Look, the Tigers still haven't lost anyone of significance from an Elite Eight team. They still added Derrick Rose to the mix, which gives them one of the top talents coming in this season. Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey are a one-two punch that can allow John Calipari's squad to press, run and score in bunches. Memphis just locked up Georgetown for a home game and already had Arizona, Gonzaga and Tennessee at home, and USC and possibly Kentucky in neutral games in New York. This squad is loaded. The schedule is popping with RPI points. And the Tigers have the one coach who isn't afraid to say anything.
2. North Carolina 2006-07 Record: 31-7, 11-5
Brandan Wright didn't hesitate to say that Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson will be better than he was this past season. If that's the case, look out for the Tar Heels. Sure, this squad lost Wright, Reyshawn Terry and a pesky 3-point shooter in Wes Miller, but the rest of the crew is loaded up with Tyler Hansbrough, the likely ACC Player of the Year, and a backcourt in Wayne Ellington and Tywon Lawson that is pumped to produce. The Tar Heels got a sniff of the Elite Eight but are determined to get to the Final Four.
3. Kansas 2006-07 Record: 33-5, 14-2
Let's assume that Brandon Rush makes a normal comeback from an ACL injury. If that's the case, the Jayhawks shouldn't have an issue winning the Big 12 and being a favorite to make it to San Antonio. Bill Self still hasn't reached a Final Four, but he may have his best shot with Rush, Darrell Arthur and a host of guards led by Sherron Collins and Russell Robinson. There is depth at every position and plenty of purpose with this group after losing to UCLA in the Elite Eight.
The Bruins did lose Arron Afflalo, but there is too much returning to move the Bruins out of the top five. And you cannot ignore the impact of Kevin Love on this squad. He could be the top low-post scoring threat in the West. If Love can keep up with Darren Collison's jet speed at the point, the rest of the role players should help the Bruins once again reign out West and go for their third straight Final Four appearance.
5. Georgetown 2006-07 Record: 30-7, 13-3
Losing Jeff Green knocks the Hoyas out of the top four. But you may be surprised to see the Hoyas still in my top five. That's because few teams will have a low-post threat like Roy Hibbert. He continues to improve and could play himself into a top-four pick in 2008. And the importance of Jonathan Wallace on last season's team was way underplayed. The guards are all back and the expected rise in production out of the forwards like DaJuan Summers and Vernon Macklin makes the Hoyas a legit Final Four contender again.
6. Louisville 2006-07 Record: 24-10, 12-4
Let's assume that Derrick Caracter will be just fine after knee surgery this spring. If he is, the Cardinals will be one of the toughest frontcourts to match up with in the country. Caracter, Earl Clark, David Padgett and Juan Palacios give Rick Pitino plenty of options. Edgar Sosa makes the Cards move quickly and the overall defensive intensity that was seen during the NCAA Tournament should make the Cards the chic pick to get to San Antonio. Don't be surprised to see Louisville get tabbed ahead of Georgetown in the Big East by some.
7. Washington State 2006-07 Record: 26-8, 13-5
I know it looks odd to see Washington State in the top 10 in basketball. It just does. But deal. The Cougars are going to be that good this season with the core of this team intact, led by Derrick Low and my favorite, Robbie Cowgill, who better not cut the big hair. The gangly Cowgill is a throwback player who fits Tony Bennett's style perfectly. This squad understands how to play the game and is a joy to watch. Did I just say that about a Washington State team? There's no question times have changed in Pullman.
Drew Neitzel. Drew Neitzel. Drew Neitzel. How many times can I type his name to show how important he is to this squad? Seriously, Tom Izzo has the pieces around Neitzel to ensure that the Spartans are a Final Four contender yet again. The Spartans don't have as much talent as Indiana, but something tells me that they will defend better and win a few more tight games.
9. Indiana 2006-07 Record: 21-11, 10-6
The Hoosiers are back. Indiana's relevance is no longer a question. D.J. White's decision to stay and Eric Gordon's decision to come make the Hoosiers one of the toughest inside-out teams next season. The Indiana-Michigan State games should be must-see TV next season. Kelvin Sampson has his best shot to get to a Final Four since taking Oklahoma in 2002.
10. Tennessee 2006-07 Record: 24-11, 10-6
The Vols are the class of the SEC this season. That sentence alone seems odd. But it's true. The Vols return too much, notably Chris Lofton, who chose to come back, for anyone else to be the favorite in the SEC. Bruce Pearl has quite simply done wonders for the Vols nation in his brief tenure. The interesting dynamic now is how the Vols will handle the pressure of being the favorite, something they haven't had to deal with too often.
11. Duke 2006-07 Record: 20-11, 8-8
Losing Josh McRoberts just means the Blue Devils will rely on Brian Zoubek more in the post. But McRoberts' overall loss is made up by the arrival of Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and Taylor King, three heralded recruits who -- combined with the return of Jon Scheyer, DeMarcus Nelson, Greg Paulus and Gerald Henderson -- make the Blue Devils the second-most talented team in the ACC outside of Carolina (and we didn't even get to Lance Thomas and David McClure).
12. Oregon 2006-07 Record: 29-8, 11-7
Yes, I know Aaron Brooks is gone. But I fell for the Ducks during the Pac-10 tournament with Tajuan Porter, Bryce Taylor, Malik Hairston and Maarty Leunen making for one of the more entertaining teams to watch last season. The Ducks will score in bunches and as long as they can score in the low post and defend in the same area, expect this squad to be a factor in the Pac-10 race throughout the season.
13. Marquette 2006-07 Record: 24-10, 10-6
The Eagles got great news when Dominic James came to his senses and decided to return to school. That means the Eagles essentially have the same team as last season. That team was good enough to be a season-long pest, a Big East threat and an NCAA Tournament team. The same should occur next season, with maybe the chance to do even more in March.
14. Pitt 2006-07 Record: 29-8, 12-4
The Panthers lose big men Aaron Gray and Levon Kendall but add Dejuan Blair, who might be another under-the-radar superstud coming to Pitt. The Panthers return the core of their perimeter as well as their wings and Jamie Dixon quite simply doesn't lose too often. This team will move quicker, play defense perhaps a bit tighter and will not lose too many, if any, home games. Expect the Panthers to be in the thick of the Big East race.
15. Gonzaga 2006-07 Record: 23-11, 11-3
Josh Heytvelt will be ready to go next season. The suspension (for a felony drug possession charge, to which he later pleaded not guilty) will be lifted. So if you put Heytvelt back on this squad with a loaded recruiting class and the return of Jeremy Pargo, Matt Bouldin and Micah Downs, you have yet another top-15 Zags team. This squad will win some high-profile, nonconference games before disappearing a bit in the WCC. The Zags should be a factor for a decent seed yet again in March. Sorry, this program is not going away.
16. Kentucky 2006-07 Record: 22-12, 9-7
Billy Gillispie's timing was perfect. He gets the Kentucky job right when there is a major, power-playing talent nearby in Patrick Patterson. Patterson might have gone to Kentucky even if Tubby Smith had stayed, but he's perfect for Gillispie. He'll work his tail off rebounding and running the floor for Billy Clyde. That's great, considering that the Wildcats want to run with a guard-heavy lineup led by Derrick Jasper, Jodie Meeks, Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford. The addition of Patterson makes this team a likely enjoyable watch.
Acie Law is gone. So too is the ultimate glue guy in Antanas Kavaliauskas and the guy who coached them (now with the No. 16 team in this poll). But fear not Aggies fans, because Mark Turgeon is no slouch and the addition of DeAndre Jordan, the return of Joseph Jones and a solid backcourt led by 3-point threat Josh Carter mean the Aggies are the second-best team in the Big 12 and a legit pick to make the Sweet 16 again.
18. Texas 2006-07 Record: 25-10, 12-4
Yes, I understand Kevin Durant isn't going back to Texas. Yes, I understand that he was the go-to player for the Longhorns. But I also know that D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams can score as well as any guard tandem in the country. If the Longhorns can get some balance up front, this squad will be just fine in the Big 12 and beyond.
OK, I'll admit I messed up big-time thinking that the Cardinal could beat Louisville in the NCAA first round and saying it on television and radio. That was wrong, way wrong. Still, the Cardinal return nearly the entire team intact, including the Lopez twins, two of the toughest post players in the West. If the Cardinal can shirk off the embarrassment of losing badly to the Cardinals, this squad should be a legit top-20 team throughout the season.
20. Arizona 2006-07 Record: 20-11, 11-7
Putting Arizona in the top 20 might seem like a stretch to some after the way the Cats finished the season and with the departures of Mustafa Shakur, Ivan Radenovic and Marcus Williams. But the Wildcats still have Chase Budinger, Jawann McClellan and Jordan Hill, and added guard Jerryd Bayless and assistant coach Kevin O'Neill, the latter for some nastiness on defense. That's enough with Lute Olson still trolling the sidelines to secure a place in my top 20.
I can already hear some of the trusted USC faithful I converse with wondering how I could drop the Trojans so low. As much as the top recruiting class -- led by O.J. Mayo -- makes the Trojans a viable top-15 team, the fact that they are losing two first-round draft picks in Nick Young and Gabe Pruitt cannot be overlooked. Taj Gibson is a dynamite talent and Daniel Hackett is a serviceable starter, but there will be some early-season growing pains before this group blossoms in March.
22. Xavier 2006-07 Record: 25-9, 13-3
The last time I saw this squad, the Musketeers were beating Ohio State and should have won the game. Not much has changed from that team, and Sean Miller continues to produce the team to beat in the Atlantic 10 until someone else proves otherwise. Xavier will be a formidable foe no matter the locale. Miller and the Musketeers win.
23. Davidson 2006-07 Record: 29-5, 17-1
Don't really care if you think this pick is crazy. Davidson has one of the hidden gems in Stephen Curry. Bob McKillop is one of the top coaches who gets zero pub. This team will win 28 to 29 games and be a tough out in the NCAAs. So deal with Davidson in the Top 25.
24. Wisconsin 2006-07 Record: 30-6, 13-3
Bo Ryan is a lot like new Michigan coach John Beilein. They're simply not going to finish low. Ryan lost Alando Tucker and Kammron Taylor, but the Badgers were hardly a two-man squad. The Badgers will win games because of their system. They will have more balance, defend and win plenty of home games.
25. Florida 2006-07 Record: 35-5, 13-3
Look, I know you could put a lot of other teams here, teams like Providence, NC State, Clemson, UAB, Notre Dame, Kansas State, Washington, Syracuse, Connecticut, Ohio State or even the next-best SEC team. But I thought about this one for a while and it was clear to me that the Gators, now that Billy Donovan is back, won't slip out of the top 25 and out of contention for an NCAA berth. He's proved to be too good a coach, and the talent of Marreese Speights and Nick Calathes is too high for this squad to drop too low. The Gators will win their home games, steal some on the road and be in the Dance. You watch.