Kentucky won the NCAA tournament last year, and Louisville just won it this season. So the question is, do the other 49 states even have a chance? Well, maybe. The 2013-14 season will begin much like the last two ended — with the two rivals from the bluegrass state owning the inside track to be the last team standing. Aside from those two, plenty of the usual suspects will be ready to give chase as well. Who will sit atop the college basketball world as the road to Arlington starts to get paved next fall? Here’s your never-too-early sneak peek:
The Wildcats’ incoming freshman class has a quantity and quality to match the Anthony Davis-led group that captured the 2012 title. If John Calipari also adds Andrew Wiggins, it could be the greatest freshman class ever. The Cats will also benefit from the return of sophs-to-be Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress.
2. Michigan State
It’s possible 6-foot-10 junior forward Adreian Payne will turn pro, but if he doesn’t, the Spartans will be primed for a run at the title. Unlike this season, Gary Harris, Brandon Dawson and Travis Trice should be fully healthy for the Spartans at the start of the 2013-14 season.
Incandescent 6-7 freshman Jabari Parker will team up with Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood to give the Blue Devils a pair of wing athletes that have been conspicuously missing the last few years. Look for 6-2 freshman guard Matt Jones to make an impact as well with his outside shooting.
The 2012 champs will reload thanks to the return of Chane Behanan and Luke Hancock, and you can expect Montrezl Harrell to make a huge leap forward. Much will depend on how quickly Kevin Ware recovers from his broken leg.
When freshman forward Aaron Gordon announced he had chosen Arizona just hours before winning the MVP award at the McDonald’s All-American, he assured that Sean Miller will have the nation’s best frontcourt next season. Gordon will work the baseline alongside sophomores Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski. Sophomore guard Gabe York, a pure scorer, should also be ready to play more minutes.
Even if 6-6 sophomore Adonis Thomas turns pro (which would be a mistake), the Tigers will be loaded on the perimeter with the return of Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford and Geron Johnson. Josh Pastner has recruited another top-five freshman class headlined by Austin Nichols, a 6-8 sharp shooter from Eads, Tenn.
7. Ohio State
Big Ten scoring champ Deshaun Thomas is graduating, but the Buckeyes will still return Aaron Craft as well as rapidly improving 6-8 junior guard LaQuinton Ross. Amir Williams, a 6-11 junior and former McDonald’s All-American, should finally be ready to give the Buckeyes a post presence they lacked this season.
Jim Boeheim’s squad will be loaded in the frontcourt for its first year in the ACC. Sophomore DaJuan Coleman should be much improved and ready to link up with C.J. Fair and Rakeem Christmas. Boeheim also recruited two elite freshman guards from New Jersey, Tyler Roberson and Tyler Ennis.
The Golden Eagles are losing point guard Junior Cadougan, but they are returning the nucleus of their Elite 8 squad in Vander Blue, Davante Gardner, Jamil Wilson and Todd Mayo. Buzz Williams is also adding a pair of Milwaukee products in 6-3 guard Duane Wilson and 6-5 forward Deonte Burton.
The Gators are losing their backcourt in Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario, but they will add two excellent freshmen from their home state, 6-1 guard Kasey Hill and 6-9 jumping jack Chris Walker. Those two will have the benefit of playing alongside veterans like point guard Scottie Wilbekin, forward Will Yeguete and power forward Patric Young.
The Buffaloes underachieved this season because of their young squad, but with all five starters expected to return, they will be primed to challenge Arizona for the Pac-12 title. Senior forward Andre Roberson, the nation’s leading rebounder, continues to be one of college basketball’s best-kept secrets.
Otto Porter, Jr., is most likely gone to the NBA, but the Hoyas still return one of the top backcourts in the country in Markel Starks and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera. The X-factor will be Josh Smith, a 6-10 center who transferred from UCLA and has been plagued by weight issues his entire career.
I put them here because of the names on the front of the jersey, not the ones on the back. Bill Self is bringing in another stellar recruiting class (headlined by Wayne Selden) and 6-8 forward Perry Ellis should make a big jump in his sophomore season, but it won’t be easy to replace the entire starting lineup.
I’m assuming Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., will turn pro, but if Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III come back, the Wolverines will be right back in the hunt. A big question will be whether incoming freshman point guard Derrick Walton is ready to run the offense from day one.
15. North Carolina
Here’s hoping that James Michael McAdoo is smart enough to return to school. If he does, I expect the Tar Heels to be much stronger in the backcourt with an improving point guard Marcus Paige and the arrival of freshman Nate Britt. The center position will continue to be an area of concern.
Yes, the Hoosiers are losing a lot, but this wasn’t just a great team — it’s a great program. Yogi Ferrell should be one of the nation’s top point guards as a sophomore, and Tom Crean is bringing in a top-five recruiting class led by Noah Vonleh and Troy Williams.
The Badgers overachieved this season, but next year they won’t have to. Josh Gasser is due to return from his torn ACL and will form a great backcourt with Traveon Jackson. But the real star will be 6-7 forward Sam Dekker, who should be preseason All-Big Ten to start his sophomore season.
The Rams are losing their starting backcourt of Troy Daniels and Darius Theus, but they are returning the most important piece — Shaka Smart, who turned down a chance to coach UCLA. Treveon Graham should be the preseason player of the year in the Atlantic 10, and seniors Juvonte Reddic and Rob Brandenberg will provide toughness and experience.
Jeronne Maymon had to take a medical redshirt this season, but his return will give the Vols one of the strongest frontcourts in the SEC. Trae Golden should continue his improvement at the point guard, and Cuonzo Martin is also bringing in one of the nation’s top freshmen in Robert Hubbs, a 6-5 guard from Newbern, Tenn.
Shabazz Muhammad and Larry Drew II are gone, but if Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson come back, then the Bruins should be able to challenge for the Pac-12 crown in Steve Alford’s first season. Ben Howland recruited a pair of good freshmen, but Alford is also bringing his son, Bryce, who is a potential starter in the backcourt.
The Zags will say goodbye to seniors Elias Harris and Mike Hart, and probably to Kelly Olynyk as well, but they will still have plenty of talent in the backcourt with Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and David Stockton. A big question will be how much 7-foot center Przemek Karnowski improves in his sophomore season.
This will be Tommy Amaker’s best team in Cambridge — and that includes the ones that featured Jeremy Lin. The Crimson won the Ivy and beat New Mexico in the NCAA tournament without their two best players, who had to take the year off because of an academic scandal. Those two players, point guard Brandyn Curry and forward Kyle Casey, will be back next season, and the Crimson aren’t losing any of their key guys.
The Cavaliers made some noise this season before falling short of the NCAA tournament, but with everyone except Jontel Evans coming back, Tony Bennett’s club should take a major step forward. Bennett is also adding a top-100 recruit in Devon Hall, a 6-5 guard from Virginia Beach.
The Wildcats will enter the season with two of the best players at their position in the newfangled Big East — sophomore point guard Ryan Arcidiacono and junior forward JayVaughn Pinkston. Freshman Kris Jenkins, a 6-6 forward from Washington, D.C., will have a chance to crack the starting lineup.
The Huskies will still be undermanned in the frontcourt, but they will be loaded on the perimeter with Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun. DeAndre Daniels should also be vastly improved on the wing, and freshman Kentan Facey, a 6-8 forward from Glen Head, N.Y., will make the Huskies even more athletic.