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.
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.
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.
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.