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Big 12 (predicted order of finish and records)
Oklahoma Sooners (26-4) – A program that was in shambles just a few years ago is now a contender to win it all. Coach Jeff Capel quickly turned around the mess he inherited and now leads a team featuring one of the nation’s power forwards in Blake Griffin, his brother Taylor, and dynamic freshman guard Willie Warren. Granted, the Sooners only got to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year, this team has lots more experience and now knows how to win. They could win the Big 12 and make noise in postseason play this as soon as this year.
Texas Longhorns (26-4) – One of the nation’s most consistent programs over the past few years, Texas comes into 2008 with the best and deepest roster in this conference. If they can overcome the loss of Kevin Durant and reached the Elite 8 last year, they can certainly do the same after the departure of D.J. Augustin for the NBA. Undersized, but talented point guard A.J. Abrams is among the best at his position in the nation; he is complemented by solid swingmen, James and Mason. I would be very surprised if Texas doesn’t get to the Sweet 16, if not further.
Kansas Jayhawks (23-7) – The defending champs come into 2008 with a gutted roster after their championship last year. The Jayhawks lose all five starters, but the outlook is anything but bleak for Bill Self’s team. Even though we saw the struggles that Billy Donovan had after being in basically the same situation at Florida, Self brings in a top-notch recruiting class, highlighted by the Morris brothers. Last year’s prominent bench players, Collins and Aldrich are ready to step in and be leaders for Kansas, as they will have some degree of success with this new look team.
Texas A&M Aggies (21-9) – It will be extremely difficult to replace skilled big man DeAndre Jordan in what looks to be a transitional season for the Aggies, but Mark Turgeon can certainly earn his team a bid to the NCAA Tournament in this watered-down conference. The pieces are still in place for this team to contend, but the new freshmen, specifically Loubeau, must make immediate contributions to replace what they lost in Jones and Kirk. I like what Texas A&M has done over the past few seasons; this season will be another good one in College Station.
Baylor Bears (18-12)
Missouri Tigers (17-13)
Oklahoma State Cowboys (17-13)
Kansas State Wildcats (16-14)
Texas Tech Red Raiders (15-15)
Nebraska Cornhuskers (14-16)
Iowa State Cyclones (12-18)
Colorado Buffaloes (11-19)
Pac-10 (predicted order of finish and records)
UCLA Bruins (26-4) – In my opinion, the Pac-10 is America’s second best conference, and it will be won once again by UCLA. Ben Howland has lost tons of players over the past three seasons (Farmar, Afflalo, Westbrook, Love), and still has managed to reach the Final Four in each of those seasons. This team certainly has the talent to reach that special place once again, led by great point guard Darren Collison, explosive swingman Josh Shipp, and one of the nation’s best recruits, Jrue Holiday. The Bruins still have all the pieces in place to win the national title.
Arizona State Sun Devils (24-6) – A team that was snubbed from last year’s NCAA Tournament is all but a lock to get in and do damage this year. One of the nation’s best all-around players, James Harden is their featured player, who is certainly capable of carrying an entire program on his back. Not only do all of their starters return, but this team is young and fresh, mostly due to great recruiting over the past few years by coach Herb Sendek. The Sun Devils have made strides beyond what were expected, making it likely that they will perform even better in 2008.
Arizona Wildcats (22-8) – This is certainly a team on decline, but I still think they can make the NCAA Tournament if they take care of business in the Pac-10, and perform up to their ability in their somewhat challenging non-conference schedule. The loss of head coach Lute Olson and the decision by top recruit Brandon Jennings to play in Europe both hurt Arizona coming into this year. However, they bring back Chase Budinger, one of the nation’s best defenders and rebounders, not to mention talented point guard Nic Wise. Arizona will be just fine this season.
USC Trojans (22-8) – This certainly would have been the Pac-10’s front-runner if O.J. Mayo would have returned to college, but they have to move forward with great freshman forward DeMar DeRozan as their star for at least this year. USC also returns a talented big man, Taj Gibson, along with Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis as other scoring options. Tim Floyd really solidified the Trojans as both a conference and national contender with the job he’s done over the past few seasons. Don’t be surprised if USC creeps into the Sweet 16 (or possibly further) come March.
Washington Huskies (20-10)
Washington State Cougars (19-11)
California Golden Bears (17-13)
Oregon Ducks (16-14)
Stanford Cardinal (14-16)
Oregon State Beavers (9-21)
SEC (predicted order of finish and records)
Tennessee Volunteers (25-5) – Bruce Pearl has been one of most consistent coaches in the nation, and he makes up for the loss of sharpshooter Chris Lofton by bringing in impact newcomer Scotty Hopson. Junior forward Tyler Smith is the Vols’ best player, and could be the conference’s top offensive threat. If this roster stays healthy, and the freshmen develop according to plan, Tennessee can undoubtedly advance to past the Sweet 16 for this first time in school history. Picking another team to win the SEC would be a big mistake this season.
Kentucky Wildcats (23-7) – After a number of disappointing years, I think Kentucky can return to winning, but not quite at the level that they were at some points under Tubby Smith. Billy Gillispie can win with this solid roster led by star shot-blocking forward Patrick Patterson, and shooting guard Jodie Meeks, who can fill it up. Even though recent Kentucky programs have gotten off to horrendous starts under both Smith and Gillispie in recent season, their roster is a little bit better than last year’s, a year in which they reached the NCAA Tournament.
Florida Gators (21-9)
Vanderbilt Commodores (19-11)
South Carolina Gamecocks (14-16)
Georgia Bulldogs (13-17)
LSU Tigers (22-8) – LSU seems to be the unanimous pick to win this half of the SEC, so I’ll go along with it. The hiring of new coach Trent Johnson should help to eradicate two awful seasons following their Final Four appearance of 2006. They hope to recapture some of the magic of 2006 with several players who are still on the team, Garrett Temple and Chris Johnson. They can’t be any worse than they were last season, but a coaching change is usually a good thing for a team that needs motivation. LSU should get back to the tourney this season.
Alabama Crimson Tide (20-10) – Former All-American point guard Ronald Steele is finally healthy after missing most of the last two seasons, a major positive sign for this Alabama squad, who also features Alonzo Gee and talented freshman JaMychal Green. This is a make-or-break season for head coach Mark Gottfried, who hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2006, or the Sweet 16 since 2004. The good news is that Gottfried has the roster to win this year, and receive a contract extension, which I think will be the likely result.
Mississippi Rebels (17-13)
Mississippi State Bulldogs (16-14)
Auburn Tigers (13-17)
Arkansas Razorbacks (11-19)
Gonzaga Bulldogs (23-7) – The Zags have one of college basketball’s best rosters with as many as three first round NBA draft picks (Pargo, Daye, Heytvelt) on it. Mark Few, who has been the coach of this great mid-major contender for a number of years now, led this team to 25 wins yet again last season, and though they suffered a first-round exit at the hands of Davidson, Gonzaga will easily win their conference, the WCC, and coast into the NCAA Tournament with a dreams of making a deep run as they've in years past.
Memphis Tigers (22-8) - Like their championship opponent, Kansas, Memphis comes into this season with a very different look. They lose Rose, Douglas-Roberts, and Dorsey, but retain Dozier and Anderson, and bring in top-notch recruit Tyreke Evans. They will certainly take a step back from the 38-win season that had them within mere seconds of winning it all in 2008, but John Calipari always has the Tigers in position to run through Conference USA untouched and make a run in the tournament. Memphis should do just that once again.
Davidson Wildcats (21-9) - Though they lost in the Elite 8 to the eventual champion, the real story of last year's 'Big Dance' was Davidson and the dominant emergence of sweet-shooting guard Stephen Curry. I highly doubt that their defeats of teams like Gonzaga, Georgetown, and Wisconsin were aberrations, but it might not be easy to make a deep run like they did last year. I think they certainly are a contender if they earn enough respect to get a seed higher than the 10 they got last year; Davidson is capable of making noise.
UAB Blazers (21-9) - Though they didn't make the NCAA Tournament last year, UAB certainly has the talent to get there, and might even supplant Memphis as kings of Conference USA. Coach Mike Davis has done a great job in Birmingham since leaving Indiana, not to mention bringing former Hoosier and dynamic scorer Robert Vaden with him. I think the Blazers are a squad that can be mentioned in the same breath as Memphis or Gonzaga when thinking about non-BCS conference contenders. Keep an eye on UAB.
Big 12’s Top 10 Players
1) Blake Griffin, F - Oklahoma, So.
2) A.J. Abrams, G - Texas, Sr.
3) Damion James, F - Texas, Jr.
4) Sherron Collins, G - Kansas, Jr.
5) Josh Carter, G/F - Texas A&M, Sr.
6) James Anderson, G - Oklahoma State, So.
7) Curtis Jerrells, G - Baylor, Sr.
8) Leo Lyons, F - Missouri, Sr.
9) LaceDarius Dunn, G - Baylor, Sr.
10) Connor Atchley, C - Texas, Sr.
Pac-10's Top 10 Players
1) Darren Collison, G - UCLA, Sr.
2) James Harden, G/F - Arizona State, So.
3) Chase Budinger, F - Arizona, Jr.
4) Josh Shipp, G - UCLA, Sr.
5) Jon Brockman, F - Washington, Sr.
6) Taj Gibson, F - USC, Jr.
7) DeMar DeRozan, F - USC, Fr.
8) Jordan Hill, F/C - Arizona, Jr.
9) Jrue Holiday, G - UCLA, Fr.
10) Patrick Christopher, G - California, Jr.
SEC's Top 10 Players
1) Tyler Smith, F - Tennessee, Jr.
2) Patrick Patterson, F/C - Kentucky, So.
3) Nick Calathes, G - Florida, So.
4) Devan Downey, G - South Carolina, Jr.
5) A.J. Oglivy, C - Vanderbilt, So.
6) Jarvis Varnardo, F - Mississippi State, Jr.
7) Alonzo Gee, G/F - Alabama, Sr.
8) Chris Johnson, C - LSU, Sr.
9) Chris Warren, G - Mississippi, So.
10) Marcus Thornton, G - LSU, Sr.
Top 10 Players From Non-BCS Conferences
1) Stephen Curry, G - Davidson, Jr.
2) Robert Vaden, G/F - UAB, Sr.
3) Jeremy Pargo, G - Gonzaga, Sr.
4) Lester Hudson, G - Tennessee-Martin, Sr.
5) Tyreke Evans, G/F - Memphis, Fr.
6) Derrick Brown, F - Xavier, Jr.
7) Austin Daye, F - Gonzaga, So.
8) Patrick Mills, G - St. Mary's, So.
9) Eric Maynor, G - VCU, Sr.
10) Lee Cummard, F - BYU, Sr.