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The Return Of The NCAA Big Man

With another March Madness one and done, all we as fans have left are shattered brackets and hopes for next year.  Defense of a championship is an arduous task in any sport, especially in college basketball (the last team to win back to back tournaments were the 1991-92 Duke Blue Devils).  That is why what the Florida Gators did this season is such an accomplishment.  Though considered one of the favorites to win it all again, there were many doubters of Billy Donovan?s experienced Florida team coming into the tournament.  But when you really think about it, the Gators should have been the clear-cut favorites to win from the outset.  

Florida returned every starter from last year, including the 2006 Tournament MOP Joakim Noah who could have easily bolted for the NBA after his first championship last March.  We all remember the inexperienced Gator team that came out of relatively nowhere to cut down the nets last year, but for this March Madness we saw a cohesive and veteran group reclaim what was so rightfully theirs.  

The bottom line was this year?s Gators were stacked; All five starters averaged double figures in scoring and shared the ball with one another. Their roster was full of future NBA players and Billy Donovan, basketball?s new great young coach, paced the sidelines.  

Is this Gators team one of the best ever?  Probably not, but we as fans should not forget this team.  In this age of players leaving early for the NBA, seldom do we find athletes willing to stay at school and do something special.  Not to mention the amazing job the University of Florida athletic department has done this year.  Championships in both football and basketball have truly made this the year of the Gator.

Regardless of the loss in the championship game to Florida, Greg Oden has officially arrived as the next basketball phenom for years to come.  Odenmania has hit thanks to a stellar performance last Monday; If no one knew who Greg Oden was before, they surely do now.  He reminds me of a young David Robinson (although he looks older than the retired Admiral does currently), with relentless interior defense, registering four blocks in the championship game.  He was also able to put up 25 points on 10-15 shooting against Florida?s vaunted post defenders including Al Horford, who many believe to be NBA ready right now.  Oden could benefit from another year in college, as could the majority of NBA prospects, but there is no way he will stay.  He is ready to take his place, along with Kevin Durant, as the next ?it? player in association, and as a fan, I could not be more excited.  Let?s see how the rest of the crop of collegiate superstars fared throughout the madness:

Corey Brewer

The lanky and versatile forward only helped his case as an NBA prospect with strong performances throughout March, including an MOP award in the championship game.  Nicknamed the ?Drunken Dribbler? for his erratic yet elusive style of play, Brewer has cemented himself the best on ball defenders in college basketball this season.  He has exceptional quickness for a 6?8? forward, and can tenaciously defend anyone on the court.  He even defended the 7-foot Oden for a stretch in the title game, blocking the immense center at one point.  Drawing comparisons to the ?Plastic Man? Stacy Augmon, Brewer has NBA scouts drooling over his versatility and defensive prowess.  Similar to his teammate Joakim Noah, Brewer has the speed and quickness of guard in a forward?s body with extremely long arms.  Where it seems Horford and Noah may get most of the hype, Brewer can be better than his teammates at the next level.  He should be terrorizing opposing scorers in NBA for years to come.  

Roy Hibbert

The Georgetown Giant had quite a month of March, leading his Hoyas to the Final Four.  Like Oden, the 7?2? center is an imposing, defensive force and space-eater on the inside.  He should be a top-10 draft pick if he elects to leave, as would his teammate Jeff Green.  However Hibbert has the edge now after showcasing his physical gifts all tournament long.  In the semifinal game against Ohio State, Hibbert battled Greg Oden valiantly, regardless of his foul trouble.  Hibbert, who has been criticized by scouts for his lack of offensive game, but posted a 19 point showing against Oden and kept Georgetown close while Jeff Green seemed frustrated throughout the game.  Hibbert also put up double-doubles in four of Georgetown?s final five tournament games.  His footwork needs improvement, but Hibbert possesses soft hands and a knack for finding teammates open.  Most importantly, he is a physical giant; a legitimate center which is rare these to find these days.

Al Horford

Just like Corey Brewer, the buzz around Al Horford seemed to take the backseat to teammate Joakim Noah in the past year.  After a strong showing in the title game, Horford has shown that he is one of main reasons why the Gators repeated.    While Noah was the finesse player that seemingly led the Gators all year, Horford was the glue that held this veteran group together, serving as the tough, intimidating leader that championship teams need.  And credit much of Noah?s success all year to the presence of Horford on the inside.  Teams had to pick their poison against Florida, because it is almost impossible to contain both Horford and Noah.  Big Al finally got the credit he deserves in the title game.  Where Noah faltered (8 points on 1-3 shooting), Horford lead Florida, posting 18 points and 12 rebounds.

Noah surely hurt his stock in the draft by his performance in the tournament.  Noah may be an impressive energy player with great versatility, but we were all reminded of his inability to shoot and create his own shots this march.  Nothing should be taken away from Noah?s achievements this year, but I see Brewer and Horford succeeding at the next level more so than Joakim.  

Overall, this season of college basketball was one of the most enjoyable to date.  We saw a new generation of superstars emerge with the successes of Oden, Kevin Durant and others.  But when it came time to cut down the nets in Atlanta, it was the veteran team that was still standing.  Many of Florida?s players from last year could be on an NBA team this year, but they elected to do something special.  No one can take that away from them, and we as fans should remember this Gator team, because we may not see another like them again.

Contenders, Pretenders And Cinderellas

The 2007 NCAA Tournament is the most difficult to predict in years.  As opposed to previous years, there is no dominant Duke squad led by a Hurley or Battier. There are no UConn teams with Allens or Okafors who are favorites to cut down the nets at the finale of all the madness. What we have is a crapshoot, a year in which no teams truly stand out as favorites.  I cannot remember a year in which there is so much parity in college basketball.  

This will be a great and exciting March Madness for viewers, but a stressful month for those of you filling out your brackets. If you don?t want to lose to Janet in accounting in your office pool for the third straight year, take note of these teams.  

Contenders

Kansas: Ranked as a #1 seed in a weaker western conference, look for the Jayhawks to be one of the few top seeds to make noise in a dance.  This Kansas team did not garner the same recognition their program has been known for over the years, despite its wealth of talent.  The Jayhawks began the season by beating down the defending champion Florida Gators in November and have not looked back, locking themselves in the top ten for fourteen weeks this season.  They sport possibly the best starting lineup in the nation, including future NBA star and rookie Julian Wright, Brandon Rush and big man Sasha Kaun.  After recently winning their conference in thrilling fashion against Texas, look for Bill Self?s squad to be among the only #1 seeds standing at the Final Four.  

Georgetown: No one in the district wants to jinx their chances in the dance, but Hoya fans this season have been reminiscing of past years of glory, with visions of Ewing and Thomson dancing in their collective heads.  Georgetown sports one of the biggest and most athletic lineups in the country, highlighted by star forward Jeff Green and immense center Roy Hibbert.  Both local products, Green and Hibbert have been impressing college basketball fans, as well as NBA scouts, all season long.  The Hoyas combination of tough defense and star power could help this Georgetown squad return their program back to past glories.

Wisconsin: The Badgers have been the most intriguing team in college basketball this season, overpowering other teams with solid defense and hustle. Led by arguably the best player in the country, Alando Tucker, Wisconsin will look to push themselves to the final four with their tough brand of basketball.  Tucker has been downright amazing all season long, doing everything for the Badgers on the court and making them one of the favorites in the dance.  Not only is Tucker a great player, he is a great person, fighting adversity his entire life to get to this level.  I doubt he will flounder when it counts.  If defense wins championships, look for Wisconsin to sneak into the final four and further Tucker?s legacy as a player and a person.

Pretenders

Florida: We all remember seeing Billy Donovan and company cut down the nets last year, but don?t expect to find the Gators in the same position at the end of this tournament.  Though Florida started this season hot, they have had recent losses to teams they should have beat (Tennessee and LSU team lacking Glen ?Big Baby? Davis), and in these losses, the team?s best player Jaokim Noah has played terribly.  Their free throw percentage as a team is weak, as is their ball control on offense.  Another factor hurting the Gators is the fact that a team has not repeated since the 1992 Duke Blue Devils, and such a feat is extremely infrequent in the history of the tournament.  

Duke: The Blue Devils are usually one of the favorites every year, but this Duke team is simply not as talented as past squads.  There seems to be a lack of leadership on this team, which has never been the case since Coach K has taken over.  This has been a historic season for Duke in terms of losses, finishing up with a 22-10 record, and only going 8-8 in the ACC.  Josh McRoberts and Greg Paulus have been disappointing, and the team?s offense has struggled because of it.  They enter the tournament as a six seed, their lowest in recent memory.  Coach K is a basketball genius, but this year does not seem to be the Devil?s year.  

UCLA: The Bruins are in a similar situation as Florida, because they too exceeded everyone?s expectations last year, reaching the championship game.  But remember, forget about last March.  The Bruins have stumbled down the stretch, falling in the Pac-10 tournament to Cal and subsequently losing a number one seed in the process.  They still sit as a two seed in the west division, but there is not the same spark with the Bruins this year as there was last year.  Their depth is a weak point, often only using seven players in their games this season.  The tournament is a long, grueling affair that can truly wear players down.  Expect them to fizzle as the madness grows this March.  

Cinderellas

George Washington: The Colonials feel cheated after last year?s seeding.  Regardless of the fact that they were in the top ten the majority of the season, they received an eight seed and a first round match up with Duke.  This year?s squad is hungry and ready to take advantage of their spot in the tournament after winning the A-10 tournament.  Carl Elliot, the team?s only returning starter this year, has been unstoppable as of late, and the team?s overall defense has been very impressive.  Their constant ball pressure and great depth make GW a great underdog pick.  They will run other teams ragged, sporting arguably the best-conditioned team in the country.  Colonial fans will hope to see their team continue the momentum all the way into march.

Texas: I don?t know if a four seed can be considered a Cinderella, but the no one has given the Longhorns a shot at coming out of the extremely talented Eastern division.  UNC and Georgetown may stand in their way, but Kevin Durant and company are looking to prove everyone wrong.  This team reminds me of Carmello Anthony?s Orangemen because of the incredible play of the freshman Durant.  We have seen young teams win before, and it also helps that the Longhorns can flat out light up the scoreboard and push the ball.  That is not a bad attribute to have in the tournament.  Neither is being able to the ball in the hands of the best player in college basketball in crunch time.  This is it for Durant.  There will be no swan song sophomore year for this kid.  So enjoy his play while you can, and expect an amazing tournament from the 6'10'' forward.  

Old Dominion: The Monarchs hail from the CAA conference, and don?t feel bad if you know nothing about them.  They are a true Cinderella team.  ODU is one of the smartest teams in the nation, playing some of the e most solid defense in all of college basketball.  They also keep control of the ball well from impressive guard play.  The Monarchs are also one of the few teams to defeat Georgetown at home this season.  They also finished this season winning 12 out of their remaining 13 games, and hail as a 12 seed out of a weak Midwestern division.  They face Butler in the first round.  If you?re fitting anyone with a glass slipper, take a look at the Monarchs.  They could easily be this year?s George Mason.

 

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