Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - With less than two months to go before the
inaugural game of the 2013-14 college basketball season, there are a handful
of teams with reason to believe that it is their year to cut down the nets at
the Final Four.
Due to graduations and early departures for the NBA, some of last season's top
teams like Indiana, Georgetown, Michigan and Miami-Florida are not expected to
be in contention for this year's title. The reigning NCAA champion Louisville
Cardinals are expected to be a pretty tough out as they attempt to defend
their crown, but the other three regional finalist will find their path to the
semifinals much more difficult this time around.
Although plenty can change before the season tips off, these five schools are
sitting very close to the pole position to start off the campaign:
KENTUCKY - Coach John Calipari's approach to building a program is unlike any
other and is the reason why his Wildcats are expected to go from first-round
NIT losers to a top seed in the Big Dance. Kentucky once again lost a great
deal of the core of its roster. Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin were both
selected in the first round of the NBA Draft after one season in Lexington and
long-range shooting big man Kyle Wiltjer decided to transfer to Gonzaga.
Wiltjer's choice to continue his career for the Zags came after Calipari had
built a star-studded recruiting class that would surely take away playing time
from the 6-foot-10 forward.
The Wildcats retained a pair of NBA prospects in sophomores Willie Cauley-
Stein and Alex Poythress, who will be joined by what is said to be the best
recruiting class since Michigan's "Fab Five" in 1991. Power forward Julius
Randle, shooting guard Aaron Harrison and point guard Andrew Harrison were all
the top players at their position and could all be one-and-done types.
Kentucky added three more McDonald's All-Americans with 6-10 center Dakari
Johnson, small forward James Young and power forward Marcus Lee. Calipari's
method of relying heavily on inexperienced but talented players earned him an
NCAA Championship in 2012, but UK really struggled last season with the same
strategy. The Wildcats are fully loaded for another deep run in March as long
as the newcomers are able to mesh with one another.
LOUISVILLE - To be the man, you have to beat the man. After securing their
first NCAA Championship since 1986, Rick Pitino's Cardinals will be looking to
win back-to-back titles and make their third consecutive trip to the Final
Four this year. Louisville lost two of its top players as the Minnesota
Timberwolves selected Gorgui Dieng in the first round of the draft and Peyton
Siva was picked by the Detroit Pistons late in the next round. The Cardinals'
chances of repeating as champion were kept alive by Russ Smith, who elected to
return for his senior season. The team will most likely be without Kevin Ware,
who may need until early 2014 to fully recover from the gruesome injury he
suffered against Duke in last season's tourney.
Pitino found an adequate replacement for Siva, who was the motor to
Louisville's success last season. Junior college transfer Chris Jones is
expected to join Siva in the higher ranks in the near future if his game
translates over to the Division I level. Jones was the 2013 NJCAA Division I
Player of the Year with averages of 21.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and
3.0 steals per game for Northwest Florida State College, which was the
national runner-up in both of his seasons with the program. Freshman guard
Terry Rozier will also see some time at point guard for a squad that is sure
to reward its floor general with plenty of easy assists. In addition to Smith,
who was an All-Big East first team selection, Louisville has back three
quality forwards in spot-up shooter Luke Hancock, swingman Wayne Blackshear
and the wide-bodied Chane Behanan.
MICHIGAN STATE - Tom Izzo's Spartans were often overshadowed in the Big Ten
last season by Indiana and Michigan, but they quietly stayed in the Top 25
throughout the season behind the strength of their suffocating defensive
effort. As a no. 3 seed, Michigan State was bounced out of the NCAA Tournament
by Duke in the Sweet Sixteen. The future looks bright for the Spartans, who
return all but one starter. The graduation of 6-9, 270 pound center Derrick
Nix will be difficult to replace, but MSU will have freshman Kenny Kaminski
this year after he was forced to redshirt in 2012-13 due to a shoulder injury.
The Spartans have one of the top backcourts in college basketball with senior
Keith Appling and sophomore Gary Harris. Appling led the team in scoring and
assists with 13.4 points and 3.3 assists per game last year. Harris was second
on the team with 12.9 ppg and drew attention from professional scouts with his
41.1 percent accuracy from beyond the 3-point line. If Harris improves his
ball-handling skills and play off the ball, he will be virtually unstoppable
at the collegiate level. Adreian Payne's presence in the middle should keep
opposing defenses from cheating out on Appling and Harris.
KANSAS - Bill Self's Jayhawks are likely to claim another number one seed in
the tournament this season despite losing their entire starting lineup,
including superstars Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey. Kansas added a key piece to
its frontcourt when Memphis graduate Tarik Black decided to spend his final
season in Allen Fieldhouse. Black will be the top big man for the Jayhawks,
who have plenty of depth with Perry Ellis, Landen Lucas and 6-11 freshman Joel
Kansas is going to remain relevant thanks to Andrew Wiggins, the top high
school prospect since LeBron James. The 6-7 wing is going to be one of the
most talked about players in the nation this season due to his tremendous
combination of athleticism and all-around skills. Wiggins would have been the
top pick in the NBA Draft this past June had he been eligible. Wiggins and
Embiid aren't the only two rookies that will have an impact for Self's unit.
All-American shooting guard Wayne Selden and Wichita native Conner Frankamp
will both see meaningful minutes as freshmen, as Self attempts to take a page
out of the Calipari playbook.
DUKE - Mike Krzyzewski's squad also had a lot to replace over this offseason
as five seniors departed from Durham. Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry
are all gone, but the backcourt of Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon stayed
intact. Duke will need sophomore Amile Jefferson to take on a much bigger role
on the inside to replace Plumlee, who was picked 22nd by the Brooklyn Nets in
the NBA Draft. Jefferson posted only 4.0 points and 2.9 boards per contest as
a rookie while playing behind Plumlee, but has added 20 pounds to his frame
since joining the program.
Krzyzewski also has the youngest of the Plumlee brothers back in the mix. The
seven-foot Marshall Plumlee saw limited action as a rookie in 2012-13, but
both of his older brothers transformed from role players to professional
prospects under Coach K. Duke's question marks on the interior will be less
obvious due to its new one-two punch. Freshman small forward Jabari Parker is
the best all-around player to join the Blue Devils program since Grant Hill.
He will be on a mission to prove he should have been more heralded than
Wiggins. Duke will also have one of the top shooting guards in the ACC as
sophomore Rodney Hood makes his debut at Cameron Indoor Stadium this season.
Hood was selected to the SEC All-Freshman team in 2012 after netting 10.3
points and 4.8 rebounds per game for Mississippi State. He is only the fourth
player to transfer to Duke under Coach K, joining Roshown McLeod (1995 - St.
John's), Dahntay Jones (2000 - Rutgers) and Seth Curry (2009 - Liberty). There
is a very good chance that Hood becomes the fourth transfer in a row to go
onto the NBA thanks to Coach K's tutelage.
NEXT FIVE: Oklahoma State, North Carolina, Arizona, Florida, Ohio State
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