Kentucky haters were laughing and pointing fingers when John Calipari’s team missed the NCAA tournament and lost in the first round of the NIT. That was no way for the defending national champions to finish, even if Nerlens Noel was injured. But the laugh is on everyone else for 2013-14 because Coach Cal’s Kids figure to come roaring back on the national scene.
Kentucky may have a better recruiting class than the Anthony Davis-led group that won the 2012 national title, if you can believe that. So it’s only natural that everyone is picking the Wildcats as the early favorite for next season.
With conference realignment and many players still undecided about turning pro, picking an early preseason top 25 is risky business. But Atlanta is in the rearview mirror and we’re already on the road to Arlington and a Texas-sized Final Four in 2014. Let the guessing begin.
25. Iowa: The Hawkeyes were just outside of that elite group in the rugged Big Ten last season but still managed to finish 9-9 in league play and advanced to the championship game of the NIT before losing to Baylor. That postseason success will give coach Fran McCaffery something to build on and next season could be critical for the progress of his program. Both of Iowa’s double-figure scorers, Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White, will be back. Look for the Hawkeyes to move up in the Big Ten and return to the NCAA tournament.
24. Harvard: When the Crimson lost point guard Brandyn Curry and forward Kyle Casey to a school-wide academic scandal last season, most thought Harvard would crumble. Instead, Tommy Amaker’s team reached the NCAA and upset New Mexico. Curry and Casey return for next season and Siyani Chambers had an amazing freshman season. There’s a chance this will be Amaker’s most competitive team yet at Harvard.
23. Saint Louis: The Billikens gained the admiration of the nation by overcoming injuries and the death of coach Rick Majerus early in the season. Coach Jim Crews kept his team together and the Billikens won 28 games overall and the outright Atlantic 10 title. Dwayne Evans, Mike McCall Jr. and Jordair Jett return to battle VCU for bragging rights in the conference.
22. Indiana: The Hoosiers were disappointed with their Sweet 16 loss to Syracuse and Tom Crean’s team has to absorb the loss of Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls. But Crean has the program healthy and strong again. Yogi Ferrell should be one of the nation’s top point guards. And forwards Noah Vonleh and Troy Williams head a recruiting class ranked third in the nation by Scout.com.
21. Gonzaga: The Bulldogs could climb much higher than this if Kelly Olynyk decides to stay in school. But even if Olynyk departs for the NBA, coach Mark Few still has Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell, Jr. and David Stockton returning in the backcourt. The development of 7-foot center Przemek Kamowski will be key.
20. Wichita State: Coach Gregg Marshall has built a program of power in the Missouri Valley Conference and with his high energy style it’s hard to imagine the Shockers slipping after their Final Four run. Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead will be lost but leading scorer Cleanthony Early has All-American potential and Ron Baker gained valuable experience during the postseason.
19. UConn: Coach Kevin Ollie found a way to keep things positive in his first season replacing Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun, even though the Huskies were banned from postseason play. UConn overcame its weakness in the frontcourt with guards Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun. Wingman DeAndre Daniels made steady improvement despite playing out of position and 6-foot-8 freshman Kentan Facey will add to the athleticism on a team that would have reached the NCAA tournament last season.
18. Villanova: The Wildcats were a perplexing team, losing to Columbia early and then knocking off Louisville, Syracuse, Marquette and Georgetown. Point guard Ryan Arcidiacono and forward JayVaughn Pinkston are the building blocks for coach Jay Wright. Incoming power forward Kris Jenkins could battle for significant time and is joined by small forward Josh Hart in the recruiting class.
17. Virginia: The Cavaliers won 23 games, including that big victory over Duke on Feb. 28. Tony Bennett’s team also got some extra playing time in the NIT. Jontel Evans does not return, but with Joe Harris leading the way, the Cavaliers should be a bigger factor in the ACC. Bennett adds a pair of guards in Devon Hall and London Perrantes.
16. Tennessee: There is renewed hope for the SEC and the Vols are in that mixture. Tennessee made drastic improvement as the season approached the finish line and came close to an NCAA bid. Coach Cuonzo Martin returns his top players and Jeronne Maymon, who was a medical redshirt last season. Incoming freshman Robert Hubbs is the No. 2-ranked shooting guard in the class by Scout.com.
15. Virginia Commonwealth: The good news for the Rams is that coach Shaka Smart rejected the overtures from UCLA and decided to stick around again. VCU does lose its backcourt of Troy Daniels and Darius Theus but Treveon Graham gives the Rams one of the top players in the Atlantic 10, if not the preseason player of the year. Point guard JeQuan Lewis is the star of the recruiting class.
14. Kansas: This is all about Bill Self. With freshman Ben McLemore headed off to the NBA, the Jayhawks lose their entire starting lineup. But Self routinely puts 30 wins on the board each season and has led KU to nine straight Big 12 titles. Perry Ellis is the next star at Kansas. Jamari Traylor will have a bigger role. Self is very excited about a recruiting class led by McDonald’s All-American Wayne Selden and the Jayhawks still are in the running for Andrew Wiggins.
13. Colorado: The Buffaloes are going to be a trendy top-25 pick and coach Tad Boyle has a squad that just kept improving. Consistency was a problem because of the team’s youth. But Colorado has an exciting backcourt to go with senior forward Andre Roberson, one of the nation’s top rebounders.
12. Michigan: The Wolverines missed a golden opportunity for a championship in Atlanta. Michigan likely will be without, and miss, Trey Burke, and until we know exactly who is staying and who else might leave, the middle seems the safe place for Michigan. If Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III return, Michigan will be highly competitive.
11. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have the best chance of challenging Michigan State for the Big Ten crown. If Deshaun Thomas had decided to return for his senior season, this would have the look of a Final Four team. Aaron Craft will be there to lead the way defensively. LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith Jr. will be asked to score more.
10. Memphis: With Kentucky blowing away the competition in recruiting, the real race was for the No. 2 class. Coach Josh Pastner blew past Indiana, Duke and Kansas with a five-man class led by small forward Nick King and power forward Austin Nichols. The Tigers will make noise in their first season in the American Athletic Conference.
9. Marquette: Buzz Williams has things headed in the right direction. The Golden Eagles have to replace guard Junior Cadougan, but Vander Blue, Davante Gardner, Jamil Wilson and Todd Mayo are back from the Elite Eight squad. Marquette’s recruiting class tied Syracuse for sixth in the Scout.com team rankings.
8. Florida: The Gators will have a different look without Erik Murphy, Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario. But Billy Donovan has a couple of McDonald’s All-Americans in Chris Walker and Kasey Hill. They will benefit from the leadership of Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete and Patric Young.
7. Syracuse: Jim Boeheim and the Orange head to the ACC and make the conference even tougher with three teams in our top seven. Michael Carter-Williams probably should have stuck around to become a more consistent shooter. If DaJuan Coleman can improve and freshmen Tyler Ennis and Ron Patterson live up to expectations, this will be another solid Syracuse team.
6. North Carolina: Rest assured that Roy Williams’ first priority will be finding someone to slip into the center spot. The Tar Heels recruiting class includes Kennedy Meeks (6-8, 290) and Isaiah Hicks (6-8, 210). If they can stabilize things inside, Williams can drop the four-guard lineup and let P.J. Hairston do what comes naturally at shooting guard. The Heels should be dangerous again.
5. Louisville: Why in the world would Rick Pitino walk away from the game when he has a chance to reach a third consecutive Final Four? The Cardinals will miss the leadership of Peyton Siva, but Louisville is bringing in two point guards, including juco transfer Chris Jones. Big man Gorgui Dieng is gone too, but if Russ Smith decides to stay (despite what his dad said), the Cardinals might face Kentucky in the title game.
4. Arizona: Sean Miller will miss Solomon Hill and Mark Lyons, who played such an important role in advancing the Wildcats to the Sweet 16. But Nick Johnson returns after a strong season and the Wildcats have terrific post players who should come of age. Miller again has the best recruiting class in the Pac-12. Keep your eye on forwards Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
3. Duke: It may seem crazy to have the Blue Devils ranked this high since they lose Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry. But incoming freshman Jabari Parker more than compensates for those departures. Parker, a 6-7 small forward, ranks as the No. 2 overall prospect by Scout.com. He will join Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon to give Duke an extremely strong perimeter game.
2. Michigan State: The Spartans could be the Louisville of next season with returning starters, depth and the experience of a deep run in the NCAA tournament this past season. Derrick Nix was the only senior. Coach Tom Izzo should have Adreian Payne, Gary Harris, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson back to build around. The Spartans can’t survive much in early departures because there’s no new help on the way.
1. Kentucky: What a wild ride for John Calipari and the Wildcats, from 2012 NCAA champs to first-round NIT losers in 2013, and back to preseason favorites in 2014. The big news is the “Sensational Six” recruiting class, led by twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson. Sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein will give the Wildcats the leadership and experience they were missing last season. So don’t feel bad for Calipari if Nerlens Noel turns pro.