NEW ORLEANS — Late on Monday night at the Superdome, key figures in Kentucky’s title run had differing destinations on their minds. Sophomore Doron Lamb, who had a team-high 22 points in the win over Kansas, stood on the champions’ stage and yelled, five times, “We’re going to the White House!” When the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, freshman Anthony Davis, took his best friend and roommate, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, into his embrace, Davis told him, “It don’t stop here.” They were thinking about the NBA, as, one suspects, is Lamb, fellow sophomore Terrence Jones and freshman point guard Marquis Teague.
Coach John Calipari is prepared for (and even excited about) that scenario: When UK produced a record five first-rounders in 2010, he had the audacity to call it one of the greatest days in Kentucky history. And so on Monday he was left to acknowledge the reality of the one-and-done, revolving-door monster he has created: that to keep attracting new talent, he must keep proving that UK is their best springboard to the league. “What I’m hoping is that there’s six first-rounders on this team,” he said. “We were the first program to have five, now let’s have six. That’s why I’ve got to go recruiting on Friday.”
What Calipari aims to do, in the next seven days, is create another contender. On April 11, the consensus top two recruits in the Class of 2012 plan to announce their college commitments. One is 6-foot-10 center Nerlens Noel, from Everett, Mass., who will have a Davis-like defensive impact on whatever college team he chooses — and could very well be the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft. He is believed to be favoring Kentucky over Georgetown and Syracuse. The other is 6-6 wing Shabazz Muhammad, a lethal scorer from Las Vegas who will likely go No. 1 if Noel doesn’t. UCLA is thought to have a slight lead in that race ahead of Kentucky and Duke, but it’s unwise to count Calipari out of a high-profile recruitment — especially after he just won his first national championship. (The class’ second-best power forward recruit, Canadian Anthony Bennett, is also considering Kentucky, although he has yet to set an announcement date.)
Because Calipari is still recruiting, those of us writing early 2012-13 rankings must have a mastery of the art of asterisking. Kentucky will be decimated by draft defections, but Calipari could still have the No. 1 team in October’s preseason poll, with an entirely new starting lineup. He says he hates the one-and-done rule, but he exploits it like no other. Until the Wildcats’ roster is set, this is what my top 32 looks like:
(This is written assuming that the Kentucky crew, as well as Florida’s Brad Beal, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, Kansas’ Thomas Robinson, Baylor’s Perry Jones III, and UConn’s Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb all turn pro …)
1. INDIANA. The next step in Tom Crean’s Hoosier Revival is to chase a national title, and this team is the best of a watered-down field of contenders. IU returns 84.7 percent of its scoring, including savvy sophomore center Cody Zeller, a Wooden Award candidate, and also brings in Rivals.com’s No. 2-ranked recruiting class. The two X-factors: Whether or not rising senior Christian Watford stays in school, and how smoothly five-star point guard Yogi Ferrell can make the transition to running a college offense.
2. LOUISVILLE. Power forward Chane Behanan is poised for sophomore stardom, and he and shot-swatting Senegalese Gorgui Dieng could help the Cardinals reprise their status as the nation’s most efficient defense. The Peyton Siva-Russ Smith backcourt won’t generate high-percentage offense, but as long as they lock down on D, they’ll run away with the Big East title.
3. KENTUCKY. Calipari’s reloaded lineup will feature N.C. State transfer Ryan Harrow at point and stretch-forward Kyle Wiltjer as a primary scoring option. This ranking presumes that the Wildcats land Noel as their defensive centerpiece; if Muhammad also comes on board, they vault to No. 1, and next April, I’ll probably be making another Kentucky Montage like this one:
4. FLORIDA. Patric Young and sharpshooter Kenny Boynton form one of the nation’s best inside-outside duos. The Gators’ lineup could feature three 40-plus percent long-range shooters in Boynton, point guard Scottie Wilbekin and pick-and-pop forward Erik Murphy. The return of junior forward Will Yeguete, who missed the latter part of ’11-12 with a broken foot, should bolster their sometimes-suspect defense.
5. MICHIGAN. If point guard Trey Burke passes on the draft, the Wolverines can contend with Indiana for a Big Ten title. Freshman Glenn Robinson III will be the team’s third NBA progeny (along with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jon Horford), and it’ll also add the country’s top power-forward recruit, Mitch McGary. While he may not have a Tyler Hansbrough- or Kevin Love-like impact as a freshman, McGary should form a stout interior tandem with Jordan Morgan.
6. SYRACUSE. The Orange are losing three stars to the draft, but wings C.J. Fair and James Southerland are ready to take on expanded scoring roles, and athletic sophomore Michael Carter-Williams will step in and form one of the Big East’s best backcourts with veteran Brandon Triche. If DaJuan Coleman and Rakeem Christmas can provide adequate defense in the middle of the 2-3 (the spot vacated by Fab Melo) the Orange won’t have a steep drop-off from their successful ’11-12.
7. GONZAGA. Canadian point guard Kevin Pangos was way ahead of schedule as a freshman, and he and homegrown gunner Gary Bell Jr. should take the Zags to the next level as sophomores. If the German hybrid forward sticks around for his senior season in a frontcourt that includes Sam Dower and Kelly Olynyk, they can beat out Arizona and San Diego State for the title of Best in the West.
8. NORTH CAROLINA. Should power forward James Michael McAdoo pass on the draft and build on his impressive NCAA tournament, he’ll be surrounded with five quality guards (Marcus Paige, Reggie Bullock, Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston) who’ll help the Heels fend off N.C. State and repeat as ACC champs. Their frontcourt depth issues could be solved by the addition of ex-UConn power forward Alex Oriakhi, who’s free to transfer and play immediately due to the Huskies’ postseason ban. He has yet to choose a senior-year destination, but Carolina is among his candidates.
9. ARIZONA. The Wildcats have the No. 1 recruiting class, led by Oakland forward Brandon Ashley and Massachusetts 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski, and bring back all-Pac-12 power forward Solomon Hill. Kevin Parrom, who was ready to break out as one of the Pac-12′s best before family tragedies, a shooting and a broken foot derailed his sophomore season, will be healthy again. The wild card is point guard Josiah Turner, whose status is up in the air after being suspended for violating team rules.
10. MEMPHIS. Do-everything guard Will Barton is gone, but the Tigers return the rest of their rotation, including junior point guard Joe Jackson and sophomore wing Adonis Thomas, who passed on the NBA Draft. They’ll dominate Conference USA one last time before bouncing for the Big East.
11. N.C. STATE. If C.J. Leslie returns — and that seems like a big “if” — the Wolfpack will jump up to the 6-8 range. Even without him, they should be able to build off of a surprise run to the Sweet 16 behind point guard Lorenzo Brown and power forward Richard Howell. The addition of five-star shooting guard Rodney Purvis gives State some serious scoring punch on the perimeter alongside senior marksman Scott Wood.
12. DUKE. Lose two Plumlee brothers, sub in another: 7-footer Mason is exploring his draft stock and Miles is graduating, but Marshall, who redshirted in 2011-12, will help hold down the Blue Devils’ frontcourt. They return enough sweet-shooting guards — Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins, Quinn Cook — to maintain an efficient offense, but defense will again be a problem. In the event Coach K pulls off a recruiting coup and beats UCLA and Kentucky for Muhammad, Duke becomes a Final Four contender.
13. BAYLOR. If the Bears can keep projected first-rounder Quincy Miller for his sophomore season, they’ll be the clear power in the Big 12. Senior Pierre Jackson might be the nation’s best scoring point guard, and incoming 7-footer Isaiah Austin is a future lottery pick. The loss of Quincy Acy — the heart of the team and its one physical presence down low — may hurt more than the early departure of Perry Jones III.
14. CREIGHTON. With Anthony Davis, Thomas Robinson and Jared Sullinger out of the picture, this could be the year that Doug McDermott, the game’s most versatile scorer, takes home the Naismith Award. Grant Gibbs will have to take on an even bigger point-forward role now that point guard Antoine Young is graduating. If the Bluejays want to make a deep tourney run, they’ll need to make massive improvements on defense, after ranking 178th in efficiency.
15. NOTRE DAME. The Irish were surprise third-place finishers in the Big East, and could return their entire rotation if senior Scott Martin obtains an NCAA waiver for a sixth season. Flat-topped workhorse power forward Jack Cooley is a contender for the league’s player of the year honors, and 6-10 Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman is a much-needed size infusion to the frontcourt.
16. VCU. Part of the reason Shaka Smart spurned a big-money offer from Illinois? He has another dangerous defensive team returning, with HAVOC-creating guards Darius Theus, Briante Weber (the nation’s leader in steal percentage), Troy Daniels, Rob Brandenberg and Treveon Graham. If the Rams can fill the leadership void created by the departure of Bradford Burgess — the NCAA’s all-time leader in games started — they’ll be the class of the CAA.
THE NEXT 16
19. Ohio State, whose endgame troubles in the Final Four were fitting conclusion to my Many Agonizing Moments compilation:
20. San Diego State
21. Michigan State
23. St. Louis
29. St. Mary’s
30. New Mexico
32. Kansas State