Maybe I haven't learned my lesson and should be ranking the Butler Bulldogs higher after their back-to-back trips to the National Championship game. However, Brad Stevens loses three of his top four scorers and has a lot of inexperience on his roster.
Big man Andrew Smith is the team's top returning scorer and the only player to average more than six points per game last season. He is a fundamental post player who is not very agile or athletic but takes up space inside. Smith will be joined in the starting frontcourt by Khyle Marshall. The 6-6 sophomore is a bit undersized but plays with terrific energy and could be poised for a breakout season.
The depth up front is rather thin and inexperienced. Garrett Butcher and Erik Fromm each played sparingly while Emerson Kampen only saw minutes during mop-up duty. Kameron Woods is an athletic forward and could work his way into the rotation but needs to get stronger.
Ronald Nored will anchor the backcourt and take over the full-time ball-handling responsibility with Shelvin Mack leaving early for the NBA Draft. Nored is known more for his defensive prowess than his ability to score. Chase Stigall started 13 games a year ago and figures to see an expanded role. He is a three-point specialist but will need to become a more well-round scorer this season.
The fifth and final starting spot is up for grabs. The baby-faced Chrishawn Hopkins was a role player early on but saw his playing time diminish as last season progressed. He would give Butler a true three-guard lineup but Stevens could give the nod to freshman wing, Roosevelt Jones who is only 6'4, but is very physical. Youth is again the story off the bench with freshmen Jackson Aldridge and Andy Smeathers the only other options.
Stevens also picked up a key transfer this offseason. Sharpshooting Rotnei Clarke comes to Butler from Arkansas but will sit out the upcoming season due to NCAA transfer rules, and will have one year of eligibility remaining in 2012-13.
Stevens is easily one of the best young coaches in the country and this season will put that to the test. With only four players who saw significant playing time returning, the Bulldogs have plenty of questions. Can the backcourt replace the scoring production left behind by Mack and Shawn Vanzant? Will the young, inexperienced reserves step into significant roles off the bench? Can Marshall make the leap this season to become Butler's main guy?
Until these questions are answered, I cannot but the Bulldogs in my top 25. Their streak of five straight Horizon League regular season titles could also be in jeopardy as a Detroit team that returns a lot of talent could be poised to knock them out of the top spot.
Player to Watch: Khyle Marshall, F
Marshall received invaluable experience this summer playing for the U.S. U-19 team this summer. He has a nice combination of strength and athleticism, and is very active on the glass. Marshall averaged nearly six points per game in just fifteen minutes a night as a freshman and should see those numbers at least double. If Butler is going to re-live the magic of the past two seasons, Marshall must become a dominant Horizon League player.