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Vermont's Taylor Coopenrath
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Vermont's Taylor Coopenrath
Damian Strohmeyer/SI

It's preseason, but the court of appeal is officially in session. We've already rolled out the Glue Guys, the 16 unsung players most worthy of your admiration. Now we introduce SIOC's 10 easiest teams to root for in the coming season, programs defined by high graduation rates; colorful, offbeat personalities; a commitment to excellence in both men's and women's hoops; and even Bob Knight. In the interest of equal time, we also give you the 10 most difficult programs to root for, the schools whose past bad acts make them the obvious top picks in any fantasy draft of Programs You'd Most Love to See Get Schooled by a 16 Seed in the First Round of the NCAAs.

1. VERMONT
Taylor Coppenrath is a 6'9" power forward who has won two campus intramural championships (in indoor soccer and flag football) in addition to a coed field hockey tournament title, teaches high school algebra, dropped 38 points on UCLA in a one-point loss at Pauley Pavilion last November and averaged 24.1 points for a team that has made two consecutive forays into the Big Dance. Colorful coach Tom Brennan cohosts a morning-drive radio show in Burlington that gets higher local ratings than Howard Stern or Don Imus. No wonder the Catamounts have a raucous following headlined by Phish and Ben & Jerry (who concocted the Slam Chunk Sundae last season as a salute to the home team). The clincher: All five starters have at least a 3.4 GPA. -- John Walters

2. WAKE FOREST
Forget Duke. Forget North Carolina. Forget N.C. State. In fact, forget the Triangle altogether and head down I-40 to the Triad area of North Carolina, where Wake Forest quietly churns out Top 25 teams with character (as opposed to Top 25 teams with shady characters) year after year. The program's cool vibe was set by Tim Duncan, a former swimmer who became the best player in college basketball and stayed in school for four years (1993-97). Now comes college hoops' Next Big Thing: ultrapoised, unassuming sophomore guard Chris Paul, a.k.a. the Mayor. Five days after his grandfather was murdered at age 61, during Paul's senior year of high school, Paul scored 61 points as a tribute. -- Maggie Haskins

3. XAVIER
A Cincinnati school has the No. 2 NCAA graduation rate for student-athletes. Impossible? For the Bearcats, yes, but not for the Musketeers. Xavier is everything Cincy (page 22) is not. Xavier's 2004 run to the Elite Eight is proof the team delivers in the postseason. NBA clubs have noticed the skills and work ethic of X-Musketeers, drafting four in the past two years. Cincy in that time? None. Xavier's big-man lineage includes Brian Grant, Tyrone Hill, Derek Strong, Aaron Williams and David West. Next up? Sophomore Justin Doellman. Perhaps the biggest compliment comes from the higher-profile colleges that have pillaged the Muskies' coaching staff (Pete Gillen to Providence in 1994, Skip Prosser to Wake Forest in 2001 and Thad Matta to Ohio State this summer). -- M.H.

4. TEMPLE
In a moment of frustration following a tough 1994 loss to UMass, Owls coach John Chaney threatened to open a 10-gallon drum of whupass on John Calipari, then the Minutemen coach. That moment alone forever endears the wizened Chaney to us. (Why? See: Least Rootable No. 2.) Other reasons we love Temple: Chaney's matchup zone defense, which confounds more talented teams and allows the scrappy, often undersized Owls to level the playing field; Chaney's Father Flanagan approach to recruiting, in which he takes academically challenged inner-city kids, teaches them discipline (5:30 a.m. practice) and gives them a chance at an education; and Chaney's brutal honesty -- the man is 100% real, quick to tell you when his team stinks, when he does a poor job and when he wants to open a drum of whupass on you. -- Arash Markazi

5. COPPIN STATE
Deering High = Hang Time. Coppin State = Fang Time. Coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell came by that moniker in junior high after a pal likened his gravelly voice to a TV character named White Fang. "The 'White' was dropped for obvious reasons," says Fang, who in 1997 led the 15th-seeded Eagles to a Big Dance upset of No. 2 South Carolina, one of only four 15-versus-2 upsets in tournament history. This season the Eagles will face five schools before Christmas who have advanced to the Final Four in the past decade (Kentucky, Texas, Oklahoma, Utah and Marquette). All on the road. -- J.W.

6. SAINT JOSEPH'S
Things that will never die: rock and roll, the tomahawk chop, Heather Locklear's television career and, of course, that most unflappable flapper, the St. Joe's Hawk. Is there a better rallying cry in all of college hoops than "The Hawk will never die"? You gotta love a mascot whose wings flap at the same rate as Dick Vitale's gums, which is to say ceaselessly. You also gotta love a Jesuit school in Philadelphia that can earn a No. 1 seed in the tourney, produce the national player of the year (Jameer Nelson) and then have the cojones to tell Billy Packer to stick it. Peter Boyle look-alike Phil Martelli hosts the nation's best coach's show, and the Hawks play a smattering of home games at the Palestra, the Fenway Park of college hoops. The Hawks get by on much more than a wing and a prayer. -- J.W.

7. AIR FORCE
The new Princeton. Last winter the Princeton-style offense implemented four years earlier by then coach Joe Scott -- who left last April to take over the Tigers -- finally produced results: Air Force went from worst to first in the Mountain West Conference and made the Big Dance for the first time in 42 years. In the aesthetically pleasing system, every player has to be a passer, including honorable mention All-America center Nick Welch, who can zip bounce passes to cutters or step out for feathery threes. -- Matthew Waxman

8. CONNECTICUT
We know. This is akin to rooting for multinational corporations, for the preppy frat, for pre-Apprentice Donald Trump. All that power, all that wealth, all that goddam good luck. You call it front-running, we call it a Horatio Alger story: two model programs, each built from nothing by a single man. (Have you been to Storrs, so named, Lou Holtz once quipped, because the town now has two?) Men's coach Jim Calhoun inherited a program that had one winning season in the Big East; 18 years later it has eight conference titles and two national championships. Women's coach Geno Auriemma took over an 11-year-old women's program with one winning season; 19 years later it has 11 straight Big East championships and five national titles. The players (Bird, Hamilton, Okafor, Taurasi) are impossible to hate no matter how much they beat your brains in on the court. -- A.M.

9. ILLINOIS
Start with one of the best backcourts in the country, led by the underrated Deron Williams and the speedy Dee Brown. Add a home court, featuring the rowdy Orange Krush student section, that terrifies opponents and has helped the Illini to a 63-3 record at home over the last five years -- best in the nation. "It's kind of dark, and there's too much orange," Michigan State guard Chris Hill says. Finally, mix in an outspoken coach, Bruce Weber, who's not afraid to take on the game's sacred cows. We introduce into evidence Weber's priceless off-season quote that Dick Vitale could "take his Dookies and shove it." -- M.H.

10. TEXAS TECH
We assumed that Bob Knight's Texas Tech tenure would be brief after he went volcanic -- and balsamic -- last February on the school chancellor at a salad bar. Instead the General begins his fourth season in West Texas with a healthy appetite for leading the Red Raiders to a fourth straight postseason appearance. This basketball Caesar runs a scandal-free program, has no problem sharing shelf space with the national-power women's team and always gets the most out of his sprouts. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Knight is the most intriguing coach in sports. Bar none. -- J.W.

ALSO: LEAST ROOTABLE

Issue date: November 11, 2004

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