Vaught’s note: It seems like there are more early preseason college basketball polls than ever before this year. However, one of the best I’ve seen comes from ESPN.com’s Jason King. Here is the analysis of his top three picks — Kentucky, Louisville and Michigan State. Of course, UK plays both Louisville and Michigan State. Enjoy his commentary.
1. Kentucky Wildcats: Could the Wildcats really go from first-round NIT losers to NCAA champions? Absolutely. Kentucky’s 2013 recruiting class is already being hailed as the best in college basketball history. The haul includes four players (Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Julius Randle and James Young) ranked among the nation’s top 10 prospects by ESPN.com. The cherry on top could be No. 1 overall recruit Wiggins, who is still trying to decide between Kentucky, Kansas, Florida State and North Carolina. Even without Wiggins, this may be the most talented college basketball team ever assembled. But will it jell? Even though injuries and chemistry issues ruined his most recent team, John Calipari has proved to be excellent at coaching players who plan to spend only a year or two in college. He’s great at getting them to play defense and share the ball. It will help that some of Kentucky’s key players in 2012-13 (Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and Kyle Wiltjer) will return to provide veteran leadership, which is something the program sorely lacked last season.
2. Louisville Cardinals: Rick Pitino’s squad will be favored to make a third straight Final Four appearance. Point guard Peyton Siva was the only senior on last season’s roster. His leadership will be tough to replace, but Louisville signed two point guards (juco transfer Chris Jones and high school star Terry Rozier) who should more than make up for Siva’s absence. Louisville received a huge boost when Siva’s backcourt mate, Russ Smith, decided to return for his senior season. Smith, who averaged 18.7 points last season, is a big-time scorer who needs to improve his decision-making. Center Gorgui Dieng left school early for the NBA draft, but forwards Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear are poised for breakthrough seasons along with Montrezl Harrell and Final Four MVP Luke Hancock. The Cardinals will be good enough to challenge Kentucky for the NCAA title.
3. Michigan State Spartans: Derrick Nix (9.9 points, 6.6 rebounds) was the only senior on the Spartans’ roster, so Michigan State should be the slight favorite to win the Big Ten next season over Ohio State. Tom Izzo scored huge victories by getting shooting guard Gary Harris and forward Adreian Payne to return for another season. Both were beginning to blossom at the end of last season. Harris will have a chance to form one of the top backcourts in America along with point guard Keith Appling. The twosome combined to average 26.3 points in 2012-13. Even with the loss of Nix, Michigan State — as always — will be one of the country’s most physical teams in the paint, with players such as Branden Dawson, who could really take off as junior. Izzo’s team was good this season — but a year from now, it could be special.