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Letter men

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A is for Arizona. This marks the third time in the past six years that the Wildcats have been the preseason No. 1, and the ranking is legit. Arizona boasts experience in seniors Jason Gardner and Luke Walton, as well as a talented underclass. Papa Lute Olson could get his second championship ring.

B is for Billet. Virginia's Todd Billet proved himself a capable scorer two years ago at Rutgers, and he should help the Cavaliers overcome the loss of Roger Mason. But the Cavaliers will also need to straighten out their situation at the point, where Keith Jenifer (Towson Catholic) filled in for the injured Majestic Mapp.

C is for Carmelo. The road from Towson Catholic took Carmelo Anthony (left) last year to Oak ill Academy and this season to Syracuse, where his arrival is the most anticipated of any freshman there since Pearl Washington. The question is, will it be a one-year stay before Anthony's next stop - the NBA?

D is for Duquesne. Just kidding. The team everyone outside Durham loves to hate - Duke - has reloaded with the best recruiting class in college basketball since Michigan's Fab Five. Given all the talent that departed, Shavlik Randolph, Sean Dockery and the rest of this celebrated group had better be as good as advertised.

E is for Ellis. Auburn's Cliff Ellis occupies the same seat he had at Clemson a few years back - a hot one. After winning the SEC and going to the Sweet 16 with a 29-4 team in 1999, the Tigers slid to 12-16 last season and have imperiled the future of their guitar-playing coach.

F is for Ford. As a freshman, Texas guard T.J. Ford led the Longhorns to the Sweet 16. The first freshman to lead the country in assists (8.27), Ford has a strong, veteran group surrounding him in Austin. With all that, Texas is still picked to finish behind Kansas and Oklahoma in the Big 12.

G is for Greensboro. The North Carolina city will be host to the 50th Atlantic Coast Conference tournament come March, but the league has lost some of its luster and the tournament, once considered to be among the most exciting events in sports, hardly gets any attention nationally.

H is for Huggins. The volatile Cincinnati coach (left) had a reality check last month, when he suffered a heart attack at the age of 49. There are already signs that laid-back Bob will be replaced by the expletive-spewing madman Bearcats fans have come to love and others have come to loathe.

I is for Indiana. The Hoosiers went a lot further than most, including their own fans, figured until running into Maryland in last season's NCAA final. Jared Jeffries and Dane Fife are gone, but third-year coach Mike Davis should have enough to compete in the Big Ten.

J is for junior college transfers. Several could make an immediate impact this season, starting with Jamar Smith at Maryland. Others who could play big roles for their teams are guard-forward Antwain Barbour at Kentucky and center-forward Kendall Dartez at Louisville.

K is for Kansas. The bittersweet taste of losing to Maryland in the national semifinals is still in the Jayhawks' mouths, and they will have to contemplate another winter filled with rumors of beloved coach Roy Williams heading back to North Carolina if the Tar Heels continue to struggle.

L is for Louisville. Being the perpetual second fiddle in the basketball-crazy state of Kentucky doesn't sit well with Rick Pitino, and the only man to coach both the Cardinals and Wildcats won't stop until he has found some parity with the not-so-friendly neighbors in Lexington.

M is for Marcus. Western Kentucky center Chris Marcus (left) was considered a potential NBA lottery pick after leading the country in rebounding as a sophomore, but the massive 7-foot-1 center missed much of last season with a foot injury. He will try to bring his stock back up with a solid senior year.

N is for New Orleans (and North Carolina). The Big Easy hasn't been host to a Final Four since 1993, the year of North Carolina's last championship. The Tar Heels also won there in 1982. Don't look for a repeat this season. Given its youth, North Carolina isn't a lock to get to the NCAA tournament.

O is for Oregon. Guards Luke Ridnour and Luke Jackson will return to lead the revitalized Ducks after winning the Pacific-10 last season and reaching the Elite Eight (before losing to Kansas). Oregon should battle Arizona - led by its own Luke, Walton - for the league title again.

P is for Pittsburgh. Quietly, the Panthers have become a force in the Big East. With senior guard Brandin Knight surrounded by an experienced group that reached the Sweet 16 last season, and a new building to play in, Pittsburgh should prove last year's 29-6 record wasn't a fluke.

Q is for quality wins. Come March, bubble teams that spent the first month of the season feasting on cupcakes might find themselves a few impressive wins short of an NCAA tournament invitation. That's why schools such as Georgetown have beefed up their nonconference schedules.

R is for repeat. There's a good reason there has been only one repeat champion in men's basketball since 1973. Duke did it, winning in 1991 and 1992. This year, it will be Maryland's turn to try. The Terps will have plenty of experience for a Final Four threepeat, but will they have enough firepower?

S is for Sooners. Oklahoma laid an egg in the Final Four last season against Indiana, and the fans in Norman haven't forgotten. Kelvin Sampson's team will have a chance to finish what it started, with Hollis Price and Ebi Ere leading the charge to the Big Easy.

T is for Texas Tech. The Red Raiders were one of college basketball's big surprises last season, going to their first NCAA tournament since 1996. A first-round loss to Southern Illinois was a bit embarrassing for Bob Knight (right), but it didn't detract much from his inaugural season in Lubbock.

U is for underrated. There are plenty of teams, players and coaches who can qualify. But the program that probably tops the list is Tulsa, where veteran coach John Phillips has continued a winning tradition with the likes of quicksilver point guard Antonio Reed and undersized shot-blocker Kevin Johnson.

V is for Vitale. The face - and voice - of college basketball for several years, Dick Vitale is loud, loony and less than discreet at times about his love for Duke. But the man is genuine when it comes to his passion for the game. It's just that the message is often overshadowed by the messenger.

W is for Winthrop. The little South Carolina school that sounds like the name of someone's butler (as opposed to Butler, which sounds like the name of a school) will be going for a fifth straight Big South title. With eight of the top 11 players returning, No. 5 seems likely.

X is for Xavier. The best news came last spring, when Atlantic 10 Player of the Year David West decided to return for his senior year rather than put his name into the NBA draft. With West and three other starters back, the Musketeers should be as good as - if not better than - last season's 26-6 team.

Y is for Yale. The Bulldogs shared the Ivy League regular-season title with perennial powers Pennsylvania and Princeton, but they wound up in the National Invitation Tournament after the three-way playoff for the conference's only NCAA invitation. Yale has plenty of talent back to give the Quakers another run this season.

Z is for 'Zags. Gonzaga was the popular pick to go to the Final Four, but the Bulldogs wound up going home early. Dan Dickau is gone, but Blake Stepp should step in at the point and forward Zach Gourde and center-forward Cory Violette should give coach Mark Few many scoring options.

Sweet 16

1, Arizona

The Wildcats are the best team in the country and maybe in their state, including the NBA Suns.

2. Kansas

Replacing Drew Gooden shouldn't be as difficult as some think, and Roy Williams still has enough talent to finally win it all.

3. tierida

If the Gators can find more scorers than Matt Bonner and Brett Nelson, they could get to the Final Four.

4. Oklahoma

Aaron McGhee's powerful pres-ence will be missed inside, but Jabahri Browm is on the brink of stardom.

5. Texas

This year's team, led by T.J. Ford, is the reason Rick Barnes left Clemson for Austin, but the Longhorns are still No. 3 in the powerful Big 12.

6. Pittsburgh

The Panthers are just the latest beneficiary of the Big East's tra-ditional powers not being as good as they were before

7. Alabama

Last week's win over Oklahoma was certainly a coming-out party for the Tide, and 'Bama should roll in the SEC

8. Oregon

If the Ducks find a way to play some defense in the NCAA tournament, they could reach the Elite Eight again.

9. Duke

Getting to the Sweet 16 will be a tough, yet not impossible, chore for a team that lost more of its of-fense and leadership than any other school in the country.

10. UCLA

The return of Jason Kapono was a good move for the senior forward and for the Bruins, because he is the only senior who will figure in Steve Lavin's plans

11. Maryland

If Drew Nicholas can fill the scor-ing void left by Juan Dixon's de-parture, the Terrapins can make another run in March.

12. Michigan State

The Spartans, and particularly point guard Chris Hill, will benefit from l~t ~pn~on's growing pains.

13. Connecticut

The team that took Maryland to the wire in the Elite Eight will need somebody to replace Caron Butler and Johnhie Selvie, but Jim Calhoun usually finds a way.

14. Cincinnati

Leonard Stokes has the talent to produce huge games -- witness his 39 points against UCLA in the NCAAs -- and needs to have many to give the Bearcats a shot.

15. Kentucky

The soap opera continues with the departure of Jason Parker, but Tubby Smith still has enough quality players left to make a decent run

16. Xavier David West was a second-team All-American last year and is a national Player of the Year candidate.

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