Sports Column

This week marks the tip-off to a new and exciting season, one in which concludes with a 65-team tournament in March that annually produces dramatic finishes and shocking upsets. College basketball is back, and it’s time to take a look at what the 2008-09 edition has in store for us. The defending national champions, Kansas, are losing six of their top eight scorers from last year’s team. It could be tough for the new-look Jayhawks to retain supremacy in the Big 12 conference against potential powerhouses Oklahoma and Texas, but the return of speedy junior point guard Sherron Collins will provide the team with leadership and a game-changer on both ends of the court. Coach Bill Self should have no problem in taking Kansas to its 20th consecutive NCAA tournament.

The overwhelming favorite this season has to be North Carolina, with the return of every starter including reigning player of the year Tyler Hansbrough. This team has a lot of depth and will be very tough to beat with the big boy dominating in the post, but the real question with the Tar Heels is if they can withstand the pressure come tourney time. While North Carolina will probably sit at the top of the polls throughout the season, I expect another heartbreaking March in Chapel Hill and Hansbrough’s illustrious college career to end without a national title.

In each of the last two years, the Duke Blue Devils have suffered an early exit from the tournament due to the lack of a physical big man. Coach K knows he will get consistent production out of guard Gerald Henderson and sophomore forward Kyle Singler, but Duke is still too soft inside without a true center. Until they recruit a legitimate force in the post, the premature departures in March will continue.

After a tournament for the ages in which he averaged over 30 points per game and carried his school to the Elite Eight, Stephen Curry decided to turn down the NBA and return to Davidson for his junior year. His decision to stay in school has transformed Davidson from a Cinderella team to a contender, and gives Curry a chance at challenging Hansbrough for Player of the Year honors.

Speaking of Cinderella, Gonzaga had worn the glass slipper for a long time but is now competing and recruiting like a major-conference power. This year’s team might be Coach Mark Few’s best shot at a Final Four, with rising star Austin Daye being a matchup problem for any school in the country and Jeremy Pargo creating offense for a squad with multiple double-figure scorers.

This season’s freshmen class is not as heralded as it has been the last two years with stars like Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley, but there are plenty of impact newcomers who can help take their teams far into March. The state of California sports two of the premier freshmen in the country in UCLA’s Jrue Holiday and USC’s Demar DeRozan. Holiday should give the Bruins immediate production across the board and teams up with point guard Darren Collison to form a dynamic guard duo on a title contender. DeRozan, a 6’6 guard/forward, is more of a scorer and will pick up from where OJ Mayo left off at USC.

The Big East is by far the most competitive conference in college basketball and is loaded with strong teams from top to bottom. Connecticut is going to be really strong with the offensive improvement of 7-footer Hasheem Thabeet, Pittsburgh boasts the best frontcourt in the country with DeJuan Blair and Sam Young, Louisville might be one of the more athletic teams with Terrance Williams and Earl Clark, and Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody is a powerhouse in the post.

Bold Prediction of the week: This year’s Final Four will be Louisville, Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Gonzaga, with Pitt beating Louisville in the Championship game.

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