By leaving school for the NBA, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph and Jordan Hamilton likely knocked Texas out of the preseason Top 25. On the flip side, Harrison Barnes (North Carolina) and Terrence Jones (Kentucky) turned their squads into NCAA title favorites when they announced they were returning to school.
Now that the deadline to enter the NBA draft has passed, it’s much easier to make an educated prediction on which teams will be the best of the bunch in 2011-12. Here’s how my Top 10 ballot reads now.
1. North Carolina
2010-11 record: 29-8 (Elite Eight)
Key returnees: PF John Henson, C Tyler Zeller, SF Harrison Barnes, PG Kendall Marshall, SG Leslie McDonald, SF Reggie Bullock, SG Dexter Strickland
Key losses: F Justin Knox
Incoming recruits: PF James McAdoo, SG P.J. Hairston
The buzz: Experience gives the Tar Heels the slight edge over Kentucky. North Carolina’s top three players (Barnes, Henson and Zeller) could have been lottery picks had they chosen to enter the NBA draft. Instead they’ll return to Chapel Hill to try to win the school’s third NCAA title in eight years. The frontcourt of Henson, Zeller and McAdoo (likely off the bench) may be the nation’s best. Don’t be surprised if Barnes improves more than any player in the country.
2010-11 record: 29-9 (Final Four)
Key returnees: PF Terrence Jones, C Eloy Vargas, SF Darius Miller, SG Doron Lamb
Key losses: SF DeAndre Liggins, C Josh Harrellson, PG Brandon Knight
Incoming recruits: SF Michael Gilchrist, PF Anthony Davis, PF Kyle Wiltjer, PG Marquis Teague
The buzz: Assuming the freshmen live up to the hype, this could be John Calipari’s best team yet at Kentucky – mainly because the Wildcats have a nice blend of experienced players to mix in with their newcomers. The frontcourt will also be vastly improved, as Davis is projected as a top five pick in next summer’s NBA draft. Last season Kentucky made the Final Four with a six-man rotation. This year the Wildcats will go eight or nine deep.
3. Ohio State
2010-11 record: 34-3 (Sweet 16)
Key returnees: C Jared Sullinger, SG William Buford, PG Aaron Craft, SF Deshaun Thomas, SG Jordan Sibert
Key losses: SF David Lighty, C Dallas Lauderdale, SG Jon Diebler
Incoming recruits: SF LaQuinton Ross, SF Sam Thompson, C Trey McDonald, C Amir Williams, PG Shannon Scott, Evan Ravenel (transfer from Boston College)
The buzz: The Buckeyes were the best team in the country for most of last season before bowing out earlier than expected in the NCAA tournament. Losing Lighty and Diebler will hurt, but Thad Matta’s squad has a strong enough chemistry to surge forward. Expect Sullinger to contend for national player of the year honors while newcomers such as Ross and Thompson make an immediate impact.
2010-11 record: 32-5 (Sweet 16)
Key returnees: PF Mason Plumlee, PF Miles Plumlee, PF Ryan Kelly, SG Seth Curry, SG Andre Dawkins
Key losses: PG Kyrie Irving, PG Nolan Smith, SF Kyle Singler
Incoming recruits: SG Austin Rivers, PG Quinn Cook, C Marshall Plumlee, SF Alex Murphy, SF Michael Gbinije
The buzz: Along with three great players, the Blue Devils also lost three great leaders in Smith, Singler and Irving. Replacing their locker room presence won’t be easy. Duke will be loaded with scoring threats on the perimeter with players such as Curry, Dawkins and Rivers, the No. 1-ranked recruit in the Class of 2011 by Rivals.com. One of the biggest keys, though, will be getting more out of Kelly and the Plumlee brothers down low.
2010-11 record: 27-8 (third round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees: SF Kris Joseph, PG Scoop Jardine, SG Brandon Triche, SG Dion Waiters, SF C.J. Fair, C Fab Melo, PF Baye Moussa Keita
Key losses: PF Rick Jackson
Incoming recruits: SG Michael Carter-Williams, SG Trevor Cooney, C Rakeem Christmas
The buzz: The Orange will win the Big East title if players such as Melo – who was disappointing as a freshman – step up in the paint along with Joseph and Christmas, who is one of two impact newcomers along with Carter-Williams. Jardine was outstanding at times last season but needs to develop more consistency with his shot.
2010-11 record: 23-11 (second round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees: C Festus Ezeli, SG John Jenkins, SF Jeffery Taylor, PG Brad Tinsley, PF Lance Goulbourne, PF Steve Tchiengang
Key losses: None
Incoming recruits: SG Dai-Jon Parker, PG Kedren Johnson, PF Shelby Moats
The buzz: The Commodores have enough pieces to challenge Kentucky for the SEC title before embarking on a memorable NCAA tournament run. The problem is that Vanderbilt tends to get incredibly soft during the postseason, a trend Kevin Stallings’ squad is hoping to reverse this season. Tinsley must improve at point guard while Jenkins, Taylor and Ezeli can’t afford to regress.
2010-11 record: 28-6 (third round of the NCAA tournament)
Key returnees: SG Ashton Gibbs, PG Travon Woodall, SF Nasir Robinson, PF Dante Taylor, PF Talib Zanna
Key losses: SG Brad Wanamaker, C Gary McGhee, SF Gilbert Brown
Incoming recruits: PF Khem Birch, PF Jaylen Byrd, C Malcolm Gilbert, SG Durand Johnson, SG John Johnson
The buzz: Three starters are gone from last season’s Big East championship squad, but that doesn’t mean the Panthers aren’t high on talent and experience. Gibbs – last season’s leading scorer – pulled out of the NBA draft and returned to school. Woodall is a wily veteran and Taylor and Zanna are poised for breakthrough seasons. Birch was the ninth-ranked recruit in the Class of 2011 by Rivals.com. Coach Jamie Dixon is still seeking his first Final Four.
2010-11 record: 30-8 (Elite Eight)
Key returnees: PG Momo Jones, SG Kyle Fogg, PG Jordin Mayes, SF Solomon Hill, SF Kevin Parrom, SF Jesse Perry
Key losses: PF Derrick Williams, PF Jamelle Horne
Incoming recruits: PG Josiah Turner, PF Angelo Chol, SG Nick Johnson, PF Sidiki Johnson
The buzz: The knee-jerk reaction is to think the Wildcats will take a step back after losing Williams – last year’s leading scorer and rebounder – to the NBA draft. But with a host of standout recruits set to arrive this summer, Arizona will likely be the favorite to win the downtrodden Pac-12 conference for the second straight year. Turner may become the team’s top player the moment he steps on campus.
2010-11 record: 25-10 (second round of the NCAA tournament)
Key returnees: PG Peyton Siva, SG Chris Smith, PF Jared Swopshire, SF Kyle Kuric, SF Rakeem Buckles, PF Gorgui Dieng
Key losses: SG Preston Knowles, PF Terrence Jennings
Incoming recruits: SG Wayne Blackshear, PF Chane Behanan, C Zach Price
The buzz: Considering their lack of depth, experience and star power, it was amazing that the Cardinals won 25 games and finished third in the Big East last season. This year the conference will be worse – but Louisville will be better. Coach Rick Pitino has added a pair of studs (Blackshear and Behanan) to a roster filled with blue-collar players. Look for Louisville to be a factor in the Big East title race.
2010-11 record: 35-3 (Elite Eight)
Key returnees: PG Tyshawn Taylor, PG Elijah Johnson, PF Thomas Robinson, SF Travis Releford, C Jeff Withey
Key losses: PF Marcus Morris, PF Markieff Morris, SG Josh Selby, SG Brady Morningstar, SG Tyrel Reed
Incoming recruits: PG Nadir Tharpe, SG Ben McLemore
The buzz: The Jayhawks aren’t as loaded as they were last season. Still, it’s tough to pick against a team that has won seven straight Big 12 titles. Robinson will likely be a first-round draft pick if he has a successful season. Kansas is hoping the 7-foot Withey, who has played sparingly the past few years, provides some help in the paint. Taylor needs to become more of a leader for a squad that is still attempting to sign players.