Commentary

Jayhawks the team to beat ... for now

Originally Published: April 10, 2009
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

North Carolina wasn't No. 1 a year ago at this time. The Tar Heels were staring at losing Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green to the NBA draft. They had no shot to win the 2009 title without those guys.

And then those guys didn't hear what they wanted to at the Orlando pre-draft camp. They weren't going to be selected in the top 15. So they came back in mid-June. Once that happened, there was no question the Tar Heels were going to be the consensus No. 1.

The deadline to declare for the draft is April 26, and the deadline to withdraw not until June 15. The Top 25 will change multiple times between now and November. Wake Forest didn't make the cut because James Johnson and Jeff Teague declared. If Teague returns, the Demon Deacons are assuredly a Top 25 team. Florida has the same issue. The Gators are waiting to see whether Nick Calathes stays in the draft. If he returns, he joins Kenny Boynton and Vernon Macklin, and the Gators suddenly become one of the favorites in the SEC.

Teams that were hard to leave out but easily could make an appearance here in addition to Florida and Wake Forest were Kansas State, Missouri, Siena and Wisconsin.

The hardest teams to figure out were Pitt and Connecticut. The Panthers will be good, but losing seniors Levance Fields, Sam Young, Tyrell Biggs and now DeJuan Blair makes it hard to predict how good the Panthers will be early in the season. The recruiting was strong, and the rebuilding will begin in earnest. The Huskies are expected to lose Hasheem Thabeet to go along with the departure of seniors A.J. Price, Jeff Adrien and Craig Austrie. Stanley Robinson could declare, too, and stay in the draft. That would leave Kemba Walker and the return of a healthy Jerome Dyson on the perimeter as the most productive returning players. The gaping hole inside made it hard to be sold on the Huskies -- yet.

USC was on this list before the mass defection to the NBA led by DeMar DeRozan and Daniel Hackett, and likely Taj Gibson, before the deadline. UCLA could lose Jrue Holiday, and with the departures of Darren Collison, Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya, it is too much to give the Bruins an April Top 25 slot.

Memphis and Tulsa were also under consideration, but we'll have to wait and see how the draft affects these two teams. Florida State will have Top 25 talent, but losing Toney Douglas means the Seminoles might have to earn it a bit more, since Douglas was such a force on the team last season. Ohio State and Minnesota were also on the fence.

Expect this Top 25 to change quite a bit between now and November as players shuffle in and out of the draft. Here is the first of at least four Top 25 lists before the opening tip.

1. Kansas: The Jayhawks bring back all five starters, assuming Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins don't change their minds and depart. The Jayhawks stunned the Big 12 by winning the league outright. The Jayhawks were close to knocking off Michigan State in the NCAA tournament. This team is primed for another deep run with experienced stars in 2010.

2. Michigan State: The Spartans do lose key players Goran Suton and Travis Walton but retain the backcourt of Kalin Lucas and Chris Allen. Wing Durrell Summers and shooter Korie Lucious are back, and, assuming Lucious is OK after foot surgery, Raymar Morgan and Delvon Roe inside should make the Spartans the favorite in the Big Ten and a threat to get to Indianapolis.

3. North Carolina: The Tar Heels will likely say goodbye to juniors Lawson and Ellington, who are expected to declare for the draft. Tyler Hansbrough, Green and Bobby Frasor are also gone, but that won't crush this team. North Carolina should have the best frontcourt next season with Ed Davis, Deon Thompson and Tyler Zeller. The Wear twins, David and Travis, and John Henson aren't bad backups, either. Larry Drew II is the likely point, with Marcus Ginyard, the team's top defender, on the wing. Newcomers Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald on the wing should get plenty of run. UNC will once again be one of the most talented teams in the country.

4. Texas: The Longhorns lose their top scorer and shooter in A.J. Abrams. But the rest of the crew returns in Damion James, Dexter Pittman, Gary Johnson, Justin Mason, Varez Ward, Dogus Balbay and two of the top players at their respective positions -- shooting guard Avery Bradley and small forward Jordan Hamilton. Texas should be primed to challenge Kansas for the Big 12 title and a deep March run.

5. Villanova: The Wildcats were one of the most improved teams in the country. Regardless of who returns to Syracuse, Villanova should be the pick in the Big East. Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher and Reggie Redding provide the core for Nova with an infusion of talent arriving led by Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek. Losing Dante Cunningham hurts, but the Wildcats' incoming class can make up for the departure.

6. Syracuse: Point guard Jonny Flynn wants to return to Syracuse, at least according to the staff. But that could easily change in the coming weeks as he likely will continue to hear that he could go high in the draft. He declared but didn't sign with an agent. Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris declared for the draft, too. But if Flynn returns with Andy Rautins, Arinze Onuaku and Iowa State transfer Wesley Johnson, the Orange will be one of the top teams in the Big East.

7. Duke: Gerald Henderson is likely to leave since he'll be in the lottery. But Kyle Singler will probably stay. If he does, the Blue Devils still might be the second pick in the ACC with Jon Scheyer back to join Elliot Williams, Nolan Smith and Brian Zoubek.

8. Purdue: The Boilermakers continue to get better each year under Matt Painter. Next season should be no different with the return of E'Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson and a healthy Robbie Hummel.

9. West Virginia: Still don't know whether freshman Devin Ebanks is going to stay or go. Alex Ruoff was a senior. But several players are returning, led by big-time scorer Da'Sean Butler, a healthy Joe Mazzulla and fleet-footed point Darryl Bryant. Bob Huggins should have the Mountaineers primed for another NCAA run.

10. Cal: The Bears return all five starters from an NCAA tournament team now that Patrick Christopher isn't declaring for the draft. Jerome Randle and Christopher provide the Bears one of the top backcourts in the country. Theo Robertson, Jamal Boykin and Jorge Gutierrez picked up Mike Montgomery's system quite well. Give Montgomery another season, and the Bears are the pick to win the Pac-10.

11. Michigan: John Beilein has made the Wolverines relevant again. He got the Wolverines to the NCAA tournament and won a game. Expect even more from Michigan with a true Michigan State-Michigan rivalry in hoops. These should be two of the top three teams in the league. Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims might flirt with the NBA draft, but both are unlikely to stay in it. If they return with sharp-shooting guard Stu Douglass and quickly developing players Zack Novak and Laval Lucas-Perry, the Wolverines will be a good watch.

12. Kentucky: This might be a bit of a reach with the Wildcats. But give them time. Jodie Meeks probably won't hear what he wants and will return to Kentucky. Patrick Patterson may do the same. If they do -- and with DeMarcus Cousins now on board -- the Wildcats will have the necessary offensive pop for John Calipari to make a huge splash in his first year. The Wildcats still need a true point guard, and that will be an issue if they can't get John Wall. But Calipari will have Kentucky in the mix.

13. Tennessee: The Vols could never find a consistent stride this past season. Tyler Smith declared for the draft, and coach Bruce Pearl didn't sound optimistic that Smith would return. But there is still plenty to work with to make the Vols one of the top teams in the SEC. Brian Williams and Emmanuel Negedu will have to do a better job of being reliable inside scorers next to Wayne Chism, the anchor inside. The perimeter shouldn't be an issue with Bobby Maze, Renaldo Woolridge, Cameron Tatum, J.P. Prince and Scotty Hopson back. The key will be how well the Vols defend, something that went missing at times last season.

14. Xavier: Forget the coaching situation. The talent is too good for the Musketeers to drop. They will be the pick in the Atlantic 10 despite losing seniors B.J. Raymond and C.J. Anderson. If there are no defections, the Musketeers will be fine with Derrick Brown, Dante Jackson and Terrell Holloway providing the scoring pop and Jason Love and Kenny Frease the beef inside. An impact newcomer in Kevin Parrom is also expected to arrive.

15. Butler: The Bulldogs were a year ahead of schedule with their youthful team. Butler was a consistent Top 25 team this season and gave LSU fits before losing by four in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Matt Howard and Gordon Hayward are both back for a Butler squad that should be once again a tough out.

16. Gonzaga: Yes, seniors Josh Heytvelt, Jeremy Pargo and Micah Downs are gone. But the Zags should have just as tough a starting five with Matt Bouldin, Demetri Goodson, Steven Gray in the backcourt and Austin Daye (assuming he doesn't declare and stay in the draft) and Robert Sacre inside. The Zags would still be able to score at all five positions and notably would have quickness with Goodson (see Western Kentucky bucket for the last-second win) and shooting with Bouldin and Gray.

17. Washington: The Huskies will lose their anchor inside in Jon Brockman and a leader on the perimeter in Justin Dentmon. But the Huskies add point guard Abdul Gaddy to go along with Isaiah Thomas, giving the Huskies a difficult backcourt to disrupt. Thomas and Gaddy could provide quite a 1-2 pop on the perimeter with a third guard in Venoy Overton to make them an even tougher matchup. Quincy Pondexter will be featured more inside with Darnell Gant and newcomer Clarence Trent sharing the production there.

18. Oklahoma: The Sooners will have a decidedly different look without Blake Griffin and Taylor Griffin. But if Willie Warren returns, the Sooners will still have a star. The Sooners have a top defender in Tony Crocker, too. Expect more run for Juan Pattillo and Cade Davis. Newcomers Keith "Tiny" Gallon, Tommy Mason-Griffin, Andrew Fitzgerald, Steve Pledger and Kyle Hardrick will all get serious attention from the first practice. This is a highly touted class with expectation to contribute from the outset.

19. Clemson: The Tigers do lose guard K.C. Rivers, but the rest of the crew is back. Trevor Booker decided against declaring for the draft. Having Booker and Raymond Sykes inside means the Tigers should have one of the better frontcourts in the ACC behind North Carolina. Terrence Oglesby is still the biggest game-changer of any shooter in the country. Demontez Stitt has to become a better playmaker for the Tigers to excel.

20. Boston College: The Eagles lose scoring point guard Tyrese Rice. But that's it. And when the Eagles were most successful this season, Rice wasn't always on the court. Biko Paris should fit in seamlessly as the starting point with scorers Reggie Jackson, Rakim Sanders and Joe Trapani around him. The key will be the continued offensive development, especially on the backboard, of Corey Raji, Josh Southern and a potential sleeper in Evan Ravenel. The Eagles' staff believes he can really blossom next season. Role players Tyler Roche and Cortney Dunn don't make many mistakes.

21. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs came on strong at the end of the season, winning the SEC tournament with a bubble-busting win over Tennessee in the title game. If shot-blocker and high-flying dunker Jarvis Varnado returns, the Bulldogs will be the favorite in the SEC West. Barry Stewart provides experience as a senior in the backcourt, and the addition of freshman shooting guard Shaunessy Smith gives the Bulldogs a productive perimeter.

22. Ole Miss: Andy Kennedy did a phenomenal job with the Rebels despite season-ending injuries to Chris Warren and Eniel Polynice. In Warren's absence, freshman Terrico White shined by averaging 13.7 points a game. Warren, White and David Huertas give the Rebels the best backcourt in the SEC West. The Rebels simply need to ensure they can board. If they can rebound, they will be one of the surprise teams in the country.

23. Dayton: The Flyers were second to Xavier this season, and next season might be more of the same. That's OK. That shouldn't keep them out of the Top 25. Dayton will be one of the more experienced teams with Chris Wright, Marcus Johnson and Rob Lowery, the latter two rising seniors. Dayton coach Brian Gregory doesn't have superstars, but he has players who understand his system and are winners.

24. Illinois: The Illini shouldn't be heading back to the NIT anytime soon. Getting into the NCAA this season is the direction this program will continue. Mike Davis will be even more featured, and Demetri McCamey will continue to improve. Give Alex Legion an offseason to get more acquainted with Bruce Weber's system. The Illini's recruiting class has been highly anticipated; four players -- D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Tyler Griffey and Joseph Bertrand -- rate in the top 50 at their respective positions.

25. Texas A&M: The Aggies do lose 3-point shooter Josh Carter. But everyone else is back for the Aggies, led by Donald Sloan, Bryan Davis, David Loubeau and Chinemelu Elonu. The recruiting class is loaded with top 30 players at their positions like Naji Hibbert, Khris Middleton, Kourtney Roberson and Jeremy Adams. Mark Turgeon should have the Aggies in the NCAAs yet again.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com