June 18, 2008

North Carolina easy choice as early favorite

Inside Look: Andrew Skwara breaks down the updated Top 25

So much for a wide-open race.

After three North Carolina players chose to pull out of the draft Monday, there was no debate among our panel over who should be No. 1 in Rivals.com's latest preseason poll. The Tar Heels, who now return every starter from a team that was one win away from the title game this past season, are the runaway favorite to win it all.

That's a stark contrast from our last preseason poll, where a case could have been made that a handful of teams deserved to be on top.

That poll was done on the assumption that all the players who had entered the NBA Draft were leaving for good. This one provides a more accurate picture, thanks to Monday's deadline to withdraw from the draft. We now know how each team's roster will look next season.

Outside of North Carolina, none of the other teams in the top five moved up in the rankings. UCLA jumped into the top 10 thanks to Josh Shipp's choice to stick around for his senior year and the signing of five-star center J'Mison Morgan, who was released from his letter of intent with LSU.

There were two new additions to the top 25, as Arizona and West Virginia replaced Ohio State and Wisconsin.

Rivals.com 2008-09 Preseason Top 25:
With or without the three players who put their names in the draft, the Tar Heels were a contender for the national title they were No. 5 in our previous poll. Add guards Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington and versatile wing Danny Green back to the mix, and the Heels clearly are the team to beat. Tyler Hansbrough, who could be the first back-to-back national player of the year since Virginia's Ralph Sampson in the early 1980s, and virtually his entire supporting cast return from a team that won 36 games and reached the Final Four. The Heels have also added a top-15 recruiting class.
The Huskies have an abundance of talent, experience and size. They return every key player from a 24-win team, including 7-3 center Hasheem Thabeet, who surprisingly never entered the draft. The big question is health. Point guard A.J. Price tore an ACL in the NCAA Tournament and coach Jim Calhoun will begin radiation treatments next week for his second battle with skin cancer. Calhoun's doctors believe he'll be in good shape for the start of the season.
The Celtics have the "Big Three" in the NBA. Pitt has its own version in the college ranks with guard Levance Fields, forward Sam Young and center DeJuan Blair. Each ranks among the best at his position. The Panthers could get a boost if guard Mike Cook receives a medical redshirt. Cook was averaging 10.4 points when he tore his ACL in the 11th game last season. But with or without Cook, the Panthers have enough firepower to reach their first Final Four since 1941.
Every coach will tell you players make their biggest improvement between their freshman and sophomore years. That's exactly why the "Baby Boilers" could leap into the elite ranks after a surprising second-place finish in the Big Ten last season. The two leading scorers (guard E'Twaun Moore and forward Robbie Hummel) on that young squad were freshmen. Sophomore-to-be big man JaJuan Johnson looks poised for a breakout season, as well.
Irish coach Mike Brey won't be able to play the underdog card with this team. Not with a roster that boasts the reigning Big East Player of the Year (Luke Harangody), the league's top outside shooter (Kyle McAlarney) and the league's top assist man (Tory Jackson) from this past season. If that trio remains healthy, the Irish should go to the Sweet 16 and beyond.
The Blue Devils haven't fixed their problems on the inside, but they still have a tremendous amount of firepower on the perimeter. Mike Krzyzewski will have two guards on his bench who would start for most ACC teams. Athletic wing Gerald Henderson has a future in the NBA. Senior point guard Greg Paulus enters what seems like his sixth year. There's also Jon Scheyer (11.7 ppg) and talented sophomore-to-be Nolan Smith. Skilled forward Kyle Singler is a dangerous 3-point shooter.
Big man Blake Griffin was considered a first-round lock, but chose to stay in school. A glance at his supporting cast next season may have played a role. The Sooners are adding five-star guard Willie Warren, who likely will be playing with Griffin in the NBA someday. Experienced guards Tony Crocker (11.3 ppg) and Austin Johnson (8.6 ppg) are back, and UCLA transfer Ryan Wright will help make up for the loss of center Longar Longar.
As usual, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino isn't hurting for talent. Terrence Williams and Earl Clark both of whom Pitino expected to turn pro by now stuck around for another season. Clark was the Cardinals' best player in the NCAA Tournament. The Cards also are adding two of the top big men in the 2008 class: power forwards Samardo Samuels and Terrence Jennings.
The Bruins lost three players (Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook) and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute) to the NBA Draft, but it could have been worse. Veteran wing Josh Shipp opted to stay in school, a move that gives the Bruins a significantly better chance of reaching a fourth consecutive Final Four. Shipp and senior point guard Darren Collison will be the leaders of a young team that welcomes the nation's No. 1 recruiting class.
One probable starter (point guard Ramar Smith) and a top reserve (center Duke Crews) were kicked off the team since our last poll, but the Vols dropped only one spot. That's largely because coach Bruce Pearl has put together the kind of talent and depth to absorb such losses. Versatile forward Tyler Smith, the best returning player in the SEC, chose not to test the draft waters. Five-star guard Scotty Hopson should make a big impact immediately.
Hoyas coach John Thompson III's system isn't built around one or two players, so losing point guard Jonathan Wallace and 7-2 center Roy Hibbert isn't as damaging as it would be at most programs. Remember, the Hoyas bounced back fine from the loss of lottery pick Jeff Green a year ago. Veterans Jessie Sapp (11.1 ppg) and DaJuan Summers (9.7 ppg) return, and they are joined by a solid recruiting class that boasts prize recruit Greg Monroe.
The Spartans lose a key player, but there still are high expectations and with good reason. Guard Drew Neitzel (13.9 ppg) is the only major loss, and Tom Izzo once again has stockpiled a large amount of talent. Athletic wing Raymar Morgan should contend for Big Ten player of the year honors. Point guard Kalin Lucas has great physical tools. Five-star recruit Delvon Roe will be counted on to provide some much-needed help on the inside.
No single player who chose to pull out of the draft may have meant more to his team than point guard Jeremy Pargo. Without Pargo, Gonzaga probably is staring at another first- or second-round exit in the NCAA Tournament. With him, they are a legitimate Final Four threat. The Zags return three other double-digit scorers and a have a roster loaded with former top-100 recruits, but no one could replace Pargo's playmaking ability.
The Longhorns jumped up seven spots thanks to A.J. Abrams's decision to stay in school. Abrams' backcourt mate, D.J. Augustin, made it clear he was leaving for good weeks ago, but Texas returns every other key player from an Elite Eight run. That includes a deep frontcourt led by forward Damion James, who averaged 13.0 points and 11.6 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament.
As expected, Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier pulled out of the draft. That gives John Calipari two starters from the national runner-up squad to build around. Two other contributors, guard Willie Kemp and center Shawn Taggart, also return. Add a top-five recruiting class that is highlighted by guard Tyreke Evans - another possible one-and-done - and the Sweet 16 looks like a reachable goal.
There is the small matter of replacing all five starters from the national championship team. The key returnees are point guard Sherron Collins (9.3 ppg, 3.1 apg) and center Cole Aldrich (2.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg), who had a coming-out party in the Final Four against North Carolina and will have to continue to improve. But the real key for coach Bill Self is a recruiting class ranked No. 2 nationally that features two top junior college prospects.
The Wildcats made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 last season. A repeat of the feat would not be a shock. They return their top seven scorers, including star guard Scottie Reynolds (15.9 ppg). Coach Jay Wright wouldn't mind at all if he received bigger contributions from the Coreys, former five-star guard prospects Corey Fisher (9.1 ppg) and Corey Stokes (6.4 ppg). They're certainly capable.
Dino Gaudio is stockpiling young talent in Winston-Salem. Everyone returns from a team that went 17-13. Forward James Johnson (14.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and guard Jeff Teague (13.9 ppg) were on the ACC All-Freshman team. The Demon Deacons add to that already-solid nucleus a recruiting class ranked No. 3 nationally. It's a three-man class with enough stars to fill a constellation.
Can the Gators return to form after missing the NCAA Tournament? Big man Marreese Speights won't return, so there will be minutes up front to be had by some highly ranked incoming freshmen. SEC Co-Freshman of the Year Nick Calathes will only get better. The guys who must step up were with Calathes in 2007's top-ranked recruiting class. Billy Donovan must get more from Jai Lucas and Chandler Parsons.
There's no question about the talent. The veteran guard trio of Dominic James (12.9 ppg, 4.4 apg), Jerel McNeal (14.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.5 apg) and Wesley Matthews (11.3 ppg) returns intact. The Golden Eagles also welcome back a fourth double-digit scorer, forward Lazar Hayward (12.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg). The intrigue surrounds the coaching change, where Tom Crean has departed and assistant Buzz Williams takes over.
21. USC
The Trojans got only a year out of O.J. Mayo and Davon Jefferson, but it was a good one. The same may hold true for Demar DeRozan, the top-ranked shooting guard prospect in the nation. Coach Tim Floyd has some other key parts returning; he can turn to forward Taj Gibson (10.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg) and guards Dwight Lewis (10.8 ppg) and Daniel Hackett (8.6 ppg, 3.2 apg).
Gone is point guard Jason Richards, who led the nation in assists last season. Fortunately for coach Bob McKillop and the Wildcats, the guy on the other end of so many of those dimes returns. Guard Stephen Curry (25.9 ppg) is expected to take over duties at the point while still carrying much of the scoring load. Andrew Lovedale (6.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg), who emerged in the NCAA Tournament run, must step up in the frontcourt.
23. UNLV
The Rebels are about to embark on an exhibition trip to Australia. That will give the three returning senior starters more time to mesh with redshirt freshman center Beas Hamga, a 7-foot former five-star prospect, and Memphis transfer Tre'Von Willis. Coach Lon Kruger took an unheralded Florida team Down Under in the summer of 1993. The team bonded and produced the school's first-ever Final Four appearance.
Yes, Joe Alexander stayed in the draft, but the Mountaineers will continue to climb the mountain in the Big East. Coach Bob Huggins can build around talented off-guard Alex Ruoff (13.8 ppg) and forward Da'Sean Butler (12.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg). He also is bringing in the nation's 18th-ranked recruiting class, headlined by five-star small forward Devin Ebanks and four-star power forward Kevin Jones.
Chase Budinger's surprise return to campus makes the Wildcats a threat to crack the top 25. Budinger comes off a sophomore season in which he averaged 17.1 points and 5.4 rebounds. Other returning starters include improved big man Jordan Hill (13.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and point guard Nic Wise (9.2 ppg, 4.4 apg). Arizona also brings in point guard Brandon Jennings, the No. 4 overall prospect nationally.
OTHERS CONSIDERED (LISTED ALPHABETICALLY): Arizona State, Baylor, Kentucky, Miami, Ohio State, San Diego, Wisconsin, Xavier.

Inside Look: Andrew Skwara breaks down the updated Top 25

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.


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