Gators good, but don't count out Tar Heels

NEW YORK -- Florida's basketball team received its national championship rings before nearly 90,000 screaming fans at Florida Field before the Gators' September football game against Central Florida. Most took them out of the case and wore them f...

NEW YORK -- Florida's basketball team received its national championship rings before nearly 90,000 screaming fans at Florida Field before the Gators' September football game against Central Florida. Most took them out of the case and wore them for a day before putting them away.

Billy Donovan refuses to wear his. The Gators' coach says he does not want to get bogged down in past achievements as his team attempts to become the first since the 1991-92 Duke squad to win consecutive NCAA titles. Donovan knows history is not on his side.

Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, there have been two national champions -- Arkansas and Arizona -- that returned their entire starting lineup. The Razorbacks reached the finals in 1995, losing to UCLA, 89-78, in Seattle. Arizona won 26 of its first 27 games in 1998, but lost to Utah, 76-51, in the NCAA West Regional final.

But Donovan also knows the Gators -- who can go two deep at every position except the point, where Taurean Green is indispensable -- have three potential NBA first-round picks in the frontcourt: Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Al Horford; and have the most cohesive starting five in the country. It's a long season, but the Gators look like a good enough team to buck history.

As soon as Noah, Brewer and Horford made good on their promise to return for their junior year instead of declaring for the NBA draft, the Gators became preseason favorites. They return their entire starting five from the team that won the national championship last season, and have two exciting shot blockers in Noah and Horford.


Roy Williams really knows how to reload. The Tar Heels, just a year after losing most of their starting five from their 2005 national championship team, already have enough talent to challenge Florida. Sophomore center Tyler Hansbrough, a superior 6-9 low-post finisher, is the best player in the ACC. But a lot will depend on how quickly their three prospects -- 6-9 forward Brandan Wright and guards Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington -- perform.

Bill Self's Jayhawks, who won the Big 12 tournament, could win the NCAA championship if they can get past the first round, something they did not do the past two years, losing to Bucknell and Bradley. That won't happen this time. Forward Julian Wright and guards Brandon Rush and Mario Chalmers, all sophomores, are three of the top seven returning players in the conference. Self's recruiting has kicked into high gear, bringing in the program's next great power player in 6-9 Darrell Arthur.

Greg Oden, the Buckeyes' 7-foot freshman center, has been on the radar since he was a sophomore in high school, long enough to know he would have been the first pick in the draft last June if the NBA hadn't put in the 20-and-under rule. Oden has a severe wrist injury and won't be back until the start of Big Ten play. But he and the rest of Thad Matta's "Thad Five" recruiting class should make the Buckeyes the team to beat in the conference.

Glen "Big Baby" Davis, the slimmed down 6-9, 289-pound junior center who led the SEC in scoring, rebounding and was chosen conference Player of the Year last season, will be an awesome force inside again for the Tigers, who return a core group from the team that made the school's first Final Four appearance in 20 years. LSU could be back if 6-10 sophomore Magnum Rolle has a breakout season and guard Tack Minor, who missed last year with a knee injury; or Terry Martin, a Texas Tech transfer who will be eligible second semester, can effectively play the point.

The Panthers have always had the most physical frontcourt in the Big East and having senior center Aaron Gray, who passed on the NBA, will give Jamie Dixon's team a huge presence in the low post. Pitt has the best depth in the conference, which should give the Panthers a slight edge over Georgetown. Pitt will miss Carl Krauser's toughness and competitiveness, but Levance Fields should fill the void at that crucial position.

The Wildcats are the best in the West. Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson has four starters back from last season's NCAA second-round team that should win the Pac-10. Sophomore forward Marcus Williams and 6-8 freshman recruit Chase Budinger are so good at the wings that senior Mustafa Shakur, a four-year starter at the point, won't need to score to be effective.

The Hoyas' frontcourt talent is their greatest strength. Junior forward Jeff Green could be the best player in the Big East and 7-2 center Roy Hibbert emerged as an impact player during the Hoyas' Sweet 16 run last season. John Thompson III's team plays an effective Princeton style, but needs to find a dependable perimeter shooter if it wants to win the Big East.

Could the SEC duplicate the Big East in 1985 and put three teams in the Final Four? The Tide, which reached the Sweet 16 last season, has the necessary star power to roll into Atlanta, starting with point guard Ronald Steele, who should be able to make 6-10 senior center Jermareo Davidson and 6-8 sophomore Richard Hendrix scoring forces inside.


Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils usually are a little higher, but center Shelden Williams and guard J.J. Redick -- a pair of consensus All-Americans who were a devastating inside-outside combination -- are no longer wearing Duke uniforms. Krzyzewski has depth and versatility and will rebuild around 6-10 sophomore Josh McRoberts, who is ready to be a star, and a backcourt of Greg Paulus and DeMarcus Nelson, and 6-4 freshman prodigy Gerald Henderson. Paulus, an ACC All-Rookie choice last season, suffered a broken bone in his foot during preseason that should limit him until next month.

Badgers coach Bo Ryan never seems to get the credit he deserves for the great job he does in Cheesehead country. But he has enough solid big men and two potential All-Big Ten players in 6-6 senior Alando Tucker and senior point guard Kammron Taylor, who have flourished in Ryan's unorthodox halfcourt sets, to steal the Big Ten title from favored Ohio State. Tucker, a slasher, led the league in scoring last season, despite playing with a broken nose for the last 27 games. Taylor must score from the perimeter or the Badgers could suffer prolonged offensive droughts.

The Bruins might have changed places with Arizona as the Pac-10 favorite if point guard Jordan Farmar hadn't left for the NBA following his sophomore year. As it is, Ben Howland's team still has enough firepower with high scoring, defensive lockdown guard Arron Afflalo, physical 6-8 sophomore Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, redshirt sophomore wing Josh Shipp and 6-8 freshman James Keefe. They should challenge the Wildcats for the league crown if point guard Darren Collison becomes a more proficient scorer.

The Aggies will no longer catch folks by surprise after upsetting Syracuse and nearly beating LSU to advance to the Sweet 16 last season. Physical 6-9 junior Joseph Jones is the most effective low-post player in the Big 12, and senior guard Acie Law is the leading scorer on a team that returns all five starters. The Aggies should lock up teams defensively in 50-point games.

Longhorns coach Rick Barnes brought prized freshman Kevin Durant to Big 12 media day. He may as well get him as much publicity as possible before he leaves for the NBA next spring. Durant is one of seven freshmen who has enough talent to keep Texas near the top of the conference.

John Calipari should continue to dominate Conference USA. Calipari has put together an assembly line of young stars such as 6-9 sophomore Robert Dozier, 6-6 sophomore guard Antonio Anderson and 6-6 sophomore forward Chris Douglas-Roberts. The combination of junior Andre Allen and freshman Willie Kemp is better suited for the point guard spot than departed Darius Washington.

Life without Gerry McNamara, who was immortalized last year for his brilliant performances during the Orange's Big East tournament championship run, may be easier than anticipated for Jim Boeheim if prized freshman guard Paul Harris can fill that role, and the senior frontcourt of Demetris Nichols and Darryl Watkins can adjust to center stage after being role players the last three years.

Tom Crean's talented three-man backcourt of Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews overachieved as freshmen when the Golden Eagles won 20 games and got to the NCAA tournament during their first year in the Big East. Look for James to become heir apparent to Dwyane Wade, and the Eagles to flourish like Villanova did last year.


Versatile 6-7 senior forward Jared Dudley is All-ACC material, but physical All-American forward Craig Smith is gone from Al Skinner's Sweet 16 team. So 6-11 junior shot blocker Sean Williams, who can singlehandedly alter a game; and freewheeling, but sometimes inconsistent sophomore point guard Tyrese Rice will have to step up.

The Huskies will be young, but seven-foot freshman center Spencer Hawes should make a huge impact in the Pac-10, giving Lorenzo Romar an immediate go-to option. But Washington needs sophomore point Justin Dentmon to cut down on turnovers, and junior guard Ryan Appleby to keep teams honest with dependable perimeter shooting.

Rick Pitino got tired of getting pushed around so he signed 6-9, 275-pound Derrick Caracter, a New Jersey product who has dropped 30 pounds and could be a Charles Barkley clone if properly motivated. Caracter should help a healthy 6-8 Juan Palacios and 6-11 David Padgett inside.

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