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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Tigers 2006/2007 Preseason #7 by ESPN's Andy Katz 2006-07 April Top 25

INDIANAPOLIS -- OK, get ready to zing us. It's time for our annual post-national-title-game Top 25. This poll for the 2006-07 season is for sheer enjoyment. Post it, poke fun of it and rip it as you'd like.

Keep in mind, we're projecting who we think likely will stay for another year or head into the NBA draft, so there is potential for this to be messed up completely by June.
With all that said, here's our best first shot. Now get ready to take yours …

1. Florida (33-6)
We're going on the assumption that Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Al Horford all are back. We know Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey aren't going anywhere, so five starters would be returning from a team that reached the national title game. If that's the case, then tell us why Florida wouldn't be picked to win the 2007 title in the SEC's adopted hometown of Atlanta? This club will be as experienced as any in the country.

2. Kansas (25-8)
The Jayhawks could lose Brandon Rush, but all indications right now are that he'll be back next season. If that's true, the baby 'Hawks should develop into men and be a force in the coming year. The Jayhawks signed one of the top point guards in the class of 2006 in Sherron Collins and the loss to Bradley in the first round -- on top of last season's first-round exit against Bucknell -- is extra motivation for the Jayhawks. Kansas will be tested plenty in the Big 12 by Texas but the Jayhawks have the talent and motivation to soar.

3. North Carolina (23-8)
The easy pick is to put the Tar Heels at No. 1, but UNC still will be relying on national freshman of the year Tyler Hansbrough to carry a heavy load inside. The expectation is that the super freshman class, with Tywan Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Brandan Wright, will come in immediately and star. They might, but we'd like to see a bit more before we anoint the underclass-dominated Tar Heels as the favorites.

4. LSU (23-9)
Once again, the problem here is the draft. In theory, the Tigers return everyone but Darrel Mitchell, but it's hard to assume at this point that Tyrus Thomas and Glen Davis won't test the NBA draft process. So, just because we don't know, we'll knock the Tigers down a couple of pegs. LSU actually could have all five "starters" back if you include Tack Minor, who originally was penciled in the starting five before he got hurt. They also get a transfer in Marquette's Dameon Mason, who should be another high-flyer on the squad.

5. UCLA (32-6)
The Bruins are a natural to be in the top five and could be a contender for the No. 1 spot. UCLA will lose two key players off its title-game team in seniors Cedric Bozeman and Ryan Hollins, but the return of Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo, a pair of all-Pac-10 first-team players, in the backcourt and Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Luc Richard Mbah a Moute up front makes the Bruins as talented along the perimeter and wing as any team in the country. The problem is not knowing whether Farmar will test the draft and locking in on a post player. Getting Josh Shipp healthy on the wing will help ensure the Bruins have some scoring outside the backcourt.

6. Ohio State (26-6)
Hmm, wonder who the Buckeyes are adding next season? Some guy named Greg Oden and a few of his friends who could form one of the best freshman classes in recent memory. Still, they're not coming to a program in need of an overhaul. The Buckeyes won the Big Ten regular-season title and were a No. 2 seed. The Buckeyes lose seniors Terence Dials and Je'Kel Foster, but scorers Nos. 3 and 4 -- Ron Lewis and Jamar Butler -- return. We're asking a lot of the freshman class to put the Buckeyes this high, but why not?

7. Memphis (33-4)
OK, this is a hard one. Memphis easily could check in at No. 1 with the talent it has returning and coming in, but losing Rodney Carney won't be a small hit. Carney was one of the nation's top defenders, as well as a legit scorer and a game changer with his dunks. One NBA scout believes he could be a top-10 pick. We're also not sure yet on Shawne Williams and Darius Washington and whether or not they'll try the draft. Still, the core is in place for the Tigers to be a top-10 team all season. Adding 6-foot-2 guard Willie Kemp could help offset the loss of Washington should he elect to go pro.

8. Texas (30-7)
Once again, this is a hard team to place. If LaMarcus Aldridge returns, the Longhorns could be No. 1. If he doesn't -- and P.J. Tucker and Daniel Gibson also bolt -- the Longhorns certainly would drop. For now, this is a happy medium. One thing is certain: Texas is adding big-time talent, led by forward Kevin Durant. If you watched the McDonald's All-American game and got a taste of his talent, you'll see why the Longhorns won't slide next season.

9. Alabama (18-13)
The Tide nearly knocked off UCLA in the second round. If those two teams were to meet in next season's NCAA Tournament, it probably would be in the Elite Eight or Final Four. Alabama got the good news that Jermareo Davidson is returning. That means four starters are back (with point guard Ronald Steele apparently not considering the jump). The Tide will have more depth next season and the experience of getting close but failing to finish off an opponent in the second round. The SEC should be the spot next season with more national title contenders than any other conference.

10. Pittsburgh (25-8)
The Panthers only lose Carl Krauser. He was a major player for the Panthers throughout the course of his career, but Pitt can take the hit of losing the veteran point guard. Big man Aaron Gray and forwards Sam Young and Levon Kendall give the Panthers one of the toughest front lines in the country. Guards Ronald Ramon, Levance Fields, Antonio Graves and Keith Benjamin should show everyone that the Panthers have the goods on the perimeter to match up with any team in the country. And you wonder why Jamie Dixon stayed?

11. Connecticut (30-4)
OK, let's think for a minute here. If Rudy Gay, Marcus Williams and Josh Boone all return, where would UConn be ranked? Possibly at No. 1. The problem is that the word around Storrs is that Williams is gone and Gay is as well. That could change, but the feeling right now is that the Huskies won't have either back. Boone is a question mark -- he's not ready but still is possibly considering the jump. Still, the Huskies got sensational bench play this season from Jeff Adrien, a potential star in making in the post, and the recruiting class is one of Jim Calhoun's best, with a stud at each spot. The collection of Stanley Robinson, Ben Eaves, Curtis Kelly, Jerome Dyson and Doug Wiggins could win a title before they're done.

12. Duke (32-4)
The Blue Devils have to drop without J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams, but they won't fall that far. Assuming Josh McRoberts returns, which he should despite talk that he could be a first-round pick, the Blue Devils have the anchor they need in the post. They already have the point guard in Greg Paulus, and they're bringing in a serious haul of recruits, led by Gerald Henderson and Jon Scheyer.

13. Georgetown (22-16)
Two names for you here: Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert. With them, the Hoyas have the top frontcourt in the Big East. Hibbert is a rising star while Green continues to develop into a steady scorer. The Hoyas do lose experience with the departures of Brandon Bowman, Ashanti Cook and Darrel Owens, but they had a solid recruiting season, with Vernon Macklin, a power forward, as the head of the class. Georgetown's style is playing well in the Big East and the Hoyas should be one of the tougher offensive teams to stop next season.

14. California (20-11)
There were a few gasps in the RCA Dome press room when we discussed putting Cal this high, but we're projecting (for now) that Leon Powe will return to the Bears. If he does, he returns as the top player in the Pac-10, and the Bears aren't too shabby in other spots. Cal also returns Ayinde Ubaka, who had a solid junior season, as well as big man DeVon Hardin, who some think could end up being a better pro than Powe. Theo Robertson and Omar Wilkes had solid seasons in their first runs at Cal. This team has size and depth along the frontline.

15. Arizona (20-13)
Wildcats' coach Lute Olson isn't shying away from why Arizona will be a factor again next season. He said the Wildcats only lose Hassan Adams and Chris Rodgers. The first one is a big hit because of his versatility, but assuming Marcus Williams doesn't declare, the Wildcats bring back their second, third and fourth scorers, including point guard Mustafa Shakur, who finally played to his potential down the stretch. The Cats also can't wait to start coaching small forward Chase Budinger, who was impressive during the McDonald's All-American game.

16. Villanova (28-5)
The easy thing would be to assume the Wildcats won't be any good next season because they lose Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Jason Fraser, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Expect the Wildcats to again be a contender for the Big East title with the likely return of Kyle Lowry, who would be joined in the backcourt by Mike Nardi. 'Nova also will enjoy the return of a potential Big East player of the year candidate in Curtis Sumpter (back from ACL injury) and forwards Will Sheridan, Shane Clark and Dante Cunningham. Adding Antonio Pena, a 6-6 power forward, only increases the frontcourt depth.

17. Wisconsin (19-12)
The Badgers could be much higher by season's end. They return more than any other Big Ten contending team. Back for Wisconsin is Alando Tucker, the likely preseason Big Ten player of the year, along with Kammron Taylor in the backcourt and Brian Butch upfront. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said he expects Greg Stiemsma and Marcus Landry, both of whom were ineligible for the second semester this season, to make it back as well. The Badgers also are pumped to add point guard Jason Bohannon. Wisconsin struggled at times offensively down the stretch, but a lot of that had to do with depth. That shouldn't be an issue next season with more scoring options.

18. Texas A&M (22-9)
The Aggies could be the sleeper team that challenges for the Big 12 title. We're not convinced they could take out Kansas and Texas with all that those schools have coming back, but what if either team loses a key player or two? The Aggies could return their top six players, notably Acie Law and Joseph Jones. Adding freshman power forward Bryan Davis only piles on the depth up front. Billy Gillispie didn't need to entertain any offers because he has something really good going with the Aggies. He has a chance to make Texas A&M a basketball school next season.

19. Florida State (20-10)
The politicking that the Seminoles are going to be a fine squad next season has begun in Tallahassee. Well, they should be with the talent that is returning. There really is no excuse if the Seminoles aren't in the NCAA Tournament, with Al Thornton, Alexander Johnson, Jason Rich, Isaiah Swann and the eligibility of Auburn transfer Toney Douglas. With that kind of athleticism, scoring and potential for shot-altering along the backline, the 'Noles should be a tourney team.

20. Boston College (28-8)
The easy thing would be to punt the Eagles out of the Top 25 because Craig Smith and Louis Hinnant are gone, but that would show you haven't been following Al Skinner lately. He maximizes his talent and there is still plenty left on the roster. Jared Dudley will be the premier small forward in the ACC with his ability to score inside and outside. Sean Williams is emerging as the most feared shot-blocker in the country and has the offseason to get an offensive game. Sean Marshall needs to find a consistent stride but can hit the jumper. Tyrese Rice, Akida McLain and John Oates all had their moments where they were major contributors on the Sweet 16 Eagles.

21. Oklahoma State (15-14)
The Cowboys, whether it's Eddie or Sean Sutton coaching, should be a major player in the Big 12 race. Everyone -- and we mean, everyone -- is back. The Cowboys return their top 10 scorers, led by Mario Boggan inside and JamesOn Curry on the perimeter. The Suttons also corralled shooting guard Obi Muonelo with the expectation that he could come in and help right away. Expect the Cowboys back in the Dance.

22. Tennessee (22-8)
The Vols were the surprise team in the SEC this season. They ran, and pressed, and converted. Bruce Pearl's style of play was a major hit in Knoxville. Losing C.J. Watson, Andre Patterson and Stanley Asumnu hurts the experience of this club but the Vols still have a solid core returning in Chris Lofton, Major Wingate, JaJuan Smith and Dane Bradshaw. The Vols also added a major contributor in power forward Duke Crews.

23. Gonzaga (29-4)
We have to keep the Bulldogs on the list because we're not 100 percent sure that Adam Morrison will declare for the draft. Can they be this good even without Morrison and J.P. Batista? Well, we're taking a leap of faith, but the there is still plenty of talent with Derek Raivio, Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes, Jeremy Pargo, the men up front in Josh Heytvelt, Sean Mallon and David Pendergraft, and the addition of Matt Bouldin. This team might lack star power but will still win its share of games.

24. Marquette (20-11)
This is the second consecutive season the Golden Eagles will lose a senior starter who was the heart and soul of the team. Last year it was Travis Diener. Now it's Steve Novak. Still, the Eagles are loaded, with the Big East's top newcomer in guard Dominic James, and fellow freshmen Jerel McNeal and Wes Matthews. The Eagles will play with passion and energy and will be an exciting team to watch.

25. Michigan (23-7)
OK, we've been here before with the Wolverines. They've had injuries, but the talent is in place to be an NCAA Tournament team next season. Michigan should have three senior starters next season in Dion Harris, Courtney Sims and Lester Abram. Ron Coleman is back as a junior and Brent Petway should be a senior role player. Never short on recruiting, Tommy Amaker added small forward Deshawn Sims so the depth shouldn't be an issue.

Others in consideration:
• Louisville: Loss of Taquan Dean puts them just outside the Top 25.
• NC State: Hard to lock in on the Wolfpack without knowing who the coach is, but the talent is in place with Cedric Simmons.
• Illinois: The Illini will knock on the top 25 door but losing Dee Brown and James Augustine makes the argument tough in April.
• Indiana: We don't know if D.J. White and Robert Vaden are back, and until then it's hard to commit to the Hoosiers.
• Washington: The Huskies lose the Pac-10 player of the year in Brandon Roy, but the talent is in place with a stellar recruiting class led by Spencer Hawes.
• Oregon: The Ducks return the core of their team but this is still a squad that has underachieved for two seasons.
• USC: Don't be surprised to see Tim Floyd get this squad in the Top 25 at some point next season.
• Oklahoma: Have to wait on the new coach, and losing the frontcourt means the Sooners can't be in the Top 25 yet, but Kelvin Sampson did recruit his best class before he bolted to Indiana.
• Kentucky: Rajon Rondo is declaring. Who knows about Randolph Morris? There are too many questions to put them in right now.
• Arkansas: This could be a mistake to keep Arkansas on the outside looking in at this point but we're making an assumption that Ronnie Brewer will declare. If that happens, the Hogs would have lost their top two scorers (with senior Jonathon Modica).
• South Carolina: The Gamecocks are the kings of the NIT and lose Tarence Kinsey, their top scorer. They'll be good with three potential senior starters, but we're not sure how good yet.
• George Washington: The Colonials lose three key seniors in Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Mike Hall and Omar Williams, but should still have a core back with Maureece Rice, Danilo Pinnock and Carl Elliott -- enough to make a run at the top 25.
• Xavier: The Musketeers finished strong, winning the A-10 tournament and nearly taking out Gonzaga in the first round. They could return four of their top five scorers and added a top shooting guard in Adrion Graves.
• Nevada: Not knowing if Nick Fazekas is returning makes it hard to commit to the Wolf Pack in April.

Five mid-majors that could crack the preseason Top 25

Think the George Mason magic has worn off already? Guess again. Don't be surprised to see one or more mid-majors in the preseason Top 25. Here are five possibilities:

Bucknell -- If you liked the two Round of 32 runs, get ready for what could be the best Bison team yet. 6-10 Deutschlander Chris McNaughton, defense-destroying point guard Abe Badmus and wing Donald Brown will all be seniors, and a cadre of young shooters is in line to pick up departing guard Kevin Bettencourt's slack.

Hofstra -- With every George Mason win, the selection snub of the team that beat them twice looked more and more unfair. Next season, the Pride will return a powerful backcourt in Antoine Agudio and Loren Stokes, the latter of whom will become nationally known for his game rather than getting punched in the groin. If the Pride live up to their potential, nobody will be able to keep them away from the dance.

Southern Illinois -- 2005-06 was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but the Salukis went ahead and won the black-and-blue Valley tourney championship anyway. While they had mass graduation losses last spring, they'll have none this year, so their painfully efficient defense will return intact. The only thing that could stop them from repeating their conference tourney title is if Chris Lowery decides to coach elsewhere.

Missouri State -- The Valley's pre-preseason player of the year most likely will be returning senior Blake Ahearn, a deadeye shooter who's Division-I's all-time best free-throw shooter. Head coach Barry Hinson only loses two to graduation, so ex-SMS will be almost fully stocked for its revenge run. As an aside, no team will ignore the RPI as much as the Bears next season -- a No. 19 ranking couldn't get them in this year.

Fresno State -- The preparation work for the 2006-07 season began last November, when Fresno self-imposed a postseason ban for past recruiting violations. Former BYU savior and new sheriff in town Steve Cleveland has spent the last year grooming a roster (including shooting star Ja'Vance Coleman) that will have zero turnover next season. Next March, the Bulldogs could very well win the WAC, overcoming Nevada and Utah State squads decimated by key graduations.

Five mid-majors who could make a midseason appearance

These five teams won't start in the Top 25, but could find themselves there at some point next season:

Creighton -- With the return of Nate Funk from injury, coach Dana Altman will be able to run his offense the way he originally wanted to this year. With imposing post presence Nate Tolliver and eye-opening sophomore point guard Josh Dotzler, they could be a very dangerous Valley threat again.

Winthrop -- No, the Eagles never go away. They came within a shot of a 15-over-2 upset against Tennessee and Gregg Marshall's two best players are coming back: oversized shooting guard Torrell Martin and do-everything 6-10 New Zealander Craig Bradshaw. The Eagles will receive some more Big South battle-testing from Buzz Peterson's resurgent Coastal Carolina squad, and if they can secure a good non-conference schedule, they'll have chances to grab some national buzz of their own.

Butler -- The loss of the NCAA tournament's only all-senior starting five at Milwaukee means a vacuum in the Horizon League, and the Bulldogs are best positioned to take advantage. They lose three seniors but the hot-shooting, undersized-but-skilled post players who remain may win the award for "2006-07 roster that looks most like George Mason 2005-06." With their conference runner-up status this season, Butler is back on the upswing toward the run of perennial 20-plus win seasons that ended abruptly in 2003.

Akron -- The Zips will come in with the best senior class in the Mid-American, including two of LeBron's old high school teammates (quick Dru Joyce and wide Romeo Travis), as well as a stack of shoulder chips resulting from their embarrassing MAC semifinal loss to 7-seed Toledo.
George Mason -- The Patriots will have to absorb the loss of leading scorers Tony Skinn, Jai Lewis and Lamar Butler, but the junior class includes NCAA stars Folarin Cambpell and Will Thomas, and they'll get help from two current redshirts -- 6-7 Jesus Urbina (who'll replace Lewis on one block) and hot-shooting swingman John Vaughan, coming back off an ACL tear. And, of course, they have all that championship experience.

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