The college basketball season starts with several games on Friday, the main TV event being UConn-Maryland (6:30 PM ET, ESPN2) in a game played in Brooklyn. The first real signature event will be the Champions Classic, played at the Chicago United Center and featuring Kansas-Duke and Michigan State-Kentucky, all ranked in the top six to start the season.
College basketball coverage here at TheSportsNotebook will tip off with a basic look at the nation’s Top 16 teams, as ranked in the preseason AP poll…
1)Kentucky: It’s another big recruiting haul for John Calipari, with forward Julian Randle being this year’s one-and-done player that will go in the top five of next June’s NBA draft. Kentucky also has freshman in the backcourt, with twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison running the show.
This #1 ranking is excessive. We saw last year that simply having top incoming talent is not always going to add up to 2012, when the Anthony Davis/Michael Kidd-Gilchrist Wildcats won the national championship. Last year’s NIT season was also an outlier, but there has to be a happy middle ground on the expectations spectrum.
2)Michigan State: Tom Izzo’s got a veteran guard in Keith Appling, and the return of Big Ten Freshman of the Year Gary Harris in the backcourt, although Harris is dealing with an injured ankle early on. What the Spartans always do best though is hit the boards, and Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson are back to control the glass.
I don’t look at this team and see “national champion”, but it’s tough to say that about anyone in November. Sparty’s got the tools to be the favorite in the Big Ten.
3)Louisville: Rick Pitino cut down the nets in 2013, and brings back prolific scorer Russ Smith in the backcourt, along with Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear at forward. Behanan is a monster on the glass, as he demonstrated most vividly in the NCAA final win over Michigan. Blackshear has been inconsistent and dealt with some injuries, but he’s a potentially potent scorer that could give the Cardinals a big lift.
Pitino loses quarterback Peyton Siva, which will hurt early, though I suspect the head coach will fill this void as the year goes on. The more difficult problem is replacing center Gorgui Dieng. He wasn’t consistent and his offense was often lacking, but Dieng was an imposing rebounding and defensive presence that was crucial to allowing the perimeter players to pressure the ball freely, and then to clean up the misses they forced.
4)Duke: The Blue Devils have their usual strong backcourt with Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon, and now Coach K has gotten in on the one-and-done craze in recruiting. Forward Jabari Walker is Duke’s freshman who will make a big impact this season and be taken in the NBA lottery this summer. And it wouldn’t be a Duke team without a Plumlee in the post–Marshall is the latest of the family to join the program.
I understand Duke’s reputation ranking them this high, but the key with this program has always been whether they have physical people that can be rebound. Let’s keep expectations cautious until we see how that unfolds.
5)Kansas: Andrew Wiggins is the most hyped college freshman I can ever recall, one who has already said publicly that he’s “going to enjoy my last year in school.” Wiggins, a forward, is joined by two other highly touted frosh in guard Wayne Selden and center Joel Embidd. It looks like Bill Self is another coach who’s finally realized you can’t compete in college basketball anymore without having top recruits that will immediately leave.
6)Arizona: The Wildcats underachieved in the regular season last year and missed a chance at redemption with a Sweet 16 loss to Ohio State. Sean Miller brings back a good inside-out combo of Kaleb Tarczewski, a true center down low, and Nick Johnson on the perimeter. The freshman of note here is forward Aaron Gordon, a top-five recruit nationally, and one who holds the key to the team’s long-term success.
7)Michigan: After a roller-coaster ride the last six weeks of 2013–from a late-season slump that cost them the Big Ten title, to a sudden turnaround they rode all the way to Monday night in the NCAA Tournament–the Wolverines have some rebuilding to do in the backcourt. Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are gone.
John Beilein will turn to returning players up front, Mitch McGary, and the talented, but inconsistent Glenn Robinson III. If Robinson comes through, the Wolverines will deserve this high ranking. The replacements in the backcourt are well-regarded freshman, but not in the Wiggins/Randle/Parker class. And Burke is a player very difficult to replace, with his leadership and three-point range that extended into the arena parking lot.
8)Oklahoma State: This is a team I like a lot right now. Marcus Smart, a swingman, had some inconsistencies as a freshman, but he’s a great talent and wisely chose to come back to Stillwater. Markell Brown is a nice point guard and Le’Bryan Nash a solid forward. If the Cowboys get good interior play, they’ll make a run at displacing Kansas atop the Big 12. Even if they don’t, they’ll be a fun team to watch all year.
9)Syracuse: Jim Boeheim has a high-quality group of forwards, with returning players Rakeem Christmas, DeJuan Coleman and C.J. Fair. Their length and defensive skill will again make his 2-3 zone hard to penetrate and require opponents to beat them from downtown.
But with point guard Michael Carter-Williams having taken his considerable talent to the NBA–MCW is already off to a blazing rookie start with the Philadelphia 76ers, there have to be question marks about Syracuse getting leadership in the backcourt. We’ve seen already how problems in this area can negate good frontcourt play, and that’s why I think this ranking is too high for Syracuse, even coming off a Final Four run.
10)Florida: This is another team ranked way too high, at least until we see what Billy Donovan has on hand. The Gators lost Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario, the backcourt of the team that won the SEC title, along with sharpshooting forward Erik Murphy. All that’s left is center Patric Young, a player who’s pretty good ,but not one who just elevates the entire starting lineup by being on the floor. I can easily see a long year in Gainesville floating around the NCAA bubble.
11)Ohio State: DeShaun Thomas, the forward who knocked down nearly 20 ppg, went into the NBA after his junior year. It didn’t serve Thomas well–he’s playing in France–nor will it serve the Buckeyes well. Thad Matta still has a good backcourt with Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith, and a promising forward Sam Thompson. If they had Thomas, you could talk national title. As it is, without a clear go-to scorer, this ranking is probably about right.
12)North Carolina: Similar to Florida, this is a program that deserves respect because of its head coach, but when you look at the talent, there’s a big gap between where they’re at and where they’re ranked. James Michael McAdoo must have a big year at forward, both scoring and rebounding and we’ve yet to see consistency from him. P.J. Hairston has to play well at guard, but when you get suspended for marijuana possession, that’s not exactly an auspicious beginning.
UNC has gone through some rough times since winning the NCAA title in 2009, and I see little evidence to suggest this year will be different.
13)Memphis: Head coach Josh Pastner has his best team, and this will be the best Memphis team since the one that came within seconds of the national championship in 2008 under Calipari and led by Derrick Rose. The backcourt is very good, with a trio of Shaq Goodwin, Joe Jackson and Geron Johnson. They shoot, penetrate and play defense, and so long as another year of playing together reduces the turnovers, life will be good.
The key will be two freshman recruits at forward, the main one being Austin Nichols. If Memphis gets this interior presence, they’ll challenge Louisville for the title in the American Athletic Conference (the old Big East, minus the Jesuit schools that left, and minus Syracuse/Pitt who are in the ACC).
How good is this Tiger team? So good that if John Grisham writes another version of The Firm, whose corrupt law firm was in Memphis, he’ll portray the young lawyer Mitch McDeere getting wooed with courtside seats to basketball games and FBI agent Wayne Tarrance stopping him in the concession lines.
14)Virginia Commonwealth: Since the miracle Final Four run of 2011, the Rams have shown their a legit program under Shaka Smart, winning consistently, even if March magic has eluded them. This year will be no different. The backcourt of Briante Weber and Rob Brandenburg makes for a nice combination. Weber can penetrate, dish and disrupt on defense. Brandenburg can knock down the shots. Juvonte Reddic gives them a good presence at forward and a Top 16 ranking looks about right.
15)Gonzaga: I don’t buy the Zags as a Top 16 program this year. The backcourt is still sound with Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr, but both are undersized, and now center Kelly Olynyk–one of the country’s best players last year–is part of a tanking rebuilding process in Boston Garden. Just edging out St. Mary’s in the West Coast Conference is a worthy enough goal for this year’s Gonzaga team.
16)Wichita State: It was great to see this program get some national recognition with last year’s Final Four run. The Shockers have been a solid team for a long time, and the exposure to the national stage was long overdue. They’ll be good again this season, with Cleanthony Early back as the meal ticket at forward, a defensive troublemaker at guard in Tekele Cotton and the return of shooting guard Ron Baker, who broke his foot early last season and get can back to the business of providing outside shooting support.
In no sport do preseason predictions matter less than in college basketball, where coaches have a nearly two months of games to sift through lineups before we even get to the long run of conference play. TheSportsNotebook’s college basketball coverage will do more intense looks at the major conferences and the best of the midmajors right around the New Year when teams get ready for the important parts of their season, and we get an early read on which freshmen are going to perform.
But since I’ve criticized some early rankings, it’s only right that I at least throw out a few picks of my own. We know from recent history that the national champion is coming from one of the bluebloods, and I’d put all the teams in the top five in that discussion. Right now I like Louisville as the best of the group.
Memphis and Oklahoma State are the two teams I’m looking to come up strong as challengers, to be ranked in the Top 10, eventually get seeded first or second in an NCAA Tournament regional, and be a threat to make the Final Four in Dallas.