1. Ohio State (34-3, Lost in Sweet 16). Expected to return their best player (Jared Sullinger), point guard (Craft), wing (William Buford) and 7th man (Thomas). Strong recruiting class. Without Diebler, Sullinger will see a lot more double teams, so Thomas will have to light it up. The Big Ten will be considerably weaker. Assuming Sullinger & Buford return, OSU should be a No. 1 seed next March.
2. Kentucky (29-9, Lost in Final 4). Everyone will have them No. 1 because of a dope recruiting class, all of whom are likely to start because Knight and Jones are probably NBA-bound, and Harrellson graduates. But how will the holdovers (Lamb, Liggins, Miller) mesh with the incoming studs? We’ll either see a Wall-Cousins result (which reached the Elite 8 and wasn’t bad), or this year’s version (I thought much better than the 2009-2010 team). The Wildcats will obviously win 22-26 games in the regular season and be in the mix for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
3. Texas (28-8, Lost in 2nd Round). The Longhorns are this high because their best two players, Tristian Thompson and Jordan Hamilton, have said they’ll return. They’ll lose Balbay, Lucas and Johnson, three valuable contributors. But TT & Baby Miner, plus solid contributors J’Covan Brown & Cory Joseph, plus a great recruiting class led by Myck Kabongo will make the Longhorns one of the most athletic teams in the nation, and heavy favorites to win the Big 12. (Kansas is supposedly losing the Morris Twins and Selby, plus they graduate Morningstar and Reed. You have to wonder if Thomas Robinson bothers to return.) If I were putting down a cigarette money on a team to win it all next year, I’d do that with Texas, which will probably be a longshot to win the title. Too bad Rick Barnes will find a way to ruin it in March.
4. UNC (29-8, Lost in Elite 8). My guess is Harrison Barnes leaves, but Tyler Zeller stays. (Take this Chad Ford note however you’d like – “Williams told Barnes that he would go somewhere between No. 5 and 11 in the draft, according to a source familiar with the discussion.”) Both are lottery picks if they want to come out. John Henson shouldn’t follow the lead of guys who had a game exactly like his – Ed Davis & Brandan Wright – and depart early, but he might, too. Point guard Kendall Marshall is very good, and surrounded by wing players – Bullock, McDonald, Strickland – he should thrive. If Henson stays, and Bob McAdoo’s nephew steps in for Barnes, 25+ wins is within reach.
5. Syracuse (27-8, Lost in 2nd Round). The graduation of Rick Jackson is a damaging loss, but Kris Joseph coming back for his senior year is huge. I’d pick Syracuse to win the Big East but I don’t know if Boeheim can sort out of the Triche-Jardine (both of whom shot 41 percent from the field) backcourt. At times, I much preferred the freshman (Waiters) than both of them. And with Top 20 PG Michael Carter Williams coming in … Boeheim may have trouble finding minutes for everyone. I really liked the contributions of Fair throughout his rookie year and Fab Melo came on strong at the end. If incoming freshman Rakeem Christmas can play with Melo inside, the athleticism everywhere else is enough for a Final Four run.
6. Duke (32-5, Lost in Sweet 16). Surprised? They’ll lose Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith to graduation, and very likely budding star Kyrie Irving will depart to the NBA, where he’ll be a Top 5 pick. But Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry will be back, and they’ll get lots of open looks thanks to incoming point guard Austin Rivers (son of Doc). They’ll still have an NBA frontline (Ryan Kelly: 6-11; Plumee brothers 6-11), but again, not much offensive ability inside. First or second (as usual) in the ACC, and a 1-2-3 seed in the NCAA tournament. The big question: Who creates their own shot off the dribble?
7. Louisville (25-10, Lost in 1st Round). Barring some strange NBA early-entrant decisions, the Cardinals will only lose one player from their rotation – leading scorer Preston Knowles (who only shot 37 percent from the field and jacked 7 three-pointers a game). The Cardinals will probably be the 2nd best team in the Big East (slightly behind Syracuse), likely starting a Siva-Smith-Kuric trio, Jennings in the middle, and perhaps freshman Chane Behanan at PF. The recruiting class is solid. Plus, they can use that Morehead State defeat as motivation.
8. Connecticut 32-9 (Won NCAA title). Putting the Huskies here, but with an enormous asterisk because I really do think Jeremy Lamb will declare for the NBA after putting on a show in the NCAA tournament. If Lamb does return, they’ll have a nucleus that should contend with Louisville and Syracuse in the Big East. The frontcourt (Olander, Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith) has serious potential, if it plays the way it did in March. Napier should start at PG, backed up by freshman Ryan Boatright (unless Calhoun wants to treat Boatright as Kemba, and play both point guards, plus Lamb). Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and Niels Giffey provide depth. With Lamb, there’s Final 4 potential; without him, the Huskies are probably still a Top 30 team that might have some offensive issues.
9. Michigan (21-14 Lost in 2nd Round). Love the Wolverines next year – especially if Darius Morris doesn’t go to the NBA. Beilein is a terrific coach. They lose no seniors. They’re collecting sons or siblings of former/current NBA players, which is always a good thing. Not sure how much these two recruits will help, but with the Big Ten down, I expect the Wolverines to be the 2nd or 3rd best team (Illinois? Purdue? Michigan State?) in that conference.
10. Memphis (25-10, Lost in First Round). The way Josh Pastner recruits, think of the Tigers as Kentucky-lite. Best case scenario – Barton, Black, Jackson and Witherspoon all decide to return next season (Witherspoon probably flirts the most with the NBA, but he should stay). Add super-recruit Adonis Thomas into that mix and the Tigers easily have the most talent in CUSA. Can Pastner coach them out of the AAU mindset, though? If so, they should be in line for another 25 wins and this time, a few in the NCAA tournament.
11. Vanderbilt (23-11, Lost in 1st Round). All five starters return. Definitely the 2nd best team in the SEC. John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor could both make a run at 1st team All-SEC. A solid recruiting class should add depth. Kevin Stallings just needs to find way out of the first round of the NCAA tournament – his last three trips there with Vandy have ended in disaster.
12. Butler 28-10 (Lost in Title Game). Brad Stevens is still the coach. I could just stop there, but there’s plenty of talent returning. Matt Howard is obviously a major loss, but perhaps Andrew Smith will learn to avoid foul trouble and develop a few post moves. Khyle Marshall finished his freshman season strong and should slide into the starting lineup. Since Shelvin Mack isn’t going pro (right?), he’ll team with Ronald Nored to try and get the Bulldogs to a third straight Final Four. At this point, can you doubt Stevens? Hopefully, one of their two recruits can provide some offense.
13. Florida (29-8 (Lost in Elite 8). It’ll be tough to duplicate a run to the Elite 8 without your SF, PF and C (Parsons, Tyus, Macklin), but the Gators will return their backcourt (Walker and Boyton), plus transfer Mike Rosario (who was pretty good at Rutgers), and add a Top 10 recruit in Brad Beal. The problems: Can they get enough inside out of Erik Murphy? And will there be enough basketballs to go around for all the guards who liked to shoot?
14. Cincinnati (26-9 (Lost in 2nd Round): Probably the 4th best team in the Big East. (Pittsburgh, Georgetown, Notre Dame and West Virginia lose a lot.) The Bearcats return three of their top four scorers, and if Mick Cronin can coax some more offense out of the backcourt, and a decent recruiting class pans out, the Sweet 16 should be well within reach.
15. Xavier (24-8 (Lost in 1st Round). Should dominate the Atlantic 10 again (15-1 last season). Their best player (and the conference POY) Tu Holloway is back (can’t imagine he’ll test the NBA waters), along with two of the team’s top four scorers. Their best 3-point shooter, Brad Redford, will return from injury. They’ve even got a Top 75 recruit coming in. As long as coach Chris Mack doesn’t jump ship for another job (NC State?) this week … the goal should be the Sweet 16.
Just Missed/Sleepers: George Mason returns four of five starters, but loses its leading scorer … UCLA would have made the top 15 if Malcolm Lee hadn’t declared for the NBA last week … Villanova loses a lot, but it could be addition by subtraction, as a Wayns/Cheek backcourt will be very good … Sean Miller seems to be building something nice in Arizona, which should finish 1st or 2nd in the Pac-10 … Can you really leave Gonzaga off any of these lists? If Elias Harris and Robert Sacre return, pencil the Zags in for another NCAA tourney trip …