Monday, November 11, 2013

Bold Predictions For 2014 March Madness

By Andrew Jones

The college basketball season is underway and so far there have been few surprises. There are some familiar names in the preseason rankings. Indeed, it is a veritable who's who of college basketball. The AP top 10 boasts the following schools with a listing of accolades, recent history, commentary, and a bold prediction for 2013-14.

1. Kentucky

8 National Championships, most recently 2012
15 Final Fours, most recently 2012
Last season: Lost in the first round of the NIT to Robert Morris

You know the world of college basketball has changed when a team that didn't even make the NCAA tournament last season is ranked number one in this year's preseason. The 2012-13 Kentucky Wildcats were the biggest bust perhaps in all of NCAA history. The ACL injury to Nerlens Noel was likely the biggest factor in the difficulties of last season, but how can a team like Kentucky lose to Robert Morris in the NIT. It's just embarrassing. Wildcat fans hope they can sandwich that terrible season with two national championships. I personally find that rather unlikely.

The issue with programs like Kentucky playing all top freshman recruits year after year is the unlikelihood of recruiting the talent needed, along with players who have any sort of team mentality. In 2011-12, it worked. In 2012-13, it blew up in an embarrassing catastrophe of terribleness. It is high risk, high reward or high embarrassment business for programs like Kentucky.

Twin brothers Andrew and Aaron Harrison will certainly play well together, but such a strong bond between two players can create awkwardness with the rest of the team. If you want to keep your eyes on a freshman, look at Julius Randle. In his first game, Randle had 23 points and 15 rebounds in only 26 minutes of work.

I think the Wildcats will be in the top two teams in the SEC and enter the NCAA tournament as a three or a four seed. Sweet 16 — yes. Beyond that — no.

2. Michigan State

2 National Championships, most recently 2000
8 Final Fours, most recently 2010
Last season: Lost to Duke in the regional semifinal

In stark contrast to Kentucky's freshmen-driven philosophy stands Tom Izzo and Michigan State. The Spartans' 2013-14 roster boasts only three freshmen, none of which will likely be a major factor for Michigan State this season. The old school philosophy provides a bit more stability year in and year out, but I think the most attractive part of recruiting players who will stay for more than one year is the relief of pressure in recruiting. Programs like Kentucky have to recruit five to eight of the best freshmen in the country who are ready to play top level basketball right now in order to compete. Michigan State has to recruit two to five guys who can take a year or two to mature and gain skills and experience.

Michigan State is to college basketball what the San Antonio Spurs are to the NBA. Consistently doing things the right way leads to annual success and championships from time to time. It has been a few years for the Spartans, but there are a lot more college basketball teams than NBA teams. I expect Izzo to continue the solidness with another Final Four year, but I think they'll have trouble winning it all in 2014. Oh, and the deadline for this article is a bit unfortunate as I had to submit before Kentucky hosted Michigan State Tuesday evening. What a great early season matchup!

3. Louisville

3 National Championships, most recently 2013
10 Final Fours, most recent 2013
Last Season: Defeated Michigan in the National Championship Game

Winning their first title in over 25 years had to feel good for the Cardinals. The 2012-13 Cardinals were a well-balanced team, but two of their top three players from last year are now in the NBA — Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng. The Cardinals leading scorer from last year, Russ Smith, looks like he is ready to lead the team once again, and freshman Mangok Mathiang looks to be the heir apparent to Dieng as shot blocker and gobbler of all rebounds, and the rest of the team looks typically balanced.

The one concern for the Cardinals might be that last season they rode a wave of emotion to the championship following the horrific leg break of Kevin Ware in the Regional Final against Duke. It is also worth noting that on their way to the championship, Louisville played a 16 seed, two 8 seeds, a 4 seed, and two 3 seeds. I'm not saying that they weren't challenged, but winning a championship without playing a one or a two seed is rare. I doubt they'll be able to have such an easy road two years in a row.

I'll give Louisville a pass to the Elite Eight, but not the Final Four.

4. Duke

4 National Championships, most recently 2010
15 Final Fours, most recently 2010
Last Season: Lost to Louisville in the Regional Final

Another huge Tuesday night matchup is Duke vs. Kansas. Good basketball early! While the Blue Devils have good upper classmen, the talk is all about Jabari Parker. Many people were surprised when Parker picked Duke over BYU due to his religious affiliations. I was surprised he picked Duke because I figured the kid might actually want to be an NBA star someday. Sure, Kyrie Irving is fantastic and Elton Brand and Grant Hill had great careers, but I find it fundamentally strange that program like Duke's has not produced one player who scored 20,000 points in the NBA.

But back to Duke basketball which, though it fails to produce the best NBA players, produces a the highest quality college basketball players.

Duke has three really interesting non-conference games this season, the aforementioned Kansas on a neutral court, at home vs. Michigan, and at home vs. UCLA. I think these games, though all before Christmas, will give us solid insight into what kind of team Duke can be in 2013-14. I'm predicting they'll find their way into the national championship, but lose.

5. Kansas

3 National Championships, most recently 2008
14 Final Fours, most recently 2012
Last Season: Lost to Michigan in the regional semifinal

The Jayhawks lost their five leadings scorers from last season. Not a single returning player played more than 20 minutes per game in 2012-13 and only three played in all 37 games. Freshman guard Andrew Wiggins led the team in scoring in their opening game and he may very well be expected to continue that trend.

Honestly, though, I don't expect the Jayhawks to even win the Big 12. I think we have a Sweet 16 team here that fails to make a huge impact.

6. Arizona

1 National Championship , 1997
4 Final Fours, most recently 2001
Last Season: Lost to Ohio State in the regional semifinal

After over two decades of sustained quality, making the NCAA Tournament every year from 1985 to 2009, Arizona had some up and down years in recent history but they seem to be back to their usual standards. The Wildcats had a solid balance in 2012-13, but lost their top two scorers. The early indication is that the balance remains. In their first game, seven of Arizona's players played significant minutes and six of those scored 10 points or more. The problem seems to be that the Wildcats lack a go to guy. That will likely be Aaron Gordon, who boasted 13 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocked shots in their opener. But what should really concern Arizona fans is that they only beat Cal Poly by 11 points and Cal Poly should not be in the realm of a close game for the Wildcats.

I predict a decent seed for Arizona, a three or a four, but an early exit. Bold. I know.

7. Michigan

1 National Championship, 1989
7 Final Fours, most recently 2013
Last Season: Lost in the National Championship Game to Louisville

Michigan managed to invade the National Championship game from an eight seed last year. They lost their far and away best two players in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. and here they come ranked seventh in the nation? I don't see it. I expect Michigan to be out of the top 25 by the end of January. They may pick up an eight seed again, but don't expect the same fireworks as last year.

8. Syracuse

1 National Championship, 2003
5 Final Fours, most recently 2013
Last Season: Lost to Michigan in the National Semifinal

Michael Carter-Williams is making a splash in the NBA, but a sobering statistic is that MCW was the fourth leading scorer for the Orange last season and the leading scorer from 2012-13, C.J. Fair is back for his senior season. Sophomore Trevor Cooney made a statement in the first game of 2013-14, knocking down seven three-pointers. Expect Syracuse to pick up where they left off and make the Final Four again in 2014, but go no further.

8. Oklahoma State

2 National Championships, most recently 1946
6 Final Fours, most recently 2004
Last Season: Lost to Oregon in the first round

Oklahoma State is the one team in the preseason top 10 that has not had a lot of recent success. The best days of OK State basketball were the 40s and 50s. But unlike any other team in the top 10, the Cowboys lost nobody. They have their best players all returning and looking sharp. In another bold prediction, I think Oklahoma State will win its first national title in nearly 70 years.

10. Florida

2 National Championships, most recently 2007
4 Final Fours, most recently 2007
Last Season: Lost in the regional final to Michigan

The Gators have lost in the regional final each of the last three seasons. That sounds like a good place for them to land again in 2014. Casey Prather, Patric Young, and Michael Frazier II will need to step up and lead the team who lost their top three scorers from last season, but such is life for Florida who has established a really solid program over the last 20 years.

There you have it. My Final Four consists of Michigan State, Syracuse, Duke and Oklahoma State with Oklahoma State defeating Duke for the national championship.

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