Forde Minutes: Tip-off edition
Editor's note: Forde Minutes will return on a weekly basis starting in mid-January.
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball, tip-off edition:
Story lines? Yeah, we got story lines.
Huggy (1) on the rebound in the Little Apple. Bobby (2) on Dean's doorstep in the record books. Billy D. (3) on Repeat Road in Krzyzewskiville.
More new coaches in new places than ever. More freshman talent than we've seen on campus in at least a dozen years. More dominating big men to watch than usual, from the fun-lover with the braces in Baton Rouge to the high-voltage chest-pounder in Gainesville to the relentless sophomore in Chapel Hill to the rookie with the wrist issues in Columbus.
More reasons to be intrigued about the next five months than The Minutes can count.
The Minutes welcomes to campus the first fully stocked freshman class since 1994 -- the last year there were no high school players in the NBA draft. Thanks to the biggest rule change to hit the game since the 3-point shot, everybody had to come to college and -- at least theoretically -- find the library for at least one season.
As much as that elevates the talent in the college game, it strikes The Minutes as an imperfect solution to the premature rush to the pros. The Minutes agrees with basketball wise man C.M. Newton (5) that hoops would be best served by the same rule employed by college baseball: go straight pro out of high school or sign on for at least three years of college.
"There should be a meaningful commitment," said Newton, who has served in almost every position imaginable in amateur basketball.
Lacking that commitment, The Minutes lists five freshman studs who might not even bring textbooks in their backpacks to the NCAA Tournament next spring, because they'll be turning pro by mid-April:
Greg Oden (6), Ohio State. Given the fact that his season will start late after wrist surgery, this might be the shortest vitally important tenure in college history. Because when Oden plays, he'll be the most intimidating freshman defender since Patrick Ewing. Impact: Could lead the Buckeyes to the Final Four.
Thaddeus Young, Georgia Tech. Athletic forward won't be brought along slowly by Paul Hewitt (9). Got team highs of 29 minutes and 14 field-goal attempts in the Yellow Jackets' opener against Elon, and finished with 15 points and six rebounds. Impact: Will be a key performer on a Sweet 16 team.
Paul Harris (10), Syracuse. Even Jim Boeheim (11) said he doesn't see Harris staying in school more than one year and predicted he'd be the best freshman in the country. The 6-foot-5 forward responded with a double-double in his first college game. Impact: If the big men improve, Harris could help the Orange mount a serious challenge to Pittsburgh and Georgetown in the Big East and make a deep NCAA Tournament run.
Derrick Caracter (12), Louisville. Thanks to another Rick Pitino (13) body makeover, Caracter has lost about 40 pounds of blubber and plugged himself in immediately as the Cardinals' top low-post offensive threat. He racked up 25 points and 11 rebounds in Louisville's first exhibition game. Impact: Should help Louisville back into the NCAAs, and at least to the round of 32.
Defending champion Florida (14) presents the strongest repeat bid since Arizona '98 or Arkansas '95 -- neither of which repeated. It hasn't happened since 1992 -- and it took a semi-miracle from Christian Laettner that year to get Duke to the Final Four.
In other words, it's hard.
Gators coach Billy Donovan seems to have a solid grasp on the pitfalls ahead. If nothing else, he's said all the right things to his team about believing their own hype.
"I told them, 'Everything you're being fed is poison,' " Donovan said. " 'If you take it and believe what everyone is saying about you and you swallow it, you'll die. The team will die.' "
But not every pitfall will be covered by Donovan's poison control center. There are five other potential roadblocks between the Gators and a repeat.
Noah's noggin (15). Joakim Noah ended last season as the dominant player in America -- then surprised everyone by coming back for his junior season. But the young man who has it all -- wit, personality, intellect and insane game -- also seemed to have a steadily growing ego last spring. Florida's cause will be greatly aided if Noah remains One of the Guys in the locker room.
NBA-itis (16). Last year Florida was a triumph of teamwork: brilliant passing and a willingness to share the ball across the roster. Nobody on the team averaged even 10 field-goal attempts per game. This year, with several Gators undoubtedly looking at coming out, will they start counting each other's shots and checking the stat sheet?
Exaggerated expectations (18). Know this: Neither Florida nor anyone else is going unbeaten. And every time the Gators lose there will be a sky-is-falling overreaction. In a league as tough as the SEC should be in 2006-07, several losses could produce a feeling that Florida is underachieving -- fair or not. If that feeling gets into the locker room it could work against the Gators.
One bad game in March (19). This is probably the single biggest threat. Donovan knows how thin the margin for error can be in a title run. It took a last-second basket in the first round in 2000 to start the Gators on the road to the national title game, and last year it took a falling-down Corey Brewer prayer to make sure they beat Georgetown in the Sweet 16. Next spring, that could go the other way.
If Florida does go down short of the title, The Minutes believes one of these five teams will be crowned champion in the Gators' stead: North Carolina, Ohio State, UCLA, Kansas, LSU.
Now hear this: Florida is still The Minutes' pick to win it all in '07.
The Big Ten will stink (20). No, really stink. After Ohio State and Wisconsin, this is the Midwest at its most mediocre. Illinois and Iowa will backpedal. Michigan State will struggle gravely to score. Indiana has D.J. White and a roster full of question marks. Michigan, Penn State and Purdue are upwardly mobile -- but up from what, and how far? Minnesota lost its exhibition game against Winona State. Northwestern lost its opener against Cornell. Yuck.
The Missouri Valley Conference will be every bit as good -- and ugly -- as last year (21). Northern Iowa lost its coach. Bradley lost its star 7-foot center. Wichita State lost the MVC Player of the Year. So what? Creighton and Southern Illinois will be better, and Bradley began the season by blowing out DePaul. Valley teams won their first four games easily, allowing an average of just 49.8 points a game. Classic ValleyBall.
North Carolina will lead the nation in layups and free throws (22). Roy Williams excels at getting his big men to the low block, either in transition or in the set offense, and will demand that his guards feed the post. And with talents such as Tyler Hansbrough, Brandan Wright and Alex Stepheson on the roster, the guards will feed the post.
Nevada will be undefeated when it plays Gonzaga on Dec. 30 (23). And Nick Fazekas will be in the Player of the Year debate. And win or lose that day, the Zags will win 25 games this season, even without Adam Morrison.
Memphis will barely miss a beat (24). The Tigers won 33 games last year. They could win 30-plus again this year, even without Shawne Williams, Rodney Carney and Darius Washington (addition by subtraction with Washington). There's talent at every position (young talent, but still) and not many land mines on the schedule.
Mike Anderson (25), Missouri. This will be the least-talented Tigers team in years. It also will be the hardest-working Tigers team in years. Anderson won't accept anything less. Mizzou will lose plenty of games this year, but should win over plenty of fans who are tired of seeing half-hearted play.
Andy Kennedy (26), Mississippi. By recent Ole Miss standards, there's a good amount of talent left over for Kennedy to work with. The Rebels were pathetically nonexplosive at times offensively under Rod Barnes, so expect an upgrade in that area, but don't expect Mississippi to threaten LSU or Alabama just yet in the SEC West.
Tony Barbee (27), UTEP. The former John Calipari assistant is cobbling together a bunch of freshmen and jucos and should get them playing stout defense. After Memphis, it's fairly wide open for second place in C-USA, and the Miners should be in that mix.
Sean Sutton (28), Oklahoma State. Sean was doing much of the work under his dad, Eddie, but now he has a chance to fully place his stamp on the program. Look for the Cowboys to play at a faster pace offensively and take full advantage of guard JamesOn Curry and big man Mario Boggan. After Kansas, Oklahoma State should be in the mix for second place in the Big 12.
Tony Bennett (29), Washington State. Another son taking over for his dad -- and revving up the offense a bit. The Cougars opened with consecutive wins over 2006 NCAA Tournament teams, UAB and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and scored more than 70 points in each. That has to be a welcome upgrade to Cougars fans who battled narcolepsy watching Dick Bennett's teams plod about.
Mick Cronin (30), Cincinnati. Cronin will make it happen eventually at Cincy, but taking on the Big East with just one returning player of any consequence is no way to live.
Sidney Lowe (31), North Carolina State. Got to use only seven players in a season-opening struggle past Wofford. Doesn't sound like the blueprint for success in the ACC.
Doc Sadler (33), Nebraska. Winning at Nebraska is never easy. Doing it with a thin roster is even harder. And leading returning scorer Aleks Maric will miss at least the season opener after having an appendectomy earlier this month.
Greg McDermott (34), Iowa State. Took over a team with four returning scholarship players, one of whom is now suspended for the first six games of this season. He'll win in Ames, but it won't be this year.
JaJuan Smith (35), Tennessee. Yes, this team still belongs to Chris Lofton and Dane Bradshaw, but keep an eye out for the 6-2 junior Smith. He led the Volunteers in scoring in both exhibition games and their season opener. If he steps up and Tennessee's talented freshman class comes through, the Vols will be back prominently in the mix again this season.
Joe Crawford (36), Kentucky. He has star talent and a scorer's mentality that has failed to mesh with Tubby Smith's master plan for two years. Expect that to change in Year 3. Smith should put the ball in Crawford's hands more on offense; if Crawford responds with consistent defense and rebounding, this relationship should improve significantly.
Josh Shipp (37), UCLA. He might have been the Bruins' best player last season, but was able to play in only four games because of a recurring hip injury. If Shipp stays healthy all year, he'll team with Arron Afflalo to form one of the best 1-2 punches in the country.
Julian Wright (38), Kansas. Brandon Rush gets more pub and more points -- for now. But The Minutes believes Wright is the true transcendent talent in Lawrence. There's nothing on the floor he cannot do.
Josh McRoberts (39), Duke. No need to defer this year; McRoberts is the McMan now in Durham. Should be an 18-10 guy as the centerpiece of the Blue Devils' offense. If he's not, Duke could struggle more than it has in many years.
When hungry and thirsty in the basketball hotbed that is Washington, D.C., The Minutes recommends a visit to The Tombs (40), a campus hangout at Georgetown. It's classy enough inside (crew motif, well-lit, attentive wait staff, etc.) to belie the name and basement locale. The Minutes had a swell meal there this autumn with members of The Hoya, the Georgetown student paper. Take an after-dinner campus walk past The Exorcist steps, which are as steep and scary as they looked on film. Dare you to walk past and not hear creepy piano music in your head.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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