Young College Basketball Teams That Will Be Dominant in 2014-15 Season
Youth will once again be served in college basketball next year.
While three of the four teams to make the 2014 Final Four had rosters full of upperclassmen, it was the younger players that dominated all our interest for much of the 2013-14 season. That's going to once again be the case next fall, when the newbies and up-and-coming sophomores garner most of the attention and all of the hype.
There will be youthful stars throughout Division I next season, but six teams in particular look to be stacked with freshman and sophomore superstars who will make up at least 40 percent of their projected playing rotation.
We can't make any promises that one or more of these will find themselves at the 2015 Final Four in Indianapolis, but if they do, it will be because of how those young guns transform into battle-tested veterans over the course of the season.
Duke Blue Devils
While it was fun to imagine what it would be like if superstar freshman Jabari Parker stayed in school another year, even with him leaving Duke is going to be one of the most talent-laden teams in the country. The Blue Devils will also be among the youngest in terms of impact players.
That's because Duke has signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the country for 2014, according to 247Sports. And it stands to reason that all four prospects will get heavy minutes thanks to the losses of Parker, Rodney Hood, Andre Dawkins and Tyler Thornton.
As the No. 1 overall player in the 2014 class, 6'11" Jahlil Okafor is a lock to start in November, while 5-star small forward Justise Winslow has a good shot to be in the starting lineup right away as well. Tyus Jones, also a 5-star recruit, will battle Quinn Cook for minutes at the point, while 4-star combo guard Grayson Allen should also be in the mix for ample playing time.
Add in lightly used sophomores-to-be in Matt Jones and Semi Ojeleye, and you'll see Mike Krzyzewski field one of the youngest teams in his coaching career. But, like usual, it will be among the best in the country.
Florida was powered by its senior leaders in 2013-14, but the play of two freshmen bodes well for continued success by the Gators.
Point guard Kasey Hill only played 22 minutes a game, mostly in relief of senior Scottie Wilbekin, but in his time on the court, he showed the skills necessary to be a capable floor leader for Florida. He was at his best in the Sweet 16 win over UCLA, scoring six points with six rebounds and 10 assists in 28 minutes.
Fellow freshman Chris Walker didn't get into a game until February due to both academic issues and an NCAA suspension for extra benefits, and by that point Florida's rotation was pretty well set. The 6'10" forward averaged less than five minutes per game, but he did show flashes of greatness, such as in his seven-point, three-rebound performance in six minutes against UCLA.
Walker will help fill the void left by graduating senior Patric Young on the inside.
The Gators lose three of their top four scorers, but they'll be getting replenished on the back side in the form of a top-10 recruiting class featuring 5-star small forward Devin Robinson and 4-star guards Brandone Francis and Chris Chiozza.
Kansas coach Bill Self recruited with exactly such a scenario in mind, knowing Wiggins was a surefire one-and-done player but also expecting at least one other of his star freshmen to declare for the NBA draft after one season. As a result, the Jayhawks don't expect to have any slippage as they lose two superstars and have them replaced by the recruits considered the third- and seventh-best in the 2014 class, respectively.
Alexander is a 6'9", 240-pound beast who will wreak havoc on the inside, while the 6'7" Oubre is an explosive jumper and slasher who showed off his stuff at the Nike Hoops Summit by dunking over former Oregon forward Mike Moser.
But as hyped as these incoming Jayhawks are, let's not forget about the young talent that still returns from the 2013-14 team.
Wayne Selden Jr. was Kansas' fourth-leading scorer at 9.7 points per game, though he was wildly inconsistent in his shooting and overall presence on the floor. Had he fared better, he might have left for the draft, but instead, the 6'5", 230-pound Selden will be back for more.
Elsewhere, Frank Mason showed flashes of promise when spelling Naadir Tharpe at the point, while unheralded sharpshooter Conner Frankamp nearly became a folk hero with his four three-pointers that kept Kansas within striking distance of Stanford in the Sweet 16 loss.
If this becomes an annual tally of the most promising and expected-to-be-dominant youthful teams, we might as well just keep a spot reserved for Kentucky considering John Calipari's recruiting strategy.
The Wildcats will once again be one of the youngest teams in the country, and that's not even considering the possibility that twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison could return for their sophomore seasons, as reported by ESPN.com's Chad Ford.
Assuming the Harrisons don't come back, though, Kentucky will still be young and stacked. Dominique Hawkins, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee all made names for themselves when they managed to get onto the court, with Lee exploding onto the scene with 10 points and eight rebounds in the Elite Eight win over Michigan.
Kentucky's underclassmen have had all the talent and potential in the world the past few seasons, but each year it's been a different result. The 2012 group won the national title, then the 2013 crop failed to make the NCAA tournament before this last unit reached the championship game.
North Carolina Tar Heels
North Carolina only loses two starters from this past season's up-and-down team, and even with a good number of upperclassmen expected to be involved with the 2014-15 attack, it's really going to come down to the Tar Heels' youth as the determining factor for success.
Kennedy Meeks was inconsistent for most of the year, but he did show what kind of a beast he can be inside during big games. He saved his best effort for last, notching career highs in points (15) and rebounds (13) in the round of 32 loss to Iowa State, and assuming he can better mold his 290 pounds to fit on that 6'9" frame, he could be among the best inside men in the country next year.
Fellow sophomore-to-be Nate Britt didn't score much behind Marcus Paige, and his minutes might suffer with Paige returning and 4-star signee Joel Berry expected to get a prime spot in the playing rotation. However, the 5'11" Britt did enough to keep himself in contention for playing time, and with another year of practice, he should look much better.
But where North Carolina will see a real boost is from a pair of 5-star forwards, 6'8" Justin Jackson and 6'6" Theo Pinson. That pair will make the Heels both a longer team and one that becomes far more athletic and able to score in various ways.
VCU and coach Shaka Smart have made a name for themselves the last few years with the "Havoc" style of play that puts a premium on speed and full-court pressure. And it will be much more of the same in 2014-15 as the Rams manage to get faster.
While the loss of bruiser Juvonte Reddic will take away a key inside presence, the rest of VCU's returners will look to pick up the slack with increased defensive intensity and perimeter play. Several upperclassmen are back, including leading scorer Treveon Graham and Briante Weber, both seniors.
Yet the key to VCU's system is depth, and numerous underclassmen are going to be integral to that system continuing to work.
JeQuan Lewis had the biggest impact of VCU's freshmen last year, but Mo Alie-Cox and Jordan Burgess were also important parts of the rotation and should see their roles increase this fall.
Add in VCU's best recruiting class ever, coming in at No. 24 nationally, and there's a lot to be happy about in terms of the future. The class has four signees, all of whom could get into the mix this season, though 4-star small forward Terry Larrier is the most likely because of his scoring ability and length.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.