Now that the 2011-12 season is in the books and Kentucky has been crowned as the national champion, it's time to look ahead. In fact, I'm already late to this party. They were still sweeping confetti off the floor of the Superdome when we here at ESPN released the first top 25 for 2012-13, one that pegged Indiana as the nation's top team. I may have a question or two about that top 25 (are the Hoosiers really going to make a big enough improvement on D to be the best team in the country?) but there'll be plenty of time to consider those questions between now and November.
Instead, what I want to do today is take a closer look at two teams that did not make the NCAA tournament this season. Anything written in April about an upcoming season should be taken with a grain of salt, granted. But right now I think Arizona and Tennessee will go from also-rans to tournament-worthy next year.
Let's consider the forecast for each of these programs. To do so I'll be using my trusty metric, returning possession-minutes (RPMs), which accounts for not only how much experience a team returns from one year to the next but also how large a role those returning players had in their team's offense.
The Wildcats were one possession away from getting into this year's tournament, as they fell to Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament title game 53-51. The good news it's unlikely Sean Miller's team will need the auto bid in 2013.
Miller will lose Kyle Fogg, Jesse Perry, and Brendon Lavender from this year's roster, but Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom, and Angelo Chol will be back. Those veterans will be joined by a recruiting class that is ranked in some quarters as the nation's best. The headliner is 6-8 McDonald's All-American Brandon Ashley, perhaps the top power forward nationally in this year's class. He'll be arriving along with 6-9 center and fellow McDonald's All-American Grant Jerrett, seven-footer Kaleb Tarczewski, and 6-2 shooting guard Gabe York.
One question mark with this team centers on Josiah Turner. The 6-3 freshman was suspended indefinitely before the Pac-12 tournament, and his status is still unclear. Turner had an inefficient season on offense, which is more or less par for the course for freshman point guards, but bear in mind the biggest leap in development is often seen between a player's freshman and sophomore years. If Turner does return, there's a good chance he starts to live up to the hype he generated as one of the nation's most highly rated point guard recruits
Arizona was a pretty good team in a pretty bad conference last year. The Cats outscored their league opponents by 0.10 points per possession. Teams that outscore their major conference by a margin that large are usually a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament, but that was not the case with the Pac-12 in 2012. Zona's strength was its defense, and in particular its ability to make opponents miss shots inside the arc. That's a good ability to have. We just saw a national championship game featuring perhaps the two best interior defenses in the country. I'm not projecting Miller's team for a slot in the 2013 national championship game just yet, but I do think continuing strong defense and an exceptionally talented freshman class will get Arizona back into the field of 68.
I'll be interested to see how Miller blends the old with the new next season. The Cats were a perimeter-oriented team in 2011-12, but with so much frontcourt talent arriving in Tucson, I'm guessing we'll see some more production from inside the arc in 2013.
The Volunteers lose Cameron Tatum to graduation, but just about everyone else will be back next year for head coach Cuonzo Martin. Through some combination of luck, merit, and weird tie-breakers, the Vols were actually the No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament, and a 2 seed that returns four starters should be an easy pick to make the NCAA tournament, right?
Pretty much, right. For one thing the Vols should benefit from the continued development of 6-8 sophomore-to-be Jarnell Stokes, who played just 17 games after becoming eligible mid-season as a freshman. Stokes shot just 57 percent at the free throw line and, what was worse for UT fans, he drew a lot of fouls. But in just about every other way Stokes displayed a good deal of promise as a freshman. He made 55 percent of his twos (meaning he came very close to shooting better from the field than he did at the line), and he was a capable rebounder at both ends of the floor.
Stokes will team with Jeronne Maymon to give Martin what projects to be an outstanding frontcourt. Maymon started his college career at Marquette before transferring to Knoxville, and in his first season as a Volunteer he quickly displayed a remarkable ability to draw fouls. (Though, like Stokes, he wasn't always able to turn those fouls into points: Maymon shot 66 percent at the line.) But the 6-7 Maymon is a reliable scorer in the paint, and in particular I expect that he and Stokes will be able to crash the offensive glass, if Martin will let them.
In the backcourt, leading scorer Trae Golden suffers from the oldest perceptual affliction in basketball. It is said the 6-1 combo guard is not a "true" point guard, whatever that is. I'll grant you he can commit an occasional turnover -- in particular Golden had a late February to forget, one where he committed six turnovers in a game on three separate occasions. But if we define a point guard as someone who records assists and makes baskets, then I submit to you that Golden is, all in all, a pretty fair point guard. His contribution to the offense has been underrated simply because some of his best work is done in the dullest way possible. Golden shoots 83 percent at the line and draws about five fouls per 40 minutes.
The only thing holding this team back is its own turnovers. The defense is already outstanding in Knoxville, but the Volunteers gave the ball away on 23 percent of their SEC possessions last season. If Golden and his teammates can take better care of the ball next year -- and chances are very good that they will, if for no other reason than the law of averages -- you'll be hearing an awful lot about how "Martin's done a great job with this team to get them back to the NCAA tournament." Wait and see.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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