ST. LOUIS _ The best part of covering the Final Four is the little party
afterwards, when writers from all over the country gather for a 2 a.m.
breakfast in the media hospitality room.
The pressure's off, the season's over, it's like a being a kid on Christmas
afternoon after all the presents have been opened. There's always that odd
feeling -- a mixture of joy and satisfaction and the depression that comes
from knowing it will be another year before you will feel such exhilaration
as you just felt.
We sit around with our friends and talk about the championship just decided
and the one on the distant horizon. The later the party goes, the more the
talk is of the future. It's impossible to figure out, of course, since we
don't know who's going pro, who's going to be sick or hurt, who's
transferring or what coach may pick up and head for the NBA.
Still, it's fun to speculate. And when you're talking to the like of Dick
Weiss or Jim O'Connell or Jerry Tipton or Lenox Rawlings, I think it's fair
to call it informed speculation. I got a head start this year and spent a
lot of time talking to some of the nation's best national basketball writers
(who mostly lack my non-ACC centric perspective). I've heard some
interesting opinions. Surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly) most of it
centers on North Carolina.
The consensus is that the Tar Heels face three potential scenarios next
-- The superpower: If everybody who can come back does, there seems to be
little doubt that the Tar Heels will be the nation's preseason No. 1 team
next year. True, Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel and Melvin Scott will be
gone, but a recruiting class of three McDonald's All-Americans and a fourth
top 50 prospect would more than replace the three seniors. With Raymond
Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants and the blossoming Marvin Williams back,
this could be one of the great teams of all time.
-- The doomsday scenario: All four of Carolina's potential pros jump to the
NBA, along with the three seniors. UNC starts three freshmen, David Noel and
Quentin Thomas next season . that's the recipe for another 8-20 season.
-- A dose of realism: Those close to the UNC program believe that Felton and
McCants will go, while May and Williams will stay. That means that the Tar
Heels will have the nation's best frontline next season (May, Marvin
Williams and frosh Tyler Hansbrough), some talented young wing players and
no point guard. Well, there will be combo guard Bobby Frasor, although the
best hope for the Heels to find a real playmaker is for a big-time
off-season improvement by Thomas.
That's still a top 10-15 team, depending on how far and fast Thomas comes or
whether or not Frasor can handle the job.
Now, while the third scenario is the most likely, the doomsday scenario is
not impossible. May, long regarded as a lock to stay, recently opened the
door a crack when he told reporters that he's not thinking about the NBA,
but added, "my father will tell me when it's time to leave." After winning
the Most Outstanding Player Award Monday night, May's stock is unlikely to
go any higher.
And Marvin Williams is almost certain to be a top 5 NBA pick if he comes
out. He wants to stay in college, but only a handful of players in the last
decade have been able to turn that down -- Jason Williams, Tim Duncan
If we can agree that it's likely that UNC will not be a Final Four team next
year, then who will?
I asked the editor of a national publication Saturday who he's looking at as
his preseason No. 1 team and he gave me four candidates:
-- Duke: But only if J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams return. If Williams
leaves, he'll have the Devils in the lower part of the top 10.
-- Villanova: The Wildcats might have made it to St. Louis this year if
forward Curtis Sumpter had not gotten hurt before Villanova faced North
Carolina in the Sweet 16. Coach Jay Wright returns all five starters. He has
four veteran guards, headed by Allan Ray and Randy Foye, a quick, athletic
center in Jason Fraser and a warrior at forward in Sumpter. The Wildcats
struggled early this season when Fraser was hurt, but finished strong,
winning 10 of their final 12 and routing both Kansas and Boston College when
they were unbeaten.
-- Oklahoma: Kelvin Sampson returns all five starters off a 25-8 team that
tied for the Big 12 title. The Sooners have an imposing post duo in Taj Gray
(who recently announced that he was not turning pro) and Kevin Bookout.
There may be a minor NCAA problem -- Sampson has admitted making some
illegal recruiting contacts in the past, but if the Sooners don't draw a
major penalty, this team could make a title run.
-- Connecticut: Jim Calhoun's Huskies never recovered from the preseason
loss of point guard recruit A.J. Price, who almost died due to a brain
aneurism. But if Price returns to team with Marcus Williams and Rashad
Anderson in the backcourt, UConn could be in position to make another run.
Charlie Villanueva's decision to turn pro is not unexpected. Josh Boone and
Ed Nelson are back up from, along with potentially spectacular forward Rudy
Gay. Add giant recruit Andrew Bynum and the Huskies will be a force.
There are at least a dozen other teams drawing some support as 2006 Final
Four contenders -- again it depends on NBA or other defections:
-- Texas: It's not clear whether or not superb forward P.J. Tucker returns
or not. But Daniel Gibson was the best freshman in the country last year and
has matured into a tremendous guard; gifted big man LaMarcus Aldridge should be
healthy next season; solid forward Brad Buckman will be back for his senior
year; and recruit C.J. Miles is an explosive wing player. If Tucker beats
his academic problems, the Longhorns will be Final Four contenders.
-- Kentucky: How much will the Wildcats miss Chuck Hayes? Everybody else who
matters will be back off a 28-6 Elite Eight team. The three freshmen "R's"
of Randolph Morris, Rajon Rondo and Ramel Bradley all have a chance to be
-- Washington: Four starters are slated to return from a 29-win team, plus
coach Lorenzo Romar is adding one of the nation's best recruiting classes.
If neither explosive little man Nate Robinson nor potentially explosive recruit
Martell Webster go pro, the Huskies look awfully talented next year.
-- Boston College: Four starters are back, including stars Jared Dudley and
Craig Smith. One Eastern writer I talked to said to look out for rising soph
Sean Williams, a 6-10 shot blocker who averaged 2.3 blocks in just 17
minutes a game last season. The Eagles could be legitimate contenders in
their first ACC season.
Four of 2005's powers are on the cusp next season:
-- Illinois: Three starters are scheduled to return, although either Dee
Brown or Deron Williams could test the NBA waters. That would be disastrous.
Luther Head and Roger Powell will be hard enough to replace and Bruce Weber
really doesn't have a lot coming in.
-- Wake Forest: Chris Paul was in St. Louis for the weekend and the talk was
that he's gone. That leaves Justin Gray and Eric Williams as the only two
returnees from this past year's top six players. That's not enough to remain
in the top 20. If Paul pulls a surprise and does return, the Deacs have a
chance, but won't be as deep (especially in the backcourt) as last season.
-- Louisville: The Cardinals lose Ellis Myles and Larry O'Bannon, but add
five top 100 recruits (including McDonald's All-American Amir Johnson). The
problem is that Francisco Garcia is expected to test the NBA waters. If he
goes, Coach Rick Pitino will be missing a lot of firepower off his Final
-- Michigan State: Four starters should be back and freshman point guard
Drew Neitzel ought to be better next year. But versatile starter Alan
Anderson and top subs Chris Hill, Kelvin Torbert and Tim Bograkos will have
to be replaced.
At least four of this season's power teams will be in a rebuilding mode.
-- Georgia Tech: Five of Paul Hewitt's top six players are seniors. The
other, junior point guard Jarrett Jack, is almost certain to go pro.
-- Arizona: Lute Olson has another good recruiting class arriving, but
without Salim Stoudamire or Channing Frye, the Wildcats will have a very
-- Kansas: Bill Self is replacing Roy Williams' players with his own.
Bye-bye to All-American Wayne Simien, four-starter Aaron Miles and steady
Keith Langford. Hello to Mario Chalmers, Micah Downs and (maybe, if he doesn't
go pro) Julian Wright.
-- Wisconsin: Three starters are gone, including top scorer Mike Wilkinson.
Unless prep stars Brian Butch and Greg Steismsa (4.7 points and 3.6 rebounds
between them last season) blossom, the Badgers will come back to the pack in
the Big Ten.
This isn't a complete list, of course. UCLA and Memphis have some nice
talent. Everything went wrong for Tommy Amaker at Michigan this year, but he's
got some good players returning. Some of the guys I talked to think N.C.
State will be better as gifted big men Andrew Brackman and Cedric Simmons
mature. Alabama has to replace Ernest Shelton and no one else. And who knows
what to make of West Virginia after this year's NCAA run?
Illinois likes to portray itself as the nation's best program without a
And, after losing to North Carolina Monday night, the Illini can still make
that case. No team has won as many NCAA Tournament games (37) without
winning a title.
But, if you asked me, I'd give the title to St. John's.
The Johnnies have just 29 NCAA wins. Frank McGuire guided St. John's to a
second-place finish in 1952, losing to the Kansas team that included a
little-used guard named Dean Smith (who would one day replace him at North
Carolina). Louie Carneseca took St. John's to a Final Four in 1985 with
Chris Mullins and Bill Wennington, two stars that a young Mike Krzyzewski
tried and failed to recruit.
But St. John's was, in the years before the foundation of the Big East, the
power in Eastern basketball. The Johnnies have won a record five NIT
titles -- including at least three when the NIT meant something.
St. John's ranks fifth on the NCAA's alltime win list, two spots ahead of
Temple, which might also claim to have a better basketball history than
The Owls won the first NIT title in 1938, when it was clearly a better
tournament than the NCAA. Temple has made just one Final Four appearance
under the great Harry Litwick. But the Owls have won 31 NCAA games and has
reached the Elite Eight six times.
Illinois and Oklahoma (31 NCAA wins) both have strong non-championship
programs. But so do Notre Dame (10 th alltime in wins; 27 NCAA wins), Wake
Forest (27 NCAA wons), Purdue (27 NCAA wins) and Texas (26 NCAA wins).
Dave Odom issued a statement Monday denying that he had talked to Virginia
athletic director Craig Littlepage to talk about the Virginia job.
He didn't say anything about meeting with Virginia president John Casteen,
who was in St. Louis to talk to Odom. Apparently, the negotiations didn't go
well -- leading to the denials all around about Odom's interest in the job.
With Odom out -- as well as Tubby Smith, Rick Barnes, John Beilein and Rick
Carlisle -- where does Virginia go now?
I know that a lot of Duke fans reading this are in mourning this morning
after North Carolina's national championship win this year. I know I can't
make you feel much better, but just to lessen the pain, let me suggest a few
reasons why UNC's winning is not such a bad thing:
-- It's good for the ACC. Not only is it the league's 10 th national title,
but UNC's three straight victories over Big 10 teams gives the ACC the best
performance in this year's NCAA Tournament. The ACC finished 12-4, half a
game ahead of the Big 10 at 12-5. And the ACC ended up 3-2 in head-to-head
matchups with the Big Ten.
-- Illinois finishes with 37 wins and does not break the NCAA record for
wins in a season. The UNC win means that Duke (1986, 1999), UNLV (1987) and
Illinois (2007) all share the NCAA record with 37 wins in a season.
-- It's good for the rivalry. As much fun as it was to be on top, the
Duke-Carolina rivalry won't remain the best rivalry in sports with one team
dominating. UNC had not had a better year than Duke since 1998. Give them
this year. It keeps the rivalry from becoming as lopsided the Yankees-Red
Sox were until last fall. I honestly believe the two programs drive each
other to greatness.
-- Feel good for some genuinely good people. Roy Williams is a good guy --
there's a reason he's one of the most popular men in his profession. Sean
May is the kind of kid you'd be glad to see representing Duke. Raymond
Felton is a classy kid. Rashad McCants -- no comment.
-- I don't know why, but in the modern era, ACC titles have always been
followed by more ACC titles: UNC wins in 1982 and N.C. State wins in 1983.
Duke wins in 1991 and 1992 and UNC wins in 1993. Duke wins in 2001 and
Maryland wins in 2002. UNC wins in 2005 and Duke wins in 2006?
-- The one reason to be happy for UNC's victory that doesn't give me comfort
is the thought that this just makes it more likely that the four Tar Heel
underclassmen coveted by the NBA might turn pro. I know some Duke fans will
see this as a blessing, but I don't. I'm a college basketball fan and an ACC
fan. I don't want UNC to collapse because May's father decides that this is
the best time for him to go pro. I don't want Felton and McCants to take
their game to Atlanta and Portland. I don't want Marvin Williams to be the
next Corey Maggette.
Let's make a deal right now. Let all the Carolina kids come back and all of
Roy Williams' recruits arrive healthy and ready to go. Let's let Chris Paul
and Jarrett Jack stick around next season (John Gilchrist, you can go -- the
Globetrotters need a new attraction). And let's keep Shelden Williams in
Durham to team with J.J. Redick, Josh McRoberts, Greg Paulus, Jamal Boykin
(I just have a feeling about this guy) and a revitalized Shavlik Randolph.
Then let's hit the court next year and see if Carolina is still the best.
Ah, that's a dream for the morning after the NCAA title game.