SI.com Luke Winn
The End, Or Only Act I? (A 2006-07 Top 10)
INDIANAPOLIS -- As the clock neared midnight on Monday, Florida's Joakim Noah was still partying with the level of passion that had fueled his brilliant rise from freshman nobody to, as a sophomore, the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA tournament.
The Ponytailed One was at first sprawled on the floor near center court under a mob of teammates; then he was up, bounding toward his school's student section, then maniacally screaming and Gator-chomping at them from atop a press-row table. Before bolting into the stands to hug his famed father, Yannick, and his mother and sister, Joakim did the unthinkable and heaved his sweaty, No. 13 jersey into the students' orange-and-blue mob. Tangible mementos, presumably, aren't important when one's identity is based on the intangible of emotion. With a wild grin on his face, Noah was deeply feeling Florida's first national championship.
The question now is does he truly want to feel this for an encore? Before taking the stage at midcourt, Noah stopped to tell a handful of reporters, "I love this! How can I not do this again?" Is this euphoria so enticing that the chase for a repeat championship as a junior trumps being a top-three pick in June's NBA Draft? "It's like you can't even feel your legs; it's like you're eating the best food in the world, like everything tastes good, everything smells good," he said. And then he added, for emphasis, before strutting away, "It's better than sex!"
On Noah's decision -- which will be made later this month, in a less orgasmic setting, sans the streamers, confetti and commemorative Ts -- hinges the crest of college basketball's rankings for 2006-07. If he stays in Gainesville, and fellow Gator pro prospects Al Horford and Corey Brewer follow suit, Florida would be the unanimous preseason top dog -- and the first title-game participant since Arizona in 1997 to bring its entire starting lineup back intact.
Conventional wisdom and recent history suggest that all the good Monday Nighters turn pro and their teams rebuild, but '06-07 could be a departure from the norm. The Gators and runner-up UCLA realistically may retain their super-sophs and remain heavyweights. If '05-06 was stacked with surprises -- the rise of the mid-majors, the early departures of the No. 1 seeds, and a non-guard-dominated champ -- why can't '06-07 be the Season The Kids Actually Stuck Around?
Minutes after Noah and his teammates watched an RCA Dome video-board display CBS' One Shining Moment montage -- the final frames of which were a roof-camera looking down on him, atop that press-row table -- he was sitting with his legs dangling off the stage. In response to another inevitable inquiry about his future, Noah made a broad swoop with his hands toward the celebration that was unfurling in front of him, and said "The NBA can't do this!"
And so, unless we receive different news from Noah, the Gators should begin next season the same way they ended this one: at No. 1.
Now, for the rest of the top 10 -- a very similar version of which appears in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated. (We're operating with a few educated guesses on early entrants to the NBA Draft: UConn's Rudy Gay, Texas' LaMarcus Aldridge, LSU's Tyrus Thomas and Gonzaga's Adam Morrison.)
2. North Carolina: The Baby Heels were ahead of schedule this season, finishing second in the ACC on the shoulders of "Psycho T" -- national freshman of the year Tyler Hansbrough. He'll be joined in the fall by the nation's No. 1 recruiting class, which includes the top-ranked high school point guard (Tywon Lawson), shooting guard (Wayne Ellington) and power forward (Brandan Wright). If that trio assimilates into coach Roy Williams' system as speedily as Hansbrough did, UNC will be scary.
3. UCLA: Westwood's fearless defenders will gain some offensive punch with the return of swingman Josh Shipp, who was the Bruins' most dangerous scorer before missing most of the season with a hip injury. If point guard Jordan Farmar eschews the draft to team up with Shipp, two-guard Arron Afflalo and power forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, UCLA will have the best 1 through 4 quartet in the nation.
In a somber Bruins locker room after Monday night's loss, Afflalo indicated that he didn't expect any defections. "We lost some pieces this year in [seniors] Cedric [Bozeman] and Ryan [Hollins], but we've got our two leading scorers [himself and Farmar] coming back, our leading rebounder [Mbah a Moute], and Josh will be back, so we should be good," he said. "We're very fortunate to have gone through this this year, and have the potential to come back [to the title game] next year."
4. Memphis: The fastest-paced, most efficient team in Conference USA returns every key player other than Rodney Carney. With athletes like Darius Washington Jr., Antonio Anderson and Shawne Williams running the Tigers' high-scoring show, another 30-win season and No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament are likely. The rest of the C-USA will once again be gunning for second place. (ed - Luke's assuming both Williams and Washington return - I'm afraid I'm not so optimistic)
5. Kansas: Sophomores stole the spotlight at this Final Four, and KU's clan of freshman stars -- guard Mario Chalmers, swingman Brandon Rush and elastic forward Julian Wright -- could make a similar push in '07. But first they'll need to overcome their school's recent first-round NCAA woes (the Bucknell-Bradley curse). Will an even more beefed-up backcourt -- after the addition of Chicago stud Sherron Collins, a McDonald's All-American -- make coach Bill Self consider a Villanova-esque lineup in '06-07?
6. Ohio State: The Buckeyes' ranking all comes down to how much one believes in The Oden Factor. Will 7-foot freshman center Greg Oden carry the Buckeyes to a title, a la Carmelo Anthony, in what will probably be his only season in Columbus? Thad Matta's defending Big Ten regular-season champs will be rebuilt around the blue-chip recruiting class of Oden, his high-school teammate Mike Conley (a talented point guard), as well as shooting guard Daequan Cook and small forward David Lighty. Incumbent point Jamar Butler -- the most valuable returnee -- will help OSU's new wave handle the adjustment.
7. Georgetown: With UConn, Villanova and West Virginia all set to lose significant pieces, the new Beasts of the Big East will reside in D.C. Upsets of No. 1-ranked Duke (in January) and No. 2-seeded Ohio State (NCAA second round) this season may foreshadow greater things for the Hoyas, who have NBA-caliber talent in forward Jeff Green and center Roy Hibbert. The 7-2 Hibbert -- whom coach John Thompson III said he needed to teach how to run when he initially arrived on campus -- is only beginning to realize his potential.
8. Texas: Even if Aldridge makes the jump, the Horns retain an elite inside-outside tandem in guard Daniel Gibson and forward P.J. Tucker, the reigning Big 12 Player of the Year. McDonald's All-American Game co-MVP Kevin Durant -- the nation's top recruit not named Oden -- is a sweet-shooting 6-9 forward who could step in and be an instant force. Fellow incoming freshman D.J. Augustin, a vaunted point-guard prospect out of Louisiana, can take ballhandling heat off Gibson and A.J. Abrams.
9. Texas A&M: The Aggies are the perfect top 10 sleeper: On the strength of their lockdown D, they closed the season by winning nine of their final 11 games, nearly upsetting Final Four-bound LSU in the second round of the NCAAs. With guard Acie Law IV and future pro forward Joseph Jones leading the way, this seasoned squad can make a run at the Big 12 crown. A&M loses just one starter (senior Chris Walker), and sophomore guard Dominique Kirk is ready to get national recognition as a defensive stopper.
10. Southern Illinois: If '06 was the Year of the Mid-Majors, what kind of encore will they have in store? The Salukis, who tied for second in the Missouri Valley Conference, have their top nine scorers back, including the senior backcourt of Jamaal Tatum and Tony Young, who will be gunning for their fourth -- and the school's sixth -- straight NCAA tournament appearance. Veteran squad + prior Big Dance experience + strong guardplay = dangerous in March. Blowout loss to West Virginia this year be damned.
ON THE FRINGE:
Boston College, Duke, Wisconsin, Wichita State, Pittsburgh, Hofstra, Tennessee, LSU, UConn, Washington, Arizona, Villanova, Xavier.