The Dean’s List: College hoops Top 10 (Part II)
JASON LOGAN - Writer
The battle for the national championship is wide open this year. Any of the teams mentioned in Part I of our rankings, which started the countdown at No. 10 and got all the way to No. 6, have a good shot come March.
When it comes to the real deal contenders, however, the following five teams will be mainstays high up on any poll, and should all be No. 1 or 2 seeds on selection Sunday. Any one of these programs could’ve been the dean’s No. 1, but just one has what it takes to claim my preseason crown.
No. 5: Tennessee Volunteers (+1500 to win national title)
Bruce Pearl needs to keep his kids out of trouble if the Vols want to run the show in the SEC this year. After some drug issues and a scary car crash, Tennessee slid to No.5 in my books.
The return of leading scorer Chris Lofton, tough-as-nail point guard Ramar Smith and do-it-all wingman JaJuan Smith gives the Volunteers one of the most versatile backcourts in the country.
The UT frontcourt is a bit up in the air with Duke Crews’ future still unknown. However, it looks as if the Vols will have the suspended 6-foot-7 bruiser back soon. Crews, along with inside-out threats Wayne Chism and Ryan Childress, will be joined by super transfer Tyler Smith.
Smith, who did not have to wait a year to play because of family issues, emerged at Iowa last season with his ability to battle on the blocks as well as dribble drive. Fellow transfer J.P. Prince is another versatile forward with outstanding leaping ability.
No. 4: Kansas Jayhawks (+1000 to win national title)
Getting Brandon Rush back is a gift and a curse for head coach Bill Self. Yes, you return one of the most talented players in the country but you have to once again juggle a deep backcourt, slowing the progress of sixth man Sherron Collins for another year.
Collins, along with Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson, all shared duties in the Jayhawks backcourt and will do so again once Rush returns from offseason knee surgery in December. This trio combined for almost 29 points, 11 assists and five steals in 2006-07.
The pecking order under the hoop is a little more cut and dried for KU. Sophomore Darrell Arthur will get noticed as one of the best big men in the nation. He’ll get help from scrappy senior Sasha Kaun and flashy forward Darnell Jackson.
No. 3: Memphis Tigers (+700 to win national title)
John Calipari is tired of hearing how weak the Tigers’ schedule is every selection Sunday. So he arranged dates with USC, Georgetown, Tennessee and Arizona, just to name some of the top-caliber competition Memphis will face this season.
The Tigers are up to the task with returning backcourt studs Chris Douglas-Roberts and Antonio Anderson being joined by freshman point guard Derrick Rose. Rose tops most recruiters list as the best pure playmaker in the class of ’07.
Memphis’ athletic frontcourt of Joey Dorsey and Robert Dozier can get out and run with the guards and finish at the hoop with some authority. Sharp-shooting Willie Kemp holds it down on the perimeter. He shot 38.6 percent from beyond the arc last season.
The Tigers had a grueling practice sked this month in order to fine-tune their up-tempo style of basketball. Coach Calipari is having a tough time dividing minutes among his talented roster for their upcoming games next month.
No. 2: North Carolina Tar Heels (+500 to win national title)
The Heels were my pick to go all the way last year but as the season progressed, UNC showed a fatal flaw. When the offense couldn’t run the floor and get a lot of shots, the young Tar Heels were lost in a slowed-down half-court set. You can chalk that up to the inexperience of freshmen guards Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington.
Now, the backcourt combo is one year removed from a dreadful collapse against Georgetown in the regional finals and is ready for a run at the national title. And when I say run, I mean full-on sprint. Lawson has upped his speed with the basketball and Ellington is more comfortable in his skin on the perimeter after a summer with the Pan Am team.
The role of veteran leader, which belonged to Reyshawn Terry last year, is now Tyler Hansbrough’s. I can honestly say that I’m a better basketball player from watching the Heels’ big man. Hansbrough’s strength and patience on the blocks makes him a handful for defenses, which will open up things on the other side of the lane for sophomore Deon Thompson.
Playing in the shadows of Hansbrough and Brandan Wright last year, Thompson averaged just over 12 minutes per game. But this season, he could become one of the country’s best young talents in the paint. Also getting additional minutes this season are glue guys Marcus Ginyard and Danny Green, the team’s two best defenders.
No. 1: UCLA Bruins (+700 to win national title)
The Bruins are a tentative No.1 with me right now because of the health issues that could ruin their quest. Big returnees Josh Shipp, who had offseason hip surgery, and forwards Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Lorenzo Mata-Real, who are also injury prone, must stay on the floor if UCLA wants a third straight trip to the Final Four. But when the Bruins are healthy, there is no team in the country more talented, experienced and effective on both ends of the floor.
An uber-competitive Pac-10 this season has UCLA relying heavily on point guard Darren Collison. The junior will be asked to steady the offense, pick up his scoring and play in-your-face on-the-ball defense.
Top freshman addition Kevin Love gives the Bruins what they’ve lacked in the past two seasons – a consistent threat under the basket. Love is considered to be the best player entering college this year with his soft touch in the paint, great rebounding and playmaking. Expect to see Love throw more touchdown passes down court at UCLA this season than Ben Olsen has in his three years with the football program.