1. Villanova Wildcats. I'm very glad Scottie Reynolds, one of my top five most hated college players of all-time, is gone, because I can go back to not hating Villanova right as they look to finally be balanced enough to be a real national title contender - and I mean a real threat, not a media-driven threat that was obviously going to flame out early - thanks again to Reynolds. Perimeter driven for years, this year Jay Wright and the Wildcats will have a balanced attack. Antonio Pena has made a huge leap from where he was as a freshman to become an excellent inside scoring threat and two sophomores (Mouphtaou Yarou and Isaiah Armwood) were highly regarding coming in last year and had very nice freshman years - and of course Nova is loaded with guards as they always are. So I guess is what I'm saying is we actually have to worry about Villanova and I don't like it one bit.
2. Syracuse Orange. The Orange lose a lot - again, but Jim Boeheim just reloads - again. Losing Andy Rautins, Arinze Onuaku, and Wes Johnson would cripple most teams and send them into rebuilding mode, but not the Cuse. Fab Melo (#2 center) is a better Onuaku, and SF C.J. Fair (#94 overall) and SG Dion Waiters (#29 overall) may not be the equal of Johnson and Rautins, but they'll ease their loss. Biggest keys to Orange success will be how Kris Joseph develops, and he is looking like he could end up being the next Syracuse star, and finding a shooter to replace Rautins and Johnson, who made 61% of the team's three balls between them at a combined 41% clip. This is where Mookie Jones (45% last year) can fit in. Plus, you (and everyone) need a little more Mookie in your life. You know it's true.
3. Pittsburgh Panthers. I've never seen a Pitt team I liked, and I'm not going to start now, but it's impossible to deny that they look pretty loaded this year. The real question is if Ashton Gibbs is a bonifide star or just another in a long line of Pitt point guards who got a disproportionate amount of praise for their skill level and couldn't shoot. Look it up, but from Brandin Knight to Carl Krauser to Levance Fields, Pitt always has point guards who couldn't hit a jump shot if they were in an empty gym, but were universally loved and praised by the media. I'm afraid Gibbs, who shot under 40% from the field last year, is yet another one and is going to cause my anti-Pitt rage to fire itself back up again, despite all the anti-rage medication I'm on.
4. Georgetown Hoyas. Georgetown is going to look a little weird this year because they're going to be missing the most Georgetowny thing - a good, big center. From Ewing, Mourning, and Mutumbo to Hibbert and Monroe, they always seem to have a good center (not counting all those years between Mutumbo and Hibbert), but not this year. What they do have, however, is a trio of very good guards in Chris Wright (scored 20 in 3 of team's last 4 games), Austin Freeman (leading scorer last year at 16.5 per game), and Jason Clark (42% three-point shooter). It seems like the Hoyas have disappointed every year since their Final Four year, so maybe this is another breakthrough coming since they say guard play is the key in March. And, in case you're really concerned, they did sign 6-10 Moses Abraham, the #11 center in the country for 2010, and he could eventually develop into a top flight center in a year or two. Long live tradition.
5. West Virginia Mountaineers. Devin Ebanks and Da'Sean Butler are massive losses, particularly Butler who wasn't only their best player but also a stone cold end of game killer, but there's still enough here to make the Mountaineers an NCAA Tournament team. Kevin Jones was basically Butler's understudy all year and is a very similar player who I expect to take a big leap forward and help lead this team, and they get both of their point guards back in Joel Mazzulla (who can't shoot) and Truck Bryant (who seems to alternate between being injured and being in trouble). There are a lot of questions on the interior and a lot of pressure will be on John Flowers and Deniz Kilicli (and Kevin Noreen, who is from Minneapolis and the Gophers had zero interest in so that will be interesting to see how that works out). Also Noah Cottrill (freshman PG) looks just like the Professor and as such I love him.
6. St. Johns Red Storm. Might be a little high, but optimism reigns in NYC for a once proud program who has fallen into irrelevance, and I'm buying into it. New coach Steve Lavin finally left the booth for this job, and he's hit the ground running already landing a couple of big time recruits for 2011. But don't think the only optimism is for the future, this year's squad returns nearly everybody from last year's NIT team, and they have a good mix of inside and outside scoring. I'm not saying we're heading back to the glory days of Felipe Lopez and Zendon Hamilton or anything, but don't be surprised if they surprise some people (but not you because I just told you they'd be good.)
7. Connecticut Huskies. I've got a weird feeling about UCONN, and I am starting to think their run as a top flight college hoops program might be coming to a close. Now, they're still good now and should make the NCAA Tournament this year (although they should have been one of the best team's in the country last year and that didn't exactly work out) and they continue to get good recruiting classes, but there's a lot going on here. Calhoun's health issues, the new NCAA infractions (that have led to two assistant coaches getting canend), Ater Majok leaving...I don't know, it just feels like bad news coming, whether the NCAA hammers the program or not. In any case, they'll be good this year and Kemba Walker is a stud. At least until he gets arrested.
8. Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Better without Harangody? Yep, and if you recall, they made their late run at an NCAA bid when he was on the shelf last year, winning their last four regular season games, including wins over 2 ranked teams and 2 bubble teams, then winning two in the Big East tournament to grab an NCAA berth. This year white guy central and top two players Ben Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis will add a third top white guy in Purdue transfer Scott Martin. You may remember him as the fourth member of Purdue's E'Twaun Moore/JaJuan Johnson/Robbie Hummel class who was actually ranked similarly to Hummel by Rivals. He had a solid freshman year, then transferred (and had to sit out), and then blew out his knee before last season began, so this will actually be his first action since 2007 (much like my good friend Theory). The biggest question, however, is can they find a point guard to get all these white shooters the ball?
9. Marquette Eagles. Marquette was supposed to be down last year after losing their kick-ass guard trio, but Lazar Hayward (T-Wolves, what up?) was a beast and Jimmy Butler made huge leaps and helped carry the Golden Eagles to the NCAA Tournament where they just barely dropped their first round game to Washington. Hayward is gone, as are starting guards David Cubillon and Maurice Acker, but Butler returns along with third leading scorer Darius Johnson-Odom. If they get can good point play from either sophomore Junior Cadougan or freshman Vander Blue they might surprise some people. As long as they beat Wisconsin (they play every year, don't they?) I'll be happy. Go to hell, Badgers, go to hell.
10. Seton Hall Pirates. This might actually be a bit low for the Pirates, as I think they have real sleeper potential - in the conference, not necessarily nationally - but they also have a high chance of implosion as well. Herb Pope is as talented as anyone but is essentially a walking injury risk, Jeremy Hazell is a scoring machine but is also a tremendous chucker, Keon Lawrence was very good for Missouri but had a terrible year last season in his first as a Pirate, and Jeff Robinson - well, I have nothing really to say there. But the moral of the story is the Pirates have their top four players back, but with a new coach and some volatile personalities this story can go either way. I'm rooting for things to go well, I do own a Seton Hall hat after all, but it will be interesting. Last year, coach Bobby Gonzalez played a wide-open, uptempo style, but new coach Kevin Willard's Iona was a slow-down, deliberate team. Interesting to see how that all ends up shaking out.
11. Louisville Cardinals. Another down year is in the cards for the cards before things start to turn around with a great class Pitino is bringing in for 2011. Louisville loses its top three scorers from last season in Samardo Samuels, Edgar Sosa, and Jerry Smith, along with fellow starter , leaving the team with a whole lot of role players and no star power. I don't know, I guess Terrence Jennings was supposed to be the next Earl Clark/Terrence Williams/Francisco Garcia, but man Pitino already has a very good 2011 class coming in, even after missing on a couple of key targets, so this is going to be a transition year and probably not very fun. Except maybe for Rick, assuming he finds another team employee's wife to hump around with.
14. Providence Friars. In reading up on the Big East, I discovered that this team was really, really bad defensively last year. In fact, they ranked 237th in Ken Pomeroy's defensive efficiency ratings, which put them at dead last amongst all BCS conference teams. They accomplished this by allowing opponents to shoot 52.2% on 2-pointers (327th), only turning their opponents over 18% of the time (290th), and allowing an offensive rebound on 36.6% of their opponents misses (309th). So, to recap, the Friars almost always allowed their opponent to get a shot off, and it almost always went in, and when it didn't go in, they usually allowed them to have a second chance at it. That is not good. On the bright side, their offense was actually quite efficient. This will all probably happen again.
15. Rutgers Scarlet Knights. The big signing of Mike Rosario a few couple years ago didn't exactly turn the Scarlet Knights around, and now he's transferred out to Florida and the team's second best player, Greg Echenique has left as well to go play at Creighton. New coach Mike Rice has already made some big moves on the recruiting trail and things are looking up, but this year will be tough with nobody over 6-8 on the roster. Talented sophomore Dane Miller is back, but Rutgers will struggle to win more than a couple of games in conference play this year, the talent level just isn't there, despite an awesome home arena. Quincy Douby is rolling over in his grave.
16. DePaul Blue Demons. The team with the worst arena in college ball will once again be the worst major college team in the land, except I think this makes three years in a row. Things might be looking up a bit with a new coach in Oliver Purnell, who has built programs up before (Dayton/Clemson), but this year is going to be another rough one. Last year the team was built around two players (Mac Koshwal and Will Walker) who scored over half the team's points on a per game basis, and now both are gone. With not much here and a less than imposing incoming class, it's going to be a rough year. These guys are like the football Minnesota Gophers of college basketball.