipotent King of All Basketball, which is a distinct possibility, what changes would you make in the game and why?

The Bilastrator:

When the Bilastrator was just a lad in his freshman year of college, he was asked his "future goal" for a player questionnaire. The Bilastrator responded, only partly in jest, he wished to become the Ruler of Time, Space and Dimension. Although accepting the appointment as Omnipotent King of All Basketball would be short of his stated goal, and pays far less, the Bilastrator knows he is up to the task.

First, the Bilastrator would decree all media members shall refrain from referring to themselves or their columns in the third person. That egomaniacal domain is for coaches only, and the media needs to seize the high ground before making fun of said coaches.

Second, the Bilastrator would rule the three-point line shall be moved back to the NBA distance, irrespective of the cost of paint and lacquer. Too many bad shooters take the shot, and there is not enough risk involved.

Third, the Bilastrator would ban all lane violations if the free-throw attempt is made. If missed, only then call the violation. Who cares if someone is in early when the shot goes in?

Fourth, the Bilastrator would pronounce that all parents, guardians, friends and AAU coaches shall attend games and support their favorite player, and refrain from offering suggestions to his coach on anything related to basketball. Cheer for Johnny, but thou shalt pipe down if you don't like the offense or Johnny's role. However, the right to bitch and moan about your seats is absolute.

Fifth, the Bilastrator would dictate USA Basketball shall operate in the same spirit as does the United States Golf Association, and shall keep the best interests of the game first. USA Basketball's primary mission shall be to grow the game, and to establish camps and leagues to properly train coaches and players from the grassroots level.

Sixth, the Bilastrator would set forth that the NCAA should keep its mouth shut about the amount paid by any institution for a coach or facility. The only thing more laughable than the NCAA moaning about spending and money is the fact that Congress has the "onions" to do the same.

Seventh, the Bilastrator would decree the rules of every level of basketball be standardized. It is silly and nonsensical that the rules differ from high school to college to the international game to the NBA.

Eighth, the Bilastrator would pronounce no coach shall be allowed to shout at or otherwise harass an official during the course of the game. "Working officials" in a manner that causes the veins on a coach's neck to bulge is wholly ineffective, and therefore, unnecessary. Nobody wants to get it right more than the officials. Coaches shall coach their teams. Period. If coaches wish to holler fanatically, they shall be directed into broadcasting. Or sports writing.

Lastly, the Bilastrator would rule anyone intentionally bumping into the Bilastrator in a restaurant while he is eating in an effort to recreate the ESPN ad shall immediately have to bump into Rick Majerus after he exits the sauna.

The 'Bag:

In the land of King Bagman I, the official language shall be Rafter-ese, a dialect that places heavy emphasis on blurting out such terms as "The Kiss!" and "Onions!" King Bagman may be omnipotent, but he is also benevolent, and with his new powers he'll make several changes to improve the already wonderful sport of college hoops. To wit:

• Move the three-point line to the international distance. It's just too close for players this skilled. A change should have happened years ago.

• Quit calling charges when a defender simply stands below the basket. It breaks up the game and penalizes good aggressive play. Just treat most of them as no-calls.

• Discard the RPI forever. Who cares about your opponent's opponents' records? Let the NCAA tournament committee (which we'll retain as a benevolent king) use Sagarin or another power rating which employs common sense.

• Break up conferences so they can have no more than 10 teams and must play home-and-home games against every other team in the conference. With a few exceptions like the Pac-10 and Missouri Valley, too many leagues have grown bloated (thanks, football) and rendered their conference races meaningless.

• In the NCAA tournament, make the two lowest-seeded at-large teams contest the play-in game. If we're going to treat two teams as ugly stepsisters, make it be big-conference mediocrities instead of Cinderellas (which almost always include at least one historically black college).

• In the NCAA tournament, to receive a No. 1 or No. 2 seed a team must have finished in the top two of its conference regular season or won its conference tournament. Just one more way to make the conference season matter again.

• Replace overused but less meaningful statistics with tempo-free stats. King Bagman does not normally resort to violence unless he encounters someone spouting nonsense about "rebound margin." For a guide to smarter, efficiency-based statistics, check out kenpom.com.

• Begin the season with a blast. Design a made-for-TV tournament that means something. College hoops has the lamest opening day in sports.

• Take away the onerous limits on the time coaches can spend with players. Why would you limit the amount of time an outstanding young sculptor could spend with an art professor? The same applies to summer contact with high-schoolers. It's time to wrest control from the cesspool-dwellers who have it now and start developing U.S. talent so it can compete on the world stage.

• Burn the oversized book of NCAA by-laws and commission a blue-ribbon panel to write a new one. Participants should include common-sense reps from various constituencies: players, coaches, school presidents, the NBA, the NBA Players Association, USA Basketball, shoe companies, etc. Everything is in play, including paying college players, setting up hoop's academies, changing the NBA age-minimum rule, etc.

• As his final act, King Bagman will choose the Bilastrator, Moses Scurry and Benny Anders to be his court jesters. (Though every time the Bilastrator utters the phrase "score the ball," Moses will have to let go with one of his ear-piercing screams.)

See you next week!

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