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Jayhawks, others in pursuit

Once again, the center of the basketball universe will be in North Carolina. The surprise? This year, it will be in Winston-Salem. Wake Forest heads our preseason Top 25. Will anyone be able to catch the Demon Deacons on the way to St. Louis?

(Editor's note: 2003-04 records listed include NCAA Tournament games. Rankings are from the final regular-season polls.)

1. Wake Forest

Record: 23-10 (9-7 ACC)
Rank: No. 14 ESPN/USA Today, No. 15 AP
Outcome: Lost in Sweet 16 (Saint Joseph's 84-80)

What we like: Chris Paul, Justin Gray and Eric Williams. Paul might be the preseason player of the year. He's the best point guard in the country. He's as good a leader as anyone else, regardless of position, and just as good a person. Paul's infectious attitude rubs off on the rest of the Demon Deacons. The much-maligned Gray proved he's one of the best shooters in the country by helping Paul lead the USA to a gold medal in the World Championships for Young Men Qualifying tournament in Halifax, Nova Scotia, last July. Williams, when focused, is one of the top forwards in the country. He has the potential to take over a game in the paint.

Causes for concern: The Demon Deacons haven't been in this position before under Skip Prosser. They are projected to win the national title by some and get to the Final Four by almost everyone else. Wake Forest will have to be on every single night. The Demon Deacons talk a good game about improving their defense but they still aren't known to be stoppers.

Keep an eye on: Vytas Danelius and Trent Strickland. Danelius was banged up a year ago but has been one of the hardest workers in the offseason. If he's healthy, the Demon Deacons got considerably better on the offensive backboard. The players say Danelius is playing better than he did as a sophomore when he was one of the stars on the ACC champs behind player of the year Josh Howard. Don't sleep on Strickland, either. Strickland can dunk with the best of them on the break. He's becoming more physical and the players say he'll have to get more minutes since he's earning them in workouts.

Non-conference nightmare: Wake has to get through the Preseason NIT (George Washington and Arizona, likely, to win the title) and games at Illinois, at Temple, vs. Texas and at New Mexico -- all before New Year's.

Best-case scenario: We're projecting the national title. This group is young enough, though, that if they get upset, they could come back hungrier for a title in 2006. The problem is that Paul might not stick around since he's a lock for the lottery in the June NBA draft.

2. Kansas

Record: 24-9 (12-4 Big 12)
Rank: No. 15 ESPN/USA Today, No. 18 AP
Outcome: Lost in Elite 8 (Georgia Tech 79-71)

What we like: Every key player and the head coach are winners. Wayne Simien, Keith Langford and Aaron Miles have made major contributions to two Final Four teams and an Elite Eight run. Simien was hurt during the run to the national title game two seasons ago, but the power forward was still a locker room presence. The Jayhawks have exceptional depth, leadership and a hunger to finally finish the job and win a national title. Bill Self has been close, getting to the Elite Eight with three schools -- Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas. He has the pieces in place to make the Final Four.

Causes for concern: Not much with this group. Kansas can handle expectations. The only weak spot, if you can even go there, is that a freshman will start. It's likely to be C.J. Giles over Sasha Kaun at forward next to Simien. Giles has the potential to be a star this season with his ability to run the floor, block shots and rebound. We easily could have picked Kansas over Wake Forest but we just have a feeling that the Deacons will down the Jayhawks in the title game, with Paul getting the best of Miles.

Keep an eye on: J.R. Giddens. He has star written all over him. Simien, Langford and Miles get all of the national love, but Giddens could be the best pro of them all if he continues to develop his all-around game. He's certainly the most athletic of the bunch. He was slowed during the offseason by nagging injuries but he should be ready to take flight come November.

Non-conference nightmare: The Jayhawks can rest easily prior to New Year's. Kansas doesn't play a road game or even a significant home game in November or December (Vermont and Saint Joseph's are good, but not Top 25 good). The toughest game will come New Year's Day when Georgia Tech comes calling. The Jayhawks then head to Kentucky eight days later.

Best-case scenario: The Jayhawks have every piece to win the national title. We'll say they get stopped one possession short, just like in 2003. Not getting to the Final Four just doesn't seem plausible with this crew.

3. Georgia Tech
Record: 28-10 (9-7 ACC)
Rank: No. 18 ESPN/USA Today, No. 14 AP
Outcome: Lost in championship game (Connecticut 82-73)

What we like: The last time we saw Georgia Tech, the Yellow Jackets were in the national title game. The makeup of the team is nearly intact, so why not put Georgia Tech back in the same position? The guards are fantastic, led by Jarrett Jack, Will Bynum and B.J. Elder. Isma'il Muhammed remains one of the most exciting dunkers on the break. Anthony McHenry can 'D' up just about anyone. Sure, Luke Schenscher needs help inside, but Theodis Tarver should be more of a presence. Ra'Sean Dickey should be an impact freshman. This team is well-schooled and constantly has a chip on its shoulder that it's not respected enough -- in its own league, let alone the nation. Why shouldn't Georgia Tech be in the top three?

Causes for concern: The Yellow Jackets still lost seven games in the ACC last season and took a while to find themselves in the middle of the conference season. Hopefully that was just growing pains or meshing Bynum into the mix. Georgia Tech will have to learn how to handle being a target in the ACC, just like Wake. Teams may storm the court if they beat Georgia Tech -- something that these guys aren't used to dealing with. If they can handle being the hunted, there shouldn't be a reason why the Jackets can't get to St. Louis.

Keep an eye on: Bynum. He was Mr. Clutch last season. He has the potential to be more of a consistent presence. Bynum had his down moments a year ago, waiting his turn to play major minutes. He shouldn't have to take a backseat to any player on the squad this year. If he remains unselfish, he could be a first-team all-ACC candidate.

Non-conference nightmare: Paul Hewitt isn't running scared of anyone. He'll play Michigan at home in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and Gonzaga in the Las Vegas Showdown, along with dangerous games against rival Georgia and pesky Air Force, before the New Year's Day rematch against Kansas in Lawrence after Georgia Tech beat the Jayhawks in the Elite Eight in St. Louis.

Best-case scenario: Georgia Tech can win the national title. Give us one legitimate reason why the Yellow Jackets can't. You can't, except to say that, like us, you might like Wake and Kansas a tad better. Georgia Tech has all of the talent and coaching staff in place to cut the nets down in St. Louis.

4. North Carolina

Record: 19-11 (8-8 ACC)
Rank: No. 19 ESPN/USA Today, No. 16 AP
Outcome: Lost in second round (Texas 78-75)

What we like: It's hard to dismiss the overall talent. North Carolina legitimately could start four NBA players if Rashad McCants, Sean May, Raymond Felton and freshman Marvin Williams continue to develop at their current pace. Those four are enough to carry the Tar Heels pretty far this season, but they do need help. If there are no chemistry issues, seniors Jawad Williams, Melvin Scott and Jackie Manuel should be three of the better role players in the ACC. Roy Williams just had to manage egos in the Olympics, so he shouldn't have a learning curve dealing with this crew. There were a few bumps last season but they seemed to have been ironed out.

Causes for concern: The core group still hasn't won much, outside of a first-round game last season against Air Force. The Tar Heels didn't get out of the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the first for any of the players on the team. We're still not convinced this squad can go from winning one game to six for the national title.

Keep an eye on: Quentin Thomas. The "other" incoming freshman could end up being one of the sleepers in the ACC. There shouldn't be a ton of playing time behind McCants, Felton, Manuel and Scott but Thomas has a chance to earn quality time if he can make shots. There is a bit of buzz about his candidacy to play early in the season.

Non-conference nightmare: The most dangerous game could be playing Santa Clara on the way out to the Maui Invitational. Likely drawing Stanford in Round 2 won't be a walk in the sand and neither would be playing Texas or Louisville in a possible final. The Tar Heels got a scheduling break with a trip to a rebuilding Indiana in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Getting a young Kentucky team at home early in December is manageable. They don't go to Connecticut until February.

Best-case scenario: Our esteemed colleague Dick Vitale has made no qualms about picking the Tar Heels. We respectfully disagree. This same team lost 11 games a year ago. Granted, they added Marvin Williams and should be a Final Four contender, but we're going to say this could be an Elite Eight curtain call for the seniors.

5. Syracuse

Record: 23-8 (11-5 Big East)
Rank: No. 23 ESPN/USA Today, No. 19 AP
Outcome: Lost in Sweet 16 (Alabama 80-71)

What we like: First off, we don't mind the nickname change. It's certainly more gender neutral for all of the university. The Orange have a chance to win their second national title in three seasons. The combination of guard Gerry McNamara and forward Hakim Warrick give Syracuse two of the best at their respective positions. Both players are sensational late-game performers and it's hard to find a tougher guard than McNamara. The supporting cast is pretty darn good too with Josh Pace, Craig Forth and the likely starting point guard in Josh Wright. Second-year players Demetris Nichols and Terrence Roberts should have more of an impact to give the starters the necessary breathers. Jim Boeheim is a master at motivation and managing egos. He has this team believing they can win another title yet again.

Causes for concern: Wright is going to be the starting point guard. Billy Edelin is expected to join the team, assuming he stays in class and doesn't withdraw from school in the fall. If he can maintain the necessary grade-point average, then the Orange will have either two of the better point guards in the Big East or a potential problem if they can't manage adding Edelin midseason. This position is critical on every team, but even more so for McNamara. He can't afford another season where he has to take on too much of the burden at the point. He wears down at season's end and he needs Wright and, ultimately, Edelin to keep him off the ball.

Keep an eye on: Forth. The word out of Syracuse is that he has done wonders with his conditioning. If he turns out to be a force inside then Warrick will benefit and Syracuse will be tougher to defend offensively. Forth was an afterthought on offense but if he could become more of an option, then the Orange are a harder matchup.

Non-conference nightmare: Syracuse doesn't get out much and won't again this season, but the games in New York City in the Coaches vs. Cancer won't be easy (assuming they make it there, with a potential second-round game against Princeton a possible stumbling block). If the Orange advance, then they could lose to Mississippi State and/or Memphis in November. Beating Oklahoma State in the Jimmy V Classic in December could end up being the toughest out for the Orange prior to New Year's.

Best-case scenario: The Orange have the pieces to win the title. No one would be surprised if they cut down the nets in St. Louis. They are a good pick to knock out one of the top four teams en route to St. Louis.

6. Arizona
Record: 20-10 (11-7 Pac-10)
Rank: No. 16 ESPN/USA Today, No. 21 AP
Outcome: Lost in opening round (Seton Hall 80-76)

What we like: The starting lineup. The much-maligned Wildcats have one of the most talented starting lineups in the country. Their poor finish a year ago in the Pac-10 (third behind Washington is poor for these guys) and losing in the first round was hard to explain based on their skill level. Losing Andre Iguodala hurts their versatility. But look what's left -- Channing Frye at center, Hassan Adams inside, Salim Stoudamire at shooting guard and Mustafa Shakur at the point. That's four of the best players at their positions in the country. The freshman class is not just talented, but should fit right into roles. Getting Mohamed Tangara to push Isaiah Fox (back from a knee injury) gives the Wildcats the necessary competition at power forward.

Causes for concern: Stoudamire. If (and this is a big if) Stoudamire plays up to his potential and doesn't drift mentally or pout, then the Wildcats don't have to fret. If Stoudamire isn't following the program, then the Wildcats could have issues. Associate head coach Jim Rosborough jokingly told Stoudamire recently he should practice his pout-faced walk back to the bench for when he's taken out for making mistakes.

Keep an eye on: Jawann McClellan. The coaching staff picked him out as one of the freshmen who isn't getting the pub but could end up being one of the biggest contributors. Having a wing to play behind Stoudamire and push him could prove invaluable. The Wildcats need someone to hang over Stoudamire's head.

Non-conference nightmare: Arizona should get to New York in the Preseason NIT. Facing Wake Forest in a possible final should be its toughest non-conference game. But the trap game is at Virginia before the trip to Manhattan, as the Cavaliers desperately need a shelf-life non-conference win that will last them the entire season. Playing Mississippi State in the John Wooden Classic will challenge the inside game and going to Marquette in December could prove dicey, too.

Best-case scenario: This team has the goods to get to the Final Four and win the whole thing. They won't have as much pressure as the 2001 Wildcats. No one will be stunned, though, if this team bows out in the Sweet 16.

7. Connecticut
Record: 20-10 (11-7 Pac-10)
Rank: No. 9 ESPN/USA Today, No. 9 AP
Outcome: Won national championship (Georgia Tech 82-73)

What we like: The returning players and newcomers are talented enough to take this team back to the Final Four. The frontline of Charlie Villanueva, Josh Boone and Ed Nelson is a strong combination of offense, shot-blocking, rebounding and toughness. Freshman Rudy Gay could be the national rookie of the year. He has Carmelo Anthony-like ability to carry this team to the Big East title and beyond. The point guard job should fall to Marcus Williams, who missed the second semester a year ago due to poor academic performance. Rashad Anderson and Denham Brown are streaky shooters that could carry the team in big games. Jim Calhoun is committed to getting the Huskies back in position to win another title. Why should anyone doubt his ability to get it done again?

Causes for concern: Leadership. The early word is that Williams is the one gathering the team together for workouts. It's hard to imagine the one player who was ineligible during the second semester as the player who could be the new leader on this team. One would think it would be a player who actually participated in the national title run in March. But if Williams can make it work then, well, OK.

Keep an eye on: Marcus White. If White can shed nagging injuries, he has the potential to be a factor inside. The Huskies need a fourth power player. Hilton Armstrong hasn't been able to add the necessary weight. White has the better body to be more of a force.

Non-conference nightmare: There isn't much before New Year's. The Huskies obviously don't feel too threatened by their November and December schedule -- they're taking a week-long trip to London during Thanksgiving week. The home game against Indiana should be a "W." The tough games come in January and February when the Huskies go to Oklahoma and get North Carolina at home.

Best-case scenario: The Huskies have the talent to get to the Final Four and win another title. The odds are against it, but it's not a reach. The more likely scenario is for this squad to fall a game or two short.

8. Oklahoma State
Record: 31-4 (14-2 Big 12)
Rank: No. 7 ESPN/USA Today, No. 7 AP
Outcome: Lost in Final Four (Georgia Tech 67-65)

What we like: They've got the experience to make it back to the Final Four. Sure, they lost Big 12 player of the year winner Tony Allen. But the returning players are all winners and improved. John Lucas is as tough a point as there is at the position. He's worked extensively on his shot and should be even more effective. Joey Graham is the hit of the summer and could be the Big 12 player of the year, if he's used effectively. Daniel Bobik is a stand-still shooter who, when on, is a consistent zone buster. Ivan McFarlin is a tough, hard-nosed, undersized finisher inside. Stephen Graham could be a sleeper if he becomes the defensive stopper that he's capable of becoming. This team hardly loses at home.

Causes for concern: Allen brought necessary toughness a year ago. Who will fill that role? The early favorite is Graham. Someone has to take on that role for the Cowboys to win games at Oklahoma and Missouri.

Keep an eye on: Aaron Pettway and Jameson Curry. The Cowboys need another scorer and power player in the post. The JC transfer comes in with decent hype. If he can be the answer and push for starter minutes then Oklahoma State can push Kansas in the Big 12. They need another scorer. The other one could end up being Curry. The Cowboys took a chance on Curry after his scholarship was dumped by North Carolina because of legal issues.

Non-conference nightmare: The Cowboys toughened up the schedule by playing Syracuse in New York and Gonzaga in Las Vegas. The Cowboys will find out how tough they are more so with the game in New York.

Best-case scenario: The Cowboys have the drive to get back to the Final Four but Allen's intangible toughness and late-game play could be the one aspect that keeps Oklahoma State a round or two shy of the Final Four.

9. Illinois
Record: 26-7 (13-3 Big Ten)
Rank: No. 13 ESPN/USA Today, No. 12 AP
Outcome: Lost in Sweet 16 (Duke 72-62)

What we like: The backcourt. Dee Brown and Deron Williams are two of most productive tandem guards in the country. Both players can light up a team for 20-plus points and they're not a poor defensive tandem either. Brown has been dealing with a stress fracture in his shin all summer, but he claims he's going to be fine for the start of the season. Luther Head doesn't get the credit he deserves. He could be "the guy" this season since he has the potential to be a 20-point scorer. Roger Powell declared for the NBA draft but came to his senses and realized he's not even a second-round player yet. James Augustine is a better-than-advertised rebounder, shot blocker and producer of steals.

Causes for concern: The rest of the inside game is still a question. The players say Nick Smith has put on some weight and is ready for a breakthrough season. But the slender Smith is still on-again, off-again. When he's on, the Illini are much more of a complete team. Brian Randle has the potential to be more of a force if he applies himself. Jack Ingram is rather unknown nationally, but he's another candidate to add some production in the post.

Keep an eye on: Head. The coaching staff and players keep raving about how he could be a star. If that occurs, Illinois could make the Final Four run that many predict. The Illini would have three perimeter players capable of taking over a game.

Non-conference nightmare: Bruce Weber hasn't shied away from playing tough games prior to New Year's. Illinois plays Gonzaga in Indianapolis, Wake Forest during the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, at Arkansas and vs. Oregon and Missouri. Illinois definitely will be tested before the Big Ten.

Best-case scenario: Lots of folks are predicting an Illini national title. We're not ready to go there because of our concerns inside. It's still plausible, but we need to see more throughout the season before we're committed to putting Illinois in St. Louis.

10. Maryland
Record: 20-12 (7-9 ACC)
Rank: Unranked
Outcome: Lost in second round (Syracuse 72-70)

What we like: Remember, this team won the ACC tournament. That alone means the Terps are worthy of our attention in the top 10. The Terps only lost Jamar Smith. They have toughness, leadership and production at the point with John Gilchrist, a rising star in Nik Caner-Medley and apparently a newfound producer in the post in Travis Garrison (see his double-doubles on a trip to Italy). The supporting players like defensive stopper D.J. Strawberry and wing Chris McCray know their roles. The team didn't need to add much but now has a backup point guard in Sterling Ledbetter. And how can we not like Gary Williams' ability to motivate this team for a run at the Final Four. This team isn't filled with all-Americans but it does have the pieces he needs to put together a run to the Final Four.

Causes for concern: The inside game still needs more than just Garrison and Caner-Medley when the Terps decide to go inside. That means players like Ekene Ibekwe as well as Hassan Fofana must become more productive. If they can get a consistent offensive presence going and start to keep the power players away from easy buckets then the Terps have a shot to go deep in March.

Keep an eye on: Ibekwe. He scored 10 points and grabbed seven rebounds in the five games in Italy. If he can be a consistent scorer like that during the season then the Terps might have solved one of their issues. They need someone, other than Garrison, to produce like that for them on a consistent basis.

Non-conference nightmare: The Terps will have a tough time in Madison against Wisconsin in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. The Terps could face either George Washington or Michigan State in the BB&T in December. The toughest game could be Memphis in Springfield in the Hall of Fame Game. That should test the Terps' quickness and defensive ability to stop the dribble penetration that they will see in the ACC.

Best-case scenario: The Terps are an interesting pick for No. 10. They don't have the star talent that some other teams do below them but they have one of the best teams and a top-10 pick is warranted on how they finished a year ago. The Final Four could be a reach. The Elite Eight isn't.

Next: Nos. 11-25