Commentary

Tar Heels on top as season sets to begin

Updated: August 6, 2009, 4:19 PM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

This is it. The last top 25 to get you started on the 2008-09 season.

North Carolina is the consensus No. 1. That hasn't changed. But the group of seven teams directly under UNC, the ones that provide the toughest test for the Tar Heels, is a bit more fluid. The order is for sure, but some of the placement of teams from this tier to the next could obviously change.

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The Sweet 16-type teams in the next tier are all capable of making a run at Carolina and deep into the Elite Eight. (Quick: Who had Davidson in the Elite Eight last October?)

The third tier is a collection of teams that are hard to separate at this juncture. And the list beyond that could go on well into 40 or 50 teams that should be considered for a spot in the top 25. The season could be that balanced come February. That's why we included the 12 that didn't make the cut -- you'll see a blurb on them below. For now, enjoy -- let the comments and the zingers rain down on us and get ready for a season that will be owned by, or at least focused on, Carolina from start to finish.

North Carolina

1. North Carolina

Update: Marcus Ginyard is out with a stress fracture in his foot for eight weeks. The Tar Heels will miss Ginyard's experience while he's sidelined, but the depth on this squad can absorb an early-season injury. The Tar Heels still have the player of the year in Tyler Hansbrough, one of the top point guards in Ty Lawson and one of the better shooters in Wayne Ellington. Danny Green is a pretty nice 3-point-shooting complement too.

Concern: Nothing has changed here, either. Defense will be the key as to whether or not the Tar Heels win the title. They shouldn't have an issue scoring.

Nonconference highlights: UNC's potential Maui Invitational title game matchup against either Texas or Notre Dame on Nov. 26, and then its game against Michigan State on Dec. 3 at Ford Field in Detroit, the home of the Final Four. These might be the two nonconference chances the Tar Heels have to lose.

Connecticut

2. Connecticut

Update: Nate Miles was jettisoned by the school before practice began. That hurts the Huskies' small forward position but it doesn't change the outlook for this squad. UConn has skyrocketed up my top 25 board since April because of the return of Jim Calhoun, A.J. Price and Hasheem Thabeet as well as the addition of Kemba Walker at point guard.

Concern: The Huskies might be better off going with the team that starts the season rather than waiting to see if Stanley Robinson, Ater Majok and Miles -- if they can somehow get him back on an appeal -- are available in December or January. The Huskies' strength will be in having eight players who are all fully capable of starting. Playing too many might be a mistake.

Nonconference highlights: UConn against Miami in a possible Paradise Jam semifinal Nov. 23 in St. Thomas, and playing Gonzaga in Seattle on Dec. 20. The Huskies tend to go light in the nonconference. These two matchups should be the toughest prior to the Big East.

Louisville 3. Louisville

Update: Nothing from the summer. The Cards are the same team that was a trendy 2009 Final Four pick after losing to North Carolina in the Elite Eight in March in Charlotte. Earl Clark's decision to stay away from the NBA draft and the expectation that Louisville players usually improve over the summer under Rick Pitino means the Cards will likely be even stronger on the perimeter (Jerry Smith, Edgar Sosa and Andre McGee come to mind). If freshman Samardo Samuels lives up to his hype inside, the Cardinals should have interior stamina for a Detroit run.

Concern: Managing minutes will be an issue for Pitino. Terrence Williams can be a stud for this squad and needs to get his touches. Free throws (64.7 percent) and 3-point shooting (35) could improve, too. Deciding on the one go-to guy should work itself out through the season.

Nonconference highlights: There isn't too much to get jazzed about in the nonconference. There are decent games but none that are must-see. UNLV at home might end up being one of the best nonconference games for the Cards. Kentucky and UAB at home, Ole Miss in Cincinnati in the SEC-Big East Challenge and Minnesota in Phoenix are against teams that might find themselves on the bubble rather than locks for the NCAAs in March.

Michigan State

4. Michigan State

Update: Delvon Roe got healthy. There was a serious question as to whether or not Roe would be OK for this season after knee surgery this summer. Roe was coming off microfracture surgery in December. Roe's presence should give even more help to Raymar Morgan inside. The Spartans will be much more balanced than they've been recently. Don't sleep on Kalin Lucas, either, as he is one of the more underrated point guards. Coach Tom Izzo is also high on Durrell Summers on the wing. The Spartans have a real shot at playing near home in Detroit at Ford Field.

Concern: The Spartans were offensively challenged at times last season. That should change this season, but it's still an issue seeking resolution during the season.

Nonconference highlights: Michigan State in the Orlando Old Spice Classic, where there is a potential showdown with Gonzaga; a monster matchup against North Carolina in Detroit, and another major showdown with Texas.

UCLA 5. UCLA

Update: The Bruins got the pieces they weren't sure they would when the season ended. Alfred Aboya decided against playing professionally, will be back for his senior season and will likely start inside. J'Mison Morgan got out of a letter to LSU and committed to UCLA. That added even more depth to offset the loss of Kevin Love. No one on this roster can replace Love, but at least Ben Howland has a few options. Freshman Drew Gordon is another possibility. Potential All-American point guard Darren Collison and reliable swingman Josh Shipp return. Likely impact freshmen guards Jrue Holiday and Malcolm Lee are also in the mix. The Bruins have three players who played a major role in the past three Final Four berths: Collison, Shipp and Aboya. Shipp wasn't always healthy but has been instrumental in uplifting the locker room.

Concern: Not having Love means the Bruins will be even more perimeter-oriented. They won't have the go-to post player. The inside game will be a work in progress.

Nonconference highlights: Seeing how this young team handles New York City, where it will likely face Duke in the CVC; against Texas in Austin, and an in-conference historical series renewal against Notre Dame in Pauley Pavilion.

Pittsburgh 6. Pitt

Update: Levance Fields got hurt again. Fields had surgery over the summer, and that causes concern. Fields has to be healthy for Pitt to be the team projected. The Panthers are solid everywhere else. Sam Young stayed put. DeJuan Blair remained happy and if he's playing loose then the Panthers have a good vibe about themselves. The Panthers have depth, a nasty home court and the experience to make a run to Detroit.

Concern: Fields. Until Fields is on the court without any pain in his foot then the Panthers will have point guard issues. If he's good to go, a lot of the concerns fade. Perimeter shooting will always be an issue, but that will change if Fields is in the game because he can help set everyone up.

Nonconference highlights: Well, there isn't much to get excited about in the nonconference. Maybe a Legends Classic against Washington State or Mississippi State will make for good theatre, or even a home game against upstart Siena or always pesky Florida State in Tallahassee. But none of these games will compare to the top of the Big East.

Gonzaga 7. Gonzaga

Update: Austin Daye didn't tear his ACL. That was originally the fear when Daye got hurt in July in Akron. Had that occurred, the Zags would surely have slid this season. But Daye is back and so is Jeremy Pargo at the point. So, too, are Josh Heytvelt in the middle and Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray making shots on the wings. The Zags are also hungrier after being stunned by Davidson in the first round of the NCAAs.

Concern: Daye and Heytvelt are back, but both are coming off summer injuries, so durability will be an issue.

Nonconference highlights: The Zags have always played games worth watching. Gonzaga plays in the loaded Old Spice Classic in Orlando; Connecticut in Seattle; Arizona in Phoenix; Tennessee in Knoxville; Washington State in Pullman; and an in-WCC game against Memphis in Spokane.

Oklahoma

8. Oklahoma

Update: The Sooners' best player and one of the most talented in the country, Blake Griffin, spent quality time on his body. He worked with San Francisco-based trainer Frank Matrisciano, running the beach and the hills. The word from Matrisciano is that Griffin is in unbelievable shape. If that's the case, the Sooners could get player-of-the-year numbers out of Griffin. The guards aren't too shabby, with the return of Tony Crocker, Austin Johnson and the highly anticipated debut of freshman guard Willie Warren.

Concern: The Sooners were picked to win the Big 12. This group hasn't been in this position before. We'll see how they'll handle the role.

Nonconference highlights: Oklahoma plays USC at home. Shockingly, that's all you can count on for drama. There is a chance Tulsa could provide some. In most years, Arkansas would be a solid game, but this is a rebuilding year for the Hogs.

Next tier

Texas 9. Texas

Update: According to coach Rick Barnes, the Longhorns have improved mightily inside. Gary Johnson and Dexter Pittman, as well as Matt Hill, are all expected to make significant contributions. The interior is a question for Texas. Connor Atchley is the most experienced player but doesn't provide the beef. Texas needs that to offset wings Damion James and Justin Mason and shooting guards A.J. Abrams and Varez Ward. Texas will be more perimeter-oriented. Turkey's Dogus Balbay played well over the summer, and if he can handle the transition to the American game, he could be D.J. Augustin's replacement. Augustin was one of the top five players last season. But Texas always has the requisite balance under Barnes to be a player for a Final Four berth.

Concern: As much as the Longhorns are fine with scoring guards Abrams, Mason and James, they still need a game-changer at playmaker like Augustin. Balbay isn't Augustin, but he'll need to be a solid member of the perimeter rotation for Texas to reach the Final Four.

Nonconference highlights: The Maui Invitational, where Texas could face Notre Dame in a semifinal and then possibly North Carolina in the final; home games against UCLA and Michigan State; and a road trip to Wisconsin. There might not be another top-10 team with a schedule like Texas.

Duke 10. Duke

Update: Update: The Blue Devils got beat again before the second weekend of the tourney. That's not the norm for this program and has provided plenty of impetus for the Blue Devils over the summer. Gerald Henderson is healthy and ready for a breakout season. Kyle Singler didn't flirt with the NBA draft. Miles Plumlee spurned Stanford and chose Duke to give the Blue Devils a much-needed inside reserve with size, and there is the anticipation that Nolan Smith will live up to his high expectations. Jon Scheyer and Greg Paulus have plenty of game experience, too, to provide steady play. Oh, and the coach, Mike Krzyzewski, just won Olympic gold for the U.S.

Concern: The Blue Devils still don't have a low-post player that they can count on every possession to score, like they've had in the past in Carlos Boozer, Elton Brand and Shelden Williams. Not sure Lance Thomas, Brian Zoubek or Plumlee can provide that this season against the more-dominant post play in Chapel Hill.

Nonconference highlights: A possible Duke-UCLA matchup in New York City at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in November; Purdue in West Lafayette; Xavier in the Meadowlands; Davidson and Georgetown at home -- a challenging slate for the Blue Devils.

Notre Dame

11. Notre Dame

Update: The Irish went to Ireland and continued to find cohesion with a group that enjoys playing together. Luke Harangody, one of the more unheralded Big East player of the year winners, is back to expand his game a bit. Guards Kyle McAlarney and Tory Jackson have continued to provide the necessary balance for Harangody. This team can score with any team in the country. The Irish won't scare teams on appearance, but they play well together, especially in South Bend.

Concern: Defense. If the Irish can ramp up their defense a bit more, improve on the boards and find a stopper on the perimeter, then they can challenge Louisville, Connecticut and Pitt for the Big East title.

Nonconference highlights: Seeing how Notre Dame does in the Maui Invitational. This will be a strong indicator with a possible semifinal game against Texas and potential matchup against North Carolina in a final. The in-Big East matchup at UCLA will provide a healthy barometer, too.

Miami

12. Miami

Update: The Hurricanes are extremely confident. The near-miss against Texas in the second round of the NCAAs gave Miami plenty of good vibes going into the offseason. Jack McClinton has been working on his game, becoming more of a complete player, and is poised to be one of the top lead guards in the country. Freshman DeQuan Jones is as good as advertised and coach Frank Haith firmly believes he'll have a major impact on the wing. The interior is healthy with the return of Adrian Thomas and a stable presence in the post with Dwayne Collins.

Concern: Miami has never been in this position where the Canes are expected to win and finish in the top three in the ACC. The Canes must have more than McClinton to carry them, too. If the role players can be consistent, Miami can live up to its newfound hype.

Nonconference highlights: Seeing how Miami does in the Paradise Jam against Connecticut and possibly Wisconsin; a road game at Kentucky; and a home game against Ohio State. Miami has a real shot to be a high seed, so taking care of some of these nonconference games is critical.

Memphis 13. Memphis

Update: The Tigers went through quite a transition in the offseason. The addition of big-time freshman Tyreke Evans continues the long list of talented newcomers, but Memphis also picked up onetime Nebraska signee Roburt Sallie, got back reserve Doneal Mack after he transferred to New Orleans for a few days and has Robert Dozier and Antonio Anderson returning to the starting lineup after flirting with the NBA draft. If Pierre Niles continues to shed pounds and Shawn Taggart adds them then the Tigers will be quite formidable inside.

Concern: It's hard to lose Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts as well as Joey Dorsey and not have concerns. The Tigers won't score as easily, and they won't run their offense as efficiently. But they still have plenty of talent. It just might take more time, and expecting a run through Conference USA is foolish. This team will get tested.

Nonconference highlights: Seeing how Memphis handles the Puerto Rico tournament with quality clubs USC, Xavier and Virginia Tech in the field; road games against Georgetown and Gonzaga; and dangerous home games against UMass, Northeastern, Cincinnati and Syracuse -- none of which are givens with this team.

Arizona State

14. Arizona State

Update: ASU's James Harden played the summer circuit well and looks poised to be one of the top guards in the country. He's showing more leadership and maturity and has a chance to be the Pac-10 player of the year. The rest of the Sun Devils, who felt burned by not making the NCAAs, are back. Jeff Pendergraph can be a star for the Sun Devils inside. Playing off Harden helps him tremendously because defenses have to be focused on Harden first. Herb Sendek's system has never been a joy to play against, and now with more talent, the Sun Devils are even more of a pest.

Concern: ASU will be in every game, but that also means the opponent will, too. ASU plays the margins close and the difference between winning the Pac-10 title and finishing third isn't much for the Sun Devils. They don't intimidate, but they do manufacture wins efficiently.

Nonconference highlights: Seeing how the Sun Devils fare in the Anaheim Classic against similar opponents Wake Forest, Baylor, Saint Mary's, Providence and UTEP. ASU must come out of this field 2-1. A title would provide a credibility boost early in the season. Playing BYU in Phoenix in late December will also be a barometer for the Sun Devils.

Purdue

15. Purdue

Update: The Boilermakers went to Australia over the summer, and the development of the now-sophomores continued to flourish. E'Twaun Moore was the stud scorer, but this team still revolves around Robbie Hummel's will. His energy and passion for every play give this team a firm identity. Losing Scott Martin, who transferred to Notre Dame, hurts the depth, but doesn't dampen the enthusiasm in West Lafayette. Keaton Grant and JaJuan Johnson will be critical to how far this team goes in March. If Grant scores and Johnson is a presence, the Boilermakers will be factor.

Concern: Purdue was the surprise team in the Big Ten last season. They won at Wisconsin and were a tough out, regardless of venue. But how will Purdue handle being a favorite with Michigan State? Expectations are rising with this squad, and the sophomores will be counted on to deliver even more than a year ago.

Nonconference highlights: Purdue is in the NIT Season Tip-Off, and that means a possible matchup with Oklahoma or Arizona in New York; hosting Duke is about as major a showdown as the Boilermakers get in West Lafayette; playing Davidson can now be termed a big game, as well.

Wake Forest

16. Wake Forest

Update: The Demon Deacons held onto their prized recruiting class of Ty Walker, Al-Farouq Aminu and Tony Woods. The three big men have fit in quite nicely with returning players Jeff Teague, James Johnson, L.D. Williams, Ishmael Smith and Harvey Hale. Smith is recovering from a broken bone in his left foot but is expected to be ready for November. The Demon Deacons can take the depth hit. There is such a sense of optimism around this program; it's uplifting a year after the stunning passing of Skip Prosser.

Concern: The Demon Deacons will be still a young team, relying mostly on its sophomores in Johnson and Teague and the three freshmen. Experience in late-game, tight situations will be at a premium. How the Demon Deacons handle the stress is still an unknown.

Nonconference highlights: Wake Forest is in an underpublicized but daunting Anaheim Classic with Arizona State, Baylor, Saint Mary's, Providence and UTEP. A road game at BYU right before the start of the ACC will provide a real test as well.

Third tier

USC

17. USC

Update: The Trojans are awaiting word on Alex Stepheson, the former North Carolina reserve forward. Stepheson couldn't get the necessary minutes behind Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson to blossom in Chapel Hill. If Stepheson is eligible this season, the Trojans will have quite a 1-2 inside tandem with Taj Gibson. Gibson needs a wide, taller body to play off and Stepheson fits the criteria perfectly. Depth is once again an issue because USC can't shake the injury bug, with Marcus Simmons out again this fall. Leonard Washington provides rebounding muscle, and the return of Mamadou Diarra, Keith Wilkinson and Kasey Cunningham gives the Trojans solid role depth. The stars are still aligned in L.A., though, with incoming freshman DeMar DeRozan ready to take over for O.J. Mayo. DeRozan won't be as much of a stat-stuffer as Mayo but should be counted on to provide scoring pop. Gibson is dependable and guards Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis never seem to get their due.

Concern: The Trojans will be a team in flux inside as players either become eligible like Stepheson or take their time returning from injury. The perimeter, including stretching out to a wing like DeRozan, is fine. But whether or not Gibson gets the necessary help inside is still the question.

Nonconference highlights: The field in Puerto Rico should give USC a gauge on this squad with a possible showdown against Memphis; a home game against Oklahoma might be a top 15 matchup; playing a gritty Georgia Tech team before the Pac-10 should be a good primer.

Tennessee

18. Tennessee

Update: Coach Bruce Pearl is raving about newcomers Scotty Hopson, Bobby Maze, Emanuel Negedu, Daniel West and redshirt Cameron Tatum. Pearl is convinced that the Maze-West battle at the point, Hopson on the wing, Negedu's rebounding and Tatum's doing a bit of everything provides the Vols with the necessary nucleus around returning potential All-American Tyler Smith and versatile guard J.P. Prince. Tennessee is reloading, but having Smith as a go-to guy means they still are the team to beat in the SEC.

Concern: Pearl's system isn't learned overnight, just like everyone else's. But he needs a point guard who can jump-start this team from the outset. The inability to settle on a point led to a slow start for Tennessee last season. If Maze and/or West can be the answer immediately, then the Vols will be just as fun to watch as a year ago.

Nonconference highlights: Tennessee will get quite a start against Siena in the Orlando Old Spice Classic that also includes name teams Gonzaga, Michigan State, Georgetown and Maryland; facing Gonzaga and Memphis in Knoxville; Kansas on the road and Marquette in Nashville is more than enough to get this team ready for the balanced SEC.

Marquette

19. Marquette

Update: The Golden Eagles lost Tom Crean to Indiana, picked up Billy Gillispie disciple Buzz Williams (after a one-year stint with Crean at Marquette) and retained the three reasons why the Golden Eagles are a threat to go to the Sweet 16: Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews. Marquette staffers report that McNeal's game has elevated to a higher level. If Lazar Hayward can be the necessary producer inside, and the staff believes he can, then the Golden Eagles can compete at a high level yet again.

Concern: Interior depth isn't going away as an issue. If the Golden Eagles can develop enough depth behind Hayward then they'll be in every game. Williams' late-game decisions as head coach shouldn't be an issue. He has prepped well for this opportunity.

Nonconference highlights: There are two: Wisconsin at home and Tennessee in Nashville. The Golden Eagles will have plenty of big games in the league but few opportunities to prove their status prior to January.

LSU

20. LSU

Update: The Tigers return four starters -- including a potential all-SEC player in Tasmin Mitchell, who comes back after an injured foot last year -- who make them the favorite in the SEC West. The foursome of Mitchell, Garrett Temple, Marcus Thornton and Chris Johnson give the Tigers enough experience, scoring and interior defense for this team to be a tough out. Adding former Stanford coach Trent Johnson as the lead man on the bench means the Tigers will be even more structured, more disciplined and will value every possession.

Concern: Point guard. The Tigers don't have a reliable one and will depend on freshman Chris Bass or sophomore Bo Spencer. It's an unknown how either will handle the position. Temple has played the spot at times even though that's not his natural position. If Bass or Spencer can limit mistakes, get the team into its offense and pressure the ball in the half court, the Tigers have a chance.

Nonconference highlights: Johnson wants this team to build confidence. That should happen with a nonconference slate that doesn't have many tough games. Playing Texas A&M and Washington State is about it as far as potential NCAA teams on the nonconference slate. And the Cougars' game could be a reach to put it in that category.

Davidson 21. Davidson

Update: The Wildcats are still riding off the Elite Eight good vibes. The schedule is daunting yet again. Stephen Curry is no longer something new and untapped. Curry is a known commodity and that means defenses aren't going to mess around with him. He will be the focus of every opposing team. Curry worked on being a point guard over the summer, but coach Bob McKillop was adamant that he won't leave Curry to the position and take away his strengths of being a catch-and-shoot scorer. The return of Andrew Lovedale inside will be critical to offer up balance for Curry.

Concern: The outstanding play of point Jason Richards, who played so well off Curry, will be sorely missed. The Wildcats will miss the play of Thomas Sander inside, too. Role players for the Wildcats are critical to how far this team can go again in March.

Nonconference highlights: West Virginia in the Jimmy V in New York in December will be a major-stage game for Davidson and Curry. So, too, will be playing Purdue in Indianapolis and Duke in Durham.

St. Mary's 22. Saint Mary's

Update: If you watched the Australian Olympic team in Beijing, then you know why Saint Mary's is in the top 25. Sophomore point guard Patty Mills is that good to elevate the Gaels into the top 25. Mills blew by All-Stars Chris Paul and Deron Williams. He returns to a squad that also brings back WCC defensive player of the year Diamon Simpson and role players Ian O'Leary and Omar Samhan. The Gaels play in one of the toughest home-court environments in the country. The schedule is solid again, and Saint Mary's now has NCAA tournament experience with this group after playing Miami in the first round a year ago.

Concern: The depth on the bench doesn't match up with Gonzaga's in the league, and that could be a problem when there is a drop-off. There will also be so much attention on Mills that the role players must produce when called upon. Saint Mary's will also need to handle being a team that everyone wants to beat after getting headlines last season.

Nonconference highlights: The Gaels must play well in Anaheim in a loaded field with Wake Forest, Baylor, Arizona State, Providence and UTEP. The game against San Diego State in the Wooden Classic in Anaheim will also be a meter mover for this squad. Playing Oregon on the road will also prove just how tough this team is as it heads to the WCC.

Florida 23. Florida

Update: The Gators have to be better this season, right? Florida floundered at times last season with such an inexperienced group. The Gators have been humbled and buoyed by an extremely talented freshmen class. Nick Calathes, Jai Lucas, Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus and even veterans Walter Hodge and Dan Werner should buy into Billy Donovan's passion and pride on every possession. The newcomers, such as Kenny Kadji, Eloy Vargas, Allan Chaney, Erving Walker and Ray Shipman, will make practice even more competitive. So, too, will Georgetown transfer Vernon Macklin, who can't play until 2009-10.

Concern: The talent is in place, but now cohesion must be found. If this team simply defends, runs the offense and limits mistakes, they will win enough games to be on the right side of the NCAA bid selection process. Calathes has star power and the role players will be vastly improved this year.

Nonconference highlights: The Gators should get a gauge on this squad in Kansas City against a field that includes Kansas, Syracuse and Washington. Games such as Florida State on the road and NC State at home are must-wins to prove the Gators are at a higher level this season.

UNLV 24. UNLV

Update: Lon Kruger has done a phenomenal job of rekindling the Runnin' Rebels in Vegas. His teams win, get to the NCAAs and advance. UNLV should be once again a showstopper in Vegas for its ability to stay atop the Mountain West. Veterans Wink Adams and Joe Darger are the base for an incoming class that will play plenty. The Rebels went to Australia, and Kruger said he was pleased with the play of point Tre'Von Willis, and Beas Hamga inside. The Rebels don't have that star player who is going to wow you, but they defend, play smart and limit their mistakes.

Concern: The Runnin' Rebels can be offensively challenged at times. If there are more scoring options, the Rebels can be a steady team throughout the season. This team might lack star power, but the overall team components will make this squad one to watch throughout the year.

Nonconference highlights: The best one is a trip to Louisville on New Year's Eve. We'll be able to tell a lot about the Runnin' Rebels after that game heading into the Mountain West. There are other regional matchups that will be telling -- such as how they handle at Nevada, Cal, at UTEP, San Diego and, of course, Arizona -- but the Rebels need to be competitive against the Cardinals to prove they're worthy of a lofty ranking.

Baylor 25. Baylor

Update: The Bears firmly believe they can challenge for the Big 12 title. And they might. But first the Bears have to handle the expectations of being a ranked team and be ready to be one to watch. The return of Curtis Jerrells, LaceDarius Dunn, Kevin Rogers and Mamadou Diene give Baylor one of the better nucleuses in the conference. But they need more, and that falls on newcomers such as big man Anthony Jones and Quincy Acy. If Jones lives up to his hype, the Bears will have the necessary balance to compete with OU and Texas.

Concern: Kansas could slide ahead of Baylor based on scheduling in the Big 12. Baylor has to play Texas and Oklahoma twice while Kansas gets all three once. That's the unbalanced South-North scheduling breakup. Ensuring that the Bears can defend and score in the post is a must to see if Baylor can handle the hype.

Nonconference highlights: The Bears are one of the featured teams in the Anaheim Classic with Wake Forest, Arizona State, Saint Mary's, UTEP and Providence. Going to Washington State will also be a strong barometer for this squad.

Make the case for who should be in the top 25 out of this dozen

Alabama: Ronald Steele is back after a year hiatus; JaMychal Green might be the best incoming freshman forward in the SEC.

Syracuse: Johnny Flynn can be a game-changing point guard, shooters Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins are healthy and the Orange seem due to get back to the NCAAs.

Georgetown: The Hoyas won't slide too much with DaJuan Summers as the go-to guy, highly touted guards Chris Wright and Austin Freeman ready to take over as sophomores and a hyped incoming center in Greg Monroe.

Kansas: The Jayhawks don't appear to be heading for a fall, despite the massive losses to the NBA, but KU returns two contributing members from the title game in Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich and a stellar recruiting class.

Arizona: Lute Olson is back; so, too, are Chase Budinger, Nic Wise and Jordan Hill. They should be enough to get the Wildcats back in the NCAAs yet again.

Kentucky: Never think the Cats are out of the NCAA chase, and a healthy Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks means Kentucky should have enough to get a bid.

Villanova: The Wildcats were a Sweet 16 team as a 12-seed; they return Scottie Reynolds and always seem to be dangerous under Jay Wright.

Wisconsin: Don't dare sleep on the Badgers because when you do, Wisconsin will sneak up and win the Big Ten behind Bo Ryan's interchangeable parts, year in and year out.

Siena: The Saints say they're one of the best teams in the country with Kenny Hasbrouck back, and a win over Vanderbilt in the NCAAs is still fresh.

Xavier: This program has become the class of the A-10 with solid recruiting that always seems to keep them one step ahead of the league the past two seasons and likely will in 2009, too.

BYU: Trent Plaisted bolted, but Lee Cummard withdrew from the draft, and shooter Jonathan Tavernari also joins Cummard for Dave Rose's consistent crew.

Texas A&M: The Aggies got a boost when Josh Carter withdrew from the draft to join Donald Sloan and coach Mark Turgeon's sleeper in freshman forward David Loubeau.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com