Tigers, Heels Top Early-Summer Top 25

Both Memphis and UNC stumbled in Elite Eight this year but should go further in `08


June 21, 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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When the clock struck five Monday afternoon and the deadline for underclassmen to pull out of the NBA Draft had passed, the outlook for the upcoming college basketball season came into sharper focus.

 

Where BCS-conference powers like Ohio State, Washington and Georgia Tech suffered the most from early attrition, schools like Marquette and Virginia stand to benefit from the returns of players who tested the draft waters.

 

As spring gives way to summer -- and with the official opening of practice a mere sixteen-and-a-half weeks down the road -- here's a premature stab at the preseason Top 25.

 

1. Memphis (33-4, 16-0 Conference USA in 2006-07)

 

When pressed to elaborate on the challenge of luring players to a non-BCS school the day after his group's Sweet 16 victory over Texas A&M, John Calipari told reporters there's only one league that comes up during his recruiting rounds: The NBA. There nothing mid-major about a program that returns five starters from a deep and talented team that has made consecutive Elite Eight runs. In fact, every player on the roster returns a year older and wiser except departed reserve point guard Jeremy Hunt. And while Hunt did average 14.1 points as a prominent cog in Calipari's equal-opportunity offense, the Tigers welcome to campus rising freshman Derrick Rose -- the nation's most talented first-year floor general not named O.J. Mayo. Critics have always thumbed their nose at this program's conference pedigree but the Tigers will cut their teeth in non-league meetings with Georgetown, Arizona, Gonzaga, Tennessee and Southern California 

 

2. North Carolina (31-7, 11-5 ACC)

 

Having lost Brandan Wright, Reyshawn Terry and Wes Miller -- but not the bitter taste from their spectacular Elite Eight collapse against Georgetown -- the Tar Heels will enter the season as the consensus favorites to win the ACC. Roy Williams returns one of the nation's deepest rosters in spite of his team's personnel losses -- with national player of the year candidate Tyler Hansbrough up front and future first-round picks Tywon Lawson and Wayne Ellington in the backcourt. It's a stable of talent that will allow Williams to play his preferred style: running opponents ragged using a constant flow of substitutions. It's a safe assumption that no team in major college basketball will score more points than the Tar Heels.

 

3. UCLA (30-6, 15-3 Pac-10)

 

Had All-American shooting guard Arron Afflalo returned for his senior season, the Bruins would have been my pick for No. 1 without a moment's hesitation. But even with the Pac-10 player of the year having declared for the draft, there's zero reason to suspect Ben Howland's program will lose its foothold as the best team west of the Mississippi. Everyone besides Afflalo is back including speedy point guard Darren Collison, versatile post man Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and consummate glue guy Josh Shipp. What's more, Howland edged North Carolina for the services of the nation's top-ranked college recruit: Kevin Love, a gifted low post scorer and rebounder whose uncommonly adroit passing skills have drawn comparisons to Wes Unseld and Elton Brand.

 

4. Georgetown (30-7, 13-3 Big East)

 

The nation's premier special-preparation team lost Jeff Green to the draft but returns every other contributor from a group that won the Big East title and made the school's first Final Four appearance in a generation. Veterans Jessie Sapp, DaJuan Summers and Jon Wallace reprise their roles within John Thompson III's cerebral offense with 7-foot-2, 278-pound center Roy Hibbert manning the interior. Patrick Ewing, Jr., will slip into Green's frontcourt vacancy while Top 20 recruits Chris Wright and Austin Freeman -- who played in the McDonald's All-American game -- provide additional depth in the backcourt.

 

5. Louisville (24-10, 12-4 Big East)

 

Last year's second-half darlings roared down the stretch with victories in 12 of their last 15 regular-season games and entered the NCAAs as a trendy Elite Eight pick. A second-round loss to Texas A&M dashed that dream but the loaded Cardinals return everybody besides point guard Brandon Jenkins. New York native Edgar Sosa should emerge as one of the nation's most talented guards while few groups will be able to match Rick Pitino's frontcourt rotation of Earl Clark, David Padgett, Juan Palacios and Derrick Caracter -- presuming the mercurial Notre Dame Prep product rebounds from his knee surgery this spring.

 

6. Kansas (33-5, 14-2 Big 12)

 

Here's a terrifying prospect for opposing Big 12 coaches: The Jayhawks didn't have a single senior on this year's conference championship team. Sure, Julian Wright has left school for the NBA and Brandon Rush's knee surgery is a question mark -- but with 6-foot-10, 245-pound rising freshman Cole Aldrich joining a group that includes Rush, Darrell Arthur, Sherron Collins, Russell Robinson and Mario Chalmers, the Jayhawks have an excellent opportunity to get the program back to the Final Four for the first time in a half-decade.

 

7. Michigan State (23-12, 8-8 Big Ten)

 

On paper, the Spartans might not appear to be the nation's seventh-best team. But the only player not returning from last year's NCAA Tournament group is part-time starter Maurice Joseph. And why? Because Tom Izzo's loaded recruiting class -- consisting of speedy point guard Kalin Lucas along with wings Chris Allen and Durrell Summers -- threatened to cut into his playing time. After resorting to a slow-down, half-court offense out of necessity this past season, look for Tom Izzo to let the Spartans press and run as frequently as his three previous Final Four teams.

 

8. Tennessee (24-11, 10-6 SEC)

 

Undersized power forward turned author Dane Bradshaw is graduated but everyone else is back in Knoxville including deadly sharpshooter Chris Lofton. Though the Volunteers will be the popular pick to end Florida's reign atop the SEC East Division, expect Bruce Pearl's team to play with an edge throughout the season in the wake of this year's controversial Sweet 16 exit at the hands of Ohio State.

 

9. Washington State (26-8, 13-5 Pac-10)

 

This past season's most prominent surprise team won't be sneaking up on anybody. But with 11 of their top 12 scorers returning -- only reliable center Ivory Clark graduates -- will the Cougars even need the element of surprise? Don't count on the raised expectations undoing the good thing Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver and Robbie Cowgill have going in Pullman.

 

10. Duke (22-11, 8-8 ACC)

 

For the better part of a maddeningly inconsistent campaign, the youngest team of the Mike Krzyzewski era played to its experience level. But another tricked-out recruiting class -- including blue chips Kyle Singler, Taylor King and Nolan Smith -- should help compensate for the premature departure of Josh McRoberts. No Duke team in recent memory has entered a season with as much to prove as next year's group -- and Krzyzewski is fortunate to have a team capable of rising to that challenge.

11. Indiana (21-11, 10-6 Big Ten)

 

With perhaps the most talented team in the Big Ten in place, preseason expectations in Bloomington will be dangerously high. Few freshmen will make as considerable an impact as Eric Gordon, the top-ranked shooting guard among this year's rising freshman whose slashing ability begs Dwayne Wade comparisons. And with D.J. White having returned for his senior season in the frontcourt, Indiana's inside-outside punch is sure to keep opponents in fits throughout the year.

 

12. Marquette (24-10, 10-6 Big East)

 

With the draft waters proving too cold for diminutive floor general Dominic James, the Golden Eagles will return their top eight players from this year's NCAA Tournament team. Louisville and Georgetown should prove the class of the Big East but look for Marquette to headline the stacked league's second tier. Make no mistake: This is a team with the pieces to beat anybody on a good night.

 

13. Stanford (18-13, 10-8 Pac-10)

 

The Cardinal went out with a whimper in the first round of this year's NCAAs but return 11 of their top 12 contributors -- including nine freshmen and sophomores. Rising junior Lawrence Hill is a star-in-waiting, seven-footer Brook Lopez might have been a first-round pick in this year's NBA draft and twin brother Robin Lopez provides a capable frontcourt bookend. Trent Johnson's young team appeared lost in their first-round ouster at the hands of Louisville, but the Cardinal should build on last year's unexpected success and could be a trendy Elite Eight pick come March.

 

14. Pittsburgh (29-8, 12-4 Big East)

 

When you've inherited and sustained a program like Jamie Dixon has done with the Big East's winningest program since 2001, the losses of staple players like Aaron Gray, Antonio Graves and Levon Kendall don't seem nearly as harsh. Holdovers Levance Fields, Ronald Ramon and Mike Cook will embrace larger responsibilities while 6-foot-8, 240-pound freshman DeJuan Blair should make an immediate impact up front.

 

15. Gonzaga (23-11, 11-3 WCC)

 

The perennial West Coast Conference champs have become a symbol of permanence in college basketball and should return to the national spotlight after an up-and-down season in Spokane. Backcourt standouts Matt Bouldin, Micah Downs and Jeremy Pargo can play with any guards in the nation and will power the Zags from the outside. But the keystone is 6-foot-11, 238-pound post man Josh Heytvelt, who returns to the program after serving a suspension for a drug possession charge.

 

16. Southern California (25-12, 11-7 Pac-10)

 

In my look ahead to the 2007-08 season as penned the day after the national championship game, I had tabbed the Trojans for the Final Four. Funny what the premature departure of two first-round draft picks will do. Had Nick Young and Gabe Pruitt returned alongside incoming freshman O.J. Mayo, most would have picked Tim Floyd's group to contend with UCLA for first place in the conference. Next year's team will experience its share of struggles as new faces adjust to new roles -- but Mayo's teams at every level have won and won big.

 

17. Kentucky (22-12, 9-7 SEC)

 

The Wildcats nailed down a pair of important scores since their second-round exit from the NCAA tournament: a new coach in Billy Gillispie and an impact recruit in Huntington, W.Va., native Patrick Patterson, a voracious rebounder who will provide a frontcourt presence to balance a guard-heavy rotation that includes Ramel Bradley, Joe Crawford and Derrick Jasper.

 

18. Oregon (29-8, 11-7 Pac-10)

 

With only Aaron Brooks departed from last year's Elite Eight team, most have the Ducks tabbed higher than No. 18. But with due respect to Malik Hairston, Marty Leunen, Tajuan Porter and Bryce Taylor, the graduated Brooks was a special player who will be missed dearly. The Ducks will return to the NCAA Tournament and contend with Stanford and USC for a place in the conference's top tier -- but I'm not convinced this team can match last year's run to the brink of the Final Four.

 

19. Villanova (22-11, 9-7 Big East)

 

Not since The Lost Boys and License to Drive have two Coreys been in such high demand. Jay Wright welcomes Corey Stokes (a McDonald's All-American) and Corey Fisher (the MVP of the Jordan Classic) to the Main Line to compensate for the losses of Mike Nardi, Will "Bump" Sheridan and Curtis Sumpter.

 

20. Xavier (25-9, 13-3 Atlantic 10)

 

The Musketeers have replaced Temple as the Atlantic 10's standard-bearer and should rebound strongly from this year's Sweet 16 appearance that might have been. The standout senior class of Justin Cage, Brandon Cole and Justin Doellman is gone but Drew Lavender and Stanley Burrell should lead the Catholic school to another successful season. Manhattan transfer C.J. Anderson, one of the best rebounding guards in Division I, is eligible after sitting out a year.

 

21. Ohio State (35-4, 15-1 Big Ten)

 

You could make the argument that no team -- not even Florida -- lost more to NBA attrition than the Buckeyes. But to doubt this team's place in the Top 25 would be to ignore Thad Matta's track record at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State. Remember: Matta has taken every one of his eligible teams to the NCAA Tournament in his seven seasons as a collegiate head coach (winning three conference coach of the year awards along the way). Heralded recruits Jon Diebler and Evan Turner provide immediate reinforcements while seven-footer Kosta Koufos will succeed Greg Oden in the middle.

 

22. Texas A&M (27-7, 13-3 Big 12)

 

Acie Law and Antanas Kavaliauskas are gone but the return of Joseph Jones is a huge plus for the Aggies, who have been left in good hands with former Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon succeeding Billy Gillispie. Jones will team with rising frosh DeAndre Jordan to comprise one of the league's most feared frontcourt tandems.

 

23. Florida (35-5, 13-3 SEC)

 

The Gators lost the most treasured class of players in program history to the NBA draft but returned the most important guy of all -- thanks to Billy Donovan's change of heart after accepting a contract offer with the Orlando Magic. The two-time champs will take a step back but the addition of high-profile freshmen like Nick Calathes, Alex Tyus and Chandler Parsons should keep the Gators in the Top 25.

 

24. Southern Illinois (29-7, 15-3 MVC)

 

Every player except one returns from a team that advanced to the Sweet 16 and established a school record for victories in a single season (29). Of course, that player just happens to be Missouri Valley player of the year Jamaal Tatum -- but the defensively sound Salukis have enough experience returning to build on last year's success.

 

25. North Carolina State (20-16, 5-11 ACC)

 

Injuries doomed the Wolfpack to underperformance throughout Sidney Lowe's first season but a spirited run to the ACC Tournament title game gave N.C. State a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been. Six of the top seven scorers are back including Brandon Costner, who should contend for ACC player of the year honors as a sophomore. But the graduation of talented Turkish native Engin Atsur leaves a gaping vacancy at the point guard position.

 

Others under consideration: Arizona, Wisconsin, Texas, Butler, Alabama, Arkansas, West Virginia, Kansas State, Utah State, Washington, Davidson, Clemson.

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