College Basketball has finally arrived!!! Last Friday many Division-I programs around the country held their first official practice which is typically open to the general public, giving die-hard fans an opportunity to take their first glimpse of what to expect for the upcoming season. This event is known as “Midnight Madness”. Prior to all the “Madness” that we typically don’t see until March, the highly anticipated Preseason Poll Rankings are released for a chance to see which teams are national ranked and where. During this time of year, I find myself scrambling in anxiousness and excitement to every local newsstand for magazines and newspaper season previews that lead up to the release of those very rankings.
This time last season the University of Kentucky was entering the year preseason ranked #3 coming off a National Championship season (Head Coach John Calipari’s 1st, program’s 8th) and it seemed likely that they would repeat although their arch rival Louisville saw things differently. Since the NCAA Tournament expanded its field in 1985, only four champions have been denied an acceptance bid back to the “Big Dance” to defend their crown: Louisville in 1987 led by “Never Nervous” Pervis Ellison and Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum. Following is the Jayhawks of Kansas in 1989 in the post Danny (Manning) & The Miracles era and was also on probation the same season. Next are the Florida Gators in 2008 (the last team to repeat as back-to-back national champs) where frontcourt leaders and current NBA starters Joakim Noah (Chicago Bulls) and Al Horford (Atlanta Hawks) played a critical role to that accomplishment. Lastly, North Carolina in 2010 following the departure of speedy point guard Ty Lawson and All-American Tyler Hansbrough. Never has a team lost in the opening round of the National Invitational Tournament to return the next season preseason ranked #1 as Kentucky will this year.
Last Thursday, the USA Today had its way with teasing us fans in releasing the top 10 of its 2013-2014 NCAA Men’s College Basketball Coaches Poll Rankings to begin the season and they go as followed:
- Kentucky Wildcats, Southeastern Conference
- Michigan State Spartans, Big Ten Conference
- Louisville Cardinals, American Athletic Conference
- Duke Blue Devils, Atlantic Coast Conference
- Arizona Wildcats, Pacific-12 Conference
- Kansas Jayhawks, Big 12 Conference
- Syracuse Orange, Atlantic Coast Conference
- Florida Gators, Southeastern Conference
- Michigan Wolverines, Big Ten Conference
- Ohio State Buckeyes, Big Ten Conference
Now that we are updated with the release of the official top 10 poll, I now introduce you to the personal “Take’s Take” version of the poll featuring the teams represented, including the rankings and a brief analysis of each team:
1. Kentucky: Enough of the comparisons to Michigan’s 1991 ‘Fab 5’ recruiting class and all the hype surrounding arguably the most talented group of freshmen in NCAA history; with large shoes to fill, its simply Final Four or bust for Head Coach John Calipari who’s goal is to keep the National Championship in the BlueGrass State for a 3rd consecutive season and out of reach from Rick Pitino & Louisville, looking to earn his 2nd title in 3 years to one of the sport’s most prestigious programs.
2. Michigan State: Tom Izzo’s ballclub will only go as far as senior point guard Keith Appling will take them. Forward Adreian Payne will stretch defenses with his outside shooting abilities as few players performed better last season after Christmas break. Headlining the deep roster is former McDonald’s All-American Gary Harris who passed on a possible lottery selection to return to East Lansing. If this defensive-minded team known for its rebounding efforts can continue to minimize injuries & turnovers (13.6 last season), MSU will be poised for yet another Final Four appearance where every 4 year player under the future Hall of Fame coach has played on college basketball’s biggest stage.
3. Duke: Before the Andrew Wiggins hoopla as it relates to the ‘Best Player Since LeBron’, it was ALL Jabari Parker and while adding the perfect system and playing for arguably the best coach in the game, ‘JP’ overshadows a solid recruiting class and host of role players…most notably…Rodney Hood (remember the name).
4. Louisville: Ahhh, the defending national champs! Repeating won’t be easy and neither will be filling the point guard role left behind by Peyton Siva. Kevin Ware (who suffered a gruesome broken leg injury in postseason play last year) and top Juco transfer Chris Jones will relieve the team’s top scorer Russ Smith of those duties to free up for additional scoring. Chicago native Wayne Blackshear and sophomore stud Montrezl Harrell (also remember that name) must provide immediate impact to substitute for 6’6 wing Chane Behanan who was just suspended indefinitely for violating university policy.
5. Arizona: As the Pac-12 conference becomes stronger each season, the headliner are the Wildcats from Tucson. Frosh Aaron Gordon is a ‘do-it-all’ athlete compared to a Blake Griffin/Royce White mixture. Traditional center Keleb Tarczewski will assist Gordon on the frontline along with ox-built Brandon Ashley. Athletic wing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson adds versatility to an already talented backcourt including (underrated) Nick Johnson and Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell.
6. Kansas: Ladies & Gents, Welcome to the Andrew Wiggins Show!!! Don’t expect anything less than (another) regular season conference championship (aiming for its 10th consecutive). Although no starters return from last season and losing 52ppg of its scoring, Rock Chalk in Lawrence will be just fine behind the strength and veteran leadership of (Memphis transfer) Tarik Black and X-factor Perry Ellis. A #1 seed to this year’s tourney isn’t out of reach as KU has earned exactly that ONLY 5 of the past 7 seasons.
7. Syracuse: Transitioning into a new conference (from Big East to ACC) should be a minor adjustment considering the style of play differences although it will take time and besides, conference foes have to adjust and prepare for the Orange’s infamous zone defense. Guard play is questionable outside of phenomenal freshman point guard Tyler Ennis who controls game tempo extremely well and efficient in running the break while setting up the offense as one of this class’ best penetrators. Up front, Syracuse may contain the best frontcourt in the nation consisting of Jerami Grant, C.J. Fair, Baye Keita, Rakeem Christmas and DaJuan Coleman.
8. Ohio State: The best leader, coach on the floor, pure point guard in the country is senior Aaron Craft (hands down!!!) and although the hard-nosed, defensive Buckeyes don’t provide much depth off the bench, its been this way for many years and they always find a way to win in the trenches. Losing natural scorer DeShaun Thomas to the NBA will hurt some but lengthy forwards Amir Williams, Sam Thompson, Trey McDonald and LaQuinton Ross will help keep opposing offenses at bay. Georgia native Shannon Scott is an underappreciated compliment to Craft while Lenzelle Smith Jr. is equally talented on both sides of the ball (similar to former Buckeye, David Lighty). With Craft in the lineup, anything is possible.
9. Michigan: There’s GOOD news and BAD news: (First the bad): The Big Ten conference may not be as good or as deep as it was just a season ago due to the loss of some very good and proven players whom have departed to play professionally. Two of those players are those who made up of last year’s best backcourt in the nation (Tim Hardaway Jr. and National Player of the Year Trey Burke). (Now the good) Two other very critical and important players that played huge roles as runners-up to the championship game are returning in Super Sophomores Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III. Keep an eye on deadly sharpshooter Nik Stauskas. While it may be difficult to point out exactly who the best player prospect is on this team, expect them all to produce adding another deep tournament run under John Beilein.
10. Oklahoma State: It’s not very often that automatic draft pick lottery locks return to college for unfinished business; Then again, Marcus Smart isn’t your ‘typical’ player either. The reigning National Freshman of the Year led the Cowboys in points, assists, steals, and a 24 game winning season all while ranking 2nd in rebounds as a national All-American. All starters return to Stillwater,OK including mid-range specialist Markel Brown, long distance specialist Phil Forte, X-factor Le’Bryan Nash and above-the-rim defender Michael Cobbins. Smart just may be the best and most confident player in the country playing with a chip on his shoulder as well as high IQ, sneaky athleticism, cerebral style of play, and hard work ethic adding an strong NBA ready body. Looking for a sophomore slump? Don’t look here!