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The 49ers will not be as prolific a 3-point shooting team this year, but there is quality at every position. Curtis Withers is a dominant low-post player who simply outworks people; DeAngelo Alexander is an athletic scorer who also can guard; and Mitchell Baldwin is as fast end-to-end as any guard in America. If Charlotte stays healthy, Bobby Lutz's team will challenge George Washington for the Atlantic 10 title and beyond. 2. Oregon
Tell Ernie Kent that talent means more than experience. He might start to laugh -- or cry. The Ducks experienced major growing pains last year, but with Aaron Brooks, Malik Hairston and Bryce Taylor coming back stronger after taking some lumps as underclassmen, Oregon looks ready to play tougher and more efficient basketball. The key will be interior play and defense. 3. South Carolina
Dave Odom likes his team and gives the Gamecocks a chance, which means they are pretty darn good. South Carolina has size that is skilled and very good guards in Tre Kelley and Tarence Kinsey. Renaldo Balkman will have to carry more of a load, but South Carolina will win with team defense and a no-name approach. Odom might be perceived as coaching a certain way, but few coaches have done as well playing so many different styles over the years.
1. George Washington
Karl Hobbs was grateful that Mike Hall and Pops Mensah-Bonsu withdrew from the NBA draft, but ironically, his best pro prospect is 6-4 scorer J.R. Pinnock. His team has nice inside-out balance and could be a Sweet 16 candidate. 2. Arkansas
While Ronnie Brewer might be the most versatile wing player in the country -- he'll play four positions this season -- the key for the Razorbacks will be promising sophomore big man Darian Townes. Stan Heath will be helped if Jonathon Modica can return to his sophomore year form. 3. Memphis
This is easily John Calipari's deepest Memphis team. While most people know Rodney Carney and Darius Washington, Cal has rising stars in Chris Douglas-Roberts and Shawne Williams. The Tigers are committed to playing at a fast pace so that 10 players can get minutes. Outside of tough games with Houston and UAB, the Tigers should roll through C-USA.
Turnaround Tommy Penders plays a style of basketball that might have been forgotten with the 1990s -- all-out transition! Lanny Smith is a star, and Brian Latham could be this year's Eddie Basden (at least on defense). Add talented yet enigmatic Lamar Roberson and a winner like Corey Bloom to the mix and there is more than just one NCAA tourney team in C-USA after all. 2. Arkansas
This must be the year for Stan Heath. His fourth, Ronnie Brewer's third (and most likely last), and a league that lost most of its stars to the NBA draft -- or at least they put their names in. It seems as though Jonathon Modica and Eric Ferguson have been there forever, but four years and zero NCAAs will do that to you. Brewer must be more consistent and the team must defend and not turn the ball over; if so, this will be the year. 3. San Diego State
Picked by the coaches to win the league, it would be a sin if the Aztecs did not. Sometimes Marcus Slaughter and Brandon Heath look as good as the 36 ppg they combined to average as sophomores, and sometimes each looks as though he is trying to score 36 by himself. Add Florida transfer Mohamed Abukar (at semester's end) and freshman Kyle Spain into the mix, and the offensive weaponry is there. Will the Aztecs defend? Will they take good shots? Will Slaughter and Heath play for this team and not the 30 NBA teams they want to impress? I think so.
The Bobcats have the goods to be one of our "it" teams this season. They have the moxie, the talent and the charisma to be pests for everyone on their schedule. Don't be surprised to see Ohio beat Cincinnati and give Kentucky a run in late December. If the Bobcats get back to the dance again, they might not let a game slip away as they did in the final two minutes against Florida last season. 2. Cal
The Bears return one of the top power players in the country in Leon Powe. Toss in guards Richard Midgley, Ayinde Ubaka, Jordan Wilkes and Omar Wilkes and the Bears have all the pieces to make a run toward the top of the Pac-10. Cal gets a crack at Kansas in mid-December for some national appeal. This team should have staying power all the way back to the NCAAs. 3. Oregon
We're going to stay in the Pac-10 for the final one. The Ducks had no business missing out on the conference tournament last season. There was too much talent, and it's mostly all back. The backcourt of Malik Hairston, Aaron Brooks and Bryce Taylor should be good enough to vault this team toward the top half of the Pac-10. Get the Ducks a bid and they could pull off an upset come March.