Wild ride could continue next season
The shot should have gone in.
Gordon Hayward's buzzer-beater in the national championship game should have been a swish, not a back-of-the-rim bounce off.
(And before my e-mail inbox runneth over, that isn't because Duke didn't deserve to win or because I am a Duke hater.)
The shot should have gone in because a half-court, one-footed jumper by an Opie-looking future NBAer from a mid-major school that plays in the gym used for "Hoosiers" would have been the exact right way for a crazy college basketball season to end.
In a year when teams played hot potato with the No. 1 ranking, when the Longhorns made a Texas-sized slide from the top, when Ali Farokhmanesh became a household name by taking and making a shot that went against every basketball tenet, when brackets were busted 24 hours into the NCAA tournament, how better to finish an unexpected season than with the most unexpected shot?
Yet, as unpredictable as this season was, college hoops fans might want to strap in for another roller coaster season to come.
The NBA vulture has come in and plucked away the college game's biggest names and stars, leaving a start-over college carcass in its wake.
All 15 of The Associated Press All-America team members are gone, seven to graduation, eight to early entry.
Six of the seven All-SEC selections will no longer be in college uniforms, as well as all five of the All-Big East choices.
And in the Big 12, Kansas State's Jacob Pullen is the only guy with a chance to be a repeat selection, while the conference's all-rookie team has been slashed and dashed to pieces, as four of the five freshmen are on to greener pastures.
We don't blame any of them, but we can wonder:
• What if Hayward came back and Butler entered the season as a favorite to win a national title?
• What if Paul Hewitt actually was given the chance to coach sophomores?
Instead we are left with the season of Hello, My Name Is, where future stars will have to introduce themselves and the preseason Top 25 will have all the accuracy of Mr. Magoo playing darts.
That makes the business of predicting and prognosticating tricky, but it is not necessarily a bad thing, at least if you're like me and you prefer a little cayenne pepper tossed on an otherwise bland diet of meat and potatoes.
Two seasons ago, the college basketball season had all the sizzle of a senior citizen prom, as North Carolina's coronation was just a matter of waiting out the calendar.
This past year? Out of 4.78 million brackets entered in ESPN's Tournament Challenge, no one -- as in zero, zip, nada -- had a perfect bracket by the end of the first weekend.
Next year we could be in for more of the delightfully topsy-turvy same.
Here's what we know for sure: Defending champion Duke, thanks to the return of Kyle Singler and the addition of Kyrie Irving, will be really good. Ditto Purdue, with a healthy Robbie Hummel plus JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore back in the fold.
After that there is a hodgepodge of teams worthy of mention in the top 10 and top 25, but the pecking order is debatable, contingent on returning players growing into starring roles and freshmen living up to expectations.
But more than anything, turnover is what sets the tone for next season. It's everywhere, or almost everywhere. The SEC loses 10 underclassmen and the Big 12 nine. Seven bolt the Big East while six ditch the ACC. Take five out of Conference USA and the WAC.
Only the Pac-10 remains unscathed, with nary a player tossing his name in early. Of course, after the league's disastrous season, that isn't surprising.
The only other conference not redoing all of its game jerseys is the Big Ten. Only two underclassmen from Jim Delany's crews have declared for the NBA -- Evan Turner and Manny Harris. Replacing the irreplaceable Turner will be impossible, but unlike the Pac-10, the Big Ten has a foundation on which to build. There are good players returning -- Hummel and Co., Kalin Lucas Demetri McCamey -- and better players being added, including Jared Sullinger at Ohio State.
With the rest of college basketball spinning on its axis, the Big Ten stands on fairly firm footing.
That's why almost every (way too early) preseason top 25 has a big Big Ten flavor. My colleagues, Andy Katz and Pat Forde, both have Purdue, Michigan State and Ohio State ranked in their top eight.
And now for the caveat: Last year was supposed to be the year of the Big Ten, the season when the middling teams rose up to make the conference tough top to bottom.
Instead Michigan fell apart, Northwestern fell victim to injuries and Penn State, on the heels of its NIT title, reverted to disastrous form while Purdue, left for dead after Hummel's injury, went to the Sweet 16 and inconsistent Michigan State found its groove in time for another Final Four run.
In other words, the Big Ten followed the 2009-10 script of unpredictability perfectly.
And all signs point to more wonderfully chaotic instability this year as well.
Maybe even with a half-court buzzer-beater as the exclamation point.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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