2004 / 2005 NCAA College Basketball Tournament
March Madness Preview and Bracket Predictions
The greatest couple of days are just days away as the NCAA tournament kicks off on Thursday. Here I'll go through my thoughts on the upcoming festivities. I'll share my upstarts, predictions and intangibles which will go along way in determining the outcome of this years tourney.
Teams with Mo on their side…
One of the most talented teams in the country enters off their Big Ten tournament win, which was accomplished in easy fashion. They enter the tournament as a top team in FG%, three point % and most importantly Assist-to-Turnover ratio. Dee Brown is a key here. When he is on top of his game, the Illini are nearly unbeatable. Looking forward to a potential Illinois / Oklahoma State game that would definitely be a classic. If the Illini have a weakness, it is down low. A match-up with Texas would be interesting in the second round, as would a match-up with Alabama.
The Cowboys are loaded once again, but they will need Bobik to hit shots to get to the Final Four. Lucas Jr. is a very good floor commander and Joey Graham rounds them out. They are a tremendous all around basketball team. Statistically speaking, they are one of the top two teams in the tournament. Arizona would pose problems for the Pokes perimeter defense if they should meet. The Big 12 Championship has this team confident, and they should be.
I am shocked that this Blue Devil team was able to pull off another number one seed this season. They enter on a real high, but they have no depth which should be a concern. The tournament is grueling, and if the Devils find foul trouble, they could be in a world of hurt. That being said, they are a great defensive team, which was the difference in their game with Tech on Sunday. Chances are good that they’ll run out of gas eventually, but they’ll get deep into the tournament. A Duke / Kentucky game with a Final Four on the line would be a hoops fan dream.
An interesting team here. They won the Mountain West tournament over the weekend, and have a very nice player in Granger. They shoot the ball well from 3 and from the free throw line, but have trouble at times on the board and on defense. They have been known to turn it over in bunches at times as well, and will need to play aggressive on the defensive end of the court. All that being said, they have the horses to give Villanova everything they could want in the first round game, and are the best 12th seed in the tournament.
The Gators are rolling plain and simple. They are playing great defense, and shooting the ball well too. Roberson and Walsh are top notch along the perimeter. If they stay hot, this team will be tough to beat. Again, a great offensive team and their destiny will come down to their defense. They have played good D of late, but if they revert back to their midseason form, they become an average team. A Florida / UNC game would be an interesting matchup.
In the spirit of Rick Pitino, Louisville gets it done from three point range, and on the defensive end. They are near the top in both categories for the entire field. This seeding makes no sense, and should provide plenty of fire for Garcia and company. Lafayette should hang with the Cards for a bit but Louisville will pull away late. Washington would have a tough time with this Louisville team.
Ripe for the Upset?
Utah has had a great season. They did however, struggle somewhat down the stretch losing twice to New Mexico. Again, Utah is a very good offensive team but not such a great team on the defensive end. UTEP is a very solid team, whose athleticism could give the Utes fits here. UTEP will have a tough time defending Bogut, but if the Miners are able to push the ball here, they just might push Utah right out of the tournament.
BC’s struggles are well chronicled. They were playing over the heads, and their statistics merit a seven seed, not a four. They got the gift they wanted from the committee who put them in Cleveland against a weak Penn team. They’ll be very lucky to get out of the second round however. They do not match up well with Alabama whatsoever.
UAB is dangerous, and Tack Minor is an enigma for the Tigers at the point. At times, he looks like an AA. Other times, he does his best Stephon Marbury impersonation and makes his team terrible. LSU is great when they slow it down and wear opponents down with Bass and Baby Shaq. UAB, of course, plays full court press the entire game. This first-round game will come down to which team controls the tempo. Whoever does will win.
The Badgers have had a strange second half to the season. They shot horribly against Illinois in the Big Ten Championship, and could have easily lost to Iowa in the semi-final. Statistically speaking, Wisconsin looks like they’re in trouble. Northern Iowa may be the superior team here, and the Missouri Valley has had loads of success in the NCAA’s. The Badgers look very beatable here.
Wunderdog's First Round Winners
Second Round Winners
Wunderdog’s Final Four – 2005
Oklahoma State vs. North Carolina
Keep In Mind…
Great coaches are considered, just that for their performance in March. Teams who have flown under the radar like Michigan State, with HC Tom Izzo, could surprise a lot of people this weekend. Other teams who fit this mold…
Teams that make their free throws on a very consistent basis will do well in the tournament, provided they have some tournament experience. The better FT shooting teams are…
The tournament often comes down to guard play so turnovers are a no-no if a team wants to get to the promised land. Teams that do not turn it over a ton…
Teams on the other end of the spectrum
|College Basketball's Measure of Success
By Alan Rubenstein
Sports Central Columnist
Reprinted with permission
March Madness Picks
The college basketball landscape can be measured by three levels of success. Schools that have decades of success with numerous coaches, schools that have been built into powerhouses by a specific coach, and schools that have had dream seasons that exceeded normal expectations.
The schools with long-standing traditions are practically able to pick and choose the players they want. Schools such as North Carolina, Kansas, and Kentucky have had success as far back as the 1940s.
Coaches that have built and rebuilt their schools include Louisville's Rick Pitino, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, Lute Olson at Arizona, and Gary Williams at Maryland. Louisville and Duke had had measured success in previous eras, while Olson and Williams were the first coaches in their schools' history to lead them to a Final Four.
Many schools have had dream seasons that placed their program in the limelight for the first time or saw a school have a season that went beyond past achievements. In the first of a three-part series, I will examine schools that have had teams play above their university's usual expectations.
Entering the 1978-79 season, it was widely known that Larry Bird was one of the nation's best players. In that era, a player could be selected in the NBA draft if his class had graduated. Because of his transfer from Indiana to Indiana State, Bird was eligible for the 1978 draft. The Celtics' Red Auerbach took advantage and drafted the future Larry Legend. Bird was the cornerstone and only returning starter on an unproven team that went 22-9 the season before.
At the beginning of the 1978-79 season, Sycamore head coach Bob King was lost to an illness and assistant Bill Hodges assumed the reigns. Hodges had no previous head coaching experience. Led by Bird (28.6 ppg, 14.9 rpg) and future NBA player Carl Nicks (19.3 ppg), the Sycamores finished 33-1, with its only loss to Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the NCAA Championship Game. In what is still the most-watched NCAA Championship Game ever, the Spartans had too much firepower for Indiana State and captured its first NCAA championship with a 75-64 victory.
In the 26 seasons since that game, Indiana State has made only two NCAA tournament appearances with their only win in 2001 over Oklahoma. After Bird went on to a legendary career leading the Celtics to three NBA Championships, Hodges lasted only four more seasons in Terra Haute. After the 33-1 season in 1979, Hodges managed only a 34-47 record in his last four years at ISU. He would later compile a 62-104 record in six seasons at Mercer (GA).
Not much was expected of Marquette entering the 2002-03 season. Dwayne Wade was entering his junior year with only one season of college experience after sitting out his freshman year as a non-qualifier. Robert Jackson had transferred in from Mississippi with only one year of eligibility remaining and Travis Diener was in his first year as the Golden Eagles' starting Point guard.
In 2002, Marquette went 26-7 and was upset by Tulsa in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Wade had improved his scoring average from 17.8 ppg on '02 to 21.5 in '03. Jackson was a big addition in the middle and Diener was the kind of dangerous shooter that many teams ride for long tournament runs.
After a five-game winning streak to end the regular season, the Golden Eagles lost to UAB in their first game in the Conference USA tournament. Marquette improved their status from a five-seed in 2002 to a three-seed in 2003. After tight wins over Holy Cross, Missouri, and Pittsburgh, Marquette caught a break when Kentucky's Keith Bogans was hurt in the Sweet 16. Marquette was able to take advantage and advanced to their first Final Four with an 83-69 victory over the Wildcats in the regional final in Minneapolis.
Wade was the catalyst behind Marquette's first Final Four appearance since Al McGuire led them to the school's only national championship in 1977. The Eagles dream ended when they were dominated by Kansas in the national semifinal. KU bolted to a big halftime lead. Diener was only able to connect on 1-11 from the field and Marquette's dream season came to an abrupt end. After the run, Wade left for NBA riches in South Beach. Diener was unable to carry the load and Marquette has not been back to the NCAA tournament since.
The 2004 Cinderella team was led by an unlikely coach and a pint-sized point guard. St. Joseph's last big splash in the NCAA tourney was when they pulled off what might have been the original March Madness shocker nationally. They stunned No. 1 DePaul in the second round in 1981.
With the backcourt of Jameer Nelson and Delonte West returning for the 2004 season, expectations were high in Philadelphia for Phil Martelli and company. They far exceeded expectations. They battled with Stanford all year long for national supremacy. Both schools took undefeated records deep into the season. After Stanford lost at Washington, the focus was on the Hawks. St. Joe finished the regular season undefeated and entered the Atlantic 10 tournament as the nation's No. 1 team. Their undefeated regular season was the first since UNLV advanced to the national semifinals unscathed.
Playing Xavier in Dayton, just 50 miles up the road proved to be too daunting of a task. St. Joe suffered its first loss of the season to Xavier in the A-10 tournament. Other the ending their dream of an undefeated season, the loss mattered little. The Hawks were still named the No. 1 seed in the East. The region's top seed was the first in school history. The Hawks defeated Liberty, Texas Tech, and Wake Forest to set up a showdown with Oklahoma State for a trip to the Final Four.
A John Lucas three-pointer gave the Cowboys a two point victory and sent them to the Final Four in New Orleans. Nelson and Martelli captured the National Player of Year and Coach of the Year awards respectively as St. Joe enjoyed its best season in school history. Building on that success will be the key to how much the 2004 season actually means.
Their status in the big time was magnified when West left after his junior season in '04 and center Dwayne Jones moved on the NBA early in 2005. After an up-and-down preseason, the 2005 Hawks turned it up in Atlantic 10 play. They finished 14-2 in conference play, but had to settle for the NIT after losing to George Washington in the A-10 championship game.
Illinois has had many teams that had been predicted to make waves in the NCAA tournament. The 2005 Illini had the best chance since the 1989 Illini to advance to the Final Four. In 2001, Illinois lost to Arizona in the regional final and that was the only time since 1989 that Illinois played for a chance to advance to the NCAA's big stage. That was under Bill Self, who left to coach Kansas after the 2003 season. Bruce Weber was stepping up to the big time after leading Southern Illinois to the Sweet 16 in 2002.
The 2005 season was the most successful in Illinois history. They were expected to contend for the Big 10 title, but these Illini far exceeded expectations. The Illini remained undefeated until a March loss at Ohio State and then cruised through the Big 10 Tournament to record the double of Big 10 regular season and tournament titles.
In the NCAA tournament, there was a lot of noise nationally that Illinois would have a big advantage by being able to play all of its tournament games within a three-hour drive from campus. The Illini opened in Indianapolis and after winning two games moved on to Chicago. The Illini used a balanced attack with all five starters in averaging in double figures. Weber was named the National Coach of the Year, Dee Brown and Deron Williams were All-Americans, and with 37 victories, Illinois tied the 1986 Duke team for the most victories in one season.
But like Duke, Illinois fell one victory shy of their ultimate goal with a loss in the National Championship Game. Their historic comeback from 15 points down in the final four minutes to send them to the Final Four will become a part of the NCAA's storied history.
How Illinois is able to follow-up their great 2005 season will show if this past season was a dream season or merely a step to becoming one of the nation's premiere programs. Williams left a year early for the NBA and Roger Powell and Luther Head both used up their eligibility. Weber's legacy might depend on how he builds on last season. The return of starters Brown and center James Augustine will be good building blocks.
The schools that have a lasting legacy and place in college basketball have used big seasons as a stepping-stone to a national name and big recruiting classes. Duke's 1986 trip to the NCAA Championship Game helped land players like Quinn Snyder and Christian Laettner. Arizona rode a 1988 Final Four trip to land players like Chris Mills and Brian Williams. The key to long-term success is to have a big-name coach who can recruit nationally and build a big-name program. How well Marquette, St. Joseph's, and Illinois are able to parlay their dream seasons into national success will be born out in the next few seasons.
2005 College Basketball Preview
Wunderdog's Pre Season NCAA Basketball Preview
March Madness Picks
The pageantry that is College Basketball is back once again for the 2005-2006 college basketball season. Make sure your boss knows now that you will not be working on Thursday or Friday during the first round of the tournament.
I expect a resurgence from collegiate hoops as the NCAA got a huge assist from the NBA when they enacted their 20 year old age limit, which should keep the studs in college for a longer period of time. Thi is advantageous to the young men and college programs in general. Headlining the news this year is the unveiling of the new Big East which will be a ridiculous basketball conference led by the likes Villanova, Louisville, UCONN, Syracuse, and Boston College.
Duke – JJ Reddick and Sheldon Williams are back and ready to vault Duke back into the Final Four. There is a great mix of experience and young potential for this team. This looks like another tremendous Duke team. Newcomer Josh McRoberts is reportedly the real deal, and will add big minutes for the Devils.
Oklahoma – Taj Gray and Kevin Bookout form the best front court in the Big 12 and maybe the country. Gray will have a huge year and Oklahoma has turned Norman into one of the toughest places to play in the country. Samson always has killer non conference schedules which get his teams ready for Big 12 play. The Big 12 is down a bit this year and this looks like Oklahoma’s to lose.
UCONN – Same old story for the Huskies in 05. This team is extremely talented and will get deep into the tournament one more time this season. Gay is a great player in the making and Boone is a big time post player. The role players are very solid. One question that has recently surfaced when discussing the Huskies is their defense. They seem to play half-assed at times which kills them in the big games.
Villanova – Nova is loaded this season with four top tier players in Allen, Sumpter, and Fraser. If they can stay healthy, and there are already questions about Allen’s health, this will be a very good team. It will be interesting to watch the Big East however, and see if teams can survive such a brutally deep schedule. It will be great for fans but not as much for the muscles and joint of the players.
JJ Reddick, Duke. The best shooter in the country, and maybe the best shooter of all time. It’s hard to believe that Reddick is still around but he is, and he’ll lead the way for the Dukies this season. Has the ability to rain threes, and should average well over twenty per outing this season.
Sheldon Williams, Duke. The hardest working player in college basketball. His skills get better every year. He is a force on the low block on both ends of the court, and should excel in his senior season. Foul trouble has been a problem for him, but he’ll get more calls that benefit his talent this season.
Taj Gray, Oklahoma. This JUCO transfer took the Big 12 by storm last year and the conference can expect more of the same this year. He is extremely athletic for a man his size and runs the court very well.
Josh Boone, UCONN. This is the year when Boone explodes. Villanueva is gone so the spotlight will be on Boone and Rudy Gay in Storrs. Boone’s numbers went up to 12.5 a game last season and they should increase this year as well. He is one of the top post men in the country.
Jason Fraser, Villanova. Fraser’s stat lines are not overly impressive but if you watch him play, it becomes evident that he is the heart and soul of the Wildcats. He is a big physical player that does not allow opponents to muscle him down low. Nova will only go as far as Fraser this season as Nova fans pray for injury and foul trouble avoidance.
Curtis Sumpter, Villanova. This is the do-everything player for a very talented Nova squad. He has battled injuries of late and Nova will need him healthy if they are going to live up to their preseason hype. Originally from New York City, he averaged 15.5 points last season and is a big time shooter.
Daniel Gibson, Texas. A poor man’s TJ Ford, but may be more flashy than his predecessor. Struggled at times last season but UT will be back with a vengeance this season and this ultra quick playmaker will lead the way.
Adam Morrison, Gonzaga. Burst on the scene last season and is the next great Zags player. Long frame and deft touch make him tough to defend. He is an excellent player who will parlay another big season into big bucks.
Hassan Adams, Arizona. Double digit scorer in each of the last two seasons for the Cats. With the departure of Frye and Stoudemire, Adams will see his touches explode and has the talent to put up some huge numbers this winter.
Teams That May Surprise
Colorado – Colorado has a ton of experience which showed towards the end of last year when they made a run in the Big 12 tournament. They lost no players off their roster from one year and added the leading scorer from JUCO in Coleman. Roby is back as well, but losing Ashby to academics until January will hurt.
LSU – Glenn Davis or baby Shaq, leads the Tigers into the season. They have been stockpiling talent for three years, and while the loss of Brandon Bass hurts, there is ample talent all along the roster. LSU will surprise once again in the SEC and should be dancing come March.
Kansas – This could be a frustrating year in Kansas. Self is recruiting lights out, but they have had the benefit of experience the past couple of seasons which does not appear to be the case this season. Gone are their seniors, who were much ballyhooed, but never really did anything special. Gone is Giddens, who was stabbed in an altercation and then transferred to New Mexico. Also gone is Galinda. They will be relying heavily on young kids, so they'll struggle at times and are probably a year away. That being said, they still finish in the top seven in the Big 12 but they’ll take some lumps away from home.
2005 NBA Basketball Preview
The NBA season has arrived once again and we see more of the same. The Western Conference will continue to dominate and will win the NBA championship next summer. Some players have moved, which will alter the preseason power rankings a bit, but not much. I look for teams like Golden State and the Chicago Bulls to come of age this season, while the Denver Nuggets should push San Antonio for the regular season top seed out West. Miami and Detroit are once again the teams to beat in the Eastern Conference. There are interesting story lines all around the NBA. Phil Jackson returns to coaching and it will be interesting to say the least to see how he does this go around. There will be no stocked rosters for him this go around but one thing will remain the same – Kobe. The most crippling loss of the season was Joe Johnson to Atlanta. The Suns now have a gaping hole on the perimter and along with the loss for much of the season of Amare Stoudamire, will make it very tough for the Suns this year.
San Antonio Spurs– San Antonio did not need to get better this off-season, but they did. They added Michael Finley at the two. While Finley is on the downside of his career, he is still an elite shooter and all around scorer at hist position. He will come off the bench in San Antonio. Argentinian star big man Fabricio Oberto joins Ginobli, and should quickly develop into another premier post player for the Spurs. This team is simply loaded and can beat you in so many ways. Barring injuries, they should win another NBA championship.
Detroit Pistons– Chauncey Billups has developed into the premier point guard in the NBA, and his supporting cast is nothing to sneeze at. Detroit was only a couple of plays away from winning the NBA championship last summer, and the NBA’s most blue collar team will put themselves in position to contend again this season. Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, and Ben Wallace provide mental and physical toughness, which seperates them from the rest of the Eastern Conference.
Denver Nuggets– This may be a bit bold I know, but no team was better than the Nuggets after George Karl took over as coach last winter. The whole team is back and has a great chemistry on the court. The front court of K-Mart, Camby, Nene, and Najera is the deepest and most agile in the league. Melo is in the best shape of his professional career and look poised to take the next step into elite status in the NBA. One question surrounds this team. Nene is a free agent at the end of the year, and if the team stays healthy along the front line, do not be surprised if they deal Nene and a guard to add a dynamic two guard along the line of Paul Pierce which has been previously rumored. Denver should run away with their division but will again have their hands full with the Spurs in the playoffs once again.
Miami Heat– Miami added Antione Walker this off-season to try and ease some of the scoring burden from Shaq and Dwayne Wade. This is Wade’s team and this is something to keep your eye on. Walker is an absolute ball hog, and will chuck it up from anywhere on the court. This move could backfire on the Heat if Walker can’t get along with Wade and Shaq.
Teams That Will Disappoint
Philadelphia –Allen Iverson and Chris Webber…nuff said right? Not so fast. This team has two superstars but very little grasp of the team concept of basketball, and they have been horrific on defense and from the perimeter which has killed them the past two seasons. The talent is present to contend in the East but Webber has not looked healthy since his arrival in the City of Brotherly love. If he is healthy, the Sixers should improve, but if not, they’ll likely struggle once again this season.
Los Angeles Lakers– Kobe’s team is now Phil’s team and that alone has many in Los Angeles thinking in the clouds heading into this season. There are way too many holes on this roster as of now for this team to truly contend this season. Phil and Kobe’s differences are well known, and we see this as a looming cancer for this team. Kobe is a great player but he thrives when he is not the only go to player on the court. He struggles mightily last year at times and I see more of the same this season. Jackson’s presence should help the Lakers into the playoffs but I see an early departure in round one.
Teams that will Surprise
Golden State Warriors –This could be the year when the Warriors finally return to a sort of prominence. They were a good basketball team after they acquired Davis last year in a trade, and have added some additional nice pieces to the puzzle in Monta Davis, Aaron Miles, and Chris Taft. Jason Richardson will continue to provide points and hi-lites on a nightly basis, but this team will only go as far as Baron David takes them. He may be the most underrated player in the NBA. I see big things from him this year, and the Warriors could be great value plays early on this season.
Indiana Pacers– This is not much of a stretch, but the fight is finally passed this team, and Artest, who is the heart and soul of this team, is back. As a result, Indiana will once again contend for the Eastern Conference crown. Reggie Miller has been replaced by Saranas Jaskevicious, who has been the best player in Europe for two years. You may remember him torching the US Dream Team in the last Olympics for over thirty points…twice. Newcomer Danny Granger should fit right in and makes the Pacers front line very formidable. David Harrison looks ready to be a major contributor as well. This team has all of the pieces and it will be interesting to see if they can put it all together. They have some strong peronalities in their locker room and how those personalities mesh will likely determine the outcome of their season.
G – Saranas Jaskevicios – The Lithuanian guard is finally playing in the NBA much to the delight of Pacers fans everywhere. Not so much for the rest of the league.
PF – Fabricio Oberto – Argentinian star joins pal Ginobli and should have an instant impact with the Spurs this season.
C – Andrew Bogut – Utah center will provide Milwaukee with some instant scoring punch down low. He may take more time but he’ll be a good one. One of the more athletic big men to come out in a long long time.
Top Ten Players
Allen Iverson –Can score from anywhere on the court and has a knack for taking away the basketball in bunches. Without him, Philly is a mess, with him, they’re still a mess.
Manu Ginobli –Last seen acting like a soccer player in last year’s NBA playoffs. This guy is easy to dislike, but he is one hell of an all around basketball player.
Tim Duncan –The best center in the game right now. He has developed a nice offensive game and alters a ton of shots on the defensive end as well.
Tracy McGrady –Easily the most complete offensive star in the game today. He consistently rains down forty foot three pointers and can take it to the rack with the nest of them. If there is a knock on his game, it comes on the defensive end.
Kobe Bryant –Hate to do this, but he has tremendous skills on the court, and being a jackass as a person, has nothing to do with basketball. Kobe is one of the best players in the NBA, and plays at a high level on both ends of the court.
Dwayne Wade –Last year was his coming out party, as he looked better than Kobe did when he won two titles alongside Shaq. Wade will only get better with maturity, and last year’s playoffs was a great learning experience for him. Very reminiscent of Michael Jordan in many aspects of his game.
Shaquille O’Neal –O’Neal is a special player and a special person as well. He is the heart and soul of the city of Miami and has been there a little over one year. When he is healthy, there simply has never been a more dominant player in the history of them game. The free throw line is another matter.
Steve Nash –Nash took the reigns of a very talented Suns team last year and led them to a wonderful regular season. Gone is Joe Johnson, and Stoudemire is now hurt as well, so we’ll learn a lot about Nash this season. But he made some amazing plays last season, and makes every player around him better with this presence.
Baron Davis –This may be a bit of a strecth but I love Davis and what he brings to the Warriors. He is a complete offensive player with a deft touch from the outside, but he can also dish it out around the goal as well. He should have the Warriors in the playoffs this year, a place they would not be without him.
Western Conference Finals
San Antonio over Denver in Six
Eastern Conference Finals
Indiana over Detroit in Seven
San Antonio over Indiana in Six
With the Spurs regaining the crown after a one-year hiatus, Tim Duncan also re-established himself as the pre-eminent player in the NBA. But is No. 21 the top fantasy prospect for the 2005-06 season? Here’s a look an in-depth look at the top six players you cannot pass up and the rest of the players worthy of a first-round pick.
1) Kevin Garnett SF, Minnesota— Latrell Sprewell: gone. Sam Cassell: ditto. So who does that leave for Minnesota to rely on? None other than the manchild Kevin Garnett. K.G. will be without the talented supporting cast he had in years past, but also will probably have less headaches as Latrell and Sammy skipped town. That means huge fantasy stats for one of the league’s best power forwards who should not only see his point totals rise, but will be out to prove to the entire league that he can be the player to lead the T-Wolves to the next level, with or without an all-star backcourt. Garnett’s numbers were definitely top-five worthy last year, but the former MVP is heads above the rest just because he will be for the most part doing it all alone and will relish being the man again in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
2) Tim Duncan PF, San Antonio— Normally, I would be taking the Tim-Robot with the first pick, but unlike Garnett in Minny, he is not the team’s only viable option. With the all-star caliber emergence of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker and the additions of Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel, the Spurs have more firepower than ever and may not need to rely on the back of Duncan so much. That doesn’t mean he still won’t be averaging 20 and 10, but I’d expect a lot more games where there could be other Spurs leading the team in points scored and taking the burden off T.D. as the focal point on offense.
3) Shaquille O’Neal C, Miami— Remember when Shaq was the lock for the No. 1 pick every year if the ping-pong balls fell in your favor? Well, he’s still a top-three option, nobody can fill up a stat sheet like the Diesel, and no one can be as dominant. But he has shown some wear as he’s gotten older and with Dwyane Wade staking claim as not only the best player from the ‘03 draft (no offense to LeBron James), but one of the best guards in the league, the Shaq-Fu is no longer needed to score as much as in the past. Throw in J-Will and Antoine Walker chucking up threes from every spot imaginable in America Airlines Arena and Shaq’s offense numbers should see a dip. Plus, there’s always free throws, but if you don’t mind the .461 shooting from the charity stripe, than he will more than make up for it with his career averages of 12 rpg and 2.5 bpg.
4) Tracy McGrady SG, Houston— So what if he’s never led a team out of the first round of the playoffs? If he’s still there in the first round and the big three are gone, then T-Mac should be your pick. He’s reportedly been working out like a madman in the offseason and no matter how much attention Yao Ming gets down in H-Town, McGrady is the top player for the Rockets. He should not only challenge for the scoring title, but see assists go up as he and Yao should work more cohesively in their second season together. Imagine a player who averages 25+ ppg, over 6 rpg, and nearly 6 apg who is only getting better. Yikes!
5) Amare Stoudemire PF, Phoenix— If a lot of big men go first, then you might be tempted to quickly snatch up Amare, but that may not be such a bad thing after all with his 26 ppg and 8.9 rpg averages last season. Forget the comparisons to K.G. or any other power forward — Amare is on his way to creating a class of his own, grabbing rebounds and dunking over everyone and everything on his way. Though some teams should catch up to Phoenix and not be so caught off-guard by their style of play this year, Amare should be just fine filling in stats across the board. Plus, he has never been that injury-prone and at 22, he may even be a safer pick than some of the older veterans.
6) Dirk Nowitzki PF, Dallas— With two of the Big Three gone in Steve Nash and Michael Finley, Dirk is the only player left from a Mavericks team that came within two games of the NBA Finals three years ago. It’s hard to ignore a man who averaged 26 and 9 last year. The Mavs have a lot of young firepower and Dirk will be relied on for many of the points, but could suffer some wear and tear with Doug Christie and Jerry Stackhouse trying to pick up the slack instead of Fin-Dog and Nashty.
7) Kobe Bryant SG, Los Angeles Lakers— So it wasn’t that easy in LWS (Life Without Shaq). But despite the awful win total, Kobe straight put up buckets night in and night out last year and with Zen Master Phil Jackson returning, his game should only get better. I wouldn’t expect great assist totals, but he just may end up with the scoring title and Phil will get every last amount of energy out of him to see his totals rise in other areas, as well. Not bad for a 26-year-old averaging 27 and nearly 6 and 6.
8) LeBron James SG, Cleveland— What do you do after your team completely collapses in the second half of the season and misses the postseason for the seventh straight year? You come out swinging and determined the next season and expect LeBron to continue to live up to the hype, especially now that he has the best supporting cast around him that he’s had in his pro career with the additions of Donyell Marshall and Larry Hughes. His assists should go up with valid scoring options Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas returning and his other offensive stats should do nothing but improve as he will be looked to carry the team scoring-wise in ’05-’06.
9) Jermaine O’Neal PF, Indiana— Ron Artest said he should have been MVP two years ago and if it wasn’t for the catastrophe that the Pacers roster underwent last year (and Jermaine‘s vicious overhand haymaker), he could have been the MVP last season. This year the former Trail Blazer bench warmer will take over the reigns as leader with Reggie Miller gone and should put up great numbers on both sides of the ball. A revamped Pacers roster with the return of Ron Ron should take some of the load off Jermaine, but that shouldn’t ward you off from selecting him if available. The kid is pure all-star material each season, putting up over 24 ppg and 8 rpg.
10) Jason Kidd PG, New Jersey— A lot of picks could round out the first round, but with every other position taken, it might not be a bad idea to select the best point guard available. With no disrespect to Nasty Nash, Jason Kidd will be the best PG option this season. With a healthy R.J. and Vince Carter, those alley-oops will be more frequent at Nets games than Joe Piscopo sightings and those months of rest this offseason should allow J-Kidd to fully recover from his knee injuries. That means almost double-digit totals in points and assists, more rebounds than any other guard in the league, and one of the top free throw percentages in the NBA.
Big Ben gets rebounds and blocks, Paul Pierce is one of the most dangerous scoring threats in the league, and the Matrix can do just about everything, but Jason Kidd should see a re-emergence to his form when the Nets ruled the East. .