Dick Vitale: My Top 40 countdown going into the men's college basketball season

The return of Armando Bacot has Tar Heels fans thinking about a national championship in 2023. USA Today Sports

I've been on the sidelines long enough. I cannot wait to sit courtside, interacting with the great fans of the sport.

The upcoming season figures to be special. The college landscape presents so many impressive teams. It is a marathon and not a sprint, so we will see which team plays its best through March Madness.

Here is a look at my preseason top 40 rankings. There are a few surprises in here. Check it out and follow it all season to see how my projections fared vs. the actual AP Top 25.

No. 1. North Carolina

Hubert Davis was one half away from a national championship in his first season as head coach. Kansas ended that dream, but the Tar Heels are loaded again. Most of his starting lineup is back, led by Armando Bacot. He averaged 16.3 points per game and 13.1 rebounds per game, shot 57% from the field and blocked 65 shots last season. Caleb Love and RJ Davis could be the best backcourt in college basketball this season. Leaky Black also returns, and the familiarity of the veterans is a major plus. Northwestern transfer Pete Nance provides size up front.

No. 2. Kentucky

Wildcat fans will forget about the NCAA tournament opening-round stunner vs. Saint Peter's. John Calipari has arguably the best returning player in Oscar Tshiebwe. He will be coming off a minor knee procedure but should still be a double-double machine. He will be even stronger with added experience. Sahvir Wheeler is one of the nation's premier passers. Calipari has added a couple of key diaper dandies in Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston and they should have an immediate impact. Big Blue Nation has another Final Four contender.

No. 3. Arkansas

Eric Musselman has done a solid job with the Razorbacks and he has another deep and talented squad. He has one of the nation's most anticipated diaper dandies in Nick Smith. The transfer portal was vital again as Trevon Brazile from Missouri, Rickey Council from Wichita State, Jalen Graham from Arizona State and a duo from Rhode Island in Makhi and Makhel Mitchell come in. Musselman has won 53 games over the last two years and expects more big things.

No. 4. Houston

If Marcus Sasser can return to form, the Cougars will be tough to beat. Sasser suffered a season-ending foot injury 12 games into the last campaign. Jamal Shead is back after a strong showing in last year's NCAA tournament. Reggie Chaney is a veteran contributor up front. Tramon Mark also returns after an injury-plagued season. Then add diaper dandy Jarace Walker and the Cougars should have something special again.

No. 5. Gonzaga

The return of Drew Timme has the fans in Spokane excited. It also helps to have Julian Strawther and Rashir Bolton back. You will see other veterans take advantage of the opportunity to step into greater roles. Look for Nolan Hickman and Hunter Salis to become bigger factors for Mark Few. The transfer portal is always helpful and Chattanooga's Malachi Smith is a big-time addition. Few also brought in Efton Reid from LSU.

No. 6. Creighton

The Bluejays already had a strong nucleus returning, then Baylor Scheierman transferred in from South Dakota State; he was the Summit League's top rebounder and a big plus at 6-7. Ryan Nembhard is coming back from a wrist injury. Add veterans like Ryan Kalkbrenner, Arthur Kaluma and Trey Alexander, and this is clearly the favorite in the competitive Big East.

No. 7. Kansas

Rock, chalk, Jayhawk cut down the nets last season and should compete again. Jalen Wilson will be an important force up front. Bill Self brought in Texas Tech transfer guard Kevin McCullar to help out. Newcomers Gradey Dick, MJ Rice and Ernest Udeh should contribute early on. Dajuan Harris is a veteran who will be expected to contribute more.

No. 8 Duke

All eyes will be on new coach Jon Scheyer as he takes over from Mike Krzyzewski. He is aided by one of the top recruiting classes. Fans will learn about Dariq Whitehead (coming off a foot injury), Dereck Lively, and Kyle Filipowski. Scheyer has a veteran returning in Jeremy Roach to provide leadership in the backcourt. Illinois transfer Jacob Grandison, Northwestern transfer Ryan Young and Harvard transfer Kale Catchings will help.

No. 9. UCLA

Mick Cronin has the Pac-12 favorite and the return of Jaime Jaquez is the key. He averaged 14 PPG last season and should be even more productive with Johnny Juzang gone. Tyger Campbell is one of the premier passers and an All-Rolls Royce guard. Several youngsters will step into prominent roles, including guard Amari Bailey and big man Adam Bona.

No. 10. Tennessee

Rick Barnes has posted 26 or more wins over three of the last five seasons. Santiago Vescovi is a reliable veteran in the backcourt who improved as last season progressed. Josiah-Jordan James should be a bigger factor returning. A lot is expected from the Indiana State transfer, guard Tyreke Key. He sat out last season following shoulder surgery but earned All-MVC honors twice.

No. 11. Baylor

Scott Drew, who has 55 wins over the last two seasons, has a nice blend of veterans, diaper dandies and transfers. Veterans Adam Flagler, LJ Cryer and Flo Thamba have experience in a winning environment; Flagler and Cryer averaged in double figures last season. Diaper dandy Kevonte George is highly regarded. Jalen Bridges, a transfer from West Virginia, will have an impact.

No. 12. Texas

Chris Beard has the Longhorns fired up in a new arena. He built through transfers last year and several are back, including Marcus Carr (who lost 20 pounds), Teddy Allen, Christian Bishop and Dylan Disu. He then added one of the best this year in Iowa State transfer Tyreke Hunter. There is also diaper dandy Dillon Mitchell, one of the top recruits in America.

No. 13. Villanova

The last time the Wildcats started a season with someone other than Jay Wright as head coach was 2001-01 (Steve Lappas). Kyle Neptune takes over and the cupboard isn't bare. Eric Dixon and Brandon Slater are back. Neptune got bad news when Cam Whitmore had thumb surgery. Villanova is hoping for an in-season return from injured Justin Moore.

No. 14. TCU

Jamie Dixon has one of the nation's premier players in Mike Miles, who should increase on last year's 15.4 PPG. Chuck O'Bannon is also back with greater expectations. While the Horned Frogs struggled down the stretch last season, the familiarity of the returning players is a plus.

No. 15. Arizona

Last year, Tommy Lloyd led the Wildcats to a surprising season. After taking over for Sean Miller, the expectations were not that high, and were exceeded big time! Bennedict Mathurin is gone so Azuolas Tubelis will become the player to watch. The addition of guard Courtney Ramey from Texas will add experience and leadership.

No. 16. Auburn

The SEC is loaded and the Tigers will be in the picture. Bruce Pearl returns Wendell Green and K.D. Johnson. The addition of Morehead State transfer Johni Broome will be a major factor up front. If Allan Flanagan can come back healthy, he can make a difference. Diaper dandy Johan Traore is expected to have an immediate impact, and another freshman, Chance Westry, will be worth a look.

No. 17. Indiana

Is this the year the Hoosiers return to prominence in the Big Ten? Mike Woodson's team is one of the favorites. The Hoosiers have the Big Ten preseason player of the year in Trayce Jackson-Davis. He is a dominant player as a scorer and a glass-eater. Indiana also welcomes Jalen Hood-Schifino, a 6-6 forward who was voted Big Ten preseason freshman of the year. Xavier Johnson is expected to improve on his 12 PPG.

No. 18. Ohio State

Don't sleep on Chris Holtmann and the Buckeyes. Ohio State has one of the most vital transfers in 6-4 Sean McNeil from West Virginia. He averaged 12.2 PPG in each of the last two seasons. They also added veteran forward Isaac Likekele from Oklahoma State. Holtmann also welcomes back Justice Sueing and Zed Key.

No. 19. Michigan

Hunter Dickinson is the big man on campus in Ann Arbor. He can score and defend inside and is a very good passer. The Wolverines can expect a double-double many nights. He has help from the transfer portal in Princeton guard Jaelin Llewellyn and former Dukie Joey Baker. Fourth-year coach Juwan Howard has five diaper dandies coming in to help strengthen the roster.

No. 20. Texas Tech

Red Raider fans are expecting another big year. The Red Raiders have won 27 or more games in three of the last five years. Coach Mark Adams is expecting even more. Kevin Obanor returns up front. The key in Lubbock once again is the portal. Add Fardaws Aimaq, the talented big from Utah Valley State, De'Vion Harmon from Oregon, Daniel Batcho from Arizona, Jaylon Tyson from Texas and Kerwin Walton from North Carolina.

No. 21. Alabama

Nate Oats has 2021 SEC tournament MOP Jahvon Quinerly leading the returning veterans. There are diaper dandies to watch in Brandon Miller and Jaden Bradley, plus a number of transfers. Mark Sears comes in from Ohio, Nimari Burnett from Texas Tech is now healthy and Noah Clowney comes from Furman. It may take time to build chemistry with so many new players, but they will get stronger as the season progresses. The talent is there.

No. 22. Michigan State

The Spartans have a number of returning veterans that will be familiar with each other. Joey Hauser, Malik Hall, A. J. Hoggard and Tyson Walker all return and figure to give Tom Izzo valuable experience. Izzo plays a wild nonconference schedule including Kentucky, Gonzaga, Villanova, Alabama, Notre Dame and a trip to the Phil Knight event in Portland.

No. 23. Virginia

Tony Bennett is happy to return the majority of his starting lineup. Reece Beekman, Kihei Clark, Armaan Franklin and Jayden Gardner provide valuable experience to a program that dominates on defense. Gardner was the team's leading scorer last season. Kadin Shedrick likely will round out the starting lineup. Ohio University transfer Ben Vander Plas figures to contribute, adding depth.

No. 24. UConn

Danny Hurley has rebuilt the Huskies program in a short time and expectations are growing. Adama Sanogo has to be more consistent up front, but he has the potential for a big season. Jordan Hawkins made the All-Big East freshman team and more great things are expected. Transfers will also help: Tristen Newton from East Carolina, Joey Calcaterra from San Diego, Nahiem Alleyne from Virginia Tech and Hassan Diarra from Texas A&M.

No. 25. Notre Dame

I saw Mike Brey's team workout before the season and I was very impressed. I think the Irish will be underrated by many. Veterans Nate Laszewski, Dane Goodman and Cormac Ryan have great experience and leadership skills. Niagara transfer Marcus Hammond will be a nice addition. JJ Starling leads a group of diaper dandies that are exciting Brey.

The rest of my top 40:

26. Oregon
27. Florida
28. Illinois
29. Texas A&M
30. San Diego State
31. Purdue
32. Dayton
33. Florida State
34. Xavier
35. Miami-Florida
36. St. John's
37. Saint Louis
38. Providence
39. USC
40. Cincinnati