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Hoops hysteria becomes a whimper

The ‘thump, thump, thump’ sound of dribbling on hardwood is silenced now. I know, we still have the NBA playoffs to run almost up to the opening of NFL training camps, but somehow, when there’s that last little chill of late March-early April signaling the end of college basketball, it never passes without a little reflection.

But this time, no looking back, let’s see what’s in front of us. Yes, time for one of those ‘waaaay too early’ hoop prediction pieces.

Let’s be clear, now, this is not quantum physics. You’re going to disagree with some of these picks I’m throwing out there, and it’s too early to figure who’s yet to announce they’re leaving school to make an NBA draft declaration. Then, you have transfers, injuries, suspensions, coaching changes, and hoped-for players that just aren’t going to pan out, for whatever reason.

So, think of this prognostication as just: hype (yes, despite all those losses, I will still pick UNC as a Top-10 team!).

There’s no running order here. Some of the usual suspects (Kentucky, Michigan State, ‘Nova, and the ‘Zags) have been thrown in. Besides, sports are about entertainment in the first place, so buckle up and let’s have some fun!

Virginia’s back at number-one, despite losing the ‘Big-Three’ that earned them all that flying confetti from Monday night: Hunter, Jerome, and Guy. That leaves role players as the key returners. But there’s still reason for that statue of Thomas Jefferson on the quad in Who-ville to smile: optimism. Coach Tony Bennett’s methodical offense and disciplined defense didn’t graduate. And with a title under his belt, Bennett can go out and recruit a new cast of players who fit into his scheme.

Duke and Kentucky will be in the top-five since both will re-load with one-and-dones. While Coach K has a leg-up on Coach Cal with 5-star blue chippers expected in Durham, UK has more veterans returning to go with his incoming players.

Speaking of the SEC, Tennessee’s best news was coach Rick Barnes turning down UCLA to stay in Knoxville. If two-time SEC player of the year and Charlotte native Grant Williams comes back for another season alongside a proven supporting cast, this team will be good enough to build off this year’s Sweet 16 finish.

Both Michigan Big-10 teams (UM and Michigan State) have a great core group returning. It’s unlikely Player of the Year Cassius Winston goes pro, and several players who missed parts of the season with injury will make a difference for ‘Sparty’, if healthy. The Wolverines return four of five starters from a Sweet 16 team, giving coach John Beilein another team capable of winning Big-10 hardware.

Villanova and Gonzaga will bounce back. ‘Nova coach Jay Wright has reloaded with a top-five recruiting class and he’ll benefit from the development of younger players this past season. In the Pacific Northwest, Gonzaga loses Player of the Year Hachimura, but are also in the rare position of having one of nation’s top recruiting classes.

Finally, let’s survey the ACC. No less than nine teams made the Top-25 at some point last season, but that was then.

UNC has the most work to do with Nassir Little and Coby White declaring for the pros, not to mention graduation. But Roy Williams has five-star freshman Armando Bacot to pair with rising sophomore Garrison Brooks to form something the Heels haven’t had in two years: a formidable frontcourt. Louisville’s Chris Mack did a great job getting the Cards back to respectability in a short period of time, and Florida State, Syracuse, Clemson, Miami, and, yes: NC State will crack the 2020 Top-25 at some time.

State’s gaping hole: big men. A 6-6 wing player (Torin Dorn) led the Pack in rebounding a year ago – and now he’s gone. If coach Kevin Keatts’ redshirts and transfers develop this summer; Markell Johnson stays; and, three-point shooting gets more consistent, they’ll be growling again in West Raleigh.

Anybody got change for my two cents?

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.