June 24, 2006
Jeff Goodman/FoxSports.com - Now that we know who's leaving for the NBA and who's staying in school, it's much easier to sort out preseason rankings.
And with Florida improbably returning all five starters from last season's national championship team, it's pretty easy to figure out where to place the Gators. Kansas, meanwhile, gets its top seven scorers back, and a possible lift from a pair of top recruits.
With that in mind, here's our preseason top 25.
1. Florida: We figured Joakim Noah would be working out for NBA teams about now, but that didn't happen and he and his teammates shockingly opted to stay together and return to Gainesville in a bid to defend their national championship. The Gators return all five starters -- Noah (14.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg), forward Al Horford (11.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg), wing Corey Brewer (12.7 ppg), point guard Taurean Green (13.3 ppg) and shooting guard Lee Humphrey (10.9 ppg). They also bring back reserve big man Chris Richard (5.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and backup point guard Walter Hodge. Virtually the only losses of note were that of reserve forward Adrian Moss and assistant coach Anthony Grant, who left for the head gig at VCU. Add freshman forwards Jonathan Mitchell and Dan Werner along with wings Brandon Powell and Doneal Mack, who provide depth, and you've got a team that is numero uno until proven otherwise.
2. Kansas: You can take it to the bank that the Jayhawks won't be bowing out in the first round again. Not with their top seven scorers back -- and also two of the top freshman in the country coming into the program. Brandon Rush surprised many by returning to Lawrence after a freshman campaign in which he led the team in scoring (13.5) and rebounding (5.9). Bill Self will also return Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson, Julian Wright, Sasha Kaun, Darnell Jackson and C.J. Giles. The Jayhawks also bring in a pair of McDonald's All-Americans: point guard Sherron Collins and forward Darrell Arthur.
3. Pittsburgh: Panthers guard Carl Krauser is gone, but Jamie Dixon will welcome back virtually everyone else -- including 7-footer Aaron Gray, who decided to return for his senior year and will be one of the top big men in the country next season. Krauser was tough and his fearless approach will be difficult to replace, but Pittsburgh will return a trio of quality guards -- juniors Ronald Ramon and Keith Benjamin and sophomore Levance Fields. The Panthers will also add East Carolina transfer Mike Cook, a versatile wing who could even see time at the point. Dixon & Co. will have forwards Sam Young and Levon Kendall -- who split time at power forward this season -- alongside Gray.
4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes welcome in the most heralded recruit in the country in 7-footer Greg Oden, but Thad Matta will also bring in a trio of other top players: Oden's teammate, poised point guard Mike Conley, and a pair of wings -- Daequan Cook and David Lighty. That quartet will be joined by holdover senior wing Ron Lewis (11.2 ppg), junior guard Jamar Butler (10.1 ppg, 144 assists) and role players such as senior forward Ivan Harris, junior big man Matt Terwilliger and 6-9 sophomore Brayden Bell. Oh yeah, Ohio State lost Terence Dials (15.3 ppg, 8 rpg), J.J. Sullinger (10.2 ppg) and Matt Sylvester (7.4 ppg). Big deal.
5. North Carolina: The Tar Heels were much better than anyone could have imagined last season after watching nearly their entire team depart after winning the national title two years ago. Roy Williams' squad is loaded again this year with most of the key players returning -- and a freshman class that is arguably tops in the nation. UNC loses David Noel (12.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg), but that's about it (we don't count Byron Sanders as much of a loss). The Tar Heels return all-everything big man Tyler Hansbrough (18.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg), senior forward Reyshawn Terry (14.3 ppg) and a variety of guys who may have to accept decreased roles this year: sophomores Danny Green (7.5 ppg), Bobby Fraser (6.4 ppg) and Marcus Ginyard (6.3). Look out for incoming freshman Tywon Lawson, who could be the top point guard in the country by the end of the year, as well as shooting guard Wayne Ellington, versatile forward Brandan Wright and 6-8 big man Deon Thompson. All should waste little time making an impact.
6. UCLA: The Bruins lost seniors Ryan Hollins and Cedric Bozeman -- both starters off a team that advanced to the championship game -- but Ben Howland's squad took a far more significant hit when point guard Jordan Farmar opted to leave for the NBA. However, sophomore Darren Collison will get a chance to prove he is capable of sliding into Farmar's spot. The Bruins will also return 6-foot-5 junior shooting guard Arron Afflalo, who tested the NBA waters, sophomore do-it-all forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (9.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and also wing Josh Shipp, who returns to the fold after playing just four games a year ago. Sophomores Alfred Aboya, Mike Roll and Ryan Wright will continue to improve and the Bruins will welcome in solid freshman power forward James Keefe.
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