Preseason Top 25 for 2003-04: UCONN Leads the Pack

It's October, and your sports conscience is trying to tell you something. In fact, it's screaming through your brain like Dick Vitale at a Duke game. Oh, did I say "Dick Vitale"? Well then, it must be time to start thinking about college basketball again.

But before you start snagging up those preseason magazines and scouring the websites, here's a quick preview of this season's top 25 teams from a guy who watches more college hoops in a week than most normal people can handle the entire year.

1. UConn
The Huskies have all the right ingredients for a national championship favorite: a dominant post player in Emeka Okafor, a do-it-all shooting guard in Ben Gordon, a senior leader in point guard Taliek Brown, scoring wings in Denham Brown and Rashad Anderson, an excellent coach in Jim Calhoun, and an extraordinarily deep bench. As long as freshman superstar Charlie Villanueva doesn't upset the chemistry, there's no reason this team shouldn't take it all.

2. Duke
After a year of relying heavily on a talented freshman class, coach Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils are back in the national title hunt. The backcourt trio of senior Chris Duhon, junior Daniel Ewing and sweet-shooting J.J. Redick could be the best in the land. Sophomore forwards Shelden Williams and Shavlik Randolph will flourish this season, after a year of adjustment. And if you're looking for this year's Carmelo Anthony, look no further than Duke freshman Luol Deng – he's the real deal.

3. Michigan State
The Spartans boast the deepest group of guards in the country, with talented freshmen Shannon Brown and Brandon Cotton joining Chris Hill, Kelvin Torbert, Alan Anderson and Maurice Ager. As long as Tom Izzo can find a power forward to slide in next to rapidly improving Paul Davis, this team should remain among the nation's elite.

4. Missouri
The inside-outside combo of center Arthur Johnson and wing Rickey Paulding is enough to get the Tigers to the final four. Coach Quinn Snyder also has quality depth inside, some accurate shooters on the bench and a dynamic scorer in transfer Jason Conley. If either juco transfer Randy Pulley or sophomore Jimmy McKinney can step up at the point, and the team isn't distracted by an impending NCAA investigation, you can chalk these guys up for a Final Four appearance.

5. Kansas
Yes, Roy Williams is gone, but he didn't leave the cupboard bare at Lawrence for new coach Bill Self. Point guard Aaron Miles, wing Keith Langford and forward Wayne Simien (if healthy) provide a solid nucleus, and a touted freshman class, led by center David Padgett and scorer J.R. Giddens, will keep the Jayhawks rolling along.

6. Florida
It doesn't matter that Billy Donovan's teams have continued to struggle in the post season over the past few years – this will be the most skilled team he has ever put on the floor. Guards Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh are creative scorers and forward Christian Drejer will finally get to show off the skills that have been making NBA scouts drool. And watch out for junior David Lee, who should emerge as the premier big man in the SEC.

7. Arizona
The Wildcats don't have Jason Gardner or Luke Walton anymore, but they still have talent in Channing Frye, Salim Stoudamire, Hassan Adams and Andre Iguodala, as well as scintillating freshman point guard Mustafa Shakur. If Lute Olson can find a power forward to slide next to Frye, this team should continue to rule the Pac-10.

8. Syracuse
The defending champs will find it difficult to replace superstar Carmelo Anthony, but Jim Boeheim still has plenty of horses in his stable, including lead guard Billy Edelin, gunner Gerry McNamara, big man Craig Forth and slick forward Hakim Warrick, the team's next NBA draft pick. It will be interesting to see how Boeheim's underrated freshman class fits here.

9. Gonzaga
The Bulldogs are underdogs no more. This team has more talent than any team in the West, save maybe Arizona. If you thought lead guard Blake Stepp and smooth forward Ronny Turiaf were something, wait until you see Washington transfer Erroll Knight in action!

10. Illinois
The backcourt duo of Dee Brown and Deron Williams is the main reason the Illini will be nipping at Michigan State's heels in the Big Ten race. Having wings like Luther Head and Roger Powell, as well as rugged post player James Augustine can't hurt either.

11. Kentucky
Does this team really need a center? With so many capable guards on the roster, including senior Gerald Fitch, lightning quick Cliff Hawkins, and scorers Antoine Barbour, Erik Daniels and Kelenna Azubuike, it won't matter who Tubby Smith puts in the middle - this is still a dangerous team. Forward Chuck Hayes should get the nod in the pivot over either of the 7-foot goons Smith recruited in the off-season.

12. UNC
So, is the change in head coach from Matt Doherty to Roy Williams enough to get the Tar Heels back in the national spotlight? It should be. Raymond Felton is the most complete point guard in the country and Rashad McCants, when focused, has the potential to be one of the top scorers in the nation. The key is center Sean May. If he stays healthy, there's no telling how far Roy can take this team.

13. Louisville
This is shaping up to be one of Rick Pitino's finest teams. Without Reece Gaines and Marvin Stone, the squad may not have the stars, but it has the scoring ability and the chemistry that Pitino favors. With young stars like Taquan Dean, Francisco Garcia and Kendall Dartez, the Cardinals should run away with the Conference USA title. Watch out for juco transfer Nate Daniels, who could be the next Antoine Walker.

14. Pittsburgh
New coach Jamie Dixon still has plenty of gifted athletes left over from the Ben Howland era. Carl Krauser is an upgrade over Brandin Knight at the point, while wings Jaron Brown and Julius Page, as well as power forward Chevy Troutman, will provide the points. Dixon also welcomes four freshmen 6-8 or taller to help replace the inside presence of Ontario Lett.

15. Texas
This Longhorn team won't be the same without point guard T.J. Ford, but they still have the best frontcourt trio in James Thomas, Brad Buckman and Brian Boddicker, as well as wings Brandon Mouton and Royal Ivey. If either Kenton Paulino or juco transfer Edgar Moreno can step up to replace Ford, another Sweet 16 appearance is within reach.

16. Wisconsin
The Badgers will be without Australian star Kirk Penney, but they return the entire supporting cast from a year ago, including guards Devin Harris and Alando Tucker. Freshman Brian Butch is thin for a 7-foot center, but he has a shooting touch that could add a little offensive excitement to a team known for its grind-it-out defensive style.

17. Wake Forest
Skip Prosser continues to build this program into a national player. The addition of freshman sensation Chris Paul to the backcourt of Justin Gray and Taron Downey will give the Demon Deacons an explosive foundation for the next few years. Center Eric Williams has slimmed down and forward Vytas Danelius looks capable of replacing the tenacity of former MVP Josh Howard.

18. St. Joseph's
If defense wins championships, then the nation should keep an eye on the Hawks. The backcourt of Jameer Nelson and Delonte West can put up points in a hurry, but they can also put the clamps down defensively. This is clearly Phil Martelli's best team at St. Joe's.

19. Stanford
With all the rebuilding in the Pac-10, it can be easy to forget about the Cardinal. Forward Josh Childress is a potential All-American, and with shooters like Matt Lottich and Dan Grunfeld, Mike Montgomery's squad cannot be taken for granted.

20. Oklahoma
The Sooners lose a great deal of experience, but return a strong nucleus in sophomores Kevin Bookout and DeAngelo Alexander, plus redshirt senior Jason Detrick. Keep an eye – if you can – on 5-6 freshman point guard Andrew Lavender, who is considered the next coming of Spud Webb.

21. Ohio State
All the buzz in Columbus (basketball-wise, that is) has been about two talented transfers: Tony Stockman (Clemson) and J.J. Sullinger (Arkansas). If you factor in the addition of energetic freshman Ivan Harris to the current cast, the Buckeyes could be a dangerous team in March.

22. Cincinnati
This ranking is based solely on the talent Bob Huggins has brought into the program. Never mind that half the team has endured either legal or attitude problems over the past couple of years. If their heads are on straight, Tony Bobbitt, juco transfer Robert Whaley and Florida transfer James White can all help Jason Maxiell and Field Williams bring the Bearcats back to prominence.

23. LSU
Would you believe that LSU coach John Brady brought in the top-rated recruiting class in the nation this year? Brandon Bass, Regis Koundjia and Tack Minor will all add excitement to a roster that already includes the SEC's top returning rebounder, Jamie Lloreda. Brady will have to watch for possible chemistry issues, though.

24. California
Usually, losing scorers like Joe Shipp and Brian Wethers would devastate a team like the Golden Bears. But adding a dynamic forward like Leon Powe to a squad that returns powerful center Amit Tamir and net-stripper Richard Midgley is a recipe for success in what should be a wide-open Pac-10.

25. Notre Dame
Point guard Chris Thomas kept the Irish from dropping too far in the polls when he decided to put off the NBA and return for his senior year. Now, he will team with a bulked-up Torin Francis and a rejuvenated Jordan Cornette to wreak havoc in the Big East.

Just missed the cut:
26. Arizona State
27. Mississippi State
28. Minnesota
29. Utah
30. NC State
31. Marquette
32. Michigan
33. Maryland
34. Manhattan
35. Southern Cal

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