College Basketball: Predicting Next Year's Sweet 16
College basketball fans were spoiled last year, as stars like Jimmer Fredette and Kemba Walker lit up the hardwood, and Cinderella teams like Virginia Commonwealth and Butler danced their way into April.
Months later, the academic year is fast approaching and the focus is beginning to shift from last season to next.
A stellar crop of freshman coupled with an NBA lockout leads many to believe that college basketball may be bigger than ever next year.
Though we're still hundreds of days and thousands of games away, let's take an early look at the 16 teams that will make some noise in next year's big dance.
1 Seed: North Carolina Tar Heels
Most everyone's preseason favorite, North Carolina enters the season with a stacked roster. Not only do they return nearly all of their scoring, but they also bring in two of the country's top recruits in James McAdoo and P.J. Hairston.
Though they were slowed down a bit recently with the news that junior guard Leslie McDonald had torn his ACL, the Tar Heels have more than enough firepower to dominate their opponents.
The team that led the country in rebounding last season will once again dominate the glass. A front line of Harrison Barnes (6'8"), John Henson (6'10") and Tyler Zeller (7'0") ensures that UNC will be a force in the paint, and with another year of experience at the point, Kendall Marshall will only improve as well.
There will surely be slip-ups along with way, but when it comes to the big dance, Roy's boys will be ready.
No one sees the Heels falling anytime before the Sweet 16, but if they are able to remain healthy, look to see them in New Orleans on the final weekend.
1 Seed: Kentucky Wildcats
Another team that looks primed to make a deep run in March, Kentucky, returns a set of experienced players who came within one point of beating eventual champion Connecticut last season.
But that's just not enough for head coach John Calipari.
In what has become an annual occurrence, Coach Cal once again brought the nation's finest recruiting class to Lexington. Freshman studs Anthony Davis, Michael Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer will compliment returning scorers like Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller, and give the Wildcats a plethora of weapons.
Like North Carolina, Kentucky should have enough star-power to earn a one seed in the NCAA tournament. They made it to the Elite Eight in 2010, and the Final Four in 2011; with half a dozen potential first-round draft picks, don't be surprised if the Wildcats make it even farther in 2012.
1 Seed: Ohio State Buckeyes
Jared Sullinger certainly gave the Buckeye faithful reason to smile when he vowed to return to Columbus for his sophomore season.
Though they lose sharpshooters Jon Diebler and David Lighty, Ohio State returns a reliable cast around Sullinger including William Buford, Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft.
To make matters worse for the rest of the Big 10, Thad Matta and his staff recruited a top notch freshman class that features four ESPNU top-100 prospects.
Last year's Buckeyes squad was widely regarded as the nation's best team, and most everyone was stunned by their early exit in the NCAA tournament. If Ohio State can hit three-pointers and replicate their inside/outside game from last year, they are a definite title contender come March.
1 Seed: Syracuse Orange
Like Ohio State, Syracuse was stunned by an early exit in last year's NCAA tournament.
Though the Orange lose their leading rebounder and interior presence in Rick Jackson, Jim Boeheim returns everyone else to a Syracuse team that went 27-8 overall last year.
The Orange will have one of the best backcourts in the Big East with Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and newcomer Michael Carter-Williams, but with Jackson's departure their big question mark is down low.
Kris Joseph is a proven scorer, and seven-footer Fab Melo should see increased minutes with a vacancy on the block. Couple in sophomore C.J. Fair and freshman Rakeem Christmas, and Syracuse should emerge as the Big East's best team.
2 Seed: Duke Blue Devils
Coach K and the Blue Devils are right back in the hunt in 2012.
Despite losing their three best scorers in Kyrie Irving, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, Duke returns a number of experienced players and welcomes a group of freshman studs.
Shooters Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry balance out the Plumlee brothers down low, giving the Blue Devils a deadly inside/outside threat.
Newcomer Austin Rivers also figures to be a vital piece of the offense. The 6'4" shooting guard and son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers is the gem of a Duke recruiting class that features five ESPNU top 100 prospects.
Though they may not return as much talent as North Carolina, Duke will certainly challenge their rival for the ACC title once again.
2 Seed: Louisville Cardinals
Rick Pitino's squad rebounds nicely from a first round exit in last year's big dance.
They lose starters Preston Knowles and Terrence Jennings, but the Cardinals return eight players who averaged more than ten minutes per game last season. Led by guards Kyle Kuric and Peyton Siva, this core of returning players should benefit nicely from a highly touted recruiting class that features four ESPNU top 100 prospects.
Louisville's depth will certainly be one of their strengths next season. After last year's upset, look for the Cardinals to bounce back and make it to the Sweet 16 in 2012.
2 Seed: Vanderbilt Commodores
Vanderbilt has been plagued by early exits in the big dance, suffering first-round upsets in each of its last three NCAA tournaments.
But that all changes in 2012.
Not only does Vandy return all of its significant players from a team that went 23-10 last season, but it also add top-100 recruits Dai-jon Parker and Kedren Johnson.
Led by the veteran trio of John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor and Festus Ezeli, the Commodores should give Kentucky a run for their money in the now division-less SEC and ultimately turn their luck around come March.
2 Seed: Memphis Tigers
Josh Pastner's young Memphis team had a 25-10 overall record last year and nearly upset the Arizona Wildcats in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
This year's Tigers are hungry for more.
Memphis returns seven players who averaged more than 20 minutes per game last season. Though they will only be sophomores next year, Will Barton, Joe Jackson and Tarik Black have emerged as the future of the program.
With another year under their belt, and the likes of top-10 recruit and homegrown talent Adonis Thomas, Memphis should play deep into March for the first time since John Calipari's departure.
3 Seed: Arizona Wildcats
Despite losing superstar Derrick Williams to the NBA, Arizona returns a supporting cast of players who are ready to step into the spotlight.
Sean Miller brings a top-10 recruiting class to Tucson to complement Kyle Fogg, Solomon Hill and a Wildcats team that returns seven players who averaged more than nine minutes per game last season.
Though they won't have an NBA lottery pick as they did last year, Arizona should be able to replicate some of their late season magic that helped them reach the Elite Eight.
Who knows, perhaps a Sweet 16 rematch with Duke is in the cards.
3 Seed: Kansas Jayhawks
The Jayhawks lose six of their top eight scorers, but if history tells us anything, it's to not bet against Bill Self.
In what seems like an annual tradition, analysts overlook Kansas, arguing that they are too young or too inexperienced. But year in and year out, coach Self and the Jayhawks redefine the term "rebuilding" and exceed expectations nationwide.
This year's Kansas team actually bears a striking resemblance to their 08-09 team that made the Sweet 16 despite losing five players to the NBA draft the year before.
The Jayhawks have two marquee returnees, point guard Tyshawn Taylor and power forward Thomas Robinson, both who figure to play prominent roles in the Kansas offense. Role players Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson and Jeff Withey will all see increased responsibilities, and a freshman class headlined by Ben McLemore will provide coach Self with valuable minutes.
KU has won seven straight Big 12 titles and nine of the last ten, and until someone else takes the crown, you can't bet against the Jayhawks making a late season run.
3 Seed: Connecticut Huskies
Though Connecticut lost their go-to guy in Kemba Walker, the Huskies are in a good position to make another title run.
With Kemba gone, junior Alex Oriaki and sophomores Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier will be the new leaders, and to be frank, if it weren't for Kemba Walker, these guys would already be household names.
While they lack a proven superstar this year, Jim Calhoun's squad certainly has the experience and talent to make another deep run in March.
4 Seed: Baylor Bears
With the surprising return of Perry Jones III, Baylor looks primed to make a deep run in March.
Though they lose leading scorer LaceDarius Dunn, the Bears have arguably the best frontcourt depth in the nation with Jones III, Quincy Acy, Anthony Jones and highly touted freshman Quincy Miller.
Baylor has a reliable point guard in A.J. Walton, and if he is able to consistently dump the ball down low, the Bears should be able to dominate their opponents on the glass.
With multiple projected lottery picks at his disposal, head coach Scott Drew has the talent to bring Baylor back to the Sweet 16.
4 Seed: Xavier Musketeers
Xavier became a immediate contender when Atlantic 10 player of the year Tu Holloway decided to return for his senior season.
Holloway gives fans reason to smile as he put up incredible numbers last season, leading the team in points and assists while also grabbing five rebounds per game.
Alongside him, the Musketeers also return their next best scorers in guard Mark Lyons and seven-foot center Kenny Frease. Add heralded freshman Dezmine Wells to the equation, and Xavier looks dangerous in 2012.
5 Seed: Gonzaga Bulldogs
A perennial Cinderella story, Gonzaga may have their deepest team yet in 2012.
Despite losing leading scorer Stephen Gray, the Zags return 10 players who averaged more than nine minutes per game last year while also welcoming one of their best recruiting classes in recent memory to Spokane.
Anchored by 7'0" center Robert Sacre, Gonzaga has the speed, size, athleticism and shooting accuracy to compete with the big boys from the power conferences.
Look for Mark Few to lead his Bulldogs back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009.
6 Seed: Missouri Tigers
Missouri's biggest loss this offseason was not a player, but rather it was their head coach Mike Anderson.
Anderson's exit left Columbia stunned, but fear not Mizzou fans, the Tigers are back on the prowl.
Led by their quartet of seniors, Marcus Denmon, Laurence Bowers, Ricardo Ratliffe and Kim English, Missouri will be an experienced team in 2012. Toss in point guard Michael Dixon and brothers Flip and Matt Pressey, and the Tigers have legitimate chance at making a run in March.
If new coach Frank Haith is able to gel with his players, Missouri will be a team that no one wants to play in the tournament.
12 Seed: Belmont Bruins
There has been a 12 seed in the Sweet 16 each of the last four years, and there's no reason to think that it won't happen again. With that said, Belmont is the perfect team to bust brackets in March.
The Bruins dominated the Atlantic Sun last year to the tune of a 19-1 conference record and a 30-5 record overall.
Next season, Belmont returns six of their top seven scorers and nine players that averaged more than ten minutes per game.
They are the surefire favorite to repeat as Atlantic Sun champions, but this is a team that has all of the pieces to make some noise in March. The Bruins have solid point guard play, size, chemistry, three-point range, free throw accuracy and a fantastic veteran coach in Rick Byrd.
Their non-conference schedule already features games against Duke and Memphis, so don't expect Belmont to lack experience come March.
It may be a bit early to declare the Bruins as 2012's Cinderella, but given that they could make the Sweet 16 without leaving their hometown of Nashville, the stars might just be aligned.
In the Hunt
As we saw with this year's tournament, you never know how the field will play out. Here are five more teams that could also contend for a Sweet 16 berth.
The Owls lose Lavoy Allen but return an ensemble cast that should challenge Xavier in the Atlantic 10.
Marquette Golden Eagles
Buzz Williams' team surprised many by making the Sweet 16 last year. Despite losing their senior leader Jimmy Butler, the Golden Eagles look to be back in the hunt in 2012.
Florida lost three starters, but figures to have one of the best backcourts in the entire country next year. If they can develop their big men and stay out of foul trouble, the Gators will be a tough team to handle.
With Jordan Taylor at the helm, Wisconsin is a tremendously efficient team. Last year they led the entire country in both free throw percentage and assist to turnover ratio. If the Badgers can control the pace of their games, they will be very difficult to beat.
Pittsburgh lost some quality players, but anything is possible with sharpshooter Ashton Gibbs on the court. Jamie Dixon should once again have one of the top teams in the Big East.