Philadelphia, PA – With less than two months to go before the inaugural game of the 2013-14 college basketball season, there are a handful of teams with reason to believe that it is their year to cut down the nets at the Final Four.
Due to graduations and early departures for the NBA, some of last season's top teams like Indiana, Georgetown, Michigan and Miami-Florida are not expected to be in contention for this year's title. The reigning NCAA champion Louisville Cardinals are expected to be a pretty tough out as they attempt to defend their crown, but the other three regional finalist will find their path to the semifinals much more difficult this time around.
Although plenty can change before the season tips off, these five schools are sitting very close to the pole position to start off the campaign:
KENTUCKY - Coach John Calipari's approach to building a program is unlike any other and is the reason why his Wildcats are expected to go from first-round NIT losers to a top seed in the Big Dance. Kentucky once again lost a great deal of the core of its roster. Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin were both selected in the first round of the NBA Draft after one season in Lexington and long-range shooting big man Kyle Wiltjer decided to transfer to Gonzaga. Wiltjer's choice to continue his career for the Zags came after Calipari had built a star-studded recruiting class that would surely take away playing time from the 6-foot-10 forward.
The Wildcats retained a pair of NBA prospects in sophomores Willie Cauley- Stein and Alex Poythress, who will be joined by what is said to be the best recruiting class since Michigan's "Fab Five" in 1991. Power forward Julius Randle, shooting guard Aaron Harrison and point guard Andrew Harrison were all the top players at their position and could all be one-and-done types. Kentucky added three more McDonald's All-Americans with 6-10 center Dakari Johnson, small forward James Young and power forward Marcus Lee. Calipari's method of relying heavily on inexperienced but talented players earned him an NCAA Championship in 2012, but UK really struggled last season with the same strategy. The Wildcats are fully loaded for another deep run in March as long as the newcomers are able to mesh with one another.
LOUISVILLE - To be the man, you have to beat the man. After securing their first NCAA Championship since 1986, Rick Pitino's Cardinals will be looking to win back-to-back titles and make their third consecutive trip to the Final Four this year. Louisville lost two of its top players as the Minnesota Timberwolves selected Gorgui Dieng in the first round of the draft and Peyton Siva was picked by the Detroit Pistons late in the next round. The Cardinals' chances of repeating as champion were kept alive by Russ Smith, who elected to return for his senior season. The team will most likely be without Kevin Ware, who may need until early 2014 to fully recover from the gruesome injury he suffered against Duke in last season's tourney.
Pitino found an adequate replacement for Siva, who was the motor to Louisville's success last season. Junior college transfer Chris Jones is expected to join Siva in the higher ranks in the near future if his game translates over to the Division I level. Jones was the 2013 NJCAA Division I Player of the Year with averages of 21.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 3.0 steals per game for Northwest Florida State College, which was the national runner-up in both of his seasons with the program. Freshman guard Terry Rozier will also see some time at point guard for a squad that is sure to reward its floor general with plenty of easy assists. In addition to Smith, who was an All-Big East first team selection, Louisville has back three quality forwards in spot-up shooter Luke Hancock, swingman Wayne Blackshear and the wide-bodied Chane Behanan.
MICHIGAN STATE - Tom Izzo's Spartans were often overshadowed in the Big Ten last season by Indiana and Michigan, but they quietly stayed in the Top 25 throughout the season behind the strength of their suffocating defensive effort. As a no. 3 seed, Michigan State was bounced out of the NCAA Tournament by Duke in the Sweet Sixteen. The future looks bright for the Spartans, who return all but one starter. The graduation of 6-9, 270 pound center Derrick Nix will be difficult to replace, but MSU will have freshman Kenny Kaminski this year after he was forced to redshirt in 2012-13 due to a shoulder injury.
The Spartans have one of the top backcourts in college basketball with senior Keith Appling and sophomore Gary Harris. Appling led the team in scoring and assists with 13.4 points and 3.3 assists per game last year. Harris was second on the team with 12.9 ppg and drew attention from professional scouts with his 41.1 percent accuracy from beyond the 3-point line. If Harris improves his ball-handling skills and play off the ball, he will be virtually unstoppable at the collegiate level. Adreian Payne's presence in the middle should keep opposing defenses from cheating out on Appling and Harris.
KANSAS - Bill Self's Jayhawks are likely to claim another number one seed in the tournament this season despite losing their entire starting lineup, including superstars Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey. Kansas added a key piece to its frontcourt when Memphis graduate Tarik Black decided to spend his final season in Allen Fieldhouse. Black will be the top big man for the Jayhawks, who have plenty of depth with Perry Ellis, Landen Lucas and 6-11 freshman Joel Embiid.
Kansas is going to remain relevant thanks to Andrew Wiggins, the top high school prospect since LeBron James. The 6-7 wing is going to be one of the most talked about players in the nation this season due to his tremendous combination of athleticism and all-around skills. Wiggins would have been the top pick in the NBA Draft this past June had he been eligible. Wiggins and Embiid aren't the only two rookies that will have an impact for Self's unit. All-American shooting guard Wayne Selden and Wichita native Conner Frankamp will both see meaningful minutes as freshmen, as Self attempts to take a page out of the Calipari playbook.
DUKE - Mike Krzyzewski's squad also had a lot to replace over this offseason as five seniors departed from Durham. Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry are all gone, but the backcourt of Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon stayed intact. Duke will need sophomore Amile Jefferson to take on a much bigger role on the inside to replace Plumlee, who was picked 22nd by the Brooklyn Nets in the NBA Draft. Jefferson posted only 4.0 points and 2.9 boards per contest as a rookie while playing behind Plumlee, but has added 20 pounds to his frame since joining the program.
Krzyzewski also has the youngest of the Plumlee brothers back in the mix. The seven-foot Marshall Plumlee saw limited action as a rookie in 2012-13, but both of his older brothers transformed from role players to professional prospects under Coach K. Duke's question marks on the interior will be less obvious due to its new one-two punch. Freshman small forward Jabari Parker is the best all-around player to join the Blue Devils program since Grant Hill. He will be on a mission to prove he should have been more heralded than Wiggins. Duke will also have one of the top shooting guards in the ACC as sophomore Rodney Hood makes his debut at Cameron Indoor Stadium this season. Hood was selected to the SEC All-Freshman team in 2012 after netting 10.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game for Mississippi State. He is only the fourth player to transfer to Duke under Coach K, joining Roshown McLeod (1995 - St. John's), Dahntay Jones (2000 - Rutgers) and Seth Curry (2009 - Liberty). There is a very good chance that Hood becomes the fourth transfer in a row to go onto the NBA thanks to Coach K's tutelage.
NEXT FIVE: Oklahoma State, North Carolina, Arizona, Florida, Ohio State