Now that November is quickly approaching, itís time to take a look at college basketballís power conferences. We start with the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big 10, two traditionally strong leauges that may experience somewhat of a down year in 2007-2008. Even with outstanding teams at the top, the bottom of both conferences wonít put up much of a fight, contributing to the weakening of both leagues. Given time, both conferences will most likely be back to full strength in a year or two, but the upcoming season is clearly a transitional one for both. Still, some of the nationís top teams call the ACC or the Big 10 their home, including North Carolina, Michigan State, and Indiana, who should all begin the season in or very near the top 10.
What To Watch For
No other league in the nation suffered as many losses as the ACC as far as star players go. Several teams lost some of their top players from a year ago. That includes North Carolina (Brandan Wright), Boston College (Jared Dudley), Clemson (Vernon Hamilton), Duke (Josh McRoberts), Florida State (Al Thornton), Georgia Tech (Thaddeus Young and Javaris Crittenton), Maryland (Ekene Ibekwe, D.J. Strawberry, and Mike Jones), North Carolina State (Engin Astur), Virginia Tech (Zabian Dowdell), Virginia (J.R. Reynolds), and Wake Forest (Kyle Visser). If youíre counting, thatís every single team in the league besides Miami (FL) that lost a player (or multiple players) that could have been considered one of the best on their respective team last season.
Roy Williams loves to play fast, and he has the type of team this season to do exactly that. Ty Lawson is able to keep up at his coachís preferred pace, as he runs the team efficiently as the point guard. Heís got a lot of help as well, with the energetic Tyler Hansbrough down low, along with a sophomore shooting guard looking to improve on a solid freshman campaign in Wayne Ellington. Do not overlook the loss of the graduated Reyshawn Terry and Wes Miller though, as both provided intangible experience and leadership. Millerís outside shooting will be missed as well, and if UNC has a weakness this year, itíll be the lack of an established perimeter shooter. The one loss that shouldnít really hurt UNC, however, is that of Brandan Wright, who can be aptly replaced by sophomore forwards Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson, both of whom should improve with increased playing time.
Josh McRobertsí decision to jump to the NBA was a costly one for the Blue Devils, because it leaves them extremely thin up front. With only three players taller than 6'6", Duke will be relying on its guards this season. The backcourt returning to Durham is a stellar and deep group, though, which bodes well for Coach K. Thereís no doubt that Greg Paulus, Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith, Gerald Henderson, and DeMarcus Nelson are good enough to carry Duke to a lofty finish in the ACC standings and at least a top 25 ranking. And the outstanding incoming freshman class gives the Blue Devils a lot of star power. But this team needs Lance Thomas to continue his strong play down low as the teamís only steady and proven frontcourt performer, and it needs Brian Zoubek to step up as a true center.
North Carolina State
Pre-season projections have the Wolfpack in or near the top 25, which seems logical considering the success NC State had in the ACC tournament last season. Before that spectacular run, though, Sidney Loweís first season as head coach was less than impressive, as his team finished with a 5-11 record in conference play. Also, point guard Engin Astur graduated, so that creates another question mark. Still, last yearís team was crippled by a lack of depth, and with a bevy of newcomers this season, that problem has been fixed. This season, the NC State should play more like it did in the ACC tournament and less like it did the rest of the year.
After getting off to a blazing 17-0 start, the Tigers imploded and ended up missing the NCAA tournament. Now, Clemson will be without the graduated Vernon Hamilton, who averaged 12.3 points per game and 3.4 assists per game. Other than Hamilton, though, everybody is back from last seasonís squad. For this team to go anywhere, however, it will need freshman Demontez Stitt to perform at point guard right away.
With the loss of a strong senior class that included D.J. Strawberry, Ekene Ibekwe, and Mike Jones, the remaining players will need to pick up the slack. James Gist is capable of carrying the frontline, as he established himself as a frontcourt presence last year. Point guard Greivis Vasquez also enjoyed a solid freshman campaign and will be counted on to lead this team.
Last yearís flash is gone with the departure of freshman sensations Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young to the NBA. Lewis Clinch was ineligible for the second half of last season, but he will be the key factor in determining the success of his team this year as the only proven scoring threat returning. The Yellow Jackets will benefit from a large group of contributors in the post as well. An NCAA tournament berth isnít out of reach, but remember this team lost its two best players from a year ago and still was just a 10 seed in last yearís tournament.
Luckily for the Virginia faithful, Sean Singletary decided to stay in school. If he had left for the NBA, this team would be in serious trouble. J.R. Reynolds, who averaged 18.4 points per game last season, is the most notable of losses, but Jason Cain proved himself as a solid contributor down low and will be missed also. Singletary will need to carry the load this year, but still Virginia probably wonít be anything more than a bubble team.
The rest of the ACC is completely wide open. Without Al Thornton, it doesnít seem like Florida State will be able to improve over last seasonís NIT appearance. Both Miami and Wake Forest found themselves mired in the cellar of the conference last year, but with the turnover on Boston College and Virginia Techís roster, both teams could finish higher than expected and make a push toward the middle of the standings.
G: Ty Lawson, North Carolina
G: Wayne Ellington, North Carolina
Preseason Player of the Year: Sean Singletary, Virginia
1. North Carolina
The ACC clearly will not be as strong as the traditional power it normally is. Although at the top the conference features one of the nationís finest in UNC, as well as arguably a top 15 team in Duke, the rest of the league is filled with question marks. It wouldnít be outrageous to say the ACC might only send four teams to the NCAA tournament this season.
What To Watch For
The presence of Eric Gordon is certainly something to keep an eye on this season, as he is expected to play less like a freshman and more like a superstar. Along with Gordonís entrance into the Big 10, another development to watch is Tubby Smithís first season at the helm at Minnesota, as well as Todd Lickliterís first season at Iowa. Smithís team returns basically everyone from last season, but Lickliterís situation is not as enticing after losing both Tyler Smith and Adam Haluska from last yearís team.
The Big 10 will need to learn to keep up with the Spartans. Due to the increased depth on the team, especially in the backcourt, and the overall athleticism, Tom Izzo will be able to play the type of game he wants to - fast and up-tempo. Joining Drew Neitzel and Travis Walton at guard are freshmen Chris Allen, Kalin Lucas, and Durrell Summers, who, if anything, will at least provide Izzo with several options to turn to. Down low, Raymar Morgan could be in for a breakout sophomore season. Michigan State would benefit greatly from steady play from center Goran Suton, who is really the teamís only true imposing presence down low.
Freshman sensation Eric Gordon has everybody in Bloomington excited. Bruising forward D.J. White teams with Gordon as the two most recognizable players on the team, but both Armon Bassett and A.J. Ratliff, who is ineligible for the first semester, need to make up for the loss of two productive guards in the departed Earl Calloway and Roderick Wilmont.
Point guard Jamar Butler is the only player for the Buckeyes who has proven anything on the court. An important part of last yearís Final Four squad, Butler will be looked upon to lead this extremely inexperienced team. Returning along with Butler are forward Othello Hunter, center Matt Terwilliger, and guard David Lighty, who, with increased playing time, will most likely become prime options for Ohio State this season. Still, none of the three averaged more than 17 minutes per game last year. The success of this team will largely depend on the incoming freshman class, which is outstanding, led by Greg Odenís replacement, center Kosta Koufos.
It doesnít matter who Bo Ryan throws on the court, because a team coached by him will almost always win basketball games. Even without Kammron Taylor and Alando Tucker, easily the two best players from last yearís team, the Badgers benefit from the return of Michael Flowers, Joe Krabbenhoft, Jason Bohannon, and Marcus Landry, not to mention Brian Butch, whose season ended on an awful note due to injury last season. Like Ohio State, the Badgers have one player with a great deal of experience in Butch, but will be relying on a group of players that havenít quite played major roles for Wisconsin yet.
Without Warren Carter or Rich McBride, two integral part of last yearís NCAA tournament squad, Illinois needs some freshman to step in right away. Added to the situation is the loss of shooting guards Jamar Smith, redshirted as punishment for his DUI incident last year, and freshman Quinton Watkins, who didnít make the cut academically. The good news is that Bruce Weberís 2007 class includes several impact players who may be able to improve a club that was awful offensively at times last season. Shaun Pruitt will anchor the team down low, but Illinois needs Brian Randle to provide some scoring punch and Chester Frazier to run the team effectively at the point.
Purdueís program is on the upswing, but after losing Jeff Teague and Carl Landry, they need a year or two to rebuild. Matt Painter brought in one of the Big 10ís best recruiting classes in 2007 so Boilermaker fans donít need to worry. Minnesota could surprise some with Tubby Smith, as he finds himself working with an experienced team that returns almost the entire roster from a year ago. Penn State disappointed last season, as they finished 2-14 after being a trendy pre-season sleeper pick. The Nittany Lions still could make that leap this season, but Ed DeChellisí job is in serious jeopardy. John Beilein might have trouble working with a Michigan team that lost every significant contributor from last season, but if his players buy into and learn his system early, he may pull a few upsets. Forget about Iowa and Northwestern, who will be dreadful this season.
G: Lawrence McKenzie, Minnesota
G: Jamar Butler, Ohio State
Preseason Player of the Year: Drew Neitzel, Michigan State
1. Michigan State
Like the ACC, the Big 10 is very top heavy, but levels off toward the middle and bottom of the conference. Watching Michigan State battle Indiana for the Big 10 crown should be one of the nationís top storylines, but unfortunately there isnít much excitement in this conference outside of that.