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May 22, 2009

On the rise: Who's had the best offseason?

Kentucky's March sadness has transformed into April and May gladness.

Actually, it's been more like euphoria.

Two months after failing to make the NCAA tournament, Kentucky has transformed itself into a legitimate Final Four contender for the 2009-10 season. The Wildcats followed up the hiring of John Calipari from Memphis by landing a recruiting class for the ages.

Kentucky fans aren't the only ones with reasons to smile. Plenty of other teams also have seen their situations improve since North Carolina cut down the nets in Detroit.

Here's a look at the five teams that have enjoyed the best offseasons so far. We'll follow up this report Saturday by taking a look at the five programs that have endured the worst offseasons.

1. Kentucky: Well, this was a no-brainer. The hiring of Calipari helped Kentucky land one of the best recruiting classes in recent history. The arrivals of 6-foot-1 point guard John Wall and 6-9 power forward DeMarcus Cousins give Kentucky the nation's top two prospects. Throw in the signings of 6-10 center Daniel Orton (the No. 22 recruit in the nation) and 6-1 point guard Eric Bledsoe (No. 23), and that makes Kentucky the first school to sign four five-star prospects in one class since Rivals.com began keeping track of basketball recruiting in 2003. And we haven't even mentioned the return of star forward Patrick Patterson. Even if Jodie Meeks stays in the draft, Kentucky should enter the season as the SEC favorite and a legitimate Final Four contender.

2. Kansas: Since point guard Sherron Collins and center Cole Aldrich announced they were staying in school, Kansas has looked like the overwhelming preseason favorite to win the national title. Aldrich and Collins could give Kansas an inside-outside duo every bit as productive as the Tyler Hansbrough-Ty Lawson combination that helped North Carolina win the 2009 championship. The additions of 6-6 guard Xavier Henry (the No. 8 prospect in the nation) and 6-2 guard Elijah Johnson (No. 24) should make the Jayhawks even stronger.

3. California: The Golden Bears didn't have a senior on a team that went 22-11 and reached the NCAA tournament, and none of their underclassmen decided to turn pro. California got more good news when a few notable conference underclassmen (Arizona State's James Harden, USC's DeMar DeRozan, UCLA's Jrue Holiday) opted to enter the draft. If all three stay in the draft, California should enter the season as a clear-cut favorite in the Pac-10.

4. Mississippi State: The signing of 6-10 Renardo Sidney (the No. 16 recruit in the nation) and the return of Jarvis Varnado should give Mississippi State a dynamic frontcourt duo. Sidney does have some off-court baggage, but bringing him in is the type of high-risk, high-reward move that could help Mississippi State land in the Sweet 16. If the Bulldogs have Sidney on the roster all season and don't have any off-court issues, they probably won't have to worry about winning the SEC tournament to get an NCAA bid next season.

5. Tulsa: Calipari's decision to leave Memphis made this a happy offseason for all the Tigers' Conference USA rivals. Tulsa has the most reason to celebrate because 7-foot center Jerome Jordan decided to stay in school instead of entering the draft. Memphis will enter the season with a 61-game Conference USA winning streak, but don't be surprised if Tulsa opens the season as the conference favorite.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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