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Monday, April 4, 2005
Updated: April 5, 2:35 PM ET
UConn's the early favorite to win it all

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

It's never too early to start thinking about next season – especially if you're not a Tar Heels fan.

Clearly, much can change between now and Midnight Madness in October, but here's my first look at the 2005-06 Top 25.

1. Connecticut
Jim Calhoun didn't want to wait around for Charlie Villanueva to send out feelers on his draft status before he made his decision about leaving for the NBA.

He wanted to know as soon as possible. He gave him a two-week window after Connecticut lost to NC State in the second round. Villanueva didn't need two weeks. He barely needed one. He knew what he was going to do. He was leaving.

That was fine with Calhoun. He didn't want any distractions in the offseason. He wants the focus, beginning in April 2005, to be on winning the national title in 2006.

And we here at ESPN.com believe that he can follow through with his plan.

The Huskies are loaded for 2006, even without Villanueva, and should be playing with a purpose after their early NCAA exit. That's why we like them to cut down the nets for the second time in three seasons.

The Huskies bring back one of the top scoring point guards in Marcus Williams. They'll have a potential lottery pick who should star even more in wing Rudy Gay, and a deep frontcourt with Josh Boone, Hilton Armstrong and Ed Nelson. The wings are set with Denham Brown and Rashad Anderson. And, barring another medical setback, the Huskies will get the point guard they thought would be playing this season in A.J. Price.

Calhoun said he expects the Huskies' forwards, notably Boone, Armstrong and Nelson, to have monster seasons. Anderson should be back to his 2003-04 form after recovering from a potentially fatal infection. Calhoun expects Andrew Bynum and Jeff Adrien to have major impacts off the bench as freshmen. He loves their toughness.

So, add all of that together – overall talent, a renewed purpose after the disappointment of this past March, and the team's finally being healthy and free of freaky illnesses – and the Huskies should be poised for a title run.

2. Duke
The obvious pick was to make the Blue Devils the top choice. But the loss of Daniel Ewing shouldn't be underestimated. Sure, J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams are two of the top players at their respective positions. And Shavlik Randolph has to be better next season. The Blue Devils also add Josh McRoberts, who could be the freshman of the year next season. Picking Duke No. 2 is still high praise, but we like the Huskies a tad better.

3. North Carolina
The Tar Heels could be the pick to win it again if Sean May, Rashad McCants, Raymond Felton and Marvin Williams all returned. But McCants all but declared after the national title game and we just don't buy the rest of them all being in Chapel Hill come the fall. These guys are too good for at least one or two more of them not to enter the draft. The Heels do add Tyler Hansbrough, who could be an immediate hit.

4. Villanova
The Wildcats could be the cool pick to win the title next season. If it weren't for a suspect travel call, they might have been in this year's Final Four. Tell us who will have better scoring guards than 'Nova in Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Mike Nardi and Kyle Lowry. Curtis Sumpter will be healthy and so, too, should be Jason Fraser. That's a stud starting five (plus one) worthy of potentially winning the title.

5. Texas
The Longhorns were a shell of the team that started once P.J. Tucker was ineligible and LaMarcus Aldridge got hurt. Well, both are back next season, along with Daniel Gibson and Brad Buckman. That's enough to whet our appetite. This team could be the Big 12 champ and a pick to get to Indianapolis.

6. Gonzaga
The Zags lose Ronny Turiaf, but don't fret. Gonzaga coach Mark Few said this could be his best team since he has been head coach. We know what you're thinking: We've heard this before. Well, did you watch Adam Morrison lately? He's a lottery pick, and with three other starters returning, including J.P. Batista, a top-six ranking is warranted.

7. Oklahoma
The Sooners should challenge Texas for the Big 12 title. Oklahoma was the surprise story of the Big 12 this season, claiming a piece of the crown. The Sooners might be dealing with some NCAA issues (regarding excessive phone calls), but they have all five starters returning. That's good enough for a top-seven placement.

8. Wake Forest
We know this is probably too high because the odds favor a Chris Paul departure for the NBA. But if he does return, the Demon Deacons will have three of the best players at their respective positions with Paul, Justin Gray and Eric Williams. They also have the motivation to avenge a second-round flameout against West Virginia.

9. Boston College
Craig Smith might test the draft process, but as of now, he plans to play his final college season in the ACC. If that's the case, the Eagles should be in the thick of the league race. The Eagles return everyone except Nate Doornekamp and Jermaine Watson. If Smith and Jared Dudley are there as the 1-2 punch, don't be surprised to see BC make a splash in its new league.

10. Michigan State
The Spartans lose three seniors who were key to their Final Four run, but Paul Davis isn't expected to jump to the pros and they return three other starters, including potential stars Shannon Brown, Maurice Ager and point guard Drew Neitzel. The Spartans could be just as good, if not better, next season.

11. Louisville
Francisco Garcia is still going to the NBA, regardless of the chatter after the semifinal that he might consider returning because of his poor performance. Taquan Dean isn't going anywhere, and Juan Palacios could be an absolute stud. So, too, could Brian Johnson, who sat out with an injury last season. The Cards also recruited extremely well inside.

12. Florida
Anthony Roberson might bolt. We know David Lee is gone. Matt Walsh can't be the only anchor. Luckily, he won't be, with freshmen-who-will-be-sophomores Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Taureen Green. Billy Donovan did one of his best coaching jobs this past season. We expect him to do it again, with the assist from Larry Shyatt off the bench.

13. Kentucky
The Wildcats could lose Kelenna Azubuike, but we still like their chances with some of the top players in the country at their positions. Rajon Rondo should be one of the top point guards in the country. Randolph Morris is due for a bust-out year. That's enough of a potential problem for opposing teams.

14. UCLA
Ben Howland was downplaying how good the Bruins will be next season. That's because he doesn't want to hear the hype. Too bad. UCLA has one of the best backcourts in the country in point guard Jordan Farmar and Aaron Afflalo. The Bruins got a taste of the tournament this year and are positioned to do much more next season.

15. West Virginia
The Mountaineers lose D'or Fischer and Tyrone Sally, but all of the shooters – Kevin Pittsnogle, Mike Gansey, Joe Hebert and Patrick Beilein – return. The Mountaineers will have targets on their backs to start the season, but it's hard not to put this great 3-point shooting team in the top 15 after it got to the Elite Eight.

16. Iowa
The Hawkeyes don't want to be rated this high, but they have back everyone who mattered this season. That's enough of a sell for Iowa to be one of the top teams in the Big Ten. Steve Alford believes this team has a shot to win the league (he just doesn't want to hear about it in April).

17. LSU
The Tigers could slide out of this group if Brandon Bass decides to go to the NBA. If he comes back, he joins Glen Davis in one of the nation's most powerful inside tandems. Tasmin Mitchell is coming on board, and Tack Minor is back at point. As it stands, the Tigers have the most talent returning in the SEC West.

18. Washington
The Huskies could end up losing Nate Robinson and Brandon Roy, but we still like this squad with Bobby Jones, Jamaal Williams and two of the top incoming recruits in Martell Webster and Jon Brockman. The Huskies have the swagger to stay at or near the top of the Pac-10.

19. Memphis
Darius Washington will get another shot to deliver a conference championship after missing the two free throws against Louisville. Rodney Carney could be headed for a banner year, too. The Tigers will dominate the reshaped Conference USA.

20. Stanford
Let's assume that Dan Grunfeld comes back next season without a hitch after having ACL surgery. If that's the case, the Cardinal will have quite a crew with Grunfeld, point guard Chris Hernandez and Matt Haryasz.

21. Alabama
The Tide do lose Kennedy Winston but still return Ronald Steele at the point and Chuck Davis. That could be enough to make another run in the SEC. Mark Gottfried always recruits well. We know he'll bring in an impact player for the Tide.

22. Syracuse
The Orange still have Gerry McNamara, one of the top shooting guards in the country. Sure, they might have some guard issues, but Terrence Roberts and Demetris Nichols are back and Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim assures us his 2-3 zone is going to be pretty good next year again, even without Hakim Warrick.

23. Arizona
The Wildcats will find a way to be this good next season even if Hassan Adams were to declare and leave with Salim Stoudamire and Channing Frye. We don't think Adams will bolt for good, returning to join Mustafa Shakur and Jawann McClellan.

24. Illinois
The Illini could lose Deron Williams along with seniors Luther Head and Roger Powell Jr. We're assuming that Williams is gone, leaving Dee Brown and James Augustine to keep the Illini in the Top 25.

25. Wisconsin
The Badgers lose Mike Wilkinson but do return a potential Big Ten player of the year in Alando Tucker. And after the Badgers got to the Elite Eight with lesser talent than the previous year, why would you doubt Bo Ryan's crew in 2006?

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.