Predicting the Best Offensive Teams in College Basketball for the 2014-15 Season

Scott Henry@@4QuartersRadioFeatured ColumnistJune 13, 2014

Predicting the Best Offensive Teams in College Basketball for the 2014-15 Season

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    College basketball purists will tell us that great defense beats great offense, but at game's end, the ability to score points is still the central attribute of any great team.

    As the game goes through its annual roster carousel, teams adding new talent while bidding farewell to others who may or may not have had a major role, we're left to examine the changes and predict whose offenses will be most potent come November.

    These 20 teams should have the talent to produce supremely efficient offenses next season. We lean more toward the major conferences because teams in those leagues will encounter stiffer opposition on a nightly basis, but there's also one notable crew from the one-bid wilderness that always seems to light up scoreboards no matter the personnel.

    Watching these teams next season should make for some entertaining basketball, whether they're bolting up and down the court like jackrabbits or patiently prodding defenses until they concede an opening.


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20. Virginia

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    Virginia's offense isn't fast, and it isn't sexy, but it works. And it should continue to do so next season, even as the program bids farewell to sniper Joe Harris.

    Guard Malcolm Brogdon (pictured) made All-ACC last season, and expect more of the same, even if his raw counting numbers aren't sexy. His 12.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game from last season don't leap off the page, but he made plays when they were needed.

    Point guard London Perrantes provided a steady hand all season, belying his freshman status. With a year under his belt, he should be even more assured running the offense, but he'll need to improve his shooting to take heat off Brogdon.

    Former South Carolina big man Anthony Gill had a good first season at UVa, putting up 8.6 points and 4.0 rebounds per game. Look for him to contend for all-conference honors as he takes over for the graduated Akil Mitchell. Center Mike Tobey was one of the ACC's better offensive rebounders, and he can keep a lot of possessions alive if his teammates aren't firing as they should.

    Senior Darion Atkins and freshman Jack Salt should make solid contributions on the glass, giving Gill and Tobey the occasional rest.

    Look for uber-athletic wing Justin Anderson to make major improvements, especially if his shot selection is first on the list. A dangerous penetrator and sensational dunker, Anderson frequently ignored those strengths as he hoisted 102 three-pointers on the season, making only 30.

    Freshman guard B.J. Stith, son of UVa icon Bryant Stith, may make up for the loss of Harris' outside shooting. Stith finished strong in his senior year at Oak Hill Academy.

19. Baylor

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    Baylor enters 2014-15 in a similar position to its 2012-13 team. Major frontcourt talents departed that season, leaving the Bears to rely on a talented point guard surrounded by freshmen and seldom-used backups.

    In fact, this year's Bears, even despite the losses of Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson, may still be in better shape than the eventual NIT champions looked in June 2012.

    Point guard Kenny Chery (pictured) is no Pierre Jackson, but he's a talented distributor who's capable of getting everyone involved. Only 10 players in all of college basketball put up a triple-double last season, and Chery joined that club in February with his 20-point, 10-rebound, 12-assist effort against Kansas State.

    The duo of true freshman Kobe Eubanks and redshirt frosh Allerik Freemana former UCLA signeewill handle the other guard position. The 6'4" Freeman is a solid enough ball-handler that he can compete at either guard spot, which would make for a good size matchup if he relieves the diminutive Chery. Eubanks drew offers from Florida, Pitt, Minnesota and Wichita State, among others.

    Hyper-efficient wing Royce O'Neale has been praised for his shot selection dating back to his days at Denver, but he'll have to be less picky and more prolific as a senior. Any misses will likely be Hoovered up by rebounding machine Rico Gathers, who could easily lead the Big 12 in boards after pulling 6.4 per game in less than 18 minutes last season.

    Post depth is unproven behind Gathers, and the Bears will miss Brady Heslip's automatic three-point stroke, but if someone does step up as a shooter, Baylor should get along fine.

18. Texas

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    Here's a major beef with the Texas Longhorns: They couldn't shoot their way out of a phone booth last season. UT ranked an ugly 262nd in effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) last season, per Ken Pomeroy. Every single member of that team is back. That makes for a lot of players who need improvements on the offensive end.

    The Horns' big men, for their parts, are reasonably reliable scorers. Senior Jonathan Holmes and juniors Cameron Ridley and Connor Lammert shot a combined 56 percent on their two-point shots and 67 percent at the foul line. Add to that group an elite center like in-state product Myles Turner and you're dealing with one of the nation's elite frontcourts.

    Texas' backcourt, however, must step up in a big way. The best field-goal percentage among Longhorn guards belonged to junior Demarcus Croaker, who sank a mere 41 percent. Starters Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix combined for 24.3 PPG, but only made 37 percent of their shots.

    The Longhorns made a great living on the offensive glass in 2013-14, and the addition of Turner may only add to their rebounding potential.

    A repeat of last season's rebounding efforts and improvement on the guards' first looks should firmly stamp UT as a top-10 team by season's end. We can't bet on it until we see it, though.

17. Michigan

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    With John Beilein on the sidelines, assume that Michigan's offense will always click along like a Swiss timepiece. The Wolverine coach simply has the same knack for finding the right guys that his conference rival, Bo Ryan of Wisconsin, has ridden to a string of NCAA tournaments.

    This will be the second straight season in which UM has to replace the Big Ten Player of the Year, with Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas going pro after winning said award. Guard Caris LeVert (pictured) could be the third in line after upping his scoring average by more than 10 PPG last season.

    LeVert's already a strong defender, but he showed the ability to score from anywhere on the court as a supporting piece. Can he do the same when defenses treat him as The Man?

    Fellow backcourt talents Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin learned on the job as freshmen last season, with Walton running the offense from day one. He'll need to take a more aggressive scoring role as a sophomore, seeking to make up for the lost production of Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III.

    Irvin shot a solid 42.5 percent from three last season, but like Stauskas, he'll need to expand beyond being a spot-up shooter in his second year.

    From there, freshmen will once again need to play important supporting roles. Wings Kameron Chatman and Austin Hatch, along with big men Ricky Doyle and D.J. Wilson, will be called upon to produce as true freshmen.

    Redshirt Mark Donnal has bulked up to 240 pounds but still possesses three-point range. He can be the floor-spreading big man that Beilein had at West Virginiaremember Kevin Pittsnogle?but hasn't been able to find at Michigan yet. (Okay, maybe Evan Smotrycz, but he didn't stick around, did he?)

    Beilein's becoming one of those coaches that only suckers bet against, much like a Ryan or a Bill Self. Are you a sucker?

16. Illinois

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    The old football saying goes that if you have two quarterbacks, you really don't have any. Does the same apply to basketball point guards? If not, Illinois is in pretty solid shape entering this season.

    In most places, the senior point guard is the unquestioned heart and soul of his team, but Tracy Abrams will have to sing for his supper as he closes out his career in Champaign.

    Transfers Ahmad Starks (Oregon State) and Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall) are also used to running major-conference offenses, and both are vastly superior shooters to the offensively challenged Abrams. Abrams averaged 10.7 PPG last season but shot only 33.3 percent from the floor (27 percent from three) to do it. Starks and Cosby have both teased 40 percent from the arc in their careers.

    All-Big Ten performer Rayvonte Rice (pictured) returns for his senior year, and as long as he's shooting from inside the arc, he's one of the Big Ten's best. He made less than 30 percent of his triples last season, but shot 50 percent on twos. Sophomore guard Kendrick Nunn will join Rice on the wings after averaging 12.3 PPG and shooting 46.5 percent from deep over the Illini's final 10 games.

    Senior center Nnanna Egwu is still a mediocre offensive player, but freshman forward Leron Black should immediately help mask the veteran's deficiencies and allow Egwu to focus on rebounding and defense. If sophomores Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan can provide post support, Illinois has one of the deepest rosters in the Big Ten.

15. Oklahoma

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    Oklahoma will miss the production of All-Big 12 forward Cameron Clark, but its three-headed backcourt monster returns intact, as does its leading rebounder. So don't expect coach Lon Kruger to take his foot off the gas just yet.

    The Sooners played one of the nation's 20 fastest offenses last season according to Ken Pomeroy, and the play of guards Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard helped the attack stay that way.

    Hield made All-Big 12 in his own right, being named to the second team after averaging 16.5 PPG and drilling 38.6 percent from the arc. He was only held to single-figure scoring three times all season, with the last instance unfortunately coming in the NCAA tournament loss to North Dakota State.

    Cousins made better than 40 percent of his threes, and despite not attacking the rim as often as Hield, he was much more of a threat to get to the line. Cousins' free-throw rate (FTA/FGA) finished at 34.5 compared to Hield's 19.1.

    Of course, both are amateurs at drawing contact when compared to their point guard. Woodard took 188 foul shots to 235 field goals for a FT rate of 80.0. He made them count, too, sinking 77.7 percent.

    As long as those three are on the court, the Sooners should have one of the Big 12's most potent offenses. And when they're not hitting their shots, forward Ryan Spangler can clean up. Spangler should average a double-double this season after contributing 9.6 points and 9.3 rebounds last year, his first after transferring from Gonzaga.

    Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas is awaiting the results of an appeal for immediate eligibility, and if he gets it, he should be a perfect replacement for Clark. Thomas averaged 15.4 points and 8.1 rebounds last season.

14. Villanova

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    Chalk Villanova up with those teams that lost only one piece, albeit a very large one. Wing James Bell averaged 14.4 PPG to lead the Wildcats, but they do return two other 14-PPG men.

    Guard Darrun Hilliard and forward JayVaughn Pinkston (pictured) are back for one more shot at a Big East title, and they're major reasons the Cats are one of the league's favorites.

    Hilliard had by far his most efficient season last year, posting an eFG% and true-shooting percentage (TS%) that were both around 60, according to The former improved by more than 12 points from his sophomore year.

    Pinkston has likewise improved his scoring efficiency each season, making better than 52 percent of his shots as a junior. He and center Daniel Ochefu form a reliable, bulky post duo. Both men made better than 63 percent of their shots at the rim, according to

    Point guard Ryan Arcidiacono returns to run the attack. As a sophomore, "Arch" made a notable shooting improvement and cut his turnovers in half, averaging a mere 1.4 per game in 31.1 minutes.

    Sophomores Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins will get a crack at splitting up some of the shots Bell leaves behind, and they'll be going head to head over the vacant starting spot. Jenkins is a superior defender and outside shooter, but Hart demonstrated a tremendous knack for getting to the rim.

    Freshmen Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges can both be among the Big East's most impactful newcomers if they're given enough minutes. Bridges especially can be a long-term replacement for Bell, with a similar 6'7" frame that simply needs some more bulk. His shooting ability and defensive intensity will serve coach Jay Wright well over the next several years.

    The Cats simply don't have any Big East competition deep enough or talented enough to challenge them for the title this season. Their major goal should be to translate the regular-season success into an NCAA tournament run.

13. Iona

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    Finally, we come to our outlier. Iona isn't usually in the national discussion until the NCAA tournament rolls around, but it's been one of the nation's most potent offenses for the last several seasons. Personnel losses were substantial this offseason, but enough talent returns to make a repeat performance possible, if not probable.

    Before we get to individual players, though, dig these national rankings that the Gaels have recorded under coach Tim Cluess (all per Ken Pomeroy):

    YearTempoOff. Eff.eFG%TO%3P%2P%

    The Gaels' offense is always up-tempo but doesn't kill itself with terrible turnovers. Cluess finds players capable of scoring either inside or outside, if not both, and they're allowed to play to their strengths.

    Double-digit scorers A.J. English, Isaiah Williams and David Laury have already proven capable of excelling in this offense. The three combined for 44.4 PPG last season, although English made his bones as a volume shooter.

    English was last season's primary ball-handler, but he could move off the ball this season if Cluess is willing to reinstate former Iowa State guard Tavon Sledge to the starting five. Sledge averaged 3.2 assists per game for Iona in 2012-13.

    Beyond the big three, there's not too much proven production. D-I transfers Kelvin Amayo (Marshall) and Jeylani Dublin (Longwood) should see time, although Amayo's still green and questions linger about whether Dublin can keep up with the go-go Gaels.

    Of course, Williams and Laury weren't exactly proven scorers, either, and they turned out just fine.

12. SMU

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    In year two under Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, SMU became a cause celebre by being snubbed for the NCAA tournament. Don't expect it to happen again this season.

    Only two players left the Mustangs, and their departures will be felt more on the defensive end. In their place stands the program's second-ever McDonald's All-American recruit, Dallas guard Emmanuel Mudiay (pictured). The 6'5" playmaker, listed as a point guard, will join diminutive point guard Nic Moore in a versatile and dangerous backcourt that could be one of America's best by season's end.

    Moore, for his part, was one of the nation's more efficient floor generals in his first season at SMU. He sported a 2.1 assist-turnover ratio, shot 46 percent from the floor and made 43 percent of his threes. With Mudiay around to draw defensive attention, the 5'10" junior should see even more quality looks at the basket.

    Power forward Markus Kennedy returns to form the third leg of SMU's new Big Three. Kennedy comes off a season in which he shot 53 percent from the floor (nearly 70 percent at the rim, per Hoop-Math) and finished sixth in the American at 7.1 RPG.

    As for supporting pieces, Brown still has SMU's first McDonald's All-American in place, another Dallas product named Keith Frazier. Frazier wasn't a starter last season, and he probably won't be one this year. Brown keeping him in town may be as impressive a coaching feat as anything he pulled off during games last year. Even if he comes off the bench, look for Frazier to improve on last season's 5.4 PPG.

    Xavier transfer Justin Martin is immediately eligible, and he produced to the tune of 11.7 PPG, 5.2 RPG and 37.3 percent from long range in X's Big East debut last season. Big men Ben Moore, Cannen Cunningham and Yanick Moreira combined for 17 points and 10 rebounds per game last season, and they'll be seen on a multitude of highlights setting some crushing screens for the guards this year.

    No program in America has gone through as extensive a renovation and rehabilitation as the historically downtrodden Mustangs. Expect this to be the year that all the construction pays off.

11. Wichita State

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    Wichita State, like Oklahoma, boasts a superb guard trio and must replace a star forward. Unlike the Sooners, the Shockers don't have to navigate the brutal Big 12, so we can expect their offensive efficiency numbers to look a bit stronger than OU's.

    Point guard Fred VanVleet (pictured) will be an All-American dark horse with slight improvements from last year. He's very capable of shooting 50 percent from the floor, 40 from three and 85 from the foul line. Last season's 5.4 assists per game may be harder to equal without stud finisher Cleanthony Early around to convert some of those passes, but a higher-scoring VanVleet would register on anyone's radar.

    Fellow guards Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton are similarly dangerous on either end of the court. Both can drop dimes or drop buckets just as well as VanVleet, and defenses have a difficult time determining who's setting up who on any particular play.

    Beyond that dynamic trio, however, Shocker coach Gregg Marshall will spend this season earning the fat money other schools were dangling in front of him. Senior forward Darius Carter will likely inherit the team's primary rebounding burden, and junior guard Evan Wessel will see more minutes of making the hustle plays that may not get ticked off on a stat sheet.

    Beyond the above five, however, there is absolutely no Division I experience. Forward Tevin Glass was a 55 percent shooter at Northwest Florida State JC, but he'll need to bulk up if he wants to attack the glass with Early's ferocity. Redshirt freshman Shaquille Morris could see substantial minutes at center, making good use of his 260-pound frame.

    True freshman forward Zach Brown could be the top scorer among the newcomers, while his 6'10" prep school teammate Rauno Nurger could see post minutes.

    All these new faces will need help adapting to Division I ball, and who better to make green youngsters look good than a trio of veteran guards?

10. Louisville

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    Without the frenetic presence of guard Russ Smith, one would expect Louisville's offense to take a step back this season. That may very well be the case, but there's still a superstar in residence at the KFC Yum! Center.

    Forward Montrezl Harrell (pictured) could have gone to the NBA draft and been a very high selection, but one more good season at Louisville may put him in the top 10. Harrell produced more than 14 points and eight boards a game, shooting 60 percent from the floor. The new Cardinal backcourt would do well to make sure the offense runs through him as much as possible, especially if he improves his foul shooting.

    That backcourt, consisting of senior Chris Jones and sophomore Terry Rozier, could be a wild card for the Cards. Both players struggled to shoot 40 percent last season, well short of the reliable Smith. Jones and Rozier each hit about 37 percent from deep but weren't as productive on drives to the tin. If one or both can make defenses respect their penetration, they'll get a lot of easy assists on drop-offs to Harrell.

    Guard Wayne Blackshear is in danger of seeing his career pass into obscurity, as he's made little of the impact that would be expected of a McDonald's All-American. Center Mangok Mathiang isn't much of an offensive threat yet, so much of the rest of the team's scoring will have to come from unproven underclassmen.

    Wing Shaqquan Aaron could crack the starting five immediately, while point guard Quentin Snider and power forward Jaylen Johnson should contribute off the bench. Sophomore guard Anton Gill will be itching to contribute after playing only 5.7 minutes per game last year.

9. Kansas

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    Kansas' offense will likely turn out better than some of those standing ahead of it on this list, but those others have veteran point guards. KU lost the occasionally erratic Naadir Tharpe, and his replacements will have work to do.

    Sophomores Frank Mason and Conner Frankamp have a fight on their hands from freshman Devonte Graham, who became a major story when Appalachian State attempted to enforce his prior commitment for more than a year. Graham is the best athlete of the three, but Mason played well early in the regular season and Frankamp showed up well in the NCAA tournament.

    Whichever floor general takes over the lead role, he'll have weapons surrounding him. A more aggressive Wayne Selden (pictured) could flash All-American potential in his sophomore season now that he's not deferring to Andrew Wiggins and burdened by a balky knee. The knee required arthroscopic surgery, and B/R's C.J. Moore reports that Selden appears ready and willing to take over as the new leading man.

    Supporting Selden on the wing are sophomore Brannen Greene, a high school sniper who struggled on both ends in the college game, and freshman Kelly Oubre. Oubre can score from anywhere in the offensive half, and he's a much more willing alpha male than the departed Wiggins.

    There's a great assortment of power forwards in Lawrence, but no true center. That's fine, though, when the big men are as talented as junior Perry Ellis and freshman Cliff Alexander. Ellis put up 13.5 PPG, flashing a solid mid-range game and capably finishing in the post.

    Alexander claimed three-point range in an interview with the Kansas City Star's Rustin Dodd, but coach Bill Self will be perfectly content to see him spend most of his time brutalizing opponents in the post.

    Expected reserves Jamari Traylor, Hunter Mickelson and Landen Lucas will provide toughness in spades. All three are capable rebounders and rim protectors, even if none is likely to score 20 points in any game soon.

    This offense has a multitude of high-performance parts, but it won't get maximum mileage unless Self finds a point guard who can drive the thing.

8. Florida

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    Florida will be a much younger team this season than last, but it will also be a much more talented team overall. Gone are four seniors, in come three top-50 freshmen and a Rutgers transfer whose health should finally allow him to see substantial action.

    But let's start with the guys that are back first.

    Sophomore Kasey Hill (pictured) had a year of learning the point guard position from SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin, and now he gets to put those lessons to use. Hill started six games, but his best performance of the season may have come off the bench in the NCAA tournament. He put up six points, six rebounds and a career-high 10 assists in a Sweet 16 victory over UCLA.

    Junior guard Michael Frazier is only one of the deadliest three-point shooters in America. He drained more than four triples per game, including an absurd 11 against South Carolina. He could stand to expand his repertoire a bit, but his shot is too good to leave on the bench for any length of time.

    The most important returnees may be up front. Forward Dorian Finney-Smith must improve his 37 percent shooting or else provide another season of solid offensive rebounding (2.5 per game last year).

    Meanwhile, sophomore Chris Walker is expected to explode after a debut lost to eligibility issues. The 6'10" Walker has bulked up to 220 pounds, which will help him hold his ground when playing with his back to the basket. Failing that, he needs some improvement on his mid-range shot to support his spectacular athletic ability.

    The new guys are an impressive group. Memphis point guard Chris Chiozza will test Hill from day one. Shooting guard Brandone Francis is a highly versatile scorer who will put defenses on their heels after they get used to simply shadowing Frazier at the arc. Rutgers transfer Eli Carter saw slight minutes last year before his nagging broken leg shut him down. He averaged 14.3 PPG in two seasons at RU.

    Small forward Devin Robinson may start immediately next to Finney-Smith and Walker up front. He's another spectacular athlete who will crush opponents that allow the Gators to get out in transition.

    The Gators should do just that on a regular basis this season after ranking 325th in tempo, per Pomeroy. There's simply too much speed and quickness on this roster to be shackled with methodical half-court sets.

7. North Carolina

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    The North Carolina Tar Heels may see some addition by subtraction in their offense this season. Gone is forward James Michael McAdoo, who was never quite skilled enough to play away from the basket or tough enough to play at it. Also departed is guard Leslie McDonald, who was supposed to provide perimeter support but could only shoot 31 percent from deep after finally getting past NCAA issues.

    This season's Tar Heels may start out slowly as a talented freshman class acclimates and returnees like forward Brice Johnson (pictured) grow into bigger roles. One thing the offense can rely on, though, is the production of junior combo guard Marcus Paige.

    Paige more than doubled his scoring average from his freshman to his sophomore season (8.2 to 17.5) and added almost 10 points to his field-goal percentage. It's unlikely he's got another major numbers hike in him, but if the young perimeter talent adapts, he won't have to carry UNC as he often did last season.

    Freshman point guard Joel Berry will learn quickly from shadowing Paige and Nate Britt in practice, and he's likely to surpass the shooting-deficient Britt very early.

    Wings Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson will also see immediate minutes, and Jackson could start immediately alongside Paige if he proves capable of sliding into the backcourt. Jackson is a special shooter who should be able to support Paige the way McDonald ultimately could not. Pinson is more of a defensive stopper, but he can get to the rim against nearly anyone.

    Up front, Johnson should be ready for full-time minutes, even if his frame still isn't a true power forward's. The 210-pounder was able to put up a combined 47 points and 23 rebounds in UNC's first three postseason games before an injury knocked him out against Iowa State.

    Like Johnson, sophomore center Kennedy Meeks can be a star if he manages his weight. If the two could trade pounds, Meeks handing Johnson about 20 or 30 would be a win-win deal. Both are strong offensive rebounders and skilled post players, but both are being held back by their weights for different reasons.

    Expect UNC to keep the pedal down, but rapid improvement from returnees and newcomers alike will be needed to make a Final Four run.

6. Arizona

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    Arizona's offense was solid last season, but its defense was spectacular, ranking No. 1 in the country, per Pomeroy. Two of the major keys to that defense, forward Aaron Gordon and guard Nick Johnson, are off to the NBA. UA should still be able to stifle opponents, but a few extra points on the offensive end won't hurt.

    Point guard T.J. McConnell (pictured) finished third in the Pac-12 in assists at 5.3 per game. He should approach that average again, even as he breaks in a new sidekick. Elite freshman Stanley Johnson and national Junior College Player of the Year Kadeem Allen (25.9 PPG at Hutchinson CC) will compete to be that shooting guard. Whoever can generate better offense in the halfcourt should come out ahead.

    If Johnson doesn't start at the 2, he should find a home at small forward. He's a powerfully built wing who'll need to show that he can produce with finesse as much as strength. Sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is also in the mix for a starting spot. He's known more for his defense and rebounding than his offense, but he did average 14 points per game in the NCAA tournament.

    Forward Brandon Ashley was providing a very capable third offensive option before he tore a ligament in his foot against Cal. If he returns at 100 percent, he's a dangerous scorer in the mid-range and post, as well as a potent offensive rebounder.

    Speaking of the post, center Kaleb Tarczewski made substantial offensive improvement as a sophomore, finishing just one basket shy of an even 10-PPG average. He's still not likely to be a primary option with a healthy Ashley and a successful Johnson, but he should card a fair number of double-doubles and make a decent living on the offensive glass.

    Freshman forward Craig Victor is a lunch pail player who'll see spot minutes but is capable of scoring multiple baskets in short time. Returning shooters Gabe York and Elliott Pitts should also see occasional minutes, and they'll need to spread the floor when they can, as McConnell is still the team's only proven deep threat.

5. Gonzaga

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    Gonzaga, like an Iowa State, Oregon or Florida, is becoming a favorite destination for transfers. Two players imported from other D-I programs will quickly become key pieces of the Bulldog offense, fitting in well next to an established veteran backcourt.

    Former USC wing Byron Wesley averaged a superb 17.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game last season. At 6'5", his size and athletic ability will allow him to guard an opponent's primary perimeter threat better than shorter senior guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell can. Wesley shot nearly 40 percent from long range as a sophomore in '12-'13, so he's not one that a defense can sag away from, either.

    Speaking of sharpshooters, ex-Kentucky forward Kyle Wiltjer sank 38.6 percent of his three-pointers over two seasons. He's 6'10" and about 240 pounds, but don't expect him to be Kelly Olynyk 2.0. Wiltjer's still not likely to spend much time in the post. His face-up game should balance out the frontcourt with the paint-bound Pole Przemek Karnowski.

    Among the returnees, Pangos and Bell have been starters since they arrived in Spokane. Pangos could conceivably pass Zag icons like Matt Santangelo and Adam Morrison to move as high as third on the school's all-time scoring list. Bell's scoring is more likely to suffer with all the other options on hand, but look for him to assert himself on the opposite end.

    GU should utilize a very potent four-out offense, as the next best option inside is likely to be 6'10" Lithuanian import Domantas Sabonis. Sabonis may be most potent on face-up drives, as he's still only carrying about 220 pounds on that frame and he's not a great jump shooter yet.

    Gonzaga is still playing a whole different game than their West Coast Conference brethren. Its comparisons are more national in scope, and the offense should stand up well against anyone.

4. Iowa State

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    Most programs that lose a pair of studs like Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane curl up into a ball and mutter about "rebuilding." Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg has been among the kings of the alternative method, "reloading," ever since he arrived in Ames.

    Transfers are always part of the dynamic at ISU, but any analysis has to start with returnees Georges Niang, Dustin Hogue and Monte Morris (pictured). Working alongside Kane in a versatile backcourt, Morris posted a no-that's-not-a-typo 4.8 assist-turnover ratio. As the newly minted primary ball-handler, look for him to contend for a Big 12 assist crown.

    Forwards Niang and Hogue aren't huge in stature, but their skill sets are enormous. Niang has one of the nation's broadest arrays of ball fakes and finishing moves. He could contend for the league scoring title if he was ISU's sole weapon. Hogue could do the same, especially if he picks up where his postseason17.7 PPG in the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments, including 34 in the NCAA loss to UConnleaves off.

    Both forwards like to operate in the lane, but their three-point strokes are just effective enough33 percent combined last seasonto make defenders follow them all over the court.

    Speaking of three-point strokes, one of the nation's most prolific bombing teams is still equipped to fire at will. The Cyclones return guards Matt Thomas and Naz Long, who combined for three makes per game and a 37 percent success rate. Add in UNLV transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones, who proved himself much more versatile than his freshman year at USC would have suggested, and ISU's guards must still be respected.

    Northern Illinois transfer Abdel Nader will see plenty of minutes if he can improve his shooting consistency. He shot an ugly 33.7 percent from the floor over his first two seasons. Juco transfer Jameel McKaya former Marquette recruitwill be eligible in December. An athletic rim protector on defense, McKay should be a terror on the fast break as well.

    ISU should still be able to run and gun with the best that the Big 12 has to offer.

3. Wisconsin

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    In a Big Ten Conference experiencing major talent turnover, Wisconsin enters the season as a prohibitive favorite because it packs more experience into its top six than any other program. The returning Badgers were part of coach Bo Ryan's most effective offense since he arrived in Madison, and another year together could see the Badgers once again rub shoulders with the nation's elite.

    Sharpshooter Ben Brust will be missed, but it's not like he took UW's entire perimeter game with him. Guards Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser were just as reliable as Brust from long range, simply not as prolific. Expect Gasser, a career 40 percent shooter, to see a particular uptick in shot attempts.

    Then there's the nation's newest college basketball icon, Frank the Tank. Center Frank Kaminsky (pictured) sank nearly 38 percent of his triples as a junior, putting together a season that will position him as an All-American favorite if he can repeat it this year. There may be no more skilled big man in the college game today.

    If former blue-chip recruit Sam Dekker can rediscover his three-point stroke, perhaps Brust won't be missed so much at all. Dekker made only seven of 27 triples over UW's final 10 games.

    Jackson's four assists per game ranked fifth in the Big Ten. As a senior, expect to see him at his most aggressive, driving the lane with abandon. He sank 87 percent of his foul shots in the NCAA tournament, including nine of 11 against Oregon.

    When Kaminsky's taking his sojourns to the arc, sophomore forward Nigel Hayes will be free to hold down the post. Either he or classmate Bronson Koenig will assume the fifth starting spot, depending on what Ryan's looking for from a particular matchup. Koenig broke out in the Final Four against Kentucky, and he'll get a chance to carve out his own share of the shots Brust vacated.

    Freshman forward Ethan Happ should see good minutes in relief of...well, nearly anyone. He's played point guard for his AAU team, and he averaged 15 RPG for his high school. He could see time anywhere but center.

    The Badgers are still a versatile and potent offensive unit, and we shouldn't be surprised if this group can stitch together another deep tournament run.

2. Duke

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    One-and-done talents haven't gotten Duke very far in the NCAA tournament recently, but it doesn't stop coach Mike Krzyzewski from racking up elite recruits. The new hope is that center Jahlil Okafor (pictured) can succeed in March where Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker failed.

    Okafor will instantly allow Duke to expand the offense into the low post, a place from which it couldn't consistently produce last season. The Chicago native has drawn comparisons to Tim Duncan for his array of scoring techniques.

    The next question regards who'll be setting Okafor up. Minnesota point guard Tyus Jones joined Duke as a package deal with his good buddy from Chi-town. Jones is one of the top point guards in the 2014 class, and he could very well turn out to be Duke's best true distributor since Bobby Hurley. But first, he's got to hold off senior Quinn Cook or possibly junior Rasheed Sulaimon.

    Sulaimon proved himself capable of handling the offense late last season when Cook's defensive deficiencies cost him his starting role. Cook could be best suited to a relief role where he can indulge his desire to be a volume shooter. Only expected NBA draft picks Parker and Rodney Hood threw up more shots than Cook did last year.

    Forward Amile Jefferson should keep possessions alive with his skills on the offensive glass. Aside from the likes of Cook and Sulaimon, freshman wings Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen should be capable of converting some of Jefferson and Okafor's kickouts to the arc.

    There's no true all-purpose offensive force like Parker on this season's Duke squad. Winslow may be the closest thing, but his defense will be his calling card this season.

    Instead, the Blue Devils have a ton of players who can perform capably in their roles. They may be better off for it.

1. Kentucky

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    And we thought John Calipari loaded for bear (and Jayhawk, Blue Devil, Spartan, etc.) last season. This year's Kentucky Wildcats are partially borne out of disappointing seasons by their sophomore class, but there's always an upside to players staying a year longer than they expect.

    For example, they get joined by another crop of dominant talents.

    The Harrison twins were expected to contend for All-American honors last year, but it wasn't until the postseason that Andrew (pictured) figured out how to truly play like a point guard and brother Aaron was able to straighten out his shot. If both carry their NCAA regional formboth struggled a bit at the Final Fourinto this year, they could be one of the nation's finest backcourt duos.

    The low post is in good hands with center duo Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson being joined by power forward Trey Lyles. Lyles will take over the position vacated by All-American Julius Randle, but they're far from the same player. Lyles' array of post moves is very different from Randle's wrecking-ball physicality and athleticism. If he sees full-time minutes, Lyles could equal Randle's national honors.

    Then there's 7-footer Karl Towns. He's a three-point gunner in a low-post banger's body. Towns could leave a lot of poor forwards stranded on an island with Lyles while he drags opposing centers around the arc.

    Guards Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker would be instant starters anywhere else in America, and both are capable of playing at an all-conference level to say the least. As it is, the 6'5" Booker and 5'10" Ulis will content themselves with learning from the Harrisons in practice.

    Booker could slide into a three-guard lineup if Calipari decides that junior Alex Poythress is better suited as a sixth man. Poythress is the first McDonald's All-American to stay for a third year under Calipari because he desperately needs to find an identity. Can he shoot from the outside like a wing or battle in the post like a 4? Until he answers that question, he's a major enigma.

    Kentucky was No. 1 entering last season on the strength of a group of swaggering freshmen. It will echo said ranking this year. The scary part is that a group of humbled, hungry sophomores and their intended replacements may form an even more dangerous unit.