The 2011-2012 college basketball season is officially in the books. Kentucky reigns supreme. Yada, yada, yada...An eighth national championship in school history is quite an accomplishment—don't get me wrong—but for the 98 percent of us hoops fans who don't consider ourselves part of Big Blue Nation, we're over it! Let's move on!
While we are a good six months from Midnight Madness, it's never too early to predict who the top dogs will be at the beginning of next season. Certainly there are a lot of "ifs" involved when attempting to establish a hierarchy for the 2012-2013 season. Bear with me as I do my best to forecast which players shed their amateur status, which underclassmen step up to the plate and which highly touted recruits live up to their potential.
Without further ado, here are my preseason top 10...
The Cardinals were one hottest teams throughout the postseason. They tore through the Big East Tournament, knocking off two ranked opponents on their way to the title. With that momentum, they powered their way to the Final Four, only to be turned away by the national champs. There is no reason to believe next year's Cards can't do the same, if not better.
While they lose leading scorer Kyle Kuric and fellow senior, Chris Smith to graduation, they'll have three starters returning with significant tournament experience. Chane Behanan showed a lot of promise in his rookie campaign, big-man Gorgui Dieng is a monster presence in the paint and Peyton Siva is a heck of leader. Oh, and Russ Smith, who came of the bench for 32 games, was the team's second-leading scorer.
While they don't have a stellar recruiting class, they have they'll win the coaching match up in nearly every game they play next season. Rick Pitino has got to be pretty optimistic about March of 2013.
Quincy Miller, Baylor
The Baylor Bears could very likely be the most talented team in the country next year. The 2011-2012 squad was chock full of NBA-caliber players, and with only one senior in their starting lineup, the Bears could enter next season as a heavy favorite.
The questions lie in whether or not Perry Jones III and Pierre Jackson will return to Waco. If they choose to come back, Jones and Jackson, Baylor's top two scorers this past season, would be joined by the nations fourth-best recruiting class (according to ESPN).
The new crop is highlighted by seven-footer Isaiah Austin, one of the country's best high school centers. Quincy Miller, the Bear's 2012 freshman stud, should also be back and ready for a breakout year. This team has so much potential...we'll see what comes of it.
The Jayhawks just lost the national championship game. As much as that stings, you can bet that Bill Self's returning squad would like nothing more than another stab at it next year.
Tyshawn Taylor is gone, and Thomas Robinson likely is too. If Robinson reconsiders though...wow! Kansas could be right back in the title game next season.
The Jayhawks should return the flyswatter, Jeff Withey, and Elijah Johnson. Rock Chalk is also bringing in ESPN's 10th ranked recruiting class next fall. The Phog Allen faithful should been pleased with what's to come next year.
Indiana basketball is back! After three years in the toilet, Tom Crean has restored order in Bloomington, and the Hoosiers are primed to make a run for the school's sixth national championship. Crean's squad had a great return to glory this past season, boasting wins over Kentucky, Ohio State and Michigan State during the regular season. Despite a rematch loss to the Wildcats in the Sweet 16, it will be some time before Hoosier fans forget the magic that happened that December night in Assembly Hall.
More importantly, the Cream & Crimson will likely return all five starters from this past season's team, though not all five will start in 2012-2013. The Hoosiers have locked up ESPN's ninth ranked recruiting class.
Big Ten Co-Frenshman of the Year Cody Zeller's starting job surely won't be in jeopardy. Don't be surprised if Zeller spends next season as part of the conversation for National Player of the Year. The sun is shining in Indiana these days.
Can you say "back-to-back champs?" Maybe! Unlike Indiana, the Wildcats won't return all of their starters. Heck, they may not even return one! John Calipari's program boasts the nation's second-best recruiting class though, and if next year's freshman are anywhere near as good as this year's, Cal could be hoisting another trophy.
This past season's championship squad was one of the most talented teams we've seen in college basketball over the past decade. If any one of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb or Marquis Teague decide to return, Kentucky will be sitting pretty. Even if they all turn pro, I don't feel bad for Big Blue Nation, with the recruiting Calipari does, they are in good hands.
Michigan State, 2012 Big Ten Tourney Champs
No more Draymond Green—that hurts! This is Tom Izzo, though. After an earlier than expected exit this March, Izzo and Sparty will be ready for next year. Branden Dawson and Travis Trice will be back to welcome in the next crop of freshmen, whom ESPN ranks sixth in the country.
There will definitely be a learning curve, but if you recall, the Spartans were unranked at the beginning of this past season. I suggest we don't do that again. I expect MSU to be locked and loaded for next season.
Three of this past season's squad have already declared for the NBA draft. Let's be serious though, this in North Carolina...the name says enough.
Roy Williams has secured ESPN's fifth-ranked recruiting class for next season. He'll have Dexter Strickland back from injury and PJ Hairston and James Michael McAdoo will be ready to take over as sophomores.
Now, there are rumors of McAdoo going pro...I don't think it will happen. I think he'll be back in Chapel Hill and I also think the Tar Heels are in good standing going into next season.
NC State made a solid tournament run to the Sweet 16 and played Kansas down to the wire. Not only will the Wolfpack return four starters next season, they are ushering in the nations seventh-ranked recruiting class. The 1980's glory days are likely to return to Raleigh next season. Returning for the Pack are leading scorers CJ Leslie and Lorenzo Brown. This team will be in the fight for an ACC Title...and maybe more.
I may be putting too much stock in recruiting here, but, per ESPN's rankings, Arizona has the country's top recruiting class heading to Tucson this fall. The 'Cats didn't make the tournament this past season, but I contest that that will give them all the more reason to be hungry in 2012-2013.
They return three starters, including second-leading scorer Solomon Hill. They'll also be getting Kevin Parrom back from injury. This mixture of experience and the nation's best freshmen class should make Zona fans pretty confident going into next season.
OH - IO
Over the past half-decade, the Buckeyes have been one of the best teams in college basketball. They've had some real studs on the court (Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger...just to name a few). I originally had Ohio State ranked second when rumors were swirling that Sullinger might stay in Columbus for another year.
Now that he has declared for the draft, the Buckeyes clearly aren't the same team...but they aren't that far off. Even without Sullinger, OSU is in goods hands with Deshaun Thomas. Thomas averaged nearly 16 points per game this past season. Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. also return with starting experience.
Like Louisville, the Buckeyes aren't bringing in a monster recruiting class. Also like Louisville, they have the coaching advantage. Thad Matta is 221-65 in eight seasons with the Buckeyes.