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CHALK UP ANOTHER TITLE FOR JAYHAWKS
KANSAS HAS THREE STARTERS LOOKING FOR ANOTHER TRIP TO THE FINAL FOUR

1. Kansas

What's Up: There are three starters with Final Four experience, including 6-foot-9 All-American Wayne Simien, point guard Aaron Miles and shooting guard Keith Langford. There's a gunner in sophomore J.R. Giddens. Great freshmen in 6-7 Alex Galindo and 6-10 C.J. Giles. A super but underrated coach in Bill Self. And there's incredible tradition. The Jayhawks are an overtime loss to Georgia Tech in last year's regional final from having played in four straight Final Fours. They can get revenge against the Yellow Jackets on New Year's Day.

What's Down: Not much. Simien has had a balky shoulder and missed the 2003 Final Four, when Roy Williams' last Kansas team probably would have beaten Syracuse if he had been healthy.

Outlook: Rock Chalk Jayhawk. You'll hear the cry from KU fans over and over again as the Jayhakws cut down the nets come April in St. Louis.
2. Wake Forest

What's Up: In All-American point guard Chris Paul and gunner Justin Gray, the Demon Deacons have a super backcourt. Overall, Wake returns five double-figure scorers and hopes 6-9 senior Vytas Danelius returns to his sophomore year form (12.3 ppg) after an injury-plagued junior season.

What's Down: Elite-level schools are usually much tighter on defense (opponents averaged 76 points and an ACC-worst 45 percent from the field last year). There will be tremendous pressure on coach Skip Prosser to get to the Final Four, something the school hasn't done since 1962.

Outlook: Wake is the best out of a loaded ACC lineup, which is a good bet to send two teams to St. Louis. If the defense tightens, the Demon Deacons will be one of them.
3. Illinois

What's Up: The Illini won the Big Ten last year and have all five starters back. Guards Deron Williams and Dee Brown might be the conference's top two players. Inside power comes from 7-2 Nick Smith and 6-10 James Augustine. Winning the conference outright in his first year after coming from Southern Illinois was a huge coup for coach Bruce Weber, a rising star.

What's Down: Brown played with a stress fracture in his leg late last season and had another bone scan two weeks ago after complaining of pain (the scan was negative). Brian Randle, an improving 6-8 sophomore, might miss the season after breaking a hand by punching a wall during practice last week.

Outlook: Most of the preseason hype this year has gone to Kansas or teams in the ACC and Big East. But the Illini can't be forgotten. By the first week in April, they could be on the game's main stage.
4. Connecticut

What's Up: Even with all their graduation losses, the defending champs still have three potential NBA first-rounders in 6-10 sophomores Charlie Villanueva and Josh Boone and standout 6-9 freshman Rudy Gay. And they add 6-8 transfer Ed Nelson, the ACC Rookie of the Year two years ago at Georgia Tech.

What's Down: Can any team survive the losses of talent like Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon and Taliek Brown? Freshman point guard A.J. Price nearly died from a brain hemorrhage last month and may not play this season, likely leaving the position to untested sophomore Marcus Williams.

Outlook: A repeat is possible if the frontcourt studs dominate like they're capable of. The Huskies open Saturday against the University at Buffalo, then head to England for a 10-day exhibition trip to ease worry-wart coach Jim Calhoun's fears. No need to worry. They'll be just fine.
5. Oklahoma State

What's Up: The Cowboys have plenty of talent back to lasso a return trip to the Final Four. Among the returnees are a pair of All-America candidates in guard John Lucas and swingman Joey Graham, one of the game's best lock-down defenders. Coach Eddie Sutton is looking for big things from 6-11, 24-year-old juco transfer Aaron Pettway.

What's Down: Freshman JamesOn Curry is the all-time scoring leader in North Carolina and was supposed to be playing in Chapel Hill, but his recruitment there ended when he was arrested on felony drug charges. Road razzing of Curry and the loss of leading scorer Tony Allen could be huge obstacles.

Outlook: Sutton is getting ready to turn the program over to his son, Sean, a longtime assistant. That might happen sooner rather than later if the Cowboys get to St. Louis.
6. Georgia Tech

What's Up: Five key players are back from the upstart squad that got to the national championship game. Guards B.J. Elder and Jarrett Jack are among the ACC's best and 7-1 Australian Luke Schenscher has emerged as an interesting project for NBA scouts.

What's Down: Why not a higher ranking with essentially everyone back? The one loss was gunner Marvin Lewis, the only reliable three-point shooter. Tech still doesn't rebound well. And two teams above the Jackets, Kansas and Oklahoma State, will be out for March revenge.

Outlook: Coach Paul Hewitt should have this team back to the Elite Eight. Tech's regional win last year came in St. Louis. It would be no shock to see Hewitt's troops back there again trying for another shot at the title.
7. Kentucky

What's Up: Senior forward Chuck Hayes is joined by coach Tubby Smith's best recruiting class ever (6-11 Randolph Morris, 6-4 Joe Crawford and 6-1 Rajon Rondo were all McDonald's All-Americans). Guard Patrick Sparks, a Western Kentucky transfer, should have immediate impact.

What's Down: The freshmen are talented but lack the experience of the departed Gerald Fitch, Erik Daniels and Cliff Hawkins. Still, that group of seniors was a second-round loser to UAB in the NCAAs. This group is better now. Crawford has to give Kentucky the outside threat it lacked last year.

Outlook: Kentucky teams don't take early NCAA exits lightly. Neither do Kentucky fans. The Wildcats won't be two and done this time. By 2005-06, they could be pushing No. 1.
8. Syracuse

What's Up: Hakim Warrick, Gerry McNamara, Josh Pace and Craig Forth all played major roles on the 2003 champions and Warrick should vie for national player of the year honors. There is plenty of depth and a marquee freshman in 6-2 Josh Wright. And that title finally makes everyone a believer in coach Jim Boeheim, right?

What's Down: To make a title run, SU needs guard Billy Edelin on the court. He's expected to get his academic house in order and return sometime in December. He was a huge piece of the title puzzle as a frosh and fills the stat sheet. Last year's freshmen didn't produce much and need to help the depth as sophomores.

Outlook: The Orange (no longer Orangemen) has enough pieces to make another title run, especially if Edelin is available.
9. North Carolina

What's Up: Few teams have talent like Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Sean May. Throw in 6-9 freshman Marvin Williams, who could have gone directly to the NBA, and this is the best team in Chapel Hill since the surprising run to the 2000 Final Four. This group will score in bunches.

What's Down: McCants has an ego that can't fit on Tobacco Road: "Playing basketball in the ACC is like being in prison." Please, Rashad. Whether McCants and coach Roy Williams can coexist again is a major question. And how much longer can Williams tolerate the lack of defense these guys play?

Outlook: On talent and coaching alone, the Tar Heels can go far. But will Williams be able to spend the season coaching or trying to get inside his malcontents' heads?
10. Duke

What's Up: Coach K said no. Just imagine Duke without Mike Krzyzewski. It almost happened last summer when he flirted with taking the L.A. Lakers' job. But he stayed and players like guards J.J. Redick and Daniel Ewing and frontcourt stalwarts like Sheldon Williams and Shavlik Randolph figure to carry him deep into March again.

What's Down: Luol Deng left early for the NBA and point guard recruit Shaun Livingston never came, going right to the pros from high school. Chris Duhon was a four-year starter who will be tough to replace at point, with freshman DeMarcus Nelson likely to get the call.

Outlook: It's still Duke. The Devils will still win 25 games. But the point guard situation is sticky and probably enough of a problem to keep them away from their appointed rounds at the Final Four.
11. Arizona

What's Up: There's a ton of depth, led by athletic swingman Hassan Adams and 6-11 Channing Frye. Guards Salim Stoudamire and Mustafa Shakur are solid. Those who still say Lute Olson can't coach howled last year when the 'Cats were first-round NCAA losers to Seton Hall. Olson figures to keep them quiet this year.

What's Down: Forward Andre Iguodola left early for the NBA and that will be a blow to Arizona's defense and athleticism. Will 6-9 Isaiah Fox keep his weight down or blubber a 290-pound frame down the court?

Outlook: The Pac 10 won't be as challenging as in the past and that might leave the Cats ill-prepared come March. But they'll still be tough, especially at home.
12. Mississippi State

What's Up: SEC Player of the Year Lawrence Roberts was a surprise returnee after not getting guarantees he'd be a first-round draft pick. By next June, he'll probably be a top-five choice after playing for a team that might win back-to-back conference titles for the first time in school history. Seven-footer Marcus Campbell and swingmen Winsome Frazier and Shane Power are also big weapons.

What's Down: All-SEC point guard Timmy Bowers graduated and 5-11 sophomore Gary Ervin has to be able to run the show effectively. The depth is a question mark, especially if Roberts or Campbell gets in foul trouble.

Outlook: The Bulldogs have gone to the NCAAs three straight years but never advanced to the Sweet 16. That will change this year.
13. Louisville

What's Up: In 6-7 junior Francisco Garcia, coach Rick Pitino has an All-America candidate who can do everything. A pair of 6-8 freshmen, Juan Diego Palacios and Brian Johnson, should help ease the Cards' rebounding woes. So should the return of 6-7 senior Ellis Myles, out last year with a knee injury.

What's Down: Point guard Taquan Dean could not stay healthy last year due to abdominal muscle problems and that caused Garcia to shift away from shooting guard. Sophomore Brandon Jenkins is the only other option, since Pitino could not prevent recruit Sebastian Telfair from going to the NBA.

Outlook: In their final year before heading to the Big East, the Cards are dangerous. They'll win Conference USA and then cause trouble in March.
14. Michigan State

What's Up: All five starters are back, led by 6-11 Paul Davis, 6-4 Kelvin Torbert and 6-3 Chris Hill. Freshman point guard Drew Neitzel, Mr. Basketball in Michigan, has star potential. Coach Tom Izzo backed off on his suicidal scheduling, but still has quality games against Duke, Stanford, UCLA and perhaps Maryland in a December tournament.

What's Down: Aside from Davis, the frontcourt depth is largely unproven. The Spartans no longer have the aura as the Big Ten's beast that they created during the days of Mateen Cleaves. This year might be the best chance to get it back.

Outlook: The Spartans were first-round NCAA losers last year, in part because Izzo's schedule wore them down. That won't happen this year and all the experience gives them a good chance for a deep run.
15. Texas

What's Up: Swingman P.J. Tucker, a 6-5 sophomore, is the top returnee and he's joined by coach Rick Barnes' mega recruiting class. NBA scouts are already drooling over 6-10 freshman LaMarcus Aldridge. He's likely to be joined in the starting lineup by two other frosh, 6-7 Mike Williams and 6-2 point guard Daniel Gibson.

What's Down: It's a huge problem to lose four seniors like Royal Ivey, Brandon Mouton, James Thomas and Brian Boddicker. They had the Longhorns in the Final Four in 2003 and in the Sweet 16 last year. It's tough to say if the newcomers can have the kind of immediate impact Barnes needs, especially on defense.

Outlook: This is one team that might struggle in December but be dynamite come March. Thanks to Barnes, this is no longer just a football school.
16. North Carolina State

What's Up: Swingman Julius Hodge spurned the NBA and the 6-6 senior might be the first repeat player of the year in the ACC since Tim Duncan. There's a huge front line featuring four 6-10 players and a solid 6-7 wing in Ilian Evtimov. A key transfer is 6-2 guard Tony Bethel (Georgetown).

What's Down: All the attention on Hodge will require points from other sources. The inside players, especially 6-10 freshman Cedric Simmons, have to help.

Outlook: The Wolfpack melted down in the final minutes of its NCAA Tournament loss to Vanderbilt and would have been a much tougher Sweet 16 foe for UConn. If Hodge can carry them, they might get the chance to go that far this time.
17. Maryland

What's Up: Quick, who won the ACC Tournament last year? Not Georgia Tech. Not Duke. It was the Terps. And they've got almost everyone back, including junior guard and tournament MVP John Gilchrist. Like Arizona's Olsen, that 2001 NCAA title has changed a lot of people's perception of coach Gary Williams. He's gotten it done before and now he can do it again.

What's Down: The rebounding can be spotty and their 63 percent free-throw shooting last year was the worst in the ACC. There can be no nights off from 6-9 Ekene Ibekwe and 6-8 Nik Caner-Medley or the frontcourt will get crushed in conference play.

Outlook: A dangerous team, just like last year. Over the long haul, several ACC teams are better. Over one weekend, the Terps can play with anyone.
18. Alabama

What's Up: The Tide was in the Elite Eight last season, beating Syracuse along the way, and the top three scorers are back in 6-6 Kennedy Winston, 6-3 Earnest Shelton and 6-7 Chuck Davis. 'Bama was the SEC's top three-point shooting team and also has the talent to drive to the basket.

What's Down: The loss of point guard Antoine Pettway will be too much for a repeat run deep into the NCAAs even though the other four starters are back. Winston had summer knee surgery and his condition bears watching.

Outlook: Some super games coming this year in the SEC between 'Bama, Kentucky and Mississippi State. They will determine if the Tide can push its way into the top 10 and perhaps a high NCAA seed.
19. Pittsburgh

What's Up: Point guard Carl Krauser and 6-10 sophomore Chris Taft form a great inside-outside combo. Senior Chevron Troutman is a bruising 6-7 defender. The outside shooting should be greatly improved with the addition of freshmen guards Ronald Ramon and Keith Benjamin.

What's Down: Swingman Jaron Brown and guard Julius Page, the Turner/Carroll grad, are huge graduation losses. Page had a horrible shooting slump as a senior but was one of the nation's toughest man-to-man defenders, a tough trait to replace.

Outlook: Jamie Dixon won 31 games last year in his first season as a head coach. He won't win that many this year, but this is a program that's now established as an annual threat in the Big East.
20. Notre Dame

What's Up: Guard Chris Thomas is back for his senior year before heading to the first round of the NBA Draft. He joins junior Chris Quinn to form one of the best backcourts in the Big East. Power forward Torin Francis and Arizona transfer Dennis Latimore give the Irish star quality up front.

What's Down: Francis can be spotty and Latimore must regain his rhythm after sitting out his transfer year. The rebounding can be an issue if Francis isn't motivated enough and 6-9 Jordan Cornette doesn't improve.

Outlook: After a disappointing trip to the NIT, the Irish will be back in the NCAAs this year. Thomas will have to be the main man carrying this club if it wants to repeat its 2003 Sweet 16 trip.
21. Wisconsin

What's Up: The Badgers are huge up front and are ready to reap the benefits of 6-11 freshman Brian Butch, a McDonald's All-American who red-shirted last year to work in the weight room. Others to watch include 6-10 sophomore Jason Chappell and 6-8 senior Mike Wilkinson.

What's Down: Guard Devin Harris, the Big Ten player of the year, bolted for the NBA after his junior year, preventing the Badgers from being a preseason top-five pick. That leaves Wilkinson as the only double-figure scorer back.

Outlook: Coach Bo Ryan has done a super job in his first three seasons, going 68-28 overall and 24-0 in Big Ten home games. Think Texas here. Some early struggles will be matched by some February and March successes.
22. Washington

What's Up: Once 5-8 last season, the Huskies finished 19-12 and got to the NCAAs for the first time since 1998. They'll be back this year thanks to five returning starters and the continued strong work of underrated coach Lorenzo Romar. The backcourt of Nate Robinson, Will Conroy, and Brandon Roy is one of the best in the West.

What's Down: Interior defense and rebounding are going to be a problem because there are no starters over 6-8. Depth will be an issue as well. This team isn't loaded like a typical Pac 10 contender.

Outlook: The Huskies will be a target for opponents. They won't sneak up on anyone. We'll learn a lot about them early: Before the New Year, they meet Gonzaga, North Carolina State and play in the Great Alaska Shootout.
23. Florida

What's Up: There's a super backcourt in juniors Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson and a quality forward in 6-9 David Lee. Coach Billy Donovan has another great recruiting class led by 6-11 Joakim Noah, the son of former tennis star Yannick Noah.

What's Down: This is one of the nation's head-case teams. Splintered by Christian Drejer's shocking February departure for pro ball in Europe, the Gators were clocked by Manhattan in the NCAA's first round. Will they play as a unit or continue to parade around the court as individuals?

Outlook: Too much talent to not win 20 games. But too many question marks to challenge the SEC's big three or go deep into the NCAAs.
24. Gonzaga

What's Up: Six straight NCAA appearances and the return of 6-10 senior Ronny Turiaf almost certainly assures No. 7. So does the opening of a new 6,000-seat on-campus arena, where the Zags will be almost unbeatable. A pair of 6-8 players, sophomore Adam Morrison and juco transfer J.P. Batista, are perfect complements for Turiaf.

What's Down: The guard play won't be as good as it's been. First there was Dan Dickau. Now the Zags have graduated Blake Stepp and Tony Skinner. Montreal native Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes, a 6-1 freshman followed closely through high school by St. Bonaventure when Jan van Breda Kolff was the coach, could help fill the void.

Outlook: A team nobody wants to see come March. This year, the Zags have the motivation to wipe out the memory of last year's second-round disappointment against Nevada.
25. Stanford

What's Up: Junior guard Chris Hernandez and senior swingman Nick Robinson will carry most of the scoring load with 6-10 Rob Little and 6-10 Matt Haryasz manning the front line. That's a good nucleus to work from for new coach Trent Johnson, the former Stanford assistant who took Nevada to the Sweet 16.

What's Down: The departures of longtime coach Mike Montgomery and 6-8 Josh Childress have to hurt. Depth up front is a major question and Hernandez has been injury prone during his first two years.

Outlook: The Maples Pavilion court got a major facelift during the offseason, eliminating the floor's trademark bounce. But it will still be a pit for visitors and give the Cardinal enough breathing room to easily make the NCAAs.
The Top 25 was compiled by a vote of News Sports Reporters Mike Harrington, Rodney McKissic, Allen Wilson and Tom Borrelli
email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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