Big-name teams could be headed for a fall

Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina will likely be ranked among the nation’s top five teams when the college basketball season begins in November. The difference this year is that some of the elite, tradition-rich programs that usually join them at the top of the polls might not be there in 2009-10.

What about Duke, UCLA and Arizona?

All have a chance to be solid and, in Duke’s case, maybe even a mainstay in the top 25. Still, the sense of excitement surrounding each program as it prepares for the season certainly isn’t what it’s been in recent years.

That’s what happens sometimes when players leave unexpectedly for the NBA, when a coach resigns or when a group of senior leaders graduate. All three programs will likely bounce back strong – just probably not this season.

Here’s a look at 10 teams that are usually strong that might struggle in 2009-10.

(2008-09: 21-14, 9-9 Pac-10)

Photo Nic Wise

The Wildcats have received a national-best 25 straight NCAA tournament berths. Don’t be surprised if that streak ends this season. If it does it won’t be the fault of new coach Sean Miller, who has done a heck of a job since arriving from Xavier during the spring. Along with convincing standout guard Nic Wise to return for his senior season, Miller also put together a recruiting class that was ranked No. 12 in the nation by Arizona’s haul includes former USC signee Solomon Hill along with point guard Lamont Jones and forward Derrick Williams, both of whom were pursued by a number of top-25 programs. Still, relying on freshmen to carry your program is never a good thing, but at this point, it’s Arizona’s only option.

(30-7, 11-5 ACC)

Photo Kyle Singler

The transfer of guard Elliott Williams for family reasons was a huge blow for the Blue Devils, who also lost second-leading scorer Gerald Henderson a year early to the NBA draft. Suddenly a squad that was already lacking in athleticism might struggle even more against teams such as North Carolina that like to get up and down the court. Duke is as well-coached as anyone in the country, so it’s not as if the Blue Devils won’t be solid. Still, even with leading scorer Kyle Singler, this does not appear to be a top-10 team.

(28-6, 14-0 West Coast Conference)

Photo Matt Bouldin

As if losing Jeremy Pargo, Micah Downs and Josh Heytvelt wasn’t tough enough, the Zags took a major hit when sophomore Austin Daye left school after his sophomore season to enter the NBA draft. The good thing is that Gonzaga has one of the country’s top coaches in Mark Few, so if there is any slippage, it probably won’t be all that bad. Second-leading scorer Matt Bouldin (13.6 points) returns along with Steven Gray, who averaged 9.3 points as a backup. Demetri Goodson, the hero of last season’s thrilling NCAA tournament victory over Western Kentucky, will take over for Pargo at point guard.

(31-6, 16-2 Big East)

Photo Samardo Samuels

The Cardinals certainly won’t be atrocious, but it’s doubtful they’ll win the Big East or end the regular season with a No. 1 ranking. Rick Pitino’s squad lost its top two players (Terrence Williams and Earl Clark) to the NBA draft. Forward Samardo Samuels is back after averaging 11.2 points as a freshman, and Jerry Smith, Edgar Sosa and Preston Knowles are nice players, but the star quality that defines elite teams is missing. Forward Rakeem Buckles and point guard Peyton Siva should compete for immediate playing time as freshmen.

(25-10, 12-6 Big East)

Photo Lazar Hayward

When healthy, Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Dominic James formed one of the top backcourts in the country during their careers with the Golden Eagles. Now all three players are gone along with backup guard Maurice Acker. Forward Lazar Hayward should be one of the top players in the Big East after averaging 16.3 points and 8.6 rebounds as a junior last season, but who will get him the ball? Luckily Buzz Williams signed an outstanding recruiting class that includes four-star point guard Junior Cadougan, who will likely start.

(31-7, 12-4 Big 12)

Photo Laurence Bowers

Tigers coach Mike Anderson was a legitimate candidate for national coach of the year honors after Missouri advanced to the Elite Eight last season by defeating Memphis. Success, however, might not come as easy this season. Missouri lost its top two players (DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons) and don’t have much coming back in the way of a scoring punch – especially compared to the other upper-echelon teams in the Big 12. That’s not to say that someone couldn’t step up. Forwards such as Laurence Bowers, Justin Safford and Keith Ramsey played exceptionally well in the Elite Eight loss to Connecticut, while Kim English and Marcus Denmon had promising freshmen seasons. Finishing in the top half of the conference and earning an NCAA bid should be Missouri’s goals for 2009-10.

(31-5, 15-3 Big East)

Photo Jermaine Dixon

DeJuan Blair … gone. Sam Young … gone. Levance Fields … gone. top-10 ranking … not this year. Although he’s yet to reach the Final Four, Jamie Dixon continues to do a masterful job with the Panthers’ program, but this will be his biggest test yet. Only one of Pittsburgh’s top five scorers (Jermaine Dixon) returns from a squad that spent much of last season ranked No. 1. Guard Ashton Gibbs shot 43.9 percent from 3-point range and should flourish in an expanded role. But newcomers such as 6-8 forward Dante Taylor will also have to contribute immediately. One of four Panther signees, Taylor is the 14th-ranked player in the Class of 2009 by

(26-9, 13-5 Pac-10)

Photo James Keefe

Josh Shipp, Darren Collison and Alfred Aboya might not be among the best players in UCLA history. Together, though, their senior leadership helped keep the Bruins near the top of the Pac-10 standings one season after the program was hit with the loss of Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook. Now Shipp, Collison and Aboya are gone, too, along with point guard Jrue Holiday, who stayed in Westwood just one season before entering the NBA draft. James Keefe and Nikola Dragovic are nice role players, but for the Bruins to continue their high-level success, they’ll need bigger contributions from a group of sophomores who, frankly, were underwhelming as freshmen.

(22-13, 9-9 Pac-10)

Photo Kevin O’Neill

Wow – what a mess! Other than leading scorer Dwight Lewis (14.4 points), the Trojans don’t return anyone noteworthy. DeMar DeRozan, Taj Gibson and Daniel Hackett all left school early for the pros, and who could blame them considering NCAA allegations that led to Tim Floyd’s summer resignation. Heck, even USC’s recruits bailed. New coach Kevin O’Neill is a strong X’s and O’s guy who is known for his defense. He’ll do his best to devise a plan to keep the opponents’ scores low. But who will put the ball in the basket for the Trojans? It could be a long, painful season at USC.

Wake Forest
(24-7, 11-5 ACC)

Photo Al-Farooq Aminu

If Jeff Teague would’ve stayed in school the Demon Deacons would’ve been a threat to win the ACC title. Without him, though, Wake Forest will enter the 2009-10 season as one of the league’s biggest question marks. Dino Gaudio’s squad touts a future NBA lottery pick in Al-Farooq Aminu, who needs to have a breakout sophomore season now that Teague and forward James Johnson are in the NBA. Aminu isn’t the only returnee with experience. Seven-foot center Chas McFarland and guard L.D. Williams combined to average 16.7 points as starters last season, and guard Ishmael Smith contributed 22 minutes per game off the bench.