Sports journalism has an advantage over other forms in the percentage of articles that are written purely because they are just that fun to read and to write. For no other reason did Dick Vitale, Andy Katz, and Luke Winn release preseason rankings for 2011-2012 within days of UConn’s title victory over Butler.
They are early in the sense that we have to wait seven long months in which college basketball sadly will be removed from the forefront of our minds. But they are by no means too early. With the exception of a handful of undecided players on the NBA draft, we know the core look of each team’s roster, and that will not change in the long doldrums of summer. The good news for the Heels: we are near the top regardless of whether the best player in the country decides to return.
1. Kentucky 2. North Carolina 3. Ohio State 4. Texas 5. Connecticut 6. Duke. 7. Syracuse
1. North Carolina 2. Ohio State. 3. Duke. 4. Syracuse. 5. Kentucky 6. Kansas 7. Florida
Luke Winn ought to be checked on, making a relatively simple task a difficult one with his nonsensical undervaluing of Kentucky. Among these top teams, three easily separate themselves as the top tier, and those are North Carolina, Kentucky, and Ohio State. No one else closely matches the depth of talent and experience of those three teams. Katz acknowledges that if Barnes returnes, he will bump Carolina to the #1 spot. I agree with the move, since we will have top-level talent and depth at every position, no obvious holes with the arrival of P.J. Hairston to shoot the outside shot, the best player in the country, a complete assortment of role players, and no freshmen starting.
But it is admittedly a tough call with Kentucky, who will have just as much talent but with much less experience. Their freshmen class alone would likely rank as the #2 team in the country, consisting of four top-20 players, three of whom are the best power forward, best small forward, and best point guard in the class, respectively. Add to that the return of two starters as seniors from this year’s team and most likely a sophomore Doron Lamb. Freshmen will play most of the critical roles for Calipari, as usual, but there is notable experience coming back.
In a real surprise, I think both Katz and Winn are too generous to Duke, significantly undervaluing the difficulty of replacing Nolan Smith. Smith carried them on his back through much of this season, and he ought to have been the National Player of the Year for doubling as one of the nation’s best scorers and best facilitators of his teammates. As Winn points out, Duke will have the most talented three point shooting backcourt in the country. But they had that this season, as well, and their dependence on it led them to occasional struggles. Next season, they will be even more one-dimensionally dependent on it, and without the toughness, clutch play, and experience of Smith. There will be long stretches of struggling to put points on the board, and that ought to relegate Duke at least behind Syracuse, UConn, and Florida.