By Jon Rothstein
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The empire will bounce back in a major way next season. John Calipari has assembled arguably the greatest recruiting class in the history of college basketball, and the leftover veterans from last year's NIT team should benefit from another year of experience. Freshmen Andrew and Aaron Harrison will combine to form a potent perimeter along with 6-foot-6 lefty James Young. Highly-touted power forward Julius Randle is a lock to start at power forward and Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer will be ready to headline a loaded front court. Kentucky is back, and in a major way.
2. MICHIGAN STATE
Adreian Payne's decision to return to East Lansing makes Sparty the team to beat in the Big Ten. With Payne back in the fold, Tom Izzo will have an anchor to lean on up front alongside Alex Gauna, Matt Costello and Branden Dawson, who could play more power forward next season. Payne could very well be the best big man in the Big Ten next season, but Michigan State's strength will still be its perimeter. Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine will form a triumvirate that should be able to match up with any back court they'll face. Keep an eye on Valentine, who could make a major jump as sophomore.
The Blue Devils may lose three special upperclassmen in Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly, and Mason Plumlee, but help is definitely on the way. Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood should have an immediate impact due to his athleticism, and 6-foot-8 freshman Jabari Parker will be one of the best players in the country next season. Add two quality back court returnees in Quinn Cook and Rasheed Suliamon – along with Andre Dawkins, who red shirted last year — and Duke should once again be right in the thick of things. This team will play with interchangeable parts, and should get a nice lift down low from Amile Jefferson, who will get every opportunity to be a factor in the front court. Freshman Matt Jones should play a major role thanks to his shot making ability.
Rick Pitino will lose Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng, but the Cardinals still have all the requisites to be one of the better teams in the country. Pitino will likely use a combination of freshman Terry Rozier, Anton Gill and JUCO transfer Chris Jones to replace Siva — while Russ Smith and potentially Kevin Ware should handle the bulk of the minutes at two guard. Louisville will also have two solid veteran wing players in Luke Hancock and Wayne Blackshear, who has still yet to scratch his full potential. The real guy to watch on the Cardinals' roster next season? Montrezl Harrell. The 6-foot-8 bruiser is built like an adonis and should be a monster as a sophomore. Chane Behanan, Stephan Van Treese and 6-foot-10 center Zach Price all add to this team's impressive front court depth.
The Jayhawks will be young but talented. Bill Self will have five new starters next season after Ben McLemore declared for the NBA Draft, but the Jayhawks have put together a terrific recruiting class that should be Kansas' foundation for the next few seasons. Andrew Wiggins was the consensus top player in the Class of 2013 and should immediately give this team an alpha dog at small forward. Freshman wing Wayne Selden is an impact scorer at 6-foot-5, while fellow first-year players Joel Embiid (6-foot-11), Brannen Greene (6-foot-6) and Conner Frankamp should all be able to make contributions at their respective positions. Embiid has big-time upside while Frankamp should be able to immediately extend defenses with his shot-making ability. Naadir Tharpe returns to run the show at point guard while Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor figure to be two key pieces on the interior. Andrew White should be a ready for a bigger role as a sophomore, and red shirt freshman Landen Lucas could also be in play for a regular spot in the rotation thanks to his size (6-foot-10).
The Gators will be freakishly athletic next season. Two high profile transfers – Dorian Finney-Smith (Virginia Tech) and Damontre Harris (South Carolina) — will join a seasoned front court trio of Patric Young, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete. Scottie Wilbekin returns at point guard along with sharpshooter Michael Frazier, who should take a major step forward as a sophomore. Freshmen floor general Kasey Hill should push for immediate minutes next to Wilbekin, while first-year power forward Chris Walker figures to also be a regular contributor in Florida's rotation.
The athleticism of this team will be off the charts. The ultra bouncy Nick Johnson will be one of the better players in the PAC-12 as a junior, and the front court duo of Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski will be much improved as sophomores. Freshmen forwards Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon bring nastiness at small forward, and Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell will finally give Sean Miller a true point guard. This team has all the requisites to be the best group that Miller has had since he's been in Tucson.
8. NORTH CAROLINA
Roy Williams will bring back most of the core from a team that finished the season playing quality basketball. James Michael-McAdoo is set to anchor the middle, while P.J. Hairston, Leslie McDonald, and Marcus Paige return on the perimeter. Look for J.P. Tokoto and Brice Johnson to make a jump as they become sophomores, and the freshmen triumvirate of Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and point guard Nate Britt to all contribute immediately. Don't be surprised if Williams regularly pairs Paige and Britt together in the back court to maximize this team's speed.
9. OHIO STATE
Even without Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeyes will have one of the more experienced rosters in college basketball. As a senior, Aaron Craft will be one of the top two or three point guards in the country, and LaQuinton Ross appears set to become this team's go-to scorer after a breakout run in the NCAA Tournament. Shannon Scott andSam Thompson will return as juniors, and Thad Matta has to hope that Amir Williams can blossom into a dependable low-post scorer.Lenzelle Smith Jr. will be a strong option at shooting guard, along with freshman Kameron Williams.
Even without Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., John Beilein will have more than enough weapons to keep Michigan among the Big Ten's elite. Nik Stauskas, Spike Albrecht, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III should all be much improved as sophomores, and comprise a solid core for this team to lean on. Incoming point guard Derrick Walton is a Detroit native who should replace Burke, and versatile small forward Zak Irvin adds another highly-skilled offensive player.
11. OKLAHOMA STATE
Marcus Smart's decision to return to Stillwater for his sophomore season officially made the Cowboys one of the best teams in the country. Smart, LeBryan Nash, and the vastly underrated Markel Brown give Oklahoma State a dynamite trio that should help this group challenge Kansas for a Big 12 title. Phil Forte returns as a long range gunner, while Brian Williams, Michael Cobbins, and Kamari Murphy are all valuable role players who will be in Travis Ford's rotation. Jean-Paul Olukemi should be fully healed after missing last season with a knee injury, and freshmen guards Stevie Clark and Detrick Mostella could provide some pop if needed off the bench.
No one replenishes talent quite like Jim Boeheim. The Orange will lose Brandon Triche, James Southerland and Michael Carter-Williams, but should still have plenty left over to remain among the nation's elite. Freshman point guard Tyler Ennis is probable to start from day one, and Duke transfer Michael Gbinije is a prime candidate to start at the two. Jerami Grant showed flashes of brilliance this past season and should be a major force next to C.J. Fair up front. The Orange will have the luxury of rotating either Rakeem Christmas, DaJuan Coleman or Baye Keita at center. Freshman wing Tyler Roberson may challenge for immediate minutes due to his athleticism.
The Tigers are set to return several key pieces from a group that went 31-5 and won a game in the NCAA Tournament. Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford will be considered "veterans" next season, and Shaq Goodwin should be more assertive as a sophomore. Look for George Washington transfer David Pellom to have an immediate impact thanks to his toughness. Memphis also has the No. 2 ranked recruiting class by most services, highlighted by a pair of 6-foot-8 forwards in Austin Nichols and Kuran Iverson.
Keep an eye on this team. The Volunteers showed flashes of brilliance down the stretch in SEC play and will return every key piece from a unit that won 20 games this past season. Tennessee will get back All-SEC power forward Jeronne Maymon, who missed this past year with a knee injury. The Vols will also add two big-time prospects in freshmen Robert Hubbs and Darius Thompson, who could very well start for this team at point guard after Trae Golden's departure. Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes and Josh Richardson all return, and should be three of the more seasoned players next year in the SEC. Cuonzo Martin has a real chance to do big things with this group.
The Hoosiers will likely lose four starters, but Tom Crean will have more than enough players to keep Indiana competitive. Yogi Ferrell and Will Sheehey should anchor things on the perimeter, while Jeremy Hollowell figures to take a major step forward as a sophomore. Arizona State transfer Evan Gordon will give this team some much needed experience in the back court, and should have a chance to immediately crack the starting lineup. Freshmen Noah Vonleh and Luke Fischer will have a big impact as soon as they step foot on campus, and fellow first-year players Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson should be capable of making immediate contributions. The X-Factor for this team could be sophomore Hanner Mosquera-Perea, whose freakish athleticism could be a major asset.
The Golden Eagles' trio of Jamil Wilson, Chris Otule, and Davante Gardner will be one of the better front courts in college basketball. Buzz Williams will miss the leadership of Junior Cadougan and the scoring ability of Vander Blue, but Marquette adds three highly-touted freshmen in Duane Wilson, JaJuan Johnson and Deonte Burton. Don't be shocked if Wilson winds up being this team's starting point guard by the middle of the season. Todd Mayo is a highly-talented guard who is a veteran scorer, and Steve Taylor is beyond skilled for his size. The names may slightly change, but Marquette remains a tough out on an annual basis.
There is officially an embarrassment of riches in Waco. The decisions to return to school by both Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson will give Baylor one of the best power forward/center combinations in college basketball. Burly reserve Rico Gathers is someone every coach in America would like to bring off the bench, while Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin are two veteran guards that return. Freshman guard Allerik Freeman could make an immediate contribution thanks to his offense, and JUCO transfer Kenny Chery is the likely candidate to replace Pierre Jackson at point guard. Keep an eye on 6-6 freshman Ishmail Wainwright, who could also handle the ball when needed as a point forward. 6-10 freshman Dominic Woodson will add front court depth.
It's tough not to be excited when you think about the Buffaloes' prospects for 2013-14. Tad Boyle will have arguably the PAC-12?s best back court in Askia Booker and Spencer Dinwiddie, who might be the best player that no one really knows about nationally. Super-skilled wing Xavier Johnson will be a big-time force as a sophomore, and Josh Scott should be one of the best centers in the PAC-12 in his second season of college basketball. Keep an eye on red shirt freshman Wesley Gordon, who could replace Andre Roberson as this team's starter at power forward. Freshman wing Tre'Shaun Fletcher should add depth on the wing.
The Rams will once again be the class of the Atlantic 10. VCU returns several key pieces from this year's team that won 27 games, and adds an impact transfer in Florida State's Terrance Shannon. With Shannon, skilled forward Treveon Graham, and versatile big man Juvonte Reddic, the Rams have a front court that should be able to match up with most BCS teams. VCU also returns a slew of talented perimeter players in Briante Weber, Rob Brandenberg and Melvin Johnson. Look for red shirt freshman Jordan Burgess to have an immediate impact because of his physicality. The big question for this team? Point-guard play. Weber will likely start the season as this team's primary facilitator until incoming freshman floor general JeQuan Lewis acclimates himself to Shaka Smart's style.
20. NOTRE DAME
The Irish will have one of the nation's premier back courts next season, led by the duo of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant, who always seem to get a little more efficient each time they take the floor. Mike Brey will have a bevy of shooters to put on the court next season, headlined by 6-foot-5 wing Pat Connaughton, who really started to hit his stride down the stretch for Notre Dame. 6-foot-6 wing Cameron Biedscheid will produce with more minutes, and incoming freshman V.J. Beachem, who is built very similarly to Biedscheid, can also extend the defense. Indiana native Demetrius Jackson is a high-level recruit at point guard, and is easily one of the best high school players that Brey has signed since he's been in South Bend. Sophomore Zack Auguste and veteran big man Garrick Sherman will hold down the front court.
Even without Otto Porter, John Thompson III will have the Hoyas right in the middle of things in the Big East. Greg Whittington will return after missing most of this past season with a suspension, and Markel Starks and D'Vauntes-Smith Rivera have the potential to be a dynamic back court. Utility big man Nate Lubick will be a senior, while Jabril Trawick and Mikael Hopkins are quality role players who understand the Hoyas' system. Long-range specialist Stephen Domingo should have more of a role as a sophomore, and 6-foot-7 freshman forward Reggie Cameron may be able to crack the rotation because of his ability to extend the defense.
Fran McCaffery has a team that will be among the Big Ten's elite. The Hawkeyes return virtually their entire team and add two quality newcomers in Jarrod Uthoff and freshman wing Peter Jok. Mike Gesell and Devyn Marble should be electric together in the back court, while Melsahn Basabe, Aaron White and Adam Woodbury hold down the front court. Keep an eye on Josh Oglesby, who needs to emerge as a consistent threat from three-point range.
23. NEW MEXICO
If Tony Snell had returned, New Mexico would have been in the Top 15. Without him, they're just not the same defensively on the perimeter. JUCO transfer Deshawn Delaney will likely take Snell's place in the starting lineup next to Kendall Williams and Hugh Greenwood, while freshman point guard Cullen Neal should provide a lift in reserve. The combination of Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow up front will be beyond formidable, and is probably the most underrated power forward/center combination in the country. The Lobos will be solid, but without Snell we're not sure if they can be spectacular.
Death, taxes and the Badgers in the preseason Top 25. The names may slightly change in Madison, but the results never do. Sam Dekker appears primed for a big-time sophomore season, and Wisconsin will also welcome back guard Josh Gasser, who missed last year with an ACL tear. Also returning for the Badgers is shooting guard Ben Brust and 6-foot-11 big man Frank Kaminsky, who will need to provide stability up front. Keep an eye on freshman power forward Nigel Hayes, who should have an immediate opportunity to earn playing time.
This will be the best team that the Ivy League has seen in quite sometime. Tommy Amaker will have one of the most electric point guards in the country in southpaw point guard Siyani Chambers, and the Crimson will also welcome back Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey, who missed this past season after they had to withdraw from school. Zone buster Laurent Rivard will be a senior, and Wesley Saunders is primed to be one of the better perimeter scorers in the Northeast. Harvard will also add 6-foot-8 center Zena Edosomwan, a highly-touted recruit who could start immediately in the pivot. Steve Moundou-Missi and Kenyatta Smith are back as solid front court players who should help this team's depth.
FIVE ON THE CUSP:
VIRGINIA: The Cavaliers could be scary if they find a point guard to replace Jontel Evans.
UNLV: JUCO transfer DeVille Smith should give the Runnin Rebels the point guard they've so desperately needed.
UCONN: Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright will comprise one of the nation's best back courts.
STANFORD: Bouncy forward Josh Huestis is the best kept secret in all of college basketball.
VILLANOVA: Rice transfer Dylan Ennis will have a major impact.
FIVE ON THE CUSP OF BEING ON THE CUSP:
ST. JOHN'S: The Red Storm will have the most talented roster in the new Big East.
UCLA: Freshman point guard Zach LaVine will play a major role from day one.
WICHITA STATE: Cleanthony Early will emerge as the Shockers' go-to guy.
OREGON: The addition of Mike Moser ensures that the Ducks will return to the NCAA Tournament.
LA SALLE: After a remarkable run to the Sweet 16, the Explorers should be right in the mix for an Atlantic 10 title.
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