Anytime someone puts out a preseason Top 25 (ours is here), there's going to be grumbling. Teams might be ranked too low, ranked too high or omitted altogether. (Got a comment on ours? Click here.)
And those omitted teams usually have a pretty good case.
By March, some or all of the following 10 teams may be in the Top 25. They've each got talent and experience, but are either replacing one or more key players or have yet to really make an impact with the guys they've got.
Well, now's the time.
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ACC coaches picked the Tigers to finish third this season, which doesn't seem like a stretch given that Trevor Booker (15.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg) is back for his senior season. He'll pair with promising freshman Milton Jennings to form an intimidating front line, but just who's going to get them the ball? Guards K.C. Rivers and Terrence Oglesby are gone, and Oglesby was the team's best shooter. Can Demontez Stitt and Andre Young fill those roles, or will it fall to freshmen Noel Johnson and Donte Hill?
Losing guys like Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham fall under tough to quantify. Neither filled up the box score, but Frazier was the team's best defender and Meacham provided steady perimeter scoring on a team that desperately needed it. Will that scoring or defense come from Kentucky transfer Alex Legion? Or freshmen D.J. Richardson or Brandon Paul? And if Mike Davis shows any issues from a broken ankle this summer, well, it could be a tough year for the Illini in a tough Big Ten.
The Orange lost Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris – also known as their three best players – from last year's 28-10 squad. That leaves streaky shooter Andy Rautins and sturdy, but one-dimensional power forwards Rick Jackson and Arinze Onuaku as Jim Boeheim's best returning players. Thankfully, talented transfer Wes Johnson, freshman Brandon Triche and sophomore Scoop Jardine (who missed a chunk of last season because of an injury) will step in. But those are some big shoes to fill.
The Rebels learned last year that even all-conference player Terrico White couldn't save their season. Not with injuries to guards Chris Warren, Eniel Polynice and Trevor Gaskins. Most expect all three to bounce back and for Ole Miss to vie for the SEC West crown, but it's a good example of how injuries can derail any season at any time. If The Rebels are healthy, they're in the Big Dance.
Adding a freshman like Derrick Favors should solve a lot of the Yellow Jackets' issues. The ACC preseason rookie of the year will be a double-double machine and a constant source of concern by opposing defenses. A player like that only makes others around him better – which is great news for budding stars like Gani Lawal and Iman Shumpert. Still, this is a team that hasn't won more than 20 games it went to the Final Four in 2004. Can Favors make Tech Final Four good or just get back to the tourney?
The Wildcats have a scoring star in Denis Clemente. They have a solid, if not spectacular frontcourt headed by senior Luis Colon. A couple of touted freshmen – Wally Judge and Jordan Henriquez – should give K-State some much-needed depth. And, after years of floundering, K-State has finished at least 4th in the Big 12 the last three seasons. But the Big 12 won't be as forgiving as in years past, and if Clemente gets hurt or struggles, the 'Cats can't score.
By adding star prospect Lance Stephenson, the Bearcats now feature one of the nation's best perimeter attacks. Senior Deonta Vaughn (15.3 ppg, 4.0 apg) is a two-time all-Big East player who no longer has to shoulder the scoring burden, while Cashmere Wright will run the show. Provided the 6-6 Stephenson can adjust his game to taking fewer shots, the Bearcats will hang with anyone. But they still don't have a dominant post player, which means when the shots aren't falling, they're in trouble.
There's little question that the Bulldogs will be good. The question is how good? Jarvis Varnado is a true defensive game-changer (4.7 bpg) and continues to improve offensively. Adding 7-1 freshman John Riek to that mix will only make the Bulldogs even better on defense, to say nothing of solid guards Barry Stewart, Dee Bost and Ravern Johnson. But this team won't take off unless freshmen Renardo Sidney is deemed eligible to play by the NCAA.
Is this the year the Hall returns to Big East contention? The Pirates have experienced guards, a dynamite scorer in junior Jeremy Hazell and welcome three talented transfers, Herb Pope, Keon Lawrence and Jeff Robinson. Depth and talent usually means an NCAA tournament berth, provided the Pirates can do two things they didn't last season: Finish about .500 in the Big East and get one marquee win.
Don't be shocked when the Tigers play 4 guards at the same time this season. Their potential replacements for DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons aren't as promising as using Kim English and Marcus Denmon alongside J.T. Tiller and Zaire Taylor. Sure, only one is taller than 6-4, but when you consider Missouri's frenetic, pressing defense, it makes sense to go mobile. Then again, what happens when opponents get into their half-court offense?
FIVE DANGEROUS MID-MAJORS
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March 18, 1993. That's the last time BYU won an NCAA tourney game. Seven appearances (3 times as a 12 seed, 4 times as an 8) and no wins. For that to change, it'll turn to Mountain West player of the year candidates point guard Jimmer Fredette and forward Jonathan Tavernari to be the catalysts and secure some kind of seed that could result in a favorable March matchup.
Will the Purple Eagles ruin Siena's quest for a third-straight trip to the NCAA tournament? They return four starters from a 26-9 season, including All-MAAC players Tyrone Lewis and Bilal Benn. Niagara's defense relies on steals and high energy plays, though it's a little weak on the perimeter. Asking for two NCAA tourney berths from the MAAC might be a bit much, so expect the conference tournament to be a dynamite show when it comes down to Niagara and Siena.
Ever since George Mason's run to the 2006 Final Four, the Colonial League's top team has been a popular pick as a March Cinderella. VCU held that distinction the last two seasons. This year, it's the Monarchs, who return all five starters from last season's 25-10 squad. Forward Gerald Lee (15.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg) is a CAA player of the year candidate and the offense should be consistent under junior point guard Darius James.
The Hilltoppers just missed back-to-back runs to the Sweet 16, which should cement them as a mid-major darling for 2009-10. Star guard A.J. Slaughter heads up a talented group that features four starters back a 25-9 squad. If North Texas doesn't take the Sun Belt tournament, Western Kentucky's a good bet to reach its third straight Big Dance – and maybe even make another March run.
With most of their starters back, the Raiders should be a thorn in Butler's side during Horizon League play this season – which could result in the league getting two teams into the Big Dance for the second straight year. All-league guard Vaughn Duggins is back after missing nearly all of last season and that gives the Raiders a dynamite perimeter threat in him, senior Todd Brown and senior John David Gardner. They're not big up front, but who's not a fan of guard-heavy teams in March?
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