John Clay has UK, Louisville, MSU atop pre-season poll

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 5, 2013 

Kentucky's Julius Randle, left, Louisville's Russ Smith, center, and Michigan State's Keith Appling

1. Kentucky

If these are pre-season rankings, then the Cats are not No. 1. Too many freshmen. Too many questions. Too much early-season hype. On the other hand, if these rankings are really projections concerning where a particular team will be at the end of the season, put John Calipari's Cats on top of the mountain.

2. Louisville

At press time, we are in the middle of another pre-season Rick Pitino soap opera. The Hall of Famer has tossed junior forward and rabid rebounder Chane Behanan from the team "indefinitely." After some confusion about the length of the suspension, Pitino clarified, telling ESPN, "He may practice in November, but I don't anticipate him playing in any games before December.'' Louisville also has Russ Smith, Luke Hancock and Montrezl Harrell back. The defending champs will make a run.

3. Michigan State

Tom Izzo has positioned himself with another tough, veteran team for the Madness march. This should be the year when Gary Harris lets the nation know that Gary Harris is a pretty fair basketball player. Can't wait for that Nov. 12 Calipari-Izzo face-off in the Windy Cindy.

4. Michigan

Runners-up in last year's NCAA Tournament, Michigan's whole campaign could rise or fall on the back of Mitch McGary. Literally. The Wolverines' center had a breakout NCAA Tournament, but has been plagued by back problems in the off-season.

5. Duke

With all the talk about Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Kentucky's Julius Randle, you might have forgotten that Duke picked up a pretty fair freshman in Jabari Parker. And this Mike Krzyzewski fellow can coach a little.

6. Kansas

Don't be surprised if Bill Self figures out a way for his Jayhawks to grab hold of Andrew Wiggins' cape and fly off into the hoops stratosphere somewhere before making a smooth landing in the Final Four.

7. Florida

Hope Billy Donovan enjoys putting together puzzles. He has one in Gainesville. Lots of pieces. The Gators have some nice pieces returning, but the success of the season will hinge on how Donovan makes newcomers Eli Carter, Damontre Harris, Dorian Finney-Smith and Kasey Hill fit into the big picture.

8. Arizona

Just to show you the ridiculous depth of the Class of 2014, you don't hear much about Arizona freshman Aaron Gordon, except from the people who really know college basketball. They think the Wildcats' rookie is good enough to put a smile on Sean Miller's face. That's saying something.

9. Ohio State

Point guard Aaron Craft is just the kind of Pete Rose-type pest who really gets under your skin, unless he's on your team. The Buckeyes have him for another year. If Thad Matta can figure out how to replace Deshaun Thomas' scoring, THE Ohio State could make it to THE Final Four.

10. Oklahoma State

Travis Ford joked that he's already tired of all the Andrew Wiggins Big 12 hype, especially when the Cowboys have the best player in the Big 12 in Marcus Smart. In fact, Smart might be the best player in any conference.

11. Memphis

One of these years Josh Pastner's coaching is going to catch up to Josh Pastner's recruiting, and this could very well be the year. The Tigers have a couple of key holdovers, plus a fresh batch of new talent. Pastner knows that drill.

12. Oregon

Outside of John Calipari, Dana Altman might be the best coach in all the land at incorporating newcomers. Calipari does it with freshmen. Altman does it with transfers, and this year his star transfer is Mike Moser, who is good enough to make the Ducks a contender again.

13. North Carolina

As the world turns on Tobacco Road, the continuing off-season storyline involves vehicular nuisance P.J. Hairston, who is supposedly suspended but still practicing with the team he's suspended from and Roy Williams isn't talking. Dad-gummit.

14. Tennessee

At the risk of causing physical harm by the laughter that might accompany the thought of another SEC team in the top 25, the Vols are positioned to make some noise. Volume scorer Jordan McRae returns, as does glass-eater Jarnell Stokes. Plus, right about now UT should be indoctrinated in Cuonzo Martin's hard-headed philosophy.

15. Syracuse

When the 'Cuse made news by announcing it was leaving its beloved Big East for the ACC, Jim Boeheim turned even crankier than usual. Now, the Syracuse coach claims he's excited about the prospect of matching X's and O's with old friends Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams. Having C.J. Fair and Co. can help change your point of view.

16. Gonzaga

Yes, the Bulldogs lost Kelly Olynyk, he of the headband and tremendous improvement, but Mark Few has an impressive stable of returnees, led by Kevin Pangos. The Zags aren't going anywhere.

17. Wisconsin

Bo Ryan is just always in there scrapping and fighting and complaining to the refs. Year after year after year after year. And did we mention, he keeps winning year after year after year after year.

18. UCLA

Steve Alford wasn't welcomed with open arms in Los Angeles, but that's OK. After Ben Howland's tenure was toppled when the coach gave in to his top stars, the Bruins could probably use some of Alford's prickliness. If the new coach had a little more depth, UCLA could be very dangerous.

19. VCU

It's no surprise that Shaka Smart stole college basketball's heart a couple of years back considering the Rams steal about everything else. That full-court pressing, trapping frenetic style has become more the norm in the sport, but few do it better than VCU. Florida State transfer Terrance Shannon should help Smart's team under the basket, as well.

20. Connecticut

The Huskies aren't as deep or talented as past years, but they do have some guards in Shabazz Napier, Omar Calhoun and Ryan Boatright. That should count for something. Actually, that counts for a lot.

21. Marquette

Just when you get ready to count out Buzz Williams, the Golden Eagles' coach finds a way to get a bunch of tough, scrappy non-shooters into the winner's circle on a consistent basis. That shouldn't change this year.

22. Notre Dame

Mike Brey just keeps hanging around, hanging around, and this year the master of the mock turtleneck has a backcourt weapon in Demetrius Jackson to help an already guard-oriented team.

23. Virginia

Tony Bennett has been in Charlottesville long enough to establish his style of play and get some players to play that style of play. This year, with a ton of disciplined, good-shooting guards, the Cavs' aren't playing around.

24. Boise State

So you thought they only played football on Smurf fields out there in Idaho. You thought wrong. The Broncos were an NCAA Tournament team last season and figure to be the same again this year.

25. Wichita State

Gregg Marshall's Shockers shocked the hoops world last year by reaching the Final Four, and while a repeat might seem out of reach, Wichita State isn't a one-and-done program.

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

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