Very early Top 25 for 2013-14
ATLANTA -- Shortly after the final horn sounded in Louisville's NCAA title game victory over Michigan on Monday, the question became obvious.
Can the Cardinals do it again next season?
A repeat championship hardly seems far-fetched for Rick Pitino's squad, which could return most of the key pieces from a team that ended the year on a 16-game winning streak.
For Michigan, the road back to the Final Four could be lined with potholes. Wooden Award winner Trey Burke likely will leave school two years early and enter the NBA draft, and no one would be surprised if teammates such as Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III followed suit. Even forward Mitch McGary -- who wasn't much of a factor until the postseason -- has softened his stance on turning pro after this season, refusing to rule out the possibility late last week.
If all four of those Wolverines' underclassmen enter the draft, it's likely Michigan will enter next season unranked. That's how I see the situation playing out, which is why Michigan didn't make the cut for next season's early Top 25.
The situation is a fluid one, so I'll certainly update this list a time or two in the next few months. But for now, based on who I think will leave and who will stay, here is my best guess at how things will look when the 2013-14 campaign tips off this fall.
1. Kentucky Wildcats: Could the Wildcats really go from first-round NIT losers to NCAA champions? Absolutely. Kentucky's 2013 recruiting class is already being hailed as the best in college basketball history. The haul includes four players (Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Julius Randle and James Young) ranked among the nation's top 10 prospects by ESPN.com. From a pure talent standpoint, this might be the best college basketball team ever assembled. But will it jell? Even though injuries and chemistry issues ruined his most recent team, John Calipari has proved to be excellent at coaching players who plan to spend only a year or two in college. He's great at getting them to play defense and share the ball. It will help that some of Kentucky's key players in 2012-13 (Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and Kyle Wiltjer) will return to provide veteran leadership, which is something the program sorely lacked last season. Another huge difference will be the point guard position, which lacked stability last season. Andrew Harrison could become the next star under Calipari, who has coached Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall and Brandon Knight.
2. Louisville Cardinals: Rick Pitino's squad will be favored to make a third straight Final Four appearance. Point guard Peyton Siva is the only senior on the current roster. His leadership will be tough to replace, but Louisville signed two point guards (juco transfer Chris Jones and high school star Terry Rozier) who should more than make up for Siva's absence. Forwards Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear are poised for breakthrough seasons along with Luke Hancock and Montrezl Harrell, both of whom were rotation players this season. The biggest question surrounds leading scorer Russ Smith and top rebounder Gorgui Dieng, who are considering leaving school a year early for the NBA draft. The departure of Dieng, who is projected as a mid-first-round pick, seems likely. But if Pitino can get Smith to return, the Cardinals will be good enough to challenge Kentucky for the NCAA title.
3. Michigan State Spartans: Derrick Nix (9.9 points, 6.6 rebounds) was the only senior on the Spartans' roster, so Michigan State should be the slight favorite to win the Big Ten next season over Ohio State -- as long as everyone returns. Freshman shooting guard Gary Harris and junior forward Adreian Payne are both considered fringe first-rounders in the upcoming NBA draft. If they leave early, it will knock Michigan State down a notch. The guess here is that at least one of them will return, if not both. Harris would have the chance to form one of the top backcourts in America alongside point guard Keith Appling. The twosome combined to average 26.3 points in 2012-13. Even with the loss of Nix, Michigan State -- as always -- will be one of the country's most physical teams in the paint with players such as Branden Dawson, who could really take off as a junior. Tom Izzo's team was good this season -- but a year from now, it could be special.
4. Arizona Wildcats: Sean Miller's squad loses three of its top four scorers (Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom and Mark Lyons), but the Wildcats should still be the class of the Pac-12. Arizona's highly touted 2012 recruiting class started off slow, but post players Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett made huge strides in February and March and should enter next season full of momentum. Shooting guard Nick Johnson (11.5 points per game) emerged as a leader on the perimeter. He'll benefit the most from the addition of Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell, the high-caliber point guard Arizona so glaringly lacked this season. McConnell averaged 11.4 points and 5.5 assists for Duquesne in 2011-12. Whether the Wildcats are a good team or an elite one will depend on the play of freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Gordon is the second-ranked power forward in the Class of 2013. Hollis-Jefferson is the fifth-ranked small forward.
5. Duke Blue Devils: The Blue Devils' top three scorers -- Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry -- were all seniors. Still, as much as their departures will sting, the Blue Devils' roster is far from bare. The biggest reason for optimism is incoming freshman Jabari Parker, a small forward who is the No. 2-ranked prospect in America by ESPN.com. Parker is good enough to make Duke the slight favorite for the ACC title and a Final Four contender. Parker won't have to do it alone. Point guard Quinn Cook improved as much as any player in the ACC this season and should take it to an even higher level as a junior. Combo guard Rasheed Sulaimon was one of the best freshmen in the nation in 2012-13, averaging 11.6 points while playing nearly 30 minutes per contest. The X factor could be Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood, who averaged 10.3 points as a freshman for the Bulldogs in 2011-12. The biggest area of concern will be replacing Plumlee's presence in the paint, where he snared 10.0 rebounds and blocked 1.4 shots per game.
6. Ohio State Buckeyes: The Buckeyes probably would rank No. 2 on this list if leading scorer Deshaun Thomas had opted to return for his senior season. One of the top pure scorers in America, Thomas averaged 19.8 points for the Buckeyes' Elite Eight squad and finished with 1,630 points in three seasons. Still, Ohio State should be one of the top teams in America in 2013-14, as each of the other four starters returns. It will be tough for point guard Aaron Craft to play much better on the defensive end than he did this season, but he certainly can become a more efficient shooter. Lenzelle Smith Jr., Sam Thompson and Shannon Scott all averaged more than 20 minutes per game. Forward LaQuinton Ross is a tough matchup who contributed 13.4 points per game in the NCAA tournament. It will be a stunner if Ohio State doesn't challenge Michigan State for the Big Ten title.
7. Florida Gators: The Gators lose their top three scorers in Mike Rosario, Erik Murphy and Kenny Boynton, but if they take a step down, it won't be a major one. Florida could have one of the better front lines in the SEC in rising senior Patric Young (10.1 points, 6.3 rebounds) and incoming five-star freshman Chris Walker, a 6-foot-10 195-pounder with a versatile offensive skill set. Mix in returning forward Will Yeguete, who was playing as well as any Gator at the end of the season, and Billy Donovan's squad should be strong down low. The perimeter will be solid, too. Signee Kasey Hill is rated the No. 2 point guard in the Class of 2013 by ESPN.com. He could either share the backcourt with returning starter and defensive standout Scottie Wilbekin, or the two could split time. Either way, it's a nice situation to have.
8. North Carolina Tar Heels: Although no member of the trio has officially announced a decision yet, UNC's coaching staff is optimistic that wings P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock and forward James Michael McAdoo will all return. If that happens, it means the Tar Heels will have four starters (and their three leading scorers) back from the team that went 25-11 this season and lost in the NCAA round of 32 -- with a few key additions, as well. Not only will incoming point guard Nate Britt add some depth behind rising sophomore Marcus Paige, but highly recruited big men Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks should instantly compete for playing time in the post. If coach Roy Williams -- who went to a four-guard lineup late in the season -- can finally find a reliable center, he can return to his preferred two-post lineup, switch Hairston back to his more natural shooting guard slot and boast a deep, fast veteran team worthy of a top-10 ranking.
9. Marquette Golden Eagles: If the 2012-13 season taught us anything, it's not to count out Marquette. Not as long as Buzz Williams is its coach. The Golden Eagles lost their two top players (Jae Crowder and Darius-Johnson Odom) from last season's squad, yet still managed to tie for the Big East title and advance to the Elite Eight. Almost every key piece of this season's team will return in 2013-14. That includes leading scorers Vander Blue (14.8 points) and Davante Gardner (11.5 points) as well as glue guy Jamil Wilson (9.7 points, 4.9 rebounds). Marquette will also add the Class of 2013's No. 3-ranked shooting guard in Memphis native JaJuan Johnson. Rising junior Todd Mayo and incoming freshman Duane Wilson will try to make up for the loss of Junior Cadougan and Trent Lockett in the backcourt. Marquette plays as hard as any team in the country. Next season could be special.
10. Syracuse Orange: The Orange lose two key seniors from their Final Four team in Brandon Triche and James Southerland. And there's a strong chance sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams will declare for the NBA draft. But no matter. Jim Boeheim finds ways to keep his team in the NCAA title picture every season, and 2013-14 shouldn't be any different. Leading scorer and rebounder C.J. Fair (14.5 points, 7.0 rebounds) should be back to lead the transition into the ACC. Small forward Jerami Grant showed flashes of brilliance while stepping in for a suspended Southerland early in conference play. Forwards Rakeem Christmas, Baye Keita and DaJuan Coleman should step into larger roles. Incoming freshman point guard Tyler Ennis will have a chance to start immediately in Syracuse's depleted backcourt and Tyler Roberson should be a factor in the paint.
11. Wichita State Shockers: There's a strong chance that next season's Shockers could be even better than the unit that lost to Louisville in the Final Four. Losing bruising forward Carl Hall and court leader Malcolm Armstead will hurt, but Gregg Marshall's team will return all of its other key pieces. Cleanthony Early, who had 24 points and 10 rebounds against Louisville, is an NBA-caliber small forward. Ron Baker ignited the Shockers' NCAA tournament run with his prowess from beyond the arc, and point guard Fred VanVleet logged valuable minutes as a freshman backing up Armstead at point guard. Tekele Cotton is a returning starter who helps set the tone defensively. Standout shooter Evan Wessel, who redshirted this season, also returns. Look for 6-9 Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Kadeem Coleby to replace Hall in the paint. Coleby has spent the past season working out with the Shockers, and Marshall couldn't be more impressed. Chipola (Fla.) Junior College transfer Earl Watson also will be in the mix down low.
12. Virginia Commonwealth Rams: There were times this season when the Rams looked like a Final Four-caliber team. Other times, VCU seemed to underachieve. Shaka Smart's squad will be scary next season if it finds the balance it so glaringly lacked in 2012-13. The Rams will return four of their top five scorers, with 3-point ace Troy Daniels and glue guy Darius Theus being the only key departures. The on-court chemistry between players such as Treveon Graham, Juvonte Reddic, Rob Brandenberg and defensive standout Briante Weber (2.7 steals) should be excellent. No wonder Smart spurned overtures from schools such as UCLA and Minnesota. This will be his best team yet.
13. Gonzaga Bulldogs: The lasting image college basketball fans have of Gonzaga is of the No. 1 seed falling to Wichita State in the round of 32. But one loss shouldn't spoil an entire season or change the perception of a team. Gonzaga was a top-10-caliber squad all season and could be again in 2013-14. A lot of the Zags' success will depend on whether 7-foot All-American Kelly Olynyk returns for his senior season. Olynyk, who averaged 17.8 points and 7.3 rebounds, is projected as a first-round pick in this summer's NBA draft. Losing Olynyk would hurt, especially given that his frontcourt mate, senior Elias Harris, has played his last college game. But even if Olynyk bolts for the pros, Gonzaga still has a solid cast of returnees in guards Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and David Stockton and forward Sam Dower. Coach Mark Few is also excited about the potential of 7-foot center Przemek Karnowski, who averaged 5.4 points as a freshman.
14. Connecticut Huskies: Kevin Ollie did an excellent job under difficult circumstances last season, when the Huskies -- who were banned from postseason play -- had nothing to play for but still managed to go 20-10. It seems safe to assume Ollie's second season will be even better, especially with the return of guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, who will combine to form one of the top backcourts in the country. The twosome averaged 32.5 points and 9.0 assists this season. Double-digit scorers DeAndre Daniels (12.1 points) and Omar Calhoun (11.1 points) also return. Connecticut ranked second-to-last in the Big East this season in rebounding, so Ollie's team must get tougher in the paint.
15. Memphis Tigers: Adonis Thomas and D.J. Stephens are gone from a squad that went 31-5 overall and 16-0 in its final season in Conference USA. And it looks as if forward Tarik Black will transfer. Still, there will be more than enough talent on the roster to make Memphis' transition into the Big East a smooth one. Point guard Joe Jackson will be the key to Memphis' success. Jackson averaged 13.6 points as a junior and shot 45 percent from 3-point range. He'll be joined in the backcourt by 3-point ace Chris Crawford and Geron Johnson, the Tigers' "energy guy" who sets the tone and keeps his teammates hyped on both ends of the court. Josh Pastner is hoping forward Shaq Goodwin, who averaged 7.4 points in 20.7 minutes as a freshman, has a breakthrough season. With so many departures, Memphis will rely heavily on its No. 2-ranked recruiting class for success. Look for power forward Austin Nichols and small forward Kuran Iverson to make a quick impact.
16. Colorado Buffaloes: The Buffaloes could be the one team to challenge Arizona in the Pac-12. Tad Boyle's squad boasts one of the country's most underrated backcourts in Askia Booker and Spencer Dinwiddie, who led the team in points (15.3) and assists (3.0). Andre Roberson was among the national leaders in rebounding with 11.2 boards per contest. And freshman forwards Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson -- who combined to average 19.1 points -- should both make glaring strides as sophomores. Colorado needs to improve its maturity and consistency when it comes to effort and focus. Too many good wins were followed by head-scratching losses. That's the sign of a young team. The Buffaloes won't be able to use that as an excuse next season.
17. Tennessee Volunteers: The Vols lost four of their first five SEC games but were one of the league's most-improved teams by March. Cuonzo Martin's squad barely missed out on an NCAA tournament bid, but that won't happen in 2013-14, as Tennessee returns all of its top players -- not to mention forward Jeronne Maymon, who averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds two years ago before missing this past season with an injury. Jordan McRae (15.7 points), Jarnell Stokes (12.4 points) and Trae Golden (12.1 points) all averaged double figures in scoring, and Stokes snared 9.6 rebounds per contest. Tennessee, which won eight of its final nine regular-season games, will boast as much experience as any team in the SEC.
18. New Mexico Lobos: Steve Alford is leaving behind quite the team in Albuquerque. In fact, if Tony Snell hadn't declared for the NBA draft, the Lobos likely would've been in the top 15. Leading scorer Kendall Williams (13.3 points) will return for a squad that won the outright Mountain West Conference title. Also back is 7-foot center Alex Kirk, who averaged 12.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. Hugh Greenwood blossomed into one of the MWC's top threats from 3-point range, although he needs to improve his accuracy (35.7 percent). Still, with UNLV and Colorado State taking significant steps back, New Mexico could be in for another outright league title under first-year coach Craig Neal, who New Mexico fans hope can do better than Alford in the postseason.
19. Indiana Hoosiers: This Hoosiers team won't be anywhere near as good as the unit that won this season's Big Ten regular-season title while spending a large chunk of time ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. But that doesn't mean Indiana won't be salty. Point guard Yogi Ferrell (4.1 assists) will be the lone returning starter if Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo enter the NBA draft as expected. But forward Will Sheehey and guard Remy Abell earned valuable minutes off the bench, and coach Tom Crean couldn't be more excited about the progress of freshman forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea. The X factor will be how quickly Indiana's highly touted, six-man signing class adapts to the college game. Headlining the group is Noah Vonleh, who is rated as the third-best power forward in the country by ESPN.com.
20. Kansas Jayhawks: If there were ever a year to leave Kansas out of the preseason Top 25, this would be it. Assuming freshman Ben McLemore turns pro, the Jayhawks will lose all five starters from a team that finished this season 31-6. Kansas, though, has a habit of making its naysayers look foolish. Bill Self has led KU to nine straight Big 12 titles and averaged 30 wins in his 10 seasons in Lawrence. No matter what, he's going to find a way to win. Next season's team will lean heavily on rising sophomore Perry Ellis -- who seemed to be getting more and more comfortable near the end of the season -- as well as returning backups Jamari Traylor and Naadir Tharpe. KU's veterans must provide leadership for a recruiting class that features a McDonald's All American in Wayne Selden, a talented-but-raw center in Joel Embiid, and a pair of sharpshooters in Conner Frankamp and Brannen Greene. Incoming freshman Frank Mason could challenge Tharpe for the starting point guard job.
21. Baylor Bears: Disappointed as they were not to make the NCAA tournament, the Bears ended the season on a high note by winning the NIT championship. Baylor did it in dominating fashion, too, beating its five opponents by an average of 17 points. The loss of point guard Pierre Jackson (19.8 points, 7.1 assists) will hurt immensely. And most folks in Waco, Texas, will be surprised if 7-foot center Isaiah Austin returns for his sophomore year. Still, this will be a very dangerous team if forward Cory Jefferson returns. Jefferson caught fire by averaging 21.5 points in the NIT. He and Ricardo Gathers could form a terrifying frontcourt tandem, and incoming freshman Ishmail Wainright gives Baylor the skilled, offensive-minded small forward it so desperately lacked this season. If shooting guard Brady Heslip returns to form and junior college transfer Kenny Chery (or sophomore L.J. Rose) can be a serviceable fill-in for Jackson at point guard, the Bears could win the Big 12 in what should be a down year.
22. Saint Louis Billikens: Jim Crews earned strong consideration for national coach of the year honors for leading the Billikens to a 28-7 record and the outright Atlantic 10 title just months after the passing of Rick Majerus, who had left the team before the season for health reasons. Saint Louis hopes to carry that momentum into 2013-14, when it could be just as good -- if not better -- thanks to the return of three of its top five scorers: Dwayne Evans (14.6 points), Mike McCall Jr. (9.3) and Jordair Jett, who averaged 9.0 points and a team-high 3.2 assists. The battle between Saint Louis and VCU for the A-10 title should be intense once again.
23. Alabama Crimson Tide: The 2013-14 campaign could be the best season Crimson Tide team coach Anthony Grant has had since arriving in Tuscaloosa. A handful of media outlets selected Trevor Releford (14.9 points, 2.1 steals) as the SEC Player of the Year this season. Trevor Lacey (11.3 points) and Rodney Cooper (10.2) also averaged in double figures. Highly touted forward Devonta Pollard was slow to adapt to the college game as a freshman, but Grant is hopeful he'll make significant strides in the offseason to be a major factor as a sophomore. Alabama is hoping to get a contribution from Jimmie Taylor, who is ranked as the ninth-best center in the Class of 2013 by ESPN.com. Alabama, which advanced to the third round of the NIT before losing to Maryland, has not advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2006.
24. Stanford Cardinal: Johnny Dawkins' team was a big tease in 2012-13. Just when it seemed as if the Cardinal were putting everything together, Stanford would lose a game to squelch its momentum. The Cardinal's longest winning streak was three games, which was inexcusable for a program that had won the NIT one season earlier. Stanford should finish with a much better record than the 19-15 mark it posted this season. Every key member of the team returns, including three players (Chasson Randle, Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis) who had double-digit scoring averages. Dawkins might find himself on the hot seat if he can't reach the NCAA tournament with this team.
25. Iowa Hawkeyes: The Hawkeyes missed the NCAA tournament, but they should feel good about going 9-9 in the rugged Big Ten and finishing second in the NIT. Both were major accomplishments for a rapidly improving program. Don't be surprised if 2013-14 is the season when Iowa turns the corner. Every key player will return from a team that went 25-13 overall. Included in that mix are leading scorers Roy Devyn Marble (15 points) and Aaron White (12.8), who also averaged a team-high 6.2 rebounds. With teams such as Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and likely Michigan losing a lot, the well-coached Hawkeyes have a chance to finish as high as third in the Big Ten while earning an NCAA tournament bid for the first time since 2006.
Fifteen others to watch: Arizona State, Boise State, Butler, BYU, Kansas State, Michigan, Missouri, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, San Diego State, St. John's, UCLA, Villanova, Virginia, Wisconsin.
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