Indiana v Syracuse

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. 

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.