For the debut posts on our new college basketball blog, Pat and I decided to release our mid-summer Top 25 for your enjoyment. Much like Katz, Parrish, Goodman and other college hoops writers, nothing gets us more pumped for the college basketball season than an ordered list of the top contenders in hoops. The Big East will be the most common representative and can tout the label of Best Conference in the Nation this season. In fact, it’s not even close. But an ACC school tops my list, and you’ll never guess who.
1. North Carolina
This might be the most loaded college basketball team in decades. Roy Williams hit the jackpot on Declaration Monday with Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green all withdrawing their name from the NBA Draft. Couple their staying with guaranteed Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson inside, along with forwards Ed Davis and Tyler Zeller joining the show, the Heels have the best team in the nation by a large margin. Even Bobby Frasor returns from injury.
The choice for #2 was a difficult one (two other Big East teams were considered, to give you an idea of the strength of that conference), but I ultimately settled on Pittsburgh because of their leadership, experience and versatility on the roster. Sam Young emerged in the Big East Tournament as a true force in the paint and with the mid-range jumper, and super sophomore DeJuan Blair is a keeper. The leadership emerges from Levance Fields at the point and sixth-year senior Mike Cook, recovering from an ACL tear.
The Cardinals lost their main man in the middle and best passer David Padgett, but his scoring can be easily replaced by incoming freshman Samardo Samuels. Rick Pitino will surely take advantage of his perimeter depth and athleticism, and hopefully Edgar Sosa is ready to take over the point guard role full-time and finally show some maturity. Sharp shooter Jerry Smith and double-double machine Terrence Williams will be key pieces if Pitino wants a conference title.
Since Lance Thomas plays soft, the Blue Devils lack a force inside, an element that will likely lead them to their downfall in March. Still, the overall talent level on the team is incredible. The two stars will be Gerald Henderson and Kyle Singler, and even the role players- Thomas, Greg Paulus, Jon Scheyer- are all positive contributors, especially with Paulus’ newfound shooting range. All-American wing Elliot Williams will also play an important role.
5. Notre Dame
I know…another Big East team. Notre Dame deserves the honor, though, with Luke Harangody, reigning Big East Player of the Year, and the best three-point shooter in any major conference, Kyle McAlarney, leading the way for Mike Brey’s team. Other than maybe Lawson and Hansbrough, this is the best tandem in college basketball. The two underrated cogs are explosive point guard Tory Jackson, an assist machine, and forward Ryan Ayers.
The losses of Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook to the lottery will sting at first. Once you look past those two departures, though, you see an immensely talented team loaded with potential. Preseason All-American Darren Collison returns and will be able to play a full season without injury, teaming with backcourt mate Josh Shipp for a formidable duo. The recruiting class is just ridiculous that coach Ben Howland put together- Jrue Holiday (4th overall player), J’Mison Morgan (#23) Malcolm Lee (#39) and Drew Gordon (#42) are all future standouts.
I really like the makeup of this Connecticut team heading into 2008-09, and I feel this is finally the year they take off in a big way. Kemba Walker is the huge coup recruiting-wise, and he’ll join defensive stud Hasheem Thabeet and a strong guard duo of a healthy A.J. Price and Jerome Dyson. Jeff Adrien is one of the most underrated players in the nation. This team is the seventh best in the nation and yet the fourth best in their own conference.
8. Michigan State
Sure, the Spartans lost floor leader and energizer Drew Neitzel as a senior, but the team returns enough toughness, depth and talent to win the Big Ten title. Raymar Morgan will be the focus of the offense inside and outside, and the addition of super frosh forward Delvon Roe takes the pressure off contributors like Durrell Summers and Goran Suton. My favorite player on Michigan State is speedy quick point guard Kalin Lucas, who can get up and down the court in a heartbeat and has great finishing ability.
Closely shadowing the Spartans in the Big Ten race will be up-and-coming Purdue, who stunned the college hoops world with their emergence, even as young as they were constituted (winning games in the Kohl Center with a team of freshmen and sophomores is nothing to forget). The team surprisingly lost Scott Martin to Notre Dame, but return Robbie Hummel, an all-around playmaker on the floor, and E’Twaun Moore, a 43% shooter from deep. Matt Painter might be the brightest young coach in the nation.
Outside of UNC, no team improved more on Declaration Monday than Gonzaga, who retained explosive scorer and point guard Jeremy Pargo for another season in the WCC. Pargo teams up with Matt Bouldin, an aggressive slasher with a strong mid-range game, and Stephen Gray, a sophomore with unlimited shooting range, in the backcourt. The frontcourt is led by Josh Heytvelt and Austin Daye, the former of which is looking to rebound to superstar quality.
With Kansas losing seemingly everyone not named Sherron Collins, the Longhorns are in position to take over the Big 12. A.J. Abrams leads the way for Texas, a 16.5 PPG scorer from last season, and will be teamed with athletic forwards Justin Mason and Damion James. Also, Conor Atchley inside and outside is a positive contributor. Rick Barnes is one of the more underrated coaches in the nation.
The Vols lost a huge amount of their productivity after last season- Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith as seniors and Ramar Smith and Duke Crews for other reasons- and still have the talent to win a watered-down SEC. The players that need to step up are J.P. Prince, a slashing guard who found himself playing a key role down the stretch, along with Wayne Chism and Tyler Smith, a forward with excellent post moves. Their leading scorer, though, could be freshman Scotty Hopson.
13. Arizona State
The Pac-10 may be down from recent campaigns, but can you believe how fast Herb Sendek turned around this program from laughing stock to conference title contender? It all began with the coup of James Harden, a potential lottery pick in 2009, and a player emerging as one of the best in the nation, scoring at a 17.8 PPG pace in his freshman year. His sidekick is Jeff Pendergraph, another fearsome scorer. Look for the team to be motivated after their 2008 snub.
Buzz Williams first year in charge of the Marquette program will be his easiest. The team returns every key piece from last season outside of the 5-position, a spot less important due to the team’s run-and-gun type offense. Jerel McNeal emerged as the team leader and clutch performer, breaking out in the second round game vs. Stanford and testing the draft waters. I love Lazar Hayward’s game down low. Dominic James needs to improve his shooting and Wesley Matthews needs to be more aggressive.
The Tigers and John Calipari lost Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey, yet still find themselves in my top 15. Why? For one, they return three outstanding defensive players and reliable scoring weapons in Robert Dozier, Antonio Anderson and Shawn Taggart. The biggest reason is freshman sensation Tyreke Evans committing, an explosive, dynamic scoring guard who will tear up Conference USA. Plus, you know the team will rack up the conference wins.
The Hurricanes will experience their first basketball season with high expectations in years, a welcomed change for Stan Heath and his staff in South Beach. Jack McClinton is an all-American contender at the guard position, a tremendous scorer (17.7 PPG) with the ability to take over games. We saw it during his 38-point outburst in the NCAA Tournament against Saint Mary’s. Miami also return their other top three scorers and it should be enough to finish third in the ACC.
Many draft experts are pegging Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin as the top overall pick in the 2009 Draft, showing you how much raw potential and playing ability this kid possesses. He’s a double-double threat every time he steps on the floor and has an array of advanced post moves. Along with guard Tony Crocker, Jeff Capel brings in a strong batch of freshmen led by my sleeper in the entire class, shooting guard Willie Warren.
The bulk of the team is back from one that shocked the nation by being added to the NCAA field, then shocked the nation again as a 12 seed defeating Clemson and Siena to reach the Sweet 16. The returning squad is immensely talented led by guards Scottie Reynolds, an all-around playmaker who can shoot and dish, and Corey Fisher, an outstanding 2-guard with great shooting range.
19. West Virginia
Does the Big East have enough representatives in this Top 25? The loss of Joe Alexander and Darris Nichols stings, but don’t underestimate the quality of Bob Huggins recruiting class, led by top 10 player Devin Ebanks and top 30 player Kevin Jones. Also, the team returns players who shined in a big way during the team’s tournament run, namely Joe Mazzulla, Alex Ruoff and Da’Sean Butler.
20. Wake Forest
Here is my breakout team for 2008-09, one that could make major noise in the ACC. We saw the potential during their big win at home against Duke, especially from their phenomenal guard combo of sophomores James Johnson and Jeff Teague. The real boost comes from the best recruiting class in the school’s history, led by top small forward Al-Farouq Aminu and five-star center Ty Walker. Following the tragic death of Skip Prosser, new coach Dino Gaudio has done a commendable job.
Along with Wake Forest, Baylor is another team that will be severely overlooked in preseason publications and polls. Losing Aaron Bruce is a negative, but the return of all-Big 12 performers Curtis Jerrells and LaceDarius Dunn will aid in the scoring category. Guards Henry Dugat and Tweety Carter are also very useful players. Baylor is a team that could sneak up on the tog dogs in the Big 12.
22. Southern Cal
Davon Jefferson made a huge mistake staying in the Draft rather than returning to school, where he could have led USC to a top-10 or 15 ranking rather than going undrafted. Tim Floyd still has a very formidable amount of talent returning and entering, most notably Demar DeRozan, who may be the best freshman in the nation next season. Also, Taj Gibson, Daniel Hackett and Angelo Johnson are solid players.
The loss of point guard Jason Richards will take some trials and learning to overcome, and it could affect how Davidson plays in its annual non-conference death march through ACC country. Still, the NCAA darlings will mold and go undefeated in the SoCon once again. Andrew Lovedale will take over the role of mainstay in the paint and Max Paulhus Gosselin will need to transition from glue guy to scoring option if the team wants to surprise again. There’s another pretty good player they have I’m forgetting about. He’s an okay shooter.
It’s awfully difficult to discount the team that annually plays the best defense in the nation from the top 25. They return reliable scoring options, as well. Marcus Landry and Trevon Hughes form an outstanding inside-outside combination, and three-point gunner Jason Bohannon will contribute. Also, expect sophomores Keaton Nankivil and Jon Leuer to step up to the plate for Bo Ryan.
25. Ohio State
The Buckeyes lost an awful lot of talent and leadership for my liking, but they fill the last slot in my top 25 mainly due to potential and ability. David Lighty has to emerge as the leading scorer, and Jon Diebler must shake off his freshman shooting woes to become the three-point specialist he was in high school. The big coup is freshman B.J. Mullens, a 7 foot local center who is a taller and more talented Kosta Koufos, and has shot up prospect rankings since his commitment.
Also considered: Florida, Georgetown, UNLV, Kentucky, Arizona, Kansas, San Diego, Syracuse