College Basketball Top 12 Previews
Well, Athlon, Lindy's, Street & Smith college basketball season previews are all coming
out around now, and it's time for my Top 12. Why 12? Mostly because going into the
tournament each year, there's usually about 12 teams, give
or take, that have a legit shot at reaching the Final Four.
Is that an arbitrary, unscientific number? Yes, but
fortunately, this is my column, so I get to make those
So it's 12 teams.
These are those teams for 2005:
1. Wake Forest (21-10, 9-7 ACC, Sweet 16 in 2004)
Why Wake wins it all: The best backcourt trio in the
country with Chris Paul, Justin Gray, and Taron Downey. Paul
is the nation's top point guard, and Gray is a scoring
machine. They also have the inside power, with Eric Williams
and Vytas Danielus, to match the perimeter production.
6'9" pogo stick- and rebounding machine- Jamal Levy is a
mismatch at the 3 or the 4, giving the Deacs yet another
This team is deep, too. I've already mentioned six starting-
caliber players. That means one of Downey, Levy or Danielus,
all of whom are among the better players in the ACC at their
positions, will be the sixth man. Jeremy Ingram and Trent
Strickland provide even more depth on the perimeter, and
6'11" Kyle Visser is low-post insurance.
What could stop them: Their defense was almost as bad as
UNC's last year, as they gave up 80 points per game. They
need a full year of health from Danielus, who missed much of
last year with a knee injury, and was mostly ineffective
when he did suit up. Eric Williams averaged 5.6 rebounds
per game and has five career double-doubles. Both those
numbers need to rise this year.
2. Kansas (24-9, 12-4 Big XII, Elite Eight)
Why Kansas could win it all: Wayne Simien is one of the
nation's top big men, and is possibly the preseason favorite
for Naismith and Wooden awards. Aaron Miles is an underrated
floor general, an assist machine who's kind of a poor man's
Bobby Hurley. Keith Langford is one of the nation's top
Those three are the top senior trio in college basketball,
but 6'5" sophomore wing J.R. Giddens is more talented than
any of them. He closed last year strong after early
struggles, and if he supplements his brilliant three-point
stroke and high-flying act with a midrange game and some
handles, he'll be unstoppable.
Bill Self's first Kansas recruiting class was excellent; big
men Sasha Kaun, Darnell Jackson, and C.J. Giles, swingman
Alex Galindo and guard Russell Robinson are all potential
contributors as freshmen.
Why they won't: Though the 6'10" Giles, 6'11" Kaun and 6'8"
Jackson are all highly-ranked recruits, it's often hit-or-
miss with freshmen big men. Though Padgett may not have been
a great fit with Self, he's a talented, experienced center
who would've kept the hordes off Simien's back. Now, you're
relying on a trio of freshmen to do that, one of whom has to
start. That's why Wake, with their deep- and experienced -
frontcourt, is No. 1, and not Kansas.
3. Georgia Tech (28-10, 9-7 ACC; national runner-up)
Why Georgia Tech could win it all: Coach Paul Hewitt's
Rambling Wreck rode a swarming, trapping defense to a 28-
win, Final Four season that revived the Georgia Tech
program, which looked to be on life support following the
departures of Chris Bosh (to the NBA) and Ed Nelson (to
UConn) following the 2003 season.
6'3" point guard Jarrett Jack excels at nothing, but is good
at everything. His leadership and all-around play in the
backcourt is complimented by 6'4" scoring guard B.J. Elder,
who's good for 15 to 18 points on any given night, and 5'11"
sparkplug Will Bynum, as good a backup guard as there is in
Luke Schenscher had a breakout in the NCAA tourney. The
7'1" Aussie is again the rock of the frontcourt, one of the
few true centers left in the college game. Isma'il
Muhammed's dunks frequented Sportscenter last year, but it's
his defense and rebounding that was most valuable to the
Jackets. He'll step into starter minutes this year, though,
and will be counted on for more than 9.3 points per game.
Why they won't: Much like Kansas, not a ton of frontcourt
depth here, either. (Watch this become a recurring theme
among many teams.) 6'7" Anthony McHenry is an ace defender,
but not much of a scorer and is a tweener. Freshmen power
forwards Ra'Sean Dickey and Jeremis Smith provide muscle,
but again...they're freshmen. We'll see. And as many raves
as Schensscher drew in the tourney, he still averaged only
9.2 points and 6.6 rebounds last year. He's no superstar.
4. Illinois (26-7 Big Ten, 13-3 Big Ten Champions; Sweet 16)
Why Illinois could win it all: If Wake's trio of guards
isn't tops, then Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head
are. Just ask Cincinnati: the trio combined for 24 assists
against just two turnovers in the Illini's 92-68 thrashing
of Cincy in the NCAA's last year. They're the reason that
several preseason publications are picking the Illini as the
nation's top team.
Roger Powell is undersized as a 6'6" power forward, but is
an effective post scorer. Look for James Augustine to be
more aggressive this season in the post. He was averaging 12
points and 10 boards through the first half of last season,
but those numbers slipped to 9.6 and 7.3 by the end of the
year as nagging injuries caught up to him. Look for his
stats this year to be closer to the 12 and 10. Nick Smith
has packed 20 pounds onto his formerly rail-thin 7'2" frame,
and he's one of the nation's most uniquely talented big men.
He's a zone-buster with his long baseline jumper, and can
pass like a guard. 6'11" Jack Ingram is a contributor as
Brian Randle and Warren Carter are a pair of supremely
athletic 6'9" sophomore forwards. If one of them steps up to
play a big role, that would be huge for Bruce Weber's squad.
Why they won't win it: Though he will likely be fine,
there's the spectre of Dee Brown's shin, afflicted by a
stress fracture. Though Brown, Williams and Head are all
capable shooters, Rich McBride's fluid three-point stroke
needs to be on display for 10 minutes a game this season, or
Illinois will struggle against zones again this year. The
frontcourt is talented and potentially deep, but question
marks are attatched to each one of the Illini bigs: is
Powell playing for the NBA scouts? Is Augustine aggressive
enough? Will Nick Smith shelve the attitude problem? Do
Randle and Carter have the skills to match their athleticism?
5. Syracuse (23-8, 11-5 Big East; Sweet 16)
Why Syracuse could win it: Two words, Hakim Warrick. The
6'9" senior is a leading POY candidate, coming off a 19.8
point, 8.6 rebound season. He's capable of carrying a team
farther on his back than all but a couple of players in the
nation. He won't have to, though. Junior guard Gerry
McNamara is one of the nation's top long-range bombers, as
he highlighted a 17 ppg, 4 apg season with a 43-point
performance against BYU in the tourney.
Junior point guard Billy Edelin's status is still up in the
air. If he's back, than he, McNamara and 6'5" senior wing
Josh Pace form a perimeter trio the rival of Wake or
Illinois. If he's not, than 6'2" freshman blur Josh Wright
will do just fine.
Syracuse's touted freshman class of last year didn't produce
much as rookies, but they should be forces as sophomores.
6'5" wing Louie McCroskey will pick up whatever minutes
Edelin leaves behind if he's not eligible, and will push
Pace for minutes anyway. 6'8" forward Demetris Nichols has
experience, starting 15 games following Edelin's departure
last year. 6'9" Terrence Roberts and 6'11" Levi Watkins are
raw, but their size and athleticism gives 'Cuse a deep
frontcourt behind Warrick and 7'0" senior center Craig Forth.
Why they won't win it: The 'Melo hangover is history, but
this team still doesn't feel like a title team. Warrick's
capable of a Danny Manning in 1988-type performance in the
tourney, but there's just too many variables with them
to put them on the level of the first four right now. Billy
Edelin's situation, first and foremost. Wright will fill in
fine for him if need be, but you can't underestimate the
value of an experienced, rock-solid 6'4" playmaker that
Edelin is. They're depending almost solely on the mostly
unproven sophomore class for depth.
6. Oklahoma State (31-, 14-2 Big XII Champions; Final Four)
Why OSU could win it: Point guard John Lucas proved last
year what a clutch performer he is, and he's one of the
nation's top playmakers and floor generals. 6'7" forward
Joey Graham is headed for a breakout year. Ivan McFarland
should be even more effective as well.
The main reason for the improved effectiveness for Graham
and McFarland should be the arrival of 6'11" JUCO center
Aaron Pettway, who's expected to start. That allows Graham
to move from PF to SF, and McFarland from C to PF. This
makes Eddie Sutton's club bigger and more athletic than
Big XII POY Tony Allen is now a Celtic, but JamesOn Curry
could replace a lot of his scoring, even as a freshman.
Why they won't win it: When's the last time a team lost a
conference player of the year, and then won a national title
the next year? Curry could replace a bunch of the points,
and Graham could be an even better player in '05 than Allen
was in '04, but it's not often that you lose such a strong
leader and then bounce right back to elite status the next
season. Also, if Pettway doesn't pan out, then the Cowboys
will be badly undersized.
7. North Carolina (19-11, 8-8 ACC; second-round exit)
Why UNC could win it: No team, on paper, has more total
talent than North Carolina.
Raymond Felton is one of the nation's top playmakers.
Rashad McCants is perhaps the nation's best offensive threat
from the wing. Center Sean May is good for 15/10 every
night. Jawad Williams, at 6'9", can score inside and out
from both forward spots. Melvin Scott is another perimeter
scoring spark. Jackie Manuel and David Noel provide
athleticism and defense.
And 6'9" freshman forward Marvin Williams might be more
talented than all of them.
Simply put, it's hard to ask for more offensive talent on
one team at one time than Roy Williams' squad has.
Why they won't win it: The Tar Heels were a difficult team
to figure out in 2004, and they're still hard to get a read
on. While their roster looks terrific, rosters don't win
games. Individuals playing individual offense don't win
games. A group of players functioning as a unit win games.
Defense wins games. Tough to tell, at this point, if UNC
will function as a team or play defense.
If they do, this ranking is too low. If they don't, another
okay-at-best season is in store, and this ranking is far too
8. Arizona (20-10, 11-7 Pac-10; first-round exit)
Why Arizona could win it all: Much like UNC, Lute Olsen's
squad has almost unmatched raw talent. Andre Igoudalia
leaves, but 6'4" junior Hassan Adams could be even better on
the wing this year, now that he's not a vastly undersized
Salim Stoudamire remains one of the nation's most explosive
shooting guards; few can go on a scoring binge like him. If
Mustafa Shakur makes the expected improvement from year one
to year two, then he, Stoudamire, and backup Chris Rodgers
could also rival Wake and Illinois for the nation's top
Channing Frye returns at center, meaning the 'Cats have one
of the nation's surest things in the middle, as Frye is good
for 15-18 points, 7-9 rebounds, and 2-3 blocks every game.
Almost as importantly, 6'9" bruiser Isaiah Fox returns from
injury at power forward, giving Arizona some beef inside
they lacked last year.
'Zona also lacked depth last year. But with Fox returning,
plus 6'10" sophomore center Kirk Walters, plus a superb
freshman class led by 6'5" Michael Dickerson clone Juawnn
McClellan and versatile 6'4" Jesus Verdejo, Olsen's squad is
almost as deep as it was two years ago.
Why they won't win it: Frye and Stoudamire are seniors, and
their toughness and leadership abilities are still very
questionable. It's possible that Lute Olsen is undergoing
Bobby Bowden Syndrome; he may be losing his grip, though
I'll believe that when I see it. But this team was badly
exposed last year en route to a No. 8 seed and first-round
bouncing from the NCAAs, so everyone being back from such a
disjointed, defensively-challenged squad may not be all that
9. Connecticut (33-6, 12-4 Big East; national champions)
Why UConn could win it: Despite losing Emeka Okafor, the
best collegiate post player since Tim Duncan, the Huskies
may still have the best frontcourt in the nation, with Josh
Boone's dominant shot-blocking, rebounding, and expanding
offense leading the way. (Gee....that sounds sort of
Georgia Tech bruiser Ed Nelson's redshirt is up. He joins
uber-talented 6'10" sophomore Charlie Villanueva, who has
the inside-out skills to play either forward spot, and 6'9"
freshman phenom Rudy Gay, who will man the small forward
spot and may lead this team in scoring; if UNC's Williams
isn't the nation's top frosh, Gay is. Marcus White and
Hilton Armstrong are a solid pair of dirty-work players at
the post spots to round out a deep, versatile group of big
Rashad Anderson and Denham Brown, both 6'5" juniors, form a
formidable platoon at the SG spot, and both will likely
share the backup minutes to Gay at SF as well.
If Maruc Williams and freshman A.J. Price can supplant
former PG Taliek Brown's leadership and playmaking at the
point guard spot, this team could be the best in the nation
again by March.
Why they won't win it: You simply do not lose the No. 2 and
No. 3 picks in the NBA Draft and be just as good the next
year. Even if you're UConn, you fall back to the pack when
that happens. Oddly enough, it won't be Okafor that's
missed the most, as the frontcourt is even deeper. But
Brown's senior leadership at the point was underrated, and
Gordon's explosive offense from the other guard spot will
not be replacable this year.
10. Michigan State (18-12, 12-4 Big Ten; first-round exit)
Why the Spartans could win it all: You give Tom Izzo a
second full year to figure things out, and odds are, he
will. Though last year's roster was top-heavy on flashy
wing players and short on interior depth and point guard
play, this team is too talented for Izzo to not make the
pieces to fit, even if he has to force it.
Explosive swingmen Chris Hill, Shannon Brown, Kelvin
Torbert, Alan Anderson, Matt Trannon, and Maurice Ager
return to again form the nation's deepest, and best overall
6'11" Paul Davis returns in the middle; if he gets tougher
and improves his rebounding totals, he's as good as any
center in the nation. 6'8", 250-pound forward Delco Rowley
may be counted on in a much larger role to be Paul's
enforcer this year.
The two highly-touted freshmen, 6'0" point guard Drew
Neitzel, and 6'8" forward Marquis Gray, are counted on for
large roles this year. Neitzel is being billed as the
missing piece in Izzo's puzzle, the true point guard he's
lacked the last several seasons. Gray provides a supremely
athletic presence on the inside, sorely lacked last year,
and is a very good rebounder.
Why they won't win it all: Because there isn't a singular,
game-changing player on this team. They're kind of like what
the Trail Blazers were in the NBA until the last couple
seasons: a team full of good players, but lacking the great
one to get over the hump. Paul Davis could be that player,
but whether the intestinal fortitude, for lack of a nicer
term, is present in him is another story.
Izzo's Final Four squads flourished with a blue-collar work
ethic, dominating on defense and on the glass. This team
still does not match the identity of his great teams from
11. Mississippi State (26-4, 14-2 SEC West champions;
Why the Bulldogs could win it all: Like Warrick and
Syracuse, or Simien and Kansas, 6'9" MSU big man Lawrence
Roberts (16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds last season) is a
leading national POY candidate who's capable of carrying the
Bulldogs a long way on his back yet again. Though rebounding
machine Brandon Vincent has graduated, Roberts gets some
frontcourt help in the form of two of the South's most
coveted big man recruits, 6'9" Charles Rhodes and 6'10"
Point guard Timmy Bowers graduates, but 5'11" sophomore
replacement Gary Ervin is more explosive and has more
natural talent. He's capable of picking up the slack.
Winsome Frazier and Shane Power, who combined for 23 ppg
last year, are a very good pair of wings.
Why they won't win it all: Bowers' steady hand was one of
the key factors for MSU's success last year. Ervin, in
contrast, averaged 2.2 turnovers against 2.5 assists. Not
good at all. This team started to slow down toward the end
of last year, eventually crashing hard in the second round
of the tourney against Xavier. Lawrence Roberts will face
largely the same problems that Wayne Simien faces in Kansas,
with unproven freshman being the only ones having his back
in the paint. Only Roberts doesn't have near the same
talent level around him- nor nearly as highly touted
freshman big men- that Simien has.
12. Kentucky (27-5, 13-3 SEC East Champions; second-round
With Gerald Fitch and Cliff Hawkins departed, the door is
open for 6'5" junior Kelenna Azubuike to finally become the
dominant scorer he's been expected to be. And while he might
not put up McGrady-like numbers, it's reasonable to expect
his 11 points and 5 rebounds per game to turn into 16 and
Chuck Hayes is this team's rock, however. The 6'6", 247-
pound senior is an ace defender (2 blocks, 2 steals per
game), rebounder (8 per game), and can even score and pass
(11 points, 3 assists per game). He's the epitome of an
overachiever and a leader, perfect for a Tubby Smith-coached
team and one of the nation's underrated players.
Speaking of Smith, he finally showed that he can recruit as
well as he can coach. He had a haul of three McDonald's All-
Americans. Point guard Rajon Rondo is the pure playmaker
Tubby has lacked. Off-guard Joe Crawford is a strong,
athletic off-guard in the mold of a Rashad McCants; he's
physically mature enough to step in and produce right away.
6'11" freshman Randolph Morris would've been a first-round
pick in June; with his size and polished inside game, he
could quickly become one of the top centers in college ball.
And to top it off, former Western Kentucky guard Patrick
Sparks is included in the haul. The 6'1" junior will play
major minutes at both guard spots.
Why they won't win it all: They're too young, and they lack
the veteran point guard the rest of the top title contenders
have. Hayes and potentially Azubuike are rock-solid veteran
leaders, but you need a bona-fide veteran superstar like
Warrick or Roberts to carry a team this young to Final Four
levels. But in 2006, look out. And if all three freshmen are
mature enough to play at a high level right away, this team
could materialize a year early.
Well, there it is. Those are the twelve teams capable of
winning a national title come March/April. Will all of these
teams make it to the second weekend of tournament play? I
guarantee that doesn't happen. That's why preseason
predictions are so silly. Fortunately, they're also fun.