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College Basketball

Final Forum

Who'll be theplayer of the year? The next George Mason? This year's Florida? Here areanswers to college hoops' key questions

THIS WEEK marksthe midway point of conference play, when college hoops heads into the finalturn toward March. Here are seven pressing questions facing the field.

Who are theleading candidates for national player of the year?

This year's race doesn't have the same focused suspense as last year's battlebetween J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison, but it does promise to be the mostwide-open POY scramble in recent memory. Wisconsin forward Alando Tucker (whowas averaging 19.6 points and 4.9 rebounds at week's end), Nevada forward NickFazekas (20.4 points, 11.6 rebounds) and Oregon point guard Aaron Brooks (19.1points, 4.5 assists), all seniors, each can make a strong case for the honors,but a pair of freshmen are closing fast. Greg Oden, Ohio State's 7-foot center,has averaged 15.6 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.6 blocks while shooting 63.7% fromthe floor—despite playing with a brace on his right wrist, after undergoingoff-season surgery that kept him out of action until Dec. 2—and Texas forwardKevin Durant has averaged 24.4 points and 11.0 rebounds. But if you want asleeper pick, how about Butler guard A.J. Graves? The 6'1" junior hasscored 18.8 points per game for the 19--2 Bulldogs (missing just three of his101 free throws along the way) and has been even better in the clutch,averaging 22.3 points in wins over Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee andGonzaga.

Can a team that starts three freshmen win a national championship?

Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara started as freshmen for Syracuse's 2003champs, but three first-year starters make it even harder to win. However, ifany tenderfoot trio can break through, it's North Carolina's Wayne Ellington,Tywon Lawson and Brandan Wright, who account for 42% of the scoring and 41% ofthe assists for the 18--2 Tar Heels. The only Final Four contender younger thanthe Heels is Texas, which has six freshmen among its top eight scorers.

Can UConn get it together?

The Huskies have won two national titles in the last eight years and havemissed just three NCAA tournaments since 1990, but after falling to 2--5 in theBig East with last Saturday's 84--72 loss to Providence, they might not evenmake the conference tournament. (Only the league's top 12 teams play in the BigEast tournament.) UConn doesn't start any upperclassmen, and even itssophomores (such as point guard A.J. Price, who did not play for two seasonsbecause of illness and suspension) are woefully inexperienced. The Huskies(13--7) still have plenty of time to make a late rush, but with a nonconferencestrength-of-schedule ranked 237th, they will not get the benefit of the doubtif they are on the bubble come Selection Sunday.

Who is this year's Florida?

Many people forget that when the NCAA tournament began last season, the Gatorswere ranked 11th in the AP poll. If you're looking for a modestly ranked teamthat has the chops to make a similar surge to the crown, you could do worsethan No. 14 Marquette. The Golden Eagles dropped their first two Big East gamesto Providence and Syracuse, but they have since rebounded with six straightwins, including a 77--74 overtime victory at then No. 6 Pittsburgh on Jan. 21.With a trio of speedy guards, led by dynamic 5'11" sophomore point guardDominic James, Marquette has the ability to create mismatches regardless ofwhom it plays.

Can another George Mason make a miracle run to the Final Four?

Virginia Commonwealth, which sits atop George Mason's conference, the ColonialAthletic Association, with a 10--0 record (18--3 overall), has Cinderellapotential. First-year coach Anthony Grant has brought the same up-tempo,pass-happy system to VCU that he learned from Billy Donovan as a Floridaassistant for the last 10 seasons. The Rams are smallish up front (none oftheir top seven scorers are taller than 6'7"), but they can spread thefloor and give opponents fits with a three-guard offense that features 6'2"senior B.A. Walker (15.9 points per game), 6'4" senior Jesse Pellot-Rosa(14.4) and 6'2" sophomore Eric Maynor (14.3). That formula worked well forthe Patriots, who nearly went all the way with a similarly strong backcourttrio of Lamar Butler, Tony Skinn and Folarin Campbell.

Will other mid-majors make another strong showing in the NCAA tournament?

If anything, the pool of talented mid-majors is even deeper this year. Butler,Air Force (19--3) and Nevada (19--2) have spent most of this season ranked inthe Top 25, while Oral Roberts (which shocked No. 3 Kansas), Gonzaga (whichbeat No. 2 North Carolina), Missouri State (which stunned No. 7 Wisconsin) andWichita State (which outlasted sixth-ranked LSU) have all shown that they cansting a heavy favorite. The Missouri Valley Conference, which last year sentWichita State and Bradley to the Sweet 16, again may be difficult to reckonwith. The league has five teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI, led by No. 10Southern Illinois (17--5).

Just how bad is the Big Ten?

Only once in the last 23 years has the Big Ten sent fewer than five teams tothe NCAA tournament. That was in 2004, when it got three bids. With onlyWisconsin (21--1), Ohio State (18--3) and Indiana (15--5) assured of berthsthis year, it's possible the conference could repeat that dubious feat thisyear.

ONLY AT SI.COMSeth Davis's Hoop Thoughts every Tuesday and Thursday.

Seth Davis's Three-Pointer

1 The national coach of the year will come from thePac-10. A case can be made for UCLA's Ben Howland, Washington State's TonyBennett and USC's Tim Floyd, but the choice here is Oregon's Ernie Kent(right), who had led the Ducks to second place in the league.

2 Give Drew Neitzel his due. Michigan State's juniorguard—who scored 24 second-half points in a 66--64 loss at Ohio State lastSaturday—may not be the best player in the Big Ten, but he is the mostvaluable.

3 Alabama and LSU are in danger of missing the NCAAtournament. Losses last weekend to Arkansas and Georgia, respectively, droppedboth teams to 2--4 in the SEC.




THE FRONT-RUNNERS With three seniors, two freshmen and a sleeper in the mix,the POY race is wide open.




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