The top five teams in our preseason rankings belong there. There are far more strengths than weaknesses for Indiana, Louisville, Kentucky, Michigan and Kansas. Sure, there’s always room for the unpredictable occurrences that could change any program’s fortunes, such as injuries and suspensions.
The obvious flaws, however, seem minimal for the programs on this list. Indiana is deep and anchored by America’s top player, Cody Zeller. Multiple standouts return for a Louisville squad that reached the Final Four without a completely healthy roster. Kentucky shipped its starting five to the NBA in June, then added more NBA-level talent by July. Michigan has the nation’s top point guard (Trey Burke) and an elite prospect inside (Mitch McGary). Kansas has an elite core with Jeff Withey, Elijah Johnson and freshman Ben McLemore in the mix.
So what could go wrong? Well ...
What could go wrong with Indiana? The Hoosiers’ struggles outside Bloomington continue. I’d like to believe the infusion of talent on Tom Crean’s roster will overcome any repeat of the program’s subpar performances on the road last season. But I can’t assume anything right now. I’ll exclude any references to the team’s challenges in venues not named Assembly Hall during the Dark Years (Crean won 28 games in his first three seasons after the Kelvin Sampson scandal). But last season, Crean finally had the team he desired. And he still struggled on the road. The Hoosiers simply were a different squad in those scenarios, mostly on defense (64th in adjusted defensive efficiency in 2011-12). Of their eight losses outside Bloomington, five were double-digit defeats. Two were to Iowa and Nebraska. If inconsistency follows the Hoosiers on the road (or to neutral venues) this season, they might lack the momentum necessary to put together a serious run in March. The ability to execute in hostile and foreign arenas is a staple of championship-caliber teams. Indiana has yet to prove it’s capable and consistent in those situations.
What could go wrong with Louisville? The Cardinals can’t score. Rick Pitino’s history suggests Louisville will defend as well as any team in America. Again. The Cardinals were No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency last season. And they rode that defense to the Final Four in New Orleans. Louisville’s greatest quandary was its lukewarm offense, especially in close games. The team lost seven games by eight points or fewer. And 12 of its victories were decided by the same margin. Those games could have gone either way. That’s tightrope basketball for a team that failed to reach 60 points in nine games. And it could catch up to the Cardinals in 2012-13, especially with Kyle Kuric gone. When the Cards need a bucket in those situations, whom will Pitino turn to? His best options (Russ Smith, Peyton Siva, Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan) all were inconsistent last season.
What could go wrong with Kentucky? The freshmen play like freshmen. Last season’s Kentucky team was special. Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were the subjects of national headlines because of their youth and talent. But UK was bigger than the two freshman stars. Terrence Jones was mature enough -- down the stretch -- to take on a complementary role. Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller solidified the nucleus. The chemistry of that championship team was its greatest trait. John Calipari recruits talented freshmen, then fosters an atmosphere that helps them blend with his veterans. It’s not easy or common. Throughout the history of college basketball, there are more examples of freshmen fumbling through a season than succeeding, especially when offered key roles with elite teams. Although Calipari has mastered the formula for the one-and-done generation better than any other coach in the country, there’s always the possibility the freshmen on his roster will make the mistakes most freshmen make. Calipari’s current group -- featuring future NBA lottery picks Nerlens Noel and Alex Poythress -- is young and strong. That’s the norm in Lexington. Youthful errors that lead to limited success, however, are the norm everywhere else.
What could go wrong with Michigan? John Beilein’s offense becomes stale without 3-point shooters. I asked Beilein about the departures of two crucial 3-point shooters, Stu Douglass and Zack Novak, during Big Ten media day in Chicago. “Hopefully we’ve replaced that a little bit. But [players] that really understood what we were doing offensively? That’s the difficult part,” he said. Douglass, Novak and Evan Smotrycz, who transferred to Maryland, accounted for 140 of the team’s 276 made 3-pointers in 2011-12. Beilein’s system thrives on perimeter balance: guards who penetrate and proven shooters they can dish to when defenses collapse. Beilein’s new options -- Matt Vogrich (10.7 minutes per game last season) and four-star freshman Nik Stauskas -- are unproven. They might fill in perfectly. But the proficiency of the shooters who departed was vital for the entire roster. Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. could create shots partially because defenses couldn’t leave Novak and Douglass. There’s a trend with Beilein. In 1994-95, his Canisius squad shot 669 3-pointers, second in the school’s history. His 2001-02 Richmond team took 893 from beyond the arc, a record for the program. His 2004-05 West Virginia squad took 785 3-pointers, fourth in the nation that season. Beilein’s squads live and die by the 3-ball. It’s crucial within his system. Beilein’s offense will stall if he fails to identify players he can trust on the perimeter prior to the start of Big Ten season.
What could go wrong with Kansas? The Thomas Robinson hole is too big to fill. Kansas is the preseason favorite to win the Big 12. The Jayhawks are seeking their ninth consecutive conference crown. It’s an impressive run that illustrates Bill Self’s ability to replace talent with more talent. Robinson was different, though. He was obviously elite (17.7 points and 11.9 rebounds per game). But he also boosted the resilience of last season’s Kansas squad, which was gritty enough to reach the national title game in a come-from-behind win over Ohio State in the Final Four. Robinson’s in-game intensity willed Kansas to multiple victories last season. Even on his off days, he provided the energy the team needed. The Jayhawks certainly possess all the skill they need this season. Withey, Johnson, McLemore and Perry Ellis anchor this program now. That’s why KU is a top-five team. But Robinson had a rare combination of skill and swagger. Who will be that guy for the Jayhawks this season?