With the season having tipped off over the weekend, here is my top ten to start the year.
Indiana: Perhaps college basketball gurus all across the country are feeling a bit nostalgic when they look at the AP Poll and see Indiana at number one. It’s the first time since 1979-80 that Indiana was ranked number one in the preseason AP Poll. To put that in perspective, in 1979-80 Bob Knight was coaching in Bloomington and the three-point line had yet to be introduced. Tom Crean’s Hoosiers are returning they’re entire starting lineup from last season, a season in which they reached the sweet 16 and won potentially the most exciting game of the regular season last year beating Kentucky at the buzzer. Indiana is led by National Player of the Year candidate and seven-foot sophomore center Cody Zeller. In a basketball-crazed state like Indiana, it’s nice to see the Hoosiers back with the rest of the college basketball elites.
2. Kentucky: If I were to list all the players John Calipari has sent to the NBA I’d probably be talking long enough to put you to sleep. Most recently Coach Cal saw Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist be selected 1-2 in the 2012 NBA draft the first time ever the top two picks of an NBA Draft went to the same school. In total Kentucky set an all-time high last year with six players selected in a single NBA Draft, the most by one school in a single draft. They return this year with another star-studded recruiting class. A starting lineup with names like Kyle Wiltjer, Nerlens Noel, and Archie Goodwin may not sound like much but in March it will. Expect Kentucky to not only send more guys to the NBA, but contend for another National Championship.
3. Louisville: For years the Cardinals have been the little brother to in-state rival Kentucky and last year was no exception coming up short against the Wildcats in one of the National Semifinals in New Orleans. If there’s a year they’re going to rise above Calipari’s Cats it would certainly make sense for Rick Pitino’s bunch to make their move this year. While they aren’t returning all five starters like Indiana, Louisville is returning a good chunk of their starting lineup and similar to Indiana are led by the man in the middle, junior center Gorgui Dieng. While any team coached by Rick Pitino is always in the mix, this particular team has a chance to win a championship.
4. Michigan: The Wolverines roster has a nice mix of underclassmen and upperclassmen which figures to bode well for both the present and the future. As for this season, they’ll compete with Indiana in the Big 10 and enter with expectations higher than they’ve been in a while in Ann Arbor. John Beilein will rely heavily on guards Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. for most of the scoring. While they’ll need big contributions from their backcourt, this year Michigan has one of the better teams they’ve had since the Fab 5 days.
5. Ohio State: For the first time since the 2008-09 season there are three teams from the same conference in the AP preseason top five. This year it’s the Big 10 and in 2008-09 it was the Big East with Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Connecticut all in the top five. For what it’s worth Connecticut was the only one of those three to reach the final four in March of 2009 losing to Michigan State in the National Semifinal. If Ohio State looks to make a repeat run to the Final Four in 2012-13 they’ll have to get a big year from 6’7’’ 215-pound junior DeShaun Thomas. Thad Mata and company will have their work cut out for them in the Big 10, but if the Buckeyes are for real they’ll be there in the end.
6. NC State: In referencing Indiana’s long-awaited climb back to the top of the college basketball world, what should be added is that it’s been as long of a wait for NC State. For years the Wolfpack were ACC cellar dwellers under former coach Sydney Lowe. Lowe paced the NC State sideline his flashy red jacket which always jumped out on TV but that’s about all that jumped out on TV whenever NC State even saw the national stage under Lowe. Mark Gottfried had them going in the right direction last year getting them to the Sweet 16 as an 11-seed and falling just short against Kansas. Gottfried and the Wolfpack bring in some decent recruits most notably Tyler Lewis from Oak Hill Academy, a school that has seen many of its players head for the NBA. Junior C.J. Leslie played a big role in the Wolfpack’s run last season to the sweet 16 and will likely have to continue to do so in order to keep the Wolfpack the highest ranked team in the ACC. You don’t have to be a college basketball pundit to be surprised when you look at the polls and see NC State ahead of both Duke and North Carolina. Maybe it won’t be so surprising as the season goes on.
7. Kansas: Interesting how NC State and Kansas are 6-7 respectively in the AP Poll eight months removed from their Sweet 16 showdown. Like most of the college basketball powers there’s always that coach who roams the sideline for years and years. For Duke it’s been Coach K, for Louisville it’s been Rick Pitino, and for Kansas it’s Bill Self. Self enters his tenth season on the Jayhawks sideline and has presided over a national championship in 2008 against John Calipari’s Memphis Tigers and just recently a national championship appearance against John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats last season that didn’t end as well for Self’s squad. With the departure of Thomas Robinson, big seven-foot senior Jeff Withey will have to carry more of the load inside. In a weak Big 12 the Jayhawks should be able to beat up on league opponents and be a mainstay in the AP poll week in and week out. Whether or not they’ll play for a National Championship again remains to be seen.
8. Syracuse: Speaking of coaches roaming the same sideline for years and years….there’s a guy named Jim Boeheim coaching Syracuse. Having coached at Syracuse since 1976 Boeheim is back for more in 2012-13. It looked for a while as if Syracuse might be on the wrong end of the first 16-1 upset in NCAA tournament history as UNC-Asheville had them on the ropes in the first round but after surviving the Orange fell just short of the Final Four as they advanced all the way to the Regional Finals. They return impact players Brandon Triche and C.J. Fair this season and should compete with Louisville for Big East supremacy. They opened with a nice non-conference win against nationally-ranked San Diego State and should be around for the long haul again.
9. Florida: Like Syracuse, Florida fell just shy of the Final Four last season, losing in the Regional Finals to Louisville. Florida benefitted from Missouri’s loss to Norfolk State but still finished strong making a nice run in the tournament. As you all should know the SEC is known for football, not basketball. The depth in football does not carry over to basketball as Florida and Kentucky appear to be the only two real national contenders in the conference though with Missouri’s move to the SEC they could make some noise this year as well. Nevertheless Billy Donovan’s cast of characters should be able to do lots of good this year and I expect Kenny Boynton to fill the void left by Bradley Beal’s departure.
10. Duke: I can’t lie, I’m still kind of laughing at them for losing to Lehigh in their first game of the tournament. They’ll get a big test early as they play Kentucky tomorrow night in their second game of the season. I don’t expect this Duke team to contend for a national championship but whenever Coach K is on the sideline the Dukies will always manage to win their fair share of games and remain in discussion. I have my doubts as to who can step up and replace the role vacated by Austin Rivers. There’s a reason why he was a lottery pick in the NBA Draft after playing only one year at Duke.