No single play of last season was more electrifying than Scottie Reynold's length-of-the-floor drive in the East Regional final that enabled Villanova to upset Pitt at the buzzer and go to the Final Four. Coming off that run, 'Nova is primed and back for more. They weren't in yesterday's discussion, because that was reserved for programs who have reached high levels year after year after year. But Villanova will be better than a lot of those teams this year, and they lead up the dark horse candidates to win it all.
Reynolds is back in the fold and the leader of an outstanding backcourt, where he's joined with Reggie Redding, who can crash the boards at 6-6. He's got another quality swingman in Taylor King, a sophomore who got lost in the numbers shuffle at Duke and transferred, but was a high-school All-American. The key loss to overcome will be Dante Cunningham, who took up space in the paint. If Antonio Pena can fill the void, the Wildcats are a national championship possibility. If he can't, they'll have to settle for just being a very nice team who will be top three in the Big East.
Other candidates to break into the upper crust include...
*West Virginia--A very good frontcourt. No true center, but three solid power-forward types, led up by De'Sean Butler. The problem will be at point guard. If they can get a quarterback, they'll be excellent. And any Bob Huggins team will be well-coached, play hard and play tough defense.
*Purdue--Matt Painter's been quietly stockpiling good recruiting classes, as he supersedes his rival to the south as the top program in the state in the post-Knight era. Point guard E'Twaun Moore can run the floor and score. JaJuan Johnson can block shots and score inside. Robbie Hummell can go inside or out at forward. This team has no real weaknesses.
*Maryland--Greivis Vazquez withdrew his name from the NBA draft, and with it made Maryland a contender. Four starters are back from a team that closed strong and made the NCAA Tournament. It's not quite at the level of the 2001-02 Terps that won an ACC crown, went to two Final Fours and took the whole thing in '02, but Gary Williams is on his way out of the wilderness.
*Cal--The Golden Bears have top-flight point guard in little Jerome Randle and good scores with Jamal Boykin and Theo Robertson. Overall, four starters back. Mike Montgomery is in his second year as head coach here, after having turned archrival Stanford into a national power. After a rough two-year stint in the NBA, he's where he belongs in the college game, and there's reason to think he won't have more big success in Berkeley.
*Dayton--The Flyers won 27 games and made the second round in March. All the key pieces are back this time around.
*Butler--Another strong midmajor program with four starters back. The Bulldogs are still young, with three sophomores projected to start, but they are talented, as evidenced by the fact all three started last year. Maintaining the competition level in the Horizon League will be the main obstacle to an NCAA run.
Starting Thursday, we'll pick up with look-ins at each conference.