- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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The decisions of a number of key freshmen to return to school should make the race for the 2012 national championship come down to the two winningest programs in NCAA history.
Or maybe not.
If this season proved anything to us, it's that projecting who will be in the Final Four, let alone the national title game, is hardly an exact science. The one-game elimination setup of the NCAA tournament provides for plenty of upsets. The chalk favorites have an advantage, but no guarantees.
Who would have predicted VCU, which finished behind Hofstra in the Colonial Athletic Association, would go on a five-game NCAA tournament run to the Final Four. How could anyone think Connecticut, which finished ninth in the Big East, would go on to win 11 straight games from the opening tip of the Big East tournament?
This annual exercise is not about looking at the field of 68. Instead, this is the best guess at who has the best chance to be successful next season at this juncture after the NBA draft's early-entry deadline.
There's one given: After the top three teams, the rest of the top 25 and beyond is open up for debate.
1. North Carolina
The Tar Heels return a foursome of players that will be hard to match by any other team, save Kentucky, with Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Kendall Marshall. Adding James McAdoo and P.J. Hairston to an already-deep roster makes the Tar Heels a loaded crew for next season. UNC coach Roy Williams is in a position to win his third national championship since 2005, which would tie him with UConn's Jim Calhoun and behind only Mike Krzyzewski of Duke on the active title list.
The Wildcats lost Brandon Knight and DeAndre Liggins, but return Terrence Jones. Losing Knight was somewhat expected since he's in the top 10 in the draft. But the Wildcats still have a core group with Darius Miller returning and the top recruiting class in the country, led by Anthony Davis, Michael Gilchrist and Knight's replacement, Marquis Teague.
3. Ohio State
The Buckeyes have the best big man returning in Jared Sullinger; an outstanding point guard in Aaron Craft; a super wing in William Buford; and another stellar recruiting class led by a pair of McDonald's All-Americans in guard Shannon Scott and center Amir Williams. Ohio State is once again the favorite to win the Big Ten.
The Orange suddenly look like the best team in the Big East with their only significant departure being Rick Jackson. Syracuse didn't get bit by the early-entry bug, as Kris Joseph stayed put. The backcourt of Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche will be the most experienced in the Big East. Adding McDonald's All-American center Rakeem Christmas and shooting guard Michael Carter-Williams make the Orange even stronger in 2012.
The Blue Devils knew they were losing Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, and Kyrie Irving's departure wasn't a shock. Austin Rivers comes in ready to take the spotlight next to Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry. Quinn Cook will also step in and play major minutes; so, too, will small forward Michael Gbinije and likely Marshall Plumlee, who will be joining his brothers, Mason and Miles. Much like Kentucky, Duke will rely heavily on freshmen.
The national champs lost their MVP, Kemba Walker, but Jeremy Lamb didn't take the NBA bait. His return means the Huskies have a solid core of players who have as much experience as any other squad. Shabazz Napier can emerge as a big-time point guard, Lamb as an All-American and Alex Oriakhi an anchor inside.
Vandy could have taken a major hit from early entrants, a rarity for the Commodores. But everyone stayed put, meaning they should be the second-best team in the SEC at the start of the season and certainly have the experience and talent to win the league. The returning trio of Jeffery Taylor, John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli should be a tough matchup for any opposing team in the league, save Kentucky. Adding a strong recruiting class led by shooting guard Dai-Jon Parker means the Dores could be a top-10 team from the outset. Now can they take the next step and win in the postseason?
The Tigers won the Conference USA tournament and gave Arizona fits in the NCAA tournament. Memphis returns nearly its entire team, led by Will Barton, Joe Jackson, Tarik Black and Wesley Witherspoon. Adding top-10 recruit Adonis Thomas to the mix means Memphis will be even deeper. The Tigers got a taste of the NCAAs last season but had to win the C-USA tournament to ensure a bid. They shouldn't have to sweat as much next season.
Terrence Jennings surprised most by staying in the NBA draft, but the Cardinals won't sneak up on anybody next season as they did this past one. Louisville will once again be a tough out and a team that should be a top-four Big East contender throughout the season. Kyle Kuric will be joined by newcomers Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan to bolster an already Rick Pitino-esque lineup.
Sean Miller turned down Maryland to stay in Tucson for the foreseeable future. That ensures the Wildcats won't have to go through a transitional period for the third time in four seasons. Arizona lost Derrick Williams to the NBA draft, but the Wildcats are still deep with Lamont Jones, Kyle Fogg, Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom and a stellar recruiting class, led by top guards Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson. Arizona enters the new Pac-12 as the team to beat.
The Badgers should enter the preseason as the second-best team in the Big Ten with the return of Jordan Taylor. If you're not savvy to Taylor, you're missing out on one of the hottest hands in college basketball. Taylor can rack up points in bunches and has the ability to lead the Badgers to a possible top-two finish in the league and a deep run in March. Jon Leuer is gone, which means Mike Bruesewitz will be in the spotlight from the opening tip.
The Gators got hit hard, as Vernon Macklin, Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus used up their eligibility. But the trio of guards in Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton and Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario gives the Gators three of the most experienced players in the country. The addition of highly touted freshman Bradley Beal at the 3, to go along with the continued development of sophomore Patric Young should keep the Gators among the SEC's elite.
The Golden Eagles were a surprise Sweet 16 team out of the Big East, but they shouldn't sneak up on anyone in 2012. Marquette brings back a number of key players, led by Darius Johnson-Odom, Jae Crowder and Vander Blue, who make it a Big East title contender. The highlight of the recruiting class is projected to be small forward Juan Anderson. And of course, the Eagles are guaranteed to play hard under Buzz Williams yet again.
The Crimson Tide felt like they got snubbed from the Big Dance after winning 12 games in the SEC, but did reach the NIT title game, losing to Wichita State. The core of that team returns and should be able to put together the necessary resume to be an NCAA tournament team this season. JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell give Anthony Grant a 1-2 punch that will be the best in the SEC West. This team will defend, and if it can win some games in November and December, it can be a player nationally.
The Musketeers didn't lose coach Chris Mack to NC State or Tennessee or any other suitor. That, coupled by Tu Holloway's decision to return to school, ensures they will once again be a dominating presence in the Atlantic 10. Few players will dominate the ball as well as Holloway next season.
The Bears had the surprise news of the spring when Perry Jones III decided to accept his five-game penalty to begin next season (he already served one game, sitting out the first game of the Big 12 tournament) and return to Baylor. Jones would have been a lottery pick; he'll return alongside Quincy Acy to anchor a team that will have plenty of young pop with incoming freshmen Quincy Miller and Deuce Bello on board.
Ashton Gibbs came to his senses and decided to return to school, giving the Panthers a core group of returnees, with Nasir Robinson, Dante Taylor, Talib Zanna and Travon Woodall. That's more than enough for the Panthers to be a major factor in the Big East and beyond. Adding a McDonald's All-American center in Khem Birch just adds to the depth in the post.
The Jayhawks took a major hit with the departure of Josh Selby and Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff, to the NBA draft. But never fear. The Jayhawks always recruit well and landed forward Ben McLemore. Having Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson back to anchor the team means the Jayhawks will ultimately be fine once again.
The Bearcats were a surprise latecomer last season, making the NCAA tournament and winning a game while there. Mick Cronin got a new deal and all seems good again at UC. It should get even better next season with the return of Yancy Gates, Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick to anchor this crew.
20. Texas A&M
The Aggies got great news Sunday with the return of David Loubeau; they also have Dash Harris and new star Khris Middleton back for another go at challenging for the Big 12 title. The key now will be if coach Mark Turgeon doesn't get plucked away by Maryland. If Turgeon is back on board, the Aggies are a real threat to win the Big 12.
21. Florida State
The Seminoles lost Chris Singleton and Derwin Kitchen off a Sweet 16 team, but the Noles were fine without (or with a limited) Singleton late and Kitchen had a tendency to be erratic. The rest of the team returns, with Michael Snaer and Ian Miller expected to take on even larger roles. The addition of newcomers Aaron Thomas and Antwan Space gives the Seminoles even more depth. Florida State will defend as always, but don't be surprised if this team can score more easily next season.
Mike Anderson had to leave Missouri once the Arkansas job was open. The Tigers turned to Purdue's Matt Painter first before landing Frank Haith of Miami. Haith has a great opportunity to challenge for the Big 12 title with a senior-laden team. Kim English and Laurence Bowers came to their senses and returned to school. Ricardo Ratliffe and Phil and Matt Pressey are also on board for another run at a possible conference championship.
The Wolverines would have been much higher but took a hit when Darius Morris unexpectedly decided to stay in the draft. Tim Hardaway Jr., is back; so, too, are Jordan Morgan, Zack Novak, Stu Douglass, Jon Horford and Matt Vogrich. Michigan will tussle with Wisconsin behind Ohio State in the Big Ten. But losing Morris takes a creator off the floor.
24. George Mason
The Patriots lost their coach, Jim Larranaga, but replaced him with an experienced coach in Paul Hewitt, who has to ensure that the core of the roster stays together if the Patriots are going to be a top-25 team. Assuming everyone returns, there's no reason to believe this team won't be just as good as it was last season.
The defending WCC champs lose only two players: Steven Gray and Demetri Goodson, who is off to Texas A&M to play football. The rest of this team returns and it should be one of the best in the West again, with Elias Harris, Sam Dower, Marquise Carter and David Stockton as the core. It will be joined by a recruiting class that Mark Few said he believes could be one of the best he's had, with Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos arriving to form the backcourt of the present and future.
Others to consider: Texas, Butler, Michigan State, California, Wichita State, New Mexico, UCLA, West Virginia, Purdue, Temple, Villanova, Washington, Miami and Virginia.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.