(15-14, 10-6), Big 10J.L. Weill
Perpetually on the hot seat, Mike Davis
may have his best (and last) chance to prove he belongs as the IU chief. DJ White's emergence in his first year gives the Hoosiers a great base to work with, and the addition of transfer Marco Killingsworth
and late signee Cem Dinc
, a 6-foot-10 Turkish big man give Indiana a load down low. Robert Vaden
has skills, and big Aussie Ben Allen will give Davis a lot of options in the paint. What the Hoosiers lack is a known quantity in the backcourt, as Bracey Wright
decided to forgo his senior season for a spot in the 2nd round of the NBA draft. Marshall Strickland
came to Bloomington with big credentials but has yet to truly tap into his potential. Thus, the addition of former Auburn PG Lewis Monroe is that much crucial. Also expected to play a bigger role is AJ Ratliff, coming off of a promising freshman season.
#32: Northern Iowa
(21-11, 11-7), MVCJonathan Watters
Coming off of two straight NCAA Tournament appearances and returning all but one contributor from last season, no discussion of the top mid-major teams in the country is complete without mention of UNI. Greg McDermott has turned a once dormant basketball program into a Missouri Valley Conference powerhouse, and has enough talent this season to make a serious tourney run.
Ben Jacobsen remains the team's star, and one of the top shooters in the nation. He won't stick out as an athlete, but is blessed with a textbook quick release, and simply can't be left open. He is joined in the backcourt by veterans Erik Crawford and Brooks McKowen, who will share ballhandling duties. Crawford is a well-built, well-rounded guard that plays tough defense and knocks down the open jumper. McKowen struggled a bit last year in more of a distributing role, but also knows how to put the ball in the basket.
Eric Coleman's emergence as an undersized PF may have been the factor that allowed UNI to excel. Coleman is long armed, and has an excellent feel for the game. He is joined in the frontcourt by Grant Stout
, a more traditional big man with an outstanding midrange shooting stroke.
Question marks include Coleman suffering an offseason injury and a general lack of depth, but McDermott is recruiting well enough where he should have enough bodies. The MVC could be the most underrated conference in America, so there will be plenty of challengers. Nonetheless, UNI is the conferences top dog heading into the season.
(19-13, 8-8), Big EastJ.L. Weill
A bona fide sleeper, this former NCAA powerhouse has many of the elements back from last year's surprise 8-8 NIT squad. Coach John Thompson
III vindicated his hiring with a masterful job guiding a young team.
Year two of the Thompson era sees standouts Brandon Bowman
and Jeff Green
back in the fold and looking to build on their successes from last year. Green, in particular, has the look of a future star. Newcomers Octavius Spann and Josh Thornton should see minutes, with all the big men feeding off emerging point Ashanti Cook.
The truth is it's hard to know what to expect from the Hoyas. Will they continue to learn and grow or get fat reading their own positive press? With an NCAA berth in their sights, they crumbled down the stretch last year and one wonders how much that sort of concentration can be taught. Having Thompson at the helm is certainly a good start.
(13-18, 4-12), Big 10Jonathan Watters
Say what you want about Tommy Amaker, things haven't exactly gone as planned for the Coach K protege since taking over for the Wolverines. Injuries, off the court issues, and a general lack of cohesiveness on the court were the cause for one of the nation's most disappointing showings last year. We'll keep our fingers crossed for now, but assuming the injury woes are a thing of the past, Amaker certainly has a roster of an NCAA Tourney team.
Last season really hit the tank when floor general Daniel Horton
went down with an injury and then was suspended for an off the court incident. No, he has never been able to build on the star potential he displayed as a freshman. Yes, he struggles with shot selection and turnovers. However, it is now undeniable that the Wolverines simply aren't going to be successful without him running the show.
Amaker will continue to boast one of the most impressive stables of athletes in the country, and the return of Lester Abram
is only going to improve things. Abram was slated to become the go-to scorer at the wing before a shoulder injury wiped out his season. He will be joined by Dion Harris, who was overwhelmed last season as Michigan's only dependable backcourt player, and sophomore Ronald Coleman. The return of Horton probably makes everybody here a better player.
The frontcourt story sounds a lot like the backcourt's. You don't find a trio of big men much more talented than Brent Pettway, Chris Hunter, and Courtney Sims
, but this group simply wasn't as productive as they should have been last season. Rugged post warrior Graham Brown looks to bounce back after, guess what, an injury plagued junior season.
It would be easy to say that this team is ready to bust out. It's hard to imagine everybody getting injured again, and a few solid newcomers mean that even with injuries, Amaker won't be forced to play walk-ons like he was last year. Nonetheless, this team seemed to underachieve in the limited amount of time when everybody was healthy. Ball movement was poor, and the perimeter shooting was even worse. This is still the same core of players that shocked everybody in 2003 and won the NIT in 2004, but Amaker certainly has a lot to prove with a loaded, veteran-laden roster in 2006.
(20-10, 12-4), SECJ.L. Weill
Losing the SEC Player of the Year (Brandon Bass
) is a blow to any team, even one as rich in the frontcourt as the Tigers. But you won't see any crying from John Brady's team, even if they do have a Big Baby manning the middle. Glen Davis
has shed his freshman 50 and has a summer of international play under his sizeable belt. If he takes the same leaps Bass did at the same stage, LSU should rise up this list in a hurry.
Helping Davis out in the paint will be heralded newcomer Tasmin Mitchell
, a smooth forward who shunned Kentucky, among others, to try and lead his hometown school further into the NCAAs. What Mitchell lacks in NBA upside he makes up for in the type of heart and talent that would make him a contributor on almost any team in the country.
Point guard Tack Minor's suspension for the first four games will keep LSU under the radar early, but he'll be back in charge by the conference season, and LSU will count on him to lead more and throw the ball away less. Darrel Mitchell gives the Tigers another scoring option from the wing. There's not a lot after that except a lot of upside, but the top six gives the Tigers talent, moxie and no shortage of confidence. The rest is up to them. Coach Brady has been on the hot seat for quite some time now, and this could very well be his last chance to save his job.
16-13, 7-9, ACCJonathan Givony
One of the most surprising teams in the country last year, the Hurricanes are clearly a team that is on the rise and should continue to shine as second year Coach Frank Haith continues to garner support and take advantage of the fertile recruiting grounds of the state of Florida.
Miami returns almost its entire roster from last season, most importantly convincing the #2 scorer in the ACC last year, Guillermo Diaz
, to return for another season to work on his PG skills. Diaz could very well be the most athletic guard in the country, and has a nice stroke from outside to compliment that as well. His ball-handling skills, mid-range game and overall feel for the game are major question marks for scouts, though, and it will be interesting to see how Coach Haith juggles living up to his promise to develop Diaz into a lottery pick PG as opposed trying to win as many games as possible.
The Hurricanes will once again rely heavily on the perimeter to provide the majority of the scoring, with 6-2 guards Anthony Harris and Robert Hite
filling up the rest of the backcourt for Miami next to Diaz. Heralded 6-0 South Florida freshman Denis Clemente might be the purest PG on the roster, and should see some action as well. Inside, Miami will hope that underrated 6-9 senior center Anthony King
will continue to improve on the offensive end, but will expect him to compete with Duke center Shelden Williams
for the conference lead the in both the rebounding and blocked shots regardless.
Last year the Hurricanes came out of nowhere to make a strong push for the NCAA tournament in one of the most competitive conferences in recent memory, the ACC. This year the conference is much weaker, the Miami roster is much more experienced and just as talented, and the team will have an entire season of playing together under their belts to rely on at the end of games, where they struggled the most last year. Anything less than an NCAA tournament berth will be considered a disappointment.
(25-9, 11-5), Big 10 Jonathan Watters
The Badgers don't have much in terms of proven production coming back, but don't let that fool you into thinking Bo Ryan's squad is about to fall off the map. Wisconsin will be led by explosive combo forward Alando Tucker
, who has continued to develop into one of the top players in the conference.
While players like Sharif Chambliss, Zach Morely, and Mike Wilkinson
are gone, Ryan actually has quite a bit of talent waiting in the wings. It is a crucial season for former McDonald's All-American center Brian Butch
, who will be pushed by sophomore Greig Steimsma, a player of similar caliber and play style.
The backcourt is where more question marks reside, as Kammron Taylor
is the only real producer returning. Athletic wing Ray Nixon will be counted on to step up. One player to keep an eye on is freshman Joe Krabbenhoft
. Krabbenhoft is the best player to come out South Dakota since Mike Miller
, but hasn't seen much court time since suffering a stress fracture in his foot last spring.
While it may be easier to look at Wisconsin's lack of returning production and count them out, Bo Ryan has won with a lot less talent in the past. While this season might be a step backward in terms of staying in the top 25 throughout the season, it's hard to see the Badgers falling out of the top half of the Big 10.
(24-8, 12-4), SECJonathan Givony
After helping the Gators win their first SEC tournament championship in school history last season, Florida Coach Billy Donovan
has a monumental task ahead of himself this upcoming season: taking his team back to the NCAA tournament for the 7th time in a row. After losing it's top three scorers last year, senior David Lee
to the first round of the NBA draft and juniors Matt Walsh
and Anthony Roberson
to scatter for jobs after going undrafted, this might be Donovan's toughest task yet.
He'll be relying on just one extremely inconsistent senior in Adrian Moss, two juniors and no less than 3 and possibly 4 sophomores in the starting five. Luckily for him, two of those sophomores looked like studs last year and they should bring some of the things that the Gators have been lacking the most recently: toughness, rebounding, athleticism and hard-nosed defense. Corey Brewer
is one of them, a 6-8 long and lanky defensive stalwart with outstanding athletic ability and terrific off the ball defensive skills. The other is Al Horford
, a 6-9 1/2 big man with a tremendous wingspan, excellent athletic ability and hands and a great nose for the ball. Both are hard workers on and off the court who bring a high basketball IQ and the type of upside that will be drawing NBA scouts into Gainesville all season long.
Unfortunately for Donovan, neither are very polished on the offensive end of the ball and both seemed to be extremely content last year being role players in Floridas up-tempo, three point jacking system. They will have to take on a lot more on themselves this year; and just how quickly the two can adapt to their new roles will likely decide how far Florida can go.
The other two definite starters are 5-11 sophomore PG Taureen Green, who is also known for his defensive ability, but lacks serious polish and experience running the point at a high level, and 6-2 off guard junior Lee Humphrey
, a sharpshooting all-around type who makes up what he is lacking in god-given talent with his effort on and off the ball. The last starter will come from one of either 6-11 athletic, but extremely raw sophomore Joakim Noah
; 6-8 bruiser Chris Richard
, and the aforementioned 6-9 senior Adrian Moss, a sparkplug energetic defensive type. There will be little salvation coming from Donovan's latest recruiting class--potentially his weakest since arriving in Gainesville--as top recruit Derwin Kitchen was deemed ineligible after failing to pass a standardized Florida state test.
This is an outstanding chance for Billy Donovan
to show that he is indeed still one of the top young coaches in the country, as the aura around him and his program has faded after an incredible number of early defections out of Gainesville in the past few years and four straight exits from the NCAA tournament in the opening weekend have hampered his reputation nationally and taken Florida out of the national spotlight for now.
#39: San Diego State
(11-8, 4-10), MWCJonathan Givony
Returning a deep and talented roster, along with a very nice recruiting class headlined by long, athletic Florida transfer and San Diego native Mohamed Abukar
, San Diego State looks to be in great position to make the NCAA tournament this year for the first time since 2002.
Headlining the Aztec's effort will be two of the most talented athletes the West Coast has to offer in 6-8 power forward Marcus Slaughter
and 6-3 combo guard Brandon Heath
. Both players are entering their junior year and have a lot to prove to the national media and especially NBA scouts. Slaughter is a thoroughbred athlete with an NBA body who can score in bundles from the paint and mid-range. Heath has terrific size for the PG position and excellent quickness, showing the ability to score creatively both by slashing to the hoop and pulling up off the dribble for mid-range jumpers. The two could explode on any given night for 50-60 points combined if they are given the chance. The biggest question regarding SDSU's chances revolve around how much those two will be willing to play defense and look to make the right play rather than showing off for the many scouts in attendance. Their chances of being first round picks either this year or next will be greatly improved if they can find a way to win consistently and make the NCAA tournament.
Helping them out from the wing will be long and athletic 6-11 combo forward Mohamed Abukar
. Abukar was a top 25 recruit who initially committed to Georgia but left for Florida after they were hit by NCAA sanctions. After a disappointing freshman season at UF, Abukar packed his bags to return to the West Coast immediately following the out of conference schedule as a sophomore. Abukar will be joined by 6 incoming freshmen, some of whom were highly touted preps, making the Aztecs appear to be a team that is clearly on the rise both now and in the future. They are easily the most talented squad in the Mountain West Conference, the only question now is whether they will be able to put that together and actually win.
(21-10, 15-3), CAAJonathan Givony
After leaving the America East conference in favor of the Colonial Athletic Association, Northeastern joins what appears to be one of the strongest mid-major conferences in America. And as long as Jose Juan Barea
goes with them, they will be strong candidates to win the conference and possibly even secure an at-large NCAA tournament berth with the team they return.
Northeastern will be led once again by Puerto Rican national team PG Jose Juan Barea
. Barea isn't really a household name amongst NCAA fans at this point, but that doesn't mean that he shouldn't be. The 5-11, quick and savvy PG was amongst the top players in the NCAA all season long last year in both points and assists (as well as turnovers) and almost singlehandedly led his team to the NCAA tournament before falling one game short in the conference tournament finals against Vermont. Barea, a seasoned player in the International game, possesses some of the best basketball instincts in the country and will be looking to have another strong campaign to help increase his NBA stock. He entered the draft last year, but decided to return to Northeastern after finding the draft waters still cold. Barea had numerous offers from 1st division teams in Italy and Spain, but decided to heed his parents' advice and return to Northeastern to get his college degree.
His biggest help will probably come from inside via Shawn James
, a 22 year old sophomore who was already the 2nd best shotblocker in the country in his freshman season, with 5.4 per game. Few possess the type of length and athleticism that James does in the post, but he combines that with an unbelievable knack for timing his blocks along with a strong sense of positioning in his man to man defense as well. If he can continue to develop his skills on the offensive side of the ball, it wouldn't be a stretch to call him an NBA prospect as well. He's only been playing college basketball for three years now.
(25-8, 12-4), Big EastJonathan Watters
With an impressive group of returnees from a team that gave Kentucky a fight in the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament, the Bearcats should have been one of the conference favorites heading into their first season in the Big East. All that changed when Bob Huggins was inexplicably given his walking papers just before the start of the school year. Assistant Andy Kennedy has taken over for the interim, which has helped with the roster attrition you would normally expect in a situation like this. Nonetheless, it's now impossible to know what to expect from Cincy, a program with a very unclear future.
The two major cogs back from last season are James White
and Eric Hicks
. White has underachieved since the fanfare he received upon entering college, but has slowly improved his all-around game. He might not ever score 20 ppg, but might actually be underrated as a passer and defender. Plus, he's still 6'7 with Dominique Wilkins
-esque vertical. Hicks is listed generously at 6'6, but don't let that deceive you into thinking he's anything less than one of the most physically imposing big men in the nation. Much like his undersized predecessor Jason Maxiell
, Hicks is long-armed, ferocious, and shockingly athletic for the amount of bulk he has.
Despite having the two standouts, the rest of this team is full of question marks. There is little to no depth, and the status of two key recruits could make an already shaky bench become nearly nonexistent.
Jihad Muhammad returns at the point, and while Muhammad did manage to score in double figures, he also shot his team out of several games (most notably the tourney game against Kentucky). For this reason, look for touted speedster Devan Downey to give the incumbent the fight of his life in a preseason position battle. The other returning guard is the enigmatic Armein Kirkland
. At 6'8 and capable of playing 4 positions, Kirkland looks like a future NBA player at times. At others, he forgoes his impressive natural floor game, floats around the perimeter firing ill-advised jumpers, displays poor body language, and sleeps on the defensive end.
Other than Hicks, there is very little in the frontcourt. Freshman Abdul Herrera should develop into a legit presence at 6'10, but is very raw right now. Touted JC transfer Ivan Johnson was expected to start next to Hicks right away, but has been granted a release and will instead be playing for Oregon. Another JUCO, 6'7 Cedric McGowan, will have to play big minutes in the paint right away. He will be joined by 6-9 NAIA transfer Ronald Allen from Xavier University in New Orleans, just being cleared to play in the past few days.
The backcourt would recieve a lift if top 100 guard Tyree Evans is cleared of the statuatory rape charges he is facing and joins the team, but given Cincinnati's stance on Huggins and his past, Evans' future with the team is nothing more than a longshot.
This team is still potentially formidable. Maybe the adversity will cause this group to grow closer, and rise above it all. However, history says that is unlikely to happen. USC fired Henry Bibby
just a handful of games into it's season, and while that team wasn't nearly as talented as what we have here, that squad simply wilted. Either way, it probably takes Ivan Johnson and Tyree Evans showing up for Cincy to be a true Big East power this season. For now, instead of giving this team a ranking, we'll just give the Bearcats one giant question mark.