Predicting Who Will Be in the 2014 Final Four in Arlington
For 343 Division I basketball teams, the dream of winning a national championship this season has already gone bust.
But where one dream ends another begins, and that means it's time to cast a cautious eye toward the 2013-14 college basketball season.
Below you'll find the quartet of teams that I think have the best chance to make next year's Final Four. But before you run to your bookie, be advised—there's still a lot we don't know.
We don't know, for example, who will declare for the NBA draft and who will opt for a follow-up season of college ball. We don't know who might transfer where. We don't know when the coaching carousel will stop.
And we still don't know where Andrew Wiggins—the nation's top-rated recruit—will attend college.
Leaving all that uncertainty aside, here are the teams that look best on paper at the moment.
2012-13 Record: 27-8, Lost in Sweet Sixteen
Key Losses: Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom
Key Returning Players: Brandon Ashley (F), Grant Jerrett (F), Kaleb Tarczewski (C), Nick Johnson (G)
Key Additions: Aaron Gordon (PF, No. 4, ESPN), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (SF, No. 16), Elliott Pitts (SG, No. 100), T.J. McConnell (PG, transfer)
The losses are significant, but Sean Miller has stockpiled an army of young talent to fill the void.
Gordon's leaping ability draws comparisons to Blake Griffin, and Hollis-Jefferson is a promising stat-sheet stuffer who should find early minutes as a role player. Those two will join rising sophomores Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski, each of whom came to Tucson last summer as top-20 recruits..
No one west of the Mississippi has more young talent.
2012-13 Record: 21-12, Lost in First Round of NIT
Key Losses: Archie Goodwin (G), Nerlens Noel (C)*, Ryan Harrow (G), Julius Mays (G)
Key Returning Players: Kyle Wiltjer (F), Alex Poythress (F), Willie Cauley-Stein (C)
Key Additions: Julius Randle (PF, No. 3), Andrew Harrison (PG, No. 5), James Young (SF, No. 6), Aaron Harrison (SG, No. 7), Dakari Johnson (C, No. 11), Marcus Lee (PF, No. 18)
This year, Kentucky turned over its entire starting lineup and handed the reins to a group of untested underclassmen. For reasons both structural and incidental, it didn't work.
Next year, thanks to the recently announced return of rising sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, coach John Calipari will have at least a little seasoning to sprinkle atop his insane prospect haul.
And it is insane.
Big Blue has already reeled in four of the nation's top-seven recruits, and could add a fifth if No. 1 overall prospect Andrew Wiggins signs on the dotted line later this month.
Naturally they'll be some skepticism in the wake of this year's struggles, but you'd be plum stupid to ignore all the talent marching into Lexington—or the prior two Final Four trips John Calipari made with majority freshmen starting fives.
*Noel has not officially declared for the NBA draft, but is expected to go in the top five.
2012-13 Record: 29-8, Lost in Elite Eight
Key Losses: Evan Ravenel (F)
Key Returning Players: Aaron Craft (G), Deshaun Thomas (F), Lenzelle Smith Jr. (G), LaQuinton Ross (F), Sam Thompson (F), Amir Williams (C)
Key Additions: Kameron Williams (SG, No. 58), Marc Loving (SF, No. 62)
The swing vote here is junior forward Deshaun Thomas, who could bolt early for the NBA.
ESPN's Chad Ford recently reported that he "couldn't find any scouts or GMs who had [Thomas] in their top 30," which leads me to believe that the Big 10's leading scorer will stay put.
If Thomas does decide to jet, Ohio State's offense will be in trouble. The 6'7" forward was Thad Matta's only dependable source of scoring this season, and it's unlikely some combination of LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson could fill his shoes.
Then again, if Thomas returns, the Buckeyes will have essentially a carbon copy of the roster that got within a game of this year's Final Four. And no matter where Thomas lands, Ohio State should again be among the nation's defensive elite.
2012-13 Record: 30-6, Lost in Elite Eight
Key Losses: Ryan Kelly (F), Mason Plumlee (F), Seth Curry (G)
Key Returning Players: Quinn Cook (PG), Rasheed Sulaimon (G), Amile Jefferson (F), Tyler Thornton (G)
Key Additions: Jabari Parker (SF, No. 2), Matt Jones (SG, No. 32), Semi Ojeleye (SF, No. 36), Rodney Hood (F, Transfer), Andre Dawkins (G, Returning from Leave)
Coach Mike Krzyzewski has a lot of offense to replace, but the addition of super prospect Jabari Parker allays some of those concerns. So too will the continued maturation of Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson.
Former Mississippi State standout Rodney Hood is one of the nation's premier transfer players and should step into a major role from day one. If some combination of Hood, Jefferson and rising senior Josh Hairston can hold down the frontcourt, Duke should play enough defense to finish near the top of the ACC.
And as always, the Blue Devils have snipers to spare on the perimeter.
Others in the Hunt
Louisville: Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng will be major losses (assuming Dieng leaves), but highly touted JUCO transfer Chris Jones is a potential difference maker. Besides, you can't discount any team with Rick Pitino on the sidelines and Russ Smith on the fast break (again, assuming Smith stays).
North Carolina: The 'Heels seemed to find something at the end of this season, and most of the core players from one of the nation's youngest teams should be back in Chapel Hill next year.
Indiana: It's all about Cody Zeller. If the Big Handsome decides he needs to refine his post game, Tom Crean has the young guns needed to replace Victor Oladipo and make another run at the 'chip. If he doesn't, I'm not sure Indiana is an elite team.
Syracuse: We know the Orange will defend. But can they replace senior scorer James Southerland and lottery-bound floor general Michael Carter-Williams? The incoming class is solid, and rising sophomore Dajuan Coleman should improve on an uneven debut season. But even then, Jim Boeheim has some serious holes to fill.
Michigan State: No team has more on the line leading up to the NBA draft deadline. Freshman Gary Harris is probably out the door, but junior Adreian Payne is square on the fence. If those two somehow return, the Spartans go from solid to potentially special.
Michigan: The Wolverines are likely losing their best player (Trey Burke) and their most gifted one (Glenn Robinson III). Even with a top 15 recruiting class and the continued emergence of freshman Mitch McGary down low (who might himself leave), Michigan has a lot of firepower to replace.
Memphis: Josh Pastner reeled in another stellar recruiting class, but we're still waiting for the Tigers to put it all together and actually beat a quality opponent. Do that, and maybe we'll start talking Final Four.
Florida: Billy Donovan is losing three senior starters from this year's Elite Eight team, and junior Patric Young remains undecided on his NBA future. But anyone who watched this Gator team will tell you Donovan had more raw athleticism on his bench then most teams do in their starting five. Factor in another top-10 recruiting class, and Florida should be in the mix.
Kansas: All five starters are either graduating or headed to the draft lottery. Even so, we'd be foolish to doubt Bill Self. He always manages to keep this program atop the Big 12, and the recruiting class is loaded.
Marquette: Buzz Williams lured some pretty good talent to Milwaukee, and the return of juniors Vander Blue and Davante Gardner suggests the offense should be it usual efficient self.
New Mexico: With the exception of Tony Snell, the Lobos return every starter from a team that went 29-6. Of course they also lost their coach to UCLA and their opening-round tournament game to Harvard. Still plenty left to prove in Albuquerque.
Gonzaga: We'll keep the Bulldogs here on the off chance that star center Kelly Olynyk doesn't take his rising stock to the NBA.
Wisconsin: The Big Ten tournament runner-up returns a good chunk of this year's team, and we all know Bo Ryan can coach.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes' ongoing NIT run proves what the numbers already suggested: Fran McCaffery's team can play. Better yet, all the major players are due back next year.
BYU: Dave Rose's once-in-a-decade recruiting class joins a team that was a lot better than most folks realize. Just ask the Cougars' NIT foes.
The Team I Inevitably Missed: I'm sure you'll tell me all about them in the comments.
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