With no free agency and a wide open single elimination tournament to decide its national champion, college basketball can be a very difficult sport to fairly evaluate. There's no quick fix to improve a team's roster, and regular season success can quickly be overshadowed by post season slip-ups, or vice-versa.
In turn, it's easy to develop a distorted perception of a team's actual talent level, or where they stand in the game's pecking order.
Through no real fault of their own most of the programs discussed after the jump are now asking themselves, "now what?" Some recently over performed, some are on the cusp of greatness and bored with their current level of success, and others are just named Butler. Really, what the heck are they supposed to strive for?
So here it goes. Our unconventional preview of the 2011-2012 season continues, with the top five plus one most handcuffed teams heading into the season.
Florida - They reached the Elite Eight last season, return their two starting guards (Kenny Boynton, Erving Walker), a developing big man who reportedly improved his game immensely over the summer (Patric Young), and a transfer guard who averaged 16 PPG in two seasons in the Big East (Mike Rosario). And yet, with all the positives that surround the latest edition of the Florida Gators, don't be surprised if they take a step back in 2012. After overachieving this past March, the bar may be set unreasonably high this season. Sure, fans should at least look forward to more regular season victories, but this roster might only be good enough for a regional final. That's really good though, guys! It's also being downright cruel and unfair to dismiss them before the ball has even been tipped.
Xavier - Tongue in cheek, I recently told a friend that if Xavier really wanted to make that next step as a program, they had to start doing some shady things. The kind an intrepid sports reporter would salivate at the chance to uncover. The Musketeer program, by all accounts, is squeaky clean. Nobody truly hates them outside of Dayton, and they've built prestige over the past 10 years at a nice linear rate. But if they're truly committed to regularly competing for Final Four berths, and not Elite Eights (they've been to two in the past eight seasons), it may be time to bend some rules. While Butler, VCU, and George Mason have busted many brackets, they don't have the staying power of XU, which makes money like a top flight BCS school but doesn't quite recruit like one...yet. Atlantic 10 titles are getting old and so is playing into the second weekend of the tournament. Now is a great time to break out of those handcuffs and force the entire world to stop with the baseless mid-major preface.
Butler - I don't know if I can put this kindly: the Bulldogs are going to have to get real creative when establishing team goals this season. After playing in consecutive National Championship finals, it appears that finally (and I say that endearingly), The Butler will not be one of the two remaining teams in the field of 68, I think. Assuming lighting never strikes three times...where the heck do these guys go from here? Winning the Horizon - while not a shoe-in this season - isn't going to feel particularly special and neither will knocking off juggernaut after juggernaut in the month of March. The Bulldogs have accomplished both with alacrity. A great non-conference schedule will keep Butler relevant this season, but in terms of program growth these guys might be stuck.
Arizona - This is a bit of a stretch selection here because long term the future looks incredibly bright, but doesn't it feel like Sean Miller got the Wildcats back on the scene a bit too early? Fresh off an Elite Eight run in which fans without a dog in the fight became enamored with the passion and intensity of Derrick Williams and MoMo Jones, it's unlikely 'Zona will continue that success into the regular season, let alone play in a second consecutive regional final. One of the youngest and most intriguing backcourts will be held under a microscope this season with many anxious for them to assimilate quickly. While this is going to be a fun team to watch, Miller's team may be stuck in purgatory for a year before latching onto some Final Four dreams.
- Pittsburgh - For someone with absloutely zero personal affiliation to the Oakland Zoo, I root for these guys far too enthusiastically. The Panthers continue to win early and often without a bevy of McDonald's All Americans, and have solidified themselves as a top tiered college basketball program...March notwithstanding. Despite 25 or more regular season wins in each of the past six seasons, the Panthers have never reached the Final Four and won a total of only nine tournament games in that span. This season, Jamie Dixon's club will once again sit ranked as a top 10 team. The problem is if it even matters; it's never correlated to post-season success.
One potentially glaring omission here is the aforementioned VCU Rams. Coming off an improbable run, the Rams seem to have laid the groundwork - and not set unrealistic expectations - for what could become one of the most solid mid-major programs for the next 10-15 years. I don't think anybody expects Shaka Smart to bring his team back to the Final Four. Instead, these guys are on the map now, and it will certainly help when sitting around prospective recruit's kitchen table.