Fear not, hardwood fans, The Minutes is back to usher in a new season

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball, where we've waited long enough to once again see Stephen Curry (1) shoot jumpers:

Who's No. 2?

We all know who's No. 1. That would be North Carolina (2), practically the biggest preseason favorite since John Wooden was re-stocking superstars annually at Westwood. Barack Obama carried Washington, D.C., by a smaller margin than the Tar Heels have carried every preseason poll.

There were 103 first-place votes cast in the combined AP and USA Today Top 25s, and every one of them went Carolina blue. Not even defending champion Florida and its flotilla of draft picks came close to that kind of unanimity in the 2006-07 preseason poll.

So the real question of the preseason is who will rise to give the Tar Heels the biggest challenge.

The leading contenders:

Louisville (3). The Cardinals have a matchup nightmare in Earl Clark, a do-it-all senior in Terrence Williams, a potential star in freshman Samardo Samuels, quality depth and the only coach to take three schools to the Final Four. Championship-caliber point-guard play could be the only hitch.

Duke (4). The Blue Devils have to overcome their recent track record of being ordinary in March, but this team might have the goods to do that -- if it finds someone who can clog the middle defensively and get some rebounds. There are about four candidates (Brian Zoubek, Miles Plumlee, Lance Thomas, Olek Czyz) but none proven.

Connecticut (5). The Huskies have a differentiating defensive option: 7-foot-3 deterrent Hasheem Thabeet, who combines with tenacious forward Jeff Adrien to create a powerhouse interior tandem. There's plenty of talent on the perimeter -- but also enough character questions to make one wonder whether this team can hold it together all season.

Michigan State (6). Tom Izzo is a great coach with a solid nucleus to build this team around in guard Kalin Lucas, forward Raymar Morgan and center Goran Suton. The Minutes caught State's Midnight Madness in person and was wowed by Suton's body transformation. And keep an eye on freshman forward Delvon Roe, who will be a star as soon as his surgically repaired knees allow him to be. The only nagging concern will be perimeter shooting, especially at key moments, now that Drew Neitzel is finally gone after 17 seasons in East Lansing.

UCLA (7). The Minutes is tired of seeing the Bruins make the Final Four only to be routed by an athletically superior and more offensively nimble team. Time to try something more than the pick-and-roll 25 seconds into the shot clock, OK, Ben Howland? However, UCLA's remarkable consistency -- in recruiting and in defensive effort -- keeps it in the nation's elite. The Bruins aren't going away anytime soon.

Doomsday Scenarios, Carolina Blue Version

Five ways North Carolina doesn't win the national title:

A flying Duke elbow drop (8) in the regular-season finale puts Hansbrough in a mask again, just in time for the postseason. You might recall that his numbers fell off appreciably in the 2007 ACC and NCAA tournaments while he was playing with a busted-up face.

Indifferent defense (9) -- a concern for much of last season -- meets a hot team at just the wrong time. The Tar Heels weren't great at stopping penetration in '07-08 and don't have a great shot-blocker on the roster in '08-09. As much as Roy Williams harped on them last season, the lapses never were fully overcome.

After playing unselfishly for a couple of years, the Heels' four potential first-round draft picks contract NBA-itis (10) and stop sharing the basketball. (Hard to see Williams letting that happen, but you never know -- at least two juniors have to be thinking paycheck after this season, to go along with seniors Hansbrough and Danny Green.)

Kansas shows up (11) in Carolina's NCAA bracket. That leaves ol' Roy a quivering mass of conflicted emotional goo, and the Heels come out unprepared again. (See: 40-12 first-half deficit last year in the Alamodome.)

Some lucky-plucky opponent goes Villanova '85 (12) on the Heels, making 78 percent of its field goals and getting a 5-for-5 shooting game from some previously anonymous dude off the bench.

Psych Ward

We all know Hansbrough's nickname is Psycho T (13). That's markedly more clever than most modern nicknames, which consist of a first initial and the first syllable of the surname. (T-Hans? Yawn.) But really now, we know where the true lunatics of college basketball operate, and it's not the paint. It's the sideline.

The Minutes' All-Nuts Coaching Squad:

Psycho G. That's Bobby Gonzalez (14) of Seton Hall, who could not be less popular within his profession if he were a gas-station owner still charging $4 a gallon. Decorum could cost him his job well before losses ever do -- although an 11-23 record in Big East play won't dazzle anyone, either.

Psycho C. That's Memphis coach John Calipari (15), whose coaching acumen is rivaled only by his raging paranoia.

Psycho P. Tennessee's shirtless wonder/agent orange, Bruce Pearl (16).

Psycho B. Bob Huggins (17) of West Virginia, for years of unrestrained sideline bellowing, scowling and questionable haberdashery. (See last year's mustard-yellow suit for details.)

Psycho D. UAB's Mike Davis (18) is not a lunatic at heart, but he still deserves mention for his all-time in-game meltdown while coach at Indiana, when he ran around the floor smacking himself in the forehead after a no-call in the final seconds of a close loss to Kentucky.

Five Strange Sights

Things The Minutes never thought it would see, but will in 2008-09:

Indiana (19) scrambling to win 10 games. The Hoosiers made a great hire in Tom Crean, but he inherits a decimated program. With a roster that would struggle in the MAC, Crean is Big Ten Coach of the Year if the Hoosiers put double digits in the win column.

Mike Montgomery (20) on the visitor's bench in Maples Pavilion. Fortunately for the new California coach, there is a modicum of perspective in the Bay Area. So the Golden Bears' Jan. 17 trip to Stanford shouldn't be quite as perilous as, say, Louisville coach Rick Pitino returning to Rupp Arena for the first time or Nick Saban coaching Alabama in Tiger Stadium. But don't confuse perspective with passivity. Monty will still get an earful.

Trent Johnson (21) at LSU. Stanford's old coach apparently took one look at a future that didn't include a 7-foot Lopez and fled The Farm, landing in a strange land far away. The only thing stranger is the fact that he was hired by athletic director Joe Alleva, who previously spent more than 30 years at Duke. The Minutes has to wonder whether the two men have sat down at some point in time and wondered what the hell they're doing in Baton Rouge. Maybe Johnson, a West Coast lifer, works out well in Dixie, but on paper it's a weird fit.

Miami the basketball power (22). The football factory has had some pretty good hoops teams in recent years, but never one ranked as high as 17th in the preseason AP poll. Star guard Jack McClinton told the Miami Herald the goal is to win a national championship. Coach Frank Haith hastened to "clarify" that at Hurricanes media day, undoubtedly aware that even an ACC championship would be a Herculean feat. Regardless, the ACC could be getting the hoped-for Miami Factor sooner in basketball than it has in football.

The addition of Blue Hose (23) to the Division I lexicon. The Presbyterian Blue Hose actually moved up to the highest level last season, but this year they officially join a conference -- the Big South. If the team doesn't wear blue knee socks, The Minutes will be outraged.

Impact Freshmen

This season's freshman class isn't like last season's -- but that doesn't mean there won't be a bunch of instant-impact rookies. Five guys The Minutes expects to see playing major roles on major contenders:

Willie Warren (24), Oklahoma. The big, athletic guard averaged 15 points per game in the Sooners' two exhibition games and should provide the offensive perimeter punch to complement Blake Griffin's interior muscle.

Samardo Samuels (25), Louisville. He'll get as many of departed center David Padgett's minutes as he can handle. And after averaging 24.5 points in two exhibition games, it's fair to say he can handle a lot.

Jrue Holiday (26), UCLA. The natural (and sensational) point guard will team with fellow PG Darren Collison in the backcourt. Hard not to foresee them making it work. Holiday averaged 11.5 points per game, four assists and three steals in two exhibition games.

DeMar DeRozan (27), USC. Explosive wing player could lead the Trojans in scoring this season.

Tyreke Evans (28), Memphis. Plenty of minutes (and shots) available with the departures of Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts. Evans has been slowed by a preseason ankle injury but will be counted on heavily when the real games get going.

Honorable mention: B.J. Mullens, Ohio State; JaMychal Green, Alabama; Scotty Hopson, Tennessee; Greg Monroe, Georgetown; Al-Farouq Aminu, Wake Forest.

Home-court Advantage -- It's A Midwestern Thing

According to the College Basketball Prospectus, the top five leagues in 2007-08 home-court winning percentage are all in the nation's heartland (29). Why that is, The Minutes does not know. But we're open to hearing all theories. In the meantime, the top five:

1. Mid-American Conference, .716 winning percentage.

2. Missouri Valley, .689.

3. (tie) Horizon League and the Summit League, .678.

5. Big 12, .677.

Clearly, you don't just walk into the Memorial Athletics and Convocation Center (Kent State), the Wolstein Center (Cleveland State) or Roberts Stadium (Evansville) and expect to come out with a victory.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Northeast Conference, which last year actually recorded an aggregate losing home record: 44-54, a .455 winning percentage. Which means you do just walk into the Rothman Center (Fairleigh Dickinson), the William H. Pitt Center (Sacred Heart) or the Spiro Sports Center (Wagner) and expect to come out with a victory.

And the one place you absolutely do not go into and win is the Marriott Center (30), where host BYU brings a 47-game winning streak into this season.

Five Dates To Get Intimate With The Tube

Before the NCAA tournament starts:

Nov. 26 (31) -- Maui Invitational final night (featuring North Carolina, Notre Dame, Texas, Alabama and Oregon). Plus the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off (featuring Purdue, Oklahoma and Arizona).

Nov. 28 (32) -- Last two games of the NIT Season Tip-Off, semifinals of the Old Spice Classic (possibly Tennessee, Georgetown, Michigan State, Gonzaga).

Jan. 7 (33) -- Davidson visits Duke at 7 (ESPN). Gonzaga visits Tennessee at 9 (ESPN2). Giant killers on tour.

Jan. 12 (34) -- Notre Dame at Louisville at 7 (ESPN). Texas at Oklahoma at 9 (ESPN). Big Monday, indeed.

Feb. 11 (35) -- Syracuse at Connecticut at 7 (ESPN). North Carolina at Duke at 9 (ESPN). If the Tar Heels haven't lost by then, this could be their toughest challenge. And it's always entertaining to watch the Krzyzewski women holler for traveling calls on Hansbrough.

(Honorable mention to Dec. 4, which features two marquee matchups in the Big 12-Pac-10 Hardwood Series: UCLA at Texas and USC at Oklahoma. And, ya know, Selection Sunday is usually worth watching, as well.)

Five Fearless Predictions

Kansas (36) will not backslide far. Even after losing Mario "The Shot" Chalmers, Russell Robinson, Brandon Rush, Darnell Jackson and Darrell Arthur, the Jayhawks have talent. With Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich and some talented newcomers, Kansas will finish no worse than third in the Big 12.

Don't sleep on Ohio State (37). Freshman 7-foot center B.J. Mullens will live up to the hype. Combine him and the rest of a strong freshman class with a core of David Lighty, Evan Turner and Jon Diebler, and there is enough in Thad Matta's arsenal to push Michigan State and Purdue in the Big Ten.

The bottom will fall out on a highly touted team from the Big East (38). The league is simply too tough for every team picked in the top half to sustain success. Most likely candidates for a lapse: Marquette, Villanova and Georgetown.

North Carolina and Louisville will reprise their pitched regional final battle of '08 for bigger stakes in '09, playing for the national title in dazzling downtown Detroit. Carolina will prevail in a notably sterile Ford Field (39).

The Minutes will find a way to work Ashley Judd (40) into every column.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.