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Tuesday, April 8, 2003
Updated: April 20, 4:15 PM ET

UConn has players in place to claim '04 crown

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- To pick a 2004 preseason top 25 the day after the 2003 national title, one must first predict who will be playing college basketball in 2003-04 and who won't.

Otherwise, Syracuse -- with two freshmen, two sophomores and only one senior in the starting lineup -- would be an pretty popular pick to repeat in 2004.

High Fives
A couple more opinions when it comes to 2004's title favorites:
Dick Vitale
1. Connecticut Huskies
2. Texas Longhorns
3. Kentucky Wildcats
4. Duke Blue Devils
5. Michigan State Spartans

Digger Phelps
1. Texas Longhorns
2. Connecticut Huskies
3. Michigan State Spartans
4. North Carolina Tar Heels
5. Arizona Wildcats

So, before wondering why the Orange didn't crack the top 10, check out a few crucial decisions to be made in the month of May. Obviously, we could be wrong -- way wrong. But these predictions are based on who's leaning toward declaring early for the NBA draft, based conversations with NBA scouts and those close to the programs.

For example, if Carmelo Anthony leaves (as expected) for the NBA, well the Orangemen will be at least ranked in the preseason next year with the likes of Gerry McNamara, Hakim Warrick, Billy Edelin and company coming back. But, the Cuse won't be among the favorites to cut down the nets in San Antonio.

Fellow Big East member Georgetown is in the same situation with junior Michael Sweetney leaning toward the NBA, as are Texas (T.J. Ford), Marquette (Dwyane Wade) and Oregon (Luke Ridnour). All could be top 10 teams next season, if they're star underclassmen return.

One Big East team, however, won't have such questions surrounding their programs until the NBA's early-entry deadline in May -- Connecticut. The Huskies overachieved somewhat this season after losing Caron Butler early to the 2002 draft. UConn reached the Sweet 16 despite losing Butler, and unless something strange happens between now and November, will have its core of players in place for the season opener.

UConn lost just two seniors who played significant minutes this season and likely preseason All-America forward Emeka Okafor (15.5 ppg, 11 rpg, 155 blocks), leading scorer Ben Gordon (19.5 ppg) and senior-to-be point guard Taliek Brown. This year's freshmen -- Rashad Anderson, Denham Brown, Hilton Armstrong and Marcus White -- each gained invaluable minutes in NCAA Tournament games, and for those reasons, Jim Calhoun's squad earns ESPN.com's nod as the early favorite to win it all next year.

Here is the rest of the top 25 teams, which will change based on recruiting coups, off-season transfers and bad decisions by players when it comes to the NBA.

No. 1: Connecticut Huskies
Again, the Huskies bring back maybe the best all-around post player in Okafor and one of the top scoring guards in Gordon. Neither has ideas of bolting early for the NBA, which means Connecticut has the balance and the hunger to make a run to San Antonio in April, 2004. Connecticut also had one of the more underrated freshmen classes in the country. And, while it may not have resulted in a title for Kansas, a senior will be running the show at the point in Brown.

No. 2: Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans' didn't lean on their seniors much and still got to the Elite Eight -- a step further than UConn. Michigan State had one of the top recruiting classes in the nation coming in this season and Paul Davis, Maurice Ager and Erazem Lorbek each got better as the season got longer. Tom Izzo will have his 2003-04 team primed for another run to the Final Four after earning two hard-working bids the past two seasons. Chris Hill was MSU's only player to average double digits, and is among the top returning players in the Big Ten after breaking out for a few outstanding shooting performances in his sophomore campaign.

No. 3: Missouri Tigers
The Tigers will leap past Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma as the Big 12's best team entering next season, returning a team virtually intact. The inside-out combination of Ricky Clemons, Jimmy McKinney and Arthur Johnson and Travon Bryant make Mizzou tough to stop. Adding VMI transfer Jason Conley in December should give Quin Snyder just another scoring option to make a run for the title.

No. 4: Duke Blue Devils
The Blue Devils leaned heavily on their freshmen and they should be even better as sophomores. The key will be whether Chris Duhon matures into the type of senior leaders we've seen lead teams to the Final Four and the title lately. If he becomes a Hollis Price-type player then the Blue Devils have a legit shot to get to the Final Four. Adding Luol Deng and Kris Humphries gives the Blue Devils even more combinations -- inside and out.

No. 5: Arizona Wildcats
Yes, the Wildcats do lose Luke Walton, Jason Gardner and Ricky Anderson. But the Wildcats return the likes of Salim Stoudamire, Hassan Adams, Channing Frye, Andre Iguodala and players ready to emerge as stars in Chris Rodgers and redshirt Chris Dunn. Adding Ndudi Ebi and Mustafa Shakur makes the Wildcats just as deep as this year. What Arizona needs to replace is senior leadership.

No. 6: Gonzaga Bulldogs
The Bulldogs will be back in the top 10 because they lose Zach Gourde and Winston Brooks, but add redshirt Sean Mallon and Washington transfer Erroll Knight. The rest of the team, notably Blake Stepp and Ronny Turiaf -- a squad that nearly clipped Arizona in the second round of the NCAAs -- returns intact. This will be Mark Few's best team since he has been in charge. If the Bulldogs schedule non-conference, top 25 teams again, they'll be even more tested for a deep run in March.

No. 7: Kansas Jayhawks
Like Arizona above, losing seniors Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison won't be easy to overcome. But if Wayne Simien comes back healthy, he could turn into a player of the year candidate. The Jayhawks will also have an even better Aaron Miles at the point, Keith Langford on the wing and Jeff Graves roaming the middle. Regardless of what happens with Roy Williams, this will be a tough team to beat in the Big 12.

No. 8: Florida Gators
It's hard to get too excited with the Gators since they'll lose Matt Bonner and defensive stopper Justin Hamilton. But Florida still has two of the best sophomore-to-be candidates in Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson. If the Gators can get Mario Boggan to be a player to help David Lee inside, well Florida could be a factor in March and actually maybe last until the second weekend.

No. 9: Kentucky Wildcats
If the Tubby Smith defensive mentality sticks into next season, the Wildcats could move up on this list. Kentucky still has Marquis Estill inside (he's expected to get back for his fourth season of eligibility) and could lean hard on Gerald Fitch, Cliff Hawkins, Erik Daniels, Antwain Barbour and Kelenna Azubuike. Losing Keith Bogans and Jules Camara will hurt, but not for long.

No. 10: North Carolina Tar Heels
This is 2004's sexy top 25 pick. But, if the Tar Heels get a healthy Sean May to start the season, this isn't a reach, nor should it be questioned. May, Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants won't leave now that Matt Doherty has been run out of Chapel Hill, while Jawad Williams and David Noel give UNC more than enough to be a top-10 team, no matter who is the coach.

11. Syracuse: Remember, we're saying the Orangemen won't have Anthony. But they proved they are more than just Anthony. Gerry McNamara is one of the best shooting guards in the country and Warrick might be the most exciting forward in the nation. Edelin and Josh Pace will be wiser and the Orangemen defense strikes fear into opposing teams.

12. Illinois: The Illini won't have Brian Cook, but they do return three of the top sophomores in the Big Ten. Guards Dee Brown and Deron Williams, as well as James Augustine, provide the nucleus for the Illini to make a deep run. Illinois also will have a healthy Luther Head to go with Roger Powell, which means the Illini could be one of the best in the Big Ten.

13. Ohio State: This might seem like a reach, but the Buckeyes could be the sleeper pick in the Big Ten. They reached the Big Ten title game and add Tony Stockman (Clemson) and J.J. Sullinger (Arkansas), two of the better redshirt transfers to sit out last season. The Buckeyes could be a sleeping giant next season and Jim O'Brien doesn't usually miss the NCAAs two seasons in a row.

14. Saint Joseph's: The Hawks could have one of the best backcourts in the country with Jameer Nelson and Delonte West. Saint Joseph's proved this season that it had one of the best defensive teams in the country. That shouldn't change with majority of this team returning. Expect Pat Carroll to be an even better shooter and make the Hawks tougher to defend.

15. Pittsburgh: The Panthers do lose Brandin Knight, Donatas Zavackas and Ontario Lett ... but the rest of the team is back. No matter who is the coach, this team will defend and be a tough team to beat at home. Pittsburgh still has one of the most productive players in Chevy Troutman. The identity of the Panthers will still be of a rugged team that won't quit.

16. Texas: We know you probably think this is a crazy pick. But, remember, we're saying Ford is gone. If that's the case, the Longhorns will drop. Just how far is the question. Ford was too important to this team to keep the Longhorns in the top 10 without him. The core of this team will be back, and if UT can find direction with another point guard, then the Longhorns will move up into the top 25 by season's end.

17. Oklahoma: The Sooners lose three critical seniors in Hollis Price, Ebi Ere and Quannas White. But Oklahoma had a stellar recruiting class, and could lean hard on De'Angelo Alexander on the perimeter and Kevin Bookout and Jabahri Brown inside to form a tough combination. The Sooners will still mirror Kelvin Sampson and that means they won't be easy to beat.

18. Utah: The Utes lose Britton Johnsen, but return just about everyone else who matters. Rick Majerus also had one of the best freshmen classes in the West. If they can get Australian Andrew Bogut eligible, Majerus will have himself a top 25 team. The Utes beat Oregon without Johnsen and Majerus is thrilled about this returning squad. He believes this could be his best team since the '98 squad that lost to Kentucky in the title game.

19. Louisville: OK, we know, they lose Reece Gaines and Marvin Stone. But did you see how well Francisco Garcia played in the NCAA Tournament? Garcia could be the link that keeps the Cardinals from one NCAAs to the next. Rick Pitino has Louisville thinking NCAAs from Day One, and there's no reason to think this squad won't return -- even without the departing seniors.

20. Wisconsin: The Badgers lose Kirk Penney, but the rest of the crew that captured a second straight Big Ten title is back to defend its crown. Adding Brian Butch makes the Badgers a real threat for a third straight league championship. No reason to doubt Bo Ryan after what he has accomplished so far.

21. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs thought they had Mario Austin but he has signed with an agent. Even so, the Bulldogs could pull a Syracuse by riding their freshmen to the NCAAs. The Bulldogs signed one of the nation's best recruiting classes, which includes Jackie Butler, Travis Outlaw and Gary Ervin.

22. Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons lose ACC player of the year in Josh Howard, but they return their core and adding point guard Chris Paul makes them a player nationally. Wake Forest has created an attitude again that it can be equal with Duke, Maryland and North Carolina in recruiting circles and should be taken seriously as a legit ACC title contender.

23. Cincinnati: The Bearcats are a mystery but if Tony Bobbitt is a player all season and additions James White of Florida and JC transfer Robert Whaley are level-headed, the Bearcats are a Conference USA favorite. If they falter, or if Whaley somehow doesn't show up, then Cincinnati could easily be replaced by Marquette or Memphis out of Conference USA on this list.

24. Arizona State: The Sun Devils were senior-heavy, but still have the best freshman post player returning in Ike Diogu. If Oregon's Ridnour bolts, as expected, then Diogu becomes the preseason Pac-10 player of the year. ASU could ride him into the top 25 and back to the NCAAs.

25. California: The Bears do lose Joe Shipp and Brian Wethers, but British guard Richard Midgley -- he of the game-winning shot to beat N.C. State in the NCAA's first round -- is back, as is forward Amit Tamir. And the Bears add Leon Powe, a small forward with Anthony-like ability. Powe could carry the Bears deep in the 2004 tourney, just like another freshman this season.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.



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