Six months. We’re about six months away from Big Blue Madness and from the start of the 2014-2015 college basketball season. Regardless of who specifically returns for the Cats, I think pretty much everyone feels comfortable that UK will have enough returning pieces to legitimately contend again next season.
However, the Cats won’t be alone on the contending front. In case you haven’t noticed the school that’s coached by America’s most famous rat will have a pretty good squad. As will that team that Kentucky hit that big shot to beat in the Final Four. Remember them? Needless to say, Kentucky won’t be alone atop the rankings next season and hanging another banner in Rupp will be no easy task (it never is). Let’s take a look around the country to find the best four non-Kentucky teams in the country for next season.
Duke: Coach K is ruining college basketball. Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood decided to leave the classroom for the cash and that’s bad enough in itself, but to add to it Duke has four of the top-22 recruits in the nation coming in, including expected “One-And-Done’s” Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor.
See how stupid that sounds? But let’s get down to the basketball. Duke’s biggest issue this season was its inability to defend (they ranked 116th in Adj. Defensive Efficiency), and that should improve but how much the will improve is the question. Jabari Parker certainly wasn’t renowned for his defense, but the Blue Devils were a better defensive unit with him on the floor (presumably due to his ability to his the glass). The thing that should improve Duke’s defense most is that with Okafor coming in they now have a legitimate post presence on both sides of the ball, something that they didn’t have last season. Another reason for what should be a stronger Blue Devil defense is that incoming freshman athlete Justise Winslow is known for his strong on-ball defense. In fact, Winslow’s strengths on ESPN’s scouting report almost entirely revolve around his defense. But here’s the sentence that gets me: “He will not hesitate to take a charge from any position.”
God I hate Duke.
Wisconsin: The Badgers had themselves an interesting season. They began red-hot, winning their first 16 games including wins over future number-1 seeds Florida and Virginia. They then cooled off and proceeded to lose 5 of their next 6 games before returning to early season form and making a run to the Final Four.
Next season they look to only get better as they return everyone except for guard Ben Brust. Most importantly, that means the return of the two-headed monster that is Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. The matchup issues that those two present alone are enough to warrant a high Wisconsin ranking, but with Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser and Nigel Hayes also returning with Final Four experience you’d be hard-pressed to find a more “sure pick” next season than the Badgers.
Arizona: Good-bye Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, hello Stanley Johnson. Arizona’s chances were crippled last season when Brandon Ashley went down with a broken leg but amazingly they still were one of the best teams in the country without him. But now he’s back as well as Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (look for RHJ to make a big leap next year), Kaleb Tarczewski, Gabe York and TJ McConnell. The improvements of the returners, as well as the impact of the newcomers, should make this team very similar to the one that preceded it. If Arizona is able to improve its ability to score the ball (which is something that Stanley Johnson should help with immensely), then there is no reason the Wildcats can’t get Sean Miller to his first Final Four next season.
Kansas: As Jon Rothstein would say, “Death. Taxes. Bill Self.” (or Bo Ryan, but that conversation is neither here nor there). Kansas looks to have another Big 12 title contender next season as they have a solid core of returners to mix with another top-notch recruiting class. Naadir Tharpe is back to run the point, Wayne Selden and Kelly Oubre will have the wing’s locked down, and Cliff Alexander and Perry Ellis look to man the post.
Kansas’ biggest flaw next season looks to be depth, as their best two bench players will most likely be Jamari Traylor and Frank Mason. This issue can be fixed majorly, as Kansas remains in the mix for incoming stud Myles Turner. If Turner decides to hop on board with the Jayhawks then they would potentially have a case for preseason number 1.
Who else do you think will be a contender next year?