It’s the eve of my favorite sport, so who are the teams that will really contend for the National Title this year? Who can challenge North Carolina? Will Memphis be able to rebound from losing their three top players to the NBA? Will Tennessee finally break through and get to the Elite Eight?
North Carolina: No team in the country returns as much talent or experience as North Carolina. An eventual starting lineup of Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Marcus Ginyard, Deon Thompson, and Tyler Hansbrough is a great college lineup, and when you can bring Danny Green, Tyler Zeller, Ed Davis, and Bobby Frasor off your bench, that’s pretty strong as well. The main concern with Carolina is health, and you’ve already seen that come to a head with Ginyard out until December with a stress fracture and Hansbrough resting with shin splints. Last year, it really cost them, with Frasor missing basically the entire season…his defense would have helped a lot come tournament time. All of that being said, this is basically a National Champ Or Bust team. That’s a hell of a lot of pressure.
UConn: This is a really good team, and it presents an interesting matchup for North Carolina. With AJ Price and Kemba Walker outside, and 96th year senior Jeff Adrien and 7’3 center Hasheem Thabeet inside, they’ve got all the ingredients. If he has developed any sort of offensive game, Thabeet could be one of the best players in college basketball this season, and would be really tough for Hansbrough, because Hansbrough struggles with guys who are bigger than he is. However, this team hasn’t really won a game of any significance yet. They lost in the first round of the Big East and NCAA tournaments last year. Unless they massively choke again though, this team is good enough to go to the Final Four and possibly be National Champion.
Louisville: They’ve got some really good players. Earl Clark, Terrence Williams, and Edgar Sosa all return from the Elite Eight team from last year. They did lose David Padgett, Juan Palacios (who should have been a lot better than he was), and Derrick Caracter (ditto), but get a spectacular inside player in freshman Samardo Samuels. They play really good pressure defense, but losing that much inside is a lot to replace. This should be a Final Four team, but losing Padgett is going to hurt a lot more than people realize.
UCLA: May have the best backcourt in the country with Jrue Holliday, Darren Collison, and Josh Shipp (assuming he doesn’t disappear for long stretches of the season like last year), had the best recruiting class in the country this year…but do they have enough inside? They lost a first team All American in Kevin Love, lost a glue guy in Luc Richard Mbah Amoute, and are stacked with unproven talented freshmen. That being said, they get to the Final Four every year, and if not for a freak (Derrick Rose) dismantling them in the semifinals last year, could have probably won the National Title. They’ll make it to the Final Four, and then…we’ll see.
Pittsburgh: Okay, we’ve seen this before. Lavance Fields (he’s still there?!), Sam Young, and DaJuan Blair, they play great defense, and could be really dangerous come tournament team. But if we can say that UConn hasn’t ever won a game of significance, we can definitely say that Jamie Dixon is consistently disappointing in the NCAA Tourney. That being said, this should be a Final Four contender, but we’ll see if Jamie Dixon can get them right come tournament time.
Notre Dame: They have Kyle McAlarney and Luke Harangody, who is the best non-Hansbrough inside player in the country. Other than that, I don’t see much, but few teams have an inside-outside combo that good. They got crushed in the NCAA Tournament last year by Washington State…and should we expect anything much better this year? They will be ranked really high all year, should make it to the Sweet Sixteen, and then ? I don’t see this team winning a National Title. They only have two good players that I see.
Michigan State: Some people say this team could actually be better without Drew Neitzel because their offense bogged down when they had to run him off 36 screens to get a shot. They have some interesting pieces like Kalin Lucas and Raymar Morgan, but I can’t shake the image of Memphis nuking them in the first half last year in the Sweet Sixteen. I don’t think they’ll make it out of the Sweet Sixteen, but they are in everyone’s top 5 or 6.
Duke: I admit a serious bias on this one, but where’s the inside game? This team looks a lot like the plodding team that depended overly on the three pointer last year, and they still don’t have anyone inside that impresses me–Kyle Singler is a 3. Nolan Smith adds athleticism that they need in the starting lineup, and Gerald Henderson is a really, really good player, but if they have a bad night shooting threes…see last year’s NCAA Tournament.
Texas: They have AJ Abrams, or as I call him, the Tiny Assassin, Damion James, and Connor Atchley. They lost DJ Augustin, who was one of the best 3 point guards in the country last year. I’m not seeing it. Sweet Sixteen and out.
Tennessee: An interesting team…They lost Chris Lofton, Jajuan Smith, and Duke Crews, but there’s something about this team that intrigues me. Scotty Hopson is going to be fantastic, Tyler Smith may be the best player in the SEC, JP Prince should be pretty good, and Wayne Chism is one of the more underrated players in the SEC. They could surprise in March.
Gonzaga: They are loaded. This is my dark horse Final Four contender. They return Jeremy Pargo, Matt Bouldin, noted mushroom aficionado Josh Heytvelt, and the guy who could be the best prospect of the bunch, Austin Daye. They will be really good. They have players inside and outside, and will go deep into March.
Memphis: I am very much on the record that I don’t think this year’s team will be nearly as good as last year’s. Tyreke Evans is good, but I don’t believe he is the same caliber as Derrick Rose. I don’t know if Robert Dozier is truly a go to guy, and you still have to replace Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey. There are a ton of questions with this team. Will Pierre Henderson Niles be able to play well? Will Willie Kemp ably fill the massive void left by Derrick Rose? How good will all of the new players be? All of that being said, though, you just know this team is only going to lose 2-5 games because of their schedule, and because of the recent success and their record, will be a very high seed. That gives them an easier road deep into the tournament…and they’ll give teams fits because of the style of play. Should make it to the Sweet Sixteen…everything after that is gravy. But depending on the matchup…could make life hell for someone in the Regional Rounds.
If I had to pick right now, my Final Four would look like this–North Carolina, UCLA, UConn, and Gonzaga, with North Carolina as National Champion.