Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Way Too Early College Basketball Top 32 for 2012-13

While many "Way Too Early" Top 25s are posted the days after the national championship game, those are more for the shock factor and because there is still a need for college basketball coverage and the games have concluded.

The ideal time for a set of "Way Too Early" rankings is the eve of the NBA Draft (April 28 this year) but for the sake of not going a near month between college basketball stories, a week after college athletes are forced to keep their names in or pull their names out of the NBA Draft seems like the second-most logical time for a sneak peek to the 2012-13 season.

It should be noted that players who have not yet declared for the draft can do so at any time before April 28, so there obviously can still be changes. There are also dozens of high-level recruits who have yet to commit.


If the "Way Too Early" Top 32 is correct, Kansas' Bill Self will
be able to take the NCAA Championship trophy back to home
to Lawrence, Kansas, for the first time since 2008. (AP)


1. Kansas
Underestimate Bill Self and the Jayhawks once, shame on you. Underestimate the duo twice? Well, then you're an idiot. Kansas overachieved in 2011-12, which means things should only get better. I loved Thomas Robinson and he'll be sorely missed. I hated Tyshawn Taylor and, despite all the accolades thrown his way by his coach, his graduation will be a blessing for the Jayhawks. Is this a risky pick? Absolutely. But I'd be willing to wager a few potato chips that Kansas lasts longer in the 2013 NCAA Tournament than everyone else's sure-fire No.1 Indiana. A few new faces but similar dominant talent will keep the Rock-Chalk Jayhawks relevant for all of 2013. 

2. Kentucky
The  revolving-door Wildcats lose a lot (Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague, Darius Miller,  Doron Lamb and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) but don't think that means Coach Calipari is in for a measly 20-win season. Coach Cal can flat out run a team and get divas to play defense. That, coupled with gifted athletic abilities and limitless offense games, is a recipe for success. There is enough incoming talent to repeat as national champions but taking the field is more smarter. The names Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress, Nerlens Noel, NC State transfer Ryan Harrow (and possibly Anthony Bennett)  will be Fab Five-esque in the future. I can this 3-year stretch(2012-2014) of Kentucky basketball looking like the 1996-1998 years (championship, runner-up finish, championship).


3. Baylor
The Bears lose their heart and soul in Quincy Acy and Perry Jones III is heading to the NBA, but the rest of the core is intact. I believe Pierre Jackson is one of the best (read: Top 3) point guards in the country and Brady Heslip's ability as a Ray Allen-type 3-point shooter is deadly. Top-5 recruit Isaiah Austin will put the Bears in their first Final Four. 

4. UCLA
The Bruins are a tough team to gauge. This isn't just about a pair of Top 3 recruits (Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson); it's about a team that drastically underachieved in 2012 because of chemistry issues. With those resolved, I expect UCLA to mirror Michigan State's rise from the one-year-into-purgatory ashes from 2010-11 to 2011-12. Ben Howland can coach and ridding the program of excess baggage was difficult but it'll pay big dividens this season.

5. Memphis
At some point the Tigers will make a Butler-type run, right? Josh Pastner's squad is bound to pick up some big nonconference wins (the one thing missing from the 2011-12 resume that regulated Memphis to a No. 8 seed) and another blitzing through Conference USA - the last before heading to the Big East - should be enough to secure a Top 4 seed.  

6. Indiana
Listen, I really like Indiana. Tom Crean is one of my favorite coaches molded from the Tom Izzo coaching tree. But I even feel this is a tad high for Indiana. Why? The team plays no defense. None. Some will say to ignore the 102-90 Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky. Even if we do, Indiana still surrendered 89 points to Iowa and 82 points to Penn State. It Indiana wants to play like Loyola Marymount of the 1990s, that's fine, but it won't result in a Final Four or national title as many are projecting. The offense is lethal and Cody Zeller and Christian Watford both returning means IU won't miss a beat on offense. But until someone other than Victor Oladipo and Zeller play defense, this team just can't be in that Final Four discussion. 

7. Florida
The Gators have a little addition by subtraction in the case of Erving Walker. Bradley Beal's NBA departure will hurt, but that'll mean Mike Rosario, the former Rutgers transfer, will get his chance to shine. Throw in a more mature Patric Young and another solid recruiting class and Billy Donovan's gang will be sniffing the Final Four again. Only this time, expect a not-so-disappointing regular season.  

8. Michigan State
The Spartans lose do-it-all Draymond Green but this team will still be loaded for years to come. It's other departures are Brandon Wood (a fifth-year Valpo transfer) and Austin Thornton (a walk-on who worked his way into big minutes by knowing Tom Izzo's system and coming up big in key moments. If Branden Dawson gets healthy by midseason, this team will challenge for another Big Ten title. The recruiting class is loaded, led by Gary Harris. Two other Top 80 recruits (Denzel Valentine and Matt Costello) give MSU the depth it likes to have. If the injury bug stays away from East Lansing, this could be another Final Four year for Izzo & Co.


9. Arizona
Count me as one of the people who had the Wildcats peaking a year early. That won't happen again. This year's team will still have Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom returns from an injury. Like Kentucky this past season, Arizona will rely heavily on freshmen. Of course, it helps when all four recruits - Kaleb Tarczewski, Grant Jerrett, Brandon Ashley and Gabe York are ranked in the Top 50. It's easy to forget that while Arizona struggled most of the season it was just a Pac-12 Tournament Championship game win away from a spot in the Big Dance. I wouldn't be surprised if 2013 ended with one win away from an Elite Eight or even Final Four.


10. Louisville
The Cardinals will be good next year, but don't fall into the trap most already are: Because Louisville reached the 2012 Final Four it should reach it again (or go further) in 2013. The Cardinals beat one higher-ranked team (No. 1 seed MSU) in their Final Four run. The other wins - No. 13 Davidson, No. 5 New Mexico and No. 7 Florida. That isn't to say Louisville didn't earn a spot in the Final Four - it did - it's just that using one phenomenal defensive performance against Michigan State shouldn't be the blueprint for a 2013 projection. (In covering the Spartans, I can say that was the worst Izzo's team played all season. Yes, even worse than the 42-41 loss at Illinois). While Louisville's offense likely can't get any worse, especially from 3-point range, the defense can't possibly be much better. Like post-bracket expectations this season, it would be wise to expect Louisville to be in the 3-4-5 seed range with a ride to the Sweet 16 but no further.

11. Cincinnati
The Bearcats are a mix between Michigan State and Marquette; typically undersized, but quick, very athletic and great on the boards. I've been a Mick Cronin fan for a while, long before he became a folk hero for the way he handled the Cincinnati-Xavier crosstown brawl fiasco. While Yancy Gates leaving will be a big blow, the Bearcats still have one of the league's best backcourts in Jaquon Parker (a star in the making), Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright. It'll be interesting if Top 60 recruit Christopher Obekpa lands in a Cincy uniform. Rumors have him going to Providence, but Rivals has his only "high" interest schools as Cincinnati and St. John's. That 6-foot-8 center would really help fill Gates' void.




12. UNLV

The Runnin' Rebels will be Mike Moser's team again but Khem Birch will be a major player in how Vegas' season goes. Birch, if you've forgotten, was a Top 10 recruit who left Pitt after a few games. The shocking move set the stage for Pitt's fall from grace last year and UNLV's bright future. The 2013 version might not be as flashing as the 2012 team, but this one might be better.


13. Missouri

Without Alex Oriakhi the Tigers were a fringe Top 25 team; with him in the post this team could be really good once again. Not only will Michael Dixon and Phil Pressey need to pick up the slack left by the departing seniors Kim English, Marchs Denmon and Ricardo Ratliffe, but Laurence Bowers will have to play a key role after missing this past year with a knee injury. It will be very, very tough for the Tigers to duplicate last year's success from 3-point range -- the main reason they went 30-4 and were Big 12 Tournament Champions. The move to the SEC coupled with three impact transfers will make Missouri an interesting team to follow.

14. Texas
Call this a hunch. I don't see Rick Barnes' team being bubblicious for another year. Losing shoot-shoot-shoot guard J'Covan Brown will be a huge addition by subtraction. That, coupled with another stellar recruiting class (Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh are both Top 60 recruits) and the fact the 2012 Longhorns were one of the Big XII's youngest teams and 2013 will be sweeter. 


15. Duke
It would be foolish to doubt a Coach K team. It's sounding cliche, but Austin Rivers leaving will actually be better for Duke. Rivers was great in Duke's offense other than in creating his own shot and he didn't make teammates better. Oh, he also didn't play much defense. That was Duke's downside capped off with the shocking Round of 64 loss to 15th-seeded Lehigh. While it's not a monster recruiting class (Rasheed Sulaimon, ranked 18th at Rivals, is Duke's only Top 150 coup) the pieces are there for Duke to once again have a successful ACC season and find a way into March's second weekend. 

16. North Carolina
Lost in all this year's UNC hoopla was the fact the Tar Heels were down to their 4th-string point guard in the Sweet 16 win vs. Ohio and in the Elite Eight loss to Kansas. Losses of Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller will ultimately sting, but don't kid yourself; Roy Williams' teams are always loaded with talent. UNC will score and still be an ACC threat. But without good Ol' Roy's typical level of talent it would be a shock to expect great things from the most overrated coach in the country. 



17. NC State

How did this happen so fast? Is North Carolina State really the ACC favorite? Why not. North Carolina and Duke are taking on serious losses, and the Wolfpack overachieved under Mark Gottfried (and top assistant Bobby Lutz) to get to the Sweet 16. If the Wolfpack don't get too giddy about leaving (willC.J. Leslie remain?), they should be the favorite in the conference. Gottfried has one of the top recruiting classes in the country with Rodney Purvis, T.J. Warren and Tyler Lewis. So get ready, Raleigh. You might just have the ACC favorite.


18. Gonzaga
If there is one program these recent Final Four Cinderella runs by George Mason, Butler and VCU have made me feel sorry for it's Gonzaga. The Bulldogs were the original Cinderella, but the deepest tourney run was an Elite Eight in 1999 (Gonzaga lost 67-62 to eventual national champion UConn). That said, coaching plus continually talent makes Gonzaga a Top 25 mainstay. After a one-year hiatus, the Bulldogs should climb back to the top of the WCC thanks to uber-talented youngsters Gary Bell Jr., Kevin Pangos and Sam Dower.

19. Creighton
Sometimes one player makes a world of difference, especially in a mid-major conference. That's the deal with Creighton and Doug McDermott. Will the world have Dougie figured out in 2013? Possibly. But this will again be a deep team rolling through a down MVC. Anything less than a Top 7 NCAA seed would be a major surprise.

20. Ohio State
The Buckeyes will have a different look in 2013 but don't think Thad Matta's crew will fall off the face of the earth. Amir Williams had flashes of greatness and LaQuinton Ross, Sam Thompson and Shannon Scott are both Top 50 recruits who played sparingly last season. This will be a loaded team and, despite all the doubters, could still win the Big Ten. Deshaun Thomas staying was key and Lenzelle Smith Jr. will have to step up his game even more. The Buckeyes might need Aaron Craft to provide more offense, but this is still a 24-win team that'll be a tough out in March.

21. Minnesota
The Gophers are a major Big Ten sleeper. All five starters and nearly the entire bench returns for Tubby Smith. The NIT runner-ups have the experience of playing in the loaded conference this past season and are poised to finish games this time around. Lost in Minnesota's disappointing regular season was that the Gophers were a few minutes away from a NCAA berth if only they could have closed out a few games (see Michigan State, Iowa, Michigan). NIT wins at LaSalle, at Miami, at Middle Tennessee State and against Washington showed the true potential of this team. Expect to see much more of that Minnesota team next season.

22. San Diego State
One of the budding programs out west has been San Diego State. If you doubt Steve Fisher will have his guys playing great basketball out of November's gates you're nuts. A handful of BCS transfers plus a returning trio of Jamaal Franklin, Chase Tapley and James Rahon will have the Aztecs battling UNLV for Mountain West supremacy.

23. Kansas State
Bruce Weber takes over for Frank Martin, and it isn't a terrible time to head to Manhattan. I expect Rodney McGruder to take over a Draymond Green-like role for Weber, being his voice on the floor. (Note: I am not comparing McGruder to Green in any way, other than the on-floor leadership). The core of this team returns and while Kansas, Missouri and Texas will still be the class of the Big 12, there is no reason Kansas State shouldn't be No. 4.


24. Marquette
Most pundits always save a spot in their Top 25 for Wisconsin. While that's usually smart, there is one team that has been consistently better year in and year out -- and its in the same state: Marquette. The Golden Eagles play hard every night under Buzz Williams. Unless you're a Wisconsin fan - Marquette's biggest rival - how can you not like Marquette? (Okay, maybe West Virginia fans have a beef after Buzz's celebratory dance to "Take Me Home, Country Roads" after a victory this past year). It won't be easy in 2013 as Marquette loses its best two players in Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder but that seems to be the story every year and Marquette doesn't skip a beat. Despite being undersized, the athleticism and up-tempo style this team possesses will make it dangerous once again.

25. Pittsburgh
This past season was over before it began for Pitt. Despite the early-season success, Khem Birch's decision just seemed to send shock waves through the Panthers' team. Then the injury to Tray Woodall was the dagger. That said, Pitt won its first postseason championship in a while (we can celebrate the CBI title, right?) and that momentum should be nothing but positive for this season. Jamie Dixon always has his teams ready to play and, outside of last year's outlier, is always a beast in the Big East. Woodall's return along with Lamar Patterson's further development means Pittsburgh should approach that 25-win mark once again.

26. Michigan


Never underestimate what seniors mean to a team. Michigan loses two in Zack Novak and Stu Douglass that really helped the underclassmen the past three years. While Michigan has talent, the pieces aren't exactly what John Beilein wants for his 3-point shooting clinic. Trey Burke's decision to return is big and Tim Hardaway Jr. can be lethal when he wants. Add two stud recruits in Glenn Robinson Jr. and Mitch McGary and the Wolverines will have loads of talent. The issue will be 3-point shooting, which is something odd in Ann Arbor. That will be the problem that keeps Michigan from the Final Four aspirations many are projecting.

27. St. Louis


St. Louis' win over Memphis in the Round of 64 showed that despite lacking the athleticism of some big-time programs, the Billikens can win with defense. Kwamain Mitchell is a very good player that you probably haven't heard of while Dwayne Evans and Mike McCall are also names you should get familiar with. The Billikens should go head-to-head with Xavier and Temple for the A-10 crown.

28. Butler
Brad Stevens' team should be the Horizon League's best again in 2013. Ronald Nored leaving is big -- he's the last big-time player from the back-to-back NCAA Runner-up finish squads -- but Andrew Smith, Chase Stigall and Khyle Marshall all form a nice core. Add in Roosevelt Jones, a Top 125 recruit in 2011 and Kellen Dunham, a Top 100 recruit this year, and Butler should be back to wrecking defensive havoc on its conference and the country.


29. Wisconsin
I'm expecting big things from Top 20 recruit Sam Dekker. It isn't often Bo Ryan snags a player of that talented. Jordan Taylor's graduation create a huge point guard void. If Wisconsin can find a suitable replacement or a suitable PG committee another Top 4 Big Ten finish will be in the books. That said, I'm still expecting a year like 2008-09, where Wisconsin lost a lot, finished 20-13 with a 10-8 Big Ten record. That season, where Michigan State won the league by four games, Wisconsin finished in a 3-way tie for fourth. 

30. Syracuse

Don't be fooled by another hot start for the Orange this season. Syracuse loses more than meets the eye in Dion Waiters, Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph. There are enough pieces to continue Jim Boeheim's success - Michael Carter-Williams should be a stud and C.J. Fair should have more freedom to excel - but there is nowhere to go but down from a 34-3 season. 



31. Tennessee
Cuonzo Martin showed why he was a great hire for the Vols last season. By instilling the defense and toughness mantra in the SEC the Vols will be able to scrap wins against the big boys (Kentucky and Florida) more often than other teams who try and outscore the league's best (read: Vanderbilt). Despite not having any mega recruits, the roster seems to have enough names that some unknown should step up. (Seriously, how many players can be on a college basketball roster?) A healthy Jarnell Stokes will be key in Tennessee's climb back up the national ladder.

32. Maryland
I like the pieces Mark Turgeon has in place in College Park. Terrell Stoglin and Alex Len form one of the best inside-outside duos in the country. Couple that with Shaquille Cleare and Jake Layman - a pair of Top 70 recruits who'll play in the post - and there is no reason why Maryland shouldn't be next in the ACC pecking order after the Big Three (Duke, UNC, N.C. State).

OTHERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON:  Alabama, Villanova, Stanford, New Mexico, St. Mary's, Xavier, Iowa

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