HOUSTON — By the time Kemba Walker had finished cutting down one of the nets at Reliant Stadium on Monday night, his UConn teammates were gone. They’d vacated that end of the court, on orders to return to the risers to watch One Shining Moment. That left Walker, the last man up the ladder, alone at the moment of his descent.
It was fitting, in a way, because the Huskies will be forced to move on without the junior guard responsible for carrying them to these heights. On May 8, his 21st birthday, Walker is set to graduate from UConn in three years with a sociology degree, and on June 23, he’s likely to be selected in the lottery of the NBA draft. Walker would not say definitively that he was done with college, but did say, “I think I’m ready” for the pros. And his sophomore teammate Alex Oriakhi seemed to be operating under the assumption that Walker was gone, because when asked a question about next year’s team, the first thing he said was, “Well, Kemba won’t be here, but …”
While Kemba won’t be here, the Huskies still have a solid core coming back in Oriakhi and their three freshmen starters from the title run, Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith. They’re worthy of being ranked in preseason polls, and not just to make up for the fact they were ignored in those polls last October. While Kemba won’t be here, the college basketball nation could be retaining a surprising amount of talent. First-team All-America freshman Jared Sullinger has already vowed to be back at Ohio State, and junior shooting guard William Buford may pass on the draft as well. Thomas Robinson could stick out another year at Kansas to be a featured big man and raise his draft stock. Projected lottery pick Harrison Barnes is rumored to be staying at North Carolina, to fulfill unmet goals — particularly winning a national title. He may convince other key Tar Heels to stick with him, and if so, they could be making an appearance on the season’s last Monday night in 2012.
Before Butler took the court for this year’s title game, its leader, Ronald Nored, told the team in the huddle: “This is our last time playing together. All 14 of us, it’s our last time. Let’s prove to everyone and ourselves, that we’re the best 14 people together in the whole country.”
Which team will be in that huddle next year, in a tunnel at the Superdome in New Orleans? Who will be last 13, 14 or 15 guys standing in 2012? Before the Tourney Blog makes its mad dash to catch a flight out of Houston, here’s our way-too-early look at next season’s top 32. A full, Power Rankings-style version will come after the deadline to withdraw from the NBA draft in May; consider this an appetizer to tide you over — or infuriate you — until then.
(Written assuming UConn’s Walker, Arizona’s Derrick Williams, Duke’s Kyrie Irving, Kansas’ Morris twins and Josh Selby, Kentucky’s Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight, and Texas’ Jordan Hamilton and Tristan Thompson all turn pro early.)
1. North Carolina: If the Tar Heels pull off the coup of keeping first-round picks Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller in school for an extra year, they’ll have the country’s most talented starting five, and be the clear national title favorite.
2. Ohio State: The Buckeyes will once again be built around the beastly, back-to-basket game of All-America power forward Jared Sullinger, but look for fellow sophomore Deshaun Thomas to put up big offensive numbers in a starting frontcourt role.
3. Duke: Freshman combo guard Austin Rivers, Rivals.com’s No. 1 overall recruit and a son of Celtics coach Doc, is an electric scorer with expansive range. He, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins should form the country’s sweetest-shooting backcourt.
4. Syracuse: The Orange lack a transcendent star, but they have enough experience (in the upperclassmen 1-2-3 punch of Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Kris Joseph) and depth to win the Big East and make a run at the Final Four.
5. Kentucky: The next wave at One-and-Done U is headlined by the Class of 2011′s No. 1 point guard (Marquis Teague) and No. 1 small forward (Mike Gilchrist). They’ll join returnees Darius Miller and Doron Lamb in a stacked starting lineup.
6. Kansas: Thomas Robinson, the nation’s most productive backup big man in ’10-11, is the key: If he holds off on the NBA, the Jayhawks can still win the Big 12. Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford, who have bided their time in the backcourt rotation behind more veteran guards, are capable of breakout seasons.
7. Florida: Billy Donovan has a backcourt bumper crop, with Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton set to be joined by Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario and super-frosh Brad Beal. The big questions: Are there enough shots to go around for four scoring-minded guards, and are the Gators strong enough in the frontcourt to contend with Kentucky in the SEC?
8. Butler: The Bulldogs will remain powerful if Shelvin Mack passes on the draft after testing the waters. Khyle Marshall’s NCAA tournament success suggests he could be their next frontcourt star, and Chrishawn Hopkins is the future of their backcourt. It just seems unwise, at this juncture, to leave a Brad Stevens team out of the top 10.
9. Pittsburgh: Reasons to remain bullish on the Panthers despite key senior departures: Ashton Gibbs, who’s unlikely to remain in the draft, is the Big East’s most efficient scoring guard, and forwards Dante Taylor and Talib Zanna — both big-time offensive rebounders off the bench — are primed for breakout seasons.
10. Wisconsin: Jordan Taylor, who had a 3.83-to-1 assist-to-turnover rate as a junior, should be a preseason All-America at the point, and carrot-fro’d junior Mike Bruesewitz is ready to become the featured forward in the Badgers’ swing offense.
11. Louisville: Departed guard Preston Knowles was the heart of the Cards, but they return everyone else, plus add blue-chip forwards Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear. This is Peyton Siva’s year to emerge as a star point guard.
12. Cincinnati: Few believed in the Bearcats when they started 15-0, but they finished a respectable 11-7 in the Big East and won a game in the NCAA tournament, creating momentum heading into ’11-12. Their top four possession-users — guards Sean Kilpatrick, Dion Dixon and Cashmere Wright and power forward Yancy Gates — are all back, and as one of the Big East’s top defensive teams, they’re a dark horse pick to win the league.
13. Michigan John Beilein is on the verge of a breakthrough in Ann Arbor — that is, if point guard Darius Morris returns for his junior season. Tim Hardaway Jr. was perhaps the nation’s most underrated freshman in ’10-11, and the Wolverines showed flashes of their potential by nearly knocking off Duke in the “third” round. They could make an outside run at the Big Ten title.
14. Arizona: The Wildcats were, at times, the Derrick Williams show in ’10-11, but one gets the sense that Sean Miller is building a Pac-10 power that won’t fade after Williams leaves. Everyone other than he and Jamelle Horne is back, and they beef up their backcourt with the top-rated point guard in the Class of 2011, Josiah Turner.
15. UConn: Calhoun predicted that “in the future you’re going to see Jeremy Lamb be one of the best players in college basketball,” and we agree: The kid is going to be a star as early as next season. Freshman Shabazz Napier, who’ll take over as the starting point guard, was playing with the confidence of an upperclassman in March, and is ready to lead the Huskies to the upper portion of the Big East standings.
16. Belmont: The Bruins could’ve been a Cinderella in this year’s tournament had they not received such a tough four-seed draw in Wisconsin. They were the most efficient mid-major in the nation in ’10-11 and return all but two players from their deep rotation, including junior big men Scott Saunders and Mick Hedgepeth. A second straight 30-win season could be in the works.
The Next 16
18. Wichita State
23. Florida State
28. George Mason
29. Texas A&M
32. West Virginia