Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Preseason Top 25: Kansas, UCLA, Indiana, MSU make up Final Four


Sometimes those "Way Too Early" rankings - like ours posted in early April - change drastically. There are some major changes but one thing is clear: Kansas is still the team to beat in the eyes of Deuce2Sports.


Kansas surprised many by reaching the title game
as a No. 2 seed last year (is that even possible?).
Could the Jayhawks be better in 2013? We think so. (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 when has going against Kansas worked out for you? 


2. 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 dividends this season. The only difference between this UCLA class and those recent John Calipari Kentucky groups is that Coach Cal gets a little more out of his players. That's why Howland comes up just short.


3. 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 can't win a national championship 100-99. (Or can it?) If the team can make major strides on the defensive end then the Final Four (and more) is a real possibility. 

4. 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.


5. 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.  


6. 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). But one thing is for sure: last year's group was special and not every Kentucky freshmen class is going to go 38-2. This one should be good but only Elite Eight good.


7. 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 could put the Bears in their first Final Four. 


8. 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 a spot in the Final Four.

9. 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 and decent spot in the bracket. 

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. 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. That said, the roster isn't exactly barren of talent. 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, it seems, which is something odd in Ann Arbor. That will be the problem that keeps Michigan from the Final Four aspirations many are projecting but it doesn't mean Michigan won't have its best season in more than a decade.


12. 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. One of these years I expect Cincinnati to reward Cronin for all his hard work.

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. 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. 


15. 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. 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.


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. 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.

18. 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.

19. 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.

20. 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.


21. 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. (In eight years in the Big Ten Bo Ryan has never finished lower than fourth in the conference). 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. But since the Big Ten will be spectacular this season a 10- or 11-win Big Ten team won't be as bad as the record might show.

22. 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. 


23. 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 and New Mexico for Mountain West supremacy.

24. 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 still look like the class of the Big 12 there is no reason Kansas State shouldn't be No. 4 and push to join that group.

T25. 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.

T25. 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.

Eight other teams to watch: Miami, St. Louis, Butler, New Mexico, Maryland, Alabama, St. Mary's, Iowa.

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