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Friday, October 19, 2007

Gary Parrish, - Preseason Top 25 (and one): Memphis rides high over changed landscape

Preseason Top 25 (and one): Memphis rides high over changed landscape
Oct. 15, 2007
By Gary Parrish, Senior Writer

It has been a while since the summer rankings were unveiled.

Nearly four months, in fact.

And a lot has changed.

For starters, Alabama learned it will play this season without Ron Steele, who is redshirting in hopes of returning next year healthy. If so, go ahead and pencil the Crimson Tide into the 2008-09 Top 25 (and one). But for now, they must be omitted.

Meanwhile, Brook Lopez forgot returning to college requires a person to, you know, actually return to college. Consequently, he was ruled ineligible for the first semester, which means Stanford could spend November and part of December looking more like the team that lost to Air Force by 34 points last season (without Lopez) than the team that beat Oregon by 19 points last season (with Lopez). In other words, the Cardinal are out, at least for now.

What else have we learned in the past four months?

That Tyler Smith will be eligible at Tennessee (that's good for the Vols), that Brandon Rush still hasn't fully recovered from a torn ACL and isn't expected back on the court for Kansas until Dec. 1 (that's not good for the Jayhawks), that Josh Heytvelt will definitely return to Gonzaga (that's good for the Bulldogs) and that Daniel Hackett probably won't be ready for Southern Cal's opener thanks to a broken jaw (that's not good for the Trojans).

And did you hear about Washington?

In the summer, I had the Huskies ranked 17th, which many people believed was too high based on two things:

1. Washington wasn't that good last season.
2. Its best player (Spencer Hawes) turned pro.

I was aware of both facts but still liked the slew of experience returning. Then all those experienced players went on an August trip to Greece and lost three of five games like they were representing USA Basketball or something. So I decided to come to my senses because the last time the Huskies went 2-3 on a foreign trip they finished 17-12, and that's simply not the type of record a top 20 team produces.

So, goodbye Washington.

Go play with Alabama and Stanford.

Because none of you are needed for the preseason Top 25 (and one).

1. Memphis: Folks in Memphis have consistently asked if I would keep the Tigers No. 1 heading into the season, and I've consistently told them that I would. So here's the proof. But really, it's not like I had a choice because a couple of months ago the school unveiled a billboard in the city boasting about its No. 1 ranking, which essentially painted me into a corner. Changing my ranking would mean changing that billboard, and I'm just not interested in causing such logistical problems.

2. UCLA: Every report coming from workouts is that Kevin Love is as good as advertised and Russell Westbrook is better than anybody realizes. Assuming both are true, the Bruins are about as safe a pick as possible for a third consecutive Final Four.

3. North Carolina: Deon Thompson averaged 10.0 points and a team-best 6.1 rebounds for USA Basketball this summer, and now I'm starting to think the Tar Heels won't miss Brandan Wright quite as much as expected.

4. Kansas: Eventually, Bill Self is going to break through and reach the Final Four. Best I can tell, this is as good a season as ever to do it.

5. Tennessee: The addition of Tyler Smith, who averaged 14.9 points last season at Iowa, has the Vols as the clear and obvious favorite in the SEC.

6. Louisville: With Earl Clark and Derrick Caracter on the roster, this weekend's injury to Juan Palacios isn't that big of a deal to the Cardinals. To be clear, it's awful for Palacios, fragile as he is. But a medical redshirt might actually be best for the program.

7. Washington State: Every time I bump into somebody who was involved with USA Basketball this summer I ask for the college player who most surprised them. Every time, the answer is Derrick Low, which means the best-kept secret in the Pac-10 last season is hardly a secret anymore.

8. Georgetown: Roy Hibbert's decision to return to college might cost him some serious money, but it makes the Hoyas another threat to reach the Final Four.

9. Michigan State: Drew Neitzel won't play as many minutes per game, but his production should be similar to last season.

10. Marquette: Freshman Trevor Mbakwe will shore up a questionable frontline and complement an undeniable backcourt.

11. Indiana: The best thing about the start of practice at Indiana is that it means there should be less time for Kelvin Sampson to make impermissible phone calls. (Honestly, could you believe that story this weekend? Unreal.)

12. Villanova: Just like usual, Jay Wright has a lot of great guards, among them sophomore Scottie Reynolds.

13. Duke: Missing on Greg Monroe was devastating, but that won't show up until next season. For now, the Blue Devils are still the Blue Devils, which is to say they are worthy of an elite ranking thanks to talents like Kyle Singler and DeMarcus Nelson.

14. Oregon: The return of Bryce Taylor, Maarty Leunen, Malik Hairston and Tajuan Porter makes Oregon a serious threat in the Pac-10.

15. Gonzaga: If Josh Heytvelt parties again, I just hope he does so somewhere other than a car and at some time other than the night before a game. That was pretty stupid last season.

16. Arkansas: The Hogs appear to be the second-most talented team in the SEC, and it's John Pelphrey's responsibility to make sure it shows.

17. Southern California: The Trojans will dress a talented team if O.J. Mayo can stop breaking his teammates' jaws. Officially, it was an "inadvertent elbow" from Mayo that sidelined Daniel Hackett, but almost nobody seems to be buying the "inadvertent" part, including one of Hackett's old AAU teammates. "An elbow? Yeah, right," said UCLA's Kevin Love when the subject came up at the Bruins' media day. "Dan's a good friend of mine, too. I'm never going to lay a hand or lay a fist or elbow on a teammate like that."

18. Southern Illinois: It looks to be a down year for the Missouri Valley Conference, but SIU doesn't have down years.

19. Texas A&M: Billy Gillispie left a nice roster in College Station, and Mark Turgeon should benefit.

20. Arizona: If the Wildcats make a run at a Pac-10 title, assistant Kevin O'Neil will prove to be worth every penny of his ridiculous salary.

21. Pittsburgh: Aaron Gray is gone, but six of the other eight top players return for the Panthers.

22. Butler: Can the Bulldogs knock off some so-called big boys again this season? They'll have a shot at Ohio State in December, and they could get Virginia Tech and Gonzaga in November in Alaska.

23. Kansas State: There has been a lot of talk about how Derrick Rose or O.J. Mayo will be the top pick in next June's NBA Draft, but history suggests most franchises would rather go big. For that reason, I'm guessing the first pick will be KSU freshman Michael Beasley, who should lead the Wildcats -- and perhaps the Big 12 -- in scoring this season.

24. Syracuse: I really do like the Orange on paper, which is why I moved them into the rankings. Now I just hope I like them on the court, too.

25. Kentucky: This is supposed to be a down year by Kentucky's own lofty standards, but how many SEC teams are clearly better than them? Tennessee is the only one, I think.

26. North Carolina State: Brandon Costner, Ben McCauley, Gavin Grant and J.J. Hickson is about as good a quartet of big dudes the nation has to offer.

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