2010 NCAA Men's Basketball Preview: Preseason Top 25
It's never too early to look forward to a spectacular basketball season ahead of us. With now less than a month to go, practices have started and teams are rearing to go. A new year is upon us, bringing forth new questions. Can tarnished dynasties (I'm looking at you UNC and UCONN) regain their honor amongst the elite? Do the sleepers like Butler have enough in them to make another run at the title? Will Tom Izzo go to another Final Four? Maybe, possibly, and probably. Here's how I imagine the season will start out.
1. Duke Blue Devils
2009-10 Record: 35-5 (13-3)
Postseason: ACC champions, NCAA champions
The reigning champs aren't looking to revel in their glory all the way into this year; they're looking for a repeat.
The Blue Devils lost three starters to graduation, but that doesn't mean that they can't replace them. In fact, they might actually have better players to step in for them.
The loss of Jon Scheyer is a major blow to Duke because he was among the best in the country at controlling the game while he was on the floor. Although he wasn't a point guard per se, he ran his team as if he were an extension of Coach K's mind. Him and Nolan Smith took turns playing the one, although neither were considered a point guard.
The arrival of sensational point guard Kyrie Irving provides a chance to even improve the backcourt. With Irving running the show, Nolan Smith can shift to his natural position of shooting guard and flourish.
Duke also returns Kyle Singler, easily a preseason All-America pick. The scary thing to opponents is the tandem of the Plumlee brothers stepping in at the four and five positions. Although Duke was big last year, the Plumlees bring a natural talent to the post that makes Duke's starting lineup evenly distributed with athleticism and talent.
Their bench depth is something to be envied as well. As well as adding ESPNU top 100 power forward Joshua Hairston, the Blue Devils have two youngsters in Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry to play as well. Before Dawkins' minutes were cut last year towards the end of the season, he was an absolute terror behind the arc. Curry, the little brother of current NBA star Stephen Curry, sat the bench last year after transferring from Liberty. Although a little less talented than his elder, Seth Curry is a strong finisher and a natural scorer who should help give Singler and Smith a rest.
Projected Finish: ACC champions, NCAA champions.
2. Michigan State Spartans
2009-2010 Record: 28-9 (14-4)
Postseason: Final Four
Tom Izzo returns for what is sure to be another successful year in his tenure in East Lansing. He ran the gauntlet through the stacked Big Ten with a bruised and battered Spartans team (practically straight out of 300) and battled back into the Final Four for the sixth time in eleven years.
With the majority of the team back for another run at it, Michigan State is looking to make another deep run into March. Although they lost Raymar Morgan and Chris Allen, to graduation and not meeting summer obligations respectively, three top 100 recruits join the squad. That includes lights-out All-American Keith Appling to possibly fill into the 2-or-3-spot hole that Morgan left.
The point will probably be run by Kalin Lucas, who was great last year before he went down with an injury in the NCAA tournament. But don't be surprised to see lots of face-time for junior Korie Lucious, whose heroics in the tourney propelled the Spartans forward.
Draymond Green and Durrell Summers return as seniors with plenty of experience. The biggest improvement will probably come in the post for the Spartans with Delvon Roe and Derrick Nix. Now with the experience of another run deep into March, the big men will have the ability to flourish in the paint.
Possibly the most experienced team in the country, the Spartans should be a major force come March.
Prediction: Big Ten champions, NCAA runner-Up
3. Ohio State Buckeyes
2009-10 Record: 29-8 (14-4)
Postseason: Sweet Sixteen
You can't replace Evan Turner. The 6'8" point guard/small forward/illusionist/performer averaged 20 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists per game last year. However, that didn't stop Ohio State from trying to replace him.
Besides Turner, the Buckeyes return every other significant piece of their team. Somewhat overshadowed by the traveling spectacle that was Evan Turner, William Buford, David Lighty and Jon Diebler are all going to run the team this year. All three averaged over ten points a game last year, but it will be interesting to see which one is going to step into the limelight. Each one has a different game, but they all work together to create one difficult opponent.
The one criticism of last year's team was the fact that there was very little inside presence in the post. However, Dallas Lauderdale is returning as the resident starter and Thad Matta brought in the best tool possible to bolster the front court. That tool is freshman Jared Sullinger.
The No. 2 overall recruit in some books (No. 1 in others), Sullinger is an absolute force in the paint. His great hands and footwork can be compared to lottery picks like Greg Monroe from Georgetown and Sean May from a couple of years ago at North Carolina. Look for Sullinger and the Buckeyes to go far this year.
Prediction: Final Four, Big Ten runners-up
4. Kansas State Wildcats
2009-10 Record: 28-9 (11-5)
Postseason: Elite Eight
The Wildcats have high hopes entering the upcoming season. Losing Denny Clemente hurts them a bit but, other than that, they are back in numbers with Jacob Pullen leading the way. The bearded leader hopes to propel Frank Martin's team into the victory circle.
With the Big 12 looking less threatening than in most years, Kansas State has a real shot at winning the conference this year. Curtis Kelly and Jamar Samuels have to continue to develop and mature in the post due to the lack of recruits or depth. But all signs point to a repeat performance of last year. They might even be able to throw in a Big 12 title for the 1st time in 30 years.
Prediction: Big 12 champions, Elite Eight
5. Syracuse Orange
2009-10 Record: 30-5 (15-3)
No one expected Syracuse to have the season they did last year. They weren't even ranked in the AP poll in the preseason. But Jim Boeheim took no notice and prepared like he always did. Then they knocked off preseason favorites California and North Carolina by heavy margins in the NIT Season Tip-Off and the Orange showed up on everyone's radar.
Welcome to 2010-11. Same story, different cast. The Orange lost tons of talent and leadership over the summer, including senior leader Andy Rautins, showstopper Wesley Johnson, and the big man Arinze Onuaku. However, in true Boeheimian fashion, Syracuse is still poised for another run at the title.
The Orange still return point man Scoop Jardine, who could be poised for a breakout year after watching all the limelight go to the players that have left him the program to run. Power forward Rick Jackson is now the big man down-low. Having put up solid numbers in the past he should be a more integral part of the offense this year.
Look especially for Kris Joseph. Many people thought that Wes Johnson stole his thunder last year. Joseph was supposed to be the diamond in the rough for the Orange last year, but saw Johnson steal his spot in the limelight. A possible candidate for Big East Player of the Year, Joseph carries a set of skills very similar to Evan Turner's; the only question is whether he'll put it to use.
On top of all that, Jim Boeheim has worked recruiting magic again and brought in three star recruits, including All-American Fabricio Melo and the sharp-shooting Dion Waiters. Look for the big man to step right in and make a difference. In the McDonalds All-American Game, he absolutely dominated the boards and the lane amongst the best in the nation.
Look for a deep run by Syracuse.
Prediction: Big East champions, Final Four
6. Georgetown Hoyas
2009-10 Record: 23-11 (10-8)
Postseason: NCAA first round
The Georgetown Hoyas just couldn't win down the stretch. They lost in the first round of the NCAA tourney against lowly Ohio. Then the center of the team, Greg Monroe, left to be a lottery pick in the draft. What's left is a bunch of underachievers who want to change their reputation.
The Hoyas are not short on weapons. Austin Freeman, their leading scorer from last year, is back looking for all-Big East honors. His unique combination of strength and speed proved guarding him is a difficult task. Along with him is point guard Chris Wright, who led the team in assists from a season ago. In fact, every other player on the team is back as well. The Hoyas had no seniors on the team last year, so Monroe is the only loss.
Along with all of the other players back, Georgetown will be welcoming two top 100 recruits, PF Nate Lubick, and PG Martel Starks. With almost all of the rebounding gone with Greg Monroe, Lubick will look to have a large impact off the bench pulling in the boards.
The Hoyas have the talent, but can they fill the enormous hole left by Monroe?
Prediction: Elite Eight, Big East runners-up
7. Pittsburgh Panthers
2009-10 Record: 25-9 (13-5)
Postseason: NCAA second round
Never doubt Jaime Dixon. Despite the entire sports world counting the Panthers out of the picture last year, Dixon brought the team back and into the tournament for the ninth straight year.
This year, Pittsburgh returns four of five starters and their entire bench. The only loss was senior Jermaine Dixon, the fourth leading scorer. That being said, Pittsburgh looks like they are in pretty good position to build on last season's success.
The biggest returning player is Ashton Gibbs. The leading scorer from last year led the team through a murderous Big East schedule to second team all-Big East honors. Expect big things from Gibbs and the Panthers this year.
Prediction: Elite Eight, Big East third place
8. Illinois Fighting Illini
2009-10 Record: 21-15 (10-8), NIT quarterfinals
An early favorite in the Big Ten last year, Illinois went down the contradictory route; they won some great games (Wisconsin twice, Mich. St) and lost a bunch that they shouldn't have (Bradley and Utah, Minnesota at home).
Back in full strength, the Illini bring back their top five scorers and starters including the nation's defending leader in assists, Demetri McCamey. McCamey's court vision is unquestionably among of the best in the nation and he also led the team in scoring last year. However, what really needs to improve is his leadership ability. The team lacked a presence that would carry them through slumps last year, hence the mediocre record.
Illinois also brings in three top 100 recruits, with star wingman Jereme Richmond. Richmond put on a show at the McDonald's All-American game and is exactly what the team needs: an explosive, high-energy athlete. With big men Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis maturing in the blocks, the Illini just need to pull together with what they lacked last year: consistency. If Illinois can keep it together down the stretch through a very tough Big Ten, we may be looking at a deep run for the Illini.
Prediction: Sweet Sixteen, Big Ten third place
9. Villanova Wildcats
2009-10 Record: 25-8 (13-5), NCAA second round
The loss of Scottie Reynolds would be a huge loss for any team. As much of a great player as Reynolds was however , often he would end up trying to play Kobe Bryant-showtime ball down the stretch and win the game himself. Therefore, it was no surprise that they went toe-to-toe with Robert Morris and almost lost and were eventually knocked out by an underrated St. Mary's team in the second round last year. But this year I think they will actually succeed more without Reynolds.
The Wildcats sport one of the most developed teams in the nation, giving starting point guard Corey Fisher plenty of options to help him shine. Fisher has played second fiddle to Reynolds for his entire career, so now we'll see exactly how good the guard really is. To help him, Villanova returns the talents of Antonio Pena, Corey Stokes, Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek as well as bringing in McDonalds All-American Jayvaughn Pinkston and top 100 recruit James Bell. Bell should join either Cheek or Wayns coming off the bench and providing a huge spark for a very deep team. Once again laden with guards, Villanova also has some great big men to take pressure off the outside game.
Prediction: Big East fourth place, Sweet Sixteen
10. Washington Huskies
2009-10 Record: 26-10 (11-7), Sweet Sixteen
Although they started off the season in a mediocre fashion, Washington put on the afterburners right through the NCAA tourney as a No. 11 seed and into the Sweet Sixteen. Now, despite losing Quincy Poindexter, the Washington Huskies look for a dominating run in the Pac-10.
Clearly the best in a very mediocre league at this point, the Huskies return electrifying Isiah Thomas to run the point along with a group of battle-hardened veterans. They also bring in freshman Terrence Ross who should lend a hand in replacing the gaping scoring hole left by Poindexter.
The scoring is what Washington has the most to be concerned about. Only Thomas and Poindexter averaged double-digits in the category last year. Although the team has experience, none of them have any experience in anything but a supporting role. Players like Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Venoy Overton have to step up in order to see any kind of success overlap from last year.
Prediction: Sweet Sixteen, Pac-10 champions
11. North Carolina Tar Heels
2009-2010 Record: 20-17 (5-11), NIT Runners-Up
At risk of sounding cynical, the Tar Heels started off last year at the No. 4 spot and we all know where that got them. However, last year they were coming off a national championship, where there is nowhere else to go but down. Now, coming off a sorry season followed by a strong showing in the NIT, UNC looks to reclaim its spot amongst the country's elite. They definitely have the talent to do so.
Although losing the majority of its size in the offseason (four different PF left), UNC should be able to bounce back to the top third of the ACC, thanks to another spectacular recruiting class from Roy Williams. Chapel Hill is now home to three McDonalds All-Americans: PG Kendall Marshall, SG Reggie Bullock and the sensational SF Harrison Barnes. Barnes was the No. 1 recruit in country and brings with him every dynamic needed to propel this team back into the spotlight.
The Tar Heels also return lots of young talent, including sophomore John Henson and junior Tyler Zeller, the twin towers of this team. The two forwards are literally the only height on the team, but both have put on weight and are poised to take over for Ed Davis and Deon Thompson. Henson especially showcased his upside in the NIT last season, as he finally adjusted to the college level.
The true test lies with returning point guard Larry Drew II. Drew garnered lots of criticism last year for complete lack of ability to hold on to the basketball. Down the stretch he appeared to solidify, but his turnovers still need to come down. Given their small and speedy stature, UNC will be running and gunning more this year, so the key to this team's success lies with Drew and whether he is composed enough to play at his expected level.
Prediction: ACC runner-up, Sweet Sixteen
12. Kentucky Wildcats
2009-10 Record: 35-3 (14-2), Elite Eight
Imagine losing every player that averaged more than 6.5 points per game the season before. Imagine losing your entire starting lineup. This would normally pose a problem for a team looking to achieve the sort of success that Kentucky had last year (See Tar Heels, North Carolina 2009-10). But John Calipari just shrugs this kind of fact off. He just brings in five more top 100 recruits to fill the shoes of the John Wall superstars.
Enter Brandon Knight, Enes Kanter, Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones, and Stacey Poole. It is very possible that these five freshman could start for the Wildcats. Coach Cal will probably throw in Darius Miller or Darnell Dodson in the mix, but with a combined 12.5 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 assists per game last year, they aren't nearly the threat that the Fab 5 redux pose to the competition.
Knight, one of the premier point guards in the recruiting class, is only a little less of a player than his now filthy rich predecessor. His court vision is only surpassed by the speed at which he plays. Pair him with the Turkish Terror Enes Kanter, and you already have a recipe for success. Then, to add zest, you throw in the athleticism of Terrence Jones and the versatility of Doron Lamb and you have a championship caliber team right in front of you.
It is absolutely petrifying to imagine what a tandem like this could do to the college basketball scene. Obviously, maturity may be the only factor in this equation that could throw it all off. If you throw five DeMarcus Cousins on the court, it probably won't work out. However, if they gel like a team should, look out for the Wildcats.
Prediction: Elite Eight, SEC champions
13. Baylor Bears
2009-10 Record: 28-8 (11-5), NCAA Elite Eight
Baylor looked scary down the stretch last year. When they lost to Duke in the Elite Eight last year, you could almost hear the collective "Uh oh" that everyone uttered across the country, fearing that they would be coming back with a vengeance to own the Big 12. But then Ekpe Udoh became a lottery pick and Tweety Carter flew off into the sunset after graduating. So they went back under the radar, just where they were last year.
Returning LaceDarius Dunn (maybe) and up-and-coming star Quincy Acy, the bears still look like a force to be reckoned with in the Big 12 this year. Acy looked phenomenal at times last year coming off the bench for the Bears, but was a bit overshadowed by Udoh in the paint. Now, he gets to become the experienced one down-low and expect big things from the lanky forward. The Bears also bring in Perry Jones, a center who can instantly replace Udoh. One of the better centers in the upcoming class, Jones should be a monster inside that the Bears can harness.
The real question in Waco is whether leading scorer Dunn will be able to play this season. After being suspended from classes, Dunn has become an enigma in the program. Still unable to practice with the team, people are beginning to wonder "If" and not "when" with Dunn's status. With a felony-assault staring him in the face, it is unclear whether he will get NCAA permission to play, let alone his coach's permission. If Dunn gets axed, then the Bears won't be nearly as much of a threat to the field, but they should be able to knock on the door to the dance.
Prediction: Sweet Sixteen, Big 12 third place
14. Purdue Boilermakers
2009-10 Record: 29-6 (14-4)
Postseason: Sweet Sixteen
Last year, the Boilermakers just didn't have the steam to make it past eventual champion Duke. And just as the Boilermakers were looking to run straight through this season in full force, it happened again. On Saturday, the first official day of practices for teams across the country, Robbie Hummel tore his ACL again.
Hummel's knee injury really put the entire team out of commission last year, losing their emotional leader as well as an All-American candidate. He worked all offseason through rigorous rehab to get back to strength only to lose another chance at greatness. Purdue was returning in full force, and the fact that they are still ranked 15th in this poll shows how talented they really are.
E'twaun Moore, the leading scorer from last year, is back along with JaJuan Johnson and Keaton Grant. Three of five starters from last year means they should be a pretty solid team. The only noticeable gap in the Boilermaker machine (other than Hummel) is the loss of Chris Kramer. The point guard led the team in steals and won Big Ten defensive player of the two years in a row. Without a point guard or a defensive stopper, or their leader, means there could be a weak link in the team. The only good side is that the team has dealt with playing without Hummel in the past and still has time to get used to playing without him for this season.
Prediction: NCAA second round, Big Ten fourth place
15. Kansas Jayhawks
2009-10 Record: 33-3 (15-1), NCAA second round
It was shock and awe when the Jayhawks got knocked off by the Northern Iowa Panthers last March. The Jayhawks were favored to go all the way with a squad that was outfitted with talent and leadership. But they didn't and much of that talent left for the NBA. Now the remnants of that team are ready for redemption.
The main part of the Jayhawks attack this year will come from the Morris brothers. The two powerful forwards played a backseat role to Cole Aldrich last year, but coach Bill Self insists that Marcus has star potential. Veteran guard Tyshawn Taylor should be running the show with solidity after a long tutelage under Sherron Collins as well.
The Jayhawks brought in All-American Josh Selby to help with the reconstruction process. However, it seems that like so many players this year, Selby is under investigation by the NCAA for improper contact with an agent in high school. Selby could be an instant star in the Kansas program and make them top-10 good. But it all boils down to whether Selby plays or not. If not I don't think Kansas has the pure talent to compete at an elite level this year.
Prediction: Sweet Sixteen, Big 12 third place
16. Butler Bulldogs
2009-10 Record: 33-5 (18-0), NCAA Runner-Up
Butler was the feel good story of last year's tournament. They beat out an entire region that included powerhouse Syracuse and Kansas State and then ran through Michigan State in the Final Four only to lose to Duke in the finals. They had been ranked well throughout the season, but no one thought that they had the ability to beat the really good teams due to their weak strength of schedule. The Bulldogs proved that just because you don't play in a tough conference, you can still be a legitimate contender.
This year Butler wants to repeat their underdog performance of last year. Although they lost Gordon Hayward, their exposure in the tournament last year has brought out the best in the rest of the remaining team. The backcourt of Ronald Nored and Shelvin Mack is one of the best in the country and people just seem to keep liking their talent more. With Matt Howard down-low, the Bulldogs should be ready for another run deep into March.
They've tried to offset the lack of conference opponents by scheduling a tough non-conference schedule. While it may not look very tough at first glance, they have some very difficult games in the first half of their season, such as at Louisville (Nov. 16), at Siena (Nov. 23), vs. Duke (Dec. 4), and at Xavier (Dec. 9). They are also in the Diamond Head Classic in Maui, where the Bulldogs could be up against foes like Baylor, Florida State, and Mississippi State.
Prediction: Sweet Sixteen, Horizon League champions
17. Florida Gators
2009-10 Record: 21-13 (9-7), NCAA first round
The Florida Gators snuck in to the tournament as a No. 10 seed last year and lost in a heartbreaker to BYU. The Gators return all five starters for the new season and look to improve on the mediocre record from last season.
Down the stretch point guard Kenny Boynton showed that he could handle the pressure of playing for a major program. One of the real stars of the team last year though was Chandler Parsons. The rising senior hit multiple game-winning shots that managed to lift the Gators into the tournament. Plus forwards Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin are back. They really anchored the team last season with superior rebounding and excellent power in the middle. Overall, any team with five starters returning has a chance to do damage.
Prediction: NCAA second round, SEC second place
18. Missouri Tigers
2009-10 Record: 23-11 (10-6), NCAA second round
Mike Anderson has succeeded in keeping a very talented team under the radar for a couple of years now. They've had a chance at success for a couple of years now, it just seemed that the Missouri Tigers got in the Missouri Tigers way. Inexperience and mistakes led to losses down the road, but the talent has been and is there.
The Tigers return their top three scorers including guards Marcus Denmon and Kim English. Leading one of the best backcourts in the nation, English is an absolute threat to any defense. His dribbling on the ball makes him more explosive than most shooting guards in the country. He sees the floor well, but can score for himself just as well. Also back is versatile forward Laurence Bowers, one of their leading rebounders.
Anderson has also recruited two top 100 players named Tony Mitchell and Phil Pressley, although Mitchell isn't eligible to play (like so many others) until at least conference play. The small-statured Pressley isn't really a threat to take over for Denmon or English, but he should provide a solid standby when either guards needs a breather.
Prediction: NCAA second round, Big 12 fourth place
19. Texas Longhorns
2009-10 Record: 24-10 (9-7)
One of the more disappointing teams from last year's season, Texas was predicted to be one of the front-runners for the NCAA title. After winning their first 17 games, Texas lost 10 of their next 17 and barely made it into the tournament. Then, they lost in the first round and their top three scorers jumped to the NBA.
Although they lost a lot, Texas has restocked. Rick Barnes has done an excellent job recruiting two great freshman in Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson. These two should be able to revamp the program despite losing Damien James and Avery Bradley. With the return of J'Covan Brown and Dogus Balbay at the guard spot, Joseph shouldn't feel too pressured to perform in his role. Brown showed that he was a force to be reckoned with in the tournament against Wake Forest. He was the one with the ball down the stretch and his confidence is sure to be boosted coming into this season.
Prediction: NCAA second round, Big 12 fourth place
20. Tennessee Volunteers
2009-10 Record: 28-9 (11-5), Elite Eight
Tennessee was very surprising last year despite the controversy that was created by some members (and former members) of the team. Their run to the Elite Eight past Ohio State credited Bruce Pearl as one of the better coaches in the country by being able to piece together a postseason with a very depleted roster.
The Vols lost a lot of talent after last year including JP Prince, Wayne Chism and Bobby Maze. However, all the talent that the Volunteers had last year really overshadowed what they had in Scotty Hopson. Hopson really showed what he could do last year when he got the chance. With so many players to share the spotlight, Hopson didn't flourish until the tail end of last season, but expect him to break out as one of the better players in the country.
Tennessee also adds freshman Tobias Harris, one of the premier big men in the country coming into college. Harris should bring a new dynamic to the team. Instead of having dynamic athletic big men who can use finesse to finish in the paint, they'll have a workhorse who can just overpower opponents. This should create a different environment for the players to work with and open up possibilities for a new Volunteers team.
Prediction: NCAA second round, SEC third place
21. Temple Owls
2009-10 Record: 29-6 (14-2), NCAA First Round
Temple's domination of the Atlantic 10 ended abruptly last year when they lost to Cornell in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Owls return with Juan Fernandez, their leading assist man, and forward Lavoy Allen, who averaged a double-double last year.
While lacking any top recruits, the Owls will rely on experience to lead them into March. Fernandez proved to be quite efficient running the point, generating assists as well as creating plenty of opportunities for himself as well. With Lavoy Allen pulling down 10 rebounds a game last season, the amount of second opportunities for the Owls is also increased, which has led them to success in the past.
Prediction: NCAA second round, Atlantic 10 champions
22. Memphis Tigers
2009-10 Record: 24-10 (13-3), NIT second round
In Josh Pastner's first season, he had to deal with the lack of any kind of recruits due to John Calipari leaving and all of the recruits decided to either follow him to Kentucky or just choose a new school to attend. This season will be different. Yes, Elliot Williams is off to make his fortune in the NBA and the once hopeful thoughts of veteran Roburt Sallie leading the team are gone because of his transfer. However, Pastner has shown that he is quite the recruiter and has brought a Calipari-esque recruiting class to Memphis.
Memphis's success will all depend on the play of the freshman phenoms Jelan Kendrick, Will Barton, Tarik Black and Joe Jackson. These four Top 100 recruits will plug into the starting lineups perfectly, along with the returning Wesley Witherspoon. Pastner as also signed four other recruits to the team, who will play supporting spots on the bench.
It is hard to ignore the comparison of Memphis to Kentucky. I'm sure the Tigers are trying as hard as possible to ignore the betrayal of losing a winning coach, but Pastner has possibly created the same environment as Calipari. The entrance of eight freshman almost guarantees that some will be leaving after their first year. That being said, the success of the team will ride solely on freshman, much like the situation in Lexington, drawing more similarities between the two schools.
Prediction: NCAA second round, Conference USA champions
23. Gonzaga Bulldogs
2009-10 Record: 27-7 (12-2), NCAA Second Round
The Gonzaga Bulldogs have evolved into one of those mysterious teams that not many people can put a face to the name. When people hear Gonzaga they either picture the logo of that goofy angry bulldog or some scrunched up face of Mark Few when he's frustrated. Now, people might think of Matt Bouldin giant poofy afro, but that's no longer relevant given the fact that he graduated right after people finally discovered who he was.
The Zags are very strong again this year. Besides Bouldin, almost everyone else for Gonzaga returns for the 2010-11 campaign. Stephen Gray, a rising senior, is going to take over the leadership position from Bouldin. His abilities were overshadowed a bit by Bouldin, but in the end he is the perfect replacement. He is just as skilled at creating his own shot, and what he lacks in passing ability is sure to be made up by the incoming freshman recruits and returning player Demetri Goodson.
Second leading scorer Elias Harris is back to lead the frontcourt. The leading rebounder is a great asset in the paint given his ability to score and rebound. Gonzaga does a good job of rebounding in general too, averaging almost 30 rebounds a game last year.
Prediction: NCAA second round, West Coast Conference champions
24. North Carolina State Wolfpack
2009-10 Record: 20-16 (5-11), NIT second round
North Carolina State hasn't been ranked in the top 25 since 2007. That should change this year. Just when everyone in the area of Raleigh thought that Sidney Lowe was down and out of the pack, he resurrected another chance for himself. Sidney Lowe signed two McDonalds All-Americans in his 2010 class: CJ Leslie and Ryan Harrow. As well as these two, Lowe recruited SG Lorenzo Brown, who was a top 20 recruit in the 2009 class, but took an extra year for academic reasons.
These three recruits may become the resurrection of the basketball program. Leslie is an absolute show-stopper; his unique skill set of power and athleticism makes him a resource on the wing or down-low. He does show some immaturity at times, but if Sidney Lowe can control it, he has a very powerful weapon. Harrow and Brown are amazingly versatile, able to play any of the three perimeter positions. They can shoot, drive, and pass, making the possibilities for their lineup almost endless.
Along with their new players, the Wolfpack have a solid corps of veterans to help them get over the hump. Senior guard Javier Gonzalez has developed extremely well since his first year on the collegiate level. He's developed a shot and dramatically improved his passing ability. The most important returning piece of the NC State puzzle is forward Tracy Smith. The most valuable part of the team last season, Smith was an absolute force in ACC play. In fact, he almost single-handedly took down eventual champions Duke. With Smith in the blocks, plus new talent to draw away double teams, the Wolfpack have very dangerous potential this year as a sleeper come March.
Prediction: ACC third place, NCAA second round
25. Minnesota Golden Gophers
2009-10 Record: 21-14 (9-9), NCAA first round
The Golden Gophers skated into the tournament last year with barely over a .600 winning percentage. However, they were not at full strength and they were still developing talent for the future. It seems like ever since Tubby Smith landed himself in the twin cities, this program hasn't been able to settle into a groove. Last season starting point guard Al Nolen became academically ineligible right when the season was getting down to the grindstone. On top of that, forward Trevor Mbakwe sat out an entire season because of an assault charge against him.
This season they are both back. Although Minnesota lost leading scorer Lawrence Westbrook, they have almost everyone else back. Nolen and Mbakwe, plus second leading scorer Blake Hoffarber and rebounding leader Ralph Sampson III. If they can pull together, expect an even better season from the Golden Gophers this year.
Prediction: NCAA second round, Big Ten fifth place
Others Receiving Votes
Georgia Bulldogs: Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie have athleticism for days and could jump, run and dunk their way into the tournament with enough supporting help.
Virginia Tech Hokies: Although JT Thompson's injury hurts them, having Malcolm Delaney and the other three starters back only helps. Maybe Seth Greenberg will be able to agree with the selection committee this year.
BYU Cougars: Jimmer Fredette almost single-handedly led the Cougars to the sweet sixteen last year. Could he have possibly gotten better this year?
Wisconsin Badgers: Bo Ryan wins basketball games. Period.