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So Who Could Stand In The Way?

Mike DeCourcy grapples with the possible stumbling blocks to a UNC title.

Three contenders

Connecticut. Remember when Duke had it all, a team so loaded with talent and depth that a national championship seemed inevitable? Remember who ruined it? (Talking 1999 here, but you can refer to 2004 if you like.) The Devils of Brand, Battier and Langdon fell to a less celebrated -- but equally accomplished -- UConn team in the NCAA title game. Think the Huskies can't do it again? If 7-3 center Hasheem Thabeet makes half the improvement he did last summer, Carolina will have plenty of reasons to worry.

Arizona. For the Wildcats, this has become the Me Decade. They have raised selfish basketball to an art form. So who believes the culture of a program can change overnight? Well, surely you remember the Florida Gators, who said goodbye to gunners Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh and replaced them with the crew that won two titles. Arizona has waved on players such as Marcus Williams, Salim Stoudamire and Chris Rodgers and is ready to embrace a better way. The Wildcats' biggest "addition" is the return of gifted forward Chase Budinger from his NBA draft excursion, but there also is Brandon Jennings, a gifted freshman guard. Assistant coach Mike Dunlap can provide a new voice, like Larry Shyatt did with the Gators.

Louisville. What do these three teams have in common? They've already beaten the most daunting competition they'll face: the NBA draft. The Cardinals held on to versatile forward Earl Clark, who can become a first-team All-American if he learns how to apply his many skills against opponents that generally can defuse only one or two at a time.

I am not buying what he is selling on Arizona. In fact I am not sure you ever buy what anyone is selling when it comes to putting Arizona remotely close to national title contention, though they did parlay a preseason #1 ranking into a 2nd place finish in 2001 that was marked with some of the worst Final Four officiating we have ever seen. And yes Duke won that year so draw your own conclusions if you will.  Also, I am still bitter about 1997 in that deep and seething sort of way.

UConn and Louisville are good choices though and a 7-3 center is exactly the kind of interior presence that can give Tyler Hansbrough problems. Also add that UConn, like UNC, will not be deeply affected by the three point line change. We just need to hope that the NCAA Selection Committee does not decide to reverse the trend from 1998 when #1 UNC faced #2 seeded UConn in Greensboro for the regional title by putting #1 UNC in the East Regional playing #2 seeded UConn in Boston. Louisville was very good last season in the tournament and I do not think the loss of Dave Padgett will hurt them plus they are well coached and have recruits that can play.

Three sleepers

Pitt. Some consider the Panthers national title contenders, but the lack of dead-certain NBA talent makes them a better fit in this category. Winning four straight Big East Tournament games requires a vast reservoir of toughness; we know they have that. Winning six NCAA games in a row requires a level of firepower that might be beyond their reach. One thing's certain: Pitt will not go down without a battle.

Texas. The Longhorns have so much talent, size and depth that it feels odd to put them in this category. But many believe they cannot advance without All-American point guard D.J. Augustin. Didn't everyone say the same when Kevin Durant checked out?

Wake Forest. Adding three big freshmen to a team with a loaded perimeter will restore the Deacons to the ACC elite. They're probably a year away, but the lure of the draft means never being able to "wait 'til next year" with confidence.

Wake could finish 2nd in the ACC. I know Duke will be the 2nd pick and they certainly will be more experienced but Wake will a good inside game to compliment some nice guard play making them a fairly balanced threat. The drawback will be youth. Wake is probably still one year away from being a force but they will get to the NCAA Tournament and Dino Gaudio coaches a tough, defensive minded approach which is an asset in March.

I was on the Pitt bandwagon last March in my bracket and was screwed when they failed to get past the first weekend. I have no reason to believe that will change since, as Decourcy points out, they lack serious NBA talent and that is pretty much a requirement. Texas will be interesting and the Heels might get a chance to test themselves against the Longhorns since both will be in Maui.

Three pretenders

Notre Dame. This should be a wonderful team, flush with tenacity and offensive skill. The Irish will be strong Big East contenders, which is saying something. But they are not built to win six consecutive tournament games. The absence of a shot blocker makes it too easy for opponents to attack the goal.

Arizona State. This team is going places -- but not to the top of the Final Four ladder. The Sun Devils feature one of the best college guards in James Harden. But only twice in the past 25 years has a team missed the tournament one year and recovered to win an NCAA championship the next: Louisville in 1985 and Syracuse in 2003. The Cardinals added Pervis Ellison in '85. Syracuse added Carmelo Anthony in '03. The Sun Devils brought in enough money to start building a new practice gym. It's not the same.

Duke. The Blue Devils are going to make life as tough as they can for the Heels. This year's Carolina-Duke games are going to be the kind of breathtaking classics that have made their rivalry among the best in American sports. But unless they've got Lance Thomas hooked up to an IV drip of Muscle Milk, the Devils do not have the frontcourt power to take them all the way.

Notre Dame basketball is going to get a great deal of hype similar to what their football team usually gets. Andy Katz put them at #5 but Decourcy is correct in pointing out that there is a difference between being a good team all season and winning six straight for the title. Arizona State is coached by Herb Sendek. And while I could stop there I will point out that Sendek saw one Sweet Sixteen in ten years at NC State and that was with a #10 seeded squad in 2005. Will he make the tournament and win a couple of games? Sure. Can he win the title. No chance because teams that are neither hot or cold usually fade into the background by the Sweet Sixteen.

And then there is Duke who will continue to lack the balance in their offense and defense for that matter to do anything significant like make the Final Four. I think Duke will be better on the inside than last season by getting some contributions from their incoming freshman on the blocks but I cannot imagine it will be enough to topple UNC or anyone else with established low post games.