Top 10 Tuesday: Teams with most to prove
1. Kentucky: There may be a lonely faction out there in the Internet hinterlands who would assume this argument is about John Calipari. Sorry, but no: Calipari has nothing to prove. Yeah, Robert Morris in the NIT, I know, I know, but come on: We're not even two full years removed from Kentucky's national title. Remember that? When Calipari got the top two picks in the NBA draft to happily settle for the fourth- and fifth-highest percentage of their team's shots en route to a 38-2 championship season? You remember that, right? Clearly, Calipari can mesh a class of hyper-talented freshmen with a mix of almost-equally-talented returners and win a national title, which is the be-all goal of Kentucky's 2013-14 campaign. That exact thing just happened!
No, this designation is about Kentucky's players. Forget Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist; forget John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins; forget Derrick Rose. Calipari has had a lot of crazy recruiting classes in his career, but none of them have come close to this kind of hype. In March, less than 15 hours after the Wildcats' embarrassing loss to Robert Morris, Julius Randle committed to Kentucky. A few hours later, ESPN.com recruiting guru Dave Telep wrote that Calipari's class was the best ever -- better even than Michigan's Fab Five, "the standard bearer for recruiting classes."
So, yeah, Randle and his classmates -- No. 5 ranked Andrew Harrison, No. 7-ranked Dakari Johnson, No. 8-ranked James Young, No. 9-ranked Aaron Harrison, and No. 25-ranked Marcus Lee -- have something to prove. That goes double for disappointing sophomore holdovers Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein. The ceiling here is unfathomable -- like, undefeated-season-unfathomable -- and it's almost impossible to envision Calipari presiding over another disaster. Not with this talent. But it is incumbent upon a very confident, cocksure group to come together, to sublimate their individual desires for the good of the team — all of that boring, cliche stuff. The inverse of "best recruiting class ever" is "most disappointing recruiting class ever," and that's a legacy no one wants to leave behind.
2. Creighton: Doug McDermott's shot to become the first player since Wayman Tisdale and Patrick Ewing to win three straight first-team All-Americans is -- well, it's a lot of things. It's fantastic shorthand for the evolution (devolution?) of college basketball in the past 20 years. It's a fascinating footnote in the narrative of a player whose father didn't even recruit him to play at Iowa State. And, of course, it's testament to McDermott's consistent individual brilliance. What it is not is a sign of Creighton's collective national success. McDermott has been must-watch viewing these past two seasons, and his teams have been just as brilliant offensively -- free-flowing, smart, up-tempo, fun. But because the Bluejays have never quite built a solid defense on the other end of the floor, they've been limited -- unable to get big stops when they need them in the NCAA tournament. This year, individual brilliance and offensive aesthetics will be old hat. This year, Creighton is expected to do even more. First, they have to prove they can guard.
3. Tennessee: Last fall, when myself, Myron Medcalf, Fran Fraschilla and Joe Lunardi convened for our first-ever college basketball draft, I got lost in the Jarnell Stokes hype. A young freshman who joined Tennessee a semester early in 2011-12, Stokes had helped the Vols surge late in a previously nondescript season, and looked poised to dominate the low block all season in 2012-13. Not so much. Part of that was Stokes' fault -- his desire to prove his power forward bonafides to NBA scouts took him away from the basket, which is a bad idea -- and part of it was the injury to senior forward Jeronne Maymon, who redshirted thanks to a knee injury. After a brief, well-reasoned dalliance with the NBA this spring, Stokes is back, as is Maymon, as is leading scorer and All-SEC first-teamer Jordan McRae -- there's a huge year ahead in Knoxville, Tenn. Now the Vols have to make good on it.
4. Memphis: A lot of this comes down to Joe Jackson. We've discussed this in depth before this offseason, in our list of seniors facing the most pivotal seasons of their careers. (I also discussed that at more length on ESPN Radio in Memphis back in July.) Jackson was No. 1 on that list. But Memphis isn't limited to just one beleaguered-but-still-promising would-be hometown hero. After getting the NCAA tournament win monkey off Josh Pastner's back, this season the Tigers return a veteran backcourt and a massively talented frontcourt and should, by all accounts, be capable of a deep tournament run. (Oh, and there's the new league: The American may not be the old Big East, but it's not recent-vintage Conference USA, either.)
5. VCU: Word out of Richmond is that this may well be Shaka Smart's most talented team, which is something considering the Rams (A) went to the Final Four in 2011 and (B) finished the 2012-13 season ranked No. 16 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings and (C) lost seniors Darius Theus and Troy Daniels. In some ways, the Rams have very little to prove: They have a young, in-demand coach who has quickly morphed an OK basketball program into a very good one; a unique, effectively branded defensive style ("HAVOC"); and a pretty great pep band. So why are they here? Because last season, HAVOC got a little bit gimmicky. That's fine, in so far as it works; I want to go on record saying how much I love watching VCU chase hapless guards around the park. But in 2012-13, the Rams became so dependent on turnovers on the defensive end (and were so bad at checking opposing shooters and chasing down rebounds) that good teams with good point guards -- see, Michigan; Burke, Trey -- could dismantle them with relative ease. This season, the goal is to meld all that HAVOC with some good old-fashioned convention.
6. Virginia: The Cavaliers, like the team directly below them, were a very good team in 2012-13 whose results -- specifically their performance against a dreadful nonconference schedule -- doomed them to the NIT. That can't happen this season, not with Joe Harris shooting 42.5 percent from 3 and looking like a sleeper candidate for ACC Player of the Year, not with senior Akil Mitchell doing quality work on the block, not with all the returning players so expert at Tony Bennett's grinning Wisconsin-style flavor. It's tournament or bust for Virginia, and even that bar is probably too low.
7. Iowa: The Hawkeyes are your other obvious breakout candidate of 2013-14, for many of the same reasons as Virginia: A bad nonconference schedule and a series of brutally close losses during Big Ten play kept an otherwise worthy team (which finished with a top-25 efficiency defense) from gaining widespread national acclaim. Now the hype has turned, and everyone is spending less time talking about the Hawkeyes vis-a-vis the NCAA tournament than their status as a Big Ten title contender. I'm not sure if I'd go that far, but it's clear Iowa has a huge opportunity here. Fran McCaffery finally has a deep, experienced group peppered with genuine high-level collegiate talents, and a defense that will give most of the Big Ten fits. Carver-Hawkeye, so quiet for so much of the past decade, is reaching peak rowdiness levels again. It's time to seal the deal.
8. Boise State: The Broncos did manage to get into the tournament last season, albeit it as a play-in team that failed to survive Dayton. But the appearance was an accomplishment in itself for third-year coach Leon Rice, who has assembled an impressive group of previously unheralded players -- all of whom are back this season. Derrick Marks is an inconsistent but genuinely gifted scorer; Anthony Drmic is a versatile wing with deep 3-point range; Jeff Elorriaga is an even better shooter who made 44.7 percent of his 3s last season; and on down the line. It's the kind of talent that makes any celebration of a No. 12 seed feel quaint. This group is capable of ascending much more notable heights.
9. Oklahoma State: OK, OK, so everyone agrees that Marcus Smart is good at basketball. Smart's decision to return to college despite his Freshman of the Year award-worthy campaign, and the lofty opinions of him at the highest echelons of USA Basketball, have put the Cowboys on the short list of the teams you absolutely need to see this season. Trust me, I'm excited too. But that excitement shouldn't overshadow the fact that Oklahoma State had some issues on the offensive end last season, or the fact that it was summarily stumped by Oregon in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Le'Bryan Nash was the highly touted savior before Smart arrived; he has to live up to his potential. Markel Brown needs to make his overlooked contributions impossible to ignore. And Travis Ford's team needs to find some shooting somewhere -- Phil Forte? Brown? Bueller? -- to compete in the same space as Kentucky, Michigan State, Kansas and
10. Louisville: Yes, Louisville is on this list. Weird, right? I know! But hear me out. Last spring, after four months of (almost) uninterrupted dominance, the Louisville Cardinals won the national title. Soon thereafter, their best player -- arguably the country's best player, period -- announced his intentions to return to school. So did the power forward who put up 15 and 12 in the national title game. So did the swingman who made 12 of his 17 3s, and scored 42 total points, in two Final Four games. This team, by the way, is also adding a universally heralded point guard prospect and two other ESPN 100 recruits. And despite all that, this team is probably not going to start the season ranked No. 1 overall. Even worse? Their rivals, the Kentucky Wildcats, probably will. How's that for something to prove?