Stewart Mandel: The Year of the Junior
Of all the remarkable things about the season enjoyed by Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon last year, when they led Connecticut to the national championship, the most amazing to many was simply that they were around to take part in it. They were, after all, juniors. "Everyone praised us," said Huskies coach Jim Calhoun. "It was, They stuck around."
In this age of prep stars and college freshmen routinely jumping to the NBA, juniors have become the new seniors, the players counted on by coaches who find it increasingly hard to cultivate stability. "I think if you have a strong junior class, that's the best possible scenario," says Louisville coach Rick Pitino. "In their senior year guys who are on the threshold of making it [to the NBA] start getting preoccupied. The junior class is the perfect age." And around the country this season's junior class is shaping up to be particularly strong. Of the 50 players on the Wooden Award Preseason AllAmerican list, 25 are juniors--the most in six years (chart below).
• The rest of SI.com's 2004--05 college hoops preview can be found at si.com/basketball/ncaa/.
Luke Winn: The All-Junior Team
Guard: Jarrett Jack, Georgia Tech There may be more highly touted point men in the ACC, like Wake Forest's Chris Paul or North Carolina's Raymond Felton, but only Jack carried his team to the title game last spring.
Guard: Gerry McNamara, Syracuse The ultimate crunch-time player, scrappy G-Mac made an NCAA-tournament-record 18 threes during Syracuse's 2003 title run.
Forward: Francisco Garcia, Louisville When Garcia is healthy, the Cards are downright scary. They were 15--1 (and ranked No. 4) last season before he was slowed by an ankle injury. They were just 5--9 the rest of the way.
Forward: Rashad McCants, North Carolina So much talent, so much trouble. Will the game's best pure scorer (20.0 points per game on 47.9% shooting last year) make the most of what's likely his final year in "jail"--as he memorably called his time at Chapel Hill last month?
Center: Sean May, North Carolina The beast of last summer's under-20 world championships qualifying tournament, May (who averaged 16.0 points and 9.5 boards) led the U.S. in rebounding in all four of its games and was its top scorer twice.
• Luke Winn's college basketball column, The Beat, appears Wednesdays at si.com/basketball/ncaa/.