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Having Devil of a time — again

Nobody predicted the number of headlines Butler would make a season ago. Nobody knew the abundance of articles analyzing how North Carolina would tank. Northern Iowa wasn't on anyone's radar.

Predictions are easy to make in the preseason and hard to justify in the postseason, but the 2010-11 NCAA basketball season promises some interesting stories.

The season tips off Monday, the start of a long journey to Houston for four special teams.

Here are some storylines you can expect to see this season:

Duke wins back-to-back NCAA tournaments

Duke was the favored but unpopular pick against underdog Butler. This season, the Blue Devils probably will be the unlikeable villains again when they go up against Michigan State for the NCAA tournament crown, considering the Spartans have been unsuccessful in the last two Final Fours.

But Duke will just shrug, go about its business and win another title.

The Blue Devils have everything it takes to win a championship: size, defense, shooting, leadership and experience.

Forward Kyle Singler's decision to return for a senior season and the addition of freshman point guard Kyrie Irving makes them a complete team — one that's poised to win a second straight NCAA tourney.

Final Four: Duke, Michigan State, Kansas State, Pittsburgh

The Blue Devils have every necessary component. Michigan State is hungrier than any team to win a championship.

Kansas State is coming off the winningest season in school history and guard Jacob Pullen hasn't shaved his beard, so success is a given. Pittsburgh lacks a household name now, but almost all of its roster is back from a 25-victory season.

If injuries hit one of these teams, Ohio State will book a trip to Houston.

Freshmen become forces in NCAA

North Carolina forward Harrison Barnes is a preseason All-American who is one of the most talented wing players the Tar Heels have had in years.

Two other newcomers will be powerful in the post. Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger could be a double-double machine. Syracuse's 7-footer Fab Melo will be a near-impossible matchup in the Big East.

At Kentucky, Brandon Knight won't be a John Wall replica, but he will have the ball in his hands a lot. Irving will step in for Jon Scheyer at Duke.

If Kentucky center Enes Kanter and Kansas guard Josh Selby become eligible, they will be immediate impact players.

Northwesternmakes history

Northwestern appeared fourth-and-inches from the NCAA tournament until the last couple of games last season.

After back-to-back NIT appearances, the Wildcats appear to be ready for their first appearance in the NCAA tournament.

They lost Kevin Coble, but Northwestern has an experienced roster led by senior guard Michael Thompson. Thompson (14.2 points per game), forward John Shurna (18.2 ppg) and guard/forward Drew Crawford (10 ppg) are go-to players.

The Big Ten isn't an easy conference, but the Wildcats finally are in their opponents' league.

Blue bloods make comebacks

Look for bounce-back seasons from perennial powers North Carolina, UCLA and Arizona, which all struggled through unfamiliar territory last season.

The Tar Heels went from national champions to NIT duds. But even with key departures, North Carolina will make last season look like an aberration. Guard Larry Drew II, sophomore John Henson and junior Tyler Zeller bring experience, but hope hinges on Barnes.

UCLA suffered through injuries and in-fighting and fell to a rare losing season. Now a young but more mature team should take the Bruins back to the tournament. They welcome twins Travis and David Wear, who transferred from North Carolina, and bring back forward Tyler Honeycutt and guard Malcolm Lee. Without a lot of depth, they can't afford injuries.

Arizona missed the tournament for the first time in 26 years, but sophomore forward Derrick Williams may be the best player in the Pac-10 and can help second-year coach Sean Miller start a new streak of NCAA bids.

San Diego State is new Northern Iowa

While the Aztecs aren't unheard-ofs, considering they are ranked No. 25 in the AP preseason poll, expectations are usually capped for the team.

They haven't won an NCAA tournament game, but that history is about to change. All five starters return from a team that nearly knocked off Tennessee in the first round last season.

Sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard is the highlight of a powerful frontcourt.

Fans welcome 68-team field

Basketball fans are just grateful it did not turn into a mega-NCAA tournament field of 96 as was considered. The four first-four games will take some getting used to, but it will make the "bubble" talk all the more interesting. Two games pair the four lowest-ranked teams in the field and two other games feature the last four at-large teams.

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