Sunday, November 10, 2002

Hoops: Big matchups come early, often

By Jim O'Connell
The Associated Press

The same questions have loomed at the start of every college basketball season lately, and 2002-03 is no different. Will another team make a run at being a repeat champion for just the second time since UCLA's seven-year run ended 30 years ago?

Are there enough good upperclassmen left to keep people interested in college basketball since the NBA draft was once again filled with underclassmen?

How much of an impact can freshmen make if the best of them decided to skip college and the rest are preparing for a quick stopover?

Are there enough quality intersectional matchups and down-to-the-wire conference races to make the four months leading to March Madness worth the wait?

As always, the answers are yes, and in some cases the answers are a resounding yes.

When Juan Dixon threw the ball toward the roof of the Georgia Dome to celebrate Maryland's first national championship, the talk of what would happen this season began.

The "Fear the Turtle" T-shirts weren't even packed away when talk of a Terrapins repeat was being played down. With one starter - point guard Steve Blake - coming back, the focus this season in College Park is on the new $107 million, 18,000-seat Comcast Center.

Maryland coach Gary Williams has plans for how the Terrapins will use its season of being called "defending champions."

"What you have to do with that is use it as a matter of pride," he said. "We won't let anyone come in here and take away from us what we have tried to establish. You can't go over the line and be cocky, though. Last year's success doesn't guarantee us anything this year."

That is something that so many teams, whether loaded with returnees or faced with rebuilding, have learned since UCLA's amazing run.

Only Duke in 1992 managed to repeat as national champions since 1973, even though some have at least gotten back to the Final Four, including Arkansas, whose defense in 1995 ended with a loss in the championship game.

The one thing each of the recent NCAA champions has had in common was the leadership of upperclassmen, especially seniors. In a day and age when seniors seem to have been the forgotten class in college basketball, it is still the most important to coaches.

This season, Arizona (Jason Gardner and Luke Walton), Pittsburgh (Brandin Knight), Kansas (Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich) and Oklahoma (Hollis Price) are just a few of the highly regarded teams that have a senior ready to lead the last celebration of the season as Dixon did last year, Shane Battier of Duke the year before and Mateen Cleaves of Michigan State the year before that.

"Especially in college basketball, a team is as good as their leaders make them," Walton said. "A lot of teams have a lot of talent, but without leadership it's not going to go very far, since so many kids are so young."

The Class of '06 has the usual array of stars who will play right away such as Carmelo Anthony at Syracuse, but it was certain classes that drew the attention leading to the season.

Duke, North Carolina, Villanova and Michigan State brought in the best freshman classes, with Florida, Illinois and Arizona not far behind.

Right now, it doesn't matter how many members of the class will be around in three, or even two years. The fact that they'll be there this season should keep Duke and Michigan State among the elite and Villanova and North Carolina on the list of those ready to make a move back onto that level.

"For the young guys, you hope it hits them to where they feel comfortable and they go from thinking about what they are supposed to do to being instinctive," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said of the freshmen making the transition from high school. "That will go at different times for the different kids."

Some may have to hurry their progress along because of high-profile early season matchups. The Coaches vs. Cancer Classic has games such as Villanova-Marquette, Georgia vs. Texas and Alabama vs. Oklahoma.

The Maui Invitational gets under way with Virginia meeting Chaminade in a 20th anniversary rematch of what many consider the biggest upset in college basketball history. Chaminade, then an NAIA school, beat the top-ranked Cavaliers on Christmas Eve 1982.

Maryland and Indiana will stage a much quicker reunion, meeting Dec. 3 in a rematch of last season's title game. Oklahoma gets visits from Michigan State and Connecticut in a three-day span in January. And what should be a meeting of top five teams, maybe even 1 vs. 2, occurs on Jan. 25, when Arizona visits Kansas.

The big conferences should all have three, four and, in some cases, five teams good enough to win the regular season title. And don't forget the mid-majors such as the West Coast Conference, which should once again give us a season-long battle between Gonzaga and Pepperdine.

It will be strange not seeing Nolan Richardson or Jerry Tarkanian working a sideline this season. Stan Heath, Richardson's replacement at Arkansas, will face some extra scrutiny as he arrives in Fayetteville with only one season as a head coach, although Kent State did have a nice run in the NCAA tournament.

One coach everyone will be watching is Cincinnati's Bob Huggins, who had a heart attack Sept. 28, yet will be on the Bearcats' bench, or rather in front of it.

"I'd probably have a hard time sitting," Huggins said. "I've never sat. I've been thinking for a couple of years that I probably ought to do that, but I don't think I can."

Sounds as if Huggins is ready for just another season of college basketball.

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