To most people, myself included, we are in the heart of football season, and college basketball always sneaks up almost unexpectedly. So here we are again: In-between two of the biggest days of the football season on Thursday and Saturday, college basketball kicks into high gear with a full day of games on Friday.
When we last left the sport, Louisville beat Michigan in the national title game, while Kentucky was busy dipping back into the recruiting All-America pool to recharge for a run back to the top. The on-court product has been in a state of disarray lately, with ugly, low-scoring, timeout-filled games conservatively coached. But while that may not totally dissipate, the combination of star players returning and historically great impact recruits entering the game could create for a perfect storm of a season, with Kentucky back on top being chased by a deep pool of high-profile teams.
There's a long way to go until March Madness, but for NBA fans and college hoops fans alike, there's going to be a lot to watch from mid-November all the way into April. After all, we may get a Final Four preview next Tuesday, when Kentucky plays Michigan State and Duke plays Kansas in the Champions Classic. So to get ready for the season, here's what you need to know to catch up on the college basketball landscape.
Did all the good players leave early or have I heard of some All-America candidates?
The one-and-done rule is frustrating, but it hasn't ruined everything. Marcus Smart should be a starting point guard in the NBA right now, but the Oklahoma State point guard shockingly opted for one more year of Big 12 basketball (he's already said he'll enter the draft next spring). His return makes the Cowboys a legitimate national title contender, as he headlines arguably the best backcourt in the nation. Smart averaged 15.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game as a freshman, ending a two-year tournament drought for the Cowboys. Now, it's his job to end Oklahoma State's run of seven seasons without going to the Sweet 16.
Smart is the obvious non-freshman frontrunner for national player of the year, but he has plenty of company. Two of the headliners in last season's national title game were Louisville guard Russ Smith and Michigan forward Mitch McGary, and they're back for another shot at a run to the top. Smith's "Russdiculous" nickname evolved from somewhat derogatory to endearing. Despite his occasionally maddening play, he ended up posting one of the most efficient seasons in the nation and was touted by advanced stats wiz Ken Pomeroy as the national player of the year, while also being one of the most entertaining scorers in a sport that could use a little flair right now. McGary, meanwhile, struggled to live up to his potential through most of the season last year, only to break out when it mattered most in the NCAA tournament. The 6-foot-10, 255-pounder posted three double-doubles in six tournament games, including 25 points and 14 rebounds to take down No. 1 seed Kansas.
McGary can't yet be considered the best returning big man in college basketball, though, thanks to Creighton's Doug McDermott, who decided to stay for his senior season under his father, coach Greg McDermott, and attempt to lead the Bluejays to the first championship of the new Big East. McDermott is the best inside scorer in the game, as he averaged 23.2 points per game last season, and there's no reason to expect a drop off in a tougher conference. He was often at his best against quality opponents, scoring 30 points vs. Wisconsin, 29 vs. Arizona State, 41 vs. Wichita State.
Finally, Michigan State has a pair of veterans, by college basketball standards, who elevate the Spartans to No. 2 in the preseason polls. Sophomore shooting guard Gary Harris is a quality all-around player who shot 41 percent from three-point range and has received glowing praise from coach Tom Izzo; senior forward Adreian Payne became a star as a junior, averaging 10.5 points and 7.6 rebounds while showing some versatility with three-point range and an 84.8 percent free-throw rate.
Which player feels like he's been at his school for a decade?
In both college football and basketball, there are always guys who feel like they've been around forever. In football, this year's award probably went to Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. In basketball, it's almost certainly Ohio State guard Aaron Craft. The senior is known for his relentless defense, but he also averaged 10 points and 4.5 assists per game last season, in addition to making one of the biggest shots of the season to send Ohio State to the Sweet 16. With DeShaun Thomas gone, Craft will likely need to take on more of the scoring load and be more effective from the perimeter after he hit only 30 percent from three-point range.
What about Marshall Henderson? Is he still eligible?
Yes, everyone's favorite/least favorite college basketball heel will suit up for Ole Miss this season. When we last saw the troubled guard, he was flipping off a fan as he exited the floor after the Rebels' Round of 32 loss to La Salle. Then, he got into more off-the-court problems this summer, but Ole Miss allowed him to stay, suspending him for three games: the opener and the first two SEC games. The most gif-able player in the nation is an endless source of entertainment on the court (unless you're Brian McCann, I assume) thanks to his professional wrestling-style taunting and a shooting green light that is always on ("I think every shot is a good shot," he said last March). Nobody in the nation attempted more than his 394 three-pointers last season, and nobody in the SEC scored more than his 20 points per game. But even with Henderson, it's possible the Rebels will be back on the outside of the NCAA tournament after last season ended a decade-long drought, thanks to the losses of three key contributors, particularly Murphy Holloway.
OK, so who do I need to learn about? Which freshman will be lottery picks in the NBA draft next June?
Part of the reason Marcus Smart's decision to return to school was surprising was that the 2014 NBA draft will be much, much stronger than last year's. In fact, it may be the best since the LeBron-
Darko-Carmelo-Bosh-Wade draft of 2003.
A year ago, it appeared that Jabari Parker would be the next biggest thing, and he still might be. The Duke forward will instantly become one of the most versatile players in college basketball as a 6-foot-8, 235-pounder who can play anywhere and score anywhere, and the Blue Devils will build their Final Four contender around him.
But Parker is no longer considered the best of this year's talented crop because of the emergence of Kansas recruit Andrew Wiggins, the 6-foot-8 Canadian who has already done as much as anyone for the word "tank" in basketball and is considered the closest thing to LeBron James and Kevin Durant since LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Wiggins' selection of Kansas was a blessing for all non-Kentucky fans, as instead of Kentucky getting another recruit to add to a class that's already considered the best in history, his choice of Kansas elevated the Jayhawks from a borderline top-20 team to a national title contender, joining a rather deep crop of favorites.
Don't cry for Kentucky, of course. That best recruiting class ever still includes a remarkable six five-star recruits, according to Rivals.com. The best of the bunch is 6-foot-9 forward Julius Randle, an athletic and powerful post player who is Kentucky's best candidate for national player of the year and has the best chance of pushing Wiggins for the top overall pick. Oh, there's also the 6-foot-5 Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, both of whom are top recruits, although Andrew, a point guard, is considered the better pro prospect and is more likely to be taken in the lottery.
One other freshman clearly stands out and elevates his team to national championship contender status: Arizona forward Aaron Gordon (not to be confused with my colleague). A 6-foot-8 forward, Gordon can play either the three or four position and helps make up for the losses of the team's two most productive players, Solomon Hill and Mark Lyons, in a big way. His presence makes Arizona the overwhelming favorite in the Pac-12.
Why is a team full of one-and-done players going to work for Kentucky this year? Didn't Robert Morris beat the Wildcats in the NIT last year?
Yes, and honestly, it was pretty hilarious. Any team counting on a group of freshman to shoulder the load has some inherent risk, but it's not hard to see just how good Wiggins is going to be … and just how good the rest of those five-star recruits can be. Kentucky won the national title in 2012 with freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague all scoring in double figures, and while they all left, it still wasn't crazy to rank the Wildcats No. 1 in the preseason last year. That roster just ended up lacking depth, with the star freshmen not meeting expectations and Nerlens Noel tearing his ACL in February. But this year's squad will be unquestionably deeper, headlined by Randle, the Harrison twins and sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein. Talent of this caliber usually wins out, even without Wiggins.
If Kentucky is the favorite, who else is going to contend for the Final Four?
Wiggins' choice of Kansas over Kentucky thankfully created more parity among the top contenders. The gap between Kentucky and the rest of the pack was closed, and the landscape gained another contender in Kansas, making for what should be an exciting race featuring numerous historical powers at the top of their game. Here are some quick takes on each of those squads.
Louisville. The reigning national champs are getting overshadowed by their in-state rivals who went one-and-done in the NIT last March. But despite the losses of point guard Peyton Siva and center Gorgui Dieng, the Cardinals have a legitimate change to repeat. Smith, for one, surprisingly decided to return after he initially indicated that he'd leave. Dieng will be missed, but 6-foot-8 sophomore Montrezl Harrell and juco transfer point guard Chris Jones are poised for breakout seasons, while Louisville also returns plenty of key assets from the title winner, including Chane Behanan (who's currently suspended), Wayne Blackshear, Luke Hancock and Kevin Ware (who has made a remarkable recovery from his gruesome leg injury).
Michigan State. The Spartans have made 16 straight NCAA tournaments but haven't won it all since Tom Izzo's fifth season in 2000. After losing to Duke in the Sweet 16 last year, they're primed for a run to the Final Four with a deep and experienced roster headlined by Harris and Payne, but also senior point guard Keith Appling, who is still a bit too erratic, and junior wing Branden Dawson. The Big Ten remains strong, but the Spartans clearly bring the most back.
Duke. Parker and Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood give the Blue Devils an instant jolt with versatile 6-foot-8 wings, meaning we'll see a different type of Duke lineup after revolving around the inside game of Mason Plumlee last season. Combine them with guards Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook, and Duke has an athletic team that will push the tempo more than it has in the past.
Kansas. From the bottom of the top 25 to the top five, Kansas had the best summer of anyone thanks to the late announcement that Andrew Wiggins who will spend his one college season in Lawrence. Not that the cupboard was bare for Bill Self, but Wiggins has the ability to be a transcendent star for a team that lost a ton of talent, including lottery pick Ben McLemore and center Jeff Withey. No returning player scored more than 5.8 points per game, although sophomore forward Perry Ellis and junior guard Naadir Tharpe have both flashed their potential. This team will be all about the newcomers, with the ultra-talented wing Wiggins supported by freshman guards Wayne Selden and Frank Mason and senior Memphis transfer Tarik Black at forward.
Oklahoma State. Smart's presence injected life into a somewhat stagnant program that hadn't been a national threat since Eddie Sutton retired. Of course, they were one-and-done as a No. 5 seed last year, losing to Oregon, but Smart returned, making the Cowboys obvious contenders given that every key contributor is back. Smart is flanked by a pair of All-Big 12 caliber players on the outside, with Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash serving as versatile scorers.
Arizona. Gordon joins a frontcourt loaded with potential. Seven-footer Kaleb Tarczewski didn't stand out as a freshman, but he should be ready for a breakout season as a scorer, and along with sophomore Brandon Ashley and freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson the Wildcats will have the ability to go big, with Duquesne transfer T.J. McDonnell and junior Nick Johnson handling duties in the backcourt.
Memphis. Louisville is an obvious favorite in its first and only year in the new American Athletic Conference, but Memphis will push the Cardinals and likely advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time under Josh Pastner. The Tigers are loaded with experience in the backcourt, with three senior double-figures scorers returning -- Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford -- meaning they've long since moved on from the John Calipari identity. Sure, losing Black to Kansas was a blow. But throw in a deep recruiting haul led by 6-foot-8 forward Austin Nichols, and Memphis could compete for its first Final Four since losing to Kansas in the 2008 national title game.
Florida. The Gators were dominant on both sides of the floor in a bad year for the SEC last year, ranking eighth in points per possession and second in points per possession allowed. But they enter this season with a fair amount of uncertainty to go along with high expectations. Fortunately, center Patric Young elected to return for his senior season, but the Gators lost their three leading scorers -- Erik Murphy, Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario -- and are dealing with a combination of injuries, off-the-court problems and reliance on transfers. All told, by conference season, the Gators should be in good shape, with transfers Dorian Finney-Smith (Virginia Tech), Damontre Harris (South Carolina) and Eli Harris (Rutgers) all playing significant roles. But for now, Billy Donovan has some work to do.
Syracuse. The Orange will push Duke in their first year in the ACC, thanks largely to the return of 6-foot-8 senior C.J. Fair. Otherwise, last year's brilliant defensive team will be missing three big names with the departures of Michael Carter-Williams, James Southerland and Brandon Triche. Fair is the team's best scorer and rebounder, with an inside-outside game that featured a 46.9 three-point percentage, and his best running mates should be freshman guard Tyler Ennis and emerging sophomore forward Jerami Grant.
Michigan. National player of the year Trey Burke left an enormous void by leaving early, and the Wolverines backcourt was further decimated by the departure of Tim Hardaway Jr. Spike Albrecht can only do so much. Of course, Michigan still has the ability to return to the Final Four thanks to the returns of McGary and Glen Robinson III in the frontcourt. McGary's back issues linger as a threat, but if he can return healthy, Michigan has a solid core to build around with freshmen guards Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin joining three-point sharpshooter Nik Stauskas.
Ohio State. We know what Craft can do; now it's time for LaQuinton Ross to make a star turn in the absence of Deshaun Thomas, who was the centerpiece of the offense with an average of nearly 20 points per game. A 6-foot-8 junior, Ross averaged 8.3 points per game last season, coming on strong late with three of his four highest point totals of the season coming in the NCAA tournament.
North Carolina. It's been a bumpy run since the mass exodus following the 2012 season, and this offseason was dominated by the troubles of the Tar Heels' best player, P.J. Hairston. Whenever Hairston returns, he'll join a roster that doesn't lack talent. Last season, the Tar Heels were young and inconsistent, and eventually Roy Williams ditched his usual style to go small. Oddly, the balance is moving the other direction, with Hairston in trouble and guards Reggie Bullock and Dexter Strickland gone. But versatile sophomore guard Marcus Paige is prepared to make a leap, while forward James McAdoo may not be stranded as the only big man with talented freshmen Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks joining the fray.
Virginia Commonwealth. Perhaps the most entertaining team in the nation, VCU eschews the conservatism of 21st-century coaching for the Havoc of Shaka Smart, who the Rams have been able to keep, for now. VCU now carries the flag as the biggest name in the Atlantic 10 with Butler, Xavier and Temple gone, and it returns much of its talent to attempt another deep tournament run. Sharpshooter Troy Daniels will be missed, but otherwise the Rams are stocked, with forward Juvonte Reddic surrounded by the typical deep pool of guards, including leading scorer Treveon Graham and relentless defensive ballhawk Briante Weber.
What about Wichita State?
While a return run to the Final Four for what was a No. 9 seed last year is unlikely, the Shockers aren't going anywhere. Another deep run is awfully challenging with the losses of Carl Hall, Malcolm Armstead and Demetric Williams, but pieces remain in place for another big season, with leading scorer Cleanthony Early still in the mix and guards Ron Baker and Evan Wessel back full time after dealing with injuries last season. They're the favorites in the Missouri Valley and can at least get back to the Sweet 16.
Who's this year's most likely Cinderella?
It always feels ridiculous to refer to Harvard as any sort of underdog, but it remains the case for an Ivy League school on the basketball court. Tommy Amaker has taken the Crimson to back-to-back tournaments, highlighted by an upset of New Mexico last March, and that team played without suspended starters Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, whose returns from an academic scandal should make the team even stronger.
Of course, Harvard has been acknowledged as a contender, receiving votes in both preseason polls. So let's go further off the radar to Iona, a program that went 2-28 in 2007 but has experienced a monumental turnaround and has been to back-to-back NCAA tournaments under Tim Cluess. The Gaels lose top scorer Lamont Jones, but they return Sean Armand, who averaged 16.6 points per game, and David Laury, who averaged a double-double.
Nobody talked about Victor Oladipo a year ago. So which non-freshmen is going to be the biggest breakout player?
Look for breakout seasons from Louisville's Montrezl Harrell, North Carolina's Marcus Paige, Kansas' Perry Ellis and Ohio State's LaQuinton Ross, among others. But let's go a little deeper with Syracuse forward Jerami Grant. At 6-foot-8, Grant is a former four-star recruit who came on strong in the middle of the season when asked to fill in for the suspended James Southerland. With Southerland gone, the job is Grant's, and he should become a versatile force for the Orange alongside C.J. Fair.
Last year was often hard to watch. Is the on-court product going to get any better?
It can't get much worse, can it? Last year had plenty of thrilling moments, from the amazing Gonzaga-Butler finish to the high level of play in the Louisville-Michigan national title game, but the pace of the game was often listless with record scoring lows. In an effort to give some advantages back to offenses, referees will be calling hand checks much more tightly, which might be good in the long run but could create frustratingly long foul-fests in the short term as players and coaches try to adjust. Just as up-tempo offenses were all the rage in the college football offseason, artificial attempts to follow suit in college basketball will likely dominate headlines as we wait to see if the quality of play can start improving again. Plus, new rules almost always create consistency headaches.
Who's going to be the national player of the year?
Andrew Wiggins will almost certainly be the best all-around player and the No. 1 pick in the draft, and the player with the best chance of pushing him is Julius Randle. Still, only Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis have won the award as freshmen. So let's go with Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart.
Who's going to make the NCAA tournament?
ACC: Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina, Virginia, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh
America East: Stony Brook
American: Louisville, Memphis, Connecticut, SMU
Atlantic 10: VCU, Saint Louis, La Salle
Atlantic Sun: Florida Gulf Coast
Big 12: Oklahoma State, Kansas, Baylor, Iowa State
Big East: Creighton, Marquette, Georgetown, Villanova, St. John's, Xavier
Big Sky: Weber State
Big South: Charleston Southern
Big Ten: Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Purdue
Big West: UC Santa Barbara
CUSA: Southern Miss, UTEP
Horizon: Wright State
MEAC: Morgan State
MVC: Wichita State
MWC: New Mexico, UNLV, Boise State
NEC: Robert Morris
Pac-12: Arizona, UCLA, Oregon, Arizona State, Colorado
Patriot: Boston U.
SEC: Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama
Southland: Oral Roberts
Summit: North Dakota State
Sun Belt: South Alabama
SWAC: Texas Southern
WAC: New Mexico State
WCC: Gonzaga, BYU
It's impossible to pick a Final Four because we don't know the bracket, but who is in your theoretical Final Four:
Kentucky, Michigan State, Oklahoma State and Duke.
So if I were filling out my bracket now, who would I pick?
Kentucky. The boring (read: consensus) pick, but also the best pick. Not that anything about Julius Randle and that freshman class will be boring.
OK, so say Calipari's best recruiting class ever doesn't meet expectations or they blow it in the tournament. Then who wins?
Michigan State. One of the most commonly accepted rules of filling out a bracket is "when in doubt, pick Izzo." This year is as good of an opportunity as any.