Teams to Watch in College Hoops
by Trevor Whenham - 11/10/2006
With college basketball season just around the corner, it's time to take a look at the teams that could make some noise in the big dance this year. There are the obvious candidates - perennial powers like Duke and North Carolina, refreshed programs like UCLA and Arizona and new powers like defending champs Florida. You are no hero if you predict that one of those teams is going to win it all, though. You need to find a team or two that you can back that will surprise your friends now, and really impress them when they make a run in March. Imagine if you had picked George Mason last November, for example.
With the pursuit of the heroic insight in mind, then, here is a look at five teams from outside of the brightest limelight that could make some noise when March rolls around. I'm not necessarily looking for the national champion, but teams that will overachieve in general:
Tennessee - The Volunteers barely cracked the preseason top 25, earning the bottom position, but I'm not sure that they're getting enough credit. Bruce Pearl, a very good coach, is in his second year, so he will have had more time to get comfortable with the SEC and to get his system in place. More importantly, he welcomes his first full recruiting class to the team. For someone who isn't used to recruiting from the top level of recruits, Pearl has taken to it. Several promising players are joining the squad, and they will be given a chance to contribute.
Returning to the team is junior guard Chris Lofton, already one of the better three-point shooters in the league and a player ready to break through and become a household name. He's the key to a deep, but not flashy, backcourt that is the backbone of a very tough, physical team. Tennessee is the fifth ranked team in the SEC now, but I strongly suspect that they could be rated much higher by the end of the year. They were a No. 2 seed last year, and they could do that again.
Xavier - The Musketeers come into the season with a backcourt that opponents should fear. Stanley Burrell was impressive as a sophomore and he'll only get better with maturity. He's joined by Drew Lavender, a transfer from Oklahoma who is the first McDonald's All American ever to play at Xavier. He was honorable mention All-Big 12 as a freshman and averaged 10 points as a sophomore, so he should make an immediate impact.
The frontcourt is just as good. Justin Cage guards as well as anyone, and Justin Doellman is a solid rebounder that can score when he has to. The bench might not be of a top caliber, but the starting troops are more than adequate. Xavier is the class of the A-10.
Wichita State - Here's a nice longshot choice for you. The Shockers were, well, shocking last year, making it to the Sweet Sixteen before losing to George Mason. The team was impressive, and they return four starters this year to try to do it again. The one starter who isn't back, though, leaves a big hole to fill. Paul Miller was the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year last year, and he was a beast in the tourney. His replacement is far from a slacker, though. Kyle Wilson averaged more than 11 points as a backup last year, and he shot 43 percent from three point range.
Wilson isn't the only member of the team that is deadly from beyond the arc. Their ability from outside keeps teams off balance and opens up space inside for them. Both Creighton and Southern Illinois look to be strong in the conference, but Wichita State stands a good chance of defending their league title.
Winthrop - Pencil the Eagles in as my first round upset team. They almost got it done last year against Tennessee, but fell two points short. Though Winthrop hasn't won in the first round, they have had an impressive decade. They have won the Big South conference six of the last eight years and made the tournament each time. Last year was their best showing, and they will be a better team this year. They return four starters and their top three players off the bench. The best is Torrell Martin, the conference tournament MVP two years in a row and a practical shoo-in for conference MVP this season. Every year we have to have a few complete Cinderella's, and Winthrop could wear the slipper for a while.
Washington - The highest ranked team on this list at 17, Washington has a serious hole to fill after losing Brandon Roy to the pros. Despite that, this team has every chance to be among the elite in the Pac-10 again this year. Coach Lorenzo Romar has earned his money as a recruiting stud the last couple of years. This year's freshman class is fantastic. Spencer Hawes is a 7-footer that could seriously contend for conference player of the year, never mind freshman of the year. He's a super-freak. He'll join sophomores Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon at the core of a team that will be incredibly young, but as talented as any team in the conference. If they learn quickly this team could climb the rankings.