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Peering into the crystal ball

Our experts forecast everything from Final Four to bust of the year

Posted: Wednesday November 10, 2004 11:55AM; Updated: Wednesday November 10, 2004 11:55AM
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SI.com's college hoops gang -- Kelli Anderson, Seth Davis, Stewart Mandel, Grant Wahl and Luke Winn -- offer their best picks for the upcoming season.

Final Four teams

  Sean May
Junior Sean May has averaged 14.1 points and 9.4 rebounds per game in his first two seasons.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Anderson: Kansas, Syracuse, Wake Forest, Oklahoma State.

Davis: North Carolina, Kansas, Syracuse, Michigan State.

Mandel: Kansas, Wake Forest, Illinois, Notre Dame.

Wahl: Oklahoma State, North Carolina, Wake Forest, Kansas.

Winn: Kansas, Syracuse, Maryland, Oklahoma State.

Champion

Anderson: Kansas. The Jayhawks made it to the Elite Eight last year despite three major hurdles: having to learn Bill Self's system; having to adjust to the loss of two lottery picks, Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison; and having precious little depth, especially at the point. This team knows the system, has great depth thanks to five talented freshmen who understand their supporting roles, and will be led by four seniors -- a rare commodity these days -- and a sophomore who is nearly NBA-ready. They have depth, experience and chemistry; all they need is a little luck.

Davis: North Carolina. The Tar Heels have the perfect blend of talent, depth and experience. It usually takes a full season to get used to a new coach, so better things should be coming in Roy Williams' second season. 

Mandel: Kansas. In this day and age, it's tough to beat the experience of four seniors (Aaron Miles, Wayne Simien, Keith Langford and Michael Lee) who have been to two Final Fours and an Elite Eight.

Wahl: Oklahoma State. For these reasons: 1) No player in the nation is more clutch than John Lucas. 2) Joey Graham's move to the wing will turn him into a star, making up for the loss of Tony Allen. 3) OSU has an experienced supporting cast (Ivan McFarlin, Daniel Bobik, Stevie Graham) that knows its role. 4) It's Eddie Sutton's time. 5) The Cowboys play the best team defense of my Final Four squads.

Winn: Kansas. The Jayhawks came a lot closer to reaching the Final Four than most people expected in Bill Self's first season, losing to the nation's second-best team (Georgia Tech) in the Elite Eight. Wayne Simien could carry them on his back, but he won't need to -- J.R. Giddens is ready to become a star in Lawrence.

Player of the Year

Anderson: Chris Paul, Wake Forest. Last year's ACC Freshman of the Year has the talent and leadership to guide the Deacons through the ACC minefield to their first Final Four since 1962.

Davis: Rashad McCants, UNC. Yes, his personality can be disruptive, but his skills are unmatched. Diss him all you want, but you'd take him on your team in an instant.

Mandel: Chris Thomas, Notre Dame. Thomas is this season's Jameer Nelson, a four-year point guard who's already shown All-America ability but in his last year will take his game to an even higher level.

Wahl: Chris Paul, Wake Forest. In a conference with terrific point guards (see Georgia Tech's Jarrett Jack and UNC's Raymond Felton), Paul will prove his worth night in, night out.

Winn: Lawrence Roberts, Mississippi State. The incumbent All-America will be on a mission to prove his draft-worth and make up for the Bulldogs' disappointing early exit from last year's NCAA tournament.

You may not have heard of him yet, but wait ...

Anderson: Michael Harris, Rice, senior, forward. The 6-foot-6 WAC Player of the Year candidate dominates the paint; he has led the Owls in scoring and rebounding in each of his three years.

Davis: Jordan Farmar, UCLA, freshman, point guard. He isn't just talented, he's got a real flair. Westwood hasn't seen a dynamic point guard like this since Baron Davis. 

Mandel: Daniel Gibson, Texas, freshman, guard. The word out of Austin is he could be every bit the floor leader T.J. Ford was -- only he can shoot, too.

Wahl: Curtis Withers, Charlotte, junior, forward. The bruising power forward was a stud on last summer's U.S. junior team, starting alongside the better-known Chris Paul and Sean May.

Winn: Courtney Sims, Michigan, sophomore, forward. Athletic shot-blocker could emerge as a pro prospect on a Michigan team that will contend for the Big Ten title.

Surprise team of the year

Anderson: Rice. Along with senior guards Jason McKrieth and Brock Gillespie, Harris could lead the Owls to their first NCAA berth since 1970.

Davis: N.C. State. I've never been crazy about the idea of using the Princeton offense in the ACC, but Herb Sendek has the ideal personnel to make it work this season, especially with Georgetown transfer Tony Bethel able to take some of the ballhandling pressure away from Julius Hodge.

Mandel: Michigan. Tommy Amaker's team, led by talented guards Daniel Horton and Dion Harris, is ready to explode. The Wolverines finished strong last year, winning the NIT, and could contend for the Big Ten title.

Wahl: Charlotte. The 49ers have everything it takes to be this year's surprise package from Conference-USA, taking over for UAB.

Winn: Michigan. The Big Ten is not just Illinois, Michigan State and Wisconsin this year. Tommy Amaker's squad will make some noise.

Bust of the year

Salim Stoudamire
Salim Stoudamire and Arizona hope to improve on their ugly first-round NCAA exit from last year.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
 

Anderson: Arizona. This is the second straight season the Wildcats have been picked to finish atop the Pac-10. But last year they finished third, behind Stanford and Washington, and then they lost in the first round of the NCAAs. This team may have greater depth and more experience, but does it have leadership, and will it get its defensive act together?

Davis: Arizona. The chemistry on this team has undermined its considerable talent the last couple of years. With basically the same cast returning, I see no reason why this year should be different.

Mandel: North Carolina. The Tar Heels have the talent, but they also have some glaring holes, and the attitude of their marquee player (Rashad McCants) is no small deterrent.

Wahl: Arizona. Let me get this straight: The same Wildcats that imploded in me-first feuds last season, culminating in an ugly first-round NCAA exit, are getting No. 1 votes in the preseason coaches poll? I just don't see it.

Winn: North Carolina. A bust, in the sense the Tar Heels won't live up to the mammoth expectations heaped upon them. UNC will win 25 games and contend for the ACC title, but it won't make the Final Four.

Coach on the hot seat

Anderson: Dan Monson, Minnesota. In five years in Minneapolis, the former Gonzaga coach is barely above .500 and has yet to make an NCAA appearance. This could be his grimmest year yet, with just one starter returning. The Gophers could go 0-fer in the Big Ten.

Davis: Pete Gillen, Virginia. Gillen's fate was not decided until the 11th hour last spring, and his team this season could actually be worse.

Mandel: Gillen. His teams have shown flashes but have yet to break into the upper echelon of the ACC, and it won't be any easier this year with five legitimate top 20 teams ahead of them.

Wahl: Gillen. One of college basketball's good guys may have earned one last chance just because of that (as well as a king's ransom of a buyout clause). Then again, the Cavs could have a good year ... and finish eighth  in the ACC.

Winn: Steve Alford, Iowa. He has only taken the Hawkeyes to the NCAAs once in his five-year tenure -- but has the talent to do it this season. If Iowa, with a strong, experienced backcourt returning, doesn't make an outside run at a bid, it could be the end for the former Indiana hero.

Coach on the rise

Anderson: Dave Leitao, DePaul. After inheriting a team that had won just nine games the previous season, Leitao has won 38 in the past two years and brought the Blue Demons back to respectability with fans and recruits.

Davis: Jeff Capel, VCU. He is the son of a coach and carries the imprimatur of having played for Coach K. Even though he is one of the youngest coaches in Division I, his name surfaced on the list of candidates at Auburn. 

Mandel: Mike Anderson, UAB. Nolan Richardson's former right-hand man raised more than a few eyebrows last March when his team knocked off Kentucky -- not just for winning but the electrifying style with which the Blazers played.

Wahl: Tom Brennan, Vermont. How can a 55-year-old grandfather be a coach on the rise? When you have an America East team that includes a national player of the year candidate (Taylor Coppenrath), anything is possible. Don't be surprised to see the Catamounts crack the Top 20 at some point.

Winn: Capel. He stayed put in Richmond -- and signed a new, six-year deal -- after leading the Rams to the NCAAs in just his second season. Another good year and the former Duke guard could jump ship for a higher-profile gig.

How will the five past NCAA champions fare?

  p1_syracuse_all.jpg
Can Jim Boeheim recreate some of the magic from his 2003 championship team?
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Anderson:

Connecticut (2004): The Huskies lost two great players in Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, but they have a number of stars in the making in the frontcourt, including sophomores Charlie Villanueva and Josh Boone. Elite Eight.

Syracuse (2003): Having delayed his entry into the NBA, Hakim Warrick is eager to prove the 2003 title wasn't just Carmelo Anthony. If one of the Orange sophomores becomes a major contributor, and Gerry McNamara doesn't have to do too much, Final Four.

Maryland (2002): Though still young, the stronger and wiser Terps will accomplish more than last year's ACC-tourney title team, but they are a year away from another NCAA title. Elite Eight.

Duke (2001): With Luol Deng and Shaun Livingston off to the NBA, the Blue Devils have just eight scholarship players, but they include the ACC's best returning shot-blocker, Shelden Williams, and two other double-figure scorers, J.J. Redick and Daniel Ewing. Sweet 16.

Michigan State (2000): Last year's Big Ten stress cases will regroup and prosper this year behind Alan Anderson and Paul Davis, who both have a lot to prove. Sweet 16.

Davis:

Connecticut: Elite Eight. The Huskies are almost as talented as they were last season, but they are much, much less experienced. Their point guard situation has also been unsettled by the unexpected illness of freshman A.J. Price. 

Syracuse: Final Four. You know the rest of the Big East is in trouble when the perennially dour Jim Boeheim is expressing rampant optimism. The Orange's matchup zone also makes it an especially tough out in the tourney. 

Maryland: Second round NCAAs. The Terps had a strong finish to the season last year, but they were still a poor offensive team for much of last season. I love point guard John Gilchrist, but I'm not sure where the offensive punch will come from. 

Duke: Second round NCAAs. The Blue Devils are down to eight scholarship players, one of which, freshman DeMarcus Nelson, has already suffered a thumb injury that will keep him out almost a month. Duke also has nowhere to turn if forwards Shelden Williams or Shavlik Randolph get into foul trouble. 

Michigan State: Final Four. Freshman point guard Drew Neitzel is not going to be Mateen Cleaves -- not this season, anyway -- but he's a decided improvement upon what the Spartans have used at the point the last two years. Beyond that, MSU has more athleticism and experience on the wings than any team in the country.

Mandel:  

Connecticut: The Huskies lost a lot, but don't be fooled, there's still plenty there. Charlie Villanueva will be among the best players in the country, Josh Boone among the elite post players and Rudy Gay among the top freshmen. Their thin backcourt is the only thing holding them back.

Syracuse: Two years after winning the national title with two freshmen, the Orange are one of the most experienced teams in the country. They'll go as far as Gerry McNamara's jumper takes them, most likely the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight.

John Gilchrist (No. 11)
Will John Gilchrist help lead the Terps to an NCAA-tournament rematch with Syracuse this year?
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
 

Maryland: The young Terps came of age during the ACC tournament and have as good a chance as anyone of winning the conference this year. I'm not yet ready to proclaim them Final Four-worthy, though.

Duke: Expectations have rarely been lower in Durham, which is just the way Mike Krzyzewski likes it. I bet he'll get more out of this team than most would deem possible and lead the Blue Devils to a great regular season, but their limitations will hurt them come March.

Michigan State: The Spartans basically have the same, underachieving core -- Chris Hill, Kelvin Torbert, Alan Anderson, Paul Davis -- they've had the past two seasons, and I see no reason why this year should be any different.

Wahl:

Connecticut: Better than most people think after the departures of Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon. I've got the Huskies at No. 5 with a scary rotation that includes Josh Boone, Rashad Anderson, Denham Brown, Charlie Villanueva, Ed Nelson and Rudy Gay.

Syracuse: The Orange have plenty of experience in Gerry McNamara and Hakim Warrick. If Billy Edelin can get himself on track, these guys will be neck-and-neck with UConn for the Big East title.

Maryland:  Using their ACC tourney title run as a launch pad, the John Gilchrist-led Terps earned a spot as the fifth ACC team in my preseason Top 10.

Duke: I don't buy the nonsense that the Devils will be also-rans without Luol Deng and Shaun Livingston. Even with the point guard spot a question mark (Sean Dockery or DeMarcus Nelson?), Duke still has J.J. Redick, Daniel Ewing and Shelden Williams -- to say nothing of a coach who seems to know what he's doing. I've got Duke at No. 7, right behind UConn (No. 5) and Illinois (No. 6).

Michigan State: It can't be as bad as last year, but I'm still left wondering whether these Spartans know how to win. A top 30 team, definitely, but not a top 10 squad. I have the Spartans behind Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin in the Big Ten.

Winn:

Connecticut: Elite Eight. With three future first-rounders -- Josh Boone, Rudy Gay and Charlie Villanueva -- logging major minutes, the Huskies have unlimited potential. But the lack of a proven point guard could cut their repeat run short. 

Syracuse: Final Four. The Orange may not win the Big East, but with a healthy Gerry McNamara, a real point guard in Josh Wright and game-changer in Hakim Warrick, this is a team you don't want to run into in the dance. 

Maryland: Final Four. A momentum-building ACC tournament title run last season will give John Gilchrist the confidence and momentum to take the Terps to St. Louis this year. 

Duke: Sweet 16. No Chris Duhon, no Luol Deng equals no veteran leader and no one whose superb athleticism can rescue them in the tournament.

Michigan State: Second-round NCAAs. This will be a much deeper squad than the one that fell victim to Nevada in the first round ... but it's unlikely any Big Ten team other than Illinois advances to the Elite Eight.

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