Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Some notes on the BP65

With all of the previews done, it's time for a little analysis and recap of the previews. And if there's one theme of the BP65 it's a return to normalcy, which is what should be expected of next year. This past year was the Year of Mediocrity, with a lot of the top programs down or in rebuilding phases, and a lot of second-tier teams were able to fill in the gaps. The Mid-Majors, especially, had a very successful year. The million dollar question is whether Gonzaga, George Mason and the Missouri Valley were signs of the future or flukes. The answer is probably that they were flukes. The Mid-Major conferences are definintely improving with more television exposure, but the improvement is not going to be that drastic. They took advantage of a weak year from the Major conferences, and expect the mid-majors to take a step back next year.

In addition to mid-majors, the second-tier major conference teams flourished in 2005-06. Teams like LSU and Florida were able to jump in and take advantage of the fact that there were no really good teams. They had no teams like UNC and Illinois in '05 to deal with. So, they were able to get hot and make a run. Despite what many gushing sportscasters have been saying, Florida and LSU were not the two best teams in the country. There were just a dozen or two teams with similar ability, and Florida and LSU were the hottest of those. That's part of the fun of the Tournament, of course - it's rare that the best team wins. If you think that LSU would have beaten Duke in a 7-game series then you're nuts.

So, before doing a preview for next year, it's important to remember that Florida and LSU were not the two top teams in the nation this past year. There were other teams that were better, and which will also bring in better recruiting classes. This is why it doesn't make sense to rank Florida as the #1 team in the nation, even if they return everyone.

Unlike this past year, next year will be greatly influenced by a strong high school class coming in. A lot of very good players will come in and dominate, many of whom would have gone straight to the NBA out of high school under the old draft rules. The fact that these kids are all going to the big programs, and that some will even stay more than a year (because they enjoy college or because they realize that they aren't as good as they originally thought), will mean that the big programs should regain some of their traditional power. Don't expect any mid-majors to reach the Final Four next year, and don't expect any mid-major conferences with multiple Sweet 16 teams. Order will be restored in 2007.

Monday, April 10, 2006

2006-07 Preview: BP65

It's finally here, the first BP65 of the 2006-2007 season. This ranking will reflect BasketballPredictions' belief of what will happen over the next year, accounting for as many factors as possible. The most unstable variable at this point is the NBA draft, but BP has made it clear throughout the conference previews the players which are believed to be going pro. Two updates that will be made (as they were announced after their conference preview came out), and they are that Joakim Noah is now saying that he will stay, and Paul Millsap of Louisiana Tech has announced that he will turn pro (knocking Nevada into the automatic bid for the WAC). More draft status changes will inevitably come, so the BP65 will need updating after the NBA draft. So, the next version of the BP65 will be released within a week after the draft. For now, here are the BP65:

1. North Carolina
1. Kansas
1. Ohio State

2. Florida
2. Duke
2. Texas
2. LSU

3. Villanova
3. Arizona
3. Georgetown
3. Wisconsin

4. Memphis
4. Tennessee
4. UConn
4. Louisville

5. Alabama
5. Virginia
5. California
5. Boston College

6. Syracuse
6. Michigan
6. Pittsburgh
6. Kentucky

7. Texas A&M
7. Washington
7. Texas Tech
7. Southern Illinois

8. Georgia Tech
8. Indiana
8. Arkansas
8. Maryland

9. Hofstra
9. Oklahoma State
9. Stanford
9. Air Force

10. UAB
10. Iowa
10. Wichita State
10. Michigan State

11. Gonzaga
11. Nevada
11. Charlotte
11. Florida State

12. Notre Dame
12. BYU
12. Akron
12. Missouri State

13. Butler
13. Manhattan
13. Bucknell
13. Montana

14. Western Kentucky
14. Penn
14. Winthrop
14. Belmont

15. Long Beach State
15. Furman
15. Albany
15. Sam Houston State

16. Jackson State
16. Samford
16. Robert Morris
16. Delaware State

2006-07 Preview: ACC

Atlantic Coast Conference

Looking around the Internet, the most popular preseason ACC pick is North Carolina, and it's not hard to figure out why. The Tar Heels were one of the top teams in the nation for the last month or two of the season before having their tournament derailed by the juggernaut that was George Mason. And they return six of their top scorers, including All-American Tyler Hansbrough. The Heels also bring in a draft class considered by both Scout.com and Rivals.com to be the best in the nation. That class includes three McDonald's All-Americans - Brandon Wright, Wayne Ellington and Tywon Lawson, who Scout.com believes are the #1 ranked power forward, shooting guard and point guard, respectively, in the country. The Heels bring back so many good players, however, that not all of these guys can start. Expect Bobby Fraser (6 ppg, 4 apg) to continue to handle ball-handling duties with Ellington. Meanwhile, Wright should star on a front like with Hansbrough and Reyshawn Terry (a combined 33 ppg and 14 rpg). You have to wonder how Roy Williams will have time to get playing time for guys like Danny Green, a McDonald's All-American back in 2005 who was a productive scorer in limited minutes this past year. To sum it up: The Heels will be a national title contender next year.

Of course, no ACC discussion can get far without talking about Duke, the team with 7 of the last 8 ACC Tournament titles. Unfortunately for the Dukies, they lose three starters, including a Naismith winner and another All-American. Of course, what would a Duke recruiting class be without three McDonald's All-Americans of their own - Gerald Henderson (Wayne Ellington's high school teammate - expect to hear Dick Vitale mention this 85,000 times before Duke plays UNC next year), Jon Scheyer and 7'1" Brian Zoubek. Also, Duke does still return Josh McRoberts and DeMarcus Nelson, who should provide experience and additional talent alongside the recruits. Some people want to write Duke off with the loss of Redick's scoring and the Landlord's defense, but when you keep in mind that they had so many McDonald's All-Americans that one of them only got to play 2.5 minutes per game last year (Eric Boateng) you remember that Duke has more talent in its 12th man than most schools can ever hope to have in their best player. They will be a top team next year, and they will compete for a conference title.

Another team to consider is Boston College, which got about as far as any ACC team can ever go last year (to the ACC Tourney finals, where they lost to Duke of course). The Eagles take a big hit in the graduation of Craig Smith, who was clearly the bedrock of the team. They need one of their other two potential centers, John Oates or Sean Williams, to fill in the void. Williams clearly oozes athletic talent, but he needs to refine his skills before he can be a real force inside. The Eagles will return some solid senior talent, however, in Jared Dudley (17 ppg, 7 rpg) and Sean Marshall (11 ppg, 37% 3-point shooting). However, even if all of these players improve, they still will not completely fill in for the losses of Smith and Louis Hinnant. While those losses aren't as big as Duke's losses, they also can't replace talent like Duke or UNC. There are no McDonald's All-Americans coming in to save the day. It's hard to see Boston College improving next year.

A team that many expect to improve is Florida State. The four top scorers on the team were juniors or younger this past year. However, both Al Thornton (16 ppg, 7 rpg) and Alexander Johnson (13 ppg, 7 rpg) are considering the NBA draft. The latest rumors are that Thornton will stay and Johnson will go, so this is what BaskeballPredictions will assume for now. This puts extra pressure on star 7'0 recruit Jonathan Kreft to come in and provide an inside presence. If Kreft and Diego Romero (4 ppg, 3 rpg) cannot hold their own on the inside, it's hard to see the Seminoles being able to win this conference. The big men of UNC and Duke will throw them around the floor. If, however, Leonard Hamilton can get solid production inside, he clearly has the athletes to hang on the wings and in the backcourt.

A sleeper team in the ACC could be Virginia, with underrated coach Dave Leitao. The Cavaliers had a very young team this past year that was expected to get crushed, but they hung tough and actually got within shouting distance of the Bubble with a 7-9 record in the ACC. Better yet, the Cavaliers bring everybody back as long as Sean Singletary (18 ppg, 4 apg, 2 spg) keeps his word and sticks around for another year. So, Virginia expects to bring back its top 8 scorers off a team that already competed well in the ACC, and also brings in a pretty good recruiting class led by the athletic Jamil Tucker (Scout: 18 SF, Rivals: 18 SF). It's not a Duke or UNC-level recruiting class, but it's quite possible that Virginia actually returns more talent than Duke. They're certainly not the type of team that should be underestimated as a real threat to steal the ACC title. That said, it's hard to see anyone wresting control of the ACC out of the hands of UNC and Duke quite yet:

1. North Carolina - Clearly the team with the most talent at the start of the year. They return almost everyone from a team that toyed with the Top 10 all year, and also bring in what is widely considered to be the top recruiting class in the nation. Plus, they're playing with a chip on their shoulder after doing a poor job of defending their title in the NCAA Tournament. This team will definitely get quite a few #1 votes in the first AP poll in the fall, if not the #1 ranking altogether.
2. Duke - Yes, Redick and Williams leave. But this is Duke, and Coach K is still the coach. They have far too much talent to not have a chance to win any game that they enter. Teams like Virginia and Boston College will be good teams, but they just don't have the talent to match up on a day-to-day basis at every position.
3. Virginia - The sleeper in the ACC. They could steal some wins from teams looking past them, atleast early in the year. The major question will be whether the Cavaliers can continue to win when they have a good record and everyone is gunning for them. This team, as currently constituted, hasn't had to play any real pressure-packed games yet.
4. Boston College - Can't slip this team too far in the standings. They do return almost everyone from this past year's team, and have a lot of talent all around. Not only do they have some solid recruits, but they also have guys like Sean Williams who played little last year but have tons of pure talent. This team has the potential to finish even higher in the final conference standings.
5. Georgia Tech - Another sleeper team in the ACC. The Yellow Jackets were a bad team this past year, but they return all five starters. On top of that, they have one of the top recruiting classes in the nation - that features two McDonald's All-Americans. In other words, Georgia Tech will be in the rare situation (at least for an ACC team) of having a player start one year and have to be benched the next year. You have to wonder not only how they will find enough playing time for everyone, but also whether there will be enough experience and leadership on the team. There will be no seniors receiving any significant playing time, and that is definitely an issue to watch for as games take on more pressure and the team feels more expectations.
6. Maryland - Gary Williams loses his top two scorers (Nik Caner-Medley and Chris McCray - a combined 31 ppg) to graduation, but this will hardly be a rebuilding year. The Terrapins will have a solid core of the three-rising seniors D.J. Strawberry, Ekene Ibekwe and Mike Jones. The Terps also have a solid recruiting class that should help fill in some holes in the lineup. Along with a Top 20 recruiting class, this is definitely a team that expects to get back to the NCAA tournament next year.
7. Florida State - The Seminoles will be very talented and athletic next year. But their future is really dependent on how many players they lose to the NBA. They can survive and contend without Alexander Johnson, but if they will be in trouble if they lose Al Thornton also. At this point, it's hard to predict, so BasketballPredictions is placing them seventh, as a team that has an excellent shot at the tournament but probably won't contend for a conference title.
8. NC State - The Wolfpack could move up these standings if they sign John Calipari as their new coach. If not, they will probably end up with a downgrade over eternally under-appreciated Herb Sendek. The Wolfpack also lose three of their top five scorers to graduation, including star Cameron Bennerman (14 ppg, 3 rpg, 84% FT-shooting). They have a good recruiting class by their standards, but it's hard to see NC State being nearly as good as they were this past year.
9. Clemson - The Tigers will be good, but there's just no argument that anyone could make regarding this team as an NCAA tournament team. As such, it's hard to place them any higher than 9th in the ACC.
10. Wake Forest - A rebuilding year for a team that could be good in the near future. The Deamon Deacons graduate their top 4 scorers, including star Justin Gray (18 ppg, 4 rpg, 4 apg). Their top returner only scored 5.6 ppg last year, so they certainly don't return the type of talent to win many ACC games. However, they do bring in a Top 20 recruiting class, so expect this team to rise up the standings after struggling a lot in the early season. And expect them to finish even higher in 2008.
11. Virginia Tech - The Hokies return all five starters, but they still don't quite have ACC talent. As they start getting more ACC-caliber recruits, expect them to be able to compete at a higher level in conference.
12. Miami - A surprise team this past year, the Hurricanes should take a step back next year. The graduation of Robert Hite along with the NBA entry of Guillermo Diaz means that the Canes don't return a single double-digit scorer. You need to be able to score a lot of points to succeed in the ACC, and Miami is not going to be able to keep up next year.

Friday, April 07, 2006

2006-07 Preview: Big East

Big East Conference

The Big East has so many talented teams that it's really tough to guage who will be the top dog next year. So, we'll start with the top team this past year, UConn. The Huskies had immense talent this past year, but had huge attitude problems. They just didn't put in enough effort to make it out of the Elite Eight. They lose their emotional leader in Rashad Anderson, plus Denham Brown and Hilton Armstrong to graduation. Rudy Gay and Marcus Williams are both expected to jump in the draft early as well, although for now we'll assume that Josh Boone makes the wise choice and stays in college for another year. Even so, the other five of the top six scorers will be gone, leaving a question as to just how good UConn will be next year. They do have some talented rising-sophomores, including Jeff Adrian (7 ppg, 5 rpg), and Jim Calhoun always brings in outstanding recruiting classes. The top-five class features too many blue-chippers to list, but some highlights include Stanley Robinson (Scouts: 8 PF, Rivals: 14) and Curtis Kelly (Scouts: 9 PF, Rivals: 8 PF). Expect the Huskies to have a totally revamped lineup next year, with a ton of talent but questionable experience and leadership. It's hard to see the Huskies being as good next year.

The other half of the duo that dominated the Big East last year was Villanova, under outstanding young coach Jay Wright. The Wildcats lose Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Jason Fraser to graduation, but are hoping that Kyle Lowry sticks around another year. If Curtis Sumpter can ever get healthy, the Wildcats will have even more inside depth. They also bring in a solid recruiting class with no McDonald's All-Americans, but plenty of solid players all around. If the assumptions on NBA jumps are correct, it seems clear that Villanova returns more talent than UConn does.

Two other teams that could threaten the order at the top are Pittsburgh and Georgetown. Unless he finds another way to get what would seem like an 8th year of college eligibility, Pitt will have to survive without Carl Krauser for the first time in a very long time. Aaron Gray is also expected to go pro. That said, Pitt still returns a lot of talent, including Ronald Ramon on the outside. The Panthers will try to build back some inside depth with 6'9" Austin Wallace as well. Georgetown, meanwhile, graduates a lot of role players but retains its powerful inside presence of Roy Hibbard and Jeff Green (combined 23 points and 13 rebounds per game). JT3 also brings in an excellent recruiting class highlighted by McDonald's All-American Vernon Macklin (Scouts: 6 PF, Rivals: 3 PF) and DaJuan Summers (Scouts: 14 PF, Rivals: 8 SF). Georgetown will probably have the best inside game of any team in the conference, and a key to their rise in the standings will be whether they can get adequate guard play out of Jonathan Wallace and whoever ends up starting at the other guard position.

A final darkhorse team in the Big East has to be Louisville. Sure, they struggled this past year and lose their leading scorer (Taquan Dean - 17 per game) to graduation. But they return the rest of their top talent, including David Padgett and Juan Palacios, while also bringing in a sterling recruiting class highlighted by Derrick Caracter (Scouts: 5 PF, Rivals: 5 PF) and Earl Clark (Scouts: 4 SG, Rivals: 15). Even more importantly, they're coached by Rick Pitino, one of the greatest coaches in the history of college basketball. You know that his team will be improved next year, and you know that they'll be back in the tournament. The only real question is how high of a seed will they end up receiving. That said, Villanova probably still has the most talent at the beginning of the year, especially if they have Lowry and a healthy Sumpter, and should be considered the preseason favorites:

1. Villanova - The most talent and an excellent coach means that Villanova should be a good team yet again in '07.
2. Georgetown - JT3 is reviving the Georgetown legacy. They will have a great post presence with Hibbard and Green, and with good guard play could challenge to win the entire conference.
3. UConn - Can't move the Huskies back any further than this. Even with all the graduations and NBA defections, you know that Jim Calhoun will have a very talented squad to put on the floor.
4. Louisville - There is no way that Rick Pitino stays out of the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year. At times this past year, the Cardinals showed flashes of what they'll be like next year, and they will have the capability of beating anyone in the conference.
5. Syracuse - Gerry McNamara graduates, but that's about it for the Orangemen. Meanwhile, Boeheim will replace his star shooter with Eric Devendorf (a 38% 3-point shooter) and top recruit Paul Harris (Scout: 3 SF, Rivals: 2 SG). This team should be improved next year.
6. Pittsburgh - The Panthers will need to find a way to get some scoring without Krauser or Gray. Their leading returner is Ronald Ramon, with a mere 8.0 ppg. If they can find some scoring, they will be able to compete to get back into the tournament.
7. Notre Dame - The Irish were a lot better than their record indictated. They lost so many buzzer-beater games that it became a joke by the end of the season. It was pretty obvious that their NIT appearance was going to end the same way as so many of their games - on a desperate 3-pointer by their opponent (in that case, Michigan). Not only will the Irish bring back a fairly veteran lineup, but they will also have a very solid recruiting class. Expect Notre Dame to be very much in the thick of the at-large hunt in 2007.
8. West Virginia - It could be a long season for the Mountaineers, as they graduate their top 4 scorers (Kevin Pittsnoggle, Mike Gansey, Johannes Herber and Patrick Beilein). Next year will clearly be a rebuilding year.
9. St. John's - A team on the rise that graduates no one that scored three or more points per game. If Daryll Hill and Lamont Hamilton can stay healthy and together all season, the Red Storm should make a serious challenge for their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2002.
10. Marquette - The Golden Eagles are going to be in a rebuilding phase without star Steve Novak. Their top three returning scorers will all be sophomores next year, so expect 2007 to be a year of building in preparation for another tournament run in 2008.
11. Seton Hall - The Pirates lose their top two scorers to graduation in the form of Donald Copeland and Kelly Whitney (a combined 31 ppg). But they signed an excellent coach in Bobby Gonzales, so expect this team to do a lot with the experienced role players that they have returning.
12. Depaul - The Blue Demons return their top 13 scorers from this past year and should see improvement, but with their level of talent even an appearance in the Big East Tournament should be considered a successful season.
13. Rutgers - Would be in good shape if Quincy Douby comes back, but he probably will not. With him gone, the Scarlet Knight will have a lot of trouble finding someone who can score in the clutch. Every big win they had in 2006 was on a night that Douby went off. They will lose those games next year.
14. Cincinnati - The only thing worse than being one of the first teams out of the NCAA Tournament is to go and graduate five of your top seven scorers. The Bearcats will have trouble finding a starting lineup with the talent to hang with the big boys in the Big East.
15. Providence - Only lose one senior, in the form of Donnie McGrath, to graduation. The Friars have some decent young talent that has the potential to bloom in the next few years.
16. South Florida - As the recruiting power of the Big East starts to kick in, this team will get better. They have no real blue chip recruits for next year, but do have enough quality players coming in to replace their two graduating seniors. Don't expect this team to pull itself out of last place quite yet, but they'll be better.

2006-07 Preview: Big 10

Big 10 Conference

The talk of the Big 10 is the so-called "Thad Five" which Thad Matta is bringing to Ohio State next year. The set of 4 high schoolers and a Juco transfer include a remarkable three McDonald's All-Americans, led by the best player in the nation - Greg Oden, and Daequan Cook. Only on a team like this could All-American Mike Conley go under the radar. Throw in David Lighty (Scouts: 9 SF, Rivals: 21) and Juco star Othello Hunter, and Ohio State has a remarkable pool of talent. Before Buckeye fans start figuring out where to place their Final Four banner, however, it's important to keep in mind that Ohio State is also decimated by graduations. Terence Dials, Je'Kel Foster, J.J. Sullinger and Matt Sylvester all graduate. So, if not for the outstanding recruiting class, Ohio State would be expected to have a precipitous drop out of the Top 25 next year. Instead, the team remains a question mark. They do return Ron Lewis and Jamar Butler (both double-digit scorers this past year), so they won't have an entirely freshman starting lineup. Basically, this team could finish almost anywhere in the Top 25 without being too much of a surprise. Although Thad Matta is too good of a coach for this team to not be a tough beat next year.

A top challenger to Ohio State in the Big 10 should be defending Big 10 Tournament champion, Iowa. The Hawkeyes lose several seniors, including Greg Brunner and Jeff Horner, but still return key pieces like Adam Haluska (14 ppg, 5 rpg). They also bring in two solid Juco players in Justin Johnson and Cyrus Tate who should fill in gaps in the lineup. Plus, the stinging defeat to Northwestern State in the 2006 NCAA Tournament should provide plenty of motivation for a Hawkeye team that will be fired up next year. They might not have as much talent as other teams, however, like Wisconsin. The Badgers got good news when Alando Tucker announced that he'd bring his 19 points per game back for one more year. The Badgers lose only one senior, in Ray Nixon, who was only a role player. Meanwhile, Wisconsin gets even better with an excellent recruiting class of Jason Bohannon (Scouts: 8 PG, Rivals: 22 PG), J.P. Gavinski (Scouts: 25 C, Rivals: 13 C) and Trevon Hughes (Scouts: 11 PG, Rivals: 16 PG). Expect Wisconsin to be vastly improved next year.

A final likely challenger for the Big 10 title will be Michigan, as the Wolverines return a lot of experienced talent. Their starting lineup will feature atleast three seniors next year - double-digit scorers Dion Harris, Courtney Sims and Lester Abram. The Wolverines also get a solid recruiting class, highlighted by DeShawn Sims (Scouts: 6 SF, Rivals: 12 SF). That said, while all of the aforementioned teams have good talent and coaching, none of them have the potential upside of the Buckeyes, who have to be the preseason favorites:

1. Ohio State - This team reminds a lot of people of the 2003 Orangemen. Of course, they could also turn out to be the 2006 Jayhawks, so nothing is assured for a team so young. This team will be successful if Greg Oden fulfills his promise and dominates inside. The only highlights we have of him are against high school competition, but he sure put on quite a show.
2. Wisconsin - The Badgers will be a very solid, experienced team. They don't have the upside of the Buckeyes, but have to be considered the first team in line should the Buckeyes implode due to a busted Thad Five.
3. Michigan - Tommy Amaker has struggled to fulfill the potential that Michigan saw in him when they signed him away from Coach K, but he'll get a good chance to redeem himself next year. His Wolverines will have the talent to make a run in the NCAA tournament if they play their cards right.
4. Indiana - Kelvin Sampsom might be the answer in Indiana, or he could be the next Mike Davis. Only time will tell. What is known is that Sampson will have a lot of talent to work with, especially if he can keep D.J. White and Robert Vaden from fleeing the scene with Mike Davis.
5. Iowa - The Hawkeyes have several starters left from this past year's team, but it's hard to see them finding anyone to replace Brunner, Horner and Erek Hansen. Expect the team to take a step back next year.
6. Michigan State - Maurice Ager and Paul Davis will be tough losses for Tom Izzo to bear - not to mention the size of Matt Trannon on the blocks. However, the Spartans have a good shot at getting another year out of Shannon Brown and bring in another solid recruiting class. You can't expect Tom Izzo to struggle too bad, he's just too good of a coach.
7. Illinois - Bruce Weber needs to prove that he can coach without Bill Self's players, and he'll get a good chance next year. It was clear in 2006 that the Illini had trouble beating anyone when Dee Brown wasn't playing well, and this team will be rough shape without him or James Augustine next year. Unless Bruce Weber is a better coach than BasketballPredictions thinks, the Illini will struggle to return to the NCAA Tournament in 2007.
8. Northwestern - There is a big gap between the top seven teams and the bottom four teams in the Big 10, and each of the four teams at the bottom loses a lot of its top players on top of it all. So it's pretty much a crap shoot at the bottom, and don't expect any of these final four teams to make an appearance in the NCAA tournament.
9. Penn State - Not hit quite as badly by graduation as some of the other teams at the bottom of the Big 10, but there's no reason to believe that they have the talent to compete near the top.
10. Purdue - They can't sit in last place all the time. At some point the post-Gene Keady era will have to improve.
11. Minnesota - Just way too many graduations. The entire core of a team will be gone that wasn't too great in the first place. Could be a long year for the Gophers.

2006-07 Preview: Big 12

Big 12 Conference

Conversation regarding the Big 12 has to begin with this past year's regular season champion, Kansas. They obviously have a ton of young talent as every important player on the team was a freshman or sophomore this past year. The big question is how many of those young players will stay for another year. The fact that their season ended up abrubtly (to #13 Bradley in the first round) is probably a positive for this coming year, as both Brandon Rush (14 ppg, 6 rpg) and 6'11" C.J. Giles (6 ppg, 5 rpg) said after the game that they'd return for another year to get the bad taste out of their mouths. If the Jayhawks can return their entire team, and then add McDonald's All American Sherron Collins at the guard position, they will be a very tough team for anyone to beat. Of course, no team has had more success against Kansas recently than Texas, although the Longhorns will have quite a different lineup next year with LeMarcus Aldridge (15 ppg, 9 rpg) and Daniel Gibson (13 ppg, 4 rpg) probably going pro. P.J. Tucker (16 ppg, 10 rpg) is "testing the water" right now, but for now BasketballPredictions will assume that he stays one more year. That said, the Longhorns will still be a force to reckon with next year, with an absolutely amazing recruiting class. Rick Barnes is bringing in McDonald's All-American Kevin Durant (Scouts: 1 SF, Rivals: 2) and D.J. Augustin (Scouts: 7 PG, Rivals: 8 PG). They also bring several other blue-chippers, including 6'10" big men Dexter Pittman (Scouts: 10 C) and Matt Hill (Scouts: 15 C, Rivals: 19 PF), as well as Harrison Smith (Scouts: 21 SG, Rivals: 18 SG) and Justin M ason (Rivals: 79). The Longhorns will have a ton of size and depth, even without Gibson, Aldridge and graduating seniors Brad Buckman and Kenton Paulino.

Another top team with an excellent recruiting class will be Oklahoma, as the Sooners bring in a Top 10 class punctuated by McDonald's All-American Scott Reynolds (Scouts: 5 PG, Rivals: 12 PG) and outstanding athlete Damion Jones (Scouts: 5 SF, Rivals: 16). The Sooners are desperately in need of the help as well, since the entire backbone of the team will be graduating in the persons of Taj Gray, Terrell Everett and Kevin Bookout (a combined 38.1 ppg and 18.3 rpg). Even with the incoming players, it's hard to see the Sooners improving next year - especially while trying to learn the system of a new coach. A team in the rise, however, is Texas A&M. Under Billy Gillispie, the Aggies ran all the way to a 1-point 2nd round loss to LSU. Even better, the Aggies did not have a single senior contributing more than 4 points per game. NBA defections shouldn't be too bad, with only Acie Law IV (16 ppg, 4 apg) likely to jump ship. The Aggies also have a solid recruiting class, led by 6'8" low-post threat Bryan Davis (Scouts: 15 PF, Rivals: 11 PF). If Josh Carter (8 ppg, 2 apg) and Dominique Kirk (7 ppg, 4 rpg, 3 apg) can lead the backcourt in Law's absense, the Aggies will have enough of a down-low presence to hang with just about anyone in the Big 12. Expect Texas A&M to improve next year. Unfortunately for them, it will take more a mild improvement to catch a Kansas team that should be even better than this past year's occasionaly-Top-Ten team. Right now, they have to be considered the early favorites in the Big 12:

1. Kansas - The biggest question is how Bill Self will figure out how to get enough playing time for all of his stars. When you think of teams starting out McDonald's All-Americans on the bench, you usually think about Duke, but it's hard to see how Sherron Collins can get a starting gig next year. In other words, they're going to have an excellent bench.
2. Texas - Can't drop the Londhorns because they have too many good young players coming in. Besides, P.J. Tucker and A.J. Abrams provide enough experienced talent to hold down the fort while the new freshmen progress. The cupboard is not bare in Austin.
3. Texas A&M - The Aggies are a team on the rise, and the only reason BasketballPredictions can't move them up one more spot is because Texas is Texas, and you have to figure that some of those recruits are going to become stars. Texas A&M should have higher goals this year, regardless. It's not about making the tournament, but about how high their seed will be.
4. Texas Tech - It's hard to see Bobby Knight missing the tournament for the second straight year. The Red Raiders had zero seniors on the roster last year, and return a solid rising-senior core of Jarrius Jackson (21 ppg, 4 rpg) and Darryl Dora (14 ppg, 4 apg). They struggled on the offensive end for much of the past year, but the talent around Jackson should be good enough next year to allow for some other top options. The Red Raiders don't have enough size on the inside to pose too much of a challenge to Texas or Kansas, but they should be vastly improved regardless.
5. Oklahoma State - This team struggled with distractions all year, but still has a lot of top talent. They will have a lot of elder talent, featuring Mario Boggan and JamesOn Curry. It wouldn't be too big of a surprise to see the Cowboys improve in their first full year of the Sean Sutton era.
6. Kansas State - Hopefully this high ranking isn't merely due to the Bob Huggins Kool Aid, because the Wildcats do have a pretty good core of talent. Their top four scorers return, assuming Huggins can convince Cartier Martin (18 ppg, 7 rpg) to stick around for another year. The team will have a lot of experienced juniors and seniors, and Huggins might even be able to bring in some recruits or transfers before the year starts. It's hard to see the Wildcats as anything other than a team on the rise.
7. Oklahoma - It could be a long year for the Sooners, who don't even have a coach yet. And with the below-the-radar search they're conducting, it would be surprising to see them land a big name. With all the graduations, Kelvin Sampson was probably leaving a sinking ship anyway. It would have to be considered a surprise if this team limps back into the tournament in 2007.
8. Missouri - The Tigers made an excellent decision in hiring Mike Anderson as their new coach. He is outstanding at getting more wins out of a team than talent would otherwise dictate, which is what the Tigers will need after a poor season and the expected NBA entrance of Thomas Gardner (20 ppg, 3 rpg). This team won't be too talented, but they'll hustle and steal a few solid victories before the year is out.
9. Nebraska - The Cornhuskers had a few good moments in 2006, but didn't have enough talent to make a serious tournament run. With the graduation of their two top scorers, they could be even worse in 2007.
10. Colorado - The Buffs lose a lot of senior talent and, probably, leading scorer Richard Roby to graduation.
11. Baylor - The Bears had a wasted season in 2006, but they return all of their top players and always seem to have a solid recruiting base. There are always a lot of good basketball players in the state of Texas, and Baylor gets their share. Expect this team to be improved in '07.
12. Iowa State - Greg McDermott is a solid choice for the next head coach in Ames, but the Cyclones clearly need some time to rebuild. Especially with their two leading scorers, Curtis Stinson and Will Blaylock, expected to jump into the draft.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

2006-07 Preview: Pac 10

Pacific 10 Conference

The discussion of the Pac-10 has to begin with UCLA, and their run all the way to the NCAA final game. As with Florida, the Final Four run has given a lot of scouts a good look at what some of the young UCLA stars can do, and it wouldn't be surprising to see some of them leave. Leading scorer Arron Afflalo (15.8 per game) has said that he'll stick around for atleast one more year, although Jordan Farmar is still looking at his options. For now, BasketballPredictions will assume that Farmar stays with Afflalo for one more year. That means that UCLA's only key losses will be Cedric Bozeman (8 ppg, 3 rpg) and Ryan Hollins (7 ppg, 62% shooting) to graduation. With Afflalo, Farmar and the Cameroonian Prince Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (9 ppg, 8 rpg) all back, the Bruins will have a ton of athleticism and scoring ability. They will also try to recover some of their inside losses with 6'8" McDonald's All-American James Keefe (Scouts: 11 PF, Rivals: 16 PF). That said, unless Keefe really stars as a freshman, it's hard to see UCLA being as good on the inside as they were this past year. They'll have enough excellent guard play to be a top-10 team, but it's tough to see them playing as well next year as they did this past year - even if Farmar sticks around.

And that brings us to the chief competitors for UCLA, one being the University of Washington. At first glance, Washington should be devastated by graduations. The Huskies lose their three leading scorers (Brandon Roy, Jamaal Williams and Bobby Jones - a combined 44.4 ppg), with the key being Roy. As has been evident to anyone watching the Huskies over the past year, the Huskies were simply a different team with Roy off the floor. That all said, there is hope for the future. They have a solid young core in Ryan Appleby, Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon, as well as an excellent recruiting class. Both Scouts.com and Rivals.com rank Washington as having one of the top-10 recruiting classes in the land, led by 6'11" McDonald's All-American center Spencer Hawes (Scouts: 2 C, Rivals: 8). Washington also features three other blue-chip recruits in Quincy Pondexter (Scouts: 7 SF, Rivals: 50), Phil Nelson (Scouts: 13 SF, Rivals: 19 SF) and Adrian Oliver (Scouts: 19 PG, Rivals: 20 PG). The key player there might actually be Oliver, who can allow Appleby (a 42% 3-point shooter) to play shooting guard at all times, since he clearly struggled when handling the point.

Another team that UCLA will need to deal with will be California. The key for the Golden Bears will be the draft status of Leon Powe (21 ppg, 10 rpg). He has, of yet, made no indication yet of whether he'll return for his junior year. Since he has been showing vast improvement, and most experts project him as only a 2nd rounder, it would probably be wise for him to stick around another year - but he wouldn't be the first player to unwisely enter the draft a year early. For now, however, BasketballPredictions will assume that Cal gets another year of Powe, which means that they return almost all of their scoring from last year. The Bears also bring in a blue-chip backcourt in Patrick Christopher (Scouts: 11 SG, Rivals: 38) and Jerome Randle (Scouts: 15 PG, Rivals: 31 PF).

Two more teams with Pac-10 title ambitions, if only for their outstanding recruiting classes, are Stanford and Arizona. Stanford's recruiting class is the most interesting, featuring two McDonald's All-Americans who happen to both be 7'0", who are both from the same school, and who happen to be brothers - Brook (Scouts: 4 PF, Rivals: 4) and Robin Lopez (Scouts: 2 C, Rivals: 3 C). Brook is considered a legitimate NBA talent, and both of them should expect to get a lot of playing time next year, especially with the graduation of the Cardinal's best interior player, Matt Harvasz (16 ppg, 9 rpg). With the Cardinal graduating their top 3 scorers, however, this could be a team building for the future. They might not be quite ready for prime time in 2007. Arizona, on the other hand, will have plenty of talent left next year as long as the NBA sirens don't steal more victims. Mustafa Shakur and Marcus Williams are both considering the draft, but for now BasketballPredictions will assume that both return. If that happens, then the only real loss for the Wildcats will be the scoring of Hassan Adams (18 ppg, 5 rpg). Lute Olsen will also bring in his standard collection of athletic recruits, featuring Chase Budinger (Scouts: 4 SF, Rivals: 10), Nic Wise (Scouts: 22 PG, Rivals: 24 PG) and Jordan Hill (Scouts: 19 PF, Rivals: 27 PF). The Wildcats struggled for much of this past year, but expect them to be back next year. That said, unless they suffer major NBA defections, UCLA simply has the most talent back next year:

1. UCLA - It's hard to say that UCLA will be as good as they were last year, but they'll almost certainly be a Top-10 team in the nation to start the year. The Bruins will be good yet again.
2. Arizona - The Wildcats always have a ton of talent, and will have enough to make a lot of noise if both Shakur and Williams stay for another year. With all of the returning role players, plus a top-tier recruiting class, Lute Olsen is going to have a very deep bench to work with, which is often a key to surviving a long conference schedule.
3. California - This ranking is based solely on the assumption that Leon Powe stays. Along with their good recruiting class, the Bears will have a strong enough backcourt to hang with athletic teams like UCLA and Arizona. They probably don't have enough talent and experience around the board to win the conference, but they're likely to make another trip to the tournament.
4. Washington - The Huskies will be a good young team with a lot of players with potential, but they probably don't have the experience to avoid a few bad losses in conference. This coming year will be a good test of Lorenzo Romar's coaching skills when he has to win without guys like Nate Robinson and Brandon Roy.
5. Stanford - The Cardinal are a team with a ton of potential and youth, but this coming year will be more of a growing experience than anything else. Along with the Lopez brothers, the Cardinal will have a very good frontline, and much of the year will be spent figuring out which of their guards will provide a strong enough backcourt to make a tournament run.
6. USC - Would be returning all five starters if not for the NBA. Unfortunately, many expect leading scorer Nick Young to jump early into the NBA. Top recruit Davon Jefferson will be expected to add some size on the inside, and the Trojans definitely have enough depth and talent to think seriously about making the tournament.
7. Arizona State - The Sun Devils earn a promotion up the standings purely because of the great signing of coach Herb Sendek. His system is geared towards competing against teams with greater talent and athleticism, which is what Arizona State will probably be facing. The Sun Devils do bring back their top five scorers, and have a decent recruiting class by their standards (though, obviously, not on the level of teams like Washington or Stanford). This is a team that should compete for a tournament bid soon, if not in 2007.
8. Oregon - The Ducks return all five scorers and should have enough depth to compete in the Pac-10. The question is whether they'll have the superstars and athletes to hang with the big boys, and the answer is probably a No.
9. Washington State - It's hard to expect a team to improve when they lose a legendary coach (like Dick Bennett), although the system shouldn't change much under Dick's interestingly-named son, Tony. The team also returns its top 8 scorers, so it isn't absurd to expect this team to actually win a game or two more next year.
10. Oregon State - It's going to be a long season for the Beavers, who lose four of the top seven scorers off a team that didn't score too much to begin with. There's no way this team can hang with the high-flying teams at the top of the conference.

2006-07 Preview: SEC

The first major conference preview for 2007 is here, and there will be a few more wrinkles to these that were not available for the smaller conferences. First of all, almost every team will be dealing with players potentially leaving early in the draft, so there will be a lot more discussion of those issues. For the sake of these previews, BasketballPredictions will make it clear who it is assumed is staying, and who it is assumed is leaving. If a player is not mentioned, then it is to be assumed that they're staying. BasketballPredictions will be on the very cautious side - so many players who are listed as staying will inevitably decide to go pro later. There will be an update to the BP65 (the BasketballPredictions bracket predictions) after the NBA draft, taking into account these changes. Another change will be that a lot more high schoolers will be coming in that are high up on recruiting lists, so abbreviations are in order to make the statistics quicker. The two sources that will be used will be Scouts.com and Rivals.com, and the rankings used will be both national rankings and positional rankings. So, for example, a comment saying "John Doe (Scouts: 14 PG, Rivals: 56)" would mean that Scouts.com has John Doe as the 14th best point guard coming out of high school, and Rivals.com has Doe listed as the 56th best overall player in the nation. The final added wrinkle will be that standings will be listed all the way through. Every team will be ranked, since almost every major conference team has at least some hope of qualifying for the NCAA tournament at the beginning of the year. That all said, let's start up at the end of the alphabet with the conference featuring 2 Final Four teams and the defending National Champion, the SEC:

Southeastern Conference

Any discussion of the SEC has to begin with the defending National Champions, Florida. It's interesting that in a certain way, winning a National title is actually a bad omen for the future. There's a reason that repeat champions are so rare. The top players will get so much television exposure that their draft ratings shoot up, and they suddenly realize that they can make a lot more money going pro. Another factor pushing players to the NBA is the fact that they no longer have anything to prove. For example, the odds of Joakim Noah going pro are markedly higher than they before the tournament. Now that he's been named tournament MOP, what exactly does he have left to achieve at the collegiate level? The day after the championship, Dick Vitale named Florida one of the top 2 teams for next year, due to the fact that their whole starting five is returning. Few people doubt, however, that Florida will have a different lineup next year. Noah, Corey Brewer and Al Horford are the most likely to go pro. For now, BasketballPredictions will assume that Noah goes pro, but Horford and Brewer will stay. This prediction is probably overly-cautious, so don't be suprised to see Florida drop in the post-NBA draft BP65. That said, if Florida is this lucky, they will be a force to be reckoned with next year. Not only will every other player who had 15 or more minutes played per game be back, but Florida also has (as usual) a solid recruiting class. Scouts.com ranks it 23rd in the nation, on the back of 6'10" Marreese Speights (Scouts: 9 C, Rivals: 25 PF). Even though no one seems to be able to agree what position he's going to play, he should expect to be one of the prime candidates to replace Noah (who also is listed as a PF/C).

Of course, Florida will receive plenty of challenges in the SEC including LSU, fresh off a trip to the Final Four. LSU loses only Darrel Mitchell (17 ppg, 4 rpg, 4 apg) to graduation, and got good news when Glen "Baby Shaq" Davis announced that he'd stick around for atleast one more year. Expect, however, for Tyrus Thomas (12 ppg, 9 rpg, 3 bpg, 61% shooting) to go pro. He hasn't announced his decision yet, but for the time being BasketballPredictions will assume that he's leaving. LSU will also have a harder time replacing their losses, as they have a relatively weak recruiting class. A more likely challenge to the Gators could be Tennessee, which was revived this past year by first-year coach Bruce Pearl. The Vols lose two starters in C.J. Watson and Andre Patterson, but manage to return their leading scorer (Chris Lofton - 17.2 per game) and 6'10" Major Wingate (11 ppg, 4 rpg, 56% shooting). They also bring in an excellent recruting class, highlighted by Duke Crews (Scouts: 10 PF, Rivals: 28) and Wayne Chism (Scouts: 18 PF, Rivals: 10 PF) on the inside, and 6'5" Marques Johnson (Scouts: 12 SG, Rivals: 23 PG) on the outside. Both services name the Vols as one of the top 20 recruiting classes in the nation.

Another team on the rise is Arkansas, which finished a surprising 2nd in the SEC West. The Razorbacks don't lose too much to graduation and expect to have a very solid recruiting class (Scouts: 14, Rivals: 22) led by Michael Washington (Scout: 20 PF, Rivals: 6 PF), Stefan Welsh (Scouts: 20 SG) and stud Juco transfer Sonny Weems. The Razorbacks would be in excellent shape for next year... if Ronny Brewer decides to stick around. Unfortunately, the rumors are that he's already picked out an agent and that the official announcement is only a formality at this point. So, expect Arkansas to take a step back without their leading scorer. Another team that is always a threat in the SEC is Kentucky. The biggest loss to graduation for the Wildcats is Patrick Sparks (10 ppg, 3 apg, 39% 3-point shooting), while they should retain their outstanding rising-junior class. Rajon Rondo is going to the NBA, but for now it looks like Randolph Morris (13 ppg, 6 rpg) and Joe Crawford (10 ppg, 4 rpg, 36% 3-point shooting) will be returning. Meanwhile, it's no surprise that Kentucky's recruiting class is considered top-20 in the nation with guys like Jodie Meeks (Scouts: 17 SG, Rivals: 34), Derrick Jasper (Scouts: 12 PG, Rivals: 35) and 6'9" defensive specialist Perry Stevenson (Scouts: 16 PF, Rivals: 15 PF). Also working in the favor of the Wildcats is that they're Kentucky - don't expect them to go 9-7 in conference any time again in the near future.

The final team to be considered for the conference title is Alabama, and only because their players seem intent on sticking around for one more shot at a title. In recent days, published reports suggest that all three of their potential NBA draft-seekers (Jermareo Davidson, Richard Hendrix and Ronald Steele) are going to eschew the draft. They don't have any big-time recruits, but several quality players below the radar. Their biggest loss to graduation is Ronald Davis on the inside, and in response the Tide have brought in Avery Jukes (Rivals: 24 PF) and Demetrius Jemison (Rivals: 32 PF). Mikhail Torrance (Rivals: 29 PG) is also worth noting. Now, with all of the SEC title-hopefuls covered, let's get to the actual standings:

SEC East:
1. Florida - If Noah is their only graduation, this team will be extremely tough to beat. It wouldn't be too surprising, however, if a few more Gators go after hearing just how high they could go in the draft.
2. Tennessee - Expect big things out of a Tennessee team fighting for respect after being considered the worst #2 seed by many, followed by a 2nd round defeat to Wichita State. Besides, Bruce Pearl's coaching system is just too good for this team to fail with talent like Lofton and Wingate.
3. Kentucky - The Wildcats will be improved, but right now the top of the conference is just too stacked to move them up a spot. Assuming Rondo is their only player to declare early, the Wildcats will have a lot of young talent. This team has the potential to do special things if Tubby Smith can put all of the pieces together.
4. Vanderbilt - It's always a bad decision to think that the top 4 places in a division will remain unchanged, but Vanderbilt just has too much going for it to move it down a spot. Not only do they return their top 3 scorers, but they also have a solid under-the-radar recruiting class, led by Jermaine Beal (Rivals: 19 PG) and JeJuan Brown (Rivals: 26 SF). This is clearly another team on the rise.
5. Georgia - Finally, a change in the standings. The Bulldogs should rebound next year with their top 12 scorers returning. The team will have more experience and will almost certainly be improved. Unfortunately, the top of the conference is just too good for them to realistically hope for anything better than 4th in the SEC East.
6. South Carolina - Arguably the biggest surprise in the SEC this past year, the Gamecocks made a serious run at the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately, they lose three of their top six scorers, including star 6'6" guard Tarence Kinsey (16 ppg, 5 rpg, 2 spg). With no big recruits coming in, expect South Carolina to be the only team in the SEC East (other than perhaps Florida) to not improve in 2007.

SEC West:
1. LSU - Expect the Tigers to take a step back next year, but not too big of a step. Thomas and Mitchell will not be easy to replace. In fact, the Tigers should probably be dropped out of the top spot in the division, except for the fact that Big Baby should really be a dominant force. If he struggles or gets hurt, however, expect a new champion of this division.
2. Alabama - The Tide have to be thrilled that Davidson, Hendrix and Steele are saying the right things and expect to be back next year. Chuck Davis will be a big loss, but those three will be good enough to lead Bama to a lot of wins next year. Besides, all they need is for one of their excellent recruits at the power forward position to step up, and they'll be markedly improved from this past year. Expect Alabama to pose a very serious threat to LSU.
3. Arkansas - The only other team in the SEC West with a reasonable shot at the title. The Razorbacks will probably lose their best player in Ronnie Brewer, but they have a good enough recruiting class to keep them in tournament contention, at the very least.
4. Mississippi State - Returning your top two scorers is always a good sign for a team, as is signing an excellent recruit (Jarvis Varnado - Rivals: 20 PF) to solidify your front line. Expect the Bulldogs to be improved in 2007. Unfortunately, they probably lack the overall talent to be a likely tournament pick.
5. Auburn - A very young team whose top five returners in terms of mpg and ppg were 4 freshmen and a sophomore last year. The Tigers also bring in some more young talent, with 6'4" shooting guard Kelvin Lewis (Rivals: 86). Yet another team that will be improved next year - although the lack of a real senior presence on the floor at most times will probably lead to a lot of close, tough losses. Look for Auburn to be a real tournament threat in 2008, however.
6. Mississippi - It's hard to see why this team should be too successful next year. They do return four starters, but none of them are superstars. And without any blue-chip recruits, it's hard to see the Rebels having enough talent to hang with the big boys in the SEC.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

2006-07 Preview: Mid Majors, Part III

Atlantic 10 Conference

The conference began and ended with George Washington this past year. Pops Mensah-Bonsu graduates, but the Colonials proved that they were still a tough team to beat even with Mensah-Bonsu injured and missing from the lineup. A bigger key could be whether Danilo Pinnock (15 ppg, 5 rpg, 3 apg) eschews his senior year for the NBA. He is currently "testing the waters", but for now BasketballPredictions will assume that he makes the wise choice and sticks around for one more year. If Pinnock stays, then GW returns all of its guards, and only has worries on the inside. Almost all of their big-men were seniors this past year, and a key could be whether Regis Koundjia (5 ppg, 3 rpg, 1 bpg) and Montrell McDonald (4 ppg, 2 rpg, 52% shooting) fill the void. The Colonials will also receive a boost from top recruit, 6'7" Damien Hollis. That said, it's hard to imagine the new crop of forwards and centers outplaying Mensa-Bonsu, Mike Hall and Omar Williams, so expect GW to take a small step backwards next year.

Last year, GW's chief competition came from Charlotte, which also loses most of its size from last year. However, the 49ers do keep in tact their outstanding backcourt of De'Angelo Alexander (17 ppg, 6 rpg, 43% 3-point shooting) and Leemire Goldwire (13 ppg, 3 apg, 2 spg). On top of that, Charlotte brings in an outstanding recruiting class - easily the best in the conference. Besides a solid crop of four different 3-star high school recruits (according to Scouts.com), the 49ers also bring in two excellent Juco recruits. 6'9" Sean Phaler will be expected to help on the inside, while Carlos Williams will be able to run the point in what should be an excellent 3-guard offense.

Next year will probably not be a two-horse race, however, as some other teams bring back some excellent talent. Saint Louis brings back its top three scorers, led by 6'10" Ian Vouyoukas (14 ppg, 7 rpg, 2 bpg), who should dominate on the inside. Another dangerous team will be the defending A10 tournament champions, Xavier. In addition to returning four of their top five scorers, Xavier also brings in an excellent recruiting class. Their biggest graduation will be on the inside in the form of Brian Thorton (15 ppg, 7 rpg), but they will replace him with two good centers coming in (including 6'10" Juco star Charles Bronson). The best recruit of all, however, will be Adrion Graves of Cincinnati, rated as the 15th best shooting guard in the nation by Scouts.com. Meanwhile, a sleeper pick could be UMass, under excellent young coach Travis Ford. The Minutemen return five rising-seniors who all played over 20 minutes per game this past season - and teams with that type of experience always overachieve in NCAA basketball. That said, Charlotte probably brings the most talent to the table next year, and begins the season as the preseason pick:

1. Charlotte
2. George Washington
3. Xavier
4. Saint Louis
5. Massachusetts
6. Saint Joseph's

Colonial Athletic Association

The CAA put its name on the map this past year with two tournament teams and, most notably, a Final Four appearance by George Mason. The big question will be whether the conference can build on that success, or whether 2006 was a fluke. That analysis, of course, must begin with George Mason itself. The Patriots are hard hit by graduation, losing Jai Lewis on the inside, as well as their backcourt of Tony Skinn and Lamar Butler, to graduation. Their strength next year will probably be on the inside, as rising-junior Will Thomas (12 ppg, 7 rpg, 58% shooting) will be joined by several quality inside recruits, including 6'8" Juco transfer Darryl Monroe. Unfortunately, with the losses at the guard position, BasketballPredictions will go out on a limb and predict that the Patriots won't make a repeat trip to the Final Four.

As for competition for the CAA title, that has to begin with defending tournament champion, UNC-Wilmington. The Seahawks return leading-scorer T.J. Carter (14 ppg, 2 apg, 86% FT-shooting), but lose a lot of starters and role players to graduation. A team that will certainly be one to watch is Hofstra, which will be playing with a chip on its shoulder after seeing itself as snubbed by the NCAA selection committee. The aptly-named Pride will be led by a trio of guards in Loren Stokes, Antoine Agudio and Carlos Rivera that combined for over 46 points per game this past year. They could be the team to beat if atleast one of a trio of rising-sophomore forwards (Chris Gadley, Mike Davis-Sabb and Arminas Urbutis - all 6'7" or 6'8") can replace the size lost to graduation. Another team that can never be ignored in the Colonial is perennial power Old Dominion. The Monarchs lose their two leading scorers, but return all of their other starters and role players, and should have the guard play to hang with the other guard-heavy teams in the conference. Moving further down the standings, another team to watch for is Drexel. If Bruiser Flint stays on as coach, they (like seemingly every other team in the CAA) will have excellent guard play from rising-seniors Dominick Mejia and Bashir Mason (a combined 26.6 ppg). Overall, there is clearly a ton of talent at the guard position in the Colonial Conference, but the most important factor could be respect. While George Mason is basking in the attention of the Final Four, Hofstra will be playing with something to prove and will be the BP preseason favorites in the Colonial:

1. Hofstra
2. George Mason
3. Old Dominion
4. Drexel
5. UNC-Wilmington

Sunday, April 02, 2006

2006-07 Preview: Mid Majors, Part II

Conference USA

There probably isn't a lot of doubt over who is going to win Conference USA next year. The race could be put in doubt, however, if the NBA takes too many players away. The Tigers lose All-American Rodney Carney to graduation, but their next 8 players in terms of minutes per game and points per game were all freshmen and sophomores last year. The two best, however, are both testing the draft waters - Darius Washington, Jr. and Shawne Williams. For now, this prediction will assume that both of those players stay, and Memphis will also bring in an excellent recruiting class due to the fact that the city of Memphis had an inordinate number of top high school players this past year. John Calipari landed many of them, including Willie Kemp (rated the 6th best point guard in the nation by both Scout.com and Rivals.com), Pierre Niles (rated the 94th best player in the nation by Rivals.com), and Tre'von Willis (rated the 37th best shooting guard in the nation by Rivals.com). Memphis is clearly built for the future, and should run away with Conference USA.

The key challenge to the Tigers will by UAB, which will dearly miss its constantly-pressing coach Mike Anderson. The Blazers lose their top two scorers in Marvett McDonald and Demario Eddins, but still return pretty good talent at most positions. They also have a very deep recruiting class, with no real studs, but four three-star players (as rated by both Scout.com and Rivals.com). Rivals.com actually names the Dragons as the 23rd best recruiting class in the country. There should be a very large drop=off, however, to the next teams in CUSA. UTEP was very senior laden last year, and loses its top four starters. Houston returns much of its most talented players, but a huge key to whether they can compete for an at-large bid could be whether rising-sophomore Lamar Roberson (5 ppg, 2 rpg, 1 bpg) takes it to the next level with his inside game. Of course, they're only playing for third with Memphis and UAB running away with this conference:

1. Memphis
2. UAB
3. Houston
4. Tulsa

Mid-American Conference

Kent State won a solid MAC this past year, but could be in for a long year after the loss of their three top scorers. Omni Smith (8 ppg, 2 rpg, 1 apg) needs to become a real star for the Golden Flashes to compete at the top of the conference next year. With Kent State probably out of the picture, the next team in the pecking order appears to be Akron, which returns a ton of excellent guard play and their top 5 scorers and passers from the past year. The biggest problem for the Zips will be inside, where they graduate their only two centers and with no stud-recruits with size. This puts even more pressure on 6'7" Romeo Travis (14 ppg, 7 rpg, 52% shooting) to dominate inside. Another team returning four starters is Miami of Ohio, although their one loss is leading scorer William Hatcher (14.3 ppg).

There are other teams to look out for in the MAC. The Ohio Bobcats could finally be ready to take the next step after falling under all the pressure of being the chic sleeper pick this past year. They lose leading scorer Mychal Green (12.7 per game), but return every other key player. Expect them to be fighting for the lead in the tough East division of the MAC. As always, senior-heavy teams have a huge advantage, and there are two such teams in the MAC that should be considered sleepers - Toledo and Ball State. Meanwhile, Western Michigan will have a junior-heavy team, and also features the top recruiting class in the conference (including David Kool, one of the top 5 rated guards out of the state of Michigan). Expect them to be in the thick of things in 2008, but for now Akron should be considered the preseason favorites to win the MAC:

1. Akron
2. Miami (OH)
3. Ohio
4. Toledo
5. Kent State

Missouri Valley Conference

The Missouri Valley Conference was the darling of the Big Dance in '06, and is looking forward to the chance to prove that it's really becoming a major conference now and in the future. The conversation for next year obviously starts with the defending champs, Wichita State. They return four starters, but the bigger issue is their one loss - star center Paul Miller (13 ppg, 7 rpg). With not too much size remaining on the roster, the Shockers may depend on star recruit Arbry Butler of Arkansas. The other Sweet 16 team from the MVC is hit even harder, as Bradley loses three of its top four scorers to graduation (a combined 39.2 ppg). It could get even worse if their best player, 7-foot center Patrick O'Bryant (13 ppg, 8 rpg), decides to go pro. In other words, the two most successful teams in '06 will probably be making way for other Missouri Valley teams in '07. At the top of that list could be Southern Illinois, which probably returns the most talent of any team in the league. They return their top nine scorers, and are led by rising-senior guards Jamaal Tatum (15 ppg, 3 rpg, 3 apg) and Tony Young (12 ppg, 2 spg, 84% FT shooting, 38% 3-point shooting).

Two other teams returning a lot of talent in the MVC will be Missouri State and Creighton. Missouri State will be led by star guard Blake Ahearn (16 ppg, 3 apg, 94% FT-shooting). Creighton loses star Nate Funk and his 16 points per game, but returns center Anthony Tolliver (13 ppg, 7 rpg, 2 bpg) while bringing in a solid recruiting class that features guard Isaac Miles and power forward Kenny Lawson. Of the teams that didn't make the tournament this past year, the most likely to break out is Evansville, which returns its top 5 scorers and top 6 rebounders. All in all, no one should expect the Missouri Valley to be as good next year as it was this past year. However, the conference's success should put them in good position to nail a few at-large bids again, as the selection committee won't shy away from bubble teams just because they're not from one of the traditional power conferences. Southern Illinois is the most likely team to not need the at-large bid in the MVC, but expect the conference to be clogged at the top yet again:

1. Southern Illinois
2. Wichita State
3. Missouri State
4. Creighton
5. Northern Iowa
6. Evansville
7. Bradley