SI.com asked college basketball writers Luke Winn, Seth Davis and Grant Wahl to share their reactions to SI's top 20, which was released Monday.
1. Who was in your top five?
Davis: North Carolina, UConn, Louisville, UCLA and Michigan State. Michigan State ended up 12th in our rankings, so you could say I'm more bullish on the Spartans than most people.
There are two main reasons I think Michigan State will out-perform expectations. First, though most people see Drew Neitzel's departure as a problem, I actually see it as addition by subtraction. Neitzel was a terrific player, but I thought the offense stagnated while he ran through all those screens to get an open shot. With Kalin Lucas running the point, I think the offense is going to be more free-flowing and instinctive, and the fast-break game is going to be reignited.
Second, I saw Delvon Roe play a bunch in high school, and I think he's just terrific. He's exactly what the doctor ordered for this program -- a frisky, strong rebounder whose competitive motor always runs high. Even though we think of Tom Izzo as Mr. Tough, his teams have been a little soft the last couple of years. With Roe in the fold, I think that will change.
Winn: UNC, UConn, UCLA, Louisville, Duke, in that order. The last pick is the only one that requires a defense. The country has really soured on the Dukies after two straight NCAA tournament flops, but they've addressed some problems this offseason, mainly by elevating Nolan Smith to the No. 1 point-guard role and by adding frontcourt size in the form of freshman Mason Plumlee (who, along with a healthy Brian Zoubek, should get some decent minutes).
In Gerald Henderson and Kyle Singler the Blue Devils have the best 3-4 combo outside of Louisville, and they defend better than UNC does (finishing ninth in defensive efficiency, compared to 19th for the Heels). My feeling is that the Blue Devils will be the best team not to make the Final Four. So No. 5 would be their logical preseason slot.
Wahl: North Carolina, Louisville, Purdue, UCLA and Notre Dame. Explanations below.
North Carolina: The Heels have ridiculous talent returning, and Roy Williams knows how to keep them playing together.Louisville: Visionary passer Terrence Williams is one of my favorite players, and Earl Clark is about to break out big.
Purdue: Last season was only an appetizer for the Boilers -- expect a big move nationally, owing much to super soph Robbie Hummel. UCLA: Good experience (Darren Collison, Josh Shipp) plus talented freshmen (Jrue Holiday, J'Mison Morgan) plus Ben Howland equals a fourth straight Final Four. Notre Dame: If the Irish can play any defense they'll soar. Luke Harangody and Kyle McAlarney are a heck of an inside-outside combo.
2. Who was the best team left out of SI's top 20?
Davis: Believe it or not, I'm going to say Syracuse. I saw one national writer compare the 'Cuse to Maryland as prominent programs that will fail to reach the NCAA tournament. I totally disagree. Again, people see they lost Donte Greene and think that will be a problem, but Greene was a great individual talent who had very little understanding of how to make his team better. The Orange still have Jonny Flynn running the show -- he may well be the best point guard in America -- and he will make a great pairing in the backcourt with Eric Devendorf, who was having a sensational season last year before he got hurt.
Winn: USC. Coach Tim Floyd has already mentioned how there's no "zoo" surrounding the team now that O.J. Mayo has gone. What they got in replacement was a less-hyped -- but just as talented -- freshman wing named DeMar DeRozan, who fits better alongside point guard (and glue guy) Daniel Hackett than Mayo did. I can't envision a scenario in which the Trojans finish ahead of UCLA in the Pac-10, but I can see them finishing second. Getting UNC transfer Alex Stepheson eligible for this season (he petitioned the NCAA for a hardship waiver) would only make USC more of a threat.
Wahl: Syracuse. The Big East is so loaded that a team could probably finish in the bottom half of the league this season and still make the NCAAs. But I think the Orange are due for a resurgence now that everyone's healthy again (that means you, Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins). Jonny Flynn is a terrific point guard, and while forward Paul Harris hasn't fulfilled all of his hype (remember when some folks thought he'd be the national freshman of the year ahead of Greg Oden and Kevin Durant two years ago?) he's still a rugged, productive player. Nor do I think losing Donte Greene to the NBA is a major problem. Bottom line: It'll be nice to see Jim Boeheim smiling again this season.
3. Which team in the top 10 could flop?
Davis: Any of them could flop if they get hit by injuries, but I have to say I think we've ranked Tennessee too high. They really lost a lot from last year in Chris Lofton, Duke Crews and the two Smiths, and I'm not sure you solve your point guard problems with a junior college player (Bobby Maze). Tyler Smith is great when he's playing with other good players, but can he carry the load? That said, I do think the world of Scotty Hopson, their dynamite freshman wing. If he can be a big-time scorer from the start, then I'm the one who's going to flop.
Winn: Tennessee. I admit, choosing No. 10 is a little bit of a cop-out. But any time a team undergoes a backcourt overhaul -- from having, at times, three seniors in the starting lineup (Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith and Jordan Howell) to a juco transfer (Bobby Maze) in charge of the point and a freshman (Scotty Hopson) at the two -- it's a bit of a question mark. Maybe Maze will be a huge upgrade from the Howell-Ramar Smith combo that couldn't get the job done last season. Maybe Hopson is a future All-America. But maybe neither of them are ready for prime time just yet, and they struggle enough to let Florida re-take the SEC.
Wahl:SI's No. 10 team is Tennessee, which would make the Vols an obvious choice, but I'll make it more interesting by going with No. 8 Duke. When it comes to the Blue Devils I take the middle ground between SI.com's Luke Winn (They're going to be awesome!) and Stewart (I Have a Coach K Voodoo Doll) Mandel. Fact is, though, the same problems that torpedoed the Blue Devils the last two seasons -- the lack of depth and a legit big man -- are still there. Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler should be even better this season, but Duke's late-season struggles have become a real pattern, and I don't envision a team that has failed to reach the Elite Eight since 2004 fulfilling SI's prediction and getting there in 2009.
4. Who will be this year's Davidson?
Davis: Besides Davidson, you mean? I'm going with Siena. They return all five starters from the group that routed Vanderbilt in the first round last year. The Saints won't overwhelm anyone with their size (few mid-majors will), but they certainly will not face the athletic deficit that many mid-majors face when they go against the big boys.
Winn: Davidson wasn't in my top 20 -- I was a big Jason Richards fan, and still have my doubts about this whole Curry-at-the-point thing working out -- so I'm going to pass on the Wildcats in favor of Siena. Ronald Moore, Kenny Hasbrouck and Edwin Ubiles make up as good of a backcourt as you're going to find at any mid-major, and they're all upperclassmen, too. The Saints aren't a mid-major powerhouse on the level with the better teams in the West Coast Conference -- they did lose to Memphis by 44 on the road last season, after all -- but they've already gained valuable NCAA tournament experience by beating Vanderbilt in the first round. It wouldn't be a huge shock to see Siena make the Sweet 16 as a 12-seed this time around.
Wahl: The easy answer is either "nobody" (since last year's Davidson run wasn't the kind of thing you see every year) or "Davidson" (since that Curry kid is still around). But I'll play along here and spotlight Saint Mary's -- which could use one in that jazz-club-dark gym it plays in. Like Davidson, its star player even has a female-sounding handle! But to call Patty Mills a poor man's Steph Curry would be damning the Aussie with faint praise, considering he put up 20 against Team USA in the Olympics. And the Gaels have more talent down low than Davidson did last season. Forward Diamon Simpson is a menace at both ends of the floor, and I like to call wide-bodied center Omar Samhan the Moraga Mikan. With three heavyweights in Saint Mary's, Gonzaga and San Diego, the West Coast Conference should be must-see TV with its new Thursday night games on ESPN2.
5. If the unanimous No. 1, UNC doesn't win it all, who does?
Davis: UConn is my No. 2 team, so I'll go with the Huskies. People are really going to love Kemba Walker, the freshman combo guard from New York City's fabled Rice High School. This kid is Calhoun-tough, and his exquisite floor leadership will allow A.J. Price to play off the ball more than he has in the past. I love teams that utilize two scoring point guards -- remember what Dee Brown and Deron Williams did for Illinois?
The two questions I have are one, will Jerome Dyson be a chemistry problem like he was at the end of last year when he returned from suspension? And two, will Stanley Robinson provide a significant contribution when (and if) he returns from exile in the second semester? If the answer to both of those is yes, that trophy might not end up in Chapel Hill after all.
Winn: I'm hesitant to anoint my No. 2 team, UConn, due to the fact that almost none of its major players has won a meaningful postseason game in college. There's a lot of talent on that roster, but it's incredibly difficult to go from zero-to-national-title when you don't have a ton of proven offensive weapons. UCLA is stricken by some sort of Final Four curse: The Bruins get there every year ... only to flop every year. Louisville, then, is my answer. The Cards fit the NBA-players-win formula, as they have future pros at the 3-4-5 spots in Earl Clark, Terrence Williams and Samardo Samuels. They have a seasoned, if not amazing, backcourt; a proven tourney coach and an Elite Eight experience fresh in their heads. The 'Ville, it would seem, is on the verge.
Wahl: Louisville. You may recall that last season I left North Carolina out of the 'Bag's Magic Eight -- the January list of the eight teams from which I guarantee the national champ would emerge -- even though UNC was undefeated and No. 1 at the time. The reason was defense, and while I do think Carolina has the best team this time around, its D still isn't as good as that of the three teams right behind it in SI's Top 20: Connecticut, UCLA and Louisville. Why am I going with the Cards? I like the way Rick Pitino has put this team together. He has a budding superstar (Earl Clark), a pass-first wing dynamo (Terrence Williams), good outside shooters (led by Jerry Smith), an explosive scorer (Edgar Sosa, when he's not showboating) and a really promising freshman post player (Samardo Samuels). Nobody is ever guaranteed playing time (as Sosa and the departed Derrick Caracter could attest) and the Cards defend defend defend.