Every week of the college basketball season, USCFootball.com writer Marshall Cherrington comes out with updated rankings of his top 25 teams in the nation. In addition to the rankings, he writes about the week that was in the land of USC basketball. In this edition, he previews the college basketball season and gives his thoughts on the top teams in the nation, as well as USC’s outlook heading into Andy Enfield’s second year at the helm.
Year two under Andy Enfield. Will it be better than his first? There aren’t many ways it could be worse, really. But the future looks bright for Enfield and the USC program. Jordan McLaughlin will be handed the point guard duties from day one and if he’s anything like he was in high school, Pac-12 teams should be on the lookout. He’s a perfect fit for this team as he’s not going to be your main scorer, but he’ll spread the ball around the floor to guys who will put up points on the board. One of those guys is Katin Reinhardt, a player who I think will lead the team in scoring this year. I’m sure the UNLV transfer was itching to get in and play while watching the Trojans last season. Nikola Jovanovic looks to take another step forward as he burst on to the Pac-12 scene as a freshman. He will be the anchor in the paint for the Trojans along with true freshman Malik Martin, a player who’s been drawing rave reviews. Like Jovanovic, Julian Jacobs had an exceptional freshman campaign and could be part of a three guard starting lineup for USC. Malik Marquetti is a long, rangy freshman who will see minutes from the start and is a guy who can really make an impact on the defensive side of the ball. All of the Trojans’ scoring can’t come from Reinhardt and Jovanovic though, so true freshman Elijah Stewart will also be relied on. He was a late addition to Enfield’s class, but was a crucial one as well. Stewart is a top-40 freshman in the nation and is another first-year player who will see lots of early minutes. At the small forward position, USC adds Darion Clark into the mix, a transfer out of Charlotte. He averaged 6.2 points and 4.6 rebounds in only 17.6 minutes per game as a freshman so look for him to be a factor in USC’s rotation.
I think USC is a real sleeper team in the Pac-12 this year. They have a very solid eight man rotation and the only real question I have is about their front court depth. Strahinja Gavrilovic will have to give USC some good minutes this year when Martin and Jovanovic are out, but other than that, things are looking up for the Trojans. It’s always interesting to see how the freshmen adjust to Pac-12 play, but if the transition is seamless, USC could finish 8th in the Pac-12. I think that’s their ceiling though since there’s really no doubt some of the freshmen will have growing pains. This is another building year for the Trojans, but come next year, watch out.
Has Calipari ever had this much talent in his coaching career? Kentucky has depth at all positions, can swap out five guys from the bench for the starting five and get the same production, and has numerous future first-round draft picks on the bench. Last year, we all saw how long it took for the freshmen to mature and progress, but once they started clicking, they were a very dangerous team. If they hadn’t run into the stalwart of Shabazz Napier, we’d be talking about Calipari going for a three-peat. Andrew and Aaron Harrison return to lead this squad filled with star freshmen and sophomores. True freshman Karl Towns could be a top five pick in the upcoming NBA Draft and Willie Cauley-Stein will anchor the middle down with his shot blocking presence. This Wildcat squad could start slow, but once they figure it out, they’ll be ready to shred the competition in March.
I guess it’s just a Wildcat kind of year. Sophomore small forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson might be my favorite player in the nation and I would project him as a top-15 pick next year if he chooses to enter the draft. He’s so reliable on the defensive end and is a tireless worker on offense. He’s the guy who makes this team click, along with point guard T.J. McConnell. Arizona gets Brandon Ashley back from injury, who combines with Kaleb Tarczewski to make up one of the best front courts in the nation. Oh, and you can’t forget one of the best incoming freshmen in college basketball, Stanley Johnson. He can space out the floor with his shooting ability, but can also take it right by you and finish strong at the rim. The Wildcats should run through the Pac-12 easily on their way to a Final Four appearance.
The Badgers don’t lose anybody from last year’s team besides sharp shooter Ben Brust and they might be better this year than last year’s Final Four team. If it wasn’t for Aaron Harrison, Wisconsin would have gotten a shot at UConn in the National Championship. Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker enter the year as National Player of the Year candidates and might be the best duo of teammates in the nation. Dekker is a future first round pick and Kaminsky could find himself in the same position. Nigel Hayes should see an increased role and Bronson Koenig looks to build off his impressive play in the Final Four. Bo Ryan’s team wasn’t as impressive last year on the defensive end as in year’s past, but with pretty much the same squad as last year, look for improvement from the Badgers. Wisconsin should have a number one seed locked up in March.
The Cameron Crazies will be chanting Jahlil Okafor’s name all year and they should take advantage of the time they have with him, as the big man might be the first overall selection in this year’s NBA Draft. Fellow five-star recruit Tyus Jones joins Okafor at Duke and will probably share point guard duties from Quinn Cook, who should start along with Jones. The Blue Devils are hoping history doesn’t repeat once again resulting in an early round exit from the NCAA Tournament as that would be a waste of the mega-talent that they have in Okafor. Hard working Amile Jefferson returns for the Blue Devils and yet another star freshman, Justise Winslow, provides the Blue Devils with a viable offensive threat. If Coach K can figure out the reason for his teams’ recent blunders in the NCAA Tournament, the Blue Devils could be cutting down the nets in April.
Perry Ellis might be the most underrated player in college basketball. The do it all junior single handedly kept Kansas together last year as he always seemed to step up for the team in the biggest moments. Ellis is now the unquestioned leader of this team and will get some help around him with a few stellar freshman. Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre, both McDonald’s All-Americans, could start from day one with fellow freshman Davonte Graham anchoring down point guard duties. Wayne Seldon might have been a first round pick in last year’s NBA Draft, but it was a smart move for the 6-5 guard to come back to Kansas. Bill Self’s bench players aren’t too shabby either. Jamari Traylor and transfer Hunter Mickelson provide depth in the front court as Brannen Greene can spell Oubre at the three spot. I could be underrating Kansas as they should capture the Big 12 title once again and could make a deep run come March.
Yeah, yeah, Gonzaga always seems to be overrated. But when has a Gonzaga team had this kind of depth? As the season progresses, we’ve seen time and time again that depth might be the most important aspect to a team. Whether it be due to injuries or guys just not lasting long on the court, depth can help out a team in numerous ways. Of course, top end talent helps as well and it’s scary that this Gonzaga team has both. Kevin Pangos is the clear leader of this Bulldogs team with backcourt mate Gary Bell Jr. complementing Pangos with his exceptional slashing ability. USC transfer Byron Wesley gives the Zags the big wing they needed and Kyle Wiltjer is eligible now after sitting out for a year. Przemek Kanowski is a big threat in the middle and is a future first-round draft pick. The Bulldogs shot .498% from the field last year, good for fifth best in the nation and should only improve on that clip this year. If Few gets these guys to gel from the start, watch out.
Marcus Paige will be the man for the Tar Heels for the second straight year and he can really do it all. Scoring, facilitating, defense, you name it and Paige does it. He’s the best point guard in the nation and this team will go as far as Paige takes them. He’s come a long way since his skinny freshman days and will have a nice supporting cast around him. Theo Pinson, Joel Berry and Justin Jackson all enter the program as highly touted freshman. Jackson should contribute immediately and Berry should help spell Paige at the point with Nate Britt. Brice Johnson took a step forward in his progression last year and should be the second leading scorer on this team. Kennedy Meeks is coming off a solid freshman campaign and will anchor down the middle for the Tar Heels.
Boy, is Louisville lucky. Montrezl Harrell shocked the nation by announcing his intention to return to school for his junior season instead of entering the NBA Draft and Rick Pitino couldn’t be happier. They do lose their main man in Russ Smith, and though I think this will be a bigger loss than people think, Chris Jones, Wayne Blackshear and Terry Rozier should help replace his scoring. Sophomore Mangok Mathiang is a player to watch as he could have a breakout year. Without a ton of front court depth, he should see a ton of minutes on the court. The ACC should be the premier conference in college basketball this season and Louisville might experience a rude awakening in its first year as a member.
Texas is like Wisconsin. The Longhorns return pretty much their entire team from last year and only get better with the addition of five-star center Myles Turner. If you’re a big man in the Big 12, I would start icing up right now. The duo of Turner and Cameron Ridley is scary in the front court for Texas. Add in Jonathan Holmes and Prince Ibeh, and that will prove to be the best front court in the nation. Yes, better than Kentucky’s platoon. Isaiah Taylor had an outstanding freshman year and Javan Felix is back to anchor down the backcourt for the Longhorns. Kansas better be looking in the rearview mirror because Texas is coming up right behind them and could pass them up in Big 12 play.
Tony Bennett is probably the best coach in America. Will he get credit for that? No. He’s not at a regular powerhouse. I guarantee you that if he was at any of the top five schools in my rankings, people would bow down to him as he walked by. Don’t get me wrong, he still gets a ton of credit for what he’s done and although Virginia loses some top end talent from last year’s squad, they’ll be just fine. London Perrantes has a year under his belt and they return one of the best players in the ACC in Malcolm Brogdon. In the front court, it’ll be interesting to watch Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill in increased roles, but they should be fine under the direction of Bennett. Four of my top ten teams are part of the ACC. Again, proving it’s going to be the premier conference this year.
- Feels like the potential of this team rides on Chris Walker’s shoulders, though has to mature and show he can carry the Gators
- Michael Frazier should light it up from outside again
- It’ll be interesting to watch Dorian Finney-Smith in an increased role, is a long athlete who could have a big impact on the defense side of the ball
- Kasey Hill will have to be the leader on and off the court for this team, has to step right in and fill Wilbekin’s shoes
- True freshman Brandone Francis could be a surprise player to watch
12. Wichita State
- How can you not love Fred VanVleet and the potential of this Wichita State team
- If they figure out their front court situation, going to be a scary team again come March
- Still think Gregg Marshall is a very underrated coach
- This team will miss Cleanthony Early a ton, other teams had no answer for him
- Should run through the Big East family easily
- Daniel Ochefu factors in hugely when talking about how good this team can be, big threat in the middle standing at 6’11”
- Hilliard and Pinkston are Player of the Year candidates in the Big East
- Josh Hart is another guy who will contribute greatly to this team
14. Iowa State
- Again, benefit off of a transfer as they get Bryce Dejean-Jones from UNLV
- Hoping for this team that Georges Niang comes back even better than he was prior to his injury
- Dustin Hogue is a beast up front, plays like he’s from New York, and he is
- Naz Long gives them a threat from deep and Hallice Cooke gives them a true point guard that can facilitate well
- Niang could win Big 12 Player of the Year, is still a very underrated player
15. San Diego State
- This is my surprise team, think they could wind up in the top ten
- Angelo Chol will have a huge impact on this team, couldn’t really be himself on a loaded Arizona squad
- Dwayne Polee is a pogo stick, very athletic guy who will make a big impact on the defensive side of the ball
- Skylar Spencer is a very formidable option at center
- JJ O’Brien and Matt Shrigley are two very talented guys at the SF position, Shrigley can open up the floor with his shooting ability, O’Brien is a jack of all trades
- A very deep team, only concern is their lack of height
- Out of conference schedule isn’t very strong, although their date with Utah should be a fun one to watch
- Buddy Hield might be the best player in the nation, look for him to improve on a solid 2013 campaign
- Spangler is their guy who makes it all click, is a stalwart in the front court and is good defensively, threat in the post as well
- Jordan Woodard led Big-12 freshmen in assists, will be even more as a facilitator as a sophomore
- Don’t think they compete for the Big 12 title this year, but if Hield stays for next year, watch out
- Has a very weak out of conference schedule
- Havoc will be their key to success once again
- Brionte Webber is an excellent defender, will lock down any guard the Rams play against
- Jordan Burgess had a strong freshman campaign, will look to improve on it and I think he will
- Lack of height might doom them come March
- Villanova and Virginia are tough games out of conference
- No way they’ll be as good as last year, Shabazz is a CBB legend
- Boatwright could be a lesser form of Shabazz come March though, needs to consistently hit the outside shots
- Amida Brimah is an NBA prospect and will protect the rim for the Huskies
- Rodney Purvis is eligible this year, transfer from NC State should hep Boatwright with the scoring duties
- Daniel Hamilton is a star freshman who could combine with Boatwright and Purvis to make up the best back court in the nation (I know, there are a ton of good guards in college basketball this year)
- Phil Nolan will start at the power forward position and will be backed up by Kentan Facey, a really intriguing sophomore
- This team is underrated right now and I think they could wind up just outside the top ten by the end of the year
- Kevin Ollie is rising in the coaching ranks and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him eventually jump to the NBA, but not for awhile
19. Ohio State
- People around the Ohio State program have raved about true freshman D’Angelo Russell and with good reason too: he should be the star of this team
- Think Amir Williams is a very underrated part of this team, will be interesting to see how his post game has developed
- Shannon Scott will be the leader at the beginning of the year, but I think Russell takes over by the time February rolls around
- Sam Thompson is a very solid piece in the front court for the Buckeyes, but didn’t really progress from the 2012-13 season to the 2013-14 season, will be interesting to see if he’s finally taken that next step
- Another true freshman that could hep out early is Keita Bates-Diop, gives the front court some depth
- Out of conference games against Louisville and North Carolina will be very fun to watch
20. Michigan State
- The Spartans lose a lot, but one factor that will always be there when talking about MSU is Tom Izzo, one of the premier coaches in America
- Branden Dawson will be their best player and although he’s an athletic freak, I’m not sure if you want him as your guy to rely on in crunch time situations
- Denzel Valentine is a formidable threat from outside, but he can get streaky at times and baffles you with some of his turnovers
- Travis Trice should lead this team from the point guard position, though there isn’t a ton of depth in the back court
- Terran Petteway is the unquestioned leader of the Cornhuskers after a breakout 2013-2014 campaign, he’s undersized, but will just find different ways to score the ball on you
- Nebraska has another breakout player candidate this year in Shavon Shields, a guy would might end up being better than Petteway, both are 6-foot-7 guys who just do whatever it takes to win, taking on the mannerism of head coach Tim Miles
- Walter Pitchford will be one of the best centers in the Big Ten and will be a guy that alters a ton of opposing teams’ shots
- The out of conference slate for the Cornhuskers is pretty weak and they should head into Big Ten play with nine wins or so
- Emmanuel Mudiay would have been huge, but is now playing overseas
- Keith Frazier is Moore’s backcourt mate and contributed some good minutes last year considering he was only a freshman
- Gonzaga, Michigan and Arkansas are all on their non conference slate, matchup with Gonzaga should test the Mustangs’ front court
23. Kansas State
- Marcus Foster took the Big 12 by surprise last year, highlight dunk after highlight dunk, he scored, but didn’t do much else, so I’m interested to see how his overall game has improved this year
- This team is littered with transfers this year, Justin Edwards, Stephen Hurt and Brandon Bolden are the three big names you need to know when it comes to guys who will contribute
- Hurt will anchor down the middle of the key for this team, is 6-foot-11
- Have a weak out of conference schedule, but Big 12 is always tough
- Delon Wright is one of the top players in the nation and will score on you in different ways, though primarily by driving through the lane, says he’s worked on his outside shot this offseason though
- Jordan Loveridge was supposed to be the do it all guy last year, a role eventually filled by Wright, but he’s still a big threat at the SF position
- Dallin Bachynski’s last name might sound familiar, that’s because he the little brother of Jordan who played at Arizona State last year
- The backcourt has plenty of depth as Brandon Taylor and Dakar Tucker provide two offensive threats on the wing from deep
- A true freshman to watch here is guard Isaiah Wright, was the State Player of the Year in Idaho and is very developed physically
- I’m probably underrating Michigan here, but plenty of teams in my top 25 could say that
- John Beilein always develops talent and he has a lot of potential on this roster so that’s got to be scary for Big Ten teams
- Caris LeVert should lead the Wolverines in scoring, I want to see how he handles the position of leadership though, he seems like a quiet guy
- Zak Irvin had a productive freshman campaign and we’ll see a lot more of him this year
- Derrick Walton Jr. should take over the reins at point guard
- One of the best storylines of the year is true freshman Austin Hatch, was a top player in high school before suffering injuries in two plane crashes that killed both of his parents, everybody is rooting for this kid
- Syracuse, SMU and Arizona dot the non conference schedule, the battle of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert will be a blast to watch