First things first: The return of the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll is, like Midnight Madness before it, tremendously exciting not just for what it is but for what it means. And what it means is college basketball is almost back. I can practically taste it.
Second, the Poll Thoughts -- which we wrote last season after each new set of polls was released -- is back in action today. That said, this is sure to be a less acrimonious edition than most. There are two reasons for this. The first is that we haven't seen any of these teams play, so we don't have any real data points to use in arguing why X team should be ranked Y number of spots higher than it is. The second reason? The first coaches poll offers few, if any, real surprises.
Some assorted thoughts:
The top four are exactly what you'd expect. North Carolina is the overwhelming preseason favorite, and the number of first-place votes the Tar Heels received -- all but one, which was probably that of UNC coach Roy Williams -- indicates as much. There are four teams that most believe to be the national title favorites: UNC, Kentucky, Ohio State and Connecticut. Whether those teams fall necessarily in that order is up for debate; UConn has been getting a ton of preseason buzz, and some believe the Huskies to be the second-best (or even the best) team in the country based on sheer talent. We'll see. For now, the delineation of elites is appropriately clear.
The next group of teams is full of questions. Syracuse has top-five talent, but can the Orange's backcourt be consistent enough to utilize it? Duke is obviously talented, too, but this is a reboot season for Coach K, and the Blue Devils will rely heavily on the play of hyper-talented incoming guard Austin Rivers. Vanderbilt at No. 7 is especially interesting. That's a really high ranking for a team that lost 10 games last season; it assumes Vanderbilt -- which returns all five starters from last year's team -- will improve thanks to overall team cohesion and veteran experience. But is that necessarily the case? Then there are Louisville, which has plenty of turnover, and Memphis, which is still a very talented but very young group that showcased a lot of flaws in 2010-11. You get the picture: This group is the "obviously talented, but ..." portion of the poll, and each team's fortunes could diverge wildly before we get to January.
A couple of teams might be ranked a few spots too high. Arizona is one. Sure, the Wildcats are going to be talented -- Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson could be the best freshman-oriented backcourt in the country this season. But the Wildcats have a major hole where Derrick Williams used to be, and after the unfortunate shooting incident Kevin Parrom suffered last month, Sean Miller's frontcourt situation remains very much up in the air.
Another team that might have too many question marks to be in the top 25? Missouri. The Tigers still have a lot of talent, but the loss of forward Laurence Bowers to an ACL injury -- plus the uncertainty of a new coach and a new playing style -- might cause a lot of people to leave Missouri out of the poll as the season begins. One thing you can count on: Florida State (which just barely missed the cut) will be one of the best defensive teams in the country. That could have the Noles in the mix sooner rather than later.
Hey, where's Wichita State? The Shockers dominated the NIT last season and are the favorite by many to win a tough Missouri Valley Conference, but they don't show up here. Fellow MVC rival Creighton is among those receiving votes, but if there is any mid-major team that seems to deserve an early top-25 look, it's Wichita State, right? What gives?
Anyway, those qualms -- in so far as they're even "qualms" -- are all minor. As we get to the thick of the season, ridiculous, indefensible coaches poll votes will come our way, and the Poll Thoughts will be better for it.
But for now, isn't it good to have a real, official list of teams to ponder?
Next stop: actual basketball. Man, I can't wait.