Brian Butch is Wisconsin's new go-to player with Alando Tucker gone.
Nov. 12, 2007
By Josh Herwitt
Josh is CSTV.com's men's basketball editor and writes a weekly national column. E-mail here!
Since George Mason made its astonishing run to the Final Four two years ago, college basketball and its fans have become enamored with the Cinderella story that has stood as the NCAA Tournament's biggest selling point.
Whether it's been a school from Washington, D.C., Rock Hill, S.C., or Peoria, Ill., fans, coaches and players alike have all fallen in love with the parity that has emerged throughout the game.
That's already been apparent in the first week of the 2007-08 season, as No. 18 USC and No. 20 Kentucky were both upset at home by teams from the Atlantic Sun Conference.
And while the early-season surprises of Gardner-Webb and Mercer are quickly making BCS programs be wary of any opponent they face, there are several teams across the country that aren't being talked about now but could easily make some noise by the time the calendar hits March.
So with that said, here are five sleepers to keep an eye on as the season moves from November all the way to April.
Providence (18-13 overall, 8-8 Big East)
With a starting lineup that features five juniors, Providence coach Tim Welsh finally has the experience and maturity to get over the hump and into the NCAA Tournament this season. Point guard Sharaud Curry is one of those talented juniors having started 54 games over the past two years and should continue to be a major contributor after averaging 15.3 points, 2.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists last season. The Atlanta native proved to be a deadly perimeter shooter as a sophomore, knocking down 37.4 percent of his three-point attempts while shooting 90.1 percent from the free throw line, and he'll have a quality backcourt mate to work with in Weyinmi Efejuku. A 6-foot-5 junior from New York, Efejuku (14.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg) raised his field goal percentage to 46 percent last year and became a key ingredient for winning with the Friars going 15-3 when he scored more than 13 points. But Welsh shouldn't feel like he has to be totally reliant on those two starters to win games this season, as sophomore Dwain Williams stepped in for Curry at times last season and led the team in scoring as the two-guard. Add in versatile forward Geoff McDermott (9.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg and 5.1 apg) along with a healthy Randall Hanke (13.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg and 1.5 bpg) in the frontcourt, and the Friars have as good a chance as ever to be a contender in the ultra-competitive Big East.
Maryland (25-9 overall, 10-6 ACC)
Gary Williams guided the Terrapins to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season, but that was largely due to the help of five seniors, including leading scorer D.J. Strawberry. Now, though, Maryland will have to look to senior forward James Gist and sophomore point Greivis Vasquez guard to pick up the slack with those pieces from last year no longer in place. Gist, in particular, had a solid junior campaign with averages of 12.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks, but without the three-point shooting of Mike Jones and the defensive quickness of Ekene Ibekwe, the Terrapins will have to find that other guard to provide both scoring and defense on a consistent basis. That could come from sophomore Eric Hayes after spending much of last season as the Terps' reliable sixth-man, and the 6-foot-4 guard has the touch from outside to become Maryland's perimeter threat over the course of the season. Other questions, however, still remain for Williams, who will hope that junior college transfer Bambale Osby and little-used sophomore Landon Milbourne can get up to speed with the rest of the team as quickly as possible. While that could be Maryland's biggest uncertainty this season, having a motivator like Williams in the locker room and on the sidelines always gives the Terrapins a chance to compete, even in the ACC with the likes of Duke and North Carolina.
Texas Tech (21-13 overall, 9-7 Big 12)
The Red Raiders reached the first round of the NCAA Tournament after finishing conference play on a high note thanks to the guard play and leadership of Jarrius Jackson, but with Jackson now graduated, Texas Tech will turn to Martin Zeno to take over and lead the way. The 6-foot-5 senior could, in fact, be an even better all-around player than Jackson after showing his versatility last season by averaging 16.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, and with Bobby Knight back on the bench screaming orders, the Red Raiders always have a chance to compete in the Big 12 -- even with Kansas bringing back four of its starters. After all, there's no question that Knight is one of the best teachers to ever coach the game of basketball, though Texas Tech will need to find some scorers to complement Zeno in the backcourt. This year's recruiting class could be the answer with the program's first top-150 recruit in John Roberson, and the PlanoHigh School product could join a short list of freshman point guards, which includes Isiah Thomas, Steve Alford and Damon Bailey, to start for Knight. So with Zeno and the incoming talent stationed in Lubbock for the next five months, don't be surprised if the Red Raiders surprise some people and make their way back to the Big Dance with a strong finish in the Big 12 Tournament.
Washington (19-13 overall, 8-10 Pac-10)
Expectations were extremely high last season with Lorenzo Romar starting his fifth year in Seattle, but most of expectations were left unfulfilled with the Huskies struggling to a seventh-place finish in the Pac-10. Now Romar will have to center Spencer Hawes, who only lasted one year at Washington before heading to the NBA last June. But much of the Huskies' problems last season involved their struggles on the road, where they managed to lose 10 of 11 games (with the one road win coming against Arizona State). That will have to change this season if Washington hopes to contend in what's being considered by many to be the best conference far and away this season. The Huskies will need Jon Brockman to be the force in the middle this season, and the junior forward showed signs of greatness last year in averaging 14.2 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. Quincy Pondexter, meanwhile, will join Brockman in the frontcourt and could have another solid season coming off a rookie campaign that saw him finish with 10.7 points and 4.0 rebounds while shooting 49.8 percent from the floor. Washington's experience in the backcourt should also prove to be beneficial for Romar, who brings back junior point Justin Detmon and senior sharpshooter Ryan Appleby. But with Appleby sidelined for six weeks with a broken thumb, the Huskies will need 6-foot-3 sophomore Adrian Oliver to fill in for the time being and quickly immerse himself within the offensive flow.
Wisconsin (30-6 overall, 13-3 Big Ten)
Coming off a record-breaking year that saw the Badgers set a school record with 30 wins, including 17 straight at one point, and earn its first No. 1 ranking in school history, Bo Ryan certainly has his work cut out for him. Gone are Big Ten Player of the Year Alando Tucker and shooting guard Kammron Taylor, who carried Wisconsin's offense for much of last season, and finding scorers to replace those two pieces will be Ryan's biggest challenge when conference play starts in January. Now with senior shooting guard Michael Flowers on a leave-of-absence for an indefinite amount of time, Ryan is hoping that senior center Brian Butch can anchor the Badgers' offense and provide that scoring punch that will be much-needed in Madison this winter. Marcus Landry will need to be another contributor for the Badgers at the power forward position after averaging just 5.9 points and 3.2 rebounds as a sophomore, and junior wing Joe Krabbenhoft will also have to improve greatly over the course of the season. But while Wisconsin has a lot of questions to answer from the get-go this season, Ryan has proved in his first five years that's he's one of the best Xs and Os coaches in college basketball. And though he might not be bringing in five-star recruits year in and year out, Ryan has shown that he's able to get the most out of his players over the course of their careers at Wisconsin.