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October 23, 2006

No longer just football powers

Tubby on the hot seat
Preseason Top 25
The College Basketball Wire

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Rivals.com selected the top 25 storylines for the upcoming 2006-07 college basketball season and will be releasing articles daily, counting down from No. 25 to No. 1. The No. 16 storyline focuses on all the success that football schools encountered on the hardwood in 2005-06.

One of the more intriguing trends to emerge from the past college basketball season was the sudden and almost simultaneous rise of a handful of football schools.

It starts with Florida, which was unranked in preseason polls before going on to capture the school's first national title - 10 years after the Gators won their first and only football national championship.

LSU reached its first Final Four in 20 years.

Ohio State won its first outright regular-season Big Ten title in 14 years in a league that produced six NCAA Tournament teams. The Buckeyes were banned from postseason play the previous season because of recruiting violations.

Washington reached the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season.

Tennessee and Texas A&M might have been the biggest surprises.

The Volunteers won the SEC East title - beating Florida twice along the way - after coming off a losing season.

The Aggies, who went 0-16 in the Big 12 two seasons ago, reached their first NCAA Tournament since 1987.

So what's the explanation for so many schools that are known first and foremost for football doing so well in basketball? The athletic directors at each of the respective schools might deserve the most credit for showing great foresight.

Each hired coaches - some very young and some viewed as risky moves - that have risen to the top or near the top of their profession.

Florida's Jeremy Foley picked Billy Donovan - who was just 30 years old and had just three years of coaching experience at the time - to take over a Gators program in 1996 that had won just one SEC title in its 77 years of existence. They've won two more since in 2000 and 2001. The former Marshall coach is now the longest tenured coach in the league and has taken the Gators to eight consecutive NCAA Tournaments.

LSU hired John Brady, who was 43 at the time, from the mid-major ranks in 1997. Brady was at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., for six years before coming to Baton Rouge. He has led the Tigers to a share of three SEC West titles and is the second-longest tenured coach in the SEC.

Nobody may have moved up the coaching ranks faster than Thad Matta, who became Butler's head coach at 33 and took the Ohio State job four years later after a stint at Xavier. He led the Buckeyes to 20 wins in his first season in Columbus and a shocking upset of then-No.1 ranked Illinois at the end of the regular season.

Washington took a big chance on alum Lorenzo Romar, whose best finish in Conference USA while at St. Louis was fifth place. The Huskies have emerged as an elite program since, finishing second in the Pac-10 the last three years and grabbing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in 2005.

Tennessee gave the fiery Bruce Pearl his first chance to be in charge of a program in a major conference last season and was quickly rewarded. The former Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach generated tremendous interest in the UT program. The Vols rebounded from a 14-17 season to a 22-8 mark with an SEC East title. They also had the largest attendance increase in the nation.

Billy Gillispie took over a tough situation at Texas A&M after leading the biggest one-year turnaround (based on wins and losses) in Division-I at UTEP. He immediately showed heavy improvement, guiding the Aggies to eight wins in Big 12 play in his first year.

Expect most of these coaches to build on their remarkable success. Being a football school has its advantages, namely big athletic budgets.

Outside of Donovan (who refused to accept a pay raise because so many of his star players turned down a chance to enter the NBA draft to stay in school), all have signed recent long-term deals which make them among the highest-paid coaches in their leagues.

Many have also emerged as great recruiters, too.

Matta and his staff put together the nation's No. 2-ranked recruiting class in 2006, led by top-ranked prospect and 7-foot phenom Greg Oden.

The Aggies landed what may be their best recruiting class in school history, complete with a pair of top-60 prospects, Donald Sloan Bryan Davis. Gillispie has also received a commitment from five-star center DeAndre Jordan for the class of 2007.

Tennessee and Washington both landed classes that made the top 10 of Rivals.com's team rankings.

These facts reinforce the recent trend of "football" schools morphing into "basketball" schools in the coming years.



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