The 2011-12 college basketball season is right around the corner, but that doesn't mean that the season of speculation hasn't already begun.
With the release of both the Associated Press and the ESPN/USA Today preseason polls, the North Carolina Tar Heels have been nearly unanimously selected as the early favorite to take home the National Championship in New Orleans come April.
With a nearly unstoppable front-court in the form of Tyler Zeller and John Henson, the nation's most talented player, Harrison Barnes, and a rapidly maturing back-court led by Kendall Marshall and Dexter Strickland, the Tar Heels are already looking nearly unstoppable on the road to another Championship.
That being said, there are challengers along the way. Certainly North Carolina will lose a few games this year (as nearly everyone knows, going undefeated is exceedingly rare in any sport), but are there any teams who could legitimately stand in the Tar Heels way and prevent them from reigning supreme once more?
Here, we'll take a look at the top teams what have the potential to unseat the Tar Heels atop the world of college basketball and contend for the National Championship.
The Kentucky Wildcats are fresh off a Final Four appearance last year, and start this year ranked second in both major polls.
Although this year's squad will be without star point guard Brandon Knight, Kentucky is young, talented, and potentially poised to be this year's version of last year's North Carolina Tar Heels; they may very well start out slow and lose games, only to make a late run and go deep in the Big Dance.
The Wildcats once again have a great recruiting class entering this season, complete with four five-star recruits: power forwards Anthony Davis and Kyle Wiltjer, small forward Michael Gilchrist, and point guard Marquis Teague.
All four will likely see some significant playing time thanks to the general youth of this Kentucky team, and will play alongside returning power forward Terrence Jones, who averaged 16.5 points per game and 8.9 rebounds per game. With the loss of Knight to the NBA, it's up to Jones to lead this team.
Despite the influx of freshmen, there's no doubt that John Calipari can coach up this team and insure that they will be legitimate contenders by year's end. A non-conference matchup with North Carolina will be a big test for the Wildcats, and a strong performance may indicate a very dangerous 2011-12 Kentucky squad.
The Orange are no doubt still smarting from last year's shocking early exit in the Round of 32 at the hands of Marquette. This year, the Orange are once again the object of high expectations, entering the year ranked fifth in both polls.
The Orange the core of last season's leadership, forward Kris Joseph and guard Scoop Jardine. Joseph seemed to do little bit of everything last season, averaging 14.3 points per game and 5.0 rebounds per game. Scoop Jardine ran the floor for the Orange last year, averaging 5.8 assists per game while averaging 12.8 points per game.
These two will likely lead the charge with Syracuse once again this season, and with the addition of another solid recruiting class, Syracuse is looking like the class of the Big East at the moment.
Another year of the great Jim Boeheim can't hurt, either.
Buckeye fans across the nation knew they had something special when they received word that Jared Sullinger, quite possibly the country's best player last year, decided to return to Columbus for his sophomore season after a stunning loss to Kentucky in last year's Sweet Sixteen.
As a freshman, Sullinger dominated the competition both in the Big Ten and beyond, averaging 17.2 points per game and 10.2 rebounds per game. His abilities as a scorer and rebounder in the paint, plus his ferocious drive and insanity, will once again make him a force to be reckoned with this year. He will no doubt improve on these numbers and lead Ohio State to a third straight Big Ten Championship.
Sullinger will not go it alone, however. Returning to the Buckeyes this year is shooting guard William Buford, who averaged 14.4 points per game last season, second only to Sullinger. Buford will be a huge help to the Buckeyes' outside shooting game, and will once again be a valuable supplement to Sullinger's post scoring.
With addition of four freshmen each ranked in the top-25 for their position, the Ohio State Buckeyes are the early favorites to repeat as Big Ten champions and possibly go up against North Carolina come Tournament time.
Ah, those pesky Blue Devils.
Duke is North Carolina's far-and-away number one rival, with the two teams facing off twice each season, once in Chapel Hill and once in Durham. To make this rivalry all the more interesting, these two teams are perennial contenders for the ACC regular season and conference titles, with the two going head-to-head for conference bragging rights nearly every year.
Duke certainly has their work cut out for them this year. They'll be without their three leading scorers from last year, as Nolan Smith, Kyrie Irving, and Kyle Singler have all moved to the NBA's greener pastures (or so it seemed just one year ago).
The Blue Devils won't be short on talent, however. They will once again play host to one of the best recruiting classes in the country, complete with Austin Rivers (son of Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers) and Marshall Plumlee, brother to current Blue Devils Mason and Miles Plumlee. Along with a handful of top-ten recruits plus the return of the Plumlees, Seth Curry, and Ryan Kelly, Duke should have no problem finding a perfect balance between junior and senior leadership and freshman talent.
As always, Coach K will be in charge, which means no matter the circumstances, the Blue Devils will always be ready to take on the Tar Heels, because no victory is sweeter, and no loss is more disheartening.
Think I missed a team? Feel like any of these teams are utter frauds? Let me know in the comments!
As always, please be civil, and enjoy the season!