The Biggest Offseason Storylines for College Basketball's Top Contenders

Thad NovakCorrespondent IOctober 10, 2013

The Biggest Offseason Storylines for College Basketball's Top Contenders

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    Even before the Louisville Cardinals finished cutting down the nets last March, college basketball’s best were gearing up to dethrone Rick Pitino’s squad. For some, the offseason featured players coming (Michael Dixon Jr. to Memphis) or going (Marquette’s Vander Blue to the NBA) unexpectedly, while others were just worrying about how to stay on top without 2012-13’s stars.

    No program felt that latter burden quite like the Indiana Hoosiers, who lost four starters—including Player of the Year finalist Victor Oladipo. The pressure will be on sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell to earn his leadership stripes as a very inexperienced roster takes over the spotlight in Bloomington.

    Read on for more on Tom Crean’s rebuilding efforts and the rest of the most prominent windfalls or worries for the top-20 teams in our latest preseason rankings.

20. Saint Louis: Where Will the Points Come From?

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    The defense that carried Saint Louis to the Atlantic 10 title a year ago didn’t rely much on star power, so the Billikens’ graduation losses won’t have much of an effect on that end of the floor.

    Offensively, though, an already mediocre group must replace two of its three double-digit scorers.

    The arrival of assistant coach Calbert Cheaney from Indiana may help SLU get the most out of its current offensive weapons, but the cupboard is pretty bare.

    Senior Jordair Jett will be a solid replacement for graduated PG Kwamain Mitchell, but he’s about all the help star forward Dwayne Evans will get next season. 

19. Oklahoma State: How to Build a Contender in One Easy Step

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    Very few actual NBA teams were as happy with the outcome of the 2013 NBA draft as the Oklahoma State Cowboys.

    The fact that the draft did not include OSU star Marcus Smart, who returns for his sophomore season, immediately transforms a respectable collection of complementary players into a contender for the Big 12 crown.

    With Smart running the point, the rest of the Cowboys’ perimeter scorers—including sharpshooter Phil Forte as well as starters Le'Bryan Nash and Markel Brown—will get another year of plentiful open looks.

    The next challenge for the multi-talented PG? Coaxing some kind of offense out of Michael Cobbins and the rest of a thin frontcourt.

18. Wichita State: Size Matters

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    Timely shot-making had a lot to do with Wichita State’s run to the Final Four, and Cleanthony Early leads a wealth of returning scoring options for coach Gregg Marshall.

    However, the Shockers’ ability to control the boards was just as crucial, and it’s far less clear that next season’s roster will have the same advantage.

    Carl Hall and Ehimen Orukpe have both graduated, making the 6’8” Early the only post player back from last year’s rotation.

    6’9” Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Kadeem Coleby will help, but it’s going to be tough to meet sky-high expectations in Wichita with so little height on the floor.

     

17. New Mexico: Two-Man Game

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    Tony Snell’s early departure for the NBA cemented what most fans in Albuquerque already knew: Next year’s Lobos will go as far as their two stars can carry them.

    Senior PG Kendall Williams and junior center Alex Kirk are two of the best in the country at their respective positions, but they won't have a whole lot of help.

    Forwards Hugh Greenwood and Cameron Bairstow are nothing special, and one leading candidate for Snell’s starting job (Cullen Neal) is recovering from a near-fatal ruptured appendix.

    Williams' scoring and Kirk's control of the paint will be more than enough to win the Mountain West, but a deep March run may be more than even those two can do without a more substantial supporting cast. 

16. Memphis: Will Too Many Guards Spoil the Broth?

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    Last season, coach Josh Pastner successfully juggled three talent-rich guards—Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford—in a backcourt with only two starting jobs.

    Now, all three are seniors, and Memphis is bringing in yet another proven senior scorer in Missouri transfer Michael Dixon Jr.

    The 6’1” Dixon posted 13.5 points per game as a junior with Mizzou, then left the team under a cloud after being accused of sexual assault.

    He’ll earn his way into the rotation with talent and quickness, but it’s up to Pastner and floor leader Jackson to make sure there are enough minutes and shots to go around.

15. Virginia Commonwealth: New-Look Offense, Same Old Havoc

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    Three seasons removed from his team's eye-opening Final Four run, Shaka Smart has proven that he can keep his havoc defense working over the long haul, regardless of whom he loses to graduation.

    Offense hasn’t been as consistent for the Rams, though, and next year’s will be very different from the group that got routed by Michigan last March.

    In the first place, steady PG Darius Theus is gone, to be replaced by defensive wizard Briante Weber, whose floor-leader credentials are still uncertain.

    However, Weber will have an even more versatile group of scoring options than his predecessor, from swingman Treveon Graham and sniper Rob Brandenburg to low-post bruisers Juvonte Reddic and Terrance Shannon (a Florida State transfer).

14. Indiana: Are the Kids Ready?

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    Few teams are getting as complete an overhaul this offseason as the Hoosiers, who must replace four starters from the defending Big Ten champs.

    Two of those—Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo—became NBA lottery picks, leaving some very large holes to fill for a Hoosiers team with just one significant upperclassman (Will Sheehey) returning.

    The heart of the rebuilding effort will be a very talented, very young collection of big men led by top freshman Noah Vonleh.

    If the 6’10” Vonleh and his colleagues (including little-used sophomores Jeremy Hollowell and Hanner Mosquera-Perea) live up to expectations, sophomore PG Yogi Ferrell will have no trouble piling up assists once again.

13. Gonzaga: Pangos’ Time

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    After last year’s deflating NCAA tournament defeat, Gonzaga will have plenty to prove in 2013-14. For the Zags to retain their accustomed place as kings of the mid-majors, they’ll need Kevin Pangos to come into his own at point guard.

    For his first two seasons as a starter, Pangos has deferred to big men such as now-departed Elias Harris, but now he’s the veteran.

    He needs to provide leadership, as well as scoring in large quantities, with former reserves Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski taking over the inside game.

12. North Carolina: Say It Ain’t So, P.J.

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    No program in the country got thrown as big a curveball this offseason as the Tar Heels did on June 5.

    That’s the day UNC scoring leader P.J. Hairston was pulled over while driving someone else’s rented car without a license, touching off a disastrous summer for the athletic junior.

    Hairston, who was also ticketed for speeding and reckless driving later in the summer, has been suspended indefinitely, though he has resumed practicing with the team.

    It seems to be no longer a question of if, but rather when, he’ll be back on the floor for Roy Williams. Whenever it happens, though, the media circus and Hairston’s own rust after a lack of game action will surely take their toll on the Tar Heels.

11. Marquette: The Constant Gardner

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    It’s a summer of upheaval in Milwaukee, where three standout freshmen are arriving at Marquette and two starting guards are leaving. In the midst of turmoil, any program hopes to have a rock of stability to build around, and boy, do the Golden Eagles have one.

    Davante Gardner—all 6’8”, 290 pounds of him—is Marquette’s emotional leader as well as the team’s top returning scorer and rebounder.

    He’s heading for his first season as a starter, and as long as his conditioning is ready for the increase in minutes, he’ll be the top big man in the new Big East.

10. Duke: No Size, No Experience, No Problem

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    The problem with having loads of senior leadership, as last year’s Blue Devils did, is that it guarantees you’ll go into the following season with major holes in your lineup.

    In Duke’s case, the most obvious concern is up front, where 6’10” Mason Plumlee and 6’11” Ryan Kelly are both gone, leaving no obvious heir apparent.

    The likely answer in Durham will be to go back to Coach K’s brand of small ball, using mobile forwards such as freshman star Jabari Parker and sophomore Amile Jefferson (both 6’8”) to offset a lack of length or bulk.

    This year’s seniors—including Andre Dawkins and Tyler Thornton—are more in the category of supporting cast than leading men, but that won’t keep Duke from lighting up scoreboards again next season.

9. Michigan: Life Without Trey

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    It’s never easy to replace the national player of the year, but Michigan faces an even tougher battle than many teams as it looks to move on without Trey Burke.

    Burke was the only natural point guard on the roster a year ago, leaving freshman Derrick Walton Jr. to step in and lead a team with hopes of returning to the Final Four.

    Walton will have loads of help up front—all three starters from last March’s title-game run are back—but he’ll be without star shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr., also off to the NBA.

    Depending on how the offense fares under Walton, the 2-guard duties could fall on any of former reserve Caris LeVert (a solid ball-handler but an iffy shot), undersized marksman Spike Albrecht or star small forward Nik Stauskas (if freshman forward Zak Irvin is too good to keep on the bench).

8. Florida: Wilbekin’s Woes

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    The last time Scottie Wilbekin played, he piled up seven assists and four steals against player of the year Trey Burke in an Elite Eight loss. The next time he will play is still a mystery.

    Another round of disciplinary issues for the senior PG has him suspended indefinitely, with Billy Donovan only re-admitting him to practice this week.

    Freshman Kasey Hill has talent to burn, but he’ll be facing some serious pressure replacing a returning starter on a Gators roster that will be stacked even before freshman Chris Walker returns from academic ineligibility in January.

7. Syracuse: Ready or Not, Here’s Tyler Ennis

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    Image from Rivals.com

    Syracuse returns one of the deepest collections of forwards in the country for its debut season in the ACC. With the frontcourt in good hands, all eyes will be on a backcourt that lost superstar Michael Carter-Williams and senior leader Brandon Triche.

    The headliner of the new batch of guards is freshman Tyler Ennis, who will take over for Carter-Williams at the point.

    The youngster has a balanced skill set including some of the same defensive aggressiveness that served his predecessor so well, but he’s neither as big (at 6’2”) nor as athletically gifted as the newly-minted 76er.

6. Kansas: How Good Can Andrew Wiggins Get?

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    Despite losing all five starters, Kansas is the hands-down favorite for yet another Big 12 crown. The biggest reason why is Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 freshman in the country and the leader of a loaded recruiting class.

    Wiggins, a do-everything 6’7” small forward, will take over for Ben McLemore as the Jayhawks’ go-to scorer.

    If he plays up to the standard of other recent top-ranked freshmen (Nerlens Noel, Anthony Davis et al.), he could easily lead revamped KU right back to the Final Four.

5. Arizona: How Many Power Forwards Fit in One Lineup?

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    No coach is going to complain about landing the MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game in his freshmen class. Arizona’s Sean Miller could, however, be forgiven for wondering where in the world he’s going to put prize recruit Aaron Gordon.

    The 6’8” Gordon is an explosive big man even by the standards of this year’s deep freshmen class, but his dunk-everything approach to offense makes it tough to see him playing anywhere but PF.

    Nevertheless, he’ll likely be Arizona’s starting small forward as Miller tries to fit fellow low-post bangers Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley into the starting five with him.

4. Ohio State: Can the Buckeyes Get Anything from Their Post Players?

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    The 2012-13 Buckeyes made the Elite Eight in spite of having combo forward Deshaun Thomas as their only reliable big man. Thomas is gone to the NBA, and Ohio State’s low-post options are slimmer pickings than ever.

    Thomas’ likely replacement, LaQuinton Ross, stands 6’8” but has looked far more comfortable on the perimeter than slugging it out down low.

    With Evan Ravenel graduated, it’s more important than ever for junior Amir Williams (a mere 3.5 points and 1.4 blocks in 16.5 minutes per game) to start playing like a Big Ten center.

    The 2012-13 Buckeyes made the Elite Eight in spite of having combo forward Deshaun Thomas as their only reliable big man. Thomas is gone to the NBA, and Ohio State’s low-post options are slimmer pickings than ever.

    Thomas’ likely replacement, LaQuinton Ross, stands 6’8” but has looked far more comfortable on the perimeter than slugging it out down low. With Evan Ravenel graduated, it’s more important than ever for junior Amir Williams (a mere 3.5 points and 1.4 blocks in 16.5 minutes per game) to start playing like a Big Ten center.

3. Michigan State: Will the Real Keith Appling Please Stand Up?

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    Keith Appling is a dynamic scorer who can lead Michigan State to the Final Four. Keith Appling is an unreliable point guard who disappeared in the second half of 2012-13.

    Determining which of those two statements is closer to the truth will say a lot about where Michigan State finishes next season.

    Appling led the Spartans with 13.4 points per game as a junior, but his assist totals plummeted (3.3 per contest, down from 3.9 the previous season).

    He’s one of four returning starters on a deep, athletic roster and as floor general, he’s ideally positioned to carry or capsize his team depending on his own performance.

2. Kentucky: Look at All the (Gigantic) Freshmen

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    It’s not just that John Calipari signed six new McDondald’s All-Americans in this year’s recruiting class. It’s that every one of them stands at least 6’5” in a notable echo of the towering 2011-12 roster that brought a national title to Lexington.

    From 6’5” PG Andrew Harrison to 6’10”, 250-pound center Dakari Johnson, the Wildcats have size and scoring punch at every position yet again.

    There’s precious little experience, but 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein (the most remarkable of many spectacular athletes) should provide enough of that to put Kentucky back in the Final Four with little trouble.

1. Louisville: A Different Kind of Rebuilding Year

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    Louisville has so much returning talent from the defending national champs that another Final Four run is the minimum to expect from this squad.

    That will be especially welcome news to the player who so famously missed last year’s Final Four, shooting guard Kevin Ware

    Ware’s devastating broken leg (suffered against Duke in the Elite Eight) was the only blot on a fantastic tournament run for the Cardinals, and it looks like he’ll soon be back to inspiring his teammates with his scoring in addition to his resilience.

    He was back to dunking barely six months after the injury and has hopes of returning to game action before the end of the calendar year.