That four-letter word, the Yankees of college basketball, appears again to be the most prominent program in the game in 2005-06. That is, of course...

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That four-letter word, the Yankees of college basketball, appears again to be the most prominent program in the game in 2005-06.

That is, of course, Duke, which aims to keep the championship of college hoops right there in the “triangle” area of its state, succeeding neighboring North Carolina. The Tar Heels clipped Illinois last April, before the guts of the roster trooped off to the NBA early.

“Duke jumps right out at you,” said Arizona coach Lute Olson, whose team is a solid contender for the Pac-10 title.

“Duke is in that driver’s seat,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. “There’s certainly no guarantee they’re going to win it, but if you had to say one team is going to be there at the end, it would be Duke.”

The Blue Devils already had a lethal inside-outside combination in Shelden Williams and J.J. Redick — each widely accorded first-team preseason All-America honors — and coach Mike Krzyzewski has added the obligatory annual cast of McDonald’s All-Americans, including 6-foot-1 point guard Greg Paulus and 6-10 forward Josh McRoberts.

Referring to Paulus, Olson said, “He’s exactly the type of point guard Mike likes, a competitive guy, but he has an enormous amount of talent to go with it. He’s sort of like — who’s their assistant coach [Krzyzewski’s aide and ex-general, Steve Wojciechowski] — but with a lot more athletic ability. And McRoberts is just a tremendous shooter.”

Bilas, who has seen Duke work out, said, “They don’t defend yet the way they need to, but that team can really score. They can pick up full- and three-quarter court [with pressure]. They want to have more possessions, because they have more talent.”

Duke should rule with authority in what isn’t expected to be a powerhouse Atlantic Coast Conference. Early outs like those at Carolina and that of Chris Paul at Wake Forest have thinned the league.

Nationally, Duke will get a big argument from many other quarters. Among those is Connecticut, which, assuming it can overcome its off-the-court contretemps, should lord over the reconfigured Big East.

UConn has a player-of-the-year candidate in 6-9 sophomore forward Rudy Gay. Much of coach Jim Calhoun’s offseason was spent sorting out what to do about guards A.J. Price and Marcus Williams after an incident in which they tried to sell stolen campus computers. A university panel ruled Price out for the season and Williams out of action until Jan. 3.

The Big East, derided for its football membership, will get back at the critics in basketball, adding heavyweights like Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette. Amazing what happens when you merge Disney with Time-Warner.

Two that could get in Connecticut’s way in that new 16-team colossus are Louisville and Villanova. The Cardinals, who ousted Washington in the Sweet 16 on the way to the Final Four, are led by 6-3 senior guard Taquan Dean.

“Dean could be the best all-around guard in the country,” Bilas said, “for a combination of shooter, scorer, handler, passer, defender.”

Villanova has a 1-2 guard punch in Randy Foye and Allan Ray that provided 31.7 points on average last season. The Wildcats gave North Carolina a giant scare in the NCAA tournament without forward Curtis Sumpter, but now they face the prospect of going without Sumpter for the season because of a knee injury.

Elsewhere, Michigan State should be potent, with proven wing players in Maurice Ager and Shannon Brown, and the usual Spartans toughness.

Oklahoma-Texas battles should be better than the ’05 football version in the Big 12, and either team could be good enough to win it all. Kelvin Sampson may have his best Sooners team, with Taj Gray and Kevin Bookout inside and Terrell Everett at guard. The Longhorns have a superior point guard in Daniel Gibson, a productive 6-5 forward in P.J. Tucker and inside chops in Brad Buckman and LaMarcus Aldridge.

The West doesn’t appear to have many suspects that could take home the big trophy, but it has a lot of candidates that — with some breaks — could see a Final Four.

Nevada, under former Washington assistant Mark Fox, is ranked 22nd in the first AP poll. Center Nick Fazekas is an inside-out threat.

Gonzaga, eighth-ranked, has an extremely deep team and forward Adam Morrison, drawing early first-team All-America mention.

The Pac-10 should have one of its most interesting races in years, born of an unusually deep field of quality teams, six of whom — Arizona, Stanford, UCLA, Washington, California and Oregon — appear threats for the NCAAs.

Arizona is picked to win the league, and Olson said he thinks the Wildcats could be in the national equation by February. They will play a more perimeter-oriented style, pressing more and seeking to use depth and quickness.

Referring to the options, Olson said, “Every day is like a full-scale battle here.”

Good preparation, in other words, for a similar national landscape.

How sweet it is
Seattle Times college basketball reporter Bud Withers ranks the nation’s sweetest 16 teams:
Rk. Team Comment
1. Duke Coach K seeks 4th title; only Wooden (10) and Rupp (4) have more
2. Connecticut Won’t be whole until G Williams returns in early January
3. Texas No reason to regret choosing Barnes over Bender after ’98 season
4. Michigan State Gonzaga could meet Spartans on Nov. 22 in Maui Invitational
5. Oklahoma F Gray is Big 12 preseason player of the year
6. Louisville Kansas transfer Padgett to sit out early with broken foot
7. Boston College Smith-Dudley tandem in frontcourt carries this team
8. Kentucky Big question is whether NCAA will allow F Morris to return
9. Memphis Not great inside, but G Washington leads big-time perimeter
10. Gonzaga Once again, pre-January schedule is a monster
11. Stanford Grunfeld close to old form; led conditioning with 5:10 mile
12. Maryland Addition by subtraction with PG Gilchrist moving on
13. Arizona Unlike many years, should be better later in season
14. Villanova Loss of F Sumpter prevents Wildcats from being title threat
15. Texas Tech Lost talented Ross, but Knight winning big again
16. Alabama Soph Steele one of nation’s premier point guards