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An exciting season in which the ultimate winner may be determined by talent of transfers, rookies and long shooters.

By Tim Reill; Photos by Cody Hamilton and courtesy of University of Texas at Austin Athletics

The 108th campaign of University of Texas basketball is underway. After a season to forget in 2012-13, the Longhorns are looking to rebuild and rebound. Rick Barnes, who missed his first NCAA tournament in 15 years with Texas, will find himself in the hot seat if he cannot right the ship this winter. Turning the page will prove difficult this year, as the Longhorns are without their top four scorers from last season. Myck Kabongo left early to pursue his pro career, Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis both transferred out of the program and Loannis Papapetrou accepted a lucrative offer to play ball in Greece.

It will be difficult for Texas to find reliable scoring options, with more than half of last year’s scoring production out the door. The Longhorns will need to rely on sophomore point guard Javan Felix to facilitate the offense , a scary proposition considering he shot an abysmal 35 percent from the floor last season. Felix, at his best when he is setting up teammates, averaged 5.5 assists as a s tarter in 2012-13 during Kabongo’s 23-game suspension.

Fellow sophomore Cameron Ridley, a former McDonald’s All-American center, also needs to step up after a disappointing freshman campaign. Junior forward Jonathan Holmes will provide much-needed stability to this young roster, having led the Longhorns in rebounding last season, despite only averaging 20 minutes per game.

Since college basketball is inherently unpredictable, it is unfair to assess a team’s prospects safely upon lack of experience. A future star (possibly freshman point guard Isaiah Taylor) can emerge from nowhere to lead the Longhorns to their next tourney appearance. As always, there is plenty of talent and exciting story lines throughout the rest of the nation. Here is a brief look at some of the teams and pla yers to watch this season:

Title Contenders

Louisville Cardinals

Although Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng have departed for the pros, Rick Pitino’s squad still has plenty of firepower. Russ Smith and soon-to-be sophomore sensation Montrezl Harrell will provide a formidable tandem that no team will want to face come March.

Michigan State Spartans

Tom Izzo is poised to make another title run, returning six of his top seven scorers from last season. Gary Harris and Keith Appling comprise the best backcourt in the Big Ten, while Adreian Payne will clean up in the paint.

Kentucky Wildcats

Last season ended with a first-round exit from the NIT. Don’t expect that to happen again. John Calipari’s Kiddie Cats are loaded with even more talent. A new crop of freshman and returnees Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein will bring title hopes back to the Bluegrass State.

Duke Blue Devils

Coach K has mentored plenty of talent in his tenure at Duke, but incoming frosh Jabari Parker may be his best recruit in recent memory. Miss State transfer Rodney Hood also will contribute immediately and give the Blue Devils another elite scoring option.

Sleeper Pick: UCLA Bruins

In his first year at the helm, Steve Alford will attempt to return the Bruins to national prominence. Sophomore guards Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson are supremely talented players who will look to improve on their stellar freshman seasons.

Notable Games

  • Dec. 18 @ North Carolina Dec. 21 vs. Michigan State
  • Jan. 8 @ Oklahoma State
  • Feb. 1 vs. Kansas
  • Feb. 11 vs. Oklahoma State
  • Feb. 22 @ Kansas Freshman

Naismith Watch List

Marcus Smart – Sophomore, Oklahoma State

Smart was a lock to be a lottery pick last June, but passed up the opportunity for another season in Stillwater. A natural leader who does everything right on the court, Smart is the frontrunner for POY honors.

Doug McDermott – Senior, Creighton

He may be the coach’s son, but McDermott unquestionably earns his playing time. Efficient in the paint and a sniper fr om long range, Dougie McBuckets will lead the nation in scoring this season.

Andrew Wiggins – Freshman, Kansas

Wiggins is an elite talent with an explosive first step and a 44-inch vertical leap. NBA cellar-dwellers might be tempted to tank their seasons just for the chance of getting this freshman phenom on their roster.

Gary Harris – Sophomore, Michigan State

The returning Big Ten Freshman of the Year has lofty goals for his sophomore season. A deadly shooter who also can finish at the rim, Harris is one of the best lock-down defenders in the country.

Sleeper Pick: Montrezl Harrell – Sophomore, Louisville

Russ Smith may be an obvious pick, but Harrell is going to be the force in the AAC this year. Consigned to a bench role his freshman season, this monstrous forward will vault to superstardom once he is turned loose.

Impact Freshman

Julius Randle – Kentucky

Out of all the freshman talent in Lexington, Randle will surely be the standout. A walking double-double with a great work ethic, Randle will be the leader from day one for this young Wildcats squad.

Jabari Parker – Duke

Before Andrew Wiggins was eligible to join the college ranks, Parker was the prize recruit of this year’s class. This Simeon High product can score on all three levels and will challenge Wiggins and Julius Randle as the nation’s best frosh.

Aaron Gordon – Arizona

If you miss any of ’Zona’s games this season, you will still catch Gordon in the highlight reel. An electrifying athlete who can jump out of the gym, Gordon is essentially a lock for Pac-12 freshman of the year.

Joel Embiid – Kansas This seven-footer from Cameroon didn’t pick up a basketball until age 15, just like his idol Hakeem Olajuwon. Embiid is the nation’s top incoming center. His raw talent and rim-protecting abilities will have pro scouts lining up to see him play.

Sleeper Pick: G E.C. Matthews – Rhode Island

The Rams found a future star in Matthews, a gifted scoring guard who led Romulus High to its first state championship since 1986. Matthews has an uncanny ability to create his own offense and will emerge as one of the best young guards in the country.

Tim Reilly grew up in Ridgewood, NJ, and went on to Boston College, where he received his degree in communications. He has worked in television since his graduation, most recently for the CBS Sports Network.


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