- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 4, 2012

*-projected conference champion

1. Louisville* (30-10 last season): Will defense win a championship for guard Peyton Siva and the Cardinals? Don’t count it out, even if Rick Pitino’s team isn’t the most offensively efficient bunch.

2. Indiana* (27-9): Cody Zeller’s back, which means the Hoosiers may well have their best team in two decades and their first Final Four outfit since 2002.

3. Kentucky* (38-2): The defending national champions aren’t quite as loaded as they were a year ago. With their usual strong freshman class, they’re still a decent bet to reach the Final Four.

4. Ohio State (31-8): Whatever deficiencies and questions the Buckeyes might have, guard Aaron Craft and forward Deshaun Thomas will go a long way toward solving them.

5. Syracuse (34-3): There’s plenty to replace in central New York and almost always something tantalizing in the pipeline; the Orange have averaged 29.9 wins over the last four seasons.

6. Duke* (27-7): The Blue Devils earned less than a No. 2 seed just twice in the last 16 years. Coach K is as automatic as it gets with cranking out strong regular season teams, hence the top-10 ranking.

7. Michigan (24-10): Combine two returning guards (Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.) and two well-regarded forwards (Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary) and expectations are soaring in Ann Arbor.

8. Michigan State (29-8): The ever-reliable Tom Izzo will ensure the Spartans stay relevant even after the departure of do-everything guard Draymond Green.

9. Florida (26-11): Leading scorer and fearless shooter Kenny Boynton could have the Gators back on the doorstep of their first Final Four since their back-to-back national titles in the mid-Aughts.

10. UCLA*(19-14): All eyes are on Indianapolis, where the NCAA will eventually render a decision on the eligibility of freshman Shabazz Muhammad. With him, the Bruins could be exceptional.

11. Kansas* (32-7): Book another 30 victories and a Big 12 title for the Jayhawks, whose consistency of excellence under Bill Self never ceases to amaze.

12. UNLV* (26-9): When the coaching carousel commences in March, remember the name Dave Rice, who has augmented an already strong team in Sin City with an impressive array of new talent.

13. N.C. State (24-13): As always, proceed with caution with the Wolfpack, who for the first time since 1975 were the media’s preseason pick to win the ACC.

14. Creighton* (29-6): Star Doug McDermott and the Bluejays are the spot-on favorites in the Missouri Valley and could manage a multi-weekend stay in the ACC tournament.

15. North Carolina (32-6): Plenty of stars departed Chapel Hill after last season, but when has Roy Williams ever been caught without plenty of talent — well, besides that one time?

16. Missouri (30-5): Frank Haith’s whirlwind tour of the power conferences continues as a posse of transfers lead the Tigers into life in the Southeastern Conference.

17. Arizona (23-12): After a second NCAA tournament miss in three seasons, the Wildcats are poised to re-emerge as a steady force in the Pac-12 moving forward.

18. San Diego State (26-8): Not as strong as the last couple seasons, but the Aztecs are still plenty good and should challenge UNLV for Mountain West supremacy thanks to guard Jamaal Franklin.

19. Cincinnati (26-11): The Bearcats are best not overlooked after back-to-back 26-win seasons, especially with tough junior Sean Kilpatrick manning the perimeter.

20. Baylor (30-8): Point guard Pierre Jackson should ensure the Bears don’t fade too much after the departure of a talented frontcourt, but a return to a regional final might be asking a bit much.

21. Virginia Commonwealth* (29-7): Coach Shaka Smart and the Rams take their brand of “havoc” to the Atlantic 10, where they should become instant contenders after years in the CAA.

22. Memphis* (26-9): The Tigers have one last season of lording over Conference USA, though it’s no sure thing they’ll earn the first NCAA tournament victory of the Josh Pastner era this year.

23. Gonzaga* (26-7): Perpetually in the mix come March, the Bulldogs bring back four starters (including Elias Harris) and should be on their way to a West Coast Conference title.

24. Notre Dame (22-12): Heavens knows if the Irish can reverse their trend of losing to double-digit seeds four times in five NCAA trips since 2007, but they’ll almost certainly get the chance to try.

25. Wisconsin (26-10): Losing Josh Gasser (aka Jordan Taylor’s replacement at point guard) doesn’t help the Badgers a bit, but Bo Ryan always finds a way to make Wisconsin a nuisance in the Big Ten.

26. Miami (20-13): Big Reggie Johnson and Kenny Kadji provide a stout frontcourt for the Hurricanes.

27. Florida State (25-10): Underestimate loquacious guard Michael Snaer and the Seminoles at your own risk.

28. Texas (20-14): Hard to place much faith in the Longhorns after recent history of postseason sputtering.

29. Saint Louis (26-8): The Billikens have plenty of talent back, but sideline maestro Rick Majerus is not.

30. Pittsburgh (22-17): After slumming in the CBI last year, chances are the Panthers bounce back big.

31. Murray State* (31-2): Will be hard to replicate a magical 2011-12, but Isaiah Canaan and the Racers will still be excellent.

32. Kansas State (22-11): If nothing else, Bruce Weber has proven he can do well when inheriting a good team.

33. Minnesota (23-15): Tubby Smith’s last seven teams have averaged 21 wins; sounds about right for these Gophers.

34. Saint Mary’s (27-6): Gaels’ Aussie connection yields another star guard: Michael Dellavedova.

35. Drexel* (29-7): Frantz Massenat and the Dragons are in line to finally earn their first CAA crown.

36. Georgetown (24-9): Hoyas might not sizzle from the start, but they’ll be a handful during conference play and beyond.

37. Tennessee (19-15): Vols should take another step forward after impressive debut under Cuonzo Martin.

38. Saint Joseph’s (20-14): All five starters return on Hawk Hill, including leading scorer Carl Jones.

39. Marquette (27-8): Jae Crowder’s gone, but the Golden Eagles will find a way back to the NCAAs.

40. Colorado (24-12): Pac-12 tournament champions should be improved in Tad Boyle’s third season.

REST OF THE PROJECTED NCAA TOURNAMENT FIELD

Alabama, Brigham Young, California, Charleston Southern, Davidson*, Lehigh*, Long Beach State*, Long Island*, Loyola (Md.)*, Maryland, Mercer, Middle Tennessee*, Montana*, New Mexico, Northern Iowa, Ohio*, Oklahoma State, Oral Roberts*, Prairie View A&M*, Princeton*, Savannah State*, South Dakota State*, Stanford, Stony Brook*, Temple, Utah State*, Valparaiso*, West Virginia