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College Basketball Top 12 Previews





/ Oct. 6, 2004

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 decisions.

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 dimension.

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 slashers.

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 America.

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 well.

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 ever.

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 high.

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 power forward.

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 guard trio.

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 great.

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 familiar...)

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 men.

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 shooting, perimeter.

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 1999-2001.

11. Mississippi State (26-4, 14-2 SEC West champions; second-round exit)

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" Walter Sharpe.

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 exit)

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 6.

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.

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