by Michael Bradley
So you think it’s all settled, do you? Coach Cal has another big-time collection of freshmen talent that’s good enough to beat the Sixers two out of three, and that means a National Championship is all but guaranteed?
The folks in East Lansing disagree. So do the defending champs, across the state of Kentucky. Michigan State has talent and depth inside and out, while Louisville boasts Russ Smith and a pile of talent. The Wildcats will be fun to watch, but kids don’t always get what they want. While the rest of us try to keep up with all the transfers, UK has some folks interested in keeping it away from instant glory.
1. Michigan State
Key Players: Keith Appling, Branden Dawson, Gary Harris, Adreian Payne
The Skinny: The Spartans will always play nasty defense but should score more this year thanks to Harris on the wing and Payne on the inside. It won’t always be pretty, but MSU will be highly effective.
Key Players: Wayne Blackshear, Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell, Russ Smith
The Skinny: Think the champs can’t do it again? Wrong. If either freshman Terry Rozier or JC newcomer Chris Jones locks down the point, the Cards will again be Final Four material, with Russdiculous and Harrell leading the way.
Key Players: Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress, Julius Randle, James Young
The Skinny: Here we go again. The Cats were freshmen-packed last year, but it didn’t go so well. This season’s crop of newcomers could be the best ever and features talent at every position. It’s up to John Calipari to make it all work—just like two years ago.
Key Players: Quinn Cook, Rodney Hood, Jabari Parker, Rasheed Sulaimon
The Skinny: The Devils lost a lot of firepower, but the arrivals of Parker and Hood should make them formidable up front. If Cook and Sulaimon step up, it’s Final Four time in Durham.
Key Players: Tarik Black, Perry Ellis, Andrew Wiggins
The Skinny: The Jayhawks weren’t going to sniff the top 10…until Wiggins announced he was coming and started dunking on everybody. Memphis transfer Black will provide heft inside.
Key Players: Brandon Ashley, Aaron Gordon, Nick Johnson, TJ McConnell, Kaleb Tarczewski
The Skinny: Zona’s younger players surged forward last year, and it will be up to the sophs and Gordon to work with Duquesne transfer McConnell and the athletic Johnson to rule the Pac-12.
7. Ohio State
Key Players: Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross, Shannon Scott, Lenzelle Smith
The Skinny: The pain of that Wichita State Elite 8 loss is still hanging around Columbus, but the Buckeyes have plenty to get past that, particularly if Ross becomes the scoring weapon Coach Thad Matta thinks he can.
Key Players: Rakeem Christmas, Tyler Ennis, CJ Fair, Jerami Grant
The Skinny: The Orange sustained some big losses, but Fair is a multi-purpose terror, the inside has plenty of heft and Ennis is on board to run the show. Oh, and don’t forget that nasty zone defense, because opponents can’t.
Key Players: Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas, Derrick Walton
The Skinny: The encore to Michigan’s Final Four appearance could be special, especially with the sophomore triumvirate back in business. But the Wolverines need help at the point, and that means more from title game hero Spike Albrecht or a big debut by Walton.
10. Oklahoma State
Key Players: Markel Brown, Phil Forte, Le’Bryan Nash, Marcus Smart
The Skinny: Smart’s decision to return was one of the most surprising in recent college hoops history. The outstanding point man leads an experienced team with plenty of firepower and some pretty good depth. Big things are possible.
11. North Carolina
Key Players: PJ Hairston, Isaiah Hicks, James Michael McAdoo, Marcus Paige
The Skinny: McAdoo’s return is a big boost, but Hairston’s status after his arrests could make some trouble, at least early. The Heels aren’t back to their previous top-five status, but they are climbing.
Key Players: Eli Carter, Kasey Hill, Patric Young
The Skinny: It doesn’t matter that the Gators lost their top three scorers from last year, Young’s return is big, and transfer Carter was Rutgers’ top scorer last year. If high-flying frosh Chris Walker gets eligible, then UF should be even better.
13. Virginia Commonwealth
Key Players: Rob Brandenberg, Treveon Graham, Juvonte Reddic, Briante Weber
The Skinny: Havoc strikes again, and this time in a watered-down Atlantic 10 that should be the Rams’ province. The question is whether VCU can make some national noise or whether it gets smoked like it did last year in the NCAA Tourney.
Key Players: Chris Crawford, Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Austin Nichols
The Skinny: The Tigers could have the nation’s best backcourt, particularly since Missouri transfer Michael Dixon is eligible right away, but the front line’s development determines if Memphis is a powerhouse.
15. Wichita State
Key Players: Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton, Cleanthony Early, Fred Van Vleet
The Skinny: With Creighton gone, the Shockers are the class of the Missouri Valley. In order to come close to last year’s Final Four run, though, they need the supporting cast to step up.
16. New Mexico
Key Players: Cameron Bairstow, Hugh Greenwood, Alex Kirk, Kendall Williams
The Skinny: After declaring his eternal loyalty to the Lobos, Steve Alford bolted for UCLA. He leaves behind a deep team that needs another scorer to emerge to become top-10 caliber.
Key Players: Austin Chatman, Grant Gibbs, Doug McDermott, Ethan Wragge
The Skinny: The Bluejays step up in class this year but do so with one of the nation’s best in McDermott and a fine distributor in Gibbs. Any real success will depend on how well the big men perform.
Key Players: Ryan Boatright, Omar Calhoun, DeAndre Daniels, Shabazz Napier
The Skinny: Now free of NCAA sanctions, the Huskies can be full post-season participants, and Napier, one of the nation’s best guards, can lead them deep in the Dance.
Key Players: Davante Gardner, Chris Otule, Derrick Wilson, Jamil Wilson
The Skinny: The Golden Eagles suffered some losses, but they have a rock-solid front line and one of the toughest defenses around. If their point guards settle in, they will be the best of the Big East and a pain in the neck come March.
Key Players: Mike Gesell, Roy Devyn Marble, Jarrod Uthoff, Aaron White
The Skinny: The Hawkeyes are loaded with returnees and welcome Wisconsin transfer Uthoff to the party. Iowa won’t be at the top of the Big Ten, but none of the big boys will want to play the Hawks, either.