This looks like a pretty open year, with all of the traditional powers having serious weaknesses to address before conference play begins in earnest after the New Year. Last year we had great teams. The list started with national champion North Carolina, but included Louisville, UConn & Pitt out of the Big East and finalist Michigan State looks stronger than any of the current entrants for 2009-10. But that’s the view in November. The track record of college hoops lately says that for all the magic of an early-round upset in March, the nets are ultimately cut down by a real powerhouse. So let’s look at the programs with a recent track record of major national success and see what they have to do in order to win conference championships, get to Indianapolis in April and eventually bring home a title.
*North Carolina—It all starts in Chapel Hill these days, but Roy Williams has huge losses to replace. Tyler Hansborough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green are all gone from the team that won Williams’ second national championship in five years. Williams’ recruiting has been nothing short of outstanding, so the early season is just about learning new names and seeing how ready they are. The frontcourt has a lot of size stepping in, but the coach is concerned about the point guard spot, where experience often matters more than anything.
*Duke—Coach K has three quality starters back, including Kyle Singler who may be the ACC’s best player, a real inside-outside threat at power forward. The Blue Devils have been very good in recent years, but haven’t been able to take their expected place in the elite because they haven’t had quality big people. Incoming freshman like Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly have to fix that.
*UConn—Another team that had heavy losses, from Hasheem Thabeet up front, to A.J. Price in the backcourt to all-everything Jeff Adrien. The cupboard isn’t bare in Storrs though with Jerome Dyson, Kemba Walker in the backcourt and Stanley Robinson on the frontline. The foundation exists for Jim Calhoun to win a Big East title and contend nationally.
*Louisville—Another program that lost key people inside, but has good guards in Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith. The key will be Samardo Samuels, a sophomore ready to get serious minutes at forward. And how do the Cards respond to the whole Rick Pitino soap opera in the offseason?
*Michigan State—The Spartans have a lot returning, including last year’s Big Ten Player of the Year, Kalin Lucas at point guard. Raymar Morgan is potentially outstanding at forward, but most overcome the injury and illness problems that plagued him last year. Delvon Roe and Durrell Summers are good contributors on the wing. The one problem will be the loss of center Goran Suton, a big seven-footer who dominated the boards. When he was injured early last season, MSU struggled. When he returned, they rolled to the Big Ten title and the Final Four.
*Kentucky—I guess we have to put the Wildcats back in this group now that Calipari’s in the house. He’ll win right away with a team led by power forward Patrick Patterson who passed on the NBA. Whether they become a national contender depends on how fast prized freshman point guard John Wall matures. The guess here is that he will and the ‘Cats win big.
*Florida—Yeah, putting a team that’s been in the NIT for two straight years in this group is a little odd, but the back-to-back national championships of 2006-07 show what they are capable of. Billy Donovan’s program looks ready to settle into a middle ground. They lose top scorer Nick Calathes, but have the entire frontcourt back. They need sophomore guard Ervin Walker to be the best quarterback in Gainesville this side of Tim Tebow if they are going to keep pace with Kentucky.
*Kansas—They’re the consensus preseason #1 and I really can’t argue with that. But it’s not a runaway situation. Backcourt is led by Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich is manning the middle and the supporting cast is back. If the tournament were played right now, they would be the favorite. But they are not so overwhelmingly talented that any of the other teams on this group can’t put it together and be better by March.
*Texas—They look good, but not quite up to the national elite standards that Rick Barnes has gotten fans in Austin used to. A good frontline, as Barnes usually produces, but they need to replace A.J. Abrams in the backcourt.
*UCLA—The run of Pac-10 titles and Final Four appearances ended last season. The former may come back, but the latter won’t, at least not this year. Veteran point guard Darren Collison is gone, and so is forward Josh Shipp. Ben Howland will produce a tough-minded team that will win games—he always does. But it’s a rebuilding year in Westwood.
Tomorrow we’ll take a look at some of the programs just below this group who stand poised to crack into the upper crust.