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CONFERENCE CALL

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Carmelo is gone and LeBron never arrived. College basketball used to be about anticipation, now it's about trepidation. Which will be the next program that goes afoul of the NCAA - or the law? Which will be the next great player to emerge who didn't jump directly to the NBA? Some of those answers will be played out in the next five months, as the 2003-2004 season winds its way to San Antonio for the Final Four. Here's a snapshot of the images that could emerge among the game's power conferences this winter.

ACC

Most overrated team

Let's see. Duke lost its best overall player in Dahntay Jones after the Blue Devils got beat by Kansas in the Sweet 16. This year's best senior, Chris Duhon, has yet to prove he's more than a nice complementary part. And they're the No. 1 team in the country in some eyes? That's krazy.

Most underrated team

The same logic prevails. Wake Forest has four starters back from a team that won the ACC regular-season title. It has a proven coach in Skip Prosser. And the Demon Deacons were picked by most to finish third in the league? That doesn't make any sense, either.

Best rivalry

Maryland-Duke still should be a terrific matchup, but with Roy Williams back in Chapel Hill to return North Carolina to its longstanding place among the game's elite, the Tar Heels and Blue Devils will again become the league's most heated game.

Coach on the hot seat

Is there a hotter chair in the country than the one Pete Gillen will be sitting on this season at Virginia? Gillen is wonderful with one-liners, but they can't overshadow a lack of postseason success.

Top freshman

Some considered Duke's Luol Deng the best high school player in the nation last season not named LeBron, but Wake Forest's Chris Paul will have a much more immediate impact.

Toughest home court

With old barns like Cole Field House and Reynolds Coliseum joining Carmichael Auditorium as barely used relics, Cameron Indoor Stadium is the most lunatic setting because of its intimacy.

Big Ten

Most overrated team

How can a team that's been picked to win the league and challenge for a national championship lose an exhibition game to the Harlem Globetrotters, as Michigan State did recently?

Most underrated team

Despite winning the regular-season title the past two years and returning four of its five starters, Wisconsin is no better than a third choice for most.

Best rivalry

Like a lot of leagues, the in-state rivalries tend to be the most fierce. That's why Michigan-Michigan State and Indiana-Purdue are the choices here.

Coach on the hot seat

Steve Alford was considered the darling when he took over from Tom Davis at Iowa four years ago. The Hawkeyes have not had a winning record in the Big Ten since, and might have problems doing it this season.

Top freshman

Quite a few could play major roles in this league, but none larger than Kris Humphries at Minnesota. With Rick Rickert gone, the Gophers are going to need a go-to guy, and the 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward could fit the bill.

Toughest home court

Michigan State's Breslin Center lost some of its mystique when the Spartans had a 53-game winning streak there broken in 2002, so now that honor goes to the Assembly Hall at Illinois.

Big East

Most overrated team

Pittsburgh has been picked to finish in the top four in the league, but with only two starters returning and an unproven coach in Jamie Dixon, the Panthers will have to prove themselves all over again.

Most underrated team

Notre Dame got lucky when point guard Chris Thomas decided to return for his senior year, and Mike Brey had a monster recruiting year to add more athleticism to replace some solid, if unspectacular, seniors.

Best rivalry

None of the rivalries are as intense as they used to be, but if you had to pick one, it's UConn-Syracuse because the Huskies and Orangemen have the best teams and the biggest fan bases.

Coach on the hot seat

Georgetown's Craig Esherick saved his job when the Hoyas made a respectable run to the National Invitation Tournament final (losing to St. John's), but they have been picked to finish near the bottom of the league this year

Top freshman

Connecticut's Charlie Villanueva was seriously considering a jump to the NBA. The 6-foot-10, 220-pound forward will help the league's top player, center Emeka Okafor, inside if he gets his NCAA eligibility straightened out.

Toughest home court

Pittsburgh has won 22 straight games at the Petersen Events Center, but as long as Syracuse fans are rabid about the Orangemen, it's tough to beat the Carrier Dome.

Big 12

Most overrated team

Missouri is the chic choice to win the league, yet the fallout from the Ricky Clemons affair and a continuing NCAA inquiry could leave the Tigers with loads of distractions if Quin Snyder isn't careful.

Most underrated team

With Andre Emmett returning to Lubbock for his senior year, Texas Tech shouldn't be a second-division team. And, hate him or not, that Knight fellow still can coach.

Best rivalry

The dynamics of any Kansas game changed with Bill Self replacing Roy Williams, but the Jayhawks against either Texas, Oklahoma or Missouri will still be a hot ticket.

Coach on the hot seat

It's definitely Snyder. He has the boyish charm, the Duke pedigree and a good record (84-49) in four seasons. But NCAA investigators tend to make coaches a little tight around the collar.

Top freshman

J.R. Giddens was one of those players Williams left behind in Lawrence, and the 6-foot-5 swingman should make Self's first season a lot easier in Jayhawk Nation.

Toughest home court

There are a lot of tough places to play throughout the league, mostly because, unlike other conferences, the Big 12 hasn't gone big time. For history, you can't beat Allen Fieldhouse at Kansas.

Pac-10

Most overrated team

It's not as if Oregon figures to win the Pac-10, or even contend. But in losing point guard Luke Ridnour, the Ducks might slip to the middle of the league, or even lower.

Most underrated team

UCLA hasn't been picked for the second division since before John Wooden arrived in Westwood, but Ben Howland is way too good a coach with far too much talent left over from Steve Lavin's regime.

Best rivalry

This is a league filled with underrated in-state rivalries that, no matter the record of the teams, the fans get into it. Right now, with the quality of the programs, Stanford-Cal could be the most intense.

Coach on the hot seat

When you're winning, it doesn't matter how you treat your players and the media. When you're losing, it's a different story. Coming off a 13-17 season, Southern California's Henry Bibby better start winning again.

Top freshman

Leon Powe has been compared with Cal's last big-time recruit, Shareef Abdur-Rahim. If the 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward is as good as Abdur-Rahim was in his one season in Berkeley, Powe's stay there won't be long.

Toughest home court

Though the atmosphere at Arizona's McKale Center has improved in recent years, Stanford's Maples Pavilion is still considered the Cameron of the west.

Southeastern

Most overrated team

Billy Donovan had another big recruiting year at Florida, getting Mr. Basketballs and Parade All-Americans as he always does. The Gators should be good, yet it seems as if they have too many shooters and not enough garbage men.

Most underrated team

It's not going to take Stan Heath long to rebuild at Arkansas, and the combination of a solid sophomore class and a top recruiting class should make the Razorbacks more competitive than most believe.

Best rivalry

Donovan and another fellow Rick Pitino disciple, Kentucky's Tubby Smith, have kept up their friendship despite the frenzied nature of this game. Their intensity is instilled in their respective teams.

Coach on the hot seat

Smith is on a perennially toasty chair in Lexington, and this season shouldn't be any different. Have the talk-show callers predicted another national championship yet?

Top freshman

Was it a coincidence that Georgia's Corey Gibbs was the only recruit among five that new coach Dennis Felton didn't let get out of his scholarship agreement after Jim Harrick was fired?

Toughest home court

Rupp Arena might be nearing 30, but Kentucky's old home court is still a cauldron. The fans are a tad more realistic than in the past, but they still tend to get a bit carried away for their 'Cats.

SWEET 16

1. Connecticut

The only question mark for the loaded Huskies is senior point guard Taliek Brown.

2. Arizona

The Wildcats lost three seniors, but added athleticism will go a long way in March.

3. Kansas

Roy Williams didn't leave the cupboard bare in Lawrence.

4. Missouri

With the NCAA sniffing around, this could be Quin Snyder's toughest job at Mizzou.

5. Duke

If Shavlik Randolph is as good in March as he has been in November, Duke could go far.

6. Michigan State

Point guard-by-committee could become a problem for the Spartans.

7. Syracuse

The defending champion has a lot returning to make up for Carmelo Anthony departure.

8. Oklahoma

The Sooners will be counting heavily on 5-foot-7 point guard Andrew Lavender.

9. North Carolina

If Rashad McCants buys into Roy Williams' system, there's no telling where the Tar Heels will end up.

10. Gonzaga

Despite early loss to St. Joseph's, the Bulldogs are among the elite.

11. Texas

The Longhorns have plenty of talent left from last year's Final Four team.

12. Illinois

Dee Brown and Deron Williams could warm up a cold winter in Champaign.

13. St. Joseph's

The Hawks have a lot more than just All-American Jameer Nelson.

14. Wake Forest

Freshman Chris Paul could be the Deacons' best guard since Randolph Childress.

15. Notre Dame

Great inside-outside combination with Torin Francis and Chris Thomas.

16. Kentucky

The Wildcats will ride the strong shoulders of Chuck Hayes.

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