The 2010-2011 college basketball season was marked by, well, mediocrity. Next season, all signs point toward the return of super teams and some fascinating storylines.
The events of the offseason, coach movement, players leaving for the NBA and the like, will cause major ripples for the course of next season.
Many questions have been answered this spring, but even more have been raised.
What will happen next season? No one knows for sure, except to say that it has the makings of one of the best college basketball seasons of the 21st century.
Here are the top 50 early storylines heading into the 2011-2012 season.
Disgraced coach Bruce Pearl was fired in the wake of an embarrassing investigation of improper recruit benefits that he then lied about to the NCAA.
Prior to that, the Vols took a 30-point drubbing by Michigan in the NCAA tournament's opening round, a game the team seemingly quit in. Tennessee ended its season on a humiliating note for the program and the university, and on the biggest stage the sport has to offer.
Next season, things aren't looking much better.
In addition to impending NCAA sanctions stemming from Pearl's infidelities, the team is losing its two best players, Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris, to the NBA.
It could be an arduous rebuilding process for new coach Cuonzo Martin.
The Indiana Hoosiers have been dreadful recently, culminating in 2010-11's last-place, 3-15 Big Ten finish.
Hope runs afresh for Tom Crean's bunch, however. The Hoosiers graduate just one player, the insignificant Jeremiah Rivers, and add hometown high school All-American Cody Zeller at power forward.
With leading scorer Christian Watford, Verdell Jones III and Jordan Hulls joining Zeller, the Hoosiers faithful can start to raise their expectations.
Three new coaches graced the ACC last year, and four more will make their debut this season.
That's more than half the conference.
Mark Turgeon, formerly of Texas A&M, has big shoes to fill in the Gary Williams' wake at Maryland; Mark Gottfried takes over at NC State, Brian Gregory replaces Paul Hewitt at Georgia Tech and Jim Larranaga lands his dream job at Miami.
These four, plus Wake Forest's Jeff Bzdelik, Boston College's Steve Donahue and Brad Brownell at Clemson, have their work cut out for them against perennial titans North Carolina and Duke.
The old guard of Williams, Hewitt, Al Skinner, Oliver Purnell and Sidney Lowe has given way to this new wave of coaches that are unfamiliar to ACC regulars.
Could the lack of scouting tape and team familiarity lead to an increase in upsets during the conference slate?
We're making great progress aren't we?
What? We've got 47 storylines left?
This might take a while, but don't you dare bail out before No. 50!
Let's move on.
The Virginia Commonwealth University Rams are the lasting image of the 2011 NCAA tournament.
From 11th-seeded play-in survivors to winners of four straight upsets and a Final Four berth, the Rams nailed every part of what it means to be a Cinderella.
On the way, we all fell in love with the affable coach, Shaka Smart. The 34-year-old's genuine transparency in interviews endeared him to all, truly making himself out to be a normal guy. And he totally is, except for, you know, being a Final Four college basketball coach.
Next year, it will take another "Act of Shaka" to replicate this year's success, given the loss of four crucial players to graduation including stars Jamie Skeen and Joey Rodriguez.
Bill Self's Kansas Jayhawks met a frustrating and premature end as a No. 1 seed this year—a regional final blitz by VCU.
Self will need to pull some tricks from his sleeve to avoid another frustrating season. With Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar graduating, and the Morris twins and Josh Selby leaving for the NBA, Self will be working with an entirely new set of players, and not the normal bumper crop of blue-chippers from high school.
Kansas has treated the rest of the Big 12 like a chew toy for the last few years with superior talent and discipline.
Is the conference ripe for a little shakeup? Upstarts Kansas State and Baylor certainly plan on it.
The Memphis Tigers have had a string of mediocre teams since freshman Derrick Rose took them to the national championship game against Kansas in 2008.
After the team showed improvement in 2010-11 with a 25-10 mark, coach Josh Pastner and guard Will Barton are poised to take Memphis back to the top 10.
Barton, the 6'6" sophomore, led the team in scoring last year with 12.3 points per game, but did not shoot the ball efficiently. His 42.8 percent field-goal shooting must improve for him to lead the Tigers to success.
Also along for the ride are 2010 recruits Joe Jackson and Jelan Kendrick, both top-45 recruits to accompany Barton at eighth best.
As the three grow together and learn to mesh with senior Wesley Witherspoon and prized commit Adonis Thomas, this year's Memphis Tigers could be a national title dark horse.
In 2010, the Butler Bulldogs made an improbable run to the national championship, falling one Gordon Hayward half-court prayer short of college basketball immortality.
Everyone wondered how Cinderella would react with all eyes on her in 2011. For a few months, Brad Stevens' bunch struggled mightily, giving off the impression of a mediocre team. After all, they lost their best player, Gordon Hayward, to the NBA and don't really have the recruiting power to beef up with heralded prospects.
Give Stevens credit. He knew his team better than we all thought we did, and the team marched through March shocking everyone but themselves by returning to the Final Four. This time there would be no close finish as Kemba Walker and the UConn Huskies nearly shut out (seemingly) Butler going away.
Disappointing as it is for Butler, playing in back-to-back final games is a huge, huge feat.
Now, Stevens loses a little more than a good scorer. Shelvin Mack is off to the NBA while Matt Howard graduates.
No one will expect anything from Butler when next season arrives.
Just like the last two years.
What we do know is that both teams pictured above, Connecticut and Louisville, are major national championship hopefuls, as are Syracuse and Pittsburgh.
How many leagues can claim four teams as legitimate national title contenders?
Notre Dame loses six seniors, but returns a few contributors and imports a couple good high school forwards
Ditto for St. John's, though Steve Lavin hooked a fantastic recruiting class of nine players.
Cincinnati returns enough talent and adds several highly touted commits.
West Virginia, Georgetown, Marquette and Villanova all have established programs with great recruiting and coaches, so they likely won't have much of a drop-off.
Whether the Big East gets 11 will be a close call. Everyone will be scratching and clawing all year long, which makes for another riveting Big East schedule.
The Cleveland State Vikings were among the biggest NCAA tournament snubs this year.
With a 27-9 record and a regular-season Horizon League title, the Vikings and superstar senior guard Norris Cole were hopeful that they'd get the tournament bid that they worked so hard for.
The bid came, but it was for the wrong tournament, the NIT.
Deflated, CSU flamed out in the tournament's second round and Cole's college career was abruptly over.
There is reason for optimism for next year's version, which returns every single player except for Cole. The Vikings are adding two commits from just outside the nation's top 100 players—one at power forward and one at point guard.
If they can find a way to beat Butler, which beat them handily three times this year, the Vikings can maintain their Horizon League supremacy and get that bid they desperately want.
This 6'10", 200-pound Kentucky commit is about to take college basketball by storm.
The No. 1 recruit of 2011, Davis is a guard in a forward's body. After growing seven inches in one year, Davis brought his prodigious perimeter skills down to the post where now he blocks shots and uses his athleticism to dominate.
The only real knock on him is that he's unestablished as a big man because of his rapid body change. Along with that is an immature frame that needs at least 20 pounds before he reaches the NBA.
Davis averaged 32 points, 22 rebounds and seven blocks over his senior year. That sounds like a player on a collision course for the NBA.
After tearing up the NCAA and possibly winning a national title in 2012, Anthony Davis will be a name you're tired of hearing in NBA draft discussions.
These freshmen came out of high school last year as the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 7 recruits, respectively.
No. 3 through No. 6—Kyrie Irving, Brandon Knight, Josh Selby and Tobias Harris—couldn't wait another year for NBA riches.
Barnes, Sullinger and Jones shocked the sports world by announcing that they would stay in school, despite promising outcomes in the NBA draft.
No one can say for sure why each came back because each of their draft stocks couldn't have been much higher. They must have chosen based on something other than selfish reasons, otherwise all the signs would have caused them to leave immediately.
Each is out to win a national title on a team that can legitimately contend for it. Harrison Barnes' UNC Tar Heels have the inside track for that, but a head-to-head clash between any of these three would be a reward for fans and a colossal win for college basketball in its fight against one-and-done players.
Tom Izzo and the preseason No. 2 Michigan State Spartans had sky-high expectations last year.
After improbably running to the Final Four without star Kalin Lucas, the Spartans returned every key player, including Lucas, and were confident that they were the best team in the land.
Surprisingly, the Spartans underachieved all year, running up an ugly 19-15 record and barely making the Big Dance as a No. 10 seed.
Instead of making their usual run deep into the tournament, MSU bowed out in the opening round to UCLA, bringing an unceremonious season to an end.
It will be interesting to see how the Spartans respond next year. Only Lucas and fellow senior Durrell Summers leave from the group of contributors, and superstar McDonald's All-American Branden Dawson arrives in East Lansing in support.
Purdue, Ohio State and Wisconsin will all be strong, but Michigan State, with freshly lowered expectations, could be right in the middle of that group by midseason.
The event debuted in 2007 as the SEC-Big East Invitational and featured only four games between the two powerhouse conferences.
Starting in 2011, the event's name and format will be altered to include games for all 12 SEC teams to be played from the first Thursday of December through that Saturday.
With eight Top 25 teams combined in the final rankings and more to come in next year's preseason, this event will be an early-season showcase of colliding powers.
With each conference's 8-8 record in the event's history, both leagues will be gunning for each other to claim bragging rights.
Purdue senior star Robbie Hummel has traveled a painstaking road to get back on the court for one more year.
In February 2010, Hummel sustained a torn right ACL, ending his promising junior season. His Boilermakers would lose to Duke in the Sweet 16 without him.
Hummel rehabbed hard and was motivated to get on the court for last season in hopes of impressing NBA scouts. Just a few weeks before Purdue would open the season against Howard on November 14, Hummel tore that same ACL during practice on October 16.
He would miss the entire season after surgery and recovery from the identical injury that he had just returned from.
If Hummel channels all the frustration of being injured into positive energy on the court, look out, because he's got a lot of it. The Boilers are losing their two stars, JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore, but Hummel was the best of the three once upon a time.
Hummel won't return to the fanfare and hype that he once had, but has a chance to show everyone that he can still play at a high level.
The Pitt Panthers are a perennial 30-win, No. 1 seed candidate. Among the best regular-season teams, few can claim the level of success that Pitt reaches almost every year.
What is so frustrating about the Panthers is their inability to win in March. They have earned a fifth seed or better in the last six Big Dances but have advanced past the round of 32 just twice and never reached the Final Four.
Early upsets include 13th seed Bradley in 2006's second round, fifth seed Michigan State in 2008's second round, sixth seed Xavier in 2010's second round and eighth seed Butler in this year's second round.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly what makes the Panthers break down when they reach the tournament's first weekend. It's not inferior talent; Jamie Dixon routinely lands a top-15 recruiting class of players. It's not toughness; Pitt plays half its season in the rugged Big East and boasts one of the most physically punishing styles in college basketball.
Pitt is once again a national championship hopeful. Maybe 2012 will be the year the Panthers finally break into the Final Four.
The North Carolina Tar Heels came on very strong after a mediocre start to 2010-2011.
During one stretch of ACC play, Roy Williams' bunch peeled off 16 wins in 18 games before the perplexing blowout loss to Duke in the ACC tournament final.
The team visibly coalesced and grew together, with freshmen phenoms Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall and Reggie Bullock combining with sophomores John Henson, Dexter Strickland and Tyler Zeller.
The collection of exceptional underclassmen nearly reached the Final Four, but lost to Kentucky in a regional final. Many thought that Barnes was gone as a projected top-three draft pick and that Zeller and Henson would make the leap as well.
Well, guess what? All three decided to come back to Chapel Hill to the horror of every men's college coach in America.
Above the natural improvement that they'll experience with another year together, the Heels are getting some serious help from the No. 5 recruiting class, which includes James McAdoo and P.J. Hairston. Both are McDonald's All-Americans and will contribute immediately as part of Williams' growing rotation.
UNC may be good enough to win the title without any new players next year. With those players, though, the Heels might provoke some conversations placing them in the mix as one of the best college teams ever.
The mid-majors are rising quickly on the college basketball landscape. With soft schedules, little exposure and smart, young coaches, these teams believe they belong with the power teams when it's tourney time.
And they do.
This year, five of the eight Sweet 16 games featured a mid-major: Butler, San Diego State, BYU, Richmond and VCU. The Final Four was half major, half mid-major. This goes to show just how far these teams have come in correcting the competition imbalance that ruled over the sport for so long.
The catch with mid-majors is that their success is volatile. Coaches leave for bigger jobs, recruits are typically not highly touted and program budgets are smaller than those of the Dukes, North Carolinas and Arizonas.
All these reasons and more combine to make sustained success difficult for guys like Richmond coach Chris Mooney.
One silver lining: The recent trend of mid-major coaches sticking with their schools after getting better offers (Brad Stevens at Butler, Shaka Smart at VCU, Mooney with Richmond) means more continuity. The longer a program has a good coach, the better it will become in time.
Quinn Cook, the No. 7 PG in the freshman class, could be the most electrifying playmaker in the whole group. He reminds me of predecessor Kyrie Irving a bit with his magical court vision, quick passing and ball-handling skills. He loves the three-point shot, though his shot doesn't come off as smoothly as it could.
Duke's returning guards are Tyler Thornton and Andre Dawkins, neither is a strong ball-handler. Cook should come in to start immediately and push the tempo with fellow freshman Austin Rivers and junior Dawkins.
Cook's dynamic and explosive potential have Blue Devils fans eager to move on from their brief flirtation with Kyrie Irving.
One-fifth of the top 100 players in the country signed inside the Big East, leaving just 80 highly ranked prospects for the Big 12, SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Conference USA, Pac-12 and several mid-majors.
The reason the Big East has been so good recently is, no surprise, the fact that talent concentrates there.
It all makes too much sense. Look at some of the coaching in that conference: Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun, Jay Wright, John Thompson III, Rick Pitino, Jamie Dixon, Bob Huggins and more. If you were coveted by any of these coaches out of high school, wouldn't you be inclined to commit to him?
The few one-and-done candidates in this class all signed outside the Big East, so the conference could continue to assert its dominance and actually improve over the next few years.
The Tar Heels and Spartans will collide on the deck of a boat on Veterans Day in San Diego, California.
Winner gets to fly stealth bombers. Loser gets pushed overboard into the freezing-cold Pacific Ocean.
This is a super-cool idea, provided that it doesn't rain and there's no wind. Honestly, have you tried to shoot a basketball in the wind? If you're looking for a quick way to junk up your mechanics, try that.
There are a lot of things that could go wrong to make this a mess of an event, but it also has a lot of things going for it.
The spectacle is enough to get me to tune in. The fact that the game pits two of the best teams in the nation is an added bonus.
The St. John's Red Storm has been a program in peril for several years. Back in the 1980s, the Johnnies ruled the Big East under legendary coach Lou Carnesecca, winning five regular-season titles and reaching the 1985 Final Four.
It is said that college basketball is much better when St. John's is elite, and that was certainly the case in the 1980s, but hasn't been for nearly 25 years.
Lately, everyone in the Big East was accustomed to equating the St. John's game on the schedule with a deep breath and a chance to relax.
Anyone who did that last year made a big mistake. This St. John's team was fierce and to be reckoned with.
In his first year on the job, Steve Lavin did a magnificent job in leading his team to its 21-12 record, the first 20-win season since 2002-03 under Mike Jarvis.
The senior-laden team loses nine players to graduation, but replaces that group with nine recruits as part of the No. 3 recruiting class of 2011.
Last year wasn't the end for Steve Lavin's success at St. John's. It was just the beginning.
The 69-year-old legend moved into rarefied air with his third national championship in 2011.
Soon after, questions about whether he'd retire swirled. Those questions have yet to be answered by Calhoun, who is apparently proceeding as normal, according to Kieran Darcy of ESPN New York.
If he stops now, he's already one of the top seven college coaches of all time. If he keeps going for a few more years, he'll break into the exclusive 900-win club and move into the top five.
With another strong team coming back next year, it behooves Calhoun to return for at least one run to defend his national championship.
If not, going out as champion isn't a bad way to go.
Every March, it seems that at least one team from the feisty Atlantic-10 Conference makes a surprise run.
This year, it was 11th seed Richmond to the Sweet 16. Sixth-seeded Xavier did it last year, narrowly missing a trip to the Elite Eight. In 2009, the Dayton Flyers flew into the second round while Xavier just missed the Elite Eight with a loss to top-seeded Pitt. In 2008, Xavier again, as a No. 3 seed, lost in the Elite Eight to No. 1 UCLA.
Were you counting at home? The Xavier Musketeers, before this year, nearly replicated the 2008 Elite Eight run in the next two tournaments. That's an astounding feat for a mid-major conference that doesn't land top recruits.
The A-10 will be strong at the top again next year with Temple and Xavier returning most of their impact players. Look for both teams to fly under the radar, toe the edge of the Top 25, then pull off an upset or two in the Big Dance.
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott has done wonders to make his league over into a true national powerhouse. Many sports will benefit, most notably football.
Basketball, though, doesn't gain anything noticeable with the addition of the Colorado Buffaloes and Utah Utes.
Colorado had an uncharacteristically successful year behind sophomore stud Alec Burks with 24 wins and an 8-8 Big 12 record. Utah finished 6-10 in the Mountain West and 13-18 overall.
All this is to say that an already-thin basketball league is adding two more mediocre teams. This could actually hurt the resumes of the top teams come tournament selection time because of the addition of two wayward opponents. The committee would rather see quality losses than a bundle of uninspiring wins.
The scintillating play-by-play man, sadly, will no longer call NCAA tournament games after being released by CBS in a contract dispute.
Add this to the list of broadcasting blunders CBS has made over the last few tournaments.
In this age of expanding fields, corporate influence and the drive for the almighty dollar, there are few things about March Madness that remain pure; Gus Johnson's play-by-play style is one of them.
CBS refused to unleash him because he pushes the envelope and brings an unconventional call. Now, he's gone for good to FOX Sports, which makes out like a bandit in this development.
I can't wait to hear Jim Nantz deadpan another Elite Eight thriller. You can never get enough of that.
As recently as Thursday, the major players in the NCAA met to discuss the issue of increasing student-athlete stipends. This, in essence, is a move toward paying college athletes.
This is long overdue in my opinion.
Read more from the ESPN story here.
John Calipari has really outdone himself in recruiting this year. Literally.
Remember how good his 2010 class was with Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, the ineligible Enes Kanter and Doron Lamb? That was four of the ESPN 100's top 28.
This year's class—with Anthony Davis, Michael Gilchrist (featured above; get to know him), Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer—has four in the top 18.
If the Kentucky Wildcats were a company, they'd have government anti-trust lawsuits all over them.
Jones, this year's briefly projected No. 1 NBA prospect, is back to Lexington to join the new crop. Bear with me a moment and consider this: What if Brandon Knight and Enes Kanter decided to stay one more year and join Davis, Gilchrist, Teague, Wiltjer, Jones and Lamb from last year's Final Four team?
That is a frightening thought for everyone else. As it is, the blue will be very strong this year after hogging all the 2011 talent.
College of Charleston missed the NCAA tournament this year, but enjoyed a first-place regular-season finish in the Southern Conference and a 26-11 record.
Leader and top scorer Andrew Goudelock graduates, as do a few other productive players, but playing in the SoCon means that having one or two great players might be enough to achieve success.
That one player is No. 55 national recruit Adjehi Baru (video), a 6'9", 225-pound center from Virginia. The native of the Ivory Coast has landed in the top 10 among centers by virtue of great shot-blocking and rebounding ability. He will be an immediate impact player in the less-talented SoCon, and will likely be Charleston's best player.
With Baru and solid returners Antwaine Wiggins, Willis Hall and Trent Wiedeman, Charleston could be a team for power conference teams to avoid in the preseason.
The ACC/Big Ten Challenge is always appointment TV. There are usually a couple games pitting ranked powers from each conference in a battle of early-season supremacy.
This year might feature the greatest game the event has ever produced, with Duke traveling to Columbus to take on Ohio State. Both teams should be in the top 10 and plenty of future pros will be on the court.
The Connecticut sophomore forward announced soon after the Huskies won the national championship that he intended to transfer from UConn, citing a lack of playing time.
The No. 33 recruit in the class of 2009, Coombs-McDaniel plans to transfer to UC Irvine, Hofstra, Miami or Missouri and will be a big boost for whoever lands him.
He will take summer school classes at Connecticut before transferring in the fall.
The Arizona Wildcats made a surprising resurgence over the second half of the season to claim the Pac-10 regular-season title. They lost on an OT buzzer-beater to Washington in the Pac-10 final, but that didn't keep Sean Miller's squad from grabbing a fifth seed.
The 'Cats marched all the way to the Elite Eight, crushing Duke before falling to champion UConn. All in all, it was a fantastic leap forward for a power program coming off a few down years.
Derrick Williams was a big part of that, but he's gone now.
Miller will struggle to fill the hole left by his top-two NBA draft pick, but he's got some capable reinforcements on the way in. Josiah Turner, Nick Johnson, Sidiki Johnson and Angelo Chol make up the nation's No. 7 recruiting class.
Though the program's meal ticket is gone, there's plenty of potential to bounce back quickly with the new class.
It's nice to see one of those highlight films set to a song without abrasive-sounding rap lyrics. It makes my impression of 6'4" Duke commit Austin Rivers that much better.
The No. 2 player in the class of 2011 boasts ridiculous range on his jumper and confidence in his game. He's also Celtics coach Doc Rivers' son. He's got the pedigree to match the talent, so look for the freshman's game to fill out as his thin frame does likewise.
The Ohio State Buckeyes got a huge break when superstar freshman Jared Sullinger announced that he'd be back in Columbus for a sophomore season. He gives the team some stability after losing David Lighty, Dallas Lauderdale and Jon Diebler to graduation.
Thad Matta follows up last year's No. 2 recruiting class with the No. 6 class this year, including PG Shannon Scott, C Amir Williams, SFs Sam Thompson and LaQuinton Ross and C Trey McDonald. Matta clearly emphasized being strong down low in his recruiting strategy.
The Buckeyes bowed out early as the tournament's overall top seed, losing to Kentucky in the Sweet 16. In order to avoid another disappointing fate the Buckeye recruits will need to be as good as advertised around Sullinger and the rest of the returners.
Expect this team to be near the top of the national rankings all year long and Jared Sullinger to draw plenty of National Player of the Year talk.
Brigham Young University made waves in early March when it suspended the team's second-best player, sophomore Brandon Davies, for a violation of the BYU honor code.
Davies admitted to having pre-marital sex, which (among other commonly acceptable things) is prohibited by the university and grounds for dismissal.
The ruling was bold and controversial by BYU, sending a message that the school will go to any length to maintain the moral behavior of its student body. The move reflects very well on the LDS Mormon church because it cost the university a lot in potential basketball success and publicity.
No final ruling has been made on Davies' status as a BYU student and athlete, though former Cougars star Jimmer Fredette is optimistic that his former teammate will be reinstated for next season, according to Chris Tomasson of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.
BYU is probably back to being a mediocre program post-Fredette. Without Davies, they could be downright bad.
Every player in last year's top 10 in scoring average graduated or left for the NBA, leaving only a few known competitors for the 2011-2012 NCAA scoring title.
C.J. McCollum (pictured), Lehigh junior guard, 21.8 points per game
Orlando Johnson, UC Santa Barbara senior forward, 21.1 points per game
Andrew Nicholson, St. Bonaventure senior forward, 20.8 points per game
Tu Holloway, Xavier senior guard, 19.7 points per game
Remember when George Mason went to the Final Four as an 11th seed in 2006? The Patriots are finally reaping the recruiting benefits of that, as forward Erik Copes, a top-55 recruit, committed to George Mason last week.
The hiring of his uncle, Roland Houston, as Paul Hewitt's assistant coach might have helped, too.
Copes is George Mason's first ever top-100 recruit and will have an immediate impact on the Patriots and the rest of the Colonial Athletic Association.
Mike Krzyzewski's Duke Blue Devils looked like the team to beat heading into the NCAA tournament.
Fresh off a shellacking of upstart UNC in the ACC tournament final, they got news that freshman point guard Kyrie Irving would make his dramatic return in the first round of the NCAA tournament after three months out. Duke was finally back at full strength and ready to defend its title.
As has happened too often lately, Duke lost way too early in the Sweet 16 against Arizona. The title defense was over, Irving was as good as gone to the pros and Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith's storied careers were abruptly ended.
Now, Coach K is left to pick up the pieces of a roster that blew up overnight. Fortunately, the second-ranked recruiting class is just in time, headlined by No. 2 overall Austin Rivers, Michael Gbinije, Marshall Plumlee (yes, another one), Quinn Cook and Alex Murphy. This class isn't as top-heavy as Kentucky's, but Duke's five players are all in the nation's top 40.
With starting spots vacated by Smith, Irving and Singler, lots of playing time is up for grabs for the great freshman class arriving in Durham.
The Big East Conference is far and away the most competitive in the regular season, but something changes when the calendar flips to March.
The conference's struggles in the NCAA tournament are well chronicled and this year's results only added to the mystery of the Big East's March Madness failures.
Take what I'm about to say with a grain of salt because the team that won the whole thing is from, well, the Big East.
Overall, the record 11 teams that made the tournament amassed a paltry 13-10 record. Remove Connecticut's six perfect wins to the national championship, and that record becomes 7-9 (Cincinnati, another Big East team, was beaten by UConn). That's hardly the work expected from the top conference in the nation.
Even more striking is the fact that only two out of 11 advanced to the Sweet 16 and four were knocked out in the first round, including fourth seed Louisville and sixth seed Georgetown.
The Big East is likely to approach last year's 11 berths again this year, so the fervor about its tournament choke certainly won't go away.
Florida Gator coach Billy Donovan has a welcome burden to deal with this fall: three elite guards and two guard spots.
Senior Erving Walker, junior Kenny Boynton and sophomore Scottie Wilbekin will be joined by Gatorade National Player of the Year Bradley Beal. Beal is a 6'4" shooting guard and is ranked fourth in the class of 2011 after averaging 32.5 points per game as a high school senior.
Most agree that Beal is a great fit for Donovan's uptempo attack that will allow him to get out and run to the three-point line—a location where he draws comparisons to Ray Allen (rightly or not).
Donovan has a crowd of impact guards and will have to get creative to afford them all the minutes they need. How the minutes break down is anyone's guess at this early stage.
What's clear is that the Gators will be back next year as strong as this year's Elite Eight squad.
A few of last year's high-win, under-the-radar teams are looking for strong follow-up seasons next year.
One such candidate is Belmont University, who went 30-5 and 19-1 in the Atlantic Sun. The team returns six of its top seven scorers and really doesn't lose any impact player from last year's first-round loser.
Junior guard Ian Clark and senior center Mick Hedgepeth will look to lead the Bears into the second round of the NCAA tournament and beyond.
Nobody was ready for what the Florida State Seminoles did in the NCAA tournament. Most saw early wins against Duke and Baylor and perceived FSU to be one of those teams that would beat you if you played bad. They were scrappy, tough and employed a strong and physical defense, but nobody thought they had major upset potential.
After drawing a No. 10 seed, FSU locked down on Texas A&M, allowing just 50 points. Then, star forward Chris Singleton led the Seminoles to a shocking upset over Final Four contender Notre Dame in which the Irish were held to their second-lowest total of the year, 57 points.
Only a heartbreaking one-point defeat against VCU kept Florida State from the Elite Eight.
Throughout the season as FSU improved, it became clear that it had arrived at the top of the ACC to stay. The Seminoles proved that they can topple the giants in Durham and Chapel Hill and recruit with the nation's best.
The 'Noles are a team to watch in 2012 because they've tasted success and lose just two impact players in Chris Singleton and Derwin Kitchen.
The UCLA Bruins had a strong comeback season, going 23-11 en route to a round of 32 finish, their best in three years.
They return everyone except starters Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee, who jumped for the NBA draft after the season. Those are two big losses, but manageable for an iconic program with a strong recruiting base.
One problem: UCLA only signed one top recruit—Normal Powell from San Diego, the 15th-best shooting guard in 2011.
Granted, Ben Howland doesn't have a lot of free scholarships to work with, but this year's class is several notches below the last three classes he's signed.
Because the Bruins aren't getting much help from newcomers this year, the returners, including Lazeric Jones, Jerime Anderson, Reeves Nelson and Josh Smith, must assume larger roles and replace the scoring and defense that left with Honeycutt and Lee. David and Travis Wear, twin transfers from North Carolina, will help some down low, but won't make the team significantly better than it was last season.
Look for UCLA to finish between 22-25 wins and second in the measly Pac-12.
The San Diego State Aztecs needed to go for broke last season because they had one shot at belonging with college basketball's best.
The stars aligned for SDSU's historic season to take place; once-per-generation star prospect commits and a cast of tough and experienced seniors in a weak conference.
The yield? A 34-3 record, top-five ranking all year and a Sweet 16 appearance.
Kawhi Leonard, Billy White, Malcolm Thomas and Co. earned every bit of the team's success this year, but the team was fool's gold from the start, proven by their inability to beat any team worth its bacon. SDSU beat one ranked team all year long, the BYU team they got blown out by twice before.
When push came to shove in the Sweet 16, and even in the second-round game versus Temple, the Aztecs were not up to snuff. They were exposed for what they truly were: an impressively inflated resume that was nothing more than a championship pretender.
Now, all the fun is over. Leonard is off to the NBA. Seniors Thomas, White, D.J. Gay and Brian Carlwell are graduated and coach Steve Fisher is back to his below-average recruiting.
Sorry, Aztec fans. Your team might remain at the top of the Mountain West, but the hope for a national championship will never run as high as it did in 2011.
Baylor coach Scott Drew has done a fantastic job of building his program into a notable force in a power conference.
Bigger than any single game, tournament victory or recruiting commitment for Scott Drew's Baylor Bears is superstar freshman Perry Jones III's decision to stay in school for another year.
Most thought that the unfathomably talented Jones would be one-and-done in college. Postseason projections had him in the NBA draft's top four picks and a lock to be a future All-Star.
For some reason, Jones opted to stay at Baylor, making his team an immediate threat to swoop the Big 12 title from perennial winners Kansas and Texas.
This is an opportune time for the Bears to make the move with Kansas and Texas sustaining subpar recruiting classes and/or underclass defections to the NBA.
Led by Jones and Quincy Acy, the Bears return every player except for former leading scorer LaceDarius Dunn. That should lend to some great chemistry and a fast start to the season.
Add to that the 18th-ranked recruiting class with PF Quincy Miller and SF Deuce Bello, and Baylor has a legitimate shot to dethrone the conference's usual powers.
John Pelphrey's Arkansas Razorbacks got off to a strong preseason before sputtering to a 7-9 SEC record.
Though Pelphrey's job eventually was taken from him in favor of former Missouri coach Mike Anderson, there's reasonable expectation for the Hogs to have a strong showing next year.
For starters, they lose three seniors and only one of whom contributed significantly this year. Delvon Johnson's 9.6-point average was third highest on the team, and his 7.2 rebounds topped the squad. His impact was moderate and can easily be replaced by a few well-placed recruits.
Pelphrey struck gold in recruiting before he cleaned out his office, collecting five commits for the eighth-ranked class of the year. B.J. Young is the No. 4 PG, Ky Madden is 11th at SG, Hunter Mickelson is eighth at PF and Aaron Ross is a respectable 25th at small forward in 2011's class.
That's a very strong class nicely spread across the positions on the court. At least three of those four players should make an immediate impact on a team that needs new blood right now.
With only Alabama and the Mississippi schools standing in Arkansas' way of an SEC West title, the Razorbacks must be feeling pretty good about their chances, provided that the team comes together quickly.
The two gentlemen suspended high in the air are (left to right) soon-to-be sophomores Doron and Jeremy Lamb.
They represent two-thirds of the nation's talented Lamb sophomores, with UCLA's Tyler joining Doron and Jeremy in the class of 2010.
All three players run at 6'4" or 6'5", between 185 and 200 pounds and play the shooting guard. All will start for their teams and be impact players next season.
Keeping them straight was difficult for the casual college basketball fan last season, but as they transition into bigger roles, their names will be heard a lot more.
Duke's Mike Krzyzewski has been coaching a really long time. He'll begin his 32nd campaign with the Blue Devils in November with an even 900 wins for his career. This number puts him fourth all time and just two behind the General, Bob Knight, for the Division I record and 23 short of Don Meyer's overall record.
Other legendary coaches are nearing historic benchmarks as well.
Syracuse's Jim Boeheim has 856 wins in his 35 years with the Orange and can crack the all-time top five with 24 wins in 2011-2012.
UConn's Jim Calhoun, he of the rumored retirement, is one behind Boeheim in 10 fewer years at UConn (he coached 14 previous seasons at Northeastern).
To put these attainable milestones in perspective, we have the pleasure of watching three of college basketball's eight greatest all-time coaches. By year's end, they'll likely all be in the top five all time and Coach K will be the winningest coach in college basketball history.
Michael Gilchrist, SF, Kentucky
Anthony Davis, PF, Kentucky
Austin Rivers, SG, Duke
Adonis Thomas (pictured), SF, Memphis
All the players above have the talent and the opportunity on their college teams to distinguish themselves from the rest.
Of these contenders, I would make Blue Devils SG Austin Rivers the favorite because of Duke's quick-shooting system and the voids left by Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith.
Perry Jones (pictured), sophomore PF, Baylor
Harrison Barnes, sophomore SF, North Carolina
Jared Sullinger, sophomore C, Ohio State
Terrence Jones, sophomore PF, Kentucky
Jordan Taylor, senior PG, Wisconsin
Though Perry Jones is pictured, Barnes is my favorite to win this award. The strides that the Tar Heel made down the stretch this year represented the incredible potential that scouts claimed he had when he arrived. The fact that Barnes returned to school highlights a rare maturity level and a recognition that he can still improve before he goes pro.
All three of the other super sophomores were surprise returns to school. They all want the same things: a national championship, to stand out from the rest of the draft-eligible population and to be the No. 1 draft pick.
Returns four starters from the Elite Eight team and adds P.J. Hairston and James McAdoo (top 12). recruits.
The Panthers lose four players to graduation and zero to the NBA, while loading up on freshmen bigs—top-rated center Khem Birch, No. 8 center Malcolm Gilbert and 6'7" guard Durand Johnson.
The Orange return everyone from the 27-8 team except for graduate Rick Jackson. However, Jim Boeheim might have improved on the pivot with No. 2 center prospect Rakeem Christmas, a McDonald's All-American, and SG Michael Carter-Williams.
Another team that loses only a few, Louisville looks to remedy this year's disappointing first-round tournament loss by adding McDonald's All-Americans Wayne Blackshear and Chane Benahan. No. 7 center Zach Price adds even more depth to a senior-laden team poised for a deep run.
Brandon Knight is gone, but the new class of freshmen will make the Wildcats faithful forget quickly. Anthony Davis, Michael Gilchrist, Adonis Thomas and Marquis Teague join elite talent Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb from a team that reached the Final Four last year.
My Championship Odds
North Carolina: six to one
Pittsburgh: 14 to one
Syracuse: 10 to one
Louisville: eight to one
Kentucky: three to one