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Road to the Final Four

By Adam K. Raymond

If last year’s NCAA tournament taught us one thing, it’s that predicting who will be in the Final Four, let alone be in or win the national title game, is nearly impossible. (Come on, who thought UConn, after finishing ninth in the Big East, would go on an 11-game winning streak from the tip-off of the Big East Tournament to take home the national championship?)

The 2011/2012 season, which kicks off this week, should be just as -- if not more -- exciting, as this year’s freshman recruiting class is quite impressive and the NBA lockout has caused a number of key players to return to their schools rather than turn pro.

So who will make it to the Final Four in New Orleans this March? Your guess is as good as ours. But here is where the top 25 stand right now at the beginning of the season.

1. University of North Carolina Tar Heels


Last year: Lost to Kentucky 76-69 in the Elite Eight.

This year: Every key player from the 2010/2011 season is back, and they’ll be joined by two top-15 freshman on a Tar Heels team that’s the favorite to win it all in March.

2. University of Kentucky Wildcats

Last year: Lost in the Final Four 56-55 to UConn.

This year: Would-be lottery pick Terrence Jones is back, and so is another one of Coach John Calipari’s patented classes of superstar freshmen. Another Final Four birth is expected in Lexington, Ky.

3. Ohio State University Buckeyes

Last year: Lost to Kentucky 62-60 in the Sweet 16.

This year: Big man Jared Sullinger and guard William Buford should lead OSU to another No. 1 seed in the tournament. This year, they’ll be expected to do more with it.

4. Syracuse University Orange

Last year: Lost to Marquette 66-62 in the second round.

This year: Look for Fab Melo to continue his development into one of the nation’s best big men, and Scoop Jardine to continue living up to his awesome name, as the Orange contend for a second national title.

5. Duke University Blue Devils

Last year: Lost to Arizona 93-77 in the Sweet 16.

This year: The loss of Kyrie Irving, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler will hurt, but Coach K can recruit, and the three Plumlee brothers -- along with Seth Curry and Austin Rivers -- can play. Duke will be fine.

6. University of Louisville Cardinals

Last year: Lost to Morehead State 62-61 in the first round.

This year: Adorable point guard Peyton Siva and senior Kyle Kuric should be able to lead a team that adds one of Coach Rick Pitino’s best recruiting classes back to tournament glory.

7. University of Connecticut Huskies

Last year: Won the national championship.

This year: Mr. Everything Kemba Walker is gone, but the emergence of Jeremy Lamb and the addition of beastly freshman Andre Drummond should allow Coach Jim Calhoun’s squad to make another run for the title.

8. University of Memphis Tigers

Last year: Lost to Arizona 77-75 in the first round.

This year: A classic boom-or-bust squad, Memphis’s youthful talent could lead it to a championship or to a first-round exit. Expect something closer to the former.

9. Vanderbilt University Commodores

Last year: Lost to Richmond 69-66 in the first round.

This year: Junior guard John Jenkins leads an experienced Commodore team. They’ll have to fight Kentucky if they want a piece of the SEC title.

10. University of Pittsburgh Panthers

Last year: Lost to Butler 71-70 in the second round.

This year: The fourth Big East team in the top 10 will rely on Ashton Gibbs and crafty Coach Jamie Dixon to make a deep run in March. Another No. 1 seed is within reach.

11. University of Florida Gators

Last year: Lost to Butler 74-71 in the Elite 8.

This year: Florida’s front court is nonexistent, but its backcourt is one of the best in the nation and will likely lead them to another high seed in this year’s tournament.

12. Baylor University Bears

Last year: Missed out on postseason entirely.

This year: A long athletic team, the Bears will try to replicate their 2010 success and avoid last year’s awful result. The return of Perry Jones and the arrival of freshman Quincy Miller should make that achievable.

13. University of Kansas Jayhawks

Last year: Lost to VCU, 71 to 61, in the Elite 8.

This year: Losing the Morris brothers and Josh Selby doesn’t hurt Kansas as much as one might think. In a Big 12 down year, Tyshawn Taylor will allow the Jayhawks to compete for a title.

14. University of Wisconsin Badgers

Last year: Lost to Butler 61-54 in the Sweet 16.

This year: Bo Ryan’s team will go as far as potential All-American Jordan Taylor can lead it. Look for that to mean another trip to the Sweet 16.

15. Xavier University Musketeers

Last year: Lost to Marquette 66-55 in the first round.

This year: Xavier should have no problem winning the A-10. The challenge will be avoiding an NCAA Tournament result like last year’s, and guard Tru Holloway will make sure it doesn’t happen again.

16. Texas A&M University Aggies

Last year: Lost to Florida State 57-50 in the first round.

This year: Future pro Khris Middleton should be able to lead A&M to its seventh straight tournament appearance.

17. University of Arizona Wildcats

Last year: Lost to UConn 65-63 in the Elite 8.

This year: Losing a player like Williams will always hurt a team, but Coach Sean Miller has enough talent to make another deep run in the tourney.

18. University of Missouri Tigers

Last year: Lost to Cincinnati 78-63 in the first round.

This year: Newcomer Coach Frank Haith has a lot of veteran talent on a team that should have no problem going further than last year.

19. Gonzaga University Bulldogs

Last year: Lost to BYU 89-67 in the second round.

This year: A front line of Elias Harris and Robert Sacre should be enough for the Zags to take down another WCC title. The emergence of a point guard will allow them to go even further.

20. University of Michigan Wolverines

Last year: Lost to Duke 73-71 in the second round.

This year: Losing Darius Morris is a tough blow for a Wolverine team that hoped to contend for the Big 10 title. Tim Hardaway Jr. will have to step up if that dream is to become a reality.

21. University of Cincinnati Bearcats

Last year: Lost to UConn 69-58 in the second round.

This year: The high-flying Bearcats are led by Yancy Gates and Cashmere Wright, who will have to play like stars if Cincy is to make the leap into the upper echelon of the Big East.

22. University of Alabama Crimson Tide

Last year: Lost to Wichita State 66-57 in the NIT Championship game.

This year: The Crimson Tide’s three best players and Coach Anthony Grant are poised to bring the team back to the big dance.

23. UCLA Bruins

Last year: Lost to Florida 73-65 in the second round.

This year: It’s hard for a team to recover from the loss of its two best players, but Reeves Nelson and UNC transfers David and Travis Wear should be enough for the Bruins to contend for a Pac-10 title.

24. University of Washington Huskies

Last year: Lost to UNC 86-83 in the second round.

This year: Freshman Tony Wroten Jr. looks to make Huskies fans forget about departed star Isaiah Thomas -- and Wroten’s such a freak athlete that he can actually do it.

25. Butler University Bulldogs

Last year: Lost to UConn 53-41 in the national championship game.

This year: The loss of Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard hurts, but it’s hard to pick against Coach Brad Stevens’ Bulldogs.

Copyright (c) 2011 Studio One Networks. All rights reserved.

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