INDIANAPOLIS — After all Duke’s photo opportunities had been exhausted, the national championship trophy was placed, oddly, on top of a garbage can in the Blue Devils’ locker room. Reporters surrounded Jon Scheyer and Brian Zoubek, two stars whose careers were officially over; and they were packed around Kyle Singler, a star who may use his Final Four Most Outstanding Player award as a springboard into the first round of the NBA draft. The one Dukie not wearing a jersey sat alone in a back corner of the locker room, smiling, but detached from the scene.
Seth Curry was wearing dress clothes, sitting out the final game of his transfer year after leaving Liberty for Duke last March. Stephen’s gunner of a younger brother (he averaged 20.2 points for the Flames as a freshman and was a key member of the U.S. Under-19 gold-medal team last summer) took his visit to Durham on the day after the Blue Devils suffered a 23-point loss to Villanova in the Sweet 16. “The mood there was pretty somber,” he said. “Their goal is to get to the Final Four every year. I wouldn’t say they were panicking, but the situation wasn’t good.”
Curry spent this season battling in practice with Scheyer and junior guard Nolan Smith — and watched them rebound from that ’09 tourney embarrassment to win Duke’s fourth national title under Coach K, and first since 2002. Now it’ll be Curry’s turn to chase a title of his own, as he joins a backcourt so loaded — with Smith, incoming five-star point guard Kyrie Irving, and sophomore-to-be shooting guard Andre Dawkins — that it makes the Blue Devils an easy pick as SI’s way-too-early preseason No. 1 for 2010-11.
Smith, despite having a stellar NCAA tournament, gave no serious thought to testing the NBA draft. He didn’t want to miss out on what comes next in Durham. “This squad coming in could be something special,” he said. “Back-to-back championships could be in our future.”
The lineup of challengers for the ’10-11 national title looks like this:
(For the sake of more realistic rankings, I’m assuming that Baylor’s Ekpe Udoh; Georgetown’s Greg Monroe; Georgia Tech’s Derrick Favors; Kansas’ Cole Aldrich and Xavier Henry; Kentucky’s Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton and John Wall; North Carolina’s Ed Davis; Ohio State’s Evan Turner; Oklahoma State’s James Anderson; Syracuse’s Wes Johnson; West Virginia’s Devin Ebanks and Xavier’s Jordan Crawford all turn pro. And I’m not making any assumptions about unsigned recruits, such as Brandon Knight or Josh Selby.)
1. DUKE: The Blue Devils are here for the backcourt-related reasons stated above, and the breakout year I expect from sophomore Mason Plumlee, who missed time this season with a broken wrist.
2. MICHIGAN STATE: Point forward Draymond Green and shooting guard Durrell Summers are on the verge of becoming national stars. The Spartans will bring in five-star freshman 6-foot-10 center Adreian Payne.
3. BUTLER: The Bulldogs lose stopper Willie Veasley, but if they can keep coach Brad Stevens (who’ll surely receive big-time job offers) and Gordon Hayward (who’s considering the NBA draft), they’ll be called a powerhouse, not a mid-major.
4. KANSAS STATE: The Beard is back: Jacob Pullen will be the marquee guard in the Big 12. He and the Wildcats’ glass-crashers — Curtis Kelly, Wally Judge and Jamar Samuels, as well as 6-11 juco transfer Freddy Asprilla — will keep the Octagon rocking.
5. PURDUE: The Boilermakers lose Keaton Grant and Chris Kramer, but a healed Robbie Hummel (torn ACL), along with 6-10 JaJuan Johnson and guards E’Twaun Moore and Lewis Jackson, could help Purdue finally break through to the Final Four.
6. VILLANOVA: Sophomore point guard Maalik Wayns is primed for breakout stardom in Scottie Reynolds’ absence, and center Mouphtaou Yarou, who missed part of his freshman year due to hepatitis B, should make huge gains in his first full season.
7. PITTSBURGH: The Panthers were Big East contenders a year ahead of schedule, tying for second in the league. Junior guard Ashton Gibbs is one of the nation’s most underrated scorers — he shot 44.4 percent on threes during Big East play in ’09-10 — and on the verge of becoming a national name.
8. OHIO STATE: The Buckeyes are sure to lose Evan Turner, but they’re bringing in Rivals.com’s No. 2-rated recruiting class, which includes homegrown center Jared Sullinger and power forward Deshaun Thomas, to join senior wings David Lighty and Jon Diebler, as well as William Buford.
9. BRIGHAM YOUNG: If shooting guard Jimmer Fredette rejoins Michael Loyd Jr. in the backcourt after testing the NBA draft waters, BYU will be the best team west of the Rockies for the second straight season, and a sleeper pick for the Final Four.
10. TEMPLE: With Maryland’s Greivis Vasquez (Venezuela) out of the picture, Owls star Juan Fernandez is the best South American in college hoops. But will he continue to score as efficiently (12.6 ppg. 45.3 percent on threes) after moving from shooting guard to the point as a junior?
The Next 15:
13. NORTH CAROLINA
14. OLD DOMINION
25. MURRAY STATE