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InsideHoops [NCAA HOME] Nov. 12, 2003

College Basketball: The Spin





The Spin: 2003-04 College Hoops Preview

There are 327 teams with lots in common, if only for a short time. No wins, no losses and an abundance of hope as the 2003-04 college basketball season is ready to take flight.

As has become customary over the last decade or so, a good bunch of the young stars - some of which are still not old enough to legally buy a draft at the local watering hole - have taken their own hopes and dreams onto the NBA. We hardly knew ya, Carmelo, but it was nice being along for the ride. But in the end, all it means is that we've got one more megabyte of memory in our brains we can exhaust getting to know another kid with hopes of being shown on the tube while "One Shining Moment" plays over the video.

Just over four months until the Big Dance plays its first song, but which teams will have VIP access at the party? And which regular attendees could be stood up this season? Here's my Sweet 16, broken down into two groups.

VIP Access

When speaking of strong candidates to take home the gold trophy, six teams immediately come to mind. And many of them are the same as you're used to hearing about in late March: UConn, Duke, Florida, Kansas, Arizona and Michigan State.

Connecticut: Jim Calhoun's Huskies hope to become the first preseason No. 1 to win the national title since Kentucky in 1996, and they've certainly got the horses to do so.

Emeka Okafor would be the Clydesdale in the middle for UConn. He's certainly the greatest defensive force in the college game today, and his offensive game is rapidly improving. Throw in one of the best pure shooters in the country in Ben Gordon and the Huskies are loaded. And that's before you get to a bench that could be the best in the nation.

If there's a possible negative to be found in Storrs, it may be the difficulty Jim Calhoun could encounter with having so many talented bodies to keep happy. But he is a master at managing his players and is an outstanding teacher. If Taliek Brown provides great senior leadership and consistency at the point, the sky's the limit.

Duke: Coach K landed the top high-school senior not named LeBron in Luol Deng, a silky smooth operator who can beat you in a number of ways. Deng is already being called the team's best player, so imagine how much better he'll make a team that already features the likes of J.J. Redick, Daniel Ewing and Chris Duhon. Expect Duhon to bounce back from what many felt was a disappointing junior season.

If the Blue Devils get consistent and meaningful contributions from Shelden Williams and Shavlik Randolph up front, get out of the way of this buzzsaw.

Florida: Billy Donovan has been outstanding at keeping the cupboard well stocked in Gainesville, and this season, a trio from his 2002 class should pay even bigger dividends than they did last season.

SEC Freshman of the Year, Anthony Roberson, will start full-time and should continue to grow as a player. Matt Walsh started with a bang last season, and his versatility will cause opponents lots of trouble. And Christian Drejer, who was limited last season due to ankle troubles, will get a chance to show what all the fuss was about last year when some preseason publications tabbed the Gators to win it all.

There are plenty of shooters to check, but the biggest question mark is in the paint, where only David Lee has proven he can handle his business. Donovan is hopeful that freshman Chris Richard or sophomore Mario Boggan can give Lee some support and make them more formidable in the paint and therefore, in the national title picture.

Kansas: How is it that a program that loses two lottery picks and its highly accomplished head coach can be considered a title contender? A few very solid juniors, a couple top-notch recruits and a new head coach with an impressive resume will do the trick.

The Jayhawks return ultra-efficient power forward Wayne Simien, who was having a great sophomore season before dislocating his shoulder. Simien is a bull down low, and Keith Langford will give defenses fits with his ability to attack the basket. Point guard Aaron Miles will need to be an iron man at the point, since new coach Bill Self doesn't have another dependable option there.

If incoming freshmen David Padgett and J.R Giddens can live up to the hype that follows them to Lawrence, and Jeff Graves pounds the glass like he did in the national championship game last season, a return trip with a more favorable result is certainly not out of the question.

Arizona: Lute Olson keeps losing star players, but the expectations don't change. Exit Jason Gardner. Enter freshman Mustafa Shakur. Exit Luke Walton. Enter sophomore Andre Iguodala. Offense will not be a problem for the Wildcats, but if Channing Frye ever gets into foul trouble, the 'Cats will be hard-pressed to hang on the boards with many teams. Arizona will play a demanding non-conference schedule that will prepare this thin, but talented team (only 8 scholarship players) for the rigors of Pac-10 play and eventually for the NCAA Tournament, where Arizona hopes to advance further than last year's Elite Eight appearance. An injury to any starter, particularly Frye, would put those hopes on life support.

Michigan State: What is the one thing each of these Super Six teams has in common? Outstanding head coaches with proven track records.

What Tom Izzo did last season to lead the Spartans to the Elite Eight was nothing short of spectacular. And if this team does what last year's didn't - stay healthy - he shouldn't have to work as hard to get Michigan State back to the Final Four.

Size is a problem, with sophomore Paul Davis as the only proven threat. But the backcourt is loaded with versatility and potential.

Chris Hill was instrumental in the team's success last season from his point-guard slot. Alan Anderson has done whatever has been asked of him in his two seasons in East Lansing, and if former Michigan Mr. Basketball, Kelvin Torbert, can show the offense that was advertised out of high school, the Spartans will be very difficult to match up with on the perimeter.

Torbert is the team's best defender, and Izzo hopes freshman Shannon Brown can be his dynamic self on the offensive end, but takes notes from Torbert on the defensive nuances by the time Big Ten play rolls around. If there's one thing we've learned during Izzo's 8 years at MSU, it's never to count his team out.

Who Else Will Shine?

There are so many contenders in this age of parity in college hoops, but here are 10 others that could throw their hats into the title picture by the time March rolls around:

North Carolina: No depth, but may have the best starting five in the land and Roy Williams in the saddle

Syracuse: Sure, they lost Carmelo, but have another star-in-waiting in Hakim Warrick

Missouri: Rickey Paulding and Arthur Johnson are one of the best duos in the nation

Texas: Physical and skilled; no one will want to face them

Kentucky: Tubby Smith can't be dismissed from championship talk. An elite defensive force every night

Oklahoma: Like Texas, lost go-to guard, but is tough and talented. Kelvin Sampson always has 'em ready

Gonzaga: Yep, they're still good. In fact, this could be the best Gonzaga team yet

Illinois: Bruce Weber inherits a team with plenty of young talent. Dee Brown is poised for great season

Utah: Frosh Andrew Bogut could be what Rick Majerus needed to get past round two for 1st time since '98

Providence: You gotta throw a couple surprises in your Sweet 16. Friars have the role players to do it

Don't miss a chance to watch these guys.

What's a preview without a first, second and third team of the top players in the country? So many to choose from, here are the best, in one man's opinion:

First Team
PF Ike Diogu (Arizona State)
SF Romain Sato (Xavier)
C Emeka Okafor (UConn)
PG Jameer Nelson (Saint Joseph's)
SG Rickey Paulding (Missouri)

Second Team
SF Luke Jackson (Oregon)
PF Wayne Simien (Kansas)
C Channing Frye (Arizona)
PG Raymond Felton (North Carolina)
SG Julius Hodge (NC State)

Third Team
SF Josh Childress (Stanford)
PF Hakim Warrick (Syracuse)
C Arthur Johnson (Missouri)
PG Chris Thomas (Notre Dame)
SG Andre Emmett (Texas Tech)

And these guys may not be on TV much this season, but if they are, take the time to check 'em out:

Luis Flores (Manhattan)
Marques Green (St. Bonaventure)
Ricky Minard (Morehead State)
Kirk Snyder (Nevada)
T.J. Sorrentine (Vermont)
Michael Watson (UMKC)

'Til next time, enjoy the start of another great season of college ball!

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