Everyone throws out their preseason prognostications, albeit in very different ways. We have Top 16s, Top 20s, Top 25s and, thanks to CBS’s Gary Parrish, a Top 26. This preview will take it a step further, stretching it the 32 teams in the best position to make the NCAA Tournament’s 3<sup>rd</sup> round.
Without doing much research or watching many games, you will probably hear the following: UNC is loaded, returning its top eight scorers from last season’s Elite Eight team. Kentucky has another crop of fearless freshmen. Ohio State returns a slimmer-downed version of Jared Sullinger, a potential National Player of the Year. UConn, while losing some starts, is reloading for a run at back-to-back championships.
Those teams, it seems, are a projected Final Foursome of many. Too chalky, I say.
If the past decade is any indication, freshmen are almost as important as upperclassmen. Carmelo Anthony carried the ’03 Orange to the championship. Derrick Rose, had his Memphis Tigers not been Mario’d with a last-second 3 to send the game into overtime, would have won the ’08 title.
Moreover, a quick look at Big Blue Nation the past two years tells you all you need to know about the youth movement: 2009 Kentucky goes 32-2 in the regular season, earns a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament (second overall seed) before losing in the Elite Eight. The 2010 Wildcats rollercoastered to a 25-8 regular season finish but still earned a #4 seed in the NCAA tournament. The youthful ‘Cats prevailed against the more experienced Ohio State Buckeyes in the Sweet 16 and the upstart North Carolina Tar Heels in the Elite Eight to reach the school’s first Final Four since 1998.
The growth of college basketball’s rookies will dictate the 2011-12 season as well as the NCAA Tournament. My “Top 32” rankings project which teams will make it past the first, err.. second round in the NCAA Tournament. Obviously, the Top 16 are all my “Sweet Sixteen,” the Top 8 are my “Elite Eight,” and so on.
When the dust – and all the Mardi Gras beads – settle in New Orleans, Ohio State will have avenged last season’s heartbreaking loss to Kentucky by winning the school’s first national championship since 1960.
1. Ohio State – The Buckeyes lose a lot of talent, but the trio of Sullinger, Buford and Craft and some freshmen studs will give Thad Matta his first NCAA Title. Ohio State is one of those teams that gets better as the season rolls on and this year will be no different. With the big-bodies Sully down low and Craft continuing to cement his reputation as one of the country’s best on-ball defenders, Ohio State has all the pieces to play at any place against any opponent.
2. Kentucky – It’s another baby step in Lexington. Elite Eight, Final Four and now NCAA Runner-up. Maybe 2012-13 will be Jon Calipari’s year, but it won’t make this year any less exciting. The world should expect big things from point guard Marquis Teague.
3. North Carolina – The Tar Heels return pretty much every important piece from last year’s team. What people forget is that those Tar Heels caught fire late in the year to become a “title contender” only to reach the Elite Eight (an expected result with a No. 2 seed). Apparently, that translates into a title this year in most people’s minds. Count me as a skeptic to think this team has all the ingredients to win its final game. Trusting Kendall Marshall for an entire season – he’s a feast-or-fammon type of point guard – is tough for me to do.
4. Xavier – Here’s the sleeper. The fact is, with Butler’s back-to-back national runner-up finishes, who questions a talented mid-major team crashing the Final Four? I’m seeing Tu Holloway pulling a Jameer Nelson (Saint Joes, circa 2004) and leading Xavier to a 30-win regular season, A-10 championship and a spot in New Orleans.
5. Florida – Few backcourts will match the athleticism as Florida’s. That, plus Patric Young’s emergence makes Florida one of those teams, like another listed below, that might actually be better with the loss of some big names.
6. Arizona – The Wildcats in the Elite 8 again? Yes, this is the stretch but hear me out. Derrick Williams was an absolute monster last year, but sometimes teams actually get better losing a star. Coach Sean Miller is a great coach who is recruiting like Roy Williams these days. Arizona might start out a little sluggish, but this could be a Final Four sleeper come February and March.
7. Baylor – Chalk this up to a fairly-easy nonconference schedule and a down Big 12. Baylor should rack up the wins and get a nice seed in March. That, coupled with a tough style to match, will have Baylor knocking on New Orleans’ door.
8. Gonzaga – This is the biggest dart of all. Entering the season without point guard Demetri Goodson, who left to pursue a football career, gives the Zags a major hole at the PG spot. With a slew of potential bodies to fill the void and a forest in the front court, this might be one of those “Here come the Zags” years.
9. Duke – With Coach K at the helm, Duke will always reload. That said, there are some major question marks here that could keep Duke from the Final Four or the Elite Eight. That isn’t to say Duke won’t win 30 games again and likely be a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the Big Dance. It’s just to say that, outside of the 2010 season, Duke hasn’t gotten better as the season has progressed. I see a late-season swoon rolling into a surprising Sweet 16 exit in March.
10. Louisville – The Cardinals will go as far as their defensive prowess takes them. This isn’t a great offensive team. It is, however, a great team running off turnovers and deflections. Louisville will be the Big East’s best team this season, but it’ll fall short of the Elite Eight like all its brethren.
11. Kansas – The Jayhawks are another team that keeps reloading. This prediction might be a little high but Bill Self gets the most out of his players – at least during the regular season. Expecting anything less than 30 wins would be stupid. Putting everything together in the Big Dance, with a team missing all but 2 big contributors last season is too risky a wager.
12. Syracuse – I can’t quite fathom all the love for the Orange this season. Jim Boeheim’s team is always hit or miss and defense is what made this team go last year. I worry that Rick Jackson leaves a huge void in the middle of that zone. The guard play and 3-point shooting will be key to a memorable season.
13. Belmont – It’s very likely this team will win 30 games again this season. Returning pretty much the entire team from last year, Belmont will play the role of Davidson in making a deep run into the tournament.
14. Michigan State – Addition by subtraction will be the motto in East Lansing this season. Coach Tom Izzo said the chemistry on this team might be the best in all his years of coaching. With enough pieces back from glory teams in 2009 and 2010, look for the Spartans to reach the second weekend again.
15. Michigan – If you look at all of John Beilein’s “great” teams, they really weren’t that good. In the tournament, it was all about matchups and getting hot with the 3-ball. I think Michigan will get a nice seed based on a solid regular season and, thanks to solid 3-point shooting and a different style, reach the Sweet 16.
16. Detroit – Taking the place of the Horizon League’s Butler Bulldogs in this year’s dance will be the Titans. Loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, watch for Detroit to bust a few brackets and make it to the second weekend.
17. Pittsburgh – For those thinking this is the year the Panthers break through to the Final Four, I caution you to really look at this team. Losing 50 percent of the offense is a big blow. The key pieces returning are seniors Ashton Gibbs, one of the nation’s best 3-point shooters and point guard Tray Woodall. I suppose you could throw Nasir Robinson into that mix, but a 6-foot-5 bruiser in the post won’t scare the great teams.
18. Connecticut – Apparently winning the national championship on a magical Cinderella run makes you a Final Four team the following year as well. The Huskies lost a lot. And while I really like Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier, I don’t think the backcourt will be able to hide the flaws in the front court.
19. Vanderbilt – Returning players are usually a good indicator of a deep tournament run when coupled with tournament success. Count me as one guy who isn’t ready to concede a Sweet 16 spot, let alone a Final Four spot, to a team that continuously chokes in big games. I like Vanderbilt. I just see a 4, 5, or 6-seed that can’t beat a great team when it counts.
20. Memphis – I’ve been waiting for Memphis’ top-tier recruiting to translate into a great team. It hasn’t happened yet and until I see any signs that it’s coming, I’m a seller, not a buyer. This is a team that needed to win the C-USA Tournament last year just to make the NCAA Tournament. Show me something before I pencil the Tigers into 3<sup>rd</sup> round.
21. Georgetown – Call this a hunch, as Georgetown won’t sniff the Top 25 this season. This is a young team that struggles to make 3s. With three departing seniors and a few transfers, it’ll be up to the young guns to step in. I think, in a “down” Big East, Georgetown’s youth can build enough confidence to win a few games in the tournament.
22. Alabama – This is all about defense. After Kentucky and Florida in the SEC, there are a slew of teams that could be No. 3. Why not Alabama?
23. Temple – You could very well flip-flop Temple and Xavier in these projections. Both teams will not beat themselves and will be the class of the A-10. Don’t be shocked if Temple joins Xavier deep in the tournament.
24. Washington – Maybe this is a hope that Abdul Gaddy can lead this team how he hoped to lead the team last year. If the Huskies can find some magic on the road, I think this could be a dangerous team – one that could even win the Pac-12.
25. Wisconsin – There’s a rule in Big Ten country: Don’t count the Badgers out. Typically predicted to finish 4<sup>th</sup>, 5<sup>th</sup> or 6<sup>th</sup> in the conference, Wisconsin continues to finish in the top trio and continually racks up a fat win count. Do-it-all point guard Jordan Taylor is a monster, but in Wisconsin’s losses last year he tried to do too much. With the spotlight shining brightly on him this season, I expect him to try and carry too much of the burden in March.
26. Purdue – Robbie Hummel is the type of player who makes his teammates better. Despite losing E’Twan Moore and JaJuan Johnson, Hummel will carry the Boilers this season.
27. Marquette – All Buzz Williams does is defy the odds. With another Golden Eagles team planning to win with defense, I like Marquette to be a borderline surprise Sweet 16 team.
28. New Mexico – I’m thinking Steve Alford gets the Logos another tournament win.
29. Drexel – If the Dragons can hit some 3-point shots this season (Drexel shot 28 percent in 2010-11), this might be the CAA’s best team.
30. Florida State – Defense wins championships? Well, Florida State is a staple atop Ken Pomeroy’s defensive rankings but it hasn’t led to much. Maybe a tournament victory will keep the hounds away from Leonard Hamilton for at least another year.
31. BYU – Moving to the WCC shouldn’t affect BYU much. A pair of games against Gonzaga and St. Mary’s will only make the Cougars more battle tested.
32. California – Look for the Golden Bears to contend for the Pac-12 title and be a difficult out in March.
SLEEPER TEAMS THAT WILL MAKE THE NCAA TOURNAMENT AND COULD WIN A GAME: Indiana, Oregon, North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, Long Beach State.