Early 2014 College Hoops Top 10

Brothers Aaron (2) and Andrew (5) Harrison are part of one of the best recruiting classes ever at Kentucky. (USA TODAY Sports)

Brothers Aaron (2) and Andrew (5) Harrison are part of one of the best recruiting classes ever at Kentucky. (USA TODAY Sports)

With the 2013 college basketball season in the books, we might as well start looking forward to next year. Admittedly, attempting to rank teams for 2014 is an inexact science, especially because the underclassmen deadline for the NBA draft isn’t until April 28, and recruiting isn’t finished either. There are a lot of moving parts that should settle over the next several weeks, but for now we can still make some educated guesses and try to get a snapshot of who could have the best chance of making it to the Final Four in Dallas next year.

Again, a lot could change. If Trey Burke decides to return to Michigan, and if Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller return to Indiana, both the Wolverines and Hoosiers will end up in the top 10. But they probably won’t, so here are our best entirely-too-early guesses:

1. Kentucky

So, what happens when you fail to reload after a historically great team of one-and-dones wins the national championship? After you fall from the national title to losing in the first round of the NIT to Robert Morris? If you’re Kentucky, you immediately vault back to No. 1. OK, maybe the Wildcats will struggle early again next season. Nerlens Noel is headed for the draft, and we all saw what Kentucky looked like without Noel. Noel might be the No. 1 pick, and guard Archie Goodwin left too.

It doesn’t matter. It’s quite possible that John Calipari signed the greatest recruiting class in the history of college basketball. He signed the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, a pair of 6-foot-5 guards (Andrew a point guard, Aaron a shooter). He signed 6-foot-10, 265-pounder Dakari Johnson. He signed 6-foot-9 forwards Marcus Lee and Julius Randle. He signed 6-foot-6 guard James Young. All six of those players are five-star recruits, according to Rivals.com. All these guys will join Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, two highly regarded recruits from 2012.

No matter how talented, there’s always risk with such a young team, but the upside is absurd. The 2013 season may have ended in an oversized high school gym at Robert Morris. The 2014 season will likely end at Jerry World.

2. Louisville

The Cardinals’ future remains in question as we await the NBA decisions of guard Russ Smith and center Gorgui Dieng, but there’s a good chance at least one will return (likely Smith*). Louisville can get by without Dieng, but it needs Smith back to help compensate for the loss of senior point guard Peyton Siva. If Smith returns, he’ll likely be joined in the backcourt by star juco transfer Chris Jones,  and we’ll see how Kevin Ware recovers from his leg injury. Siva is the Cardinals’ only senior, so they’ll have plenty of experience returning with forwards Luke Hancock, Chane Behanan, Wayne Blackshear and Montrezl Harrell all still in the fold.

*After winning the national championship Monday night, Smith’s dad said his son will enter the NBA draft.

3. Duke

As is typical of Duke, several key seniors are gone — Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly — decimating the nucleus of a Final Four-caliber team that was stuck in the wrong region. Still, Duke is as capable as anyone of reloading, and the Blue Devils have the makings of a really good starting five built around returning guards Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook, versatile 6-foot-8 Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood (10.3 points per game as a freshman last year) and star recruit Jabari Parker. The biggest hole is underneath, where  a combination of Marshall Plumlee, Amile Jefferson and Alex Murphy will need to replace Mason Plumlee and Kelly.

4. North Carolina

The Tar Heels’ detour to mediocrity and their expected resurgence next season differs from Kentucky because they won’t have to rely solely on freshmen. It’s possible the pieces are mostly in place already, assuming forward James Michael McAdoo and guards Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston stay in Chapel Hill. Those three join promising point guard Marcus Paige in a still-small lineup that’s missing the traditional Roy Williams big man after he reluctantly went to a four-guard lineup, with some success, late in the season. Williams showed he’s flexible, and while McAdoo is playing out of position if he has to continue playing the five, the Tar Heels should take a big leap forward with so much young talent a year older.

5. Arizona

Sean Miller certainly has some reshuffling to do, given that the Wildcats lose leading scorers Mark Lyons and Solomon Hill. But he’s stockpiled talent in Tucson, and they could take a step forward next season. The key is the development of some talented big young big men, led by 6-8 Brandon Ashley, 7-foot Kaleb Tarczewski and 6-foot-10 Grant Jerrett. All three were freshman this season, and all three were star recruits, meaning this front line has the potential to be as good as any in the nation.

6. Florida

The Gators got good news on Monday when defensive stopper Patric Young announced his return. The problem is the departure of most of the offense, as Mike Rosario, Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy are all seniors. Rebuilding is certainly a tall task, but the return of Young gives Billy Donovan some stability underneath, in addition to a strong bunch of new acquisitions, including 6-foot-8 Virginia Tech transfer Dorian Finney-Smith,  6-foot-9 South Carolina transfer Damontre Harris and star recruits Chris Walker and Kasey Hill. The losses are big, but if the new players pan out, Florida is talented enough to compete with Kentucky at the top of the SEC.

7. Michigan State

The fate of the Spartans rests in the hands of three underclassmen who are all seeking NBA evaluations before making their decisions: junior forward Adreian Payne, freshman guard Gary Harris and junior guard Keith Appling. Regardless of what happens, pencil in the Spartans as Big Ten contenders, because that’s always the case for Tom Izzo’s teams in East Lansing. If all three somehow come back, then this is a national championship contender, but that could be wishful thinking, as Harris is a potential lottery pick and Payne’s stock is on the rise after a great NCAA tournament.

8. Marquette

The Golden Eagles lose three starters from a Big East co-championship team, but none are really stars, and they should be just fine with a returning core led by rising senior forward Davante Gardner and guard Vander Blue combined with one of the best recruiting classes in the nation, which includes top juco forward Jameel McKay and highly regarded guards Duane Wilson, Deonte Burton and JaJuan Johnson. Marquette had a relatively quiet season for a No. 3 seed that went to the Elite 8, and 2014 could be even better.

9. Memphis

Memphis remains a step behind in conference realignment. Finally set to join the Big East, the Tigers are instead joining the new/old Big East that will be called the American Athletic Conference and essentially resemble Conference USA, except for the presence of UConn. Memphis has been rather quiet since the departure of John Calipari, losing in its tournament openers the last two seasons, then losing to Michigan State in the Round of 32 this season. The Tigers still went 16-0 in CUSA play, though, and pretty much all of their key contributors return, including Joe Jackson, Adonis Thomas, Chris Crawford and Geron Johnson, who all averaged double figures. Throw in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, led by forward Austin Nichols, and Josh Pastner has a lot of talent to work with in pursuing his first Sweet 16 as head coach.

10. Ohio State

Perhaps this is too high after leading scorer Deshaun Thomas declared for the draft, but it’s not like the cupboard is bare. Aside from bench forward Evan Ravenel (who didn’t score in his last two games), everyone else returns, including star defender Aaron Craft, guard Lenzelle Smith and emerging forward LaQuinton Ross, who had a good NCAA tournament. As the centerpiece of the Buckeyes’ offense, Thomas is obviously a huge loss, but Ohio State has the talent to regroup and put together another contender.

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