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These teams have the goods to contend (Part III)

8/25/2009

Upon reading Dick Vitale's Top 40, I started to think about the massive group in the middle of the college basketball world that feels forever disrespected by not being on such a list. Not that whining gets you anywhere in life; it's just that once you get past the top 10 or so, many teams are similar. That's why making a list such as Dickie V's is not an easy task.

So I decided to sit down and think of how many teams could end the season on such a list and, if everything worked out, be right in the NCAA tourney discussion. To do so, I needed a hook, and being left out was the first and most obvious tie among teams. But there also had to be a good storyline or two and some chatter in college hoops about a certain team's potential.

In the end, I picked 30 teams that weren't in Vitale's rankings -- 30 teams worth watching and discussing. The first 10 were Maryland, Northern Iowa, Creighton, Washington State, Oregon, Cincinnati, BYU, Virginia Tech, Vanderbilt and Nevada. The next 10 were Missouri, Wisconsin, Iowa State, Boston College, Arizona, Oregon State, Northwestern, Southern Illinois, Richmond and San Diego State.

Without further ado, here is my final group of potential sleepers ...

Not only has UCLA won at least part of the past four Pac-10 titles, but Ben Howland -- let's not forget -- has taken the Bruins to the Final Four three times. Former McDonald's All American Malcolm Lee, along with fellow soph Jerime Anderson, will have the task of replacing three-year starter and All-American guard Darren Collison and fellow first-round selection Jrue Holiday. Lee is a long-armed, athletic combo whose body type and development remind some of Collison. Mike Roll adds stability as a wing shooter, with incoming frosh Tyler Honeycutt as a highly athletic -- though very raw -- 3-man. Nikola Dragovic returns at the 4, and with several options at center, UCLA will be a team that defends first, scores off defense second and has to manufacture points in order to get into the mid-70s. But Howland has won that way at all three of his coaching stops, and the Pac-10 is very average this season.

Miami should be a better team than the one from last season that was overly reliant on Jack McClinton to bail it out. The ACC is going to be very good this season, and the U simply does not have the same home-court advantage as the longtime members of the league, but there is talent here. Highly touted freshman Durand Scott has a great rep and superior talent, while Dwayne Collins is a monster inside. If DeQuan Jones is as good as Frank Haith believes, Miami is a top-40 team for sure.

Quick quiz: Who won the SEC last season? LSU, that's who. The Tigers return their second-leading scorer in Tasmin Mitchell and their starting point guard in Bo Spencer. Trent Johnson and his staff believe they have a steal of a freshman in Aaron Dotson from Seattle's Rainier Beach High. You might not have heard of the Emerald City talent since he missed his senior year with a knee injury, but Dotson can play. If he and fellow frosh Eddie Ludwig come around quickly to Johnson's system, LSU should be right in the hunt for an NCAA bid. Ludwig needs to add some weight, but he can rebound, run and score.

Having watched highly regarded freshman Aaric Murray this summer, I can tell you La Salle finally looks like it might get over that proverbial hump in the A-10. With nearly everyone back, Dr. John Giannini has the pieces in place. An extra year of eligibility for leading rebounder Vernon Goodridge would help, but this is still a dangerous team without him. Rodney Green is a scorer deluxe, and Xavier has dropped a notch. The 17-year NCAA drought might just end this March.

No team was a bigger disappointment down the stretch last season than Wake Forest, which went from being the No. 1 team in the country to the blowout victim of Cleveland State in the NCAA first round. So it would be easy to forget about the Deacons, considering they lost James Johnson and Jeff Teague to the NBA. Not so fast. Al-Farouq Aminu was really good his first season and will only get better. And don't forget about the sophomore twin towers Ty Walker (7 feet) and Tony Woods (6-foot-11), who arrived in Winston-Salem with considerable hype and might end up justifying it. Incoming frosh Ari Stewart, a 6-7 small forward, is also one worth watching.

How many years are we going to collectively dismiss Utah State after it loses its best player? Let's just make this crystal clear: Under Stew Morrill, Utah State wins games. Period. So why should I be worried that the Aggies lost big man Gary Wilkinson and his 17 points a game? Remember, the team lost all-time leading scorer Jaycee Carroll and then went out and won 30 games last season. Everyone from the squad but Wilkinson returns, including Jared Quayle and Tai Wesley. Dismiss the Aggies at your own peril.

Houston won 20-plus games yet again, but because the Cougars lost to Memphis three more times, no one noticed, including the selection committee. Lost in his flagrant foul and subsequent ejection at Arizona last winter is the fact that Aubrey Coleman can really "go." Coleman is pretty much good for 20 a night. And if he doesn't score that many, Kelvin Lewis almost certainly will.

Has any team been as decimated by injuries the past couple of years than Ole Miss? Andy Kennedy's group just can't seem to get a break. Although one could argue last season's early injury to Chris Warren allowed Ole Miss to see just how good Terrico White is. Losing David Huertas to the Puerto Rican pro league hurts, but Kennedy has recruited well, and the Rebels -- if they stay healthy -- have enough to make a run in the SEC West.

Ask anyone in the Big 12 which team has great young talent and they'll tell you it's Baylor. So he won't have the pressure to score 25 a night,
LaceDarius Dunn is surely pleased former Memphis signee Nolan Dennis is around to carry some of the load. A.J. Walton, ranked among the top 10 incoming freshman point guards, will compete with Tweety Carter for the starts at the 1 (they might play together some, too). Quincy Acy and newcomer Cory Jefferson make them much better inside than in years past, and
Mark McLaughlin gives them yet another scorer. The Bears finished well and recruited well. If they will guard someone, they have the ability to make things interesting in the Big 12.

What an interesting collection of talent at Seton Hall. Bobby Gonzalez has been building toward this season, and for good reason. Herb Pope is eligible, and so too is Mizzou transfer Keon Lawrence. So prolific scorer Jeremy Hazell now has plenty of options in Big East play. With St. John's full of returners but no game breakers, and Rutgers still mired in the muck of youth, a veteran Pirates group should be the best team in the NY/NJ metropolitan area. More importantly, the Hall might also be worthy of an NCAA tourney bid.

Doug Gottlieb is a college basketball analyst for ESPN and a contributor to ESPN.com. "The Doug Gottlieb Show" can be heard weekdays from 4-7 p.m. ET on ESPN Radio and ESPNRadio.com.