The Washington Times - October 31, 2008, 05:00PM

This is my third year as an AP basketball voter, and if there’s something I learned already it’s that with a preseason ballot in particular, you will have some hits and misses.

For example, I think back to last year and shudder about putting N.C. State at No. 13 to start the year. Oops.

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Then again, two seasons ago, I had Southern Illinois ranked the entire season – which seemed kind of silly when the Salukis were checking in with three or four points in the poll. But they turned out to be a Sweet 16 team and a bunch that anyone who likes good defense had to see at some juncture.

Well, now that the full AP preseason poll is out, there’s a pretty good gauge at how wacky some of my picks are vis-a-vis the rest of the country. Any team that is at least five spots different will get a mention here.

One thing to remember is that as soon as games are played, these preseason perceptions begin to fade away pretty quickly – and the rankings actually start aligning with reality.

HIGHER THAN AVERAGE

Tennessee (Mine: No. 8; AP: No. 14):  Yes, there are some serious pieces gone (like Chris Lofton), but the Volunteers have a formidable 3-4-5 made up of J.P. Prince, Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism. There are neighborhoods much scarier than the SEC, so this isn’t as likely to look dumb down the road as some of these other picks.

Kansas (Mine: No. 18; AP: No. 24): The Jayhawks lost a ton from their national championship team, and Florida’s experience last year is a cautionary tale that even the best recruiters cannot simply be counted upon to reload. That said, a lot of talent was replenished, and Kansas has a decent chance to be a bottom-of-the-top-20 team.

Wisconsin (Mine: No. 16; AP: No. 25): This was almost a pre-emptive ranking. Here’s a guess on the Badgers‘ season arc: Couple early wins, an ugly loss or two, then a slow building process with a dynamite win or two in late December/early January leading to yet another top-two-or-three finish in the Big Ten.

UNLV (Mine: No. 19; AP: No. 27): I’m mildly surprised the Runnin’ Rebels aren’t ranked, but can understand why they didn’t crack the top 25. They’ll do what a typical Lon Kruger team typically does: Defend like mad and count on having a couple guys play well on offense. Learn the name Wink Adams; the UNLV guard is going to cause nightmares for someone in March.

Saint Mary’s (Mine: No. 24; AP: No. 29): The Gaels were above-average last year, and guard Patrick Mills is back. This really isn’t too far out of line, and chances are Saint Mary’s will be in that 20-35 range all year, anyway.

San Diego (Mine: No. 25; AP: T-No. 53): Really, does no one else remember the Toreros upending Connecticut in the NCAA tournament? Or Kentucky in the regular season and Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s in the WCC tournament? And that the entire starting five – including the superb Brandon Johnson and Gyno Pomare – returns intact? Maybe San Diego isn’t a top-25 team, but chances are it will be in the discussion at some juncture.

LOWER THAN AVERAGE

Marquette (Mine: No. 29; AP: No. 16): In 2007-08, the Golden Eagles were 4-8 in the regular season against the RPI top 50. Sure, a supposedly superlative backcourt returns, but senior Dominic James doesn’t seem to have improved much since a solid freshman year. This has the look of a mid-pack Big East team that earns a No. 7 or No. 8 seed, though those four returning starters probably swayed the majority of opinions.

Southern California (Mine: No. 30; AP: No. 18):  Upon further review, No. 30 might be a tad low for the Trojans. DeMar Derozan has a chance to be the nation’s best freshman, and there are enough other pieces who played for the O.J. Mayos last year to make the Trojans a solid No. 3 choice in the Pac-10.

Wake Forest (Mine: No. 28; AP: No. 21): What a boom-or-bust team the Demon Deacons could be. Dino Gaudio has a tremendous freshman class, and was already incubating the boatload of young talent left over from last year. Wake will be better, but the ranking is probably premature.

Patrick Stevens