Ultimate Rankings Countdown: Top 50

50. South Carolina: South Carolina must rebound better and avoid the late-season collapse that knocked the Gamecocks out of NCAA tournament contention last season. If they do those two things, the Gamecocks ought to earn an NCAA bid. This team led the league in turnover margin last season and should be producing a lot more steals with Devan Downey and Dominique Archie in the lineup. South Carolina clearly is a rung below Kentucky and Tennessee in the SEC East, but the Gamecocks are talented enough to battle Vanderbilt and Florida for third place in the division

49. Cincinnati: There definitely is a sense of urgency surrounding the Bearcats' program. Vaughn, one of the better players in recent school history, is entering his final college season, and Lance Stephenson is expected to turn pro after his freshman year. If Cincinnati doesn't make the NCAA tournament this year, it may be time to put coach Mick Cronin on the hot seat.

48. Creighton: This is a deep team that knows how to win, especially at home. Coach Dana Altman is an offensive whiz who runs myriad sets; he mixes in a motion offense, set plays, some up-tempo and lots of long-range shooting. His defenses are just as varied, as Creighton is known to employ man, zones and press. Creighton won a share of the Valley crown last season. If some key newcomers emerge and the frontcourt stabilizes, the Bluejays should contend again and extend their MVC-record run of consecutive postseason bids to 13.

47. Oregon State: Craig Robinson wasn't named the Pac-10 coach of the year - the nod went to Washington's Lorenzo Romar instead - but he certainly deserved consideration. If Robinson keeps this up, he'll get his due. Robinson has Oregon State believing it can compete for Pac-10 titles. Only two seasons removed from going 0-18 in the conference, Oregon State is poised to be competitive in the Pac-10. Despite finishing eighth in the league last season, the Beavers swept California and split the season series with Washington State. The Beavers should be right there with them this season.

46. BYU: The Cougars will have extra inspiration this year each time they look on the bench. Coach Dave Rose was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this summer, but he said the cancer is in remission and shouldn't keep him from doing his job. BYU already figured to enter the season as the MWC's most talented team. The extra incentive makes the Cougars an even more prohibitive favorite. BYU should win the league title and go dancing again. The next step is finally getting beyond the first round of the NCAA tournament. BYU has won at least a share of the Mountain West Conference title in three consecutive seasons and has an excellent shot at a fourth crown in a row. While most of the other MWC teams suffered major losses, the Cougars return four starters, including all-conference picks Jimmer Fredette and Jonathon Tavernari.

45. Maryland: Its hard to count out a team coached by Gary Williams. Maryland was written off as a viable NCAA contender midway through last season; then, the Terrapins got off the canvas and went on a late-season surge that resulted in a second-round NCAA tournament appearance. Perhaps we're underestimating the Terps again. Maryland returns four starters who have shown their resilience time and time again. The tournament hopes again rest on the shoulders of senior guard Greivis Vasquez, the ACC's most indispensable player.

44. Washington State: Say this for new coach Ken Bone: He won't need to get used to the fall and winter weather in Pullman. Bone already is knowledgeable with the lay of the land in the Pacific Northwest and the Pac-10. He is replacing Tony Bennett, who left for Virginia Bone has spent nearly his entire coaching career in Washington or Oregon. He was coach at Division II Seattle Pacific, then an assistant to Lorenzo Romar at Washington and most recently coach at Portland State, which he led to the NCAA tournament each of the past two seasons. Bone inherits what he says in the youngest team he has coached. With the departure of Taylor Rochestie, Aron Baynes and Daven Harmeling, Bone will be without the last remnants of the teams that helped lift Washington State out of obscurity and make the Cougars a Pac-10 contender. In their place, Bone will rebuild around sophomores Klay Thompson and DeAngelo Casto.

43. Baylor: Baylor was one of the Big 12's biggest disappointments last season, finishing ninth in the league after the Bears were projected as high as third. Coach Scott Drew's squad made up for some of the heartache by finishing second in the NIT, where it lost to Penn State in the championship game. Still, Baylor was hoping for more. The good thing is that the Bears return enough pieces to get back to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons. Tough as it is to lose stars such as Curtis Jerrells, Kevin Rogers and Henry Dugat, Drew has recruited well enough to keep things rolling in Waco.

42. Syracuse: His top three scorers entered the NBA draft, but Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said during the summer that the Orange should be a top-20 team by the end of the 2009-10 season. The comment might seem puzzling at first - especially considering Syracuse lost point guard and NBA lottery pick Jonny Flynn. Still, inspect the Orange's roster a little more closely, and it's easy to see the reasons for Boeheim's optimism. Throw in that Syracuse is led by a Hall of Fame coach, and it's not farfetched to think that Boeheim's squad could compete for a Big East title in what's being regarded as a down year for the conference.

41. Tulsa: All the pieces are in place for a big season. Football has taken over the spotlight at the school for the past few years, but basketball is enjoying a resurgence under Wojcik - who is entering his fifth year as coach. The focus is on getting back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003. The Golden Hurricane lose only one starter from a 25-win team, and given the upheaval at Memphis, the time appears to be now if Tulsa wants to win the league title. Seniors Jerome Jordan and Ben Uzoh give coach Doug Wojcik the league's best inside-outside duo, and there is a lot of complementary talent returning.

40. Wisconsin: Unlike many other Big Ten teams, Wisconsin must replace its most important players. Marcus Landry was the team's leading scorer, and Joe Krabbenhoft was the top rebounder. Both also were solid defenders and seasoned veterans. But don't bet against Wisconsin finding a way to make everything work. The Badgers have finished in the top four of the Big Ten and reached the NCAA tournament every season under ninth-year coach Bo Ryan. Guard Trevon Hughes is poised to become the go-to player Landry was last season. Krabbenhoft was a unique player with his 6.7 rebounds per game and 81 assists, but forwards Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil played enough minutes as sophomores to step into larger roles this season. One-and-done freshmen and highly touted sophomores make the biggest splashes, but Ryan once again should have a veteran team ready to perform on the big stage.

39. Florida State: The Seminoles lose two starters from the team that earned the school's first NCAA tournament bid since 1998, but one of those guys might have been the ACC's most indispensable player. Toney Douglas led the ACC in scoring (21.3 ppg) last season and was the only Seminole to average in double figures. The Seminoles' hopes of returning to the tournament depend on whether they can adequately replace Douglas' production. FSU also must play with the same defensive intensity it showed last season, when it ranked ninth in the nation in field-goal percentage defense (.387). While Douglas is gone, the Seminoles do possess a lot of height; Florida State could open the season with three starters 6 feet 9 or taller.

38. Northern Iowa: All five starters, the Missouri Valley's sixth man of the year and nine of the top 10 scorers are back from an NCAA tournament team. Northern Iowa is a deep, experienced and unselfish team that has a high hoops IQ and is loaded with want-to. The big key: finding good ballhandlers to counter the good perimeter defenses in the MVC.

37. Memphis: The Tigers went through an offseason filled with seismic changes, the biggest of which was John Calipari leaving to become coach at Kentucky In the process, the Tigers lost the bulk of their recruiting class. New coach Josh Pastner is under pressure to keep the Tigers' express rolling. It's likely to slow this season. Another conference title is possible, but to expect a long NCAA tournament run would be foolish. While the talent is there, how is it going to mesh under a first-time head coach? Plus, the frontcourt is a huge mystery. Pastner faces a tough task, but he has some guys who can play.

36. Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt returns its entire roster from a team that won 19 games but missed out on a postseason bid last season. The Commodores also added freshman guard John Jenkins, who is expected to provide the outside shooting that was sorely missing last season. Jenkins should provide instant offense to a team that ranked 11th in the SEC in scoring and made fewer 3-pointers than any team in the conference but Alabama. Now the Commodores just need center A.J. Ogilvy to stay healthy for a full season.

35. Ole Miss: The Rebels are due for some good fortune after watching four of their guards suffer season-ending knee injuries last season. The silver lining was the emergence of Terrico White, who took over as the starting point guard in the wake of those injuries and was playing as well as just about anyone in the conference by the end of the season. If White continues his rapid progress and adjusts to the return of all those injured players, Ole Miss has a chance to emerge as the SEC's biggest surprise.

34. Gonzaga: Josh Heytvelt, Jeremy Pargo and Austin Daye carried Gonzaga to another WCC title and a Sweet 16 berth, the fourth trip to a regional semifinal under Few. Without those three, Gonzaga likely will be unranked in the preseason AP poll for only the second time since 2002-03. Few will learn much about his team in the early months, with games against Michigan State, Washington State, Wake Forest, Duke, Oklahoma and Illinois, plus the Maui Invitational. Gonzaga's record on Jan. 2 might not be pretty, but the Bulldogs almost certainly still will be the favorites for the conference title.

33. Wake Forest: Wake Forest was a trendy pick to emerge as a national contender last season, and the Demon Deacons initially lived up to that promise. The Deacons won their first 16 games and were ranked No. 1 in the nation, but they tailed off late in the season and were upset by Cleveland State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Wake won't have to deal with such high expectations this season. Now that James Johnson and Jeff Teague have left school early for the NBA, Wake is just another mid-level ACC team battling for an NCAA berth.

32. Xavier: Xavier hopes for a smooth transition under new coach Chris Mack, who had been a Musketeers assistant. Mack replaces Sean Miller, who now is the coach at Arizona. There's no reason to expect Mack to change things: The Musketeers have won the past three A-10 regular-season titles and reached the past four NCAA tournaments, including an Elite Eight appearance in 2007-08. Xavier lost B.J. Raymond and C.J. Anderson to graduation and junior Derrick Brown to the NBA draft (he was a second-round pick). But Mack still has plenty of talent and will employ similar coaching principles as Miller, which includes sharing the ball on offense and man-to-man defense.

31. Pittsburgh: Pitt has won at least 25 games in each of the past four seasons, but that feat might be hard to accomplish this season. That's not to say the Panthers are headed in a bad direction. They're not. The school scored a major victory during the offseason by keeping Jamie Dixon on board despite a flurry of attractive job openings. Give him a season or two, and he'll have the Panthers near the top of the Big East once again. The Panthers finished 31-5 and second in the Big East last season. This season, fans might want to set the bar a little lower. DeJuan Blair and Sam Young are in the NBA. Levance Fields graduated and is playing overseas. The roster turnover will result in one of the youngest, most inexperienced teams in the Dixon era.

30. UCLA: UCLA is in transition, but the Bruins have too much talent and too good a coach to take a steep tumble down the Pac-10 standings; it helps that the league will be down this season. UCLA is one of the few teams in the conference that has its strength up front. That could be a major advantage, provided the guards don't get overwhelmed. Of course, rebuilding for UCLA might mean a third- or fourth-place finish in the Pac-10 and a low NCAA tournament seed, but it's a changing of the guard nonetheless. Three seniors - Darren Collison, Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya - are gone, as is one-and-done freshman Jrue Holiday. Darren Collison, Josh Shipp and Aboya were part of three consecutive Final Four teams before a second-round loss to Villanova last season. UCLA will start the rebuilding process with one returning starter, two more senior part-timers, a few sophomores who have been buried on the depth chart and a horde of freshman forwards. After coaching a guard-heavy team in 2008-09, Ben Howland suddenly has a glut of forwards on his roster.

29. Texas A&M: A&M began league play with a 3-7 record last season before winning its final six regular-season games and advancing to the NCAA tournament. Things shouldn't be as nerve-wracking this season, thanks to the presence of experienced players such as Davis, Sloan and Roland. Still, not everything has gone smoothly for the Aggies under the thin-skinned Turgeon, who hasn't handled criticism well. It will be interesting to see how he and his team respond if things get rocky in '09-10.

28. Minnesota: With a mix of experience and talented freshmen, Minnesota is on its way to building a consistent NCAA tourney team. Big prizes could be in the Gophers' future, possibly as soon as this season. Last season, the Gophers started 16-1, including a win over eventual Big East champion Louisville. Minnesota cooled off after that, ending the season on a 6-10 skid that culminated in a loss to Texas in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Smith's team should be better equipped to handle playing more consistently at a high level this season: The Gophers' top nine scorers return. Minnesota will get help from a standout freshman class that ranked in the top 25 nationally. The class is led by five-star forward Royce White and top-100 forward Rodney Williams.

27. Kansas State: What used to be the Kansas State athletic department's biggest weakness now arguably is its greatest strength. From Michael Beasley going No. 2 in the NBA draft in 2008 to the Wildcats winning 22 games last season, Kansas State basketball continues to make strides. The trend should continue as coach Frank Martin's squad appears primed for what could be its best season in recent memory. Other than Darren Kent (9.0 ppg last season), every key member of the Wildcats' 2008-09 team is returning this season. That includes second-team All-Big 12 guard Denis Clemente and third-year starting guard Jacob Pullen, who, unlike last season, will have a high-quality post player to pass to in freshman Wally Judge

26. Mississippi State: Mississippi State has put together a perimeter-oriented team around Jarvis Varnado that depends heavily on the 3-pointer, but the Bulldogs are quite tough to beat when those shots are falling. Sidney's presence would help a lot because of the way he could complement Varnado. Even without Renardo Sidney, Mississippi State could manage to win the Western Division. With Sidney in the lineup, the Bulldogs could have Sweet 16

25. Georgia Tech: Georgia Tech has the roster to erase the memories of its brutal performance in ACC competition last season, when it finished last. The Yellow Jackets return six of their top eight scorers and have an outstanding freshman class headlined by 6-foot-10 forward Derrick Favors, the No. 3 prospect in the nation. This up-and-down program appears headed in the right direction again. Don't be fooled by Tech's poor 2008-09 performance. This is a dynamic team capable of making serious noise in the ACC. If the freshmen are as good as advertised, Georgia Tech should end its two-year NCAA tournament drought.

24. Illinois: The Illini slipped to 16-19 in 2007-08, their lowest win total in a decade. Coach Bruce Weber responded to the pressure by leading his blue-collar team to a 13-1 start and a second-place finish in the Big Ten last season. Illinois returned to its winning ways thanks to physical man-to-man defense. Illinois led the conference in scoring defense (57.2 points per game) and held opponents to less than 40 percent shooting. The future looks bright, too, with the top three scorers returning to the lineup along with the second-ranked recruiting class in the Big Ten. The only negative to the season was the way the Illini finished. Illinois lost four of its last five, including a 76-72 setback to 12th-seeded Western Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

23. Clemson: Clemson's lack of postseason success has prevented the Tigers from garnering much attention outside of ACC country, but they quietly have won 72 games in the past three seasons. The string of 20-win seasons should continue. Big man Trevor Booker headlines a roster that returns seven guys who averaged at least 13.0 minutes per game last season. Clemson traditionally gets off to a fast start in its non-conference schedule, then tails off late in the season. The Tigers have enough experience that they ought to avoid falling into that pattern again. A third consecutive NCAA bid seems likely. Maybe this time the Tigers will advance beyond the first round.

22. Dayton: An at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and a first-round upset of West Virginia has Dayton thinking it could to do what it hasn't done in school history - win the A-10 regular-season title. Members of the A-10 since 1996, the Flyers have plenty of reason for optimism: They return four starters and 10 of the top 11 scorers. To be the best in the league, Dayton needs to beat the best - namely Xavier. Dayton has not defeated the Musketeers away from University of Dayton Arena since 1981. They also need to be better on the road in league play after going 3-5 last season.

21. Siena: With a lineup that boasts four returning starters, this Siena team might have more talent than the squads that advanced to the second round of the past two NCAA tournaments. Siena is the clear-cut favorite to win the MAAC. The biggest concern facing Siena is the target on its back. Siena will be the biggest game on every MAAC opponent's schedule, and the Saints will have a tough time earning an at-large NCAA bid if they fail to win their conference tournament.

20. Louisville: After winning the toughest conference in the country and ending the regular season ranked No. 1 Louisville suffered a disheartening setback against Michigan State in last season's Elite Eight. Coach Rick Pitino wants to make up for that team's NCAA tournament shortcomings -- no matter how long it takes. "I'm going to be the coach here until I retire," Pitino said during the offseason, a tough one for him because of disclosures about his personal life. Cardinals fans needed something to count on following the graduation of Terrence Williams and the early departure of Earl Clark. Both were selected in the first round of the NBA draft. Still, even with its two leading scorers gone, Louisville has plenty of firepower to be a contender once again in 2009-10

19. Oklahoma State: Oklahoma State couldn't have asked for a much better end to what had been an inconsistent 2008-09 season. The Cowboys entered the NCAA tournament having won eight of their previous 10 games, then defeated Tennessee in the opening round. Even though they lost two of their top three scorers in Byron Eaton and Terrel Harris, there's a chance the Cowboys could be even better this season under second-year coach Travis Ford. While the majority of the optimism centers on high-scoring guard James Anderson, there are plenty of other pieces that make this team a threat. Sharp-shooting guard Keiton Page and forward Marshall Moses moved into the starting lineup during the second half of last season and were huge keys in the Cowboys' surge. Swingman Obi Muonelo is a senior with an 11.1 career scoring average.

18. Georgetown: Just as they did in 2008-09 -- when they lost 12 of their final 16 games -- the Hoyas will enter the season with high expectations. With Freeman and Wright stepping into bigger leadership roles as juniors, and with Monroe poised for improvement in his second season, there's no reason to believe that Georgetown won't be one of the Big East's top teams. Coach John Thompson III characterized Georgetown's 2008-09 season as "terribly disappointing." True as that may be, the Hoyas aren't likely to finish 16-15 and miss the NCAA tournament again this season.

17. Tennessee: This Tennessee team is better than the squad that spent the early part of last season ranked in the top 10, though the Vols aren't getting nearly as much nationwide respect now that they're coming off a down season. Kentucky's rise will probably end Tennessee's reign atop the Eastern Division, but the Vols remain dangerous. As long as they stay healthy, the Vols should manage to advance beyond the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

16. Oklahoma: Although they won't be at the level of Kansas or Texas, the Sooners again should be one of the most talented teams in the Big 12. Capel won over a lot of fans last season after guiding Oklahoma to the Elite Eight, but his sideline prowess will be scrutinized more than ever now that Blake Griffin is gone. However, instead of lamenting what it lost, Oklahoma enters the 2009-10 season excited about what it has coming back.  

15. Washington:  Picked to finish fifth in the Pac-10 last season, the Huskies won't have to worry about being underrated in 2009-10. When senior Brandon Roy left after the 2006 trip to the Sweet 16, the Huskies slumped for the next two seasons. They don't expect a similar swoon this season despite the loss of double-double machine Jon Brockman and unheralded guard Justin Dentmon. The Huskies went 56 years between outright conference championships; the wait for the next Pac-10 title shouldn't take as long. Washington has enough experience returning and a solid signing class to fill the holes left by Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon.

14. Michigan: Michigan is hoping for more than simply an NCAA tournament appearance. The ceiling is high given the returning talent. Michigan showed it could hang with the nation's top teams when it was at its best; the task this season is making sure those moments happen more frequently. After reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998 and winning a game in the Big Dance for the first time since the Fab Five days, Michigan has reason to believe better things are on the horizon. The Wolverines go into their third season under John Beilein with their top five scorers back. Four of their projected starters started at least 22 games last season. Fans have plenty of reason for excitement, but there still are some areas that need to improve; most notably, the Wolverines went 4-8 against other Big Ten teams that made the tournament.

13. Ohio State: For the first time since 2005-06, Coach Thad Matta won't have to deal with a major roster overhaul. Barring any unexpected injury, Ohio State should contend for a conference title and a good seeding in the NCAA tournament. Ohio State's lineup will be almost a carbon copy of what it could have been a year ago. David Lighty is back, as is nearly the entire roster. The only loss is B.J. Mullens, who followed the past two Ohio State centers by leaving after his freshman year. On top of that, Ohio State doesn't have any incoming freshmen. The Buckeyes lost two scholarships as a result of a low Academic Progress Rate, which has been hurt by the one-and-dones.

12. Connecticut: The Huskies are looking forward to reshaping a team that lost four starters, including Jeff Adrien, A.J. Price and No. 2 overall draft pick Hasheem Thabeet. Most programs would need a year or two to recover from so many departures, but that won't be the case at Connecticut, which once again should be one of the top teams in the Big East. Despite the mass exodus of last season's stars, Jim Calhoun, 67, seems genuinely excited about this season's Huskies. It's easy to see that UConn has the talent to put together an impressive run. The biggest question marks are the intangibles -- the leadership and chemistry -- that made last season's team such a success.

11. Butler: Butler is the rare team that returns its entire 2008-09 roster intact. Nearly every team in the country would love to have a trio as talented as the Butler nucleus that features 2008-09 Horizon League player of the year Matt Howard plus sophomores Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack. Butler had just one returning starter last season and still won the Horizon League and reached the NCAA tournament, so you have to like the Bulldogs' chances of at least matching that success now that they return their entire roster. Is this Butler squad as good as the 2007 squad that reached the Sweet 16 or the 2008 team that won 30 games? We could find out in a hurry. Butler faces UCLA, Georgetown, Ohio State and Xavier before Christmas.

10. California: Cal's goals this season will be a bit more modest -- the school's first conference title since 1960. The Bears return four starters and their top five scorers. Guard Jerome Randle blossomed into the Pac-10's second-leading scorer, behind Arizona State's James Harden, last season. Cal sealed its place in last season's NCAA tournament with an 83-77 victory over Arizona on March 5. The Bears seemed a little too pleased with themselves from that point on and didn't win for the rest of the season. To win the league, the Bears need to avoid getting hung up on rankings and standings, as they did last season.

9. West Virginia: West Virginia fans figured Bob Huggins eventually would put the Mountaineers in a position to contend for the Big East title. Most people, though, probably wouldn't have guessed it would happen this fast. In just his third season, Huggins already has assembled what looks to be one of the better West Virginia teams in recent memory. Along with a potential NBA lottery pick in Devin Ebanks, the Mountaineers tout one of the country's top senior leaders in Da'Sean Butler and the National Junior College Athletic Association Player of the Year in Casey Mitchell. While most other Big East teams are dealing with massive personnel losses, WVU appears to have one of the most talented teams in the conference and also one of the deepest.

8. Duke: Duke lost its best player when Gerald Henderson entered the NBA draft. The Blue Devils also must replace guard Elliot Williams, who transferred home to Memphis to be closer to his ailing mother. Suddenly, things don't look quite as promising in Durham, though Duke still seems equipped for a postseason run.However, the lack of backcourt depth is a major concern. The Blue Devils are in major trouble if Scheyer, Singler or Smith gets hurt. Krzyzewski always makes the most of the talent on his roster, but the backcourt situation could force him to get creative. We're guessing he figures out a way to guide Duke to 20-plus wins and a spot in the Sweet 16.

7. North Carolina: This isn't the same team that won the national championship in March. The Tar Heels must try to defend their title without starters Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green. That quartet combined for 430 career starts and nearly 8,000 points. Only a program of North Carolina's caliber could lose that kind of talent and still be picked to win the conference. The Tar Heels are counting on the emergence of sophomore Ed Davis, who could develop into one of the league's top players after performing well as a backup last season. The return of Marcus Ginyard from a foot injury and the arrival of the nation's fifth-ranked recruiting class also should help.

6. Texas: Texas can return to the Final Four for the first time since 2003 if Jordan Hamilton and new PG Avery Bradley adapt quickly to the college game. Both are regarded as future pros, meaning they should be able to make an immediate impact for the Longhorns. Damion James and Dexter Pittman return as well, so a Big 12 title is a possibility, especially since Texas gets Kansas in Austin. In short, all the ingredients are there for a special season. Coach Rick Barnes just has to blend them together.

5. Purdue: Most teams in the Big Ten will have their share of familiar faces back for the 2009-10 season, and no team had as little roster turnover as Purdue. The Boilermakers will have the same top six players as they did a year ago. That kind of stability means coach Matt Painter won't need to remind his team it has room to improve even after winning 27 games and reaching the Sweet 16. The Boilermakers certainly had their moments, beating Michigan State by 18, winning the Big Ten tournament and beating Pac-10 champion Washington in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Yet Purdue was 4-5 on the road in Big Ten games and overmatched in a 72-60 loss to Connecticut in the Sweet 16. There's no reason to doubt Purdue can improve. The Boilermakers' top player, Robbie Hummel, was hampered by a back injury during the Big Ten season. Plus, they started three sophomores for most of the season - not to mention a true freshman point guard.

4. Villanova: Villanova fans got a double-dose of good news in the months that followed last season's Final Four appearance. Their point guard announced he was returning to school. And so did their coach.Villanova's roster is so stocked with perimeter players, and so shallow in the frontcourt, that Wright might be forced to go with a four-guard lineup from time to time. Still, no matter what style of offense they employ, the Wildcats are talented enough to beat any team in the country - especially if they play well defensively.

3. Michigan State: Despite all of the bad news surrounding the state of Michigan, none of it came from the Spartans. The Spartans gave fans a feel-good story by reaching their sixth Final Four under coach Tom Izzo before losing in the national championship game to North Carolina. With limited accolades and hype, Michigan State marched to the Final Four on guile and hard work. Michigan State can't play the underdog card this season. Michigan State returns Big Ten Player of the Year Kalin Lucas to a team that won the conference by a commanding four games. But the Spartans do have some holes to fill. While every other Big Ten team that went to the NCAAs returns nearly intact, Izzo must replace two key players. Center Goran Suton was one of the most valuable players in the NCAA tournament, and guard Travis Walton was the league's defensive player of the year. If Michigan State can find capable replacements, the Spartans could write another inspirational story for their fans.

2. Kentucky: If guard Jodie Meeks had stayed in school, Kentucky had a legitimate shot to open the season as the nation's top-ranked team. Make no mistake however, this squad is loaded with talent. But do they necessarily have the experience? On paper, the Wildcats are the clear-cut favorites. If freshman guard John Wall is as good as advertised, and clears up his eligibility issues, he should team with Patrick Patterso to give Kentucky arguably the SEC's two most talented players. The question is how the Wildcats' vaunted freshman class will mix with returning upperclassmen Patterson, Perry Stevenson and Ramon Harris. A few of these freshmen are projected "one-and-done" players. Will they buy into the team concept for new coach John Calipari?

1. Kansas: Under Bill Self, Kansas has won five consecutive Big 12 titles, and although Texas will provide a stiff challenge, a sixth seems likely. Beyond that, the Jayhawks appear as poised as any team for a national title run for the second time in three seasons. Sherron Collins is the only Jayhawk who played a significant role on Kansas' 2008 championship team, but last season's squad developed nicely and probably would've been in the Final Four if not for a late-game collapse against Michigan State in the Sweet 16. The bet here is that it doesn't happen again.

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