Only one way to go for Yellow Jackets

Nov 9, 2004 6:42 AM


It seems a natural progression that Georgia Tech should be the national champion this season, since they lost in the finals last year.

But that’s not even the whole story.

The Yellow Jackets were a sweetheart choice last season. Tech won the Preseason NIT coming off a miserable 13-17 campaign the year before. A 9-7 conference record and 10 regular season losses made the early success seem a fluke. But Tech came alive in the postseason behind a backcourt of Jarrett Jack and B.J. Elder that could well be the nation’s best.

Wake Forest, Duke and North Carolina may be more fashionable picks, but the 15-1 odds are appealing for a squad that returns all five starters and the unwanted distinction of being the last team to lose a college basketball game in 2004.

St. Joseph’s went from a 27-0 team last year to a 200-1 shot this year, having lost their backcourt of Jameer Nelson and Delonte West to the graduation and the NBA. The Hawks are not even picked to win their division in the Atlantic 10.

Gonzaga has shed its Cinderella label, but for the first time this decade may not be the best team in the state of Washington. And, no it’s not the Seattle SuperSonics. The University of Washington is 60-1 (just behind the 50-1 Zags) and a definite threat to Arizona and Stanford in the Pac 10.

The point is any number of teams can arrive at the Final Four in St. Louis and spoil all the bracket sheets during March Madness. That’s the fun and intrigue of college basketball. Without a preseason, nobody really knows how good or bad these teams are.

It figures, though, that the strongest teams will be the ones returning the most starters. Oklahoma State returns four starters as legendary coach Eddie Sutton should add another 25 to 30 wins to his 755 career victories. Sutton is almost a guaranteed lock to appear in his 26th NCAA tournament.

Wake Forest is a fashionable No. 1 preseason selection with Player of the Year candidate Chris Paul leading a starting unit that returns intact. The same holds true for North Carolina, which hired Roy Williams several years ago to bring home a national championship. This could be the year.

Syracuse always seems to be lying in the weeds, assuming the calm demeanor of Coach Jim Boeheim. The Orange also returns their entire starting unit and, with Okefor away from UConn, could be considered the Big East favorite over the Huskies.

There hasn’t been much talk about UConn, possibly because the women’s team also won another national championship. Losing Okefor and Ben Gordon sets the Huskies back a bit, but Coach Jim Calhoun has a solid program. Look for power forward Charlie Villanueva to have a big year.

Duke may be in a bit of a reloading mode, hit heavily by graduation and the early departure of Luol Deng. But few feel sorry for Mike Krzyzewski, who has more than enough in the tank for a Top 10 ranking.

It will be interesting to see if Mississippi State can fend off Kentucky and Florida in the SEC. The Bulldogs lost three starters from a year ago.

In the Midwest, we like Michigan as a sleeper. The Wolverines were 23-11 last year and carry momentum from winning the NIT postseason tourney. Expect an NCAA big this time, despite losing four starters.

And what would a Top 25 be without Bob Knight. Most pollsters and scribes think Texas Tech won’t get there, but we have faith in Knight and the great job he has done in Lubbock.

Rank does have its privileges, and it often pays at the betting window