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November 6, 2008

Preseason story line No. 5: Who's No. 2?

Rivals.com has selected the top 25 story lines for the 2008-09 season and will be revealing one daily. At No. 5, we take a look at who might be No. 2 - because there is no question about the top-ranked team heading into the season.

Almost every coach, analyst and expert is picking North Carolina to capture the national title this season. The Tar Heels received every possible first-place vote in the two main preseason polls.

Where things get interesting is trying figuring out which team North Carolina ultimately will have to get past to win it all. There's plenty to talk about on that topic.

Connecticut is the most popular pick. Despite getting bounced out of the NCAA tournament in the first round last season, the Huskies were voted No. 2 in both polls and also sit No. 2 in the Rivals.com preseason top 65.

Louisville is No. 3 in both polls. UCLA, voted No. 4 in both polls, may be the program that most deserves the No. 2 spot. The Bruins are searching for what would be a remarkable fourth consecutive appearance in the Final Four.

The teams voted Nos. 5, 6 and 7 Duke, Pittsburgh and Michigan State in the AP poll are separated by only six points.

At least five other teams can make a case for why they should be No. 2 as well. We take a look at each of the candidates below, listed alphabetically, and break down what it's going to take for each to take down the mighty Tar Heels.

Connecticut
Pros: Size. The Huskies are an intimidating bunch on the inside with 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet, the Big East's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, patrolling the paint. Jim Calhoun, who has won two national titles at UConn, believes Thabeet will challenge for national player of the year honors.
Cons: Outside shooting. The Huskies lacked a reliable 3-point shooter last season and now the 3-point line has been moved back a foot.
What will it take to beat UNC? Point guard A.J. Price must fully recover from a torn ACL suffered in the first-round NCAA tournament loss last season. In addition, someone possibly Price must emerge who can consistently knock down open 3-pointers.

Duke
Pros: The Blue Devils remain deep on the perimeter. At times, all five players on the court will be 3-point threats. This team also will have plenty of experience with a probable starting lineup that includes one senior and three juniors.
Cons: The Blue Devils remain thin on the inside. None of the incoming big men is ready to play heavy minutes. Forward Kyle Singler probably will have to play in the post again.
What will it take to beat UNC? One of the big men, possibly Lance Thomas or 7-footer Brian Zoubek, must have a breakthrough season.

Louisville
Pros: Sheer talent. The Cardinals have as much talent as North Carolina. They have two Big East player of the year candidates in forwards Earl Clark and Terrence Williams.
Cons: Lack of a facilitator. The Cardinals continue to lack a playmaking point guard, a void that is magnified by the departure of David Padgett, who was perhaps the best passing big man in the nation. The Cardinals ran much of their offense through Padgett last season.
What will it take to beat UNC? One of the guards or Williams must emerge as a steady distributor and focus on making his teammates better.

Michigan State
Pros: There are a number of Spartans with room to improve. Raymar Morgan is capable of being Big Ten player of the year and Kalin Lucas should be the top point guard in the conference.
Cons: Prize recruit Delvon Roe has been slowed by a knee injury. Coach Tom Izzo recently said he hopes Roe will be "85 percent" by the time Big Ten play starts. The Spartans' inability to contend for the Big Ten title recently also is disconcerting.
What will it take to beat UNC? Big seasons from Morgan and Lucas and some more of Izzo's postseason magic.

Notre Dame
Pros: The inside-outside combination of Luke Harangody and Kyle McAlarney remains intact. Harangody is the reigning Big East Player of the Year, and McAlarney led the Big East with 108 3-pointers last season. With those two back - along with underrated point Tory Jackson - the Irish won't have any trouble scoring.
Cons: The Irish were subpar on defense last season. With much of the same personnel back, that's unlikely to change.
What will it take to beat UNC? Some creative tinkering by coach Mike Brey to hide Notre Dame's defensive deficiencies.

Oklahoma
Pros: Power forward Blake Griffin turned down a chance to be a lottery pick, and the Sooners won a huge recruiting battle by landing five-star guard Willie Warren. Those two could be the top two players in the Big 12.
Cons: Griffin had trouble staying healthy last season. Warren, who has a penchant for jacking up shots in a hurry, could hurt the team's chemistry.
What will it take to beat UNC? Warren must be as good as advertised. Maybe even better. The Sooners must also get more contributions from the bench.

Pittsburgh
Pros: The Panthers may have the second-best trio in college basketball with point guard Levance Fields, forward Sam Young and center DeJuan Blair (UNC is first with Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Tyler Hansbrough). Each ranks among the best in the nation at his position.
Cons: Departed guard Ronald Ramon was Pitt's fourth-best player last season, but he's a significant loss. Ramon was the top 3-point shooter.
What will it take to beat UNC? Fields must get healthy and stay that way. Fields is recovering from a broken bone in the same foot that was injured last season.

Purdue
Pros: The "Baby Boilers" are a year older. Purdue has three returning freshmen who played major roles on a young team that surprised many by winning 25 games. The Boilermakers also should benefit from an overseas trip in August, when they took on professional teams in Australia.
Cons: There is no go-to scorer. E'Twaun Moore led the team with 12.9 points per game last season.
What will it take to beat UNC? Big man JaJuan Johnson needs to make some big strides. Johnson has the potential to be a dominating shot-blocker.

Tennessee
Pros: Tyler Smith, the best player in the SEC, chose to stay in school. The Volunteers also added highly touted guard Scotty Hopson, a potential one-and-done prospect.
Cons: The departures of Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith take away a huge chunk of perimeter firepower. Point guard remains shaky as well.
What will it take to beat UNC? Junior college transfer Bobby Maze must prove to be the answer at point. Hopson needs to have the kind of year that can make him a top-10 draft pick.

Texas
Pros: Experience. Four starters return from a team that won 31 games and reached the Elite Eight. The frontcourt will be extremely deep, giving coach Rick Barnes a number of different lineups to utilize.
Cons: Whoever plays point guard won't be nearly as effective as D.J. Augustin, who left early and was a lottery pick. He did a brilliant job of balancing between looking for his own shot and creating shots for teammates. The supporting cast will suffer because of his absence.
What will it take to beat UNC? Great defense and steady play from the new point guard.

UCLA
Pros: The Bruins landed the nation's No. 1 recruiting class with five top-50 prospects, including No. 2 overall Jrue Holiday - a talented guard who has the potential to be an instant star. Two major pieces from past Final Four runs seniors Darren Collison and Josh Shipp remain as well.
Cons: The losses of Kevin Love (the 2007-08 Pac-10 Player of the Year) and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute leave the Bruins looking weak on the inside. There isn't a returning post player who averaged as much as three points or three rebounds per game.
What will it take to beat UNC?: Someone must emerge in the frontcourt and give the Bruins a reliable rebounder and interior defender.

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.



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