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The Dartmouth
April 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

November Madness

Duke was unquestionably the finest team in college basketball last year -- until they played Connecticut for the national title.

During the off-season the Blue Devils lost four players to the first round of the NBA draft, including Player of the Year Elton Brand, rendering themselves mortal for the 1999-2000 NCAA basketball season. This mass exodus has opened the door for a number of teams wishing to stake their claim as the dominant force in college basketball.

No less than eight schools have a legitimate chance to bring home the championship trophy this year. And that doesn't include Duke, a team that could still make some noise come tournament time, despite relying heavily on freshmen.

Out of the Southeastern Conference, Florida appears ready to establish itself as one of the elite programs in college basketball. Coach Billy Donovan hopes to improve on last year's trip to the Sweet Sixteen, and with another strong recruiting class there is no reason Florida won't make it further this year.

The Gators' high-scoring offense will be led by 6-8 forward Mike Miller. Miller, a sophomore, is both an excellent shooter and a great athlete. He will likely establish himself this year as one of the best all-around players in college basketball. Freshman Donnell Harvey will give the Gators some much needed muscle inside.

Unlike Florida, North Carolina has always fielded a strong team and this year is no different. The Tar Heels should come out on top in the Atlantic Coast Conference this year and will look to redeem themselves after last year's embarrassing loss to Weber State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

North Carolina's success will hinge on two factors: center Brendan Haywood and point guard Ed Cota.

If Haywood can play with some consistency he will be the top center in college basketball. His physical skills are unquestioned, but poor performances in important games have harmed his reputation. Cota's ability to perform is one thing the Tar Heels have been able to count on, but he was recently suspended indefinitely as the result of a misdemeanor assault charge. If he is unable to return, North Carolina's chance for success will diminish sharply.

Ohio State was the surprise team in the 1999 Final Four, but no one will be surprised if they are there again in 2000. The Buckeyes' guard combination of Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd has no peer in the world of college basketball. Penn, the point guard, was picked by league coaches as the Big Ten preseason Player of the Year, and Redd was the team's leading scorer last year.

Two players can only carry a team so far though. Center Ken Johnson's surprising play was key to Ohio State's Final Four run last year and he will need to continue this solid play if the Buckeyes are going to make a serious run at the national title.

At Temple, John Chaney has almost always had a top 25 team simply because of his brilliant coaching. Now he has perhaps the most talent he has ever had. Last year Chaney guided the Owls to the Elite Eight, only to be eliminated by Duke. This year they have the talent to go even further.

On the court, Temple is led by point guard Pepe Sanchez. Sanchez is a weak shooter, but he is an excellent ball-handler and he knows how to get it to his teammates that can score. Temple's two main scoring threats will be last year's leading scorer, small forward Mark Karcher, who lost 30 pounds in the off-season, and power forward Lamont Barnes. In addition to being a scoring threat, Barnes is a talented defender and a great athlete.

A month ago Michigan State appeared to be the popular choice to win this year's national championship. With three returning starters from last year's Final Four team, including two-time All-America point guard Mateen Cleaves, the Spartans appeared to be on the path to glory. Their path was made a little more difficult, however, when Cleaves had to undergo surgery for a stress fracture in his foot. He probably won't return until his team starts conference play. Michigan State's ultimate success will depend on how strong Cleaves returns and how well he will assimilate into the team after missing a good part of the season.

The loss of Cleaves does not leave the Spartans toothless, however. Tom Izzo is one of the best coaches in the country and he still has last year's leading scorer Morris Peterson. Mike Chappell, a transfer from Duke, is expected to be a key contributor, as is explosive freshman Jason Richardson, who was just recently granted eligibility by the NCAA.

The only team to beat Duke in the regular season last year was Cincinnati, and coach Bob Huggins has an even better team this year. The top player on this great team is power forward Kenyon Martin, a dominating inside force on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Small forward Pete Mickeal is an incredible athlete and a relentless defender. He led the team last year in scoring, rebounds, and minutes played.

The reason that Cincinnati is better this year than last is 6-9 freshman guard DerMarr Johnson. He's an NBA all-star in the making and should make the Bearcats an immediate contender for the national title.

One of the most surprising developments over last year's regular season was the emergence of Auburn as a national powerhouse. The Tigers, however, faltered in the NCAA tournament, failing to live up to their number one seed. They return four starters from that team and this year they have the experience necessary to make a run at the national title.

Auburn is led by forward Chris Porter, who is, in my opinion, the best player in college basketball. Porter averaged 16 points and 8.6 rebounds per game last year and should only improve upon those numbers. There is also no doubt that he will have enough acrobatic and impressive dunks this year to fill up game highlights on ESPN's SportsCenter.

As good as Porter is, point guard Doc Robinson is the player that makes Auburn tick. He is an excellent defensive player and can both pass and score. He is well-able to control a game and the ball, rarely turning it over.

Connecticut perhaps surprised everyone but themselves when they knocked off Duke in the NCAA title game last March. No one should be surprised if Connecticut is cutting down the nets at the end of this season either, despite the losses of All-American Richard Hamilton and defensive specialist Ricky Moore.

Leading the Huskies this year will be point guard Khalid El-Amin, a preseason All-American. Criticized in the past for his less-than-impressive physique, El-Amin has apparently slimmed down and is playing better than ever. Forward Kevin Freeman should break out of Hamilton's shadow this season and become an integral part of the Huskies quest to repeat.

The Huskies talent-laden roster will be bolstered by the addition of Ajou Ajou Deng, a 6-11 forward with Kevin Garnett-type skills. He was academically ineligible to play in games last year, but has been a top player in practice, showing ability both inside and on the perimeter.

It would not be surprising if any of these teams comes out on top next March, however, only one can. Who do I think it will be? I think that Connecticut will win its second consecutive national title, defeating Auburn in the final game, with Cincinnati and Michigan State rounding out the Final Four. The Huskies will have a target on their back, but the experience they gained last year will be invaluable in leading them back to the title.