Have the best conferences and players in the nation proven themselves?

"You Gotta Be Kidding!"
by Mickey Charles CEO, The Sports Network

Julius Hodge
NC State's Julius Hodge has a chance to become the ACC's first repeat Player of the Year since Tim Duncan in 1996-97.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -- The best were supposed to be Wake Forest, North Carolina, Duke, Georgia Tech and Maryland, all scheduled national title contenders. The seemingly authoritative pundits had dusted off their Ouija boards and Windexed their crystal balls. Most of the stellar talent in the country had opted for the warmer climes of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) so that it could maintain its stature as the premiere conference in college basketball. Complement the athletes with coaching mastery, which includes those that are headed for legendary status such as: Mike Krzyzewski (Duke), Roy Williams (North Carolina) and Gary Williams (Maryland), as well as, coaches on the rise in Skip Prosser (Wake Forest) and Paul Hewitt (Georgia Tech), and it is no wonder that the ACC has had an easy time landing a good portion of the collegiate top talent year after year.

So, where are the surprise teams between the Pacific and Atlantic and have they fulfilled, schools such as Florida State and Washington? If that is not the case as of this moment, they just might be ready to break out and be worth more than a casual glance in their direction. Florida State finished last year at a respectable. albeit not great, 19-14 after five straight losing seasons. They lost All-ACC performer Tim Pickett to the NBA, but there was a great deal of talent left on the roster, including sophomore center Alexander Johnson (9.5 ppg as a freshman in earning ACC All-Freshman accolades).

Washington won 14 of its last 18 games last year, finished at 19-12, including a second-place finish in the Pac-10 (12-6) and earned an invite to the NCAA Tournament where they suffered a first-round defeat at the hands of UAB. The Huskies lost just one reserve player from a year ago and have plenty of scoring depth in guards Nate Robinson (13.2 ppg), Will Conroy (12.3 ppg) and swingman Brandon Roy (12.9 ppg). Given that you are an accomplished prognosticator (you are, right?) did you have these two down as schools to watch when the collegians hit the hardwood?

It's widely considerd that the best player in the country is Julius Hodge (NC State) who has a chance to become the ACC's first repeat Player of the Year since Tim Duncan in 1996-97. Hodge can play three positions (PG, SG, SF), averaged 18.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game last year and is a veteran leader, who has the ability to drive to the basket, take the outside shot, or find the open man. Hey, some of us remember when NBA players could do that...a very long time ago with a handful, and just a handful, of rare exceptions today. It would be nice to see more than lay-up, dunk, jump shot, lay-up, dunk, jump shot and, oh yes, an occasional pass or two.

Charlie Villanueva
Look for the breakout player of the year to be UConn's Charlie Villanueva.
Look for the breakout player of the year to be Charlie Villanueva (UConn). He will be counted on heavily to fill the gap left by the departed Emeka Okafor along the frontline for the defending national champions. A scoring machine with great range, Villanueva (8.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg) gets his chance to carry the scoring load for the Huskies from now through 2005. No, he is certainly not the defender that Okafor was but the talent is there for him to be a much more prolific scorer. The nice part is that UConn has more than enough pieces in place to really showcase the 6-10 sophomore this season.

It's time for a breather and a look at the best starting five, coast to coast. That has to be North Carolina with center Sean May, forwards Jawad Williams and Rashad McCants and guards Raymond Felton and Melvin Scott). Dean Smith is long gone, occupies a permanent seat for every game at the center carrying his name and the legacy he left continues to attract just by saying "North Carolina." Astounding, with all due respect to coach Williams. The Tar Heels were the best starting five in the nation a year ago, both on paper and the court, but the team finished 19-11 and a disappointing 8-8 in the ACC (fifth place). It happens. The difference now is that this is a veteran group (two seniors and three juniors) that has stayed intact for several years. May (15.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg) is perhaps the best big man around while the same can be said of McCants (20.0 ppg) at small forward or shooting guard. Williams' (12.6 ppg) whose athleticism is unmatched. Felton (11.5 ppg, 7.1 apg) is a deft distributor of the ball, with Scott (9.9 ppg) providing stability in the backcourt. Sounds like a heck of a blueprint to me with the final product being no less than a Final Four participant.

That said, a case can easily be made for the best backcourt being a couple of Demon Deacons at Wake Forest, Chris Paul and Justin Gray. They are worth a serious look every time they leave the locker room.

Duke's Luol Deng left the Blue Devils last year as a freshman and was the seventh pick in the NBA draft so what does it say that Chris Paul beat out Deng for ACC Freshman of the Year honors last season? Paul is as dangerous a weapon at the point as there is in the country. As a true freshman, he averaged almost 15 points per game (14.8) and nearly six assists (5.9). Gray is a shooting machine who never saw a shot he did not like nor a route to get the ball headed towards the basket. He averaged 17.0 ppg last season and is a right up there with Paul as one of the premiere backcourt players in the ACC.

It appears that we are being held prisoner as one of the cognoscenti in the Bible Belt, where we fine the probably best center in Sean May (UNC). At 6-9, 260 pounds, May plays a bit out of position in the middle but that hasn't stopped him from abusing the competition in the paint. Last season he averaged a near double-double (15.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg), while leading the ACC in rebounding. His parents can start planning on that new home once he graduates and inks a contract with some NBA team while the local Bentley dealer is certainly able to place him on the mailing list.

Wayne Simien
Wayne Simien of Kansas is a standout power forward.
The man that excels at power forward (I seem to recall when they were just forwards) is Wayne Simien (Kansas) so make that a vote for Dorothy and Toto. He is a sure-fire NBA player, speaking of homes and cars, with a developing physical stature that is already impressive (6-9, 255). Not only will he elevate to the next level in the ranks of the pros but he actually has game to go with the strength and stamina. Last season this Kansas power forward averaged a near double-double (17.8 ppg, 9.3 rpg), while shooting over 50 percent from the floor (.532). Power and proficiency. Sounds good to me.

Jim Boeheim has given Gerry McNamara up at Syracuse a green light to shoot, and with good reason. Although he shot just .385 from the floor last year, more than half of his shots are taken from behind the arc . He shot .389 from three-point range as a sophomore and averaged 17.2 ppg last season. The impression from this corner is that he can take over a game when he is shooting well...and that is most of the time, making him my choice for best shooting guard in the country. They are not in the same backcourt, but the standout point guard has to be Chris Paul (Wake Forest), a big time scorer and ball-handler, Paul took over the role of the ACC's top point guard last season while still a freshman. His ability to run the offense in Winston-Salem makes the Demon Deacons a real threat to win the national title. he averaged 14.8 points and 5.9 assists per game last season, while showing great range when stepping back behind the arc (46.5 percent from three-point range).

Those are the veterans of college basketball. The newcomers to watch, if you haven't already been doing that, are Marvin Williams at North Carolina (where else?!?!?) and he could be the nation's top incoming freshman. At 6-9, 225 pounds, he already has people drooling over his natural talents, a potential and potency that might enable him to break into what was already considered to be the best starting five in the country this year. He is adding another body on the boards right away, but may need time to find his niche offensively with as talented team as they have at Chapel Hill right now. The McDonald's All-American averaged 28.7 points, 15.5 rebounds, 5.0 blocks and 5.0 assists as a HS senior.

The rich just get richer, as Rudy Gay (6-9, 215) makes his way to Storrs this year to join UConn, the defending national champs. Nothing like television and a title to attract attention. With a frontline that is in solid shape, Jim Calhoun will be able to shelter Gay from having to shoulder too much of the scoring burden this season. However, as one of last year's top high school prospects, Gay may be up to the task after averaging 21.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game on his way to college.

Randolph Morris (Kentucky) is another McDonald's All-American center who will provide immediate help in the middle for Tubby Smith's Wildcats. Morris (6-11, 250) is a rebounding demon who averaged 16 boards a game last year in high school, not to mention 4.5 blocks.

The final category to address are those who decided that greener pastures, a new campus, coaching that focused on their particular talents and a team that needed what they had to offer meant transferring without losing a stroke, or a shot. Guard Patrick Sparks did not travel far, just from Western Kentucky, where they used to shoot crossing the mid-court line, to Kentucky. He is a fearless and selfless player who thrived at Western Kentucky at the point, averaging 13.3 points and 5.9 assists as a sophomore with the Hilltoppers. Interestingly enough, he was offered a chance to walk on at Kentucky three years ago, but opted for the scholarship at WKU. With a suitable smile on his face, Tubby Smith now gets a top-rated point guard to run his offense.

Forward Ed Nelson has gone from Georgia Tech to UConn, opting to trade in his golf and t-shirts for fur lined parkers with hoods and Timberlands. He was named the ACC Freshman of the Year a couple of seasons ago but decided to leave Georgia Tech and join the Huskies with those credentials in his bag. As a huge presence in the paint, Nelson will become a integral part of the rotation along the frontline for the defending national champions.

Guard Tony Bethel went from Georgetown to NC State where the Wolfpack are led by Hodge, the man that most of he competition this year will concentrate upon, which might allow Bethel (a former double-digit scoring threat with Georgetown with 10.5 ppg) to be a key contributor sharing time at the point with a talented youngster, Engin Atsur.

Finally, forward Dennis Latimore went from Arizona to Notre Dame because he was getting splinters in his butt due to the outstanding talent that already suits up in Tucson every game. Consequently, Latimore failed to get on the floor very often at Arizona. That won't happen in South Bend where the Irish lost some depth up front from last season, allowing Latimore to do more than Excedrin and bring instant relief. The former Wildcat (6-8, 253) - quick, name every college in the nation whose nickname is Wildcats - will join Torin Francis (6-11, 252) and Jordan Cornette (6-9, 236) to make up one of the top frontcourts in the Big East.

Now, filled with all this seemingly Encyclopedic knowledge, what do you do next? Not sure right now. Consider this your MapQuest version of college basketball. Getting to the final destination is up to you. You expected more? You gotta be kidding!

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