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Tar Heels could be back on top

1. North Carolina

What's up: If Brandan Wright had stayed for one more season, the Tar Heels would have been the consensus No. 1 team. As it stands, they still have arguably the greatest aggregation of talent and depth in the land, starting with Player of the Year candidate Tyler Hansbrough.

What's down: Other than losing Wright, there isn't much downside to the Tar Heels. Sophomores Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson are sufficient replacements for the multitalented Wright.

Outlook: The Heels are not a perfect team, but they have the right mix of players to move in that direction.

2. Georgetown

What's up: Even as the Hoyas advanced to the Final Four last March, folks in D.C. insisted the team was a year away. The moment has arrived. Four starters return including three-year starters Roy Hibbert and Jonathan Wallace. Freshmen Austin Freeman and Chris Wright are the backcourt of the future.

What's down: The departed Jeff Green was the go-to guy when the Princeton offense broke down, but anyone who saw DaJuan Summers knows that he'll eventually fill that void.

Outlook: So deep are the Hoyas that anything less than a return to the Final Four would be a disappointment.


What's up: After back-to-back 30-win Final Four seasons, the only thing left for Ben Howland to do is win it all. The Bruins could be even better this time around. The grand shooter, Arron Afflalo, is gone but many are calling the arrival of Kevin Love the Bruins' most significant signing in two decades. Darren Collison is right at the top of everyone's All-Blur team.

What's down: Depth could be an issue because the Bruins are basically a seven-man team.

Outlook: Another 30-win season and a trip to the Final Four? No doubt.

4. Memphis

What's up: What's not to like about Memphis? Few teams have more talent, depth, experience and overall balance than the Tigers. But the name to remember is Derrick Rose, an elegant freshman point guard who makes everyone around him better.

What's down: What Memphis lacks is a scorer to take over games a la Jeremy Hunt, who could dial from long distance and stretch the defense.

Outlook: John Calipari's task is to keep his talented team focused enough for an extended run come March.

5. Kansas

What's up: The Jayhawks are loaded with four returning starters, depth and one of the nation's top recruiting classes. If Brandon Rush comes back from an ACL injury in December, he'll join Russell Robinson, Mario Chalmers and Sherron Collins as the nation's deepest backcourt.

What's down: It will be difficult to replace Julian Wright, who led the team in rebounding and was second in blocked shots. Despite last year's trip to the Elite Eight, Bill Self's four-year run has been considered somewhat of a disappointment.

Outlook: If Rush returns to his form of a year ago, the Jayhawks are Final Four caliber.

6. Louisville

What's up: This could be Rick Pitino's best team since his 1996 team at Kentucky won the national championship. Terrence Williams, Edgar Sosa, Juan Palacios and David Padgett form a group that is experienced and talented. For all the acclaim afforded Georgetown's Roy Hibbert, Williams could wind up the Big East Player of the Year. The scary part is that sophomores Earl Clark and Derrick Caracter have NBA potential and are coming off the bench.

What's down: The Cardinals' biggest issue is remaining healthy, a problem for Padgett and Palacios last season.

Outlook: The Cardinals will compete with the Hoyas for the Big East title and contend for a spot in San Antonio.

7. Indiana

What's up: Here's a gifted band that has a not-so-savvy coach and a sense of purpose. Kelvin Sampson has worked quickly, turning the Hoosiers into a fierce and resourceful team. Led by D.J. White and future lottery pick Eric Gordon, Indiana is a bona fide Final Four contender.

What's down: Sampson apparently has a Tarkanian-esque approach to the NCAA rule book and there's growing sentiment in the Hoosier state that he won't be around much longer. That could become a distraction.

Outlook: Gordon has the will and determination to carry Indiana to the Final Four, but Sampson's teams generally come up short in March.

8. Michigan State

What's up: Look for Tom Izzo to employ more full-court pressure to maximize his bottomless pool of depth. Five starters return, highlighted by the high-scoring Drew Neitzel and do-everything defender Travis Walton.

What's down: Everything will revolve around the Spartans' talented backcourt because the frontline players have yet to play with consistency.

Outlook: If the big men develop, this could be a dangerous team come March.

9. USC

What's up: The arrival of O.J. Mayo has the campus buzzing, and it won't take fans long to realize he has ability along the lines of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

What's down: This is a young team that could feature three sophomores and two freshmen in the starting lineup. If Nick Young and Gabe Pruitt had returned, USC could have been the team to beat.

Outlook: Tim Floyd knows how to mold young talent and by the time the Pac-10 season rolls around, the Trojans will be good.

10. Tennessee

What's up: Four starters return, all of them can play and they work together beautifully. Chris Lofton, the reigning SEC Player of the Year, is a dreamy outside shooter.

What's down: It would be nice if the Vols played a little defense. Opponents shot nearly 46 percent and averaged 75.1 points a game.

Outlook: Lofton is good enough to shoot Tennessee to the SEC title and beyond.

11. Marquette

What's up: This group won 44 games the last two seasons with freshmen and sophomores who are now juniors and seniors. That experience, especially with guards like Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Ball State transfer Maurice Acker, makes Marquette warriors once again. Buffalo native Lazar Hayward averaged 6.6 points and 3.6 rebounds as a freshman.

What's down: For all their regular-season success, the Golden Eagles are 0-2 in the last two NCAA Tournaments. They need to get some solid post play from Dan Fitzgerald and Ousmane Barro.

Outlook: This is Marquette's best team since the Dwyane Wade-led 2002-03 Final Four squad. While this group is solid, a run at San Antonio is a bit of a stretch.

12. Washington St.

What's up: When Tony Bennett took the coaching job last season, observers figured he could draw a play or two, considering his father is Dick Bennett, but he turned the program around sooner than anticipated. Guards Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low are as good as any tandem in the country.

What's down: There isn't much depth here -- the Cougars run about seven deep -- and in the rugged Pac-10 it's good to have as many bodies at your disposal as possible.

Outlook: This is a serious Elite Eight contender that should have a seat in the top 15 for most of the season.

13. Oregon

What's up: With four returning starters who combined for 228 three-pointers, long-distance shooting won't be a problem for the Ducks. Power forward Maarty Leunen has the skills of a point guard.

What's down: Aaron Brooks' leadership and playmaking skills are going to be missed. Because of a lack of depth, the Ducks are an injury away from becoming a bubble team.

Outlook: The Pac-10 is so loaded that Oregon is the fourth-best team in the league and still one of the top 15 teams in the country.

14. Duke

What's up: Wing players Jon Scheyer, DeMarcus Nelson, Gerald Henderson and Nolan Smith, the son of the late Derek Smith, make the Blue Devils imposing.

What's down: Now that Josh McRoberts is in the NBA, Duke simply doesn't have the size to compete with the big boys. At 7-foot-1, Brian Zoubek is the tallest player on the roster but he is coming off a foot injury.

Outlook: The bloom is off the rose. No longer do the Blue Devils automatically strike fear into the heart of every opponent.

15. Arizona

What's up: The last time Lute Olson had a freshman point guard as talented as Jerryd Bayless was Mike Bibby and he ended up leading the
Wildcats to the national championship. Bayless joins an improved Chase Budinger as a dynamic one-two punch.

What's down: Olson's leave of absence has to affect the team, although Kevin O'Neill's presence on the bench will help.

Outlook: If Olson returns, look for the 'Cats to peak late and play their way into the Sweet 16.

16. N.C. State

What's up: For those who doubted Sidney Lowe's ability to recruit, all he did was sign three of the nation's top 100 players last fall. The best of the trio is jumping-jack power forward Tracy Smith.

What's down: Right now, there's nobody to pull this collection together at point guard, although transfers Farnold Degand and Marques Johnson and freshman Javier Gonzalez will get first crack.

Outlook: By the end of last season, the only team better than the Wolfpack in the Atlantic Coast Conference was North Carolina. That could be the case again this time around.

17. Wisconsin

What's up: Is there life after Alando Tucker and Kam-mron Taylor? You betcha. Michael Flowers proved that he can become a top-shelf guard. Joe Krabbenhoft is a marvel, a 6-7 forward who does everything well.

What's down: Projected starting point guard Trevon Hughes didn't play much as a freshman and if he can't play the position, Flowers may have to.

Outlook: Another 30-win season is out of the question, but 20-25 wins is more realistic.

18. Texas

What's up: Can the Longhorns become a better team without Kevin Durant? Perhaps, because they'll become more balanced. With D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams, Texas has one of the smallest backcourts of any Top 25 program, but you'll be hard-pressed to find two guards who are quicker.

What's down: The Longhorns seem to lose confidence away from home, where they were 10-9 last season.

Outlook: While not in the class of Kansas, the Longhorns should beat up on the rest of the Big 12.

19. Syracuse

What's up: Jonny Flynn's approval rating is through the roof after just two games and reports are that Paul Harris has improved his jump shot to the point where he can't be left alone on the perimeter.

What's down: Experience could become an issue following the losses of Demetris Nichols and Andy Rautins, who is out for the season with a torn ACL.

Outlook: A quick start should give the Orange enough confidence for a run at the Sweet 16.

20. Stanford

What's up: The Cardinal would be ranked higher if it was opening the season with Brook Lopez, who was ruled academically ineligible for the fall semester. Lopez and his twin brother Robin combined for more blocked shots (117) last season than seven other Pac-10 teams.

What's down: If Lopez doesn't return, Lawrence Hill and Fred Washington have to step up.

Outlook: Coach Trent Johnson returns 10 of his top 11 scorers, but Stanford has to stay healthy.

21. Gonzaga

What's up: Can Josh Heytvelt put up Adam Morrison kind of numbers? Probably not, but with guards like Jeremy Pargo and Matt Bouldin feeding him the ball, 20 points a game isn't out of the question.

What's down: The Bulldogs have made nine consecutive NCAA appearances but only one Elite Eight.

Outlook: With Heytvelt in the middle, the Zags will make their 10th NCAA Tournament in a row and, with some timely outside shooting, perhaps an Elite Eight trip.

22. Clemson

What's up: The Tigers return four starters from a 25-win team. The one to watch is K.C. Rivers, who poured in 29 points in an NIT win over Syracuse last year.

What's down: There's no true point guard let alone anyone on the roster who has played in the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers last NCAA appearance came during the 1997-98 season and resulted in an opening-round exit.

Outlook: Clemson has played in the NCAAs just seven times in its history. Make it eight.

23. Arkansas

What's up: Coach John Pelphrey steps into a great situation where five starters who are all capable of scoring are back from a 21-win squad. Guard Patrick Beverley is the best of the bunch.

What's down: How well the Hogs perform rests on the play of point guard Gary Ervin, who usually is a turnover waiting to happen.

Outlook: If Pelphrey can convince the Hogs to become more unselfish and play better defense, there's no reason why they can't win the Southeastern Conference West.

24. Villanova

What's up: Scottie Reynolds, last year's Big East Rookie of the Year, has the potential to blossom into a 20-point scorer. That's if freshman Corey Fisher doesn't beat him to it.

What's down: If Dante Cunningham and redshirt freshman Antonio Pena don't show a presence inside, 'Nova won't last past the first weekend of the NCAAs.

Outlook: As usual, the Wildcats will be strong on the perimeter, which will give opponents headaches on most nights.

25. S. Illinois

What's up: After finishing the season ranked in the Top 25, the Salukis want to become like Gonzaga and blossom into a national power. With players like Randal Falker, Matt Shaw and Bryan Mullins, they have a strong foundation.

What's down: Jamaal Tatum and Tony Young are gone from last year's Sweet 16 team and there's no one of their eminence in sight.

Outlook: A seventh consecutive trip to the Big Dance? Bank on it.

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