- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Watching Connecticut celebrate Monday night at Reliant Stadium was yet another reminder that the hottest teams, in the most advantageous matchups -- not the most talented -- are the ones to pick for the national championship on Selection Sunday.
Butler fit the criteria as well, although few could have predicted how the Bulldogs would escape games against Old Dominion and Pitt.
But picking the preseason top 25 is another matter. Projecting next season's top teams so soon after the national championship simply proves a quick snapshot of where teams may end up. Nothing more, nothing less.
We don't know when the coaching carousel will end and we don't know for sure which underclassmen will jump to the NBA draft. The deadline to declare is April 24. The deadline to withdraw is May 8. So you can be assured we will have another one of these shortly thereafter.
Until then, consider this merely a first crack at the top 25 for 2011-12. If nothing else, perhaps it'll provide a glimmer of anticipation as we begin the mourning period after the passing of another college basketball season -- and wait another seven months until the start of the new one.
So without further ado, here are my first rankings. Feel free to let me know where I went wrong (or right?) in the comments section.
Even if freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones leave for the NBA, this Final Four team still returns a bevy of quality players and one of the sport's top recruiting classes in years, led by Michael Gilchrist and Anthony Davis. The Wildcats are now a consistent title contender, and likely will be for as long as John Calipari remains in Lexington.
2. North Carolina
Tyler Zeller and John Henson have decided to return to North Carolina, and now the Tar Heels await word from Harrison Barnes on whether he will stay in school or enter the NBA draft. If all three come back, North Carolina will almost certainly be No. 1 in my next top 25. Kendall Marshall will start the season at the point and will be one of the best in the country. Because of that, expect to see the UNC you saw in the second half of the season, not the first.
3. Ohio State
The Buckeyes will return the best big man in the country, Jared Sullinger (he's adamant about it and I believe him). Aaron Craft is back at the point and William Buford as the sharpshooter. Ohio State is once again the Big Ten's best and there's no reason to believe it won't again contend for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Keep in mind, this ranking projects Jordan Hamilton and Tristan Thompson to remain in Austin. If one (or both) leaves, Texas won't stay in this spot. Although there would still be a lot to like about the Longhorns, especially sophomore-to-be Cory Joseph and another elite recruiting class. This is the team to beat in the new 10-team Big 12. If Hamilton and Thompson return, we're talking a legit national-title contender.
The Huskies are likely to lose soon-to-be graduate Kemba Walker, but Jeremy Lamb isn't ready for the NBA so the Huskies better hope he doesn't get tempted. Alex Oriakhi returns to anchor the inside and Shabazz Napier is only going to get better. I'm convinced Jim Calhoun returns to coach his defending national champs. And then there is the outside shot that the Class of 2012's top player, Andre Drummond, graduates early and chooses UConn.
The Blue Devils do lose Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler and will most likely see Kyrie Irving declare. But Duke adds a top recruiting class as usual and it's likely going to be the Austin Rivers Show next season in Durham with Doc's son controlling the ball. That backcourt with Rivers, Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry will shoot the lights out. If Irving somehow returns, then the Devils climb. But even if not, it's hard to believe this program will fall far.
This team started to figure itself out late in the season, but then faded in the final few minutes against Marquette in the NCAA tournament. But like Louisville (see below), the majority of the team returns at every key position and a stellar recruiting class hits campus. There's no reason to doubt Syracuse will be right in the thick of the Big East title chase from start to finish -- not to mention a Final Four contender.
The Cardinals taught me a lesson this past season: Don't dismiss the ability to collectively come together under Rick Pitino. Louisville's style of play was disruptive for everyone in the Big East and the team greatly exceeded expectations. Preston Knowles is a big loss, but the core returns and is joined by freshmen Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan, among others. This time the Cards won't sneak up on anybody. We already know how good they'll be.
Whether or not Josh Pastner was seriously sought after for some of these high-profile openings is a matter of debate. But Memphis and Pastner know they are a good match for each other. The Tigers shouldn't see any major defections from a team that won the Conference USA tournament and pushed Arizona to the brink in the Dance. This is how it should be under a new regime: A super recruiting class carries a team into the NCAAs, develops momentum late and then comes back to take another step, joined by another super recruiting class.
This might be too low for the Wildcats, but this is based on an assumption that Derrick Williams will declare for the draft and be one of the top five picks. If for some reason he returns, then the Wildcats are in my next top five. Williams can affect the game that much. But he wasn't alone last season. Sean Miller had quite a complementary crew and added even more with a productive class to make the Wildcats the team to beat in the new Pac-12.
The Commodores were a disappointment again in the NCAA tournament and couldn't find a consistent stride in conference play. But if the scoring wings of Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins are back and Festus Ezeli continues his upward trajectory, then the Dores should be the top challenger to Kentucky in the SEC. Kevin Stallings wasn't tempted to bolt for a potentially more profitable gig in the Big 12 either, which is a plus.
KU simply doesn't fade away. Ever. So even with the possible departures of Big 12 Player of the Year Marcus Morris, his brother Markieff and Josh Selby, the always-talented Jayhawks get the benefit of the doubt here. Kansas could survive the hit as long as Thomas Robinson sticks around. Bill Self just added Ben McLemore to the recruiting class and the continued development of players like Travis Releford will be enough to keep this program nationally relevant.
The Badgers do lose Jon Leuer, but Wisconsin will have back the top guard in the Big Ten in Jordan Taylor, who proved this past season that he can carry this team on his back (remember the defeat of No. 1 Ohio State?) and can score in bunches. And Mike Bruesewitz should shine in more of a starring role for the Badgers. We learned long ago never to discount a Bo Ryan-coached Wisconsin team in the Big Ten race. And we will not do so this year.
The Golden Eagles were the Big East's 11th team in the field of 68, but also one of two left standing in the Sweet 16. One of the main reasons Buzz Williams decided against going back to his roots in Big 12 country is that he has a team that can compete for the Big East top five with the majority returning and Jimmy Butler the only major loss.
Chris Mack was a hot coaching-carousel candidate after leading the Musketeers to another Atlantic 10 title. But he's a Xavier alum and a Cincinnati guy through and through. He'll again be with the top player in the league in Tu Holloway and the Musketeers return enough to make one believe they will once again take the A-10.
Darius Morris is flirting with the NBA draft, but if he comes back and joins Tim Hardaway Jr., the Wolverines will have one of the top teams in the Big Ten. Michigan finished strong and was within one possession of beating Duke after destroying Tennessee in the NCAA tournament. This Michigan team was unselfish and learned to play under John Beilein. Look for more of the same in 2011-12.
The Bruins lost Tyler Honeycutt to the NBA draft, but Malcolm Lee is likely to return after testing the waters. Big man Josh Smith is back and he'll have help inside with North Carolina transfers David and Travis Wear eligible to give Smith more room to operate. The Wear twins can do the dirty work for Smith and allow him more freedom to score. There's little doubt UCLA will compete for the Pac-12 title.
The Bulldogs won't have Matt Howard on the roster and lose Shawn Vanzant, as well. And if Shelvin Mack jumps to the NBA, the team will be gutted a bit. But Brad Stevens has worked wonders the past four years and there's no reason to doubt him now. If Mack decides to return, this team will have to be in the top 20 again -- especially with the rise of soph-to-be Khyle Marshall.
The Panthers are in a cycle in which they lose three seniors, but then add a strong recruiting class. Ashton Gibbs will likely come to his senses and return rather than stay in the NBA draft. If he does, then Pitt retains one of the more experienced guards in the country and will be just fine. The rest of the crew is more than serviceable and Jamie Dixon's team is always right there in the Big East race.
The run to the NIT title game was no fluke. Alabama finished 12-4 in conference play and has the core of its team back with Tony Mitchell leading the charge for coach Anthony Grant. Arkansas brings in a top recruiting class and Mike Anderson will have the Hogs in the mix, but the SEC West has to run through Tuscaloosa for the foreseeable future.
21. Texas A&M
The Aggies are never a sexy pick in the preseason, but Mark Turgeon has the program on solid footing as there is always another player ready to take over the lead role. Khris Middleton will continue to be a rising star in the Big 12 and Texas A&M will continue to be a tough out. The additions of Jamal Branch and Elston Turner certainly won't hurt the cause.
Let's not forget the Bearcats quietly put together 26 wins this past season and now will return their top four scorers from a team that lost to the eventual national champion in the NCAA tournament. Add in Mick Cronin's top-flight recruiting class, led by Shaquille Thomas, and Cincy has the goods to compete for a top-four spot in the Big East.
The Gators have to drop a bit with the losses of Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin. Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker are back to give UF an experienced backcourt and the additions of freshman Bradley Beal and transfer Mike Rosario will make it one of the top groups in the country. The return of Patric Young means the Gators will have a talented but young front line. Florida will increasingly get better during the season and challenge for second in the SEC East.
24. George Mason
VCU was a senior-laden crew that got hot late in the season, but that could've easily been the Patriots -- and might be next season. George Mason does lose one key senior in Cam Long, but returns Ryan Pearson and a host of others who can keep GMU atop the Colonial and ahead of CAA upstarts like Drexel. Jim Larranaga's crew will certainly be one to watch throughout the season.
The hire of Frank Haith isn't popular among the fan base, but don't forget the new coach inherits a senior-laden team from Mike Anderson. Assuming the players stay -- Kim English and Laurence Bowers are testing the waters -- the Tigers should be a tournament team in his first season. The bigger chore for Haith comes this summer in trying to secure longer-term commitments for a slew of scholarships opening up in 2012.
Five more to keep an eye on
The Zags will have some company in competing for the WCC title with BYU. But the Cougs will take a step back without Jimmer Fredette and Saint Mary's won't be the same without Mickey McConnell. Gonzaga loses Steven Gray but has a new WCC star in Marquise Carter and will once again hover right around the top 25.
The Seminoles probably will lose Chris Singleton and there's no questioning his overall talent. But surprisingly, the Noles were able to make the Sweet 16 without Singleton being a major factor. Leonard Hamilton always has his team among the best defensive groups in the country and there's still plenty of talent in Tallahassee. Don't count out FSU.
Gregg Marshall decided against leaving the Shockers because Wichita State continued to pay him at market value and he knows he has a team that could do some damage if it gets into the NCAA tournament. Wichita won the NIT and returns nearly every key player. The Shockers will be the pick to win the Missouri Valley and a team no big boy will want to play.
Mike Montgomery did a stellar job with the Bears in a transition season, even after losing a top recruit in Gary Franklin, who decided to transfer midseason. Freshman Allen Crabbe turned out to be a star and the majority of the surprising team returns. The Bears should be a Pac-12 contender from the outset.
The Mountain West will go through a transition period as San Diego State is gutted by graduation and the likely departure of Kawhi Leonard, UNLV loses senior leadership and coach Lon Kruger and BYU heads off to the West Coast Conference. But the Lobos only lose point Dairese Gary and have a solid post in Drew Gordon and a rising MWC star in Kendall Williams. Steve Alford stayed put because he knows he has a squad ready to win a league title.
Also considered: Temple, Harvard, Purdue, West Virginia, Washington, Villanova
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.