Cougs getting hoops love for next season

EVEN IF CBS insists on putting purple W's next to Tony Bennett's name, the Cougars are no longer to be overlooked on the national stage. Scout.com analyst Jeff Goodman is out with his projected Top 25 for next season and Washington State is slotted up high, above such notables as Florida, Louisville, Duke and Indiana.

We still don't know which players are departing early for the NBA. And we don't know if one coach of note is leaving his current place of employment. But what we do know better than anyone else is the impact that the young kids coming into the programs will have. And that gives us sufficient confidence to break out our admittedly very early preseason top 25.

1. Georgetown
John Thompson III took the Hoyas to the Final Four. Now the question is whether Jeff Green or Roy Hibbert will return for their senior seasons. My gut is that Green comes back after his disappointing performance in the national semifinal loss to Ohio State. Hibbert could also very well be back as he tends to follow in the footsteps of the past G'Town big men - and they all stuck around for four years. The underrated backcourt of Jonathan Wallace and Jessie Sapp will be back - as will Patrick Ewing Jr. and talented freshman Dajuan Summers. Then JT III will add two of the nation's top freshman guards in Austin Freeman and Chris Wright. Freeman will be a star and could replace Sapp in the starting lineup at some point during the season.

2. UCLA
What was the one missing piece for Ben Howland's team? A low-post scorer. Enter Kevin Love, a 6-foot-9 incoming freshman who can get it done in the paint, control the glass and also outlet the ball better than any big man in recent memory. Arron Afflalo's decision to stay or go will be important, but the Bruins will still have Darren Collison running the team, Josh Shipp for scoring punch on the wing and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Lorenzo Mata on the frontline. Howland is a future Hall of Fame coach and could very well make a third straight Final Four appearance in San Antonio.

3. Kansas
Look for Brandon Rush to test the NBA waters and Julian Wright could end up doing the same, but it's unlikely the Jayhawks will lose both. Bill Self should have no shortage of talent in Lawrence once again. The three-guard lineup of Russell Robinson, Mario Chalmers and Sherron Collins is experienced - and the Jayhawks may have Rush, Wright, Darrell Arthur, Sasha Kaun and Darnell Jackson in the rotation. Kansas will also add freshman big man Cole Aldrich and guard Tyrel Reed, who will both provide depth.

4. Memphis
Admittedly, I wasn't a big believer in the Tigers as a Final Four-caliber team for the past two seasons - and I was proven correct. Well, that's all a changin' because of one freshman entering the program: point guard Derrick Rose. He's just what the doctor (John Calipari should have a doctorate in psychology) ordered. Rose is a floor leader with a high IQ who makes people better, but can go out and get his own. He'll be joined by plenty of experienced players - wings Chris Douglas-Roberts and Antonio Anderson, guards Andre Allen and Willie Kemp and Joey Dorsey and Robert Dozier up front. Doneal Mack has a year under his belt and Calipari also adds Iowa State transfer Shawn Taggert, a skilled 6-foot-10 forward who has loads of potential. The only loss is Jeremy Hunt.

5. North Carolina
The Tar Heels will likely lose freshman Brandan Wright, but that just means Deon Thompson gets a chance to play more minutes. Seniors Reyshawn Terry and Wes Miller are definitely gone, but they're both easily replaceable. Tyler Hansbrough's status is up in the air, but odds are he'll come back for his junior campaign. Throw in sophomore guards Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington - along with juniors Bobby Frasor, Marcus Ginyard and Danny Green - and you're still left with arguably the deepest team in America.

6. Ohio State

We're going to assume Greg Oden is gone since we've been saying it all season. Ron Lewis and Ivan Harris will graduate, but Mike Conley Jr., will almost certainly return - as will Daequan Cook and David Lighty, a pair of talented guys whose roles should expand. Thad Matta will bring in another terrific freshman class - not quite as talented as this year's, but not all that far off, either. Kosta Koufus is a skilled 7-footer, Jon Diebler is a big-time shooter and forwards Eric Wallace and Evan Turner will both contribute immediately.

7. Michigan State
Tom Izzo's team somehow won 23 games this past season. Two reasons: Izzo and Drew Neitzel. Not only will the Spartans return everyone of note, but they will also welcome in a terrific freshman class that includes Chris Allen, Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers. Put them together with Drew Neitzel and Travis Walton in the backcourt and big guys like Marquise Gray, Drew Naymick and Goran Suton - as well as wings Raymar Morgan and Maurice Joseph - and Izzo's team will battle for supremacy in the Big Ten.

8. Arkansas
The Razorbacks return everyone. That could be scary for the SEC. Shooting guard Patrick Beverley says he won't transfer - and that's terrific news for whomever their coach ends up being, because he'll also have point guard Gary Ervin, wing Sonny Weems and plenty of talent up front with Steven Hill, Charles Thomas, Darian Townes and Michael Washington.

9. USC
If the Trojans bring everyone back - and the key here is hard-nosed guard Nick Young - they could be a legitimate top-10 club. Young, teamed with fellow guards Gabe Pruitt, Daniel Hackett and incoming freshman O.J. Mayo - who could be the most talented freshman in the country - will give Tim Floyd a ton of talent on the perimeter. Taj Gibson is the key to the Trojans' success, as he's the man up front. Mayo's ability to co-exist with a group that's already had success will also be crucial.


ROBBIE COWGILL and DAVEN HARMELING.

10. Washington State
Tony Bennett was the National Coach of the Year for a reason. While he had some options, Bennett decided to stay in Pullman and it's almost certain that nearly all of his team returning played a part in his decision. Ivory Clark, who averaged 8.7 points per game, is the only departure. Guards Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver are back in addition to forwards Daven Harmeling and Robbie Cowgill. These guys have experience and play extremely well together.

11. Louisville
Rick Pitino's team turned it around midway through the season and ended up advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Cardinals bring just about everyone back - except for senior guard Brandon Jenkins. Juan Palacios, Terrence Williams and David Padgett will return in addition to Edgar Sosa, Earl Clark, Jerry Smith and Derrick Caracter - four guys who all had their moments as freshmen this past season. That's a scary top seven for Big East opponents.

12. Tennessee
Bruce Pearl will lose the heart and soul of his team, hard-nosed senior Dane Bradshaw, but there's still plenty in the cupboard. Chris Lofton, the nation's top shooter, should be back for his senior season and Pearl will also have guards JaJuan Smith and Ramar Smith back in the fold. Duke Crews and Wayne Chism, a pair of freshmen who saw plenty of playing time, will only get better.

13. Georgia Tech
Our guess is that either Thaddeus Young or Javaris Crittenton leaves early for the NBA. However, Paul Hewitt's only certain loss is that of defensive stopper Mario West. The Yellow Jackets will get Lewis Clinch back from suspension and still have Jeremis Smith, Anthony Morrow, Zach Peacock, Alade Aminu and Mouhammad Faye. Then you add in a pair of freshmen who should receive significant playing time - McDonald's All-American forward Gani Lawal and pure point guard Mo Miller.

14. Marquette
Tom Crean should have his perimeter trio of Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Mathews back, although there's still a chance James could try and go pro. Lazar Hayward progressed as the year went on and Crean will bring in a couple of freshman power forwards in Damian Saunders and Patrick Hazelm who could help along the frontline.

15. Duke
You really think Coach K is losing sleep about losing Josh McRoberts to the NBA? Doubtful. Point guard Greg Paulus and wings DeMarcus Nelson and Jon Scheyer will have some help from the freshman class. In fact, look for freshman forward Kyle Singler to step right in and become the go-to guy. Fellow frosh Nolan Smith will take pressure off Paulus and will also give the Blue Devils more perimeter athleticism. The key might be the development of 7-footer Brian Zoubek and whether he can give Duke something in the post.

16. Kansas State
This might be a little high, but if Bill Walker comes back from a torn ACL and Bob Huggins can get incoming freshman forward Michael Beasley to play hard all the time, the boys from Manhattan should have a chance to finish right behind Kansas in the Big 12. Huggins will need freshman point guard Jake Pullen to come right in and run the show.

17. Oregon
Aaron Brooks' departure is a significant loss, but the Ducks are still fairly loaded. Malik Hairston, Bryce Taylor, Maarty Leunen and pint-sized guard Tajuan Porter are all back - and the Ducks experienced some success this past season. Ernie Kent still has enough weapons to compete for a top spot in the Pac-10.

18. Alabama
We're going to give this another shot with the Crimson Tide. Senior big man Jermareo Davidson may be gone, but as long as point guard Ron Steele is healthy, Mark Gottfried's team should be a fixture near the top of the SEC. Steele is joined by hard-nosed power forward Richard Hendrix, Alonzo Gee and Mykal Riley as starters returning for 'Bama.

19. Washington
Don't expect the Huskies to be left out of the NCAA tournament this season. If Lorenzo Romar gets Spencer Hawes back, U-Dub will be terrific up front with Hawes, Jon Brockman and incoming freshman Matthew Bryan-Amaning. Wing Quincy Poindexter had a solid freshman season, but Romar will need either point guard Justin Dentmon to return to the form he displayed as a sophomore or incoming freshman Venoy Overton to develop quickly.

20. Pittsburgh
Sure, the Panthers will lose 7-foot senior Aaron Gray. But Jamie Dixon still has a pair of experienced starting guards in Keith Benjamin and Ronald Ramon, as well as Mike Cook on the wing and Sam Young at power forward. The key will be whether Tyrell Biggs can step in and replace Gray in the middle. Big freshman DeJuan Blair will also help ease the loss of Gray.

21. Butler
The Bulldogs went to the Sweet 16 and they return their top two scorers - A.J. Graves and Mike Green. Graves is one of the best shooters in the country and Green is versatile and does a little bit of everything. Long-range shooter Pete Campbell is also back.

22. Florida
Billy Donovan's club will lose senior Lee Humphrey and is likely to lose Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer. However, if point guard Taurean Green comes back for his senior season, the Gators will still be a Top 25-caliber club. Freshmen Nick Calathes, Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus will come right in and make an impact - and guys like Walter Hodge, Marreese Speights and Dan Werner will watch their roles expand significantly. Donovan still has a chance to land the nation's top unsigned player - forward Patrick Patterson - as well.

23. Indiana
Believe me when I tell you that Eric Gordon will make people in Bloomington quickly forget about Rodrick Wilmont and Earl Calloway. Gordon is the stud who was at the center of the recruiting battle between Kelvin Sampson and Illinois' Bruce Weber - and for good reason. He's that good. Gordon will team with big man D.J. White and guard A.J. Ratliff to form a potent 1-2-3 punch for the Hoosiers.

24. Southern Illinois
Chris Lowery lost two of his top players in guards Jamaal Tatum and Tony Young. However, he's one of the top up-and-coming coaches in the country and he's still got a trio of returning starters: point guard Bryan Mullins, big man Randal Falker and forward Matt Shaw. That should be enough to win the Missouri Valley.

25. NC State
Sidney Lowe's team loses senior point guard Engin Atsur, but look for Iowa State transfer Farnold Degand to step in and provide help running the team. Degand will have plenty of weapons as the Wolfpack return their other four starters - Brandon Costner, Gavin Grant, Ben McCauley and Courtney Fells - and welcome a pair of talented frosh - J.J. Hickson and Tracy Smith.

Five more to watch
Villanova - Remember Jay Wright's four-guard attack two years ago? He will be able to do it again. Guard Scotty Reynolds had a terrific freshman season and he'll be joined by incoming freshman guards Corey Stokes, Corey Fisher and Malcolm Grant. Shane Clark and Dante Cunningham return up front for the Wildcats.

Nevada - Mark Fox loses all-everything big man Nick Fazekas, but this program still has Marcelus Kemp and Ramon Sessions - along with some pretty good young kids who started to develop late in the year. Fox is an extremely underrated coach and will find a way to get this group in the Top 25 despite the loss of Fazekas.

UConn - Jim Calhoun isn't going to let it happen again. The Huskies will be better. You can be certain of that. The team was young this past season and you can expect guys like guards Jerome Dyson and A.J. Price to be more consistent. The question is whether they have a go-to guy and enough leadership, but they are still a Top 25-ish team.

Purdue - Matt Painter proved he could really coach this past season. He loses his best player, Carl Landry, but he brings in an unbelievable freshman class. JaJuan Johnson, Scott Martin, E'Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel will make a major difference - but it may take a little time.

Xavier - There's a reason why Sean Miller stayed in Cincinnati. While he lost some key guys, he's still got Josh Duncan, Drew Lavender and Stanley Burrell coming back. That's a darn good nucleus.


DERRICK LOW


Cougfan Top Stories