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Expectations high in Wyoming

Nov 5, 2002 2:39 AM

   November is here and that means the college basketball season starts in just two short weeks. Here’s my college hoops Top-25 countdown, beginning this week with numbers 11-25.

   #25 Louisville: Rick Pitino brought new excitement to the Cardinals program in his first season. This club went 19-13 and with five starters returning, they’ll be very competitive again. Reece Gaines, a 6-foot-6 senior, leads the way (21 ppg) and he is a solid all-around scorer (80 percent) from the free throw line.

   Three juniors return in 6-8 Ellis Myles (9 rpg), 6-7 Luke Whitehead (10 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and 6-0 junior Bryant Northern. Pitino has more depth with JC transfer Prileu Davis, freshman G Taquan Dean and first-year F Francisco Garcia. Louisville was a poor 3-7 ATS on the road and 3-7 ATS as a dog.

   #24 Cincinnati: The Bearcats lost four starters to a team that went 31-4. But Cincy is no ordinary program and coach Bob Huggins will have the Bearcats strong again. Leonard Stokes (12.7 ppg, 47 percent shooter, 4.8 rpg) will lead the way and he was the second leading scorer. Huggins teaches strong defense and this team shot over 70 percent from the free throw line last year.

   Jason Maxiell, last year’s C-USA Sixth Man of the Year, joins the starting lineup. Taron Barker will likely take over for Steve Logan at the point, and Field Williams (6.5 ppg, 43 percent from 3-point land) will join him in the backcourt. Junior college transfer, 6-4 Tony Bobbitt, and 6-6 freshman Eric Hicks have talent and will get time to shine. This team is 8-3 ATS as a dog since 1998.

   #23 Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane went 27-7 (20-8-1 ATS) and has been to the NCAA tourney seven straight years. This year’s bunch won’t look much different from the team that upset Marquette and played Kentucky tough in the tourney. Coach John Phillips has an ace in WAC Player of the Year candidate 6-8 senior Kevin Johnson (14.5 ppg, 2.1 bpg).

   Dante Swanson (49 percent from 3-point land) will make the transition from bench gunner to starter. Antonio Reed can also hit from deep, but his playmaking will be his most important asset. Charlie Davis (6.7 rpg) helps inside, but will get a boost from freshmen big men Aliou Keita and Anthony Price. They look just as strong as last season.

   #22 Ohio: The Bobcats will look to roll through the MAC and keep going right into the tourney. Two strong low post players and a quality guard return. Powerful Brandon Hunter (17.3 ppg, 9.1 rpg) may be in the NBA next season, while Sonny Johnson came off the bench and still averaged 15.8 ppg. Guard Steve Esterkamp (13 ppg) is a force outside, giving this team great balance.

   There’s plenty of depth with junior college transfer Delvar Barrett (6-8, 270), and solid point guards Zach Kiekow and Jaivon Harris. They have 7-1 sophomore Marin Bota, though he’s a project and a likely role player. Ohio was very good as a favorite (9-5 ATS) but poor as a dog (3-5-1 ATS).

   #21 Wyoming: The Cowboys, off a 22-9 record, have expectations at an all-time high. Mountain West Coach of the Year Steve McClain returns four starters, including two-time all-conference forward Marcus Bailey (14.6 ppg, 49 percent shooter). Point guard Chris McMillan (4.5 assists pg) is back for his senior season.

   Sophomore Jason Straight received co-Freshman of the Year honors, while shooting guard Donta Richardson (12.4 ppg) returns. Center Uche Nsonwu-Amadi (10.8 ppg, 8.2 rpg) strengthens the unit down low along with Washington State transfer David Adams. Wyoming was 5-4-1 ATS as a dog, yet 6-13 ATS as a favorite!

   #20 Gonzaga: The Zags’ hopes for a fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance hinge on the performance of 6-4 junior Blake Stepp and 6-0 senior Winston Brooks in the backcourt. The frontcourt is loaded with 6-8, 250-pound junior Cory Violette (13.5 ppg, 8.1 rpg), 6-8, 250-pound senior Zach Gourde (13.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg), 6-9, 230-pound sophomore Ronny Turiaf (6.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg), and 6-11, 270-pound junior Richard Fox, a transfer from Colorado.

   Head coach Mark Few should use the extra depth to his advantage. This team averaged 81.6 points per game, shooting 73 percent from the line while bombing away from three-point land at a 39 percent clip. Gonzaga was also 8-4 ATS on the road.

   #19 Xavier: The Musketeers are off a 26-6 season and are loaded again. Four starters are back and join a group of talented newcomers. Coach Thad Matta will have fun putting combinations on the floor that include 6-9 senior David West (18.3 ppg, 9.8 rpg) and 6-5 junior Romain Sato (16.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg). The duo is one of the best in the country.

   Seniors Lionel Chalmers (12.0 ppg, 4.2 apg) and swingman Dave Young are good role players. Junior college transfers 6-10 Randy Holbrook and 6-9 Anthony Myles add height along with 6-9 sophomore Will Caudle. Xavier was a poor 1-5-1 ATS as an underdog last season and only 3-8 ATS at home.

   #18 Kentucky: The Wildcats are young and have questions in the backcourt, but the frontcourt is strong. Keith Bogans looks to bounce back from an off year (11.6 ppg). The frontcourt is big with 6-11 C Jules Camara, 6-7 F Chuck Hayes, 6-9 Erik Daniels and 6-9 Marquis Estill.

   The backcourt will be without starting PG Cliff Hawkins (4.3 apg) for the first semester because of academic problems. Gerald Fitch, freshman Brandon Stockton and juco transfer Antwain Barbour will fill in, but they are likely to be much better as March approaches than in November.

   #17 Boston College: The Eagles have a super-quick backcourt. Senior guard Troy Bell (21.6 ppg) and 6-2 junior Ryan Sidney (13.7 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 4.2 apg) will lead the way. Sidney, who missed most of the season with a jaw injury, is healthy and could be the team’s best player.

   Forward Uka Agbai (11.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg) returns as does 7-0 sophomore center Nate Doornekamp, while coach Al Skinner likes 6-6 freshman Johnnie Jackson. BC was 6-3 ATS on the road last season, but 4-8 ATS at home. The Eagles were 6-12-1 ATS as a favorite, yet 5-4 ATS as a dog.

   #16 Maryland: The Terrapins won the NCAA title, though much of the heart and soul of that club is gone. But they’ve been very good for a long time and will be competitive again. Point guard Steve Blake (8.0 ppg, 8.0 apg) ranked second in the country in assists while Drew Nicholas (7.1 ppg) becomes a backcourt starter.

   Forward Tahj Holden was a valuable sixth man, and will share time with C Ryan Randle and 6-9 freshman Travis Garrison. They are young, but coach Gary Williams is a good teacher and has a championship ring. It will difficult to duplicate their 20-11-1 ATS mark.

   #15 Indiana: The Hoosiers stunned the nation by making it to the NCAA championship game a year ago, but lost a ton of talent. Senior guard Tom Coverdale and 6-3 junior A.J. Moye give the Hoosiers a strong backcourt.

   The frontcourt is young and will experience growing pains. Versatile freshman Bracey Wright will get time as a starter or sixth man and help veterans Jeff Newton and George Leach in the paint.  Indiana is 17-8-1 ATS at home the last two seasons.

   #14 Mississippi State: Looking for a longshot to win the NCAA title? The Bulldogs were 250-1 shots last February and raised eyebrows by winning the SEC title in March. F/C Mario Austin (16.1 ppg, 7.6 ppg) is back and Derrick Zimmerman (9.2 ppg, 6.0 apg) is a terrific point guard.

   There’s depth in the frontcourt with F Michal Ignerski (8.8 ppg) and sophomore Onario Harper, who can play forward or guard. This experienced team could hit the 27-win mark, or more, again.

   #13 Michigan State: The Spartans rode the coattails of sensational sophomore Marcus Taylor last season. Taylor bolted for the NBA, turning over the squad to 6-4 sophomore guards Kelvin Torbert and Chris Hill. Aloysius Anagonye and Adam Ballinger are strong on the boards and will provide senior leadership.

   Sophomore Alan Anderson can also mix it up while freshman Paul Davis could have an immediate impact. Head coach Tom Izzo runs a tight ship that plays great defense along with a steady stream of incoming talent. Since 1999, Michigan State is 59-2 SU/29-19-1 ATS at home.

   #12 Oregon: The Ducks won the regular season Pac-10 title last year and return the two guards who led them there. Luke Ridnour (15 ppg) and Luke Jackson (16 ppg) will join forces again devastating opponents with their slick passes and smooth touch from the outside. This bunch was 10-3 ATS at home, but 5-6 ATS on the road.

   Senior forward Robert Johnson (7.7 rpg) will man the inside with senior center Brian Helquist. The Ducks have a championship-caliber squad, but a tough schedule features Kansas, NC State, Pepperdine and Minnesota in the first six weeks. The Ducks should be well prepared when tournament time rolls around.

   #11 Missouri: Coach Quin Snyder has lost his top two point guards as well as leading scorer Kareem Rush but hopes to strike gold in junior college transfer Ricky Clemons, a 5-11 guard. 6-3 true freshman Jimmy McKinney is slated to start at the other guard position.

   The frontcourt is young with juniors Rickey Paulding and Travon Bryant. Arthur Johnson (12 ppg, 8 rpg), a 6-9 junior, must step up his game and play with more consistency. Johnson was a strong interior threat during the NCAA tournament and needs to carry that over. Missouri had trouble on the road last year, going 4-5 SU and 3-6 ATS.