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Thursday, December 16, 2010
Early grades for our preseason rankings

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

Using a combination of complex analysis and good old-fashioned darts-at-the-dartboard aim, we fearlessly unveiled our preseason rankings a little more than a month ago.

Ten of us voted, experts every one of us (insert sarcasm here, please) and our tabulations were compiled into a top 25 unrivaled by its peers (more sarcasm).

More than 400 of you posted comments on our rankings, and most ignored your mother's advice, "If you don't have something nice to say …"

So as we get ready for conference season to tip off once the holiday crush has ended, we thought it might be fun for you and humbling for us to go back and see how we're doing; to admit that yes, we were wrong and to gloat, yes we were right.

And to prove once and for all that preseason polls are great conversation starters, and that's about it.

To be clear, we're grading our rankings here, not the teams' play (attempting to cut down on the 10,000 irate readers who want to know why I graded UConn a G-).

1. Duke (Current ranking: 1)
Grade: A

Screwing this up would have been akin to failing an open-book test that had the answers penciled in. The Blue Devils were -- and remain -- the prohibitive favorite, Kyrie Irving injury notwithstanding.

Tom Izzo
Not even our experts could predict the early-season struggles for Tom Izzo's team.

2. Michigan State (Current ranking: 15)
Grade: C-

Gonna give myself and my co-workers the benefit of the doubt here. With so many talented players back from a Final Four team, it would have been hard to put the Spartans anywhere too far down the list. Even though we all know well that Tom Izzo teams tend to be late starters, no one could have predicted Michigan State struggling this mightily. Well, maybe Doug Gottlieb could have. He was the only one who didn't put the Spartans second. He had them sixth.

3. Pittsburgh (Current ranking: 8)
Grade: B

The Panthers haven't exactly dropped off the radar, losing just one so far. They were ranked high for good reason. Every one of us had them in the top 10, though the Tennessee thumping does at least raise a sliver of doubt about our nearly unanimous smarts.

4. Kansas State (Current ranking: 6)
Grade: B

Think we all expected the Wildcats to be slightly more competitive in their show-me game against Duke, particularly in their own backyard. Still, we haven't been terribly far off about Kansas State.

5. Ohio State (Current ranking: 2)
Grade: B

In retrospect, we gave too much credit to North Carolina for having a decent crop of returnees, plus a game-changing freshman -- and not enough credit to the Buckeyes for the same mix. The fact is, Ohio State's core crew achieved more than the Tar Heels last season and Jared Sullinger looks a lot more like a player of the year than Harrison Barnes.

6. Kansas (Current ranking: 3)
Grade: A

Credit here for not penalizing the Jayhawks as they awaited word on Josh Selby. As Kansas has proved with its red-hot start, with or without the freshman, this is a very good team.

7. Villanova (Current ranking: 11)
Grade: B

Not a terrible place to slot the Wildcats, who figure to be among the Final Four challengers, though not a favorite. This ranking could look worse if Villanova doesn't get more steady leadership. Big 5 rivalry and all that craziness aside, the Cats shouldn't have had to fight life and death to beat La Salle.

8. Syracuse (Current ranking: 5)
Grade: A-

We may have undersold the Orange a little bit, what with a roster of solid returnees (Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph and Rick Jackson) plus two highly touted freshmen (Dion Waiters and Fab Melo). But we weren't that far off.

9. Florida (Current ranking: 24)
Grade: D

The Gators earned a preseason ranking based on what we thought as opposed to what we knew. What we knew is that Florida was better last season but still hasn't won an NCAA tournament game since 2007. What we thought was, with everyone back, the Gators would jump leaps and bounds. Moral of the story: Stick with what you know.

Harrison Barnes
Expecting Harrison Barnes to save UNC may have been a little silly.

10. North Carolina (Current ranking: not ranked)
Grade: F

We're human. We're susceptible to those meaningless buzzwords like "upside" and "potential" like everyone else and with the Tar Heels, we got sucked into the vortex of hype. Expecting a freshman (Harrison Barnes) to lift a team out of its doldrums was probably a little silly -- although, as with all these teams, it's still early.

11. Kentucky (Current ranking: 16)
Grade: B-

The Wildcats were so good last season with their talented freshman class, it was hard not to expect the same this season. But the reality is, this group of freshmen, while good, isn't as exceptional as the John Wall-led group was. Perhaps the biggest mistake here is discounting how valuable Patrick Patterson's leadership was for Kentucky. The Cats need someone to guide them if they're going to match last season's run.

12. Illinois (Current ranking: 14)
Grade: A

Pretty on target here. The Illini, with Demetri McCamey, sit lying in wait. A good team that could oust a few of the presumed front-runners in the Big Ten.

13. Gonzaga (Current ranking: not ranked)
Grade: F

OK, so apparently Matt Bouldin was that good. But in our defense, Elias Harris has been battling an Achilles and shoulder injury, and Steven Gray has been uncharacteristically erratic. Of course, the law of averages says eventually Mark Few's maniacal scheduling would catch up with the Zags. Clearly, we didn't think eventually was now. Neither did our pal Joe Lunardi, who picked Gonzaga as his national champion. Whoops.

14. Missouri (Current ranking: 12)
Grade: A

Pretty spot-on. The Tigers are a good team with some holes -- as evidenced by some close calls and their debacle of a finish against Georgetown.

15. Purdue (Current ranking: 17)
Grade: A

This was probably the trickiest preseason ranking of all once Robbie Hummel went down with his knee injury. The Boilermakers have proved to be exactly what was advertised in the preseason -- a good, solid team that would have been spectacular with Hummel.

16. Washington (Current ranking: not ranked)
Grade: D

We had to put someone from the Pac-10 in the Top 25, didn't we? Seriously, there was good reason to believe in the high-scoring Huskies and Isaiah Thomas, and there probably still is. But for Washington to prove us right, it has to find ways to win when it doesn't score like it is an AAU game.

17. Butler (Current ranking: not ranked)
Grade: F

Clearly we were swept into the love affair that was the Bulldogs of a season ago, convinced that Cinderella still had a dance even though Prince Charming (Gordon Hayward) jilted her at the altar (the NBA). Big oops on that one. The Bulldogs still could become an NCAA tournament team, but after going winless in nonconference games that matter, they're likely going to have to do it the old-fashioned way: by winning the Horizon League.

18. Baylor (Current ranking: 9)
Grade: B*

This vote comes with an asterisk because our preseason poll came out on Nov. 8, when we still didn't know how long LaceDarius Dunn would be out. The university announced its decision on Nov. 15. Hard to argue that the Bears are a completely different team with Dunn in the mix.

19. Memphis (Current ranking: 19)
Grade: A+

This is like acing the test and getting the extra credit right. The Tigers have been hovering around the neighborhood we placed them in all season, jumping up a little bit after the opening win against Miami, but settling back in where they belong following the humbling loss to Kansas.

Scotty Hopson
After Bruce Pearl's rocky offseason, few predicted Tennessee's impressive start.

20. Tennessee (Current ranking: 7)
Grade: C

I can't fault our votes here too much. With what the Volunteers lost and their chaotic offseason, I'm not sure anyone could have predicted this impressive start -- beating Villanova in its New York City backyard and Pittsburgh in its favored city. The loss to Oakland should bring the Vols back to earth a little bit, but the Golden Grizzlies are good so it shouldn't be a killer.

21. Virginia Tech (Current ranking: not ranked)
Grade: F

Hey, with a field of 68, who can blame us for thinking this was the season that Seth Greenberg wouldn't be complaining he didn't get in? The truth is, the Hokies aren't that different from last season -- not in personnel or apparently in getting off the bubble. The losses to Purdue and UNLV are forgivable, but Virginia?

22. Georgetown (Current ranking: 13)
Grade: B-

Probably could have given a little more credence to the talents of Chris Wright, Austin Freeman and Jason Clark. But caution, I think, was understandable after the Hoyas lost Greg Monroe. Now for the real test of our ranking and Georgetown's backcourt: the guard-happy Big East.

23. Texas (Current ranking: 25)
Grade: A

Hard to get all-in with a Longhorns team that crashed and burned with such flair last season, and so far Texas has done little to open up the bandwagon doors. The Horns looked decent in a tough loss to Pittsburgh and awful in a bad loss to USC.

24. Wisconsin (Current ranking: not ranked)
Grade: B

Not terribly wrong here about Bo Ryan's always steady Badgers. Their losses to UNLV and Notre Dame aren't bad ones and I guarantee, when the dust settles, they will be in the mix.

25. San Diego State (Current ranking: 10)
Grade: B+

So we under-ranked the Aztecs? At least we had them in the Top 25, which is more than the coaches can say. San Diego State sat outside the rankings in the first ESPN/USA Today poll.

Others receiving votes:
BYU (Current ranking: 18)
Grade: B-

Why write this thing if I can't pat myself on the back? Along with Eamonn Brennan and Dick Vitale, I voted the Cougars in my top 25. My seven colleagues who failed to do so can feel free to pen the three of us a thank-you note at their convenience.

Minnesota (Current ranking: 20)
Grade: C-

Andy Katz came back from his all-access tour with the Gophers, telling everyone how good Minnesota was going to be. We didn't listen, writing it off as a temporary Katz crush. Time to give credit where credit is due: Andy was the only one of the 10 of us to even vote for the Gophers, whose lone loss was played without two of their starters. Katz saved the staff from a failing grade here.

Received no preseason votes:
Connecticut (Current ranking: 4)
Grade: G-

No one saw the Huskies coming: not the coaches in the Big East, who voted UConn 10th in the preseason; not the coaches in the ESPN/USA Today preseason poll, who couldn't cough up one vote for the Huskies. So at least we were in good company as we completely undervalued the talent and chutzpah of Kemba Walker and the idea that perhaps UConn would be better once its malcontents left.

UNLV (Current ranking: 22)
Grade: D

In hindsight, it probably was silly not to give the Runnin' Rebels some preseason run. They returned their top three scorers from an NCAA tournament team.

Notre Dame (Current ranking: 23)
Grade: C

OK, hands up if you had the Irish in your preseason top 25. Mike Brey, put your hand down. After Notre Dame was forced to go slow motion in the wake of Luke Harangody's injury and then lost Harangody to graduation, who could honestly have predicted this?

Louisville (Current ranking: 21)
Grade: D

Timing is everything. This would have been a grade of F were it not for the Cardinals' home loss to Drexel on Tuesday night, a defeat in which Louisville's attack offense managed an anemic 46 points. So we were only kinda wrong leaving Louisville out.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.