1. Kansas Jayhawks
Kansas may not be the consensus choice for best recruiting class in the nation, that would be Kentucky, but it’s unlikely Coach Bill Self would trade his haul with anyone’s. Self landed the big prize of the class when Canadian star Andrew Wiggins surprisingly picked Kansas. Wiggins has been touted as the best high school prospect since LeBron James. That’s a large burden to shoulder for a kid his age, and because he’s more prospect than player at this point, it’s unlikely that he will live up to the massive hype, at least early on. But keep in mind, he has stepped up to challenges throughout his high school career and spearheaded the International Team’s back to back wins over Team USA in the Hoop Summit the past two years. Bigman Joel Embiid comes in with a lot of hype as well. Rick Pitino described him as the second best NBA prospect (after Wiggins) in all of college hoops. He should contribute immediately as a presence in the paint, if nothing else. The Jayhawks lost all five starters from a season ago but return a good deal of talent, regardless. One key returnee to keep an eye on is junior point guard Naadir Tharpe. After playing behind Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson for the past two seasons, Tharpe will finally get his turn to run the team, and will be backed up by the freshman Frankamp. Freshman Wayne Selden comes in with a lot of moxie and should be a key contributor with a strong frame and offensive skill set. Also look for Perry Ellis to emerge as an impact player in his sophomore season. Memphis transfer Tarik Black is a real key to this year’s team as he helps them absorb the loss of Jeff Withey. Forwards Jamari Traylor and Brannen Greene add depth. Kansas will be young, much like Kentucky but has more experience, stability and talent. Yes, Kansas, not Kentucky has the most talent in the nation and a coach, Bill Self, with championship experience who knows how to get the most out of it.
2. Duke Blue Devils
Love them or hate them, there’s no denying that the Blue Devils will be one of the top teams in the country this coming season. Incoming freshman Jabari Parker is one of the most talented players in the country and from a pure talent perspective, will be the best player Coach K has had to work with since Kyrie Irving. The roster is loaded from top to bottom. Andre Dawkins is back after taking a year off and he joins a roster that features the aforementioned Parker, Amile Jefferson, Rodney Hood and Rasheed Sulaimon among others to form arguably the most versatile roster in the nation. The only concern with this squad is their lack of depth in the frontcourt. Oft injured center Marshall Plumlee will have to stay healthy and out of foul trouble and provide defense and rebounding for this team to reach their full potential.
3. Michigan State Spartans
Key Additions: Gavin Schilling
Key Losses: Derrick Nix
The Spartans return virtually every player of note from last year’s team. Adreian Payne and Gary Harris resisted the urge to make the early jump to the NBA which made Sparty fans giddy. This is your typical Tom Izzo led squad. They will be active on defense, be extremely efficient on offense and will play within themselves because of solid coaching and fundamentals. After a solid freshman season, Harris will be counted on to help get this team to the next level and back to the Final Four. Branden Dawson, who after sustaining a terrible knee injury, hasn’t really developed into the player that some thought he would be, is going to be a key cog going forward. He needs to take a Payne-like step during his junior year. Payne was arguably the most improved player for Coach Izzo a season ago. So much so that he almost left early for the draft. With Nix gone, the frontcourt is his to anchor. There isn’t a lot of experience behind him so staying on the court and out of foul trouble will be huge for this team. Point Guard Keith Appling has shown flashes since coming in as a highly coveted recruit. Stepping into the player that many envisioned him to become will be huge for this team’s chances in the tourney. Izzo coached teams rarely underachieve, and this figures to be one of his most talented teams ever. Beware of Sparty in late March!
4. Louisville Cardinals
Fresh off of a National Championship, the Louisville Cardinals will have a target on their backs this season. It’s hard to imagine that a team coming off a National Title and after losing their starting point guard and center could actually improve but that’s exactly what the Cardinals are looking to do. Siva, the leader of this team for seemingly the last 10 years finally exhausted his eligibility but Russ Smith made a wise choice and decided to come back for his senior season. He will be given first crack at replacing Siva but if he struggles playing with the ball in his hands, JUCO transfer Chris Jones will be right behind him waiting to take over. Terry Rozier is the player who’s been generating huge buzz and could be right with Smith and Jones in terms of impact by season’s end, as he’s extremely talented. This team will have no shortage of talent in the backcourt but will be relatively thin up front. Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear play forward for this team but both are undersized which is a problem against longer teams. Replacing Dieng will be difficult which is why Montrezl Harrell will need to make huge strides this season and play more controlled and more consistent on the low block.
5. Arizona Wildcats
Sean Miller’s squad should be the class of the Pac-12 again this year. He has without a doubt, the most talented roster in the league and will have one of the most talented frontcourt rotations outside of Lexington. Point guard will be somewhat of an issue for this team now that Lyons is gone. Look for Nick Johnson to slide back over to that role full-time. He struggled at times to run the point during his freshman season but since then has improved both his ball handling and decision making which should make for an easier transition. Gordon is this team’s big time recruit and should provide a lot of energy. He is an elite athlete but his obsession with becoming a small forward could inhibit him from making his full impact. The team’s front court is likely to be anchored by sophomore Kaleb Tarczewski a skilled 7-footer who is primed make a big leap in his sophomore season. Hollis-Jefferson is also a player to keep an eye on as a freshman. He will get first crack at taking over for the departed Solomon Hill and should be a key contributor from the start. If they can receive quality PG play from Nick Johnson, the sky is the limit for Arizona.
6. Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky enters the season as the #1 team in the nation according to the polls and comes in as the odds on favorite in Vegas at 5-to-1 to cut down the nets at Cowboys Stadium in April. But we’re here to tell you not to believe the hype. This team obviously has the horses to win it all but we question their ability to find chemistry. Maturity is major question mark. This team’s make up feels awfully similar to the 2009-10 team led by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. Andrew Harrison and Julius Randle are without question incredible talents, but lacking in the experience department. Coach Cal has proven that he can win with his one and done formula, however it doesn’t appear that this team has the leadership that his championship team possessed. Who is this year’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, that will step up at important moments with composure and leadership and refuse to allow them to lose? After falling short of expectations a season ago, this new look Wildcat roster should get back on track. But they will still have to deal with a lack of experience and maturity. The point guard play that plagued the team for much of last season should be much improved with the addition of the Harrison twins and no offense to Jarod Polson or John Hood but to say the depth on this roster will be much improved would be an understatement. This team will have its issues early on learning how to play together but should surely be one of the best team’s in the nation by season’s end. James Young is a sharp shooter who plays nothing like a freshman. Where this team, really has a big advantage over basically every other team is their froncourt. Despite their youth, Cauley-Stein, Poythress, Randle, Johnson and Lee figure to form the best five man frontcourt rotation in the nation. This team, like so many other Coach Cal team’s, will have to gel on the fly and it will be their ability to do so that will determine how far they will go. Remember, talent alone does not win NCAA titles.
7. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Key Additions: Stevie Clark
Key Losses: None
Travis Ford’s squad came out of nowhere a season ago to be one of the year’s biggest surprise teams. They knocked off a highly ranked NC State team early in the season and never looked back. Marcus Smart burst onto the scene and became one of the most exciting players to watch all season. He, along with fellow breakout player Markel Brown formed one of the best starting backcourts in the nation. With LeBryan Nash one the wing and Phil Forte stretching the floor from behind the arc, the Cowboys took the Big 12 by surprise. Some people questioned why Smart passed on what would have been an almost guaranteed top 3 spot in the draft to come back for his sophomore season but it could pay off in the long run if he can improve on his jump shot and point guard play this season. Travis Ford will have to figure out a way to utilize a lot of three guard lineups as this team doesn’t have a lot of firepower on the inside. He’ll likely take a page out of Jay Wright’s book from those Villanova teams of the early 2000’s.
8. Syracuse Orange
With the team set to begin their first season in the ACC, the Orange again have a roster that can compete with any team in the country. Jim Boeheim’s will have another long and athletic team at his disposal in what will be a new look ACC that looks to be the best conference in the country. Freshman Tyler Ennis has some big shoes to fill taking over for Carter-Williams. The two players may not have similar body types but their games are very similar. Ennis has the potential to be a better version of Carter-Williams if he can improve the range on his jump shot. C.J. Fair will be the most important player for Syracuse this season. He is a do it all type of player who has the ability to take over the game on both ends of the floor. The team will need sophomores Jerami Grant and Gbinije to contribute on a nightly basis and help stretch the floor to give Fair and Ennis space to work.
9. Florida Gators
Nnewcomer Kasey Hill is an in-state star at the point guard position who will be ready to take over from day one. A season ago this team’s bread and butter on offense was very perimeter oriented. Expect that to change as this team will be loaded up front. Transfers Finney-Smith and Harris will both have key roles on this team but it is five-star freshman Chris Walker who will be asked to step in and fill the shoes left by Murphy’s departure. The only question will be if Walker can qualify academically. At the moment he hasn’t so that will be another storyline to watch out for heading into the season. A large part of the Gators’ fate rests on the shoulders of a suspended player. Scottie Wilbekin has been suspended and partially reinstated by Coach Billy Donovan and it is unclear when he will return. Wilbekin is the team’s best on ball perimeter defender and for a team where defense is its calling card, his absence will be a huge blow if it is an extended one.
10. North Carolina Tar Heels
For the Tar Heels, the success of this season hinges on the pending suspension of guard/forward P.J. Hairston. His arrests and off-court incidents have left his status completely up in the air. Sources have said that he’ll miss somewhere between 10-20 games this season due to suspension. If it is the former then UNC could be fine but if it’s the latter then this team could struggle again this season. The bright spot is that James McAdoo is back for his junior season. After a very disappointing sophomore campaign marked by inconsistency and poor free throw shooting, McAdoo is back to show that he is still an elite player. Marcus Paige who seemed to fade last season when the lights were the brightest has some experience under his belt and should make great strides at the point guard spot this season. On the wing, Leslie McDonald will have to find a way to overcome the injuries and inconsistent playing time throughout his college career and really become a force on both ends of the floor.
11. Ohio State Buckeyes
Key Additions: Marc Loving, Kameron Williams
Key Losses: DeShaun Thomas
The Buckeyes own the longest active streak of having a player selected in the NBA Draft. The streak is currently at seven years and will most likely be eight as Thad Matta’s roster will be anchored by potential first round pick LaQueintin Ross and potential second round pick Aaron Craft. With the continued development of Ross and Amir Williams plus the leadership of Craft the Buckeyes will again put a potential Final Four squad on the floor because of their commitment on the defensive end. The biggest weakness the Buckeyes will need to answer is who will provide low post scoring as the departed Deshaun Thomas was their only true low post scoring threat last year. Loving is a long post player who should add depth to the frontcourt.
12. Michigan Wolverines
Key Additions: Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton Jr
Fresh off a title game loss, John Beilein’s squad will have to figure out how to replace two of its top scorers from a season ago. With Burke and Hardaway both gone to the NBA, the team will rely heavily on star forwards Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary. Both players had their moments a season ago, with McGary playing particularly well toward the end of the season, but they will both have to develop a killer instinct as well as learn how to lead as they will be counted on heavily this season. Zak Irvin is a five star recruit that should help soften the blow of losing Hardaway but it is at the point guard spot where the largest void will have to be filled. Spike Albrecht had an unbelievable showing backing up Burke during the Tournament last season but can he be the guy this team relies on to run the offense? Only time will tell but the team does have an insurance policy in case he can’t make the transition from backup to starter. Incoming freshman Derrick Walton is as good as advertised and will push Spike all season long.
13. Marquette Golden Eagles
Key Additions: Deonte Burton, Duane Wilson, JaJuan Johnson
If Blue had decided to come back for his senior season, the Golden Eagles would have been a top 10 team and a borderline top five team but as it stands, Buzz Williams’ squad will have to settle for #13. As is the case seemingly every season for Marquette, they aren’t bringing in any five start talent and no one on their roster jumps out at you as an elite player but they are extremely talented and well coached from top to bottom. Jamil Wilson is one of the more versatile players in the conference and he will be asked to pick up a large chuck of the scoring void left behind. He and Todd Mayo have to become leaders for this team. Mayo needs to finally grow up and become a leader both on and off the court. If there’s anything that history can teach us about a Buzz William’s led squad it is that their motto, much like the NFL, is next man up.
14. VCU Rams
Key Additions: Douglas Brooks, Jarius Lyles
Key Losses: Troy Daniels
The Rams return everyone of note outside of Daniels from last season’s team that made the NCAA Tournament. Head Coach Shaka Smart kept with his word and turned down job after job at larger schools and it might just pay off for him this season with another Final Four run. Juvonte Reddic is a stud down low and will be close to unstoppable in the Atlantic 10 this season. The Rams are another team that won’t "wow" you with individual names like Kansas, Kentucky or Duke but they play a tough brand of basketball and seem to always show up for big games. Consistency will be the name of the game for the Rams this season and if they can find it then lookout.
15. UCLA Bruins
The Bruins did a complete overhaul in the offseason. Steve Alford was brought in to replace the fired Ben Howland, Joshua Smith and Shabazz, both players who dramatically underperformed during their time in SoCal, are gone and for the first time in a while, there don’t seem to be any off court issues surrounding this team. The recruiting class took a hit when Howland was let go, but Alford kept Lavine in the fold and still has plenty of talent on the roster to compete in the Pac-12 this year. Kyle Anderson showed flashes a season ago but must become more consistent in his decision making. Jordan Adams was a pleasant surprise last season showing incredible scoring ability and should pick right up where he left off before his injury. This team may not be as talented as in previous years but they will still be really good and will benefit from having less distractions. Alford and company are also pulling in big time recruits with Isaac Hamilton and Kevon Looney both set to join the team next season.
16. UConn Huskies
Key Losses: None
The Huskies served their postseason ban this past season and are looking ahead to life post-Jim Calhoun. If the team and the program realized one thing last season it is that they have the right man for the job in Kevin Ollie. Ollie, during his first full season at the helm did an unbelievable job considering the circumstances. Ollie hasn’t been rewarded with a long-term contract as of yet but if he can duplicate that success this season then the Huskies will all but be forced to. Ollie has one of the most explosive three guard rotations at his disposal. Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun should run what is now a depleted Big East conference next season. With DeAndre Daniels up front along with newcomer Kentan Facey, the Huskies should be near the top of the Big East standings all season.
17. Oregon Ducks
After a very impressive season in which the Ducks gave eventual champion Louisville all they could handle, the Ducks appear primed for another succesful season. Gone are a number of important senior leaders including Kyle Singler’s younger brother EJ and rebounding and toughman Arsalan Kazemi. Replaing that veteran leadership won;t be easy but the team adds two experienced transfers in local product Mike Moser. a versatile scoring forward and Joseph Young, a talented scorer. The team will look for added productivity from senior center Waverly Austin, who averaged just 3.1 ppg and 2.7 rpg in 11 mpg last season. With the recent nine game suspension of point guard Dominic Artis and Ben Carter for selling team issued shoes, the team enters the season with some uncertainty. However, the general feeling is that since they will return before conference play, it shouldn’t have too great of an impact on their season. Artis appeared to be playing his best basketball by the end of last year and was not phased by the bright lights of the tournament.
18. Wisconsin Badgers
Key Losses: Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz, Ryan Evans
The Badgers are best known around the country for controlling game pace while having one of the most efficient offensive and defensive teams in the country. This has led to consistent top four finishes in the Big Ten and made the Badgers a Sweet Sixteen threat but Bo Ryan’s team typically lack a high caliber player that can lead them to a Final Four. This year Sam Dekker has the potential to be that type of player and could be Bo Ryan’s best NBA prospect he has coached in Madison. What will most likely hold this team back from a Big Ten title and a potential Final Four run is a consistent big man inside with the loss of Jarred Bergren that will ultimately hurt their ability to protect the rim.
19. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Key Additions: Gerard Coleman
The Zags lose their two most important players from a season ago and will likely take a large step back this season but at the end of the day, they play in the West Coast Conference and somehow always seem to put a competitive squad on the floor. The losses of Harris and Olynyk will hurt up front but the backcourt of Kevin Pangos, David Stockton and Gary Bell Jr is still together and is still the best out of any team in the conference. This team will be very thin up front which is why they won’t be nearly as good as they were a season ago but somehow Mark Few always seems to work it out.
20. Indiana Hoosiers
The Hoosiers will take a step back this season. How big of a step back will depend on how fast the incoming freshman can make an impact. Noah Vonleh is one of the most talented and versatile forwards in the 2013 class and should be able to step right in and be an impact guy from day one. Williams and Robinson are talented in their own rite but will take some time to get acclimated. Will Sheehey and Yogi Ferrell are the two returning players with the most experience which doesn’t say a lot. Both guys have been role players for most of their careers and will need to do more than just fill a role this season. Sheehey will have to continue to defend and stretch the floor with his ability to knock down three’s while Ferrell must become more consistent with the ball in his hands.
21. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Key Losses: Jack Cooley
Cooley’s production will have to be replaced but outside of that Mike Brey’s roster remains in-tact. The Fighting Irish will get their first taste of ACC play this season but after years of playing a daunting Big East schedule, it should remain business as usual for Notre Dame. Jerian Grant will be the engine that makes this team go this season. He’s the team’s most talented player overall and he is the lone player on this team that can take over a game whenever he wants, unless you count Garrick Sherman but then again that was only in OT. The Irish bring in a talented four man recruiting class headlined by Demetrius Jackson who is a speedy point guard who can do almost anything on the court. The ACC will be extremely strong this season but Notre Dame doesn’t historically back down from any challenge and this season will be no different.
22. Memphis Tigers
Josh Pastner and the Memphis Tigers are finally getting a chance to make some noise in a conference with some credibility. Problem is, they are entering the same time the conference’s powerhouses are exiting. The Tigers enter into the new look Big East fresh off a 35 win season and with a loaded roster full of young talent. Memphis native Joe Jackson came into his own last season and was finally the player that coaches and fans have been waiting three years for him to be. He’s back for his senior season along with rising sophomore Shaq Johnson and Chris Crawford to give the Tigers a perfect mix of youth and experience heading into next season. Goodwin should see a significant spike in minutes as well as touches during his second season as he should take over the reigns as this team’s go to option down low. The freshman will be tested early on and will have to play big minutes for this team. Look for Nichols and do everything man Iverson to make big impacts as the season wears on.
23. Virginia Cavaliers
Key Additions: London Perrantes
Key Losses: Jontel Evans
The Cavaliers rode the NCAA bubble for much of the year a season ago. They were wildly inconsistent during conference play and every time they took a step closer to the Tournament, they would then take two steps back. Joe Harris came into his own last season and put up crazy numbers. He along with Akil Mitchell formed a one two combo that did damage in the ACC. Both players are back along with every other significant piece outside of point guard Jontel Evans. 7-footer soph Mike Tobey could also emerge as a force for the Cavs.Tony Bennett has this team and program headed in the right direction and should have them inside of the tournament bubble looking out instead of the other way around.
24. New Mexico Lobos
Key Additions: Cullen Neal
Key Losses: Tony Snell
New Mexico is another team that could spend this season thinking about what could have been. Former Head Coach Steve Alford took the UCLA job and star G/F Tony Snell left early for the NBA. Had Snell come back for his senior season, the Lobos would have been Sweet Sixteen favorites. With Snell gone there is still a lot of talent for new Head Coach Craig Neal to work with but nowhere near what it could have been with Snell on the wing. Center Alex Kirk is one of the best big men in the conference and with Kendall Williams feeding him the ball, New Mexico should be the favorite to win the Mountain West even with a team that isn’t quite as talented as what Lobos fans are used to seeing.
25. Creighton Bluejays
Key Additions: Zach Hanson, Darian Harris
Key Losses: Gregory Echenique
The Bluejays are primed for one more run at this behind Doug McDermott. Grant Gibbs was granted a 6th year of eligibility and the team returns most of its roster from last season. Gregory Echenique is gone and while some think that McDermott and company won’t skip a beat, anyone who watched the Bluejays last season could see how important he was to everything that they did. He wasn’t flashy and he wasn’t the most athletic but he didn’t mind getting dirty and banging in the post. There is no questioning McDermott’s talent and skill set but will his supporting cast be what it was a season ago? McDermott averaged over 23 points per game as a junior and will need to at minimum sustain that level of play for this team to be successful.
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