The dust is still settling from this year’s epic NCAA Tournament Championship Game, but it is never too early to look forward to next year’s game. Louisville and Michigan were both very worthy competitors in the big game, and they put up a heck of a battle. The question now is whether the two teams will be strong National Championship contenders next year.
Will Louisville be like Florida who won in 2006 and then did it again the next year? Or will they fare like their rivals down the highway, Kentucky, who won it all last year, then lost in the first round of the NIT this year? Will Michigan bounce back and reach the finals again next year like Butler did in 2010 and 2011? Or will they descend into frustration and failure like UCLA has since losing the finals in 2006? Only time will tell for sure, but here’s a look at how each team is set up heading into next season for a possible trip back to the Final Four:
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The team was the fifth choice to win it all next year at 12/1 in the earliest futures odds released soon after the game ended.
At first glance it could be hard for this team to compete because the heart of it is about to be ripped out. Peyton Silva is the only senior on the team, but he’s also the leader and will be badly missed. Two juniors are more likely to leave than to stay as well. Russ Smith is only likely to be a second-round pick, but his dad said after the Championship Game that he would be turning pro. Given his size he’s not likely to ever break the first round, so the timing makes sense. Gorgui Dieng had a very good tournament run and is likely a first-rounder. He’s 23 already, so there is really no decision to make — this is his time. It would be quite a surprise if either of the juniors returned.
The future for the team isn’t nearly as bleak as it might seem despite those losses, though. Chane Behanan, Wayne Blackshear and Montrezi Harrell are all back, and they will form a very solid front court. Final Four assassin Luke Hancock and big man Stephan Van Treese return as well, and Kevin Ware might be able to heal that nasty broken leg in time to contribute. That talent will all be joined by a very good recruiting class. With Silva and likely Smith gone, the pressure will be on Terry Rozier and Chris Jones to step in and contribute immediately. They are both among the best guard prospects available, and Rozier in particular has a chance to be special. Shooting guard Anton Gill is a Top-50 recruit as well.
If Dieng were to pull a shocking move and stick around, this team would be a major contender again. Even without him they are going to be a major threat. They will have a soft schedule next year in their pre-ACC transition year, and that will help them break in the new talent for the postseason. Their neighbors from Kentucky could be extremely tough to beat, but Louisville should be a threat to repeat.
Michigan is the ninth choice along with Florida and Syracuse to win the title next year at 20/1.
Michigan has a problem, but it’s a good kind of problem to have in the big picture. All five of this year’s starters are going to play in the NBA. They are all underclassmen, though, so the question is when they will leave. The only one who absolutely will be back is Nik Stauskas. Trey Burke is all but certain to go — after winning every award possible this year he has nothing left to gain other than a championship. Tim Hardaway Jr. is likely to go as well — he’s a junior already, so his draft value isn’t likely to improve with another year. Tournament revelation Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III would both likely go in the first round if they declared this year, too. My gut tells me that both will return, though Robinson is much more of a threat to leave than McGary. They both have massive talent, but are both raw and could really elevate their stock with a step forward next year. That being said, it wouldn’t be a shock to see them both go. Aside from that, all that will be lost is five seniors who made little impact on the court.
Like Louisville, Michigan has a strong recruiting class coming in to fill their gaps. Derrick Walton is a point guard. He will initially have the luxury of playing behind Spike Albrecht, but it’s a good bet he’ll be starting by conference play if he performs as expected. Shooting guard Zak Irvin, this year’s “Mr. Basketball” in Indiana, is a scoring machine who will step in at shooting guard if Hardaway does leave. Mark Donnal is a big man who can join the rotation — though he’d probably be better off if McGary did come back for another year so he can develop slowly.
How this team will do depends upon what happens with draft decisions. Losing Burke will obviously hurt, but it doesn’t have to be fatal. If only he and Hardaway leave, then this team has a chance to be a serious contender again. In that case they would be much of what they were this year — a team that is a threat to win the Big Ten and make a tournament run. If all four guys left for the pros then they would still be solid, but would take a step back — they would be a tournament team, but probably not a real contender. It will be nervous times for Michigan fans until decisions are made.
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