The college basketball season began last week, as four heavyweight programs, Arizona, Florida, Maryland and Temple, met in the Coaches versus Cancer Classic in New York. Arizona shocked most pundits, beating both Maryland and Florida, as underdogs in both games, to win the tournament.
Even with the wins, Arizona doesn’t quite make our preseason Top 10. They still have a number of questions to answer, especially when they get into PAC 10 competition, despite their impressive early-season performance. Here’s a look at the top 10 teams in the country.
Duke. The defending National Champion has a great team returning, despite losing Shane Battier, last year’s College Player of the Year. Point guard Jason Williams is the best player in the country and would have been the top pick in the NBA draft had he decided to come out after last season.
Williams is incredibly quick, a fantastic shooter and has already proven he can lead a team to a title. He also has a lot of help on the roster. In addition to Williams, center Carlos Boozer, swingman Mike Dunleavy and guard Chris Duhon are all back. The Blue Devils could also be deeper than last year’s version with, maybe, the top recruiting class in the nation, including Rutgers transfer Dahntay Jones.
UCLA. The Bruins could be the most talented team in the country. They are so deep that senior guard Ray Young, who started eight games and averaged more than 20 minutes per contest last year, will redshirt and sit out the season. UCLA won’t miss him at all, with forwards Jason Kapono and Matt Barnes and center Dan Gadzuric in the starting lineup, along with a deep backcourt.
The key will be the play of heralded freshman point guard Cedric Bozeman, but if he can distribute the ball as well as expected, the Bruins will be very tough to beat.
Kentucky isn’t as deep as they thought after losing forward Jason Parker, but Teyshaun Price and Keith Bogans are back. The Wildcats also have a group of athletic big men, including Marvin Stone and Jules Camara. Those players, along with the sustained coaching excellence of Tubby Smith, should keep the Wildcats near the top of the rankings all season.
Illinois is coming off one of the best seasons in schools history, going 27-8 and reaching the Elite 8, before losing to Arizona. Bill Self became the first coach to ever lead to different schools to the Elite 8 in consecutive seasons, after taking Tulsa to that level in his last season there. Self has more talent than he’s ever had at his disposal this season, led by his backcourt of Frank Williams and Cory Bradford. Williams was last year’s Big 10 Player of the Year and Bradford broke the record for consecutive games (88) with a three-pointer. In addition to the fine backcourt, the Fighting Illini are a great defending and rebounding team with great size inside in Brian Cook and Robert Archibald. They should be the Big 10 Champions this year.
Maryland. The Terrapins played the Blue Devils four times last year, winning just once. However, each game was memorable, including the Final Four meeting. Maryland should be even better this season with four starters back, losing just Terrance Morris from last year’s squad. The backcourt is outstanding with steady point guard Steve Blake and shooting guard Juan Dixon. Up front Lonny Baxter, Tahj Holden and Byron Mouton provide the muscle.
Florida could have had a lot more talent on the roster had Teddy Dupay stayed eligible and recruit Kwame Brown come to school instead of the NBA. Still, nobody is feeling sorry for the Gators. Justin Hamilton returns from an injury to join quality players Udonis Haslem and Brett Nelson. James White and David Lee head a great recruiting class. Nobody is feeling sorry for head coach Billy Donovan.
Boston College. The Eagles have made miraculous strides over the last few seasons in the Big East, going 27-5 last season, and getting all the way to the Sweet 16. Their top player, Troy Bell (knee surgery), will be sidelined to start the season but should be ready when the conference season begins in earnest. Bell will have more athleticism surrounding him this year, including Ryan Sidney and forward Uka Agbai.
Kansas should be a very different looking team this season, but they will, once again, be near the top of the Big 12 Standings. The Jayhawks lost some size from last year’s team, but they should be much more athletic than last year. The backcourt will be the strength, with Kirk Hinrich and Jeff Boschee, but Nick Collison and Drew Gooden also provide Roy Williams plenty of options down low.
Memphis finished third in the post season NIT last season and brings back three starters, but that isn’t the story with John Calipari’s team. The Tigers signed guard DeJuan Wagner, the best prep player in the country last season. Calipari also brought in another outstanding shooting guard, Anthony Rice and JuCo transfer Antonio Burks, to play the point. With forward Kelly Wise (15.0 pts, 10 reb.) deciding to come back for his senior year, Memphis has the makings of a fantastic season.
Missouri. The Tigers have one of the top players in the country in swingman Kareem Rush, and also return solid shooting guard Clarence Gilbert. The pair should form one of the most dangerous scoring tandems in the nation.
The Tigers have been weak up front for the last few seasons, but a few key recruits like center Uche Okafor, should make the Tigers competent in the post. Missouri will likely challenge Kansas for the Big 12 title.
Next week we’ll discuss the next group of 10.