Fall is a beautiful time of year. Football season is in full swing, the air is crisp, and the trees are turning glorious golds and browns. Most importantly, the five month fun-a-thon that is the college basketball season starts in the fall. That’s right, college basketball season is (finally) right around the corner. Excited? I am, and if you’re not, perhaps this ad will get you in the mood!
Below is College Sports Town’s first national college basketball preview. It includes my ranking and previews for what I view as the top 24 (Why not 25? I’m not sure…24 just felt right.) college basketball teams in the country going into what should be a phenomenal college basketball season. Tell me what teams are too high and too low in the comments! And if you’re favorite team fell short of the top 24, rest assured that they would have been #25. 😉
1. Kansas: W is for Wiggins, that’s good enough for me
The Jayhawks are losing a lot from last year’s 31 win team, including the number seven pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, Ben McLemore, and block-machine Jeff Withey. But it’s all good in Lawrence: the Jayhawks adds are bigger than their losses. Bill Self signed the consensus top recruit in an absolute killer recruiting class: Andrew Wiggins, and that in itself is reason for sky-high expectations for KU. Wiggins is a 6’8″ monster with a complete game who’s been getting lots of LeBron James comps (probably stupid talk, but let’s wait and see). He figures to dominate the Big 12 in his first, and presumably only, season at KU before he moves on to the Association. He’s surrounded with loads of talent. Tarik Black, a rugged big who transferred from Memphis, should be a difference maker down low. Sophomore forward Perry Ellis has a dynamic game too. And point guard Naadir Tharpe is expected to make a big jump as a junior. Wiggins isn’t the only diaper dandy arriving in Lawrence; wings Wayne Selden and Brennan Greene have NBA written all over them and word is seven-foot Cameroonian center Joel Embiid has crazy potential. The Jayhawks will be green, but they’ve got arguably the best coach in the biz in Bill Self pulling the strings and the talent of Wiggins is impossible to ignore. If they gel the way Self teams usually do, they could be virtually unbeatable.
Best Case Scenario: Wiggins lives up to hype, Selden is Paul Pierce 2.0, Tharpe and Ellis enjoy breakout seasons, Embiid fills the void left by Jeff Withey, and the Jayhawks roll to the national title.
Worst Case Scenario: Wiggins struggles, the team never gels, Self gets a lot of technical fouls, and the Jayhawks see their nine-year run of Big 12 titles snapped and bow out early in the NCAA Tourney.
2. Kentucky: Calipari might just have inked the best recruiting class ever
Kentucky was quite disappointing last year. With another crop of highly touted freshman, the Wildcats were expected to be elite, and they just weren’t. They sputtered out of the gate, losing three of their first seven, and then, just when they started to look like the team they were expected to be before the season, center Nerlens Noel tore his ACL in early Febuary. Kentucky missed the NCAA Tourney and finished off their season with a lifeless performance in a loss against Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT. This season, expectations are higher, and with a recruiting class that features six McDonald’s All-Americans joining the leftovers from last year, it is easy to see why. Julius Randle is perhaps the headliner in a group of freshman that includes Marcus Lee, James Young, Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison (yes, they’re twins), and Dakari Johnson. Meanwhile, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein are both back for their sophomore seasons. This Kentucky team has talent in spades and a national title seems much more likely than a repeat of the nightmare of last season.
Best Case Scenario: The freshman class is as advertised, Poythress and Cauley-Stein take big steps forward, and Kentucky wins their second national title in three years.
Worst Case Scenario: A repeat of last year.
3. Duke: Jabari and friends will keep Duke near the top…Title not unlikely
If Andrew Wiggins is not the best freshman in college basketball this year, it probably is Jabari Parker, Duke’s super-athletic 6-8 wing. Parker will star for a Blue Devil team that loses significant pieces from last year’s 30 win squad, including stars Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry, but should still be the class of the ACC. Point guard Quin Cook doesn’t make mistakes, sophomore shooting guard Rasheed Sulaimon is an unreal shooter, redshirt senior Andre Dawkins shoots the lights out too, and sophomore big Amile Jefferson could be poised for a breakout year. Here comes another great year for Duke hoops.
Best Case Scenario: Jabari Parker leads the Dukie Daisy Dandies to a national title. Dick Vitale rejoices.
Worst Case Scenario: Parker fails to live up to the hype and Duke’s youthful frontcourt struggles. Duke gets Lehighed again in March.
4. Michigan State: Izzo’s teams naturally gravitate toward the final four
Sparty is bringing back nearly everyone from last year’s 27 win team. Center Derrick Nix is gone, but Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, and Brendan Dawson are back. This Michigan State team should again be excellent defensively, has an awesome backcourt combo of Harris and Appling, and boasts a solid frontcourt. Coach Tom Izzo hasn’t taken the Spartans past the sweet 16 since 2010. For him, that’s a long drought, and this MSU team has the talent to end that dry spell.
Best Case Scenario: Harris has a monster season and the Spartans win their first national title since 2000.
Worst Case Scenario: Michigan State regresses and experiences a repeat of their ’10-11 season.
5. Louisville Cardinals: Can the Cardinals repeat?
The 2012-2013 Louisville Cardinals were a special team, with a supercharged offense to go along with a typical, fierce Rick Pitino defense. This year they should take a small step back, but enough talent returns to indicate that another national title is far from out of the question. Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng have moved on to the NBA and they will be missed, but Russ Smith, the Cardinals’ dynamite shooting guard and perhaps the nation’s best two-way player is back. Chane Behanan, Luke Hancock, and Montrezl Harrell (who was fantastic in the NCAA Tourney last year) are all back too. And Chris Jones, the nation’s top juco player, and Kevin Ware both could fill the void left by Siva.
Best Case Scenario: The Cardinals repeat and Rick Pitino gets another tattoo.
Worst Case Scenario: The losses of Siva and Dieng do the Cardinals in, and Louisville suffers an early round exit in March.
6. North Carolina: The talent returning could lead to a championship
UNC never put it together last winter. They had all the pieces: a quality point man in Marcus Paige, a reliable marksman in Reggie Bullock, another pure shooter in offensive dynamo P.J. Hairston, and an extremely gifted big man in James Michael McAdoo, in addition to tremendous depth. While the Tar Heels weren’t terrible–they did win 25 games–they weren’t great either, as their best win of the season was probably their first round NCAA Tourney victory over Villanova. They struggled defensively and were wildly inconsistent from game to game. This year, they have the talent to be great. James Michael McAdoo is back, P.J. Hairston is too (maybe–he spent his off-season in a tornado of trouble), and so is Paige. The Tar Heels added a superior athlete in freshman Isaiah Hicks and should be uber talented. The question remains whether Roy Williams can parlay that talent into some better results.
Best Case Scenario: The Heels are offensive dynamite and improved defensively. Hairston plays and plays well and McAdoo leads the Heels to their first national title since ’09.
Worst Case Scenario: Hairston doesn’t play, McAdoo struggles, and the team has no offensive or defensive identity. The Heels stumble to the NIT.
7. Syracuse: New conference. Same 2-3 zone.
Despite considerable personnel losses, Syracuse should be ferocious in their inaugural season in the ACC. Last year’s team was defensively sublime, as Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 looked as good as ever. This year they will miss Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche, and James Southerland—all awesome players—and will lean heavily on the likes of CJ Fair and freshman point guard Tyler Ennis. No problem, Fair is a monster who improved over the course of last season and Ennis is said to have serious game. Quality bigs Rakeem Christmas and Baye Moussa Keita should anchor Cuse’s defense and keep it at an elite level.
Best Case Scenario: Ennis is superb as a freshman, Syracuse’s offense is strong, and the Orange make their second straight final four.
Worst Case Scenario: Syracuse struggles offensively and, following a nightmare season, Jim Boeheim calls it quits.
8. VCU: More HAVOC means more wins
This honestly could be the best team Shaka Smart has had at VCU…and he got them to the final four in 2011. The Rams looked like they might be ready for a similar March push last year, impressing everyone with an 84-52 win over Butler late in A-10 play. And while the Rams bowed out of the NCAA Tourney in the second round after falling against Michigan, it was still a great 27 win season in Richmond. This year’s team will miss a couple of solid backcourt dudes–Troy Daniels and Darius Theus–but VCU still has a ton of ballers, including bigman Juvonte Reddic, the offensively potent Treveon Graham, and Rob Brandenberg. Shaka Smart should have the Rams’ defense in a prime havoc-creating state when the season rolls around, and the Rams should be extremely effective offensively. They’ve got leadership, size, and shooters. And, of course, they create HAVOC!
Best Case Scenario: The Rams wreak havoc in March, winning it all.
Worst Case Scnario: The Rams are bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tourney before Shaka Smart is coaxed to another program.
9. Ohio State: THAD-licious
Thad Matta’s Ohio State program has been super-consistent over the past few years and appears to be looking ahead to another strong season. Aaron Craft, the Buckeyes’ clutch point guard, is back for his senior season and should continue to be dynamite at both ends of the court. He will be joined in the backcourt by senior Lenzell Smith Jr. who is a terrific shooter and is also good defensively. Junior LaQuinton Ross will probably be expected to take a bigger share of the offensive load following the departure of the offensively potent Deshaun Thomas, but if his play in the NCAAs was any indication, he’s ready. Thad’s team has more talent in the form of the wildly athletic Sam Thompson, and should be a serious player in the national title race.
Best Case Scenario: Ross and Thompson both have terrific junior seasons and Craft finishes off his Buckeye career by winning a national title.
Worst Case Scenario: The Buckeyes REALLY miss Thomas and skid to the NIT.
10. Arizona: Pac-12 still sucks. At least they have ‘Zona
Following a disappointing 2011-2012 season that culminated in a visit to the NIT, Arizona had an awesome bounce back season last winter, winning 27 games before finishing their season with a painful loss to Ohio State in the sweet 16. In the off-season they lost some serious talent; Mark Lyons and Solomon Hill are gone among others, but the Wildcats still possess the talent to dominate a still-meh Pac 12 conference. They will be led by junior guards T.J. McConnell (a transfer from Duquesne) and Nick Johnson, and feature strong front court pieces Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski. Highly regarded freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson should give coach Sean Miller’s squad a chance to make a deep run in March.
Best Case Scenario: The Wildcats roll to a Pac-12 title and follow it up with a run at a national title.
Worst Case Scenario: They miss Lyons and Hill and wind up on the wrong side of the bubble come March.
11. Wichita State: The Shockers won’t shock anyone anymore
Straight outta the Missouri Valley Conference, Wichita State blew through the NCAA Tournament last year as an eight seed (their seeding was bull) before coming up short in the final four against the eventual champion Cardinals. Even before that, the Shockers were a great team all season and played some decent competition in conference play, from Creighton to Evansville. This year, the conference will take a small step back as a result of Creighton’s departure, but Wichita State shouldn’t. They’ll miss Malcolm Armstead, Carl Hall, and Demetric Williams, but they bring back a lot. The star of the show for the Shockers should still be senior Cleanthony Early, their dynamic slashing wing, who might be in for a National Player of the Year type of season. He will get help from the sharp shooting Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton, some solid freshmen like D.J. Bowles and Shaquille Morris, and transfer big Kadeem Coleby. Defensively, the Shockers should again be tremendous.
Best Case Scenario: Wichita State makes like Butler and hits up another final four.
Worst Case Scenario: The Shockers bow out in the first round of the NCAAs.
12. Oklahoma State: Smart is back which makes this ranking… Smart
Just about everybody’s back for the Cowboys, including the sensational Marcus Smart, who spurned NBA riches in favor of chasing a title in Stillwater. Smart will be joined by such stalwarts as Le’Bryan Nash, Markel Brown, and the strokity Phil Forte. The Cowboys should be able to score with ease and an off-season of improvement could leave Marcus Smart among the best ballers in college hoops. This is a team with the talent to make a deep run in March.
Best Case Scenario: Smart makes big improvements as a sophomore and the Cowboys get better as the year goes along, beating out KU for the Big 12 crown before making a run to the Final Four.
Worst Case Scenario: Despite a surplus off talent, the Cowboys lack chemistry and struggle defensively, eventually falling short of an NCAA bid.
13. Michigan: Believe in Beilein
While they had some defensive issues throughout last season, which were on full display in their 84-78 loss to an offensively mediocre Penn State team in late February, Michigan was as scary as any team in college basketball. They just had so many offensive weapons, and coach John Beilein kept the Wolverines defense dynamic, at the very least. In the end, the Wolverines were not able to knock out Louisville in the national final, but they sure gave a hell of a fight. This year, Michigan will have to deal with the losses of two NBAers in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. (who I love both for his first name and his unreal J). But Beilein’s team will still have oodles of talent: Glenn Robinson III is back for his sophomore season, the monstrous Mitch McGary returns also, Nik Stauskas should keep making it rain for the Wolverines, and Michigan brought in another great recruiting class. Freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. is said to be able to do a lot of what Burke did, wing Zak Irvin is supposed to have serious game too, and scouts are high on forward Mark Donnel. The Wolverines should stay among the nation’s elite.
Best Case Scenario: Robinson has a stellar sophomore season, Walton Jr. is a PTPing diaper dandy, and the Wolverines have enough to make it to another national title game, this time coming out of the season’s final game on the winning end.
Worst Case Scenario: Something resembling Michigan’s frustrating ’09-’10 season.
14. Florida: They’re loaded–with talent and question marks
There may be some question marks regarding their roster and who’s gonna play and who’s not, but Gator fans need not fret that much. Coach Billy Donovan, who has taken Florida to three straight elite eights (following the three-year “slump” the Gators went into after back-to-back national titles in ’06 and ’07) is sure to get the most out of a Gators team that features such stars as senior center Patric Young and incoming McDonald’s All-American guard Kasey Hill. If things break right and the Gators can play question marks like Scottie Willbekin and Eric Carter, they could compete for a title. If not, Florida should at the least be very good.
Best Case Scenario: Things go right and the Gators win it all.
Worst Case Scenario: Carter and Willbekin don’t play, stars like Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy are missed, and the Gators wind up in the NIT.
15. Gonzaga: Time for the Pangos Party
The Zags were a really good team last year, but they didn’t look it in the NCAA Tournament, as they barely beat 16 seed Southern in the first round before losing to Wichita State in the second round. There is probably nothing they can do this season to get themselves another one seed. No matter, Gonzaga should still be excellent. They will be without two of their stars from last year, forwards Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk, but the Bulldogs’ offense should once again be among the nation’s best thanks to spectacular junior point guard Kevin Pangos (who is a brilliant shooter, a great passer, and a tough defender) and his sidekick, Gary Bell Jr. Their backcourt should be boosted by athletic Providence transfer Gerard Coleman and forward Sam Dower should thrive in a bigger role as a senior. 7-1 centers Przemek Karnowski and Ryan Edwards are, well, 7-1.
Best Case Scenario: Gonzaga’s backcourt is the nation’s best and carries them to the final four.
West Case Scenario: The Zags defense is terrible, they lack any semblance of a post game offensively, and they miss the NCAA Tournament.
16. Iowa: You could almost see this one coming
In Fran McCaffery’s first year at Iowa a woefully under-talented Hawkeyes team sputtered to an 11-20 record. The next year, Iowa showed marked improvement, going 18-17. Then, last year, Iowa was full-on good, finishing the regular season with a record of 21-12. The Hawkeyes were snubbed by the NCAA Tourney committee (they really deserved to get in), but won four games in the NIT to finish with a record of 25-13. This year, McCaffery’s Hawkeyes should take another step forward, and have the depth and talent to compete for a Big Ten title. They will be led by senior guard Roy Marble and junior forward Aaron White. Marble was fantastic in the NIT last year, but what really stands out about this team is their depth; they should be able to go ten deep. If you’re looking for a team to be this year’s Miami, Iowa could be that. Also, like Miami last winter, this Iowa team should be remarkable defensively.
Best Case Scenario: Iowa punctuates another 25+ win season with a surprise trip to the final four.
Worst Case Scenario: Iowa handles the high expectations poorly and regresses for the first time under McCaffery. They fall well short of the bubble.
17. Villanova: So much youthful talent returns
For one week last season, ‘Nova might have been the best team in college basketball. Over a five-day stretch the Wildcats beat Louisville and Syracuse back-to-back, a pair of wins (along with wins over Georgetown and Marquette) that helped get Nova into the NCAA Tournament. Villanova was very young last year and improved massively over the course of the winter. This year, they should be older and better. They lost center Mouphtaou Yarou to graduation, which could leave the Wildcats characteristically weak in the front court, but a phenomenal backcourt featuring the fearless Ryan Arcidiacono should help make up for that. And forward pieces JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu are feisty and good. Look for the Wildcats to again be awesome at home, and better on the road, where they struggled at times last season.
Best Case Scenario: Arcidiacono has a superlative sophomore season and leads the ‘Cats to a Big East title and a final four appearance.
Worst Case Scenario: Nova has turnover issues and struggles on the boards, eventually winding up in the NIT.
18. Memphis: Waiting, waiting, and waiting some more for Pastner’s breakout year
Josh Pastner, Memphis’ young and energetic coach, has won 106 games in four seasons at Memphis. Last year, the Tigers went 16-0 in Conference USA play. His recruiting classes have been strong and his teams have been incredibly well coached. Somehow, in spite of all of this, Pastner has yet to take the Tigers to the sweet 16. Could this be the year? Quite possibly. Memphis brought in another excellent recruiting class in the off-season, explosive guard Joe Jackson is back for his senior season, and he will be joined in the backcourt by stud transfer Michael Dixon. Meanwhile, big Shaq Goodwin is good(win). The Tigers will have to deal with stiffer regular season competition after moving to the AAC but, hey, that could also help them to be better prepared for March Madness.
Best Case Scenario: The Tigers’ freshmen play like upperclassmen, Memphis goes undefeated in conference play again, and Pastner finally takes Memphis on a deep run in March.
Worst Case Scenario: The youthful Tigers don’t gel and they struggle to replace bigs Adonis Thomas and Tarik Black. Memphis finishes under .500.
19. Wisconsin: Bo Ryan-coached teams don’t have bad seasons. Period.
They might not score much and they may not be pretty to watch, but since Bo Ryan took over at Wisconsin in 2001, the Badgers have been consistent winners. They’ve made the NCAA Tourney every year during Ryan’s tenure thanks to rugged defense and a consistent, patient offensive approach. Fresh off a strong 23 win season highlighted by wins over Indiana (two), Michigan (x2), and Ohio State, Wiscy should again be very good. They’ll be youngish, and may miss such graduated stalwarts as Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz, but the talent is in place for another typically strong season in Madison with senior guard Ben Brust leading the way and sophomore Sam Dekker providing loads of offense. Just don’t expect Wisconsin to score in triple digits frequently.
Best Case Scenario: Wisconsin starts the season strong (unlike last year) and keeps things going all season, winning a Big Ten title and making a run to the elite eight.
Worst Case Scenario: Wiscy doesn’t make the Tourney.
20. Indiana: The hype is gone, but reasons for optimism remain
No team in college basketball lost more talent this off-season than the Indiana Hoosiers, who bid farewell to Cody Zeller (now of the Charlotte Bobcats), Victor Oladipo (who took his talents to the Orlando Magic), Christian Watford, and Jordan Hulls. So, basically, the Hoosiers will no longer be an NBA team parading around as a college team. But there is good news in Bloomington to go along with much-tempered expectations compared to last fall’s hype-a-thon: Yogi Ferrell, the Hoosiers’ filthy sophomore point guard returns, Willy Sheehey is back too, and new arrivals like prize recruit Noah Vonleh and transfer Evan Gordon should give the Hoosiers some extra zing. Tom Crean remains at the helm of the Hoosiers’ ship, which should insure a dynamic offense and consistently strong game plans. So, the drop off from last year should not be precipitous.
Best Case Scenario: Ferrell and Vonleh explode and this Indiana team actually outperforms last year’s in March, managing a run to the elite eight.
Worst Case Scenario: The young Hoosiers lack leadership and weapons and finish near the bottom of the Big Ten. Conjuring some memories from a few years ago, Tom Crean gets ejected from at least one game.
21. Creighton: One more ride for Dougie with a final four in mind
Doug McDermott is an absolute BALLER. And he is back in Omaha for his senior season. It is good news for a Creighton team moving into the Big East. McDermott will have a strong supporting cast this winter: forward Ethan Wragge is a lethal shooter, Grant Gibbs has a complete game, and Austin Chatman is great too. The Bluejays are loaded with experience and skill. They should score loads and could be an improved defense away from a deep NCAA run.
Best Case Scenario: McDermott does his dance, the Blue Jays are improved defensively, and Creighton wins the Big East before making a run to Arlington.
Worst Case Scenario: The Bluejays have a tough time adjusting to the rugged style of play of their new Big East brethren and stumble in conference play, eventually finding themselves in the NIT.
22. Virginia: Shoulda been dancing last year, will be dancing this year
A late season win over Duke might have been enough to convince me that UVA deserved to make the NCAA Tourney last March, but it wasn’t enough to convince the tournament’s selection committee. This winter, look for the Cavs to be good enough to stay off the bubble. Tony Bennett’s team should again be one of the best defensive squads in the country and brings back such stellar players as the offensively potent Joe Harris, skilled swatter Justin Anderson, and double-double machine Akil Mitchell. The Cavaliers also will have as much depth as any team in the ACC. The pieces are in place for a big season in Charlottesville.
Best Case Scenario: The Cavaliers are as good offensively as they are defensively and, after winning the ACC Tourney, make a run to the elite eight.
Worst Case Scenario: They have some offensive issues, lose some games they shouldn’t, and are again snubbed on Selection Sunday.
23. Harvard: Win over New Mexico was no fluke. The Crimson is legit
Hold onto your hats folks, because this might be the best Ivy League team ever. Despite losing a number of key players from their excellent 26 win ’11-12 team, both to graduation and to a cheating scandal, Harvard was again the class of the Ivy League. They punctuated their 20 win season with a 68-62 win over 3 seed New Mexico in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. This year, they bring back nearly everyone of note from the team that stunned the Lobos (sans sharpshooter Christian Webster, who graduated) and also two starters from the 26 win team of ’11-12 who sat out last year after being implicated in the cheating scandal. Those two starters are Brandon Curry, a solid passer and staunch defender, and Kyle Casey, an athletic forward with a diverse skill set. The star of this team will probably be Wesley Saunders, a talented wing with an NBA body who dropped 16 per game last season. He could be the front-runner for Ivy League Player of the Year. The Crimson will also be led by lightning quick point guard Siyani Chambers, who exploded onto the scene last year as a freshman, and senior sharpshooter Laurent Rivard, who is one of the best defensive guards in the country. Harvard’s hella talented, and their weakness last year, frontcourt size, should be shored up by the arrival of freshman Zena Edosomwan. Tommy Amaker has built a winner in Cambridge.
Best Case Scenario: Harvard dominates the Ivy League before making a deep run in March. They also beat Boston College for the sixth straight season.
Worst Case Scenario: Harvard fails to meet expectations, regressing defensively for the second straight season and coming up short of the Ivy League Title. Rival Yale takes the conference crown.
24. Marquette: Buzz will keep ‘Quette grooving
Marquette had a fantastic season last winter in which they won 26 games and made a trip to the elite eight. Some of the big contributors from that team are gone this year (Vander Blue left for the NBA, Junior Cadougan and Trent Lockett graduated), but Buzz Williams and the Golden Eagles probably won’t miss a beat. After all, they lost a considerable amount before last season too. This season, the Golden Eagles might be a little more frontcourt-centric than usual, as forwards DaVante Gardner and Jamil Wilson should be their best weapons, but much is expected from freshman guard John Dawson and it is hard to imagine a Marquette team not being at least solid in the backcourt. Williams knows what he’s doing, and while this may be a young Marquette team, they should be playing good ball come tourney time.
Best Case Scenario: Their guards grow up fast and the Golden Eagles win the Big East and hit up the elite eight once again.
Worst Case Scenario: Gardner is out of shape, the Eagles’ backcourt struggles, and the NIT beckons.