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The college basketball season is under way and it's time to take an in-depth look at all the top teams.
What follows is my personal preseason Top 25 and, while I don't like to toot my own horn, I know a lot about college basketball. My predictions are always right on. It's true.
Like last year, for instance, I predicted that Duke, Kansas and North Carolina would all be good. And the year before that I called it on Carolina, Kansas and Duke. And three years ago it was Kansas, Duke and Carolina that I predicted winning seasons for. And if we want to go way back to the 2002-03 season, I went out on a limb and predicted success for Duke, Kansas and North Carolina and Kentucky and Arizona.
So doubt me if you wish. But I know college basketball.
25. Boston College
Boston College will remain among the best teams in the ACC this season behind senior forward Jared Dudley. But the Eagles will likely get off to a slow start as they try to adjust to the loss of team leader Craig Smith. In fact, I'm betting they lose one of their first games. And it will probably be their second game against Vermont. By, say, 14 points.
24. Georgia Tech
Head coach Paul Hewitt returns his top three scorers from a disappointing 11-17 team. But his veterans will be aided by an influx of talented freshmen, led by point guard Javaris Crittenton and swingman Thaddeus Young. Crittenton will lead the Yellow Jackets' attack from the get-go, and many believe he could be the best Georgia Tech point guard since Stephon Marbury. (Note to younger readers: This is not intended to be a slight towards Crittenton. Marbury was once a highly regarded player. No, seriously.)
Despite winning a national championship at Kentucky and taking the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament in each of his nine seasons in Lexington in addition to never winning less than 22 games head coach Tubby Smith is facing intense pressure heading into this season from many Kentucky fans. People are saying the program is slipping under Smith's watch despite its rather obvious continued success. I don't know, it's weird and I can't put my finger on exactly why but I get the sense that a certain element of the Kentucky fan base would never fully embrace Smith no matter what he did. And while I don't agree with those who don't embrace Smith, I very much agree with Kentucky fans who embrace Ashley Judd. In fact, I've tried to embrace her many times, but was Tasered on each and every instance by one of her bodyguards.
The Volunteers enjoyed great success in Bruce Pearl's first season at the helm. But Pearl just doesn't seem to be his usual upbeat self as this season gets under way. I think he's bummed that the Democrats took control of Congress and is worried that they might put an end to the president's wiretapping program. Pearl was hoping to get access to that technology in hopes of ratting out all of Tennessee's rivals to the NCAA for recruiting violations.
Gone are Rashad Anderson, Hilton Armstrong, Josh Boone, Denham Brown, Rudy Gay and Marcus Williams. But that's exactly why head coach Jim Calhoun is so excited about this season. Calhoun is ecstatic about the opportunity to scream at and publicly belittle an entirely new batch of players, searching out each of their flaws and harping on them over and over until they grow to hate him or the game of basketball. It's what drives him as a coach and what brings him joy as person.
The defending Big East tournament champions have a solid core returning in Eric Devendorf, Demetris Nichols and Terrence Roberts. And they will be aided by the addition of standout freshman swingman Paul Harris. But the Orange will definitely miss Gerry McNamara. So hopefully head coach Jim Boeheim keeps this line out of his pregame pep talks: "We wouldn't have won 10 games without Gerry. Not 10." Because that would be a bit deflating for a pregame pep talk. And it would also kind of tip off Boeheim's current players to the fact that he doesn't think much of their abilities.
The talented but young Longhorns could struggle out of the gate with a nonconference schedule that includes Michigan State, Gonzaga, LSU, Arkansas, Tennessee and Villanova. And if that happens, expect head coach Rick Barnes to ask his AD for future nonconference schedules a bit more like what Texas football gets to play each year. The key to the Longhorns making it through the early part of their schedule without too many losses falls on the shoulders of freshman standout Kevin Durant, whom many compare to Tracy McGrady. But I'd like to go on record now as saying that Durant will be a far better college player than McGrady ever was. (No disrespect to McGrady, but the guy was an absolute zero in the college game.)
The Tigers lost their top three scorers from last season, but head coach John Calipari is confident his team will pick right back up on its winning ways. Mainly because it's almost impossible for a team with even minimal talent to lose many games when its schedule is full of Conference USA teams. Memphis' biggest challenge this season might not be so much qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, but finding a way not to become overwhelmed by opposing talent once it gets there. "What?! These guys can dribble with both their right and their left hands? How are we supposed to defend that? There's no way to know which way they are going to go with the ball! Aaaaaah!"
17. Texas A&M
Texas A&M was red-hot in the second half of last season and should carry that momentum into this season. And while senior guard Acie Law is among the best players in the country, I see some major concerns with A&M's starting lineup. Namely that there are two foreigners in it: Antanas Kavaliauskas from Lithuania and Marlon Pompey, a Canadian. And if there's one thing I know about basketball, it's that people from other countries can't play it. At least not as well as we Americans can. The 1992 Dream Team proved that forever in my mind. U-S-A! U-S-A!
Creighton has the best shot to continue the successful run of the Missouri Valley Conference. (Or, as Billy Packer might call the members of the MVC: "The 10 exceptions that prove the rule.") The Bluejays will be bolstered by the return of star guard Nate Funk, who injured his shoulder in the fourth game last season, causing Creighton to go into a bit of a midseason (Oh, man. I kind of painted myself into a corner on this one. But it's too late now. I just have to go with it.) uh, funk. They went into a funk, OK? Funk got injured and they went into a funk. That's right. I'm not proud of it. But it's over now. Let's move on
Head coach Lorenzo Romar enters this season looking for a way to replace four seniors, including star guard Brandon Roy. But Romar, an unrivaled recruiter in the Pac-10, is ready to replenish the Huskies with a blue-ribbon crop of six freshmen led by local product Spencer Hawes. And trust me, this freshman class is really good. In fact, I bet they will win even more games this season than Michigan's heralded Fab Five who according to the NCAA's official records weren't nearly as successful as many remember.
Last season Alabama beat Florida and split a pair of games against LSU, and the Tide is confident entering this season that they're just as good as those two Final Four teams. That's why they plan on raising a banner at their home arena next week that reads: "2006 FINAL FOUR (had two teams in it that we beat)."
Marquette head coach Tom Crean has installed an up-tempo offense this season behind a three-guard attack that he hopes will allow the Golden Eagles to outrun their bigger and stronger rivals. And the plan will probably work. Right up until conference play begins and Marquette's guards realize it's hard to play at such a fast pace when Big East officials tend to swallow the whistle for such infractions as clotheslines, full-body checks and dropkicks.
Arizona lost Hassan Adams and Chris Rodgers, but the Wildcats won't miss all the distractions they provided and how deeply those distractions hurt team chemistry. Especially because with a roster stocked with too many talented athletes to give everyone sufficient playing time, Lute Olson will have enough distractions to deal with once they all inevitably start complaining about playing time.
Duke fans will see big changes this season. For one, Mike Krzyzewski's offseason coaching stint at the world championships has given him the ability to cuss out officials in six different languages. (He prefers German.) So that should be fun to watch. And two, the Blue Devils are facing a season without Shelden Williams and J.J. Redick. But they should be OK as long as floor leader Greg Paulus gets healthy. Paulus encompasses important parts of both former Blue Devils stars with the looks of Williams and the overly earnest, floor-slapping dorkiness of Redick so Duke fans and Duke haters alike should rest easy knowing that the good times will continue.
10. Ohio State
The Buckeyes are being called a legitimate championship contender now that freshman phenom Greg Oden has arrived in Columbus. But I don't know. I'd say that, at best, there's a 1-in-10 chance they win it all this year. So if I were head coach Thad Matta, I'd have Oden sit on the bench all season to learn the college game and get a good grasp of Ohio State's system. That way, he'd be all ready to go next season. Yep. I love that idea. It's foolproof.
Wisconsin has four starters returning from a 19-12 season and should challenge for the Big Ten title. But with only two legitimate scoring threats Alando Tucker and Kammron Taylor an anemic offense could be the Badgers' downfall again this season. But that could change for Wisconsin if the Badgers simply take the suggestion I've long made: Breathe on your opponents with your nasty, cheese-fueled dairy breath and then dribble past them for an easy layup.
Many analysts are saying the defensive-minded Bruins will struggle even more this season on offense in light of point guard Jordan Farmar leaving the program early for the NBA draft. But I don't see it that way. I think losing Farmar will actually open up a lot of passing lanes because UCLA players won't have to deal with his ears being in the way all the time.
It's like the glory days all over again at Georgetown. There's a coach named John Thompson. A player named Patrick Ewing. A dominant big man under the basket. And two adorable token white guys at the end of the bench. The only thing keeping the Hoyas from returning to the Final Four is some ball-hugging uniform shorts.
Kansas should dominate a down Big 12 and may only receive competition from an upstart Texas Tech squad which should overachieve thanks to Bob Knight keeping his pimp hand strong. But the focus of Kansas fans is not on the regular season. It's on the postseason and this season's squad will not disappoint. With a season of experience under their belts, the sophomore-led Jayhawks could very well make a run deep into the NCAA Tournament maybe even all the way to the second round. And that would be a welcome change for Kansas fans.
After an offseason of intense cardiovascular workouts, running and dieting, Glen "Big Baby" Davis has shed more than 20 pounds and is hungry to return the Tigers to the Final Four. And I mean literally hungry. Like he might actually bite flesh off anyone who tries to get in his way.
4. North Carolina
Two years after winning the national championship and watching most of his team leave early for the NBA, Roy Williams is back with another title contender thanks to an influx of McDonald's All-Americans. But it's win now for the Tar Heels. Because for one, sophomore star Tyler Hansbrough could be off to the NBA after this season. And two, all of these McDonald's kids will probably become obese and die of heart disease before their four years in Chapel Hill are up.
The Panthers went from a Top 25 team to a national title contender when 7-foot center Aaron Gray decided to return for his senior season. Gray could lead the Big East in both scoring and rebounding. Assists, too, if some of the layups he bricks off the backboard and then dunks back would count as passes to himself instead of rebounds. But while the return of Gray helps, the loss of point guard Carl Krauser will really hurt the Panthers. Having Krauser on the court kept his teammates fresh because they were able to stand there and rest while he wildly dribbled all over the court forcing up shots.
The reigning champs' hopes for a repeat were bolstered by Joakim Noah's decision to bypass the pros for one more season in Gainesville. And while that was great for the Gators and college basketball, it was bad for the WNBA's marketing department, which will have to wait a year to sell tickets with those long, thin legs and thick, curly hair. (Tickets they'll sell after they ask Noah to shave the peach-fuzz mustache, of course. The last thing they need is another player with facial hair.) But while the Gators are many people's preseason favorite, everyone knows that repeating is tougher than winning the first time around. Well, everyone knows that except for the teams that have never won the first time around. They're still of the opinion that winning once is rather difficult.
1. George Mason
Sure, the Patriots lost their top three scorers from last season when they made a Cinderella run to the Final Four, and many "experts" aren't even predicting an NCAA Tournament berth for George Mason this season. But I'm not going to risk being the last one on the bandwagon again this season. So write it down: George Mason, your 2007 national champions. Just be sure to write it down in pencil.
DJ Gallo is the founder and sole writer of the award-winning sports satire site SportsPickle.com. He is also a regular contributor to ESPN the Magazine and has written for The Onion and Cracked. His first book "SportsPickle Presents: The View from the Upper Deck" will be in stores soon.