Commentary

Defending champs are back at No. 1

Duke takes top spot in our revised top 25, but a pair of Big Ten teams aren't far behind

Originally Published: May 11, 2010
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

The NCAA's deadline to withdraw from the NBA draft was pushed up five weeks from its usual spot in mid-June. Thus, so too was our post-deadline top 25.

This is what we know about the 2010-11 season: There won't be a truly great team.

Sound familiar? It was true last season.

And because of that, Duke has a chance to repeat as national champions. Not losing anyone early to the NBA draft after winning a national title is almost unheard of these days, unless you're Florida's 2006-07 team. So with Kyle Singler's decision to return to school, the Blue Devils will almost certainly start the season where they left off -- at No. 1.

As for conferences, the Big Ten should be loaded with highly competitive teams and at least two national title contenders in Purdue and Michigan State. The depth in the Big 12 shouldn't disappoint either, with two teams in my top 5 and another pair ranked in the teens. The Big East may lack top seeds, but will get its share of bids. The ACC doesn't have as much depth as usual. The SEC East may be the most competitive collection of teams of any group. The Pac-10 will be dominated by Washington and a group of nine others that will chase the Huskies. The Mountain West will be top-heavy again, with a very solid top four. And for a second straight season, the A-10 may have up to six contenders for NCAA bids.

There were tough choices here and as is always the case with such early rankings, there will be room to criticize. Wichita State is a Missouri Valley squad that could have made its way into the rankings. I also could have gone deeper in the ACC, and certainly the Big Ten. Northwestern should finally make the NCAA tournament for the first time ever and maybe even make cameos in the top 25.

There were plenty of other teams I considered for these rankings and plenty of worthy candidates were left off -- not everyone can be included. But feel free to flood that comment section with where you think I went wrong. Have at it …

1. Duke: There's no question the Blue Devils are the favorite with the return of Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith, Mason and Miles Plumlee and the addition to the backcourt of newcomers Kyrie Irving (freshman) and Seth Curry (transfer). Duke has a legit shot to win consecutive titles for the second time in program history (1991 and '92 was the first) and second time this century after Florida won in 2006 and '07. The questions will be how the Blue Devils handle being the target from day one, how much they will change defensively without Brian Zoubek (yes, that's relevant) and how much they will miss Jon Scheyer's 3-point shooting.

2. Purdue: You could go either way with Purdue or Michigan State at 2 and 3. I'm leaning toward Purdue here because of the big three -- Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore. The drive of this squad to get to the Final Four after losing in the Sweet 16 in the post-Hummel period (ACL) will be relevant throughout the season. The issue will be how the Boilermakers replace Chris Kramer's defense and his overall toughness.

3. Michigan State: The Spartans return the core of their team except Raymar Morgan. While Morgan was inconsistent at times, he was still a major part of the team. His absence is the reason I have the Spartans a peg below Purdue. I'd also like to see how Kalin Lucas responds to his recovery. A ruptured Achilles injury hasn't been as common as an ACL, so let's see if Lucas loses a step. But with the talent returning and a stellar recruiting class, there's no reason to believe MSU won't be in contention for a third consecutive Final Four berth. The run put together by Tom Izzo's program since 1999 makes the Spartans, perhaps, the most consistent program in the country.

4. Baylor: Putting Baylor this high puts a lot on the shoulders of incoming freshman Perry Jones. Let's see if he lives up to the hype of being not just better than Ekpe Udoh, but the best big man in the country. The Bears also lost Tweety Carter, but return LaceDarius Dunn and can legitimately claim to be the team to beat in the Big 12. I'm sure this pick will get criticized, but let's not forget the Bears were an Elite Eight team that lost to the eventual national champion. This squad hasn't had to deal with being the target, however, so let's see how it handled this kind of prognostication.

5. Kansas State: I really could have flipped Kansas State and Baylor, and maybe I should have with Denis Clemente being the Wildcats' only major loss. Jacob Pullen will need to find a partner on the perimeter as proficient as Clemente, but the role players on the Wildcats like Jamar Samuels, Dominique Sutton and Curtis Kelly continue to improve and the depth will be hard to match. This is certainly a Final Four contender.

6. Ohio State: The Buckeyes did lose the national player of the year in Evan Turner. That's a fact. But they also brought in the top recruiting class in the country to join perimeter players like David Lighty, Jon Diebler and William Buford. The recruiting class, led by big man Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas, give the Buckeyes more balance and plenty of options offensively. The Big Ten was hyped as the best conference by some last preseason. It didn't live up to it throughout the season, but it'll be hard to dispute in 2010-11.

7. Pittsburgh: The Panthers aren't going to wow you with their overall talent. But what they have is a solid core of players who grew into their roles and became winners again under Jamie Dixon last season, which has become expected with this program. Pitt loses Jermaine Dixon, but it had to play without him at times last season. Ashton Gibbs has become a big-shot maker and a quality lead guard, Gilbert Brown has grown into his leadership role and Brad Wanamaker will continue to shine. Nasir Robinson emerged as a better post option than McDonald's All-American Dante Taylor, but that could shift as Taylor matures. Pitt might not have the most talent in the Big East, but the experience should lead the Panthers to the conference title.

8. Villanova: Scottie Reynolds was clearly Nova's go-to player last season. No one will dispute that. But if you watched the Wildcats, even in their squeaker against Robert Morris in the first round or against Saint Mary's in the second, you saw how much talent they have for next season. Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Antonio Pena will be rejoined by Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek, who are rising stars in the Big East. Expect the latter two to increase their profiles this season. The issue for the Wildcats will be how much more can they get out of Mouphtaou Yarou and Maurice Sutton. There is plenty of potential there as well. Expect Nova to be in the thick of the Big East race.

9. Gonzaga: The Bulldogs are a bit like Villanova. When you digest that they lost Matt Bouldin, you assume they've lost their star and will fade. But the Zags do return a star in the making in Elias Harris. He should be the more featured player this season, and given room to shine, will produce. If Steven Gray can be more consistent on the perimeter, Demetri Goodson can be more consistent as a lead guard and Robert Sacre can be a force inside, Gonzaga will be the top team in the West -- again.

10. Florida: I'm back on board with the Gators. This is hardly 2005-06 or 2006-07, but Florida does return all five starters from an NCAA tournament team. This will be a group that has experience, understands how to play for Billy Donovan and will find ways to win. Kenny Boynton, Erving Walker, Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin aren't going as a group to the NBA. Who knows if any of them will even make the league? But this is a solid college squad that can win the SEC East. A quality recruiting class will add much-needed depth and having Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario working out with them every day will help push them as well.

11. North Carolina: Could the problems of a year ago still persist? Of course. But you cannot ignore the Tar Heels' talent or how they finished last season, making a run to the NIT final with Larry Drew II running the point well (still too many turnovers) and John Henson shining as a low-post scorer (even with his slight build). Gone are the top two scorers in Deon Thompson and Ed Davis, as well as Marcus Ginyard and the Wear twins. But the addition of best-in-the-nation recruit Harrison Barnes, a natural star who will end up being the face of this team with his ability to handle the media, will be huge, and Reggie Bullock and Kendall Marshall, part of the nation's No. 2 recruiting class, will push perimeter returnees Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland. There is too much talent for this team to slide too far again.

12. Washington: The Huskies have emerged as the top team in the Pac-10. End of discussion. The other nine schools are playing catch-up right now. Gone from this squad is Quincy Pondexter, who had a solid senior year and was a great citizen for the program. But Washington will have a veteran perimeter in Isaiah Thomas and Venoy Overton and a solid wing in Justin Holiday. Adding Terrence Ross gives the Huskies another productive player, and if forward Terrence Jones honors his commitment and doesn't go to Kentucky, U-Dub should move up this list and be a top-10 team.

13. Kentucky: This could be a reach. I don't dispute that argument. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton are all gone. You might be asking why I'm not punting Kentucky from my top 25 all together? Well, the recent history of UK and that of John Calipari at Memphis tells us not to assume demise when a reshuffling of talent occurs. Sure there is a talent drop off, but the return of key role players like Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins and a stellar recruiting class led by Brandon Knight, Enes Kanter (assuming he doesn't run into a major suspension for amateur issues), Stacey Poole and Doron Lamb means the Cats will be able to compete with any team in the country. The newcomers don't have as much star power as this past season's freshman class, but the talent is still headline quality. Kanter is the key. If he is good to go by SEC play at the latest, Big Blue should be right in the thick of the race.

14. Missouri: The Tigers return guards Kim English and Marcus Denmon, Justin Safford is back from a knee injury and Mike Anderson has his most-celebrated recruiting class coming on board. Forward Tony Mitchell and point guard Phil Pressey will be impact players as freshmen. Missouri should be able to play even more of Anderson's fastest 40 minutes in basketball and having a healthy Safford will give the Tigers a staple in the post. Anderson got to the Elite Eight two seasons ago, made it back to the NCAAs last season, snubbed Oregon and is now putting a program together that should be near the top of the Big 12.

15. Illinois: There should be no excuse for the Illini this time. Illinois should be a Top 25 team throughout the season and an NCAA-tournament team at the end of it -- and the Illini shouldn't need the extra three spots in the expanded tourney to get a bid. The additions of forward Jereme Richardson and center Meyers Leonard give Bruce Weber's team the necessary depth as the top five scorers return in Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis, D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul. McCamey has to be a better leader. The streakiness with this squad has to stop. There is no reason for it to occur next season in what should be a highly competitive Big Ten with Wisconsin, Minnesota and Northwestern nipping at the heels of Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State and Illinois.

16. Kansas: The Jayhawks actually might be a bit too low here if they develop the way they should throughout the season. Gone is the leader of this squad in Sherron Collins, the primary post in Cole Aldrich and the X factor on the wing in Xavier Henry. But KU does bring back rising stars in Marcus Morris and Tyshawn Taylor, and Markieff Morris, Brady Morningstar, Tyrel Reed, Thomas Robinson and Elijah Johnson will see their minutes increase as well as their production. Getting top-flight point guard Josh Selby to run this squad was a must. Kansas had to land a marquee player in the spring to maintain relevance at the national level and it did just that. If Selby delivers, the Jayhawks will be in the mix with everyone else in the Big 12.

17. Syracuse: It was easy to hedge on the Orange on my post-Final Four poll. Wes Johnson was turning pro. Andy Rautins was the unsung MVP and Arinze Onuaku a solid inside presence. But the Cuse has too much talent returning with a star in Kris Joseph, the return of Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche, Rick Jackson in the post and a headline recruiting class, led by Fab Melo, Dion Waiters and C.J. Fair. The Orange will have some inexperience among the ranks, but they should end up with the most talent of any Big East roster.

18. Tennessee: The Volunteers had an amazing season by making it all the way to the Elite Eight despite the dismissal of Tyler Smith, supposedly the top talent on the squad. Bruce Pearl did his best coaching job yet to get UT to the Elite Eight, and in the regular season, to knock off two 1-seeds in Kansas and Kentucky. Once again, Pearl has a challenge on his hands after losing Wayne Chism, J.P. Prince and starting point guard Bobby Maze. He'll need Scotty Hopson to become a more consistent shooter. Melvin Goins and Cameron Tatum have to be reliable. Brian Williams must develop into a scorer. But the most important player will be freshman forward Tobias Harris. He can be a star and should become one on this squad. If he does, the Vols will push past Vandy and Georgia in the SEC East and be in thick of the race with Kentucky and Florida. It should be one heck of a division.

19. Memphis: If the Tigers are to be an elite team this season, then it won't be about the returning players. It will be the newcomers. Coach Josh Pastner will have yet another challenging season, but of a different kind. Last season he had to manage veteran players and a one-year transfer in Elliot Williams, who saved the Tigers' season and helped them reach 24 wins and an NIT appearance. But if the heralded recruiting class is as good as advertised, then Pastner should have a good time molding this crew into a solid national contender and the top team in C-USA. He certainly has the talent, led by Will Barton and hometown product Joe Jackson. Should be fun to see how it develops.

20. Butler: If Gordon Hayward had returned, it would have been an easy sell to put the Bulldogs in the top 5. But Hayward's decision wasn't hard to make because he's likely a top-20 pick. It just makes sense. But to give up on this squad would not be prudent. Sure, Butler also loses Willie Veasley and Avery Jukes, but coach Brad Stevens has plenty to celebrate again with Shelvin Mack (one of the elite guards in the country), Matt Howard (a gritty post player still figuring out how to play without fouling so much), Ronald Nored (an elite defender) and Zach Hahn (a legit 3-point threat). Butler will be the class of the Horizon League again, a Top 25 team again, in the mix in March again, and on your television set quite a bit with quality games all over the schedule.

21. Georgetown: The Hoyas had to drop because of the early departure of Greg Monroe, who averaged 16 points and 10 boards and was one of the best passing big men in the country. But let's not cry for the Hoyas. The backcourt of Chris Wright and Austin Freeman returns (I remember more big games from Freeman last season than from Monroe). Jason Clark also emerged as another scoring threat and JT3 brings in a top-20 recruiting class. We will see if Hollis Thompson and Julian Vaughn can be more consistent scorers. Georgetown had no excuse for its poor performance against Ohio in the first round of the tournament, but that humbling defeat and now the departure of Monroe should motivate this crew even more.

22. Virginia Tech: Just like Illinois, Virginia Tech can't complain to anybody if it doesn't make the NCAA tournament this time -- and like Illinois, it shouldn't need an expanded field, either. The Hokies return Malcolm Delaney, Dorenzo Hudson and Jeff Allen. If they can't get to the Dance with that veteran trio, then something is wrong. The nonconference schedule is supposedly going to improve and Virginia Tech is likely to be a top-three team in the ACC. Delaney's decision to return ensures the Hokies have a star who can make them a threat to challenge the mighty Blue Devils. Circle that Duke-Virginia Tech game on your calendar.

23. Temple: The Owls can't be dismissed under Fran Dunphy. He has ensured that they'll be taken seriously every time they step on the court. Not having leading scorer Ryan Brooks won't help and losing Lavoy Allen early to the NBA draft would have been tough to overcome. But Allen's return inside with Juan Fernandez on the perimeter gives the Owls a nice 1-2 punch. Temple and Xavier should be the top teams in the A-10, but I wouldn't dismiss Richmond, Dayton, Saint Louis or Rhode Island from being in the thick of the race, either. The A-10 will once again have a highly competitive chase at the top.

24. San Diego State: This Mountain West spot was originally reserved for BYU. Of course, the return of Jimmer Fredette gives the Cougars the top player in the league, but the combination of losing Michael Loyd (transferring) and senior Jonathan Tavernari makes me pause. New Mexico could've been here had Darington Hobson decided to stay in school. And picking UNLV would have been a safe choice, too. But I watched San Diego State push Tennessee to the brink in the first round and its talent abounds. Rebounding machine Kawhi Leonard is back for a second go-around, along with Billy White, Malcolm Thomas and D.J. Gay. The entire team is back. What the Aztecs must do is make themselves more of a national story. San Diego State has to get out and play national games to get some momentum heading into MWC play. This is a squad that should be seen more often.

25. Georgia: If you're looking for a sleeper in the 25 slot, then I've got one in Georgia. The Bulldogs have two of the top talents in the SEC in Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie. If you haven't seen these two perform, you're missing a good show. UGA also adds a terrific scorer in Tennessee State transfer Gerald Robinson Jr. The Bulldogs slowly developed into a big-time pest in their first year under Mark Fox. Remember, this team beat Illinois, took out Georgia Tech and Florida, crushed Tennessee and Vanderbilt and gave Kentucky a serious scare in Lexington. Georgia will be taken seriously from the outset next season. Don't sleep on the Dawgs.

Ten more on the cusp: Xavier, BYU, Minnesota, UNLV, Richmond, Wisconsin, Utah State, Texas, Northwestern, West Virginia

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com