Tuesday, November 07, 2006

NCAA: 2006-07 College Basketball Preview

By Dustin Hockensmith

We've all gotten caught up in the Major League Baseball playoffs and the starts of the NFL, NHL and NBA seasons that college basketball has gone largely unnoticed. It's about time to start paying attention and getting familiar with this season's contenders. There is an interesting group in defending national champion Florida, Kansas, North Carolina and Ohio State at the top of the preseason rankings, and you can probably expect that group to account for most of the four No. 1 seeds in the 2007 NCAA Tournament.

There appears to be some separation between the Top 3 and everyone else, but there are also some darkhorse national championship contenders. Arizona, LSU and Georgetown all have the looks of Top 10 teams, and Kentucky and Alabama could turn a lot of heads in a stacked Southeastern Conference.

Individuals drive the sport in March, and we've got a great crop of individual talent this season. Tyler Hansbrough may be the best, but Joakim Noah, Brandon Rush, Greg Oden, Ronald Steele and Glen "Big Baby" Davis could all be mentioned in the Player of the Year conversation. Below, you'll find both my preseason Top 10 and individual awards.

Preseason Top 10
10. Kentucky – On paper, the Wildcats don't return a lot of scoring prowess, but there are some real wild cards in this offense. It would be a mistake to sleep on forward/center Randolph Morris, who could average close to 20 points per game this year, and senior Danny Perry, who scored 45 points in two NCAA Tournament games last year. Sophomore big man Jared Carter has a monster frame at 7-foot-2, 250 pounds, and junior guards Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley should successfully adjust to more prominent roles. You know Tubby Smith's teams will play defense, chase down loose balls and rebound, so a best-case offensive scenario would make the Cats a contender in the SEC East.

9. Duke – The loss of JJ Redick no doubt hurts, but the Blue Devils are ready to break down and rebuild their offensive philosophy sans Redick. Josh McRoberts is without question one of the nation's most gifted players, and the 6-10 forward/center is ready to be the focal point of their offense. Sophomore point guard Greg Paulus plays and leads like a senior and is a perfect fit for the Duke point guard position and coach Mike Krzyzewski. If he can succeed in making jobs easy for the Duke youngsters, you could see the team get on a roll as the season moves along. There's no chance they overtake North Carolina for the top spot, but it's looking like they're the best of the rest in a balanced ACC.

8. Georgetown – The Big East Conference looks like a two-pony race, and I like Georgetown to chase down preseason No. 1 Pittsburgh and win by a nose. The Hoyas lost three key components – guard Ashanti Cook, forward Brandon Bowman and versatile sixth-man Darrel Owens – from a team that made a run to the Sweet 16 a year ago, but dynamic forward Jeff Green and 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert are ready to step up and lead this team. GTown again has great size up-and-down the lineup, but a lack of depth and experience off the bench could be the team's Achilles heel. Green and Hibbert need to be more assertive on the offensive end for the Hoyas to find success, and I like their chances of taking that next step.

7. Alabama – Ronald Steele and Jermareo Davidson make up one of the best inside-outside combinations in the country. Steele, a 41.2 percent shooter from 3-point range last season, can handle the rock and score it, and could be in the race for national Player of the Year honors. Davidson is a big-time talent and a force in the low block, and you can expect to see the junior big man flirt with a season double-double. Sophomore forwards Alonzo Gee and Richard Hendrix give the Crimson Tide the potential for four double-digit scorers and make them a tough out come tournament time. Some winnable potential early-season tests against Iowa and Villanova will help ease the transition, but not overwhelm, a group that will need some time to jell.

6. LSU – Glen "Big Baby" Davis got a lot of love on the big stage last year, but it's important to note that he dominated all season long. You can look for a breakout season by sophomore swingman Tasmin Mitchell and also for a rotation that goes a legitimate nine or 10 deep. Point guard will be the position to watch for the Tigers, as Tack Minor replaces leader Darrel Mitchell after playing in just three games a season ago. How well Minor distributes the ball and helps their offense find a rhythm will be key. It won't be easy to replace Mitchell and freakish Tyrus Thomas, but a strong returning nucleus makes the Tigers a favorite to win the SEC West and compete for a national title.

5. Arizona Arizona is my sleeper pick to win it all this season. They have a little bit of everything, from senior leadership to youthful exuberance, and a primetime player in Marcus Williams to lead the way. Head coach Lute Olson has senior Mustafa Shakur handling the ball and seniors Ivan Radenovic and Kirk Walters in the frontcourt, and a lot of athleticism and improved shooting on the perimeter. Williams is a breakout candidate that can do it all and will be joined by shooting guard Jawann McLellan and freshman phenom Chase Buddinger on the wing. The Cats could wear down late with a short bench and high expectations of their talented freshmen, but their balance and veteran leadership also make them a big threat in a tournament scenario.

4. Ohio State – If freshman center Greg Oden is half as good as the tall tales portray him to be, Ohio State is a no-brainer Top 5 pick. Any time you hear a player being compared to Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor you have to stop and listen, and his rare blend of size, skill, athletic ability and defensive prowess give the Buckeyes a chance to win every night. With Michigan State down and only Wisconsin a legitimate threat to win the Big Ten, the OSU conference schedule will not provide as many stiff challenges as some of the other power conferences. Stud freshmen Mike Conley and Daequan Cook make up an All-McDonald's All-American backcourt, and senior Ron Lewis provides some much needed veteran composure.

3. Kansas – The Jayhawks return four talented starters from a season ago, including All-America candidates Brandon Rush and Julian Wright. Fellow Super Soph Mario Chalmers averaged double-figure points, and three other returning players – center Sasha Kaun, forward Darnell Jackson and center C.J. Giles – averaged 6 points per night or better. They will shoot a high percentage, hustle and play tough defense and have perhaps the most raw talent in the country. The amount of talent they have can be seen as an asset or a liability, but I don't think there is such a thing as having too of a good thing. It creates a competitive environment in practice and in games, and it also gives head coach Bill Self the ability to mix and match in his lineup.

2. Florida – Florida seems to be an obvious choice to repeat its 2006 national title. All five starters return, and junior forward/center Joakim Noah was one of four to bypass the NBA for a shot at a second ring. The 6-foot-11 Noah leads a group of five Gators that averaged double figures in 2005-06, and is also one of their three forwards to shoot higher than 60% from the floor. Complacency is an issue for defending champions in professional sports, so to me, it's virtually guaranteed to hold the Gators back in 2006-07. Noah and company are a special group, so they could ultimately prove me wrong, but without the same hunger other teams might have, it's going to be tough to survive and win six straight NCAA Tournament games.

1. North Carolina – Unbelievable, mind-blowing talent surrounds perhaps the nation's best player in Tyler Hansbrough. The Tar Heels will again be relying on youngsters, but they won't play nearly as young as they did a season ago. Their group of incoming freshmen is perhaps the best in the country and could yield as many as two new starters. But Hansbrough is the key to everything, and he will not disappoint. The best comparison I can make of him is a super version of the collegiate Mark Madsen. Even though the Stanford grad Madsen is a punch line to most of my 'White Players in the NBA' jokes, he was a relentless, determined and creative scorer. So too is Hansbrough, only bigger, stronger, more athletic and more skilled.

Preseason Honors

Player of the Year: Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina
Hansbrough will be the poster boy of the Tar Heels' 2006-07 NCAA Championship run. Look for 20 points and 10 rebounds every night and closer to 30 and 12 in the NCAA Tournament.

Coach of the Year: Lorenzo Romar, Washington
The Huskies will lose 48.7 points from last season, but still be in the hunt for a Pac-10 title and a lock for the NCAA Tournament. Freshman center Spencer Hawes will learn quickly under Romar and his staff and help make up for the losses of Brandon Roy, Jamaal Williams and Bobby Jones.

Rookie of the Year: Greg Oden, Ohio State
Enough was said above, but Oden might go down in history as one of the best collegiate freshmen ever. He's that good, and he'll show you five blocks per night to prove it.

Surprise Player: Dominic James, Marquette
James was phenomenal last season and will be phenomenal again. My comparison for him would be Chris Paul, and I think his fate as a player could be the same.

Surprise Team: St. John's
They're more athletic and improved offensively, though I don't think we're looking at an NCAA berth for the Johnnies. But 16-17 wins and some advancement in the NIT would be a big success and a very reasonable expectation going into the season.

Conference Champions:
America East –
Albany; Atlantic Coast – North Carolina; Atlantic Sun – Belmont; Atlantic 10 Xavier; Big East – Georgetown; Big Sky – Northern Arizona; Big South – Winthrop; Big Ten – Ohio State; Big 12 Kansas; Big West – Pacific; Colonial – Hofstra; Conference USA – Memphis; Horizon - Wisconsin-Green Bay; Ivy – Penn; Metro-Atlantic – Marist; Mid-Continent – Oral Roberts; Mid-Eastern – Delaware State; Missouri Valley – Southern Illinois; Mountain West – San Diego State; Northeast – Fairleigh Dickinson; Ohio Valley – Tennessee State; Pacific-10 – Arizona; Patriot – Holy Cross; Southeastern – Florida; Southland – Sam Houston State; Southwestern Atlantic – Southern; Sun Belt – Western Kentucky; West Coast – Gonzaga; Western Athletic - Nevada

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