Threats to dance ... and last a song or two
We took a quick peek in April, but now that we've discussed each conference's issues in Summer Sessions, it's time to take another look at who we think will be the elite teams in the 2005-06 season.
Here are 10 teams we could see getting an NCAA bid and possibly winning a first-round game:
Credentials: The Bison's win over Kansas ranks as the top victory in the 2005 NCAA Tournament and there is a carryover to this season. The Bison had only one senior on last season's team -- and he was sixth in scoring. The return of the rest of the core -- specifically guard Kevin Bettencourt, center Chris McNaughton and wing Charles Lee -- bodes well for Bucknell's chances to get back to the Dance and win a game again. Remember, this is the same team that shocked Saint Joseph's and Pittsburgh on the road during the regular season.
Reason: Bucknell took a spring trip to England and Ireland, beat up on the competition on the way to a 4-0 record and got more experience as a team. This is one of those machine-like teams that should be so well-schooled in its schemes by now that they will be tough to beat. Bucknell might get a Top 25 vote early.
Red flag: Some people will still say Bucknell is not talented or athletic enough to hang with the big boys, but that was proven wrong last season. No, the biggest problem for Bucknell is getting back to the NCAAs. The Patriot League just doesn't get two bids. So that means Bucknell has to play well enough to be one of the Patriot League tournament's top two seeds and ensure home court through the semifinals. Bucknell won the title game on Holy Cross' home court last season, but it might be asking a lot of the Bison to pull that off again.
Credentials: This is the sleeper pick in the Big 12. We're not sold enough to put them too high in our poll but we'll buy that the Huskers are worthy of NCAA consideration. Barry Collier's crew has had its moments and we're banking on this season being the turning point for one of the gentlemen of the game. The Huskers have the core of their team back with Jason Dourisseau, Joe McCray, Aleks Maric and Wes Wilkinson -- four of their top six scorers. Nebraska usually defends well, but has scoring issues at times.
Reason: Here's a big one for you -- Nebraska just announced it's playing 19 games at home. The Huskers play Marquette and UAB at home as well as in a winnable two-game exempted tournament called the John Thompson Classic. The Huskers will also play Creighton in Omaha and Florida State in Miami. That's very manageable and the Huskers should have a nice roll going into the Big 12.
Red flag: Nebraska must win on the road in the Big 12 to earn a bid. The potentially gaudy nonconference record could get exposed (see Texas A&M from last season) if the Huskers don't take care of business away from Lincoln. Nebraska will also have to differentiate itself from two other potential Big 12 NCAA teams that got squeezed in our poll: Colorado and Texas A&M (and a resurgent Baylor squad that can only play Big 12 games but could challenge these teams for a top-six league finish).
|48. Northern Iowa|
Credentials: The Panthers were one of the surprise additions to the NCAA Tournament, earning one of the last at-large spots after a third-place finish and a quarterfinal loss in the Missouri Valley tournament. The Panthers went on to lose by five to eventual Elite Eight participant Wisconsin. Recall, though, that UNI beat Iowa State early last season, lost by only three at Iowa and by only six to Cincinnati. UNI should go into the season as the favorite in the Valley. Guard Ben Jacobson, who led the NIT All-Stars with 16.7 points on a June trip, is back and the one-two punch of Jacobson and Erik Crawford should give the Panthers one of the better mid-major guard tandems. Grant Stout and Eric Coleman are solid forwards for the Panthers, both averaging in double figures last season.
Reason: There always seems to be a Missouri Valley team that is good enough to be a potential Top 25 team, and we're looking at UNI as the squad this season. The Panthers will get their chances early in the season to prove themselves, with games against Iowa and Iowa State.
Red flag: The Panthers can't afford to rest on a power rating come March again. They need to come up with more than one nonconference win of merit. Northern Iowa has always had one of the tougher home courts in the Valley and made significant progress on the road last season. We know this team will be good enough to win in the Valley, but we're wondering if it can pull off a significant upset in March, too.
|47. Ohio State|
Credentials: Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr.
no wait a minute, that's in 2006-07. Oops. Seriously, though, there's no reason to get too ahead of ourselves. The Buckeyes can make an NCAA Tournament run this season. Frankly, they could have a year ago had the school not put itself on a postseason ban. The Buckeyes get back J.J. Sullinger, who has had a year to work under Thad Matta, stud forward Terence Dials, complementary forwards Matt Sylvester and Je'Kel Foster and developing talents Ivan Harris and Jamar Butler. The key to this team could be Ron Lewis. The Bowling Green transfer supposedly was one of the best talents on the practice court last season. If Lewis is a major contributor (read: scores in bunches), this squad should be in the thick of the Big Ten race.
Reason: Remember, Ohio State did beat Illinois on the final day of the regular season. Matta is still getting mileage out of that win with his players and he has them ready to make a splash. The core returns and Lewis' eligibility means the Buckeyes have a legit perimeter scorer to go with Dials inside.
Red flag: Point guard will be an ongoing issue. The position essentially will be by committee until Conley Jr. gets here in 2006. If the Buckeyes can get decent playmaking, they could become a tough out every night.
Credentials: We're still not sure how Xavier didn't get a postseason NIT invite -- something must have been terribly wrong with the communication between the A-10 and the NIT. If everything goes as planned this season, Xavier won't have to sweat out a Sunday night call. Everything is in place for Sean Miller to get this squad back to where it belongs on a regular basis -- the NCAA Tournament. The Musketeers return their top eight scorers -- and these guys can play. Stanley Burrell, Justin Cage, Justin Doellman, Brian Thornton, Dedrick Finn, Josh Duncan and Will Caudle can hang with any squad. Toss in impact newcomer forward B.J. Raymond and possible contributors Derrick Brown and Johnny Wolf, and the Musketeers have the depth to match any A-10 team.
Reason: These players and this coaching staff are too talented to let last season's disappointment go without a response. We're fairly confident Xavier will be a much more consistent team. The problem last season was the lack of consistency -- win two, lose one, win one, lose one, and no major marquee wins outside of beating Iowa State Jan. 3, when the Cyclones weren't playing well.
Red flag: The offensive droughts have to stop. There were games -- like scoring 54 points against Cincinnati, the 54 against Temple, the 52 against LaSalle and the 55 against Dayton -- that showed this team's struggles on the offensive end. If the Musketeers can shake the erratic offensive behavior, they could be a team that climbs throughout the season.
|45. Virginia Tech|
Credentials: The Hokies finished tied for fourth in the ACC last season, but didn't make the NCAAs because their nonconference résumé wasn't strong enough and the 15 total wins (prior to the postseason NIT) didn't cut it. Well, we're going to take a leap of faith that the Hokies take care of business before the ACC. Virginia Tech does lose Carlos Dixon, who was its go-to scorer last season, but Tech essentially returns the rest of its team from a year ago. Zabian Dowdell has the potential to be a first-team all-ACC player. Coleman Collins, Jamon Gordon, Deron Washington and Shawn Harris return to give Seth Greenberg additional hope.
Reason: The Hokies were a tough out at home last season and proved that they could establish tempo early and often. The confidence this team has is hard to match. The addition of newcomers Cheick Diakite and Hyman Taylor up front give this squad even more options.
Red flag: Consistency. Virginia Tech was a strange team last season. The Hokies went in and beat Georgia Tech and Miami on the road, but then couldn't win at Clemson or Virginia. Clearly, this squad gets up to play the higher-ranked teams, but it needs to be a team that is stable on any given night.
Credentials: Ohio returns essentially the same squad that had Florida tied with a few minutes to go in the NCAA first round after rallying from 19 down to beat Buffalo in the MAC title game. If you're looking for a new "it" mid-major, this could be your squad. The top four scorers all return: guards Mychal Green (15.0 ppg) and Jeremy Fears (11.0 ppg) and forwards Sonny Troutman (12.6 ppg) and Leon Williams (11.9 ppg). Fears, the point guard, and Williams, the power forward, were two of the best freshmen in the Midwest last season. The addition of Boston College transfer Johnnie Jackson will give the Bobcats another experienced wing. Adding Jerome Tillman and Antonio Chatman in the newcomer class also gives this squad significant depth.
Reason: Ohio coach Tim O'Shea isn't ducking the competition. O'Shea is playing Cincinnati and Kentucky this season because he believes he has a team that can actually win these games. Ohio might not grab either of those December contests, but the Bobcats have a chance to win a game or two in March. This squad won't lack scorers and rebounders. The key will be whether it can defend consistently.
Red flag: The problem for all MAC teams is that even if you're talented, it doesn't mean you'll get a bid. Ohio probably still has to win the MAC tournament, which likely means being good enough to earn a top seed and then being on top of your game for three days in Cleveland in March. That's a lot to ask of anyone in that league, regardless of talent.
Credentials: Vincent Grier is one of the more underrated players in the country. Grier was already a hit at the World University Games tryouts for his versatility, passion and work ethic. Grier gets plenty of help this season with the return of guards Adam Boone and Maurice Hargrow. The Gophers have the confidence now after making the NCAAs. Earning that berth with a Big Ten tournament victory over Indiana was one of the most important wins in Dan Monson's Gophers career.
Reason: The Gophers will have plenty of company in the Big Ten race with Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Illinois all vying to push Michigan State. But the experience on this roster should push them into the mix from the outset. Grier won't have to be as self-reliant this season. In addition to the guards, Monson expects forward Dan Coleman to have a larger role, too. If there is a natural progression among this group, the Gophers could be a Top 25 team.
Red flag: The returning guards should help, but watch for Minnesota's ability to score. Breaking 70 points has been an issue in the past. The Gophers have to find ways to score more easily than they have in the past.
Credentials: The Bears are easily one of our favorite picks. If Leon Powe is healthy after missing last season after two knee surgeries, the Bears have a shot to shoot up from eighth in the Pac-10 into the top three. So far, Powe has been sensational this summer, in the San Francisco Pro Am and in preparation for the team's trip to Italy. Powe's not the only Bear to watch, though. Cal returns leading scorer Rod Benson inside as well as point guard Richard Midgley and wings Marquise Kately and Ayinde Ubaka. Add in the arrival of Kansas transfer Omar Wilkes and the Bears are one of the more talented squads in the Pac-10.
Reason: Powe should be this year's Ike Diogu in the Pac-10, keeping the Bears in every game and winning some for them. Remember, Powe was the Pac-10 freshman of the year two years ago, and he could be the league's player of the year this season. If Wilkes is a major contributor, the Bears should be a serious factor. This team is also incredibly hungry to rid itself of last season's disappointment.
Red flag: Three-point shooting. The Bears have struggled consistently in this area -- to the point that coach Ben Braun is looking to Powe to be one of the top 3-point shooters on the team. If that's the case, there is cause for concern. He needs to stay home in the post.
Credentials: This may be the team that we differ on with our competitors more than any other. This is a solid team, led by Nick Fazekas, but we're still a little wary to push them too high. If the Wolf Pack gets out to a sensational start then we'll revisit their candidacy for the Top 25. Fazekas will miss Kevinn Pinkney's dozen points and nearly eight boards a game and the role play of Jermaine Washington. Fazekas does have Mo Charlo back next to him and Ramon Sessions in the backcourt.
Reason: Nevada did beat Texas in the NCAA first round and then lost to eventual national runner-up Illinois. The core of the team is back, but Fazekas has to be a dominant player for the Wolf Pack to be a Top 25 team -- and he struggled a bit against some of the top competition in the U-21 trials. He certainly didn't look like a player who could be one of the top forwards in the country. Fazekas has to be more than just a shooter. He has to be a bit of everything, especially on the backboard. If the guards can produce and offer Nevada some balance, the Wolf Pack has a shot to make a Sweet 16 run.
Red flag: The Wolf Pack took a hit in the offseason when their best recruit, 6-foot-10 Jeremy Mayfield, didn't qualify academically. Mayfield could have been the answer next to Fazekas. Nevada did add two JC forwards -- Demarshay Johnson and Denis Ikovlev -- but we'll have to see how they adjust. The biggest question is what kind of help the Wolf Pack will have for Fazekas. Can Nevada make a statement early in the season, like beating UCLA in the Wooden Classic? If so, we'll move them up.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.