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Men sort through letters

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Didn't we just get back from the Final Four in Minneapolis?

Didn't Duke recently claim its third national championship and Maryland claim it wuz robbed? Did Dick Vitale have enough time to catch his breath? Is it college basketball season already?

The 2001-02 season is quickly upon us, with Shane Battier leaving the ranks while Rick Pitino and Bob Knight are returning, with some of the same teams (including the Terrapins) picked to go back to this year's Final Four at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Here's a look at the men's game, from A to Z.

A is for Arizona

Last year's runner-up will open the season against Maryland tomorrow in the first round of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden. The game should take on special meaning for Wildcats coach Lute Olson, whose wife, Bobbi, succumbed to ovarian cancer midway through last season.

B is for bubble

March Madness is still months away, and every team is starting with a clean chalkboard. But it won't be long before you begin to hear that word ad nauseam to describe those teams whose chances of making the NCAA tournament seem to rise and fall with each game.

C is for Cole Field House

Among the most underrated venues in college basketball, the place that played host to the historic 1966 national championship matchup between Kentucky and Texas Western will play out its final season for Gary Williams and his Terps.

D is for Duke

What did you think we were going to say, DePaul? Even without Battier, the Blue Devils are loaded. Jason Williams and Chris Duhon make up the best backcourt in college hoops, Carlos Boozer is fully recovered from his foot injury and Mike Dunleavy will be coming off a memorable title game against Arizona.

E is for early departures

They have become de rigueur in the college game, leaving it nearly void of true stars. The NBA's new developmental league will only further deplete the amateur ranks, though many who fall into the category of athlete rather than student belong there -- or in the NBA -- anyway.

F is for Florida

Even though Kwame Brown opted for the pros, the Gators could be in line to win the national championship. Billy Donovan kicked Teddy Dupay off the team because of betting allegations, but senior center Udonis Haslem and junior guard Brett Nelson are leaders.

G is for Georgia State

After making the NCAA tournament and knocking out Wisconsin in the opening round, the Panthers nearly became Maryland's worst nightmare. Lefty Driesell should have his team back there again, this time as a representative of the newly named Atlantic Sun Conference.

H is for Horizon

That's the name of the new league that used to be the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, home to some of the NCAA tournament's recent giant killers. The favorite to win the nine-team conference is Butler, which crushed Wake Forest last year.

I is for Izzo

Aside from Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Michigan State's Tom Izzo is the most successful postseason coach in the past five years. The Spartans have gone to three straight Final Fours. Given the rebuilding job in East Lansing this season, it probably won't be four.

J is for Jacobsen

Stanford's Casey Jacobsen could become this season's Battier -- in other words, college basketball's poster boy -- but he won't have the supporting cast to get the Cardinal deep into the tournament. But he is a prime candidate for Player of the Year.

K is for Knight

That's Coach Knight (above) to you. It seems only yesterday that Knight was trying to save his job at Indiana. Having run off half his team at Texas Tech, it will be interesting to see how long it will take for the welcome mat in Lubbock to get a little frayed.

L is for Louisville

Once considered among the nation's elite, the Cardinals fell on tough times. Exit Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum. Enter Pitino, who has played savior before, most notably up the interstate in Lexington, where he will return Dec. 29 for the annual uncivil war between the Cards and the 'Cats.

M is for Maui

While honeymooners like to visit here to get their marriages off to a good start, college coaches treat the annual Maui Invitational with mixed emotions. It's a great recruiting tool, but when it comes time to play the games, most would rather be home for the holidays.

N is for non- conference games

With the exception of a few high-profile matchups, the early season is filled with the so-called "money" games for low-echelon schools looking to pay the bills by getting waxed on the road. Just ask Coppin State's Fang Mitchell, the king of this road.

O is for O'Connor

Marvin O'Connor (right) hasn't put St. Joseph's on the map when it comes to big-time college hoops, but he has helped the Hawks re-emerge as a force. His performance in last year's NCAA tournament made the senior one of the top prospects at shooting guard in the country.

P is for Pac-10

Among the most dominant conferences the past few seasons, it could be called the middle-of-the-Pac this season, with the loss of 11 players drafted by NBA teams. Though UCLA lost point guard Earl Watson, the return of Jason Kapono and Dan Gadzuric should make the Bruins the class of the league.

Q is for quality wins

Though the definition gets a little clouded, it usually means beating other teams headed for the NCAA tournament to enhance one's position to get selected or improve seeding. Most coaches will tell you that any win will suffice.

R is for rebounding

It's a lost art these days, but those who are serious about it usually get rewarded. Look at Michigan State, which had a remarkable 15.4 edge on its opponents last year and went to the Final Four. Western Kentucky's Chris Marcus is the nation's leading returning rebounder.

S is for Spoonhour

He might look like he's 80, and many thought he should have stayed retired, but new Nevada-Las Vegas coach Charlie Spoonhour will try to bring some stablility to a program that has had little of it for the past two decades.

T is for Tamir

As a high school junior, Tamir Goodman went from local phenom to national celebrity by becoming the first Orthodox Jew to sign with an Atlantic Coast Conference school. Goodman's hype has cooled, and after a solid freshman year at Towson, will be just another player for the Tigers.

U is for Utah

It will be an interesting year for the Utes, with the return of coach Rick Majerus after missing last season while recovering from heart surgery. If Britton Johnsen can return to the form he showed before going on a two-year Mormon mission, the Utes could be a sleeper in the West.

V is for vindication

How many coaches go into a season looking to make up for past disappointments? Last season it was the Williamses -- Maryland's Gary and Kansas' Roy -- who topped the list. Going into this season, it's new Massachusetts coach Steve Lappas, formerly of Villanova.

W is for Wagner

Not the tiny Staten Island school that has barely been heard from since the days P.J. Carlesimo coached there, but Milt Wagner, who joined John Calipari's staff in Memphis last year, just in time for his son, Dajuan, the best high school player in the country, to be recruited.

X is for Xavier

It's not as important to the Musketeers that Skip Prosser won't be back, but that David West will. Prosser left to go to Wake Forest, but West, the Atlantic 10's reigning Player of the Year, will try to give new coach Thad Matta (above) the same kinds of numbers that he posted last year. Matta was at Butler for only one season, but should step into a good situation with a program that has won at least 20 games five straight years.

Y is for Yarbrough

Ever since he arrived at Tennessee three years ago, the expectations have been heaped upon senior forward Vincent Yarbrough. He put up decent numbers (13.9 points, 7.4 rebounds) as a junior but needs to take it up another notch if new coach Buzz Peterson hopes to keep the Volunteers in the upper echelon of the SEC.

Z is for 'Zags

Gonzaga has gone beyond being a Cinderella team, with three straight Sweet 16 appearances. Losing Casey Calvary is tough, yet this program seems to replace its stars without losing a step. The Bulldogs still have Blake Stepp (above), who'll team up with Dan Dickau in the backcourt. If they get any help inside, a fourth straight Sweet 16 is feasible.

X is for Xavier

It's not as important to the Musketeers that Skip Prosser won't be back, but that David West will. Prosser left to go to Wake Forest, but West, the Atlantic 10's reigning player of the year, will try to give new coach Thad Matta the same kind of numbers that he posted last year. Matta was only at Butler for one season, but should step into a good situation with a program that has won at least 20 games five straight years.

NCAA tournament schedule

East: 1st, 2nd rounds, March 15 and 17, at Pittsburgh and Washington. Regionals, March 22 and 24, at Syracuse, N.Y.

South: 1st, 2nd rounds, March 14 and 16, at Greenville, S.C., and St. Louis. Regionals, March 21 and 23, at Lexington, Ky.

Midwest: 1st, 2nd rounds, March 15 and 17, at Chicago and Dallas. Regionals, March 22 and 24, at Madison, Wis.

West: 1st, 2nd rounds, March 14 and 16, at Albuquerque, N.M., and Sacramento, Calif. Regionals, March 21 and 23, at San Jose, Calif.

Final Four: Semifinals, March 30, at Atlanta. Final, April 1, at Atlanta.

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