After giving the subject of the preseason Top 25 college basketball teams considerable thought and study since last spring, I've decided to be bold with my choices:
I've rated Duke and Connecticut 1-2
Cutting edge, eh?
Here's a look at the Scout.com Top 25, as well as some of the rationale that went explaining how it was assembled:
Rating Rationale: Those in Connecticut's corner are the only ones who could mount a convincing argument that the Blue Devils aren't clearly the favorites to cut down nets in Indianapolis sometime late in the evening of April 3, 2006. A Hall of Fame coach (Mike Krzyzewski) has two consensus All-Americas in Shelden Williams and J.J. Redick, three other returnees who averaged 22 minutes apiece of playing time from a 27-6 and Sweet 16 team, along with a five-player freshman class led by the most gifted newcomer in the country (6-10 Josh McRoberts) – that's a pretty sturdy resume for a preseason No. 1.
Concerns: Hmmmm . . . that's tough. Any suggestions?
Frank Says: I'd hate to say anything hasty, such as "pencil them into the final weekend of the season." Nah . . . go ahead.
Rating Rationale: Another Hall of Fame coach (Jim Calhoun) has one of the best set of post players anywhere, led by Josh Boone, a deep group of wings that is paced by sophomore Rudy Gay, and one of the better point guards anywhere in Marcus Williams, who is scheduled to be back on the floor for the Huskies in time for the team's Jan. 3 Big East opener at Marquette. Depth? Oh, yeah. There's plenty of that as well.
Concerns: Well, it would have been point guard play if Williams' suspension had covered the entire school year. Now, it's . . . too many talented players to keep happy? I know; I'm reaching.
Frank Says: On April 3, one of two things is going to take place: 1) Mike Krzyzewski gets his fourth national title or, 2) Jim Calhoun gets his third.
3. Michigan State
Rating Rationale: Four starters, under-appreciated center Paul Davis, spectacular wings Maurice Ager and Shannon Brown, and a point guard on the verge of a breakout sophomore season, Drew Neitzel, return from Coach Tom Izzo's fourth Final Four team.
Concerns: Who will be the fifth starter/post to go along with Davis? How quickly can Izzo develop backcourt depth?
Frank Says: In a season in which Duke and Connecticut seem superior to the rest of the field, we'll give the Spartans the nod at the moment as the "best of the rest".
Rating Rationale: This squad, led by John R. Wooden Award candidate Adam Morrison, as well as returning starters in point guard Derek Raivio, wing Erroll Knight and post J.P. Batista, has more than enough ingredients to end the season considered the school's best ever – and in Indianapolis.
Concerns: Can they defend well enough to advance beyond the second round of the tournament for the first time since 2001?
Frank Says: Three days in Lahaina (the Nov. 21-23 Maui Invitational) will provide Coach Mark Few's players with a lot of pineapple and a sweet opportunity to demonstrate that they're this good.
Rating Rationale: Despite the loss of their best recruit (swingman C.J. Miles) to the NBA, the Longhorns are as physically gifted as any team in the country (sans, Duke and Connecticut). Rick Barnes will field his best frontcourt (Brad Buckman, P.J. Tucker and Lamarcus Aldridge). We'll hold off on any comparisons between sophomore Daniel Gibson and the Texas point guard who won the John R. Wooden Award (remember T.J. Ford, don't you?) for a while. But he's very, very good.
Concerns: Will Aldridge evolve into the dominating post presence he's seemed capable of becoming since high school?
Frank Says: If things fall into place in the Maui Invitational, Duke and Texas could be playing in East Rutherford, N.J., on Dec. 10 as the 1-2 ranked teams in the country.
Rating Rationale: Four starters (guards Terrell Everett and David Godbold, and posts Taj Gray and Kevin Bookout) return from the team that won 25 games before having the misfortune of running into the University of Utah – or, more to the point, Andrew Bogut – in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. And Kelvin Sampson has a nice batch of newcomers, most notably UC Riverside transfer Nate Carter.
Concerns: Can Bookout stay healthy for the entirety of his senior season?
Frank Says: The OU-Texas hoops meetings this season should be much more competitive than their football counterpart was.
Rating Rationale: The Hawkeyes closed strongly in the Big Ten, winning five in a row before losing to Wisconsin in the conference tournament semifinals. The top eight players off that squad are back, including at least three potential all-conference players in guard Jeff Horner and forwards Greg Brunner and Adam Haluska, who averaged from 14.0 to 14.7 points per game.
Concerns: Starting post players Brunner and Erek Hansen combined to foul out 11 times last season.
Frank Says: Something to keep in mind – the Hawkeyes beat seven NCAA Tournament participants last season.
Rating Rationale: Lute Olson coaches the team; need anything else? So be it. The Wildcats lost Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire to the NBA but return their next six top scorers, including starters Hassan Adams, Mustafa Shakur and Ivan Radenovic. And Olson has three freshmen of note, at least one of which – Marcus Williams, by way of Seattle – will crack his rotation immediately.
Concerns: Even the most fervent of U of A supports can't soft-sell the loss of Frye and Stoudamire and the impact they had on those 30 victories last season.
Frank Says: Hall of Fame coach + deep and sizzling perimeter + underrated post players = Pac 10 title and two or three NCAA Tournament victories.
Rating Rationale: The Cardinals return two critical pieces (guard Taquan Dean and forward Juan Palacios) from a Final Four team and a reserve from that team, guard Brandon Jenkins, should be a double-figure scorer. At least five newcomers, David Padgett (Kansas transfer and 2003 McDonald's All-America), Brian Johnson (red-shirted while injured as a freshman) and freshmen Andre McGee, Terrence Williams and Chad Millard, will play prominent roles.
Concerns: Padgett and Palacios, potentially one of the best sets of posts anywhere this season, are recovering from off-season foot injuries. If they're not operating at close to full efficiency, forget where you saw the No. 9 rating.
Frank Says: If the Cardinals are at least relatively healthy, the first season in the Big East should be a blast for Pitino & Co.
Rating Rationale: Trent Johnson returns three of the best 10 players in the Pac 10 in seniors Chris Hernandez (destined to be a three-time, all-conference selection), Dan Grunfeld and Matt Haryasz. Grunfeld seems to have recovered nicely from the ACL surgery in February that kept him out of the lineup for the final nine games. With the addition of three quality freshmen, Johnson should be able to comfortably go 10 deep into his rotation, if he's of that inclination.
Concerns: Can Hernandez, Grunfeld and Haryasz stay healthy as seniors?
Frank Says: You'll find as many people within the Pac 10 who believe the Cardinal will win the conference as those who think Arizona will.
11. Boston College
Rating Rationale: A trio of players recruited from Southern California, All-America forward Craig Smith and wings Jared Dudley and Sean Marshall, combined to average nearly 50 points and 19 rebounds per game. There are a few Pac 10 coaches bemoaning missing on them. Point guard Louis Hinnant had the second best assist/turnover ratio (2.6/1) in the program's final season in the Big East.
Concerns: Will sophomore center Sean Williams be re-admitted to school and enroll for the second semester?
Frank Says: The Eagles should be the second best team in the ACC, especially if Williams is part of the equation.
Rating Rationale: Chuck Davis, Jermareo Davidson and freshman Richard Hendrix give Coach Mark Gottfried a trio of post players superior to anything, as a group, in the rest of the SEC. He's not recognized as such by most yet, but sophomore Ronald Steele is one of the better point guards anywhere. Another freshman, Alonzo Gee, will have to provide an infusion of quality perimeter shooting.
Concerns: Guard depth/perimeter shooting.
Frank Says: If Steele stays healthy and on the floor for 35 to 38 minutes per game, the Crimson Tide will be capable of winning the SEC.
Rating Rationale: Junior forward Alando Tucker has a better than decent chance to be the Big Ten's Player of the Year and classmate Kammron Taylor will be one of the better lead guards in the conference. Look for sophomore posts Brian Butch and Greg Stiemsma to play significant roles for Coach Bo Ryan.
Concerns: The Badgers will need major contributions from at least a few of their seven newcomers.
Frank Says: They'll chase Michigan State for the Big Ten lead all season.
Rating Rationale: Tubby Smith has a deep and gifted group of perimeter players, paced by senior Patrick Sparks and Ravi Moss, and the sophomore trio of Rajon Rondo, Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley. Juniors Sheray Thomas, Bobby Perry and Rekalin Sims (a JC transfer) will be counted on for front-court firepower.
Concerns: What kind of play will Smith get out of his center position? And how soon does Randolph Morris get reinstated by the NCAA and get into that low-post mix?
Frank Says: The Wildcats are difficult to get an in-depth read on until we get a clue when (or if?) Morris will be on the floor for them.
Rating Rationale: A deep and explosive foursome of guards in seniors Randy Foye and Allan Ray, junior Mike Nardi and sophomore Kyle Lowry gives Coach Jay Wright a multitude of options in the backcourt. In the right setting, all four could be on the floor at the same time. Freshman Shane Clark is due to become eligible on Dec. 21 and he will enhance the team's injury-riddled frontcourt.
Concerns: Without Curtis Sumpter (knee) and with Jason Fraser recovering from off-season surgery on both knees, the Wildcats will need strong performances from their guards to beat any quality opponent.
Frank Says: I'd certainly like the Wildcats' chances of challenging for a Big East title and making a deep NCAA Tournament run better if Sumpter had not be stricken with so much ill fortune.
16. North Carolina State
Rating Rationale: The Wolfpack lost one of their best-ever players (Julius Hodge), who was among the ACC's, and country's, elite for four seasons. But Coach Herb Sendek has plenty back from the team that beat Charlotte and Connecticut in the NCAA Tournament, including seniors Illian Evtimov, Tony Bethel and Cameron Bennerman, junior Engin Atsur and sophomore Andrew Brackman, who could be the team's leading scorer and rebounder this season.
Concerns: Maybe it only seemed that way but Hodge took every big shot and make almost significant play in four years. How does that get replaced?
Frank Says: It's reasonable to think this team has a fair chance of being the ACC runner-up.
17. Ohio State
Rating Rationale: A self-imposed post-season ban was all that kept this team out of the NCAA Tournament last spring. And with his top six players returning from that 20-victory (eight of those in the Big Ten) squad, Coach Thad Matta will have a team capable of doing some post-season damage this time around. Senior Terence Dials (15.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per game) would be a chore for any post player in the country to deal with. And newcomer guards Ron Lewis and Sylvester Mayes give Matta a much deeper and explosive backcourt.
Concerns: Minus Dials, the Buckeyes get smaller and much less formidable in the post
Frank Says: As tempting as it might be, there's no reason for the faithful to spend too much times fantasizing about 2006-07 and Greg Oden. This team will do just fine in the meanwhile.
18. West Virginia
Rating Rationale: Five of the key players, including 6-11 Kevin Pittsnogle and 6-4 Mike Gansey, return from a season in which the Mountaineers won 24 games, eight of those in the Big East and three (vs. Creighton, Wake Forest and Texas Tech) in the NCAA Tournament. So what is there not to be pumped about if you're a WVU follower?
Concerns: The frontcourt took some hits with the departure of Tyrone Salley and D'or Fischer.
Frank Says: The Mountaineers' ascent toward the top of the Big East isn't going to slow down, even with the conference's influx of new programs.
Rating Rationale: The Wolf Pack have the Western Athletic Conference's Player of the Year (6-11 Nick Fazekas) and the WAC's Freshman of the Year (point guard Ramon Sessions) and somewhat more than just a little bit else back from a 25-7 season that including an NCAA Tournament victory over Texas. Sophomore wing Marcellus Kemp, red-shirted after knee surgery a year ago, will give Coach Mark Fox another impact scorer.
Concerns: Who provides the post presence (especially rebounding) that Kevin Pinkney provided so ably before departing?
Frank Says: It will take some doing but this program is capable of its third consecutive 25-victory season.
Rating Rationale: Coach John Thompson III doesn't have to explain what he wants in practice too often, not with each of his starters back from the squad that won 19 games in his first season. Forwards Jeff Green and Brandon Bowman (who combined for 28 points and nearly 13 rebounds per game) are the most underrated pair of forwards nationally.
Concerns: How much quality depth can Thompson's freshman class provide?
Frank Says: The Hoyas will be in the NCAA Tournament for the first since 2001.
21. Old Dominion
Rating Rationale: There's much to admire about this team, starting with the fact that it returns four starters and every key reserve off a 28-victory, Colonial Athletic Conference championship season. Aussie center Alex Loughton (14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game) was the conference's Player of the Year and junior point guard Drew Williamson had 153 assists and only 38 turnovers.
Concerns: The Monarchs go into the season with nice-sized targets on their backs, within the conference as well as nationally.
Frank Says: It would border on the startling if Blaine Taylor's team doesn't win a game – or maybe two – in the NCAA Tournament after playing Michigan State so tough in Round 1 last March.
Rating Rationale: Sure, Coach Bruce Weber lost a lot (starters Deron Williams, Luther Head and Roger Powell) from that scintillating 37 victories/NCAA final runner-up season. No one is worrying much around Champaign, however. That's because guard Dee Brown (the Big Ten's Player of the Year) and center James Augustine are still around for their senior seasons. If three 2004-05 red-shirts, Marcus Arnold (Illinois State transfer), Brian Randle (sidelined with broken hand) and Calvin Brock (freshman held back because of the upper-class talent), perform as most think they will, those assembled in orange in Assembly Hall will be pleased.
Frank Says: The broken foot in June that pulled Brown out of the NBA Draft in June indirectly kept Illinois in the Top 25 in November.
Rating Rationale: If the focus is on what the Huskies returned and gained, instead of lost, you can understand why optimism rains in Seattle (pun intended, if you wonder if I can spell). Brandon Roy could be the Pac 10's most complete player and Bobby Jones is its best defender. Jamaal Williams is one of the Pac 10's best innate scorers, as well. And Jon Brockman will easily be the conference's most productive freshman.
Frank Says: If Brockman's classmates can make solid contributions, the Huskies will push Arizona and Stanford for the conference title.
24. Wake Forest
Rating Rationale: Three starters (including All-America guard Chris Paul) from last season went bye-bye but the two who are still in Demon Deacons' duds – guard Justin Gray and post Eric Williams – are easily among the best the ACC has to offer. Trent Strickland, Chris Ellis and Kyle Visser were significant members of Coach Skip Prosser's rotation last season. And freshman forward Cameron Stanley, red-shirted last season, looks to be the next very good player in this program.
Concerns: Paul created a lot of the team's offense with the ball in his hands the past two seasons. Can Gray do the same thing as a senior?
Frank Says: The team won 27 games with Paul last season. That figure should still be in the 20-range without him.
Rating Rationale: The Bruins return four starters and an athletic 7-footer (Ryan Hollins) from an NCAA Tournament team. Jordan Farmar (the Pac 10's Freshman of the Year), Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp are three of the best sophomores on any one team in the country. And Ben Howland's second Westwood recruiting class includes at least three players who could play significant minutes as freshmen.
Concerns: Two starters, Shipp (hip surgery in September, projected to return late in December) and center Michael Fey (groin pull) have yet to practice. And a freshman Howland is counting on to play a lot, forward Alfred Aboya, is still recovering from knee surgery last month.
Frank Says: The Bruins will be a team that wins 20 games and returns to the NCAA Tournament – but only if they can ride out this injury storm relatively intact.
Just Misses: Memphis, Texas Tech, George Washington, Indiana, Iowa State, Creighton, Syracuse, Maryland, Charlotte and Oklahoma State.
An April inductee into the USBWA Hall of Fame, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's National Basketball Expert and is also a columnist for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Burlison's pieces at www.FrankHoops.com