Philadelphia, PA – Kentucky is the top ranked school in college basketball entering the 2013-14 season, but John Calipari's Wildcats are just one of many teams that believe this is their year.
The Louisville Cardinals kept many of the key players from last season's championship run. Creighton's Doug McDermott is the only returning First-Team All-American and Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State is the sole player back that was distinguished as a Second-Team All-American a season ago. A new Wooden Award winner and Player of the Year will be crowned with Trey Burke now playing for the NBA's Utah Jazz. Last season's Coach of the Year, Jim Larranaga, will have trouble achieving that honor again as he faces a rebuilding project in Miami.
There are never a shortage of surprises in college hoops. Although the entire season still needs to be played before a new champion is crowned, here is a list of predictions for the upcoming campaign:
FINAL FOUR - Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan State, Oklahoma State
KENTUCKY - The Wildcats are the first team in history to begin the season as the No. 1 team in the nation after finishing the previous season unranked. Calipari's freshmen class is considered the best since Michigan's legendary Fab Five that included former NBA stars Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose. UK had a pair of players drafted in the first round of last year's draft and lost veteran big man Kyle Wiltjer, who decided to transfer to Gonzaga. However, it returned a pro prospect center in Willie Cauley-Stein along with Jarrod Polson and Alex Poythress. Among the rookies expected to make an immediate impact for the Wildcats are the Harrison twins (Aaron and Andrew), Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, James Young and Marcus Lee. Calipari managed to win it all with an inexperienced group two seasons ago but lost in the first round of the NIT last year using the same formula.
KANSAS - Calipari missed out on his most coveted recruit as Andrew Wiggins chose to play for Bill Self in Lawrence. Wiggins is considered the best player to come out of high school since LeBron James and NBA teams are already talking about tanking with the hope of acquiring his services in next year's draft. In addition to the top-ranked player in the 2013 class, Self also signed swingman Wayne Selden, Jr., center Joel Embiid and guard Conner Frankamp to avoid any drop off from last season's elite unit. The Jayhawks return a pair of solid role players in Perry Ellis and Naadir Tharpe, while also adding a proven post player in Tarik Black, who is eligible to play immediately after spending the last three seasons at Memphis.
MICHIGAN STATE (Runner-up) - The Spartans are the perfect amateur comparison to the San Antonio Spurs. Tom Izzo and Greg Popovich are arguably the top coaches at their respective levels and both always seem to find a way to make their teams relevant every year when the postseason rolls around. Senior center Adreian Payne will give MSU an edge on the interior against most of its opposition this season as his combination of size, strength and intelligence will be an impossible assignment for opposing big men. Payne is surrounded by a cohesive and deep group that includes Gary Harris, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson. Indiana was one of the most dominant teams in the country last season due to its one-two punch of Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo. MSU will have a very similar journey if Harris, who was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2012-13, elevates his performance to an all-conference level.
OKLAHOMA STATE (Champion) - Despite the high expectations placed upon the Wiggins-led Jayhawks, Kansas and Oklahoma State are tied atop the Big 12 preseason polls. Travis Ford's dream of bringing the NCAA Tournament title back to Stillwater for the first time since 1946 became a reality over the offseason when superstar freshman combo guard Marcus Smart announced he was returning for another season. Although he was often overshadowed by Burke during his rookie campaign, Smart is now considered the top point guard in the nation, which has made him one of the early favorites to win the Player of the Year Award. He is not the only marquee name back in the fold for Ford, as Le'Bryan Nash and Markel Brown are both very capable of being the go-to-guy in a college offense. The Cowboys displayed great chemistry last season and they will only get more efficient as time goes on. Smart recently stated he was not sure if he made the right decision when he passed on making the jump to the professional ranks, but there is no question that he will do everything in his power to validate his choice by surviving March Madness.
COACH OF THE YEAR - Chris Collins (Northwestern)
The son of former Illinois State great Doug Collins has a great chance of making history in his inaugural season as a head coach at Northwestern. The Wildcats are the only team from a major conference that have never made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament field. Although they finished their final campaign under Bill Carmody with an unimpressive, 13-19 overall record, there is plenty of talent for Collins to work with in Evanston. Dave Sobolewski, JerShon Cobb, Kale Abrahamson and Alex Olah were all steady contributors on last season's team that failed to reach its goals after superstar forward Drew Crawford suffered a season-ending injury in early December. Crawford was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA, which means Collins has a player with 1,418 career points along with 462 rebounds to lead the charge. Northwestern's decision to part ways with Carmody and his Princeton offense for the disciple of coach Mike Krzyzewski came at a perfect time as the Big Ten is noticeably weaker than a season ago. If the Wildcats have their name called on Selection Sunday, Collins will be praised and honored for ending the drought.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR - Doug McDermott (Creighton)
Creighton's move to the new Big East will put its star forward in the limelight, although he had no trouble building an excellent reputation over his first three seasons in the Missouri Valley Conference. McDermott is one of the smartest players in the nation and continuously finds ways to light up the opposition, despite being the focal point of every opponent's defensive gameplan. The 6-foot-8 superstar has thrived while playing under his father, Greg McDermott, who is also paying his tuition this season. McDermott sacrificed his scholarship for the Bluejays' floor general, Grant Gibbs, who was unexpectedly granted a rare sixth-year of eligibility. Thanks to the presence of Gibbs, McDermott has a great chance of being tabbed as the Player of the Year.
FIRST-TEAM ALL-AMERICAN - Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State), Jahii Carson (Arizona State), Doug McDermott (Creighton), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), C.J. Fair (Syracuse).