Officially, the college hoops season began Monday. True, it was an underwhelming two games – including a Duke rout, stunner – but the season is finally here.
With that, here's our final preview: bold predictions for 2008-09.
The breakout team: Arizona State.
The Sun Devils are ranked 15th in both the AP and coaches' preseason polls, but don't be surprised to see them creep into the top 10. They'll also give UCLA a run for the Pac-10 title.
More importantly, expect the Sun Devils' five-year NCAA tournament drought to end. That's a sure-thing. Herb Sendek's built ASU into a nasty team to play because of its deliberate, efficient offense and underrated defense.
They feature the Pac-10's best player in James Harden and are carrying a chip on their shoulder from missing last season's Big Dance despite a 9-9 conference record (better than in-state rival Arizona). ASU is headed for a 25-win season and will be flirting with the Elite Eight.
Team landing with a thud: Kansas State.
The Wildcats' 21-win season was a direct result of two players: Michael Beasley and Bill Walker. They accounted for more than half of K-State's points and their shot attempts.
That's tough for any team to replace.
K-State may hover around .500, but it won't have any of the flair or results from last season. And without some hype or some postseason hope, there isn't much to cheer for in Manhattan this winter.
One Final Four drought will end.
There are six teams ranked in the AP top 25 that are poised for big seasons – and one could have a big finish. These six are desperate for a Final Four appearance. One will break through.
Pittsburgh hasn't been since '41. The Panthers have the talent in Sam Young and DeJuan Blair to get it done after 19 trips without.
Purdue has been twice, but not since 1980. That's 19 NCAA appearances without a spot in the final weekend. The Boilermakers will be a trendy darkhorse pick.
Tennessee's never been to the Final Four in 16 appearances. Bruce Pearl's talented teams will end that streak at some point.
Wake Forest has been once (in '62), but has gone 16 tournaments without. Few teams are as balanced as this year's Demon Deacons.
Notre Dame's also been to the Final Four once (in '78), but hasn't been back in 14 appearances. Luke Harangody inside and Kyle McAlarney outside could change that.
Gonzaga is another darkhorse pick. Then again the Zags, who've never been to a Final Four in 11 trips to the Big Dance, always seem like Final Four material.
Scoring leaders for some of the bigger conferences:
Atlantic 10: Dionte Christmas, Temple.
ACC: Tyrese Rice, Boston College.
Big East: Sam Young, Pitt.
Big Ten: Manny Harris, Michigan.
Big 12: Sherron Collins, Kansas.
Conference USA: Robert Vaden, UAB.
Mountain West: Wink Adams, UNLV.
Missouri Valley: Osiris Eldridge, Illinois State.
Pac-10: Chase Budinger, Arizona.
Southeastern Conference: Devan Downey, South Conference.
Coach of the year: Ben Howland, UCLA.
The Bruins have been to three straight Final Fours, replacing a key player (or more) each time. If UCLA reaches a fourth straight Final Four after replacing Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Luc Richard a Moute, someone give Howland his due.
First coach fired: Ed DeChellis. Penn State.
It's tempting to go with St. John's coach Norm Roberts, who's 48-67 in four seasons, including a 20-46 Big East mark. The Red Storm aren't likely to be any better this season, but Roberts got a five-year contract rollover last spring.
That leaves DeChellis (57-92 in five seasons) as the most likely coach out. The Lions will be hovering just about .500 by the time Big Ten play begins.
National Player of the Year: Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina.
Stephen Curry is tempting, but I'll stick with the tried and true. I doubt Hansbrough will be slowed by his shin injury. He'll still be the same high-scoring, rebounding machine.
And if Hansbrough isn't any different from previous seasons, why pick against him here? He's the best player on the favorite to win it all. Sometimes, you just go with the odds.
National champion: Connecticut.
Sometimes, you buck the odds. North Carolina is a smart pick to win it all. The Heels have everything – great guards, a go-to guy, NBA talent and depth – and a coach in Roy Williams who's already won a title.
The thing is, UConn also has the goods to win it. The Huskies are just a step behind UNC offensively, but who isn't? And I expect the Huskies to be vastly improved on defense, which has always been a staple of Jim Calhoun's national title teams.
But most striking to me is how balanced the Huskies are. The last three champions have been the same way. Kansas and Florida featured rosters with efficient, balanced scoring. When one player struggled, another filled that void. UConn has that same aura.
At least, that's the way it seems now. Check back in March when seeds are assigned.