ARLINGTON, Texas — So, is it too early to look ahead at what March and April of 2015 might look like in college basketball?
Admittedly, we don’t have a good handle on which underclassmen will cannonball — the ones who should and the ones who shouldn’t — into the NBA draft pool. Nor can we possibly know who around the sport will find trouble, be it with academics, injuries or the wrong kinds of temptations, before the next ball bounces in a real game. And that’s saying nothing of the coaches who might leave their programs behind for new, maybe even better, opportunities.
Is it too early? Of course.
Let’s do it anyway.
The top dogs
In honor of the UConn Huskies, that’s what we should call the teams that’ll be regarded as the strongest contenders for the next national title, don’t you think? Then again, UConn just won it all as a No. 7 seed, disrupting a strong trend of No. 1 seeds cutting down the nets.
But there are a handful of teams everyone will have toward the top of their preseason polls.
Of the Final Four representatives this season, Wisconsin might have the best shot to get to Indianapolis in 2015. The Frank Kaminsky question — ‘‘Will he stay?’’ — looms large. But if he does (and maybe even if he doesn’t), the Badgers will be the favorites in the Big Ten. Sam Dekker, Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser and Nigel Hayes remain in the fold. Bronson Koenig and Duje Dukan proved against Kentucky they’re ready for larger roles.
Kentucky will tee it up again as the favorite over Florida in the Southeastern Conference, no matter how many players it loses. It’s crazy to think the Wildcats could lose underclassmen Julius Randle, James Young, Willie Cauley-Stein and the Harrison twins and still be loaded, but it’s true. Here come Karl Towns Jr., Trey Lyles and the rest of another killer class. Of course, John Calipari leaving would change everything.
Arizona might be the most common pick for No. 1. If guard Nick Johnson sticks around, that’ll probably be a done deal. Figure forward Aaron Gordon as a one-and-done, but the Wildcats can weather that.
Whitney Young’s Jahlil Okafor might have an even bigger impact on Duke than Simeon’s Jabari Parker did as a freshman; he’ll be the rim-rattling, rim-protecting force the Blue Devils sorely lacked. If Parker gives in to the sentimental pull to stay in Durham, forget the previous paragraph. Duke will be No. 1.
The Big Ten
Michigan is the biggest mystery around these parts. Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III all have to decide on their futures. If all three turn pro, there won’t be enough left to contend. If all three stay, there’ll be enough to win a national title. Maybe they’ll come together Wade-LeBron-Bosh style and elect to take another run at it, but that’s doubtful.
Gary Harris and Branden Dawson might want to keep playing for Michigan State, which would keep enormous momentum with the Spartans. They can’t lose Keith Appling, Adreian Payne and those two guys and remain a true terror, though.
Which team has the potential to make the biggest jump? Dare we say Illinois? We dare. The Illini will have a strong nucleus of Rayvonte Rice, Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill, Nnanna Egwu and Tracy Abrams complemented by transfers Ahmad Starks, Aaron Cosby and Darius Paul and freshman Leron Black, as well as developing bigs Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert. They’ll have a lot of size and some shooting to go with it. Yes, they should make the NCAA tournament.
What about UConn?
The Huskies will be a no-doubt NCAA tournament team even without Shabazz Napier, and the ceiling actually will be quite high — maybe even Final Four-high. The keys to the offense will go to East Aurora’s Ryan Boatright, who can’t do all the things Napier could do but is a natural point guard and a brilliant defender. The offseason body development of young center Amida Brimah, potentially the best shot-blocker in the country, is a real key.