Taking a look at 2011's top contenders
In these impermanent times, college basketball seasons can be made or broken by what happens in the spring. Specifically, which players keep their names in the NBA draft, and which pull out.
North Carolina all but won the 2009 national title in spring 2008, when all its key components opted to return to school. Kansas firmed up a successful 2009-10 season last spring, when Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich decided to remain Jayhawks.
Speculation about next season started as soon as Gordon Hayward's shot bounced off the rim in Indianapolis on April 5. But only now do we have a fairly firm sense of who will be in uniform come Midnight Madness next October. (And even that remains open to late signings, grade situations and/or NCAA eligibility issues.)
This year's biggest two offseason winners are the top two in my list of 10 teams to watch in 2010-11, plus another baker's dozen that could make some major noise:
1. Purdue: Boilermakers fans had their hearts broken in February when Robbie Hummel blew out his knee, derailing a potential dream Final Four in nearby Indianapolis. But now maybe it's just a dream deferred a year. With JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore both pulling out of the draft and Hummel presumably mended by the fall, Purdue fans would be willing to make the longer commute to Houston if the need arises.
2. Duke: Kyle Singler's decision to return for his senior season puts the Blue Devils in prime contention for a repeat national title -- and Mike Krzyzewski knows a thing or two about repeating, having done it in 1991-92. If celebrated freshman guard Kyrie Irving can partially offset the loss of Jon Scheyer, and the two-headed Plumlee plan can do the same replacing Brian Zoubek, Duke should again dominate the ACC.
3. Michigan State: Let's get this out of the way now: The Spartans will struggle at various times next season. Accept that, and don't get off the bandwagon. Don't let it shake the belief that, no matter what, they'll make a push for the Final Four when all is said and done. To doubt Sparty is to ignore recent history under Tom Izzo.
4. Pittsburgh: The Panthers overachieved last season, winning 25 games with only a single senior playing a major role. Expect more next season from a program still trying to shatter the Elite Eight ceiling that has hovered above it in recent years. In a Big East that has lost a lot of sizzle, Pitt could be the clear preseason favorite.
5. Kansas: The Big 12 should once again be very good at the top next season. And even after losing three of its top four scorers, Kansas might be the best of the bunch. The Jayhawks return five key players from a 33-victory team that dominated the league, plus have some returning talent that couldn't break into the rotation last season. And then there's the addition of freshman stud Josh Selby to the mix.
6. Kansas State: If the Jayhawks stumble, the boys from Manhattan will be poised to overtake them. K-State lost high-energy guard Denis Clemente, but return backcourt mate Jacob Pullen plus a very athletic frontcourt. And Frank Martin will again be working the sideline -- which is a good thing for the Wildcats, if they can handle his liquefying death stare.
7. Washington: Even after losing leading scorer Quincy Pondexter, the Huskies could be a signed letter of intent from vacillating Terrence Jones away from a breakthrough into the top 10. They return plenty of experience and talent and appear poised to dominate a Pac-10 that still is in regroup mode.
8. Ohio State: It's dangerous to presume that the Buckeyes will scarcely miss a beat after losing the best college basketball player of last season. But the recruiting class is sensational, and maybe this year Thad Matta will commit to playing more than six guys.
9. Florida: The Gators were well behind Kentucky and Tennessee in the SEC East pecking order last season, but they return an entire starting five of double-figure scorers while the Wildcats and Volunteers have experienced significant personnel losses. It might be time for Billy Donovan to reassert himself after three lean seasons.
10. Villanova: This requires a leap of faith, trusting that the Wildcats will not resemble the dysfunctional group that finished last season on a 3-6 slide. Scottie Reynolds was a very good player for Nova, and it would not have made the 2009 Final Four without him -- but this team might experience some addition by his subtraction if a few younger players step up and toughen up.
The next flight, in alphabetical order:
Baylor: The Bears will be a Big 12 force again, but it says here they will miss point guard and alpha-male leader Tweety Carter more than you think.
Butler: No team took a tougher draft hit than the Bulldogs, who would have been a cinch top-three pick if Hayward had returned for his junior season. This will still be a very good team without him, but probably not Final Four good.
Illinois: The Illini benefited from Demetri McCamey and Mike Davis returning to school and will have their most experienced team since the 2005 national runners-up. Bruce Weber hasn't won an NCAA tournament game since '06, and don't think Illinois fans aren't aware of that.
Kentucky: These young-and-talented Wildcats will resemble last season's young-and-talented Wildcats, with a couple of major distinctions. One, the freshman studs aren't as good. Two, there is no veteran star like Patrick Patterson this time around.
Memphis: Another team that will go as far as its flush freshman class will carry it. For the Tigers, that means a lot farther than last season -- but not as far as during John Calipari's big run from 2006-09.
Missouri: Mike Anderson has established the Tigers as an annual contender in the Big 12, and now he's bringing his best recruiting class yet to Columbia. The oppressive double-teams are only beginning for Mizzou opponents.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels add hugely touted freshman Harrison Barnes and will be better. Good enough to make the NCAA tournament and re-enter the Top 25, in fact. But it's a long way from the NIT final to the Final Four, and this team probably isn't ready for that leap.
Saint Louis: Speaking of big jumps -- the Billikens are the Reach of the Year here. But they did win 23 games last season and return every player from that team. Add in some Majerus magic, and you have been warned not to sleep on SLU.
San Diego State: This is another team that had a fine season with a young nucleus that returns intact. The Aztecs won the Mountain West Conference tournament to make the NCAAs and should be even better this time around.
Syracuse: Plug mountainous freshman Fab Melo into Orinze Onuaku's spot in the middle of the Orange's 2-3 zone. Hand off some of Wesley Johnson's scoring to last season's sixth man, Kris Joseph. Figure that several shooters can pick up the slack left by Andy Rautins. And don't disregard Syracuse the way we all did going into last season.
Temple: Lavoy Allen's return to school solidifies the Owls as a preseason top-25 team -- perhaps one good enough to finally get Fran Dunphy an NCAA tourney victory.
Tennessee: If Scotty Hopson takes another step forward and some talented freshmen live up to their hype, the Volunteers could be a top-10 team. Until those questions are answered, they're a top-25 team.
Virginia Tech: The Hokies actually might avoid putting coach Seth Greenberg through bubble misery next March. I'm not sure what we'll do in the media without another season of "Watch Seth Sweat Out Selection Sunday," but he should appreciate the reprieve. If this experienced team performs to its capabilities, the Hokies will lock up a bid with weeks to spare.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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