(1) Ohio State: lost in Sweet 16 to Kentucky
2011 ended in rough fashion for the Buckeyes, who were knocked out on a Brandon Knight shot in the final seconds of their regional semifinal battle in Newark. But moving forward it's easy to see Thad Matta's team ranking among the nation's best once again. While they do lose Jon Diebler, Dallas Lauderdale and David Lighty the cupboard will not be bare in Columbus. William Buford, Aaron Craft and Jared Sullinger are three of the returnees, and they once again bring in a highly-touted recruiting class ranked 4th by ESPN and led by point guard Shannon Scott and center Amir Williams. If the five freshmen can contribute (in addition to Deshaun Thomas) Ohio State will likely have more bodies to call on next season.
(2) North Carolina: lost in Elite 8 to Kentucky
The Tar Heels, who made their charge once Kendall Marshall earned the starting job at the point, are in the position of waiting for a key player to make an important decisions with regards to the NBA Draft. Harrison Barnes is projected to be a first round pick, but if he returns Roy Williams has one of the best teams in the country. John Henson and Tyler Zeller both announced today that they will be returning for the 2011-12 season, a big boost for the frontcourt. Marshall and Reggie Bullock (who missed the final month due to injury) will be back, along with a recruiting class led by P.J. Hairston and James McAdoo. If the Heels lose more than one player to the draft they'll still be very good, it just may take a little longer for them to reach their full potential.
(3) Syracuse Orange: lost to Marquette in the third round
Syracuse went the way of their guards this season, and when Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche were quiet so was the rest of the team. Jim Boeheim will have to replace a warrior in Rick Jackson, but the progression of Fab Melo late in the season was an encouraging sign. Kris Joseph may have a decision to make in regards to the draft but most expect him to return. Add to this nucleus a rising sophomore class led by C.J. Fair and Dion Waiters and a very good recruiting class led by Michael Carter-Williams and Rakeem Christmas, and the Orange may very well be the preseason favorite in the Big East.
(4) Kentucky: lost in national semifinals to Connecticut
John Calipari's team reached heights few expected them to before the season began, getting all the way to the Final Four before having their worst offensive outing of the season in a loss to eventual champ UConn. Now comes the time when the Wildcats wait to see who will return to school. Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and DeAndre Liggins all have decisions to make with regards to the NBA Draft, and if they all return to school UK could be one of the candidates for preseason number one. Add in the nation's top recruiting class boasting forwards Anthony Davis, Michael Gilchrist and Kyle Wiltjer along with point guard Marquis Teague and the Wildcats will definitely be heard from early and often. Look for Kentucky to be at the very least the favorite to win the SEC.
(5) West Virginia: lost to Kentucky in the third round
The Mountaineers had a solid season in 2010-11, winning 21 games (11 in the Big East) but they dropped two of their last three games. The good news for West Virginia is that they've got some key contributors slated to return, most notably guard Truck Bryant, wing Kevin Jones and big man Deniz Kilicli. They will need to step up leadership-wise as well with John Flowers and Joe Mazzulla out of eligibility, and it remains to be seen if Dalton Pepper can defend consistently enough to be a part of the rotation night in and night out. WVU also brings in a large recruiting class led by point guard Jabarie Hinds and forwards Tommie McCune and Keaton Miles. Bob Huggins will not lack for options next season.
(6) Xavier: lost to Marquette in the second round
The season came to a disappointing end for the Musketeers, who were bounced in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals and then fell to Marquette in their first NCAA Tournament game. But the good news is that they lose just two seniors of note (guard Dante Jackson and forward Jamel McLean), and the backcourt tandem of Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons will be the best in the A-10. Jeff Robinson had a promising sophomore campaign and will pair up with Kenny Frease in the frontcourt. And sharpshooter Brad Redford returns after missing all of this season with a torn ACL. Chris Mack welcomes a solid recruiting class led by 6-4 wing Dezmine Wells, with guard Dee Davis and power forward Jalen Reynolds completing the class.
(7) Washington: lost to North Carolina in the third round
For the second consecutive season the Huskies rebounded from an inconsistent regular season to grab the Pac-10's automatic bid, winning the Pac-10 Tournament on an Isaiah Thomas jumper as time expired. They hung on to beat Georgia but had some moments of brain lock late in their close loss to North Carolina. Now Lorenzo Romar needs to replace four key contributors: Thomas, who entered the NBA Draft and will hire an agent, along with seniors Matthew Bryan-Amaning, Justin Holiday and Venoy Overton. Abdul Gaddy (torn ACL) and C.J. Wilcox return in the backcourt and the frontcourt shouldn't lack for depth either. Add in a recruiting class led by guards Hikeem Stewart and Tony Wroten Jr. and the Huskies should be a factor in the league race.
(8) George Mason: lost to Ohio State in the third round
While VCU grabbed the headlines in the NCAA Tournament it must be noted that Jim Larranaga's team won the CAA regular season title by two games. The Patriots lose just one starter (leading scorer as well) in Cam Long, and valuable reserve Isaiah Tate also graduates. But forwards Luke Hancock and Ryan Pearson along with guard Andre Cornelius all return. The key for the Patriots will be how many reserves step up. Bryon Allen, Paris Bennett and Vertail Vaughns are just three of the options for George Mason, and they have a pair of recruits from the New York metropolitan area slated to be on campus as well in guard Corey Edwards and wing Vaughn Gray. Look for George Mason to be one of the teams expected to contend in the CAA.
(9) Villanova: lost to George Mason in the second round
For the second straight year Jay Wright's Wildcats embarked on a steady decline down the stretch, losing six straight and eight of their last ten games. Villanova does lose three seniors from their rotation (Corey Fisher, Antonio Pena and Corey Stokes), but there will be talent returning to campus. Maalik Wayns will be back (some thought he was declaring himself eligible for the NBA Draft but he won't), as will Mouphtaou Yarou, and Isaiah Armwood, James Bell and Dominic Cheek should also figure into the rotation. Add in a very good recruiting class led by guard Tyrone Johnson and center Markus Kennedy and the Wildcats have a shot at being very good in 2011-12. But the chemistry needs to be there, something that's seemed to be off since their Final Four run in 2009.
(10) Georgia: lost to Washington in the second round
Mark Fox's team found a way to squeak into the NCAA Tournament, where they came back in the second half before falling to Washington in the second round. Now they've got to go about replacing some key cogs in the attack, with Travis Leslie (no agent) and Trey Thompkins (will hire an agent) both declaring themselves eligible for the draft. Also leaving are forwards Chris Barnes and Jeremy Price, meaning that newcomers such as Nemanja Djurisic and John Florveus will need to show themselves ready for the SEC sooner rather than later. On the perimeter Gerald Robinson Jr. and Dustin Ware will be back, and the task of replacing Leslie may be made easier by the addition of McDonald's All-America Kentavious Caldwell. NCAA Tournament trips could become a common occurrence in Athens.
(11) Marquette: lost to North Carolina in the Sweet 16
Buzz Williams' team found a way to get into the NCAA Tournament, winning 22 games and getting to the Sweet 16 where they were overmatched against a bigger North Carolina team. But the Golden Eagles play hard for 40 minutes, something that keeps them in nearly every game they play in. Jimmy Butler, Dwight Buycks and Joseph Fulce all graduate so there will be some holes to fill, but there are a number of contributors slated to return. Vander Blue, Junior Cadougan and Darius Johnson-Odom will handle things on the perimeter, and Oregon transfer Jamil Wilson along will Jamail Jones add more attacking wings to a frontcourt led by Jae Crowder. Davante Gardner played well in March as did Chris Otule, and their incoming recruits aren't slouches either. Juan Anderson could be a Big East All-Rookie Team candidate while guards Todd Mayo and Derrick Wilson could contribute as well.
(12) Clemson: lost to West Virginia in the second round
In Brad Brownell's first season the Tigers were able to get into the NCAA Tournament, beating UAB before falling to West Virginia with a small bit of blame going towards the bad decision to have Clemson play at noon just two days after playing the late game in Dayton. Forward Jerai Grant and guard Demontez Stitt both graduate but they'll have talent returning, led by guard Andre Young and forwards Devin Booker and Milton Jennings. Bryan Narcisse and Tanner Smith also played important roles this season for the Tigers, who will also welcome in a soild recruiting class. Point guard Daniel Sapp and power forward Bernard Sullivan are two of the key players arriving on campus, and wing Kevin McDaniels also has the opportunity to crack the rotation. Another NCAA berth is more than possible in 2011-12.
(12) UAB: lost to Clemson in the First Four
There were more than a few vocal critics of the Blazers' inclusion in the field of 68, and they certainly didn't help matters by being whipped soundly by Clemson in Dayton. But Mike Davis' team did win the Conference USA regular season crown thanks in large part to the leadership of senior point guard Aaron Johnson. Johnson and leading scorer Jamarr Sanders both graduate, adding more to the workload for leading returnees Cameron Moore and Ovie Soko. There may not be as much depth in Birmingham next season (and as of right now they've got just two players in their 2011 recruiting class) but the Blazers could be a factor in C-USA. Tough to see them being an NCAA Tournament team as of right now, however.
(13) Princeton: lost to Kentucky in the second round
The Tigers were able to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004 and very nearly knocked off the Wildcats, losing on a Brandon Knight basket in the final seconds. Now, a team that loses Dan Mavraides and Kareem Maddox will also have to find a new head coach as Sydney Johnson moved on to take the job at Fairfield. Rising seniors Doug Davis and Patrick Saunders are two key cogs expected to be back next season, and with the right coaching hire the Tigers could once again be a factor in the Ivy League, but many will pick Harvard to win the Ancient Eight come October.
(14) Indiana State: lost to Syracuse in the second round
Greg Lansing did an outstanding job with the Sycamores this season, leading them to their best regular season finish in the MVC in more than a decade and their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2001. ISU will lose three seniors (Aaron Carter, Jake Kelly and Isiah Martin) but they've got more than enough slated to return to campus, led by point guard Jake Odum, wings Dwayne Lathan and Carl Richard, and forward Myles Walker. Slender forward Justin Gant is the lone member of their incoming class right now but even with the lean recruiting haul look for the Sycamores to once again be a player in the MVC.
(15) Long Island: lost to North Carolina in the second round
The Blackbirds had an outstanding season, winning 27 games overall in addition to the NEC regular season and tournament titles. Forwards Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere were key figures, as were wings David Hicks and Kyle Johnson. Point guard Jason Brickman and C.J. Garner brought different skill sets to the table and that's what made the Blackbirds such a tough team to deal with throughout the course of the season. But with Hicks and Johnson graduating they'll need a couple wings to step up next season, led by Michael Culpo. LIU has just one incoming recruit (guard Gerrell Martin) as of right now but they've got more than enough experience to make another run at the NEC crown. Luckily for LIU head coach Jim Ferry turned down the Manhattan job, allowing the program to build on 2010-11 with the same man in charge.
(16) Alabama State: lost to UTSA in the First Four
The Hornets, who were the four-seed in the SWAC Tournament, knocked off top seed Texas Southern in the semis before taking care of Grambling State in the title game to get to the Big Dance. Lewis Jackson's team featured balanced scoring with five players averaging at least six points per game and two in double figures (Tramaine Butler and Tramayne Moorer). Moorer, who only played in 16 games due to NCAA issues, is the lone senior who was a major contributor this season meaning that the Hornets will be expected to finish higher than fourth in the SWAC next season. Look for Chris Duncan and Kenderek Washington to be two key factors alongside Butler in 2011-12.
(16) Texas-San Antonio: lost to Ohio State in the second round
Despite going 9-7 in Southland play the Roadrunners were able to get hot at just the right time, winning five straight games going into their First Four matchup with Alabama State. Melvin Johnson III went off in the first half of that contest and UTSA held on to earn a matchup with top overall seed Ohio State. Brooks Thompson earned his first NCAA bid as a head coach but the question now is whether or not UTSA can make a return trip next season. Johnson III will be a junior and leading scorer Devin Gibson is the only key departure for this group, with Jeromie Hill ranking third on the team in scoring as a freshman. So the answer is yes, although the Roadrunners will not have an easy time getting through the Southland.