Tar Heels will be overwhelming favorites to win it all
Top 25 Movement
Just how much has the Top 25 changed from the first day of the offseason? Check out Andy Katz's Top 25 from April 9.
|1. Texas||14. Davidson|
|2. UNC||15. Arizona St.|
|3. Pitt||16. Oklahoma|
|4. Kansas||17. UCLA|
|5. Notre Dame||18. Syracuse|
|6. West Va.||19. Georgetown|
|7. Connecticut||20. Tennessee|
|8. Purdue||21. Louisville|
|9. Memphis||22. Michigan St.|
|10. USC||23. Florida|
|11. Gonzaga||24. Wisconsin|
|12. Miami (Fla.)||25. Miss. State|
But don't expect a change at the top: North Carolina should be the consensus No. 1 now, then and in March when the NCAA tournament field is announced.
The Tar Heels enter the summer as a lock to be tabbed national champs. The only other certainty is that the Big East will dominate the Top 25 and possibly rack up as many as nine NCAA tournament bids come March. So, while the Big East teams slug through a grinder of a league schedule, the Tar Heels should be the top team from Day 1, perhaps going wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in the country. How does the rest of the Top 25 shake out after the early-entry withdrawal deadline passed Monday?
1. North Carolina
The Tar Heels will be the consensus No. 1 team. If there is a poll and the Tar Heels aren't the No. 1 team, it will be a complete shock or someone will be doing it simply for the shock value. No other team will return as much talent as the Tar Heels. The team will remain essentially intact from its run to the Final Four. A number of other elite teams suffered through a defection or two or three. UNC did not. The Tar Heels will have power presence inside with Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson, a lead guard in Ty Lawson, shooting wings in Wayne Ellington and Danny Green and plenty of pop off the bench. Coach Roy Williams and the Tar Heel nation should have fun with this crew. Start printing the tickets for the 2009 Final Four in Detroit.
The hint of Mike Cook coming back for a sixth year (after tearing his ACL in December) makes the Panthers even more formidable. Sam Young and DeJuan Blair are big-time bigs, and Levance Fields might be as good a floor leader as anyone in the country. This Pitt team could win the national title.
Don't cry for UCLA because it lost Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook to the NBA draft. Getting back Darren Collison at the point, Josh Shipp on the wing and the No. 1 recruiting class with a little bit of everything -- scoring, floor leadership and rebounding -- make a fourth straight Final Four a legitimate goal.
4. Notre Dame
Luke Harangody won the Big East Player of the Year award. For whatever reason, that fact gets lost sometimes. Harangody has a chance to repeat the honor after not even sniffing the NBA early-entry process. Add Gody back with guard Kyle McAlarney and a host of solid role players, and the Irish are a lock for a top-four Big East finish and a solid NCAA seed once again. Mike Brey has this program on solid footing.
The Cardinals relied on David Padgett to be the glue for this squad and did run plenty of offense through him. But he is hardly irreplaceable. Earl Clark should shine next to incoming freshman Samardo Samuels, and the backcourt is back with Jerry Smith and Edgar Sosa ready to lead the Cards to yet another Big East top-three finish.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski is raving about how experienced his squad will be next season. The only departures were senior DeMarcus Nelson and freshman Taylor King (transferred to Villanova). Kyle Singler and Gerald Henderson have a chance to be real Duke stars next season. And there is plenty of experience on the squad with Greg Paulus, Jon Scheyer, Lance Thomas and David McClure. The addition of incoming freshman Miles Plumlee will help the depth upfront. Duke won 28 games last season. There's no reason to believe they can't come close to that again.
The Tigers will have a legitimate shot to reach a third-straight Elite Eight with Robert Dozier, Antonio Anderson and Shawn Taggart anchoring a team that brings in a stellar recruiting class led by Tyreke Evans and the latest pickup in former Nebraska signee Roburt Sallie. Losing Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey will change the moxie of this team -- and its primary scoring options -- but the Tigers are still the team to beat in Conference USA.
8. Miami (Fla.)
The Hurricanes should be a top-10 team in the country and a top-three squad in the ACC. There really is no excuse if they're not. Jack McClinton might be one of the top guards in the nation next season. Dwayne Collins is a legit scorer in the post. The role players were all solid last season. And Miami has the experience of going to the NCAA tournament and winning a game.
The Zags got great news when Jeremy Pargo decided to return for his senior season Monday. Pargo's return means the Zags have a legit shot to be a top-10 team. The Zags should be an offensively charged team with Pargo, Matt Bouldin, Austin Daye, Steven Gray and Josh Heytvelt all capable of scoring 20 on a given night. If Heytvelt can once again be a dominant low-post player, the Zags will have all the pieces in place to make a deep NCAA run. They have to be a better defensive team than they were last season, but they maybe one of the most experienced teams in the West.
The only offseason hiccup for this overachieving squad in the spring was the surprising transfer of Scott Martin to Notre Dame. The return of E'Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel gives the Boilermakers a 1-2 punch that made them the second-best team in the Big Ten last season. Purdue will enter this season, though, as the Big Ten favorite, and it will be interesting to see how the Boilermakers handle that kind of a target.
11. Michigan State
Drew Neitzel was too important to this team and this program the past two years to dismiss his departure as no big deal. The Spartans will have a huge leadership void to fill. The talent is certainly there to make another run toward a Big Ten title and a second-weekend appearance in the NCAAs. Raymar Morgan will be the go-to guy, and the addition of newcomer Delvon Roe makes the Spartans a formidable force inside. The question will be, can someone like Kalin Lucas be the primary perimeter threat? There's no reason to believe Tom Izzo won't have this squad ready for a run toward the 2009 Final Four in Detroit.
12. Arizona State
Herb Sendek's rebuilding phase is nearly complete. Now he just has to get the Sun Devils into the NCAA tournament. That shouldn't be an issue since ASU should be the second-best team in the Pac-10. The return of James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph gives the Sun Devils two of the top scorers in the league. Playing ASU continues to be a grind for every opponent. ASU won't have to beg or convince anyone about a bid in March. Pencil the Sun Devils in now.
The Longhorns received good news Monday when shooting guard A.J. Abrams decided to go back to Austin. Abrams was looking at possibly going undrafted, so this move made sense. The Longhorns will desperately miss point guard D.J. Augustin, who did leave for the draft. But don't fret. With Abrams and rising stars Damion James and Justin Mason, Texas is still good enough to win the Big 12. The inside game is solid, even if it doesn't have a big-time star just yet. Rising sophomore forward Gary Johnson could be that for Texas next season.
New coach Buzz Williams got a gold mine of a job. He comes into a gig with a team that is fully loaded with one of the most experienced backcourts in the country. Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews are talented enough to take this squad deep into March. If Lazar Hayward can be a much-improved post player, then playing into April is not out of the question.
The Huskies might not be through with spring attrition (Stanley Robinson could be the next one to depart), but there are still enough pieces in play here for UConn to be a force. Hasheem Thabeet could potentially be the most dominant defensive presence north of Jarvis Varnado (Mississippi State), Jeff Adrien is an experienced leader up front and the guard play of a healthy A.J. Price (coming off an ACL tear) and a shooter in Jerome Dyson (as long as he doesn't get into any more trouble) make UConn a threat. The additions of guard Kemba Walker, forward Nate Miles and Ater Majok give Jim Calhoun plenty of backup options to hang over his returnees' heads.
The Sooners might have one of the top draft picks on their roster next season in Blake Griffin. He has a chance to bully his way in the post toward a Big 12 player of the year award. Add in the return of shooting guard Tony Crocker and a solid recruiting class, and the Sooners can legitimately challenge for the league title.
The Vols took a hit with seniors (JaJuan Smith and Chris Lofton) and attrition (Ramar Smith and Duke Crews were kicked off the team). But there is still plenty of talent left with Tyler Smith, J.P. Prince and an outstanding recruiting class led by Scotty Hopson to keep the Vols atop the SEC. They will get plenty of challenges from a host of schools in the league. But it's still going to be hard to knock them off their perch.
The Wildcats ended up as one of the last teams in the NCAA field, yet made it to the Sweet 16. That was no accident. This squad was just a bit inexperienced but still very talented. The core of this team is back, and that means the Cats won't be a .500 club in the Big East. They shouldn't have to sweat out Selection Sunday, either.
The Wildcats leaped into the Top 25 once Chase Budinger decided to go back to school. Now, coach Lute Olson has a go-to guy in Budinger, who could be a star next season, a lead guard in incoming freshman Brandon Jennings, a tough combo guard in Nic Wise and a legit defensive presence in Jordan Hill. Stability has returned to Tucson, at least for the time being, with Budinger's return.
20. West Virginia
Joe Alexander was adamant that even without him, the Mountaineers have a shot to make a deep March run. Now that he's staying in the draft, we'll see whether he is right. The additions of Devin Ebanks and Kevin Jones give West Virginia more opportunities to score. The returnees -- Alex Ruoff, Joe Mazzulla and Da'Sean Butler -- are all well-schooled in the Bob Huggins' system. This squad is going to be in the thick of the Big East race.
The Bears return essentially intact, save Aaron Bruce. And that means Baylor -- yes, Baylor -- enters the season as one of the top teams in the Big 12. Winning the Big 12 isn't out of the question. Seriously, the Bears, with a 1-2 punch of Curtis Jerrells and LaceDarius Dunn, have enough scoring -- and now experience -- to make a run at the league title.
Never, ever doubt Bo Ryan. The Badgers are always going to be in the thick of the Big Ten race with this man in charge. OK, so they lost the big Polar Bear in Brian Butch and defensive gem Michael Flowers. Next! Marcus Landry will probably be the next featured stud, and the likely leadership of Trevon Hughes will once again steer this team toward the top of the conference and into the NCAAs.
The defending national champs lose Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers, Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson, Russell Robinson, Sasha Kaun and Rodrick Stewart from the team. So, what are they doing here? This is called a good-faith pick. Sherron Collins returns, and he'll start out as possibly the top guard in the Big 12. If you watched the Final Four, you saw that Cole Aldrich can be a solid contributor once he gets the minutes. And the recruiting class that goes seven deep -- led by the Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff -- should contribute right away.
The darlings of the NCAA aren't going away. The Wildcats are here to stay, at least for another season as Stephen Curry continues to be the most dominant player -- even if he looks like one of the slightest -- in the Southern Conference. Curry won't have his backcourt mate in Jason Richards, but Andrew Lovedale is back to balance the team with solid post play. Coach Bob McKillop will have this team ready to win the SoCon and be one of the toughest outs in the NCAA once again.
25. Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons should have been in the NIT with a 7-9 ACC record and a nonconference win over BYU. Coach Dino Gaudio's crew returns nearly intact with solid scorers in James Johnson and Jeff Teague joining a stellar big-man recruiting class of Tony Woods, Ty Walker and Al-Farouq Aminu. If everyone meshes early enough, the Demon Deacons could be one of the surprise teams that stays in the Top 25 all season long.
Also under consideration: Georgetown, USC, Florida, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Syracuse, Saint Mary's, San Diego, Oklahoma State, UAB, BYU, UNLV, UTEP, Mississippi State, Alabama and Kentucky.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.