The 2008/2009 College Hoops season is upon us. We can’t wait for the season to start. In the meantime, we have compiled our preseason Top 25…
25. SAINT MARY’S
The Gaels beat Gonzaga during the regular season last year and have a lot of key components back. Returning is WCC defensive player of the year Diamon Simpson (13.4 points per game, 9.6 rebounds per game), along with and forward Ian O’Leary (7.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg). Center Omar Sanhan also returns as a double-digit contributor, so the Gaels are strong inside. What could be the key is Patrick Mills. Mills (15 ppg) was the leading scorer for Australia in the Olympics, and looked like be belonged going against Deron Williams and Chris Paul. If his game shows that kind of improvement the Gaels will be a top 25 team this season.
The Sooners watched a lot of the Big-12’s underclassmen depart after last season, but one who didn’t is Blake Griffin. Griffin will return as arguably the best player in the conference. The Sooners landed a PG that hopefully will live up to his billing in Willie Warren. He was the leading scorer in the McDonald’s All-American game with 23 points last year. The Sooners will also return sharp-shooter Tony Crocker who knocked down 42.4% of his three-point shots last year, which should help loosen things up for Griffin. The Sooners may be one player short of being an elite team, but close enough to make the count in my top 25.
Baylor is just five years removed from almost shutting down their basketball program, after a murdered player and a cover-up from a coach. Hats of to the Bears, who have made it all the way back and were granted a tournament selection last year, and rightfully so. The Bears return their entire starting five and look to be more experienced and hungrier this season. The Bears were a bit soft inside, but help should come from Anthony Jones – a top 75 recruit that was one of the top players in Texas a year ago. The Bears need to pay more attention on defense and if they do, they could be more than a one-and-done team come tournament time.
The Trojans said good-bye to one-and-done O.J. Mayo, but will bring in another decorated Frosh in DeMar DeRozen. Tim Floyd has not only been doing great recruiting work at USC he is getting top players to buy into his defensive intensity. The Trojans lead the Pac-10 last year in FG percentage defense, as well as three-point shooting defense. Hackett, Lewis, and Gibson are all athletic with big wingspans and play defense. If Lewis can become more scoring minded, and DeRozen lives up to his billing, the Trojans could move above this rating, but for now, with the losses of Mayo and Jefferson, this looks about right.
I think last year people were surprised watching little unknown Davidson beat Gonzaga, Georgetown, and Wisconsin in succession. The reason it happened was because of Stephon Curry. Curry was unstoppable in the tournament. Every coach game planned to stop him but he averaged 32 points and was truly unstoppable. Another Wildcat that came up big in the tournament was Andrew Lovedale. The Wildcats landed a prize recruit in Frank Ben-Eze, a 6-10 post player that should give Curry some room outside. On Curry alone the Cats will make another run and a top 25 entry seems firmly stamped.
Billy Donovan can flat out recruit, motivate, and coach, and that is why he gets consideration here year after year. Last year he publicly sent a message to his team and expects the Gators to be hanging around the Top-25 again. They won back-to-back titles and had four players enter the NBA draft – three lottery picks, so last year was a reloading year and the Gators will be back this season. They did lose a key player in Marreese Sprights who bolted to the NBA, leaving a whole in the middle, perhaps their biggest need entering the season. The key for the Gators will be if a good group of freshman, particularly, C Kenny Kadji or Eloy Vargas to provide help in the middle.
UNLV has gotten back into the limelight as last year was their second consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament – a feat last accomplished in 1990-91. There is no reason to think this won’t be the third trip for the Runnin’ Rebs’. Coach Lon Kruger took his team to Australia this summer, and it gave a couple red-shirt’s time on the court. One of which is Seven-foot center Beas Hamga who will give the Rebs’ something they didn’t have last season – an inside presence and true center. The Rebs’ play tough defense, and led the league in turnover margin last year at 4+ a game. If Hamga provides protection, the Rebels could be even better, and a trip to the Sweet 16 is not out of the question.
Many thought Xavier’s loss of two starters last year would keep the team from having the results from the previous year, but they finished ranked 12th in the final poll. They face a similar situation this year as they are down two starters from last year as well. The plus side is that they led the conference in rebound margin and have all the top three rebounders back. If the Musketeer’s can get adequate backcourt play, they will again emerge in the NCAA tournament as this team is going to be tough to score on inside.
The Big East will be the Big Beast this season. Georgetown may finish fifth or lower, but gets the nod in my top 25. That will tell you what lies ahead. The Hoyas have come back into national prominence and should get some attention again this season. They have the nucleus of three experienced players in Sapp, Summers and Freeman, and a highly-regarded freshman. The Hoyas also get the return of Chris Wright, who missed most of last season. The only problem for the Hoyas is they are a bit down from last year, and the rest of the league is loaded.
16. ARIZONA STATE
A trip to the NIT was rewarding for the Sun Devils last year. This year they turn the corner and make the big dance. They went from an eight win team to a 21-win team a year ago, with a chance to improve on that win total this year. The Sun Devil’s have one of the best inside/outside duo’s in James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph. This is a team returning nearly 95% of its scoring and 94% of its rebounding from last year’s 21-win team. Under Herb Sendek, the Sun Devils employ a Princeton-style offense with better players and could actually be in the hunt for the Pac-10 title if everything breaks right, but an NCAA bid is almost a certainty.
The Badgers have won 25 or more games in four of the last five seasons. With the departure of Alando Tucker Last year many believed the Badgers would decline, but they won 31 games and that is a tribute to Bo Ryan, who keeps stocking the program with top players. The Badgers return a trio of quality players in Hughes, Landry and Krabbenhoft, and five top recruits including Jordan Taylor who should make an immediate impact. When you have a coach that has led the Badgers to its best five seasons all in succession, never count the Badgers out.
Here I have Marquette rated 14th, and they won’t finish in the top four in their conference! The Golden Eagles have put together three straight 20-win campaigns, and have the best trio of guards in basketball with James, Matthews and McNeal. A lot of what Marquette accomplishes this season will depend on how the big men develop. If 6-10 newcomer Chris Otule can progress as the season goes on into a significant inside player, they will benefit from mismatches outside, but suffer from them inside unless someone steps up. This could be a generous position for a “donut” team, but if they find something inside, this could also be too low.
13. MIAMI, FLA.
It seems like a given each year to post Duke and North Carolina 1-2 in the ACC, and then figure out everyone else. Miami went from 12 to 23 wins last year, and could be adding to that total this season. That was after being picked last in the ACC. Four starters return from a year ago. The ‘Canes have a good inside-out balance, and if the three-point line change doesn’t impact the shooters, as they do rely on it, the ‘Canes will be climbing up the polls this season.
12. MICHIGAN STATE
The Spartans could actually be better than 12th, as the Big-10 is not as deep as it has been in the past and they have a trio of players as good as anyone in Lucas,Morgan and Suton. The Spartans have added three blue-chip freshmen to help out in Luscious, Roe, and Green. If Roe’s knees are healthy after two surgeries, he will be an impact player right away. If that turns out to be the case, the Spartans could be adding to their 27-win total from a year ago.
The Panthers have quietly won over 26 games a year over the last five seasons. I say quietly, because they never seem to get over the top. As good as they have been they have yet to even reach the Elite Eight – a mark last accomplished by a Panther team way back in 1974. With Blair and Young, certain NBA talent, the Panthers have two big players. They have Travon Woodall coming in that should give them needed depth in the backcourt, and the key will be the health of Lavance Fields. His injury hurt the Panthers last year, and if he can stay on the court things could be different this year.
Memphis has averaged 35 wins a season for the last three years. When Mario Chalmers drained a late three-pointer to send the National Championship game into OT, Memphis was stripped of the National Title. Four of those players have moved on, three are in the NBA, so how can I rank Memphis so high? John Calipari keeps bringing in elite players to a not-so elite conference. The next big time player will be Tyreke Evans who should be ready to contribute big right away. Dozier and Anderson are the remaining cogs, and with Evans, Witherspoon, and three other blue chip recruits, Memphis should go deep into the tournament again.
Matt Painter replaced Gene Keady at Purdue in 2005. His first season was injury laden, and the Boilermakers were 9-19. Many wondered if Painter could lead this team back to the upper tier of the Big-10 as well as the national scene. Two years ago those questions started to be answered as they went 22-12. Last year the Boilers were all the way back with a 25-win season. Purdue is a pure basketball team. They shoot, defend, share the ball and do it with good players. This team is ready to make a run at the Final Four, and if they stay healthy, they could very well become a surprise entry.
O.K., so the Bruins lost a lot to the NBA draft. They have been to three consecutive Final Fours, but how can they overcome the losses and find their way back? They still have Darren Collison, one of the top PG’s in the country. The Bruins have six other players who have contributed and experienced the Final Four. Then there is an incoming class riddled with future NBA talent. Morgan, Lee, and Holiday are all ready to make major contributions right away for the Bruins. If the freshmen live up to their billing, UCLA will not skip a beat and could make their fourth straight appearance at the Final Four.
Is there ever a top 10 without Duke in their somewhere? Well, there won’t be this year. Duke has all the pieces, and one big question mark. Can they get someone to step up in the middle and make this a Final Four team? That responsibility will hinge on either Brian Zoubek or Lance Thomas. Neither has been able to show that ability yet, but now as they become upper-classmen, the hope is that one will step up and be that guy Duke desperately needs to compliment the athletes they have everywhere else. The Dukies have three players returning in Paulus, Scheyer, and Smith, that all hit over 40% from behind the arc. The Dukies turned the opponent over 19 times a game, but when they got to the tournament and needed some punch inside it just wasn’t there. This year could be the same, but if someone steps up on the interior it could be completely different.
6. NOTRE DAME
Notre Dame is a legit top team, but they will likely finish no better than third in their conference. The Big East appears to be the Big Beast on the national scene this year. The Irish won 25 games with about the same team last year, and not sure if too many players made as big an impact on his team as Luke Harongody. All you have to remember is Harongody averaged 30.3 ppg and 14 rpg against Padgett, Thabeet, and Beasley. If the Irish have one weakness it is depth. They seemed to wear down a year ago and could have the same problem this year. The five starters however, when they have it going are as good as anyone in the country, and a 30-win season isn’t out of the question, and neither is a Final Four run.
Kevin Durant left for the NBA and many thought Texas would fall. Now D.J Augustin has departed for the NBA, so are the Horns ready for a fall? The answer is a resounding no. The Horns now have lost a top two NBA draft pick each of the last three years, but have still averaged 29 wins a season. Rick Barnes is a masterful recruiter and reloads every year. The new PG will be Dogus Balbay, who sat out with an ACL injury, and was the PG for Turkey during the Olympics. The Horns have four starters returning, and incoming frosh J’Covan Brown should become a three-point weapon before the season is done. Horns still have Final Four potential.
Perhaps the best recruiting job of Jim Calhoun’s Hall of Fame coaching career was convincing Hasheem Thabeet to stick around Storrs for one more campaign. That gives the veteran-talented Huskies Final Four potential. The Huskies will also have Jeff Adrien to muscle inside, and that gives the Huskies two players with double-double potential, and allow them to employ a tough-to-match three guard lineup at times with Price, Dyson, and Austrie, as well as freshman Kemba Walker who can really light it up. Stanley Robinson will return after the first of the year to give the Huskies even more options come tourney time. Nate Miles, a blue chip recruit was suspended and bolted school and will be playing for Southern Utah this season and hopefully will return to the Huskies next season. If Price is healthy off of ACL surgery and Thabeet steps up even half as much as his improvement last year, the Huskies could be cutting down nets.
Gonzaga has been the Cinderella on the national scene, and now have become a fixture in the top 15 and this may be their best team yet. With all the success they have still been closed out of the Final Four. Could this be the year the Zags punch their ticket? If there ever was one, this is it. After numerous on and off the court problems last year, Josh Heytvelt should have a big season. At 6-10 Austin Daye is a matchup nightmare and he could be ready for All-America status this season. The backcourt has size and quickness with 6-4 Steven Gray, and 6-8 Micah Downs. Add in Jeremy Pargo and this team is off and running to what should be a first-ever appearance in the final four.
The Cards won 27 games last season, and will get big tests on a nightly basis from a stacked Big East Conference. That team went all the way to the Elite Eight and this one could go further. Dave Padgett is gone, but immediate help has arrived in blue-chip recruit Samardo Samuels. It begins with Earl Clark who shunned the NBA, and should reach All-America status this season. The Cards have one of the deepest backcourts in the country, and will definitely use that advantage to wear down opponents. Rick Pitino has brought in a class of five quality freshman to add depth and compete for minutes. Louisville should be in the hunt to be holding the scissors when the final buzzer sounds.
1. NORTH CAROLINA
Many thought with all this talent in Carolina, a few would opt for the NBA and the Tar Heels would be deeper into the rankings. They all stayed and it would be crazy to not put them here at this point, because from a pure talent level no team has as much. Ellington, Lawson, and Greene could all be playing for cash now in the NBA, but the fact that they all returned indicates they are on a mission to win and cut down the nets. They won 36 games last year, and over 90% of the scoring and 85% of the rebounding are back. Then if those three aren’t enough, Tyler Hansbrough is also returning. Roy Williams recruited as if he was losing a bunch of players and has brought in some very able bodies, which is only going to make this team deeper. This team has an NBA player at every position and will be a tough out for anyone. The Tar Heels are my choice to win it all!