Cards will help fill the vacuum in '08 Final Four
Rick Bozich, Louisville Courier-Journal
Only 181 days of fussing remain until practice begins for the next college basketball season. That means I'm overdue to throw the first elbows.
Here it goes: I'm ready with my frontrunners to reach the Final Four in San Antonio -- North Carolina, Memphis, Louisville and Tennessee.
What are you waiting on? Speak up. Last season is soooo yesterday.
Another thing: Last month I lamented a record that our local Big Three -- U of L, the University of Kentucky and Indiana University -- established this season. For the first time since the NCAA bracket expanded to 16 teams in 1951, the Big Three wheezed through back-to-back seasons without one making the Sweet 16.
That streak ends next season. I'm confident of that.
I envision at least two Sweet 16 teams in the group -- U of L and IU. I feel better about the Kentucky program than I've felt in nearly four years, especially if Billy Gillispie and his staff finish the job Tubby Smith could not -- the signing of Patrick Patterson and Jai Lucas.
And I expect Western Kentucky to join the party and make the NCAA field next season, too.
Burden of success
Let's get back to the Final Four. Applications are now being taken for serious contenders.
Before you make your list, let me give you a cheat sheet on teams that won't be there: A good place to start is with the teams that gathered in Atlanta several weeks ago, with the possible exception of UCLA.
These are frantic times in college hoops. According to some lists, 18 underclassmen have declared themselves eligible for the NBA draft.
So much for the theory that the example set by the four Florida sophomores who returned for their junior seasons would slow the sprint to the NBA.
Success does not breed success. Success breeds an exodus.
Every Final Four team figures to take a super-sized hit. The four Florida juniors are gone. Georgetown's two big men -- Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert -- have made themselves eligible. UCLA has lost top scorer Arron Afflalo. Ohio State could lose three members of its dazzling freshman class.
Stability is key
And that leaves … a vacuum atop the ratings.
The safest place to begin is with North Carolina. The Tar Heels could still lose freshman Brandan Wright. But at least Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and a strong supporting class are returning.
The crowd is also clamoring for Kansas. Can't do that until I'm certain Brandon Rush isn't going to follow Julian Wright out the door.
Stability directs me toward Memphis and Louisville. Memphis returns four starters and adds Derrick Rose to replace Jeremy Hunt. Rose for Hunt? Great trade. As long as Memphis remains in Conference USA, the Tigers will roll to a glittering record and high seed.
Louisville figures to return guys who scored nearly 87 percent of its points and collected about 88 percent of its rebounds. That doesn't put the Cardinals' chance of making the Final Four at 87.5 percent. But I believe Rick Pitino's team deserves its place in the discussion.
As does Tennessee. The Vols return the heart of a team that was one possession away from knocking Ohio State out of the NCAA Tournament. In Chris Lofton, Tennessee will have the nation's best senior guard.
The hot seat has space for others -- Southern California, Oregon, Michigan State, Georgia Tech, Washington State, Syracuse … and Indiana.
And the Hoosiers look like at least a Sweet 16 team, with center D.J. White announcing yesterday that he will stay at IU for his senior season, joining freshman guard Eric Gordon and the rest of Kelvin Sampson's powerful recruiting class.
We'll know more -- in 181 days.
Reach Rick Bozich at (502) 582-4650 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this column, and read his blog and previous columns, at www.courier-journal.com/bozich.