With the men's college basketball season slowly starting to ramp back up, there's no time like the present to try and guestimate which teams will make it to the Sweet 16 in 2006. But before I start rolling out my predictions, here are a few FYIs and qualifiers.
- FYIs: Last year, half of the Sweet 16 teams were top-16 seeds (one through four seeds), and only two (North Carolina State and Wisconsin-Milwaukee) were double-digit seeds. Three No. 6 seeds (Texas Tech, Utah, and Wisconsin) reached the second weekend of the tournament, while 13 of the 16 came from the power conferences, with the ACC and Big 10 getting three representatives each.
- Qualifiers: As some of you might recall, I'm not a big fan of rankings. So with that in mind, the teams that make my Sweet 16 will be listed alphabetically. And while I understand some freshmen will live up to their hype and have a significant impact on their teams, I've elected not to include them in my preseason assessments.
OK, with all of that out of they way, let's dive in.
Last season was terrific for the Arizona Wildcats. With Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire anchoring one of the most explosive offenses in the country, Arizona won the Pac-10 and made a run to the Elite Eight before losing a thrilling game to Illinois. Many were critical of Lute Olson and his team for giving up a 15-point lead in the last three minutes of regulation in that game, but in my opinion, it was more about Illinois simply taking over.
This season, the Wildcats will have to make do without last year's stars – Frye was drafted eighth overall by the New York Knicks and Salim Stoudamire was a second-round pick by the Atlanta Hawks. But despite these losses, a core nucleus returns for Olson, and this means the Wildcats could repeat as Pac-10 champs and have another strong tournament run.
Returning starters Hassan Adams, Ivan Radenovic and Mustafa Shakur, along with solid reserves Jawann McClellan and Chris Rodgers, give Arizona excellent perimeter players at both ends of the court.
Adams is a dynamic, all-around player and should lead the team in scoring. Shakur is just an improved jump shot away from being an elite point guard, and Radenovic is a skilled offensive player who's capable of averaging a double-double. McClellan showed a poised, all-around game and Rodgers (out with a sprained knee) is a utility player who has more "O" than he shows.
Together, these players should be a good defensive group as well with their length and quickness. But replacing Stoudamire's consistent and clutch perimeter shooting will be a question mark. McClellan has the potential to do so, but he is academically ineligible for the first semester. If Shakur improves his perimeter shooting, though, watch out.
The frontline, on the other hand, is an unknown. Replacing Frye's rebounding, scoring and shot-blocking will be a challenge for coach Olson and his staff. Isaiah Fox, a fifth-year senior, and junior Kirk Walters are the likely candidates to get more playing time, and in tandem, they could give the Wildcats a nice post presence. Both are mobile with good size and decent hands, and with the scoring potential from the perimeter players, this duo simply has to be productive in defending, rebounding, and scoring when given opportunities to do so.
Olson is a Hall of Fame coach who always seems to put his teams in a position to succeed. This year's team is potentially deeper than the seven-man rotation he went with last season, and that could help them be more aggressive defensively.