By Mike Tanier and Matt Brown
The center of the college basketball universe is easy to find this year. It’s not on Tobacco Road, despite the emergence of N.C. State as a national player. Instead, it lies in another historically great basketball expanse, stretching from Bloomington, Ind., down to Louisville and over to Lexington, Ky. Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky: three teams, 32 Final Four appearances and 15 champions between them, all fewer than 200 miles apart, ranked 1-2-3 by just about everyone. Throw in Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin from a loaded Big Ten and Notre Dame from the Big East, and you don't have to stray far to find great basketball that makes up a good chunk of Sports on Earth’s Preseason Top 25.
1. Indiana Hoosiers
The Skinny: The Hoosiers are back from NCAA sanctionicide and nearly two decades of irrelevance, and center Cody Zeller has an “Insert Naismith Trophy Here” Post-It sticking on the wall of his trophy case. But Tom Crean’s team has more to offer than just a big man and Hoosier Pride. Senior Christian Watford gives the team an inside-outside scoring threat and effective rebounder; fellow senior Jordan Hulls is a dangerous catch-and-shoot presence on the perimeter. An experienced lineup full of returning starters will help the Hoosiers through a brutal Big Ten schedule and an early test against North Carolina on Nov. 27.
What to Look For: Former Crean recruit Dwyane Wade challenged guards Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey to improve their ball handling after last season, and both reportedly made great strides in the offseason. Zeller, meanwhile, has been working on his shooting range, so defenses will not be able to collapse on him. Throw in Watford’s versatility and Hulls’ threes, and the Hoosiers will have the most versatile offense in the nation.
2. Louisville Cardinals
The Skinny: After floundering through the final weeks of last regular season, the Cardinals got hot, won the Big East tournament, and made it all the way to the Final Four before losing to archrival Kentucky (rematch coming Dec. 29). The troubles of last February are ancient history, particularly on defense, where they’re suffocating in the post with Gorgui Dieng and on the perimeter with Russ Smith.
What to Look for: The Cardinals struggled offensively last year, scoring under 60 points in five of their last six regular-season games in a dreadful stretch, but there’s plenty of reason for hope -- or, rather, enormous expectations. Point guard Peyton Siva has gotten smarter as a distributor, trying to model his game off Steve Nash, and the offense could get a nice a spark thanks to the addition 6-foot-5 swing man Luke Hancock, a transfer who averaged double figures for George Mason and gives Rick Pitino a versatile weapon with an outside shot. Throw in forward Chane Behanan (9.5 points per game, 7.5 rebounds per game), and the Cardinals don’t have a weak link. They’re deep and experienced.
3. Kentucky Wildcats
The Skinny: The national championship gives, and it takes away. John Calipari lost six players to the NBA, including Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the top two picks in this summer’s draft. The most experienced regular returnee is Kyle Wiltjer, a big body off the bench with a perimeter offensive game. Calipari always has an outstanding recruiting class in the wings, of course, and this year’s top newcomers include forward/center Nerlens Noel, slashing swing forward Alex Poythress and N.C. State transfer Ryan Harrow at point guard.
What to Look For: No team has more potential to stumble out of the gate than the Wildcats, who face Maryland on Friday and Duke next week as part of a brutal early slate of tipoff “classics.” Noel is a 6-foot-10 specimen who is still growing into his frame and has an offensive game build around dunks and put-backs. Poythress has size, speed and a jumper, but is a player without a position on defense. There are no experienced big bodies or ball handlers (besides Harrow, a redshirt sophomore) to turn to when the schedule becomes a grind in mid-winter. Kentucky is ranked in the top five by many experts based on potential and the Trust Calipari factor. The youngsters may be all grown up come March, but they may also be broken down.
4. North Carolina State Wolfpack
The Skinny: The little brother of Tobacco Road may finally be the team everyone’s gunning for this year. The Wolfpack made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006, reaching the Sweet 16, and they’re ranked in the top 10 of the preseason AP poll for the first time since they opened the season No. 1 in 1974-75. Everyone will be anxiously awaiting their ACC matchups with Duke and North Carolina, but a lot may be learned on the Nov. 27 trip to Michigan.
What to Look for: N.C. State returns four players who averaged double figures last year, led by junior forward C.J. Leslie, who broke out in the first year under coach Mark Gottfried. Not only do the Wolfpack have Leslie, but they surround him with guards Lorenzo Brown (6.3 assists per game) and Scott Wood (40.9 percent three-point shooter), forward Richard Howell (9.2 rebounds per game) and one of the best freshmen classes in the country, led by swing man Rodney Purvis. This is one of the most talented teams in the country, so now we just wait to see how Gottfried puts all the pieces together.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes
The Skinny: Few players boast an all-around game like Aaron Craft, the Buckeyes’ heady point guard who shot 50 percent from the field last year and plays lockdown defense. Between Craft and 6-foot-7 forward Deshaun Thomas (15.9 points per game), the Buckeyes have one of the best one-two punches in the nation after making the Final Four last year.
What to Look for: How does Ohio State replace Jared Sullinger? Getting back to the Final Four won’t be easy without Sullinger and William Buford, especially given how strong the Big Ten is, and we’ll get a couple good looks at just how good the Buckeyes before the New Year, as they play both Duke and Kansas. They’ll lean on Craft to become more of a scorer than he has needed to be in the past, and hope that veteran Lenzelle Smith can increase his offensive output on the outside and Amir Williams can become a more consistent threat in the post.
6. Duke Blue Devils
The Skinny: You may remember Duke from such losses as last year’s NCAA tournament opener against Lehigh. Never has the word “Schadenfreude” been published more frequently in the history of the world. But, this being Duke, it’s highly probable that the Blue Devils will bounce back easily, thanks to the talented big-man duo of Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly, and the outside shooting of Seth Curry.
What to Look for: The search continues for a reliable point guard between Tyler Thornton and Quinn Cook, but that appears to be Duke’s only glaring weakness. The Blue Devils will add some size to the wing in McDonald’s All-American Rasheed Sulaimon, a 6-foot-4 guard who can play aggressive defense and will replace Austin Rivers. They’ll play in two of the biggest nonconference games of the season before this month is over (Nov. 13 vs. Kentucky, Nov. 28 vs. Ohio State), and then get ready to battle rivals N.C. State and North Carolina for the ACC crown.
7. Michigan Wolverines
The Skinny: The Wolverines have a case of sequelitis. Tim Hardaway Jr. and top frosh prospect Glenn Robinson III give the team name recognition, while Robinson leads a freshman class (along with Mitch McGary and others) good enough to suggest a Fab Five reboot. Robinson’s nickname is “Tre,” which may cause confusion when the team’s most important returnee is Trey Burke, one of the best back court players in the nation. Of course, when a team is coming off a Big Ten title, a sequel isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
What to Look For: Tre Robinson is a littler dog than his Big Dog father, and his game is different: He is more of an up-tempo slasher than a post-up player. But he shares the Big Dog’s tenaciousness on the glass and knack for the highlight dunk. With Hardaway and Robinson at the 2-3 positions and Burke running the show, the Wolverines can dominate most opponents athletically. Hardaway must not become addicted to the three, however, as he had a lot of 2-for-7 and 0-for-6 performances on his resume in Michigan losses last season.
8. Kansas Jayhawks
The Skinny: Senior guards Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford, with center Jeff Withey, make the Jayhawks odds-on favorites to win the Big 12. Johnson is among the nation’s best all-purpose guards. He can hit the jumper, drive, or pass out of trouble on offense, and he’s a strong rebounder and thief (55 steals last year) on defense. Releford has three-point range and excels at crashing the boards. Withey is a shot blocking machine who does just enough on offense. To return to the Final Four, Bill Self needs big performances from redshirt Ben McLemore and freshmen Perry Ellis (forward) and Andrew White (guard).
What to Look For: The seniors will do what they do best, so it is up to the newcomers to replace Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor, who combined for 34.3 points and 14.2 rebounds per game last year. McLemore missed his freshman year for academic reasons but was a top recruit with outstanding shooting range. Ellis is a 6-foot-8 slasher expected to shine in transition. White is a scrapper. If the newcomers fill their roles, Johnson and Withey will be able to step up and (nearly) match Robinson and Taylor’s production.
9. Florida Gators
The Skinny: The Gators have made back-to-back Elite 8 appearances, last year on the strength of three-point shooting. Florida led the nation with 9.6 made three-pointers per game, and look for more of the same out of guard Kenny Boynton and 6-foot-10 forward Erik Murphy, who both made more than 40 percent of their three-point attempts.
What to Look for: While the Gators can still shoot, they lost two major contributors on the outside in guards Bradley Beal and Erving Walker. That means increased dependence on the inside and center Patric Young, a junior who averaged 10.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per game last year. A talented, physical player, Young has plenty of room to grow offensively and could develop into a force on the blocks if he harnesses his raw ability and strength. Guard play is a concern, but the Gators have talented pieces and one of the best coaches in college basketball in Billy Donovan. They’ll be tested plenty before January, facing Georgetown and Wisconsin in their first three games and also playing Florida State, Arizona and Kansas State in nonconference play.
10. UNLV Runnin’ Rebels
The Skinny: The Rebels have reached three straight NCAA tournaments but lost in their first game each year. Now’s the time to turn that trend around under head coach Dave Rice, who followed a great first year by hauling in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, led by versatile forward Anthony Bennett, who will make an immediate impact teaming with former UCLA transfer Mike Moser, an athletic post player who averaged a double-double and is an All-America candidate.
What to Look for: Not only do the Rebels have impact freshmen to go along with veterans Moser and guard Anthony Marshall, but they’ll also be bolstered by two key transfers. First, there’s 6-foot-5 guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, who scored 7.6 points per game for USC as a freshman. Then there’s Pitt transfer Khem Birch, a 6-foot-9 forward, a five-star recruit who will be eligible after the fall semester after an unceremonious exit from Pitt a year ago. The Rebels are full of newcomers, but with Moser as the centerpiece, this team could go deep into March.
11. Syracuse Orange
The Skinny: The Orange lost Kris Joseph, Dion Watters and Big East Defensive Player of the Year Fab Melo, but they bring back shooting guard Brandon Triche and forwards C.J. Fair and James Southerland. The key new starter will be 6-foot-6 sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who was lost in the crowd last year but could prove to be a matchup nightmare this season.
What to Look For: Get ready for old-fashioned Big East basketball, with crowded halfcourts, sharp elbows, and contested shots along the perimeter. Triche and Carter-Williams form a tall front court that will be hard to drive through or shoot over, and the Orange have ample depth in the backcourt, with Rakeem Christmas as a solid thumper off the bench and star freshman DaJuan Coleman (no relation to Derrick, please stop asking) as the X-factor. This weekend’s matchup on the aircraft carrier against San Diego State will give us an early indication if the Orange has enough firepower on offense.
12. North Carolina Tar Heels
The Skinny: After losing four major contributors from last year to the NBA, the Tar Heels feel the need for speed. The team is incredibly deep with frontcourt players who can handle the ball and shoot: senior Dexter Strickland, sophomore P.J. Hairston, true frosh Marcus Paige and junior swing man Reggie Bullock, plus junior Leslie McDonald, who was hurt for all of last season. The man in the middle will be James Michael McAdoo, a smallish big man (6-foot-9) with great quickness and surprising power. The Tar Heels won’t be as half-court oriented as they were with John Henson and Tyler Zeller down low, but they have the talent to be deadly in transition.
What to Look for: Paige is the favorite to replace Kendall Marshall at point guard, and he arrives from AAU ball with a “crafty lefty” label. He has an outstanding basketball IQ, identifies open teammates on cutters and fast breaks, and has enough of a jumper to keep defenders honest. He also takes care of the ball. If Paige is as good as advertised, Strickland can play off the ball and slash, giving the Tar Heels two multi-purpose threats on the perimeter, plus plenty of good jump shooters and a potential post-up handful in McAdoo. That kind of quickness and firepower could lead to some upsets in the ACC.
13. San Diego State Aztecs
The Skinny: The momentum Steve Fisher has built -- seven straight 20-win seasons, three straight NCAA tournament appearances -- is about to hit a bit of a wall when the Aztecs move down to the Big West next year (as their football team moves to the Big East). So this season is all about going out on a high note, which means a potentially exciting Mountain West battle with UNLV. Before that, the Aztecs get two huge nonconference tests, opening with Syracuse on an aircraft carrier on Friday and facing UCLA in Anaheim Dec. 1.
What to Look for: The Aztecs are loaded, led by Mountain West Player of the Year Jamaal Franklin, a 6-foot-5 guard who averaged 17.4 points and 7.9 rebounds per game last year. The Aztecs’ backcourt is one of the deepest and most talented in the country, with Chase Tapley an effective three-pointer shooter and defender, Xavier Thames a solid distributor and James Rahon another weapon on the outside. Oh, the Aztecs also have several talented newcomers, led by blue chip forward Winston Shepard, who got off to a rough start off the court but could make an immediate impact for a guard-heavy roster, along with transfers JJ O’Brien (Utah), James Johnson (Virginia) and Dwayne Polee II (St. John’s).
14. Arizona Wildcats
The Skinny: The Wildcats have failed to make the NCAA tournament two of the last three years, sandwiched around a Derrick Williams-led Elite 8 appearance in 2011. They should have little trouble getting back to where they’re supposed to be, thanks to a loaded crop of newcomers. Not only do they have one of the nation’s best groups of freshmen, but former Xavier coach Sean Miller welcomes transfer Mark Lyons (15.1 points per game last year) to the lineup at guard from the Musketeers.
What to Look for: While Lyons gives Arizona a veteran newcomer, and senior forward Solomon Hill is rock solid and will be playing more of his natural position at small forward, much of the attention is on the freshman forwards, Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski, who were all highly touted recruits who can make instant impacts. Circle the Dec. 15 game against Florida on your calendar.
15. Baylor Bears
The Skinny: The Bears have an established backcourt and two key new faces in the paint. Pierre Jackson is one of the nation’s best all-purpose point guards, Brady Heslip is a deadly jump shooter who stepped up in the 2011-12 postseason, and slasher A.J. Walton will share the three-guard position with hard-nosed defender/rebounder Deuce Bello. Forward Cory Jefferson could not get off the bench with Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller and Quincy Acy on the court last year (all are in the NBA now), but Jefferson got high marks as a low-post and shot blocker when he did play. Zillion-star recruit Isaiah Austin is a seven-footer who can run and has shooting range; he should have an interesting five months in college.
What to Look for: The makings of a beautiful half-court offense are here: Austin screening-and-rolling for Jackson, Jackson and Walton driving while Austin and Jefferson look for put-backs, Heslip catching and shooting once defenses have collapsed. The key to challenging Kansas and keeping the likes of K-State and Iowa State at bay will be limiting Jackson’s turnovers (the only weakness in his game) and getting enough production from the third guard position.
16. Michigan State Spartans
The Skinny: There aren’t many coaches better than Tom Izzo, so he’s as equipped as anyone to somehow make up for the loss of do-it-all forward Draymond Green to graduation. Without Green, the Spartans lack star power, but, as usual, they can be counted on to have depth, play well as a team, play good defense and score from anywhere on the floor.
What to Look for: If there is a star, it’s junior guard Keith Appling, the only returning player to average double figures last year (11.4 points per game). He did that despite struggling with his outside shooting, but bet on him moving back toward his success as a freshman. Elsewhere, the spotlight is on 270-pound center Derrick Nix, who was named a team captain, earning the trust of Izzo against after an April 3 arrest. This is your typically good Michigan State team, and that means the Spartans will contend for another Big Ten title, even if the competition is as tough as ever.
17. UCLA Bruins
The Skinny: Forward Kyle Anderson has been cleared to play after four months of NCAA investigations into his father’s relationship with an agent. Guard Shabazz Muhammad is still waiting from clearance from on high after months of investigation of various acts of capitalism. Bruins coach Ben Howland is the Rex Ryan of college basketball, and UCLA brings as much intrigue off the court as athleticism on it. All this, plus a little Twinsanity: David and Travis Wear give the team identical 6-foot-10 thumpers in the low post.
What to Look for: Muhammad is unlikely to start the season with the Bruins, and is also unlikely to spend more than one season in college. Enjoy what you get for 20 games or so: a top defender and rebounder and deft lefty scorer who likes to slip behind his defender. Anderson can also be a low post presence and has a rep for dishing out of double teams to find open shooters. The Bruins went 3-0 on a trip to China without Muhammad, averaging over 90 points per game and blowing out the competition. Enjoy the fireworks, and ignore the investigators turning over every filing cabinet.
18. Memphis Tigers
The Skinny: It’s the Tigers’ last year in Conference USA and their first year with no former John Calipari recruits on the floor. This is Josh Pastner’s team now, and many key contributors to last year’s C-USA champions are back. Guards Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford can both handle the ball and dish, with Jackson as the natural penetrator at the point and Crawford more effective beyond the arc. Tarik Black is an offensive weapon in the front court when not in foul trouble, and Adonis Thomas returns from injury as the team’s versatile scrapper-defender-rebounder. Top frosh Shaq Goodwin has created buzz among football scouts as an Antonio Gates-like tight end; on the court, he’s a monster in transition with energy on the glass but a raw offensive game.
What to Look For: Pastner’s Tigers have had a hard time putting away quality mid-majors: They started last season with a loss to Murray State and ended it with a loss to St. Louis in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. This season’s early schedule includes potential stumbles against Virginia Commonwealth and Ohio, plus a meeting with Louisville and a trip to Knoxville to face Tennessee. The Tigers need to play the Cardinals tough and come away with at least two wins in the other aforementioned games to prove that they are a cut above both previous Memphis teams and the other mid-major contenders.
19. Missouri Tigers
The Skinny: The SEC’s newest member is coming off a strange, unpredictable season. They were good enough to start out 14-0 in 2011-12 and win the Big 12 tournament, but an NCAA tourney upset at the hands of Norfolk State exposed the risk of playing all-offense, no-defense basketball. Mizzou lost four starters, but it retained point guard Phil Pressey and, then added disgruntled UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi and former five-star recruit and fellow disgruntled transfer (from Oregon) Jabari Brown. Coach Frank Haith was considered a hire of last resort last season and still has his doubters after the early tourney exit; Faith in Haith means faith in Pressey and a collection of castoffs.
What to look for: Oriakhi holds the key to success in the SEC. He started for UConn’s national title team in 2010-11, then saw his rebounding average fall nearly 50 percent last year. He ripped his coaches before leaving the Huskies, and it is not clear which Oriakhi Mizzou picked up: the rebounder and defensive presence who can turn 87-86 losses to Kansas into 86-78 victories against Florida, or a potential source of drama. Brown will not be available until after the fall semester; if he lives up to his billing (and brings no baggage), he gives Mizzou a dynamic wing player who can catch-and-shoot from Pressey or create off his own dribble. Oriakhi and Brown bring Final Four talent, but also the potential for another one-and-done disappointment.
20. Wisconsin Badgers
The Skinny: Bo Ryan is the basketball coach who would have made Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler proud. The Badgers are a basketball version of 1970s Big Ten football, unapologetically annoying opposing teams by slowing down the pace and avoiding mistakes (only Wisconsin and Purdue averaged single-digit turnover last year). It usually works; they’ve made the Sweet 16 three out of five years and led the nation in scoring defense in 2011-12.
What to Look for: Wisconsin returns four starters who started all 36 games last year, but their best player in guard Jordan Taylor. With Taylor gone, more scoring is needed out of a veteran frontcourt centered around 6-foot-10 senior Jared Berggren, who made a big jump as a junior and score from anywhere on the floor, and fellow senior Ryan Evans. The veterans will also be aided by the addition of 6-foot-8 freshman Sam Dekker, a top recruit and versatile swingman who could make an big impact right away, which is a bit unusual for a Ryan-coached team.
21. Creighton Bluejays
The Skinny: The Bluejays returned to the tournament after a four-season hiatus, thanks to the brilliant play of forward Doug McDermott, the son of head coach Greg McDermott who averaged 22.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game and shot 60 percent from the field. A national player of the year candidate, McDermott is an efficient offensive machine who makes Creighton the overwhelming favorite in the Missouri Valley.
What to Look for: McDermott is the obvious star, but the Bluejays have some depth and return almost all their key contributors, including center Gregory Echenique (7.3 rebounds per game) and guard Grant Gibbs (5.0 assists per game). The one big chance for Creighton to make a national impression is Nov. 23 in Las Vegas, where they’ll play the always-good Wisconsin.
22. Tennessee Volunteers
The Skinny: The Vols made the tournament in each of Bruce Pearl’s six seasons, then dropped out last year in the first season under former Missouri State coach Cuonzo Martin. Don’t expect that to be a trend. The SEC is tougher this year with the addition of Missouri, but the Vols should still be in the mix behind default favorite Kentucky.
What to Look for: It all starts in the frontcourt, where senior Jeronne Maymon and sophomore Jarnell Stokes are both All-SEC caliber players. Maymon has some durability concerns because of knee problems, but he’s an aggressive rebounder who scored 12.7 points per game. As for Stokes, the blue-chipper started 14 games upon joining the team at midseason for what should have been his final semester of high school. Throw in depth at guard, led by leading scorer Trae Golden, and the Vols are loaded.
23. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The Skinny: The Irish ranked second to last in the Big East in scoring last year, but they still surprised with a 13-5 record in the Big East and return a lot of experience, with all five starters back. The centerpiece is 6-foot-9 senior Jack Cooley, who broke out down the stretch last year and shot 62.5 percent from the field, and who also happens to be a clone of former star Luke Harangody, even if he’s not quite there performance-wise. He’s joined in the post by another senior in Scott Martin and Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman.
What to Look for: Notre Dame has size, but two of the three returning starters who averaged double figures are in the backcourt. Both Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant played big minutes last year, and they give Mike Brey an athletic and versatile pair of perimeter players to stretch out defenses looking to pack it in to combat the size underneath.
24. Kansas State Wildcats
The Skinny: With head coach Frank Martin gone to South Carolina, the Wildcats turn to former Illinois coach Bruce Weber to hold them steady after three straight tournament appearances. They lose forward Jamar Samuels, but otherwise the roster returns plenty of talent and experience.
What to Look for: K-State could have a fantastic inside-outside tandem in senior guard Rodney McGruder and senior center Jordan Henriquez. McGruder is a versatile and athletic player who can attack the rim, rebound and also hit from long-range. Henriquez was dominant as a defender last year, but he also broke out down the stretch as a scorer underneath the basket. He’s not a polished offensive player, but he clearly became more effective late. Throw in guards Will Spradling -- who needs to become more consistent shooting from the outside -- and Angel Rodriguez, and Weber should have a good foundation to build around in his first season in Manhattan.
25. St. Louis Billikens
The Skinny: Interim coach Jim Crews fills in for Rick Majerus (heart condition) this season and faces an immediate crisis: Guard Kwamain Mitchell broke a foot in October, robbing the Billikens of one of the Atlantic 10’s top backcourt defenders and limiting the drive-and-dish game that made Mike McCall and Cody Ellis so deadly on the wings. Even without Mitchell, St. Louis can count on a veteran roster: McCall, Ellis, and Dwayne Evans are all returning starters, and forward/center Rob Loe spent the offseason facing international competition, and possibly orcs, while playing in New Zealand.
What to Look for: The A-10 is tougher than ever this year: Temple is solid, new members Butler and Virginia Commonwealth will make their presence felt immediately, and the conference is deep with quality mid-majors. The Billikens’ non-conference slate is pretty clean, and Mitchell should be back by the time they face UMass in mid-January. If the Billikens hang tough in their non-conference games -- they need to be at least 10-3 by the time they host the Minutemen -- they should be in position to stay above the tournament bubble even if they get jostled a little in conference play.