Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Top 25 Preview

Top 25 preview and explanations, just so I can "call it" reasonably early:

1. Florida:
Nice top six returning and good recruits, but depth is something of an issue. Will they repeat? Probably not, but they deserve the respect to start the season. With five starters, they ought to be able to keep the dynamic going through most of the season, but getting through the NCAA tournament again without a single loss is going to be really hard.

2. Kansas:
Everyone (almost) returns, loads of young talent, but can Coach Bill Self fashion his first Final Four squad? There’s a lot of depth, but make no mistake, there are special players here as well. Brandon Rush & Julian Wright have bought into the team game, but we should see some explosions from them this year.

3. North Carolina:
A team that sure to have more talent than last season, but still very young and may not handle playing time issues easily. Will be very, very good at times and suffer head-scratching losses at others. But you’ll probably see more of this team on the ESPMSM than any other.

4. Louisiana State:
One of the best bets to return to the Final Four because of the big shoulders of Glen Davis, and Marquette transfer Dameon Mason and Texas Tech transfer Terry Martin, Jr. Also, Tack Minor should be consistent at point after one-year layoff.

5. Wisconsin:
Why are the Badgers a better bet than Ohio State for the Final Four? Two reasons: a rotation that can go 13 deep and the best coach in the Big Ten conference, Bo Ryan. Also, the return of Greg Stiesma and Marcus Landry give UW some inside strength that they were missing in the second half of last season.

6. Georgetown:
Do-everything forward Jeff Green will probably see a lot of time at the 3-spot with super-frosh Vernon Macklin and Hoosier transfer Patrick Ewing, Jr. taking up time at the 4. Guards Jesse Sapp and Jonathan Wallace are solid, but there is a need for more perimeter scoring to balance the forwards and 7-2 Roy Hibbert inside, ‘though.

7. Boston College:
How can the Eagles be as good (if not better) after losing mainstay Craig Smith? Well, coach Al Skinner has depth like he’s never had before, and Jared Dudley should be the new star. Tyrese Rice and Sean Marshall should be fine in the backcourt, but there's a lot of options up front from a healthy Sean Williams to 6-11 transfer Tyrone Blair.

8. Arizona:
So much talent, but can it co-exist and create a winning squad? Lack of low-post scorer a concern, but watch for the excitement created by Marcus Williams and freshmen Chase Budinger & Nic Wise. Senior point Mustafa Shakur should be able to direct traffic well enough to keep the Wildcats contending throughout the season.

9. Ohio State:
Didn’t the Buckeyes get a good freshman or two this year? Seriously, the newcomers are awesome, and returning point guard Jamar Butler should get the offense running well, but look for some let-downs. Greg Oden, Daequan Cook, and Mike Conley, Jr. could all be starting by the start of the season.

10. Gonzaga:
Losing Adam Morrison hurts, but not as much as you might think. Others will step up to take his shots, and look for Kansas transfer Micah Downs to have a break-out year. The late snag of top Juco Center 6-9 Abdulliah Kuso has assured top-ten status again for Mark Fox's club.

11. Xavier:
The Musketeers had a nice run at the end of the season to get into the NCAA’s and will return almost everyone from that group. Throw in pint-sized point guard Drew Lavender (transfer from Oklahoma) and you’ve got an Atlantic-10 squad worthy of the tourney’s second weekend.

12. Southern Illinois:
The Missouri Valley, while briefly eclipsed by George Mason’s run last year, has gotten to the level of the Power Conferences. The Salukis should be the best of the MVC this year, and although their depth isn’t stellar, a good recruiting classs (led by Juco Wing Tyrone Green) should help ease that concern.

13. Texas A&M:
The Aggies have turned it around. Once one of the consistent cellar-dwellers of the Big 12, now they may be the only club capable of beating out Kansas this season for the conference crown. Joseph Jones and Acie Law are a fantastic 1-2, inside-outside punch.

14. Virginia Tech:
The Hokies are going to be good this year. Or are they going to suffer the same mysterious let-down as Miami-Florida did last season in the ACC? I suspect that they won’t as their talent is more balanced than last year’s guard-heavy Miami squad. Look for the ESPMSM to be shocked, *shocked* by the guards Jamon Gordon & Zabian Dowdell, the inside play of Coleman Collins, and by the versatility of Deron Washington.

15. Syracuse:
The Orange have had some thrilling runs due to the stellar shooting of Gerry McNamara. Now that he’s gone, the question becomes, what now? Jimmy Boeheim shouldn’t have to worry to much with the talent he’s got on hand, but he will need hyped-frosh Paul Harris to live up to the a starting position that he’s expected to take.

16. Missouri State:
The second MVC team to get to the NCAA second weekend should be the Bears. They return that special combination of size, shooters, strength, and experience that often finds itself winning against teams with more highlight plays. 6-7 Juco Dextroy Manswell also should help with the interior depth.

17. Air Force:
Air Force was going to be good this year, but throw in a rare talent like center Nick Welch whose marvelous passing made the Falcon offense sparkle in 2004-2005, and you’ve got possibly the best Air Force basketball team ever assembled. The Mountain West is going to be a relevant conference again this season.

18. Pittsburgh:
Aaron Gray returns from a flirtation with the NBA, and that’s the difference between a top-25 ranking and the NIT for this club. Forwards Sam Young and Gilbert Brown may be stars next year, but this year they may not get off the bench. Carl Krauser will be missed, but for burly guard play, transfer Mike Cook should help.

19. Illinois:
One reason these guys are ranked at all: Defense. Smothering D, keyed by 6-8 Brian Randle, was pretty much the only reason the Illini won at all last year. The offense was anemic at best, and the depth was questionable. There’s more depth, and hopefully Dayton transfer Trent Meachem can help run a more potent attack.

20. Duke:
Duke has earned the respect as a program to be ranked every year. I hate them, but I respect them. The Devils are pretty thin inside, but late signing 6-8 Lance Thomas will hopefully help with that. Also, defenses should have an easier time against the Dukies now that they won’t be terrified of J.J. Redick. But keep an eye on freshman Jon Scheyer, who should take a lot of Redick’s minutes.

21. Louisville:
Louisville is an accomplished program and Rick Pitino is an accomplished coach. He’s brought in plenty of talent and gotten to a Final Four, but last year was a big disappointment. There’s no reason that they shouldn’t have made the Big Dance, but I think Pitino will have the depth this year to motivate his troops. There’s no real star here, though, unless Juan Tello Palacios’ scoring starts resembling Jamal Mashburn’s.

22. UCLA:
The early entry of Jordan Farmar into the NBA meant that the Bruins drop out of the preseason top-25. There’s still lots to like, including redshirted star wing Josh Shipp, high scoring wing Aaron Afflalo, and rising star forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Depth is a question, especially at point.

23. Nevada:
The return of Nick Fazekas assures the Wolfpack another year of Western Athletic Conference dominance. Marcellus Kemp made the impact I expected last year (although other writers seemed to forget about his return), and will be an integral part of the solid perimeter attack this season. Interior depth will be a major concern until 6-9 DeMarshay Johnson gets himself eligible.

24. Memphis:
Once again, Coach Calipari will have loads of talent on hand, but how far will they go with it? The return of Jeremy Hunt after a year off gives the Tigers the sort of do-everything presence that any team could use, and a solid recruiting class shores up the bench. For a sleeper, watch Robert Dozier, who will get his chance to shine.

25. Villanova:
Why does ‘Nova get the nod for a top 25 over a more seemingly talented team like Alabama? Well, Villanova was tough last year, and would’ve been ranked in the top 10 if Kris Lowe hadn’t left for the pros. But the real reason is the return of Curtis Sumpter and the late grab of freshman Scott Reynolds. They’ll both start, and Reynolds was needed to fill the gaps in the backcourt, but Sumpter was a monster in 2004-2005, and should be this season as well.


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