In college basketball, preseason rankings mean next to nothing. That's a good thing, sort of, because a system with a postseason tournament substantially reduces the damage that can be done with a grossly incorrect assessment of that team before it plays a real game. Connecticut's national championship is proof: The Huskies weren't ranked in most 2010-11 preseason rankings, and then Kemba Walker did Kemba Walker things and had them cutting down the nets in Houston.
Connecticut's cometary path can't be traced every year, though, which means that the 2011-12 preseason college basketball rankings might pick the national champion. Or efforts to pick college basketball's 2011 preseason top 10 — like this one — might fail spectacularly.
The point is this: At least college basketball's preseason rankings, unlike college football's, are mostly fun and harmless.
Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones might make the jump to the NBA; Jones is probably the more likely to go and the bigger loss, but both players moving on wouldn't slow John Calipari's Big Blue Machine very much. Thanks to another excellent recruiting class, one more on par with the John Wall-DeMarcus Cousins crew that arrived in Lexington in 2009, the Wildcats are poised to return to the Final Four in 2012, and perhaps win it all. Michael Gilchrist should be the star of the recruiting class, but Marquis Teague is a promising point guard, Kyle Wiltjer is a fantastic shooter, and Anthony Davis, a forward with shooting guard skills, could be the new 'Cat with the highest ceiling. If Knight comes back, he'll have a ton of talent at his disposal; if not, Doron Lamb, Darius Miller, and DeAndre Liggins make for a good core of shooters as is, and that plus this Kentucky recruiting class has the makings of a national championship squad. And what SEC team can challenge these Wildcats? Expect A Sea of Blue to be rolling with these 'Cats until April 2012.
2. North Carolina
It's hard to expect all three of Carolina's major offensive options — Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes and John Henson — to return for a second season together in Chapel Hill. But it's not unlikely that at least one will stay and team with Kendall Marshall to give the Tar Heels a potent scoring combination. Touted recruits P.J. Hairston and James McAdoo (Bob's nephew) might also give the Heels possible Barnes successors, or at least parts of his production. The question that endures with the Heels, then, is this: will they ever learn how to play lockdown defense instead of relying on their pace to wear teams out? Watch Carolina March to see if that answer comes before Carolina's March; if the Heels do, they could be terrifyingly good.
3. Ohio State
These Buckeyes already missed their best chance at a title: this year, with Jon Diebler and David Lighty set to knock down open threes after defenses collapsed on Jared Sullinger, Ohio State was as unstoppable as it is likely to get. But Sullinger's return blunts the loss of Diebler and Lighty, both seniors and graduates, and a strong recruiting class should provide depth behind a starting five that will still be good enough to delight Along the Olentangy. The maturation of Aaron Craft is probably the Buckeyes' most important summer task, but asking a near-elite point guard to get better — Craft decimated George Mason with 15 assists — is not a bad position to be in. If Sullinger can improve, too, Ohio State might be a No. 1 seed for next year's March Madness, and their second-best chance at a title could turn out a bit better than their first.
The Orange return all but Rick Jackson from a squad that underwhelmed in Big East and NCAA Tournament play, and add studs Rakeem Christmas and Michael Carter-Williams in recruiting. That's a potent roster even if Kris Joseph and Brandon Triche remain the team's two most efficient players; if Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita develop as much as they can over the summer, the Orange could be the Big East favorites come fall. And though Syracuse fans have a love/hate relationship with Scoop Jardine at this point, if he can figure out how to cut down on turnovers and poor shots, he could become the nation's finest point guard. That would make Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician fairly happy, I think.
Tristan Thompson and Jordan Hamilton returning would give the Longhorns two go-to scorers. Add in quick Myck Kabongo — rhyme, sadly, impossible, as the Canadian guard pronounces his name "Mike" — and Texas has the sort of offense that could make its very stingy 2010-11 defense proud. If the development of Cory Joseph and J'Covan Brown continues apace, the Longhorns might well have the most talented first five players in America. But Rick Barnes has had talent and disappointed before (I would imagine some Texas fans have "T.J. Ford took Texas farther than Kevin Durant" macro'd for arguments at Burnt Orange Nation), and Texas is one of college basketball's flagship "I'll believe it when I see it" teams. A weak Big 12 helps, though.
Did you enjoy how the Huskies played when Kemba Walker wasn't on the floor and driving UConn to a third national championship under Jim Calhoun? Well, that's probably how they'll play next year, and if Jeremy Lamb decides to stay in Storrs, it might be enough to get the Huskies into proper shape for a title defense. Lamb could be a devastating scorer and defender if he stays, Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith will be a mighty inside due with a lot of help from players like Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander, and Shabazz Napier has promise at the point. Plus, these Huskies are battle-forged, and that championship experience may make up for a recruiting class that is essentially Chicago star Ryan Boatright and little else. Of course, Boatright's very Kemba-ish game could also be the component UConn needs to defend its crown and make The UConn Blog completely insufferable. (I kid because I love.)
Remember how good Kyrie Irving was for Duke in his cameo appearances as the Blue Devils' point guard? Austin Rivers, the mega-recruit in another strong haul for Mike Krzyzewski, might be a level or two better. Doc's son has torn up high school and AAU competition, and Rivers was hanging with John Wall in camps as a rising high school senior last summer. Rivers may have to be that good for Duke to be great again, though: Irving is all but NBA-bound at this point, and seniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler have played their last games for the Blue Devils. That leaves Duke with a core of three Plumlees up front (Miles, Mason, and 2011 recruit Marshall) and Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry in the backcourt: it's a decent roster, but bereft of creators. Rivers and fellow freshman-to-be Quinn Cook will have to be Duke's dynamos and Duke Basketball Report fixtures for Coach K to get another title next year, but that's not too much to ask of those two.
Josh Pastner's young Tigers didn't make their mark on this March, bowing out to the Derrick Williams-led Arizona squad that caught fire late in this season. But Memphis may be positioned to do that next March: none of the slew of freshmen (Will Barton, Antonio Barton, Charles Carmouche, Tarik Black, Joe Jackson) that formed the Tigers' core in 2010-11 are leaving for the NBA, and highly touted Adonis Thomas will join that crew next season. There are still tons of efficiency and shot discipline issues with the Tigers, and Will Coleman's graduation leaves them without their biggest body inside, but there's a bright future in Memphis under Pastner.
Louisville's youth hurt the Cardinals in 2010-11, and senior Preston Knowles won't be around to bail Rick Pitino's squad out next season. But Peyton Siva, Kyle Kuric, and Terrence Jennings make for an electric trio, a number of good backups give the Cards depth, and Mike Marra might learn how to make over 30 percent of his threes this summer. And a very good recruiting class gives Pitino's press ever more bodies to throw at the other team. Learning how to win away from Freedom Hall will be key for Louisville in 2011-12 and for Card Chronicle's collective sanity.
The only departure from Spokane is strong shooter Steven Gray. But between seniors-to-be Robert Sacre, Demetri Goodson and Marquis Carter, the Bulldogs have experience to burn, and if Elias Harris can finally put everything together, Gonzaga may have one of the nation's most inimitable talents. And remember, the 'Zags became a trendy pick to upset BYU in the NCAA Tournament for a reason; with another year of seasoning for David Stockton, who flashed a fair bit of his dad John's repertoire in limited action, and the rest of Gonzaga's freshmen, they might be a trendy Final Four pick next March.
On the Outside Looking In
Senior-stocked Vanderbilt will play great outside-inside offense with John Jenkins, Jeffrey Taylor and Festus Ezeli ... Kansas could have top-10 talent if enough Jayhawks resist the NBA's call ... Missouri has tons of talent, but can Frank Haith maximize it? ... Wisconsin returns Jordan Taylor and flame-'froed Mike Bruesewitz, and loses Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil ... Michigan's late-season surge should continue with or without Darius Morris ... Pittsburgh is going to be the Ashton Gibbs Show ... Florida has a backcourt to envy, but little beyond Patric Young up front ... Arizona may not get Derrick Williams back, but the Wildcats have plenty of talent ... Steve Lavin's St. John's team will be almost entirely freshmen; good thing they're highly touted ... Cincinnati brings back plenty but loses a lot up front ... even without Tyler Honeycutt, UCLA could be quite good ... Marquette's junior college all-stars return virtually intact ... you may have heard of this Butler team, one that should be good even without Matt Howard.
Belmont returns nearly everyone from a 30-win team ... Alabama is a team on the rise under Anthony Grant ... Cam Long and Isiah Tate being gone won't slow George Mason much ... Notre Dame will have three fifth-year seniors but no Ben Hansbrough ... Florida State will once again play great defense, but no Derwin Kitchen and possibly no Chris Singleton kneecaps the 'Noles on offense ... Michigan State is still coached by Tom Izzo and will have less chaos next year ... Wichita State is going to have a lot of seniors to lean on ... Temple can grow from a near-Sweet Sixteen trip.
Wait 'Til 2012-13
Purdue won't replace JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore in a blink ... Isaiah Thomas' departure means Washington is rebuilding, not reloading ... San Diego State's best returning player should be Chase Tapley ... Jimmer Fredette's departure leaves Brigham Young without a go-to scorer or a viable Final Four dream.