College Sports

Mark Story: In college hoops of 2013-14, Calipari's 'super-team' will be tested

From left: McDonald's All-Americans Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young and Julius Randle have all signed to play for the University of Kentucky.
From left: McDonald's All-Americans Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young and Julius Randle have all signed to play for the University of Kentucky. McDonald's

One night last week, I was listening to ESPN NBA draft analyst Chad Ford on a podcast on (yes, I need to get out more).

When host Bill Simmons turned the conversation to the prospects for what is projected to be a loaded 2014 NBA Draft, Ford was all but giddy over the talent level of the 2013-14 Kentucky Wildcats.

Ford said he expected people next season to ask if Julius Randle, not Andrew Wiggins, shouldn't go No. 1 in the draft. He noted the NBA loved the idea of a point guard with the length of 6-foot-5 Andrew Harrison. Said that sophomore UK big man Willie Cauley-Stein had a chance to be THE fast riser on 2014 draft boards.

"We have seven Kentucky players in our Top 30 (2014 draft projections)," Ford said. "That's never happened before. We have two guys on (Kentucky's) bench we are saying are going to be in the first round of a loaded draft. Kentucky is going to have a 'super-team.'"

If such hype is right, John Calipari will field in 2013-14 the most gifted team he's had in five years as Kentucky coach — no small statement for a coach that has produced 15 draft picks in his first four UK seasons.

Yet, on paper, winning the NCAA title in 2014 is going to be more challenging than it has been in any season since Calipari came to Lexington. The reason being that, after some dull recent seasons, the upper level of college hoops looks headed for a bounce-back in 2014.

In the one-and-done era of UK basketball, we've learned some things. We know that elite talent with minimum experience can overcome experienced teams that lack talent. Yet we also know that good talent that is experienced can be a threat to elite talent that is not experienced.

There are at least five teams that appear to have the combination of experience and talent to stand eye-to-eye with UK next season.

1. Louisville. The defending NCAA champs will miss Peyton Siva's savvy and Gorgui Dieng's shot blocking.

Yet, with everyone else back, some talented incoming guards and an emerging star in sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell, it's possible Rick Pitino's Cardinals will be better this coming season than last.

2. Michigan State. Big man Adreian Payne and shooting guard Gary Harris decided not to turn pro and will join guard Keith Appling and forward Branden Dawson to give Tom Izzo perhaps his best shot at a national title since 2000.

3. Duke. In touted freshman Jabari Parker and Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood, Duke should have as talented a pair of forwards as any in the country.

Mike Krzyzewski also has experienced guards in Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook.

4. Ohio State. Top scorer Deshaun Thomas (19.8 ppg) turned pro, but OSU has its other four starters returning from an Elite Eight team.

Pesky point guard Aaron Craft is a relentless defender, and forward LaQuinton Ross looked like a budding star in last season's NCAA tourney.

5. Arizona. Highly touted freshmen forwards Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson join a returning nucleus that includes post men Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley and shooting guard Nick Johnson.

The Wildcats' season could turn on how Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell fares at point guard.

Even outside that elite five, there are three other teams that no one should sleep on.

The successful wooing of mega-prospect Andrew Wiggins turned what might have been a rebuilding year for Kansas back into business as usual in the expectations game for Bill Self.

The KU coach will be facing a Calipari-like challenge — trying to mold Wiggins and five other freshmen with Memphis transfer Tarik Black and promising sophomore big man Perry Ellis into a title-contending team.

Oklahoma State was buoyed by the surprise decision of point guard Marcus Smart not to turn pro. The Cowboys also return talented forward Le'Bryan Nash and shooting guard Markel Brown, giving Travis Ford a chance for a needed March Madness breakthrough in 2014.

Finally, if touted freshman big man Chris Walker can get eligible to play for Florida, the Gators could be a top five-level team, too.

Overall, this should be the best season of college basketball since 2006-07, when Florida returned all five starters from an NCAA title team and a couple of freshmen, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, came into the sport and made big splashes.

So even if UK's talent level suggests a "super-team," it's not going to be easy to cut down nets in 2013-14.

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