College basketball teams ready to rise

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College basketball teams ready to rise
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Derrick Williams led Arizona in scoring and rebounding last season

For Colorado coach Tad Boyle, the 2010-11 season may not be as difficult as it will for others in their inaugural year with a new program.

"I got lucky," Boyle said. "The cupboard here is far from bare."

Indeed, the returns of leading scorer Cory Higgins and future first-round draft pick Alec Burks have the Buffaloes thinking postseason for the first time since 2003.

And we're not talking NIT.

Colorado, believe it or not, actually has a shot at making the NCAA tournament. An outside shot, perhaps, but a shot nonetheless. The same can be said for the other teams on this list of schools that could surprise people by making the 68-team field. Again, this isn't a prediction that it's going to happen – just a projection it that could with a few breaks.

Arizona – The Wildcats missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 25 years last season, but that was hardly the fault of first-year coach Sean Miller. In fact, Miller deserves tons of credit for leading his squad to a 16-15 overall record and a 10-8 Pac-10 finish. It'd be a disappointment if Arizona didn't make it back to the Big Dance this season. Point guard Nic Wise is gone, but the Wildcats return every other key player on last year's roster, including talented sophomores Derrick Williams, Solomon Hill and Lamont Jones. Williams averaged team-highs in both points (15.7) and rebounds (7.1).

Colorado – The Buffaloes haven't had a winning season since 2005-06. That should change this season under Boyle. The former Northern Colorado coach inherited a talented roster from Jeff Bzdelik, who left Boulder last spring to take over at Wake Forest. Higgins and Burks, who combined to average 36 points last season, could start for just about anybody. Marcus Relphorde is one of the Big 12's more underrated players, and Boyle is expecting big things from redshirt freshman point guard Shannon Sharpe. Fans should also be excited about Boyle's plan to scrap the Princeton-style offense employed by Bzdelik. "We want to play up-tempo and score in the 70s and 80s," he said. Colorado hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament in seven seasons.

Georgia – Mark Fox has elevated the excitement level in Athens, where the Bulldogs made tremendous strides last season. Georgia finished 14-17, but wins over schools such as Illinois, Georgia Tech, Florida and Tennessee provided hope for the future. The Bulldogs have two legitimate stars in junior Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins, both of whom are projected to go in the first round of this year's NBA draft. Thompkins and Leslie combined to average 32.5 points and 15.1 rebounds last season. Freshman Marcus Thornton, a former Clemson commit, should also play a big role. Non-conference games against Colorado and Notre Dame will provide good early tests.

Mississippi State – The Bulldogs, who narrowly missed earning an NCAA tournament berth last season, should contend for the SEC West title if guard Dee Bost wins his appeal with the NCAA. Bost entered the NBA draft and then withdrew his name after the May 8 deadline, but he said he was confused by the rule. If Bost can't play, JUCO transfer Brian Bryant and shooting guard Jalen Steele will have to make a huge impact. Starter Ravern Johnson is also back on the perimeter. The other big key is freshman forward Renardo Sidney, who sat out last season while the NCAA looked into his amateur status. Sidney will miss the first nine games of the season.

North Carolina State – The Wolfpack won 20 games last season but only five in the ACC. Sidney Lowe is hoping that changes. Heck, his job may depend on it. Luckily for Lowe, the ACC is expected to be down this season, and N.C. State should be able to capitalize thanks to the return of Tracy Smith, who averaged 16.5 points and 7.3 rebounds in 2009-10. Point guard Javier Gonzalez is also back, but the biggest buzz has been about a recruiting class deemed as one of the nation's best. Leading the group is 6-foot-9 forward C.J. Leslie, who spurned Kentucky in favor of N.C. State. Guard Ryan Harrow should also earn immediate playing time for a squad that could finish as high as fourth in the ACC.

Seton Hall – Even with the embattled Bobby Gonzalez on the sideline, the Pirates almost made the NCAA tournament last season. New coach Kevin Willard inherited some of the top players from that 19-13 team, including Jeremy Hazell, who is one of the top scorers in college basketball. If Willard can find a way to get Hazell to improve his shot selection, Seton Hall has a chance of finishing in the top half of the Big East, which is expected to be down this year. That will only happen, though, if forward Herb Pope returns to form after collapsing while playing during the offseason. The Pirates also need a big contribution from Ole Miss transfer Eniel Polynice.

St. John's – After spending seven years away from coaching, former UCLA boss Steve Lavin will try to get St. John's back into the NCAA tournament. He certainly has a talented cast with which to work. D.J. Kennedy, Paris Horne, Dwight Hardy and Justin Burrell all return for a Red Storm squad that finished 17-16 and earned an NIT berth under Norm Roberts last season. Kennedy (15.1), Hardy (10.5) and Horne (9.2) combined to average 34.8 points in 2009-10. Success this season should help Lavin on the recruiting trail.

Texas Tech – This will be Pat Knight's best team since taking over for his father during the 2007-08 season. But that may not translate into an NCAA tournament berth. It's not as if the Red Raiders won't have a chance, though. The Big 12 will be wide open outside of the top three of Kansas, Kansas State and Baylor and, from an experience standpoint, Texas Tech returns as much as anyone. Point guard John Roberson and forward Mike Singletary have been key players since they were freshmen. The Red Raiders went 19-16 last year but only 4-12 in Big 12 play. Look for them to finish around .500 in league action this year.