Musing On A Miracle ... And A Top 10 for 2008-09
SAN ANTONIO -- The hoops world is not ready to move on from Mario's Miracle just yet. It's unlikely that anyone packing up and leaving Alamo-land this morning -- from the media to the Kansas and Memphis contingents -- can get Monday night's drama out of their heads.
I'm just a greenhorn at this Final Four business (2008 was my fourth at SI), but I think this was a title-game finish for the ages, this decade's closest answer to the Keith Smart shot that stunned Syracuse when I was just 6 years old. There are certain things from Monday's finish that I'll forever remember: my vantage point on Mario Chalmers' three, from two rows back and to the left of Packer & Nantz; standing next to Chalmers and his mother, Almarie, as they embraced courtside; listening to Ronnie Chalmers in the Kansas locker room as he recounted sitting with Mario in the Alamodome at the 2004 Final Four, and how his son said that he would be playing for a championship some day. After watching two straight Final Fours full of blowouts, this was the payoff, the long-awaited shining moment.
The image in my head of Chalmers' shot is vivid enough to still give me goosebumps at 11 a.m. on Tuesday. And perhaps that's why I'm stuck on it; because any picture I try to form of next season is incredibly unclear. There's a chance that the Jayhawks could lose their entire starting five: Darnell Jackson and Russell Robinson are graduating, Brandon Rush is going pro, Darrell Arthur is leaning that way, and even the miracle man -- who wasn't thought to be potential early draft entrant as of last week -- is considering making the jump to the NBA.
If Chalmers were to return for his senior season, though, he could lead the Revenge of the Upperclassmen. The second straight tidal wave of one-and-done freshmen -- from Memphis' Derrick Rose, to UCLA's Kevin Love, to Kansas State's Michael Beasley -- are uniformly expected to enter June's draft. For the past two seasons one could scan a list of top recruits and envision how the college hoops landscape would soon be altered. Last April one could see that Love would boost the Bruins and Rose would take Memphis over the top, and I ran a top 10 in the magazine that nailed the '08 Final Four. As much as I'd like to pat myself on the back, those were not difficult predictions.
Examine the incoming recruits for '08, though, and you'll see that there is no truly transcendent rookie on the horizon. There are a few good ones -- such as McDonald's All-American game MVP Tyreke Evans, who might soon be bound for Memphis or Villanova, and Jrue Holiday, who should fill UCLA's expected backcourt vacancy -- but there is no Greg Oden or Derrick Rose. Teams will rely on upperclassmen to save them. Perhaps Super Mario can come to the rescue once again? And if not him, what about North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson, Texas' D.J. Augustin, UConn's Hasheem Thabeet, UCLA's Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook, and West Virginia's Joe Alexander? Their pro decisions will matter more than anyone else's.
In writing a top 10 for next season so early (a practice we can mutually acknowledge the absurdity of, but at the same time admit that we're reasonably interested in) it's necessary to make a few educated guesses. And so on top of the players who have already declared, I'm assuming there will be a few more. Among them: Memphis' Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts, Kansas State's Michael Beasley and Bill Walker, UCLA's Love and Collison, Kansas' Arthur, USC's O.J. Mayo and Texas' Augustin.
Everything will fall into place over the next three weeks. Until then, this is my best assessment:
1. NORTH CAROLINA - Will leaving San Antonio empty-handed inspire key Tar Heels to stay for another season? Hansbrough could become the first back-to-back Naismith Award winner since Ralph Sampson’s three-peat (1981–83) -- and along with Lawson, make another run at the title. If Ty takes off for the NBA, leaving UNC to make do with senior-to-be Bobby Frasor and incoming recruit Larry Drew at point guard, that championship will be more difficult to attain.
2. UCONN - The 87-inch question in Storrs is: Will Big East defensive player of the year Hasheem Thabeet (147 blocks) return and make the Huskies a title contender? Point guard A.J. Price (torn left ACL) is expected back for the ’08 opener.
3. UCLA - The next wave of Bruins backcourt stars -- led by polished combo guard Jrue Holiday -- arrives as part of Rivals.com's No. 2–ranked recruiting class. The pairing of Holiday with Russell Westbrook should keep UCLA atop the Pac-10.
4. PURDUE - Big Ten hegemony could begin here for coach Matt Painter, whose precocious band of underclassmen -- led by freshman guards (and former AAU teammates) E'Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel -- came within one win of a conference title in ’08.
5. KANSAS - Senior All-Americas are a dying breed, but KU should have one in point guard Mario Chalmers -- plus a breakout star in Sherron Collins, who finished an injury-riddled season with a superb performance off the bench in the title game.
6. TEXAS - The Horns have nearly every piece of the championship puzzle: a three-point marksman (A.J. Abrams), a glue guy (Justin Mason), two versatile forwards (Damion James and Connor Atchley) ... but no tested point guard if Augustin bolts.
7. WEST VIRGINIA - If late-season sensation Alexander, a 6-foot-8 forward, sticks around for his senior year and teams up with top recruit Kevin Jones, a 6-7 forward, the Mountaineers will have a potent one-two punch in the frontcourt.
8. GEORGETOWN - Greg Monroe is no Greg Oden, but the 6-10 forward from Harvey, La., is the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2008 and will help fill the void left by center Roy Hibbert's graduation. Look for unsung point guard Jessie Sapp to emerge as the Hoyas' MVP.
9. DUKE - The Blue Devils lose DeMarcus Nelson (graduation) and Taylor King (transfer) -- and Mike Krzyzewski could tire after coaching the U.S. team in Beijing -- but the nucleus for a Final Four team, including versatile forwards Kyle Singler and Gerald Henderson, remains.
10. TENNESSEE - Junior-to-be forward Tyler Smith has All-America potential, but landing a five-star recruit -- shooting guard Scotty Hopson -- on April 1 was huge for the Vols, who need scoring power after losing seniors Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith.
The rest of the top 30: Notre Dame, Michigan State, Pittsburgh, USC, Ohio State, Syracuse, Memphis, Florida, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Davidson, Marquette, Villanova, Baylor, Gonzaga, BYU, Wisconsin, Xavier, Louisville, Clemson.