EDITOR'S NOTE: Chris Macaluso previews the national basketball scene in this piece. This forecast serves as a pre-cursor to Tiger Rag's annual Basketball Preview edition, which hits the streets next week. - MD
Consult 10 different pre-season college basketball polls, bend the ear of 10 different college basketball pundits and one will probably get 10 different answers about who the best teams across the country will be this season.
Some believe North Carolina will be standing on top again at the end of this season. Others say the Tar Heels lost too much talent from last year's National Championship team to the NBA to make a serious run will take the back seat to ACC ultra-rival Duke, who not only returns sure NBA three-point launcher J.J. Redick and center Shelden Williams but also brings in perhaps the nation's best recruiting class, again.
One thing they all seem to agree upon is that the strength this year, as in many years past, lies in the East, where the ACC and Big East could provide as many as 18 teams combined to this season's NCAA Tournament. Throw in two very strong Big 12 teams in Texas and Oklahoma as well as Michigan State and Illinois from the Big 10 and one gets a pretty good sampling of the 20 or so teams that should rise above the pack by mid season.
The Big East is now the 16-headed monster of college basketball with the addition of Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati, Depaul and South Florida. Add those teams, two of which played in the Final Four in the last two seasons, to the already-formidable, basketball-rich conference of Connecticut, Syracuse, West Virginia and Villanova (not to mention Georgetown, Notre Dame and Providence) and the Big East edges out the ACC for the strongest league in the land. Look for the Beast East, I mean, Big East to send as many as 10-12 teams to this year's dance. The one obstacle: a conference decision that has top teams like UConn, Villanova, Louisville and Syracuse playing an unbalanced schedule against each other in order to have more TV friendly contests.
Connecticut, a Jan. 7 opponent for LSU in Hartford, features what could be the best front court in the country with potential All-American forward Rudy Gay and center Josh Boone taking passes from highly-touted point guard Marcus Wiliams who has help on the outside from three-point expert Rashad Anderson. The Huskies also added freshman Andrew Bynum, a seven-foot center, to their already deep talent pool.
Rick Pitino gets forward Francisco Garcia back from last year's Final Four team and Syracuse still has sharp-shooting point guard Gerry McNamara from the 2003 National Championship team. Villanova had what many judged the most talented team in the league until star-forward Curtis Sumpter fell for the season with a knee injury in pre-season practice.
Four players made their way to the next level from last year's National Championship team at North Carolina, opening the door for Duke to reclaim the ACC throne. In addition to the aforementioned Redick and Williams, Coach Krzyzewski also has scrappy senior forward Lee Melchionni firing jumpers and super freshman forward Josh McRoberts who could be the best professional power forward prospect in college hoops. The Blue Devils should still se a healthy challenge from not just North Carolina, but perennial contenders Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Maryland and Big East transfer Boston College as well.
Kentucky should be, without a doubt, the class of the SEC with Alabama and possibly LSU providing some heat. Most pre-season polls have Tubby Smith's Wildcats somewhere in the top-10, though some experts think the ‘Cats will struggle especially with the loss of guard Kelenna Azubuike, who signed with an agent and tested the NBA draft after last season.
Sophomore big man Randolph Morris dipped his toe in the NBA waters as well, but Smith plans to have him back after he went undrafted. Shooter Patrick Sparks and pointer Rajon Rondo could be the best one-two backcourt in the country by season's end. In all, the SEC seems to be lagging behind other power conferences this season, especially with Florida losing three starters from last year's squad.
Michigan State and Iowa should represent the class of the usually strong and deep Big 10 but, don't sell Illinois short after coming up just shy of a National Championship last season. Tom Izzo has led the Michigan State Spartans to the Final Four in four of the last seven years, including last year's loss to eventual champs North Carolina in the semi-finals. Izzo seems to have his team in position every year despite the lack of potential NBA talent always found on other perennial powerhouses like Duke, North Carolina and even Connecticut. But, a lack of talent won't be a problem for Izzo this season with senior guard Maurice Ager, junior guard Shannon Brown and mammoth 6'-11", 270 pound senior center Paul Davis taking up the middle of the court.
Iowa has three starters returning from last year's team that advanced to the NCAA's including senior forward Greg Brunner who led the Hawkeyes in rebounding and was second in scoring. The 6'-7", 245 bruiser may be one of the most under-appreciated players in the country. Illinois has some gaps to fill from last year's very deep and very talented squad with the loss of guard Deron Williams to the NBA and seniors Luther Head and Roger Powell Jr. using the last of their eligibility in last year's championship game. Dee Brown and James Augustine will be charged with keeping the Illini in contention in the Big 10. Don't look past Indiana, who walks into this season with a lot to prove.
The Big 12 is loaded with talented as well, with Texas and Oklahoma all finding their way into one top-10 or another. Texas's Rick Barnes is thinking perhaps a trip to the Final Four is in the cards with the return of forward P.J. Tucker, who was suspended for the second semester last year because of bad grades. The NBA called on Tucker, but he decided to stick it out in Austin, a worthwhile proposition considering he has an extremely talented point guard in Daniel Gibson distributing the ball.
Oklahoma returns a pair of potential All-American forwards in Kevin Bookout and Taj Gray while Kansas boasts a host of youthful talent but may be too young overall to challenge for the Big 12 crown. Iowa State has cracked the to-25 in spots as well.
Out west, Arizona, Stanford and UCLA all have legitimate shots at the Pac-10 title and could make runs deep into the NCAA Tournament. UCLA's strength is in its backcourt led by point guard Jordan Farmar while Arizona lost plenty of talent with the departure of fearless bomber Salim Stoudamire and center Channing Frye. No surprise though, Lute Olsen has plenty of young talent to fill the gaps. Look for Washington to make waves on the Pacific Coast as well.
Other teams to look out for include: Memphis and Charlotte in Conference USA, Nevada, and Gonzaga. Nevada features one of college basketball's best talents in junior forward Nick Fazekas who can knock down shots anywhere from under the basket all the way to NBA-range 3's. Gonzaga Coach Mark Few said, despite losing forward Ronny Turiaf to the pros, he thinks this season's squad may be his best yet, something college basketball fans have heard before from the Bulldog head man.
A handful of premium early-season contests could give fans a taste of what to expect in the late rounds of the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Look for: North Carolina vs. Illinois on Nov. 29, followed by UNC at Kentucky three days later, Duke takes on Texas Dec. 10 in Austin with Oklahoma State traveling to Gonzaga later that day, Michigan State will challenge Georgia Tech on Nov. 30 and Louisville and Kentucky have at it on Dec. 17.
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