Sports column: Showdown

By Josh Purse and Mike Szwaja

1. Who is the X-factor that must step up his game if the Illini have national title hopes?

Josh Purse: It has to be Nick Smith. You know what to expect from Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head. Expect stellar play from the most talented trio of guards in the country. And you know what to expect from the man formerly known as Roger Powell (the senior added a Jr. to his name in the offseason) and James Augustine. Expect plenty of double-doubles. But what to expect from the man in the middle, Smith? He has been inconsistent in his career and needs to establish himself as a force in the lane, whether he starts or comes off the bench. If the 7-footer steps up this season, come March he has a chance to be the only Illinois player to cut down the nets without the aid of a ladder.

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Mike Szwaja: We all know Deron Williams will be the man for the Illini this season, but will it be good enough? Recent national champions have proved it takes at least one bona fide NBA lottery pick to win it all. Come March, if the Illini want to go to St. Louis, Williams has to be playing out of his mind – like a player who could go out and score 38 points if he had to. Head coach Bruce Weber insists nobody can guard Williams in practice. If Weber wants a Final Four appearance, he better hope nobody in the country can guard Williams come tournament time.

2. What team can be this year’s Georgia Tech – a surprise team to reach the Final Four?

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    Josh Purse: My surprise pick is Louisville. Thing is, this team should not be a surprise. But nobody seems to be giving the Cardinals any preseason love. Don’t be fooled by the fact that they play in Conference USA. Their star player, Francisco Garcia, might be the most versatile player in the country, and the team returns nine players from last year’s squad, which ran off 16 wins in a row. Their head coach is no slouch either – Rick Pitino enters his fourth year at Louisville and the stud-recruiter brought in another group of talented freshmen. He’ll have this team in great condition and playing feisty, pressure defense that can disrupt any offense. And Pitino knows how to get to the Final Four – he led Kentucky to three and Providence to one.

    Mike Szwaja: The Florida Gators haven’t fared well in the NCAA tournament since reaching the title game in 2000, but that will change this season. They have everything it takes to make it to the Final Four. Senior leadership? See David Lee. Scoring threats? Anthony Roberson averaged 18 points per game last season to go along with Lee’s 13.3 average. Young talent? Freshman Corey Brewer can play just about any position on the floor at 6-feet 8-inches tall. Look for the Gators to take a bite out of their bracket in March.

    3. Of the six Chicago Bulls rookies, who will be the best pro?

    Josh Purse: Luol Deng. The kid from Duke already plays like a five-year veteran, sans selfishness and bad attitude. Through Monday, he was leading the Bulls in scoring with over 18 points per game. My first impression of Deng on the Bulls was that he was opportunistic, but not a first-rate rookie. My second, third and fourth impressions proved that first impressions are often less useful than an umbrella in a hurricane. Deng is not opportunistic – he has an almost-innate sense for finding ways to get open shots and to get position to grab boards. His footwork is scary good for a rookie big-man, perhaps a product of playing soccer as a youth. Once he fills out physically, look to find Deng on the Eastern Conference All-Star Team.

    Mike Szwaja: Andres Nocioni is brand new to the NBA game, but he’s already gaining attention league wide. Against the Pacers last week, Nocioni’s defense had Ron Artest so flustered he went to the locker room with four minutes left in the second quarter. He also might be the best rebounder the Bulls have right now. His shooting has been suspect early in his NBA career, but he’ll drive to the basket without fear. Once Nocioni fully adapts to the NBA, he’ll be the best of the Bulls rookies.

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