Tuesday, February 15, 2005
Revisiting preseason questions
By Andy Katz
Editor's Note: Haven't been paying full attention to the college hoops world until now? Well, we'll get you all caught up on 10 of the biggest questions we pondered in the preseason.
1. Will the lack of an interior hurt Illinois?
Not so far. This argument is moot to this point. First, the guard play has been so sensational that any issues up front have been basically eliminated. Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head play at such a high speed and with such precision that worrying about the lack of a dominant inside player is wasted time.
That said, James Augustine is no slouch. Last time we checked, he is as serviceable a big man as there is in the Big Ten. Roger Powell Jr. also has had another solid season. To support them, Jack Ingram has emerged as a legit role player. Ingram essentially won the Wisconsin game in Madison with a pair of 3-pointers.
Ask any of Illinois' 25 opponents thus far if the inside game has been a problem for the Illini. This team keeps winning because it is a selfless squad that gets everyone involved, including the inside players.
2. Will Wake Forest play defense well enough to contend for the title?
The answer would have been "no" if you asked this question in December after Wake Forest played Illinois, but the Demon Deacons have come a long way.
Wake allowed only 48 points to Florida State on Saturday, after yielding 91 to the Seminoles in an OT loss on Jan. 18. In another OT loss to Georgia Tech, Wake gave up 102 points. If the Deacons can find some consistency defensively, their overall talent is probably good enough to get them to St. Louis.
Right now, this answer is probably still an incomplete.
3. How will Duke and UConn deal with heavy losses?
For Duke, the media made the mistake of not giving enough credit to the return of J.J. Redick, Daniel Ewing and Shelden Williams. The Blue Devils have been just fine without Luol Deng and Chris Duhon and don't seem to miss Shaun Livingston.
Sure, they were down to walk-ons after five players fouled out in the OT loss at Maryland on Saturday. But, as Redick said, who wouldn't have to put walk-ons on the court in that situation? Duke has dealt well with injuries and illnesses throughout the season. And its top six, including freshman DeMarcus Nelson, have been good enough to compete for the national championship.
Connecticut hasn't been as fortunate. Losing freshman A.J. Price for the season was a blow to the Huskies' playmaking. Not having Rashad Anderson the past week has hurt, too, because the Huskies lack another late-game 3-point threat. But Connecticut's problems aren't necessarily about losing Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon and Taliek Brown. The Huskies simply haven't received the expected consistent play from Josh Boone and Charlie Villanueva, and Ed Nelson hasn't lived up to the billing of being the ACC's freshman of the year while he was at Georgia Tech.
4. Will Kansas' seniors continue on their elite four-year run?
When answering this question, forget about the double-overtime loss to Texas Tech on Monday night. That was simply a sensational college basketball game, and Aaron Miles' travel is just one of those plays that happen in a big-time game.
The Kansas seniors have lived up to their hype. The Jayhawks have just one loss in the Big 12. The group, albeit minus Wayne Simien for the Georgia Tech and Kentucky wins, continues to lead as well as any senior class in the country.
Kansas is still the standard-bearer for the Big 12. Oklahoma State is having a great two-year run, but the Cowboys and everyone else still have to measure themselves against Kansas.
The KU seniors are poised to make another Final Four run. They don't seem to be fazed in pressure-packed situations. Kansas should be a No. 1 seed and in the Austin Regional, giving the Jayhawks an advantage on the road to St. Louis.
5. Can North Carolina's core deliver on its promise and talent?
A definite maybe.
The Tar Heels have had some of the most impressive wins of the season in terms of how they have beaten teams. In ACC play, Carolina obliterated Maryland (109-75), Georgia Tech (91-69), Virginia (110-76) and N.C. State (95-71). And UNC's rampage through Maui was one of the most impressive three-game spurts in the country this season. When Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants, Jawad Williams, Marvin Williams, Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott and David Noel are playing at their best, the Tar Heels are a beautiful team to watch.
That said, North Carolina doesn't have a win in big-time games since mid-January, when the Heels lost at Wake Forest (they also lost at Duke last week). The win over a depleted Connecticut on Sunday was solid, but the full-strength Huskies have also lost to Oklahoma, Boston College, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and (of all teams) UMass.
North Carolina is still a strong favorite to make it to Saint Louis, but we haven't seen the best of the Heels in a big spot.
6. Is the ACC clearly the nation's best conference?
It might be the best at the top, but the Big East is the deepest conference, with the potential for seven NCAA Tournament teams (if Villanova, Notre Dame and Georgetown hold steady). The ACC, which some suggested could receive seven or eight bids out of 11 teams, could get as few as four bids. But five or six is more likely. Miami and Virginia Tech have been surprisingly competitive, but they have basically replaced Virginia and Florida State in the hunt for NCAA berths, not joined them.
However, the ACC does have the most title contenders. The top three -- Wake Forest, North Carolina and Duke -- all have the look of a potential champion. Ultimately, that's how conferences are measured.
If the ACC gets more teams in the Elite Eight and Final Four, the league will be judged to be better than the Big East by season's end.
7. Who would be this year's Saint Joe's?
Well, if we had done our homework better in October, we could have correctly pegged Boston College, Utah and Pacific as candidates.
BC was within one possession of beating national runner-up Georgia Tech in the second round of last season's NCAA Tournament. The Eagles returned four starters and added a shot blocker (Sean Williams) that they lacked in years past. ESPN and the Big East messed up when they didn't feature the Eagles one time prior to Feb. 8.
Utah had the best player in the Mountain West, Andrew Bogut, but the question was did it have the role players to support him? Apparently, the answer is "yes." New Mexico, Air Force and UNLV were supposed to be the top competition for the Utes in the MWC, but so far Utah is unbeaten in league play.
Pacific beat Providence in the first round last season. Someone should have taken a flyer on the Tigers in the preseason and put them in the top 25. They look untouchable now in the Big West after getting past Utah State in Logan. This is a good pick for a sleeper Sweet 16 team.
8. How much impact will the touted freshmen class have?
The frosh have had an impact on several major teams, but not the ones people expected.
Rudy Gay still hasn't been a dominant player at Connecticut, despite his coaching staff's pleading with him to be more assertive. Kentucky's Randolph Morris hasn't been the imposing center that he was billed to be in the paint; instead, freshman Rajon Rondo has had more of an impact for the Wildcats. Without Rondo, UK wouldn't be undefeated in the SEC.
Kansas' freshmen, who were supposed to vie for the fifth starting spot, instead are mostly on the bench as former walk-on Christian Moody starts next to Wayne Simien. Junior Jeff Hawkins replaced Russell Robinson, who was billed as a player who would push Aaron Miles.
Meanwhile, Blue Ribbon picked Oregon's Malik Hairston as the freshman of the year. Hairston is averaging 12.8 points a game but the Ducks are 12-9 (4-8 Pac-10) and are one of the nation's bigger disappointments.
On the plus side, Texas point guard Daniel Gibson has lived up to his expectations, leading the Longhorns in scoring. But it might not be enough to get an NCAA bid without P.J. Tucker, who is academically ineligible for the rest of the season. Marvin Williams of North Carolina has been mainly a reserve this season, but his impact is growing with each game and ultimately he could be a difference-maker in the NCAA Tournament.
If Indiana makes the NCAAs, it will be because of its four freshmen, notably forward D.J. White, not in spite of them. Louisville freshman Juan Diego Palacios' play in the post, especially on the boards, has been a catalyst for the Cardinals.
Florida's Al Horford (18 boards against Alabama), Alabama point guard Ronald Steele (5 apg), Auburn's Toney Douglas (18 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and LSU's Glen Davis (13 ppg, 8.8 rpg) have been as good as advertised.
9. Will the West provide a national title contender?
This question is still unanswered.
At times, Arizona has looked like a title contender but has also fallen flat -- for instance, to Washington State at home. Washington has had its moments, too, but then the Huskies weren't even in the game in the second half at Oregon State.
Gonzaga has big-time wins (don't want to give this up and ruin the quiz) but the Zags also have played too-close-for-comfort games against Portland and Loyola-Marymount and lost at St. Mary's and San Francisco. Utah is cruising through the Mountain West but got rocked at Utah State.
No one should be surprised to see Arizona, Washington and/or Gonzaga in the Elite Eight. But none of the three has been consistent enough to warrant a Final Four pick at this juncture.
10. Is Georgia Tech an elite program or a one-hit wonder?
This is still up for debate.
The Yellow Jackets have been inconsistent, and they can't use the excuse that guard Barry (BJ) Elder was hurt for part of this season. Elder played Sunday night when NC State came into Atlanta and left with a W.
If Georgia Tech doesn't get into the NCAA Tournament or is a first-round flame-out, the Yellow Jackets' staying power could be called into question. Paul Hewitt is known to be a solid coach and is one of the game's statesmen, but the Yellow Jackets have underachieved so far this season.
Georgia Tech has the talent to make another March run to erase what has been a frustrating season. If Tech can get to the Sweet 16 again, the regular-season failures will be lessened and perhaps erased.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.