The teams I'm looking out for in '09-10
The NBA and NHL playoffs are over, football is still a couple of months away and I'd rather not have to pretend to enjoy baseball. So let's talk some college hoops. With so many quality underclassmen returning and so many stud freshmen arriving, we're looking at one heck of a season.
It's still a long way away, but here's my early take on the top teams for 2009-10, along with a host of others that could easily contend for a trip to the Final Four in Indy
1. Kansas: This team stood toe-to-toe with eventual national runner-up Michigan State in the Sweet 16 -- and brings everybody back. Plus prize recruit Xavier Henry. Combine that with Kentucky guard Jodie Meeks' decision to stay in the draft, and KU isn't just the favorite; it's a big favorite -- almost as big as North Carolina last year. Sherron Collins can be coach Bill Self's Ty Lawson, and Cole Aldrich can be his Tyler Hansbrough.
2. Villanova: When Scottie Reynolds re-upped, the Wildcats became Big East favorites and a national title threat. Reynolds returns to join three other key players from last season's Final Four team, plus coach Jay Wright adds one of the nation's best recruiting classes and Duke transfer Taylor King. Replacing Dante Cunningham's points, rebounds and leadership will be the hard part.
3. Michigan State: The Spartans' remarkable NCAA tourney run reminded everyone just how good Tom Izzo is. The veteran coach lost a couple of important parts of that team in Goran Suton and Travis Walton, but no fewer than seven very good players return. If Delvon Roe and Raymar Morgan are 100 percent physically, Michigan State will be one of the most balanced inside-outside teams in the country.
4. North Carolina: Coach Roy Williams will moan about how young his team is. Don't listen to him. While it will be technically true, about 335 Division I coaches would love to try scraping by with Ed Davis, Deon Thompson, Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Larry Drew II, etc. Carolina has become recession-proof.
5. Purdue: The Boilermakers might not have been mentally prepared to wear a bull's-eye early last season -- and then Robbie Hummel hurt his back. But with Hummel, JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore all back as juniors, Purdue will have one of the most talented and experienced triumvirates in the nation. This season, they'll be mature enough to handle big expectations.
6. Kentucky: Almost everything about the Wildcats is better than it has been in years. Better point guard in freshman stud John Wall. Better size in Patrick Patterson teaming with freshmen Daniel Orton and DeMarcus Cousins. Better athleticism -- watch sophomore Darius Miller flourish. Better coaching with John Calipari. But what about perimeter shooting? Meeks was the only proven collegiate shooter on the roster. That's how you go from the top two to out of the top five.
7. Texas: The Longhorns look a lot like Kentucky. They're deep, athletic, big, strong -- and wondering who is going to make a jump shot now that A.J. Abrams is gone. He made 108 of Texas' 166 3s last season. If someone steps into that position and becomes a perimeter threat opponents must respect, the Horns will be ranked higher than this.
8. West Virginia: Calling it here first: If Devin Ebanks keeps maturing, he'll challenge for Big East Player of the Year and All-America honors. And he has a whole lot of talented company in Morgantown. Getting back table-setting guard Joe Mazzulla from injury could be the final piece for the Mountaineers.
9. Duke: This is a begin-the-season ranking. As we all know, Duke hasn't done anything in years to prove it is a top-10 team at NCAA tournament time. But even after losing junior Gerald Henderson to the draft, it's hard not to like the Blue Devils' talent. Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith form a nice foundation to build on.
10. Butler: One of the youngest teams in the country surprisingly won 26 games last season. Now everyone is back, starting with post player Matt Howard. With a more experienced backcourt, the Bulldogs will be the marquee team from outside the power six conferences.
A baker's dozen of others to watch, in alphabetical order:
California: With UCLA and Arizona in transition and USC in chaos, the time has never been better for the Golden Bears. After surprisingly making the NCAAs last season, they can shoot for winning the Pac-10 and more now.
Georgia Tech: Coach Paul Hewitt will have one of the nation's most talented frontcourts with sophomore Gani Lawal and freshman Derrick Favors. He'll need them to play up to their talent to keep his job.
Michigan: John Beilein showed his stuff last season, getting the Wolverines into the NCAAs and pulling a first-round upset. It will only get better from there.
Minnesota: In Year 3, a typical Tubby Smith team is coming together in the upper Midwest: deep, tenacious defensively and rugged inside.
Mississippi State: If 6-foot-10 Renardo Sidney and 7-2 John Riek gain their eligibility, they'll team with 6-9 shot-blocker Jarvis Varnado to form the All-Gigantaur team of 2009-10. Get some guard play -- which the Bulldogs should have -- and State could go a looong way.
Notre Dame: Luke Harangody came back to school and the Irish pick up key transfers Ben Hansbrough (from Mississippi State) and Scott Martin (from Purdue). Still not sure they can guard anyone, though.
Ohio State: Well-rounded Evan Turner might be the most underappreciated player in the country.
Oklahoma: When Willie Warren announced he was returning to school for his sophomore season, the Sooners knew there would be Life After Blake. If Warren matures, it could be a very good life.
Tennessee: Tyler Smith is coming back, which is a great place to start. But the Volunteers still need better point guard play to rebound completely from the disappointing 2008-09 season.
Xavier: The Musketeers lose coach Sean Miller (to Arizona) but retain a lot of good players and add Indiana transfer Jordan Crawford.
(OK, I'm slipping in a 14th team. Vanderbilt was another very young group in 2008-09 that should take a big step forward in 2009-10.)
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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