Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Who's #1?

During most summers leading up to the college basketball season, there is usually a team or two that is clearly the preseason No. 1 in the country. Last year, Florida returned all five starters from a team that won the national championship, and was a near-unanimous choice as the top team in the country (of course, I went against the grain and picked North Carolina). The year before, nearly everyone had Duke or Connecticut.

Heading into the 2007-2008 season, however, the top spot is up in the air. Is it North Carolina? Or Memphis? What about UCLA and Kansas? Can Georgetown or Louisville make a run from the Big East? Even Tennessee could be in the hunt, with the now-eligible Tyler Smith in the fold. How about anyone from the Big Ten?

You get the picture—in other words, this is going to be an extremely wide-open college basketball season, with no team head-and-shoulders above the rest of the country. Furthermore, the preseason magazines and rankings are going to tout a variety of teams at the No. 1 spot, including several of the aforementioned squads.

Most of the time, I have my preseason No. 1 picked before the previous season ends. You can usually look at the defending champion as a starting point—but Florida lost its top six players, including three top-ten draft picks. Sometimes, the runner-up gets the spot—but Ohio State lost four its top six players, including two top-four selections. This season was different, though. I have gone back and forth with several teams, trying to find the one weakness that will knock one team from contention or a hidden strength that will put another one over the top. Here is a look at all of the candidates to be the all-important preseason number one for the 2007-2007 season.

North Carolina was my preseason favorite heading into last season, and they might have what it takes to get the vaunted March Madness All Season #1 spot once again. They have the best big man in the country in Tyler Hansbrough, and a terrific sophomore backcourt in Tywon Lawson and Wayne Ellington. The Tar Heels also have plenty of depth, both inside and outside. However, UNC does starting forwards Reyshawn Terry and Brandan Wright. Furthermore, one of the Tar Heels’ more glaring problems last season was their lack of a true go-to-guy late in games—that needs to be solved this year.

Memphis is getting a lot of hype as a potential No. 1 team in country, and rightfully so. The Tigers return all five starters, including Chris Douglas-Roberts, who could develop into one of the premier wing scorers in the country next year. On top of that, John Calipari welcomes one of the best recruits in the country in guard Derrick Rose. He will immediately step into the starting lineup and provide Memphis with terrific scoring and passing. On the other hand, the Tigers lose second-leading scorer Jeremy Hunt. He was their best long-range shooter last season, and that will have to be replaced. Moreover, Memphis does play in Conference-USA, which, although it will be better next season, is not on the same level as the “Big Six” leagues. That could hurt them come March.

Had Arron Afflalo returned to school rather than enter the NBA Draft, UCLA would have been a great choice at the top spot. Instead, the Bruins are going to have to settle for the top five. They return the nation’s best point guard in Darren Collison as well as a very good wing scorer in Josh Shipp. Inside, Ben Howland brings Kevin Love into the fold, who will make an impact right away as one of the best post players around. The Bruins will also play typical, tough Howland defense. On the negative side, UCLA will need to find more scorers, both inside and outside. Its lack of firepower cost them last season.

Kansas was my pick to win it all last year heading into the NCAA Tournament, but they fell to the aforementioned UCLA Bruins one step short of the Final Four. They might make the jump this year. The Jayhawks return everyone but lottery pick Julian Wright, and get the services of freshman Cole Aldrich, who will bolster the post. Brandon Rush and Sherron Collins could be ready to break out as national stars. Like North Carolina, though, Kansas lacked a true go-to-guy last season. Rush, Collins, or Mario Chalmers needs to command the ball down the stretch and get points for KU. Interior scoring could be a problem, as well.

Out of the Big East, both Louisville and Georgetown could have the goods to make a run come March. The Cardinals only lose guard Brandon Jenkins from the starting lineup, and were really playing well towards the end of the season. Edgar Sosa could develop into one of the best point guards in the country, while Terrence Williams is a terrific all-around forward. Derrick Caracter needs to stay focused on basketball, and David Padgett and Juan Palacios have to stay healthy. However, the Cardinals need more consistent perimeter shooting and have to avoid the injury bug.

Georgetown, despite the loss of All-American Jeff Green, will contend nationally. Roy Hibbert boosted the Hoyas’ chances monumentally when he decided to withdraw from the NBA Draft and return to school for his senior season. If he improves at the rate he did last year, he could dominate next year. Jonathan Wallace and Jessie Sapp form an underrated backcourt, while DaJuan Summers is ready for a bigger role. Don’t forget about five-star recruit Austin Freeman and incoming point guard Chris Wright, either. The Hoyas need perimeter production and a go-to-guy late in games in order to reach their full potential.

A darkhorse for the top spot could be Tennessee. The more I look at this team, the more I like it. The Volunteers should have defeated Ohio State last season in the Sweet Sixteen, and lose only Dane Bradshaw from that group. They return All-American Chris Lofton and fellow scoring wing JaJuan Smith. Sophomore Ramar Smith is improving at the point, and Wayne Chism is ready to break-out up front. More importantly, Bruce Pearl gains the services of Iowa transfer Tyler Smith, who is eligible to play immediately after coming over from the Hawkeyes. However, UT sometimes struggled in half-court games and also against teams that could control the paint.

Michigan State and Indiana are also getting a lot of hype as potential Final Four candidates. I like the Spartans a lot better than the Hoosiers, simply for the fact that they return more from what might have been a better team by the end of the year last season. Drew Neitzel is one of the best guards in the country, and Raymar Morgan is poised for a break-out season on the wing. Tom Izzo also welcomes a terrific recruiting class, led by guards Durrell Summers and Kalin Lucas. If Michigan State gets consistent inside production, look out.

As for the Hoosiers, they lost most of their perimeter production, but welcome one of the best freshman in the country in guard Eric Gordon. He could end up being one of the best players in the Big Ten, and will team with D.J. White to form the best inside-outside combination in the conference. A.J. Ratliff and Armon Bassett will join Gordon in a potent three-guard lineup. If they are going to win the Big Ten, though, the Hoosiers are going to have to be much better offensively—which Gordon will help immensely. An inside complement to White is also necessary; he will struggle if he gets double-teamed all the time.

Two other teams getting top ten billing in the preseason are Marquette and Washington State. Though neither is getting any sort of publicity as a potential No. 1 team, both are very good teams that will threaten to make the Final Four. Marquette returns one of the best guard groups in the country in Dominic James and Jerel McNeal, as well as wing Wesley Matthews. Ousmane Barro leads a capable collection of players up front. James will need to regain his freshman season form if the Golden Eagles are going to make a run. Furthermore, post production needs to improve from the likes of Barro and Lazar Hayward.

Washington State came out of nowhere last season to garner a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and make national noise. Tony Bennett did it behind outstanding defense and the vastly underrated backcourt of Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver. Luckily for Bennett, both of those guards return, along with frontcourt starters Daven Harmeling and Robbie Cowgill. On the other hand, the Cougars really struggled to score at times last season, as they don’t have that many players that can create their own shot. WSU is also not overly athletic in the frontcourt, which hurt them against teams that had more talent up front. No one will overlook the Cougars this season, though.

So, there you have it: eleven teams that comprise the majority of top-ten lists you will find out there currently. Only three or four of them are getting legit consideration for the top spot, but there is no clear-cut leader. Who is my pick for preseason No. 1 for the 2007-2008 season? You’ll have to wait until next week to find out, when I unveil my summer Top 25. Stay tuned.

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