Midnight Madness is only a few days away, so pretty soon Dickie V will be shouting all over the airwaves and the Cameron Crazies will be plastered on ESPN. Everybody was raving about Duke this summer and it’s hard to argue with the talent they have coming back. But it remains to be seen if Redick and Williams can win the big one. Meanwhile, Longhorn fans will be aiming for a double-dip of national titles, showing Austin is not a football-only town, while the Spartans, the boys from Tucson and Pitino’s crew all have a valid shot at cutting down the nets in Indianapolis. Here is an early look at our preseason Sweet 16 Power Rankings (note: Not necessarily the teams predicted to make the Sweet 16, but the top 16 in the nation).
1) Duke- Coach K may be using that AMEX of his to buy another banner to hang in Cameron Indoor, and the Blue Devils have the best roster on paper. It’s time that JJ Redick and Shelden Williams step up and get this team to the title game or else both legacies in Durham will be forever tainted. Guys like Sean Dockery, Greg Paulus, DeMarcus Nelson and Josh McRoberts will try and make sure that doesn’t happen.
2) Texas- It was tempting to put the Longhorns in the No.1 slot, but they also lack the ability to make it to the big game. They have the bodies to bang and one of the top guards in the nation in Daniel Gibson. If they can survive the rugged Big 12 schedule (and an early December matchup with Duke at the Meadowlands), UT can book their reservations at the RCA Dome. Brad Buckman, LaMarcus Aldridge and PJ Tucker will be essential to a new Longhorn tradition of dominance on the hardwood.
3) Oklahoma- Taj Gray and Kevin Bookout return to a Sooner lineup that surprised many last season. A possible red river showdown looms in the Big 12 title game, with the winner getting the upper hand on a possible No.1 seed. Juco transfers Michael Neal & Chris Walker look to give OU even more depth and firepower to compete with Texas.
4) Michigan State- The Spartans return a solid trio in Shannon Brown, Paul Davis and Drew Neitzel, and are back to show last year’s Final Four run wasn’t a fluke. They have one of the best coaches in the game with Tom Izzo and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them back in the national semifinals next April.
5) Louisville- Taquan Dean takes over as head Cardinal with Francisco Garcia’s departure to the NBA. If transfer David Padgett from Kansas and Juan Palacios can heal quickly, Louisville will make a huge statement upon entering the Big East.
6) Arizona- Mustafa Shakur, Hassan Adams and Chris Rodgers key Lute Olsen’s Wildcat squad this year, with Adams brining perhaps the most athletic game in the country. On a year when Stanford, Washington and UCLA could all be down, the Wildcats should take another Pac-10 title.
7) Villanova- Maybe the deepest team outside of Tobacco Road, the Wildcats of Villanova are out to prove that last year’s run wasn’t an aberration. Allen Ray, Kyle Lowry and Randy Foye will be the backbone of Philly’s best squad outside of the Wachovia Center, and the play of Mike Nardi, Curtis Sumpter and Jason Fraser will be essential to carry this team throughout the new and improved Big East.
8) UConn- If Marcus Williams was definitely coming back to Storrs this winter, UConn would be a definite top 3 team. Even with the point guard slot in doubt, Rudy Gay, Josh Boone, Rashad Anderson and Denham Brown give the Huskies as viable a shot as any team to take home another title. Coach Calhoun simply knows how to win, and if the ship is righted at Uconn, then expect the Huskies to rise quickly.
9) Gonzaga- Adam Morrison comes in with more hype this season than perhaps any other Gonzaga player since their late 90‘s rebirth, but he will need assistance from J.P. Batista and Derek Raivio to get past the tougher competition outside of the WCC.
10) BC- Jared Dudley and Craig Smith make the move to the ACC and will quickly find out what it means to hoop it up against the best of the Tar Heel state. Some early season wins will be essential, not only for confidence but to show the rest of the league that they are for real, or else the Eagles could experience what schools like Virginia, Florida State and Clemson know all too well.
11) Kentucky- Does Tubby Smith’s bunch have another classic in them? After last season’s heartbreaking loss to MSU, the Wildcats look to erase the sour taste of defeat and reclaim their spot as a national powerhouse. Rajon Rando, Patrick Sparks and Ramel Bradley will light it up, making Ashley Judd and the rest of the fans who bleed Kentucky Blue very happy in Lexington.
12) Memphis- All people seem to remember last year from Memphis basketball is Darius Washington lying on the floor after a crushing defeat in the conference championship game. Many of the big guns of Conference USA have bolted to the Big East though, so Washington, Rodney Carney and Joey Dorsey should have no problem getting that automatic berth to the tourney this year.
13) Wake Forest- The Demon Deacons could be Duke’s biggest challenge in the ACC this year and Eric Williams and Justin Gray will be looked upon to provide monster seasons to carry this team deep into the tournament. They fall just a notch below though the elite teams in the country right now.
14) Illinois- What goes up must come down and Illini fans might learn that very quickly this year. If Dee Brown can come back healthy this team might have a “fighting” shot at repeating as Big Ten champs.
15) Syracuse- Hakim Warrick takes his high flying act to the NBA this year, but Gerry McNamara and Terrence Roberts want to show that the Orange have one more big run in them. Coach Boeheim loves freshman Eric Devendorf, while the Carrier Dome remains one of the toughest places to play in all of college hoops. That home court advantage will be needed against the other Beasts of the Big East.
16) West Virginia- Maybe last season was a fluke, but Kevin Pittsnogle is back to show that the Mountaineers can maintain against the best their conference has to offer. Balance and head-smart basketball will keep them alive in every game and if they can get some more of that Pittsnogle-magic towards the end, WVU could be trying on the glass slipper once again in April.
Five to Watch: