It seems like just yesterday that Kentucky cut down the nets in Mercedes-Benz Super Dome in New Orleans, La. Well, Monday to be exact. The 2011-12 season just wrapped up and John Calipari proved to us all that he is indeed capable of winning a national championship. But that’s all in the past. The turn of the calendar signifies the turn of the season.
Seniors will graduate, coaches will come and go and underclassmen will declare themselves for the NBA Draft, whether they realize how talented they actually are or not. The picks in these rankings are under the assumption that the expected players to leave school actually will, and the ones who are expected to stay make the right decision. Some teams will get better and some will have to begin the rebuilding process. Whether these ten teams fit in either or both of those classifications, they have still cracked my far too early top ten poll for the next season in college hoops.
The Hoosiers are coming off a resurgence year in which Tom Crean led the Indiana powerhouse to a 27-9 record just one year after finishing at 12-20. If sensational freshman Cody Zeller returns to Bloomington, this team will be as good as any in the nation. Cristian Watford, Jordan Hulls and Victor Oladipo are all returning after averaging double digits in scoring last season. With a solid recruiting class coming in headlined by point guard Yogi Ferrell (#3 PG in the ESPNU100) added to the bunch, Crean’s Indiana Hoosiers will be as good as any squad in the nation.
The Cardinals made a UCONN-esque run by winning their conference tournament and making a run all the way to the Final Four. It’s just too bad for Cardinal nation that Rick Pitino’s boys couldn’t cut down the nets like UCONN did in 2011. Although Pitino is losing his leading scorer in Kyle Kuric and fellow guard Chris Smith, the Cardinals have a lot of young players returning who have tremendous upside. Soon-to-be senior guard Peyton Siva made huge strides in his game in the second half of the season last year and will most likely be Big East Preseason Player of the Year for next season. With a nucleus consisting of Siva, Russ Smith, Chane Behanan, Gorgui Dieng and Wayne Blackshear leading the way for the ‘Ville, a national championship is a very good possibility.
We don’t even have to leave the Bluegrass State as we move to #3. Even after losing Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones to the NBA (none have officially announced yet), if guards Doron Lamb and Marquis Teague return to school the defending national champions could be right back at it again. Kyle Wiltjer be called upon to play a bigger role for Kentucky, but the majority of new stars for Kentucky will be…you guessed it, freshman. The Wildcats already have commitments from #4 SG Archie Goodwin, #3 SF Alex Poythress and #10 C Willie Cauley. That’s not the surprising thing about this class. The possibility still lingers that some combination of #1 C Nerlens Noel, #1 SF Shabazz Muhammad, #1 PF Anthony Bennett and a few other top ten players from each position. If The Wildcats can land a few of these top recruits, Kentucky very well could move to the top of the poll.
4. Ohio State
The Buckeyes went somewhat under the radar this year after starting the year in the top five in the polls. They never slipped below 11th and even after earning a two-seed in the NCAA Tournament the Buckeyes still weren’t talked about too much. However, a Final Four run and a possible return of sophomore DeShaun Thomas, 15.9 ppg, has the Ohio State faithful ready for another deep run under Thad Matta. Even with losing their best player Jared Sullinger to the NBA and fellow starter William Buford to graduation, with Thomas and guards Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. leading the way, this Ohio State team could be very dangerous.
This pick could be made or broken by the decisions of two young men. Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are both contemplating entering the draft. If one of them chooses to do so, this team is borderline top ten, but probably in the 12-16 range. If both leave, the Wolverines will be looking at 20’s or possibly even unranked. Let’s get real, neither of the two are ready for the league. They both could use another year to refine their game; and hey, winning a national championship in the process doesn’t sound too bad. With All-American Mitch McGary coming in and more experience returning in the frontcourt, Big Blue could be poised for greatness.
6. North Carolina State
Where’s Carolina? Duke? Yes, you are reading this right. The Wolfpack will be the preseason favorite in the ACC come next season. With four starters returning, including leading scorer C.J. Leslie, NC State will be an exciting club to watch. All five starters averaged over ten points last year and the recruiting class will help right away. #6 SG Rodney Purvis will probably start for the upperclassmen-laden team, and SF T.J. Warren and PG Tyler Lewis both should see good time. No ACC player improved more last season than guard Lorenzo Brown, and with him leading the way again next year, the Wolfpack will be ready to attack.
The Wildcats had a lackluster year to say the least. From ranked in the preseason to getting bounced in the NIT, expectations were set a little too high in Tucson. So what are we doing this year? Picking Sean Miller’s squad to regain the title ‘Best in the West,’ and bring Arizona basketball back to a national power. ‘Zona loses Kyle Fogg and Jesse Perry (both double-digit scorers), but Solomon Hill, Nick Johnson and Josiah Turner are back and they’ve got plenty of help on the way. As it stands now (don’t be surprised if Kentucky makes the jump), the recruiting class is ranked first in America, featuring #3 C Kaleb Tarczewski, #2 PF Grant Jarrett, #3 PF Brandon Ashley and #7 SG Gabe York. All will see a lot of minutes and could help kick start the resurgence of greatness in the desert.
The Tigers are just one of another many teams to earn a top-ten ranking after losing their best player. Will Barton (18.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg) is gone to the NBA, but Josh Pastner brings back just about everyone else. Joe Jackson, Tarik Black, Chris Crawford and Adonis Thomas return for Memphis and with Shaq Goodwin coming in, the Tigers look ready to storm past Conference-USA competition one last time before bolting to the Big East.
I could say a lot of good statistics or talk about incoming players for Greg McDermott’s team, but let’s be honest; only one thing really matters, and that is that All-American Doug McDermott is coming back to school for his junior season. He will be the only member of the All-American team back next year, but this is a good move by him. Seniors Greg Echenique and Grant Gibbs will help provide some leadership for the Blue Jays, but don’t doubt for a second that this is McDermott’s team.
10. Michigan State
All-American Draymond Green? Gone. Starting guards Brandon Wood and Austin Thornton? Gone. So what is this team doing ranked tenth? Aside from Keith Appling (11.4 ppg) returning, the Spartans will be relying on mostly new leaders next season. Guard Branden Dawson will be counted on to provide some scoring and post players Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne will be the bulkiest frontcourt in college basketball, I can guarantee you that. There were seven freshman on the roster this year, so the Spartans are still a young, but experienced team. With #1 SG Gary Harris coming in, along with three post players, the sky is the limit as always for this Michigan Stat team. Oh, and Tom Izzo is one hell of a coach.
Of course draft decisions and injuries and anything else that could possibly screw up my predictions probably will happen. But that’s the beauty of college basketball right? Every team will lose some pieces and every team will try their best to replace those pieces lost. Although the season is months away, I can assure we’ll be in for a good one.