Ranking the top 10 conferences (cont.)
LOCK (1): Duke
The defending national champs return loaded and it would be shocking if the Blue Devils don't earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. With their typical ambitious-but-location-friendly nonleague schedule and an ACC that's not as robust as it used to be, Duke likely will be No. 1 in the RPI at season's end.
SHOULD BE IN (3): North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Florida State
Virginia Tech has a chance to be the second-best team in the ACC with Malcolm Delaney and a host of other returnees, but will be hampered by the loss of J.T. Thompson (the Hokies are still waiting for medical clearance for big man Allan Chaney, a Florida transfer). North Carolina, with freshman Harrison Barnes (a possible national player of the year candidate) and John Henson, should comfortably return to the NCAAs despite last season's meltdown and some significant offseason personnel losses. Florida State will miss Solomon Alabi's presence inside, but still has a solid returning core from last season's NCAA team, led by Chris Singleton.
IN THE MIX (3): N.C. State, Clemson and Maryland
The Wolfpack may be low here; they could finish as high as second in the league if high-profile recruits C.J. Leslie, Ryan Harrow and Lorenzo Brown are as good as advertised. Clemson has a lot of talent returning despite losing Trevor Booker, and adds new coach Brad Brownell, who is very underrated on the national scene. Maryland moves on from the Greivis Vasquez era and will look to Jordan Williams to lead the way, at least on the glass.
LOCKS (3): Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee
With the addition of physical power forward Patric Young to all five returning starters, the Gators should be the team to beat in the SEC. That is unless Kentucky gets Enes Kanter eligible to go with the rest of its precocious freshmen; then there could be a serious debate. Scotty Hopson will lead a revamped Vols squad that still has some firepower and the taste of that one-point loss that kept them from the Final Four.
SHOULD BE IN (2): Georgia, Mississippi State
This pair of Bulldogs could take a sizable bite out of SEC foes come February. In Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, Georgia has two of the better players in the league and should get a nice boost from Tennessee State transfer guard Gerald Robinson. Mississippi State will get its own boost when Renardo Sidney (nine games) and Dee Bost (nine games following academic ineligibility for the fall semester) get back on the floor after NCAA-mandated suspensions. MSU will be judged heavily on their league play with a full roster for at-large purposes.
IN THE MIX (2): Vanderbilt, Mississippi
The 'Dores are here mostly because someone has to finish fifth in the rugged East division, and that team may not have enough league wins to get in. They're a good team, though, led by sharpshooter John Jenkins. It wouldn't be a shock to see Vandy earn a bid, possibly at Georgia's expense. Ole Miss will rely on lead guard Chris Warren to pursue the West division crown and a possible bid.
LOCKS (3): San Diego State, BYU, UNLV
San Diego State will have to deal with the expectations of being the hunted, as the Aztecs were the preseason pick to win the league. With a ton of talent back, including rebounding fiend Kawhi Leonard, there is ample reason to believe they can do so. That said, there will be strong challenges from UNLV (with newfound size of its own in Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas and juco Carlos Lopez) and BYU, which brings back the devastating guard pairing of Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery and some talented frontcourt players.
SHOULD BE IN (1): New Mexico
The Lobos need to make up for the significant losses of Darington Hobson and Ramon Martinez. Fortunately, they have two potential high-impact transfer bigs in Emmanuel Negedu (Tennessee) and Drew Gordon (UCLA, eligible in January). If the newcomers fit in well, there is more than enough talent here not only to make the NCAAs, but threaten to repeat as league champs.
IN THE MIX (1): Colorado State
A sleeper team with some good talent returning, the Rams need to break through against the top half of the league if they want to make an NCAA push. Last season, they went 0-8 against the four NCAA teams and 7-1 against the rest of the league.
LOCKS (1): Washington
The Huskies appear to easily be the cream of this conference this season. Underachievers for much of last season, they found their form down the stretch and parlayed it into a Sweet 16 appearance. The same level of March achievement is within reach this season, too, with Isaiah Thomas, Venoy Overton and Abdul Gaddy back to pick up the backcourt slack for the departed Quincy Pondexter.
SHOULD BE IN: None.
It could be another two-bid season.
IN THE MIX (4): Arizona, UCLA, Arizona State, Washington State
A couple of these teams could make the NCAAs. Star forward Derrick Williams makes Arizona the most likely to get there. Arizona State will need to shoot its way there, but having Rihards Kuksiks and Ty Abbott is a nice start. Wazzu should be markedly better in league play in Ken Bone's second season, with Klay Thompson a possible league player of the year.