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October 15, 2006

No. 23: Who could be the next Florida?

Smith key to Vols plan
Midnight Madness Preview
The College Basketball Wire

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Rivals.com has selected the top 25 storylines for the upcoming 2006-07 college basketball season and we will be releasing articles daily, counting down from No. 25 to No. 1. The No. 23 storyline takes a look at what teams could be the next Florida, who was unranked in the preseason before going on their shocking run to a national title.

It's easy to forget and hard to fathom, but Florida was unranked in the preseason polls last year. Some publications even picked the Gators to miss the NCAA Tournament.

It's tough to blame the prognosticators. They had plenty of reasons to believe the Gators weren't going to be a top 25 team. They lost their three top scorers and only one starter was coming back.

A more balanced and much more cohesive team quickly emerged and got off to a school-record 17-0 start.

It all begs the question: Could there be another Florida out there? We take a look at three candidates (all of which start the season unranked) and breakdown why they fit the mold.

Last season's record: 19-13 (8-8 ACC)
Returning starters: Guard D.J. Strawberry (10.3 ppg), guard Mike Jones (10.5 ppg), power forward James Gist (8.4 ppg) and center Ekene Ibekwe (11.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg).
Newcomers: Guard Eric Hayes, guard Greivis Vasquez, guard Landon Milbourne, power forward Bamable Osby (junior college transfer) and center Jerome Burney.

The Terps are certainly a dark horse. They're coming off two consecutive trips to the NIT and lose their top two players: Nik Caner-Medley and Chris McCray (who became academically ineligible in January).

But, a solid amount of talent and a diverse squad remains in place, along with a coach (Gary Williams) with a national title and another Final Four trip on his resume.

Strawberry is one of the better on-ball defenders in the ACC and possesses the athleticism and quickness to be a major weapon in transition.

Jones is one the nation's top perimeter shooters, hitting 41 percent of his 3-pointers (61 of 147) last season.

The frontcourt includes a proven inside force in Ibekwe, who averaged 11.1 points and 6.6 rebounds, and an explosive leaper in Gist, who is one of the ACC's most athletic players.

The addition of Hayes could provide the spark and the true point guard they were missing last season. The freshman has a great basketball IQ and will help create shots for a team full of scoring weapons. He'll also allow Strawberry to play more on the wing, where he is more comfortable and dangerous.

Last season's record: 17-16 (6-10 Big 12)
Returning starters: Guard Byron Eaton (7.8 ppg), guard JamesOn Curry (13.5 ppg) and center Mario Boggan (14.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg).
Noteworthy newcomers: Guard Obi Muonelo.

The Cowboys remain one of the most talented teams in the Big 12. They landed Rivals.com's top-ranked recruiting class in 2005 and a handful of members of that seven-man group are poised for breakthrough seasons.

It starts with Boggan, who played at Florida as a 300-pound freshman. The big man has lost more than 60 pounds since his brief stop in Gainesville and emerged as a steady scoring threat, finishing in double figures in 29 of 33 games last season.

Eaton started 28 games and went through many of the growing pains you'd expect from a true freshman point guard, finishing with more turnovers (116) than assists (104). But, the bullish floor general did show flashes of what made him a five-star prospect down the stretch, scoring 18 points and making five steals in a one-point loss to Kansas in the Big 12 tourney.

The Cowboys showed flashes of how dangerous they could be too at times, hammering Tennessee (89-73) and Texas (81-60).

The coaching switch from Eddie to Sean Sutton should be an easy transition. Many of the players knew Sean eventually would be their coach when they signed with the Cowboys, and he has been making the offensive play calls for years.

Last season's record: 17-13 (8-10 Pac-10)
Returning starters: Guard Gabe Pruitt(16.9 ppg)*, guard Lodrick Stewart (12.3 ppg), small forward Nick Young (17.3 ppg) and center N'diaye Abodoulaye (5.3 ppg).
Noteworthy newcomers: Guard Daniel Hackett, guard Dwight Lewis, small forward Kasey Cunningham, small forward Kevin Galloway, power forward Kyle Austin and power forward Taj Gibson.
* Pruitt is academically ineligible until mid-December.

Don't be surprised if the Trojans and third-year coach Tim Floyd contend for the Pac-10 title. The Men of Troy haven't had this much talent since the days of Harold "Baby Jordan" Miner.

They've got one of the league's top players in the underrated Young, an inside-outside threat who broke the 20-point barrier nine times last season. The athletic Stewart also gives them another scoring weapon.

The tragic death of starting point guard Ryan Francis, who was shot to death in his hometown of Baton Rouge, La., in May, combined with the academic suspension of Pruitt, appeared to create a big void until four-star recruit Daniel Hackett showed up on campus a year early. Hackett, who is ranked the No. 56 overall prospect in the class of 2007, took summer classes to graduate from high school in three years. A versatile and savvy player, he can bring the ball up court and create offense for his teammates.

The athletic Gibson, ranked the No. 32 prospect in the class of 2006, should give the Trojans an inside presence, something they sorely lacked last season.

There's also talk of the arrival of a more heralded recruit in mid-December. Five-star forward Davon Jefferson, one of the most physically gifted prospects in the class of 2006, committed to the Trojans but never signed due to some academic hurdles. He could enroll for the spring semester.

Still, the key may be getting Pruitt back. A dangerous scorer, he and Young create a tandem that creates plenty of problems for defenses.

The Trojans will also be playing in a brand new arena, the Galen Center, an on-campus venue with 10,258 seats.

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