Bulldogs lurking outside top 10
Wake Forest is our No. 1. Can anyone outside the top 10 chase down the Deacons? Check out teams 11-25 below:
(Editor's note: 2003-04 records listed include NCAA Tournament games. Rankings are from the final regular-season polls.)
11. Mississippi State
Record: 26-4 (14-2 SEC)
Rank: No. 5 ESPN/USA Today, No. 4 AP
Outcome: Lost in second round (Xavier 89-74)
What we like: Lawrence Roberts. Quite simply, the Bulldogs wouldn't be in the Top 25 if Roberts had decided to stay in the NBA draft. His decision alone keeps the Bulldogs in the mix. Roberts is the only returning first-team Wooden All-American. He's the reigning SEC player of the year. He could be a dominant college player. The Bulldogs lost point guard Timmy Bowers, but have Gary Ervin ready to step into a leadership role. He's a tough, hard-nosed New Yorker who can handle the pressure. Expect Shane Power to be healthy and more at ease in the system in his third year after transferring from Iowa State. Winsome Frazier is one of the better role players in the SEC on the wing and coach Rick Stansbury is raving about the potential impact of freshmen big men Charles Rhodes and Jerrell Houston.
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Keep an eye on: Marcus Campbell. He hasn't amounted to much since he arrived but Stansbury is hoping that he can become much more of a presence. They need someone else to be a buffer next to Roberts. Campbell has the size at 7-feet but he hasn't improved as much offensively. If he can become more of a drawing card for a defense then the Bulldogs will be a tougher out come March.
Non-conference nightmare: The Bulldogs should get to New York for the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic where Syracuse should be waiting in the semifinals and then likely Memphis in the final. Playing Arizona in the John Wooden Classic in Anaheim should give them two top-10 games in the first three weeks of the season. Playing at Xavier will be a tough chore, too.
Best-case scenario: The Bulldogs should win the SEC West, and if they can shake their March issues, make it at least to the second weekend.
Record: 20-10 (9-7 C-USA)
Outcome: Lost in first round (Xavier 80-70)
What we like: They have a legit star player in Francisco Garcia. He has the potential to be a first-team all-American and player of the year candidate. Garcia has the ability to carry this team far into March. But he's hardly alone. Taquan Dean is a perfect complement to Garcia, offering a scoring guard who doesn't mind sharing the spotlight or even taking a bit of a backseat. The Cardinals get Ellis Myles inside after he missed last season with a knee injury. He's the team's top rebounder and should give them the balance they lacked a year ago. Louisville added two impact players in forwards Brian Johnson and Juan Palacios. This team should be well-conditioned, hungrier than a year ago and an even better defensive team.
Causes for concern: Similar to Mississippi State's problems in March, Louisville hasn't advanced under Rick Pitino the past two seasons. The Cardinals were fatigued at the end of last season and have the tendency to fade. This team was on a roll at 16-1 last season and then proceeded to win only three of the next 10. Louisville's NCAA run has mirrored Mississippi State in terms of opponents. Xavier bounced Louisville in round one before beating the Bulldogs in the second round last March. Butler beat Louisville in round two in 2003 after taking out Mississippi State in the first round. Finding out why this team fades is a critical question that needs to be answered over the next few months.
Keep an eye on: Seniors Otis George and Larry O'Bannon. Pitino has gotten a lot out of these role players in the past. He'll need just as much if the Cardinals are to advance into March. O'Bannon averaged 10.3 points a game and George grabbed 4.8 rebounds a game. He needs these two to keep their production growing.
Non-conference nightmare: The Maui Invitational field will test this team early, with games against Iowa, likely Texas and possibly North Carolina or Stanford. Playing at Florida and hosting Kentucky gives the Cardinals plenty of high-profile, good power-rating games to get this team ready for Conference USA.
Best-case scenario: This team has the ability to make a deep run but they probably need one more star player to get them into the Final Four. We see them falling a round or two short.
Record: 27-5 (13-3 SEC)
Rank: No. 8 ESPN/USA Today, No. 8 AP
Outcome: Lost in second round (Alabama-Birmingham 76-75)
What we like: The freshmen class. Randolph Morris could turn out to be the national freshman of the year. He has the potential to be one of the most dominating big men in the country. He could have gone in the first round of the NBA draft like his AAU teammates Dwight Howard and Josh Smith. The backcourt of freshmen Rajon Rondo and Joe Crawford are as good a tandem of newcomer guards as you will see. But the biggest impact might be from Western Kentucky transfer guard Patrick Sparks. He'll bring instant credibility, toughness and leadership to the backcourt. The Wildcats don't lack returning talent with the hard-nosed senior Chuck Hayes up front along with junior wing Kelenna Azubuike. Coach Tubby Smith continues to maximize the Wildcats' talent. He usually has a relative cast of unknowns that he forms into a title contender; this season he has one of the top newcomer classes in the country. Regardless, he'll find a way to transform this team into an SEC champ.
Causes for concern: The lack of experience. Hayes and Azubuike aren't a concern. But the Wildcats will rely on players who haven't played at this level. It might take a few months for the newcomers to feel completely comfortable playing in pressure-packed, emotional games. The bench also is still developing and, while the Wildcats can go eight to nine deep, they still don't have the experienced role player to come off the bench.
Keep an eye on: Ramel Bradley. He's not getting as much hype as Morris, Rondo and Crawford, but Bradley should have a significant impact, too. The 6-foot-3 Bradley gives the Wildcats four guards that could end up being interchangeable, all able to handle the ball at times. If all four are scorers, then the Wildcats will be even tougher to defend.
Non-conference nightmare: The Wildcats never shy away from a tough non-conference game. They play at North Carolina, vs. Indiana in Louisville and travel to Louisville in the first three weeks of December. They also host Kansas on Jan. 9 before they dive deep into the heart of the SEC schedule.
Best-case scenario: This team has the look of one that could be real special by March. Don't be surprised to see Kentucky make a deep run in March, even if it has a few more losses then it's used to along the way. Once the newcomers get comfortable, this team will be extremely dangerous.
Record: 31-6 (13-3 ACC)
Rank: No. 4 ESPN/USA Today, No. 5 AP
Outcome: Lost in Final Four (Connecticut 79-78)
What we like: The top eight, or should we say, the only eight. Duke's eight scholarship players are talented enough to get the Blue Devils to the Final Four. They have one of the best big men in Shelden Williams, one of the top scoring guards in Daniel Ewing, one of the best pure shooters in J.J. Redick and a potential rising star (if he ever lives up to his hype) in forward Shavlik Randolph. The newcomer that has created the most buzz is DeMarcus Nelson. He can play a variety of positions including the point. If Nelson becomes a potential stud, the Blue Devils certainly would have enough scorers to keep them in the ACC race. Sean Dockery has to be more assertive, but he has the talent to be a steady playmaker. The two unknowns are how much they'll get out of junior Lee Melchionni and freshman David McClure.
Causes for concern: The leadership vacuum. Redick has shown some signs but he needs to be even more demonstrative. It would probably help if Dockery or Ewing took on this role. The Blue Devils will miss Chris Duhon's leadership more than Luol Deng's points. Duhon wouldn't let this team lose at times (see: win at North Carolina). His passion for winning rubbed off on all of his teammates. Finding someone to fill this void is critical to the development of this team.
Keep an eye on: Randolph. He started to show flashes of what he could accomplish over the course of a full season during March. He shot 76 percent during the NCAA Tournament, averaging 10 points and five rebounds in the five games. He scored 13 points and didn't miss any of his six shots in the national semifinal loss to Connecticut. If Randolph can put up these kind of consistent numbers, Duke has a shot to stay near the top two in the ACC.
Non-conference nightmare: Duke plays host to Michigan State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. The Blue Devils beat Michigan State last season in East Lansing. This time, the Spartans come into the game as the more experienced team. Duke plays Oklahoma in Madison Square Garden in New York and has a potential trap game against Princeton in Durham in early January.
Best-case scenario: The Blue Devils have the look of a Sweet 16 team or a second-round loser unless they can find the leader needed to advance them deeper into March.
15. Michigan State
Record: 18-12 (12-4 Big Ten)
Outcome: Lost in first round (Nevada 72-66)
What we like: The overall depth of talent. We're convinced the Spartans won't go through another rough season. The veterans have weathered too much to not challenge for a Big Ten title and beyond. Seniors Chris Hill, Alan Anderson and Kelvin Torbert have too much pride. Combine this threesome with a pro like Paul Davis along with Shannon Brown, Maurice Ager and freshman point guard Drew Neitzel and the Spartans have the answers at each position. Davis is the one true star but the rest of the squad is disciplined enough to keep this team in the hunt throughout the year. The 5-7 record was due to a team not ready to handle the toughest schedule in the nation. Not having a true point guard didn't help. The team righted itself to get to 17-9 and 12-3 in the Big Ten. But the Spartans floundered down the stretch, losing two of their last three games (both to Wisconsin) and then falling to Nevada in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. We're not projecting that to occur again. Tom Izzo is too good a coach to let this team fade.
Causes for concern: The Spartans have had trouble with this group of players over the past few seasons, figuring out where and when to play each player. If this team can develop set roles and not deviate too much from it, they have a shot. The egos can't be too big right now after a disappointing finish. But the coaching staff's biggest challenge is managing minutes on a team where so many players are similar in their abilities. They have depth but the players must be willing to play some limited minutes at times for this to work.
Keep an eye on: Marquise Gray. So much of the preseason hype is focused on Neitzel. But Gray could end up being one of the hidden gems in the class of 2004. Gray has bust-out ability and could be an impact scorer off the bench. The Spartans need a reserve player like this to deliver a scoring pop.
Non-conference nightmare: The schedule isn't as tough as a year ago, but the Spartans still play at Duke, essentially at George Washington in the BB&T (at the MCI Center in D.C.) with a possible final matchup against Maryland, and host Stanford and UCLA all before New Year's. That's still pretty stiff.
Best-case scenario: The Spartans have the lineup to get to the Final Four. But this team hasn't performed well under high expectations. They still need to prove it a bit before they're projected into the Final Four. This is a team that could have a stint in the top five, possibly No. 1 at some point during the year. This is at least an Elite Eight-type squad.
Record: 20-11 (9-7 SEC)
Outcome: Lost in opening round (Manhattan 75-60)
What we like: The overall talent is still high enough for the Gators to be a Final Four team. Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh and David Lee can score with any other player at their position. Roberson has grown into more of a balanced point guard. He still thinks score first but, in each season, has improved his ability to distribute. Walsh is erratic, but when he's on, he's tough to defend from deep. Lee is an efficient scorer. When he wants the ball, he can put up double figures every night. The Gators got tougher in the preseason and in practicing for a Bahamas trip that never happened because of a hurricane. They also focused more on defense and say (and we underscore say) they will do a much better job of defending. The Gators are sick of finishing second to Kentucky and being an afterthought come March. This team has the drive to go deep, but it's natural to be a bit cautious.
Causes for concern: The Gators are talking a great game right now, but that doesn't mask the fact they were deep in the SEC in a number of defensive statistics. If they can turn these numbers around and actually be in the top five in as many defensive stats as they are on the offensive end, then this team could get to St. Louis. Playing together in the half-court and then adding a frenetic side when the game goes full-court are keys to this team's success.
Keep an eye on: The freshmen class. The coaching staff is juiced over how well Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah, Taurean Green and Al Horford have adapted to the more demanding approach to the game. Brewer has been billed as a natural on the defensive end. If they can get that kind of defensive energy from this crew, the Gators will push Kentucky and Mississippi State.
Non-conference nightmare: Drawing Providence in Miami will be good test early, considering the Friars like to play zone. The Gators also will be pushed in the full court defensively when Louisville comes calling in December. The game at Florida State after New Year's could end up being their toughest test away from Gainesville, outside of the SEC trips to Kentucky, Mississippi State and LSU.
Best-case scenario: We like this team a lot and the only reason we pushed them down into the second 10 is because of their consistent March swoon. But if this team can show toughness defensively, they have the ability to get to the Final Four. The more realistic end point is probably in the Elite Eight or Sweet 16.
17. North Carolina State
Record: 21-10 (11-5 ACC)
Rank: No. 20 ESPN/USA Today, No. 17 AP
Outcome: Lost in second round (Vanderbilt 75-73)
What we like: Julius Hodge's decision to return to N.C. State made us really like this squad again. ACC player of the year winners don't usually come back to defend their award. But Hodge has a chance to win back-to-back honors. He's a Mr. Everything for the Wolfpack and continues to develop into one of the better leaders in the country. He wasn't a lock for the first round and saw that he needed to work more on his game and at the same time help the Wolfpack get back to the Dance yet again. Ilian Evtimov should be even better two seasons removed from his ACL surgery. Adding Georgetown transfer Tony Bethel is a huge plus and helps Hodge in the backcourt. Engin Atsur was a steal a year ago and he could end up being one of the better fourth options in the ACC. Herb Sendek has done a masterful job of figuring out a niche (nuances of the Princeton offense) to work in the ACC.
Causes for concern: Inside the paint. The Wolfpack have serviceable big men like Jordan Collins, Levi Watkins, Cedric Simmons and Andrew Backman. But none of them are imposing productive players. If one or two of them could end up being a consistent threat, the Wolfpack could make a serious run at the top four in the ACC.
Keep an eye on: Bethel. Georgetown would love to have him back in D.C. Bethel should flourish playing next to Hodge. He's hungry and driven after spending the year sitting out. If he can end up making a defense respect him when he's got the ball, the Wolfpack will be even tougher to defend.
Non-conference nightmare: There's only one game that should strike some fear into the Wolfpack. N.C. State travels to Washington on Dec. 19. That could be the game that prevents the Wolfpack from coasting through their non-conference schedule.
Best-case scenario: N.C. State has a legit shot to upstage some of the ACC hierarchy yet again. But the likely scenario has this team either losing in the second round or getting to the Sweet 16. The inside game doesn't offer enough balance to get this team to the Elite Eight or Final Four.
Record: 20-13 (8-8 SEC)
Outcome: Lost in Elite Eight (Connecticut 87-71)
What we like: The core of their Elite Eight team returns. Alabama was a hard team to read last season but got hot at the right time. Now, the nucleus remains basically intact, and Kennedy Winston is ready for a SEC player of the year campaign. Guard Earnest Shelton and forwards Chuck Davis and Jermareo Davidson aren't stars but work extremely well together. Shelton has the best shot at being a near 20-point scorer. The newcomers, seven in all, should have a significant impact. Ronald Steele, Albert Weber, Glenn Miles, Akini Adkins, Shawn Taylor and JC transfer Jean Felix will all have a shot to earn quality minutes. This team should be an interesting case study over the season to see how the newcomers develop and whther the veterans accept either a reduction in minutes or a collaborative effort.
Causes for concern: Losing Antoine Pettway. His eligibility is over. The Tide made its run because Pettway was the leader. Without Pettway, the Tide must find another energy player either in the starting lineup or off the bench. They've also got to ensure someone is a leader from the guard position. Pettway was a defensive stopper who got this team going when it needed a push.
Keep an eye on: Winston. He had offseason surgery but he should continue to put up major numbers. He had a few games where he disappeared (like going 2 for 11 for six points against Florida in the SEC tournament). But he has the ability to carry this team far again in March.
Non-conference nightmare: Alabama should get to the Great Alaska Shootout title game after playing the host Seawolves, then likely Minnesota, before a possible matchup against Washington, Oklahoma or Utah. Facing Washington would be the toughest game of the bunch. But the Tide still has two games in December that will certainly test this team -- at Charlotte and at Wisconsin.
Best-case scenario: The Tide challenge Mississippi State for the SEC West title, get a decent seed and make it to the Sweet 16. Expecting another Elite Eight would be wishful thinking.
19. Notre Dame
Record: 19-13 (9-7 Big East)
Outcome: Lost in NIT quarterfinals (Oregon 65-61)
What we like: If this squad is 100 percent healthy, it could easily shoot up into the top 10. It's not out of the question to say this team could win the national title. But we're reserving some judgment to ensure that point guard Chris Thomas is healthy after offseason knee surgery and forward Torin Francis is fully recovered from his back surgery. If they are both better than a year ago, both physically and with their game, then they could challenge Syracuse's Gerry McNamara and Hakim Warrick for best 1-2 punch in the Big East. The Irish have plenty of other pieces that we like, too, in Arizona transfer forward Dennis Latimore, shooting guard Chris Quinn, guard Colin Falls and forward Jordan Cornette. Coach Mike Brey has done an outstanding job of finding the right pieces for the Irish to make a run. The NIT finish a year ago was a disappointment, but the injury to Francis and Thomas not feeling quite right (in his knee) contributed to the 19-13 record.
Causes for concern: Francis' back is still a question until he goes through a season. Rebounding has to improve. The numbers from a year ago (minus nearly two boards a game in rebound margin) could be attributed to Francis missing a dozen games. Francis averaged nearly nine rebounds a game when he played.
Keep an eye on: Lattimore. There is a tremendous amount of hype surrounding his eligibility. He wasn't a star at Arizona and playing time was the reason he left. Lattimore will be given a legit shot to produce with the Irish. If he doesn't try to do too much and simply boards and finishes, he should help make the Irish an NCAA Tournament team.
Non-conference nightmare: It's not that bad. A three-game stretch at Michigan, at Indiana and against DePaul is about as tough as it gets. Notre Dame should sail through most of the non-conference to set up a gaudy record going into the Big East.
Best-case scenario: Expect the Irish to be in the race for the Big East title throughout the season. And we fully expect to be off on the Irish about nine or 10 spots. We just couldn't go there yet. This is the type of team that could sneak into the Elite Eight by season's end.
Record: 25-8 (12-4 Big 12)
Rank: No. 11 ESPN/USA Today, No. 11 AP
Outcome: Lost in Sweet 16 (Xavier 79-71)
What we like: The freshman class. This could be one of the best freshmen classes ever recruited under Rick Barnes. That's quite a lofty label to live up to, but the buzz on this crew is certainly high going into the season. Daniel Gibson will start at the point. LaMarcus Aldridge could push Jason Klotz out of the starting lineup at center. Mike Williams could be the starting power forward, keeping Brad Buckman on the bench. And no one would be surprised to see Dion Dowell or Connor Atchley receive major minutes at various points throughout the season. The Longhorns could easily be a top-10 team by March, challenging for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. P.J. Tucker is one of the most versatile forwards in the country and he is turning into a leader, too. He doesn't mind taking on more responsibility and is relishing his role as one of the cornerstones of this team. Sydmill Harris is a legit specialty shooter that should flourish playing next to Gibson. Klotz should end up in the NBA as a backup center. Buckman has run hot and cold but he has the potential to be a consistent finisher. Kenny Taylor is a streaky shooter who should be a major contributor and deep 3-ball threat. Kenton Paulino is a serviceable backup point guard.
Causes for concern: Experience at this point in the season. The freshmen are playing well enough that they could push the veterans for starting roles. The Longhorns lost a lot of experience with the departure of Brandon Mouton, Royal Ivey, James Thomas and Brian Boddicker. They all made big shots, especially last season. It's hard to put a value on that experience in big games. The freshmen will handle it but it might take a few weeks or a month for this team to start to see its potential.
Keep an eye on: Aldridge. He declared for the NBA draft but withdrew after a stress fracture in his back was discovered. He couldn't workout for any teams and decided to go to Texas' summer school. Aldridge could have been a late first-round pick and definitely would have been in the second round. He's got the potential to be a star in the Big 12. He isn't showing any signs of being slowed by the back injury but he wasn't able to have a completely productive offseason.
Non-conference nightmare: The Maui Invitational could provide potential matchups against North Carolina, Louisville and/or Stanford. Texas would have a tough time with any of those squads but has the talent to slay all of them. Playing at Seton Hall and hosting Wake Forest and UNLV will certainly test this team before the rugged Big 12.
Best-case scenario: Like Notre Dame, Texas has the potential to get to the Final Four. Notre Dame's health issues pushed it further down in the preseason poll. Texas' youth kept it a little lower than it will likely finish. Don't be surprised, if the freshmen mature as expected, to see Texas crash the party in St. Louis.
Record: 31-5 (13-3 Big East)
Rank: No. 6 ESPN/USA Today, No. 6 AP
Outcome: Lost in Sweet 16 (Oklahoma State 63-51)
What we like: Coach Jamie Dixon, point guard Carl Krauser and sophomore forward Chris Taft are all winners. Krauser, who always marks the sign of the 'X' when he hits a 3 to represent his native Bronx, gives the Panthers a chance in every game. He was not a heralded recruit, yet he came in and made the Panthers a better team. A year ago, he was the stud that pushed this team to a 31-5 record. Krauser is money at the free-throw line and isn't afraid to take a late-game shot. Taft is developing into one of the top forwards in the country. He's being billed as a possible lottery pick. He'll get even more touches this season and could be a double-double player on a regular basis. Chevon Troutman is a glue guy who can board, pass and defend. Troutman will pick up the slack left by physical wings Julius Page and Jaron Brown. He brings the experience of multiple Sweet 16s and, like Krauser and Taft, is a winner. That will rub off on the newcomers, who are expected to come in and contribute.
Causes for concern: This team could use another lock-down defender and tough-guy. Troutman can serve in that role but the Panthers got so much out of Brown and Page. Their experience is hard to measure in simple numbers. They were the intangible pieces to this team over the past few seasons. There is room for another player like them to step up and become an enforcer, especially on the perimeter. Pittsburgh made a living of being physical at guard. The more they can repeat that, the more apt they are to keep their reputation as a physical team.
Keep an eye on: Mark McCarroll. He's the least known of the Pitt returnees, but still could be a special talent. He's incredibly long and could be disruptive, especially on the defensive end. His offensive game hasn't been tapped that much, yet, but he has the potential, through putbacks, to double his production from five to 10 points a game. If he can do that, the Panthers have a shot to move up in the standings.
Non-conference nightmare: Dixon isn't going to like this but there isn't too much that should keep him up at night. The only truly difficult game is against Memphis in New York in the Jimmy V Classic. Playing South Carolina won't be a walk in the park, but the game is at home. We're not saying Richmond is a guarantee, either, but once again the game is at home, where Pittsburgh loses lately about as often as you would break out the suntan lotion in January.
Best-case scenario: The Panthers lost two key players but they are still a team that could be a very tough out come March. They play as hard as any team in the Big East and won't give up their home court. Don't sleep on this team and expect them to exit early out of the NCAAs. An Elite Eight visit, though, likely is one step out of reach.
Record: 22-8 (12-4 C-USA)
Rank: No. 24 ESPN/USA Today, No. 23 AP
Outcome: Lost in second round (Oklahoma State 70-53)
What we like: Sean Banks, who was ESPN.com's national freshman of the year winner, flaked out on USA Basketball in July and didn't show up for the trials even though they were 10 minutes from his house. Fine. We're over it now. But Banks isn't out of John Calipari's doghouse for that embarrassing incident. Banks' talent is NBA-good and he should continue to be a near 20-point scorer. If he can keep his attitude straight and not be selfish, then he has a shot to lead this team deep into the NCAA Tournament. He has a lead guard in Darius Washington who comes in with loads of hype. If Washington's half as good as his rep, the Tigers will be fine and could be the team to beat in Conference USA. Rodney Carney was a disappointment at the USA trials and got cut, but he's still an athletic freak who will be hard to contain on the break. Guard Anthony Rice and forward Duane Erwin offer up experienced seniors who know their roles and should keep Calipari sane by knowing what to do and when.
Causes for concern: This team, notably Banks and Washington, will have to handle being the target in every game, in and out of Conference USA. How they handle that is still an unknown. The maturity of this squad is the main concern, along with the obvious lack of a true low-post presence -- although their offensive ability to slash and drive from the wings compensates for that void. If this team matures and can handle the attention, it has a shot to go far.
Keep an eye on: Richard Dorsey. The freshman forward could be a sleeper and the third option along the frontline. The Tigers need another scorer and resident tough guy to go along with Erwin, Carney and Banks. Dorsey could be the one to tap early and often.
Non-conference nightmare: Calipari should be applauded for his scheduling. He doesn't shy away from anyone. That's how he built Massachusetts into a national power for a few years in the mid-1990s. He's trying to do the same with Memphis. The Tigers likely will play Cal and then Syracuse or Mississippi State in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York, assuming all four hosts of the mini-tourneys get to Madison Square Garden on Nov. 18-19. The Tigers also play Maryland in Springfield, Mass., at the Hall of Fame Game, at Purdue, vs. Pittsburgh in the Jimmy V Classic in New York, Ole Miss, Providence, East Tennessee State and at Texas. This schedule should keep Memphis in the top 10 in strength of schedule throughout the year. This is definitely a nightmarish slate if they can't get through it before C-USA begins.
Best-case scenario: The Tigers have the talent to make a deep run. As deep as the Elite Eight. So why are they down at No. 22? Well, we're just going to reserve judgment until we see a bit more from this squad. The Tigers are going to rely on youth to get them deep in the NCAA. They could do it but we're going to just sit back and watch, at least through the first month of the season.
Record: 19-12 (12-6 Pac-10)
Outcome: Lost in first round (UAB 102-100)
What we like: It's hard not to like watching this team play. They are a highlight editor's dream. They love to get out on the break and usually provide a few stellar dunks. Nate Robinson was the hit at the NBA's Chicago Pre-Draft Camp in June. He could have gone in the second round but chose to return to Washington, where he remains the heart and soul of this squad. He's only 5-foot-9, but he's the toughest player on the court. Everyone else of note returns from the starting lineup. Brandon Roy, who has beefed up over the summer, Bobby Jones, Mike Jensen and Will Conroy should give the Huskies a legit shot to challenge Arizona in the Pac-10. The Huskies also have Tre Simmons coming off the bench as a dangerous shooter, making 40.3 percent on 3s. This squad will make shots, can get out on the break and won't wilt late in the game.
Causes for concern: Defense. The Huskies are giving up too many points. They gave up 79 a game last season. It was a good thing Washington averaged 82. Teams also shot 46.5 percent against the Huskies. They have to corral shooters. They have the quickness to get out on the perimeter and stop dribble penetration, but weren't executing consistently. This must change.
Keep an eye on: Jamaal Williams. The New Mexico transfer has been the hit in the preseason workouts and pickup games. The Huskies needed another big man, someone who could produce in the post and also be a defensive presence. Williams is providing that in practice. If he can translate that into games, Washington will be much improved.
Non-conference nightmare: Washington will get tested in the Great Alaska Shootout with the potential of meeting Oklahoma, Utah and Alabama. Playing at Gonzaga is the toughest game on the slate, followed by hosting N.C. State. That should give the Huskies at least four games to boost their power rating. Washington would like nothing better than to beat the Zags after getting roasted at home a year ago.
Best-case scenario: Washington should be on Arizona's heels and in the NCAAs. The experience from a year ago should push this team into the second round at the very least. They have the talent to challenge for a Sweet 16 spot.
Record: 25-7 (12-4 Big Ten)
Rank: No. 10 ESPN/USA Today, No. 10 AP
Outcome: Lost in second round (Pittsburgh 59-55)
What we like: We know it's easy to be down on Wisconsin since Devin Harris left for the NBA. But if you are, you don't really understand Bo Ryan's program. Wisconsin has been a program, not just a solid team, under Ryan. The pieces are still in place for this machine to roll into the top three in the Big Ten and then back into the NCAAs. Remember, Alando Tucker was hurt last season and he returns as one of the most athletic wings in the Big Ten. McDonald's All-American center Brian Butch redshirted as a freshman. He's even better after adding nearly 30 pounds to his frame. We haven't even mentioned their most consistent player in Mike Wilkinson. He's a rock in the offense and was as much of a glue guy as Harris a year ago. Wilkinson manufactured his 13 points a game and should put up a few more this season. The Badgers have plenty of other role players who fit in perfectly in this system like Zach Morley, Andreas Helmigk, Ray Nixon and Jason Chappell.
Causes for concern: Who takes the shot with 20 seconds remaining on the game clock? The early favorite is Tucker. But who is going to get him the ball? Right now, the plan is to go with a point guard by committee with Boo Wade edging out Penn State transfer Sharif Chambliss, Michael Flowers and Kammron Taylor. Point guard decisions will still be a cause of concern. Harris usually made the right ones and there was a comfort in knowing that he had the ball in his hands late in the game.
Keep an eye on: Nixon. The coaching staff says Nixon has really improved his body and his game recently. The Badgers need another big man to go along with Butch and Helmigk. Nixon could turn out to be the hidden gem. He's been in Ryan's system for a few seasons and understands the nuances. If he can notch seven or eight points and three to four boards a game, the Badgers will be even deeper upfront.
Non-conference nightmare: The Badgers won't have an easy time going to Pepperdine in a trap game before they play host to Maryland in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Going to Rutgers is another game that could cause sleepless nights for Ryan. Getting Alabama at home right before the Big Ten season could either give them a lift or put them in a tough hole going to Purdue and Indiana to start the conference race.
Best-case scenario: Winning the Big Ten isn't out of the question. Illinois has the star players but Tucker could be a first-team all-Big Ten player. The Badgers could be a second round-and-out team or, with the right matchup, have a legit chance to advance to the Sweet 16.
Record: 30-2 (17-1 Pac-10)
Rank: No. 2 ESPN/USA Today, No. 2 AP
Outcome: Lost in second round (Alabama 70-67)
What we like: Just like the Badgers, the Cardinal are a machine that just keeps on running smoothly. Sure, Mike Montgomery is off to the NBA with Josh Childress. Clutch shooter Matt Lottich's career is over. Oft-injured but stable forward Justin Davis is gone, too. So, is backup Joe Kirchofer. But the Cardinal have plenty remaining for former Nevada coach and Stanford assistant Trent Johnson. We love Chris Hernandez at the point. He is one of the toughest point guards in the country, is very unselfish and rarely commits mistakes. He's not going to wow a team but he can get to the basket and take the foul. The Cardinal has a rising star in forward Matt Haryasz, who could end up being a 12-to-15-point scorer every game. Rob Little is improving and continues to be a solid man in the middle of the lane. Nick Robinson is as versatile a player as there is in the Pac-10. He could play all five positions if asked. And he knows how to take and make a big shot (remember the 3-pointer to beat Arizona at the buzzer last season).
Causes for concern: Replacing Lottich might be harder than replacing Childress. The Cardinal needs that zone busting 3-point threat and the early favorite is Dan Grunfeld. He can be streaky, but if he can be as confident as Lottich was down the stretch of the Pac-10, Stanford should stay in the race. The bench isn't that experienced, either, and Stanford does like to use its numbers. Getting players like Fred Washington and Taj Finger reps will be critical early in the season.
Keep an eye on: Jason Haas. The Cardinal might go to the steady ballhandler more often. He's not as much of an offensive threat but he's an experienced reserve as a junior. He's usually Hernandez's backup but there could be a time when the Cardinal need to break a press that they'll call on Haas. Haas could turn out to be a baseball version of a utility player, called on during special situations to help out when needed. He'll certainly be critical in the locker room and in the huddles to offer even more encouragement.
Non-conference nightmare: The Cardinal are in the Maui Invitational, which means possible games against Louisville, North Carolina, Tennessee, BYU, Texas and Iowa. Going to Santa Clara is a dangerous game. Playing Michigan State at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich., could end up being the toughest trip of them all.
Best-case scenario: Johnson should be able to get through the non-conference with only a few blemishes. He won't duplicate Stanford's remarkable run from last season, but there's no reason why he couldn't come close to what he did at Nevada and get to the Sweet 16. This team has that capability. A second round out wouldn't be a disappointment, but there is potential to advance one more round.
Up for consideration (in conference alphabetical order):
Back to Nos. 1-10.
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