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Focus Changes for the Better

November 20, 2003|Robyn Norwood

At least there are games now.

College basketball's sordid season has finally given way to box scores.

Stories of scandals are being replaced by talk of field-goal percentages, not that Baylor will be able to separate itself from the memory of Patrick Dennehy or the misdeeds his killing uncovered.

On the court, Connecticut has not only the top-ranked men's and women's teams, but both player-of-the-year favorites in Emeka Okafor and Diana Taurasi.

But here's how little the No. 1 ranking at the start of the season means in the men's game: The last team to go from preseason No. 1 to cutting down the nets at the Final Four was 1996 champion Kentucky.

Even the No. 1 ranking just before the NCAA tournament starts doesn't mean much. (Ask Arizona.)

And consider this: National champion Syracuse wasn't even in the top 25 when last season began.

That said, here are eight intriguing teams and their prospects for the Final Four:

Connecticut -- Yes, the Huskies trailed Yale at halftime, but they have five starters back from a Sweet 16 team. The key pieces are all there: Okafor and shooting guard Ben Gordon look like lottery picks, and Connecticut has a veteran point guard in Taliek Brown.

Duke -- The Blue Devils haven't reached the Final Four since winning the title in 2001, which makes them overdue, even with six sophomores -- and perhaps the nation's best freshman in Luol Deng.

"In today's world in college basketball, I feel like we're old," Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I never thought I'd say that ... "

Florida -- The Gators ooze young talent with such players as David Lee, Christian Drejer, Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh, but Matt Bonner is a huge loss and Billy Donovan's teams have underachieved in the tournament the last two seasons.

Kansas -- The Jayhawks not only lost Coach Roy Williams to North Carolina, they also lost seniors Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison. Still, Wayne Simien, Keith Langford, Aaron Miles and Jeff Graves are a solid group, and they're joined by freshman center David Padgett.

Michigan State -- If Tom Izzo's team beats Kansas, Duke, Oklahoma, Kentucky, UCLA and Syracuse before the first week of January is over, maybe the Spartans should get the NCAA championship trophy early. Guard Chris Hill leads three starters back from a group that reached the Elite Eight.

Missouri -- NCAA scrutiny might catch up to the Tigers before the rest of the Big 12 Conference does. The Tiger program was put under investigation last summer, after the dismissal of troubled guard Ricky Clemons. Rickey Paulding and Arthur Johnson lead four returning starters, and Missouri added depth in Jason Conley, who led the nation in scoring as a freshman at Virginia Military Institute but will have to adjust to the Big 12.

Stanford -- Arizona is the favorite in the Pacific 10 Conference, but minus the leadership and playmaking of Jason Gardner and Luke Walton, Lute Olson's assortment of talent might need another year. The Cardinal has Josh Childress among four starters returning from a 24-9 team, plus point guard Chris Hernandez back from a broken foot.

Syracuse -- The Orangemen weren't only about Carmelo Anthony. Hakim Warrick's dunks and that huge blocked shot at the end of the NCAA title game are testimony to his athletic ability. Nor can Gerry McNamara's six three-point baskets in the first half soon be forgotten.

Five Players to Watch

Ike Diogu, Arizona State -- The Sun Devils' 6-foot-8, 250-pound force in the post has been chosen a first-team preseason All-American by Associated Press, the first in school history.

"If he is not the best player in the country, he is certainly one of the top three or four," Coach Rob Evans said.

Raymond Felton, North Carolina -- If Williams is to make North Carolina an immediate contender after the Tar Heels did not reach the NCAA tournament two years in a row, Felton will be crucial -- because of Williams' emphasis on the running game and because the Tar Heels don't have a backup at the point.

Okafor -- He is the nation's best shot blocker and is good for an almost automatic double-double. What's more, he is a finance major with a 3.73 grade-point average who will turn pro as a junior after this season -- with a diploma in hand.

Paulding -- Paulding was best known for his dunking ability before the NCAA tournament, when he scored 36 points against Marquette and made nine three-point baskets.

Jameer Nelson, St. Joseph's -- It wasn't his 20-point, 10-assist, eight-rebound line in a season-opening victory over Gonzaga that got him anointed the nation's best point guard. It was that spin move and up-and-under pass.

Catch Them While You Can

Anthony conquered college basketball in a single season, picking up an NCAA championship on his way to the NBA.

This season's best freshman is probably Duke's Deng, who at 6-8 and 220 pounds can play inside and outside. Krzyzewski is hardly downplaying Deng's ability, and teammate Daniel Ewing called him "a very special player," adding:

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