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Top 5 for 2010-2011

It’s almost a shame to stop writing cold turkey about college basketball in the wake of one of the most exciting NCAA Tournaments in years and a national championship game that will go down in the books as one of the best ever – it would have been the greatest in history if Gordon Hayward’s half-court prayer went in as it almost did.

With that said, let’s put a cap on the 2009-10 season with an early look ahead to next year. Now, most sportsbooks won’t have any futures odds posted until after the NBA’s early entry deadline, which is April 25. And they probably will wait until after the May 8 deadline when guys can pull their names back as long as they didn’t hire an agent.

But here is how I see next season’s top five title contenders as of today:

1. Michigan State. Obviously you never wish for an injury, but when star point guard Kalin Lucas tore his Achilles’ tendon in the NCAA Tournament win over Maryland, that assured the 2009 Big Ten Player of the Year would return to East Lansing for his senior season (he wasn’t really considered a high first-round pick anyways). With Lucas out, guys like Durrell Summers, Draymond Green and Korie Lucious all lifted their games, which can only help. The only loss of significance is forward Raymar Morgan, and he was always too inconsistent. Plus Coach Tom Izzo welcomes arguably his best recruiting class in years, led by five-star center Adreian Payne and Michigan Mr. Basketball Keith Appling. A seventh Final Four in 13 years under Izzo seems likely.

2. Duke. Can the Blue Devils repeat as national champs for the second time in school history? They lose star point guard Jon Scheyer and big center Brian Zoubek, who made himself into quite a force down low – and that was the big difference on this year’s team in that the Blue Devils actually had some toughness and rebounding in the post. The key to repeating might be whether junior swingman Kyle Singler goes pro after a pretty good tournament and Final Four MOP award. But remember that the Dukies welcome Stephen Curry’s sharpshooting little brother Seth, who sat out a year after transferring from Liberty. Plus at least one of the Big 3, Nolan Smith, will be back. So will the Plumlee brothers to handle things down low. And five-star point guard recruit Kyrie Irving arrives in Durham. With Irvin, Smith, Curry and Andre Dawkins, Duke could have the nation’s best backcourt in 2010-11.

3. Purdue. The Boilermakers had hoped to reach the Final Four while it was down the road in Indy this season, but Robbie Hummel’s injury ruined that. The good thing about Purdue is that its very good players really aren’t projected as stud NBA players – thus all the key ones like Hummel, JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore will be back next season, although it’s possible Johnson could test the waters. Valuable Chris Kramer graduates and so does Keaton Grant. But with point guard Lewis Jackson and the Big 3, that should be enough to contend with Michigan State and possibly Ohio State for the Big Ten title.

4. North Carolina. Will the Heels be in the preseason Top 5 of the polls? No way, but they sure seemed to grow up some in reaching the NIT final, and they also welcome the top recruit in the country, Harrison Barnes. If Ed Davis somehow stays in school, UNC will have a frontcourt that will be unmatched by anyone. I think the Heels learned a big-time lesson in humility this season and will be a monster come tournament time next March. Roy Williams’ teams just don’t underachieve two years in a row.

5. Butler. As good as the Bulldogs were in this tournament, I had a hard time including them in the Top 5. If Gordon Hayward leaves for the NBA, then Butler isn’t in this group. But Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard both will be back, as it seems will Coach Brad Stevens. I consider Butler along the lines of Gonzaga now, but I don’t expect another Final Four run. And for what it’s worth, I would replace Butler with Florida if the Gators land two-time national player of the year Brandon Knight. There have been reports that UF has stopped recruiting the in-state Knight, but I don’t believe that. Knight says he will make a decision in mid-April, and if the Gators land him (Kentucky may be in the lead) they would have an incredible backcourt and already return the core of the team that got back to the Big Dance this season for the first time since the back-to-back national titles.

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