- Scott Powers, ESPN Staff Writer
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1. Illinois: If Demetri McCamey can consistently be a go-to player If Alex Legion can get comfortable in the offense this season If the frontcourt can get some help on the bench If the freshmen are as good as advertised There are still some ifs with this Illinois team, but the program is getting closer again to being a national contender. If all those ifs work out, Illinois will be right there for a Big Ten title and has the potential to make a deep NCAA tournament run.
2. Notre Dame: The return of Luke Harangody changed the outlook for the Fighting Irish this season. Harangody has dominated the Big East for the past two seasons, and he will be even better this season. The season-ending injury of 6-foot-8 swingman Scott Martin does hurt Notre Dame's NCAA chances, though. The Big East isn't as loaded as it was a year ago, but the Fighting Irish will start midway down the ladder.
3. Northwestern: This team has the best shot in the program's history to earn an NCAA tournament berth. This is Kevin Coble's senior year, and he's a legit star player. Michael Thompson is as solid a point guard as you will find in the Big Ten. John Shurna is developing into a reliable big man. Freshman Drew Crawford could be a special one. The Big Ten is tougher than a year ago, so that will be the one major obstacle for Northwestern.
4. Illinois State: The Redbirds have the talent to reach their first NCAA tournament since 1998. This will be senior guard Osiris Eldridge's final go-round with Illinois State. He has put together an amazing career and could put his stamp on it with another stellar season. The Redbirds also return starters Lloyd Phillips and Dinma Odiakosa.
5. Southern Illinois: The Salukis have the potential to be in the NCAA tournament mix again, but they need to answer some questions before being placed any higher in these rankings. The big one is replacing leader and point guard Bryan Mullins. Senior point guard Tony Freeman, a transfer from Iowa, has that ability. With Freeman, sophomores Kevin Dillard and Justin Bocot and junior college transfer Jack Crowder, Southern Illinois will have plenty of backcourt talent.
6. DePaul: The Blue Demons won't repeat last year's winless Big East season, but they still have a massive hill to climb. This is still a very young team. They return one senior (Will Walker) this season. The loss of leading scorer Dar Tucker, who left school early for the pros, was a blow. Mac Koshwal, who decided to return to school, needs to take another step in his game. Transfers Eric Wallace and Mike Stovall could decide the team's fate this season.
7. Bradley: The Braves finished the year strong as they reached the championship of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. From that team, Bradley returns plenty of guard talent with Eddren McCain, Sam Maniscalco, Chris Roberts and Andrew Warren all back. The frontcourt isn't as experienced and could be a concern.
8. Northern Illinois: The return of Darion Anderson, who averaged 16.9 points, and Mike DiNunno, who averaged 11.9 points, should give the Huskies one of the tougher backcourts in the MAC. Xavier Silas, a 6-5 transfer from Colorado, could be an impact player this season. Northern Illinois has the talent to take a step forward in coach Ricardo Patton's third season.
9. Loyola: This could be a rebuilding season for the Ramblers. They lost four of their five top scorers from last season. Ten of the team's roster spots are filled by freshmen and sophomores. Senior 6-7 forward Andy Polka, who played in 11 games last season due to injury, is the team's leading returning scorer at 7.5 points per game.
10. UIC: The Flames could be in trouble this season. They graduated starters Scott VanderMeer and Josh Mayo, the team's top players. Starters Tori Boyd and Robert Eppinger have left the team. Backup senior guard Spencer Stewart was suspended indefinitely. Basically, UIC is returning point guard Robert Kreps, backup forward Jeremy Buttell and a whole lot of newcomers. There are 20 players listed on the team's roster right now.
11. Eastern Illinois: The Panthers could be among the top teams in the Ohio Valley Conference. Senior Romain Martin averaged 15.4 points last season and is an elite shooter. Eastern Illinois also returns starters Tyler Laser, T.J. Marion and Ousmane Cisse. Freshman big man Shaun Pratl should be able to play for this team early.
12. Western Illinois: The Leathernecks lost their top two scorers to graduation. Senior guard David Nurse is the team's top returning scorer at 8.4 points per game. Sophomore guard Ceola Clark and junior college transfer Jeremy Felton will be looked upon to step up.
13. Chicago State: The David Holston era is finally over for the Cougars. The hot-shooting Holston averaged 25.9 points last season. Chicago State also lost four other starters. It does return 6-7 Carl Montgomery, who averaged 11 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks last season. The Cougars join the Great West Conference this season.
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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