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.

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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. 

Missouri lands five-star forward Jontay Porter

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Missouri has another member of the Porter family in the fold as forward Jontay Porter officially committed to the Tigers on Monday night.

Following in the footsteps of older brother Michael Porter Jr., and father Michael Porter Sr., Jontay is currently a member of the Class of 2018 who is rumored to be reclassifying to the Class of 2017.

A 6-foot-10 forward who was recently elevated to five-star status on Rivals.com, Porter is having a monster spring in the Nike EYBL with MoKan Elite. Porter has been one of the best players in the league, as he’s putting up 18.1 points and 12.7 rebounds per game while shooting 40 percent from three-point range.

If Jontay is able to join Missouri next season then he gives the Tigers another intriguing piece to play alongside his brother Michael, who is good enough to be a potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Although Jontay isn’t the go-to player that his brother is, he could be a very effective SEC role player early in his career, as his ability to rebound and stretch the floor makes him an extremely intriguing piece on the floor.

Kevin Stallings is a tone-deaf clown

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Pitt guard Cameron Johnson is the most coveted transfer in college basketball this offseason.

The 6-foot-8 Johnson is coming off of a strong campaign with the Panthers in which he put up 11.9 points per game while shooting 42 percent from three-point range.

Not only is Johnson a proven double-figure scorer in a league like the ACC, but he’s eligible to play right away thanks to his graduation from Pitt. Johnson graduating from school in three years and missing one season due to injury also makes him the rare graduate transfer who has two seasons of eligibility remaining. So, not only can Johnson come in and make an immediate impact, but he’s also able to stay for another year after.

This sort of thing almost never happens, let alone with a 6-foot-8 shooter that could sway the national title race.

It’s why blueblood programs like Kentucky and UCLA are in hot pursuit of Johnson. It’s why another ACC school, reigning national champion North Carolina, is also intrigued by Johnson being on the market.

Except Johnson won’t be allowed to attend North Carolina, or any other school in the ACC, without first sitting out a season and losing one season of eligibility. At least that’s how things currently stand thanks to Pitt’s power over Johnson — despite Johnson graduating from the school and having no more formal educational ties to the school.

Here’s what Pitt said on the matter in a release to the News-Observer.

“Cameron Johnson and his father were informed of our policy as well as the appeals process when they elected to seek to transfer. They went through our transfer appeals process and were granted permission to contact ACC schools; however, the committee upheld the policy to limit immediate eligibility within the conference.

If Cameron were to transfer within the ACC, he would be eligible to receive financial aid immediately but would have to sit out a year of competition due to standard NCAA transfer regulations. Throughout this process, we have remained consistent to our department policy and we will continue to do so.”

Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings had a peculiar interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that was published about two weeks ago. During the interview, of which the full transcript was made public, Stallings went in-depth about Johnson’s transfer and the current state of college basketball. Stallings also made remarks about how the media holds programs accountable for trying to bully certain players.

Here’s a small sample of what Stallings had to say.

“But the unexpected departures are the things that are becoming more common than uncommon in college basketball. You have guys constantly trying to transfer up. You have guys going pro that have never played a minute of college basketball after they’ve sat out a year at a school. You have guys asking out of their letters of intent with frequency. We’re dealing in a landscape in college basketball right now that is as probably as difficult and peculiar as it’s ever been. It used to be if a kid signed his letter of intent and he wanted out of it, you had to play a year of junior-college ball to get out of it.

“The media didn’t basically force institutions to let people break a binding agreement. It’s kind of interesting now the media tries to put so much pressure on programs, whether it be athletic directors or coaches, saying ‘Well, the coaches can move.’ Well, hey, guess what? I’ve got a great big buyout in my deal that prevents me from moving. I’ve got something in my contract saying I can’t go to another league school. It’s not as easy for coaches to go. That’s everyone’s rationale — ‘Well, the coaches can leave.’ We’re dealing in an environment right now that is as fluid as it’s ever been. It’s just where we’re at in the whole thing with the unexpected departures.”

Stallings makes some sound points–particularly about coaches having buyouts and the general perception of coaching changes in basketball.

But Kevin Stallings mostly sounds like a tone-deaf clown here.

Nobody is going to feel sorry for a millionaire coach who willingly makes the decision to change jobs.

Nobody.

Especially if that same millionaire is comparing a choice to change jobs to the transfer decisions of unpaid student-athletes. It’s even more laughable now that Stallings is holding power over an unpaid student-athlete from going to play at another school because of purely basketball reasons.

Pitt and Stallings need to do the right thing and release Johnson to play at any school right away because Johnson has already done everything he needs to do to appease the program.

Things changed dramatically for Johnson during his three years at Pitt. He became one of the ACC’s better players and earned his degree. Johnson held up his end of the bargain when he signed his Letter of Intent.  Now Johnson just wants the chance improve his basketball future by playing with one of the nation’s elite programs.

Stallings can blame the current state of college basketball, the media, or whoever he wants for Johnson’s transfer from Pitt.

But Stallings also has to realize that he’s going to be the one who looks stupid if he continues to leave these restrictions in place for Johnson. Stallings already has a history of this sort of thing when he placed transfer restrictions on former player Sheldon Jeter. If Stallings continues to uphold transfer restrictions on Johnson, then he’s going to gain a permanent reputation in recruiting during a time when players continue to gain more freedom over their basketball futures.

If Johnson does happen to go to an ACC school like North Carolina, it’s not as if Pitt has any sort of competitive roster that is going to be fighting the Tar Heels for league supremacy during the next two seasons.

Stallings and Pitt need to just bite the bullet, let Johnson have his freedom, and hope it doesn’t come back to hurt them for one or two seasons in ACC play.

It surely beats the alternative of being labeled a head coach who limits player freedom after six players left Pitt during a single offseason. That type of burn lasts a lot longer than two years.

Presbyterian hires Wofford assistant Dustin Kerns as new head coach

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Presbyterian finally has its new head coach as the program is set to hire Wofford assistant coach Dustin Kerns, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

Kerns has been an assistant at Wofford for the past seven years during his second stint with the program. Also spending six seasons as an assistant coach at Santa Clara, the Tennessee native is getting his first shot at running his own program.

Finishing last in the Big South last season at 5-25 and 1-17 in conference play, Presbyterian is trying to rebuild after head coach Gregg Nibert resigned in April. Nibert was the head coach of the Blue Hens for 28 seasons, so Kerns is going to be a completely fresh start for the program.

Tennessee lands impact graduate transfer James Daniel

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Tennessee and head coach Rick Barnes earned a commitment from one of the top graduate transfers on the market on Monday when Howard guard James Daniel pledged to the Volunteers.

The 6-foot-0 Daniel was the nation’s leading scorer at 27.1 points per game his junior season in 2015-16. Daniel played in only two games last season as a left ankle injury caused him to have surgery.

With nearly 2,000 career points to his name, Daniel gives Tennessee an additional perimeter scorer who should come in and make an immediate impact right away. While Howard has low shooting percentages and a high usage rate during his time at Howard, it’ll be interesting to see how the year off and more talented teammates will alter his game.

If Howard can be a more efficient scorer in his final season, then he has a chance to be one of the better players for the Volunteers this season.

Two workouts this week could alter Caleb Swanigan’s NBA Draft decision

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Purdue big man Caleb Swanigan has the most important decision among any college basketball player who could return next season from the 2017 NBA Draft process. If Swanigan comes back for his junior season, he’s the frontrunner for National Player of the Year. More importantly, Purdue would have a serious chance to repeat as Big Ten regular season champions, especially if Vince Edwards also returns from the same draft process.

Wednesday night is the decision deadline for players to return to college basketball for next season and Swanigan will use two more workouts scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday to help decide his future. According to multiple reports, Swanigan will workout for the Orlando Magic on Tuesday and the New York Knicks on Wednesday.

Tuesday’s workout with the Magic will also reportedly involve Cal big man Ivan Rabb — an important workout for Swanigan since Rabb is listed ahead of Swanigan on a lot of popular mock drafts. The Magic own three picks between No. 25 and No. 35 — which is listed slightly above the No. 40 slot that Draft Express has Swanigan listed. So if Swanigan has a good workout against Rabb for the Magic, then he could get himself some sort of guarantee from a Magic team that desperately needs talent and has a lot of picks in that range.

The Knicks also have Swanigan scheduled for a Wednesday workout as they own the No. 44 overall pick in the second round. Again, the Knicks are a team in win-now mode with current stars like Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis openly feuding with the team’s front-office, so it wouldn’t be out of the question for Swanigan to land some sort of guarantee from New York in the second round.

Of course, guarantees for draft night are nice to have, but things can change quickly on draft night. Swanigan has to consider all of the information he is receiving before he makes his decision on Wednesday. But if Swanigan has two strong workouts and gets the information that he’s looking for this week, then he could easily bolt for a potential guaranteed contract.