My college basketball predictions for 2013
In anticipation of the new year, SI.com's writers are predicting the stories they think will define the sports landscape in 2013.
1. Louisville will win the national title. After picking Indiana in the preseason, a few things have changed my mind: The Cardinals' No. 1-ranked defense has been stingier than it was last season, allowing 0.802 adjusted points per possession --- and that's even with interior anchor Gorgui Dieng missing the past six games with a broken wrist. He'll be healthy well before March. Louisville's offense, which was mediocre in 2011-12, has been surprisingly strong due to the huge scoring-efficiency strides made by guards Russ Smith and Peyton Siva. And finally, I'm just not convinced that Indiana's interior D is national-title caliber, whereas Louisville is, without question, the best defensive team in the country.
2. Kentucky won't recover in time to win the SEC or make a Final Four run ... but they'll open 2013-14 at No. 1. The Wildcats have plenty of room to improve, but their offense seems too flawed to ever be dominant. This feels like a "finish third in the SEC, get knocked out in the Sweet 16" kind of season, which, while a letdown, will be incentive for at least two of their freshmen to stay out of the NBA draft. They'll then serve as key contributors on a team heavily favored to win the 2014 title. John Calipari's next recruiting class, with the Harrison twins, James Young and (very likely) Andrew Wiggins, should fix all of UK's offensive issues.
3. The Catholic 7, or the Sacramental Seven, or the Big Priest, or whatever they want to call themselves, will pull in five more teams for the opening season of their new league: Xavier, Butler, Dayton, Creighton and St. Louis. And given the likelihood that their TV deal will be far more lucrative than the Atlantic 10's, any of the remaining A-10 teams (particularly VCU) will leap at future offers to join. Further expansion talks could also include Gonzaga and St. Mary's, but it doesn't make enough logistical sense, travel-wise, to take this league West of Omaha.
4. The Atlantic 10 will then scramble to add the best remaining assets from the CAA (see: George Mason, College of Charleston or Drexel), Southern Conference (Davidson) or even Horizon (Valparaiso?). This is far more speculative than prediction No. 3, but it's natural that the A-10 would try to replace at least some of the six to seven teams it's bound to lose after this season. The Catholic 7's formation/expansion is a direct threat to the future of the East Coast's lesser leagues, and they'll need to be proactive to remain relevant.
5. VCU, no matter what its realignment fate is, will break back through to the Elite Eight (and maybe even farther). This is coach Shaka Smart's best team yet -- better by leaps and bounds than the one that made the 2010 Final Four -- and it's creating turnovers at an incredible rate. The Rams are deep, balanced, have plenty of NCAA tournament experience, and they play a chaotic style that's perfect for pulling off upsets. Don't sleep on them just because they're absent from the current AP poll.
6. The UCLA job will come open after the Bruins make a too-early exit from the tourney and freshman star Shabazz Muhammad declares for the NBA draft. Ben Howland will have completed his 10th season in Westwood, five removed from his last trip to the Final Four, and the fanbase seems to have soured on him enough to instigate a change. A surprisingly good ending -- such as Muhammad and Kyle Anderson leading them to Atlanta -- could keep it from happening, but the Bruins don't seem cohesive enough to pull that off.
7. A Howland firing would create a job opening that both VCU's Shaka Smart and Butler's Brad Stevens, who've turned down numerous, mildly attractive offers over the past few seasons, would have to seriously consider. Indiana, Kansas and Kentucky aren't coming open anytime soon, and unless they're waiting for a shot at Duke or North Carolina, this is the best opportunity either mid-major star is going to get to take over an elite program. (I don't think Wake Forest -- which is even more likely than UCLA to be coach-searching this offseason -- has the kind of pull to lure a Smart or Stevens. The Demon Deacons will have to choose from next-tier candidates.)
8. Meanwhile in the Pac-12, Arizona will break through to its first Final Four since 2001, firmly re-establishing itself as a West Coast powerhouse. Coach Sean Miller had the Wildcats on the verge of the Final Four in 2011, and this is a superior team with a better backcourt in Mark Lyons, Nick Johnson and Kevin Parrom. They lack a Derrick Williams-level star, but Lyons has valuable tourney experience, and they have three future first-round draft picks in freshmen Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski and Grant Jerrett. That tends to matter come tourney time.
9. The Lil Bs -- Butler, Bucknell and Belmont -- will make noise in the NCAAs. The Bulldogs' regular-season wins over Indiana and North Carolina proved they're an upset threat once again, and the addition of Rotnei Clarke has revitalized their offense. Bucknell, with elite big man Mike Muscala, will be a dangerous 14-15 seed. And Belmont, which has yet to win a tourney game in five tries, is due to finally break through. The Bruins lack size but have an excellent veteran backcourt duo in Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark.
10. Scoring will continue to trend downward, hitting yet another low for the shot clock era and forcing the NCAA to have serious talks about fixing the problem. The NCAA can't demand that its coaches play faster basketball, but it can make bigger efforts to cut down on physical play that restricts movement, and bring the shot clock down to 30 seconds. I don't expect those changes to actually go into effect in 2013, but with final scores in the 50s and 60s becoming all too prevalent, new rules will at least be up for discussion, rather than existing only in sportswriters' fantasies.