HOUSTON — It was the kind of news that could dampen many a postgame celebration. Even if it came at the close of a school’s third national championship in 13 years.
Asked if he expected teammate Kemba Walker — the most outstanding player of Connecticut’s 53-41 win over Butler on Monday night — to return for next season, Huskies forward Michael Bradley, the former Tyner Academy standout, replied, “No. Kemba’s got to go make his money.”
And he probably does. Even UConn coach Jim Calhoun said of Walker’s probable entrance into the NBA draft, “He probably needs to go.”
But that doesn’t mean the Huskies can’t repeat as NCAA champs. Not with Walker’s fellow all-tourney member Jeremy Lamb all but certain to return for his sophomore season, along with fellow rising soph Shabazz Napier and junior-to-be Alex Oriakhi — whose 11 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks should have earned him all-tourney honors — all set to return.
Let Walker join that mix and it would be all but impossible to see the Huskies not return to the Final Four to defend their championship.
But who should join them there? If UConn’s good enough to return, what other three schools could join them? Who should be good enough to join them? And are there any more Butlers out there, if not the Bulldogs themselves, to make another unexpected run?
If you’re picking three Final Four favorites to join the Huskies, start with Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio State.
Assuming that at least one of UK’s three rookies returns from the terrific trio of Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb, coach John Calipari’s third straight No. 1 recruiting class should give UK all the talent and depth it needs to reach an Elite Eight game and probably reach the Final Four in New Orleans.
A potential hangup for the Wildcats? Should both Knight and Lamb turn pro, Kentucky might struggle at point guard with Marquis Teague, who appears to lack the shooting skills that made Knight so strong down the stretch.
As for North Carolina, even if the ridiculously talented Harrison Barnes jumps ship after one season, the Tar Heels will have more than enough talent to allow coach Roy Williams to shed tears of joy instead of sorrow at the close of next year’s Final Four. At least as long as center Tyler Zeller stays for his senior campaign. UNC should probably even be the favorite, even if UConn’s Walker unexpectedly returns.
Why Ohio State? As long as powerful post player Jared Sullinger makes good on his promise to become a sophomore, Buckeyes could actually be better than this year’s crew, what with savvy point guard Aaron Craft returning, another stellar freshman class arriving and no one in the Big Ten save Michigan likely to be better than this year.
And a darkhorse? How about the Wolverines, who return almost everyone from a team that nearly knocked Duke out of the second round in Charlotte? Or the Dookies themselves, who’ll welcome No. 1 high school talent Austin Rivers to the fold?
Both could get to college basketball’s final weekend, as could Vanderbilt (assuming Festus Ezeli and Jeff Taylor both return), UCLA, Texas, Washington and — shocking as this seems — Tennessee, at least as long as no one jumps ship under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin.
As for Butler, any mid-major team that can overcome the loss of a lottery pick (Gordon Hayward) to return to the Final Four — as the Bulldogs did this year — can’t be counted out for next year, at least as long as guard Shelvin Mack and coach Brad Stevens both return.
Also, a quick thought on Bulldogs senior Matt Howard, who supposedly played his way out of the NBA on Monday by hitting just 1 of 13 shots against the far taller Huskies.
If former Kentucky forward Chuck Hayes — who is both shorter and lacks Howard’s outside shot — can last six seasons and counting in the NBA, so can Howard.
One final thought on the Huskies: There’s always chance that Monday night was coach Jim Calhoun’s swan song. At 68, he’s already the oldest coach to win it all, passing former Kansas coach Phog Allen, who was 66 when the Jayhawks claimed the 1952 title.
His reputation smudged by NCAA woes this winter, his heart broken by the deaths of two people close to him, Calhoun would surprise no one if he retired.
“Can I give the kids everything humanly possible that I can?” replied Calhoun when asked about retiring while on top. “If I can, I’ll coach as long as I can keep on doing it.”
If he does, UConn just might have four national championships instead of three come this time next year, whether Walker returns or not.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...
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