NCAA Preview: The Top Ten Teams
Senior NBA & College Basketball Editor
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We’re roughly a month away from the beginning of the chase for a national championship in college basketball. The five-month long season will reveal team’s strengths and weaknesses, but as we learn year in and year out, it’s really all about who plays the best during tournament time. What happened previously doesn’t matter at all once the big dance starts; everyone needs just six wins in order to be crowned the best. Nobody had Butler or Virginia Commonwealth ranked in the top four during the preseason last year, but they ended up in the Final Four because they peaked at the right time. So, while the following teams compromise our top ten right now, it’s important to note that things change greatly throughout the year. By March this list could be completely different. As for now, though, these ten teams are projected to be a cut above the rest.
1. North Carolina Tar Heels
Key Losses: None
Key Additions: James McAdoo, P.J. Hairston
Outlook: It’s national championship or bust for the Tar Heels this season as they return virtually everyone of importance from last year’s squad while adding two instant-impact freshmen in McAdoo and Hairston. Anything less would be a disappointment. Last time Roy Williams had a team this talented he won it all in 2009 and this team has the potential to do that as well. Their frontline, featuring future first-round picks Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, Jon Henson and now McAdoo, is virtually flawless. With the steady Kendall Marshall setting the table the Tar Heels should undoubtedly be one of the teams in the mix at the end of the season as long as they stay healthy.
2. Kentucky Wildcats
Key Losses: Brandon Knight, DeAndre Liggins, Josh Harrellson
Key Additions: Marquis Teague, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Outlook: Expectations were drastically reduced when the Wildcats found out that freshman center Enes Kanter was permanently ruled ineligible by the NCAA last year. Yet, in one of the best coaching jobs of Coach Calipari’s career, they ended up a DeAndre Liggins three-pointer away from playing in the national championship. This year Coach Cal comes equipped with quite possibly his most talented team ever. Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb are back, along with an absolutely scary freshman class highlighted by Teague, Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist. If Cal can get them to come together like last year’s squad, they could help him capture his first championship.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes
Key Losses: David Lighty, Jon Diebler, Dallas Lauderdale.
Key Additions: Sam Thompson and Shannon Scott.
Outlook: The pressure was on the Buckeyes last year to win it all as they had the best freshman post player in the country in Jared Sullinger along with a very solid senior class. However, they came up short, falling to Kentucky in the Sweet 16. That early exit left such a bad taste in Sullinger’s mouth, though, that he decided to stick around for another season rather than being a top-five pick in the draft. William Buford opted to stay as well and now the Buckeyes once again look equipped to contend. They’ll be a little bit younger than last year, but possible deeper if their promising freshmen class can deliver.
4. Connecticut Huskies
Key Losses: Kemba Walker
Key Additions: Andre Drummond, DeAndre Daniels
Outlook: After going 9-9 in Big East play the Huskies looked like anything but a team capable of winning their conference tournament, let alone the NCAA Tournament. But behind the heroics of Walker and the emergence of Jeremy Lamb into a star, the Huskies did both. While losing Walker is a huge blow to this team, two late commitments in Daniels and Drummond have made them viable threats to defend their title. This year’s Huskies team will be significantly better inside than last year’s squad, especially offensively. Defensively they’ll be just as tough with Alex Oriakhi patrolling the paint alongside Drummond. Point guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright have to make sure to be themselves rather than trying to replace Walker.
5. Syracuse Orange
Key Losses: Rick Jackson
Key Additions: Rakeem Christmas, Michael Carter-Williams
Outlook: After a solid regular season, the Orange ended things on a disappointing note, getting eliminated in the third round of the NCAA tournament by Marquette. Unlike most years, Jim Boeheim didn’t see his top prospects bolt for the draft. Scoop Jardine, Kris Davis and Brandon Triche are back and joined by two quality freshmen in Christmas and Carter-Williams. Overall this team has a lot of experience to go along with their great talent level. Sophomore center Fab Melo is a big question mark inside. He severely underachieved as a freshman and has some legal issues to clear up off the court. If he’s not ready to step up, Christmas will likely keep him on the bench again.
6. Vanderbilt Commodores
Key Losses: None
Key Additions: Dai-Jon Parker, Kedren Johnson
Outlook: The talent has been there the last two years for the Commodores to make some noise in the big dance, but they failed to do so, getting eliminated in the first round each of the last two years. With an upperclassmen-heavy team that has three future pros in John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor and Festus Ezeli, this is truly a make or break year for the Commodores. If they do not win big this year it will go down as one of the most disappointing seasons in the school’s history because the pieces are there for something special to happen. The additions of freshmen guards Parker and Johnson could prove to be the missing ingredients from the last two years for postseason success.
7. Duke Blue Devils
Key Losses: Kyrie Irving, Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler
Key Additions: Austin Rivers, Michael Gbinije, Quinn Cook
Outlook: After coming up short in their quest to defend their 2010 championship, the Blue Devils go into this season with some serious holes to fill. Smith and Singler, two of the greatest players in the program’s rich history, are gone along with Irving, who went number one overall in the 2011 NBA Draft. Luckily for Blue Devils fans, Coach K rarely rebuilds. Instead, he reloads and while it will be hard to replace those three players he has a lot of talent filling their shoes. Freshman combo guard Rivers will be a star from day one and Cook has serious potential at the point. Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins should also thrive in bigger roles. The three Plumlee brothers inside will be the difference maker that determines whether or not they contend.
8. Memphis Tigers
Key Losses: None
Key Addition: Adonis Thomas
Outlook: Last year the Tigers were one of the youngest teams in the country and they played like it throughout the season. Serious growth was evident by the end of the year, though, as they won their conference tournament and gave Arizona fits in the second round of the big dance. Just about everybody is returning for Josh Pastner, who has established himself as one of the best young coaches in the country. He’s added dynamic forward Adonis Thomas to an already stellar young core that boasts Will Barton and Joe Jackson. This year the Tigers should runaway with Conference USA like they did under Calipari and potentially compete for a championship if they develop at the same rate they did last year.
9. Florida Gators
Key Losses: Chandler Parsons, Vernon Macklin, Alex Tyus.
Key Additions: Bradley Beal
Outlook: For the first time since winning back-to-back championships in 2006 and 2007, the Gators made a deep tournament run last season, advancing to the Elite Eight. Just as they got back on track, they had to bid farewell to their extremely productive frontline of Parsons, Macklin and Tyus. This year the strength of the Gators will be in their backcourt, where they feature Erving Walker, Kenny Boyton and the heralded freshman Beal. It’s going to be up to sophomore center Patric Young to live up to the hype and step up inside if the Gators are going to remain a top 10 team in the championship mix come March.
10. Baylor Bears
Key Losses: LaceDarius Dunn
Key Additions: Quincy Miller, Deuce Bello
Outlook: Say what you want about the Bears and their weaknesses, the one area they are not lacking in whatsoever is athleticism. They will have one of the most athletic teams in the country, led by sophomore Perry Jones and freshmen Miller and Bello. As they learned last year, though, all being athletic guarantees is that they’ll be fun to watch in warm-ups. In order to make the tournament, which they failed to do last year, they’re going to have to play disciplined basketball and put individual success aside for the sake of the team. As great as this team can be, they could also be quite disappointing again if they don’t develop chemistry and make winning the top priority.