Another year of the Gator?

Published November 5, 2006

Five favorites for Atlanta

1. Florida. The Gators return their entire starting lineup and seven of their top eight players from a talented and tight-knit group that rolled to last season's NCAA championship. Hey, Gators, stand up and holler.

2. Kansas. No way guard Brandon Rush, forward Julian Wright and guard Mario Chalmers will flame out in the opening round of the NCAA like they did last season as freshmen.

3. UCLA. The Bruins, overwhelmed by UF in last season's title game, have a shot at a rematch, with guard Arron Afflalo, blossoming forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and forward Josh Shipp now healthy.

4. North Carolina. The Tar Heels were young and inexperienced last season, but power forward Tyler Hansbrough and forward Reyshawn Terry are now neither. Point guard Ty Lawson and forward Brandan Wright are impact freshmen.

5. Ohio State. But speaking of newcomers, the buck stops with the Buckeyes. They welcome 7-foot-1 man-child center Greg Oden and two top-notch guards, shooter Daequan Cook and playmaker Mike Conley, Oden's prep teammate.

Five Cinderellas

1. Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets return three double-figure scorers, led by guard Anthony Morrow (the ACC's top 3-point percentage shooter), and add two prep All-Americans in forward Thaddeus Young and point guard Javaris Crittenton.

2. Creighton. The Blue Jays are legit and should be ranked all season. Guard Nate Funk, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, is back and senior center Anthony Tolliver should be even better for it.

3. Xavier. The Musketeers have an experienced and talented frontcourt led by Justin Doellman and Justin Cage, a scorer in guard Stanley Burrell and a dazzling but diminutive point guard in Drew Lavender, an Oklahoma transfer.

4. Southern Illinois. The Salukis can get after folks defensively, beginning with senior guard Tony Young. Their spotty offense figures to be better if for no other reason than experience. Their top eight players return.

5. Tennessee. Junior guard Chris Lofton is one of the best around and, at the risk of sounding as though we've imbibed a bit too much of the Knoxville Kool-Aid, Bruce Pearl can coach 'em up.

Five super seniors

1. Alando Tucker, forward, Wisconsin. He does it all for the Badgers and led the Big Ten in scoring despite playing most of last season with a mask to protect a broken nose.

2. Aaron Gray, center, Pittsburgh. The 7-foot center blossomed last season and averaged a double double. He then pulled himself out of the NBA draft and could be an All-American this season.

3. Al Thornton, forward, Florida State. Thornton could have bolted for the NBA and perhaps sneaked into the first round. He's that athletic and improved his perimeter shot that much. He's one of the nation's toughest matchups.

4. Jarrius Jackson, guard, Texas Tech. When coach Bob Knight breaks Dean Smith's record for wins (879; he needs just 11), Jackson should autograph the ball. He's one of the best scorers in the Big 12.

5. Nick Fazekas, forward, Nevada. Fazekas is the two-time WAC player of the year and it's not just that he's tall (6-11) playing in a mid-tier league; he has skills.

Five newcomers to watch

1. Greg Oden, center, Ohio State. He probably would have been the No. 1 pick had the NBA not changed its rules. Once healthy, he'll show why.

2. Paul Harris, guard, Syracuse. Harris might hit 3s like Gerry McNamara, but he's bigger, stronger, faster and, maybe, an even better floor leader.

3. Kevin Durant, guard/forward, Texas. His game is being compared to Carmelo Anthony's, which is why the rebuilt Longhorns remain in the Top 25.

4. Spencer Hawes, center, Washington. He has an uncommonly refined low-post game that he complements with outside touch.

5. Ty Lawson, point guard, North Carolina. Lawson will let the Tar Heels play the up-tempo game that coach Roy Williams wants.

Five coaches under pressure

1. Sidney Lowe, North Carolina State. He wasn't the first choice to replace Herb Sendek. Nor the second. Nor the third. He has never been a college head coach and must prove himself.

2. Sean Sutton, Oklahoma State. After filling in for his father, Eddie, late last season (the team went 5-6 but beat Texas and Kansas), the head-coach designate finally takes over for good.

3. Thad Matta, Ohio State. All he did was grab the nation's most touted class, dubbed the "Thad Five." Now, in the wake of a contract extention last week, all he has to do is win big with them.

4. Kelvin Sampson, Indiana. Sampson brings a stellar resume with him from Oklahoma, but he also brought some baggage - sanctions for phone calls. Any struggles and he's sure to hear static about that.

5. Billy Donovan, Florida. He has virtually his entire championship team back and UF is a favorite to become the first repeat champion since Duke. Anything short will be viewed as a disappointment.

Five must-see early games

1. Kentucky at North Carolina, Dec. 2. The Wildcats have something to prove (they haven't made the Final Four since 1998), but so does a young and talented UNC team.

2. Georgetown at Duke, Dec. 2. The Blue Devils need a win, not merely to atone for a loss last season at Georgetown, but to show that Duke, even without J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams, is still Duke.

3. Texas vs. LSU, Dec. 10. The Longhorns lost all five starters from the team that LSU defeated in the Elite Eight. Their successors can make a Texas-sized statement in Houston.

4. Ohio State at Florida, Dec. 23. Christmas comes early for hoops fans. A lot of folks wouldn't be surprised if the two meet again in the Final Four at the Georgia Dome, but OSU's Greg Oden isn't expected back from wrist surgery until ...

5. Indiana at Ohio State, Jan. 2. Oden should be back for the team's Big Ten opener, coincidentally against the Hoosiers. Oden's from Indiana and chose to leave.