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Warning. This is about to get less fun-loving.

Tuesday was marked by a disturbing revelation in the world of sports. Michael Phelps was shown to no longer the fastest thing in water. He was seemingly dominated in the 200m freestyle at the World Swimming Championships by Paul Biedermann of Germany.

Not only did Biedermann defeat Phelps. He erased one of his records, finishing the race in 1:42.oo, almost an entire second faster than Phelps’ Olympic time.

So who exactly is Paul Biedermann?

The 22-year-old German holds two world records (200m freestyle and 400m freestyle), both of which he notched at these World Swimming Championships.  He DID compete in the 2008 Olympics, also known as the Michael Phelps Games; however, he did not have much success.

Biedermann came in fifth place in the 200m freestyle with a 1:46.00 time, two whole seconds slower than his time Tuesday. He also placed seventeenth overall in the 400m freestyle 3:48.03, EIGHT seconds slower than his new world record time.

Eight seconds. That’s a lot.

This begs the question of how?

The answer was his Arena X-Glide swimsuit. Essentially the swimming equivalent of steroids.

The Arena X-Glide is made of a seemingly impermeable polyurethane and substantially more advanced than Phelps’ LZR Racer by Speedo.  It has been banned beginning next year by FINA, the International Federation that governs swimming.

Biedermann admits that the suit impacted his swimming.

“I think the suit is problematic. I think the suits make us swim really fast. I honestly think it was worth about two seconds in this race. I really, really hope next year we can go back to the normal one, because it’s important for the sport. I think the suits destroy a little bit of the real sport. It’s not any more about technique; it’s not any more about good starts or turns; it is just, put this thing on and feel really, really fast in the water. I really believe all the new suits should be banned.”

It is impossible to tell if Biedermann would have beaten Phelps wearing an LZR Racer, just as it is impossible to tell if Mark McGuire or Barry Bonds would hit more home runs than Albert Pujols without syringes. Swimming will tolerate these performance enhancers for another few months and more records will likely fall.

However, times will likely rise slightly and plateau like MLB home run rates. We can only hope that this is the peak of swimming impurity and that Michael Phelps’ can regain his rightful title of Aquaman.

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With slightly over a week until Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince hits theaters, the folks over at Warner Brothers sure aren’t blowing the bank on their ad campaign.

I will admit, I am not a fan of the series or the genre in general, but I hadn’t even heard a peep about the series’ sixth film until I got off of the train today (7/5) and saw a poster. For a movie that was supposed to have been released over six months ago, this is awfully strange.

The production company has oddly chosen to over-hype My Sister’s Keeper and ride the wave of success that The Hangover has created. This is baffling, considering that the film finally has box-office competition amongst fantasy geeks. Transformers II. Megan Fox looks incredible on a bike, and just as good  when shit is blowing up behind her.

Finite Incantatum that, Emma Watson.

I get it, the book sold 11 million copies. People like Harry Potter regardless of its publicity. Still, a television commercial here or there would not hurt ticket sales at all.

Casual viewers seem to have been neglected in the weeks leading up to the release.

Considering the overwhelmingly positive reviews that it has received in publications like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, it is unclear why more trailer commercials and magazine ads are not in circulation.

Steve Cloves, writer of the first four scripts, returned and the project was promising enough to lure back Watson, who originally did not plan on returning for the sixth installment. Warner Brothers does not have anything to hide.

Perhaps this is part of an elaborate mind-fuck drawn up by the WB staff. Probably not.

The ‘hard to get’ act is rarely advised and even more rarely employed when attempting to round up an audience; but could it work in the case of Potter?

I cannot imagine that they would drop the ball on this project. After all, they did release The Dark Night, which has the highest-grossing opening weekend of all time. However, after scrolling down the list in that link, one cannot help but notice that the last film from Hogwarts did not do nearly as well as its predecessors. While The Order of the Phoenix had the highest beginning budget ($150,000,000), it had the lowest opening weekend grossing ($77,108,414) of the series thus far.

It too was arguably under-publicized.

It is unclear as to how much financial issues are playing a major role in this ‘decision.’ Time Warner Inc.’s stock (TMX) is hovering at its lowest level in the last five years, and advertising budgets fell along with several other departments’ fundings.There is a definite correlation.

The company seems to have prioritized its other movies, which is fairly logical if they have been pushed to such a point. However, print publications are also suffering and ad space is not all that expensive anymore– especially on the internet. There are ways to plug the movie (television appearances by actors, etc) and I do not think that WB is using them to the best of its ability.

Maybe the execs have planned a last-week Blitzkrieg on the public. There has got to be some hitch. Everybody is hurting because of the recession.

A little fantasy could be just what the doctors ordered. The public loves escapes. Harry Potter gives them just that. Scrounge up the cash and let us know that the movie is coming out on Tuesday WB. Step it up.

It looks kinda good.

This week it was announced that Major League Baseball’s All-Star game would feature 33 players on each roster. This is one more than the traditional 32.

The rationale: adding another slot for a pitcher would prevent the overuse of any one arm. I disagree.

MLB rosters are allowed 25 active players. This means that teams are able to navigate through a 162 game season with eight fewer bodies than this gathering of “elite” talent.

While it is nice to award so many players the honor of being an All-Star, and surely the record online voter turnout has provided officials with ample nominations for team members, the last thing that Bud Selig needs to do is add another roster spot.

Perhaps encouraging the teams’ managers to better manage their pitchers would be the best solution if fatigue is the major concern.

An obvious driving factor behind this move was last year’s game. It went 15 innings and obviously taxed the AL and NL pitching staffs more than anticipated. Again, teams often have to cope with such conundrums during the regular season. The All-Star managers, who were chosen based on their managerial competencies, should be able to adjust accordingly.

If other managers are fearful that their pitchers may be overused during the game, they should offer that pitcher’s roster spot to the next highest-voted player. And while this might possibly yield a lesser turnout, it probably wouldn’t.

Those who suspect that player participation would waiver significantly would cite the NFL’s Pro-Bowl as evidence for their claim. However, baseball is not a contact sport, and even if some individuals did decline their invitations, it would be better to have players who wanted to play.

Baseball could actually take a page from the NFL’s All-Star playbook. Take the game for what it is; nothing more than a good time. Do not put any unnecessary pressure on players or coaches. Involving home-field advantage during the World Series is ridiculous, especially considering that the vast majority of participants will see the benefits of their work. Many go into the game knowing that their team has no chance of playing October baseball.

Because baseball takes itself so seriously it hurts itself. Yes, it is nice to motivate players, but the honor of being named to such a team should be enough. All-Stars don’t need an extra spark lit underneath them. They are All-Stars because they are already motivated to succeed and know how to.

There is absolutely no reason to expand rosters. Pitchers can work for more than an inning each. They have all done it before. Get your panties out of a bunch.

Just buck up and bring the cheese.

The machine. Prince Albert. Fat Albert. Phat Albert.

Albert Pujols goes by many nicknames, and in the era of the pharmaceutical long-ball, should be dubbed “The Natural II.”

He has been hitting 450 foot home runs since age 16 and has frightened pitchers and managers alike since he set foot in a batter’s box. He was recently voted baseball’s most feared hitter.

Pujols has yet to total less than 32 home runs in a season and just notched his 30th round-tripper of 2009 this week. He has only two more strikeouts (32) than home runs, and sans back-story would be a prime suspect for drugging.

To counter any notion that he could possibly be doping is Pujols’ track record. He has put up similar numbers at every level, from high school to the majors; and has done so through use of nothing more than extreme discipline.

Pujols ended his high school career with over a .500 batting average, and in his first game at Maple Woods Community College managed to both hit a grand slam and turn an unassisted triple play. Scouts eyed the wonder-child, but were still hesitant in drafting him. Pujols slipped to the 13th round of the 1999 M.L.B. Draft. This is rumored to have been the result of a poor tryout with Tampa Bay

The scout who reported being unimpressed resigned. Good call.

The St. Louis Cardinals, who took Pujols with the draft’s 402nd overall pick, offered a $10,000 bonus. He declined and chose to instead join Kansas’ Jayhawk League, an independent association for post-collegiate players. The Cardinals’ management quickly upped their ante to $70,000, Pujols agreed, and he was sent to their single A-affiliate, the Peoria Chiefs.

In Peoria, Pujols quickly became a star, earning the Midwest League’s MVP title. He progressed through the St. Louis farm system ranks and was called up in 2001 after then-third-baseman Bobby Bonilla injured his hamstring. He never looked back.

In his rookie campaign the man they call The Machine ran away with R.O.Y. honors, posting a gaudy .329 batting average, launching 37 home runs, and batting in 130 runs, all the while collecting a chump-change $200,000 salary. He has since been voted to 7 All-Star Games, won two MVP awards, and added a Gold Glove for good measure.

His career .334 batting average is the tops among active players and his 349 home runs (through 7/1) put him at a hall of fame pace for his career. His consistency is unparalleled. And not to be ignored, his loyalty to the Cardinals’ organization is something to take note of and admire.

Flatly put, if Albert Pujols ever tests positive for drugs, I will not watch another baseball game. As far as I am concerned, he is this generation’s Ken Griffey Jr. A lone clean talent in a sport polluted by cheaters.

For the last week SportsCenter’s anchors have been hard at work attempting to come up with a new nickname for Shaquille O’neal. Suggestions have been all over the place, but the network seems to have settled on pushing The Big Sidekick.

I applaud their determination. And they were on the right track with The Big Sidekick. It just is not catchy enough.

A Cavs blogger came up with a list of 20 possible nicknames, most heavily reliant on Shaq’s location in Cleveland. Though again a valiant effort, Cleveland really is not a very interesting city. I agree that it could be incorporated somehow, but it cannot be the name’s main focus.

So, the new nickname must be both catchy and relevant. I was able to narrow it down to two possibilities: CaddyShaq and The Court Jester.

CaddyShaq was the winner. It is a term already in everybody’s vocabulary thanks to the hilarious movie starring Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield and also emphasizes O’neal’s secondary role to Lebron James on the team.

As the King’s “caddy” he lightens the work-load by carrying James’ metaphorical clubs. If Shaq chips in 15-20 points and 7-10 rebounds per game his production will dwarf that of Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas this year and lightens the amount of pressure on James to do everything.

And though it fails to directly incorporate the city of Cleveland in any possible way (the movie was filmed in Florida, it supposedly takes place in Nebraska, its lead actors are from New York and its writers are from Chicago), there is an indirect connection. Actress Cindy Morgan, who played Lacey Underall, did the weather for a Milwaukee television station before becoming an actress. She was fired for incompetence, and one of her most common errors was mixing up Iowa and Ohio. There you go.

“The Court Jester” did come relatively close. It provides a clever play on James’ nickname and again involves O’neal in the assistant position. It also acknowledges his ability to make the masses laugh. However, it was not as catchy as CaddyShaq, which left it at a second place finish.

The Big Witness came in a distant third.

This all being considered, I would not be surprised if no new nicknames catch on. Shaq has created a laundry list of nicknames for himself already. He has taken most of the good ones.

I leave with a Shaq-a-log

“All this heaviness does not mean that I’m a monk.  I’m an unorthodox type of guy, a funny guy—at least I think I’m funny.  And one of the things I like to do is come up with nicknames for myself. Some of my personal favorites: The Big Stock Exchange.  I start off at one price.  Every now and then I’ll go down, but eventually I’ll go back up. The Big IPO.  Put your money on me.  Because when I go public, we all gonna make money… And they call me the Big Sewer because I have a lot of shit in my game.”

The gossip kings and queens continue to stay busy and have emerged as the premier source in breaking bad news to America’s pop culture fanatics.

What this time?

Celebrity pitch-man Billy Mays has passed away.

Mays starred in commercials for Mighty Puddy, ESPN360, and most notably OxiClean . He was found unresponsive by his wife Sunday morning and rushed to a nearby Florida hospital, where he was pronounced dead. An autopsy will be performed tomorrow.

Renowned for his enthusiasm in advertisement, his boisterous voice could be recognized (and actually heard) from a mile away. Somebody’s got some big shoes to fill.

TMZ also broke the news that Michael Jackson died before anybody else.

And though they tend to go over-the-top often, like streaming the 911 call from Jackson’s house, their reporting is generally factual and very timely.

Excuse me while I pour a little OxiClean out in memory of Mr. Mays. The commercial world will never be the same without you.

So we didn’t get Stephen Curry. I’m not shocked.

Good things do not happen to the New York Knicks during the draft. In fact they rarely happen in general. Even when we make a good pick (see: Trevor Ariza), we somehow manage to botch it pretty badly in the end. The rare exception would be David Lee, and even he has been the talk of many recent trade rumors.

I’m curious as to whether or not this managerial incompetence will ever phase me as much as it had in years past; it has just become so commonplace at this point.

Over the last fifteen years the Knicks have retained exactly three draft picks for three seasons or more. Wilson Chandler is entering his third year with the team; David Lee, who as mentioned earlier, is the exception to Murphy’s Law; and Lavor Postell, who is now playing in Europe and was a waste of a contract.

This speaks volumes for a franchise that has claimed to be using the draft as a rebuilding mechanism. It is not even like we got good players in return for our traded picks. Perhaps this is because our picks were poorly made.

We passed on Rajon Rondo in 2006 when it was decided that Renaldo Balkman was a better choice.  Andrew Bynum and Danny Granger were still on the board when Channing Frye was picked in 2005.  And perhaps the most shameful choice in recent memory, outside of Frederick Weis (below) of course, was Mike Sweetney in 2003. All-Stars David West and Josh Howard were still available, as were Boris Diaw and Leandro Barbosa.

Fail. But I did promise it.

Our latest ingenius roster move brought Darko Milicic, one of the bigger busts in NBA history, to New York in exchange for Quentin Richardson, who at least is a viable offensive threat at times. I understand that it was an effort to clear cap space, but honestly we only have three or four players contracted after next year as is.

What happens if Lebron doesn’t leave Cleveland? What happens if Chris Bosh decides that Cleveland is where he wants to go too?

The Miami Heat seem to be willing to do anything that Dwyane Wade wants in order to re-sign him. Yao is not going to leave Houston. Manu Ginobili is comfortable in San Antonio. And if the Amare Stoudemire trade goes through with Golden State, it seems unlikely that they will let the talented big man go immediately.

Beyond that, the potential 2010 free agent list is full of a bunch of aging former-greats. Names like Tracey McGrady, Ray Allen, and Brad Miller will surely be tossed around, but none of them will provide enough of a boost to bring New York back to relevance in the NBA; especially with a revitalized Eastern Conference.

Though this is certainly a hum-drum, pessimistic stance on the Knicks’ future, it could very well be the reality. We have pooled all of our chips into the Lebron 2010 boat and are not looking back. And while I do commend the commitment to a move that would guarantee success, it would not be a bad idea to have a fall-back plan.

Management did appear to make a stride in this week’s draft. Jordan Hill has the potential to be a very good NBA player and Toney Douglass seems to be cut from the Jamal Crawford mold. But neither of the two are even close to ready to lead a franchise. If we fail to lure a major free agent next year, they will be expected to do so. This is what we call a problem.

This problem would be the same no matter who we picked on Thursday night. Stephen Curry, Ricky Rubio, any player with some offensive competence will fit in to Mike D’Antoni’s system. Everybody wants to play run-and-gun basketball.

The season is won and lost with depth. And the Knicks have none. There isn’t even a clear-cut starting five. Every player (excluding David Lee) is mediocre. Chris Duhon has flashes of good play, Wilson Chandler is streaky, Al Harrington is streakier, Galinari is a gimp, and everybody else falls into one of those three categories as well.

Hopefully the rookies help out, but I think that it is a terrible choice to invest the majority of our cap in expiring contracts. Yes, if anybody is worth the risk it is Lebron, but it is far too foggy a prospect to bank on.

This argument is far too late, seeing that we have already thrown all of our money at “players” like Darko. I just figured I would throw my “told-you-so” in before I was too late for that.

I leave you with my lasting image of Mr. Milicic.

So typical that it hurts. The sudden death of Michael Jackson Thursday evening was marked my global mourning and universal tribute to the King of Pop.

There was no mention of little boys nor any other jabs at Jackson; just round-the-clock playing of “Billie Jean” and talk of how timeless his works are.

This begs the question of how many “bandwagon” Jacko fans were created with his passing. The answer is A LOT.

It was just yesterday that Jackson was being addressed as a freak and jokes about him were being tossed left and right.

Q: How can you tell if Michael Jackson has a hot date?
A: There’s a big wheel parked outside his house.

I personally was never a fan of that humor genre. I find his past actions disgusting and firmly believe that they are legitimate justification for demoting his celebrity status.

Hey, Pete Rose was a great baseball player, but he messed up too. The same can be said for Michael Vick, who arguably re-shaped the mold of an NFL quarterback, but also killed innocent animals. Those who are opposed the the reinstatement of either athlete have perfectly fine rationale for their stance. Just don’t call them the best thing since sliced bread if something tragic happens.

Outside of the 48-hour Michael mega-mix that several radio stations chose to air following his death, a number of other factors have led me to question the sincerity of many individuals’ displayed sorrow.

The foremost of these factors is the Tweet. I have sworn to never involve myself in Twitter because I simply cannot fathom very many people caring when I go to work, class, or have a particular gripe. Way too much effort for way too minuscule a reward.

However, for those who do invest time and energy into broadcasting their thoughts, feelings, and actions, Jackson appeared to be a very popular topic. Peaking at around 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, the phrases “Michael Jackson,” “MJ,” and “King of Pop” could be found in over 30 percent of all Tweets. The estimated user population (Twitter does not release official stats) is somewhere between 2 and 6 million.

This means that somewhere between 600,000 and 2 million people felt prompted to pay homage to the fallen star. I can assure you that of those who Tweeted that a large percentage have either told or laughed at a crude joke about Jackson. A larger percentage, I would hope, were vehemently opposed to his views of children and his behavior towards them.

I am not saying that we should bash instead of mourn. I am merely noting that it is best for those who were not actually grief-stricken by his passing to leave MJ alone. Do not pretend that you care just to fit in.

Radio stations get a pass because their sole concern is attracting listeners. Also, a lot of Jackson’s songs kick ass. He absolutely did know how to create a party mood.

Additionally, Sacha Baron Cohen decided that it would be best to eliminate Jacko jokes from his latest movie, Bruno . This also obviously gets a pass. Who knows how many people would be up in arms after hearing a joke that they’ve already told five to ten times? Cohen, like radio stations, needs to please the masses. Keeping the cheap-shots in there would not be a wise choice.

It goes without question that Jackson is the “King of Pop.” His hits have been danced to and sung along to by people young and old. One of my first cassette tapes was his Bad album. The first music video I saw was Thriller. During the years that I spent working at a summer camp with four and five year olds (please hold jokes and snide remarks), MJ was always the favorite sing/dance along artist.

However, it must be noted that a number of his actions were not acceptable. Regardless of the quality of his music, Wacko Jacko did some really messed up things. I say this as a caveat to those eagerly getting ready to hop aboard the bandwagon. Know that you can appreciate the music for what it is without embracing all that is Michael Jackson. He was a phenomenal artist, but a sub-par citizen.

I leave you with my favorite classic work of his.

As well as my favorite contemporary work/tribute.

It has become cliche at this point.

For months the 2009 NBA Draft class has been lamented by GM’s, television analysts, and writers for its lack of talent and potential. Many have called it the worst of all-time. Teams have been described as frantically clawing to escape the lottery in an attempt to avoid being told that they made a mistake taking such a bad player with such a good pick. I do not know who started these rumors, but whoever did made a mistake.

Sure this draft might not have the Hall-of-Fame locks that 1996 and 2003 brought the league, but it is nowhere near the bottom of the barrel.

Classes like 1996's are hard to replicate. (From left: Marcus Camby, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen (seated), Kobe Bryant, Shareef Abdur-Rahim)

That came earlier this decade.

The 2000 Draft was far and away the worst in recent history and surely one of the most disappointing classes of newcomers in all of professional sports. Nearly 60% of the players picked will not suit up in NBA uniforms this season, including four of the thirteen lottery picks. Only one All-Star appearance came of this group (Kenyon Martin, 2004). AOL Fanhouse re-did the draft this week in hindsight. It still became a mockery at pick 11, Joel Przybilla.

Not a pretty board in 2000

Not a pretty board in 2000

There is a lack of game-breaking talent this year. That is correct. However, there are certainly more than 10 players whom I expect to see on NBA rosters in ten years.

Yes, Ricky Rubio is a huge question mark. No, I do not think he is worth the hype or the top-5 pick. I side with Brandon Jennings.

Rubio is not the be-all, end-all though. He is far from it.

Blake Griffin is sure to find success in Los Angeles. He reminds me of a Michael Beasley-Elton Brand hybrid. That’s one.

Jordan Hill is also a shoe-in for a legitimate NBA big-man. The Kings, Timberwolves, Warriors, and Knicks all are in sore need of size, and one is sure to stake Hill. He will be plugged in immediately and fed the ball until he learns how to put it in the basket.

Then we get to the guards; the group about whom most gripe. Johnny Flynn and Stephen Curry will not fail. Flynn is a more-talented Aaron Brooks, and Curry is a lights-out shooter. Speedy offense and long-range shooting are two things that will never go out of style in the NBA. Ty Lawson and Darren Collison bring similar talents to the table and should also both be able to find their niches rather easily.

Brandon Jennings, like Rubio, is also a question mark in many people’s minds. While he is a supremely skilled ball-handler, complaints have surfaced about his jump shot. I don’t agree with the doubters. I see Jennings an all-star talent. He is cut from the Allen Iverson mold and certainly has enough faith in himself to succeed. Let’s just hope that he doesn’t turn into Louis Williams.

The final group of guaranteed legitimate NBA players are the battle-tested college veterans. These include Gerald Henderson, Wayne Ellington, Tyler Hansbrough, Jeff Teague, Terrance Williams and Dejuan Blair. I cannot see any of these players bottoming-out. Henderson and Williams are tremendous athletes who can fit into any offensive/defensive scheme. Ellington is a three-point marksman who, unlike other recent ACC sharp shooters turned-pro (cough… Redick… cough), has the competency to defend at the NBA level. Hansbrough is a clone of David Lee, who has succeeded in New York. Blair, though undersized, is a hard worker with polished low-post skills and underrated athleticism; think a poor-man’s Charles Barkley. Finally Teague has a penchant for scoring in bunches and has done so against some of college basketball’s best. Another point in the favor of every member of this group is that they are all winners. All come from successful programs with great coaches, and that is a quality that often goes unnoticed.

This is not to say that many of the question marks will not work out. Hasheem Thabeet, Ricky Rubio, Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Demar Derozan, BJ Mullens, Eric Maynor, Chase Budinger and Austin Daye are all very skilled players. Given the right system, surrounding cast, and coach, any of them could become the prize of the draft.

I am sick of this class being lambasted for its mediocreity. It is getting a bum-rap because of a few serious question marks and should turn out to be a very solid group of NBA players.

1) Kansas- This is a virtually inarguable pick. The Jayhaws (27-8, 14-2) were bounced in the Sweet 16 last year by National Runner-Up Michigan State, but return all five starters and practically their entire bench. Sherron Collins has one more year of running the point under his belt and Cole Aldrich brings an experienced post presence to a team that will certainly have a fair shot at cutting down the nets in nine months.

Also of note, while retaining the bulk of his rotation, Bill Self also managed to snag top Recruits Xavier Henry (SG, Rivals top 150 #8), and Elijah Johnson (PG, Rivals top 150 #24). They are joined by big-man Thomas Robinson (PF, Rivals top 150 #31), cementing KU’s place amongst college basketball’s elite for years to come. Self’s 2009 class is ranked the fifth-best in the country by ESPN.

2) Texas- In a big year for the Big 12, Texas (21-11, 9-7) will certainly prove a worthy adversary for Self’s Jayhawks. They return superstar swingman Damion James and bring ESPN’s 4th ranked recruiting class, headlined by Avery Bradley (SG, Rivals top 150 #4) and Jordan Hamilton (SF, Rivals top 150 #6). Bradley should more than make up for the loss of A.J. Abrams, and Hamilton will give defenses headaches by adding a third serious scoring threat to the Rick Barnes’ Lineup.

3) Kentucky- Nobody is supposed to rank a group of freshmen this high. However, not since the movie Blue Chips (below) has such a class of freshmen been gathered. Let’s not mention the fact that Patrick Patterson is returning and provides a polished post presence (alliteration intended). John Calipari, violations or no violations, has monopolized the upper echelon of the 2009 recruiting class. John Wall (PG, Rivals top 150 #1) has shown shades of a young Dwayne Wade, Demarcus Cousins (PF, Rivals top 150 #2) will leave opposing defenses at a loss for action and words when paired with Patterson, and Eric Bledsoe (PG, Rivals top 150 #23) will allow Wall to play the off-guard for variation. Oh, and that is not to mention Daniel Orton (C, Rivals top 150 #22), who will come in handy when Patterson or Cousins become fatigued or have foul trouble.

What more?  Calipari also brought in Darnell Dodson and John Hood, two wing players rated by Rivals as 4 star recruits (out of 5). In short, Kentucky (22-14, 8-8) should not have problems in the SEC and could be the re-incarnation of Michigan’s Fab Five.

4) Villanova- Jay Wright brings back his entire offensive arsenal outside of Dante Cunningham and adds on ESPN’s third-ranked recruiting class. Corey Fisher and Scottie Reynolds have shown that they can perform on the big stage and have been seasoned with one more year of experience in the Big East. The Wildcats (22-13, 9-9) made it to the Final Four last year, but hit a wall when they met Roy Williams’ National Champion-to-be North Carolina squad.

Mouphtaou Yarou (PF, Rivals top 150 #9) and high school teammate Isaiah Armwood (PF, Rivals top 150 #62) should provide immediate help underneath the basket, and Dominic Cheek (SG, Rivals top 150 #30) brings yet another perimeter threat to a team that defines the term ‘loaded’ on offense. The players are there; the only question that remains is whether or not Wright has the coaching swagger to bring a team to the National Championship.

5) North Carolina- Despite losing essentially all of its key elements from last season, UNC (34-4, 13-3) still manages to have a mind-blowingly talented roster. They also keep arguably the nation’s best coach in Roy Williams. Low-post threats Deon Thompson and Ed Davis were men among boys in their action last year and Marcus Ginyard brings a more-than-competent wing presence.

The Tar Heels also boast the nation’s second-best recruiting class. John Henson (PF, Rivals top 150 #5) seems to have springs for legs and adds to Williams’ formidable front court. Dexter Strickland (SG, Rivals top 150 #34) brings back the perimeter scoring touch that Wayne Ellington had. And the Wear twins (PF, Rivals top 150 #59,60) create the standard UNC depth and have the outward appearance of Tyler Hansbrough (if that means anything).

6) Tennessee- Bruce Pearl’s Volunteers (21-12, 10-6) lost no players of value. They are a team with far too much talent and athleticism to let slip in these preseason polls. Bobby Maze has had another season of experience playing against legitimate competition, Wayne Chism and Tyler Smith are hungry for victory in their senior seasons, and Scotty Hopson is no longer a wide-eyed freshman.

And while they certainly could have done slightly better than adding just one four-star recruit to their roster, there is method to Pearl’s madness. His team retains the same chemistry and cohesion that they had during last season, but now are a more intelligent group that hopefully has refined its definition of a ‘good shot.’ Only time will tell, but things look good in Knoxville.

7) Duke- As much as it pains me to rank Coach K’s team this high, the Blue Devils (30-7, 14-5) have a tendency not to slip that far from the top ten, ever. And while they do lose swingman Gerald Henderson and the valued skill of Greg Paulus, something tells me that Duke is going to be alright.

The sharp-shooting duo of Kyle Singler and Jonathan Scheyer, along with a more experienced Nolan Smith running the point should suffice as a legitimate threat in the ACC. Coach K has also added ESPN’s ninth-best recruiting class by signing Ryan Kelly (PF, Rivals top 150 #20) and Mason Plumlee (PF, Rivals top 150 #55). These two should allow Brian Zoubek to fall back into his deserved role of towel boy.

8 ) Michigan State- While Tom Izzo’s team does not lose any key players, they showed major weakness in the National Championship game and I fear that the other teams, especially the above seven, have tooled up in a fashion that is unfavorable to the Spartans (31-6, 15-3). Raymar Morgan and Kalin Lucas are certainly two forces to be reckoned with in the back-court, but unless Delvon Roe develops faster than expected, they will be challenged and over matched in the paint by most other teams.

Derrick Nix (C, Rivals top 150 #69) and Garrick Sherman (C, Rivals top 150 #75) should help make up for the loss of Goran Suton, but will have a hard time doing so as true freshmen. Most preseason ranks have the Spartans as top-5 locks, which is why I felt the need to justify my negativity.

9) Washington- The Huskies (26-9, 14-4) bring back their entire team outside of John Brockman. And while Brockman’s inside presence will be missed, Pac-10-freshman-of-the-year point guard Isaiah Thomas and senior-to-be Quincy Pondexter are more than ready to make up for his loss. For insurance purposes the Huskies have also added on Abdul Gaddy (PG, Rivals top 150 # 13). Lorenzo Romar’s team will need to depend more on outside shooting, but they did that quite easily with Brandon Roy and Nate Robinson a few years ago.

10) West Virginia- Though I pine for the days of Kevin Pittsnoggle, the Mountaineers (23-12, 10-8) one hungry senior in Da’Sean Butler and two extremely talented sophomores in Devon Ebanks and Kevin Jones. Ebanks and Jones no longer have freshman jitters and flourished in a season during which they competed against what could be called the most talented group of Big East teams ever.

And though Bob Huggins was not able to sign a top-notch recruiting class to make up for the loss of expert marksman Alex Ruoff, his team will still be able to play a very uptempo brand of basketball that will make opponents very uncomfortable.

11) Michigan- The Wolverines (21-14, 9-9), besides having one of the coolest team names in the NCAA, return one of its most talented teams. John Beilein has a sure-fire future NBA lottery pick in Manny Harris and an excellent post presence in DeShawn Sims. Sophomore-to-be Zach Novack should also be able to find his groove playing on the wing now that he has a season’s experience in the Big Ten. He showed flashes of brilliance against rivals Wisconsin and Minnesota, but was inconsistent for the bulk of the season.

12) Mississippi State- There is one word to describe this Bulldogs (23-13, 9-7) team: Big. They lucked out in signing Renardo Sidney (PF, Rivals top 150 #16) and return repeat SEC Defensive Player of the Year Jarvis Varnado at center. Varnado and Sidney form possibly the most formidable front line in the country and will have an imposing presence on most teams MSU faces.

Rick Stansbury just needs to hope that Barry Stewart and Ravern Johnson have continued to work on their outside shooting and that Dee Bost feels more at home running the point.

13) Purdue- I am not as high on the Boilermakers (27-10, 11-7) as many, but I will acknowledge that they are a talented bunch. E’Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson and Robbie Hummel are all very good players; however, I cannot see any of them stepping forth and taking the lead. They have an iffy recruiting class and showed major weakness in their loss to Connecticut in the NCAA tournament.

14) Georgetown- The Hoyas (16-15, 7-11) were the disappointment of the college basketball community last season. They were young and Chris Wright seemed to struggle at times in his role as floor general. They asked too much of freshman Greg Monroe and Austin Freeman could never seem to decide when to assert himself offensively and when to default to Monro or Dajuan Summers.

John Thompson III is a good coach and should be able to pin-point these problems over the off-season. Monroe should be a dominating force in the paint, Wright should now know how to guide his teammates and Freeman now knows that he is the first option in the Hoyas’ perimeter attack. Finally, Thompson III recruited Hollis Thompson (SF, Rivals top 150 #63) to step in for Summers. The two have comparable playing styles and Georgetown should be able to rise back to the upper echelon of the Big East.

15) Connecticut- The team that will probably get the shaft in most preseason polls. Jim Calhoun can do a little more than fall off of a bicycle. He is one heck of a coach. And despite the losses of Jeff Adrien, AJ Price, and Hasheem Thabeet, will be able to lead this group of Huskies (31-5, 15-3) to success. I might even go as far as to say that I slighted them with this #15 ranking.

Calhoun brings back a jaw-droppingly talented point guard in Kemba Walker, a great compliment on the wing in Jerome Dyson, and a freaky front-court athlete in Jerome Dyson. He has also brought in Alex Oriakhi (C, Rivals top 150 #21), Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (SF, Rivals top 150 #50) and Darius Smith (PG, Rivals top 150 #71) to make up for his losses.

So long as this group can keep its hands off of other students’ laptops, I think Connecticut is going to have a very good year.

16) Minnesota- The Golden Gophers (22-11, 9-9) sure don’t sound threatening, but Tubby Smith knows how to guide a team and should be able to take this crew dancing come March. They return star senior guard Lawrence Westbrook and were able to lure in a top-25 recruiting class. Their prized addition is in-state talent Royce White (SF, Rivals top 150 #19). White and Westbrook are two extremely gifted wing players and should be able to flourish with Smith’s guidance.

17) Georgia Tech- Though the Yellow Jackets (12-19, 2-14) struggled mightily last season, they return power forward Gani Lawal and point guard Iman Schumpert, two players who showed the ACC just how special they could be a handful of times. With Lawal a junior and Schumpert a sophomore, improvement is practically a guarantee.

The big knock on this team is that their record was awful last year and that they lose top scorers Lewis Clinch and Alade Aminu. These concerns are legitimate, but completely negated by the acquisition of Derrick Favors (C, Rivals top 150 #3). Favors will have an immediate impact that rumbles throughout the entire conference. He has the frame to pack on muscle quickly and will surely provide an immediate front court boost. Joining him will  be Kammeon Holsey (PF, Rivals top 150 #82), Glen Rice (SG, Rivals top 150 #45) and Mfon Udofia (PG, Rivals top 150 #32). The Yellow Jackets have ESPN’s seventh-best recruiting class and should prove to be a force in the ACC.

18) Butler- Not to be confused with Baylor (#20), Butler (26-6, 15-3) too has a great season to look forward too. It returns all five starters including Matt Howard, Gordon Hayward, and Shelvin Mack, its three top scorers. Guards Hayward and Mack are coming into their sophomore seasons and should really begin to blossom this year into legitimate stars. Howard, who is entering his junior year, will provide both an interior presence on the court and a veteran voice off of it.

And though they do not boast the recruits that many of the other schools on this list do, returning all five starters to an NCAA tournament team is certainly a worthy enough resume item to earn a spot on this list.

19) California- The Golden Bears (22-11, 11-7) return a potent but predictable offensive attack. Jerome Randle, Patrick Christopher, and Theo Robertson will hoist three point shots until they turn blue in the face. The odds are that at least one of them will get hot, and the opposition will struggle to slow them down. All three players are very talented, but watching the team gets rather tiresome at a point.

Cal does not bring in any recruits of note, but will surely experience a good amount of success with their perimeter attack.

20) Baylor- Outside of Curtis Jerrells, the Bears (24-15, 5-11) return the majority of their offense from last year. Guard LaceDarius Dunn returns for his junior year and is a lethal threat on the perimeter. Senior Tweedy Carter will have to step in as the offensive facilitator, but should not have a problem doing so after watching Jerrells for the last three years, and Quincy Acy has presumably worked on his low-post offense during the off-season.

In addition to returning most starters, the Bears have a top-25 recruiting class. It includes Cory Jefferson (PF, Rivals top 150 #51), Nolan Dennis (SG, Rivals 150 #58), and Mark McLoughlin, another 4-star shooting guard.

With their bolstered depth and seasoned core, Baylor should fare better in the Big 12 and be able to replicate its impressive overall record from last year.

21) Maryland- I feel guilty giving the Terps (21-14, 7-9) a preseason rank. It will probably jinx our chances at having a decent season; but all logic points to us earning a spot on this list. Greivis Vasquez, Landon Milbourne, Eric Hayes, Adrian Bowie, and Sean Mosely all return. We only lose Dave Neal and Braxton Dupree. And though those two provided comic relief when they did perform, it is time for Gary Williams to start getting serious about his team.

Vasquez has a legitimate shot at making the All-ACC First Team, and Milbourne showed flashes of greatness last season along with Dino Gregory in the front-court. Also, despite not having a monstrous low-post threat, the Terps have impressive overall size and good team chemistry on their side.

Finally, Williams was able to sign two more big men in Jordan Williams (PF, Rivals top 150 #85) and James Padgett, a three-star power forward. Obviously this ranking is subject to change based on the destination of Lance Stephenson, but it appears doubtful that he’ll be donning red, black, and gold next year.

22) Illinois- Let’s do the math. A team (23-8, 11-7) retains four of its top five scorers and signs two top-50 recruits to fill the void of the one player lost. I’d say sign that team up for a tournament birth. Demetri McCamey will be joined by wingmen Brandon Paul (SG, Rivals top 150 #42) and D.J. Richardson (SG, Rivals top 150 #38), while Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale return to their respective power forward and center roles.

This is an Illini team that is not receiving the preseason buzz that many other big time programs are getting. However that should not be a factor in their success. Bruce Weber just got a raise and should make the folks at Illinois proud with the crew that he can put on the floor.

23) Florida- Billy Donovan returns all of his starting Gators (25-11, 9-7) besides leading scorer Nick Calathes. Alex Tyus, Chandler Parsons, and Dan Werner give Florida a very strong interior, while Erving Walker provides a perimeter threat.

Walker, however, will not be alone on the arc this year. Donovan recruited blue-chip prospect and All-American, Kenny Boynton (SG, Rivals top 150 #12) to help as well as Erik Murphy (PF, Rivals top 150 #79) to add to the Gators’ depth. These two brought Donovan’s 2009 class the nod of ESPN’s twentieth-best.

24) South Carolina- In a year that several SEC teams appear strong, the Gamecocks (21-10, 10-6) are no exception. They return four of their top five scorers including Devan Downey, who was deemed a legitimate NBA prospect by many. Downey is joined by forward Dominique Archie and center Mike Holmes as the leading threats for SC.

And while the team absolutely will miss the outside shooting of Zam Frederick, the commitments of Lakeem Jackson (SF, Rivals top 150 #117) and Ramon Galloway (PG, Rivals top 150 #148) should soften the blow. The Gamecocks are starting to show that they are slightly more than just a football school; look for them to make their mark this year.

25) Tulsa- This is an honest-to-god toss-up. The Golden Hurricane (25-11, 12-4) had a great year in 2008 and returns most of its major contributors. Guard Ben Uzoh and center Jerome Jordan are both entering their senior seasons and seem primed to make a run for the Big Dance this year.

Though the school got no recruits of note, it showed tremendous character last year and played extremely well in conference. Expect similar results this season.

Honorable Mention (in order): Ohio State, Syracuse, Boston College, Kansas State, Indiana

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