Crystal Ballin': The 2011 Final Four Favorites
Waiting for the recruiting and NBA declaration dust to settle shouldn’t stop us from wildly speculating the four teams that will be left standing after the madness in March.
But remember, early entries and last second recruiting coups can change the national championship landscape as unexpectedly as a three-second call in a pickup game.
Which reminds me to make this public service announcement after a bizarre hoops moment that occurred at my gym this weekend.
Memo to our readership: if it’s shirts and skins game where you call your own fouls, and you proceed to take a charge, please remove your two knee braces, rec specs, and head-band and mosey over to Pilates class. I don’t need an emergency room visit because some fifty-something felt the need to test the rule of verticality and undercut my 15-inch vertical.
Sorry for the rant as I digress.
Here’s my too-early odds on final four, barring significant personnel moves.
Duke. At this point they’re your odds on favorite to repeat as champions, and basically a shoe-in preseason No. 1 overall. Dare I say they’ll be even better than the team that cut down the nets in 2010? I dare.
They lose Thomas, Zoubek, and Scheyer, but they replace these lunch pail guys with electric perimeter players Kyrie Irving and Seth Curry. Add these two backcourt studs to Andre Dawkins, who should improve immensely with a second year in the program, along with super lead guard Nolan Smith, and the Blue Devils may have the deepest, most talented backcourt in all of college basketball.
This backcourt depth and talent will allow the Devils to dictate tempo and pressure the basketball much more effectively than they were able to last season.
Returning Player of the Year candidate Kyle Singler shouldn’t hurt, either. In fact, here’s specifically how it helps .
With the experience already on campus and an influx of talent, Duke is a solid bet to grab an all important No. 1 seed going into the tournament next season. They should have just enough firepower to edge out the Harrison Barnes-led UNC Tar Heels for conference supremacy. Love them or hate them, the Blue Devils are poised to write another chapter of dynasty and dominance into their storied history.
Butler. Take the best young coach in college basketball, emboldened by coming a field goal short from winning the most improbable national championship in the game’s history, and at the very least you’re going to make it a point to keep an eye on his club.
Return the entire championship roster including top-five player Gordon Hayward to Butler’s young coaching savant Brad Stevens, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for another deep tournament run, with little-to-no resistance until tournament time.
Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack, and Matt Howard, the heart and soul of the Bulldogs, all return to Cinderella’s favorite squad poised to make more noise in the tournament.
The only question mark Coach Stevens will have is to find a replacement for Butler’s glue man, 6′4″ Willie Veasley. Either Mack will have to slide down to the third guard spot, allowing Nored and Vanzant to run the two-guard spots or someone with size will have to step up in the frontcourt because this lineup makes Butler susceptible to big bangers.
Stevens will be looking to get front court contributions from 6′7″ junior Garrett Butcher or 6′9″ sophomore Emerson Kampen for this reason. Both players need to get stronger, or the Bulldogs will need to navigate through the national tournament maze with creative personnel combinations to cover their warts like last season. Either way, my money’s on Stevens to find a way. He’s that good.
Kansas. Typically when a team loses players the caliber of Cole Aldrich, Xavier Henry, and lead dog Sherron Collins, they would fall back to the top-25 pack. Not KU. Incoming super frosh guard Josh Selby gives the Jayhawks an electric, playmaking guard who should step right in and fill Sherron Collin’s point guard shoes.
Add enigmatic yet talented combo guard Tyshawn Taylor and a bevy of perimeter shooters, and KU shouldn’t a miss a beat in the backcourt.
In the frontcourt, I’d argue that down the stretch last season, the Jayhawks were a more versatile team with the Morris twins getting the majority of minutes over Cole Aldrich. Keep in mind the Jayhawks are still in line for five-star big Terrance Jones and jumping jack five-star wing CJ Leslie.
Grab one or both of those blue chippers, and Kansas is going to own the Big 12 and a No. 1 seed if they don’t have the roster to do so already.
Ohio State. I’m fully aware that Evan Turner, the best player in college basketball last season , moved on to ply his trade in the Association. The Buckeyes, however, are not left without talent and experience returning four of their six deep rotation including upperclassmen David Lighty, Jon Diebler, William Buford, and Dallas Lauderdale. The returning starters take care of all the Buckeyes' shooting, rebounding, and ball handling needs.
Incoming freshman phenom Jared Sullinger provides the star power.
Arguably the best incoming freshman in America, the 6′9″ specimen has game for days. At 6′9″ 260 pounds, Sullinger has an NBA ready body to go with silky smooth moves around the bucket. Jared will come in and immediately be the best post player in the Big 10 and perhaps college basketball, and he’ll be surrounded by perimeter players with the talent, skills, and experience to get him the basketball in advantageous positions near the bucket.
Plus Thad Matta has a great track record coaching elite pivot players.
The Buckeyes also welcome five-star incoming freshman Deshaun Thomas, a 6′6″ power forward, who has a terrific inside/out game to compliment Sullinger in the front court. Thomas’s length and athleticism will also fit right in with Matta’s active zone defense. It’s a defense that becomes downright nasty when it deploys players with size and athleticism at all five positions.
The Buckeyes are poised to make another deep tournament run if Sullinger and Thomas come in and mesh with the talent and experience already on campus.
Others teams receiving votes are UNC and Kentucky, two teams who both have monstrous incoming recruiting classes in their own right.
I give the nod to the four teams listed above over the Wildcats and Tar Heels because they have that underrated commodity—experience—an attribute that proved to be worth its weight in gold in last year’s big dance.
Now experience in pick-up games is a different story. Especially if you’re that 40-something trying to organize the flex offense with four strangers just after you call “next” in your open gym.
Let it go, man. And quit taking charges.
Kevin Berger writes the leading college hoops blog March To March .
Follow him on Twitter: @MarchToMarch
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