Whenever I read preseason rankings like Andy Katz's top 25 or Dick Vitale's top 40, I immediately think about the massive group in the middle of the college basketball world that feels forever disrespected by not being on such lists. That's why making such a list is never an easy task -- there are plenty of teams with a legit argument.
So I decided to sit down and think of how many teams could end the season on such a list, and if everything worked out, be right in the NCAA tourney discussion. Programs that have a certain buzz about them in college basketball circles are the ones I'm going to identify here.
In the end, I picked 30 teams that weren't in Vitale's top 40 -- 30 teams worth watching and discussing. I will reveal 15 this afternoon and 15 more on Tuesday.
So without further ado ...
Colorado: Sure, the Big 12 coaches have dissed the Buffs for bringing very little to the conference in terms of national credibility, but this season could and should be different. Tad Boyle, who is a Colorado native and KU alum, returns with a better style for Cory Higgins and Alec Burks. With the "North" still very top-heavy in the last season of the split schedule, CU should be a very tough out.
Fairfield: As Siena found out in a classic MAAC title game, the Stags are legit -- as is their young star Derek Needham, who averaged 16 points and five assists as a true frosh. With Siena losing three senior standouts and no longer hosting the conference tourney, Fairfield -- the tourney hosts this time -- should take the next step in 2010-11.
Hofstra: New coach Mo Cassara has a future pro guard in Charles Jenkins (20.6 ppg) and a young team that's ready to make noise in the CAA. Do not be stunned by a quick start as this team won 10 of its final 13 games last season as the players started figuring out their roles.
Iona: Everyone knows the Gaels are young and loaded, but what they might not know is how good a coach first-year guy Tim Cluess is and the sterling reputation he has in the coaching community. Scott Machado and Alejo Rodriguez lead a postseason-ready team in New Rochelle.
Loyola Marymount: Drew Viney might be the best scorer in the WCC, and with his whole crew back, LMU is shooting for second place behind Gonzaga. Head coach Max Good gets his teams to play very hard, and their veteran transfers and excellent depth should translate to plenty of wins. Keep in mind, this is a team that knocked off both USC and Notre Dame on the road last season.
Marquette: Darius Johnson-Odom, last season's tremendous juco transfer, and Jae Crowder, this season's big JC recruit, give Buzz Williams two tremendous upperclassmen wings. Add in freshmen Vander Blue and Jamail Jones and Marquette is a HUGE sleeper in the Big East.
Mississippi State: Renardo Sidney will finally play by late December (after sitting out last season and this year's first nine games) and point guard Dee Bost will be eligible again in early January. And don't forget about pogo stick Ravern Johnson, the team's leading returning scorer. Once they get all their pieces together on one court, the Bulldogs will be a legit contender for the SEC title.
Murray State: Remember these guys? They won 31 games, beat Vanderbilt in the first round of the NCAA tourney and then came within a couple of points of ending Butler's dream run early. With most of the team returning, no one will want to play the Racers this season either. Billy Kennedy's squad can guard, score and has a ton of confidence. Isacc Miles and B.J. Jenkins lead a balanced attack in which six different players averaged between 9.7 and 10.6 ppg last season.
North Carolina State: While the Pack have shown signs of life (beating national champ Duke last season, for example), Sidney Lowe's teams have not been to the tourney and have put him on a seat as red as the coat he sports in rivalry games. With C.J. Leslie leading a much-hyped recruiting class, and Tracy Smith back for his senior season, this team's present and future should be in good hands if freshman Ryan Harrow can run the team as a dynamic scoring point guard. The Georgia native is the first ACC-caliber point guard the former Wolf Pack point guard has coached. It should be enough to have this group dancing in March.
Northwestern: While some are tempted to dismiss the Wildcats without Kevin Coble, the fact is that Northwestern feels like it is a better team without him. John Shurna and Michael "Juice" Thompson lead Bill Carmody's team and sophomore sensation Drew Crawford is along to help.
Oklahoma State: The Pokes lost a ton of scoring with the departures of James Anderson and Obi Muonelo gone, but both point guards return along with Keiton Page, Marshall Moses and Matt Pilgrim. Expect frosh Markel Brown to start immediately and if Michael Cobbins can put on some beef and Darrell Williams can take it off, the Cowboys will be deeper than either of Travis Ford's previous two teams at OSU.
Rhode Island: Is this the year? The Rams were great in the NIT and finished 26-10. And though they lost two of their top three scorers, Delroy James started to improve his shooting late after struggling in conference play and Akeem Richmond is lights out from 3. Rhody has depth and talent. If the team takes good shots and defends better, it might just make the big tourney for the first time in Jim Baron's URI career.
Saint Louis: This is the season that Rick Majerus has been building toward. His Billikens had no upperclassmen last season and started to put it all together by finishing 11-5 in the Atlantic 10. Aussie Cody Ellis, Kwamain Mitchell and Willie Reed give SLU three solid options. If New Zealand product Rob Loe can give the Billikens a face-up power forward who can score, the A-10 may run through the Lou.
Washington State: Yes, I am aware the Cougars finished in last place last season. But with their top three scorers back, including potential POY Klay Thompson, why can't they turn it around in Ken Bone's second year? Wazzu starts off with a pretty soft schedule and gets Kansas State and Gonzaga in the Palouse, so gaining confidence before facing a loaded Diamond Head Classic field in Hawaii is key after losing lost 10 of 12 to end last season.
Wichita State: Gregg Marshall finally has what he had at Winthrop: experience, depth, talent and his type of interchangeable parts. Toure' Murry can beat you off the catch or the bounce and the Shockers have size with Garrett Stutz and J.T. Durley. I wrote this piece last preseason and gave the big boys a fair warning about Northern Iowa. Kansas saw how that turned out. Fellow Valley member Wichita State has the same potential.
Doug Gottlieb is a college basketball analyst for ESPN and a contributor to ESPN.com. "The Doug Gottlieb Show" can be heard weekdays from 4-7 p.m. ET on ESPN Radio and ESPNradio.com.