John Clay's pre-season Top 25: Depth makes Indiana No. 1

jclay@herald-leader.comNovember 6, 2012 

1. Indiana — After last year's surge to the Sweet 16, the Hoosiers have higher hopes this time around. Sophomore Cody Zeller is the pre-season favorite for Player of the Year, and Tom Crean has delightful depth that could bring IU its first national title since Bob Knight was ushered out of Bloomington.

2. Louisville — If Indiana doesn't boast the nation's deepest roster, then Rick Pitino will step up and claim the honor. U of L has more viable players than it has scholarships. After an injury-plagued freshman campaign, look for Wayne Blackshear to step up and help Pitino return to the national title game for the first time since 1997.

3. Michigan — Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. lead a talented backcourt for John Beilein's team. But the key will be finding some big bodies underneath to complement the Wolverines' wealth at guard. Freshman Mitch McGary is a heralded candidate, but holdover Jon Horford may be ready to shine. Plus, Beilein is a crafty coach.

4. Ohio State — Jared Sullinger and William Buford have departed Columbus, but the cupboard is hardly bare at THE Ohio State University. Thad Matta will turn the offense over to DeShaun Thomas while pesky point guard Aaron Craft will continue to give opposing point guards fits.

5. Kentucky — John Calipari says the various pre-season polls that have the Cats at No. 3 are "crazy," and he's almost right. Don't expect this UK team to be as talented or as tough as last year's model, that would be the national championship model. Cal has tons of talent again, but the Cats are starting over.

6. North Carolina State — The critics howled when new Athletics Director Debbie Yow tabbed Mark Gottfried as the new basketball coach in Raleigh. It's N.C. State that is in a full Wolfpack howl now. The former Alabama coach has C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown back to lead a talented team that should win the ACC.

7. Creighton — The underappreciated Doug McDermott figures to be a top contender for Player of the Year honors and could have the Blue Jays battling for a Final Four berth at season's end. McDermott averaged 22.9 points a game a year ago for a team that went 29-6. Austin Chatman steps up to take over at point guard.

8. Duke — Austin Rivers is gone, which may be addition by subtraction pertaining to Mike Krzyzewski's latest chemistry project. The Blue Devils have four returning starters and a hunger to get back to the season's final weekend.

9. Memphis — No one doubts that still-youthful coach Josh Pastner can recruit; now the baby-faced leader must convince his critics he can blend his talent into a top-level team. Tarik Black, Chris Crawford and Joe Jackson will lead a Tigers team that could be scary if Pastner puts it all together.

10. Missouri — Frank Haith must incorporate a quartet of newcomers — transfers Keion Bell (Pepperdine), Earnest Ross (Auburn), Jabari Brown (Oregon) and Alex Oriakhi (Connecticut) — with a backcourt led by Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon. It may take the entire regular season to work out the kinks, but by tournament time Mizzou could be motoring. Getting Laurence Bowers back from a torn ACL should help, as well.

11. UCLA — Ben Howland has a team full of tremendous talent and terrifying question marks. Shabazz Muhammad was the prized catch of this year's recruiting class, and he was supplemented by more rookie stars in Kyle Anderson and Tony Parker. Howland's top job will be getting point guard Larry Drew III to find the consistency he lacked at North Carolina.

12. Syracuse — This is the Orange's final year in the Big East, and Jim Boeheim no doubt would love to go out on a memorable note. C.J. Fair and James Southerland are important holdovers for a team that lost veteran leadership and talent from a year ago.

13. Florida — The Gators could take on the exact opposite profile from last year's guard-oriented group. Patric Young returns as the man in the middle, and Kenny Boynton boasts veteran leadership at guard. Now Billy Donovan needs to find some companion pieces. Mike Rosario, a former Rutgers transfer who saw only spot duty last year, could be a key.

14. Arizona — Sean Miller recruited Mark Lyons at Xavier; now he gets the senior guard again as Lyons has packed his Cincinnati bags and headed to the desert. Solomon Hill should benefit from Lyons' presence at guard. Now Miller has to quickly develop some young post players to make the Wildcats a championship contender.

15. Kansas — Count the Jayhawks out at your own risk after Bill Self guided his team all the way to the national title game a year ago. KU returns 7-foot shot-blocker Jeff Withey. And it's hard to overlook a team that has won eight straight Big 12 titles. Travis Releford could be ready for a breakthrough year.

16. North Carolina — The Tar Heels lost four first-round NBA Draft picks, endured an off-season academic scandal, then watched Roy Williams go through a medical scare. James Michael McAdoo leads the returnees who will be thankful for the playing time. Freshman point guard Marcus Paige will be the key.

17. San Diego State — The Aztecs boast the Mountain West's best player in Jamaal Franklin as Steve Fisher is proving he can win on the West Coast. Point guard Xavier Thames will be counted on to smooth the transition of three incoming transfers.

18. Michigan State — State's Mr. Everything Draymond Green has departed East Lansing, but Tom Izzo is too good a coach to let the loss of one player wreck his roster. This blue-collar team may be more to Izzo's liking, but heralded freshman shooting guard Gary Harris could provide the Spartans with some needed scoring punch.

19. Gonzaga — Elias Harris, the German giant, compiled 12 double-doubles as a freshman last year and is poised to lead the Bulldogs in a bounce-back season. Canadian Kevin Pangos leads the backcourt for a team that failed to win either the regular season or WAC Tournament title for the first time in 15 years.

21. UNLV — The Rebels didn't land hometown product Shabazz Muhammad, but Dave Rice did land Anthony Bennett, not a bad consolation prize. Pitt transfer Khem Birch will lend a helping hand after the first of the year.

22. Murray State — Isaiah Canaan could be the nation's version of the best player you've never heard of, but then you could also add teammate Ed Daniel to that list. The Racers did lose some scoring off last year's club, but few teams boast such an accomplished one-two punch.

23. Florida State — Leonard Hamilton lost four starters from last year's hard-nosed, smash-mouth team that excelled on defense and made a surprise run in the ACC. Star guard Michael Snaer returns, which gives Hamilton a cornerstone for this year's team.

24. Butler — Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke appears to be a good fit for the Butler system and should add some needed perimeter scoring to a team that will be making its Atlantic-10 debut.

25. Tennessee — Cuonzo Martin has Jarnell Stokes for a full season this time around, after the man-child helped the USA U-18 team win a gold medal in Brazil over the summer. Trae Golden, Jeronne Maymon, Kenny Hall, Jordan McRae and Skylar McBee are all experienced players who have had a year in Martin's hard-nosed system.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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