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Returning starters: F Louis Birdsong, G Dre Smith, G John Vaughan

Top player: Vaughan averaged 12.3 points as the third offensive option behind Folarin Campbell and Will Thomas a year ago, and his scoring figures to rise this season. But his greatest value might come at the defensive end, where he routinely locked down the likes of Virginia Commonwealth´s Eric Maynor and Northeastern´s Matt Janning a year ago. Both are back and playing for CAA title contenders - but so is Vaughan.

Outlook: The final cornerstones of the 2006 Final Four team - Campbell and Thomas - are gone, but George Mason long ago established itself as one of the CAA´s top teams regardless of personnel losses. Vaughan remains a defensive stopper, while Smith is a dangerous perimeter option who went 10-for-10 beyond the 3-point line in a game last year. Darryl Monroe returns after missing last season following toe surgery and will fortify the frontcourt, while sophomore Cam Long should emerge as a factor at point guard. Look for freshmen Andre Cornelius and Ryan Pearson - both of whom played extensively in George Mason´s exhibition game - to establish roles for the defending CAA tournament champions.

GEORGE WASHINGTON

Last year: 9-17 (5-11 Atlantic 10)

Coach: Karl Hobbs, eighth year, 123-82

Returning starters: F Rob Diggs, F Damian Hollis, G Xavier Alexander

Top player: Diggs led the Colonials in virtually every statistical category last season as a junior. The 6-9, 202-pound Brandywine native was second in the A-10 in offensive rebounds and was fourth in the conference in field goal percentage.

Outlook: Hobbs has his leading scorer (Diggs), 3-point shooter (guard Noel Willmore) and defender (forward Wynton Witherspoon had 30 steals in 2007) back from last season’s disappointing squad. Gone are team troublemakers Maurice Rice, Cheyenne Moore and Miles Beatty, who were dismissed from the team last spring. The senior core of Diggs, Willmore and Witherspoon should help ground a group that is picked to finish fourth from the bottom of the A-10. Its early season schedule — which includes games against area rivals Maryland and American and a trip to Honolulu for the Rainbow Classic in late December - and a competitive conference slate will render GW’s postseason hopes all but obsolete.

HOWARD

Last year: 6-26 (3-13 MEAC)

Coach: Gil Jackson, fourth year, 22-70

Returning starters: G Randy Hampton, G Eugene Myatt, C Paul Kirkpatrick, F Adam Walker

Top player: Hampton, a senior swingman, returns after averaging 11.6 points a game in an injury-plagued junior season. The homegrown talent (Dunbar High School) suffered a concussion and missed significant time during the Bison’s woeful 2007 campaign. The transfer from Drexel should be even more effective if he can manage to stay healthy.

Outlook: Jackson’s team has nowhere to go but up with a more experienced squad returning for 2008. Myatt, who last year averaged 14 points, should team with Hampton to provide some much-needed frontcourt firepower, and an infusion of talent from newcomers Calvin Thompson and Chris McHenry has Howard fans hungry for more wins. The Bison start the season in the spotlight when Oregon State and coach Craig Robinson - the brother of first lady-to-be Michelle Obama - visit the nation’s capital.

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