By Jon Rothstein
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The empire will bounce back in a major way next season. John Calipari has assembled arguably the greatest recruiting class in the history of college basketball, and that’s without knowing whether or not Andrew Wiggins will wind up in Lexington instead of at Florida State. Freshmen Andrew and Aaron Harrison will combine to form a potent perimeter along with 6-foot-6 lefty James Young. Highly-touted power forward Julius Randle is a lock to start at power forward and Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer will be ready to headline a loaded frontcourt. Kentucky is back, and in a major way.
The Blue Devils may lose three special upperclassmen in Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly, and Mason Plumlee, but help is definitely on the way. Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood should have an immediate impact due to his athleticism, and 6-foot-8 freshman Jabari Parker will be one of the best players in the country next season. Add two quality backcourt returnees in Quinn Cook and Rasheed Suliamon — along with Andre Dawkins, who redshirted last season — and Duke should once again be right in the thick of things. This team will play with interchangeable parts, and should get a nice lift down low from Marshall Plumlee, who will get every opportunity to be a factor on the low post. Freshmen Matt Jones and Semi Ojeleye will add quality depth.
Rick Pitino will lose Peyton Siva, Russ Smith and Gorgui Dieng, but the Cardinals still have all the requisites to be one of the better teams in the country. Pitino will likely use a combination of freshman Terry Rozier, Anton Gill and JUCO transfer Chris Jones to replace Siva. Louisville will also have two solid veteran perimeter players in Luke Hancock and Wayne Blackshear. The real guy to watch on the Cardinals’ roster next season? Montrezl Harrell. The 6-foot-8 bruiser is built like an adonis and should be a monster as a sophomore. Chane Behanan, Stephan Van Treese and 6-foot-10 center Zach Price all add to this team’s impressive frontcourt depth.
The athleticism of this team will be off the charts. The ultra bouncy Nick Johnson will be one of the better players in the PAC-12 as a junior and the frontcourt trio of Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski will all be much improved as sophomores. Freshmen forwards Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon bring nastiness at small forward, and Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell will finally give Sean Miller a true point guard. This team has all the requisites to be the best group that Miller has had since he’s been in Tucson.
The Gators will be freakishly athletic next season. Two high profile transfers — Dorian Finney-Smith (Virginia Tech) and Damontre Harris (South Carolina) — will join a seasoned frontcourt trio of Patric Young, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete. Scottie Wilbekin returns at point guard along with sharpshooter Michael Frazier, who should take a major step forward as a sophomore. Freshmen floor general Kasey Hill should push for immediate minutes next to Wilbekin, while first-year power forward Chris Walker figures to also be a regular contributor in Florida’s rotation.
6. NORTH CAROLINA
Roy Williams will bring back most of the core from a team that finished the season playing quality basketball. James Michael-McAdoo is set to anchor the middle, while P.J. Hairston, Reggie Bullock and Marcus Paige return on the perimeter. Look for J.P. Tokoto and Brice Johnson to make a jump as they become sophomores, and the freshmen triumvirate of Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and point guard Nate Britt to all contribute immediately. Don’t be surprised if Williams regularly pairs Paige and Britt together in the backcourt to maximize this team’s speed.
7. OHIO STATE
Even without Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeyes will have one of the more experienced rosters in college basketball. As a senior, Aaron Craft will be the consensus top point guard in the country and LaQuinton Ross appears set to become this team’s go-to scorer after a breakout run in the NCAA Tournament. Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson will return as juniors, and Thad Matta has to hope that Amir Williams can blossom into a dependable low-post scorer. Lenzelle Smith Jr. will be a strong option at shooting guard, along with freshman Kameron Williams.
No one replenishes talent quite like Jim Boeheim. The Orange will lose Brandon Triche, James Southerland and likely Michael Carter-Williams, but should still have plenty left over to remain among the nation’s elite. Freshman point guard Tyler Ennis is probable to start from day one, and Duke transfer Michael Gbinije is a prime candidate to start at the two. Jerami Grant showed flashes of brilliance this past season and should be a major force next to C.J. Fair up front. The Orange will have the luxury of rotating either Rakeem Christmas, DaJuan Coleman or Baye Keita at center. Freshman wing Tyler Roberson may challenge for immediate minutes due to his athleticism.
The Jayhawks will be young but talented. Bill Self will likely have five new starters next season after Ben McLemore declares for the NBA Draft, but the Jayhawks have put together a terrific recruiting class that should be Kansas’ foundation for the next few seasons. Freshman wing Wayne Selden is an impact scorer at 6-foot-5, while fellow first-year players Joel Embiid (6-foot-11), Brannen Greene (6-foot-6) and Conner Frankamp should all be able to make contributions at their respective positions. Embiid has big-time upside while Frankamp should be able to immediately extend defenses with his shot-making ability. Naadir Tharpe returns to run the show at point guard while Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor figure to be two key pieces on the interior. Andrew White should be a ready for a bigger role as a sophomore, and redshirt freshman Landen Lucas could also be in play for a regular spot in the rotation thanks to his size (6-foot-10).
Even without Trey Burke, John Beilein will have more than enough weapons to keep Michigan among the Big Ten’s elite. Tim Hardaway Jr. will be one of the best players in the country if he returns to Ann Arbor for his senior season, and Nik Stauskas, Spike Albrecht, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III should all be much improved as sophomores. Incoming point guard Derrick Walton is a Detroit native who should replace Burke, and versatile small forward Zak Irvin adds another highly-skilled offensive player.
The Golden Eagles’ trio of Vander Blue, Jamil Wilson and Davante Gardner will be one of the best cores that any team has in college basketball. Buzz Williams will miss the leadership of Junior Cadougan, but Marquette adds three highly-touted freshmen in Duane Wilson, JaJuan Johnson and Deonte Burton. Don’t be shocked if Burton winds up being this team’s starting point guard by the middle of the season. Todd Mayo is a highly-talented guard who is a veteran scorer, and Steve Taylor is beyond skilled for his size. The names may slightly change, but Marquette remains a tough out on an annual basis.
The Tigers are set to return several key pieces from a group that went 31-5 and won a game in the NCAA Tournament. Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford will be considered “veterans” next season, and Shaq Goodwin and Antonio Barton are two capable reserves. Memphis also has the No. 2 ranked recruiting class by most services, highlighted by a pair of 6-foot-8 forwards in Austin Nichols and Kuran Iverson.
The Hoosiers will likely lose four starters, but Tom Crean will have more than enough players to keep Indiana competitive. Yogi Ferrell and Will Sheehey should anchor things on the perimeter while Jeremy Hollowell figures to take a major step forward as a sophomore. Freshman Noah Vonleh could start from day one at power forward, and fellow first-year players Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson should be capable of making immediate contributions. Look for a breakout year down low from Hanner Mosquera-Perea.
14. FLORIDA STATE
This ranking is based on the premise that the Seminoles lock up Andrew Wiggins, the top-rated player in the Class of 2013. Wiggins is set to pick between Florida State and Kentucky. With that said, should Wiggins wind up in Tallahassee, he’ll join a long and athletic roster featuring veterans Terrance Shannon and Okaro White. The Seminoles will also return a deep perimeter with point guard Devon Bookert, veteran Ian Miller, Aaron Thomas and Montay Brandon. Leonard Hamilton will also have to find minutes for freshman shooting guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes, a 6-foot-3 sniper with terrific range. A hidden strength of this team? Frontline size. Florida State will return three players — Michael Ojo, Kiel Turpin and Boris Bojanovsky — who all stand taller than 7-feet.
Keep an eye on this team. The Volunteers showed flashes of brilliance down the stretch in SEC play and will return every key piece from a unit that won 20 games this past season. Tennessee will get back All-SEC power forward Jeronne Maymon, who missed this past year with a knee injury. The Vols will also add two big-time prospects in freshmen shooting guard Robert Hubbs and first-year floor general Darius Thompson. Trae Golden, Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes and Josh Richardson all return, and should be four of the more seasoned players next year in the SEC. Cuonzo Martin has a real chance to do big things with this group.
16. MICHIGAN STATE
All signs point to Adreian Payne testing the NBA Draft waters, and that means Sparty will have a completely different look up front in 2013-14. With Payne and Derrick Nix out of the picture, Tom Izzo will have to lean on Alex Gauna, Matt Costello and possibly Branden Dawson to hold things down on the baseline. Incoming freshman Gavin Schilling could also push for immediate minutes up front next year thanks to his physicality. Michigan State’s strength next season will be its perimeter, which features a talented triumvirate of Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine, who could be one of the Big Ten’s most improved players as a sophomore.
Fran McCaffery has a team that will be among the Big Ten’s elite. The Hawkeyes return virtually their entire team and add two quality newcomers in Jarrod Uthoff and freshman wing Peter Jok. Mike Gesell and Devyn Marble should be electric together in the backcourt, while Melsahn Basabe, Aaron White and Adam Woodbury hold down the frontcourt. Keep an eye on Josh Oglesby, who needs to emerge as a consistent threat from three-point range.
It’s tough not to be excited when you think about the Buffaloes’ prospects for 2013-14. Tad Boyle will have arguably the PAC-12’s best backcourt in Askia Booker and Spencer Dinwiddie, who might be the best player that no one really knows about nationally. Super-skilled wing Xavier Johnson will be a big-time force as a sophomore, and the Andre Roberson/Josh Scott power forward/center combo will be extremely formidable. Freshman wing Tre’Shaun Fletcher should add depth on the wing.
19. NOTRE DAME
The Irish will have one of the nation’s premier backcourts next season, led by the duo of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant, who always seem to get a little more efficient each time they take the floor. Mike Brey will have a bevy of shooters to put on the court next season, headlined by 6-foot-5 wing Pat Connaughton, who really started to hit his stride down the stretch for Notre Dame. 6-foot-6 wing Cameron Biedscheid will produce with more minutes, and incoming freshman V.J. Beachem, who is built very similarly to Biedscheid, can also extend the defense. Indiana native Demetrius Jackson is a high-level recruit at point guard, and is easily one of the best high school players that Brey has signed since he’s been in South Bend. Sophomore Zack Auguste and veteran big man Garrick Sherman will hold down the frontcourt.
Even without Otto Porter, John Thompson III will have the Hoyas right in the middle of things in the Big East. Greg Whittington will return after missing most of this past season with a suspension, and Markel Starks and D’Vauntes-Smith Rivera have the potential to be a dynamic backcourt. Utility big man Nate Lubick will be a senior, while Jabril Trawick and Mikael Hopkins are quality role players who understand the Hoyas’ system. Long-range specialist Stephen Domingo should have more of a role as a sophomore, and 6-foot-7 freshman forward Reggie Cameron may be able to crack the rotation because of his ability to extend the defense.
The Rams will once again be the class of the Atlantic 10. VCU returns several key pieces from this year’s team that won 27 games, led by skilled forward Treveon Graham. Also back is versatile big man Juvonte Reddic, along with a slew of talented perimeter players in Briante Weber, Rob Brandenberg and Melvin Johnson. Look for redshirt freshman Jordan Burgess to have an immediate impact because of his physicality. The big question for this team? Point-guard play. Weber will likely start the season as this team’s primary facilitator until incoming freshman floor general JeQuan Lewis acclimates himself to Shaka Smart’s style.
Sin City will once again be filled with talent. JUCO transfer DeVille Smith, who started his career at Mississippi State, will hope to give the Runnin’ Rebels what they so desperately lacked last season — a true point guard. Smith will run the UNLV offense and highlight talented players like Katin Reinhardt, Bryce Dejean-Jones and JUCO wing Jelan Kendrick on the wings. UConn transfer Roscoe Smith could have a major impact at power forward with Mike Moser’s departure, while Khem Birch will hold down the middle as a rim protector. Savon Goodman and Daquan Cook should provide quality depth.
This will be the best team that the Ivy League has seen in quite sometime. Tommy Amaker will have one of the most electric point guards in the country in southpaw point guard Siyani Chambers, and the Crimson will also welcome back Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey, who missed this past season after they had to withdraw from school. Zone buster Laurent Rivard will be a senior, and Wesley Saunders is primed to be one of the better perimeter scorers in the Northeast. Harvard will also add 6-foot-8 center Zena Edosomwan, a highly-touted recruit who could start immediately in the pivot. Steve Moundou-Missi and Kenyatta Smith are back as solid frontcourt players who should help this team’s depth.
Death, taxes and the Badgers in the preseason Top 25. The names may slightly change in Madison, but the results never do. Sam Dekker appears primed for a big-time sophomore season, and Wisconsin will also welcome back guard Josh Gasser, who missed last year with an ACL tear. Also returning for the Badgers is shooting guard Ben Brust and 6-foo-11 big man Frank Kaminsky, who will need to provide stability up front. Keep an eye on freshman power forward Nigel Hayes, who should have an immediate opportunity to earn playing time.
25. NEW MEXICO
If Tony Snell had returned, New Mexico would have been in the Top 15. Without him, they’re just not the same defensively on the perimeter. Still, Kendall Williams and Hugh Greenwood will be one of the more experienced backcourts in college basketball, and the combination of Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow up front will be beyond formidable. This Lobos will be solid, but without Snell we’re not sure if they can be spectacular.
FIVE ON THE CUSP:
BAYLOR: The Bears will continue to ooze talent.
VILLANOVA: Rice transfer Dylan Ennis will have a major impact.
GONZAGA: Expect another 25-win season in Spokane.
LA SALLE: The Explorers only lose Ramon Galloway from this year’s Sweet 16 team.
OREGON: Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson will be one of the better backcourts in the country.
Who is your early pick to win the title next season? Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments section below…