Alright, already, we'll all float on. Because it's that time of year again: college basketball is back! No more quirks, no more games, no more looking for diamonds in the rough. I'm putting my best prognosticator hat on and picking the eight best teams in the country come tournament time. Here we go.
#8: Baylor Bears
Rationale: Baylor's my darkhorse pick for the Final Four (see: JLeverenz's preseason GOG), for good reason: frontcourt talent. The Bears have two potential top 10 NBA Draft picks in freshman Quincy Miller and sophomore Perry Jones III. Along with the former five-star high schoolers are explosive athletes Anthony Jones (59.8% eFG%) and Quincy Acy (53.5% eFG%, 5.3% Blk%) that have All-Conference potential. That's a great foundation, especially for a team that likes to 2-3 zone on the defensive end. The issue is in the backcourt, which has lost college stars Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn in consecutive years. Point guard A.J. Walton returns, but he'll be pushed by transfers Pierre Jackson and Gary Franklin. Even adequate guard play may be enough for Baylor to win the Big 12. But above-average to spectacular guard play could have them making a deep tournament run, even all the way to the third weekend.
Key Questions: Can a point guard emerge from the shuffle to lead this team? Will either Jones or Miller take steps towards being an elite alpha dog? Can Scott Drew actually coach?
#7: Vanderbilt Commodores
Rationale: I was all set to include the Commodores in my actual Final Four. Then their star center Festus Ezeli had to go and injure his knee. He's out 6 to 8 weeks and will likely miss most of a critical non-conference slate that includes Oregon, North Carolina State, Xavier, Louisville, and Marquette. That's too many potential losses for me to call Vanderbilt a 1 seed come tournament time. But I'm still bullish on them making a Final Four run, because their team is stout. The silver lining to Ezeli's injury is more development for their power forward duo, Steve Tchiengang and Lance Goulbourne. That troika, along with swingman Jeffery Taylor and point guard Brad Tinsley, are all experienced seniors, a helpful asset come tournament time. Taylor, perhaps their most talented player, is looking to bounceback from a subpar junior campaign (just a 50.0% eFG%), and Tinsley is a steady hand at the point (27.2% ARate). Oh, and junior shooting guard John Jenkins is ridiculously good (123.5 O-Rtg, 58.4% eFG%) and might be the best player in the SEC.
Key Questions: Can the Commodores weather the non-conference schedule without their top post player while building confidence in Tchiengang and Goulbourne? Can Ezeli return for SEC play and immediately be a positive contributor? Will swingman Taylor have merely a solid senior season, or become an All-American type player?
#6: Duke Blue Devils
Rationale: Efficiency numbers love the Blue Devils. Returnees Seth Curry (121.7 O-Rtg), Andre Dawkins (123.3 O-Rtg) and Ryan Kelly (119.3 O-Rtg) all ranked in the top 100 nationally in Offensive Rating Efficiency. Pragmatically, that's because last year's seniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler were the focus (combined 44.5 FG% on 1,077 attempts), and the sidekicks reaped the rewards of open looks from the perimeter and easy putbacks on offensive rebounds. Still, it's not like these guys were chopped liver. Mason Plumlee and Miles Plumlee were often more stiff than stuff in the frontcourt, but both return, along with little brother in tow (Marshall Plumlee, for those wondering). Oh yeah, Mike Krzyzewski is still the best head coach in the nation, and he's got two more five-star phenoms to work with in freshmen Austin Rivers and Alex Murphy. If last year's production is the question, this year's potential is the answer.
Key Questions: Can Seth Curry become more than just a shooter and morph into an elite lead guard? Will the Plumlees be a hydra-like enforcing presence in the interior, or turn to stone yet again? Can Rivers be an efficient, effective scorer as opposed to a selfish, high-volume triggerman?
#5: Connecticut Huskies
Rationale: While Kemba Walker was my favorite non-biased player in college basketball last year, nothing about this team screamed NCAA Champion. After a lackluster Big East campaign, the Huskies caught fire in the Big East Tournament and lucked into one of the worst March Madnesses in recent history. After Walker left for NBA
riches lockout, it looked like the Huskies were going to fade back into the land of adequacy. Unfortunately for the Big East, luck was on Jim Calhoun's side. First, sophomore Jeremy Lamb (115.5 O-Rtg, 54.8% eFG%) decided not to declare for the NBA Draft despite a wickedly good end to his first season. Then, Calhoun received a commitment from DeAndre Daniels, a highly touted freshman who couldn't make up his mind about where to play college ball until after the Late Signing Period. Finally, the Huskies received the biggest gift of all when the best big man in the 2012 class, Andre Drummond, decided to reclassify and play for the Huskies this year. Add in other key returnees, including junior power forward Alex Oriakhi (14.5% O-Reb%, 5,6% Blk%) and sophomore point guard Shabazz Napier (24.1% A-Rate), and it looks like the Huskies will be Big East favorites after all.
Key Questions: Can Lamb step up as the alpha dog scorer? Will Oriakhi and Drummond co-exist in the frontcourt or just get in each other's way? Is Napier ready to guide this team even halfway as well as Walker did?
#4: Ohio St. Buckeyes
Rationale: Jared Sullinger returning has to be the biggest upset since...well, OK, he's not even the biggest name to return to college basketball this season. That would be one Mr. Barnes (see below). But Sullinger was absurdly good last year, better than Barnes, and much more important to his team this year. That's because the Buckeyes lose two very key starters, marksman Jon Diebler (50.2% 3-pt FG%, 140.6 O-Rtg that was first in the nation) and defender extraordinaire David Lighty (1.6% blk%, 2.9% stl%). Yet the Buckeyes are considered Final Four favorites thanks to the return of Sullinger, the best bet for a double-double in major college basketball (120.4 O-Rtg, 54.5 eFG%, 26.2 D-Reb%). He's not alone, but it's a team that is neither deep nor accomplished. Glue guy senior William Buford and pesky sophomore point guard Aaron Craft slide into starring roles (26.5% A-Rate, 4.1% stl%), and good things have been told about little-used sophomores DeShaun Thomas (34.9% min%) and Jordan Sibert (14.0% min%). Add in a handful of incoming freshmen like Amir Williams, and there's certainly intrigue, if not production. At least we know who the alpha dog is.
Key Questions: Did Sullinger become a Kemba-esque unstoppable force or remain merely dominant? Is Craft ready to become the second-best player on a championship contending team? Who replaces the exceptionally efficient production of departing seniors Diebler and Lighty?
#3: Syracuse Orange
Rationale: This year's Pittsburgh--a one seed without an abundance of NBA talent--figures to be another Big East school, Syracuse. On DraftExpress' Top 100 board, the Orange have just one player, senior forward Kris Joseph. No other team on this list has less than two. Syracuse is also the only team not to have a player in the top 50, let alone the top 25 (Joseph's ranked #57). Still, that doesn't mean that the Orange won't be an elite college team. They lose only one player, graduating senior Rick Jackson, from a team that won its first 18 games (but finished just 9-8 in their last 17). Along with Joseph, the Cuse return their starting backcourt of senior Scoop Jardine (34.7% A-Rate) and junior Brandon Triche. Also back are a quartet of promising sophomores, led by C.J. Fair and Dion Waiters. Add in a couple of diaper dandies Rakeem Christmas and Michael Carter-Williams, and there's a fantastic blend of experience and potential. Talent and efficiency are the question marks. None of the Orange are offensively efficient, and they can't hit the broad side of a barn from deep (forward James Southerland led the team in 3-pt% hitting just 36.8%). But they should be a stout defensive team with a personnel grouping tailor made to play Jim Boeheim's patented 2-3 zone.
Key Questions: Can the Syracuse backcourt collectively improve their 3-point shooting percentages? Can Fab Melo remove his lost "Bigfoot" status and fill in for Jackson, or does Christmas need to come early? Will Jardine and Triche become the next Brad Wanamaker and Ashton Gibbs?
#2: North Carolina Tar Heels
Rationale: There's pretty much a consensus top two, and most people have the Tar Heels at number one. But hey--cut me some slack--this is a Kentucky blog, after all! Last year, the Tar Heels took a huge leap forward when they inserted passing wizard Kendall Marshall in as their starting point guard (40.7% A-Rate). He immediately transformed the offense, turning boy wonder Harrison Barnes into a second-half All-American candidate and opening up the floor for post players John Henson (12.7% O-Reb%) and Tyler Zeller (120.1 O-Rtg). In fact, all three thought so much of this Tar Heel team that they decided to return for a shot at a National Championship. It's not a stretch to say that Marshall is North Carolina's most important player. In fact, the Tar Heels look two-deep at every critical position, except for point guard. That includes a couple of fabulous freshmen in shooting guard P.J. Hairston and stretch forward James Michael McAdoo to go along with returnees Dexter Strickland and Reggie Bullock. Frankly, the talent and experience combination at Chapel Hill is ridiculous.
Key Questions: Does Barnes become the best player in America? Can Strickland and/or Hairston become marksmen three-point shooters to add an added dimension to the Tar Heel offense? Will this team live up to the expectations like the Tyler Hansbrough-led 2009 team did?
#1: Kentucky Wildcats
Rationale: I love this year's North Carolina team. But with that said, if you asked me which team is the most talented in America, I'll give the nod to Kentucky, hands down. Kentucky set the record with five players selected in the first round two years ago. This team could have six: freshmen Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis, and Marquis Teague, and sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones. Oh, and don't sleep on outside shot senior Darius Miller, who has the the skills and athleticism, if not the drive and production, to become a first-round pick. OK, you know all about the Cats, so I don't need to give you the spiel. This team can--and should--make the Final Four for a second consecutive year. It would be extra sweet if they were the last team standing, cutting down the nets.
Key Questions: Are these freshmen as good (or better) than the past two classes? Can Teague fill the same shoes that Brandon Knight and John Wall exceeded in? Will Jones put the team on his back as the leader and All-American people expect him to be?
On The Cusp
The following teams were under consideration but didn't make it for various reasons...Florida, because I'm not sold on Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton improving enough to make this team better than last year's...Pittsburgh, because I question their defensive effectiveness sans Brad Wanamaker and Gary McGhee...Kansas, because aside from Thomas Robinson, they're really not very talented (or deep)...Memphis, because Josh Pastner is just a lesser Scott Drew at this point (elite recruiter, questionable coach)...Arizona, because losing the #2 overall pick stings when there's no readily available replacement, no matter how awesome a coach people think Sean Miller is...Louisville, because, c'mon, this is a Kentucky blog (if they win, they'll get in subsequent editions).
2011-12 Season Preview: Previous Articles
Kentucky Wildcats Preview: Part 2 - The Schedule
Kentucky Wildcats Preview: Part 1 - The Team
College Basketball Preview: Alternative All-Americans
College Basketball Preview: All-Sleeper Final Four
College Basketball Preview: Fabulous Freshmen to Watch
College Basketball Preview: "My Guys"