Let the madness begin!

Nov 11, 2003 3:53 AM

It seems as if baseball has just concluded (it has!) and football has just begun, nevertheless the college basketball season is rapidly nearing.

In fact, there are a limited number of preseason games and tournaments scheduled for this weekend, while most teams hit the hardwood the following weekend.

For those die-hard basketball fans, most of the preseason magazines and guidebooks are already available.

The reigning king of college hoops, the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook is in the Gamblers Book Shop, along with a myriad of guides, including a handy College Basketball Workbook, published by the folks at sportspowerratings.com.

For those who prefer a quick look at the best teams this season, here is GamingToday’s Top 30 college basketball teams for 2003-2004.

Connecticut: Jim Calhoun’s squad has a talented group of returning players who have a great blend of youth, depth and experience. Particularly, the Huskies know how to play defense, always critical when challenging for a championship. They can also run-and-shoot, or slow it down and play for a shot. The backcourt is loaded with talent including senior Taliek Brown, junior Ben Gordon and sophomore Rashad Anderson. The low post is anchored by Emeka Okafor, who excels at both ends of the court.

Duke: Coach Mike Kryzewski gets back most of his players that carried the Blue Devils to victory in the ACC tournament last season. But, while Duke was a perfect 21-0 SU at home last year, they were only 6-12-2 on the road. For Duke to contend at the highest levels this season, senior guard Chris Duhon has to have a break out year. So far, he hasn’t lived up to all the lavish hype, but if his shooting improves he could lead this squad to a nice run through the March tournament.

Florida: The Gators mix of youth and talent make for an interesting combination. The key will be how they recover from losing three veterans from last season’s squad. Expect big seasons from guard Anthony Roberson and forward Matt Walsh, versatile players who will allow coach Billy Donovan to experiment with new line-ups.

Michigan State: Five of the top six scorers return for the Spartans, including guard Chris Hill and forward Alan Anderson. The team struggled with consistency last year, but with experience should be much better this season. Two talented freshmen, Brandon Cotton and Shannon Brown should have an immediate impact.

Missouri: With practically the same group of players returning from last season’s team, Coach Quin Snyder has high expectations this year. The Tigers are led by the dynamic inside-outside duo of guard Ricky Paulding and center Arthur Johnson, both All American candidates. Joining the fray is power forward Travon Bryant, a solid rebounder and defender, and guard Jimmy McKinney, who benefits from a year of experience. An interesting addition (eligible in December) is VMI transfer Jason Conley, who last year led the nation in scoring as a freshman.

Texas: Rick Barnes’ team appears deep enough to absorb the loss of T.J. Ford. At the core of the group is a trio of talented and experienced shooters, guard James Thomas, guard Brandon Mouton and guard Royal Ivey. In the post, Brad Buckman should pick up much of the slack, and senior Brian Boddicker will get plenty of chances to shoot from beyond the arc.

Arizona: Although the Wildcats don’t have as much size and depth in the paint as in past seasons, their backcourt led by sharp-shooting Salim Stoudamire is as explosive as any in the country. Plus, they have a talented group of young players, which should help the team contend for the top spot in the Pac 10 Conference. Arizona had a stellar 28-4 SU record last season (a phenomenal 11-1 on the road!), but were only 13-19 ATS.

Kansas: The household names are gone ”” forward Nick Collison, guard Kirk Hinrich and of course coach Roy Williams. But new coach Bill Self and the Jawhawks are optimistic the national runner-up will come back strong. Returning are guard Keith Langford and power forward Wayne Simien and point guard Aaron Miles. A talented trio of freshmen should have an immediate impact, especially in the frontcourt.

Gonzaga: Always the class of the West Coast Conference, the Zags will be there once again. Veterans like Blake Stepp, Cory Violette and Richard Fox will be great positive examples for newcomers like freshman Sean Mallon and Adam Morrison, and Washington transfer Erroll Knight. Coach Mark Few’s squad likes to run and gun; they averaged 79 points/game on the road last season, while posting 75 points/game at home.

Syracuse: Jim Boeheim’s returning NCAA champions are without Carmelo Anthony, who opted out for the NBA. But Boeheim is confident in junior Hakim Warrick as the new featured player in the Orange offense. But the team’s strength lies in its backcourt, where Gerry McNamara and Billy Edelin are expected to wreak havoc on opposing defenses while lighting up the scoreboard.

Illinois: New head coach Bruce Weber has a strong group of talent to work with. Leading the way will be sophomore Dee Brown, who can dominate with his quickness and is expected to pick up his scoring. The Fighting Illini were a superb 20-1 SU at home last season (9-7 ATS) and 5-6 on the road (4-6-1 ATS).

Stanford: Coach Mike Montgomery gets four starters back from last season’s 24-win team. Among the talented players to watch is junior Josh Childress, the Cardinal’s go-to scorer now that Julius Barnes has left. Stanford sneaked up on people last year; they were 19-13-1 ATS, but may not be under the radar this season. Landing the fourth seed in the NCAA tourney also cast the team into the public spotlight, so bettors should be wary of overlays.

Kentucky: It would be crazy to expect the Wildcats to repeat their 16-0 SU conference record from last season. UK loss some key players, but they also return some proven talent to go along with hopeful young players. The low post will be manned by Erik Daniels and Chuck Hayes, both of whom are tough-it-out players, who will be matched by Gerald Fitch and Cliff Hawkins in the backcourt.

North Carolina: New head coach Roy Williams didn’t find the cupboard bare. In fact, if super forward Sean May can stay healthy, he will have one of the top teams in the nation. Of note to "over" bettors, the Tar Heels went over the total at a 15-10-2 clip for all games, while going 8-5-2 over the total at home. Among the reasons are Rashad McCants, who averaged 17 points/game last season, and Raymond Felton (nearly 13 points/game), who comprise a tandem that could be the best backcourt in the nation.

St. Joseph: Coach Phil Martelli has a nice mix of veterans and freshman to keep the Hawks in contention for an Atlantic 10 title, and guard Jameer Nelson has enough talent and drive to push St. Joseph deep into the playoff tournament. St. Joseph was especially dominant at home last season, compiling a 12-2 SU record while covering the spread at a 10-4 clip.

Oklahoma: Coach Kelvin Sampson lost a lot of talent, but is hopeful his young players will step up. Sophomores Kevin Bookout and De’Angelo Alexander are probably ready to take the helm as they gained valuable experience last season. Extra scoring could also come from Jason Detrick, who red-shirted last season. In the frontcourt, Jabahri Brown needs to become more active in the low post, but he’ll get some help from Johnnie Gilbert.

Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons don’t get as much hype as the Duke’s and North Carolina’s of the world, but they could be good enough to sneak by them. They have a talented backcourt led by Justin Gray, their leading scorer, and Taron Downey, a skilled passer and defender. Wake is also solid in the middle with behemoth Eric Williams in the center, and sharp-shooting forwards Vytas Danelius and Jamaal Levy.

Marquette: Head coach Tom Crean is building a winning program in Milwaukee. The frontline is loaded with forward Steve Novak and center Scott Merritt. With Dwayne Wade gone from the backcourt, expect Travas Diener to have a breakout season. Joining him will be talented freshman Dameon Mason, who could make an immediate impact.

California: The strength of the Golden Bears is in their front line with junior forward Amit Tamir leading the way. Tamir will be the team’s top scorer now that Joe Shipp has left the program. Tamir is joined by Leon Power, a McDonald’s All American, and senior forward/center Gabriel Hughes. If the backcourt comes around, Cal will be a force in the Pac 10 and on the national scene.

Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish have talent on the inside with forward Torin Francis, who will be fed by sure-handed guard Chris Thomas, a solid playmaker who led the Irish to 24 victories last season. Note that Notre Dame went over the total 14 times in 21 contests. However, with the loss of shooters like Matt Carroll and Dan Miller (combined 32 points/game), expect the point production to tail off this season.

Pittsburgh: No team likes to play Pitt because of its stifling defensive schemes. Even though former coach Ben Howland is gone to UCLA, new coach Jamie Dixon won’t be left empty-handed. The Panthers have plenty of talent and now added experience to their arsenal. Plus they have the depth and defense to make another un at the Big East’s East Division title.

LSU: The Tigers are somewhat of a sleeper and could surprise a few teams this season. Forward Jaime Lloreda will score a lot of points and guards Antonio Hudson and Darrell Mitchell should provide the balance in the backcourt. Expect freshmen Brandon Bass and Regis Koundjia to have an immediate impact because of their size and athletic ability, though it may take time for them to mature.

Maryland: The Terrapins lost key guards Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas, as well as post players Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle. In their absence, guard John Gilchrist will anchor the backcourt, while forward Nik Caner-Medley will have to step forward and have a breakout season. Also expected to play a big role this season is forward/center Travis Garrison.

Wisconsin: The Badgers get four starters back from last season’s Big Ten regular season champs. That balance could be enough to put the Badgers back in contention. The team was dominant at home, winning 18 of 20 games (13-4 ATS), and a respectable 6-6 SU on the road (7-5 ATS).

Louisville: Rick Pitino’s Cardinals will greet three starters, who will form the nucleus of his up-tempo style that features his signature full court press. The Cardinals might be light in the paint as forward Ellis Myles suffered a serious knee injury last spring and his status is questionable. Louisville will need senior Luke Whitehead to step up and fill the slack.

Arizona State: Often overshadowed by their cousins in Tucson, the Sun Devils need to overcome the loss of six talented seniors. But they still have power forward Ike Diogu, who should be in the running for player of the year honors. He’s that good. Diogu will get some help from forward Allen Morill and forward/center Serge Angounou. The backcourt led by point guard Jason Braxton must improve their shooting for ASU to contend in the Pac 10.

Utah: Coach Rick Majerus will have another of his patented "wide body" squads that will dominate the paint with rebounding and blocked shots. The key, however, will be his backcourt led by senior shooting guard Nick Jacobson, a deadly 3-point shooter, and Tim Drisdom, a sharp passer and strong defender. Defense will again be critical to Utah’s success. Last season they held opponents to 60 points or less per game.

Central Michigan: If nothing else, the Chippewas were the best team to bet on last season as they compiled a 23-6 ATS record (25-7 SU). The MAC champs were also an offensive powerhouse, running opposing teams into the hardwood with their 79.8 points a game while shooting over 50%. But the team lost 7-foot center Chris Kaman and have a new-look frontcourt. Nevertheless the Chippewas have good depth in the backcourt. They may not match last season’s totals, but will be a force in the MAC.

Mississippi State: Even though the Bulldogs lost three of their top four scorers, they should have some bite left in them. Ex-Baylor star Lawrence Roberts will have an immediate impact in a starting role in the paint. He’s joined by 7-footer Marcus Campbell who must be more aggressive at the low post. On the outside, guard Timmy Bowers must make up for the loss of shooter Mario Austin, who moved on to the NBA.

UC Santa Barbara: The Gauchos took the Big West crown last season and they should be as good this year. Their returning starters includes Branduinn Follove, the defending Big West Player of the Year, and one of the best backcourt players in the country. He’s joined by Jacoby Atako, the Big West Defender of the Year. UCSB was particularly tough at home last year, compiling a 12-4 SU record while hitting 9-6 ATS.

Jim Feist’s National Sports Service contributed stats and other info to this report.