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THE TOP 25

1. Arizona

What's Up: F Luke Walton and G Jason Gardner give newly enshrined Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson two Player of the Year-caliber seniors, a rarity these days with most top sure-bets jumping ship early for the NBA. Just like his father was a generation ago at UCLA, Walton is one of the most cerebral players you'll see. A terrific freshman class, led by 6-foot-6 Andre Iguodala and 6-4 Hassan Adams (Mr. Basketball in California), will provide tremendous depth.

What's Down: Other than 6-9 Rick Anderson, there isn't a lot of experienced beef inside, and the Wildcats will get a quick test in their opener Saturday night against 7-foot-1 Western Kentucky center Chris Marcus. This club doesn't always play the kind of lock-down defense you'd expect from a power school.

Outlook: There is no clear-cut choice for No. 1 this year. Arizona gets the nod here for now and should be in the Superdome come April. The defense and depth will determine if the 'Cats cut down the nets.

2. Kansas

What's Up: Senior F Nick Collison and senior G Kirk Hinrich might join Arizona's Walton and Garnder to make up four-fifths of the All-America team. Wayne Simien and juco recruit Jeff Graves give coach Roy Williams a pair of 6-9 bangers.

What's Down: The early loss of 6-10 Drew Gooden to the NBA prevented Kansas from being a runaway No. 1 pick this year. Sophomore PG Aaron Miles hit just 40 percent from the field as a freshman; that figure has to improve. Aside from Hinrich, the three-point shooting is suspect.

Outlook: The Jayhawks are headed back to the Final Four, but their non-league schedule might give a clue as to what kind of success they'll have in New Orleans. In addition to the Preseason NIT, the Jayhawks play at Oregon (Dec. 7), Tulsa (Dec. 11) and California (Dec. 28), and host UCLA (Dec. 21) and Arizona (Jan. 25).

3. Alabama

What's Up: F Erwin Dudley is the reigning SEC player of the year, and another big season will help 'Bama fans easily forget the foolishly-gone-to-the-NBA departure of F Rod Grizzard, the team's second-leading scorer. Dudley will get plenty of help from 6-9 Kenny Walker and from 6-1 Mo Williams, one of the nation's most dynamic point guards.

What's Down: History. The Tide has never gone past the Sweet 16 and is still smarting over blowing a No. 2 seed last year with a second-round loss to Kent State. Williams hit just 26.2 percent last year from three-point range and has to improve.

Outlook: The Tide's spanking of Oklahoma last week in New York showed it means business. When St. Bonaventure goes to Tuscaloosa on Dec. 7, it will be taking on a team that will be playing in New Orleans on April 5.

4. Oklahoma

What's Up: The nation's best three-guard offense is led by Hollis Price, who was MVP of the Big 12 tournament and the NCAA West Regional last season. Ebi Ere is a streak shooter who was the Big 12 newcomer of the year.

What's Down: We saw it during last week's loss to Alabama. The graduation loss of 6-9 Aaron McGhee has sapped the Sooners of their bravado on the interior. Coach Kelvin Sampson openly questioned his team's toughness, and it's going to be a season-long battle to get some from 6-8 Johnnie Gilbert, 6-10 Jabahri Brown and 6-8 Kevin Bookout.

Outlook: The shakiest of our November picks to make the Final Four. But the guards are so good that the Sooners are looking at 25 wins or more.

5. Duke

What's Up: Depth, depth and more depth. Losing Jay Williams, Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer would ruin most programs, but this freshmen class should ease the pain. At 6-9, frosh Shelden Williams should see plenty of action and be joined by another pair of yearlings destined for greatness, 6-10 Shavlik Randolph and 6-4 J.J. Redick. The backcourt is solid with junior Chris Duhon poised to break out. Dahntay Jones is the top returnee in the frontcourt.

What's Down: The biggest concern is on the sidelines as Coach K's surgically replaced hip went on the fritz during last week's exhibition game and landed him in the hospital. Will he be able to stand the rigors of all the practices and games? How will the freshmen handle the rigors of March?

Outlook: The Blue Devils will be solid again this season and are the favorites in the ACC. They're at least Sweet 16 material. And just wait until next year.

6. Texas

What's Up: Point guard T.J. Ford led the nation in assists (8.3) last year as a freshman and will hook more Horns' fans with his dishes as a sophomore. (Trivia note: He was recruited to Austin by Buffalo native Rob Lanier, now the head coach at Siena). There is a lot of depth, led by 6-4 Brandon Mouton, 6-3 Royal Ivey and the frontcourt combo of 6-8 junior James Thomas and 6-9 frosh Brad Buckman.

What's Down: No one hit better than 40 percent from three-point range; that has to change. So does the Longhorns' defense. They gave up 73 ppg last year.

Outlook: Set to battle Oklahoma again for the Big 12 title. Keep an eye on Texas' game at Arizona on Dec. 15. It will be an early gauge of how tournament-tested the Horns really are.

7. Xavier

What's Up: OK, so he spent all night whining when he came to the Reilly Center last year. But 6-9 David West is still the best player in the Atlantic 10 and one of the top in the nation. Swingman Romain Sato is nearly as good, a 41-percent shooter from three-point range who's an excellent defender.

What's Down: Depth can be a question. West fouled out late in Xavier's loss last year at Bona, and X wasn't the same without him. Senior Lionel Chalmers is an up-and-down point guard who has to cut down on his turnovers. Look for the Bonnies to press him hard when they play Jan. 11 in Cincinnati.

Outlook: The A-10 needs a team to carry the mantle Temple has worn for many years, and Xavier is its best hope this season. West said no to the NBA, thinking the Muskeeters could make a deep run with him. How long that run lasts will depend on his ability to carry the load.

8. Pittsburgh

What's Up: A vintage backcourt of senior Brandin Knight and Turner/Carroll grad Julius Page should shine in Pitt's glittering new 12,500-seat Petersen Center. A rugged frontcourt, led by 6-8 Donatas Zavackas, 6-7 Chevy Troutman and 6-6, 265-pound Ontario Lett is a key reason this is one of the nation's best defensive teams.

What's Down: Coach Ben Howland has to guard against his team being a one-year wonder. Boston College exploded on the scene two years ago to win 27 games, then fell back to the pack last year and was a first-round NCAA loser. The Panthers won't surprise people anymore and now must learn to play as the hunted.

Outlook: Unlike BC, which relied mostly on guard Troy Bell, Pitt has several weapons. If it gets just a tad more outside shooting, the Panthers will be back in the Sweet 16 and could have Page pushing to be the first WNY product in the Final Four since Christian Laettner.

9. Oregon

What's Up: Offense and plenty of it. The Ducks quacked two opponents with 130-point barrages during the exhibition season -- though they lost leading scorer Fred Jones to the NBA. Juniors Luke Ridnour and Luke Jackson are a pair of cool hands. Juco transfer Andre Joseph should help in the backcourt as well.

What's Down: The Ducks gave up nearly 78 ppg last year, but a pair of huge freshmen, 6-11 Ian Crosswhite and 7-0 Matt Short, should help on that end. Jones took every key shot when the Ducks needed one. Ridnour and Jackson have to be able to assume that role.

Outlook: We'll get an early gauge on the Ducks' progress when they host Kansas on Dec. 7 in a rematch of last year's loss in the Elite Eight. Look for Oregon to battle Arizona and UCLA in the Pac-10, a three-way fight that should prepare them for another run at the Final Four.

10. Michigan State

What's Up: This team was already deep, even before coach Tom Izzo brought in one of the nation's best freshman classes this side of Duke. Returnees up front include Adam Ballinger (6-9), Al Anagoyne (6-8) and Alan Anderson (6-6), and they should get help from 6-10, 235-pound frosh Paul Davis, Michigan's Mr. Basketball.

What's Down: PG Marcus Taylor foolishly left early for the NBA (he was cut) , so juco transfer Rashi Johnson might have to step right in. There are eight freshmen or sophomores.

Outlook: Illinois ended the Spartans' string of Big Ten titles at four, but Michigan State is ready to reclaim that crown. The point guard play will determine how far the Spartans go in the NCAAs.

11. Florida

What's Up: Coach Billy Donovan already had a great recruiting class and then pulled the coup of the summer by luring 6-8 Dutchman Christian Drejer away from a lucrative European pro contract and into the battle for national freshman of the year. In 6-10 Matt Bonner, 6-4 Brett Nelson and 6-3 Justin Hamilton, the Gators have three strong seniors.

What's Down: Nelson (stress fracture) and Drejer (sprained ankle) are going to miss a couple of weeks, complicating the Gators' chemistry. The graduation loss of center Udonis Haslem will hurt, especially if 290-pound freshman Mario Boggan can't harness his weight to pick up the slack inside.

Outlook: Steve Spurrier is gone, and it's not nearly as much of a football school anymore. Quick, who's the coach in the Swamp these days? Ron Zook isn't a household word nationally yet; Donovan has a chance to become one with this team.

12. Mississippi State

What's Up: The Bulldogs will go as far as 6-9, 255-pound junior Mario Austin can carry them. Austin nearly turned pro after last year but changed his mind just like Xavier's West, instantly making his team a contender again for a conference championship and a deep NCAA run. Derek Zimmerman and Timmy Bowers form one of the better backcourts you've never heard of.

What's Down: Austin is dealing with the preseason distraction of having the NCAA investigate his high school transcript and question his whereabouts for three weeks in April when he was pondering the NBA and talking to agents. He could be facing a suspension. That would hurt because his backups, 7-2 freshman Wesley Morgan and 7-0 sophomore Marcus Campbell, are huge but raw.

Outlook: Any prolonged absence of Austin could plunge the Bulldogs right out of the Top 25. Assuming he's in the lineup most nights, this is a team with Sweet 16 potential and maybe even a little more.

13. Connecticut

What's Up: A three-guard offense featuring Ben Gordon, Taliek Brown and Tony Robertson can dominate at times. Emeka Okafor became one of the nation's best shot-blockers last year as a freshman and should get help from 6-8 prep star Marcus White.

What's Down: The Huskies would have been a Final Four lock had Caron Butler not turned pro after a super sophomore season. Gordon and Okafor are now thrust into leadership roles as sophomores. Can you legitimately expect to win in the Big East with nine freshmen or sophomores? Gordon and Brown can be spotty from the outside and need to have more consistency.

Outlook: The Huskies are a year or two away, provided no one follows Butler on an early jump to the pros. If they stay intact, they could start next year in the top five. For this year, they're going to play second fiddle to Pitt in the Big East. They host Bona on Jan. 2.

14. Georgia

What's Up: Four starters are back, including 6-7 SEC scoring leader Jarvis Hayes (18.6 ppg). Wayne Arnold, a 6-4 frosh, was Georgia's Mr. Basketball. But the most noteworthy addition is 6-7 North Carolina State transfer Damien Wilkins. Yes, that's a famous name in Georgia hoops. His uncle is former Bulldogs legend Dominique Wilkins (and his father, by the way, was ex-NBAer Gerald Wilkins). This Wilkins averaged 11.5 points two years ago at NC State and should make an immediate impact.

What's Down: There isn't anyone taller than 6-8. The three-point shooting is spotty at best. And the doubts still swirl around coach Jim Harrick. Yes, he won that '95 title at UCLA and got Rhode Island to the Elite Eight in '98. But an SEC division champion isn't supposed to lose to Southern Illinois, like the Bulldogs did in the NCAAs last March.

Outlook: Give Harrick kudos on his non-league schedule. Georgia and Alabama were often cupcake culprits, but no more. The Bulldogs play Georgia Tech, Minnesota, Cal, Gonzaga and Pittsburgh before the new year. They'll be ready for the SEC grind and another push to the Sweet 16.

15. Gonzaga

What's Up: This is no longer a mid-major program. The Zags' first-round NCAA loss to Wyoming last year was a product of a horrendously low No. 6 seed. They deserved better, and they'll probably get more this year. Junior Cory Violette (12.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg) will be the latest star to emerge and anchor an experienced frontcourt that includes 6-8 Zach Gourde and 6-11 Colorado transfer Richard Fox. Blake Stepp will step right in for Dan Dickau and be in charge at the point.

What's Down: Dickau's 21.4 ppg will obviously be missed, but the Zags have plenty of firepower without him. The nonleague schedule, which includes a trip to next week's Maui Invitational, is a tough one. The West Coast Conference slate, however, doesn't help Gonzaga prepare for its NCAA run.

Outlook: The Wyoming game will provide some season-long motivation. Coach Mark Few's club will outlast Pepperdine in the WCC and have a legitimate chance to get back to the Sweet 16.

16. Marquette

What's Up: Learn the name. Learn how to spell it. It's D-W-Y-A-N-E Wade. He's the 6-4 guard who will be most responsible for Golden Eagles ending Cincinnati's dominance in Conference USA. The junior has made many preseason All-America teams and will have plenty of help, including point guard Travis Diener and 6-9 Mississippi State transfer Robert Jackson.

What's Down: Diener will be moving from off guard following the graduation of Cordell Henry. That's not always a seamless transition. There is some inexperience up front after the transfer of 6-7 Odartey Blankson to UNLV. Last year's first-round NCAA flameout against Tulsa shows this team needs to be mentally tougher.

Outlook: If Wade is All-America material, he needs to put his team on his back and carry it. This is supposed to be the Eagles' breakout year, and Wade is the player who could push them a long way. Here's a sleeper Elite Eight team.

17. Western Kentucky

What's Up: Way up, as in 7-1 Chris Marcus. If he's healthy, he will dominate the Sun Belt and lead his team deep into March on the way to the podium on NBA draft night. If his nagging left foot injuries of last year resurface, the Hilltoppers will still win their league but be ordinary at best come NCAA time. David Boyden, a 6-8 senior, held the frontline together during Marcus' 16-game absence last year and will take the heat off him again this year.

What's Down: G Derek Robinson, the MVP of the Sun Belt tournament, graduated and 6-1 sophomore Patrick Sparks (10.1 ppg) will have to have an even bigger year in his place. Aside from Saturday's game at Arizona, the non-league schedule won't test the 'Toppers enough. Nor will their league.

Outlook: Another mystery program you could learn a whole lot about come March. Marcus could send Western on the kind of Elite Eight run we saw from David Robinson-led Navy in 1986. At worst, the Hilltoppers will make their third straight trip to the field of 64.

18. Maryland

What's Up: Seniors Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas return to anchor the backcourt for the defending national champions. Tahj Holden, a 6-10 senior, is the top returnee up front. They get to close their careers in the swank Comcast Center, the replacement for legendary Cole Field House. Coach Gary Williams has a freshman class led by 6-9 Travis Garrison and 6-7 Nik Caner-Medley that will know nothing but the comfort of the new building.

What's Down: Juan Dixon. Chris Wilcox. Lonny Baxter. Byron Mouton. They will forever be known as the quartet that finally got Williams and Maryland its elusive title. But they leave huge holes behind. The freshmen will have to fill in immediately.

Outlook: Yes, this might seem like a low ranking for a team coming off 110 wins the past four years and back-to-back Final Fours. But take 58 points and 25 rebounds off any team and see what you get. The Terps are Top 20 material and good for a win or two in the NCAAs. But they're rebuilding now and would need at least another year before getting back to the nation's elite.

19. Cincinnati

What's Up: Turner/Carroll product Leonard Stokes heads into his senior year ready to battle Marquette's Wade for C-USA player of the year. Stokes' 39-point game against UCLA in last year's NCAAs ranks as one of the best ever in the tournament, non-Christian Laettner division, by a Western New York native. Jason Maxiell, a 6-7 sophomore, is poised to join Stokes as a go-to player.

What's Down: Coach Bob Huggins will be dealing with daily scrutiny about his health after suffering a massive heart attack in September. Will his ticker be able to stand the season-long grind, his pedal-to-the-metal approach to coaching -- and dealing with officials? And how will Huggins deal with the graduation loss of scoring machine Steve Logan from his backcourt?

Outlook: The Bearcats are much like Maryland. They will take a step back this year but have some talented freshmen who can push them back into the top rung of national title contenders within a year or two.

20. Kentucky

What's Up: While not your usual star-power assemblage of talent, these Wildcats can still play. Guard Keith Bogans is a four-year starter. Kentucky will have plenty of options up front, including 6-11 Jules Camara, 6-9 Marquis Estill, 6-6 Chuck Hayes and 6-5 juco transfer Antwain Barbour. Freshman Brandon Stockton -- who had 3,200 points in high school -- could assume the point.

What's Down: Forward Tayshaun Prince graduated, leaving behind a massive void in the lineup and a lifetime of heartache for St. Bonaventure fans who will forever bemoan his game-tying three-pointer near the end of regulation during Bona's double-OT loss to the 'Cats in the 2000 NCAA Tournament. Prince is irreplaceable, at least this year.

Outlook: The Cats are a middle-of-the-road SEC team. That easily gets you into the NCAAs and perhaps a win or two in the tournament, but not much more.

21. Missouri

What's Up: It was not the departed Kareem Rush or Clarence Gilbert who led Mizzou in scoring during last year's run to the Elite Eight. It was Rickey Paulding, a 6-5 junior who poured in 18.9 ppg during the postseason after scoring just over 10 ppg during the regular season. This becomes Paulding's team, and it's brimming with confidence after its NCAA success that included wins over Ohio State, Miami (Fla.) and UCLA. The Tigers also have a pair of 6-9 bookends in juniors Arthur Johnson and Travon Bryant.

What's Down: In addition to Rush and Gilbert, point guard Wesley Stokes is gone, having taken his to-the-sky afro to San Diego State after coach Quin Snyder brought in juco point Ricky Clemons. There's not a lot of depth to withstand the nightly pounding of the Big 12 wars.

Outlook: It's back to the NCAAs. But it's also back to Mizzou's previous NCAA history, and that means quick exits.

22. UCLA

What's Up: Senior Jason Kopono is a dead-eye shooter who will need help in the wake of heavy graduation losses. The best candidate might be 6-2 Penn State transfer Jon Crispin, who helped the Nittany Lions to the 2001 Sweet 16. Also look for major contributions from 6-8 freshman Evan Burns and for Dijon Thompson, a spicy 6-7 sophomore, to make giant strides in his second year in the program.

What's Down: Matt Barnes, Dan Gadzuric and Billy Knight all graduated. Maybe that's a plus. This group is always talented but always rife with chemistry trouble. Can coach Steve Lavin ever get them to play together for an entire season?

Outlook: Arizona and Oregon are the class of the Pac-10 with the Bruins trying to sneak up on them. They're probably not going back to the Sweet 16.

23. Indiana

What's Up: The Hoosiers will be gunning from three-point range as Tom Coverdale, Kyle Hornsby and A.J. Moye all return from last year's national finalists. The frontcourt is huge, led by 6-11 George Leach, 6-9 Jeff Newton and 6-8 redshirt freshman Sean Kline. Bracey Wright, a 6-3 freshman, is one of the nation's top newcomers.

What's Down: Coach Mike Davis had a top-five team if Jared Jeffries had not gone to the NBA after his star-studded sopohomore year. All the double-teams Jeffries saw opened the floor for the perimeter shooters, who might not have that kind of space to operate without him.

Outlook: The magic of last year, including the stunning upset of No. 1 Duke in the Sweet 16, put the swagger back into a program badly lacking it in the final years under Bob Knight. Davis has shown he can coach and recruit. The Hoosiers have an outside shot to get back to the Sweet 16, particularly if Coverdale gets hot.

24. Tulsa

What's Up: Eighty percent of the scoring and 90 percent of the rebounding is back from an unheralded team that won 27 games and went to the second round of the NCAAs. This is one of the best teams you've never heard of. Seniors Dante Swanson and Antonio Reed control a slick backcourt, and 6-8 Kevin Johnson hit 58 percent from the field last season.

What's Down: All-WAC guard Greg Harrington graduated, and there is a huge leadership void. Coach John Phillips has to be worried about establishing continuity. He did a great job after becoming Tulsa's third coach in three years following Bill Self and Buzz Petersen. But that kind of carousel can make recruiting tough.

Outlook: See how the Golden Hurricane does when Kansas visits Dec. 11. That will be an early gauge for a team expected to dominate in the WAC.

25. Syracuse

What's Up: Freshman Carmelo Anthony is the real deal, a 6-8 scorer extraordinaire whose visit to Central New York will help SU fans forget about the departed Preston Shumpert but might merely be a one-year detour on the road to the NBA. Coach Jim Boeheim has other weapons as well in 6-6 senior Kueth Duany and 6-8 sophomore Hakim Warrick, who destroyed Bona in last year's NIT opener.

What's Down: Freshman point guard Billy Edelin is serving a 12-game NCAA suspension for unsanctioned outside competition and won't be back until mid-January. The Orange will only go about seven players deep. That's not the way to survive in the Big East.

Outlook: Boeheim will get another 20-win season, and Anthony should be able to carry the Orange back to the NCAAs. But probably for only one or two games. Canisius plays SU at the Carrier Dome on Dec. 30.

The Top 25 was compiled by a vote of News sportswriters Mike Harrington, Tom Borrelli, Rodney McKissic, Amy Moritz and Jerry Sullivan.

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