Louisville's 2013-14 title hopes took a hit when Russ Smith announced he's turning pro. (Getty Images)
Will Kentucky go from the NIT to preseason No. 1? Can Louisville defend its title? How good can Arizona and Marquette be?
It's too early to answer most of those questions since some top recruits haven't chosen a school, transfer season is only beginning and we don't know which NBA draft prospects are staying in school and which will leave. Nonetheless, based on my best guesses for who's staying and who's going, here's a look at a very early top 10 for the 2013-14 season, along with 15 others worth watching.
Key losses: G Julius Mays (graduating), G Ryan Harrow (transferring), C Nerlens Noel (projected to enter NBA draft), G Archie Goodwin (entering NBA draft)
Key returners: F Alex Poythress, C Willie Cauley-Stein, F Kyle Wiltjer
Notable newcomers: F Julius Randle, G Andrew Harrison, G Aaron Harrison, F James Young, C Dakari Johnson, F Marcus Lee
Why they're too high: If the 2011-12 Wildcats proved it was possible to win a championship with a freshman-heavy roster, then the 2012-13 version also showed talent won't translate into victories if the chemistry, work ethic and willingness to sacrifice isn't also there. Next season's Kentucky team has all the talent needed to contend for a championship, but they'll have to jell in a way this season's team never did.
Why they're too low: Well, Kentucky can't start the season any higher than preseason No. 1, but its roster can get deeper and better if No. 1 overall recruit Andrew Wiggins selects the Wildcats over Florida State, Kansas and North Carolina. That would give the Wildcats the No. 1 player at every position in the Class of 2013 to go with a couple other key recruits and three talented returners.
2. MICHIGAN STATE
Key losses: C Derrick Nix (graduating)
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
Why they're too high: There's still a chance either Harris or Payne turn pro. Both flashed NBA potential this past season, though Payne is only starting to find consistency and Harris was slowed by a shoulder injury. Payne, in particular, would be difficult for Michigan State to lose because the Spartans would then have to replace both their starting big men.
Why they're too low: If Payne and Harris return, the Spartans will have four starters and a slew of key reserves back from a team that finished in the top three in the Big Ten and made the Sweet 16. Losing Nix takes away Michigan State's best low-post scorer, but the Spartans will be able to compensate fairly easily by sliding Payne to center, Dawsen to power forward and moving the promising Valentine into the starting backcourt.
Key losses: G Mark Lyons (graduating), F Solomon Hill (graduating), F Kevin Parrom (graduating)
Key returners: G Nick Johnson, G Jordin Mayes, F Brandon Ashley, C Kaleb Tarczewski, F Grant Jerrett
Notable newcomers: F Aaron Gordon, F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, G Elliott Pitts, G T.J. McConnell (transfer from Duquesne)
Why they're too high: Arizona wasn't an elite defensive team this past season, and the loss of the team's most versatile defender (Hill) probably won't help that. The Wildcats' young front line also featured no dependable back-to-the-basket scorer this past season, something that needs to change if Arizona is going to go from being a very good team to one of the nation's elite. And lastly, the graduating seniors were Arizona's vocal leaders. New leaders will have to emerge now.
Why they're too low: The addition of McConnell will give Sean Miller the true point guard he lacked, which should help everyone else get higher-quality shots. Johnson showed signs of tapping into his immense potential as a sophomore and Hollis-Jefferson and Gordon are instant impact recruits who should give the frontcourt a boost, especially if the Wildcats opt to play Gordon at power forward instead of small forward.
Key losses: F Ryan Kelly (graduating), C Mason Plumlee (graduating), G Seth Curry (graduating)
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 (Mississippi State transfer), F Jabari Parker, G Matt Jones, F Semi Ojeleye
Why they're too high: Unless Marshall Plumlee develops unexpectedly quick this offseason, Duke will have no true center or traditional post player in its lineup and perhaps in its rotation. That will be a concern on both ends of the floor but especially protecting the rim on defense. Also, it's unclear yet if Dawkins will return after his redshirt season and if he can help fill Curry's role. He has not worked out with the team but he has been working with a personal trainer.
Why they're too low: Few teams in the nation have a better group of forwards than the Blue Devils. Hood was the most coveted transfer in the nation last year, Parker is one of the gems of the Class of 2013, and Jefferson and Murphy showed flashes off the bench. Defensive concerns remain in the backcourt, but starters Cook and Sulaimon return, with Thornton, impact freshman Jones and possibly Dawkins also likely to see playing time. That's a formidable enough perimeter corps to make up for a lack of a true impact big man.
Key losses: G Kenny Boynton (graduating), G Mike Rosario (graduating), F Erik Murphy (graduating)
Key returners: F Patric Young, G Scottie Wilbekin, F Casey Prather, G Michael Frazier II, F Will Yeguete
Notable newcomers: G Kasey Hill, F Chris Walker, F Damontre Harris (transfer from South Carolina), F Dorian Finney-Smith (transfer from Virginia Tech)
Why they're too high: Florida lost a lot of perimeter scoring from this year's SEC championship team with the departure of Boyton, Rosario and Murphy. Wilbekin is capable of filling some of that void in the backcourt, but the Gators will need elite point guard recruit Hill to be ready to contribute immediately. Also a concern is whether Billy Donovan can keep his frontcourt standouts happy with Young returning. The Gators have five or six guys accustomed to playing starter's minutes, but not all of them will have that chance.
Why they're too low: Too many quality frontcourt players is a good problem to have, and Florida will have as much interior depth as anyone in the nation. Young needs to improve his conditioning and develop his offensive game, but he's a proven rim protector and rebounder. Yeguete is a versatile defender, Finney-Smith is a bouncy former top 100 recruit, Harris showed promise at South Carolina, and Walker is one of the Class of 2013's top prospects. With the size and athleticism it has all over its roster, Florida should be an elite defensive team again. If the Gators can get enough perimeter scoring, they'll be a threat to Kentucky in the SEC and a potential Final Four contender.
Key losses: G Peyton Siva (graduating), C Gorgui Dieng (entering NBA draft), Russ Smith (entering NBA draft)
Key returners: F Chane Behanan, F Wayne Blackshear, F Luke Hancock, F Montrezl Harrell, G Kevin Ware
Notable newcomers: G Chris Jones, G, Terry Rozier
Why they're too high: There's no obvious replacement for Dieng's ability as a rim protector, which will hurt Louisville's half-court defense and make them more reliant on forcing turnovers via their press. Also, both lead guards are now gone with Smith announcing he's turning pro in hopes of parlaying his strong junior season into a spot in the late first round of the draft. Replacing his ability to force turnovers, create his own shot and score in bunches will not be easy.
Why they're too low: If Behanan returns, Harrell develops and either freshman Terry Rozier or highly touted junior college transfer Chris Jones makes a smooth transition at point guard in place of Siva, Louisville will still be very good next season. Back-to-back championships is a tall order, but they'll have a realistic chance of returning to a Final Four for a third straight season.
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Key losses: G Junior Cadougan (graduating), G Trent Lockett (graduating), C Chris Otule (graduating)
Key returners: G Vander Blue, F Davante Gardner, F Jamil Wilson, G Todd Mayo, F Steve Taylor Jr. F Juan Anderson, G Derrick Wilson
Notable newcomers: G JaJuan Johnson, G/F Deonte Burton, G Duane Wilson, G John Dawson, F Jameel McKay
Why they're too high: A top 10 ranking is a bit of a leap for a program like Marquette that typically wins by squeezing the most out of modest talent. For the Golden Eagles to live up to expectations next season, they'll need their three top 60 freshmen to provide badly needed outside shooting and scoring punch while not becoming defensive liabilities. That's a lot to ask of newcomers, especially with a coach like Buzz Williams, who often has a short leash with freshmen.
Why they're too low: Williams has already proven he can win with an under-the-radar team, so there's no reason to believe Marquette won't be even better next season with its three leading scorers from an Elite Eight team back and Williams' best recruiting class arriving. If Johnson, Burton and Wilson are able to provide immediate help in the backcourt, there's no reason this can't be Marquette's best team since the Dwyane Wade era.
8. OHIO STATE
Key losses: F Deshaun Thomas (entering the NBA draft), F Evan Ravenel
Key returners: G Aaron Craft, F LaQuinton Ross, G Lenzelle Smith, F Sam Thompson, G Shannon Scott, F Amir Williams
Notable newcomers: G Kameron Williams, F Marc Loving
Why they're too high: The knock on Ohio State for most of the season was that nobody besides Thomas scored consistently enough, so it's only natural to wonder how the Buckeyes' offense will fare with him NBA-bound. His 19.8 points per game and ability to bail out the Buckeyes with tough mid-range jump shots will not be easily replaced.
Why they're too low: Thomas was far from a lock-down defender, so with Craft, Scott and Smith all back, Ohio State has a great chance to be elite defensively once again. And toward the end of the season, Craft, Thompson and Ross each scored more consistently, helping Ohio State go from a good team to a Final Four threat. If Ross can tap into his immense talent, build on his strong finish to this season and take on Thomas' go-to role, the Buckeyes could be a Big Ten and national contender again next season.
Key losses: F Otto Porter (projected to enter the NBA draft)
Key returners: F Greg Whittington, G Markel Starks, G D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, F Nate Lubick, F Mikael Hopkins, G Jabril Trawick
Notable newcomers: C Joshua Smith (UCLA transfer), F Reggie Cameron
Why they're too high: Even if the Hoyas are only losing one rotation player from this past season, that one player was awfully critical to the team's success. Porter averaged 16.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists as a sophomore, numbers good enough to earn him first-team all-America honors and make him a likely lottery pick, assuming he enters the draft as expected. The return of Whittington and Lubick and the arrival of Smith and Cameron give Georgetown a solid frontcourt, but there isn't another Porter in that bunch.
Why they're too low: No single guy in that group has to be Porter if the Georgetown frontcourt can collectively make up for his absence. Whittington averaged 12.0 points and 7.1 rebounds before his academic suspension, Cameron is a heralded recruit, and Smith is an NBA-caliber 7-footer capable of making a huge impact if he can trim 30-40 pounds and capitalize on a fresh start. Add in Smith-Rivera and Starks in the backcourt, and that's a team capable of contending in the new Big East and atoning for this year's early NCAA tournament exit.
10. NORTH CAROLINA
Key losses: G Dexter Strickland
Key returners: G Marcus Paige, G P.J. Hairston, G Reggie Bullock, G Leslie McDonald, F James Michael McAdoo, F Brice Johnson
Notable newcomers: F Isaiah Hicks, C Kennedy Meeks, G Nate Britt
Why they're too high: A top 10 preseason ranking for North Carolina is based on the idea that McAdoo, Bullock and Hairston all return to school, which is possible but not a certainty at this point. McAdoo, in particular, has reason to leave because he's still projected as a first-round pick this season despite plateauing as a sophomore. If McAdoo does turn pro, North Carolina has no proven scorer returning in its frontcourt. Either one of its sophomore big men would have to blossom, or Hicks or Meeks would need to be ready to step up right away.
Why they're too low: Though North Carolina had no signature wins this past season, the Tar Heels improved over the course of the season, especially when they adopted a four-guard look. Paige will improve as a sophomore, Hairston and Bullock are proven wing scorers and if he's back, McAdoo still has All-America potential. If any of North Carolina's young big men make strides, look for the Tar Heels to be more relevant in the ACC title picture and national title picture this year.
Fifteen others to watch: Colorado, Connecticut, Gonzaga, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Memphis, Michigan, New Mexico, Providence, Syracuse, UCLA, VCU, Wichita State, Wisconsin
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