A look at a field that is wide open.
By Tim Reilly
The college basketball season is set to tip-off once again. Every faithful fan will start looking ahead to March, the most exhilarating and unpredictable month in sports. As teams prepare for another year of bitter rivalries and tournament aspirations, fans are beginning to fantasize which teams will be left standing at the end of the season. Even though Indiana may be heralded as the odds-on favorite to go the distance, there are plenty of squads teeming with wily veterans and talented newcomers, leaving the field wide open.
The Bluegrass State will be well-represented this season, as Kentucky and Louisville are widely considered two of the top teams in the country. Michigan and Ohio State will join the Hoosiers as the powerhouses atop the Big Ten. UNC and Duke reprise their roles as perennial contenders, but look for North Carolina State to surprise many and come away with the ACC title.
One of the more exciting conferences this season will be the top-heavy Mountain West, featuring UNLV and San Diego State, two teams no out-ofconference opponent will want to face. As usual, the Big 12 is stacked with talented rosters and promising freshmen. Kansas, Mizzou and Baylor all look like teams that could make a deep run in March.
Meanwhile in Austin, Rick Barnes is prepared for his 15th season as coach of the Longhorns. Barnes has been exceptional during his tenure at UT, leading his teams to 14 straight NCAA tournament appearances. Only five other schools in the country have managed to make the tourney every year during this span. Last season’s team relied heavily on J’Covan Brown, whose departure after his junior season for the pros will have the Longhorns seeking offensive replacements.
Look for sophomores Sheldon McClellan and Myck Kabongo to step up and play major roles this year. Texas will be counting on production from their freshman class. The prized newcomer this season will be center Cameron Ridley, the 14th McDonald’s All-American to bring his talents to Austin in the Rick Barnes era. Ridley is an outstanding player, whose 6-foot-10-inch, 230-pound frame will be a welcome addition to a Longhorn team in desperate need of a post presence.
The Longhorns have only two upperclassmen on their roster. Although there may be an uncertainty with such a young squad, Barnes certainly has the ability to coach up the raw talent and lead this team to their 14th straight 20-win season. Even though Texas will most likely not win their first Big 12 season title since 2008, the Longhorns definitely are candidates to make the NCAA Tournament. The 107th season of UT basketball starts Nov. 9, as the Longhorns play host to the Fresno State Bulldogs at 7 p.m. on the Longhorn Network.
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 players to watch this season:
When Cody Zeller decided to return after his freshman year, the Hoosiers became favorites to win their first NCAA Championship since 1987. This program has come a long way under Tom Crean, who has assembled a stellar supporting cast around Zeller that includes Christian Watford, sharpshooter Jordan Hulls and freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell.
Kentucky Wildcats With another heralded recruiting class for John Calipari, there is no reason the Wildcats cannot have another stellar season. Superstar Anthony Davis left for the pros, but freshmen Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein have enough collective talent to help carry this team deep in to the tournament.
Louisville Cardinals Rick Pitino has enough key pieces returning from last year’s Final Four team to be viewed as a serious contender. The cornerstone of this group is point guard Peyton Siva, perhaps the best on-court leader in the country. The Cardinals will rely on their defense to win, and opponents will find it difficult to score with 6-foot-11- inch Gorgui Dieng protecting the rim.
Michigan Wolverines Point guard Trey Burke is the best player in the Big Ten not named Cody Zeller. Burke is joined in the backcourt by Tim Hardaway Jr., who has plenty of ability but will need to rebound from an inconsistent sophomore season. The addition of a few highly touted freshmen will make this John Beilein’s best team since taking the reins in Ann Arbor.
North Carolina State Wolfpack This team is absolutely loaded with talent. To the horror of their intrastate rivals, the Wolfpack will be the best team coming out of the ACC this year. Mark Gottfried’s squad will be led by big man C.J. Leslie and playmaker Lorenzo Brown, the latter being one of the premier drive-and-dish guards in the country.
Sleeper Pick: Memphis Tigers Josh Pastner, entering his fourth season at the helm, will have his best team yet. Even without leading scorer and rebounder Will Barton, the Tigers have enough experience and talent to make some noise when March rolls around. Sophomore Adonis Thomas, who missed half of last season with an ankle injury, has the potential to rank among the top scorers in the nation.
Tim Reilly grew up in Ridgewood, NJ, and went on to attend Boston College, where he received a degree in communications. He has worked in television since his graduation, most recently as a researcher for the CBS Sports Network.
Naismith Watch List
Cody Zeller – F, Indiana With a versatile offensive skill set and elite abilities on the defensive end, this sophomore forward is the most complete player in the country. Although expectations are lofty for Zeller and the Hoosiers this season, don’t bet against him walking away with POY honors and a championship ring.
Doug McDermott – F, Creighton He may be the coach’s son, but McDermott undoubtedly earns his playing time. As a sophomore, he put up more than 22 points per contest while shooting 60 percent from the field. McDermott will be just as reliable this year and will make opponents dread facing the Bluejays come tourney time.
Phil Pressey – G, Missouri “Flip” could very well be the best point man on the collegiate level. Just ask his teammates. He is a blur on the court and nearly unstoppable in transition. Standing at 5 feet 11 inches, Pressey is not an elite scorer but has an uncanny ability to create shots for other players.
Isaiah Canaan – G, Murray State Canaan is a lethal offensive weapon who led the Racers to a school-record 31 wins last year. After getting bounced from the tournament in the Round of 32, Canaan returns with something to prove in his senior season. Equally dangerous in the lane as he is from three-point land, his passing skills have improved with each season.
Tony Mitchell – F, North Texas Mitchell may not yet be a household name but is an incredible talent with unlimited potential. He averaged a double-double as a frosh and is likely to put up astronomical numbers this season. The Mean Green will have to make the most of having Mitchell on their roster. He is a lock to be a lottery pick in next year’s draft.
Sleeper Pick: Otto Porter – F, Georgetown Otto-matic! After cracking the starting lineup down the stretch last season, Porter is poised for a breakout sophomore campaign. The Hoyas have a young rotation this year and will rely on this swingman to play to his full potential that could be scary good. Porter is already a lockdown defender, strong rebounder and efficient scorer.