With the start of the college hoops season still months away, there’s no shortage of optimism at top programs around the country. Every team in the preseason rankings has good reason to believe that this could be the year they put it all together and make a deep NCAA Tournament run.
North Carolina State was one of March’s biggest surprises a year ago, battling to the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed. Now, the Wolfpack is the ACC frontrunner behind the leadership of do-everything point guard Lorenzo Brown.
Read on for more on what Brown means to N.C. State, plus the strongest assets for all the rest of ESPN’s preseason Top 25.
The Gophers’ frontcourt might be the most athletic in the country.
Fans at Williams Arena won’t get shortchanged when it comes to rim-rocking dunks this season. Minnesota forwards Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams can match up against anyone in the country when it comes to power and leaping ability.
Williams, who led last year’s Gophers to the title game of the NIT, is a 6’7” SF who can score (12.2 points per game), rebound (5.6 boards a night) and play terrific defense.
Mbakwe, healthy again after a torn ACL torpedoed his 2011-12 season, is looking to recapture the Big Ten rebounding title he won two years ago (10.5 boards per contest).
The Tigers have reloaded with another arsenal of scorers.
Point guard Phil Pressey is the only returning starter from last year’s 30-win Missouri squad, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be short on weapons. A slew of transfers will make Frank Haith’s team nearly as tough to contain as the 2011-12 edition.
Earnest Ross (13.1 points per game for Auburn) and Keion Bell (18.9 points per game for Pepperdine) will carry the perimeter scoring load in Mizzou’s first SEC campaign.
On the inside, fleet-footed PF Laurence Bowers is back from a knee injury and ready to improve on his career high of 11.6 points per game from two seasons ago.
The Rebels will have the deepest frontcourt of any mid-major.
Last year’s 26-9 UNLV squad won from the outside in, relying on a terrific backcourt and one great forward (sophomore sensation Mike Moser).
That game plan will be reversed in 2012-13, with Anthony Marshall holding down the fort outside while Moser is joined in the post by a massive influx of talent.
The most important of that group will be prized freshman Anthony Bennett, who can score inside and out and should become the centerpiece of the Rebel offense.
Behind Bennett and Moser, Big East transfers Khem Birch (Pitt) and Roscoe Smith (UConn) will bring top-notch defense and rebounding off the bench.
The Badgers’ defense won’t miss a beat.
Jordan Taylor’s graduation is going to put a strain on Wisconsin’s often-shaky offense, but Bo Ryan’s defense just keeps rolling along.
The Badgers led the nation in scoring defense (again) in 2011-12, and with four starters back, there’s no reason to think they won’t be at the top of that list next year.
Foremost among the returnees is 6’10” Jared Berggren down low, and his 1.7 blocks per game will anchor the team again.
Ryan Evans, another rising senior on this veteran team, will have a fine chance to reprise his role as the squad's leading rebounder (6.8 boards a night).
Myck Kabongo has a real frontcourt now.
Point guard Myck Kabongo showed obvious star potential as a freshman, but Texas was handicapped by a journeyman collection of big men. Now, Rick Barnes’ recruiting efforts have brought in a group of post players to match Kabongo’s prodigious talent.
Cameron Ridley, a 6’10” bruiser with big-time scoring punch, headlines a trio of home-grown big men in the freshman class.
With that kind of size and skill down low, Kabongo should have little trouble improving on his already-impressive 9.6 points and 5.2 assists per game from 2011-12.
Elias Harris doesn’t have to carry the team by himself.
Earmarked as an NBA-caliber talent from the moment he arrived in Spokane, rising senior Elias Harris is the clear leader of the 2012-13 Bulldogs.
Just as important as Harris’ 13.1 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, though, is that he has a deep supporting cast around him.
Rising sophomore Kevin Pangos is a star in the making himself, having led the Zags with 13.8 points and 3.4 assists a night last season.
Up front, Harris will have a new running mate in Sam Dower, a physical PF (at 6’9”, 248 lbs) who could turn out to be even more effective than the graduated Robert Sacre.
The Irish offense will be the envy of the Big East.
The punishing Big East has earned its reputation as a defense-first league, and Notre Dame is well-equipped to compete on that score.
The big advantage for the Irish, though, is that shot blockers like Jack Cooley (1.6 rejections a night) and stoppers like Jerian Grant (1.3 steals per game) are also big-time offensive weapons for coach Mike Brey.
PF Cooley is the key factor after leading last year’s squad with 12.5 points per game, but he’s far from alone. Grant’s 5.0 assists per contest keep the offense running, and he and SG Eric Atkins combined for 102 three-pointers made in 2011-12.
Doug McDermott is a bona fide Wooden Award contender
The typical Missouri Valley champion wins, as Wichita State did last year, behind experience and depth rather than individual star power.
Creighton will be an exception to that principle in 2012-13, thanks to the return of first-team All-American Doug McDermott.
The 6’7” McDermott led the Blue Jays with 22.9 points (third-best nationally) and 8.2 rebounds per game a season ago, and there’s every reason to expect even gaudier numbers next year.
He’s already more than accustomed to handling double-teams, and his unlimited shooting range (.486 from beyond the arc) makes him a nightmarish defensive matchup.
The Wildcats will have scorers at every position.
A subpar offense wasn’t the only problem in Arizona’s disappointing 2011-12 season, but it was certainly a major one. It’s also a problem that Arizona’s imposing collection of new arrivals is well suited to solving.
SG Nick Johnson, one of last season’s heralded recruits, will get plenty of help from Xavier transfer Mark Lyons (15.5 points per game, .392 three-point shooting) at the point.
Up front, star freshmen Kaleb Tarczewski and Grant Jerrett will join leading returning scorer Solomon Hill (12.9 points a night).
The Aztecs’ backcourt can run with anyone in the country.
Last year’s SDSU squad survived the departures of Kawhi Leonard and Malcolm Thomas on the strength of a sensational collection of guards.
That group returns intact for 2012-13, led by 6’5” swingman Jamaal Franklin and his 17.4 points (and 7.9 rebounds) per game.
Franklin shares the scoring load with sniper Chase Tapley, who poured in 15.8 points per contest while shooting .433 from long range.
Rising junior Xavier Thames takes care of the ball-handling chores, and it’ll be a surprise if he doesn’t improve on last year’s 4.1 assists per game.
Rasheed Sulaimon could lead the ACC in scoring
Austin Rivers’ departure leaves a serious hole in the Duke offense, but Coach K has found an impressive successor to the NBA-bound shooting guard.
Standout freshman Rasheed Sulaimon, ESPNU’s 12th-best recruit in the nation, is well equipped to shoulder Duke’s scoring load.
The 6’3” Sulaimon is, like Rivers, a slasher who can also pull up and drain the mid-range jumper.
He’s not a top-tier three-point threat yet, but with Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry to spread the floor, he’ll have every opportunity to take over games with the ball in his hands.
The Tigers will be playing Big East-caliber defense a year early.
Memphis has one more season in Conference USA before moving to the Big East, but the Tigers are ready to handle major-conference competition right now.
Nowhere is that fact more evident than on defense, where Memphis’ depth and athleticism will make them the class of C-USA by a wide margin.
Chris Crawford (1.8 steals per game) leads three returning Tigers who recorded at least 1.2 steals a night last season.
That perimeter pressure is backed up by plenty of muscle underneath, with 6’8”, 243-lb Tarik Black (1.5 blocks per game) being joined for next season by star freshman William “Shaq” Goodwin (6’8”, 245 lbs).
James Michael McAdoo is primed to explode.
Mass defections from four NBA first-round draft picks will mean lots of new faces in the UNC lineup. The leader of that group is hyper-athletic James Michael McAdoo, who could be in for an All-America season.
McAdoo has a power forward’s body at 6’9”, 220 lbs, but he’s mobile enough that he could play on the perimeter if he wanted.
Even in very limited minutes, he averaged 6.1 points and 3.9 rebounds a game off the bench last season, and the sky is the limit for his stats in his first year as a starter.
Kenny Boynton is a go-to scorer par excellence.
Losing Bradley Beal and Erving Walker in the same offseason would be a fatal blow to most backcourts, but the Gators will still boast one of the most dangerous perimeter weapons in the nation.
Leading scorer Kenny Boynton returns after racking up 15.9 points per game as a junior.
Boynton, who drained 40.7 percent of his three-point tries a year ago, is a veteran of back-to-back Elite Eight squads. He’s a virtual lock to become the leading scorer in school history with a strong senior year.
Isaiah Austin should be the Big 12’s best player
Perry Jones III is gone, but Baylor has another entry in the category of “Mobile Big Man With Infinite Potential.” Ballyhooed freshman Isaiah Austin will have every chance to become the leader that Jones never could.
Austin is a true seven-footer who can play like a small forward with the ball in his hands. He’s more physical than Jones was, and with senior PG Pierre Jackson to set him up, he ought to be in for a monster freshman (and only) year in Waco.
The new Orange will be even tougher on offense than last year’s version.
Paradoxically, the departures of four of the top six scorers on the roster should actually be good for the Syracuse offense.
Even with Dion Waiters and company gone, the Orange will put bushels of points on the board thanks to a high-powered pair of newly-minted starters.
Michael Carter-Williams takes over for Scoop Jardine at the point, and the former McDonald’s All-American will be nearly as good a distributor as Jardine was while providing far more dynamic scoring.
He’ll also have a much better target to feed down low: freshman center DaJuan Coleman, a 6’9”, 275-lb behemoth whose offensive skills are light years ahead of NBA-bound Fab Melo’s.
Gary Harris could be the best shooting guard in the country.
After Keith Appling’s emergence helped propel Michigan State to a Big Ten title a year ago, the Spartans have an even bigger addition arriving for next season’s backcourt.
Gary Harris, ranked as the nation’s 11th-best freshman by ESPNU, will immediately jump into the primary scoring role vacated by All-American Draymond Green.
Harris is a 6’4” guard who has as good a three-point stroke as any 2012 freshman. He’s also a first-class athlete who’s equally effective finishing at the rim or locking down an opposing scorer on defense.
Aaron Craft is the nation’s most devastating defensive stopper.
With the ball in his hands, rising junior Aaron Craft is a skilled distributor who amassed 4.6 assists per game for last season’s Buckeyes. With the ball in his opponent’s hands, Craft is the most dangerous player in college basketball.
The 6’2” point guard averaged 2.5 steals a game last season, and even that lofty figure understates the effect he has on opposing offenses.
With shot-blocker Amir Williams in line for major minutes down low and Craft controlling the game at the top, Ohio State will be one of the country’s scariest defenses in 2012-13.
All the perimeter talent the Bruins were missing has arrived at once.
UCLA was already one of the biggest teams in the country, but the 6’10” Wear twins and Joshua Smith weren’t enough to prevent last season’s 19-14 debacle.
Now, in one fell swoop, coach Ben Howland’s backcourt goes from a weakness to a strength behind a recruiting class that ranks as high as No. 1 in the country.
Consensus No. 2 overall recruit Shabazz Muhammad is the centerpiece, a high-flying 6’6” SF who becomes the frontrunner for the Pac-12 scoring title.
He’s joined by two outstanding classmates on the wings (PG Kyle Anderson and SG Jordan Adams), plus North Carolina transfer Larry Drew II for good measure.
Lorenzo Brown is the best point guard in the country.
He didn’t have a Thomas Robinson or a Harrison Barnes to feed, but Lorenzo Brown still finished 12th in the nation with 6.4 assists per game a season ago.
Brown’s passing ability, though, is only part of what makes him the most important player on the ACC-favorite Wolfpack.
The 6’5” Brown is a better scorer than most of the nation’s other top point guards (12.7 points a night, .351 three-point shooting), while also playing outstanding defense (1.8 steals per contest) and serving as one of his team’s best rebounders with 4.5 boards per game.
It’s hard to fault his leadership skills either, considering that he carried N.C. State to a surprise Sweet 16 finish in the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
The Wolverines finally have an inside presence.
John Beilein’s teams have typically won with outstanding perimeter scorers, and Michigan has plenty of those with freshman Glenn Robinson III joining Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.
What sets this year’s Wolverines apart, though, is the addition of a low-post threat worthy of Ann Arbor's vaunted history of NBA-bound big men.
Freshman Mitch McGary is a 6’10” PF who attacks the basket with abandon but can also knock down a mid-range jumper given the chance.
He’s going to be the best rebounder on the roster from the get-go, and the attention he’ll command on the low block will make everything run smoother for the Michigan offense.
The Jayhawk defense is championship-caliber.
NBA-bound All-American Thomas Robinson had a lot to do with Kansas’ run to last season’s title game, but so did the Jayhawks’ smothering defense.
KU held opponents to 38-percent shooting last season—tied for third-best nationally—and many of the key players from that effort return with a year of Final Four seasoning.
The headliner, of course, is shot-blocker extraordinaire Jeff Withey, whose 3.3 rejections a night placed him seventh in the country last season.
He’ll have plenty of help outside from fellow veterans Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford (2.6 steals per game combined).
Anthony Davis’ replacement might be better than Anthony Davis.
Kentucky is the defending national champ in name only, considering that every major contributor from the title team is gone.
However, Kentucky’s 2012-13 squad will certainly resemble last year’s in at least one respect: the superstar freshman shot-blocker manning the middle.
Noel is also a substantial scoring threat who has a bit more polish to his offensive game than Davis did when he arrived in Lexington.
There’s no substitute for Final Four experience.
There are plenty of other great defensive teams in the Top 25, and there are even teams with more dangerous point guards than the estimable Peyton Siva.
There is not, however, another team in the country that will have four starters who played key roles in a Final Four run.
Returning starters Siva, Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan are joined by erstwhile sixth man Russ Smith to anchor a defense that’s both stifling and battle-tested.
The offense that sputtered so badly at times in 2011-12 should be much improved as well, thanks in large part to a full season from Wayne Blackshear, who missed most of the regular season but played in the Big Dance a year ago.
Cody Zeller is even better than his brother.
An early favorite for the Wooden Award, Cody Zeller is the best all-around center in college basketball. The 6’11” Zeller—whose brother Tyler was a first-round pick of the Dallas Mavericks—averaged 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds a game as a freshman.
Zeller will be even tougher to handle on offense in his sophomore campaign, and he’s a fine defender to boot (1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks per contest).
Indiana has loads of depth around Zeller, but the Hoosiers wouldn’t be the preseason No. 1 without his dominating presence on the low block.