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Monday, Sept. 22, 9:34 a.m.
Sports

College basketball to provide surprises in 2012-13 season

The college basketball season is upon us. Hoop experts and die-hard fans everywhere are getting ready for what could turn into one of the most entertaining years college hoops has had in recent memory.

Although no team can claim truly “elite” status, the field is flooded with an assortment of very — and I stress the word “very” — good teams, which should make for some captivating matchups as we progress toward March. The parity that engulfs the college basketball landscape could produce some interesting sleeper teams come tourney time as well.

Keep an eye out for No. 17 Memphis; if the athletes the Tigers have can figure out how to play with each other and get stops on the defensive end, they could be scary good.

Indiana and Louisville will be in national title discussions all year — barring something unforeseen — and the traditional blue blood programs (Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and North Carolina) are never out of contention. Teams like No. 5 Michigan, No. 6 North Carolina State and No. 18 UNLV will no doubt mix it up as well.

NC State is the preseason Atlantic Coast Conference favorite — when is the last time you could say that with a straight face?

Yes, it should be an exciting year in college basketball. In light of that excitement, here is a preview of the top 10 teams in college hoops according to the AP’s Top 25 Preseason Poll, beginning with No. 10 Florida:

No. 10 Florida Gators

This Gators return the core of a team — including three starters — that came within a few possessions of reaching the Final Four last season. With that experience under their belt, Florida should be one of the more battle-tested groups among the big conferences.

Senior shooting guard Kenny Boynton will lead a scoring attack that features a plethora of quality guards in the backcourt, but where the Gators stand in March will depend heavily on the quality of their interior defense. Junior center Patric Young will have to play huge inside, especially when you consider the toughness of Florida’s schedule. The Gators play seven teams ranked in the preseason Top 25, including No. 25 Florida State, No. 12 Arizona and Kentucky and Missouri twice.

No. 9 Syracuse Orange

The Orange remain in the preseason top 10 despite losing four of last year’s starters to the NBA Draft or graduation. In Cuse’s swan song with the Big East – they move into the ACC after this season – the depth that has defined Coach Jim Boeheim’s teams of the last couple of years will either make or break the Orange this time around. Syracuse retains their depth, but their success this season will reside on how well Cuse’s role players from 2012 step into starting roles in 2013. Michael Carter-Williams, C.J. Fair, James Southerland and Rakeem Christmas will be among Boeheim’s choices to join senior guard Brandon Triche in the starting lineup. If these players can adapt smoothly to that role, the Orange should find themselves in the top 10 at year’s end as well, despite the losses of Fab Melo, Kris Joseph, Dion Waiters and Scoop Jardine.

No. 8 Duke Blue Devils

Duke will be one the favorites — if not the clear-cut front runner — to win the National Championship next season. But if they wish to contend in this upcoming campaign, Coach Mike Krzyewski and company will have to fix a defense that haunted them throughout last season, culminating in a first round loss to No. 15 seed Lehigh in the NCAA Tournament.

The Blue Devils have always featured potent offenses capable of lighting up the scoreboard, but if they don’t improve on the defensive side of the ball and get back to the pillars of Duke basketball, another early exit in March could be looming.

Duke returns most of its core from last year and adds top recruits in guard Rasheed Sulaimon and 6-foot-8-inch forward Amile Jefferson to what should be a balanced offensive attack. Where they end up will come down to their ability to defend and clean up the glass.

No. 7 Kansas Jayhawks

Led by Coach Bill Self, the Jayhawks had a surprising run through the NCAA Tournament last season before losing to Kentucky in the championship game. I say “surprising,” but is it really that surprising to see Kansas in the Final Four? Although last year’s KU team has been thoroughly dubbed as having “overachieved,” the 2012-13 squad will find it hard to fill those shoes.

You can never count out Self — who defied the odds when Kansas won its eighth consecutive Big 12 title in spite of having to endure one of the toughest schedules in America — but the Jayhawks did lose their anchor in Thomas Robinson, who flew to the NBA. The schedule this year is not quite as intimidating, and the impact of senior center Jeff Withey on the glass and on defense could swing close games in Kansas’ favor. Don’t count out Bill Self and the Jayhawks in March.

No. 6 North Carolina State Wolfpack

The Wolfpack made an inspired run to the Sweet 16 last season before losing to Kansas, and they bring back the talent that got them there. Junior forward C.J. Leslie leads an NC State team that returns four starters from a year ago, resulting in their highest preseason ranking since the 1980s. Leslie became their go-to guy down the stretch and other teams took notice. How the “other guys” — notably ACC Preseason Rookie of the Year, McDonald’s All-American Rodney Purvis — mesh with Leslie and balance out the attack will decide where the Wolfpack goes this season.

NC State is thin in the frontcourt, but they have enough talent to build off last year’s successes and live up to the lofty expectations that come with being the preseason favorite out of the ACC.

No. 5 Michigan Wolverines

The No. 5 ranking puts a heavy burden on a young, but highly talented, Wolverine squad who was upset in last year’s NCAA Tournament by Ohio University. Top to bottom, this year’s Michigan team is miles ahead of their predecessors in terms of talent, led by returning starters Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Burke could turn into one of the best guards in the nation in the end, but if Michigan can’t shore up the defensive glass, they could be in trouble.

Coach John Beilein will rely on five freshmen to contribute this season, including highly touted recruit Mitch McGary, who features a rare versatility at the power forward spot. The Wolverines probably won’t finish in the top five come tournament time — mostly due to the brutal conference schedule that comes with playing in the Big Ten — but they could still be dangerous in March if their young talent can shine and their perimeter defense improves.

No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes

Coach Thad Matta is one of the best coaches in the nation without a National Championship banner to brag about. Aaron Craft is hands down the best perimeter defender in the country. Deshaun Thomas is a versatile left-handed scorer who puts points up from anywhere on the floor. Lenzelle Smith Jr. teams with Craft and Thomas to form an impressive core comparable to any in the country. Sounds pretty formidable, right?

Let’s not forget that the Buckeyes lost big man Jared Sullinger — OSU’s heart and soul last year and their primary offensive option — to the draft and Second-Team All-Big Ten guard William Buford to graduation. Those are big holes to fill for a team that lacks another viable scoring threat behind Thomas, and an untested group of transfers, freshmen and role players from last season’s squad will have to step up if Ohio State wants to make some noise this year.

No. 3 Kentucky Wildcats

Although the Wildcats have reloaded once again with Coach John Calipari’s fourth straight No. 1-ranked recruiting class, Calipari should no longer be considered as just a recruiting genius. Kentucky is coming off a year in which they won the National Championship and saw six players selected in the NBA Draft. Despite losing all five starters — most notably No. 1 overall pick, 6-foot-10-inch center Anthony Davis — to the NBA, Kentucky is still the favorite to come out of the SEC and to march on to the Final Four in Atlanta.

The Wildcats return only one contributor from last year’s championship squad — three point specialist Kyle Wiltjer — but newcomers Ryan Harrow and No. 1 overall recruit Nerlens Noel should help fill the void left by Davis and company. Kentucky won’t be as talented or as NBA-ready as last year, but if they mesh quickly, Big Blue Nation will be a force come tourney time.

No. 2 Louisville Cardinals

The Cardinals ran through the Big East tournament on their way to the Final Four last season, and Coach Rick Pitino returns most of that unit this year when they enter as the conference favorite. Pitino has a history of turning mediocre teams into very good ones, but it looks as though he won’t have to this time around.

Point guard Peyton Siva is one of the best penetrators in the country and leads a Louisville team filled with depth, talent and experience at every position. Center Gorgui Dieng is a defensive force in the middle and is improving his offensive touch in the low post. Dieng and Siva anchor a team with the versatility to play against any style in the nation, and if Pitino can manage minutes and employ his patented full-court press effectively, Louisville will be a tough out down the stretch.

Keep an eye on junior guard Russ Smith, a talented scorer who could give Louisville a valuable asset off the bench if he accepts that role.

No. 1 Indiana Hoosiers

The Hoosiers come into the season ranked No. 1 for the first time since 1979-80, and for good reason. Coach Tom Crean’s team didn’t lose much from a squad that reached the Sweet 16 before bowing out to eventual National Champion Kentucky. Indiana boasts one of the best starting fives in the nation, headlined by preseason Player of the Year favorite, sophomore Cody Zeller. Zeller may be the best player in the country and could lead a deep Hoosier team back to the glory days with the help of forward Christian Watford and sharp-shooter Jordan Hulls.

Although Indiana’s non-conference schedule is less than challenging, a demanding slate of Big Ten games should prepare the Hoosiers for a deep run through the NCAA tourney, barring a huge setback or injury.