The Big Picture
Bilas isn’t keen on assigning narratives to a season before it begins — a coach’s quest for a milestone win, for instance, or a team’s redemption arc in the wake of a disappointing showing. That said, he expects the 2011–2012 season to differentiate itself from the two that preceded it in one noticeable way: quality of play.
“This is going to be a much more powerful year,” Bilas says. “The last two years, the quality of play wasn’t as good as it has been.” While he attributes this in part to the “culture of early entry” — elite players going pro after a season or two — Bilas also says that it’s cyclical to a certain extent. “We had very good teams and players and coaching jobs [last season], but I don’t think we had a single great team. You have a champion every year, but that doesn’t mean the champion is great, historically speaking.”
The Elite Teams
Bilas believes that any of four traditional powers — North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio State and Syracuse — could end the dominant-squad drought, and he ranks North Carolina (UNC) as his preseason No. 1. “They’re not quite as powerful as they were in 2009, when they were the best team and it wasn’t even close,” he says. “But they can play the way [Tar Heels coach] Roy Williams wants to play, which is breakneck-speed fast. He wants to run, run, run, run, and that provides more possessions, more opportunities for the other team to get into foul trouble and wear down. That’s when his teams have been their best.” Other factors in UNC’s favor: an NBA-size front line (John Henson/Tyler Zeller/Harrison Barnes) and incoming freshman James McAdoo, who Bilas describes as “a junior James Worthy.”
Kentucky, who Bilas ranks just below UNC, benefits from the unexpected return of sophomore forward Terrence Jones and the arrival of what Bilas bills as “by far the best recruiting class,” headlined by forwards Anthony Davis and Mike Gilchrist and guard Marquis Teague. Ohio State trails close behind on the strengths of Jared Sullinger (“The best low-post player in the country”), William Buford (“A pure shooter”) and Aaron Craft (“If he’s not the best on-ball defender in the country, he’s at least the peskiest”). Rounding out Bilas’ preseason Final Four is Syracuse, whose success could hinge on the play of guards Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine. He loves freshman center Rakeem Christmas, to the extent that he lapses into pun: “It’ll be Christmas every day. Sorry about that.”