Final Four Top 25
SAN ANTONIO -- This isn't ESPN.com's preseason Top 25. It isn't even a pre-preseason, spring, summer or whatever else you want to call a Top-25 list in the days, weeks and months following the national championship game.
Too much can and will happen before next season's squads are set and a clear picture of who'll cut down the nets in St. Louis comes into focus. But, hey, folks love to speculate, and we're happy to oblige.
But, first, a few disclaimers. The NBA draft certainly will affect more than a few teams on this list -- not to mention a few who aren't among the 25 teams below. We must find out who's coming (see: Shaun Livingston, Marvin Williams, Sebastian Telfair ...) and who's going (see: Josh Childress, Ben Gordon, Devin Harris ...). Transfers, injuries and, to be honest, new perspective come October will certainly change things up over the next six months.
But for now, here are the top 25 teams heading into next season.
|1. KANSAS JAYHAWKS|
KEY QUESTION: How will incoming freshman point guard Russell Robinson, who will challenge incumbent Aaron Miles for minutes, blend with the rest of the current Jayhawks?
Bill Self will have to go through what Roy Williams has dealt with before in Lawrence -- high expectations. Wayne Simien already has said he's returning. So, too, are Miles and Keith Langford. That's three of the top players in the country. The Jayhawks also are picking up a big-time recruiting class, let alone the development of rising sophomores David Padgett and J.R. Giddens.
|2. DUKE BLUE DEVILS|
KEY QUESTION: Who emgerges as the new leader now that four-year starter Chris Duhon has departed? Calling J.J. Redick ... Daniel Ewing ... Shelden Williams ...
The Blue Devils could move up a spot by the first tip of the 2004-05 season. If point guard Shaun Livingston honors his commitment and doesn't go to the NBA and Luol Deng stays instead of jumping to the league, then the Blue Devils are a legit preseason No. 1 team. But those are two pretty big "buts." Shavlik Randolph finally played up to expectations in the national semifinal. Add Randolph to the big-time trio of Williams, Redick and Ewing, and the Blue Devils are one player away from competing for another title. One is signed (Livingston). One is on campus (Deng). But will either still be amateurs in six months?
|3. GEORGIA TECH YELLOW JACKETS|
KEY QUESTION: Does 7-1 Luke Schenscher take the next step to be a dominant big man, and not just the supporting player he was until he arrived in San Antonio?
The Yellow Jackets will enter the season with oodles of hype after getting to the title game behind the core group of Jarrett Jack, Will Bynum, B.J. Elder and Schenscher. The Yellow Jackets won't get dismissed in the preseason. But will that be a good thing. Paul Hewitt will have to keep his players grounded and not let them believe every good thing said about them. Still, the Jackets might even get some pub as a preseason No. 1 or 2 team after their run through the NCAA Tournament. This team will have plenty of balance next season after the development of Schenscher. It just needs to be balanced off the court heading into the season.
|4. WISCONSIN BADGERS|
KEY QUESTION: Just how healthy will Alando Tucker be after his foot injury this season?
If the Badgers have Devin Harris in uniform for his senior season, they are a top-five team. If the reigning player of the year in the Big Ten decides to go pro, the Badgers won't be here come the next list. The Badgers return the core of their team, and will add 7-foot redshirt McDonald's All-American Brian Butch. The Badgers were missing athleticism to go with solid defense and halfcourt play, but still won the Big Ten tournament title. A healthy Tucker gives them the explosiveness on offense they missed once he shut it down for the season. Selling the Badgers short if Harris comes back would be a major mistake. This team, if complete next fall, has the potential to be in St. Louis.
|5. ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI|
KEY QUESTION: Will the Illini find a consistent inside game to go with what could be the country's best backcourt in 2004-05?
The Illini have two of the best guards in the country back next season in Dee Brown and Deron Williams. That alone means the Illini are a legit top-five team. These two guards are that good, and judging from the NCAA Tournament, Illinois' inside game isn't all that suspect. Illinois finally figured out Bruce Weber over the final six weeks, but ran into a tough Duke team in the Sweet 16. There's no reason to believe the Illini can't start rolling again in the fall.
|6. NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS|
KEY QUESTION: Can Rashad McCants remain in Roy Williams' good graces all season instead of waiting for ACC play to make his coach happy?
The Tar Heels will be a top-10 team, assuming the Big Three of Raymond Felton, Sean May and McCants all return for their junior seasons. Now add Marvin Williams from Seattle, assuming he doesn't turn to the NBA. If these four are around Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels will have the depth to go with the talent, and remain as offensively productive as any team above them on this list. Roy Williams won't let next year's squad slide to an average ACC record like this season.
|7. WAKE FOREST DEMON DEACONS|
KEY QUESTION: Can Chris Paul duplicate his fabulous freshman season? There is no reason to think he won't, but it's still asking a lot.
Wake returns the core of its team, including the inside-outside duo of point Paul and center Eric Williams. The Demon Deacons will be just as exciting to watch and nearly as difficult to play against next season. Skip Prosser has this program among the ACC elite and nothing seems to be slowing it down for the foreseeable future. Prosser already has said Paul will return, despite talk that agents are trying to push him to the pros.
|8. MARYLAND TERRAPINS|
KEY QUESTION: Were those three days in the ACC tournament and their NCAA showings a glimpse into the future?
The Terps were the ACC tournament champs and return their nucleus, especially point guard John Gilchrist and wing Nik Caner-Medley. Rebounding could still be a concern, but the Terps grew into a pretty good group under Gary Williams. Don't expect Maryland to wait until late February to get on a run next season. Maryland is a legit top-10 team from Game 1.
|9. SYRACUSE ORANGEMEN|
KEY QUESTION: Will this year's solid freshmen mature, and will Billy Edelin ever wear Orange again?
The Orangemen are back in the top 10, assuming that Hakim Warrick returns for his senior season. There hasn't been any indication he'll bolt. Gerry McNamara is back for his junior season, and with him on the perimeter, the Orangemen will be as tough to defend as any team in the country. McNamara and Warrick are two of the best players at their position and make this team a potential Big East champ.
|10. CONNECTICUT HUSKIES|
KEY QUESTION: Does freshman A.J. Price take over the point, or has Marcus Williams learned his lessons in the classroom?
The Huskies will lose Emeka Okafor and senior point guard Taliek Brown. They might also lose Ben Gordon, who seems to be leaning toward the NBA more each day. The Huskies can probably count on Charlie Villanueva being back, and will have Josh Boone to take over the post (but not fill Okafor's shoes). The return of Rashad Anderson and Denham Brown make this team just as dangerous on the perimeter -- with or without Gordon. The addition of freshman Rudy Gay will make UConn even tougher to defend.
11. Alabama: The Tide has Kennedy Winston and Earnest Shelton back for more, making the Elite Eight-reaching Tide the favorite in the SEC.
12. Mississippi State: If the Bulldogs return Lawrence Roberts, they might be even higher in the next poll. But, with or without the SEC player of the year, the core is back for the Bulldogs to be on Alabama's heels.
13. Stanford: We're not sure what Josh Childress is going to do. But Justin Davis, Matt Lottich and Joe Kirchofer are done. Chris Hernandez, Rob Little and Matt Haryasz still are enough to make the Cardinal the pick in a Pac-10 that needs a bounce-back season.
14. N.C. State: The question is whether Julius Hodge will be back next season. If the ACC player of the year decides to return, the Wolfpack aren't going to skip out of the preseason Top 25.
15. Notre Dame: Point guard Chris Thomas already committed to returning for a senior season, and the Irish add Arizona transfer Dennis Latimore in the paint to bookend with returning Torin Francis. These three mean the Irish will, at least, be back in the NCAA Tournament in '05.
16. Louisville: No one expects Sebastian Telfair to be in a Louisville uniform next season, but if he does come to the commonwealth, combined with Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean, the Cardinals will be in the top 20. Even if Telfair bolts, the Cardinals are still the best C-USA has to offer to start the season.
17. Cincinnati: The Bearcats have the core of their inside game returning and are still a tough matchup when their defense is clicking. The mistake would be pushing the Bearcats out of any early top 20 list, based on this past season's preseason oversight.
18. Memphis: Think C-USA won't be a little competitive, again? The Tigers were young this season and Rodney Carney should be ready for a big-time star season along with ESPN.com freshman of the year Sean Banks. Now add point Darius Washington and the Tigers are one of the toughest outs in C-USA.
19. Oklahoma State: Losing Big 12 player of the year Tony Allen won't be easy to digest. But the rest of the Final Four team returns, which means the Cowboys could climb higher in the coming months' polls. If John Lucas can duplicate this season, and another wing emerges, the Cowboys could be in the top 10.
20. Arizona: The Wildcats are once again one of the toughest teams to figure out. We're not sure if Andre Iguodala is returning or not next season. If he does, Arizona should be somewhere in the top 15. But the 'Cats underachieved so much, it's hard to know what to expect from next season's group.
21. Texas: Sure the Longhorns lost four seniors, but the recruiting class of Daniel Gipson, LaMarcus Aldridge and Mike Williams should immediately make this program a Big 12 contender again.
22. Saint Joseph's: The Hawks still have Delonte West, assuming he doesn't join Jameer Nelson in the NBA. Pat Carroll is back, as is Chet Stachitas on the wing. The inside game of John Bryant and Duane Jones should be even better.
23. Kentucky: It's hard to have a top 25 without the Wildcats. They lose a lot, but Chuck Hayes returns as does Kelenna Azubuike, and that's usually enough to get the Wildcats into the Top 25.
24. Washington: The Huskies didn't have a big-time senior on this season's squad. If the Huskies can play as well as they did in the Pac-10 to start next season, they should be a Top-25 team from October to March.
25. Nevada: If Kirk Snyder chooses to stay instead of picking the NBA, the Wolf Pack should be the team to beat in the WAC as well as a Top-25 team. The Wolf Pack still has the frontcourt back of Kevin Pinkney and Nick Fazekas. Finding another point is the only issue.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.