With practices in full swing around the country, the buzz is officially on for the upcoming NCAA basketball season.
Last year, a handful of teams were expected to make a run at the Final Four. Kentucky, North Carolina, UConn, Ohio St. and Syracuse were an almost unanimous preseason top five across the board.
This season, however, only one team is a clear-cut Final Four favorite. After Indiana, it’s anyone’s guess who will emerge as the cream of the crop.
With a grand total of zero games played thus far, ranking the top teams is a fool’s errand. That won’t stop yours truly from laying out the top five for the 2012-13 season! Full refund for this column if the predictions don’t pan out.
This ranking is entirely dependent on how well Shabazz Muhammad lives up to the ridiculous amount of hype surrounding him. There have been few recruits as highly regarded as Muhammad in the past decade. In fact, LeBron is the only one that comes to mind.
I’ve seen very little of Muhammad in action, but judging by the hoopla surrounding his recruitment, I expect him to be an immediate All-American candidate.
Carrying UCLA out of its recent funk is a lot to ask of any freshman, so if Shabazz actually brings the Bruins back to the national stage to compete for a Final Four, he should be compared to last year’s wunderkind, Anthony Davis.
Muhammad won’t be alone in Westwood. Kyle Anderson, another top five recruit, will be expected to carry a heavy load from Day 1.
The combination of a No. 1-ranked recruiting class and the return of most of last year’s core has created lofty expectations for Ben Howland’s Bruins this year. It’s impossible to tell how freshmen will handle the spotlight, but after last year’s Baby Wildcats cut down the nets, youth is no longer a viable excuse.
Thomas Robinson is obviously a huge loss, and it would be unrealistic to to expect someone to slide into his shoes and lead the team the way Robinson did last season. My high expectations for the Jayhawks is as much a product of their coach as it is of their roster.
Bill Self has proven for the past decade that he is on the short list in any discussion of best coach in the country. After elevating Illinois to a national power, Self transitioned to a Kansas program in desperate search of the national championship that had eluded it since Larry Brown’s final season in Lawrence in 1988.
After so many near-misses with Roy Williams, the KU faithful were desperate to regain their seat at the NCAA throne. Needless to say, Self has not disappointed the sky-high expectations of Rock Chalk Jayhawk. Eight consecutive Big 12 regular season championships, five Big 12 Tournament titles, two Final Fours and a national championship in his first nine seasons is quite a resume.
Self consistently brings in top-tier talent and is adept at meshing new talent with returning veterans. Player development is also strong with Self and KU, as we saw Thomas Robinson emerge from reserve role player to First Team All-American.
The Jayhawks return many key players from last year’s national runner-up squad. Jeff Withey is a legitimate scoring option in the paint, and Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson are above-average talents on the outside.
PF Perry Ellis and SF Andrew White, two top 50 recruits, should help the Jayhawks compete for a ninth straight Big 12 title.
Rick Pitino returns most of his key players from last year’s surprising Final Four team. Their leading scorer, Kyle Kuric (12.6 ppg), is gone, but Kuric was essentially a spot-up three-point shooter, which is easily replaceable.
Preseason Big East Player of the Year and All-American candidate Peyton Siva returns with more big-game experience and another offseason to rein in his sometimes out of control athleticism.
It was just two years ago that another explosive, borderline out of control Big East point guard led an underwhelming group to a national championship. Kemba Walker and his Huskies were expected to be an NIT contender. Walker’s run illustrated the value of elite point guard play in college basketball. Pitino is hoping he has just that in Peyton Siva.
The steady improvement of big man Gorgui Dieng was a major factor in Louisville’s tournament run last season. Another offseason to learn the game should raise Dieng’s game to potential All-Conference caliber. Sophomore Chane Behanan is a relentless rebounder who should provide a low-post punch, which the Cardinals lacked last year. Incoming top-100 recruit Montrezl Harris is a 6’8" workhorse down low, known for his versatility and aggression attacking the rim.
With all the weapons the Cardinals have, their fortunes still lie in the hands of their leader, Peyton Siva. If he is able to maintain control and limit his turnovers, Louisville will be the team to beat in the Big East and possibly the NCAA’s.
Any other team losing two of the five best players in the country and relying almost exclusively on another group of incoming freshmen would have to earn its way into the top five. Any other team is not Calipari’s Wildcats. Say what you will about his tactics, Calipari brings in the top recruiting classes year after year.
I don’t expect Nerlens Noel (No. 1 or 2 national recruit, depending on your source) to fill Anthony Davis’s shoes. From all reports, Noel is extremely raw offensively and will most likely be more of a stopper and rim-protector than anything else. Even so, with McDonald’s All-Americans Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin, Kentucky’s freshmen should provide plenty of firepower.
It’s hard to imagine this year’s batch of newcomers matching the national championship success of their predecessors, but a Sweet 16 or even Final Four run would surprise no one.
This is everyone’s preseason favorite right now and for good reason. The Hoosiers lost only one significant contributor (Verdell Jones, 25 mpg, 7.5 ppg) off a team that reached the Sweet 16 last year and probably would have gone further had it not been grouped with the Kentucky buzz-saw.
Cody Zeller might be the unanimous choice for preseason player of the year. Zeller turned down a guaranteed top-five draft selection for an opportunity to finish the amazing rebuilding job that Tom Crean has done in just four seasons (entering his fifth) in Bloomington.
Christian Watford (13 ppg, 6 rpg, 44% 3’s) is largely overshadowed by Zeller, but Watford is one of the best swingmen in the country, and he too put the NBA on hold to chase a title with Zeller and Crean. Add in McDonald’s All-American point guard Yogi Ferrell, and all the pieces are in place for Indiana’s march to the Final Four.
The Big 10 will be a tough road for IU to navigate, with Michigan, Michigan St. and Ohio St. all legitimate Final Four contenders. The Hoosiers must improve their rebounding (145th in the country last year) to compete night-in and night-out in the blue-collar Big 10, but with Coach Crean at the reins, I would expect vast improvements in all areas.