Important Lessons Learned About Top NCAA Basketball Teams in 2013 Offseason
The offseason can mean a number of things for highly ranked college basketball teams.
Typically these top-notch programs improve through training at world-class facilities and impressive recruiting, but every once in a while bad news comes down the chute (looking at you Tar Heels).
While the start of the season can’t come soon enough, we did learn some things about some of the best college hoops teams (top 20 per Sporting News) this summer. Read on to see what.
Kentucky: Recruiting Can Cure All
To say the 2012-13 season was a disaster in Lexington would be a massive understatement.
Big Blue Nation watched their Wildcats struggle all year, especially after Nerlens Noel went down with injury. Missing the NCAA tournament is akin to the unthinkable at Kentucky, but that is exactly what happened.
However, thanks to John Calipari’s impressive recruiting efforts it’s like the only Robert Morris that ever existed was the historical figure that signed the Declaration of Independence. Kentucky went from first-round NIT losers to the top of preseason projections in the blink of an eye.
The Harrison brothers, Dakari Johnson, James Young, Julius Randle and the rest of the bunch will be ready to roll when the season starts. The rest of the SEC is on alert.
Michigan State: Tom Izzo Should Get More Credit
This offseason was dominated by recruiting stories from schools that are coached by some of the best in the game.
Duke landed Jabari Parker, Kansas reeled in Andrew Wiggins and Kentucky brought in approximately 800 McDonald’s All-Americans. With every 5-star commitment the praise these coaches received (and deservedly so) increased even more.
However, it is Michigan State and Tom Izzo that sits in the No. 2 spot in this preseason poll. Other teams continue to receive more hype each year, but once again the Spartans find themselves on the short list of national title contenders.
The impressive thing about Izzo is he has built this program of sustained success without gobs of 5-star studs. Yes, he lands them every once in a while (Gary Harris comes to mind), but he isn’t reeling in four or five at once like John Calipari.
Yet he continues to win at an incredible pace and will do so again in 2013-14.
Louisville: Depth Is a Beautiful Thing
Louisville is the defending national champions and will be playing with a target on its back all season long, but there are some key pieces missing from that squad.
Peyton Siva, who served as an extension of Rick Pitino on the floor as the point guard and court general, is no longer on campus. Throw in the loss of big man Gorgui Dieng, and two of the Cardinals’ primary contributors are no longer in place any more.
However, Louisville is still considered one of the top five teams in the nation and a serious contender for another national title. The primary reason for that is the depth Pitino has built, which allows this squad to overcome the losses of such key cogs.
Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell will still make up one of the most talented cores in college basketball and should dominate the American Athletic Conference.
Duke: It’s Good to Be King
The ACC underwent a major face-lift this offseason with the additions of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame (and Louisville down the road).
Despite all the changes since the last time actual basketball was played, Duke is still the favorite and probably the best roster in the conference. It is a testament to Coach K and the impressive program that he has built that the Blue Devils are still the king of the league with so many historically impressive additions.
Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood and the remaining talent still in place will give Duke a serious chance to win the ACC and challenge for a Final Four. Fans will be treated to great matchups along the way.
Arizona: The Wildcats Should Be the Best of the West
Arizona lost Solomon Hill and Mark Lyons in the offseason but will still be the Pac-12 favorites heading into the 2013-14 campaign.
The primary reason for the high expectations in Tucson is Sean Miller’s impressive recruiting. He landed Aaron Gordon, Rondae Jefferson and Elliot Pitts in the class of 2013 (and has already gotten off to a hot start for 2014) and probably has the best roster in the West Coast this year.
While the likes of UCLA, Oregon and Gonzaga may have something to say about that, the Wildcats should contend for a Final Four with so much talent in place. The freshmen, along with Nick Johnson and point guard transfer T.J. McConnell, should give Miller plenty of wins on the way to March.
Kansas: The Big 12 Is Kansas’ Kingdom
For a little while in the offseason it looked like 2013-14 might finally be the year someone knocked off Kansas in the Big 12.
After all, the Jayhawks lost all five starters and Oklahoma State welcomed back a team that was loaded with talent and led by arguably the best returnee in the country in Marcus Smart. However, those early projections all changed when Bill Self landed Andrew Wiggins.
Wiggins, along with fellow freshman Wayne Selden and some returning depth from last year, has Kansas poised to once again take home a conference crown. Whether that translates into success in the NCAA tournament remains to be seen, but the Jayhawks are loaded with talent and ready to battle the Cowboys.
Michigan: Losing the National Player of the Year May Not Be Crippling
Typically when a college basketball team loses the National Player of the Year and his multi-talented running mate from the backcourt it would be reason for alarm, but Michigan still should rank among the best teams in the country.
Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III return for John Beilein’s squad and should formulate one of the best duos in the country. McGary came to Ann Arbor with tons of hype as a freshman but somewhat disappointed during the season. However, he took off during the NCAA tournament and is expected to play at an All-Big Ten level in 2013-14.
Robinson also causes a number of mismatches and should challenge the conference’s best scorers. This duo, along with an impressive recruiting class, should keep the Wolverines near the top of the Big Ten.
Syracuse: There’s a Lot Riding on Inexperienced Players
Syracuse is famous for playing its 2-3 zone under Jim Boeheim, but the two guards that started off that zone last year are both gone.
With no more Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche (who finally saw his seemingly 36-year collegiate career end after last season) in place, Boeheim will be looking to a handful of inexperienced players to take their place.
Freshman Tyler Ennis comes to Syracuse with plenty of hype and talent and is the leading candidate to take over the point-guard role. Michael Gbinije, who missed 2012-13 after transferring from Duke, and Trevor Cooney, who redshirted as a freshman before playing some last year, are the top choices for shooting guard.
Fortunately for Boeheim, the Orange are not short on experience in the frontcourt. C.J. Fair, who led the Orange in scoring and rebounding last year, Rakeem Christmas, Baye Moussa Keita, Jerami Grant and Dajuan Coleman all return.
North Carolina: Basketball Can’t Come Soon Enough
P.J. Hairston's interesting offseason has been well documented, and it's almost a guarantee at this point that he will miss some action in 2013-14 because of it.
Fortunately for North Carolina fans, Hairston will in all likelihood play at some point this season, but how long he misses remains to be seen. Frankly speaking, the good folks at Chapel Hill are probably ready for basketball season to start. Having the star player in the news for all the wrong reasons all summer can be a trying process.
When the season does finally start, James Michael McAdoo will have his best chance yet to become the star he was destined to be when he arrived on campus. Tar Heels fans are certainly ready to see that, as well as actual basketball news.
Oklahoma State: One-and-Done Is Overrated
Oklahoma State’s basketball program received some of the most surprising and welcoming news in the entire country this offseason when Marcus Smart elected to return to campus for his sophomore year.
In today’s day and age of one-and-done freshmen sensations, it was refreshing to see one of the game’s brightest stars stay at the college level for a second go-around. If anyone is going to knock Kansas off its Big 12 throne, it will be Smart and the Cowboys.
Markel Brown is a solid complementary piece to Smart and would be the star in plenty of other places. Throw LeBryan Nash in there, and Oklahoma State is ready to go for the 2013-14 campaign.
Ohio State: LaQuinton Ross Needs to Be the Real Deal
Ohio State lost the top scorer in the Big Ten this offseason when Deshaun Thomas elected to go to the NBA, but they are still expected to challenge the Michigan schools for a Big Ten title.
However, the only way that is going to happen is if somebody (or multiple people) replaces the scoring production that departed with Thomas. The leading candidate to do so is LaQuinton Ross, who showed flashes of brilliance during the postseason last year and came to Columbus with tons of hype as a recruit three years ago.
Ross has an impressive jump shot and is tall enough to post up smaller defenders. Throw in his impressive ability to get to the basket, and he has the entire package on the offensive side. He still needs some improvement on defense, but having teammates like Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott helps cover up some weaknesses on that end of the floor.
Ross doesn’t have to match Thomas’ nearly 20 points a night, but he needs to become a bona fide scorer if Ohio State hopes to win the Big Ten.
Florida: Patric Young Is Even More Important Than We Thought
Florida is the only realistic challenger for Kentucky this year in the SEC, but its conference title hopes took a hit when freshman Chris Walker was ruled ineligible for the first semester of play.
Walker and big man Patric Young had Gators fans excited about what would be a bruising duo in the paint. Few teams would be able to match the rebounding and interior defense that Billy Donovan’s team would bring to the table.
Without Walker for the first part of the season, Young will be even more important than once thought. Florida has to establish its style of play early before the conference schedule heats up and Walker returns.
It will also be up to Young to make sure Walker is comfortable with his role as he experiences a bit of baptism by fire in the stretch run.
Oregon: The Transfer Market Is Worth the Time
Oregon has become a football powerhouse in the past few years, but its basketball season had an impressive 2012-13 campaign that included a Pac-12 tournament title and Sweet 16 appearance.
The level of expectations will be higher in Eugene in 2013-14 though in large part because the Ducks dipped their toes into the transfer pool. Oregon native Mike Moser returned home by transferring from UNLV in the offseason.
He is eligible to play immediately, which is critical considering the Ducks’ biggest losses came in the form of E.J. Singler and Arsalan Kazemi. Moser should help fill the void at both vacated forward spots and will look to return to his sophomore form, when he challenged for Mountain West Player of the Year.
The combination of Moser, Dominic Artis and Johnathan Loyd makes the Ducks dangerous contenders in the Pac-12.
Wisconsin: Same Old, Same Old
Wisconsin basketball may be about as exciting as waiting at the bus stop, but one thing never changes under Bo Ryan—the Badgers win at an incredibly consistent level.
In fact, Wisconsin has never finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten under Ryan. For perspective, Michigan was the No. 5 seed in the conference tournament last year and went to the national championship game.
There wasn’t any crippling news in the offseason in Madison a la North Carolina or even Florida, so expect more of the same in 2013-14. Sam Dekker and Traevon Jackson form a dangerous combination, and many expect Dekker to play at an All-Big Ten level this year.
UCLA: Substance May Be Better Than Style
Last year there was significant hype surrounding the incoming freshmen at UCLA. Many expected the Bruins to challenge for the national title, but that was nowhere near what actually played out.
Minnesota knocked out UCLA in dominating fashion early in the NCAA tournament, and Shabazz Muhammad (the prized freshman of that class) declared for the NBA draft in the aftermath. Throw the loss of Muhammad on top of Larry Drew’s departure, and it looks like the Bruins will have some challenges in 2013-14.
However, substance may trump style this year with expectations somewhat lower. This is still a Top 20 team we are talking about, and Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams should help UCLA challenge Arizona and Oregon in the Pac-12.
Adams went down with a broken foot last year but looked like a premier scorer before the injury. He should be just that without Muhammad and Drew this season.
Memphis: It Was Time to Leave
Memphis has been one of the better programs in all of college basketball for quite some time now, but it never seems to get the respect it deserves because of its residence in the Conference USA.
That will change this season when the Tigers join the American Athletic Conference. Already they are being placed in the Top 20 in early projections, which very well may not have been the case had they stayed in the C-USA.
Joe Jackson and company serve as the most dangerous challengers to Louisville in this newfound league. If everything clicks and the Tigers can defend home court against some of the better competition they face in 2013-14, it could set up a thrilling finish between the two teams.
Gonzaga: It Hurts to Miss Golden Opportunities
Gonzaga may have blown a golden opportunity at the end of a special 2012-13 season.
The Bulldogs were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history on the heels of an incredible year. The path to the Final Four is never easy, but it looked like Mark Few’s squad had a real chance to be playing on college basketball’s final weekend.
Instead, Gonzaga was upset by Wichita State in its second tournament game and has fallen from the ranks of the Top 10 in these early projections. Kelly Olynyk is no longer on campus, making the failure in the most recent postseason even harder to swallow.
The frontcourt is very thin, and there may just be too much riding on guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell for the Bulldogs to seriously challenge for a deep postseason run.
Tennessee: It’s NCAA Tournament or Bust
Tennessee appeared primed to make the NCAA tournament in the 2012-13 season, but a late-season run wasn’t enough to impress the selection committee. In fact, the Volunteers won nine of their final 11 games before losing in the first round of the NIT in a stunning disappointment to end the year.
With such a disappointing finish, the Volunteers have been focused on one goal this offseason—the NCAA tournament. Tennessee added a new point guard in grad-transfer Antonio Barton from Memphis, which fills a pressing hole.
The SEC will be better in 2013-14 than it was last year, most notably in the form of Kentucky and perhaps even Alabama, but Tennessee is capable of making it to the Big Dance. Whether it will or not remains to be seen.
Marquette: The Golden Eagles Might Not Be Friendly Hosts
Marquette may have stayed in place during this offseason of conference attrition, but its brethren in the new-look Big East will be quite different.
The Golden Eagles will no longer be facing the likes of Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Louisville and instead are matched up against talented but perhaps not elite squads in Butler, Xavier and Creighton. The Golden Eagles, along with teams like Georgetown and Villanova, are almost like the hosts for the new guests.
Marquette could dominate some of the new faces with its physicality on the inside, especially through senior big man Davante Gardner. Even without Vander Blue, the Golden Eagles should win plenty of games this season and find themselves in a nice position come March.
Notre Dame: The Backcourt Is ACC Ready
Notre Dame is going to be in for a challenge this year despite its status as a Top 20-caliber team.
The Irish play at Iowa, Indiana and Ohio State during the nonconference slate before testing their merits against the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and the rest of the ACC. That’s not exactly a simple path to March.
Fortunately for Notre Dame fans, the backcourt has enough talent to remain competitive against this schedule. Erik Atkins and Jerian Grant both return to spearhead an Irish team that will be reliant on the guards after losing pieces in the frontcourt.
Demetrius Jackson enrolled at Notre Dame in the offseason to provide some much-needed depth for this ACC-ready backcourt as well.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.
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