NCAA Men's Basketball: Early Top 25 Predictions for 2012

Mike HendersonCorrespondent IIApril 5, 2011

NCAA Men's Basketball: Early Top 25 Predictions for 2012

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    Moments after the crowning of a new champion, it is time to look ahead to the 2011-2012 season.


    Amid speculation of an NBA lockout, players declaring for the draft, players saying they aren't declaring for the draft and coaches changing jobs, to try and figure out what is going to happen next season (especially after the one we just witnessed) would be an exercise in futility, right?

    Right. So let's do it anyway.

    This is the early, early version for the top 25 of 2011-12, one that will take a much different shape over the course of the next three-to-four weeks.

    The spring signing period may bring some hidden gems to some schools, while underclassmen have until April 24th to state their intentions regarding the NBA draft.

    Some schools could potentially be hit hard by early defections. At this point in time, there is really no way of knowing who is staying and who is going, except for those who have already enlisted the services of an agent.

    With that in mind, here is a look at some of next year's Top 25 contenders.

25. Washington Huskies

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    The imminent departure of Isaiah Thomas, who has indicated that he is done in college, is a huge blow for the Huskies.

    Washington does have some key returning players, none more important now than Abdul Gaddy, who missed most of the season with a knee injury.

    Recruit Tony Wroten will need to contribute almost immediately in the backcourt now that Thomas and Venoy Overton are gone.

    Terrence Ross, C.J. Wilcox and Scott Suggs can pick up some of the scoring supplied by the departed Justin Holiday, while Darnell Gant and Aziz N'Diaye hope to fill the void left by graduating senior Matthew Bryan-Amaning.

    There are a number of holes to fill but the Huskies had a deep team this season. They have to hope Gaddy comes back healthy and that Wroten can play some minutes early.

24. UCLA Bruins

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    Tyler Honeycutt is gone, having hired (or at least indicating he would) an agent. Malcolm Lee has declared for the draft as well, but will not hire an agent.

    Without both, the Bruins will need some quick answers for their backcourt.

    Reeves Nelson and Joshua Smith return up front to anchor the post. Jerime Anderson is a capable back-up but is not a starting point guard. Lazeric Jones had some decent stretches but needs more consistency.

    The Bruins have to hope for more from Tyler Lamb and perhaps recruit Norman Powell on the wings.

    UCLA can survive the loss of Honeycutt but will have trouble if he and Lee are both gone.

23. Gonzags Bulldogs

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    With every significant player except Steven Gray returning, the Zags appear to be the frontrunners in the WCC again next year.

    Their front line is as good as most with Robert Sacre, Elias Harris and Sam Dower. The backcourt will be bolstered by recruit Gary Bell, who the Zags hope can replace at least some of the outside shooting lost with the departure of Gray.

    Demetri Goodson, Marquise Carter and David Stockton will see minutes at the point, which could be an issue for the Zags unless someone steps up consistently.

    Kelly Olynyk and Manny Arop (if he is still there) give coach Mark Few other options inside and on the perimeter.

    Whatever combination they come up with, they must defend the three-point line much, much better than they did this season.

22. Baylor Bears

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    While the status of Perry Jones is unclear in theory, there’s really no reason for him to return to Baylor after the way this season ended.

    Assuming the Bears move ahead without him, the outlook is still pretty good.

    Top prospects Quincy Miller and Deuce Bello will join holdovers Quincy Acy, Anthony Jones and A.J. Walton to give the Bears some formidable firepower.

    J’mison Morgan and Stargell Love give Scott Drew some depth inside and out.

    Perhaps the main reason that Baylor may be able to rebound this season is the departure of LaceDarius Dunn. Despite his obvious offensive skills, he took too many difficult shots, wasn’t a distributor and at times effectively negated the skills of others such as Jones and Acy. 

    I wouldn’t call Dunn a cancer but his team play was often lacking.

21. Florida Gators

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    Replacing their front line of Alex Tyus, Vernon Macklin and Chandler Parsons will be difficult to say the least.

    Patric Young looks like he will be able to fill at least part of the void in the post. Erik Murphy played well early in the season but his minutes decreased toward the end of the season. He will need to step up.

    The guard situation is much more solid. Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker will be joined by five-star recruit SG Brad Beal, who is ranked second or third at his position by Scout and Rivals.

    The Gators will be difficult to guard on the perimeter with three legitimate long-range threats.

    Their inside play will determine how much they will be able to progress.

20. Pitt Panthers

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    The Panthers lose the one thing that is as hard to replace as a premium point guard: leadership.

    Gary McGhee, Gilbert Brown and Brad Wanamaker have all exhausted their eligibility and will be missed as much for their skills as their collective ability to lead.

    Ashton Gibbs will enter his name into the draft (without an agent) so the Panthers could be looking at a major overhaul if they lose their fourth starter.

    The Panthers however, do have a variety of players waiting in the wings for their own opportunities.

    Nasir Robinson, Dante Taylor, Travon Woodall and Talib Zanna, who had some good games before losing a regular spot in the rotation, have tremendous talent. Add recruit Khem Birch, who has dazzled recently in the McDonald’s All-America game, and the Panthers should reload just fine.

19. Xavier Musketeers

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    The Musketeers did not have their typical March run but did have an outstanding A-10 season, finishing first with a 15-1 mark.

    The core of their team—Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons and Kenny Frease—will be back. Holloway had an outstanding season but has made little noise about testing the NBA waters to date. If this changes, and Holloway declares, things could get dicey.

    The Musketeers played with such a short bench last season that depth-wise things can only look up.

    They landed a great prospect in SF Dezmine Wells, who will join last year’s recruits—Jay Canty, Jordan Latham and possibly Justin Martin—to vie for time in the Musketeer rotation.

    Jeff Robinson emerged as a dependable role player at power forward, and medical redshirt Brad Redford, the team’s best three-point shooter, should return this season.

18. Marquette Golden Eagles

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    Fresh off of a Sweet 16 run and a new contract for Buzz Williams, the Golden Eagles are ready to soar.

    Losing Jimmy Butler will be a blow that Marquette will have some difficulty absorbing, but the return of Darius Johnson-Odom, Jae Crowder, Junior Cadougan and bigs Chris Otule and Davante Gardner means that there is a lot to like.

    Vander Blue should be much improved in his sophomore season, and SF Juan Anderson is in from Castro Valley High School in California. The Eagles are still in the running for Jarion Henry as well, although his main interests seem to be elsewhere.

    The experience from the NCAA tourney should help the Eagles improve on their 9-9 Big East record from this season.

17. Butler Bulldogs

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    Just because, OK.

    Because they will have two players who have started in two national championship games (Ronald Nored and Shelvin Mack).

    Because they will have a serviceable forward (Andrew Smith) to replace Matt Howard.

    Beacuse they have a potentially explosive player in Khyle Marshall emerging on the biggest stage this season.

    Because Brad Stevens is not a bad coach.

    Because they’re Butler.

16. St. John's Red Storm

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    The recruiting class is a good one for Steve Lavin, who has reignited the Johnnies' stagnant program.

    Much like the Memphis project last year, Lavin has a pile of top recruits coming in, led by PF Norvel Pelle, whose stock continues to rise, and SF Jakarr Sampson.

    No less than six top-100 recruits will be with the Red Storm next season.

    However, unlike the Memphis deal, St. John’s is literally starting from scratch. Also unlike the Memphis situation is the fact that Lavin is a veteran coach who could bring these guys together very quickly.

    This will be an interesting team to watch.

15. Michigan Wolverines

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    John Beilein seems to have the players he’s comfortable with and Michigan’s play showed it during the latter part of the season.

    Though the Wolverines didn’t have any marquee wins out of conference, they played top teams Syracuse and Kansas very tough, and in the third round of the NCAA tournament took Duke down to the wire before falling by two.

    Darius Morris is going to test the NBA waters without hiring an agent and there is a very good chance he will be back.

    Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jordan Morgan provided a good offensive inside-outside duo, while juniors Stu Douglass and Zack Novak supplied some grit and leadership.

    Freshmen Evan Smotrycz and Jon Horford got their feet wet this season and will be counted on to contribute more next year.

    After a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten this year, Michigan looks to move up this coming season.

14. Temple Owls

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    Double-double machine Lavoy Allen departs the Owls but the prospects are anything but bleak for Fran Dunphy, who finally broke his personal March Madness jinx.

    Top-scorer Ramone Moore and double-digit scorers Juan Fernandez, Scootie Randall and Khalif Wyatt will return, as will C Michael Eric who improved greatly before an injury cut his season short.

    The Owls are hoping that last year’s top recruit, 6’9” Anthony Lee, who had back surgery and was a medical redshirt this season, can return to full strength and add some muscle up front.

    Dunphy’s team will always defend but the question remains whether or not they can replace Allen’s overall game, which included nine rebounds per game.

13. Kansas Jayhawks

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    So much of this depends upon who stays and who goes.

    The Morris twins will undoubtedly be drafted (should there be a draft) and be headed to different teams, something they have never experienced. Will this deter them from declaring to take one last shot at a national championship?

    Probably not, but in the event that it does, the Jayhawks will bring back a powerful front line and have Josh Selby, presumably, for the entire season.

    Recruiting received a boost when the Jayhawks got a commitment from Ben McLemore on Sunday, who joins Naadir Tharpe to give Kansas some backcourt help. Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson should return at the guard spots as well.

    The ranking will obviously change when the intentions of the Morris twins, and Thomas Robinson, become clear.

12. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Fresh off the runner-up finish in the NIT, Anthony Grant’s team will be primed from the opening bell next season.

    The Tide, winners of 25 games this season, return their top three scorers, JaMychal Green, Tony Mitchell and Trevor Releford. They also welcome a strong recruiting class led by SG Levi Randolph and PF Nick Jacobs. Alabama-native Trevor Lacey is considering staying home as well.

    Though they do have to replace some big minutes with the departures of Senario Hillman, Charvez Davis and Chris Hines, the nucleus for a solid team is in place.

    The Tide showed last year it could play with the big boys (East) in the SEC by going 5-3 against them overall, including a split with Kentucky.

11. UConn Huskies

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    Some will say this is too low while others will say: “Without Kemba Walker?”

    Walker is as talented a player as there has been for a long time and he is irreplaceable, no question. But during the course of the Big East and NCAA tournaments, Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Alex Oriakhi have served notice that Walker is not a one-man team.

    Add Roscoe Smith, Jamaal Coombs-McDaniel and recruit Ryan Boatwright to the mix, and the experience of playing for the national championship and the Huskies have a great place from which to start. If UConn happens to land SG Trevor Lacey, it would be another plus.

    The Big East does not look to be too top-heavy next season but will again be a dogfight for the top eight to 10 spots.

10. Memphis Tigers

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    With the outstanding crop of freshman the Tigers had last season, they were highly-touted preseason picks, coming in ranked 10th to 15th in most projections.

    As it turns out, the expectations were too high as the young Memphis squad struggled with consistency throughout most of the season.

    Two things will help turn their fortunes around for next year.

    One, they are a year older. The experience they gained throughout the year showed in winning the Conference USA tournament, a league that wasn’t rife with outstanding teams but was very competitive, especially among the top eight teams.

    Two, Wesley Witherspoon will be there or he won’t. But he realized that it is really up to him as to whether he wants to be, and not that the Tigers can’t thrive without him.

    Josh Pastner has a lot to learn on the sidelines granted, but his handling of Witherspoon and the earlier Jelan Kendrick situation shows that the guy has a spine and that team goals are the only ones that matter.

9. Arizona Wildcats

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    Tough to put this team up this high when their best player, Derrick Williams, is almost certainly gone. 

    Key returnees Momo Jones, Kyle Fogg, Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom and Jesse Perry will be joined by a monster recruiting group that includes Josiah Turner, Angelo Chol, Nick Johnson and Sidiki Johnson.

    While the lack of a “go-to” player may be evident very early, this team will put as much talent on the floor as any.

    Sean Miller has the Wildcats back in the national scene less than two years after inheriting the mess left by Lute Olson and others. It doesn’t appear as though this will slow down anytime soon.

8. Vanderbilt Commodores

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    It’s now or never.

    Great cliche but it rings true for the Commodores, which have never been positioned better to elevate beyond the 15 to 25 ranking they always seem destined to occupy.

    Next season, they return every key player, including sharpshooter John Jenkins, all-purpose scorer in Jeffrey Taylor and the much-improved Festus Ezeli in the post.

    Does this necessarily translate into more wins? 

    Maybe not, but this will be their best chance to be one of the top three teams in the SEC. Scoring won’t be the issue as the Commodores ranked first in the SEC with nearly 76 points per game. Stopping the other team—they were ninth in scoring defense—will be.

7. Louisville Cardinals

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    Louisville overachieved this season, finishing tied for third in the Big East regular season and losing the conference tourney final to eventual national champ UConn.

    Though they do lose leading-scorer Preston Knowles, every other significant contributor returns. They also hope to have the services of Rakeem Buckles and Jared Swopshire for an entire season as well.

    Joining promising point man Peyton Siva, Kyle Kuric and the much-improved inside duo of Terrence Jennings and Gorgui Dieng, are heralded recruits SG Wayne Blackshear, C Zach Price and PF Chane Behanan.

    The Cardinals will have more depth and much more talent next season as they look to improve on their 25-win season.

6. Syracuse Orange

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    Despite a 27-8 record and third-place finish in the Big East, Syracuse felt some disappointment with their season as a whole.

    A third-round exit from the NCAA tournament at the hands of Marquette underscored Syracuse’s inconsistent play from game to game. 

    The Orange faithful have reason to be optimistic once again next season. Though the loss of Rick Jackson will hurt, Syracuse seems capable of replacing him. Rakeem Christmas is a top-ranked big man who will work with Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita to fill Jackson’s shoes.

    Brandon Triche, Dion Waiters and Scoop Jardine head a deep backcourt and Kris Joseph returns for his senior season, hoping for a deeper run in March this time around.

5. Texas Longhorns

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    Tristan Thompson and Jordan Hamilton have both expressed their intentions to stay with the Longhorns, though this could change.

    Thompson is the key piece here. Without him, the post options are limited for Texas.

    Hamilton will be joined by returnees Cory Joseph, J’Covan Brown and touted recruits Myck Kabongo, Sheldon McClellan, Jonathon Holmes and Julien Lewis.

    The Longhorns have an outside chance of signing DeAndre Daniels, although that seems remote at present.

    Regardless, the team will be talented enough to match this year’s 28 wins. They just have to avoid the late-season woes they’ve experienced the last three seasons.

4. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Jared Sullinger has declared his intent to return to the Buckeyes, as has William Buford.

    Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas also are set to return and welcome another solid recruiting class that features 6’10” C Amir Williams, SF LaQuinton Ross, PG Shannon Scott and SF Sam Thompson.

    Craft and Sullinger will be the keys next season as the Buckeyes try to regroup from their disappointing Sweet 16 loss this season.

    The Buckeyes may lose more than three games next season, but they will have enough to win the Big Ten.

3. Duke Blue Devils

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    The biggest question as of now is whether Kyrie Irving will return, but with the likelihood that he will be a top-three pick, it is doubtful.

    Losing Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler will hurt enough. Recruits Austin Rivers, Quinn Cook and Michael Gbinije should help ease the pain.

    Seth Curry should be ready for an expanded role at shooting guard while the Plumlee duo (Miles and Mason) will become the Plumlee trio with the addition of brother Marshall.

    The Blue Devils and Tar Heels will once again be clear favorites to win the ACC.

2. Kentucky Wildcats

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    While Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones remain mum on their draft intentions, the Wildcats are prepared should one or both decide to pursue pro careers.

    Led by Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague and Michael Gilchrist, Kentucky is bringing in a boatload of talent and returns a complement of three players—Deandre Liggins, Darius Miller and Doron Lamb—who have Final Four experience.

    After this year’s success, they will have a hard act to follow, but the potential is there.

1. North Carolina Tar Heels

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    Assuming that Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson return, the Tar Heels will be loaded from top to bottom.

    Of the three, Barnes and Henson would appear to be most likely to go. Each has seen his NBA draft stock rise and may benefit from a relatively weak draft class this season.

    With holdovers Kendall Marshall and Reggie Bullock joined by top recruits James McAdoo and P.J. Hairston, North Carolina will be ready to fire out of the gate in November, if all of the pieces are in place.

    Marshall led a mid-season surge that carried the Heels to the Elite Eight and will return to drive the Tar Heels bus from the point again. If the Heels return two of Barnes, Henson and Zeller, they will be a tough team to beat.