Never Too Early To Look Ahead

The Pac-10, Big 12 and Big East nab seven bids apiece in our peek into the crystal ball


April 3, 2007

By Bryan Armen Graham

CSTV.com

 



BRYAN GRAHAM

Bryan is a basketball editor for CSTV.com and contributes on a regular weekly basis.
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It's never too early to look ahead to next season. Here's a quick look at the 65 teams you can expect to see playing for a trip to the Final Four at the Alamodome one year from now.

 

One and Done

 

65. Mississippi Valley State. After doubling their victory total from nine to 18 wins and claiming the SWAC regular-season championship, the Delta Devils suffered an upset at the hands of Jackson State in the conference championship game and settled for an NIT auto-bid. But rising senior and All-SWAC first team selection Stanford Speech should get the Itta Bena, Miss., school over the hump.

 

64. East Tennessee State. Courtney Pigram exploded onto the Atlantic Sun scene this past season in leading the Buccaneers to their first-ever league title and collecting conference player of the year honors as a sophomore. The Memphis native can beat you with his shooting or his passing -- as a 34-point effort at Lipscomb or an 18-assist outing in the regular-season finale against Mercer would indicate. The Bucs lose just two contributors from this year's team and should continue to improve.

 

63. Hampton. Kevin Nickleberry has had lofty dreams for the Hampton basketball program since assuming the reins prior to this year and the Virginia native could see results as soon as `07-08. The Pirates started four freshmen and a junior this season -- taking their knocks early but coming together to finish with victories in eight of their last 12 games. Look for that experience to pay dividends. Among the returnees are leading scorer and All-MEAC first team selection Rashad West and conference rookie of the year Mike Freeman.

 

62. Sacred Heart. The Pioneers finished a distant second place behind Central Connecticut State before playing the Blue Devils down to the last possession a 74-70 loss in the Northeast Conference tourney title game. But while CCSU suffered heavy losses to graduation, longtime Sacred Heart coach Dave Bike will be guiding one of the NEC's most experienced teams in '07-08. Look for conference all-rookie team selection Chauncey Hardy, who averaged 10.6 points and 2.8 assists in just 23.2 minutes of reserve work, to enjoy a breakout campaign.

 

61. Northwestern State. Two seasons ago, Mike McConathy led the Demons to 26 victories, a Southland Conference title and a stunning upset of Iowa in the first round of the NCAAs. The Louisiana native's philosophy is simple: Give a dozen players anywhere between 10 and 25 minutes each night -- a swarming, collective mentality that allows the Natchitoches, La., school to keep fresh legs on the floor and pose a threat to any opponent regardless of profile. Next year's team will return eight players from the 12-man rotation McConathy employed during this season as the Demons compete with Sam Houston State and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi for the school's third-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.

 

60. Oakland. With defending Mid-Continent champ Oral Roberts losing a bundle of seniors -- including three-time conference player of the year Caleb Green -- the door is open for the Grizzlies to return to the NCAAs for the second time in four seasons. The Michigan school loses leading scorer Vova Severovas to graduation, but the four other starters return, including All-MCC second team selection and long-range bomber Erik Kangas, who averaged 12.9 points and connected on 43.1 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.

 

59. Northern Arizona. Mike Adras has endured a somewhat rocky tenure since taking over for Ben Howland on the sidelines in Flagstaff, but things have seemed to settle down after leading the Lumberjacks to 39 victories over the past two seasons. While Adras doesn't return a ton of All-Big Sky selections -- the graduated Ruben Boykin, Jr., was the team's lone representative -- the '07-08 team should rank among the league's most experienced groups as four starters return. Rising senior Ryan McCurdy will help compensate for the points and rebounds lost with Boykin.

 

58. UC Santa Barbara. The Gauchos appeared to be the class of the Big West Conference after scoring a Nov. 17 victory over eventual Sweet 16 entrant UNLV. But a late-season swoon including a depressing home loss to lowly UC Davis kept the oceanfront school out of the postseason. Bob Williams welcomes back a pair of all-conference selections who will be seniors -- swingman Alex Harris (first team) and big man Chris Devine (second team) -- along with all-rookie team picks Justin Joyner and James Powell.

 

57. San Diego State. The Mountain West Conference is expected to slip back into one-bid territory following a season that saw SDSU, Air Force, BYU and UNLV contend for NCAA bids. But the Aztecs will rise to the top despite the graduation of Brandon Heath, who collected conference player of the year honors of a junior before settling for All-MWC first team honors as a senior. Returning are a pair of all-conference honorable mention picks in rising senior Jerome Habel and rising junior Lorrenzo Wade, who should assume leadership duties while increasing their production.

 

56. Winthrop. It's back to relative obscurity for the Eagles after Gregg Marshall's squad spent a Perfect Storm year in the national spotlight -- even cracking the AP Top 25 for the first time in school history. While it would seem that the loss of three starters including Torrell Martin and Craig Bradshaw would be too much for the defending conference champs overcome, the return of leading scorer Michael Jenkins and rising senior point guard Chris Gaynor provides a strong enough foundation for Marshall to perform his magic. After all, there's a reason that the Rock Hill, S.C., school has made seven NCAA Tournament appearances in the coach's nine seasons on campus.

 

55. Holy Cross. The Crusaders lose just two seniors from last season's Patriot League champs. Problem is, Keith Simmons was the conference player of the year while Torey Thomas garnered defensive player of the year honors. But Ralph Williard's program should survive and defend its crown thanks to his perennial success on the recruiting trail. Look for rising senior Tim Clifford to emerge as the league's most formidable interior force.

 

54. Pennsylvania. The three-time Ivy League champs suffered significant losses to graduation -- including two-time conference player of the year Ibrahim Jaaber, homegrown inside-outside threat Mark Zoller and serviceable pivotman Steve Danley. But second-year coach Glen Miller has lured an impressive crop of recruits to West Philly and any would-be challenger to Penn's dominance of the Ancient Eight -- Yale and Columbia are the trendy picks -- fall into the I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it category.

 

53. South Alabama. This year's junior-heavy Jaguars won 20 games and collected a Sun Belt regular-season title before suffering an upset loss against North Texas in the league tournament. Next year's team will start four seniors -- including leading scorer and All-Sun Belt first team swingman Demetric Bennett -- while bringing two other fourth-year players off the bench.

 

52. Illinois State. A down year for the Missouri Valley Conference should see just one team sneak into the field besides overwhelming favorite Southern Illinois (way down this list at No. 13). My pick for that lone at-large squad -- an admitted longshot -- is an Illinois State team that finished 15-16 overall this season and just 6-12 in Valley play. Why? Because the Redbirds return every contributor save for Greg Dilligard and Roberto Fortes from a team which upset Creighton, topped St. John's on the road and pushed Southern Illinois in Carbondale during the regular season.

 

51. Houston. In his fourth year at the helm, Turnaround Tom Penders will assemble the body of work to get the Cougars back into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1992. The star of the show is senior-to-be Rob McKiver, who averaged team bests with 19.2 points and 3.4 assists.

 

50. Baylor. Look for the Bears to sneak into the field with the seventh and final Big 12 berth. Seven of the top eight contributors are back (including all five starters) and incoming freshman Lacedarius Dunn, who has been ranked the nation's fifth-best shooting guard, is expected to make an instant impact.

 

49. Manhattan. It was a tale of two seasons for the youthful Jaspers, whose growing pains were agonizing prior to New Year's Day. Manhattan lost eight of its first 11 games -- including a season-opening stunner at the hands of New Jersey Institute of Technology -- before a six-game winning streak sparked a respectable turnaround. Former Pittsburgh assistant Barry Rohrssen returns 10 of this season's top 11 contributors including forward tandem Devon Austin and Arturo Dubois, who combined to average 24.6 points and 11.1 rebounds. Expect the Riverdale school to make a push for the MAAC title.

 

48. Kent State. With one of the league's most experienced units -- and with Mid-American contenders Akron and Toledo suffering heavy losses to graduation -- Kent State should get back to the Big Dance after a one-year hiatus while continuing its impressive run of nine consecutive 20-win seasons. That's a streak which can be matched by just one other non-BCS school: Creighton.

 

47. VCU. Gone is standout shooting guard B.A. Walker. But the face of Virginia Commonwealth's spirited if brief NCAA Tournament run -- explosive point guard Eric Maynor -- should help Anthony Grant's side earn the Colonial Athletic Association's lone at-large bid.

 

46. Davidson. This year's Wildcats weren't supposed to do a whole lot of anything after losing seven seniors from an NCAA Tournament team including four guys who went on to play professionally. But behind the strength of a strong freshman class -- led by Stephen Curry (the nation's top scoring freshman not named Kevin Durant) -- the North Carolina school won 29 games and pushed Maryland in a first-round NCAA Tournament loss. That the `Cats return their entire starting lineup and top eight contributors should scare the pants off their Southern Conference competition.

 

45. Connecticut. There may be more questions than answers surrounding the Huskies at the beginning of April. But does anybody really expect a program that has won two of the last nine national championships to stay out of the March spotlight for longer than a year?

 

44. LSU. With Big Baby grown up and moved on to the NBA and this year's nightmarish campaign behind the Tigers, the leadership roles will be assumed from the lone meaningful holdovers from the Final Four team: Tasmin Mitchell and Garrett Temple. Terry Martin, Marquette transfer Dameon Mason and Magnum Rolle will contribute. Look for an immediate impact from incoming freshman Anthony Randolph, a lengthy 6-foot-9 wing player who has drawn comparisons to Tayshawn Prince.

 

43. Kentucky. There might not be a bigger question mark on this list given the current coaching vacancy but you've got to expect the storied Lexington program will attract a strong enough candidate to keep alive the school's streak of 16 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.

 

42. Texas Tech. Rising seniors Martin Zeno, Charlie Burgess and Bosnian seven-footer Esmir Rizvic comprise the core of a team that might not crack the top tier of a strong Big 12 but should carry the Red Raiders back to the NCAAs for the fourth time in five seasons.

 

41. George Mason. The top six contributors are back from a group that came within a late-game collapse in the CAA title game of returning to the NCAAs. Forwards Folarin Campbell and Will Thomas, the two remaining starters from the Final Four team, combined to average 27.2 points and will provide senior leadership for a veteran-heavy unit that loses just longtime reserve Gabe Norwood to graduation.

 

40. Arizona. The Wildcats will have their hands full in the ultra-competitive Pac-10 but lion in winter Lute Olson keeps landing high-profile recruits. This year's scores include Phoenix native Jerryd Bayless (the No. 2 shooting guard) and fellow blue-chipper Jamelle Horne, a versatile wing player who can handle the ball or post up. The only significant contributors lost are point guard Mustafa Shakur and standout pivotman Ivan Radenovic -- with Marcus Williams, Jawann McClellan and do-everything rising soph Chase Budinger among the returnees.

 

39. Boston College. It's been five years since the Eagles missed the Big Dance and don't expect that streak to end -- even with the departure of All-American second team pick Jared Dudley. Junior-to-be Tyrese Rice is one of the premier point guards in the Atlantic Coast Conference and John Oates will provide senior leadership in the frontcourt. Expect the Jesuits to nab one of the conference's six bids come March.

 

38. Oregon. The Ducks advanced to their second Elite Eight in five seasons thanks to an open-court attack that likes to force turnovers in bunches and never settles for two when three will do. But while Ernie Kent returns long-range bomber Tajuan Porter, reliable small forward Bryce Taylor, versatile power forward Malik Hairston and voracious defensive rebounder (and KenPom.com favorite) Maarty Leunen each return to Eugene, the Ducks graduate All-American third-teamer Aaron Brooks -- the 6-foot point guard who served as the glue for this unit.

 

37. Purdue. Carl Landry and David Teague are gone. But there are enough holdovers from this year's group -- and an outstanding recruiting class including E'twaun Moore, Scott Martin and Robbie Hummel -- to believe a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance is in the cards.

 

36. Oklahoma. Jeff Capel should experience greater success in his second season with nine of his top 11 scorers returning. But it's incoming frosh Blake Griffin, the nation's third-ranked power forward prospect, whose arrival in Norman could push the Sooners into the NCAAs.

 

35. Mississippi State. Look for the Bulldogs to contend for the title in the watered-down SEC West Division. The entire starting five returns including leading scorer Jamont Gordon, Charles Rhodes and the Delk twins. Heralded recruit Ravern Johnson, a versatile 6-foot-7 swingman, could play his way into the lineup.

 

34. Vermont. A group which let the America East title and the league's automatic bid slip away with a last-second loss to Albany on its home court can't hardly wait for November. All-America East first team selection Mike Trimboli will be the prohibitive frontrunner for conference player of the year as a junior but coach Mike Lonergan will need to compensate for the graduated Chris Holm's 10.6 points and 12.2 rebounds per game -- the second-best clip in Division I.

 

33. Virginia. High-scoring guard J.R. Reynolds and serviceable forward and crowd favorite Jason Cain are graduated but the return of All-ACC point guard Sean Singletary for his senior season should guide the Cavaliers to a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

 

Round of 32

 

32. Marquette. Thanks to the slight frame of 6-footer Dominic James and the considerable point guard depth in the NBA, Tom Crean can expect to enjoy his standout floor general for another two seasons in Milwaukee. The top seven contributors return for the Catholic school including notable wing players Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews. Senegal native and rising senior Ousmane Barro gives Crean a burly 6-foot-10 warrior up front.

 

31. Austin Peay. With all five starters returning from a team that suffered a one-point loss to Eastern Kentucky in the league championship game, look for the Governors to be the first Ohio Valley Conference team to win an NCAA Tournament game since Middle Tennessee State upended Florida State in 1989. All-American honorable mention selection Drake Reed, a rising junior who averaged 15.8 points (on 51.9 percent shooting) and 6.0 boards, is the star of the show.

 

30. Wisconsin. Sure, the Badgers lose Alando Tucker, Kammron Taylor and Jason Chappell. But the Madison school never seems to be down for long (if at all) under Bo Ryan.

 

29. Washington. The big question mark in Seattle surrounds the plans of Spencer Hawes. If the seven-footer returns for his sophomore season, the Huskies return their top eight scorers and will be right in the thick of a crowded Pac-10 title race. Diminutive homegrown product Isaiah Thomas, a 5-foot-7 rising freshman, will understudy Justin Dentmon at the point.

 

28. Utah State. With Nevada's cupboard bare, a new team will rise in the WAC. Stew Morrill remains one of the nation's most underrated coaches and this year's Aggies -- with high-scoring sensation Jaycee Carroll leading the way -- will be one of his most experienced units.  

 

27. Gonzaga. Each member of last season's young team -- save departed senior Derek Raivio -- gains a year of experience. The addition of heralded freshmen Austin Daye and Steven Gray ensures the Zags will remain atop the West Coast Conference. Look for mop-topped rising soph Matt Bouldin to succeed Raivio at the one.

 

26. Pittsburgh. Aaron Gray, Antonio Graves and overlooked power forward Levon Kendall will be gone but the Big East's winningest program since 2001 keeps chugging along. Tops among this year's recruiting class is 6-foot-8, 240-pound power forward DeJuan Blair.

 

25. Butler. Todd Lickliter's former squad might not enjoy the same national profile that the Bulldogs carried throughout their memorable Sweet 16 campaign -- not with the losses of veterans like Brandon Crone, Julian Betko and Brian Ligon. But few teams in the Horizon League will be able to compete with a group that retains Mike Green, Pete Campbell and dark horse All-American candidate A.J. Graves. Look for rising freshman Matt Howard -- a well-regarded 6-foot-7, 225-pound power forward from Connersville, Ind. -- to get worked into the rotation before the New Year.

 

24. Kansas State. Expect Bob Huggins to have last year's bubble boys into the NCAAs for the first time since 1996. Former O.J. Mayo sidekick Billy Walker should thrive in his first full season and Michael Beasley -- the nation's top-ranked power forward and MVP of the McDonald's All-American game -- headlines the Manhattan school's recruiting class.

 

23. Texas A&M. Acie Law and Antanas Kavaliauskas and Marlon Pompey are graduated but Joseph Jones and Dominique Kirk will ensure Billy Gillispie's reestablished program remains among the Big 12's elite. The Aggies nabbed an explosive center during recruiting season in 6-foot-10, 225-pound Texas native DeAndre Jordan.

 

22. West Virginia. The eventual NIT champions took the early licks you'd expect a team to endure after losing a class of seniors -- the Gansey/Pittsnogle group -- which will go down in school history. But Tallahassee native Frank Young is the only player the Mountaineers will be losing this time around and the they should give Georgetown a spirited challenge in the Big East first division.

 

21. Texas. Even with Kevin Durant's probable departure to the pros, Rick Barnes has an excellent rotation of young talent in place. Add to the mix five-star recruit Gary Johnson, a physical 6-foot-7, 225-power forward from Houston, and the Longhorns should have a contender in the Big 12.

 

20. Georgia Tech. Paul Hewitt's group and rising sophomores Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young should build on this season's modest success and place among the top four in the ACC. Heralded power forward prospect Gani Lawal will contribute immediately up front for the Yellow Jackets.

 

19. Indiana. Few freshmen will make as considerable an impact Eric Gordon, the nation's top-ranked shooting guard whose NBA range and Dwyane Wade-like slashing ability have pro scouts licking their chops. With D.J. White returning for his senior season, expect the Hoosiers to contend in the up-for-grabs Big Ten.

 

18. Xavier. The Musketeers have replaced Temple as the Atlantic 10's most dependable outfit and are expected to rebound strongly from this year's Sweet 16 appearance that should have been. The standout senior class of Justin Cage, Brandon Cole and Justin Doellman is gone -- but Drew Lavender and Stanley Burrell should shine as the team's leaders. Also worth noting: C.J. Anderson, one of the best rebounding guards in Division I, is eligible after transferring from Manhattan.

 

17. North Carolina State. After injuries conspired against the Wolf Pack throughout the '06-07 season, the Raleigh school should contend with Duke and North Carolina for the ACC crown. Six of the top seven scorers are back including Brandon Costner, who should contend for conference player of the year honors despite his sophomore classification. Sidney Lowe also landed a pair of dynamite frontcourt recruits in No. 3-ranked center James Hickson and heralded power forward Tracy Smith.

 

Sweet 16

 

16. Michigan State. The Spartans lose zero players from this year's 23-victory club and will find themselves in the preseason Top 20 as a result. If Tom Izzo's trio of five-star recruits -- Durrell Summers, Kalin Lucas and Chris Allen -- can provide immediate returns on their potential, don't be surprised to see the East Lansing school forge a path to San Antonio.

 

15. Villanova. Not since Haim and Feldman have two Coreys been in such high demand. Jay Wright welcomes Top 50 recruits Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher to the Main Line to help compensate for the losses of Mike Nardi, Will "Bump" Sheridan and Curtis Sumpter.

 

14. Florida. Expect the two-time champs to take a step back with the presumed departure of their fantastic junior class. But the addition of high-profile freshmen Nick Calathes, Alex Tyus and Chandler Parsons will keep the Gators among the national elite.

 

13. Southern Illinois. Every player except one returns from a team that advanced to the Sweet 16 and established a school victory for victories in a single season (29). Problem is, that one graduate is Missouri Valley player of the year Jamaal Tatum. But Chris Lowery's team concept will prevail as the Salukis cut their teeth on a down Missouri Valley Conference.

 

12. Stanford. The Cardinal went out with a whimper in the first round of the NCAAs but return 11 of their top 12 contributors -- including nine freshmen and sophomores. Star-in-waiting Lawrence Hill is a soph and twin towers Brook and Robin Lopez just completed their first years. While the Palo Alto school appeared listless in defeat during their first-round ouster at the hands of Louisville, tournament experience is tournament experience. Look for the Cardinal to build on last year's unexpected if modest success.

 

11. Ohio State. Presuming Greg Oden does the best thing for himself and declares for the draft, the Buckeyes are still a Sweet 16 team at worst. Top 100 recruits Kosta Koufos, Evan Diebler and Evan Turner provide immediate reinforcements for the departed Ivan Harris and Ron Lewis. And besides, Thad Matta has taken each eligible team to the NCAA Tournament in his seven seasons as a collegiate head coach (while winning three coach of the year awards along the way).

 

10. Washington State. The season's major surprise team won't be sneaking up on anybody in '07-08. But with 11 of their 12 scorers returning -- only dependable center Ivory Clark graduates -- will the Cougars even need the element of surprise?

 

9. Tennessee. The immediate future looks bright for the Volunteers, who lose just one player -- undersized power forward Dane Bradshaw -- from this season's should-have-been-Elite-Eight group. Look for Bruce Pearl's charges to end Florida's reign over the SEC East Division.

 

Elite Eight

 

8. Duke. Another jaw-dropping recruiting class -- including blue chips Kyle Singler, Taylor King and Nolan Smith -- will provide depth for a team which was the youngest group of the Mike Krzyzewski era. Even without Josh McRoberts, who has left the Durham school for the NBA draft, there are enough seasoned and capable veterans in place for the Blue Devils to make a deep run into the NCAAs.

 

7. North Carolina. If everybody returns, the Tar Heels will be considered an odds-on favorite to get to the Alamodome -- but there's a fair chance Brandan Wright, Ty Lawson or All-America second team selection Tyler Hansbrough could bolt Chapel Hill for the NBA.

 

6. Louisville. Rick Pitino's charges roared down the stretch with victories in 12 of their last 15 regular-season games and entered this year's tournament as a trendy Elite Eight pick. Their dream was dashed with a last-second loss to Texas A&M in the second round but, outside of point guard Brandon Jenkins, the entire core is slated to return.

 

5. Georgetown. The Hoyas will return their 11 top contributors from this season's Final Four team if Jeff Green decides to come back. But even if the 20-year-old combo forward decides to go to the NBA, the Big East champs should keep the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament free. That's because Georgetown will remain the nation's best special-preparation team as long as Jessie Sapp, DaJuan Summers and Jon Wallace are running John Thompson III's cerebral offense with 7-foot-3, 278-pound Roy Hibbert manning the interior. The addition of Top 20 recruits Chris Wright and Austin Freeman (who made the McDonald's All-American team) provides additional manpower in the backcourt for a team whose most apparent weakness was depth.

 

Final Four

 

4. Southern California. Third-year coach Tim Floyd returns a bevy of contributors from this year's surprise Pac-10 contenders and Sweet 16 party-crashers -- a group accounting for 76.8 of the team's scoring, 82.7 percent of the team's rebounding and 89.2 percent of the team's assists. But it's the arrival of long-heralded blue chip O.J. Mayo, a 6-foot-5 point guard who's been in the national spotlight since the eighth grade, which elevates the Trojans to legitimate Final Four contention. Every one of Mayo's teams at every level has won and won big. Though UCLA signee Kevin Love has been considered the top collegiate prospect in this year's incoming class, no one doubts that Mayo is the superior NBA prospect. Look for the Huntington, W.Va., product to team with high-flying backcourt mate Nick Young for a 21st-century brand of Showtime in University Park.

 

3. Kansas. The youth of the Jayhawks, who didn't have a single senior on this year's Big 12 championship team, is a terrifying prospect for opposing coaches around the league. Not to mention the addition of 6-foot-10, 245-pound rising frosh Cole Aldrich. Whether Bill Self can convince his stable of NBA-ready thoroughbreds to stay another season in Lawrence remains the elephant in the Fieldhouse. But if potential draftees Brandon Rush, Julian Wright and Darrell Arthur return, look for the Jayhawks to return to the Final Four for the first time in a half-decade.

 

2. Memphis. Where NBA attrition has slammed the Tigers in previous seasons, the two-time Conference USA champs are expected to return five starters from this year's Elite Eight entrants. In fact, every player on the roster will be back except for reserve point guard Jeremy Hunt. The bad news: The outgoing Hunt averaged 14.1 points, good for second on the team in John Calipari's equal-opportunity offense. The good news: Incoming freshman Derrick Rose will be the nation's most talented first-year point guard not named O.J. Mayo. 

 

The Champ

 

1. UCLA. As if returning their entire roster from this year's built-tough Final Four team wouldn't be promising enough, the Bruins add the nation's top-ranked incoming freshman in Kevin Love -- a voracious rebounder and skilled outlet passer from Lake Oswego, Ore., has drawn comparisons to Wes Unseld. With Darren Collison, Arron Afflalo, Josh Shipp, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Lorenzo Mata each a year older and a year wiser, the Bruins should enter November as the team to beat.

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