Dick VitaleSPECIAL TO ESPN.COM
I can't wait to get to Lexington to call the North Carolina-Kentucky game this weekend. Rupp Arena is so special and the Wildcats fans are the most passionate in all of college basketball. Billy Gillispie is going to build something special as the Kentucky program will be competing for national championships in the near future. He landed a couple of big-time recruits, led by DeAndre Liggins. He should fit in nicely next year with Patrick Patterson.
Speaking of Gillispie, he should receive a Christmas card for new Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon. Gillispie did not leave the cupboard bare down in College Station. The Aggies have a solid contender with Joseph Jones, Dominique Kirk, Donald Sloan, Bryan Davis and the addition of DeAndre Jordan in the middle. This team plays solid defense, can rebound and score. My friends, this is a very impressive unit and it sent a message by blowing out a young Ohio State team at Madison Square Garden.
College basketball has an impressive list of early-season tournaments. Think about Duke and Marquette hooking up in the finals at Maui. UCLA and Michigan State had a great battle at the CBE event in Kansas City. Ohio State and Texas A&M met at Madison Square Garden in the NIT preseason tip-off. Memphis and Connecticut went toe-to-toe at the 2K Sports Classic, also at MSG. My friends, looking ahead to next year, there are a number of impressive fields set already. Out at Maui in 2008, the field includes North Carolina, Indiana, Oregon, Notre Dame, Texas, Alabama, St. Joseph's and host Chaminade … wow! The 2008 Old Spice Classic down in Orlando at Thanksgiving includes Memphis, Michigan State, Gonzaga, Maryland, Tennessee, Oklahoma State, Wichita State and Siena. There are very few cupcakes in this bunch, limited bargain basement goodies. Teams like to get a true evaluation in these events, playing the crème de la crème and building confidence by beating solid competition.
UCLA has been hit with a series of injuries. Darren Collison and Michael Roll have missed a lot of time early on. The latest to go down was UCLA junior forward/center Alfred Aboya, who took an elbow to the right eye in a victory over Yale. Aboya was experiencing blurred vision and immediately walked off the court. It was later confirmed that Aboya had a fracture of the orbital floor of his right eye. He was cleared to play with goggles on. Ben Howland has to be wondering what is going on with all of these injuries.
LSU suffered a major blow when forward Tasmin Mitchell suffered a stress fracture in his left ankle. Coach John Brady figured on Mitchell for about 15-16 points and eight rebounds a game this season. He was a factor when LSU made the Final Four two years ago.
The best big man people don't know much about is BYU's Trent Plaisted. I was so impressed seeing him in person and the Mountain West preseason Player of the Year had a great game against North Carolina out in the Las Vegas Invitational. Plaisted can run the court, shoot, score inside, rebound. I also loved the way the Cougars moved the ball on offense, using a great passing attack. My friends, Dave Rose has a team capable of making some noise in the big dance. Go ask Rick Pitino about the Cougars since they scored a shock city upset in the semifinals of that event.
I am often asked what makes a great basketball team. I feel that the best teams are unselfish, they remember the importance of playing as a unit and play good fundamental basketball with passing skills and an emphasis on defense. That is the common denominator at great programs.
Saint Louis got a great coach when Rick Majerus signed on. He is a positive for the Atlantic 10 Conference, the school, the town of Saint Louis and the restaurants there. Majerus is a great student of the game, loves the roundball, eats, drinks and sleeps it. He is also an outstanding teacher, so keep an eye on the Billikens.
Watch New Mexico and Minnesota as programs that will improve. The common denominator there is new coaches from the Big Ten, Steve Alford and Tubby Smith. Both seem to be revitalized and sometimes a change is good for both schools and coaches. Iowa has Todd Lickliter and Kentucky has Gillispie, but let's not forget the success enjoyed by Alford and Smith before they left their respective schools for new opportunities.
Athletic directors looking for a head coach in the future should remember the following name -- Steve Robinson. He did a great job at Tulsa, and while the Florida State situation did not work out as well, Robinson deserves another opportunity to be a head coach. He is currently on Roy Williams' staff at North Carolina.
Dick Vitale coached the Pistons and the University of Detroit before broadcasting ESPN's first college basketball game in December 1979. Send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.