Power-conference threats and the threats to them
We've covered the players, coaches and off-court power brokers. Now it's time to explore the Impact 25 teams for the 2006-07 season.
This isn't a traditional Top 25. Rather, these are the 20 most impactful teams (predicted champs and other threats) from the nation's top seven conferences (Big East, Big Ten, ACC, SEC, Pac-10, Big 12 and Missouri Valley) and five wild cards from outside those conferences.
Some of the teams chosen might be a surprise. Certainly, there were some worthy teams that didn't make the cut . This simply confirms that, at the dawning of a new season, there isn't a unanimous opinion.
Editor's note: Analysts Jay Bilas, Doug Gottlieb and Fran Fraschilla, senior writer Andy Katz, and editor Andy Glockner contributed to the composite selections.
Coach Roy Williams has a shot to win his second national title in three seasons with the most accomplished post finisher in the country, Tyler Hansbrough (a member of our Impact 25), a solid sophomore class that plays a variety of roles and an incoming recruiting class that could rival the season Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Sean May came to Chapel Hill.
The addition of three stud freshmen -- Tywon Lawson, another member of the Impact 25, and Wayne Ellington and Brandan Wright -- makes the Tar Heels as formidable a team as Florida, Kansas or any other national title contender. The Tar Heels also will be in their share of big-time games, notably against Ohio State, Kentucky, Arizona and, of course, Duke and Boston College in the ACC.
Other ACC impact teams: Duke and Boston College
Boston College made the impact list because the Eagles are expected to be an ACC contender with Jared Dudley, Sean Marshall and Sean Williams leading the way. Coach Al Skinner, one of the most undervalued coaches in the country, gets this team to play as hard as any other, if not more. The Eagles don't beat themselves very often and grind out win after win after win.
This is a critical season for the BC program, a chance to leave a serious imprint. If the Eagles can follow up an ACC tournament runner-up finish, beat Duke, take down North Carolina again, and make another Sweet 16 run, they can establish themselves as much of a mainstay in the league as any other team not named Duke or North Carolina.
Brandon Rush could have just thrown up his arms and said, "Forget it. I'm leaving for the NBA." Instead, Rush stuck around to make another, likely deeper run in the NCAA Tournament.
Rush's commitment -- along with the leadership of Russell Robinson and the return of every other key player, plus a top recruiting class -- makes Kansas one of the top five teams in the country. The Big 12 won't be handed to the Jayhawks, but they enter the season as the prohibitive favorite.
Like it or not, though, the Jayhawks will be judged by what happens in March. If Kansas gets to the Final Four, the season will be a rousing success. This team will have an impact on the season, whether it wins or loses. Either way, KU is a story.
Other impact Big 12 teams: Texas A&M and Texas
Texas may slide a bit in the Top 25 and in the conference, but maybe only one spot to third. The Longhorns haven't been this young under Rick Barnes, but they also may never have had as much raw talent. Kevin Durant might be the top freshman ever to play at Texas, so coach Rick Barnes has a shot to coach the national freshman of the year. If the NBA allowed high school seniors in the draft, Durant might have made the jump. But for now he is in Austin, and he'll have as much impact on a team as any player in the land.
The Panthers' imprint will be felt throughout the season. The Panthers return one of the top big men in the country, Aaron Gray, and they have one of the top rising forwards, Sam Young; the Pitt toughness never seems to wane. Sure, the Panthers lost Carl Krauser, but this team's collective grit is defined by coach Jamie Dixon. Pitt will be all over your TV sets, with big-time games against Wisconsin, Oklahoma State and Washington, and the Panthers have the toughest schedule in the Big East.
Other Big East impact teams: Georgetown and Syracuse
Meanwhile, Syracuse -- yes, the Orange -- could have more of an impact out of the Big East than UConn, Marquette, Villanova, Louisville or DePaul. Syracuse's core returns, minus the best late-game shooter in recent Big East tournament history, Gerry McNamara. The impact of freshman Paul Harris is expected to be so important, though, that Syracuse could be Final Four-good. The Orange needed a rangy, tough guard who could lead its zone, be another offensive threat and help with the overall moxie. Put Harris with Terrence Roberts, Eric Devendorf and Demetris Nichols, and the Orange are a hot pick throughout the season.
The obvious choice might seem to be Ohio State, but the Buckeyes lack the experience to be the consensus pick in the Big Ten. Instead, the Badgers are the choice as the team that will make the greatest impact.
Wisconsin returns its entire lineup, led by preseason Big Ten player of the year candidate Alando Tucker. Coach Bo Ryan has built a power in Madison by sticking to his system that cultivates team play, patience and (as always) solid, lockdown half-court defense.
The Badgers will get their chances to make an imprint on the season with games against Oklahoma State (in South Padre Island, Texas), Pitt, Marquette and Georgia, plus at least two monster games against Ohio State. It's not a reach to imagine Wisconsin knocking on the doors of the Georgia Dome with a ticket punched to the Final Four.
Other Big Ten impact team: Ohio State
Coach Thad Matta would be the first to tell you that the Buckeyes are too green to be picked to win the conference. Returnees Jamar Butler and Ron Lewis provide the necessary experience, but the "Thad Five" freshmen, led by Oden and Mike Conley Jr., need time to mature before being anointing as champs.
The Buckeyes will be front and center because of Oden, making them one of the most talked-about teams of the season, notably when they play North Carolina, Florida and any of the Big Ten contenders.
The Bluejays are the cool pick to become the mid-major that makes the greatest impact this season, the squad that has a shot to "pull a George Mason." That doesn't necessarily mean getting to the Final Four, but no one would be shocked if the Bluejays got as close as the Elite Eight.
Nate Funk and Josh Dotzler, both of whom battled injuries last season, return to strengthen the core of what could be Dana Altman's most talented team. Creighton will be tournament-tested after going through one of the most competitive conferences in the country once again. The hunger of missing the NCAAs last season, even with the Valley getting four bids, also will drive this squad.
Other Valley impact team: Southern Illinois
The Salukis return the core of their tourney title team. They won't have Jamal Tatum for the first three games due to a suspension, but the expectation is that their leading scorer will be fine for the majority of the season. If that's the case, this group is experienced, balanced and tough enough to get through the Valley and cause a ruckus when it gets to March. Also, don't forget about the home-court advantage SIU has in Carbondale, one of the nation's toughest places to nab a road win.
The Wildcats lose Hassan Adams, but it doesn't matter. The one player the Wildcats couldn't afford to lose was Marcus Williams. He has a shot to be the Pac-10's top scorer and a first-round NBA pick, something Adams couldn't accomplish last season. Adding Chase Budinger, touted as one of the top freshmen ever to play for coach Lute Olson, makes the Wildcats dangerous at every position.
Arizona wasn't bandied about as a 2007 national title team after Florida won the crown. That's because the Wildcats took a little while to grow on everyone over the summer. Well, after a few months, Arizona has made a positive impact on our crew, and the Cats should make an impact on the rest of the country with games against Virginia, North Carolina, Memphis, Illinois and the top of the Pac-10.
Other Pac-10 impact teams: UCLA and Washington
Still, UCLA will make its presence known this season with the return to full strength of Josh Shipp, to go with Arron Afflalo, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Collison. Look for the Bruins to be a regular in the top 10-15 throughout the season and to possibly return to the Final Four.
Washington has earned respect among the national media as well as the coaching establishment. Losing do-everything star Brandon Roy could indicate a possible downward slide, but the expectation for the Huskies is that they won't drop below third in the Pac-10.
Sure, Spencer Hawes, the second-best center entering college (behind Greg Oden), is out for the first month of practice with a knee injury. But once Hawes is back, the Huskies will have an inside-out combo (with Justin Dentmon) to give them a realistic shot at being a Sweet 16-type team yet again. Having Hawes in the lineup makes Washington a team of interest -- and a team that will have an impact in the Pac-10 and nationally.
Getting this squad to return intact wasn't coach Billy Donovan's work; the three sophomores -- Noah, Horford and Corey Brewer -- who decided to stay instead of declaring for the NBA draft took this action by themselves. The selfless act works well for the Gators. They are as cohesive a team as any we've seen and have a legitimate shot to defend their national title.
Everything the Gators do will be watched this season. Every game will be a highlight. The games against Kansas and Ohio State, along with the headliners in the SEC, will be events.
Other SEC impact teams: LSU, Alabama and Tennessee
There is a strong chance they could be back in the same position. Losing Darrel Mitchell and Tyrus Thomas is no joke, but getting Tack Minor back, getting more reps for Tasmin Mitchell and Magnum Rolle, and gaining confidence that last season wasn't a fluke all mean the Tigers will be a constant story this season. Games against Texas in Houston, Texas A&M, Washington and the heavy hitters in the SEC will make LSU a constant happening.
Alabama might have the best point guard in the country in Ronald Steele, and Jermareo Davidson is one of the most difficult matchups inside. Put Richard Hendrix next to him, and the Tide have enough to make an impact. SEC coaches don't hesitate to say that Alabama could push LSU out of the top spot in the SEC West.
Alabama coach Mark Gottfried is earning a national reputation as one of the game's hidden gems. His Tide made an Elite Eight run in 2004; don't be shocked if they make a similar run this March. The Tide aren't on national TV as much as they should be, but they'll get your attention by winning enough big games.
Tennessee edged out Kentucky as our final SEC team. That is certainly debatable; we did have Kentucky coach Tubby Smith on our Impact 25 list, so it's not like we're ignoring the Wildcats.
Tennessee was the hot newcomer last season under new coach Bruce Pearl, earning a No. 2 seed before losing to Wichita State in the second round of the NCAAs, so our expecting the Vols to have an impact on this season shouldn't be a surprise. They still have Chris Lofton, and the addition of Ramar Smith and Duke Crews makes Tennessee an intriguing team to watch.
Tennessee will have plenty of chances to make a statement with games against Texas, Oklahoma State, Memphis and in the NIT Season Tip-Off, with possible games against North Carolina, Gonzaga or Indiana in New York.
Memphis can't be as good as it was a year ago, since the Tigers lost Rodney Carney, Darius Washington and Shawne Williams, right? Well, they shouldn't be as talented -- or should they? Memphis coach John Calipari doesn't debate they'll miss those three, but he is convinced that the returnees -- Chris Douglas-Roberts, Antonio Anderson, Joey Dorsey, Robert Dozier, Andre Allen and Jeremy Hunt, and newcomers Doneal Mack and Willie Kemp, make this squad deeper, quicker and possibly more exciting. That's plenty to put the Tigers on our Impact 25 list and make them the class of C-USA.
Gonzaga can't and won't be the same team without Adam Morrison and J.P. Batista, but the Bulldogs will have an impact on the season because of their national appeal and the stage they play on. They have games against Duke, Virginia, Nevada, Washington, Georgia and Memphis, along with Preseason NIT possibilities against North Carolina, Indiana and Tennessee. Oh, they still have a pretty talented crew with Derek Raivio, David Pendergraft, Sean Mallon, Josh Josh Heytvelt, Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes and Jeremy Pargo, as well as newcomers (to the Zags) Micah Downs (in mid-December) and Matt Bouldin.
Nevada made the impact list largely on the return of Nick Fazekas -- and head coach Mark Fox. Nebraska was interested in Fox, but he decided to stay in Reno and make another run with the Wolf Pack. Nevada still is smarting over a first-round loss to Montana after earning a No. 5 seed in March, so this group is motivated to make much more of a postseason imprint. It won't be enough just to fight off New Mexico State, Utah State, Fresno State and Hawaii in the WAC.
San Diego State now is a fixture as an impact team in the Mountain West. Coach Steve Fisher just signed on for five more seasons. Brandon Heath withdrew from the NBA draft and Mohamed Abukar is back to wreak havoc inside. The Aztecs have all the makings of a team that could be the team of record in the MWC. They nearly took out Indiana in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in March, and there's no reason (despite Air Force's quality) why they can't be in position to make another run at a bid and get past the first round this season.
Hofstra is the flavor of the day in the Colonial, over George Mason and Drexel. The Pride have plenty of, well, pride, so they're determined to be in position to get an NCAA bid after what they thought was a snub last season. The forwards are green, but the backcourt is rich with experience, led by Loren Stokes and Antoine Agudio. Hofstra needs to make an impact at the Great Alaska Shootout, where it could topple Cal and Hawaii. A game at Syracuse and a Madison Square Garden date with St. Joseph's and possibly St. John's in the Holiday Festival give the Pride additional big-stage moments.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Clock strikes Midnight:
• Gottlieb: Like his house, Sampson's under reconstruction
• Katz: KU's Rush rushes from spotlight
• Kansas 3-point shots
• Katz: Wichita State has Kansas-level passion
• Wichita State 3-point shots
• Katz: K-State mad for Huggins
• Katz: K-State 3-point shots
• Schlabach: A&M has reason to yell
• Florida gets party started
• Biggest Impact 25 omissions
• Vote on the Impact 25