2013-14 Season Preview: The Nation’s Best Frontcourts

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of our preview lists, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

While the argument can certainly be made that college basketball is a guard’s game, especially in the season’s stretch run (March to early-April), the fact of the matter is that more times than not the national champion also possesses one or more elite big men. So which teams have the front court rotations capable of propelling their school to the Final Four? Here’s a look at the ten best front courts in the country.

1. Kentucky: The Wildcats are certainly young inside, but they don’t lack for talent either. Nerlens Noel (NBA) and Kyle Wiltjer (transfer) are gone but both Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress return, and they’ve been joined by the nation’s best recruiting class. Inside that means Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and Derek Willis, with the first three all being McDonald’s All-Americans and Randle being one of the most talented players in the country.

2. Arizona: Like Kentucky, Arizona has a young rotation that talent-wise merits mention as one of the nation’s best. McDonald’s All-Americans Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are both incredibly athletic, and they join sophomores Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski. Matt Korcheck redshirted last season and he can be a bit of an “enforcer” for this group, and it remains to be seen whether or not Kansas transfer Zach Peters can provide the Wildcats with even more depth.

3. Syracuse: Senior C.J. Fair should be one of the preseason favorites for ACC Player of the Year, and fellow forward Jerami Grant could be in line for a breakout campaign. Add in Rakeem Christmas, DaJuan Coleman, Baye Keita and freshmen Tyler Roberson and Chinoso Okoboh and the Orange won’t lack for options on the back line of their 2-3 zone.

(MORE: Top 15 Perimeter Attacks)

4. Baylor: Could this ranking end up being too low by the time we reach March? With Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson leading the way that could very well be the case. Also back is sophomore Rico Gathers, and a newcomer to keep an eye on is Denver transfer Royce O’Neale (11.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.5 apg last season). Freshmen Johnathan Motley and Ishmail Wainright and sophomore Taurean Prince could also factor into the rotation.

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5. Florida: The Gators lost Erik Murphy from last season’s Elite Eight squad but Patric Young returns for his senior campaign. Florida adds transfers Dorian Finney-Smith (Virginia Tech) and Damontre Harris (South Carolina), but there’s also a big question mark entering the season: the health of senior Will Yeguete. When Yeguete’s healthy the Gators are an entirely different team defensively, so that will be something to keep an eye on.

6. Tennessee: Jarnell Stokes is back for his junior season, and he’ll have a lot more help in the post in 2013-14. Senior Jeronne Maymon is back and healthy after missing all of last season with a knee injury, and junior college transfer Rawane Ndiaye gives the Vols some extra size in the paint. Josh Richardson, who started all 33 games last season, is also back for head coach Cuonzo Martin.

7. Michigan: Michigan’s biggest personnel losses from last season’s national runner-up team came on the perimeter. In the front court the Wolverines have both talent and experience, with Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson II, Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford all back in Ann Arbor. And they also add freshmen Zak Irvin and Mark Donnal, both of whom could crack the rotation.

8. Michigan State: Upperclassmen Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson will be asked to lead the way for the Spartans, the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten. Sophomores Matt Costello and Denzel Valentine (he can play multiple positions) will also factor into the rotation, and freshmen Kenny Kaminsky (redshirt) and Gavin Schilling will compete for minutes as well.

9. Kansas: The Jayhawks are hopeful that Memphis transfer Tarik Black can be a factor, with sophomores Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor being members of the rotation last season. Add in a promising freshman center in Joel Embiid and Kansas has the interior depth needed to both remain atop the Big 12 and be a national contender.

10. North Carolina: There were some who wondered whether or not James Michael McAdoo would leave for the professional ranks after last season, but he’s back to lead the way for a front court rotation that’s added both size and skill. Freshmen Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks have joined the program, and there’s been a lot of chatter regarding sophomore Brice Johnson. Add in sophomore Joel James and junior Desmond Hubert, and North Carolina will have a number of options in the paint this season.

11. Marquette: Jameel McKay’s transfer came at an inopportune time but the Golden Eagles have depth and experience, led by forward Jamil Wilson and centers Davante Gardner and Chris Otule.

12. New Mexico: Alex Kirk should be in the running for Mountain West POY honors and he’ll be joined by Cameron Bairstow, who helped lead Australia to a silver medal in the World University Games this summer.

13. Colorado: Andre Roberson may be gone but Xavier Johnson and Josh Scott return, with redshirt freshman Wesley Gordon and true freshman Dustin Thomas both having the skill needed to be immediate contributors.

14. Duke: The Blue Devils may have a question to answer at center but they don’t lack for options at other areas in the front court. Jabari Parker and Semi Ojeleye will be impact freshmen, with returnees Josh Hairston, Amile Jefferson and Alex Murphy and redshirt freshman Marshall Plumlee also factoring into the equation.

15. UCLA: The Wear twins are back for one more season, but the biggest news may be the fact that sophomore Tony Parker is in much better physical condition. The Bruins could be even better if Wanaah Bail (knee) is back to full strength in the near future.

Note: The uncertain status of junior forward Chane Behanan led to Louisville being left off the list, with their interior depth now even more of a concern. 

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.