Gator Bait?

Gator Bait?
Nov 02, 2006, 12:08 am
Florida is everyone’s preseason pick to repeat as NCAA champions. With five returning starters from last year’s team, including four probable first round NBA draft picks, the Gators are more loaded than the frat brothers of Phi Vodka Absoluta during homecoming weekend. Billy Donovan is blessed with players who bring it every night, and he has molded them into a team with the ability to mangle opponents no matter what style they play. But laying in the weeds of the swamp are five teams, with five impact players, each of whom has a taste for Gator meat and the NCAA crown…

1. Kansas and Brandon Rush

Brandon Rush is the best swingman in the country. Good enough to lead Kansas to a title, and good enough to make you forget Jaron, Kareem, and every other Rush who chose complaining over basketball. Experts (me) will tell you Rush isn’t even the best prospect on his team, and experts (me) are always right, so I won’t argue. But the fact that Julian Wright has one or two more qualities that NBA types are looking for doesn’t change the fact that Rush will get the ball when it matters, because he can initiate the offense and score from anywhere on the floor.

The beauty of picking Kansas to rain on Florida’s parade is that the two teams play each other early in the season in Gainesville, and the Jayhawks, without starting center Sasha Kaun, will get annihilated. Subsequently, the national media will write them off as overrated, and the good people of Lawrence will call for Bill Self’s head. But Bill Self will keep his head, the Jayhawks will get Kaun back, and they will soar to a number one seed in the tournament with everything to prove after two years of premature exits.

2. North Carolina and Tyler Hansbrough

There are only a few players who can wear sky blue and still look imposing, and Tyler Hansbrough is one of them. Hansbrough a complete man-child; the kind of guy who drinks a dozen raw eggs for breakfast, bites off the chicken’s head, and swallows the bird whole for lunch. A prototypical college big man, he bangs, bruises, and bullies his way to 20 and 10 every night, without the slightest concern for his body, or anyone else’s for that matter. What’s worse, he is complemented by the usual cast of Carolina blue chip recruits and a Hall of Fame coach. But none of this is what makes UNC a legitimate contender.

Two things make Carolina especially dangerous. First, the aforementioned Hansbrough will not be intimidated by Horford, Noah, or any other would-be enforcer that UNC might bump into this year. Because so many of this year’s top flight teams draw their strength from the inside out, this psychological edge will be absolutely crucial, as Hansbrough replaces the leadership of last year’s captain, David Noel. Second, the Tar Heels will waltz through the ACC this year and land a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament without a problem. As a matter of fact, they could easily make it to March with only one loss, at the hands of…

3. Arizona and Marcus Williams

Freshman phenom Chase Budinger has been elected king of Tucson without playing a single minute for the Wildcats. However, Marcus Williams will be the most productive player on this team for the second year in a row. With Williams and Budinger splitting the ill advised shots hoisted by Hassan Adams last year, Arizona’s offensive efficiency will go through the roof, and they will put up 90 points with regularity. Plenty of senior leadership adds to the Cats’ meow, and even if they sleepwalk through the regular season again, Lute will wake them up in time for the games that matter.

I can picture all you hardcore readers right now, squatting in front of the screen in a text book defensive stance, crying foul that I’ve endorsed a team that doesn’t rebound or defend as a legitimate contender. But consider this: UCLA, arguably the best defensive team in the country last year, got absolutely mauled by Florida when it mattered, because, frankly, they couldn’t score. Arizona will score on anyone and everyone this year, especially against those teams with undersized backcourts. Unless Corey Brewer guards Williams and Budinger at the same time, one of the two will go off should Florida and Arizona tangle late in the season.

4. Georgetown and Jeff Green

Ordinary name, extraordinary game. At 6’8, Green is the smallest big man in the Hoyas’ frontcourt rotation, and the least noticeable in a crowd. But if Green played in a more liberal offensive system and had a name like ‘Joakim,’ the All-America buzz would be deafening. As it is, he’ll go about his business and stuff the box score every night, while Georgetown emerges as the cream of an unseasonably sour Big East crop.

The great myth of last season was that Florida was a dominant team. To be sure, the Gators were good to begin with, and they gained momentum and became great as the season went on. But they were down at halftime to Georgetown in the tournament, and needed some late game (with under one minute left) heroics from Corey Brewer to get past the hearty Hoyas. Fans don’t like watching Georgetown because they pass the ball 157 times during each offensive possession and slow the game to a crawl. But watching them play isn’t half as bad as actually playing them, and though boredom may be John Thompson Jr.’s plan A for breaking opponents’ will, physical interior defense is one heck of a plan B.

5. Ohio State and Greg Oden

I tried to hide Oden at the bottom of this column, but he is so freaking big, I just couldn’t keep him out of sight. Like Kansas, Ohio State plays Florida early, and Oden will likely be unavailable due to injury. As a result of Oden’s early season absence, the Buckeyes will struggle out of the gate and collect plenty of doubters. But when Goliath gets on the court and gets acquainted, things in the already ugly Big Ten are going to uglier for OSU’s competitors. If he could only get rid of that damned unselfish streak, Oden would be a lock for player of the year. As it is, he has a stranglehold on the number one pick in next year’s NBA Draft, and his hands are bigger than everyone else’s, so prying it lose will be a quite a challenge.

The rest of the Buckeyes are either role players, freshmen, or both. Luckily, Thad Matta’s game plan won’t change much from week to week with the most dominant player in the college game manning the middle. Teams with experience and balance, like Florida, and even Wisconsin, will give the Buckeyes significant trouble during the regular season. But if Oden and crew can peak at the right time, few will be able to stare them down eye to eye.

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