The 2013-14 college basketball season will be one of the most competitive years in the sport in a long time.
There will be a talented core of teams and players.
Any of a number of players could win the national player of the year awards. Any number of teams could vie for the 2014 NCAA national championship.
Here is a list of the top 10 contenders to win it all this year. We will look how each team's liabilities could hinder or hold back these teams from cutting down the nets in north Texas in April.
Here we go!
Michael Cobbins - OSU post
It was a great day in Stillwater when All-American PG Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and LeBryan Nash shocked the college basketball and NBA worlds by announcing their return to Oklahoma State for the 2013-2014 season.
With these three thoroughbreds back in the fold, OSU head coach Travis Ford will have the best chance of his career to make an NCAA title run.
This gifted trio has elite-level talent and athleticism that will be hard to match in the Big 12 and beyond.
One problem that the Cowboys had last year was matching up with teams of size. Even though OSU created plenty of matchup problems of its own, it found itself many times on the short end of the battle of the boards.
Nash, at 6’7,” is a physical specimen but an undersized PF. The Cowboys handle “the 5” by committee.
Michael Cobbins had a nice redshirt sophomore season, but he will need to “play big” if the Cowboys are going to make a serious run at a Big 12 conference championship and a national title.
One of the biggest stories in college basketball over the last several months has been the off-court problems of UNC wing P.J. Hairston.
He has evidently depleted Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams’ patience. The rising junior was suspended indefinitely after he was cited for speeding and reckless driving.
Even before this most recent event, Williams let it be known that he was very upset with Hairston’s series of incidents:
Other issues have been written about recently that are disturbing and bother me deeply. Our basketball program is based on great ideals and these issues are embarrassing. These are not common in my 10 years as head coach at UNC and they will all be dealt with harshly and appropriately at the correct time to ensure that our program will not be compromised.
At present, it is unclear whether Hairston will be reinstated or not.
It remains to be seen what kind of impact that an ongoing saga like this will have on a team that already lost Reggie Bullock, another of UNC’s wing scorers, to the NBA draft.
If Hairston does not return, the Tar Heels will be significantly challenged in terms of three-point shooting.
If he is not allowed back onto the team, North Carolina's opponents will pack the lane and make life miserable for James Michael McAdoo and the other Tar Heel post players.
Starting this year, Syracuse moves from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The addition of the Orange, Notre Dame and Pitt will make the top half of the ACC absolutely brutal.
As head coach Jim Boeheim prepares his squad for this momentous changeover, he will be doing so with a new backcourt. The departures of Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche leave a gaping hole that may be plugged by incoming freshmen Tyler Ennis and Ron Patterson.
Ennis is a clever playmaker who is lethal in transition. While he is not a dazzling outside shooter, Syracuse’s opponents will not be able to drop off of the 6’2” Canadian or he will make them pay.
Patterson's physical style of play will fit in perfectly in the Orange attack. He is a tough defender and a capable scorer who works hard on both ends of the court.
If Boeheim can get these two first-year players rolling during Syracuse’s pre-ACC slate, the Orange could be ready to challenge for the school’s second NCAA title.
If these freshmen play like…well, freshmen…then what could have been a special season would rapidly turn sour.
Last year, the Wolverines were one of the worst teams in the country in terms of scoring from the free-throw line.
Their 15.3 free-throw point percentage (No. 343 of 347) shows that they scored almost 85 percent of their points from the field. Their 28.2 free-throw rate (No. 331) demonstrates that they shot relatively few freebies compared to shots from the floor.
With the departures of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., the Wolverines need to find ways to replace their point production and their aggressiveness. They made almost half (46.6 percent) of Michigan's free throws.
This perimeter orientation is just how head coach John Beilein likes to play.
However, by being more mindful of taking the ball to the hole or dumping it down low to Mitch McGary, Michigan can score easy points at the line and consistently get its opponents in foul trouble.
Kansas' PF Perry Ellis
If most programs lost all five of their starters from a Sweet 16 team, they would be in a major rebuilding mode.
Not Kansas. Head coach Bill Self has amazingly assembled another gifted group of players to put on the floor at Allen Fieldhouse. By reeling in Andrew Wiggins, the class of 2013 No. 1 recruit, Self has positioned the Jayhawks for a distinctive season as long as they get their post players to step up on the defensive end.
Gone is Jeff Withey, the 2013 co-NABC Defensive Player of the Year. While Kevin Young did not add much on the offensive end, the rangy PF was a capable rebounder and solid defender.
Withey and Young provided the foundation for the No.1 field-goal percentage defensive team in the nation.
However, Black never fully played up to his potential for the Tigers. At 6’9”, 260 pounds, you would expect him to dominate on the boards. Instead, he never averaged more than 5 RPG in any of his three seasons in Memphis.
Ellis is primed for a breakout year. But last season he looked promising, at times; at other times, he looked lost.
Black’s presence will help Embiid’s development move along at a slower pace. However, I would not be surprised to see the class of 2013’s No. 1 center starting before Big 12 conference play begins in January.
If this group can lock down the lane and pound the boards, KU will be one of the best teams in the country.
If they are erratic and uneven in the paint, the 2013-14 season could be a major disappointment, even with Wiggins and Wayne Selden going for it on the wings.
T.J. McConnell, Arizona's long-distance X-Factor?
Arizona head coach Sean Miller has done a fantastic job of bringing in talent since coming to Tucson in 2009.
What Miller has not been able to stock his roster with so far are quality outside shooters.
Last year, the only Wildcat to shoot above 40 percent from beyond the arc was 6’10” freshman Grant Jerrett (40.5 percent). He left school to enter the 2013 NBA draft.
Rising junior Nick Johnson made a good improvement in his beyond-the-arc shooting between his freshmen (32 percent) and sophomore (39.3) seasons.
Senior combo guard Jordin Mayes has shown the ability to hit shots from down town but has not been consistent since his freshmen season.
Rising sophomore Gabe York showed a feathery touch in high school but saw limited action in his first season at U of A.
The Cats' long-distance X-factor might be transfer PG T.J. McConnell. As a sophomore at Duquesne (2011-12), McConnell connected on 43.2 percent of his three-pointers.
Though his primary mission is going to be to run the show for Miller and deliver the ball to his teammates, don’t be surprised if he helps his own cause by burying some big shots on a nightly basis.
Will Marshall Plumlee put it together in 2013-14?
In 2012-13, Duke’s Mason Plumlee was the Blue Devils’ interior game.
Plumlee did almost all of the heavy lifting for head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s crew. On both ends of the court, MP2 took care of most of the action in the paint.
Since he’s gone to play for the Brooklyn Nets, Duke needs to figure out what it is going to do to lock down the block.
Rising sophomore Amile Jefferson had moments of effectiveness in his first year at Duke, but at 6’8”, 200 pounds (dripping wet!), AJ may not be any more than a stop-gap solution in the post.
Josh Hairston has a great motor, but at 6’7,” it’s hard for him to battle effectively while giving away three to five inches any time he goes on the court.
Incoming phenom Jabari Parker will most likely start out of position at the PF. While he will create matchup nightmares for most of the 4s that will try to guard him, Parker may have some struggles of his own on defense and the glass.
If Coach K can solve this issue through a post-by-committee approach, then look for Duke to make a serious run towards showing up in north Texas for the Final Four.
If he does not, the Blue Devils will have a hard time winning the ACC, let alone a national title.
Louisville's Montrezl Harrell in the middle?
The defending national champion Louisville Cardinals have a ton of returning talent to put on the KFC Yum! Center floor in 2013-14.
The one piece that is missing is someone to replace Gorgui Dieng. He was the enforcer in the middle, the eraser of defensive mistakes and a potent low-post scorer.
Zach Price may have been the heir apparent, but he transferred to Missouri this offseason.
Stephan Van Treese has the size (6’9”, 245 lbs.) to clog the middle. He could possibly be an option. Van Treese’s UL bio states that his “11.2 rebounds per 40 minutes average was second on the team to Gorgui Dieng (12.1).”
Could Pitino play Harrell at the 5? At 6’8”, 235 pounds, he would be an undersized center, especially playing alongside 6’6” Behanan (at the 4).
He and Behanan would make one of the smaller frontcourt pairs among major programs. But if Pitino simply wants to put his best five on the hardwood, then Louisville will just have to figure out how to win playing small ball.
Michigan State returns almost everyone from its Sweet 16 team of 2012-13.
That’s not good news for its Big Ten opponents or anyone else who the Spartans will play in this upcoming season.
Because Michigan State’s Tom Izzo’s teams have the well-earned reputation of being tough and disciplined units, it was surprising to find out that MSU had more turnovers (489) than assists (474) last season.
MLive.com's Diamond Leung stated that it was the “first time in a decade” that the Spartans had this negative stat.
Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcey quoted Izzo:
"That was a ridiculous stat for a top-10 team. Inexcusable."
Though Appling had the most TOs (84) on the team, he had plenty of help coughing it up.
If the Spartans are going to win the close games that inevitably will come this season, they must do a much better job of distributing and taking care of the ball as a team.
Where will Alex Poythress fit in during the 2013-14 season?
McDonald's All-Americans usually want to have a main role in their college team's strategy. Starting is a basic expectation. Getting the ball is a simple assumption.
Kentucky has seven McDonald's All-Americans (six incoming freshmen, plus Alex Poythress) on its 2013-14 roster.
This is reminiscent of some of the super squads that Rick Pitino established when he was the head coach at UK.
Wildcats head coach John Calipari has demonstrated in the past that he can get elite-level prospects to set aside their egos and blend their talents together for the sake of the team. This unique squad will test his abilities to the limits. Even if they are a fairly accommodating group, Coach Cal will need to use every trick that he has to pull this off.
Prediction: Six UK players will average double figures in scoring. If that happens, get ready to see some Cats cutting down the nets in north Texas this spring.
If they have five (or fewer) players who average double figures in scoring, then Kentucky will come up short in its quest to secure the school's ninth NCAA championship in April.