2014-15 Season Preview: Kentucky’s loaded rotation leads nation’s best front courts

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Karl-Anthony Towns is just one piece of a loaded Kentucky front court. (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

High-level big men aren’t a dime a dozen, and with that being the case the programs that have the benefit of multiple interior options tend to do well in college basketball’s most important month. Below are our ranking of the top front courts in the country heading into the 2014-15 season, with factors such as skill level, production and depth being considered. And just like last year, a certain SEC plower claims the top spot.

1. Kentucky: Similar to last season, juniors Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress are the most experienced pieces in John Calipari’s interior attack. However unlike last year they’ve got company, with a slimmer Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and Derek Willis back in Lexington as well. Add in two projected lottery picks in freshmen Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns and the end result is the most talented and deepest interior rotation in college basketball. And Willis, who would see playing time for a lot of other programs, is expected by many to be on the outside looking in with regards to Kentucky’s expected “platoon” despite playing well during the team’s summer trip to the Bahamas.

2. Texas: Rick Barnes was assured of having one of the best front courts in the country when everyone, including Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley, decided to return after helping lead the Longhorns back to the NCAA tournament. And then he received a verbal commitment from one of the best big men in the Class of 2014 in Myles Turner. The Longhorns have both depth and talent inside, and they’re experienced as well. Among the other returnees are center Prince Ibeh and forward Connor Lammert, and freshman Jordan Barnett’s no slouch either.

3. Arizona: The Wildcats will have to account for the departure of Aaron Gordon, but Gordon spending just one year in Tucson was expected to be the case from the moment he committed to join Sean Miller’s program. The Wildcats have a nice balance of depth, experience and talent, with starters Brandon Ashley being juniors and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson entering his sophomore season. Add in freshmen Stanley Johnson (he’s listed as a forward but is likely to see time at the two) and Craig Victor, and the end result is a group that is one reason why Arizona is expected to be a national title contender.

4. Kansas: No Joel Embiid for the Jayhawks, but while Bill Self and his staff will have to account for that loss they don’t lack for options. Junior Perry Ellis is one of the best players in the Big 12, and he’ll lead the way in a rotation that doesn’t lack for talent despit not have as many options as the teams above. Jamari Traylor has been in Lawrence for a couple years now, as has Landen Lucas, and Arkansas transfer Hunter Mickelson gives them another options with Division I experence. And then there’s freshman Cliff Alexander, who arrives on campus as one of the most dominant players in the Class of 2014.

5. Wisconsin: The tandem of Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky was outstanding last season, with the latter’s virtuoso performance in the Elite Eight getting the Badgers to their first Final Four since 2000. Dekker’s in line to put together a breakout junior season, and senior Duje Dukan and Nigel Hayes will fill out the rotation for the preseason favorites to win the Big Ten.

MORE: The nation’s top perimeter attacks

6. Duke: There’s no denying the fact that the Blue Devils add the best big man in the Class of 2014 in the form of freshman Jahlil Okafor, who did just about whatever he wanted at the prep level. But he isn’t the only freshman who arrives in Durham amidst much acclaim, with Justise Winslow expected to factor into the rotation as well. Amile Jefferson provides intangibles for Duke, who needs one of either Marshall Plumlee or Semi Ojeleye to take a step forward in what will be a competitive ACC.

7. LSU: The Tigers lost Johnny O’Bryant III from last year’s team, but it can be argued that pieces currently at Johnny Jones’ disposal fit together better despite not having their leading scorer and rebounder. Jordan Mickey was one of the SEC’s best freshmen in 2013-14, and classmate Jarell Martin may be the one who benefits most from O’Bryant’s early departure. LSU also adds 7-footer Elbert Robinson III, slender Aaron Epps and burly 6-foot-6 banger Brian Bridgewater to their front court rotation.

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8. Louisville: The Cardinals will play their first season in the ACC with one of the most explosive athletes in college basketball in junior power forward Montrezl Harrell. The question: who will step up alongside the All-America candidate? Rick Pitino has some young talented options at his disposal, including sophomore Mangok Mathiang and freshman Chinanu Onuaku.

9. Gonzaga: Mark Few lost Sam Dower from last year’s WCC champion squad, but he gets to slide Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer into the rotation. And Wiltjer isn’t the only talented new addition, with Domatas Sabonis also expected to compete for minutes. They join junior 7-footer Przemek Karnowski, who averaged 10.3 points and 7.0 rebounds per game last season.

10. SMU: The Mustangs return one all-conference selection in Markus Kennedy, and after being less than 100 percent for much of last season senior Yanick Moreira is coming off of an impressive summer with Angola’s senior national team. SMU also adds Xavier transfer Justin Martin, who adds versatility to the front court ranks, and senior Cannen Cunningham gives them additional depth and experience.

THE NEXT TEN 

  • 11. Colorado: Josh Scott may be the best center in the Pac-12, and Xavier Johnson’s no slouch either.
  • 12. UCLA: The Bruins won’t have Jonah Bolden, but they will have fellow freshman Kevon Looney and Thomas Welsh, and junior Tony Parker is back as well.
  • 13. North Carolina: If Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson take a step forward, this ranking will turn out to be too low.
  • 14. Memphis: Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols lead the way for a group that should see a major increase in post touches.
  • 15. Virginia: No more Akil Mitchell, but Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey return for the reigning ACC champions.
  • 16. Iowa State: Georges Niang leads the way with Dustin Hogue and Daniel Edozie being experienced options as well. Freshman Giorgios Tsalmpouris could help, and the mid-year addition of Jameel McKay will be big.
  • 17. Syracuse: Losing C.J. Fair hurts but Rakeem Christmas returns, Tyler Roberson could be a breakout candidate, and freshman Chris McCullough is a newcomer to keep an eye on.
  • 18. Iowa: Starters Aaron White and Adam Woodbury, and reserves Jarrod Uthoff and Gabe Olaseni all return to Iowa City.
  • 19. Florida: Chris Walker’s an enticing talent who had the benefit of a full offseason with the program. Dorian Finney-Smith is their best bet from a consistency standpoint, and transfers Alex Murphy and Jon Horford will help as well.
  • 20. NC State: Like UNC, this ranking could turn out to be too low by the end of the season. BeeJay Anya’s in far better shape than he was last season, and players such as Jordan Washington, Lennard Freeman and Abdul-Malik Abu will be factors as well.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.