Looking for surprises: Try Western Kentucky, Butler

Dec 4, 2001 3:22 AM

Over the last few weeks in this space we’ve looked at the Jim Feist College Basketball Top 30. Of course, there are a lot more than just 30 good teams in the nation, but some squads find it nearly impossible to get any publicity until they spring an upset or two in March.

This season, already, we’ve seen a number of major upsets, as the smaller schools around the country make a name for themselves. Western Kentucky and Ball State have already gotten some Top 25 consideration with upsets over Top 10 teams. Consistently strong mid-major programs like Butler and Gonzaga looked poised for good years again and, maybe, one of the best races for conference supremacy could take place in the Big West between three schools, Pacific, UC- Santa Barbara and UC- Irvine, last year’s champ.

The Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky opened their season with a win over Kentucky, at Rupp Arena on the way to winning the NABC Tournament. Western lost its first game of the season to another strong mid-major program, Creighton, but that loss doesn’t diminish the potential for the Hilltoppers this season.

Western Kentucky has a rare commodity in college basketball today, a veteran seven-footer with skills to go with his size. Center Chris Marcus is one of the best players in the country, and is one of four starters back from last year’s 24-win team. Western Kentucky has a number of quality athletes on the perimeter and some quality depth. Western Kentucky is probably the top team in the Sun Belt Conference and one to watch all season.

Another team that sprang into the nation’s consciousness during preseason tournaments was Ball State. The Cardinals went to the Maui Shootout and beat Kansas and UCLA on consecutive nights before falling to Duke in the championship game.

The Cardinals have three starters back from last year’s team, including power forward Theron Smith. Senior guard Patrick Jackson has been Ball State’s best player so far this season, averaging 22 points, four assists and almost two steals per game, while shooting over 55 percent from the field.

Ball State has a couple of cupcakes on their schedule this week before a Dec. 8 matchup against Indiana. On Dec. 19, Ball State will take on Butler, which has gone to the NCAA Tournament four of the last five seasons, and played in the NIT the other season. Butler has won 114 games over the last five seasons and returns four starters from last year’s 24-8 team that fell in the second round of the Big Dance to Arizona.

The Bulldogs opened the season 5-0 after a victory at Purdue, 74-68. Senior point guard Thomas Jackson is leading the team in scoring and assists. Joel Cornette and injury-prone Scott Robisch are accomplished big men. Butler has solid depth and plenty of offensive skill. It doesn’t seem as if Butler will have much trouble getting to its third straight NCAA appearance this season.

The mid-major team that most people immediately recognize as something of a national power, at least come March, is Gonzaga. Once again this season, Gonzaga has a very strong team, although may not be quite as deep as in the past.

Senior point guard Dan Dickau leads the way for the Zags and is without question the team’s most important player. The Zags looked awful when he went down with a broken finger last season. With fewer quality players, Dickau must stay healthy this season. If he can, the pieces are in place for another tournament run, with shooting guard Blake Stepp and forward Zach Gourde helping out Dickau.

Three teams figure to have a legitimate chance at the regular season Big West crown, including last year’s champ, Cal-Irvine, a deep Pacific team and Cal -Santa Barbara.

The Anteaters from UC-Irvine won 25 games last year, and lost just once in the conference all season. However, UC-Irvine lost to Pacific in the semifinal of the conference tourney and wound up in the NIT.

Big West Player of the Year, guard Jerry Green, is back for the Anteaters as is talented big man Adam Parada.

Most of the other important cogs from last year are gone. That’s why they’ll be challenged.

Santa Barbara has a strong interior player in forward Adame Ndiaye, who missed last season due to injury, and isn’t among the five starters the Gauchos bring back from last year.

The Gauchos were 3-1, with their only loss coming to USC.  Pacific was 3-2, with its two losses coming at New Mexico and to Fresno State.