Team concept revived without as much star power among freshmen
The 2013-14 college basketball season was known as the year of the freshman. With the likes of one-and-doners like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Aaron Gordon, it lived up to the billing, too.
This season, the stars aren’t shining so bright and it is teams that are on the marquee instead: Kentucky’s 12-deep roster, Arizona’s loaded squad and the experienced Badgers of Wisconsin.
Year of the team doesn’t exactly have the same ring to it, but it’s more to the essence of what college basketball is about.
Just look at Kansas. The Jayhawks, ranked No. 5 in The Associated Press preseason poll, lost two lottery picks and may be even better this season.
"This is a team like that in that there’s not a first, second or third pick right now," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "I mean, I’m not saying somebody couldn’t become that eventually, but right now there’s not. But we’ve got a whole bunch of good players and I’m excited about that because we do have good basketball players."
The team with the highest number of good players, at least on paper, is preseason No. 1 Kentucky.
The Wildcats have another batch of potential first-round NBA picks in John Calipari’s latest recruiting class and, in a twist, have many of their star players back from a team that played for a national championship. They are so deep that Calipari is trying a platoon system.
"I told the guys in the locker room (that) they could have beaten some NBA teams tonight, there’s no question in my mind," Georgetown College coach Scott Briggs said after a 121-52 exhibition loss to the Wildcats.
Calipari quickly shot that notion down, but Kentucky will certainly be good.
So will Arizona. Coach Sean Miller may have his best team yet, which is saying something for a team that’s been within seconds of the Final Four twice in three seasons. Wisconsin made it to the Final Four last season and has nearly everyone back, including center Frank Kaminsky. Duke’s loaded, too, adding a strong recruiting class headed by preseason All-American Jahlil Okafor.
But it’s not just about who has the best talent. Chemistry is a big part of which teams make deep March runs.
Kentucky was the preseason No. 1 last year, too, but fell out of the rankings before pulling it altogether in the NCAA tournament. Connecticut wasn’t exactly a favorite last season, yet won the title — just like it did in 2011.
With that in mind, maybe the team under the confetti canons in Indianapolis will be one like Michigan State, Gonzaga, Louisville or, yes, UConn.
"I just keep telling our team no championship teams are here in November," Arizona senior point guard T.J. McConnell said. "We can’t predict the future. It only matters in March."
Predicting this season’s star players could be tough, too, though there are some quality choices.
Kaminsky led the Badgers to the Final Four, is a nightmare matchup as a 7-footer who can shoot and is a preseason All-American. North Carolina point guard Marcus Paige was perhaps college basketball’s best go-to player last season. Kentucky has returning stars like big-shot Aaron Harrison, his twin Aaron and athletic 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein.
The freshmen class might not be quite as sparkly as last season’s, but there’s definitely talent.
Okafor was the third freshman preseason All-American in five years and could make the Blue Devils quickly forget the loss of Parker to the NBA. Athletic Stanley Johnson could do the same at Arizona, which lost one-and-done forward Aaron Gordon.
Big man Cliff Alexander will be a handful at Kansas and Karl-Anthony Towns might be the most talented player on Kentucky’s roster this season.
"He’s a skilled big player," Calipari said of Towns. "If he gets it around the basket, he just has a knack for getting it in."
The conference with the best group of teams will likely be the powerful ACC.
Last season, the ACC picked up Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. Louisville will be a part of the conference this season, giving it four Hall of Fame coaches and grinder of a schedule for its teams.
"Based on past successes, this may be the strongest collection of basketball programs in history," ACC Commissioner John Swofford said. "I think historically it certainly falls into that category. Obviously, we need (what happens) on the court to live up to that."
It all begins on Friday.