Gators look to defend title in 2006–07 college basketball season

College basketball is back and it’s picking up where it left off last April. Now almost a month into the season, the stage has been set for an exciting few months leading up to the madness in March known as the College Basketball Tournament.
Here’s your brief guide to the game’s top teams, top players, and the big stories to monitor throughout the season.

The Florida Gators come into the season as the defending champions, returning all five starters from a year ago. The Gators should actually be better than they were a year ago, which is a scary thought for their competition.

As we see every year, anything can happen come March, but on paper, Florida has the best shot to bring home the championship.

The UCLA Bruins lost to Florida in last season’s championship game and they’ve had to replace three starters. Despite this, UCLA is returning many talented and experienced players including Pac-10 Player of the Year candidate Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp, who missed the majority of last season due to a hip injury. Shipp is healthy now, and as long as Darren Collison can be a solid point guard, the Bruins will be primed for a successful season.

The Pitt Panthers, behind Big East preseason Player of the Year Aaron Gray, should be able to fill the void left from the graduation of Carl Krauser and have one of their best seasons in recent history.

Gray will cause problems in the paint for opponents all season and transfer Mike Cook has already stepped in and produced. Add in their depth and experience and Pitt will be a dangerous team.

The Ohio State Buckeyes brought in possibly the best recruiting class in the history of college basketball headlined by future NBA number-one pick Greg Oden.

The new rule that doesn’t allow high school players to go directly into the NBA benefited OSU greatly.

Oden and the four other newcomers that make up the “Thad Five” (named after Buckeyes head coach Thad Matta), combined with some solid returners make the Buckeyes the favorite in the Big 10.

Oden made his debut Saturday and he’s the real deal. OSU could be the first school in history to win the college football and college basketball championships in the same year.

The Kansas Jayhawks won the Big 12 conference last year with three freshmen and two sophomores in their starting lineup. These five players, led by Brandon Rush, are all a year older and hungry to avenge their early exits from the tourney the past two years. They already proved they can beat the best, as they defeated Florida over Thanksgiving weekend.

Last but not least are the North Carolina Tar Heels. UNC has stockpiled talent the past two years to replace the top players on their 2005 championship team. Tyler Hansbrough leads a Tar Heels team that is starting three top-notch freshmen.
UNC has so much talent on this team that their last guy off the bench would start on most other teams.

The National Player of the Year is up in the air with no clear-cut favorite. UNC’s Hansbrough (the preseason ACC Player of the Year) is a front runner along with Pitt’s Gray and Florida’s Joakim Noah, who was the MVP of last year’s championship game. Wisconsin’s Alando Tucker has All-American potential as does LSU’s Glen Davis, nicknamed “Baby Bull” and Marquette’s Dominic James, who poured in 25 points in their win at Duke a few weeks ago.

The season’s just begun but we’ve already witnessed some great games and events that will factor into which teams in March make the tournament and which don’t.

Teams from mid-major conferences, that typically aren’t expected to compete with the teams from the traditional six power conferences, are suddenly creating more parity in the game by defeating those teams.

The Horizon League’s Butler (ranked 19th) is 9–0, having won the preseason NIT and already having wins against Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, and Gonzaga.

The Missouri Valley Conference’s Wichita State (ranked 17th) is 6–0, with wins over sixth-ranked LSU and 15th-ranked Syracuse. We saw these mid-major teams make a dent in our tournament brackets last March (remember George Mason) and they’re continuing their success into this season.

Expect the unexpected this season but look for the six teams mentioned above to make runs deep into the National Tournament with North Carolina and Florida meeting in the championship game due to both team’s sheer talent and great coaching. Florida, having experience on its side, is a good bet to hold off North Carolina and win its second national championship in a row.