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Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Updated: November 7, 10:01 AM ET
The Mag's College Basketball Preview:
Top 8


By Jerry Bembry, Elena Bergeron, Jordan Brenner, Anna K. Clemmons, Jenn Holmes and Matt Meyers
ESPN The Magazine

CLICK HERE TO SEE TEAMS 9-16

The secret to the Tar Heels' success is really no secret at all: They're always pushing the ball. And if they had the right guys for the chore last season—and a Final Four trip says they did—then they will again. The top six minute-eaters are back, led, of course, by All-America Tyler Hansbrough. And if for some reason the old guard can't keep the pace, three elite recruits will be around to spell them: PF Ed Davis, C Tyler Zeller and PG Larry Drew II. With an overflow of talent, Williams' biggest task will again be to find enough run for everyone. One guy who won't sit much is PG Ty Lawson. With Lawson leading that patented secondary break, the Heels were 49–3 in the previous two seasons when they scored more than 80 points (18–7 when they didn't). What makes the Heels that much more dangerous, though, is that Lawson is also at home in the halfcourt. When the shot clock winds down, there's no one panicking as long as he has the rock.

THE PLAY After Lawson comes off a high screen from Thompson, his first options are to shoot, feed Ellington in the corner or go inside to Hansbrough. But teams are likely to overplay Hansbrough and Ellington. Luckily, Lawson has Green at the top of the key, just waiting to create his own shot.

THE OBSTACLESVIRGINIA TECH [March 4]
If there's one team that can slow the frenetic Heels, it's these guys. The Hokies, behind the fierce Jeff Allen, gave up only 64.7 ppg last season (fewest in the ACC).

ORAL ROBERTS [Dec. 13] The Golden Eagles won the Summit League because they allowed a measly 62 ppg. Their nine newcomers mean ORU can fight the Heels with their own stellar set of recruits.


Any coach can prattle on about getting to the line, but look what happens when a team actually listens. Calhoun's Huskies charge up the floor, attack the rim and draw fouls. He's not happy unless they attempt 200 more foul shots than their opponents at season's end. And you don't do that by settling for jumpers (UConn took the fewest three-pointers in the Big East). Instead, the Huskies pound it inside and get the other guys in foul trouble. They were the only team in the top five of both kenpom.com's offensive and defensive free throw rate (FTM/FGA, opp. FTA/opp. FGA), thanks in part to returning stars Jeff Adrien (second in the Big East in FTA) and Hasheem Thabeet (eighth). Thabeet makes sure foes don't have the same advantages. His league-best 4.5 bpg make them rethink a trip down the lane. In UConn's 24 wins, it averaged 14.3 more FT attempts than opponents. In its nine losses, that margin was 5.9. For this team, getting to the line is the bottom line.

THE PLAY Price feeds Dyson on the wing and sprints to the corner. Adrien cuts to the high post to snag Dyson's entry pass, then looks for Thabeet ducking in from the right block for an easy bucket (or trip to the line). If Thabeet isn't free, Adrien is in the right spot to take his shot.

THE OBSTACLESNOTRE DAME
[Jan. 24, Feb. 28]
The Irish, who were responsible for one of the Huskies' nine losses last season, were the only Big East team to allow fewer FTA per game than UConn did.

RUTGERS [Jan. 3] Hamady Ndiaye, he of the three blocks per game, scares the devil out of would-be penetrators. That's why Rutgers ranked 18th in kenpom.com's defensive free throw rate.


Guards have always instigated Pitt's aggro man-to-man, but it's forwards who are the engine of the high-revving D these days. And, not just the D. Panther fast breaks are sparked by turnovers caused disproportionately by the frontliners. DeJuan Blair (62) and Sam Young (41) each poked away more steals than any guard on the team, and almost three of the squad's seven per game (41.0%). The 6'7" Blair was one of only three Big Easters to post top-15 in both steals (11th) and rebounds per game (fourth). He and Young jump-start, if that's the term for it, what can still seem like a slogging offense. But to be fair, these Panthers regularly break 70, thanks to a spike in possessions (65.5 per) and contained shot selection (1.13 points per possession, tops in the Big East). While G Levance Fields recovers slowly from foot surgery, Young (38.3% 3FG) will take some of his touches. Hey, Fields should know better than to trust his boy.

THE PLAY When Blair comes up with a steal in the low block, he outlets to Fields, and Pitt runs a traditional break, but with only one big trailing. Say it's Blair who follows the play. Fields dribbles on the perimeter, then reverses the ball through Blair to the wing. Blair then rolls to the basket and cuts out for a baseline jumper, or screens for Brown as he penetrates.

THE OBSTACLESUCONN
[Feb. 16, March 7]

The Huskies are the only Big East team against which Pitt has a losing record over the past five seasons (3–5). And you know A.J. Price has confidence in his handle.

WEST VIRGINIA [Jan. 25, Feb. 9] The Mountaineers split with the Panthers last season, and this time around, frosh sensation Devin Ebanks will see if he can give Pitt's front line the business.


Unlike those of other boldface programs—say, Memphis or UNC—UCLA's offensive stats won't exactly blow people away. Howland's slow-and-steady style is, and always will be, what it is: boring and incredibly successful. The Bruins averaged just 64.9 possessions per game, 251st in the country, and that tepid tempo limits shots (and highlight opportunities). That makes UCLA's plus-8.2 rebound differential (fourth in D1) that much more astounding. The exits of Kevin Love, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Russell Westbrook and Lorenzo Mata-Real have taken away 62.4% of UCLA's boards so, yes, the team will be more vulnerable inside. But a top-notch recruiting class that features 6'8" Drew Gordon and 6'10" J'mison Morgan gives UCLA a precocious if untested front line. Seasoned senior PG Darren Collison will keep the newbies (including top-frosh SG Jrue Holiday) on the right track. If his 14.5 ppg don't earn respect, his three Final Four trips better.

THE PLAY Aboya comes from the right block to set a high ball screen for Collison. As Collison penetrates, Keefe moves to the arc and Holiday rotates to the wing. Now, Collison can look for his shot, kick to Holiday or Keefe or find Aboya, who has cut to the basket after finishing his screen.

THE OBSTACLESUSC
[Jan. 11, Feb. 4]
The Trojans still have bruising PF Taj Gibson (7.8 rpg) and a front line that will be even tougher if UNC transfer Alex Stepheson wins his eligibility appeal.

WASHINGTON [Jan. 24, Feb. 19] The Huskies beat the Bruins last season, and Jon Brockman had 13 boards. You know the Pac-10's top rebounder (11.6 rpg) is itching to do it again.


Assistant coach Steve Masiello says that Louisville's D is built on a simple equation: "Unbelievable ball pressure equals rushed offenses." When the theory works, opponents end up with what the Cardinals call challenge shots—quick, awkward, out of sync. And it often works. According to kenpom.com, UL topped the Big East and was sixth in D1 in defensive efficiency, allowing just 90.8 points per 100 possessions. You don't learn that tenacity overnight, and coach Rick Pitino has four starters who are already up to speed. (They are also well versed in the subtleties of his multifaceted offense.) G Jerry Smith was part of a four-way Big East tie for third in steals, and G Edgar Sosa and F's Terrence Williams and Earl Clark get in grills too. The bigs also combined for 11.7 defensive rpg. Even hyped frosh Samardo Samuels focused on boosting his D this summer. The Cardinals could once again have the Big East on lockdown.

THE PLAY Resetting the offense, Samuels dribbles toward the right wing and hands off to Sosa to create space. As Sosa begins his drive, Clark screens for Smith, who curls to the left wing. Clark then moves to the low block to set a pick for Williams, who cuts across the lane. Sosa then looks to Smith for a three or Williams inside.

THE OBSTACLESGEORGETOWN [Feb. 23]
Junior F DaJuan Summers has the size (6'8", 236 pounds) and skills to pose a big problem in the paint.

NOTRE DAME [Jan. 12, Feb. 12] The Irish know how to get to the hole too, leading the Big East last season with 79 ppg. Bruising F Luke Harangody topped the conference with 20.4 ppg on 50% shooting.


Raymar Morgan's numbers are as volatile as the Dow. Last season, he averaged 15.5 ppg when the Spartans won and 9.6 when they didn't—nearly a six-point swing. Big Ten foes made the 6'8" junior a target, sure, but no one did quite the job of taking him out as Morgan himself. The forward's confidence clearly flagged as the year wore on; he took more than 10 shots only three times after January, a stretch in which MSU went 8–7. Now, with Drew Neitzel gone, Morgan is, for better or worse, the go-to guy. He'll get more backup from soph Kalin Lucas and it is hoped from frosh Delvon Roe—who is recovering from microfracture surgery on his knee—than Neitzel got from him. And with senior Goran Suton doing the down-low dirty work, Morgan can focus on keeping his production on a more even keel. Given his fragile state, though, it's best if no one tells him that MSU's current class of seniors could be the first four-year group to not make a Final Four under Izzo.

THE PLAY Lucas feeds Allen on the right wing, then cuts to the corner. While Allen dribbles toward the top of the key, Morgan curls off a weak-side screen from Gray and looks for a dish from Allen for a jumper from the left elbow.

THE OBSTACLESPENN STATE
[Jan. 14, Feb. 1]

The Nittany Lions return every starter from a squad that split the season series with the Spartans.

WISCONSIN [Feb. 22] The Badgers have won four straight against Izzo's squad, and nine of 12. And the D (54.4 ppg, the Big Ten's best) makes everyone look sick. But it made Morgan look comatose: He scored seven in each of last season's meetings.


Yes, it's been a long time since the Zags were a Cinderella. But although they've returned to the Dance every year since, including three other Sweet 16 trips, it's now been a long time since they made it to the Elite Eight, too. Ten years come March, in fact. So Gonzaga is in a weird fairy-tale netherworld. Know what would be the happiest ending? A visit to the Final Four. And why not? The Zags boast reigning WCC POY Jeremy Pargo and dominated the conference in several categories last season, from scoring (76.5 ppg) to defensive rebounding (26.2 pg, 17th in D1). One of their strongest gains, though, was in rebounding margin, which they led with a plus-5.2. That won't change. Associate head coach Leon Rice says the Zags have focused on rebounding since their Sweet 16 battle with Michigan State in 2001, and look at the roster: With six guys who are 6'8" or over, including 6'11" standout Austin Daye, this is the tallest team in the conference. Cinderella? More like Jeremy and the Beanstalks.

THE PLAY Pargo passes the ball to Daye, who hands off to Downs and cuts under the basket behind a pick set by Gray. Gray moves toward the top of the key as Daye screens for Heytvelt on the opposite block. Downs feeds Gray, who looks under the basket for Daye or Heytvelt.

THE OBSTACLESSAINT MARY'S
[Jan. 29, Feb. 12]

The Gaels had a plus-4.6 rebounding margin and return four starters, including G Patty Mills, who pulled down a respectable 66 caroms from the back line to go with 14.8 ppg.

SANTA CLARA [Jan. 15, Feb. 26] The squad's biggest weapon is senior big John Bryant, who led the WCC in rebounding (298) and blocks (76) and was second in scoring last season.


Everyone knows cocky Kyle McAlarney likes to light it up (15.1 ppg), but don't pigeonhole him. He'll give it up, too. The six-foot senior guard was one of six players to finish in the top 20 in the Big East in points and the top 15 in assists (3.5 apg), and his is the kind of well-roundedness the Irish way calls for. Mike Brey's three-out, two-in motion offense casts everyone as a screener and dishes fly from all over. And often: Notre Dame led D1 with its 18.4 apg. A chunk of those came from PG Tory Jackson, who topped the conference with 5.8 per. Jackson will be put in a good position to spread it around again, to the sharpshooting McAlarney, sure, but more so to Big East preseason POY Luke Harangody. This, though, is most definitely a team effort: The Irish run into trouble when opponents force them into quick possessions or cut off passing lanes. In seven of their eight losses, they were held below their seasonal assists average. Talk about a dime's worth of difference.

THE PLAY Jackson dribbles hard to the wing while McAlarney cross-screens for Harangody. Hillesland then screens for McAlarney, who can pop to the top of the key for a jumper. But if McAlarney can't get free, Harangody is coming up off a down screen from Hillesland. If Harangody's defender cheats to help on McAlarney (which is likely), Harangody has plenty of room to pull up for his own J.

THE OBSTACLESMARQUETTE [Jan. 26]
Neither Jackson nor McAlarney is more than six feet tall, and that makes both of them prey for big guards like Wesley Matthews (6'5") and Jerel McNeal (6'3"). Might explain those two Golden Eagles wins over the Irish a season ago.

VILLANOVA [March 2] Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher can hang with ND's guards, and 6'8" F Dante Cunningham can bang with Harangody.

CLICK HERE TO SEE TEAMS 9-16