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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

ESPN's Andy Katz - Memphis #9 in '08-'09 Pre-Season Poll

Hook 'em Horns: Texas pre-preseason No. 1

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com
Updated: April 9, 2008

No college sport is more affected by the lure of a professional league when the season ends than college basketball.

That's why it's an inexact science to play the game of what a team could look like next season prior to the NBA draft early-entry deadline.

But let's give it a try. That's what we've annually done at ESPN.com in the hours after the national title.

The deadline to declare for the draft is April 27. The time to withdraw won't come until mid-June. Some teams may not know if they are a contender or a pretender until then. They may have to sweat out multiple decisions in the hope that they can be a player come November. The numbers next to the schools may seem a bit silly in our pre-preseason poll since there is still so much to be determined. The poll will change multiple times between now and November once the draft sorts out the current rosters.

So, here you go. And as Memphis coach John Calipari liked to say often in the postseason: No one can pierce our armor.

1. Texas
Why? D.J. Augustin said that he's going to take his time on his decision of whether to declare for the NBA draft. Until he makes up his mind, Texas has to be the favorite to win it all. The Longhorns reached the Elite Eight this season. They beat UCLA and Kansas during the season -- two teams that reached the Final Four, including the national champ. If Augustin returns, the Longhorns will have the entire core of their team back for another run. The tandem of Augustin and A.J. Abrams in the backcourt, the developing Damion James and the likelihood that Gary Johnson will continue to shine makes Rick Barnes' club a formidable force. If Augustin comes back, the Big 12 has a legitimate shot to have back-to-back champs.

Why not? If Augustin does declare, the Longhorns won't be the favorite, but they likely wouldn't drop out of the Top 25, either. Texas under Barnes has established itself as a reliable power.

2. North Carolina
Why? The Tar Heels could potentially return everyone but Quentin Thomas. Underscore the word potentially. But an announcement has yet to be made for Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson, who still haven't made their decisions as of the Wednesday morning. Regardless of what occurs, the Tar Heels still return formidable frontline members Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson. Danny Green, a key contributor in the NCAAs, and Marcus Ginyard are also back. Also, Bobby Frasor will be back in the rotation again after missing most of this season with a knee injury.

Why not? Let's qualify this. Even if the big three or a combination of one or two depart, the Tar Heels won't be as good as this next season but will still be formidable. If Lawson goes, then the Tar Heels will have a new point guard. And unless it's Derrick Rose, there will be a transition in Chapel Hill.

3. Pitt
Why? The Panthers return their entire core from a team that was in the Sweet 16 and only continued to get better as it got healthier. Levance Fields comes back at the point and DeJuan Blair and Sam Young are the anchors in the post. And there is still a chance that Mike Cook could get a sixth-year to come back from his severe knee injury.

Why not? There's not much to pick apart here. The Panthers should be the pick to win the Big East with a team that won the conference tournament title despite being so injury-riddled.

4. Kansas
Why? Let's see … the Jayhawks did just win the national title. Sure, the departure of senior guard Russell Robinson and senior forwards Sasha Kaun and Darnell Jackson hurts the depth and experience. And there is a good chance that Brandon Rush and forward Darrell Arthur declare for the NBA draft, but there is still enough left, even with all of that, for the Jayhawks to be a factor in the Big 12 and nationally. A backcourt of Sherron Collins and Mario Chalmers is as good as it could get next season around the country.

Why not? Let's assume that Bill Self stays on as coach, so there is no rebuilding job on the bench too. Losing Rush and Arthur will be a hit, but it would be even more of a problem if Chalmers and/or Collins get wooed to take a flyer on the draft. Then we could be looking at a Florida-like rebuilding.

5. Notre Dame
Why? The Irish are expecting back maybe the best inside-out combination in the league in Luke Harangody and Kyle McAlarney. Harangody was the Big East Player of the Year. McAlarney, when on, was one of the better shooters in the conference. Notre Dame, outside of its game against Washington State, rarely struggled to score. Mike Brey has done an outstanding job getting this program to be a regular in the mix in the Big East.

Why not? It's hard to pick on this squad too much. But defensive could be a potential wart at times, and a scoring drought as we saw against Wazzu made the team look rather pedestrian and slow.

6. West Virginia
Why? Just look at what happened in the NCAAs. Coach Bob Huggins did a masterful job of blending the John Beilein offensive strategies of back cuts and 3s with his much more demanding defense and rebounding. The big question, of course, is whether or not junior Joe Alexander takes the bait and leaves for the NBA draft. Key contributors Alex Ruoff, Da'Sean Butler and backup point Joe Mazzulla, who was sensational in the upset of Duke, return.

Why not? If Alexander is gone, then the Mountaineers can't be in the Top 25 to start the season. Losing point Darris Nichols also doesn't help. Not having a backup like Mazzulla for Mazzulla won't help, either.

7. Connecticut
Why? If Hasheem Thabeet returns for his junior season, then the Huskies will essentially be intact at all their key positions. Sure, UConn floundered a bit in the final two weeks of the season, and point guard A.J. Price did tear his ACL in the NCAA tournament. But there is still enough potential, and more experience, from a squad that looked like one of the Big East's best at times.

Why not? Thabeet could still bolt, Price still has to fully recover from the ACL and the inconsistencies from this group of players can't be ignored.

8. Purdue
Why? The Boilermakers were the surprise of the Big Ten this past season. They had one of the most pleasant hidden gems in Robbie Hummel. Mackey Arena is rocking again, and Matt Painter has ascended rather quickly as a well-respected coach. The Boilermakers will be the preseason favorite to win the league.

Why not? The Boilermakers will be in the Top 25. But how will they handle being a favorite? They have flaws and how they'll handle a quicker, more athletic team can be one of them.

9. Memphis
Why? The Tigers are still going to be the most talented team in Conference USA, regardless of the NBA draft decisions of freshman guard Derrick Rose and junior guard Chris Douglas-Roberts. Recruiting isn't over, and the Tigers are in the hunt for some of the top players remaining like Tyreke Evans and Devin Ebanks. Senior Joey Dorsey is gone in the middle. But Robert Dozier and Shawn Taggart are expected back inside, and Antonio Anderson, Doneal Mack and Willie Kemp give the Tigers a solid starting point for perimeter help.

Why not? The Tigers will most certainly slip with the likely early entrants. Coming so close -- seconds away from winning a national title -- may be a wound takes a while to heal.

10. USC
Why? Even if O.J. Mayo declares as expected, then the Trojans would still return three of the most talented players at their respective positions in forwards Taj Gibson and Davon Jefferson and guard Daniel Hackett. The Trojans were littered with injuries on this season's squad, and they'll also bring in a big-time recruiting class led by Demar DeRozan.

Why not? Gibson and Jefferson told the staff that they weren't going to declare for the draft. But if they change their minds, then it changes the perception of this team. And, it's going to be hard to duplicate what Mayo accomplished in his freshman season.

11. Gonzaga
Why? The Bulldogs return the core of their team and it will be led by four-year players: point guard Jeremy Pargo and center Josh Heytvelt. Matt Bouldin will be a junior, and Austin Daye and Steven Gray, two of the top shooters on this team, will be sophomores. There is enough experienced offensive talent to make the Zags another formidable player in the Top 25.

Why not? This particular Zags group still hasn't gotten over the hump against high-profile teams out of the WCC. Sure, the Zags did beat Connecticut in Boston, but the Zags need to prove yet again that they can take out the top teams on the slate to feel good about advancing in the NCAAs.

12. Miami (Fla.)
Why? The Hurricanes were one of the most improved teams in the country this season, going from being picked 12th in the ACC preseason poll to finishing in the top five in the league. The most significant departures are seniors Raymond Hicks and Anthony King. But the frontcourt isn't barren. The Canes return big-time scorers in Jack McClinton, James Dews and the inside presence of Dwayne Collins.

Why not? Miami still has a stigma that the Canes haven't been able to do this multiple times. They have to prove that they weren't just a one-hit wonder.

13. Duke
Why? Duke returns the core of this team with Gerald Henderson, Kyle Singler, Greg Paulus and Jon Scheyer all fully capable of scoring in bunches. There is reason to believe that with a favorable schedule, the Blue Devils can win a boatload of games yet again.

Why not? Losing senior DeMarcus Nelson can't be understated. Nelson had a solid senior season for the Blue Devils and his leadership will be a void. Also, the vacuum inside still isn't totally solved, and the Blue Devils may still be a team that can only go so far.

14. Davidson
Why? Two words: Stephen Curry. Curry announced he's coming back. And as a result, the Wildcats are automatically the favorite in the Southern Conference and a legitimate team to advance in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats also return their inside presence in Andrew Lovedale, to give the Wildcats the inside-out combo.

Why not? Losing senior Jason Richards at the point could change how Curry is able to get open. Richards was one of the more underrated point guards throughout the course of the season. Seeing him shine on the NCAA stage proved how valuable he was to this team.

15. Arizona State
Why?? Well, first off, the Sun Devils should have been in the NCAA tournament this season if I had my way. They were a quality team and return the significant pieces, notably freshman James Harden. Herb Sendek has done an outstanding job blending his system with an athletic bunch that made the Sun Devils one of the tougher outs in the Pac-10.

Why not? ASU had its struggles to score at times last season. The Sun Devils had a nemesis in UCLA, a team that they couldn't come close to in two regular-season games. Not getting to the NCAAs should be a motivator but it also could indicate a problem of not being able to climb over the hurdle of being an elite team.

16. Oklahoma
Why? The Griffins. Blake and Taylor Griffin give coach Jeff Capel a solid interior that will be extremely difficult for schools in the Big 12 to defend. The backcourt had its moments this season, notably Tony Crocker, who hit a big shot to beat Baylor. The Sooners were a developing story under Capel and made a late run to ensure an NCAA bid. He has this team believing in itself and in him.

Why not? Not having senior Longar Longar means the Sooners don't have that experienced power player next to the Griffins to ease any attention. The Sooners seemed to be just one productive player off at times last season. We'll see if that matters much next season.

17. UCLA
Why? Well, technically, the Bruins could still return the core of a great team with Kevin Love, Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook, Josh Shipp, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya all with eligibility remaining. But, that's not going to happen with Love and Collison reportedly going to declare, according to the Los Angeles Times. No matter what happens, UCLA is still UCLA under Ben Howland and that has translated into three straight Final Fours. Getting a top recruiting class led by Jrue Holiday and Drew Gordon makes the Bruins a major factor, as well.

Why not? Love and Collison will be gone. Westbrook could test. Mbah a Moute and Aboya are juniors, but according to UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero will graduate in the spring making their return still an unknown.

18. Syracuse
Why? When healthy, the Orange can be an exciting lot with Jonny Flynn making the transition game look rather easy. Syracuse gets back its two top perimeter threats from knee injuries in Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins. The enigmatic Paul Harris is back, and he is still an untapped resource.

Why not? Still want to take a wait-and-see approach on how the injured-players heal and whether or not the Orange can make stops when it matters most -- something that cost them even at home. Donte Greene declared for the NBA draft on Wednesday afternoon.

19. Georgetown
Why? John Thompson III has kept the Hoyas winning, regardless of personnel losses (like Jeff Green) that might have otherwise dropped them out of the Top 25. Georgetown still has a core group of players that can run the Hoyas' system, like Jessie Sapp, DaJaun Summers, Chris Wright, Austin Freeman and Jeremiah Rivers around one of the top big man recruits in the country in Greg Monroe.

Why not? Losing Roy Hibbert and adding Monroe won't be a crusher. Not having Patrick Ewing Jr. takes away an athletic finisher. But, perhaps, the biggest loss will be not having point guard Jonathan Wallace. There are not many glue-guy point guards in the country that had as much to do with his team winning a conference championship like Wallace.

20. Tennessee
Why? The Vols should be back in the thick of the SEC East title race. Gone are seniors JaJuan Smith, Chris Lofton and Jordan Howell. But the Vols still return Tyler Smith, Ramar Smith, Duke Crews, J.P. Prince, Brian Williams and Wayne Chism, which can allow the Vols to play at a high level.

Why not? This team still may be searching for a point guard, and there did appear to be a burnout factor at the end of the season. So, it's hard to project how Tennessee will handle the expectation of being good again.

21. Louisville
Why? The Cardinals did lose Earl Clark and Derrick Caracter to the draft. Senior David Padgett is also gone, but they return the backcourt of Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith and an impact recruiting class headlined by Samardo Samuels. Also, in classic Rick Pitino form, this past squad got better as the season progressed. Expect the same thing next season while the Cards try to mesh in a few more high-profile players.

Why not? The Cards will take a hit up front in experience. That won't knock them too far down, but its enough to question whether or not the Cards can be a Big East title contender.

22. Michigan State
Why? Tom Izzo. Sometimes that's a good enough reason. He hasn't let this program wilt. The Spartans will lose Drew Neitzel. He has been the core of this program for four years. But the return of Raymar Morgan as a scoring inside and out and the potential that Kalin Lucas can shine is enough to keep MSU right in the hunt.

Why not? How this team adjusts to not relying on Neitzel's shot to bail it out at times will be a factor. The Spartans will need to discover a new leader who can deliver when it matters most.

23. Florida
Why? Because it's hard to believe that Billy Donovan won't have the Gators ready to handle the rigors of the SEC after this past season's flameout. The talent is in place, and the NIT showed the Gators were capable. Nick Calathes is still one of the more talented freshmen. Let's assume that Marreese Speights does come back despite declaring for the draft on Tuesday, then the Gators will have the pieces in place to still be formidable in the SEC.

Why not? The Gators are bringing in another stable of recruits that will challenge the current crop. Potentially not having Speights could be an issue. So, too, could the blending of these two classes if Donovan loses patience with the rising sophomores.

24. Wisconsin
Why? Because there's no reason to doubt anything Bo Ryan does during the regular season. All he does with Wisconsin is win games and conference titles. You can nitpick about how far he takes the Badgers in the NCAAs if you must, but the Badgers are consistently winning. The core of this team will still churn out wins. It would be a mistake to dump this squad from the Top 25.

Why not? Losing Brian Butch and Michael Flowers is a hit. But the Badgers find a way to replace the moving parts of Ryan's system.

25. Mississippi State
Why? MSU had a legit shot to knock off Memphis in the second round. The Bulldogs, which usually do get hit by early-entry departures, still have two of the more talented players returning in guard Jamont Gordon and shot-blocker Jarvis Varnado.

Why not? The Bulldogs do lose a workhorse inside in senior Charles Rhodes. Having Ben Hansbrough transfer doesn't help, either. And, for whatever reason, MSU can sometimes fluctuate early in the season from a bewildering team into one that is suddenly a contender. It happened again this season.

Teams that were also considered for this list were: Clemson, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest in the ACC; Villanova and Providence in the Big East; Ohio State in the Big Ten; Xavier and UMass in the the Atlantic 10; Arizona, Washington and Cal in the Pac-10; Baylor, Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M in the Big 12; Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Kentucky and Georgia in the SEC; Saint Mary's and San Diego in the WCC.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

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