Now that the 2011 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is over and UConn has been crowned champion it’s time to do what is always done after a team wins it all, focus on the teams that have a legit shot to win the title next season. It’s obviously early on and there is no telling which underclassmen will declare for the 2011 NBA Draft and which ones will return to their potential alma mater but it sure does seem like it’s right on time. Even though every year there are underdogs that emerge from nowhere to make college basketball’s championship round, I still think there are four elite teams that will reach the 2012 Final Four and here they are.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Big men Tyler Zeller and John Henson have both decided to return to UNC now it’s just up to Harrison Barnes to rejoin this party and watch this trio along with Kendall Marshall and Roy Williams dance all the way to next year’s Final Four. This team made a nice run to the Elite Eight in the 2011 dance where they fell short to Kentucky; but it could be the building blocks for a possible Final Four and/or national title run.
As usual the Tar Heels have major talent coming into the season with the expected arrivals of PF James McAdoo (nephew of NBA great Bob McAdoo and is ranked 8th on the Rivals.com Top 150) and SG P.J. Hairston (ranked 14th on the Rivals.com Top 150). McAdoo and Hairston will provide tremendous depth off of the bench (something which UNC lacked this year) and should take a little of the offensive load off Barnes (possibly) and Zeller. Expect Carolina to make a strong run in the 2012 NCAA Tournament and don’t be surprised if the Heels are cutting down the nets at the end of it all.
It’s almost a definite that the Kentucky Wildcats make a return trip to the Final Four next season with or without their star freshmen from this past year Terrance Jones and Brandon Knight. Maybe one will stay, maybe both will but either way or even if neither stay the Wildcats still should have Doron Lamb, DeAndre Liggins and Jon Hood returning to go with another spectacular John Calipari recruiting class.
Kentucky has three of the top six recruits (according to the Rivals.com Top 150) heading their way in for the 2011-12 season in the form of PG Marquis Teague (2nd), SF Mike Gilchrist (3rd) and PF Anthony Davis (6th). Teague, Davis and Gilchrist along with PF Kyle Wiltjer (25th on the rivals.com Top 150) should provide all the fire power needed to replace or add to what they may or may not lose to the NBA Draft. Could you imagine if everyone stays and all these guys play together? It would be a fantasy meeting them and the Heels in either the National Semifinal or Final game.
Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes are losing plenty in terms of veteran leadership with the departure of seniors David Lighty and Jon Diebler but the fact that their all-world freshman power forward Jared Sullinger is returning for his sophomore year means everything to this program. If junior swingman William Bufford returns for his senior season then he, Sullinger and Deashaun Thomas should be able to lead OSU even further than they went in the dance last season.
Ohio State doesn’t have the strongest recruiting class coming to Columbus this upcoming year but it is still a formidable one. Forward Sam Thompson (46th on the Rivals.com Top 150), forward LaQuinton Ross (53rd on the Rivals.com Top 150) and point guard Shannon Scott (65th on the Rivals.com Top 150) are the headliners of this solid group of prospects. Thad Motta will have his hands full attempting to get this team to gel and replace the seniors lost, but if there’s a guy who can do it with a young squad it’s him.
St. John’s Red Storm
The St. John’s Red Storm are the surprise pick here especially since they are losing basically everything they had which earned them their first NCAA tourney appearance in almost a decade. Seniors and the Red Storm’s top five scorers Dwight Hardy, Justin Brownlee, D.J. Kennedy, Parris Horne and Justin Burrell are all departing and that will leave the Red Storm lacking leadership and depth. Dwayne Polee Jr. (team’s highest leading returning scorer 4.4 PPG) must take a much bigger role on this team and lead a group of top recruits to the promise land.
Steve Lavin has really showed exactly what he is made of on the recruiting trail by assembling possibly the second best class of players in the nation. They are deep, athletic and very talented players who could take this once proud program from the doorstep of greatness to back amongst the elite. They have five players in the top 51 of the Rivals.com Top 150 including C Norvel Pelle (19th), SG D’Angelo Harrison (41st) along with forwards Jakarr Sampson (44th), Maurice Harkless (45th) and Amir Garrett (51st) coming to the Big Apple which means they will be very good. Not to mention a scoring machine in the form of JUCO transfer Nurideen Lindsey who should do more than fill the void for some of the buckets that they have lost. The Red Storm could easily be one of the Final Four contestants in New Orleans come next April.
Others to look out for: the Kansas Jayhawks, Duke Blue Devils, Syracuse Orange, Louisville Cardinals and Florida Gators.
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