1. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas. The covers of Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine are one thing. When a college basketball player – a freshman, no less – makes the pages of GQ, you know he’s a big deal. The Canadian comes to Lawrence, Kan., with LeBron-sized hype, but also with some doubters who believe he will wilt (pardon the pun) under the pressure of those expectations. All eyes are on him, and in today’s college hoops world, there is no such thing as bringing freshmen along slowly.
2. Russ Smith, Louisville. Undoubtedly the most disagreed-upon player in the nation. Stat guru Ken Pomeroy says Russdiculous was the national Player of the Year in 2012-13, but USA Today didn’t even put him on its top two preseason All-America teams for 2013-14. One thing is sure: the leading scorer on the defending national champions could have a huge year if officials call the perimeter tightly, because very few defenders can stay in front of him. And Russ likes points.
3. Marshall Henderson, Mississippi. It takes a lot to get the nation buzzing about an Ole Miss basketball player, but Henderson did it last year. Shameless shot selection, clutch play and a unique ability to infuriate opposing fans made Henderson a must-watch player in February and March. If he were all talk and no action, that would be one thing; but he carried the Rebels to a surprise SEC tournament title and even more surprising NCAA round of 32 berth – on his way to an offseason suspension. What does the wild child have in store for an encore?
4. Julius Randle, Kentucky. After watching the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Randle in exhibition games, Wiggins must really be good if he’s the better freshman. The latest first-year star at Revolving Door University has an all-court game but is especially devastating on the block, using strength, athleticism and left-handed touch to score in an almost unlimited variety of ways.
5. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State. Surprised a lot of people when he passed up NBA lottery-pick money to return to school. That gift lifted the Cowboys to their highest preseason ranking (eighth) since the Eddie Sutton Era. The strong, tough point guard doesn’t have dazzling stats but has all the intangibles: leader, clutch player, winner.
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6. Aaron Craft, Ohio State. Speaking of a guy with all the intangibles. Craft has toughness for days, and his defensive persistence has made him the No. 1 pest – and most disliked player – in the Big Ten. At least among opposing fans. Opposing coaches wish they had him on their side. It’s a strange world where a guy with a high GPA and no off-court issues is a villain, but Craft will play the part on a Buckeyes team that should be very good again this year.
7. Doug McDermott, Creighton. Teamed with his dad, coach Greg McDermott, to raise the Bluejays from the Missouri Valley Conference to the new Big East. Sure, Creighton has had a very good tradition, a great arena and a loyal following – but the program has reached a new level under Team McDermott. How far can Creighton go in Doug’s final season, and how many points will he score along the way? Can’t wait to find out.
8. Jabari Parker, Duke. Back before Wiggins stole his thunder, Parker was the SI cover boy and the acclaimed Best Prospect Since LeBron. Then he got hurt his senior year of high school and slipped a little in the rankings. But word out of Durham is that Parker is fully healthy and on track for an outstanding season – even if it’s his only one in college. Parker was impressive in the Blue Devils’ two exhibition games, and Mike Krzyzewski will give him a prime role in the offense.
9. Adreian Payne, Michigan State. For two years, Payne was a look-like-Tarzan, play-like-Jane guy. Then last season the Tarzan moments began to outweigh the Jane lapses – the big man had stretches of dominance inside, interspersed with some surprising shooting touch from the perimeter. Now, after coming back for his senior year, Payne could be poised for a season that puts him into the NBA draft top ten in 2014. If that happens, expect to see Michigan State in yet another Final Four in April.
10. Kevin Ware, Louisville. The wrenching sight was burned into the memories of all who saw it: Ware in shock and agony on the floor during the Midwest Regional final in Indianapolis – his right leg gruesomely snapped, bone protruding from the skin. Ware’s Louisville teammates rallied to support him, and he returned the support at the Final Four in Atlanta on the way to a national title. Now Ware is back and medically cleared to compete, and the ovation when he first checks in at Louisville’s Yum Center will be a goose bump moment.
11. Aaron Gordon, Arizona. The folks out West would like a word with everyone driving the hype train on Wiggins, Randle and Parker. They believe the explosive, 6-foot-8 Gordon is every bit as talented of a freshman, and will be every bit as important to the success of his team. If a more experienced Wildcats team is going to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2001, expect the San Jose, Calif., native to be leading them.
12. Mitch McGary, Michigan. As big and imposing a physical presence as there is in college basketball. McGary’s growth late last season helped propel the Wolverines to the national title game, and he should continue to progress this year as his offensive game develops. He’s been sidelined in preseason by a minor back issue, but expect him to return soon – and expect Michigan to be a prime Final Four threat again this year.
13. P.J. Hairston, North Carolina. Lucky he’s still on the team, after an embarrassing offseason of legal issues and problematic headlines. Roy Williams has been accused of enabling Hairston, as much out of desperate need to keep his leading returning scorer as anything else. It’s unclear how much time Hairston will miss, but the Tar Heels obviously will have a lot riding on him when he does return to action.
14. Noah Vonleh, Indiana. With four 1,000-point career scorers gone from a team that spent much of last season ranked No. 1 and won the Big Ten title, the Hoosiers are in acute need of a new leading man. Enter Vonleh, a versatile 6-foot-8 freshman who can score in a variety of ways and rebound with the best of them. He will be plugged in immediately and expected to play a major part in keeping Indiana recession-proof in a transition year.
15. Kyle Anderson, UCLA. A lot of guys like to be called “point forwards,” but few fit the term better than Anderson. The crafty, 6-foot-9 sophomore was second on the team in assists last year and may take on even more ball-handling duties now that Larry Drew II is gone. Oh, he also led the Bruins in rebounding and was fourth on the team in scoring. Not much Anderson can’t do, and it will be interesting to see how new coach Steve Alford uses him.
16. James Young, Kentucky. At best, Young was the fourth-most heralded member of the Wildcats’ amazing recruiting class. But it didn’t take long to hear the stories about pro scouts who came away from Kentucky practices raving about him as the revelation of the group. He’s every bit the talent as those ranked higher than him. A fluid, athletic wing, Young can shoot, slash and create havoc defensively. Another one-and-done Wildcat ticketed for the lottery.
17. Rodney Hood, Duke. Mike Krzyzewski doesn’t take a lot of transfers, but when he does, they produce – Roshown McLeod, Dahntay Jones and Seth Curry all were key players for the Blue Devils. Hood is the latest and perhaps greatest of the Duke transfers, fleeing the sinking ship at Mississippi State for Durham. He was named a team captain before ever playing an official game, and was the leading scorer in both of Duke’s exhibition games. That may continue all season.
18. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State. He was the best player for the Shockers during their dazzling run to the Final Four last spring, averaging 16.2 points and 7.6 rebounds in the NCAA tournament. With a full year of Division I ball under his belt after transferring from a small junior college, expect even more from Early this season. And with Doug McDermott and Creighton gone to the Big East, expect him to be the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year.
19. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut. He was the best player to sit out March Madness, with the Huskies banned from the postseason due to an APR disaster on former coach Jim Calhoun’s watch. But UConn is back to postseason eligibility, and Napier will be the biggest determining factor in the Huskies’ season. The senior guard led the team in scoring (17.1 ppg), assists (4.6) and steals (2.0) and was second in rebounding (4.4). He and Ryan Boatright comprise one of the nation’s finest backcourts.
20. Josh Smith, Georgetown. His potential matches his waistline: huge. But Smith squandered two-plus seasons at UCLA, being both out of shape and out of the good graces of coach Ben Howland. He transferred to Georgetown and received a waiver for immediate eligibility – and if he finally plays like the star he was supposed to be, the Hoyas may not miss Otto Porter as much as previously thought.
21. Michael Dixon, Memphis. Missouri transfer who was suspended from that program after being accused of sexual assault for the second time. No charges were filed. Dixon transferred after sitting out all last season, and he was granted immediate eligibility in September. Now a guy who averaged 13.5 points on a balanced Mizzou team in 2011-12 joins a loaded Memphis backcourt. If this were a 6-foot-6 and under league, Memphis might be your preseason No. 1.
22. Luke Hancock, Louisville. Has a returning Final Four Most Outstanding Player ever gotten less buzz than Hancock? Part of that is due to playing on the same team with Russ Smith and Montrezl Harrell, plus the rehab of Kevin Ware and the melodrama of Chane Behanan. But still. Hancock has been slowed by an offseason Achilles tendon injury, but expect the clutch shooter and uber leader to again be a vital player when the games are biggest.
23. Gary Harris, Michigan State. Talented, tough guard who played through shoulder injuries last year, but now appears to be fully healed. Was the Spartans’ leading scorer in exhibition play and is the most likely candidate on a balanced team to go for 25 on a given night. His upside may be the biggest reason why some think Michigan State can close the gap on Louisville and Kentucky and win the program’s first national title since 2000.
24. James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina. Was ranked the No. 8 player in America by Rivals.com in the Class of 2011, and six of the seven guys in front of him are now in the NBA. McAdoo himself may have thought he’d be there by now, but after an uneven sophomore season (14.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, still left you wanting more), he’s back for another year of college. If McAdoo continues maturing, the Tar Heels could exceed their No. 12 preseason ranking.
25. Jahii Carson, Arizona State. Little man had one of the best freshman seasons in the nation, averaging 18.5 points, 5.7 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 37.2 minutes per game. When Carson decided to come back for a second college season, the Sun Devils’ hopes for their first NCAA tournament bid since 2009 got a major boost. And coach Herb Sendek may need to make the field of 68 to keep his job.
Just missed the list: Davante Gardner, Marquette; Tyler Haws, BYU; Yogi Ferrell, Indiana; Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga; Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky; Montrezl Harrell, Louisville; T.J. McConnell, Arizona; Jeronne Maymon, Tennessee; Glenn Robinson III, Michigan; Nik Stauskas, Michigan; Jordan Adams, UCLA; Semaj Christian, Xavier; Mike Moser, Oregon; Josh Gasser, Wisconsin; Drew Crawford, Northwestern; Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa.
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