Rick Pitino’s Cardinals start the season on top of the mountain. Fresh off a Big East Tournament championship and a surprised Final Four appearance last season, Louisville returns the bulk of their line-up. Peyton Silva, Wayne Blackshear, Chane Behanan, Gorgui Deng, and Russ Smith are all back. All of them! In a down year of college basketball, that may be all it takes to give the Cardinals their first national title since 1986.
2. Kentucky - The Wildcats lost their top six players from the 2012 NCAA championship team, but this is Coach John Calipari we’re talking about here. He has reloaded once again this season and has Kentucky at the top of contention. Three new McDonald’s All Americans make their debut in Lexington this season. Those studs include Nerlens Noel (#1 recruit in the country and projected #1 pick in the NBA Draft), a prolific high flier and scorer, Archie Goodwin, and a beastly forward, Alex Poythress. All three of them will be lottery picks next season. Combine that with NC State transfer, point guard Ryan Harrow and deadly shooter, Julius Mays, and Kentucky should get back to the Final Four in Atlanta this season.
3. Indiana - The Hoosiers are a popular pick as the team to beat next season and an early favorite to win it all. They are definitely a threat by returning all five starters which include Cody Zeller, the projected player of the year and ‘Mr. Clutch’, Christian Watford. The Hoosiers also bring in highly recruited point guard, Yogi Ferrell who may be the missing link for that national championship Bloomington has been searching for since 1987. However, Indiana did not win their conference last year, struggled on defense all year long, and failed to beat a single ranked team on the road last season. Time will tell if they’re all hype or a legitimate contender.
4. Ohio State - The buckeye state has reason to be excited this season with point guard Aaron Craft and forward Deshaun Thomas returning. Thomas averaged a whopping 19.2 ppg during Ohio State’s run to the Final Four in 2012. Newcomer Italian guard, Amedeo Della Valle will be a force to keep an eye on throughout the year as well. With the losses of Jared Sullinger and William Buford, the Buckeyes will have to rely on a lot of the younger guys to improve if Coach Thad Matta wants to reach the Final Four again.
5. NC State - Who would have thought this? The top team in the ACC isn’t Duke or North Carolina; it’s the Wolfpack from NC State. Returning from last season’s Sweet 16 run is C.J. Leslie (14.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and Lorenzo Brown (12.7 ppg, 6.3 apg), both players bypassed first round selections in last June’s draft. Those two guys alone would be enough for a big run, but Coach Mark Gottfried signed three McDonald’s All Americans to join them. Senior forward Richard Howell is nothing to sneeze at either. The fact of the matter is this is NC State’s most talented team in nearly 30 years.
6. Michigan – They’re not quite The Fab Five but this year’s crop of Wolverines is dynamite. Point guard and Big 10 Freshman of the Year, Trey Burke along with Tim Hardaway Jr. are back and are among one of the best back courts in the nation. Both combined for 29.4 points per game. Joining those two elite guards are 6’10’’ center Mitch McGary and forward Glenn Robinson III. Yes, the son of NBA Jam sensation Glenn ‘The Big’ Robinson. These Wolverines won’t be one and done this season.
7. Kansas – Coach Bill Self executed one of the best coaching jobs in history by getting the Jayhawks to the national title game last year despite losing a ton of talent from the previous campaign. Kansas lost All American Thomas Robinson and high scoring guard Tyshawn Taylor but return three starters from last year’s run. Among those returning starters is 7’0’’ senior and block specialist, Jeff Withey. The big man was a dominant force down low setting a record for most blocked shots in a NCAA Tournament. Starting guard Elijah Johnson is another playmaker returning (10.2 ppg) along with defensive specialist, guard Travis Releford. Both are expected to be floor generals. Self’s biggest newcomer is Perry Ellis, who lead his high school team to four state titles and is expected to make an immediate impact. Once again, the Big 12 title will remain in Kansas.
8. Florida - The Gators are lead by future NBA big man, Patric Young as one of three returning starters from the Gators’ 2012 elite eight finish. Guard Kenny Boytnton was an explosive scorer last year, averaging 16 ppg and forward Eric Murphy (10.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg) are both, back to lead Coach Billy Donovan to another big run come March.
Senior forwards, Mason Plumlee (11.1 ppg) and Ryan Kelly (11.8 ppg) along with guard Seth Curry (13.2 ppg) are all back for Coach K’s Blue Devils. That alone is a pretty good group but what is even scarier is that two McDonald’s All Americans are joining them lead by stand out forward, Amile Jefferson. Jefferson will be a name fans become familiar with and enjoy watching. The other incoming freshmen stud is guard, Rasheed Sulaimon. This kid will be the best shooter from Duke since J.J. Redick. All in all, this isn’t Coach K’s best team but it will be a team no one wants to play late in the season.
10. UCLA - The Bruins missed the NCAA Tournament last season with a 19-14 record. However, Coach Ben Howland, feeling the pressure of the hot seat put together arguably the best recruiting class in the nation. That is the exact plot of the 1994 movie Blue Chips. Among that highly recruited class is Neon Bodoe, Butch McCray, Ric….oh, wrong recruits. Shabazz Muhammad (#1 recruit in many rankings), Kyle Anderson, and Tony Parker make up the #1 class in the country. Other players returning are three North Carolina defects, the Wear twins, Larry Drew II, and a very out of shape center, Josh Smith. This group will go as far as Shabazz Muhammad takes them. That is, if the NCAA even clears him. Expect him to be an O.J. Mayo clone.
11. North Carolina - This ranking is based on reputation and the potential of sophomore James McAdoo. Gone are Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Kendall Marshall, and Harrison Barnes. All gone! This won’t be your typical group of Tar Heels but they will be just fine. McAdoo will have a breakout year and be a lottery pick next summer. Back from season ending surgery is guard, Dexter Strickland, who will join former McDonald’s All American, Reggie Bullock in hopes of making sure the Tar Heels don’t fall off the map this season.
12. Syracuse - Gone are Fab Melo, Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine, and Dion Walters. But Jim Boeheim has reloaded with McDonald’s All Americans DeJuan Coleman and Jerami Grant. Senior guard, Brandon Triche will try to hold down the fort until the freshmen are ready to contribute. The Orange will be dangerous come March but expect some early growing pains.
13. Arizona - Wildcats senior forward, Soloman Hill, will be the heart and soul of Coach Sean Miller’s squad. He will be the best player in the Pac 12, Arizona welcomes a top 3 recruiting class highlighted by 6’10’’ forward and Southern California Player of the Year, Grant Jerrett. Sean Miller was also, able to exploit the NCAA transfer rule by adding former Xavier player and Miller recruit, Mark Lyons. Lyons is a deadly shooter. With Soloman Hill leading the charge, don’t be surprised to see a PAC 10 title or a surprise push for a Final Four. Anything is possible.
14.UNLV - The Runnin’ Rebels are primed and ready for a successful season. The Rebels are lead by Mike Moser, who was an absolute monster on the court last season, averaging 14 ppg and 10 rpg. Moser isn’t alone in the Sin City either. Highly touted freshmen, Anthony Bennet makes his debut. He is solid as brick too. Senior guard Anthony Marshall, was Robin to Moser’s Batman, averaging over 12 ppg and gathering honors by making the MWC All-Defensive team. This is the most talented squad in Vegas since the Tark the Shark days in the early 90s.
15. Creighton - This will be a special player for All American and possible player of the year, Doug McDermott. The coach’s kid averaged a sound 22.9 ppg and 8.2 rpg in 2012 before a 2nd round exit in the tournament. The Blue Jays won a school record, 29 games last season and hope to build off of that. Those expectations should be high considering they only lost one player. Expect a high seed come March and a couple of wins in the Big Dance.
16. Missouri - After an embarrassing exit in the first round to 15 seed, Norfolk State, the Tigers have reasons to not give up hope. They return a superb backcourt of Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon to go along with a handful of talented D1 transfers. They will be a threat in the SEC and provide some legendary battles with Kentucky and Florida. Another NCAA Tournament appearance is in store.
17. Michigan State - Tom Izzo will never let the Spartans underperform. This will be one of his biggest challenges in replacing the heart and soul of last year’s team, who earned a one seed in the NCAA tournament..Draymond Green. Green did everything for the Spartans. If Izzo is going to get this team clicking come March it will have to be from floor general, Keith Appling (11 ppg, 4apg), Brandon Dawson (8ppg, 4rpg) and highly ranked freshmen shooting guard, Gary Harris. Never count this group out.
18. Memphis - The Tigers enter their final season of C-USA play and will ultimately finish atop the mountain. However, if Coach Josh Pastner wants to have any chance against the big boys in the tournament, it will have to come from the combo of Joe Johnson and Tarik Black. Replacing departed Will Barton will be the Tigers biggest challenge this season.
19. San Diego State - Mountain West Player of the Year, Jamaal Franklin is back along with guard Xavier Thomas to lead the way. Coach Steve Fisher’s Aztecs look to increase the streak of four 25+ win seasons. By the looks of things, they will do it. Expect a win or two in the NCAA Tournament.
Four starters return including combo player, Elias Harris. Harris racked up rebounds like fat kids rack up chocolate bars and asserted himself as top dog in the conference. He looks to improve upon the averages of 13.1 ppg and 8.5 rpg in his last run in Spokane. There to help Harris is guard Kevin Pangos (13.6 ppg). Expectations for the Bulldogs should be as usual. Win the conference and a game or two in the NCAA tournament.
21. St. Louis - Yes, St. Louis. St. Louis returns Kwamain Mitchell and Cody Ellis who combined for 22.5 ppg in last year. St. Louis is one of the best defensive teams in the country holding teams to an average of less than 60 ppg last season. When you have a group of smart veterans who can play lock down defense then you have a legitimate threat to do some damage. This squad could possibly go on a Butler type run in the postseason. This is just a safe place to pick them at the start of the season.
22. Notre Dame - The Fighting Irish return all five starters. This is a guard oriented team lead by Jerani Grant (12.3 ppg) and Eric Atkins (12.1 ppg) which lead the Irish to a 22 win season a year ago. The talk in South Bend is about incoming freshman Cameron Biedsheid. Biedsheid was the Missouri Gatorade Player of the Year averaging an insane 32 points per game and 10 rebounds a night. He could very well be the key piece to get Notre Dame out of the ‘mediocre’ category.
23. Florida State - The Seminoles return four of their top 5 scorers and ACC Tournament MVP, Michael Snaer. Things are changing in Tallahassee. This isn’t just a football school anymore. Florida State is here to stay.
24. Baylor - Remember the name Isaiah Austin because you will be hearing David Stern announce it next season. The 7 footer has guard like hands and is drawing comparisons to Anthony Davis. Now those expectations might be unfounded but he will be a big time player for the Bears this season. Leading the way in the backcourt is point guard Pierre Jacon (13.8 ppg, 6 apg) who hopes to offset the loss of Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller. Expect the Bears to still be competitive in the Big 12.
25. Murray State - Stand out shooting guard, Isaiah Canaan could very well win National Player of the Year. Canaan lead the Racers to 31 wins last season while averaging 19 ppg and shooting 45% from 3-point range. Ed Daniel, the big man with the big fro, returns to a frontcourt short on size. He along with UAB transfer Dexter Fields is expected to support Canaan all the way to a conference title. Don’t expect the Racers to be as good as last year but they will definitely pull an upset come March.
Joshua Caudill is a writer for CraveOnline Sports. You can follow him on Twitter@JoshuaCaudill85 or subscribe at Facebook.com/CraveOnlineSports.
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