- Kentucky 2. Louisville 3. Michigan State 4. Kansas 5. Duke 6. Florida 7. Arizona 8. North Carolina 9. Ohio State 10. Oklahoma State 11. Syracuse 12. Michigan 13. VCU 14. Wisconsin 15. Memphis 16. Oregon 17. UCLA 18. Gonzaga 19. Marquette 20. Tennessee 21. Notre Dame 22. Indiana 23. Connecticut 24. Wichita State 25. Creighton
Fans, take note: The Kentucky Wildcats this year will welcome what is arguably the best recruiting class in the history of college basketball. A record six McDonald’s All Americans enrolled at the University of Kentucky this fall, among them future NBA draft lottery picks Julius Randle and twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison. Kentucky has potential professionals at every position—and more than one at some positions. All this puts coach John Calipari in a fascinating situation: managing a squad full of unproven freshmen who will begin the season at number one in our rankings. Calipari is coming off a humbling campaign from last winter, a disastrous run from tip-off to the final whistle, ending in a loss in the National Invitation Tournament opener to Robert Morris. (Robert Morris? Really?) Can the Wildcats reclaim the championship laurels with a lineup of stars, many of whom have never played a minute of college ball? A starting lineup that doesn’t feature a single upperclassman? That’s one intriguing question heading into this season. Here are 10 others…
The Jayhawks’ Andrew Wiggins is the most celebrated freshman prospect since Greg Oden and Kevin Durant and probably the best high school prospect since LeBron James. His late commitment to Kansas took the Hawks from a borderline top-15 team to a legitimate title contender. And though nobody debates Wiggins’s long-term potential, it’s fair to wonder whether his talents will translate to college quickly enough to keep the critics silenced. Wiggins will probably play only 35 to 40 college games. Can he be great from the start, or will chants of “overrated” greet him in every arena? For the record, the prediction here is stardom.
Guard Michael Dixon was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2012. But the Kansas City native was shown the door after a second sexual assault accusation. That’s when fifth-year Memphis coach Josh Pastner entered the picture. After several months of research, he found peace in the fact that Dixon was never charged in either case and offered him a place on the team. Memphis then applied for a waiver that would allow Dixon to play immediately; the NCAA granted it. Now the Tigers will have four senior guards who have averaged double figures in scoring at the Division I level. That’s why Pastner is suddenly positioned to make his first Sweet 16.
DraftExpress.com projects that six freshmen—Arizona’s Aaron Gordon, Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kansas’s Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, and Kentucky’s Julius Randle and Andrew Harrison—will be among the first eight picks in the 2014 NBA draft. Florida’s Chris Walker, Indiana’s Noah Vonleh, Kansas’s Wayne Selden, Kentucky’s James Young, Dakari Johnson and Aaron Harrison, LSU’s Jarell Martin and Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis are some other freshmen who could jet to the NBA after this season. Enjoy them while you can.
Wichita State last season became the fourth nontraditional team to appear in the Final Four in the past eight years, joining George Mason (2006), VCU (2011) and Butler (2010 and 2011). It’s not all that surprising anymore, and it shouldn’t shock fans if it happens this season. If it does, we put our money on VCU, helmed by the hottest young coach in the country, Shaka Smart. He has a roster built to do serious damage in March, otherwise known as the month when Smart annually rejects contracts from bigger and richer schools.
No player was more polarizing last season than Marshall Henderson—the sharpshooting, jersey-popping, trash-talking guard who led Ole Miss to an SEC tournament title and a victory in the NCAA tournament. Some folks loved him. Others despised him. Either way, Henderson created a lot of headlines, and his off-season was anything but boring: The senior guard was suspended for failing multiple drug tests. But Henderson will remain a part of the Ole Miss program this season, which means things will stay interesting in Oxford, one way or another.
The decision of shooting guard Russ Smith (right) to return for his senior year was a huge boost to Rick Pitino’s program, and all the pieces appear to be in place for Louisville to compete for another national championship. The only real question is whether Chris Jones—the reigning national junior college player of the year—can fill the shoes of Peyton Siva, drafted by the Detroit Pistons. Jones is undoubtedly talented enough, but there are few guarantees when starting a new point guard. Keep an eye on him; he’ll likely determine how good Louisville can be.
Butler, a small Indianapolis school with back-to-back runs to the Final Four, proved to be one of the nation’s most exciting programs in recent years. Moving from the Atlantic 10 to the Big East, however, put the school in a shark tank of competition. And boy, did coach Brad Stevens’s surprising departure to the Celtics make things harder. Butler’s new coach is Brandon Miller, and he’s a sharp guy. But he’s not Brad Stevens. The Bulldogs also lost their leading returning scorer and rebounder (Roosevelt Jones) to an off-season injury. Last in the Big East isn’t out of the question.
Doug McDermott has been nothing short of spectacular through three seasons at Creighton. The six-foot-eight forward is averaging 20.1 points and 7.7 rebounds for his career while shooting 56 percent from the field and 46.4 percent from three-point range. But Creighton is now in the Big East—which means McDermott is now in the Big East. Fans are eager to see whether his gaudy stats will translate to a bigger stage where better competition awaits.
No team lost two players who meant as much as Cody Zeller (left) and Victor Oladipo meant to Indiana. They combined to average 30.1 points and 14.4 rebounds last season. Both were All Americans. Both were top-five picks in the 2013 NBA draft. And now Indiana has to compete in the Big Ten without them, which should be challenging—especially considering Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls, the Hoosiers’ third- and fourth-leading scorers, are also no longer in the program. Can Indiana live up to the success the fans in Bloomington demand?
It seems reasonable to end where we started—with a big question mark hanging over Kentucky’s Rupp Arena. As you can see from the Wildcats’ preseason ranking here, our prediction is for greatness. But it will still be wild to watch John Calipari guide the most heavily anticipated freshman class of all time. Will the Harrison twins work well with others? Will Julius Randle bring the tenacity UK lacked last season? Will seven-foot sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein emerge a legitimate star? Let’s answer those questions with a yes, a yes and a yes. And if those turn out to be the correct answers, rest assured Kentucky will be national champion for the second time in three years.
MARCUS SMART Oklahoma State, sophomore, 6'4", 220 pounds • Smart returned to school despite the likelihood of his having gone in the top five of the NBA draft. He possesses the best combo of leadership and talent in the nation.
RUSS SMITH Louisville, senior, 6'1", 165 pounds • Smith was the main reason the Cardinals won the national championship last season. The sometimes out-of-control guard averaged 18.7 points per game, helping the team finish on a 16-game winning streak.
AARON CRAFT Ohio State, senior, 6'2", 190 pounds • Craft is widely regarded as the best perimeter defender in college basketball. As a three-year starter, he has led the Buckeyes to a Sweet 16 (2011), an Elite Eight (2013) and the Final Four (2012).
GARY HARRIS Michigan State, sophomore, 6'4", 205 pounds • Despite nagging injuries, Harris was terrific as a freshman, averaging 12.9 points while leading the Spartans to the Sweet 16. FORWARDS
ANDREW WIGGINS Kansas, freshman, 6'8", 200 pounds • Barring a major surprise, Wiggins will be the top pick of the 2014 NBA draft. His overwhelming presence could lift Kansas coach Bill Self to his second national title in seven seasons.
DOUG MCDERMOTT Creighton, senior, 6'8", 225 pounds • McDermott has gone from a mid-major recruit to one of the best players in the country. He averaged 23.2 points per game last season while shooting 49 percent from three-point range.
JABARI PARKER Duke, freshman, 6'8", 235 pounds • As a high school star last year, Parker made the cover of Sports Illustrated. He’s the latest great prospect out of Chicago, specifically the same high school where Bulls star Derrick Rose once played.
JULIUS RANDLE Kentucky, freshman, 6'9", 250 pounds • The tough, skilled McDonald’s All American is projected to go immediately after Wiggins in the 2014 NBA draft—if he performs as a freshman this season. CENTERS
MITCH MCGARY Michigan, sophomore, 6'10", 255 pounds • McGary started slowly last season but developed into one of the main reasons for the Wolverines’ run to the national title game. He averaged 14.3 points and 10.7 rebounds in the NCAA tournament.
WILLIE CAULEY-STEIN Kentucky, sophomore, 7’, 244 pounds • Cauley-Stein could have been a lottery pick after one season if he had entered the NBA draft, despite averaging just 8.3 points per game. He’s one of three centers on the Wildcats’ roster likely to play at the next level someday. COACH
RICK PITINO Louisville • The only coach ever to lead three different programs to the Final Four, Pitino will be fascinating to watch this season. Can the defending-champion Cardinals repeat?