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August 3, 2010

Going streaking: Trends to watch this season

If you've been following sports at all this summer, you've heard talks of streaks -- hitting streaks, streaks of allowing less than two earned runs per game, streaks of consecutive seasons with 20 saves, the SEC's streak of four consecutive national championships.

Heck, it's August but you've probably even heard talk about an ignominious college basketball streak -- that of Northwestern's run of 72 seasons without an NCAA bid.

Yes, the Wildcats are the only Big Six conference school never to have played in the NCAA tournament, and that fact came up again last week, when Wildcats star forward Kevin Coble announced he was giving up basketball for medical reasons.

That means Northwestern's streak is going to hit 73 seasons without an NCAA bid.

What are some other streaks that will be on the line this season? Read on and find out:

1. Kansas' streak of 21 consecutive NCAA bids: Come on -- this is a no-brainer to continue. The streak is going to hit 22 for the Jayhawks, who have missed just one tourney (1989) since falling short in 1983.

2. The ACC's string of back-to-back national champions: After North Carolina won the 2009 national championship, Duke matched its archrival's accomplishment last season. That gave the ACC five of the past 10 titlists (Duke won in 2001, Maryland in 2002 and North Carolina in 2005). Our best guess is the ACC won't make it three in a row. Duke should open the season atop the national rankings, but the conference doesn't have any other obvious title contenders. Duke's biggest challengers for the ACC title may be North Carolina and Virginia Tech, who both failed to earn NCAA bids last season. Yes, we like Duke's chances to repeat. But given a choice between Duke or the field, we'd take the field.

3. Michigan State and Xavier's string of three consecutive Sweet 16 appearances: Memphis and North Carolina failed to make the most recent NCAA tournament. Kansas got upset in the second round. And that left Michigan State and Xavier as the two schools with the longest current streaks of Sweet 16 appearances. We're guessing only one of those streaks is still alive at the end of the season. Michigan State returns just about everyone and heads into the season as a legitimate contender for its third consecutive Final Four appearance. Only an early-round upset would keep the Spartans out of the Sweet 16. Xavier shouldn't have much problem getting into the NCAA tournament, but the losses of Jason Love and first-round draft pick Jordan Crawford will make it tough for the Musketeers to advance beyond the second round.

4. Kansas and Pittsburgh's streak of five consecutive 25-win seasons: The Jayhawks and Panthers share the mark for the longest current string of 25-victory seasons, though Pittsburgh barely kept the streak alive with its 25-9 record. Both teams should make it six in a row. Pittsburgh returns four starters and has a legitimate All-America candidate in guard Ashton Gibbs. Kansas, arguably the most talented team in the nation last season, might take a step back as it attempts to replace Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich and Xavier Henry. But the return of Marcus Morris and the arrival of Josh Selby should help the Jayhawks (who have had a record 21 consecutive 20-win seasons) join Pitt as 25-game winners. Now both teams must find a way to get beyond the second round of the NCAA tournament.

5. Jeremy Hazell's string of back-to-back seasons of averaging at least 20 points per game: Notre Dame's Luke Harangody and Norfolk State's Michael Deloach also scored at least 20 points per game in each of the past two seasons, but they've completed their college career. That leaves Hazell, a senior guard at Seton Hall, as the only active player who has accomplished the feat. He ranked 10th in the nation in scoring (22.7) as a sophomore and finished 22nd (20.4) last season. Hazell certainly is capable of doing it again, but Seton Hall might actually win more if he scored less. Last season, Hazell attempted 520 shots -- 193 more than any of his teammates. He led the nation with 290 3-point attempts but shot just 33.8 percent from beyond the arc. Hazell has good talent around him. Seton Hall likely would benefit from more balance, and first-year coach Kevin Willard probably knows it.

6. Gonzaga's 10 consecutive West Coast Conference regular-season titles: The Zags seemed vulnerable last season because guard Matt Bouldin was the only returning starter. But the Zags still won the league, by a game over Saint Mary's, thanks to solid play from Bouldin and freshman forward Elias Harris. This time around, Bouldin is the only starter who's not returning and Gonzaga will be a prohibitive favorite to make it 11 WCC titles in a row. Harris is a legit All-America candidate, and should team with Robert Sacre to give the Zags a big-time frontcourt. Bouldin will be missed, but a backcourt of Demetri Goodson and Steven Gray is a good one. Mark down 11 in a row for Gonzaga.

7. Ohio State's string of four consecutive years with a first-round draft pick: Ohio State is the only team in the nation that has produced a first-round pick in each of the past four years (Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook in 2007, Kosta Koufos in 2008, B.J. Mullens in 2009 and Evan Turner in 2010). That streak figures to last for at least one more year, particularly if incoming freshman Jared Sullinger continues Ohio State's tradition of one-and-dones. Oden, Conley, Cook, Koufos and Mullens were drafted after their freshman seasons. Sullinger is projected as the fifth pick in the 2011 mock draft by draftexpress.com, while nbadraft.net has him going seventh overall. Even if Sullinger chooses to stay longer than one season, junior guard William Buford might be worthy of a first-round selection.

8. Temple coach Fran Dunphy's streak of 10 consecutive first-round losses in the NCAA tourney: This is not a consecutive-seasons streak; rather, it covers the most recent of Dunphy's NCAA appearances at Penn and Temple. Important to note, though, is that only once in the streak has Dunphy's team been seeded better than 11th; Temple was a No. 5 when it was upset in the first round by Cornell last season. The other seedings for Dunphy's teams: 12th, 11th, 13th, 11th, 11th, 13th, 15th, 12th and 11th. Dunphy undoubtedly will get a chance to break the streak next March. One, the Owls return three starters from the team that won the Atlantic 10 regular-season title last season, including what should be a potent inside-outside duo of Lavoy Allen and Juan Fernandez. Two, he is one of the best X's and O's guys in the nation, and his coaching ability can overcome any talent deficiencies. Whether the streak ends obviously depends upon whether the Owls get a favorable draw. They did not get one this past season.

9. Illinois State, Rhode Island and Virginia Tech's three consecutive NIT invitations: Which of these three annual bridesmaids finally will take a step forward -- or backward? Virginia Tech probably would have made it into a 68-team NCAA tournament in each of the past three seasons. The Hokies arguably will be the second-best team in the ACC, so they ought to go dancing this season. But Illinois State must replace its top three scorers from last season (Osiris Eldridge, Dinma Odiakosa and Lloyd Phillips), so the Redbirds may have to settle for the NIT once again. The losses of Keith Cothran and Lamonte Ulmer could keep Rhode Island in the NIT as well.

10. VMI's streak of four consecutive seasons as the highest-scoring team in the nation: The Keydets averaged "only" 88.6 points per game last season but still led the nation in scoring; we say "only" because VMI had averaged more than 90 in three consecutive seasons. It's a good bet the Keydets average more than 90 again this season, and it's also a good bet that they lead the nation in scoring again. All five starters return, and all five are well-versed in coach Duggar Baucom's shoot-quick attack. The question is whether they will have two guys averaging at least 20 points.

11. Siena's 38 consecutive home victories: The only team with a longer home-court winning streak is Kansas, which has won 59 in a row on its home floor. Alas, Siena's streak might be in the most jeopardy of any on this list. Iowa hired away coach Fran McCaffery, and Siena also must replace 2009-10 NCAA assists leader Ronald Moore as well as Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference player of the year Alex Franklin and three-time All-MAAC selection Edwin Ubiles. Although the promotion of former McCaffery assistant Mitch Buonaguro should create a smooth transition, Siena might not be the MAAC favorite. It's tough to imagine a younger Siena team managing to stay unbeaten at home all season.

12. Army, Maryland-Eastern Shore, New Hampshire, Tennessee State and Towson's streak of 14 consecutive losing seasons: We've focused on the "good" for the rest of this list (though we guess some would say making the NIT doesn't count as "good"). For our last item, we're going to spotlight the other end of the spectrum. Three of these teams -- UMES, Towson and Tennessee State -- finished at least 10 games under .500 in the regular season last season. New Hampshire was sixth in America East but was just four games under .500. Army, meanwhile, finished last in the Patriot but was oh so close -- one game away -- from finishing .500. So what about this season? UMES is the best bet to finish with another losing record. The Hawks return their top three scorers, but they again look like a middle-of-the-pack team in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. And given that MEAC teams serve as cannon fodder in the non-conference portion of the season, a team that finishes in the middle of the league is going to have an overall losing record. Towson is a poor fit in the Colonial -- the school needs to spend a heck of a lot more money on basketball if it wants to compete in that league -- and the Tigers lost their top two scorers (the only guys who averaged in double figures) off last season's team; they're destined for another losing season. Tennessee State looks like a second-division team in the Ohio Valley, which means another losing season looms. Army, which had more wins against Ivy League schools (five) than against teams in its own league (four), returns just one of its top five scorers and again looks as if it will reside in the Patriot League basement. That leaves New Hampshire, which is the only team among the quintet that should have high hopes. The Wildcats return their top four scorers and should have one of the best backcourts -- if not the best -- in America East with Alvin Abreu and Tyrone Conley. UNH beat Stony Brook, which won the AmEast regular-season title, and Vermont, which finished second before winning the league tourney, last season, and the Wildcats just need more consistency. If they get that, their long run of losing seasons will end.

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