Although there is only about two months remaining until the college basketball season tips off, there is no suspense left regarding who the preseason No. 1 team in the country will be. Without a doubt, it is going to be North Carolina – and it will likely be a consensus. The Tar Heels return nearly everyone from their Final Four run of last season, including preseason All-Americans Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and everyone’s Player of the Year, Tyler Hansbrough. Outside of Carolina, though, it’s completely wide-open.
Is it Connecticut – a team that was bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season? What about anyone else from what will be a loaded Big East: Louisville, Notre Dame, maybe Pittsburgh? Of course, you can’t leave out Duke – the Tobacco Road battles should be epic this season. And UCLA is primed to fight for its fourth consecutive Final Four berth. The Big Ten combo of Purdue and Michigan State will also be in the mix. Can anyone from the SEC make a run? Don’t forget Memphis or Gonzaga, either.
While the main question heading into most seasons is in regards to who the top team in the preseason rankings will be, this season is different. Who will be the main contender to North Carolina’s supremacy atop the polls? 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 grab that coveted – or not-so-coveted – number two spot in the rankings (teams like Gonzaga, Texas, Memphis and Tennessee are good enough to be ranked in the top ten, but not as high as number two):
Connecticut: The Huskies were one of the best teams in the country last season during the Big East campaign, but everything came apart in the NCAA Tournament once point guard A.J. Price went down with a knee injury. He should be ready this season, though, and will pair with freshman Kemba Walker in an explosive backcourt. Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet return up front, while Nate Miles and Jerome Dyson provide scoring punch on the wing. Unless another unexpected injury pops up in March, this team could be playing into April.
Duke: Wow, the two Duke-Carolina battles in February and March are going to be outstanding – especially if the Blue Devils’ freshmen make the impact they are expected to. Wing Elliot Williams will provide immediate scoring from the perimeter, while Olek Czyz and Miles Plumlee are a pair of 6-10 big men. As for the returnees, Kyle Singler and Gerald Henderson are both back and should be even better than last season. Greg Paulus will handle the point guard duties again, and Jon Scheyer is going to be instant offense as usual. Lance Thomas needs to improve, though.
Louisville: Despite the “loss” of Derrick Caracter, the Cardinals are going to be a tough team to beat, even in the stacked Big East. It starts with the forward tandem of Terrence Williams and Earl Clark, two match-up nightmares for opponents. Williams is one of the most versatile players in the country, while Clark is very difficult to defend. The biggest reason for optimism, though, is the arrival of freshman big man Samardo Samuels. He is going to start in the low post immediately, and should be a factor right away. If Edgar Sosa can handle the point guard spot with consistency, look out.
UCLA: Despite the loss of two lottery picks in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love, as well as fellow draftee Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, the Bruins are still going to be a major factor in their quest to reach their fourth straight Final Four. Darren Collison is one of the best point guards in the country, and Josh Shipp is a scorer on the wing. UCLA also brings in arguably the best recruiting class in the country. Jrue Holiday is an outstanding talent in the backcourt, while Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee will also be solid guards. J’Mison Morgan is a five-star big man who could start right away.
Notre Dame: One of potentially four Big East teams in the top ten, the Fighting Irish return four starters, including the Big East Player of the Year, forward Luke Harangody. The 20-10 machine is back for another year of dominating the conference, and he could be even better this season. In the backcourt, the tandem of Tory Jackson and Kyle McAlarney is one of the best in the Big East. Jackson is a very good creator, while McAlarney can shoot with the best of them. The intrasquad scrimmages in the Notre Dame practices might feature some of the best match-ups in the nation – Purdue transfer Scott Martin and Mississippi State Ben Hansbrough are both sitting out this season.
Pittsburgh: If Mike Cook was able to get another year of eligibility, the Panthers would have an even better shot at grabbing the No. 2 spot. However, his appeal was rejected and Pitt will have to go elsewhere to find their wing scoring. Luckily for them, though, the inside duo of Sam Young and DeJuan Blair provides enough production to offset any deficiencies on the perimeter. Levance Fields is back again at the point guard position, while Gilbert Brown and a host of freshmen will vie for time on the wings.
Purdue: The Boilermakers burst onto the scene last season after being vastly underrated in the preseason, despite starting three freshmen and having basically no experience. All those young players are a year older, meaning that Purdue has the guns to win the Big Ten – and maybe get to Detroit in April. E’twaun Moore and Keaton Grant are good scorers on the perimeter, while Robbie Hummel is one of the best all-around players in the conference. Chris Kramer is a scrappy point guard who will lead the Boilers.
Michigan State: The last memory we have of the Spartans is of them getting blown out of the gym by Memphis – those types of images will not happen very often for Tom Izzo and co. this season. Kalin Lucas is poised to develop into one of the best point guards in the country, while Raymar Morgan will get some recognition for preseason All-America. Goran Suton is an underrated big man, and five-star forward Delvon Roe could make an immediate impact if he is healthy. One potential problem for Michigan State is its schedule; the Spartans face North Carolina, Texas, Kansas and will also participate in the Old Spice Classic, which features a field headlined by Gonzaga, Tennessee and Georgetown.
Who is my choice for No. 2? You’ll have to wait until I release my preseason top-25 on the final day of my 2008-2009 college basketball preview.
Pretty good list; Oklahoma probably isn't good enough to rise to the level of #2, but I think they are definitely in the same category as Tennessee, Gonzaga and company.ReplyDelete
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Tennessee is going to bring it this season.ReplyDelete
I think the schedule suits Notre Dame and UConn (non-conference of course). Georgetown, Syracuse, and Louisvile's non-conference shedule is brutal.ReplyDelete