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Monday, June 19, 2006

Five Programs on the Rise and Five on the Decline

College Basketball: Up, Down, and In Between
By Raphielle Johnson
June 16th, 2006

Although the NBA Finals are in mid-swing (I’ve got the Mavs in six), there isn’t much else to entertain college basketball fan these days. Even with plenty of underclassmen and graduates looking to improve their resumes, the Pre-Draft Camp failed to impress last week. Looking ahead, who are some of the teams to watch heading into 2006-07? Some programs will look to take that next step, either into the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend or just getting into the Dance for the first time. Others, with a fall seemingly inevitable, will look to exercise some damage control. And you also have the schools stuck in limbo, that could either rise or fall depending on a multitude of factors.

Five Teams on the Rise

1. Tennessee (22-8, 12-4 SEC East): All that Bruce Pearl did in his first year at the helm in Knoxville was lead the Volunteers to the SEC Eastern Division title. But Tennessee was sent home by Wichita State in a game that exploited their lack of scoring in the post. But this year, guards Chris Lofton and Dane Bradshaw will receive some help in the form of a highly touted recruiting class, led by power forward Duke Crews. Wayne Chism, also a power forward, is no slouch either, and guards Ramar Smith and Marques Johnson should provide some backcourt depth in light of the graduation of C.J. Watson. Florida may be the reigning national champion, but the Vols will give them all they want and then some in the SEC East.

2. Georgia Tech (11-17, 4-12 ACC): The young Yellow Jackets headed to Raleigh to play NC State with a record of 9-4, 2-0 in the ACC on January 14th. But the 87-78 loss to the Wolfpack showed just how much Tech had to learn about basketball in the ACC. An eight-game losing streak, including three losses by a combined four points, ended any talk of at least an NIT invite for the Ramblin’ Wreck. Well, help has arrived in the form of incoming freshmen Thaddeus Young and Javaris Crittenton. Yes, they lose Zam Frederick, who has transferred to South Carolina, but these two high school All-Americans will be a sight to behold in the ACC. If they live up to their reputations, Paul Hewitt may be able to get back to the NCAA Tournament.

3. Georgetown (23-10, 10-6 Big East): Losing three important seniors from a team that knocked off two-seed Ohio State in the second round and giving Florida their stiffest challenge on the Gators’ road to the national title would normally mean a decline. But the fact that many are picking the Hoyas to win the Big East next season is a sign that the program is on the way back. John Thompson III, also known as “JT III” by fans of the program, has assembled one of the nation’s best recruiting classes to go along with big men Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert. Hibbert improved immeasurably throughout the season, most notably in the Big East and NCAA Tournaments. Adding forwards Vernon Macklin and DaJuan Summers to the mix will only make the Hoyas all the more powerful on the interior. As for the backcourt, look for improved play from Jonathan Wallace and Jesse Sapp. In other words, go ahead and bring that late-1980’s Georgetown Starter jacket out of your closet. “Hoya Paranoia” is back in style.

4. Ohio State (26-6, 12-4 Big Ten): The Buckeyes were supposed to wait until 2006-07 to take over the Big Ten. Well, no one told the sharpshooters from Columbus, who rode outside shooting and the post play of Terence Dials to their first outright Big Ten title in 14 years. They lose Dials to graduation, but they welcome a recruiting class that some point to as the best of 2006. Greg Oden, national player of the year, will be on campus as will his friends Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook. In addition the Dials, Thad Matta will have to replace the likes of J.J. Sullinger, Matt Sylvester, Jekel Foster, and Sylvester Mayes. But with the guys he has coming in, filling those holes may be a nice problem to have.

5. Hofstra (26-7, 14-4 CAA): Yes, it was disappointing for the Pride to be left out of the NCAA Tournament. But unlike many bubble teams who end up in the NIT, they didn’t sit around and pout about their fate. The Pride advanced to the quarters of the NIT, falling to fellow CAA member Old Dominion. The loss of two key players in the paint (Adrian Uter and Aurimas Kieza) was offset by the return of head coach Tom Pecora, who withdrew his name from consideration for the Seton Hall job. With the three-headed backcourt monster of Loren Stokes, Antoine Agudio, and Carlos Rivera also back in Hempstead, look for the Pride to get to the NCAA Tournament.

Also under consideration: Wichita State (they lose MVC Player of the Year Paul Miller, but return the likes of P.J. Cousinard, Sean Ogirri, and Kyle Wilson); DePaul (the Blue Demons only lose Marlon Brumfield, and should be used to play in the Big East); North Carolina (a young team becomes a year older, and that much wiser…they will be a top five team in most polls to start the year)

Five Teams in Decline

1. Wake Forest (17-17, 3-13 ACC): How much worse can things get for Skip Prosser and the Demon Deacons? Well, Justin Gray, Trent Strickland and Eric Williams graduated after a 2005-06 that saw the Deacs start the season with a record of 11-2, only to lose fifteen of their last twenty-one ball games. That’s what happens when you don’t plan for the early departure of Chris Paul (the staff expected Paul to be in Winston-Salem for three years, but obviously his draft stock changed that). Coach Prosser will look to major contributions from a six-member freshman class, including forward Jamie Skeen and guards Ishmael Smith and Anthony Gurley. But freshmen usually have a tough time in the ACC, so if returnees such as Harvey Hale, Shemaine Dukes and Cameron Stanley don’t show significant improvement, Wake could once again find themselves near the bottom of the ACC.

2. NC State (22-10, 10-6 ACC): Well, some folks in Raleigh got their way when Herb Sendek moved on to take the head coaching position at Arizona State. In his place is State alum Sidney Lowe, a member of the 1983 national title team. But the Pack will be a long ways away from that glory this season. Losing the likes of Ilian Evtimov, Tony Bethel and Cameron Bennerman was bad enough. But when you add the loss of sophomore center Cedric Simmons (he has hired an agent and will stay in the NBA Draft) and highly touted recruit Larry Davis (Dan Werner, who was released from his letter of intent, still has not made a decision), things don’t look so well for a fan base eager to reach the level of Duke and North Carolina. With Coach Lowe staying with the Pistons as an assistant until the end of their run, new assistant Monte Towe (member of the 1974 title team) had to handle the majority of the recruiting. Getting to the NCAA Tournament wasn’t enough to keep the masses satisfied during the Sendek era; the Pack may need to win the ACC Tournament in order to get that far this season.

3. California (20-11, 12-6 Pac-10): The loss of Leon Powe is a major one for a team that leaned on the sophomore for a large portion of their offense. The Golden Bears also lose forward Rod Benson and guards Richard Midgley and Martin Smith. The good news is that combo guard Ayinde Ubaka will be back, as will big man DeVon Harden. Head coach Ben Braun will also welcome a solid recruiting class, led by forward Ryan Anderson, along with guards Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher. Two major questions for the 2006-07 edition: who can help Ubaka score from the perimeter, and who can do some work in the paint. With the Pac-10 improving from last season, look for Cal to fall a bit in the conference standings.

4. Memphis (33-4, 13-1 Conference USA): Losing Rodney Carney, although expected, was bad enough. Then Shawne Williams put his name into the NBA Draft pool and hired an agent, ruling out his return. Point guard Darius Washington Jr. also threw his name into the hat, but has not hired an agent. But don’t cry for John Calipari, who isn’t being left with a bare cupboard either. Forwards Joey Dorsey and Kareem Cooper will be back to bang on the interior, and there is also an assortment of perimeter players to choose from. Antonio Anderson, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Andre Allen will all be back, but someone will need to pick up the slack offensively if Washington stays in the draft. Duplicating a 33-4 year is tough for any team, especially if you go into the following season without your top three scorers from the previous season.

5. Villanova (28-5, 14-2 Big East): We know for a fact that half of the vaunted Villanova backcourt (Randy Foye and Allan Ray) will not be back next year. As for Kyle Lowry, it seems like the guard that many regard as one of the best in the draft class this year, may forgo his last two seasons if his stock is high enough. This leaves Mike Nardi as the lone returnee on the perimeter. The good news: Curtis Sumpter took a medical redshirt last season due to a knee injury and will be back for Jay Wright’s Wildcats. Jason Fraser, plagued by injuries throughout his career is gone, but Will Sheridan and Dante Cunningham improved significantly as the season progressed. Will Bilal Benn and Shane Clark be ready to contribute more? Can Villanova receive a contribution from their incoming recruits, most notably guards Scottie Reynolds and Malcolm Grant? Coach Wright will also welcome big men Antonio Pena and Casiem Drummond, adding depth to the frontcourt. As with Memphis however, duplicating last season’s record will be a tough chore.

Also Under Consideration: St. Joseph’s (Despite the improvement of Amhad Nivins, the loss of Abdulai Jalloh (transfer) could be a crushing loss); Gonzaga (Mark Few won’t be without talent, but you don’t find a talent like Adam Morrison everyday, and losing J.P. Batista will hurt some as well); Texas (Yes, Rick Barnes welcomes in a top-ranked recruiting class, but the loss of LaMarcus Aldridge, P.J. Tucker, and possibly Daniel Gibson could make for a steeper learning curve for the talented freshmen).

The Jury’s Still Out

1. Connecticut (30-4, 14-2 Big East): High expectations were everywhere for the Huskies in 2005-06, who ended the season with an 86-84 loss to George Mason in the Elite 8. Jim Calhoun will lose seven players from that squad, including underclassmen Rudy Gay, Marcus Williams and Josh Boone. That would make for an automatically bad year in most cases, but when you can bring in eight recruits, that’s not such a sure thing. Forward Curtis Kelly can seemingly score at will, and the next in a long line of Huskies to win Big East Defensive Player of the Year could be 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet, who just closed out their recruiting class with his commitment last week. Doug Wiggins will join Craig Austrie in the backcourt, as will A.J. Price, who has finally been cleared medically to play. And don’t forget about forward Jeff Adrien. Chemistry may be a concern, but judging by the way in which some of the future Huskies have played together in the famed IS8 Spring Classic AAU tournament recently, that may not be a problem. And if it is, they have a coach who can do a whole lot make sure that it isn’t an issue.

2. LSU (27-9, 14-2 SEC West): Two seasons ago, Glen “Big Baby” Davis didn’t have much help inside, and the Tigers were bounced from the tournament in the first round. Enter Tyrus Thomas, and John Brady’s bunch ends up in the Final Four. Of course, Thomas wasn’t the only reason why LSU made it to Indianapolis, but by the end of the year opponents had to watch him just as much as they did Davis inside. With Thomas off to the NBA (where he should be a top five pick in the Draft), Davis needs a new partner in the paint. Whether or not either Darnell Lazare or Magnum Rolle can fill that space could be the deciding factor in whether or not the Tigers can hold onto the top spot in the Western Division. The SEC regular season champions also need to replace the departed Darrel Mitchell, but Tack Minor returning from injury could take care of that. It’s Mitchell’s leadership from the point that LSU will need to replace.

3. UCLA (32-7, 14-4 Pac-10): In the aftermath of the loss to Florida in the national title game, many felt that the Bruins had the necessary pieces coming back to make a return trip to the Final Four. But with the starting backcourt of Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo in the NBA Draft, any postseason aspirations will be dependent upon what their final decisions are. Neither has hired an agent, which is good news for Bruin fans. Add to this the improved play of guard Darren Collison, and interior players Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Lorenzo Mata and Alfred Aboya, and Ben Howland could be in for another good year with or without Farmar and Afflalo. Losing the inconsistent Ryan Hollins (he did improve come tournament time) hurts somewhat, but it’s the unselfish attitude and leadership of Cedric Bozeman that UCLA will be hard-pressed to replace. New recruits James Keefe (forward) and Russell Westbrook (guard) will be added to the program, which will once again count on defense to deliver victories. Whether or not the Bruins can get back to the season’s final weekend is dependent on the draft decisions of their two most talented players.

4. Pittsburgh (25-8, 10-6 Big East): Replacing a talent the likes of Carl Krauser would be tough for any program, but the Panthers are blessed with a deep backcourt that can do just that. Pitt returns the likes of Ronald Ramon, Levance Fields, and Keith Benjamin in the backcourt, three players who saw many important minutes for Jaime Dixon last season. Sam Young, Levon Kendall, and Tyrell Biggs will be back in the paint to bruise opponents in the Big East. But the key is center Aaron Gray, who had entered the NBA Draft. Gray, who still hasn’t hired an agent, could be the difference for Pittsburgh if they hope to challenge Georgetown for the Big East title. Gray, who was the Big East’s Most Improved Player in 2005-06, gained confidence with each start, and each subsequent double-double. Whether or not Pittsburgh is a Final Four contender is tough to tell, but having Gray would give them their best chance at getting there.

5. Oregon (15-18, 7-11 Pac-10): You could make quite an argument for the Ducks being the most disappointing program of the past two seasons. With perimeter players such as Aaron Brooks, Malik Hairston and Bryce Taylor in Eugene, it’s mind boggling that Erne Kent’s squad has not been to the NCAA Tournament since the two Lukes (Ridnour and Jackson) were on campus back in 2002-03. Down low, Maarty Leunen and Adam Zahn lead a group of players looked to for post defense and rebounding. Jordan Kent, a three-sport athlete, offers the intensity that this team as a whole has lacked for the past two seasons. Chamberlain “Champ” Oguchi, an inconsistent offensive threat, came on in the Pac-10 Tournament, and the Ducks will also welcome Xavier transfer Churchill Odia into the rotation. Mental toughness and chemistry have been lacking from this team for a couple of seasons. Whether or not they can discover these traits may decide Coach Kent’s job status at the end of the year.

Also Under Consideration: Arizona (Lute Olson brings in yet another excellent recruiting class, but will Mustafa Shakur be back to continue the progress made in the NCAA Tournament?); Kansas State (How much of an impact can Bob Huggins have on the Wildcat program? Hey, Bill Snyder did it at KSU in football, and they were in a lot worse shape back then); Seton Hall (Bobby Gonzalez comes in and picks up two metropolitan area recruits in guards Eugene Harvey and Larry Davis, but can he replace Kelly Whitney?)

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