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April 17, 2008

Looking back at our 2007-08 projections

We'll be making several predictions on the 2008-09 season in the coming weeks as the NBA's early entry deadline passes and the few remaining prospects left in the 2008 class sign their letters of intent.

But we thought it would be prudent to take a final look back at our Preseason Top 64 for this past season. There were a handful of predictions we can feel particularly proud of and a few we probably should be embarrassed we ever considered.

Here's a look at some of our best and worst picks and what was behind our thinking on each (each team's preseason ranking is in parenthesis).

THINGS WE NAILED

The Top Four: We correctly projected the Final Four with North Carolina at No. 1, Memphis at No. 2, UCLA at No. 3 and Kansas at No. 4. (OK, so the order was a bit off.)

Louisville (5), Tennessee (6), Georgetown (10): Each of these schools either won its conference or division regular-season title and landed at least a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinals beat the Volunteers to reach the Elite Eight.

Stanford (13): Our Stanford preview stated, "If they can find a point guard, they'll go to the Sweet 16 and beyond." Enter junior Mitch Johnson, who posted career-highs with 4.3 assists per game and a 2.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Johnson led the Cardinal to the Sweet 16, dishing out a school-record 16 assists in their second-round NCAA Tournament victory over Marquette.

Duke (16): We knew the undersized Blue Devils would be good, but also that they also didn't belong among the elite teams. That was proven true in the NCAA Tournament, when they were fortunate to escape Belmont in the first round, then were beaten in the second round.

Mississippi State (17): This is one we feel especially proud about. Few, if any, other media outlets had the Bulldogs in their preseason top 25 (in fact, many picked Arkansas to win the SEC West), but we had faith. Rivals.com college basketball editor Bob McClellan wrote, "If it can avoid melting down after losses, Mississippi State should post 23-25 wins and help Tennessee carry the SEC's banner late into March." The Bulldogs won 23 games, cruised to the SEC West title and nearly knocked off Memphis in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Connecticut (21): We had confidence the Huskies would bounce back from their 12th-place finish in the Big East in 2006-07, writing, "It would be more surprising if this team goes belly up like last year than it would be if it wins 20-24 games and makes a run at the Sweet 16." The Huskies won 24 games and may have delivered on the other prediction if point guard A.J. Price hadn't torn an ACL in the first half of their one-point loss to San Diego in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Texas A&M (30): Some media outlets billed the Aggies as the second-best team in the Big 12 and some had the Aggies inside their preseason top 15. They returned four starters from a 27-win team and were adding 7-foot freshman/five-star recruit DeAndre Jordan. But we felt the losses of coach Billy Gillispie and star guard Acie Law IV would cause a step back. The Aggies nearly knocked off UCLA in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but overall it was a season marked by inconsistency. The Aggies went 8-8 in league play and finished sixth.

Minnesota (62): We knew better than to listen about Tubby Smith's inefficiencies. We figured Smith quickly would turn things around for the Gophers, so we snuck them in near the bottom of our top 64. Smith and the Gophers made us look smart. After winning just nine games last season, the Gophers won 20 this season and reached the NIT.

Preseason Top 64
1. North Carolina
2. Memphis
3. UCLA
4. Kansas
5. Louisville
6. Tennessee
7. Indiana
8. Michigan State
9. USC
10. Georgetown
11. Kansas State
12. Arizona
13. Stanford
14. Washington State
15. Marquette
16. Duke
17. Mississippi State
18. N.C. State
19. Syracuse
20. Texas
21. Connecticut
22. Oregon
23. Pittsburgh
24. Alabama
25. Southern Illinois
26. Arkansas
27. Butler
28. Kentucky
29. Ohio State
30. Texas A&M
31. Washington
32. Gonzaga
33. California
34. Villanova
35. UAB
36. Notre Dame
37. Florida
38. Davidson
39. Virginia
40. Vanderbilt
41. Xavier
42. Southern Miss
43. Wisconsin
44. New Mexico State
45. Illinois
46. Nebraska
47. George Mason
48. Maryland
49. West Virginia
50. Oklahoma State
51. St. Joseph's
52. Va. Commonwealth
53. Georgia Tech
54. Western Kentucky
55. Siena
56. Rhode Island
57. Georgia
58. Purdue
59. Saint Louis
60. Auburn
61. Brigham Young
62. Minnesota
63. Fordham
64. Drexel

THINGS WE GOT RIGHT

Notre Dame (36): Yes, the Irish were way better than the No. 36 team in the nation, but we still are taking credit for putting them well inside our top 64. Some media outlets didn't think the Irish would reach the NCAA Tournament and they were picked ninth in the Big East preseason poll. We knew better. Our Notre Dame preview stated, "This is a 20-win team that has the potential to last further into March." They Irish finished with 25 wins and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Vanderbilt (40): Our preview of the Commodores ended with this telling line: "If the Aussie lives up to the billing and Vanderbilt shoots the ball like it's capable, a return trip to the NCAA Tournament is a safe bet." Freshman center A.J. Ogilvy, an Australian native, more than lived up to his billing, averaging 17.0 points and 6.7 rebounds. The Commodores shot an SEC-high 39.9 percent from 3-point range. Consequently, they had no trouble getting back to the field of 65.

George Mason (47): The Patriots looked great early, upsetting Dayton, Kansas State and South Carolina in the first month of the season. They stumbled a bit in league play, but rebounded by capturing an NCAA Tournament berth.

West Virginia (49): Yes, we had the Mountaineers too low, but we knew they had the potential. Our WVU preview stated, "If (coach Bob) Huggins can strike the right chord, this could be an NCAA Tournament team." The defense-minded Huggins quickly won over his new players as the Mountaineers won 11 Big East games and reached the Sweet 16.

Siena (55): The Saints hadn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 2001-02, but we had an inkling this school would win the Metro Atlantic. The Saints went 6-24 in 2004-05 before the arrival of coach Fran McCaffery. This season, they tied for the regular-season title and won the league tourney. But we can't claim credit for the Saints' 21-point rout of Vanderbilt in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Nobody saw that coming.

The Big East and the Pac-10: We had eight teams apiece from the Big East and the Pac-10 in the 64 and those two leagues were widely considered the best in the nation for much of the season. The Big East sent eight of its 16 teams to the NCAA, the Pac-10 six of its 10.

The Atlantic-10: We felt the A-10 was primed for a great year, placing five of its teams in our top 64. The league sent three teams to the NCAA Tournament and three more to the NIT. But we were a little off on selecting which teams would land postseason bids. While Xavier (41) and St. Joseph's (51) reached the NCAA Tournament and Rhode Island (56) went to the NIT, Saint Louis (59) and Fordham (63) finished in 11th and 12th in the 14-team league.

THINGS WE WERE A LITTLE OFF ON

USC (9): We thought the Trojans could be a Final Four dark horse. Still, it wasn't much of a surprise to see them make a first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament. Freshman star O.J. Mayo lived up to the lofty expectations, but big man Taj Gibson didn't have anywhere near the breakout season we envisioned (Gibson was a Rivals.com third-team preseason All-American). In fact, Gibson was actually less productive than last season. He averaged 10.8 points and 7.8 rebounds a season after averaging 12.2 and 8.7.

Kansas State (11): Add a healthy David Hoskins to the mix and we think the Wildcats could have made a deep NCAA Tournament run. Hoskins, who missed the season with a knee injury, would have added another frontcourt weapon to team with Rivals.com's national player of the year Michael Beasley and Bill Walker. Hoskins averaged 14.5 points and 5.9 rebounds last season. He also would have added some much needed senior leadership to an extremely young squad.

Arizona (12): We could lay the blame on Lute Olson's strange absence or an incredibly tough schedule, but, honestly, we were probably too infatuated with what appeared to be a stellar recruiting class. Freshman Jerryd Bayless was as good as advertised, but five-star recruit Jamelle Horne wasn't even a contributor.

Washington (31): The Huskies seemed to have a little bit of everything, but they struggled mightily on defense. Consequently, the finished with more losses (17) than wins (16) and suffered a first-round exit in the inaugural College Basketball Invitational.

California (33): Ryan Anderson - the Pac-10's leading scorer - was better than anyone thought, but DeVon Hardin was worse than anybody thought. Hardin entered the season as a probable first-round pick. He now will be fortunate to get drafted at all.

UAB (35): A season-ending injury to Paul Delaney in UAB's fourth game hindered the Blazers from reaching their full potential. Delaney, who averaged 15.5 points last season, would have been an ideal sidekick for transfer Robert Vaden, who poured in 21.1 points per game.

Davidson (38): We knew Stephen Curry would make the Wildcats a dark horse in the NCAA Tournament, but we obviously should have expected more. The Cinderella school from the Southern Conference was a 3-pointer away from the Final Four.

Xavier (41): We knew Xavier was the class of the Atlantic-10 (they were ranked the highest of the five A-10 teams in our top 64), but we had no idea they would win a school-record 30 games and reach the Elite Eight. The Musketeers lost two double-digit scorers in Justin Doellman and Justin Cage. But they made up for it with remarkable balance as six players averaged between 9.7 points and 12.4 points.

Southern Miss (42): We were probably a year too early in expecting a breakout season from the young Eagles. Next season, they'll return their top eight scorers from a team that won 19 games.

New Mexico State (44): If prize recruit Herb Pope hadn't missed all of preseason practice and the first two months of the season, the Aggies may have won the WAC as we predicted. Instead, the Aggies stumbled to 5-9 start with Pope sidelined because of off-the-court issues. They finished strong, winning 10 of their last 13 and falling in triple-overtime in the WAC tourney final, but they never were in contention for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.

Purdue (58): We thought the young Boilermakers would show promise this season, then really blossom in 2008-09. They blossomed early. The "Baby Boilers" locked up an NCAA Tournament bid by mid-February and finished second in the Big Ten.

Drake (not ranked): We refuse to feel guilty for predicting the Bulldogs would be nowhere near an NCAA Tournament bid. Their 28-win campaign, which included Missouri Valley Conference regular-season and tournament titles, should go down as one of the biggest surprises ever. The Bulldogs' 17-15 record in 2006-07 was their first winning season in 20 years. Plus, they were replacing their top two scorers from that squad.

THINGS WE TOTALLY MISSED

North Carolina State (18): We were guilty of drinking the Wolfpack Kool-Aid. The 'Pack, which reached the 2007 ACC Tournament championship game, were picked second in the ACC by some publications. But they lost their last nine games and finished in a tie for last. This probably was our biggest miss.

Syracuse (19): We have a legitimate excuse. The Orange were hurt severely by injuries. Leading returning scorer Eric Devendorf missed the Big East schedule with a torn ACL.

Southern Illinois (25): This pick continues to puzzle us. While much of the rest of Missouri Valley Conference was in a rebuilding mode, the Salukis returned three starters from a team that won 29 games and went to the Sweet 16. But SIU proved to be wildly inconsistent this season. The Salukis beat four teams (Drake, Mississippi State, Saint Mary's and Western Kentucky) who reached the NCAA Tournament while losing to five other teams (Indiana State, Missouri State, Northern Iowa, Saint Louis and Western Michigan) that failed to land postseason bids.

Virginia (39): The departure of shooting guard J.R. Reynolds was a far bigger loss than we imagined. Sean Singletary had a stellar senior season, but got little help from his supporting cast as the Cavaliers went 5-11 in ACC play.

Wisconsin (43): Shame on us for underestimating Bo Ryan. Despite losing the best player in school history (Alando Tucker) and another double-digit scorer (Kammron Taylor), the Badgers won the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles and reached the Sweet 16.

Illinois (45): We thought the Illini might miss the NCAA Tournament, but didn't envision a next-to-last-place finish in the Big Ten. They returned three starters from a team that tied for fourth in the league in 2006-07. Considering that it was a down season in the Big Ten, their struggles are inexplicable.

Clemson (not ranked): Finding a point guard to replace Vernon Hamilton wasn't nearly as big an issue as we thought. The well-balanced Tigers had their best season since Rick Barnes was coach, winning 24 games and reaching the ACC Tournament championship game. Much of the credit must go to lightly recruited freshman Terrence Oglesby, who averaged 10.5 points off the bench.

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.



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