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April 30, 2008
Big East dominates early 2008-09 Top 25
Perhaps nobody was happier to see the flurry of players declaring early for June's NBA Draft than the coaches and returning players in the Big East.
We asked a panel of writers at Rivals.com to vote for the top 25 teams for the 2008-09 season. The voting was done under the premise that each of the 47 players who has entered the draft will be leaving college for good.
The Big East would appear to benefit the most from the mass exodus, as six league teams were in the top 15, including three in the top four. We will have another preseason poll after the June 16 deadline to withdraw from the draft.
Rivals.com 2008-09 Preseason Top 25:
Hasheem Thabeet's surprising decision to stay in school means the Huskies return every key player from a 24-win team. The big question is the health of point guard A.J. Price, who tore an ACL in the NCAA Tournament. Kansas' Brandon Rush tore an ACL in late May and returned to the court in mid-November. If Price follows a similar recovery path, he will be ready for the start of preseason practice.
There are three big reasons to believe in the Panthers – point guard Levance Fields, small forward Sam Young and center DeJuan Blair. That may be the best trio on one team in college basketball next season. Sprinkle in some of Pitt's traditional hard-nosed defense and some solid role players, and you have a legit contender for the national title.
How can the Boilermakers be this high? Much of the answer lies with the theory that players improve most between their freshman and sophomore years. Three freshmen played significant roles on a Purdue team that finished second in the Big Ten and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season. If each member of that trio improves, especially raw big man JaJuan Johnson, then the "Baby Boilers" are going to be better – way better.
4. Notre Dame
The Irish are used to facing mild expectations (they've been picked 11th and ninth in the past two league preseason polls). Next season, they will learn what it's like to be on the national radar well before the league schedule starts. They return the Big East's leading scorer, its best shooter and its leading assist man – Luke Harangody averaged 20.4 points, Kyle McAlarney made a league-high 108 3-pointers and Tory Jackson dished out 5.8 assists per game.
5. North Carolina
When you have Tyler Hansbrough, do you really need much else? Apparently our panel doesn't think so. Despite three of Hansbrough's teammates (guards Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington and small forward Danny Green) having declared for the draft, the Tar Heels were in the top 10 on every ballot. If Hansbrough can carry a depleted supporting cast back to the Final Four, he undoubtedly will win national player of the year honors again.
The Blue Devils still have problems on the inside, but they are still loaded on the perimeter. Their only loss is versatile wing DeMarcus Nelson, and they add five-star guard Elliot Williams - who will contribute immediately. They have two future NBA players in athletic wing Gerald Henderson and highly skilled forward Kyle Singler. Expect a big season from Henderson, who scored in double figures in eight of his last nine games this past season.
Big man Blake Griffin had good reason to stay in school despite a stellar freshman season. The Sooners signed five-star point guard Willie Warren, a dynamic playmaker who could be a one-and-done player. Griffin and Warren will form one of the nation's top inside-outside duos. The Sooners also return experienced guards Tony Crocker (11.3 ppg) and Austin Johnson (8.6 ppg).
Few teams benefited more from the early entry deadline. Much-maligned Derrick Caracter is leaving, but Rick Pitino didn't want him around anyway. More important, forward Earl Clark pulled out of the draft after initially saying he was gone, and talented wing Terrence Williams chose to stick around for his senior year. That means the Cardinals will have five of their top seven scorers back. Replacing the chemistry that departing senior David Padgett added will be the main obstacle.
The Vols remain one of the nation's most talented teams despite losing guards Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith. Star forward Tyler Smith was projected as a first-round pick, but chose to remain in school. The Vols also added five-star shooting guard Scotty Hopson, another future NBA player. Finding a reliable point guard remains the big issue. Junior-to-be Ramar Smith must show more composure, or incoming freshman Daniel West may get a chance to show he's the answer.
10. Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons may be the most talented team in the ACC next season. The Deacs will welcome Rivals.com's top-ranked recruiting class, which features three five-star recruits – 6-8 forward Al-Farouq Aminu and 6-11 centers Ty Walker and Tony Woods. That mega-talented group will join what was already a promising young team led by lightning-quick guard Jeff Teague and multi-dimensional wing James Johnson.
Roy Hibbert and Jonathan Wallace have exhausted their eligibility, but don't expect the Hoyas to slip much - if at all. Small forward DaJuan Summers (11.1 ppg) will be a three-year starter. The same goes for veteran guard Jessie Sapp (9.7 ppg). The Hoyas also add prize recruit Greg Monroe, whose unselfish nature makes him an ideal fit for John Thompson III's Princeton-style offense.
12. Michigan State
Spartans coach Tom Izzo has enough pieces to reach what would be his fifth Final Four. Guard Drew Neitzel (13.9 ppg) is the Spartans' only major loss. Ultra-quick point guard Kalin Lucas is poised for a breakout season, and athletic wing Raymar Morgan (14.0 ppg) will be a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate. Freshman power forward Delvon Roe, a five-star recruit, will add some much-needed firepower on the inside.
The Wildcats made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 last season, but if they make it back, it shouldn't surprise anyone. They return their top seven scorers, including star guard Scottie Reynolds (15.9 ppg). Guards Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes – two former five-star recruits – each showed flashes of their immense potential last season.
The Gators appear to be one of the tougher teams to figure out. Some voters had them in the top 10, while others ranked them between 20th and 25th. Big man Marreese Speights has entered the draft, but they return every other player from a team that didn't make the NCAA Tournament, including SEC Co-Freshman of the Year Nick Calathes. They also add another top-five recruiting class led by 6-10 big men Kenny Kadji and Eloy Vargas.
The Bruins get high marks on the strength of their coaching and a monster recruiting class that includes Jrue Holiday, Rivals.com's No. 1 point guard. Ben Howland has guided UCLA to three consecutive Final Fours. With so many early departures (Kevin Love, Josh Shipp, Russell Westbrook, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute) he'll have to rely on the kids and returning guard Darren Collison (14.5 ppg, 3.8 apg).
The defending national champs are losing all five starters. Bill Self will rebuild around point guard Sherron Collins (9.3 ppg, 3.1 apg) and center Cole Aldrich (2.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg), who had an eight-point, seven-rebound, four-block game against North Carolina in the national semifinals. A recruiting class ranked eighth nationally by Rivals.com figures to get plenty of early playing time.
Point guard Jeremy Pargo, who declared for the draft, would be a major loss. However, coach Mark Few has plenty of talent returning. Three of the top four scorers are back for the Bulldogs, including leading scorer Matt Bouldin (12.6 ppg) and forward Josh Heytvelt (10.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg). The guy who could make the quantum leap is former five-star prospect Austin Daye, who averaged 10.5 points and 4.7 rebounds as a freshman.
The national runner-up doesn't have any starters returning at this time. John Calipari, though, does have some pieces back, including guard Doneal Mack (6.9 ppg) and forward Shawn Taggart (5.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg). Throw in incoming five-star point guard Tyreke Evans (ranked No. 3 at his position and No. 6 overall by Rivals) and there is no reason to shed tears for the Tigers.
It would be a blow if Jerel McNeal, the leading scorer last season and one of the best defenders in the nation, stays in the draft. The Golden Eagles also must deal with a coaching change, though the school plugged assistant Buzz Williams into the opening created by Tom Crean's departure to Indiana. There still is plenty of talent, too, led by point guard Dominic James (12.9 ppg, 4.4 apg) and forward Lazar Hayward (12.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg).
The Trojans will miss O.J. Mayo and Davon Jefferson, but this also could be a case of addition by subtraction. Tim Floyd may have a more cohesive unit, led by forward Taj Gibson (10.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg) and guards Dwight Lewis (10.8 ppg) and Daniel Hackett (8.6 ppg, 3.2 apg). USC also adds five-star prospect Demar DeRozan, Rivals.com's No. 1 shooting guard.
There's the small matter of replacing the starting backcourt that accounted for 35.7 points per game. Fortunately, the frontcourt returns everyone who played a significant minute. Forward Damion James (13.2 ppg, 10.3 rpg) is the Big 12's leading returning rebounder, and center Connor Atchley (9.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg) also emerged last season.
The darlings of the Elite Eight lose three senior contributors, including starting point guard Jason Richards, who led the nation in assists. But once Stephen Curry said he'd be back for his junior season, the fretting for coach Bob McKillop eased. Curry, who averaged 25.9 points last season and was sensational in the NCAA Tournament, is expected to assume most of Richards' duties.
The Rebels, who come off consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, return three starters, all of whom will be seniors. Coach Lon Kruger is thrilled to have senior leadership, especially knowing one is leading scorer Wink Adams (16.9 ppg). Add redshirt freshman center Beas Hamga, a 7-foot former five-star prospect, and Memphis transfer Tre'Von Willis, and you have the makings of a serious sleeper.
24. Ohio State
The Buckeyes will be lost for a little while without leader Jamar Butler, but coach Thad Matta has plenty of depth returning. More important, he's bringing in another terrific recruiting class – which for the second time in three years includes Rivals.com's No. 1 player. B.J. Mullens (7-1, 265) is a vastly different center than Greg Oden; he has a finesse game and is a good outside shooter who can go inside, too.
The Badgers are losing their best player (Brian Butch) and their best defender (Michael Flowers), but they return three starters and sixth man Jason Bohannon from a 31-win team. That's more than enough for underrated coach Bo Ryan - whose teams always seem to exceed expectations - to get the Badgers back to the NCAA Tournament.
Rivals.com basketball editor Bob McClellan contributed to this report.
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.