The Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll won’t be out for about three more months. Here is my projection of what the initial rankings should look like.
1. North Carolina – The Tar Heels could have as many as four first-round NBA draft picks in their lineup with Harrison Barnes, John Henson, James McAdoo and Tyler Zeller. Then there’s point guard Kendall Marshall, who will likely be among the country’s leaders in assists. Roy Williams hasn’t been this excited about a team since the fall of 2001, when his Kansas squad featured Drew Gooden, Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison.
2. Kentucky – Unlike the past two years, the latest version of the Wildcats has a decent amount of experience to blend with its youth. Terrence Jones was one of the top two players on last year’s Final Four squad while Darius Miller and Doron Lamb played key roles, as well. The biggest stars, however, will probably be a pair of freshmen. Forward Anthony Davis and point guard Marquis Teague are both projected to be top 10 picks in next summer’s NBA draft.
3. Ohio State – Chemistry-wise, not many teams in the country will mesh as well as the Buckeyes, who return first-team All-American Jared Sullinger in the paint along with standout guards Aaron Craft and William Buford. Ohio State should be the heavy favorite to win a Big Ten conference that will likely be down a bit this year. Buckeyes fans, however, have higher aspirations.
4. Duke – As much as it stings on the court, the loss of Nolan Smith, Kyrie Irving and Kyle Singler will also hurt the Blue Devils from a leadership standpoint. Hopefully newcomers such as guard Austin Rivers are ready to be the catalysts of a talented team that returns Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins on the perimeter and the Miles and Mason Plumlee in the paint.
5. Syracuse – Other than leading rebounder Rick Jackson, the Orange return every key player from a team that went 27-8 last season. Jim Boeheim’s club will tout one of the deepest backcourts in the country with Brandon Triche, Scoop Jardine, Michael Carter-Williams and Dion Waiters. Senior Kris Joseph is one of the top forwards in the Big East. He averaged 14.4 points last season. Syracuse is hoping 7-foot center Fab Melo makes significant strides following a disappointing freshman season.
6. Vanderbilt – The Commodores in the Final Four? Hey … stranger things have happened. Kevin Stallings returns every key player from one of the SEC’s most solid teams last season. John Jenkins is a future first-round draft pick and Festus Ezeli and Jeffrey Taylor are both battle-tested veterans. Give Stallings credit for turning Vanderbilt into one of the league’s top teams.
7. Connecticut – Even without Kemba Walker, the Huskies will be back in the NCAA title mix and may be even stronger than the squad that won it all in Houston last spring. Emerging star Jeremy Lamb is back along with key players such as Alex Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith and Shabazz Napier. Look for versatile freshman forward DeAndre Daniels to start immediately.
8. Wisconsin – One of these days, people will learn their lesson and start picking Wisconsin near the top of the Big Ten instead of in the middle. Point guard Jordan Taylor should be on everyone’s preseason All-American squad. He’s a big-time scorer who rarely turns it over. Mike Bruesewitz needs to have a big season following the departure of Jon Leuer.
9.Louisville – The Cardinals surprised some folks by finishing in a tie for third in the Big East standings last season, but nothing they do this season will come as a shock. Kyle Kuric is back, but the real keys to the team will be freshman guard Wayne Blackshear and big man Chane Behanan. Look for Rick Pitino’s squad to contend for the title in the nation’s toughest league.
10. Florida – Will the Gators have the best backcourt in the country? Perhaps. Returning starters Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton will have to share time with high-scoring Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario and all-everything freshman Brad Beal. The problem is that Florida is thin and inexperienced down low with Erik Murphy and talented-but-raw Patric Young. Don’t be surprised if Billy Donovan occasionally uses a four-guard lineup.
11. Baylor – The Bears have two players (forwards Perry Jones and Quincy Miller) who are projected to be among the first 10 players selected in the NBA draft. Small forward Anthony Jones is a third-year starter, Quincy Acy is regarded as one of the country’s top sixth men and Baylor just signed the national junior college player of the year in point guard Pierre Jackson. In terms of pure talent, not many teams are better than the Bears, who should actually benefit from the departure of volume shooter LaceDarius Dunn.
12. Memphis – If players truly make their biggest jump between their freshman and sophomore seasons, the Tigers should be in good shape. Will Barton, Tarik Black and Joe Jackson are potential stars who were thrown to the wolves during their first collegiate season in 2010-11. They’ll be better for it. Wesley Witherspoon, Charles Carmouche, Chris Crawford and Antonio Barton are also back – and newcomer Adonis Thomas is a five-star prospect who will play a significant role.
13. Marquette – The Golden Eagles advanced to the Sweet 16 last season, and they could go even further in 2011-12 thanks to the return of Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder. The key will be whether sophomore Vander Blue can make significant strides from a disappointing freshman season. Incoming small forward Juan Anderson also needs to have a big year.
14. Pittsburgh – The Panthers accomplished one of the toughest things in sports last season by winning the Big East title, but they lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament for the third time in the last four years and have yet to reach the Final Four under coach Jamie Dixon. Standouts such as Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee are gone from last season’s team. But the Panthers still have plenty of firepower thanks to the return of Ashton Gibbs, last year’s leading scorer, and forwards Nasir Robinson, Talib Zanna, Dante Taylor and highly-touted newcomer Khem Birch.
15. Alabama – The Crimson Tide went 25-12 overall and 12-4 in the SEC last season but failed to make the NCAA tournament. Still, Anthony Grant’s program has a ton of momentum after finishing second in the NIT. Forwards JyMychal Green and Tony Mitchell return along with point guard Trevor Releford. The threesome combined to average 41.7 points last season.
16. Kansas – This will likely be Bill Self’s worst Jayhawks team – but it could still be good enough to win the school’s eighth straight Big 12 title. Kansas will be solid on the perimeter with fourth-year starter Tyshawn Taylor and junior Elijah Johnson. The issues are in the paint, where Self is looking for someone to play alongside first-team All-American candidate Thomas Robinson. Former role players such as Jeff Withey (center) and Travis Releford (small forward) need to step up.
17. UCLA – The Bruins continue to get hit hard by unexpected early departures for the NBA draft, with the latest defections coming from Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee. UCLA, though, is absolutely loaded in the frontcourt with Josh Smith, Reeves Nelson and North Carolina transfers David and Travis Wear. Point guard Lazeric Jones is also much-improved. The lack of a standout 3-point shooter could present problems.
18. Texas A&M – Former Aggies coach Mark Turgeon left a loaded refrigerator for new hire Billy Kennedy, who had a successful stint at Murray State. B.J. Holmes and Nathan Walkup are the only key losses for a team that returns future first-round draft pick Khris Middleton and surging forward David Loubeau. Getting a solid season from freshman guard Jamal Branch will be a key if the Aggies want to contend with Kansas and Baylor for the Big 12 title.
19. Cincinnati – The Bearcats won their first 15 games last season against a collection of mostly no-name opponents. But they proved their legitimacy by going 11-7 in the Big East and then waxing Missouri in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Mick Cronin’s team returns its top four scorers, including forward Yancy Gates (11.9 points, 6.9 rebounds).
20. Xavier – The Musketeers will be an Atlantic 10 power once again thanks to the return of one of the top players in the country in Tu Holloway. The team’s second- and third-leading scorers – Kenny Frease and Mark Lyons – are also back along with third-year coach Chris Mack, who is one of the best young coaches in the business.
21. Missouri – Tigers fans were livid when Missouri hired underachieving Miami coach Frank Haith to replace Mike Anderson. Things will really hit the fan if Haith messes up what appears to be an ideal situation for a new coach. While most Big 12 teams are down, Missouri returns the nucleus of its squad with players such as Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Laurence Bowers and Phil Pressey.
22. Arizona – Not many coaches did as good of a job last season as Sean Miller, who got the Wildcats a win away from the Final Four in just his second year. Even though Arizona returns most of its key players, the loss of No. 2 overall draft pick Derrick Williams will be a huge blow, especially since the Wildcats’ don’t have a player half of his ilk waiting in the wings. Look for freshman point guard Josiah Turner to take over as the team’s star.
23. Mississippi State – If Renardo Sidney gets his life back together – and gets in shape – the Bulldogs will have one of the most-talented teams in the SEC. Sidney and UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie will man the frontcourt while underrated senior Dee Bost is back at point guard. Freshman wing Rodney Hood is a five-star prospect that is expected to start immediately.
24. Michigan – The Wolverines were crossing their fingers that Darius Morris would pull out of the NBA draft, but not all hope was lost when he didn’t. Zack Novak and Stu Douglass have proven themselves at the Big Ten level, and Tim Hardaway Jr. was one of the country’s top freshmen last season. Michigan could finish near the top of a conference that appears destined for a down year.
25. Wichita State – Leading scorer J.T. Durley is gone, but the Shockers return standouts Toure Murry, David Kyles and Garrett Stutz from last season’s NIT championship squad. Wichita State enjoys one of the top home-court advantages in the country and has one of the hottest young names in coaching in Gregg Marshall.
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