The return of college hoops

1) Duke – With returning seniors J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams, the Blue Devils might have the scariest inside-outside duo in college basketball.

The sharp-shooting Redick, Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Player of the Year for 2004, led the conference in scoring (21.8 ppg) and minutes played (37.3). Last year, Redick made a big leap forward by improving his defense and developing an ability to create his own shot in order to become more than just a deep threat.

Besides averaging a double-double, the 6’9″ Williams was an intimidating force in the paint, leading the league with 122 blocked shots. Williams should get some help down low as Duke picked up three McDonald’s All-Americans, including Josh McRoberts, the top-rated recruit in the country. The 6’10” forward, who has been likened to a slightly less athletic Chris Webber, figures to make an immediate impact for the Dukies.

With Daniel Ewing leaving early for the NBA, senior guard Sean Dockery will help defensively and versatile wingman DeMarcus Nelson should have a significant role in the offense. Opposing defenders might as well paint themselves blue this year and join the Cameron Crazies because Mike Krzyzewski’s squad looks poised to crown him a fourth national title.

2) Texas – After a devastating first-round loss in last year’s NCAA Tournament, expect the Longhorns to come back this year with a vengeance. Even with top recruit C.J. Miles leaving for the NBA draft, the Longhorns have clearly gotten stronger since last year.

Last year, after losing leading scorer and rebounder P.J. Tucker because of academic reasons and center LaMarcus Aldridge to a hip injury, the Longhorns limped into the tourney.

Freshman guard Daniel Gibson was forced to pick up the slack and became the first freshman to lead Texas in scoring with 14.2 ppg. He was helped out by the improved play of junior Brad Buckman who came on strong last year with 12.5 ppg and 8.3 rpg.

With all four healthy and playing together, Texas should develop into a top contender and make a charge at a national title.

3) Connecticut – Any time you lose your leading scorer and rebounder in Charlie Villanueva and your top recruit in Andrew Bynum, it definitely hurts, but the Huskies still have the foundation for another excellent season.

With power forward Josh Boone, athletic wingman Rudy Gay and improved center Hilton Armstrong expected to start, and the underrated Denham Brown coming off the bench, the Huskies frontcourt may be one of the best in the nation.

The 6’9″ Gay is a talented forward that will contend for Big East Player of the Year honors, while Boone should step in nicely for Villanueva.

Marcus Williams should be solid at point guard as he improved his long-range shooting and assist-to-turnover ratio last season. If Rashad Anderson can regain the shooting form he showed as a sophomore, the Huskies will have one of the best starting five in the country.

4) Villanova- The Wildcats are looking to erase the painful memory of the traveling call against now senior guard Allen Ray that secured their 67-66 loss to eventual champ North Carolina in last year’s tourney.

Ray is among a group of six returning seniors, which includes Curtis Sumpter, who missed the Carolina game with a knee injury after a breakout season. Sumpter, Ray, and senior guard Randy Foye, who combined to average over 45 ppg last season, will carry the scoring load.

Despite having one of the best backcourts in the country, questions remain about the health and durability of the frontcourt. With Sumpter and 6’10” senior Jason Fraser both coming off knee surgeries, it should be interesting to see how the Cats fare underneath.

5) Michigan State – Tom Izzo’s squad has the talent to make its fifth trip to the Final Four in the last eight years. Led by senior Maurice Ager and junior Shannon Brown, the Spartans boast a high-scoring backcourt with potentially deadly shooting.

Ager, a second-team All-Big Ten selection led his team in scoring with 14.1 ppg and drained 40 percent from downtown. Brown adds versatility with a good medium-range game, but he must learn to curb his erratic shot and take higher percentage shots.

Drew Neitzel is a capable point guard who should improve his scoring as a second-year starter. With the improved play of senior center Paul Davis and the signing of athletic big man Marquise Gray, the Spartans should have a productive frontcourt to complement their talented backcourt.

-Tim Fox, Sports Assistant

1) Connecticut – The Huskies lost last year’s leading scorer Charlie Villanueva to the NBA draft this off-season. No sweat for Jim Calhoun, though.

Connecticut will still return two NBA-caliber post players, Rudy Gay and Josh Boone. Just how dominant could the Connecticut frontcourt be this year? Gay, the preseason favorite to be national Player of the Year, may not even be the Huskies’ most dangerous player in the paint. The 6’10” Boone was the Huskies’ leading rebounder (8.4 rpg) last year and one of the nation’s most feared defenders.

While the versatile 6’9″ Gay will be exploiting opponents’ match-up problems from the inside and out, Boone’s sturdy 237-pound frame and soft touch around the rim will become lethal. The one knock scouts put on Boone – that he needs to work on his offensive game – seems a bit unfair since the junior returns as the leading scorer (12.4 ppg) amongst the holdovers from last year’s squad.

Connecticut is not all muscle, though. The Huskies got a big boost on Oct. 28, when the university ruled not to suspend point guard Marcus Williams for the entire basketball season for stealing laptops on campus. Williams, a play-making machine, will give the Huskies a third NBA-bound player on the court when he is allowed to rejoin the team on Jan. 1. Seniors Rashad Anderson and Denham Brown, 11.9 and 10.4 ppg last year respectively, should be able to keep the backcourt on track, but in the mean time, freshman Rob Garrison will run the point.

Don’t be fooled if the Huskies have some slip-ups before Williams’ return. In the second half of the season, Connecticut will have the nation’s most well-balanced and experienced starting five – one with four returning starters and double-digit scorers that is certainly capable of winning Calhoun his third national title in eight years.

2) Duke – There’s good reason so many polls have anointed Duke the nation’s No. 1 team. The Blue Devils are returning two preseason All-Americans, J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams. There’s no doubt Redick (21.9 ppg last season) and Williams (15.5 ppg and 11.2 rpg last year) will be the best duo in the country, but their supporting cast is suspect.

Head coach Mike Krzyzewski will rely on freshmen – point guard Greg Paulus and forward Josh McRoberts – to fill the holes left by Daniel Ewing and Shavlik Randolph. Though Paulus and McRoberts are considered two of the game’s brightest young talents, a question mark always remains for freshmen. If Paulus falters at point, Coach K will have to turn to Sean Dockery, who has been inconsistent in his four years at Duke.

While the Blue Devils will feast on a weaker-than-usual Atlantic Coast Conference, they could also be hurt by the lack of a traditional scoring threat from the wing. The offense pales in comparison to vintage Duke squads and if Redick has an off shooting night, the Blue Devils could be beatable.

3) Gonzaga – The Zags will return the best point guard-scoring guard-center trio in the country. Preseason All-American Adam Morrison (19.0 ppg last year), who likens himself to Larry Bird, is arguably the nation’s most versatile player not named Rudy Gay. The ferocious inside play of 6’9″, 265-pound J.P. Batista could make the Zags quickly forget the departure of Ronny Turiaf, last year’s West Coast Conference Player of the Year. Silky-smooth point guard Derek Raivio returns, but will need to up his assist total (4.8 apg) to get the rest of the Zags in an offensive rhythm.

4) Villanova – The off-season injury to center Curtis Sumpter’s knee (out until at least Jan. 1) dropped the Wildcats out of the No. 1 position. Before the injury, Villanova was set to return last year’s entire squad that gave last year’s champion Tar Heels a one-point scare earlier in the NCAA Tournament. Now without Sumpter drawing defenders into the paint, the open lanes and gaps that guards Allen Ray and Randy Foye got so accustomed to last year won’t be so frequent.

5) Texas – Sure, the Longhorns’ frontcourt of LaMarcus Aldridge, Brad Buckman and P.J. Tucker could rival that of Connecticut. The difference, though, is that while point guard Daniel Gibson is a legitimate scoring threat as a slasher, the Longhorns have no true ball distributor or outside shooting threat around the perimeter.

Also, unlike the four veteran teams ranked about them, the Longhorns’ key players have never played a full season together. While the national championship potential is certainly there, they have a lot to prove before they should move any further up the polls.

-Matt Conklin, Sports Editor