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Thursday, September 20, 2007 - Comments on Teams With Best Odds to Win National Championship

Is a hardwood three-peat in Florida's future?
09/19/2007 10:39 AM
By: Chance Harper |

With college gridiron campaigns less than a month old, it's difficult to start focusing on hoops action across campuses. But college basketball aficionados are already getting the itch with the season less than two months away, and preseason prognosticators are already asking if Florida can with a third straight crown.
Let’s give a cheer for the Orange and Blue. The Florida Gators have one of the best athletic programs in the country, regularly finishing in the Top 10 in just about every sport outside of Aussie rules football. That includes back-to-back national championships in men’s basketball -- the first team to double up since Duke in 1991-92.

Can the Gators make it three in a row? Don’t bet on it.

The main reason Florida was able to repeat was that the entire starting rotation decided to come back to school for one more year. Now they’re all gone. Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah were all chosen in the Top 10 of this summer’s NBA draft; Taurean Green went in the second round, and Lee Humphrey graduated. The Gators even lost sixth man Chris Richard to the draft, leaving the program in heavy rebuilding mode and 75-1 on the futures market to complete an unlikely three-peat.

Trying to nail down this year’s preseason favorite will not be easy. The North Carolina Tar Heels have the shortest odds at 5-1, followed closely by UCLA at 6-1 and the Big East powers from Georgetown and Louisville at 8-1. North Carolina had a sour ending to their March Madness experience, fading late in the second half and getting blown out in overtime by Georgetown in the Elite Eight, but this year’s Heels are a year older and wiser. You’d have to hunt high and low to find a trio of college players more talented than Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington.

UCLA and Georgetown both remain in the mix for the championship, but the Bruins won’t be as potent without Arron Afflalo, and the Hoyas, while grateful to retain the services of Roy Hibbert, watched Jeff Green head to the NBA rather than return for his senior year.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, are crashing the party after two injury-plagued seasons. Louisville did manage to finish third in the Big East standings last year at 12-4 (24-10 SU overall, 17-11-2 ATS), and with all seven of their top scorers coming back for coach Rick Pitino, the Cards have to be considered ahead of Georgetown for a trip to the Final Four.

But let’s not be too hasty to hand the title to any of these elite teams. When the preseason rankings come out in November, don’t be surprised when you see the Memphis Tigers in the No. 1 spot. John Calipari’s squad often gets overlooked by casual fans, which is what happens when you play in Conference USA. Yet despite having the No. 75-ranked strength of schedule in the nation last season, Memphis still finished No. 8 on the RPI list and reached the Elite Eight for the second year in a row.

That won’t be enough this time. Not only are the Tigers emulating Florida by bringing back their full starting lineup, Calipari’s recruiting acumen has also landed Memphis a tremendous freshman haul. The Class of 2007 includes one of the top recruits in the country, point guard Derrick Rose from Simeon Career Academy in Chicago. Rose is a superstar in the making, a possible top pick in the 2008 NBA draft and a big part of the Tigers’ title hopes at 10-1.

Calipari proves year after year that attracting talented players to your program is just as important as the actual coaching part of the job description. That’s why fans in Lexington are singing the praises of Billy Gillispie, who takes over the coaching reins of the Kentucky Wildcats from underappreciated Tubby Smith. The two-time Big 12 Coach of the Year led the Texas A&M Aggies into the Top 10 last year on the strength of his recruiting.

By snaring highly-touted power forward Patrick Patterson from Huntington High School in West Virginia -- ahead of both Duke and Florida -- Gillispie has Kentucky at 20-1 to win it all this year. Texas A&M slips to 70-1 under Mark Turgeon, who proved his coaching acumen by leading mid-major Wichita State to the Sweet 16 two years ago, but has yet to establish himself as a top recruiter.

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