Our 2013-14 season preview begins with the Dagger's Preseason Top 25 complete with best-case and worst-case scenarios for each team. Check back every morning for the next six weeks for more college hoops preview content.
Key returners: F Alex Poythress, C Willie Cauley-Stein, G Jarrod Polson
Notable newcomers: F Julius Randle, G Andrew Harrison, G Aaron Harrison, F James Young, C Dakari Johnson, F Marcus Lee
Best-case scenario: John Calipari has sometimes drawn the ire of Kentucky fans by saying he values producing first-round picks as much as national titles. This spring, however, he gets the best of both worlds. Not only does Kentucky overwhelm opponents with talent, Calipari is also able to keep his team humble and hungry by recalling the memory of last year's disastrous NIT season. The youthful Wildcats jell quickly, rip through the SEC and enter the postseason with just two losses. In the NCAA tournament, Kentucky bests Duke on a Andrew Harrison jumper at the buzzer in a classic regional title game, then throttles Michigan State and Louisville in Dallas to capture a second national championship in three years. Cards fans are still in depression about the loss 2 1/2 months later on draft night when a record six Wildcats are selected in the first round, making room for Calipari's next crop of stars.
Worst-case scenario: Whereas the young stars who spearheaded Kentucky's 2012 title run were content to serve as role players, this year's batch of Wildcats isn't so eager to sacrifice individual goals for that of the team. McDonald's All-American Dakari Johnson sulks at sitting behind Willie Cauley-Stein and sophomore Alex Poythress publicly snipes at losing his starting job to freshmen Julius Randle and James Young. Chemistry issues and a lack of leadership prompt a handful of unexpected regular season losses, but the real disaster comes in the SEC tournament when an injury to Andrew Harrison exposes Kentucky's lack of depth at point guard. Senior Jarrod Polson gamely tries to fill in, but the Wildcats unravel in a one-sided Elite Eight loss to Duke. Wildcats fans are still in depression a week and a half later when Louisville crushes the Blue Devils in the national title game to win a second straight championship.
Key returners: F Chane Behanan, G/F Wayne Blackshear, F Luke Hancock, F Montrezl Harrell, G Russ Smith, F Stephan Van Treese, G Kevin Ware
Notable newcomers: G Terry Rozier, G Chris Jones, F/C Mangok Mathiang, G Anton Gill
Best-case scenario: Even without Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng, a Louisville team that returns eight of its top 10 players turns out to be better than its national title team of a year ago. Highly touted junior college transfer Chris Jones capably replaces Siva at point guard, breakout star Montrezl Harrell protects the rim nearly as well as Dieng did even at 6-foot-8, onetime wildcard Russ Smith embraces his leadership role and a slimmer Wayne Blackshear shows the explosiveness he had in high school. The Cards run away with the league title in their lone season in the American Athletic Conference and outclass their first five NCAA tournament foes, setting up a dream title game against rival Kentucky. A now-healthy Kevin Ware comes off the bench to play the role of hero, scoring 21 points to help the Cardinals become the first team since 2006-07 Florida to win back-to-back titles.
Worst-case scenario: Having the core of a championship team back turns out to be more of a curse than a blessing. Complacency contributes to a handful of unexpected regular season losses, as does the inability to replace the leadership of Siva and the rim protecting of Dieng. Many expect Louisville to flip the switch in March and make it back to the Final Four, but the Cardinals run into an opponent that protects the ball and slows down the tempo in the Sweet 16. Luke Hancock's outside shots aren't falling and Louisville isn't getting easy buckets out of its swarming defense, so Russ Smith takes it upon himself to go into hero mode. It doesn't work. Russdiculous caps his college career with a 3-for-16 shooting night, and the Cards lose by 11. Ten days later, a still-healing Kevin Ware watches from his couch as Kentucky cuts down the nets after capturing its second national title in three years.
Key returners: G Quinn Cook, G Tyler Thornton, G Rasheed Sulaimon, G Andre Dawkins, F Amile Jefferson, F Alex Murphy, F Josh Hairston, C Marshall Plumlee
Notable newcomers: F Rodney Hood, F Jabari Parker, G Matt Jones, F Semi Ojeleye
Best-case scenario: To nobody's surprise, Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood emerges as an elite wing scorer, Rasheed Sulaimon continues to blossom and Jabari Parker lives up to his hype as the nation's most versatile freshman. More shocking, however, is that Duke's much-maligned crop of big men turns out to be more capable than expected. Injury-plagued 7-footer Marshall Plumlee stays healthy enough to play 20 minutes per game. When he's not on the floor to protect the rim, the improved athleticism of Duke's perimeter corps helps keep opposing guards out of the paint. Plus, 6-foot-9 sophomore Amile Jefferson brings something to the table himself in the form of added muscle and improved low-post scoring and positional defense. The combination of a dynamic perimeter unit and a better-than-expected group of bigs propels Duke to an ACC title, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and a national championship. Things aren't so rosy, however, in Chapel Hill as P.J. Hairston torpedoes North Carolina's season when he's dismissed from the team in December after police pull him over for driving a rented Porsche 107 miles per hour.
Worst-case scenario: Terrific as Duke's group of forwards and wings are, they can't solve the Blue Devils' problems at big man. Plumlee's oft-injured feet sideline him for most of the season and neither Jefferson nor Josh Hairston are tall or long enough to capably protect the rim. As a result, quick, athletic opposing guards face little resistance once they get into the paint off the dribble. Duke is still an elite team for most of the season despite those issues, but questions about Quinn Cook as a point guard reemerge down the stretch of ACC play and in the postseason. With Cook's turnovers soaring and his confidence and shooting percentage plummeting, the Blue Devils become vulnerable in March. They narrowly avoid a Lehigh-esque upset in the Round of 64 before crashing out of the NCAA tournament two days later in a hail of missed jump shots and failed defensive possessions. Things are rosier in Chapel Hill, however, where P.J. Hairston redeems himself for a nightmare offseason by winning ACC player of the year and leading the Tar Heels to a surprise Final Four appearance.
Key returners: G Keith Appling, G Gary Harris, F Branden Dawson, F Adreian Payne, G Denzel Valentine, G Travis Trice, F Matt Costello, F Alex Gauna
Notable newcomers: F Gavin Schilling
Best-case scenario: Expectations are high for a Michigan State team with four starters and a slew of key reserves back from last season, but the talented, experienced Spartans have no trouble living up to them. Even though the graduation of Derrick Nix removes Michigan State's top low-post scorer, the Spartans compensate fairly easily by sliding Adreian Payne to center, Branden Dawson to power forward and promising Denzel Valentine into the starting backcourt. Payne builds on the maturity and diversified game he flashed late last season, Dawson shows greater explosiveness now two years removed from an ACL tear and Keith Appling makes better decisions with the ball in his hands at point guard, but the player who blossoms the most is Gary Harris. Fully healthy after being plagued by shoulder problems last season, the talented shooting guard makes a case for himself as the Big Ten's best player and an All-American candidate, leading Michigan State to Tom Izzo's seventh Final Four and second national title. Patrons at The Riv in East Lansing toast Harris with $3.00 24-ounce mugs of Labatt on draft night when he's selected in the late lottery.
Worst-case scenario: Expectations are high for a Michigan State team with four starters and a slew of key reserves back from last season ... and the Spartans don't even come close to living up to them. Payne remains the same talented but erratic player he has been throughout his Michigan State career, Dawson still lacks his pre-ACL tear explosiveness and lingering shoulder and ankle issues hamper Harris, but the player who struggles most is Appling. More of a scorer than a distributor his first three years in East Lansing, he is unable to change his mindset and set up his teammates for easy baskets the way Izzo wants and sees his turnovers per game rise and his shooting percentage diminish. Patrons at The Riv in East Lansing mutter under their breath over $3.00 24-ounce mugs of Labatt as Appling goes 2-for-11 with four turnovers in Michigan State's season-ending loss in the Sweet 16.
Key returners: F Perry Ellis, G Naadir Tharpe, F Jamari Traylor, F Landen Lucas
Notable newcomers: F Tarik Black, C Joel Embiid, G Conner Frankamp, F Brannen Greene, G Wayne Selden, F Andrew Wiggins, G Frank Mason
Best-case scenario: Buoyed by the arrival of Andrew Wiggins and the rest of a decorated freshman class, Kansas remains among the nation's elite teams despite losing all five starters from last season. An explosive athlete and gifted scorer with ideal size and length for the small forward position, Wiggins eases the burden on the rest of his young teammates by carrying Kansas for long stretches. As a result, promising sophomore forward Perry Ellis is able to remain a complementary scorer, point guard Naadir Tharpe doesn't have to work as hard to initiate the offense and McDonald's All-American Wayne Selden and the rest of the freshmen get to ease their way into their college careers. Though Kansas suffers some early losses as a result of its challenging non-league schedule, the youthful Jayhawks improve as the season goes along, edge Oklahoma State for a 10th straight Big 12 crown and roar to Bill Self's second championship. Wiggins enjoys his first year in Lawrence so much that he considers staying for a second before coming to his senses and entering the NBA draft.
Worst-case scenario: Though Wiggins is a transcendent talent, he isn't capable of carrying Kansas offensively from day one. As a result, the rest of the youthful Jayhawks are thrown into roles they aren't prepared for yet. Ellis isn't ready to be a No. 1 scoring option, Tharpe struggles to initiate the offense off the dribble and inconsistency continues to plague Memphis transfer Tarik Black the way it did throughout the 6-foot-9 forward's career with the Tigers. Kansas improves over the course of the season as its freshmen and sophomores become more comfortable with their responsibilities, but Oklahoma State wins the Big 12 crown by a game to snap the Jayhawks' nine-year streak. A Big 12 tournament title offers some consolation, but the Jayhawks' youth shows again in the NCAA tournament when they fall in the round of 32. Wiggins reveals he's turning pro in the post-game locker room, admitting to reporters that he regrets not going to Kentucky, North Carolina or Florida State instead.
Key returners: G Nick Johnson, G Jordin Mayes, F Brandon Ashley, C Kaleb Tarczewski, G Gabe York
Notable newcomers: F Aaron Gordon, F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, G Elliott Pitts, G T.J. McConnell
Best-case scenario: Trading a scoring guard in Mark Lyons for a true point guard in T.J. McConnell gives Arizona what it lacked a year ago. McConnell, who averaged 11.4 points and 5.6 assists as a sophomore at Duquesne, makes his teammates better by setting them up for high-quality shots while also playing sound on-ball defense and shooting over 40 percent from behind the arc. In addition to improved point guard play, the Wildcats also flourish because of their versatility. If Sean Miller wants to go big, he plays 6-foot-8 McDonald's All-American Aaron Gordon at small forward, with sophomores Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski in the paint. If Miller wants to go to a quicker, pressing lineup, then Nick Johnson and defensive ace Rondae Hollis-Jefferson man the wings with Gordon sliding to power forward and Ashley moving to center. Outside shooting is a weakness, but nobody in an improved Pac-12 can match Arizona's combination of size and athleticism. The Wildcats out-duel Oregon and UCLA for the Pac-12 title, earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and finally get Miller his first Final Four berth after two previous Elite Eight runs ended one win short.
Worst-case scenario: Gordon's insistence on showcasing his blossoming perimeter skills to NBA scouts backfires on him and weakens Arizona in the process. Not only does the highly touted freshman shoot sub-30 percent from behind the arc, he is a less effective rebounder and defender at small forward than at power forward. Playing Gordon on the perimeter would be easier to justify were both of Arizona's two sophomore big men progressing, but Tarczewski still lacks a consistent back-to-the-basket game and Ashley continues to give an uneven effort on defense and to struggle to assert himself on offense. The result is a 2012-13 UNLV-esque team that underachieves relative to its talent level. Oregon edges Arizona for the Pac-12 title and the Wildcats fall two wins shy of Miller's first Final Four berth when they're beaten in the Sweet 16.
Key returners: G Spike Albrecht, F Jon Horford, G Caris LeVert, F Mitch McGary, F Jordan Morgan, F Glenn Robinson III, G Nik Stauskas
Notable newcomers: G Derrick Walton, G Zak Irvin, F Mark Donnal
Best-case scenario: Neither freshman Derrick Walton nor sophomore Spike Albrecht come close to matching Trey Burke's scoring output, but the two young point guards solidify Michigan's weakest position. Walton showcases basketball IQ beyond his years and an ability to set up his teammates. Albrecht builds off his memorable first half in the national title game last April, delivering pinpoint passes and timely buckets. Solid point guard play elevates Michigan from Big Ten contender to Final Four threat because the Wolverines are loaded elsewhere. Mitch McGary picks up where he left off last March as an interior scorer, Glenn Robinson III emerges as a breakout perimeter star and Nik Stauskas stretches defenses with his remarkable outside shooting. That trio propels Michigan to the regional finals, where the Wolverines get another crack at Louisville and upset the favored Cardinals on a late Albrecht steal and layup. For the second straight year Albrecht asks Michigan super fan Kate Upton out via Twitter. This time she says yes.
Worst-case scenario: Whereas Burke was ready to take over for Darius Morris as a freshman, the pressure of replacing the national player of the year is too great for Walton and Albrecht. Walton experiences typical freshman growing pains and Albrecht's national title game performance proves to be a flash in the pan. Poor point guard play isn't the only issue that plagues Michigan either. McGary can't maintain the level he played at in March over the course of a full season, Robinson III isn't ready to be a go-to scorer and Stauskas endures an ill-timed March shooting slump. Michigan finishes well behind rivals Michigan State and Ohio State in the Big Ten and fails to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Albrecht asks Upton out a second time anyway. Once again, she ignores him.
Key returners: G Aaron Craft, G Shannon Scott, F LaQuinton Ross, G Lenzelle Smith Jr., F Sam Thompson, C Amir Williams, C Trey McDonald
Notable newcomers: F Marc Loving, G Kam Williams
Best-case scenario: In addition to a strong defense spearheaded by guards Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith and Shannon Scott and rim protector Amir Williams, Ohio State actually generates more offense than expected. The loss of last year's leading scorer DeShaun Thomas isn't debilitating because talented but enigmatic LaQuinton Ross emerges as a viable replacement. Building on the huge games he had in the West Regional against Arizona and Wichita State last March, Ross scores from long range, off the dribble and via the mid-range jump shot, enabling Craft, Smith and Sam Thompson to remain in their customary secondary scoring roles. As a result, the Buckeyes capture the Big Ten title, secure another high NCAA tournament seed and return to the Final Four, avenging last year's heartbreaking regional final loss to Wichita State along the way. Ohio State won't have to worry about Michigan there either. The Wolverines fall in the Round of 32 and Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III turn pro five minutes after the final buzzer.
Worst-case scenario: Though Ohio State's perimeter defense remains a strength, the offense falters without Thomas. Neither Ross nor Thompson are ready to seize the role of go-to scorer, putting too much pressure on Craft to become something he's not. The Buckeyes stay close against quality teams because of their defense but they lack a closer to finish the job. Losses mount in the rugged Big Ten, and Ohio State finishes a disappointing fifth. In the NCAA tournament, Ohio State draws Wichita State in the round of 32, and the game mirrors last year's regional final. An Ohio State comeback falls short, Craft's college career ends ingloriously and the Shockers advance. Meanwhile, Michigan wins the national championship and Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III announce they're returning to school in hopes of defending that title.
Key returners: F Rakeem Christmas, F DaJuan Coleman, G Trevor Cooney, F C.J. Fair, F Jerami Grant, F Baye Moussa Keita
Notable newcomers: G Tyler Ennis, F Michael Gbinije, F Tyler Roberson, G Ron Patterson
Best-case scenario: Did Syracuse really lose its starting backcourt? High-scoring Tyler Ennis proves to be a better decision maker than talented-but-turnover-prone Michael Carter-Williams at point guard and Trevor Cooney and Duke transfer Michael Gbinije combine to replace Brandon Triche's production at shooting guard. Solid perimeter play is a pleasant surprise for Syracuse, but the true strength of the team remains its imposing frontline. C.J. Fair blossoms in the role of No. 1 scoring option, Jerami Grant makes a big leap as a sophomore and big men Baye Moussa Keita, Rakeem Christmas and DaJuan Coleman swallow up rebounds and protect the rim. Syracuse's size and length in the frontcourt would make its trademark zone fearsome no matter what, but it's even more confounding for ACC teams unaccustomed to having to solve it. Jim Boeheim fittingly holds Syracuse's victory party at a Greensboro Denny's on Selection Sunday after the Orange complete a sweep of the ACC regular season and tournament titles. Then the Orange make a deep enough NCAA tournament run that all the snow on campus has melted by the time they return.
Worst-case scenario: Yes, Syracuse really did lose last year's starting backcourt. Tyler Ennis looks ill-prepared to assume the role of starting point guard as a true freshman and neither Gbinije nor Cooney seize the shooting guard role, forcing Boeheim to turn to another freshman, Ron Patterson. The Syracuse frontcourt is predictably excellent and the interior defense is sound, but the mistake-prone backcourt takes too many ill-advised shots and turns the ball over too frequently. As a result, Syracuse slips out of contention for the ACC title by Valentine's Day and falls to Duke in the semifinals of the league tournament. Unable to get a flight back to blizzard-ravaged Syracuse the following morning, Boeheim and the Orange watch the Selection Show from a Greensboro Denny's. Food poisoning from a bad batch of eggs waylays half the roster and Syracuse falls by 20 in the opening round of the NCAA tournament four days later.
Key returners: G Marcus Paige, G Leslie McDonald, G P.J. Hairston, G J.P. Tokoto F James Michael McAdoo F Desmond Hubert, F Joel James, F Brice Johnson
Notable newcomers: F Kennedy Meeks, F Isaiah Hicks, G Nate Britt
Best-case scenario: Humbled by his tumultuous offseason and in the best shape of his life thanks to extra conditioning, P.J. Hairston is both a standout on the floor and a model citizen off it. He reemerges as North Carolina's premier perimeter scoring threat upon returning from a brief season-opening suspension. That's a key development for the Tar Heels, as is improved play from their young big men. Whereas the center position was such a black hole for North Carolina last season that Roy Williams had to slide James Michael McAdoo to center and Hairston to power forward, this year Williams has a plethora of options. Freshman Kennedy Meeks develops quickly enough to command the starting job by the start of ACC play, while Desmond Hubert serves as a key defender off the bench and Brice Johnson's added weight enables him to no longer get pushed around. The combination of perimeter scoring from Hairston and a deep, versatile frontcourt elevates North Carolina into title contention in the ACC and nationally. That's good enough for the Tar Heels to regain Tobacco Road bragging rights as Duke is hurt by a lack of a true big man and revamped NC State fades to the lower half of the ACC.
Worst-case scenario: P.J.'s back for Kentucky ... but he doesn't stick around long. Another violation of team rules forces Roy Williams to dismiss his leading returning scorer before the start of ACC play, leaving North Carolina without a potent scorer at either wing position. The Tar Heels try to compensate by becoming a more front court-oriented team, but they don't have much success. McAdoo puts up decent numbers again thanks to his quick first step to the rim and ability to attack the offensive glass, but neither his mid-range game nor his low-post moves have improved. And while the Tar Heels have plenty of front court depth around him, nobody is good enough to seize the starting center job. Meeks is too inexperienced, Hubert and Joel James are too raw offensively and Johnson lacks the strength and bulk to defend the position. North Carolina squeaks into the NCAA tournament only to be exposed in the Round of 64. Meanwhile, Duke wins another title and NC State advances to a second Sweet 16 in three years.
Key returners: G Scottie Wilbekin, C Patric Young, F Will Yeguete, G Michael Frazier Jr., F Casey Prather
Notable newcomers: F Dorian Finney-Smith, F Chris Walker, C Damontre Harris, G Kasey Hill, G Eli Carter
Best-case scenario: Chris Walker and Dorian Finney-Smith are throwing down dunks. Patric Young is scattering bodies in the paint. Michael Frazier is draining 3-pointers. Scottie Wilbekin and Kasey Hill take care of the ball as though it were made of glass. Florida even manages to win a close game or two after dropping all six games decided by six or less last season. Yes, everything goes right for the Gators, who challenge Kentucky for the SEC crown and then crash through their Elite Eight ceiling after three straight years of falling one win shy of the Final Four.
Worst-case scenario: Forget Florida's Elite Eight ceiling. The Gators don't even make it out of the NCAA tournament's opening weekend. Wilbekin's off-the-court issues derail his season, Hill proves too green to handle point guard duties as a freshman and highly touted forward Chris Walker is unable to get academically eligible by the start of winter semester. Though the Florida front court is deep enough to absorb the loss of Walker, the team's maddening inability to win close games resurfaces for a second straight season. It proves costly in SEC play and in the postseason, and suddenly losing in the Elite Eight doesn't seem so bad.
Key returners: G Marcus Smart, G Markel Brown, F LeBryan Nash, G Phil Forte, F Michael Cobbins, G/F Brian Williams
Notable newcomers: G Stevie Clark, F Gary Gaskins
Best-case scenario: Travis Ford says there's no ceiling for what this team can accomplish, and he's right. With national player of the year candidate Marcus Smart returning for his sophomore year and fellow stars Markel Brown and LeBryan Nash also back, Oklahoma State has the firepower to contend in the Big 12 and nationally. Those three carry the Cowboys, but they also get timely contributions from now-healthy wing Brian Williams, sweet-shooting Phil Forte and a bulked-up 6-foot-8 big man Michael Cobbins. Is that enough to dethrone Kansas in the Big 12? Yup. The Cowboys end the Jayhawks' nine-year league title streak and avenge their first-round NCAA tournament exit last March with a deep run. Smart's controversial decision to return to school draws praise after he goes in the top three picks of the NBA draft.
Worst-case scenario: Oklahoma State's ceiling may be high, but the Cowboys don't come anywhere close to reaching it. Though Smart, Brown and Nash excel once again, many of the same problems that kept Oklahoma State from being elite last season reeemerge. Cobbins is still unable to provide much low-post offense or to keep opposing big men from pushing him around on the block. Outside shooting remains a major weakness. And a lack of depth causes the Cowboys' stars to wear down late in the season. Is that enough to keep Oklahoma State from dethroning Kansas in the Big 12? Yup. The Cowboys finish third behind the Jayhawks and Baylor in league play, then fizzle in the opening round of the NCAA tournament for the second straight March. Smart's controversial decision to return to school draws renewed criticism after he slides out of the top 10 picks in a stronger, deeper NBA draft.
Key returners: G Geron Johnson, G Joe Jackson, G Chris Crawford, F Shaq Goodwin
Notable newcomers: G Michael Dixon, F David Pellom, F Austin Nichols, G/F Nick King, G/F Kuran Iverson, G Markel Crawford, G Pookie Powell, C Dominic Woodson
Best-case scenario: It's fitting Michael Dixon is one of the stars for Memphis this season because Josh Pastner's club resembles the 2011-12 Missouri team Dixon helped lead to 30 wins. Pastner unleashes four-guard looks on slower opponents, relying on 6-foot-4 Chris Crawford to slow down bigger forwards defensively while taking advantage of his edge on the perimeter on offense. It works, just as it did for Missouri two years ago. Joe Jackson makes good decisions with the ball in his hands, Dixon and Geron Johnson attack the paint at will and Shaq Goodwin plays with more consistency as a sophomore, protecting the rim and providing back-to-the-basket scoring and rebounding. Memphis also takes advantage of its depth, getting production from an outstanding freshman class in complementary roles. The Tigers finish a close second to Louisville in their inaugural season in the American Athletic Conference, but they outlast the Cardinals in March, erasing the one remaining hole in Pastner's resume with a deep NCAA tournament run. The run ends in the Final Four, but the city celebrates as though Memphis has won a national title, throwing the Tigers a parade down Beale Street.
Worst-case scenario: Memphis more resembles 2011-12 Missouri during its NCAA tournament loss to Norfolk State than during its 30-win regular season. The Crawford experiment is a bust because he lacks the size to defend opposing power forwards and the quickness to take advantage of the mismatch at the other end. Worse yet, Goodwin gets pushed around on the block and is foul-prone and inconsistent, forcing Pastner to play 300-plus-pound freshman Dominic Woodson for more minutes than he'd like. Memphis' backcourt is productive, but Dixon's rust and Jackson's ill-advised decisions with the ball prevent it from living up to preseason hype. The Tigers land in the eight-nine game in the NCAA tournament and exit in the round of 64 for the third time in the past four seasons. There's no parade on Beale Street when they return. Only grumbling. Lots of grumbling.
Key returners: G Damyean Dotson, G Johnathan Loyd, G Dominic Artis, F Ben Carter, C Waverly Austin
Notable newcomers: F Mike Moser, G Jason Calliste, G Michael Young, F Richard Amardi, F Jordan Bell, G Joseph Young
Best-case scenario: There's nobody who has used the one-year transfer more effectively recently than Dana Altman, and this year turns out to be no exception. Ex-UNLV transfer Mike Moser thrives as a scorer in Oregon's up-tempo system and helps alleviate for the loss of Arsalan Kazemi on the offensive and defensive glass. Detroit transfer Jason Calliste adds the 3-point shooting weapon the Ducks lacked last season. And once he's ruled eligible, Houston transfer Joseph Young provides another backcourt scorer, giving Altman another option for his preferred three-guard sets. Oregon was the Pac-12's best team when Dominic Artis was healthy last season, and the Ducks stake their claim to that title again this winter, clinching the league championship with a home win over Arizona on the final day of the regular season. Nike co-founder Phil Knight rewards the Ducks with sleek, futuristic neon jerseys for the NCAA tournament.
Worst-case scenario: There's nobody who has used the one-year transfer more effectively recently than Altman, but this year his late additions fail to make the impact previous ones have. Moser's play more closely resembles his 2012-13 season than his breakout 2011-12 campaign as he fails to replicate the toughness, defense and rebounding Kazemi provided. Calliste's outside shot proves erratic and Young isn't ruled eligible until next season, scuttling Altman's efforts to improve his team's shooting. Oregon still manages 20 wins thanks to strong sophomore seasons from Artis and Damyean Dotson, but the Ducks' record once again fail to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee. The same group that inexplicably handed the Pac-12 tournament champs a No. 12 seed last year snubs them altogether this season, prompting an out-of-character rant from the typically mild-mannered Altman. Knight decides an NIT bid doesn't merit new jerseys and splurges on more diamonds for the football team's league championship rings instead.
Key returners: F Davante Gardner, F Jamil Wilson, C Chris Otule, G Todd Mayo, F Steve Taylor, G Derrick Wilson, F Juan Anderson
Notable newcomers: G Jajuan Johnson, F Jameel McKay, G Duane Wilson, G/F Deonte Burton, G John Dawson
Best-case scenario: Just like it did last year when it shared the Big East title and made the Elite Eight the year after Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom graduated, Marquette finds a way to excel despite the loss of another star. The Golden Eagles win the Big East outright and make another deep March run despite leading scorer Vander Blue's ill-advised decision to enter the NBA draft last spring. One key to Marquette's success is a deep, experienced frontcourt headlined by leading returning scorer Davante Gardner, sixth-year senior Chris Otule and versatile forward Jamil Wilson. The other key is consistent backcourt production from juniors Todd Mayo and Derrick Wilson and an infusion of perimeter talent from incoming freshman point guard Duane Wilson and wing JaJuan Johnson. Another successful season entices Texas to offer its head coaching position to Lone Star State native Buzz Williams after it fires Rick Barnes this March. Improbably, Williams turns it down, insisting Milwaukee is his home now and he can have as much success at Marquette as any other program in the nation.
Worst-case scenario: Replacing Blue's 14.4 points per game and point guard Junior Cadougan's toughness and leadership proves more difficult than expected. Derrick Wilson is steady but lacks the scoring punch to command the starting point guard job, while freshman Duane Wilson shows promise but needs more seasoning before he's ready for a big role. The Golden Eagles face similar issues at shooting guard, where the enigmatic Mayo continually misfires from the perimeter and the highly touted Johnson is still a year or two away from blossoming into a go-to scorer. Though Marquette's frontcourt produces as expected, the perimeter issues doom the Golden Eagles to a mid-tier finish in the new Big East. Texas still woos Williams, however, and he bolts for Austin within minutes of the final buzzer sounding on Marquette's opening-round NCAA tournament loss. His reasoning? It's a higher-profile job, Texas will always be home for him and it's much easier to recruit to Austin than snow-covered Milwaukee.
Key returners: G Ron Baker, G Tekele Cotton, F Cleanthony Early, G Fred VanVleet, G Evan Wessel, G Nick Wiggins, F Chadrack Lufile
Notable newcomers: F Kadeem Coleby, F Darius Carter, F Shaquille Morris, G Rian Holland
Best-case scenario: Less than 12 months removed from its magical run to the Final Four, Wichita State quickly makes it clear it's no one-year wonder. The Shockers deliver a better regular season than they did a year ago when they suffered eight losses, six during Valley regular season play. Having sweet-shooting Ron Baker and onetime starter Evan Wessell healthy the entire season helps, but the biggest key is the performance of the replacements for graduated starters Malcolm Armstead and Carl Hall. Sophomore point guard Fred VanVleet, a former top 100 recruit, builds on his strong finish to last season. Bouncy 6-foot-9 Louisana-Lafayette transfer Kadeem Coleby can't match Hall's back-to-the-basket scoring, but he excels on the offensive glass and intimidates opponents with his shot-blocking prowess. Wichita State coasts to the Valley title and enters the NCAA tournament brimming with confidence. Nobody underestimates the Shockers this year, but they claw their way to the Elite Eight anyway, ousting in-state power Kansas -- the team that refuses to play them -- in the process. Gregg Marshall is again the hottest coaching candidate in the nation, but he shuns offers from power-conference programs and signs a contract extension with Wichita State for a second straight year instead.
Worst-case scenario: Wichita State finds it's a lot easier to "Play Angry" when you're not being showered with preseason accolades. An offseason's worth of Final Four-boosted hype and a preseason top 25 ranking result in early-season complacency. The Shockers try to regain their March form in time for conference play but it proves more elusive than they had hoped. Armstead's leadership and decision-making is missed, as is the low-post scoring of Hall, an attribute no current Wichita State big man can duplicate. On the bubble in late February, Wichita State concludes the regular season with two losses in three games to cede the Valley title to Indiana State, then falls to the Sycamores in the Arch Madness title game. That dooms Wichita State to following up its Final Four run with an NIT bid. Though Gregg Marshall only has one league title in seven seasons in Wichita, power-conference programs again pursue him. This time Marshall bolts, fearing he'll miss his window otherwise.
Key returners: G Kendall Williams, G Hugh Greenwood, C Alex Kirk, G Cleveland Thomas, F Cameron Bairstow
Notable newcomers: G Cullen Neal, F Merv Lindsay, G/F Deshawn Delaney
Best-case scenario: Four times in Steve Alford's final five seasons in Albuquerque, New Mexico won or shared the Mountain West crown but either failed to reach the NCAA tournament or couldn't advance beyond the opening weekend. That stretch of postseason futility ends this spring when Alford's former top assistant, Craig Neal, leads an experienced, talented Lobos team to its first Sweet 16 since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams more than a quarter century ago. Under Neal, New Mexico plays with the same defensive fervor it did under Alford but with greater freedom offensively. Guards Kendall Williams, Hugh Greenwood and Cullen Neal thrive in a more free-flowing style, while all-conference center Alex Kirk and blossoming forward Cameron Bairstow form the West Coast's premier frontcourt duo. New Mexico's breakthrough March run ends one win shy of a Final Four, but Neal is still rewarded with a long contract extension. Unlike Alford, he doesn't leave before the ink is dry.
Worst-case scenario: Much to the dismay of New Mexico fans, Alford's new team plays far deeper into March than his former one. Whereas UCLA eradicates Alford's reputation for early postseason exits with a surprise Elite Eight run, New Mexico exits the NCAA tournament meekly with another round of 64 loss. Unlike last year's stunning upset at the hands of Harvard, however, this one's no shocker. It's reflective of the problems the Lobos had during a season that began with high expectations but ended with a middling third-place finish behind Boise State and UNLV in the Mountain West. Nobody steps up to replace either the perimeter defense or outside shooting provided by Tony Snell, who left a year early for the NBA draft. Kirk and Bairstow provide a solid starting frontcourt, but a glaring lack of depth behind them comes back to haunt New Mexico when they wear down during the second half of conference play. When New Mexico returns home from its NCAA tournament loss, there's no extension waiting for Neal. Instead there's only muttering about the Lobos wasting another chance for a long-awaited March breakthrough.
Key returners: G Jordan Adams, F Kyle Anderson, G Norman Powell, F Travis Wear, F David Wear, C Tony Parker
Notable newcomers: G Zach LaVine, G Bryce Alford, F Noah Allen
Best-case scenario: The skepticism Steve Alford's hire initially inspired quickly fades when UCLA exceeds expectations in his debut season. Alford settles on an unorthodox but effective solution to his lack of point guard, using slick-passing Kyle Anderson as a point forward on offense and having ultra-quick wing Norman Powell guard opposing point guards on defense. The rest of the roster is strong as advertised, with Jordan Adams providing perimeter scoring punch and a slimmed-down, more motivated Tony Parker emerging as a rugged compliment to the finesse of the Wear twins on the interior. UCLA outduels Arizona and Oregon for the Pac-12 title and eradicates Alford's reputation for March disappointment, advancing to the Elite Eight. Though the magic ends one win shy of a Final Four, there's a sense Alford will have UCLA there before long. Elite West Coast Class of 2015 recruits Ivan Rabb, Tyler Dorsey and Aaron Holiday commit to the Bruins soon after the season ends.
Worst-case scenario: The skepticism Alford's hire initially inspired only increases after UCLA fails to meet modest expectations in his debut season. The biggest issue is the roster Alford inherited lacks a true point guard. Alford tries a variety of options, but Anderson struggles bringing the ball up the court and defending the position and freshman combo guards Bryce Alford and Zach LaVine lack the instincts to properly play the position. Whereas Larry Drew II made everyone else around him better last season, the performance of the UCLA wings and big men suffer without a point guard to get them the ball in spots where they like to score. Unexpected losses mount and so does the pressure on Alford, something the ex-New Mexico coach doesn't expect or appreciate in year one in Westwood. Ben Howland's run of three straight Final Fours feels like ancient history after the Bruins bow out of the NCAA tournament in the opening round, marking the sixth straight year they've failed to reach the Sweet 16. Adams and Anderson turn pro, Rabb, Dorsey and Holiday drop UCLA from consideration and athletic director Dan Guerrero privately wonders if he made a mistake giving Alford such an expensive buyout clause.
Key returners: G Ben Brust, F Sam Dekker, G Josh Gasser, G Traevon Jackson, F Frank Kaminsky, G George Marshall,
Notable newcomers: F Nigel Hayes, F Vitto Brown, G Bronson Koenig, G Riley Dearring, G Jordan Hill
Best-case scenario: Is this the year Wisconsin finishes lower than fourth in the Big Ten for the first time in Bo Ryan's tenure? Not a chance. Though Wisconsin lost all three frontcourt starters from last year, Bo Ryan compensates by going to a three-guard look with 6-foot-7 Sam Dekker at power forward and 6-foot-11 Frank Kaminsky at center. Dekker blossoms into an All-American candidate, Kaminsky defends and rebounds capably and the three-guard look gives the Badgers two ball handlers (Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson) and a knock-down shooter (Ben Brust). Conventional wisdom suggests there will be a three-team race for the Big Ten title between Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State, but the Badgers assert themselves early and stay in contention until the final week of the season. Validation then comes in March when Ryan guides Wisconsin to the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years. Optimism entering the 2014-15 season soars as Dekker announces he's returning to school, meaning the Badgers bring back every key player besides Brust.
Worst-case scenario: Is this the year Wisconsin finishes lower than fourth in the Big Ten for the first time in Bo Ryan's tenure? At last, it is. We find out in a hurry why Jarrod Uthoff's transfer to Iowa infuriated Ryan so much because it's clear the Badgers miss the promising 6-foot-8 big man. Dekker is better suited to small forward than power forward and neither Kaminsky nor senior Zach Bohannon seize the starting center job, forcing Ryan to play freshmen more than he'd like. The backcourt is adequate offensively, but Gasser's lateral quickness post-ACL tear isn't what it once was and the lack of size on the perimeter leaves Wisconsin vulnerable on defense. That translates to a sixth-place Big Ten finish and an opening-round NCAA tournament exit. Worse yet, Uthoff keys a surprising Sweet 16 run from Iowa and Dekker bolts for the NBA, extinguishing optimism entering the offseason and ushering in a rare rebuilding year.
Key returners: G Kevin Pangos, G Gary Bell Jr., G David Stockton, F Sam Dower, C Przemek Karnowski, G Kyle Dranginis, G/F Drew Barham
Notable newcomers: G Gerard Coleman, F Angel Nunez, C Ryan Edwards
Best-case scenario: It's a testament to the strength of the Gonzaga program that the Zags have a top 20-caliber team in what most consider to be a transition season. This year's backcourt is more explosive than last year's version thanks to the addition of slashing Providence transfer Gerard Coleman to compliment returning starters Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. And though the departure of WCC Player of the Year Kelly Olynyk and four-year starter Elias Harris leaves massive shoes to fill in the frontcourt, highly touted 7-footer Przemek Karnowski and talented forward Sam Dower prove ready for expanded roles. Gonzaga endures some growing pains in non-league play as players adjust to newfound responsibility, but the Zags tear through the WCC and find comfort entering the NCAA tournament under-the-radar as opposed to the pressure of last March. Channeling their underdog days from more than a decade ago, Gonzaga springs a big upset over a top-three seed in the Round of 32 before bowing out in the Sweet 16. The mini-run raises optimism that a Final Four may be possible the following season when the Zags return most of their rotation and add a strong recruiting class.
Worst-case scenario: Two key issues prevent Gonzaga from living up to its top 25 preseason ranking: The Zags have no perimeter defensive stopper to replace Mike Hart, nor do they have any frontcourt depth behind Karnowski and Dower. Coleman is a gifted scorer, but it quickly becomes apparent he lacks the intangibles and defensive tenacity of Hart, as do fellow small forward candidates Kyle Drangingis, Drew Barham and Angel Nunez. The issue isn't so glaring in WCC play, but it repeatedly crops up against high-major opponents with multiple scoring wings. The lack of frontcourt options also is a problem against power-conference opponents with big men capable of drawing fouls on Karnowski and Dower. The Zags tried to address the issue in the offseason, but they failed to land transfer targets Mike Moser and Josh Davis. Thus, while Gonzaga still wins the WCC and reaches the NCAA tournament, the Zags suffer another early exit, prompting more muttering among fans about the program's postseason underachievement under Mark Few. Could the 2014-15 season be the year that changes? Perhaps, but optimism dwindles when Karnowski reveals he has accepted a contract to play professionally in Europe.
Key returners: G Shabazz Napier, G Ryan Boatright, G Omar Calhoun, F Deandre Daniels, F Tyler Olander, F Niels Giffey
Notable newcomers: F Kentan Facey, G Terrence Samuel, C Amida Brimah
Best-case scenario: Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun combine to form one of the nation's better backcourts as expected, but it's improved play from the frontcourt that fuels UConn's strong season. Power forward Deandre Daniels raises his level of play to match what he delivered during the final seven games of last season when he averaged 17 points and 7.2 rebounds. Tyler Olander returns from suspension, freshman Kentan Facey is ruled eligible by the NCAA and 7-footer Amida Brimah forces his way into the rotation, helping UConn go from a poor rebounding team to an average one. Last year, UConn was ineligible for the postseason yet played hard every night under Kevin Ollie, amassing a 20-10 record and a seventh-place Big East finish. The Huskies play even more relentlessly with more on the line this year, finishing second to Louisville in league play and making a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Athletic director Warde Manuel's decision to anoint Ollie as UConn's permanent coach last December looks more and more shrewd by the day.
Worst-case scenario: UConn's backcourt matches last year's production, but frontcourt issues limit how good the Huskies can be. Daniels more closely resembles the player he was during the first half of last season rather than the second and none of the other big men assert themselves as worthy of the other frontcourt position. Olander remains in Ollie's doghouse all season, Facey is ruled ineligible and Brimah is too raw to help much this year. As a result, UConn gets pushed around in the paint again and finishes with similar rebounding numbers as last year when it was second-to-last in the Big East. Though Napier, Boatright and Calhoun do enough to help the Huskies finish fourth in the AAC and sneak into the NCAA tournament, Ollie's team isn't good enough to stick around very long. Behind closed doors, Manuel muses about whether he should have sought someone with head coaching experience as Jim Calhoun's permanent replacement.
Key returners: G Rob Brandenberg, G Treveon Graham, F Jarred Guest, G Melvin Johnson, F Juvonte Reddic, G Briante Weber
Notable newcomers: F Terrance Shannon, G Jordan Burgess, F Mo Alie-Cox, G JeQuan Lewis
Best-case scenario: Whereas last year VCU sometimes lacked the toughness and physicality to defend and rebound against opponents who beat their swarming defense, the arrival of Florida State transfer Terrance Shannon helps alleviate that problem. The athletic 6-foot-8 forward provides some muscle in the paint alongside 6-foot-9 center Juvonte Reddic yet has enough speed and quickness that the Rams don't sacrifice much having him on the floor instead of a fourth guard. With a sturdier defense, a proven interior scorer in Reddic and a wealth of firepower at wing, VCU makes its case that this is Shaka Smart's best team. The Rams enact revenge against a Michigan team with a freshman point guard in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off semifinals, edge Saint Louis for the Atlantic 10 title and make their deepest NCAA tournament run since their Final Four appearance in 2011. Once again, power-conference suitors try to woo Shaka Smart after the season ends. Once again, Smart tells them to get lost.
Worst-case scenario: Though VCU forces turnovers and scores in transition at a similar rate to last season and improves its half-court defense this season, the half-court offense is another story. Neither Rob Brandenberg nor any of VCU's other wings stretch the defense the way graduated 3-point bomber Troy Daniels did last season. Plus, with Briante Weber at point guard instead of graduated Darius Theus, the Rams' offense is as worthy of the nickname "Havoc" as their defense is. Reddic doesn't get enough post touches, Weber commits too many turnovers trying to create off the dribble and the wings struggle to find driving lanes against a packed-in defense. Michigan annihilates VCU again in Puerto Rico even with a freshman point guard, Saint Louis and UMass relegate the Rams to third in the A-10 and Smart's team is humbled in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Once again, power-conference suitors try to woo Smart after the season ends. Weary of the challenge of trying to out-duel programs with more pedigree and deeper pockets, this time he bites.
Key returners: F Isaiah Austin, F Cory Jefferson, G Gary Franklin, G Brady Heslip, F Rico Gathers
Notable newcomers: G Kenny Chery, F Royce O'Neale, G Al Freeman, F Ish Wainright, F Johnathan Motley
Best-case scenario: Baylor's NCAA tournament seasons have come in even years under Scott Drew, and 2014 continues the pattern. The Bears follow up last year's NIT title by returning to the NCAA tournament this spring after challenging Kansas and Oklahoma State for the Big 12 crown. The catalyst for Baylor's success is a frontcourt among the most talented in the nation. Promising sophomore Isaiah Austin shows no rust after sitting out all summer after shoulder surgery, senior Cory Jefferson picks up where he left off in the NIT last year and space-eating sophomore Rico Gathers cracks the starting lineup and showcases an improved jump shot. Baylor's backcourt turns out to be better than expected thanks to the outside shooting of Brady Heslip and the decision-making of Kenny Chery. The 5-foot-11 junior college transfer doesn't duplicate Pierre Jackson's production, but he solves Baylor's biggest question mark by seizing the starting point guard job.
Worst-case scenario: Despite a formidable front court, the capable shooting of Heslip and contributions from several of the freshmen, the combination of point guard issues and inconsistency derails Baylor. Entrusting the point guard job to Chery makes Baylor fans yearn for not just Jackson but also backup A.J. Walton, who also graduated. A lack of concentration also plagues Baylor just as it did last year when the Bears won at Rupp Arena, upset Kansas and ripped through the NIT bracket yet also fell to Charleston in non-league play and dropped five of six in February to fall out of NCAA tournament contention. These Bears look far more like those Bears than the 2012 Elite Eight version. Baylor slumps down the stretch and finishes tied for fourth in a Big 12 with only two high-quality teams, not enough to merit an NCAA bid. Jefferson graduates and Austin turns pro without ever playing in an NCAA tournament game, leaving serious questions about whether Baylor has peaked under Scott Drew or not.
Key returners: G Jabril Trawick, G Markel Starks, G D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, F Nate Lubick, F Mikael Hopkins, F Stephen Domingo, F Mikael Hopkins, C Moses Ayegba
Notable newcomers: F Reggie Cameron, C Josh Smith
Best-case scenario: With Otto Porter in the NBA and Greg Whittington recovering from an offseason torn ACL, Georgetown needs other frontcourt standouts to emerge. Hard-working 6-foot-8 senior Nate Lubick and long, lanky 6-foot-9 junior Mikael Hopkins play solid defense for the opening month of the season, but the real solution arrives in mid-December when UCLA transfer Josh Smith becomes eligible. Having cut late-night snacks from his diet and rededicated himself to conditioning during his redshirt year, Smith displays the soft hands, deft passing and good touch around the rim that he tantalized UCLA fans with in sporadic bursts before fatigue set in. He provides the dominant post presence Georgetown needs to complement a dynamic backcourt featuring Markel Starks, Jabril Trawick and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera. That nucleus propels Georgetown to a Big East title and a high seed in the NCAA tournament. The Hoyas are a popular upset pick in every office pool given their bleak recent March history, but for once they live up to their seeding, exorcising their opening-round demons and advancing to the Elite Eight. Meanwhile, Syracuse catches the March upset bug. The Orange become the first team to lose twice in the round of 64 as a No. 2 seed.
Worst-case scenario: Hopkins remains turnover-prone in the high post and Lubick lacks the skill to become much of a scoring threat, but Georgetown fans aren't worried about the lack of opening-month production from their front court. They've heard for months that a trimmed-down, refocused Smith will be their savior once he becomes eligible. Smith makes his mid-December debut amid much fanfare ... and looks hardly any different than he did at UCLA. Too overweight and out-of-shape to play more than two or three minutes at a time without getting tired or picking up bad fouls, he averages only 18 minutes per game and fails to provide what Georgetown needs. The last hope is a late-season return from Whittington, but his knee doesn't fully heal in time. Georgetown's trio of guards wear down late in the season and the Hoyas fade to a tie for third in league play. There's no fear of another NCAA tournament collapse because Georgetown is actually a round of 64 underdog in a 10-7 game. The result is familiar, however: Another opening-round exit.
Key returners: G Josh Richardson, G Jordan McRae, G Quinton Chievous, F Jeronne Maymon, F Jarnell Stokes, G Derek Reese
Notable newcomers: G Antonio Barton, G Robert Hubbs, G Darius Thompson
Best-case scenario: Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes form one of the SEC's most imposing froncourts. Jordan McRae and highly touted freshman Robert Hubbs III provide firepower from the wings. All that's missing for Tennessee is a point guard to feed those weapons ... and Memphis transfer Antonio Barton fills that role seamlessly. Though Barton played mostly off ball at Memphis as a sophomore and junior, he had some nice moments as a freshman at point guard in place of a struggling Joe Jackson. He understands Cuonzo Martin needs him to distribute more than score and he embraces that, content with the fact he finally gets to start after slipping to fourth in Memphis' guard rotation last season. Tennessee isn't quite in Kentucky's class in the SEC, but the Vols overtake Florida for second place and earn a top-four NCAA tournament seed. A Sweet 16 helps Martin fully emerge from Bruce Pearl's shadow and solidify himself as Tennessee's coach for years to come.
Worst-case scenario: Maymon and Stokes form one of the SEC's most imposing froncourts. McRae and Hubbs provide firepower from the wings. All that's missing for Tennessee is a point guard to feed those weapons ... and Barton isn't the answer. The marriage of convenience sparked by Trae Golden's transfer fizzles because Barton can't deliver the ball to Tennessee's other weapons in places where they can look to score. That shouldn't be stunning either considering Barton passed for only 29 assists in 433 minutes last year, while firing up 73 missed shots. Freshman Darius Thompson gets some extended playing time at point guard too, but he's too inexperienced to fill that void. As a result, Tennessee fades to the middle of the pack in the SEC and lands in the NIT for the third straight year. Fans in Knoxville don't even wait until the Vols lose in the NIT quarterfinals to begin clamoring for the return of Pearl now that his three-year show-cause penalty is set to expire.
TEN OTHERS TO WATCH: Boise State, Colorado, Creighton, Harvard, Indiana, Iowa, Notre Dame, Saint Louis, UNLV, Virginia
- Sports & Recreation