Wednesday, March 31, 1999

Many title contenders next season

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The issue for Duke, ostensibly, was whether the Blue Devils measured up to the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats or the 1982 North Carolina Tar Heels or the 1968 UCLA Bruins. It turned out they weren't quite a match for the 1999 Connecticut Huskies.

        “We're a great basketball team, and we beat another great basketball team, the best team we've played all year,” said UConn coach Jim Calhoun, whose team earned its first NCAA championship with a 77-74 victory under the dome at Tropicana Field. “But we're not shocked.”

        That was the path Duke followed Monday night, from potentially the best team ever to merely the best team the Huskies played this season.

        The rush to anoint the Blue Devils as invincible never seemed properly connected to their achievements. They went 16-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but in a year when the ACC produced only two other teams fit for the NCAA Tournament. They reached the Final Four easily, but played no team seeded higher than No.6 to get there.

        What no one cared to acknowledge through all of that was how few teams Duke faced that were competent enough to present a challenge. This should change as the century does. The college game may enjoy a renaissance with numerous highly competitive teams in 1999-2000.

        We will not be entirely certain what next season promises until the NBA is done picking through the elite underclassmen. But there could be as many legitimate contenders as the 1997-98 season, when Kentucky outlasted a highly competitive field that included Duke, North Carolina, Utah, Stanford and Kansas.

        Among them:

        • Duke: It is possible the Devils could lose both point guard William Avery and center Elton Brand ahead of schedule. Although Avery is almost certain to leave, Brand may be tempted to return to complete the business he and his teammates were unable to finish. With Brand in the middle, a more experienced Corey Maggette on the wing and McDonald's All-American Jason Williams to replace Avery at the point, Duke would need only to find consistent perimeter scoring.

        • Temple: If the Owls play with the same aggression they did in the NCAAs, they could at last carry coach John Chaney to the Final Four. Through the year, they were not assertive and guard Pepe Sanchez was imprecise on offense. If he has a better season and forward Mark Karcher gets himself in better shape, this could be an elite team.

        • Cincinnati: The Bearcats are loaded with size and athletic ability, but must become more dedicated on offense and must decide which of their fine young guards runs the point: Sophomore Steve Logan or incoming freshman Kenny Satterfield. The Bearcats might be better with Satterfield initiating the offense and pushing the ball on the break, but either way they should be UC's best-shooting backcourt since the early 1990s.

        • Kentucky: This team has less margin for error because of the shaky point guard situation. Junior Saul Smith is not exceptionally strong, quick nor accurate as a shooter. With freshman Keith Bogans more talented than anyone returning and sophomores Desmond Allison and Tayshaun Prince more experienced than they were last year, scoring points will not be quite the chore it was.

        • Illinois: One of the nation's best tacticians at last will have talent worthy of his gifts as big men Brian Cook and Marcus Griffin and point guard Frankie Williams join Big Ten freshman of the year Cory Bradford. The Illini will be next year's Ohio State-style turnaround story.

        • Stanford: Although there will be questions about who shall run the offense, incoming wing Casey Jacobsen helps make this a quicker, more aggressive team with the ability to score in transition and attack defensively. This presumes the 6-11 Collins twins, Jarron and Jason, are healthy for a change.

        • Michigan State: If point guard Mateen Cleaves stays, the Spartans will be a much more dynamic offensive team than this season. They add transfer Mike Chappell, redshirt David Thomas and McDonald's All-American Jason Richardson to All-Big Ten wing Morris Peterson and solid Charlie Bell.

        • Connecticut: The Huskies will likely defend their title without Final Four most outstanding player Richard Hamilton and veteran leader Ricky Moore but still have guard Khalid El-Amin, the inside tandem of Kevin Freeman and Jake Voskuhl and a promising group of recruits.

        Personnel changes will mean less pressure on the Huskies to repeat.

        “As of this moment,” Calhoun said after the game, “we're the best team in the country.” He gets a little more than six months to make that claim, but the rest of his life to enjoy it.


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