Usual suspects should return to top form

A month in Italy showed me how completely and irrevocably American I am in every way. Not the least of which was the fact that in my mind, when dinner is over, it's over -- let's get the check and move on. In Italy, it seemed that when dinner was over, it might not actually be over for another hour. Or two.

Apparently, there is this sentiment that we Americans need to slow down and relax and not be in such a rush to get to the next "thing."

Yeah, sure, whatever. College hoops season ended Tuesday with Maryland's win over Duke, so let's slow down ... relax ... OK, now it's time to look at next season.

Provided there are no injuries or other unforeseen circumstances, we can all agree to give Maryland the preseason No. 1 vote for 2006-07, correct?

The NCAA champion Terps bring back all starters -- Crystal Langhorne, Laura Harper, Shay Doron, Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman -- and key reserves.

Now Maryland can take its turn wearing the bull's-eye.

Considering how confident the Maryland kids played and talked all during this NCAA Tournament, they seem to be ready for that. The weight of expectations can be a drag if you let it, so that's the next challenge for the Terps and coach Brenda Frese.

What about No. 2? Let's say Stanford, which loses sharpshooter Krista Rappahahn but has all other key players back, led by Candice Wiggins and Brooke Smith, and brings in a strong recruiting class. Before anyone knocks the Cardinal's three consecutive Elite Eight losses, realize that this team in many ways overachieved to get that far. Next season, though, Stanford should be in a favorite's role to make the program's seventh Final Four.

I'll go out just very slightly on a limb and pick Duke No. 3. Sure, the Blue Devils lose a lot in Monique Currie, Mistie Williams and Jessica Foley.

But Duke's cupboard is still jam-packed. Alison Bales was terrific during the NCAA Tournament, and she and Chante Black will anchor the inside for Duke next season. Guard Lindsey Harding is the best on-ball defender in the college game, and she'll be back for her senior year. Look for guard Wanisha Smith to have a strong junior season.

People like to take shots at Duke and coach Gail Goestenkors for not winning a title yet. They forget, perhaps, that Tennessee coach Pat Summitt went to two AIAW finals and three NCAA Final Fours and still had no title; the first of her six championships came in 1987.

Duke's talent pool is deep and will keep being replenished by Goestenkors. What the Blue Devils do need is to find the right vocal leader. Maybe it's Abby Waner. She'll be just a sophomore next season, but she's got the personality and the game to do it.

For No. 4, I'll go with Tennessee. Things haven't worked out quite as expected the past two seasons for Summitt's crew, in large part because of injuries. Why Sade Wiley-Gatewood left this team midseason to go to Maryland is a mystery; the point guard job was hers in Knoxville. But Tennessee has moved on, and despite senior losses, it's still Tennessee. This squad will be very hungry next season, and Candace Parker is just beginning to show all the things she can do.

At the No. 5 slot is North Carolina. La'Tangela Atkinson is a big loss, and Jessica Sell was a pretty dependable spot shooter. Other Tar Heels will need to fill in for them next season. Also, North Carolina may look at the fact that Maryland was able to beat the Heels at their own game in the Final Four.

Then again, Maryland was the only team North Carolina lost to this season. It seems unlikely you're ever going to see a Tar Heels team under coach Sylvia Hatchell that makes major adjustments in games or tries to do a lot beyond playing a style that capitalizes on physical superiority. It's worked pretty well there. And North Carolina will have the pieces in place to make it work again, led by point guard Ivory Latta and forward Erlana Larkins, the best-by-far Tar Heel at this year's Final Four.

Next, at No. 6, is Oklahoma. Admittedly, no team out of this projected top 10 is more dependent on the health and success of one player than the Sooners are. But if Courtney Paris is in good shape, Oklahoma is. The Sooners' guards have to be more reliable in terms of scoring against the very best competition.

Purdue, under new coach Sharon Versyp, is No. 7, led by seniors-to-be Katie Gearlds and Erin Lawless. Post player Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton, who'll be a junior, also returns. In terms of making a quick and seamless transition, given former coach Kristy Curry's departure for Texas Tech, it seems that former Boilermaker Versyp, who spent this past season at Indiana, was the right choice.

Connecticut is the No. 8 pick. There is a lot up in the air with the Huskies, considering Ann Strother, Barbara Turner and Willnett Crockett move on, while junior-to-be Charde Houston has had the gauntlet thrown down by coach Geno Auriemma.

Houston has to became a real UConn player -- someone who goes hard all of the time, not just when she feels like it -- if this is going to work. She knows it, and she's certainly capable of it. If she can do that, and if Tina Charles steps in strongly as a freshman, then UConn will have a new look but similar results.

The projected No. 9, LSU, loses its superwoman, Seimone Augustus, and key role players Scholanda Hoston and Florence Williams. But 6-foot-6 Sylvia Fowles makes a great centerpiece, Erica White will be in her second full year as starting point guard and recruit Alison Hightower is a superstar-in-waiting. LSU probably will lose more games next season but should still be there near the top heading into March.

No. 10 Georgia should get a no-injuries-allowed pass for next season, since coach Andy Landers had to deal with so many of them this season. He loses senior guards Sherill Baker and Alexis Kendrick, but Cori Chambers and Janese Hardrick are back. As is post player Tasha Humphrey, who was a Kodak All-American this season as a sophomore.

Of course, if you think top-10 projections in April for next season are not really worth much ... you're right. And picking an entire top 25 is really a crap shoot. It guarantees at least a few e-mails saying, "You gigantic idiot! How could you leave out [my team]?"

Realize that projections really don't mean anything at all. It's just speculation; we all desperately have to find things to do in order to cope with the depression of the season being finished.

And if I left your team out, I just don't know any better. That said, here goes.

I debated whether Ohio State should be in that top 10. But the Buckeyes face some questions, despite the return of Kodak All-American Jessica Davenport inside. The Buckeyes' guard strength takes a big hit because of graduation, plus senior-to-be Brandie Hoskins ruptured her Achilles' tendon in the second-round loss to Boston College.

That rehab typically runs eight months to a year. Everybody is different in terms of recovery, so it's possible that she could return next season.

But I'd be surprised if the Buckeyes were fully counting on it. Let's put Ohio State at No. 11.

At Nos. 12, 13 and 14, I'll say Texas, Arizona State and Texas A&M. Texas has all kinds of talent, if it stays healthy. The Longhorns had a very difficult year with injuries, which was compounded by the nonconference schedule they play. Expect Texas to be back to normal next season, contending for a Big 12 championship in Tiffany Jackson's senior year.

The Sun Devils return all but one starter, forward Kristen Kovesdy. So they'll have a lot of experience, and they play a physical style of defense that a lot of opponents just don't handle well.

Speaking of that, Texas A&M under Gary Blair takes great pride in being the biggest pest you can imagine on defense, and the Aggies' offensive consistency took a step forward the past season. This season, Blair got the program into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996, and don't be surprised to see the Aggies go further than the first round in 2007.

At Nos. 15, 16 and 17, it's Southern Cal, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

Mark Trakh's USC team loses only one senior, Meghan Gnekow, and has advanced to the NCAA Tournament's second round the past two seasons after not even making the field the previous seven seasons under coach Chris Gobrecht.

Kentucky, which got its first victory over Tennessee this season since the invention of the light bulb (OK, it was the first since 1986), returns its top five scorers, led by Samantha Mahoney.

Vandy definitely could end up higher than this projection if the Commodores play well next season. Carla Thomas, Caroline Williams, Liz Sherwood and Dee Davis are all returning.

At Nos. 18, 19 and 20, we'll pick Kansas State, Boston College and New Mexico.

K-State, which won the WNIT title, returns all five starters and loses just one senior. Watch out for Wildcats point guard Shalee Lehning, who ended her season with a triple-double. Boston College knocked off top-seeded Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament this year, rallying from a subpar finish to the regular season. Kindyll Dorsey and Kathrin Ress will be back to lead the Golden Eagles. New Mexico, possibly the Mountain West favorite for 2007, returns leading scorers Dionne Marsh and Katie Montgomery.

Now for the final five -- as if anybody really has any idea during the season -- I'll take George Washington, Notre Dame, Baylor, Rutgers and TCU.

In October, a lot of things could look different, of course.

So ... how long is it until October?

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.