Stock Watch for College Basketball's Top 2013-14 Contenders
While college football dominates the spotlight, college basketball's top teams are gearing up for the start of the 2013-14 season—even the ones who are wishing it were further away. Some leading contenders have been getting unfortunate news about injuries or eligibility (not to mention matchups in their preseason tournaments), while others are having a much more enjoyable offseason.
The Florida Gators are firmly in the former category, and not just because of the uncertainty surrounding veteran point guard Scottie Wilbekin. One of Billy Donovan's top recruits has been ruled ineligible for the fall semester, hurting Florida's chances of matching last year's red-hot start.
Read on for more on the Gators' academic woes, along with the latest changes in fortune for the rest of the 20 best teams from our latest set of preseason rankings.
20. Saint Louis
Head coach Jim Crews will make sure the Billikens play some of the toughest man-to-man defense in the country. On offense, though, SLU hasn't been nearly so impressive, which is one reason Crews has called in some help.
St. Louis lured Calbert Cheaney away from Indiana to become an assistant coach, and the leading scorer in Big Ten history is sure to boost point production for his new team.
Look for SG Mike McCall Jr. to reap particular benefits from this move, as he (like Cheaney in his playing days) strikes a balance between launching three-pointers and attacking the hoop.
19. Oklahoma State
Last year, Oklahoma State announced its arrival as a national contender with a big win over N.C. State in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. This season, the Cowboys are primed for another quality non-conference win in another made-for-TV event, the MGM Grand Showcase.
The pairings for the doubleheader could hardly have been more favorable for Travis Ford's squad, which drew point guard-poor Colorado.
The Buffaloes will be an NCAA tournament team in March, but in December they'll get torched by the best point guard in college hoops, do-it-all sophomore Marcus Smart.
18. Wichita State
Malcolm Armstead's graduation guaranteed that point guard would be a position of concern in Wichita this season. Now, the Shockers get even thinner in the backcourt with the end of D.J. Bowles' nascent college career.
After the freshman collapsed during practice earlier this month, the school's medical staff determined that his heart condition made it too dangerous to allow him to compete in intercollegiate sports.
With one fewer ball-handling prospect on the roster, the pressure ratchets up on sophomore Fred Van Vleet as he tries to replace Armstead in the No. 1 role.
17. New Mexico
As Craig Neal (at right in photo) takes over the head-coaching duties from Steve Alford, his Lobos have already battled some serious adversity. Neal's son Cullen, a freshman guard, nearly died of a ruptured appendix on the team's summer trip to Australia.
The younger Neal, who was expected to challenge for a starting spot with Tony Snell gone to the NBA, is unlikely to be back to 100 percent by the start of the season.
It's not a crushing blow to the Kendall Williams-led backcourt, but it certainly doesn't help New Mexico any, either.
As if Memphis didn't already have an embarrassment of riches at the guard spots, the Tigers got even deeper earlier this month. Missouri transfer Michael Dixon Jr. received an NCAA waiver allowing him to play immediately for Josh Pastner's team.
Dixon's arrival gives Memphis four senior guards—also including Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford and Geron Johnson—who all score in double figures and all average at least 1.2 steals per game.
The last thing Tigers opponents need is another three-point threat to worry about, and Dixon hit 36.8 percent of his tries as a junior.
15. Virginia Commonwealth
VCU's swarming, scrambling "havoc" defense has kept them in the postseason spotlight, but this year it's a preseason tournament that could prove just how good the Rams are.
Briante Weber and company got a dream draw in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off bracket that should do wonders for their NCAA tournament seeding.
The Rams' likely opponents in Puerto Rico include Florida State, Michigan and Georgetown, none of whom have the kind of top-tier point guard needed to cope with Virginia Commonwealth's relentless pressure.
It's also a chance for payback, both for transfer forward Terrance Shannon—facing his old Seminoles teammates—and for the team as a whole against the Michigan squad that bounced them from last year's Big Dance.
The good news for Indiana is that Noah Vonleh (pictured), the headliner of this year's freshman class, has looked as good as advertised during offseason practices. The bad news is that he's one of the few freshmen who's able to practice right now.
Vonleh's classmates Troy Williams (hand) and Luke Fischer (shoulder) are both expected to miss the next few weeks of practice with injuries.
On a team that must replace four starters, having key young players—even projected backups such as Williams—missing practice time will make it that much tougher for the roster to jell in time for the grind of Big Ten competition.
The Maui Invitational has frequently been a great source of quality wins for a Gonzaga team that gets precious few of those in conference play. This year's Maui field, however, was a severe letdown for Kevin Pangos and company.
Of the other seven teams who will compete in Hawaii, only Syracuse is likely to begin the year in the Top 25.
Before a potential showdown with the Orange, the best the Zags can hope for is beating no-name Dayton and erratic Baylor, and neither of those wins will open many eyes on the selection committee come March.
12. North Carolina
After weeks of speculation, the P.J. Hairston situation in Chapel Hill finally appears to be moving toward a resolution.
The high-scoring junior returned to practice this week, suggesting that he's making progress in satisfying Roy Williams' requirements for a full reinstatement.
Hairston was always a lock to miss some number of regular-season games after his drug-related suspension, but now some of the uncertainty is clearing.
The faster this distraction is resolved—and the sooner the Tar Heels get their best offensive weapon back on the court—the better UNC's chances will be in the crowded ACC.
Stock: Inching up
The announcement of the bracket for the Wooden Legacy tournament had to have been a disappointment for Marquette. The only way for the Golden Eagles to get a meaningful win will be in the title game, which they're a virtual lock to play in.
Marquette's first two games pit Davante Gardner and his mates against overmatched Cal State-Fullerton and (probably) Miami, neither of whom will come within shouting distance of the NCAA tournament.
In the final, the Golden Eagles will probably draw Creighton (whom they'll face in conference play anyway) or, if they're really lucky, Arizona State (who could easily hand them an upset loss as Sun Devils star Jahii Carson faces off with Marquette freshman Duane Wilson.
Duke got a double whammy from the announcement of the preseason NIT bracket. Not only do the Blue Devils only have one chance to face an elite opponent, but that one game is against possibly the worst matchup in the entire country for Coach K's squad.
Barring a massive upset, Duke will stroll through a weak early bracket to face Alabama, a borderline Top 25 team that will probably get knocked out of the rankings with a semifinal loss here.
That game sets up a title-game meeting with Arizona, whose towering front line (7'0" Kaleb Tarczewski, 6'8" Brandon Ashley and 6'8" Aaron Gordon) will make life miserable for Amile Jefferson and the rest of a depleted corps of Blue Devil big men.
The challenge for Michigan in getting its team ready for the season is to integrate a brand-new starting backcourt with the trio of talent-rich Final Four veterans up front. That project would be a lot easier if all five likely starters could practice together.
Instead, star center Mitch McGary is categorized as day-to-day, likely for the duration of fall practice, with a back problem.
Back injuries are notoriously difficult to rest or to heal, and if McGary is still hurting by the time the season starts, Michigan will struggle to keep up with a loaded Big Ten.
Between Scottie Wilbekin's indefinite suspension and some key graduation losses, Florida has plenty of holes to fill this season. One of the players who was supposed to fill them now turns out to need a replacement himself.
Freshman power forward Chris Walker is academically ineligible for the fall semester, leaving him out of action until at least January.
When he does return, he'll need to hit the ground running against SEC opposition, where Florida will really need his dunking and shot-blocking prowess.
The 2013 Maui Invitational field doesn't have the same star power as previous editions. Still, given the available opponents, Syracuse got a superb draw: two likely quality wins, plus the possibility of a third.
The uncertainty comes from a Minnesota team that may or may not sneak back into the NCAA tournament field behind Andre Hollins and new coach Richard Pitino.
By beating the Gophers in their opener, the Orange will move on to a likely showdown with Cal (a good bet to crack the Top 25 by season's end), followed by a title-game clash with Gonzaga.
Better still, the talented Zags will struggle against Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone because of their inexperience up front (and the wealth of experience brought by C.J. Fair and the rest of their Syracuse counterparts).
Last year's Battle 4 Atlantis was a hyper-competitive affair, with three top-20 teams—Missouri, Louisville, Duke—all challenging for the title. This year's field is a very different story, much to Kansas' chagrin.
The Jayhawks are the only team in the tournament with a prayer of being ranked in the preseason, meaning that anything short of winning it all will be a serious disappointment.
Then, too, it'll be tough to impress the selection committee much with wins over the likes of USC and Xavier.
It's not like Arizona's stacked frontcourt needs any more weapons, but the Wildcats are getting one anyway. Kansas transfer Zach Peters, a redshirt freshman, has been ruled eligible to play right away for Sean Miller's team.
Peters, a 6'10" forward who plays like a poor man's Ryan Kelly, will be an asset to the Wildcats because of his ability to space the floor. Even if he doesn't take many shots, he can draw defenders away from Kaleb Tarczewski or Brandon Ashley on the low block.
4. Ohio State
Ohio State took its share of flak last season for playing a soft schedule (and losing to the few good non-conference foes it faced).
The Buckeyes might have hoped the Gotham Classic would help turn that reputation around, but the result could be to solidify it instead.
Although OSU will get a meaningful game against a tough Notre Dame squad, that's the extent of the challenge for a team with legitimate Final Four aspirations.
The rest of the tourney field—Bryant, North Dakota State and Delaware—provides a scant upgrade over last year's meetings with the likes of Savannah State and Missouri-Kansas City.
3. Michigan State
Tom Izzo's teams are used to inflicting pain on opposing rebounders, but right now, the Spartans are mostly feeling pain instead. A pair of minor injuries has two key rotation players missing practice time at this writing.
The more important of the duo is standout SG Gary Harris, who's nursing a sprained ankle, while playmaking reserve Denzel Valentine has an infected hand.
Neither injury will be enough to keep them out of games, but it's hardly an auspicious start to the year.
Stock: Falling back
It's no mean feat to be the most impressive athlete on Kentucky's imposing roster, but Willie Cauley-Stein has earned that title. However, the speedy seven-footer won't be showing off his moves in the immediate future, as he's sidelined with a hand injury.
Although the injury itself is minor, the practice time Cauley-Stein is missing is a serious concern.
Kentucky's horde of newcomers needs to learn to play with the returnees, and that can't happen without the starting center.
In addition, it'll cost them time that could be used to work on floor spacing (a major issue for last year's Wildcats) with the big man in the middle.
Rallying around Kevin Ware has already helped Louisville cement one national title. Now, the athletic guard—who made headlines with a horrific broken leg last March—is providing a very different kind of inspiration.
Not even six months after shattering his leg, Ware is already back to being able to dunk.
Rick Pitino is naturally going to treat his recovering reserve with kid gloves, but he's clearly heading for a return to game action sooner rather than later. That's the kind of comeback story that's bound to fire up the Cards all over again.
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