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Cat scratch fever: Zona looking down

Nov 12, 2002 7:01 AM

   This week the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic kicks off the college basketball season with Oklahoma/Alabama and Syracuse/Memphis. Last week, I looked at teams 11-25. Here is my college hoops Top-10.

   #10 Connecticut: The Huskies did a lot of things right during a 24-6 season, averaging 79.9 ppg while shooting 48% as a team. UConn is loaded again and poised to make a return visit to the NCAA tournament. There’s great backcourt depth with guards Tony Robertson, Ben Gordon (13.2 ppg, 41% from 3-point land) and Taliek Brown.

   The middle is manned by 6-9 workhorse Emeka Okafor (9.0 rpg). Freshmen Denham Brown and Rashad Anderson could contribute immediately. Coach Jim Calhoun is a strong motivator who knows how to teach defense. Many teams play poorly on the road, but not UConn. The Huskies were 8-5 SU and 8-3 ATS away from home.

   #9 Florida: It was somewhat of a disappointing season for Billy Donovan’s Gators, yet they still won 22 games. Florida will rely on a strong senior nucleus and talented youngsters to make a run at the SEC title. Matt Bonner (15.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg) at 6-foot-10 can step out to the perimeter or play in the paint. Brett Nelson (14.6 ppg) returns after flirting with the NBA draft.

   Experienced Justin Hamilton (3.8 apg) is the other starting guard with Nelson. Two sophomores who could contribute mightily are 6-8 David Lee and 6-6 guard James White. Lee averaged 4.7 rpg in only 18 minutes. Florida outscored teams by 17 ppg.

   #8 Duke: An influx of new talent arrives to replace All-Americans Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer. Point guard Chris Duhon (8.9 ppg, 5.9 apg) is the Blue Devils’ captain and leader. Forward Dahntay Jones (11.2) and sharpshooting guard Daniel Ewing also return. Duke played its best defense on the road, going UNDER the total in 7-of-10 road games.

   The folks in Durham are excited at the potential of six blue-chip freshmen, four of whom were McDonald’s All-Americans. Forwards Shelden Williams and Shavlik Randolph will battle for frontcourt spot, and guards J.J. Redick (McDonald’s game MVP) and Sean Dockery will see time in Duke’s fast-paced style. Duke outscored foes by an average of 15-points at home, yet was 9-12 ATS.

   #7 Georgia: The Bulldogs were a nice surprise last season going 21-9. Coach Jim Harrick has molded this young squad into one of the nation’s best. Harrick has a star in 6-7 Jarvis Hayes (18.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg.) The backcourt of Rashad Wright (4.8 apg) and Ezra Williams (16.5 ppg) is experienced having started together for two seasons.

   The Bulldogs will go with 6-7 Chris Daniels (8 rpg) at center to make room for transfer Damien Wilkins at forward. Georgia was 18-10 ATS last season, including an 11-5 home mark.

   #6 Alabama: For the second straight season, Alabama was terrific at home (21-2 SU, 9-7 ATS) and average on the road (6-6 SU/ATS). Despite losing Rod Grizzard to the NBA, the Crimson Tide are very talented and will challenge for the SEC crown. Power forward Erwin Dudley (15.2 ppg, 8.9 rpg) is one of the most underrated talents in the country and the best big man in the SEC.

   Point guard Mo Williams (10.4 ppg, 4.5 apg) is primed for stardom as a sophomore. Three-year starters Kenny Walker (9.2 ppg) and Terrance Meade are solid, and there’s depth with Reggie Rambo and freshman Chuck Davis. Lucky Williams will miss the first 14 games of the season (suspension). The Bulldogs averaged 82.6 ppg at home, but just 63.3 ppg on the road.

   #5 Oklahoma: Not many teams went 31-5 last season. Even fewer have so many players coming back. The Sooners lose one starter from a team that made it the Final Four. The strength rests in the backcourt, with returning starters Hollis Price (16.6 ppg), Ebi Ere (14.5 ppg) and Quannas White (4.6 apg) all back for a run at the title.

   Center Jabahri Brown (6.3 rpg) anchors the frontcourt along with sophomore forward Johnnie Gilbert. Oklahoma went UNDER the total in 5-of-7 games on the road, but shot an excellent 76 percent from the line as a team.

   #4 Pittsburgh: The Panthers are off a 29-win season that included a 21-8 ATS mark (13-5 at home, 8-3 away). Pitt, which moves into a new arena, is led by co-Big East Player of the Year, Brandin Knight (15.6 ppg, 7.2 apg, 2.3 steals). The Panthers controlled the paint and shot 47% from the field. The one liability is an anemic 61 percent from the foul line as a team.

   Coach Ben Howland welcomes back guard Julius Page (11.7 ppg), and the top two rebounders in Jaron Brown (6.0 rpg) and Donatas Zavackas (5.2 rpg). Ontario Lett and Chevon Troutman provide great depth and should steer Pitt toward a deep postseason run.

   #3 Texas: Seven of the top eight scorers from last year’s 22-12 team return. Texas was good enough to go 8-6 ATS on the road and 9-5 ATS at home. Coach Rick Barnes has a gem in sophomore point guard sensation T.J. Ford, who helped lead the Longhorns to the Sweet 16 a year ago. Ford is an unselfish player, averaging 8.3 assists per game.

   Guard Royal Ivey (10.9 ppg) excels on the fast break, while forwards James Thomas (8.8 rpg) and Deginald Erskin hold down the paint with authority. Brad Buckman, a 6-9 McDonald’s All-American, could help make a very good team even better.

   #2 Kansas: What to do without Drew? A program like Kansas should be able to keep on winning. The Jayhawks return two potential All-Americans in forward Nick Collison and guard Kirk Hinrich. Collinson averaged 15.6 ppg and pulled down 7.8 rpg while shooting 60% from the field. Coach Roy Williams could vie for another unblemished conference record behind the dynamic duo.

   Sophomore forward Wayne Simien, at 6-9, will try to replace Gooden. Guards Keith Langford and Aaron Miles provide strong depth. Kansas was 4-5 ATS as a road favorite, but a strong 13-7 ATS as a home favorite. The Jayhawks remain a powerhouse that should rank among the nation’s best again.

   #1 Arizona: Most coaches downplay the talent so U-of-A fans don’t expect too much. But, not Arizona’s Lute Olsen: “No question, this is the deepest team we've ever had.” Olson returns a loaded squad that advanced to the Sweet 16 last season. Point guard Jason Gardner (20.5 ppg, 4.5 apg) is the leader. Gardner is also a stellar 80 percent free throw shooter.

   Sophomore Salim Stoudamire (13.0 ppg) is back along with senior forward Luke Walton (15.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 6.3 apg), who led the Wildcats in assists. Forward Rick Anderson and center Isaiah Fox provide depth and athleticism. The Wildcats brought in several talented freshmen so anything short of a national title will be a disappointment.