Down, not out
Nine reasons why ACC won't be as weak as people predict:
3. Virginia's backcourt tandem. Harold Deane and three-point sharpshooter Curtis Staples make up one of the nation's best backcourts.
4. Maryland's revival. Coming off two straight Sweet 16 seasons, the Terps are on the verge of becoming a perennial ACC power again.
5. New blood. Freshmen such as Stephon Marbury at Georgia Tech, Vince Carter at North Carolina, Andrius Jurkunas at Clemson, Terrell Stokes at Maryland and Randell Jackson at Florida State will create a new wave of stars.
6. Dean Smith. After 34 years, he doesn't rebuild at Carolina, he just reloads.
7. The Big East factor. Although there were complaints and one celebrated incident in the ACC tourney, Clemson coach Rick Barnes brought more of the physical style to the league.
8. Perimeter play. The ACC has quality guards galore. Almost every team has a very solid backcourt that will help negate the lack of dominant big men.
9. Upsets. The league's balance of power may be spread over more teams, but that will enhance the prospect of more upsets.
Five freshmen who'll make a difference:
Stephon Marbury, Georgia Tech: Another, and probably the best, in a long line of Marburys.
L Louis Bullock, Michigan: The one who got away from Maryland.
Ron Mercer, Kentucky: Consensus national high school player of year.
Vince Carter, North Carolina: An explosive player who arrives in the nick of time for a Tar Heels team lacking depth.
Shareef Abdur-Rahim, California: At 6-10, he could dominate immediately.
Head of the class
Five Player of the Year candidates (aka the Joe Smith Award):
Tim Duncan, Wake Forest, Sr.: He'll be dunkin' in the NBA next season after carrying the ACC banner.
Marcus Camby, UMass, Jr.: With Lou Roe gone, the spotlight is on Camby.
Kerry Kittles, Villanova, Sr.: Maybe he had this in mind when he decided to forgo the NBA a year early.
Leagues on the rise
Big East: Haven't had a Final Four team since Seton Hall in 1989, but Connecticut, Georgetown or Villanova could end the drought.
SEC: Represented in the last three Final Fours, and Kentucky should make it four in a row.
Get the remote
Six games to watch (if you only see six all season):
Dec. 6: Wake Forest at UMass, ESPN. Battle of the giants, Tim Duncan vs. Marcus Camby.
Dec. 9: Maryland vs. UCLA, Anaheim, NBC. Lefty Driesell wanted to make Maryland the UCLA of the East, but now it's Gary Williams' turn to seek parity.
Dec. 22: Georgia Tech vs. UMass at the Meadowlands, ESPN. Freshman phenom Stephon Marbury goes home to play in front of his family.
Jan. 14: Clemson at North Carolina, ESPN2. Rick Barnes vs. Dean Smith, The Sequel.
Feb. 11: Arkansas at Kentucky, CBS. Last year Kentucky unseated defending national champion Arkansas for the SEC title.
Feb. 25: UConn at Villanova, CBS. Watching Ray Allen and Kerry Kittles on the same floor is fun enough, but these are two of the Big East's best teams.
Four names to live by:
Scientific Mapp, Florida A&M;: Will he need some traveling music?
Sunday Adebayo, Arkansas: He answers to Sunday, but he'll play any day.
God Shammgod, Providence: Does this open any doors to divine intervention?
Exree Hipp, Maryland: For the last two years, the "X" man has forecast the Terps' Sweet 16 future.
In the spotlight
Players who have to step up:
Charles O'Bannon, UCLA: Some think he'll be even better than his brother Ed.
Johnny Rhodes, Maryland: The 6-4 swingman will crash inside to get a lot of rebounds that would have gone to Joe Smith.
Harold Deane, Virginia: He and Curtis Staples give the Cavs a dynamic backcourt.
James Collins, Florida State: Averaged 18 points on a team that featured Bobby Sura.
John Wallace, Syracuse: The return of the 6-8 senior takes some of the sting out of the loss of Michael Lloyd.
Jeff McInnis, North Carolina: With Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace gone, the point guard becomes the go-to guy.
Samaki Walker, Louisville: He was a better shooter from the field than the foul line a year ago.
Like son, like father
Steve Alford, 30, the new coach at Southwest Missouri State, hired his father, Sam, as an assistant. Does Sam invoke parental rights in the huddle?
No sooner had the Wildcats lost to North Carolina in the Southeast Regional final last season than Rick Pitino went out and made his best Kentucky team stronger and deeper. He brought in Ron Mercer, the No. 1-rated prep player in the country, and Wayne Turner. When Walter McCarty was sidelined in the preseason, Mercer stepped right in. Swingman Derek Anderson is a transfer from Ohio State who figures to make a point guard of Tony Delk.
The Jayhawks, who've won the regular-season Big Eight title four of the last five years, are becoming an NCAA fixture in March. They figure to make a Final Four run with point guard supreme Jacque Vaughn, who should shatter the conference assist record. Inside, 6-11 Raef LaFrentz and 6-10 Scot Pollard need to show more muscle.
John Thompson is back -maybe all the way to the Final Four. Point guard Allen Iverson and pivot Othella Harrington must get it together this season for that to happen. Jerome Williams (10.9 ppg, 10 rpg) is solid inside, and freshman Victor Page may give the Hoyas an outside shooter.
The defending national champs only have two starters back, but they have replacements lined up. Cameron Dollar will fill in for Tyus Edney, and J. R. Henderson takes Ed O'Bannon's spot. Replacing George Zidek could fall to 6-10 shot-blocking freshman Jelani McCoy. Charles O'Bannon and Toby Bailey are the mainstays.
The Wildcats will play wide open, and explosive Kerry Kittles (21.4 ppg) is the man at the throttle. If 6-11 center Jason Lawson continues to improve and Alvin Williams proves a capable point guard, the Wildcats could be playing in late March.
It's time for forward Donta Bright, from Dunbar's famous 1992 team, to step up and help Marcus Camby carry the load. The Minutemen are thin behind the guard tandem of Edgar Padilla (point) and Carmelo Travieso (wing).
Junior swingman Ray Allen and 7-0 center Travis Knight form a nice nucleus. The Huskies need 6-8 Kirk King to develop at power forward, or they'll have to go to a three-guard rotation.
The Utes must replace 6-9 sophomore-to-be Alex Jensen, who left for a Mormon Church mission. But WAC player of the year Keith Van Horn (21 ppg) and sharpshooter Brandon Jessie (16.1) will still carry the team.
The Tigers gave Arkansas all it could handle in the NCAA tourney before falling in OT. They've got rising star Lorenzen Wright (14.8 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 71 blocks as a freshman) and defensive gem Cedric Henderson back among four returning starters.
When he needed it most, coach Nolan Richardson delivered one of the three best recruiting classes of the year. He needed it because he has no starters back, and now has 11 new players. Point guard Kareem Reid is ready to play after sitting out last season because of academics.
If Dunbar's Norman Nolan, a 6-8 sophomore, can deliver a performance reminiscent of Junior Burrough, the Cavaliers will look golden. They've got one of the country's best backcourts in Harold Deane and Curtis Staples and a shot-blocker in 6-9 Chris Alexander.
Darryl Wilson, a three-point deadeye, and Erick Dampier, a 6-11 wide-body, offer a tantalizing inside-outside combination. The Bulldogs dealt Kentucky's Rick Pitino only his second SEC loss at Rupp Arena last season.
The Tigers nearly derailed UCLA's title run last spring before Tyus Edney's buzzer-beating layup in the tournament. They lose only guard Paul O'Liney (19.7 ppg) from the starters. Forward Kelly Thames is back from a knee injury, and forward Julian Winfield is one of the best players in the Big Eight.
The Terps went to the Sweet 16 two straight seasons with Joe Smith as the headliner. He's in the NBA now, and the four returning starters want to show it wasn't a one-man team. Look for Maryland to turn up the pressure defense and distribute the ball to any numbers of would-be heroes, including Johnny Rhodes and Keith Booth.
The Cardinals have five starters back from a team that went 19-14 but lost to Towson State. Sophomore Samaki Walker recorded the first triple-double in school history against Kentucky, and DeJuan Wheat was MVP of the Metro Conference tournament.
16. Wake Forest
The good news for the Deacons is that Tim Duncan didn't join the ACC exodus to the NBA. The bad news is that Randolph Childress completed his eligibility. Whether they can replace Childress will determine how successful Duncan and the team are.
With five starters returning, the Cardinal will count on point guard Brevin Knight (16.6 ppg, 6.6 apg, 2.8 steals) and 7-1 sophomore center Tim Young (43 blocks) to show the way back to the NCAA postseason.
Center Art Long (42 dunks, 56 blocks) and forward Danny Fortson are dominating inside, but the Bearcats have questions on the perimeter with Keith LeGree and Damon Flint.
Four one-point losses in the Big Ten, and another in overtime, sent the Hawkeyes to the NIT last year. They're strong in the backcourt with three-point whiz Chris Kingsbury (21.2 ppg) and Andre Woolridge (5.6 apg), but suspect inside with forward Jess Settles (back injury) and center Russ Millard (grade problems).
20. North Carolina
A national championship may have slipped through Dean Smith's hands when Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace defected to the NBA. But don't weep for the Tar Heels. They have veterans Jeff McInnis and Dante Calabria back to lead and 7-2 Serge Swikker to rebound. Better yet, Smith recruited Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison as future - if not immediate - stars.
With the Big Ten in a fallback mode, the Boilermakers could win their third straight conference title. They've got eight of their top 10 scorers back, but only Brandon Brantley (10 ppg) averaged double figures.
22. Virginia Tech
The Hokies return five starters, including forwards Ace Custis (15.8 ppg, 10.5 rpg) and Shawn Smith from a team that won last year's NIT. Alvaro Tor, a 6-9 freshman from Barcelona, Spain, is their big man.
Maurice Taylor, the Big Ten's freshman of the year last season, and 6-9 Robert Traylor ' the freshman of the year this season? ' should make the Wolverines tough inside. It's the backcourt that may prove to be their downfall.
To revive the Hoosiers, Bob Knight went the JuCo route. He must hope 6-8 senior Brian Evans (17.4 ppg) provides leadership for the departed Alan Henderson. Guard play is where Indiana is most vulnerable.
Lute Olson will replace point guard Damon Stoudamire with sophomore Miles Simon, and will turn loose defensive ace Reggie Geary on the opposition's top gun. Up front, 6-10 Joseph Blair and 6-8 Ben Davis will probably dictate how successful the Wildcats are.
Bound for glory
Six underclassmen who'll play for (NBA) pay in 1996-97:
Marcus Camby, UMass, 6-11, Jr.: The shot-blocker supreme decided against joining last year's exodus, and it should pay off this time around.
Ray Allen, UConn, 6-5, Jr.: He can score, and that's the name of the game.
Adonal Foyle, Colgate, 6-10, Soph.: At 6-10 and 260 pounds, you don't even need to ask why.
Felipe Lopez, St. John's, 6-5, Soph.: He'll make up for last year and then some.
Allen Iverson, Georgetown, 6-0, Soph.: Probably the best pro prospect at point guard this season.
Stephon Marbury, Georgia Tech, 6-1, Fr.: After he conquers the ACC, there's only one step up.
Coaches on the bubble
These guys have to win big to keep their jobs.
Les Robinson, N.C. State: He has to bank on an improved Todd Fuller to get to the tournament.
Dale Brown, LSU: Losing Randy Livingston doesn't help Brown's chances to come back.
Brain Mahoney, St. John's: Replacing Lou Carnesecca was more trouble than he thought.
Randy Ayers, Ohio State: The program he inherited from Gary Williams has steadily declined.
A table for two
With the defection of Notre Dame to the Big East, Oral Roberts and Wofford are the last two independents in Division I-A.
On the road
They know the way to the Final Four in the Meadowlands:
1. Kentucky: There can be no excuses for the loaded Wilcats not to make the Final Four.
2. Georgetown: The emergence of Allen Iverson has reinvigorated the Hoyas.
3. Kansas: The tradition and the expectations are back.
4. Utah: The class of the WAC should win out in the West.