The College Basketball season is finally upon us, and this promises to be one of the more exciting, and wide-open seasons in recent memory. The usual suspects, like Duke, Arizona and Michigan State, remain big favorites to get to the Final Four in Minneapolis, but no team is a clear- cut favorite heading into the season. Here’s a quick look at the Top 20 teams in the nation, and what the prospects may hold for them this year.
Duke lost last year’s ACC Player of the Year, Chris Carrawell, but return Shane Battier, Jason Williams, Nate James and Carlos Boozer. They once again have the depth and experience of a championship team, and more All-Americans than any other team in the country. Arizona has everyone back from last year’s team, and sophomore guards Jason Gardner and Gilbert Arenas have a year of experience under their belt. The only question mark for the Wildcats is the status of Loren Woods, who was suspended for the first six games of the season, and has had chronic back troubles, which ended his season last year.
Maryland didn’t lose a single scholarship player from last year’s team. Led by guard Juan Dixon and forward Terrence Morris, they have more than enough talent to compete for the number one spot in the country. As long as lead guard Tony Harris, swingman Vincent Yarbrough and big man Isiah Victor don’t have any meltdowns, Tennessee should be one of the top teams in the SEC, and in the country. Forward Marcus Haislip has added some bulk this year to keep opponents wary under the basket, which should ease the loss of C.J. Black, the only player of note gone from last year’s team. For the defending champs, things won’t be easy without Mateen Cleaves or Morris Peterson, but guard Charlie Bell and center Andre Hutson lead a group of returning double-digit scorers. Swingman Jason Richardson is a special player, who may help lead the Spartans to back-to-back titles.
Stanford will miss Mark Madsen’s leadership and intensity, but the big men up front should still be among the most imposing in the country. Add sophomore Casey Jacobsen in the backcourt and Stanford will still be strong. Nine of Illinois’ top 10 scorers return for new coach Bill Self. There could be some growing pains as the Illini adapt to the up-tempo style of play Self runs, but by March expect forward Brian Cook and the Fighting Illini to be one of the teams to beat.
After a disappointing regular season, North Carolina still made it to another Final Four. New head coach Matt Doherty inherits a team that has to replace point guard Ed Cota, but freshman point guard Adam Boone is coming in highly-touted, and there are a bunch of experienced players around him. Kansas has all their starters back from last year’s team that didn’t quite live up to expectations. If center Eric Chenowith turns things around, then the Jayhawks could have one of the most dominant teams in the country. Seton Hall loses some offense from last year’s team with the departure of Shaheen Holloway and Rimas Kaukenas, but the Pirates expect freshman Eddie Griffin, who probably would have been a lottery pick had he gone pro, to pick up the slack.
If Florida had everybody back, they would be closer to the top of the list, but losing Mike Miller and Donnell Harvey, both first round picks, obviously hurts this squad. They still have one of the best backcourts in the country, led by Teddy Dupay, and an intense defense headed by active Udonis Haslem, up front. Don’t expect the Gators to fall too far. Four starters return this season for Notre Dame, including forward Troy Murphy, last year’s Big East Player of the Year. With newcomers Matt Carroll, and Ryan Humphrey, a transfer from Oklahoma, the Irish look poised to take the next step. Injuries kept USC out of contention last season, but all five starters return, including Brian Scalabrine, David Bluthenthal and Jeff Trapagnier. If the Trojans can avoid the injury bug this season, they’ll go far.
Having lost only Jon Bryant, their top perimeter threat last season, Wisconsin returns plenty of experience and Dick Bennett’s hard-nosed brand of defense. If guard Ray Boone steps it up a notch, watch out. In Alabama, the youngsters are a year older and Rod Grizzard, Erwin Dudley and Terrance Meade should be even more effective this season. If center Jeremy Hays can get, and stay, healthy, the Crimson Tide should be able to handle this year’s schedule. Despite the loss of four starters from last year’s team, Utah coach Rick Majerus has a talented team that should gel and be a factor as the season wears on. They’ll have plenty of depth, as Trace Canton and Britton Johnson return from missions, and Duke transfer center Chris Burgess is finally eligible to play. Connecticut lost a bunch of key players, but they have one of the top recruiting classes in the country, with at least three freshman expected to contribute immediately. The question for the Huskies is how fast point guard Taliek Brown develops and how much forward Ajou Deng produces.
UCLA returns a solid core of three starters, including small forward Jason Kapono, one of the best shooters in the nation. If Steve Lavin can coach this bunch into not coasting through the season, they have a chance to shine. The biggest problem for Kentucky has to be depth and reliable shooting. It probably won’t be too much easier this season with the loss of Jamal Magliore and Jules Camara, who is suspended for the season. Virginia returns a veteran squad, that was disappointed in not making the NCAA Tournament, in spite of a decent regular season. Forward Chris Williams can lead this team to 20 wins, especially if Keith Friel continues to impress from the outside.