The NBA draft early entry deadline has passed, so we now have a solid image of what most teams will look like in 2013-14. Recruits have signed letters of intent, many transfers have picked new schools, coaches have been hired and fired, and standout players have announced whether they’ll enter the NBA draft or remain in school for another season.
Now that the smoke has cleared, it appears that the four teams that competed for the national title in Atlanta last month possess the potential to reach Arlington, Texas, for next season’s Final Four. What are the chances that Syracuse, Louisville, Michigan and Wichita State will get back there?
(In order of probability on a scale of 1-10)
Louisville (Chances: 9) -- For a few weeks, Louisville’s future was an uncertain one. First, Russ Smith had decided to leave, according to his father. Then he admitted he wasn’t exactly sure what he would do. But he ultimately chose another year at Louisville. The guard struggled in the national title game, but he was a force throughout the NCAA tournament. With Smith in charge, there’s no reason to doubt that Louisville will compete in Cowboys Stadium next season in its third consecutive Final Four run. Yes, the Cardinals have lost two critical players in Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng. But five-star recruit Terry Rozier and Chris Jones, who was recently named NABC junior college player of the year, will be ready to log major minutes for Rick Pitino’s program in 2013-14. And Chane Behanan should be on a lot of preseason All-American charts. Montrezl Harrell did things in the Big Dance that showcased a glimpse of his ability. Plus, Wayne Blackshear and Luke Hancock, the Final Four’s most outstanding player, will be back, too. There’s a lot of Kentucky buzz right now. But the Cardinals should be able to compete against any team in America next season.
Michigan (Chances: 8 ) -- They should be celebrating in Ann Arbor right now. Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III could have been first-round picks in this summer’s NBA draft. Their decision to come back for their sophomore seasons will help the Wolverines maintain their status as Big Ten contenders. Robinson will be a more prominent factor in John Beilein’s offense next year. And McGary will be one of the best big men in America. Now, let’s discuss the question. How do you replace Trey Burke? I’m not dismissing Tim Hardaway Jr.’s contributions to the program. But it’s much easier to find scorers than leaders. The Wolverines have enough talent returning (Spike Albrecht, Nik Stauskas and Jon Horford) and coming (Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin and Mark Donnal are all top-100 kids per RecruitingNation) to support the notion that they could make another Final Four appearance in 2013-14. But how will Beilein replace Burke and his intangibles? I had the same question about Kansas last season. When the Jayhawks lost Thomas Robinson, they lost more than a player. He was the soul of the program. They were missing his leadership more than anything last season. Michigan could find itself in the same position next year. I’ve heard great things about Walton. But Burke was special. Without him, the Wolverines still have Final Four talent. But it will be difficult to rally in the postseason if they don’t identify a player(s) to take on Burke’s leadership role as the season approaches.
Syracuse (Chances: 7) -- Here’s what we learned about Jim Boeheim in 2012-13 … again. He always finds another player to step in and contribute when necessary. Yes, the losses of a dynamic starting point guard Michael Carter-Williams, guard Brandon Triche and forward James Southerland would be devastating for most programs. But I doubt Boeheim is concerned. He has C.J. Fair, who was potent for the Orange in the tourney. And when given the chance to play a bigger role after Southerland was suspended for academic issues, Jerami Grant looked like a young star. Baye Keita, Rakeem Christmas and DaJuan Coleman give Syracuse the length and athleticism that will boost the 2-3 zone that opponents hate. Plus, Tyler Ennis anchors a recruiting class that’s ranked sixth overall by RecruitingNation. But there’s a lot of pressure on Ennis. Carter-Williams will be a lottery pick. He was a confident and versatile threat for Syracuse. Ennis probably will fill the void Syracuse now has at point guard. Can he do it? Well, that’s the story of this team. Boeheim will be forced to rely on players who weren’t major factors last season. The good news? That’s the story of Syracuse every season. Carter-Williams averaged 2.7 PPG in 2011-12. He’ll make millions in a few months. Again, Boeheim just turns to the next person in line and says, “You’re up.” And his guys respond to that challenge. So when weighing Syracuse’s chances of reaching the Final Four next season, it’s important to consider that pattern. This team has lost a lot. But it will still be a national contender in 2013-14.
Wichita State (Chances: 6) -- Gregg Marshall piloted the most exciting postseason story in the country in March/April. Wichita State had failed to win the Missouri Valley Conference regular season or tournament titles. Yet, they thrived on their experience and underrated talent as they rallied to the Final Four. The Shockers' success seemed to materialize from nothing. But it was actually more logical than that. Marshall wrestled with multiple injuries throughout the season. And in the weeks leading up to the NCAA tournament, Wichita State finally had a (somewhat) healthy roster. With NCAA tourney star Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet returning, the Shockers will be the favorites to win the MVC. Could they pull off a Butler and make back-to-back Final Four appearances? Yep. But it seems tough to project that level of success for a squad that has major holes to fill with the loss of veterans Carl Hall, Malcolm Armstead and Ehimen Orukpe. But Marshall brings back the other key pieces that fueled that rally to Atlanta. And Evan Wessel was a starter before he broke his hand and eventually redshirted. Tekele Cotton was solid throughout the postseason, too. Incoming players Kadeem Coleby (Louisiana-Lafayette transfer), Shaquille Morris (three-star recruit) and Earl Watson will give Marshall the size he’ll need in the post. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Shockers play their way to Arlington next season. But they have more questions to answer than any other squad on this list.