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Friday, March 1, 2013

Which Teams Will Reign Supreme in 2013-14?

I'll admit, looking ahead to next year's college basketball season already is a little unmindful. Conference tournaments still have yet to start and the NCAA tournament is still a month away. However, there is a curious side to me and I imagine many fans as well, that want to see what the following season has in store for us. Next year will be a big year for conference realignment with Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Memphis, and Temple among the movers. For one year at the very least, the power off the ACC will be restored and the Big East will remain relevant.

There is still a lot up in the air for next year - we don't know about transfer, players declaring for the draft, and we are still waiting on 3 of the 4 class of 2013 recruits to commit. The only top 4 player committed already is Jabari Parker who committed to Duke back in December.

And with that - I suppose Duke and Jabari Parker are a good place to start when looking at next year. Parker's final decision came down to Michigan State and the Blue Devils and he ultimately chose to head south. Parker cited Branden Dawson's presence at forward as a big factor in his decision. But looking at the rosters, Michigan State has a greater need for Parker than Duke does.

Michigan State and Duke appear to be early favorites for next year and you can throw in Kentucky into that conversation as well - with or without Andrew Wiggins. Michigan State will return everyone except Derrick Nix and should be the most cohesive group from the start. Kentucky will obviously be the most talented, but also the least experienced. Duke finds themselves in the middle of the two teams - loaded with talent but also a fair amount of experience.

Here is what Duke's projected depth chart looks like:

Quinn Cook/Tyler Thornton
Rasheed Sulaimon/Andre Dawkins/Matt Jones
Rodney Hood/Alex Murphy/Semi Ojeleye
Jabari Parker/Amile Jefferson
Marshall Plumlee/Josh Hairston

Cook, Thornton, Hairston, and even Andre Dawkins, who should return to the team, will offer veteran leadership. And just about every rotation guy except for Parker has spent a season practicing with the team (Rodney Hood has practiced all year with the team and has been impressive by all accounts). The thing that stands out for this Duke team is how stacked they are on the wing. I can't remember a team as loaded as they are. 

Yet Jabari Parker felt that he would have an easier time fitting in with Duke than Michigan State.

Who does Michigan State have on the wing?

Well with Nix leaving, you can expect Branden Dawson to get even more minutes next year as their power forward. That leaves them with Gary Harris, Russell Byrd, and Denzel Valentine to split up about 80 minutes of playing time. Parker seems like a huge asset for them and he would even be able to spend much more time out on the perimeter playing his NBA small forward position. 

Perhaps it wasn't necessarily playing time that Parker was worried about as it was fit. On Michigan State, Parker would have been asked to compliment Dawson - a guy without much ability handling or shooting the ball. Parker would've been expected to make plays on the perimeter and that just isn't his bread and butter currently. Duke has the shooters and ball handlers that should make Parker's life easier.

Nevertheless, Michigan State still figures into the top 5 conversation. Their backcourt with Keith Appling and Gary Harris will be very tough to beat and I see Denzel Valentine sliding over to play small forward. Dawson and Payne make up a good tandem inside.

The only thing that could hurt Michigan State is if Gary Harris enters the draft. Chad Ford seems to be trying to push him that way - saying that he is a potential lottery pick. I've always envisioned Harris as a guy who stays a couple of years though, even though he has played like a first rounder through conference play. Duke could afford a surprise draft early entrant like Rasheed Sulaimon and not miss a stride, but Gary Harris very well could be the Spartan's most important player next season.

Michigan State's projected depth chart looks like this:

Keith Appling/Travis Trice
Gary Harris
Denzel Valentine/Russell Byrd
Brendan Dawson/Alex Gauna
Adriean Payne/Matt Costello

Kentucky is the final team that should get #1 consideration heading into next season. This year has been a disappointed for them, but this next recruiting class they have coming in is on a different level of special. The Harrison Twins, James Young, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, and homegrown Derek Willis figure to fit much better together than this year's current squad.

For one, they have a point guard and to top it off, he already has plenty of chemistry with his backcourt mate. The Harrison Twins are not only athlete, but have a good understanding of the game and can spread the floor. Andrew has no problem leading a team and getting everyone involved and has always embraced the point guard role. His brother Aaron will join James Young as another athletic wing with good size and unlimited range on jumpers.

The difference between these guys and their soon to be incumbents is skill level. Goodwin and Poythress were athletes with limited skills and a poor understanding of the game. You can't say that about any of these three perimeter players.

And on the inside, a guy like Marcus Lee is exactly who you want on a stacked team. Lee is an exception athlete with a high IQ and is very unselfish as well. He is perfectly fine anchoring a defense, running the court, and crashing the glass for his contributions on offense. He is also a sneaky good passer for his size, although the rest of his skills are a work in progress. 

Dakari Johnson will work well with him as he can handle the scoring load while Lee provides the shotblocking threat. There is also a chance that Willie Cauley-Stein could be back to add depth. 

One guy who is sure to be back is Kyle Wiltjer, who will give them an experienced returnee that they lacked last year. His 3-pt shooting next to the other sharpshooters will be a lethal combination. Especially when Andrew Harrison starts making plays in the lane and the big men are finishing inside.

Ryan Harrow should be back as well and he's in an interesting situation. The idea, or hope at least, for him this year was to start at PG and lead this Kentucky team to another deep run before heading to the draft. Now with Kentucky struggling to even make the tournament, he is kind of in no-man's land. If he declares for the draft, he won't be selected and he's not even a likely candidate to walk onto an NBA roster or a strong overseas team. 

His other choice is to stay with Kentucky and accept the backup point guard role behind Andrew Harrison. He's kind of like the kid who failed 7th grade and had to repeat it over, except this time his new classmates are even smarter. 

The scary thing is that Kentucky still has a good chance to land another blue chipper like Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, or Aaron Gordon.

Other teams with top 5 potential include Louisville, Ohio State, Syracuse, Georgetown, Memphis, Indiana, and Arizona. A lot of the usual suspects.

While Duke, Michigan State, and Kentucky are early favorites to win the conferences they've been a part of for decades - the Big East loses Pittsburgh and Syracuse, while picking up Memphis, Houston, SMU, and UCF. The Big East is in for an obvious drop off once the Catholic 7 leaves, but the 2013 season still looks strong.

Battling for the top spot will be Louisville, Georgetown, and Memphis while Villanova, Connecticut, and St. John's should all be improved next season. Marquette will find a way into the top 25 as well.

Louisville may have the best shot at the Big East title, but whether Russ Smith and Gorgui Dieng stay or declare for the NBA Draft is still up in the air. Regardless, they have the talent to lose both along with senior Peyton Siva and still remain a contender.

Montrezl Harrell is ready to take over the center role for Dieng and nobody can replicate what Russ Smith brings, the insertion of Luke Hancock into the lineup would offer them a different look. Smith could shoot them out of the game just as he could shoot them into one - with Hancock they will have a player who is unselfish and able to make teammates better.

The rest of the Cardinal's players are expected to return and will be joined by a loaded recruiting class. Chris Jones was the top Juco in the country and should be ready to handle point guard early. He will have help from Terry Rozier, a post-grad player, who should also be ready for immediate action. Anton Gill is another stud who played with Rozier and Hargrave Military Academy and will be more ready for the step up to college basketball than most recruits.

It will be up to Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear to step up and provide some leadership, but if they do, this Louisville team can just be as good - if not better - than the current one. And if Russ Smith and Dieng do come back? Then they are even scarier.

Syracuse is next in line in the Big East, even with the expected departures of Brandon Triche, Michael Carter-Williams, and James Southerland. Freshman Tyler Ennis will be asked to take over the point guard role and he is more than capable. While Ennis isn't as flashy as MCW, he may be the most college ready freshman guard Syracuse has had in awhile. Ennis will provide balance, leadership, and plenty of experience winning to the table. He will need help from Trevor Cooney, Ron Patterson, and Duke transfer Michael Gbinjie though as they look to be the only options at guard.

Next year, the strength of the Orange will shift to the inside where Fair, Grant, Christmas, Coleman, and Keita all already find themselves in this year's rotation. Fair and Grant will need to continue to develop their perimeter skills to slide over and play small forward, while a jump in production from DaJuan Coleman would be nice. Coleman brings the most offensive potential out of the center rotation.

Then there is Georgetown - who you may think I am projecting Otto Porter returning to school based on my lofty ranking of them - but I think they will be good with or without him. Porter is certainly their best player this year, but he likely will be unable to pass up a spot in the lottery of the NBA Draft.

That is where Greg Whittington can step up and re-establish his name with the Hoya faithful. Georgetown has played much better with him out of the lineup, but that doesn't have anything to do with him being a bad player. Instead, the pairing of Whittington and Porter together preventing them from pressing and adding another dynamic scoring guard on the floor. Since he's gone down, Georgetown has been great and next year it can be Whittington that steps in for a departed Porter. Whittington isn't as good as Porter, but can provide similar versatility. The rest of the Georgetown roster will all be back which is scary considering it already looks like the young guys have established great chemistry and have the offense mastered.

Memphis will be the newcomer in the Big East and while they will have to get used to a higher level of competition on a nightly basis, they will have all the talent to compete for a top spot. Josh Pastner has the second best recruiting class in the nation, but the biggest contributors are already on the roster. None of the top 100 recruits will come in and start right away, but the will provide nice depth and an insurance policy in case Adonis Thomas decides to leave for the draft.

Memphis will have a balanced team from 1-5 with Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Adonis Thomas, Shaq Goodwin, and Tariq Black as the starter. Austin Nichols will be able to add to the big man rotation right away, taking over the undersized DJ Stephens role and you can expect a lot of small ball lineups with Thomas at the PF spot as well. Freshman small forwards Nick King and Kuran Iverson are both intriguing players - King may be more ready and does a nice job in the mid-range area and drawing fouls, while Iverson is a very long wing with a skillset he is still learning to use efficiently.

As far as other power conferences, it looks like Arizona will be a big favorite out west and Ohio State and Indiana will once again be near the top in Big Ten play. Kansas still holds the keys to the Big 12 - a very weak Big 12 to be honest.

Maybe the biggest wildcard in the Big Ten is Michigan who came into this year having the youngest team in the league. The only question is just how much will they lose to the draft. Burke, Hardaway Jr, and Robinson III all have seen their stock soar thanks to Michigan's play. Burke was nearly gone last year, so he's a sure thing to move on this season. Hardaway Jr likely follows him. Glenn Robinson III will be faced with an interesting decision of leaving while his stock is high or coming back and trying to lead Michigan himself.

From Robinson's game, I think his best option may be to follow Hardaway Jr and Burke out the door. Robinson III was known in high school for taking a back seat and rarely fully imposing his will on games and that is something he will be expected to do if he comes back next year. Right now, he isn't getting questions about his assertiveness or ability to create plays because he hasn't had to alongside two ball dominant guards. Next year will be a completely different monster for Robinson III and Im not quite sure he is cut out for it.

Michigan has a strong recruiting class coming in, but it isn't as star studded as the past two. If those three leave Michigan, the Wolverines won't be contending for the Big Ten title next year.

Indiana and Ohio State both have NBA Draft concerns as well, but they have insurance policies in place. Indiana has probably already come to grips that next year will be a chapter without both Oladipo and Zeller. Ohio State probably will get Craft back, but Thomas could flirt with putting his name into the draft. Fortunately for Ohio State, they have two up and coming forwards itching for an expanded role in LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson.

Indiana's projected team looks like this:

Yogi Ferrell/Maurice Creek
Remy Abel/Stanford Robinson
Will Sheehey/Troy Williams/Austin Etherington
Noah Vonleh/Hanner Mosquera-Perea
Peter Jurkin/Luke Fischer

The perimeter play of this group should be solid - Ferrell is ready for a starring role, Abel has potential, and Sheehey is already one of the best 6 men in the country. Stanford Robinson and Troy Williams are both strong recruits that will give the Hoosiers even more size on the wings.

There is more mystery around their big men as we still aren't sure what Indiana has with Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Peter Jurkin. Between those two and Fischer though, Indiana should find a decent starter to fit beside top 10 recruit Noah Vonleh. You can even say Vonleh is a bit of a mystery as its hard to say whether he will have the impact of a Freshman of the Year candidate or not.

For the Buckeyes, Evan Ravenel and his 19 minutes per game will be gone. If Thomas comes back, he will step into the full time power forward role - something he has already done a good bit this season while showing some toughness on the block in the process. Ravenel's minutes would likely be redistributed to Sam Thompson, LaQuinton Ross, and Shannon Scott who all are definitely deserving of a chance to play more than 20 minutes a game. And if Thomas leaves they will lose a dimension to their offense, but Ohio State has plenty of capable players to share his minutes. Either way, Ohio State will be a very good team. With Thomas, they should be the favorite over Indiana in the Big Ten and a top 5 team.

Early 2013-14 Top Ten Prediction

1. Duke
2. Kentucky
3. Michigan State
4. Louisville
5. Syracuse
6. Georgetown
7. Ohio State
8. Arizona
9. Memphis
10. Indiana

20 More to Watch:

Louisiana Tech
Indiana State
St. John's
North Carolina

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