Originally posted on College Chalktalk  |  Last updated 11/8/13

Send to Kindle Calipari’s ‘Cats are primed for a National Championship run. (Credit: UK Athletics/Chet White) * * * On Thursday afternoon, the Associated Press released its preseason Top 25 rankings.  John Calipari’s new litter at Kentucky leads the way, garnering 27 first place votes, while Michigan State returns a core group and slots in at No. 2 overall after receiving 22 first place votes.  Capsule previews on the ‘Cats, Spartans and remainder of the AP top 10 follow below. ____________________________________________ No.1 Kentucky Wildcats Poythress averaged 11.2 points and six boards in 26 minutes of nightly action a year ago. (Credit: UK Athletics/Chet White) The worst kept secret for a main story line surrounds this year’s Kentucky Wildcats team and the talent coach John Calipari has amassed in Lexington.  Many experts are touting this year’s incoming class as the greatest ever assembled.  Now it’s time to see if they can live up to the hype. In 2011-12, Calipari brought in several blue chippers as well and they combined with talented sophomore class to win a national championship.  If the chemistry is right and everyone stays healthy, that kind of run is certainly a possibility. With Louisville winning last year’s title, the rivalry in the Bluegrass State will be at a fever pitch.  Expect the matchup on Dec. 28 in Rupp Arena to be a white-hot ticket. Last year’s record/Result: 21-12, lost to Robert Morris, 1st round, NIT Coach: John Calipari, 5th season Starters Returning: 2/5 (Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein) Impact Newcomers: Julius Randle, James Young, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Marcus Lee, Derek Willis, Dakari Johnson. Most important Player: Julius Randle – Of all the talented newcomers on the Wildcats roster, Randle is the most ready to dominate the college game. Strengths: The Cats are talented and deep at every position.  While the focus is on the newcomers, there are some key holdovers as well with Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein back.  The frontcourt should be especially dominant, with two seven-footers, Randle and Poythress.  If anyone can get all this young talent to gel, it’s John Calipari, so coaching must be considered a strength as well. Weaknesses: This team has no weaknesses, only challenges to overcome.  Youth is obviously a big one. These young Cats will have to grow up quickly, as they will have the bulls-eye on their backs every night.  Chemistry also has to be a concern.  How do you get all these talented players, many of whom are expected to be one-and-done, to accept roles and not think of their status in next summer’s NBA draft? Calipari and his staff will have to put all the pieces in place. Some writers (and most Wildcat fans) are wondering if the Wildcats can go undefeated this season. That will be a stretch.  In SEC play, Florida will give Kentucky a run, and Tennessee has the look of an NCAA team as well.  The expectation is for this year’s Wildcats to win the SEC and be a Final Four team capable of bringing a ninth national championship banner to Rupp Arena. - Jay Walton ____________________________________________ No. 2 Michigan State Spartans The Izzone faithful are primed and ready for a big year at the Breslin Center. The Michigan State Spartans have been chosen as the unanimous Big Ten Conference favorite as they head into the 2013-2014 season by a panel of conference media.  Sophomore guard Gary Harris was chosen as Preseason Player of the Year.  But head coach Tom Izzo knows it’s too early to get caught up in individual awards.  After an injury prone 2012-2013 season and a disappointing loss to a talented Duke team in the Sweet 16, the story line in East Lansing this season is all about chemistry.  The Spartans return four players from last year’s starting five, including first team All-American hopeful Adreian Payne. With veteran leadership and experience set, Izzo feels that his squad deserves to be in the discussion for the National Title. Payne’s ever-improving maturity and focus is bad news for opponents. (Credit: MSU Athletic Communications) Last Year’s Record/Result: 27-9, Lost in the Sweet Sixteen to Duke Head Coach:  Tom Izzo, 19th season Returning Starters: 4/5 (Keith Appling, Branden Dawson, Gary Harris, Adreian Payne) Impact Newcomers: Alvin Ellis III, Kenny Kaminski, Gavin Schilling Most Important Player: Adreian Payne  – The senior forward chose to temporarily pass on the NBA in favor of returning to Michigan State and earning a national title. Payne’s veteran leadership, dominance in paint and knowledge of the game make him the most dangerous threat on a team full of studs. Payne will challenge teammates Gary Harris and Keith Appling for Big Ten Player of the Year. Strengths: Talent, chemistry, leadership — right now, the Spartans have it all. While Derrick Nix is gone, a group of veterans are ready to rumble with the best the country has to offer. Branden Dawson, Travis Trice, Russell Byrd, and Keith Appling have all overcome injuries and are healthy going into this year. At Big Ten Media Day, Izzo mentioned adding some new pieces to the puzzle. These newcomers have the opportunity to learn from arguably the most talented group of players in the league, if not the country. Weaknesses: The Spartans enter 2013-14 with the signature Tom Izzo challenging non-conference schedule. MSU will face Kentucky in the Champions Classic in Chicago (at the United Center), head to Brooklyn to face Virginia Tech and either Oklahoma or Seton Hall in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, then draw North Carolina at home for the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. After that, Sparty still has one last road warrior challenge as they head to Austin to face a Texas team that will be pressured to get signature wins for head coach Rick Barnes.  MSU will need to stay healthy in order to live up to their high expectations, and that means making sure no shoulder or back injuries revisit Harris and Payne this season.  Gary Harris will have a target on his back this year, as teams will guard him tough. There will be no flying under the radar for this Spartan squad, just high hopes for bringing home hardware to East Lansing. - Liz Reising ____________________________________________ No. 3 Louisville Cardinals It’s hard to believe Rick Pitino is now entering his 12th season at Louisville.  What is not hard to believe is the amount of success Pitino has enjoyed — 310 wins and three Final Fours which culminated with last season’s national championship in the Georgia Dome.  The Cardinals lose two key performers in Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng, but return the bulk of last season’s 35-5 national championship team. Perhaps the most dynamic guard in the nation, Smith returns with designs of a repeat. (Credit: University of Louisville Athletics) One huge key will be when Pitino deems suspended power forward Chane Behanan eligible to return to the squad.  Pitino suspended Behanan for running afoul of team rules in mid-October and has no timetable for his return. Meanwhile, injured Kevin Ware is ready to return to the court as the Cardinals, even with the loss of Siva,  will have one of the nation’s deepest and most talented back courts.  They added JUCO Player of the Year Chris Jones to Russ Smith, Ware, Wayne Blackshear, and freshmen Terry Rozier and Anton Gill.  Luke Hancock will once again be a huge inside-outside threat after his spell-binding performance in the Final Four.  Montrezl Harrell has improved immeasurably over the summer and can man the paint until Behanan returns. The Cardinals spend this season in transition in the AAC before entering the ACC as a full member next season and have a magnificent opportunity to make a third consecutive appearance in the Final Four. Last year’s record/Result: 35-5, defending national champions Coach: Rick Pitino, 12th season Starters Returning: 3/5 (Russ Smith, Wayne Blackshear, Chane Behanan) Impact Newcomers: Chris Jones, Terry Rozier, Anton Gill Most Important Player: Russ Smith – His leadership and decision making will be a major key for the Cardinals as the transition goes from Siva to Smith as the leader. Strengths: Having Hall of Famer Rick Pitino on the sidelines is the constant strength of this program.  The pressure scheme will continue with the additions at guard.  Returning seven of nine contributors from last season’s national championship is another strong point.  Mixing a five-man recruiting class into the scheme will make Louisville even deeper than it was a year ago.  Placing Behanan next to Harrell in the paint with the depth at guard makes Louisville almost unguardable. Weaknesses: The overall leadership of Siva will be missed early.  He was like a coach on the floor.  Smith and Hancock appear to be able to lend quality leadership to this mix of players as well.  Without Dieng, it will be interesting to see who emerges in a shot-blocking role in the paint. Make no mistake, the Cardinals haven’t been this rich in talent since the early 1980s.  Combining a tradition rich program with the talents of Pitino was a gold mine for a program that slept through the 1990s.  When Behanan returns, the matchup problems inside will be numerous with he and Harrell as mainstays and Hancock operating all over the floor.  The Cardinals should win the AAC although Memphis, Cincinnati and UConn will present challenges.  However, in the end, there will be no surprise if Louisville is vying for back-to-back national titles in Cowboys’ Stadium in early April. - Ken Cross ____________________________________________ No 4. Duke Blue Devils Duke has been ranked in the AP preseason poll 29 of the last 30 years, 1995-96 being the exception.  Duke has been ranked in the preseason top 10 the last five seasons. Duke keeps getting those preseason accolades because they follow through once the season starts.  Mike Krzyzewski’s behemoth has averaged over 30 wins over the last 16 seasons and has now been ranked in AP top 10 for the last 113 polls. Cook shot nearly 40 percent from long range last year for the Blue Devils. (Credit: Duke Photography) It’s hard to top that for consistent excellence.  But great success brings great expectations and that means Final Fours for Duke.  One more NCAA title would give Krzyzewski five and vault him past Adolph Rupp and into second place by himself, trailing only John Wooden, whose 10 titles seem untouchable. But five titles isn’t.  That’s the subtext of Duke’s 2014 season.  As usual. Last year’s record/Result: 30-6, lost to Louisville in Elite Eight. Coach: Mike Krzyzewski — 34th season Starters Returning:  2/5 (Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon) Impact Newcomers: Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood, Matt Jones, Andre Dawkins. Most important Player: Duke plans to use Parker as the queen on the chessboard. Strengths: NBA talent abounds, led by Parker and Hood at the forward spots.  Parker was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in high school.  He projects as an impact player from Day One. Hood sat out last season as a transfer from Mississippi State but used the time to gain strength and improve ball skills. Cook averaged 5.3 assists per game last season.  Duke has depth galore and Krzyzewski says he plans to use it.  Mobile sophomore Amile Jefferson is the nominal center but he’s more gazelle than Clydesdale. Weaknesses:  Krzyzewski says this young team may need time to find itself.  It’s possible that Cook will be the only upperclassman in the starting lineup. Look for lots of early experimentation with combinations.  Sulaimon has struggled some in the preseason and sat out the exhibition game with Drury with an illness. Jefferson is listed at 210 pounds.  Is Duke vulnerable to a team with lots of interior size?  A Nov. 12 matchup with Kansas could provide an answer. Can a team lose its three best players and 47 points per game and still be better?  Krzyzewski says this team will run through Parker and Hood and will be modeled after his 2012 Olympic team, with lots of versatile playmakers.  Mason Plumlee’s interior dominance will be difficult to replace and Duke may post an early loss or two.  But when this team gels, it’s going to be a formidable force. - Jim Sumner ____________________________________________ No. 5 Kansas JAYHAWKS There was life before Andrew Wiggins. There will be life after Andrew Wiggins. No one player is bigger than a program that has won an NCAA record 56 regular season conference titles, including nine straight Big 12 crowns. Wiggins is KU’s chosen one. (Credit: Jeff Jacobsen, Kansas Athletics) But Wiggins could be primed for one of the most memorable individual campaigns in the history of a Kansas program that has seen legends like Wilt Chamberlain, Danny Manning and Dr. James Naismith himself pass through the doors of Phog Allen Field House. To dismiss or diminish his potential impact on the Jayhawks and their fortunes this season would be to ignore recent college basketball history. More freshmen than ever before are keying deep runs into the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky’s brilliant class of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague powered the Wildcats to the 2012 national title. Mitch McGary, Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III proved able accomplices to Trey Burke as Michigan came within a couple possessions of the 2013 championship, falling to Louisville in an 82-76 thriller. Wiggins, the 6-foot-8 guard by way of Canada and West Virginia’s Huntington Prep, is already projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. His stay with the Jayhawks figures to be a short one, heaping instant pressure on a roster that includes eight newcomers. Steady performances from holdovers like junior guard Naadir Tharpe and sophomore forward Perry Ellis will be critical, much like the presence of Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb anchored Kentucky during its most recent title run. Tharpe played 32 minutes in last season’s 87-85 overtime loss to the Wolverines in the Sweet 16 and will serve as Kansas’ starting point guard. Ellis, a 6-foot-8 forward from nearby Wichita, posted solid totals of eight points and five rebounds in 15 minutes against Michigan. Memphis transfer Tarik Black is a college basketball veteran who faced down high level opponents throughout his time with the Tigers. So yes, Wiggins will likely dominate the headlines in Lawrence in 2013-14. But there is more substance to Kansas than just one gifted freshman. And there has to be. Last year’s Record/Result: 31-6, lost to Michigan in the Sweet 16 Coach: Bill Self — 12th season Starters Returning: 0/5 Impact Newcomers: Andrew Wiggins, Tarik Black, Joel Embiid, Wayne Selden Jr. Most Important Player: Andrew Wiggins. Simply put, he’s the most hyped prospect to come out of the high school ranks since LeBron James. Strengths: Frontcourt play. The Jayhawks are loaded up front with Tarik Black, Joel Embiid and Perry Ellis. And Kansas will be exceptionally long on defense with those three players on the floor and the 6-foot-8 Wiggins at the shooting guard spot. Weaknesses: Inexperience. Talented as they are, the Jayhawks have no returning starters. It’ll be up to Self to establish a rotation after the first 10-12 games and keep everybody happy. He’s certainly proven able to do so in the past. For Self, this Kansas team could be both his most talented on paper and his biggest mystery. How he’s able to incorporate the perimeter play of Wiggins and Selden (a 230-pound presence at the guard spot) with the frontcourt games of Black and Embiid (who also projects as a future lottery pick) will determine the Jayhawks’ level of success. - Bill Koch ____________________________________________ No. 6 Arizona WILDCATS Heading into this season, there’s no shortage of hype surrounding an Arizona program which boasts its deepest roster in some time as Sean Miller begins his fifth season in Tucson.  But if you speak with anyone around the Arizona program, that hype might as well be white noise.  True, the ‘Cats have versatility throughout the lineup, but the Pac-12 is an improving league and Arizona must replace the veteran leadership and production from players like Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom.  There’s work to be done, sure.  But it would be foolish to bet against this group. Through a full recruiting cycle, Miller has built a national power once again in Tucson. (Credit: Arizona Athletics) Last year’s record/Result: 27-8, lost in Sweet Sixteen to Ohio State Coach: Sean Miller — 5th season Starters Returning: 2/5 (Nick Johnson, Kaleb Tarczewski) Impact Newcomers: T.J. McConnell, Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson Most Important Player: T.J. McConnell – For a team that lost two major scorers in Lyons and Hill, having someone who can stir the drink and maximize scoring opportunities for teammates is crucial.  There is no better fit than the point guard McConnell.  The consummate table-setter, his impact in bettering others will be evident and appreciated from the jump. Strengths:  This team has athletes.  Many of them.  The Wildcats should be an excellent rebounding and defensive squad and boast terrific back-line length, helpful – as is the pack-line philosophy – with the new hand checking and block/charge rules.  Seven-footer Kaleb Tarczewski has expanded his range, is in better shape and more agile around the bucket.  Nick Johnson has displayed improved ball handling at practice, a more consistent perimeter shot and should lead this team in scoring.  Gordon, the MVP of the McDonald’s All-American game, is a gifted athlete with a knack for rebounding and a truly special motor. His skill set allows him to guard opponents at essentially any position.  And Jefferson is a long, athletic, glue-guy type who can slash off the bounce. Weaknesses: This team needs to find perimeter threats and identify its consistent scorers, a huge part of determining how successful a season it can be in Tucson.  Who will score the ball in crunch time?  That question must be answered.  Additionally, the freshmen Gordon and Jefferson, along with sophomore Gabe York will all be counted on. How quickly they develop is important. Miller knows how to keep his teams grounded and that’s of paramount importance with these Wildcats.  This team needs time and experience together, learning the defensive system in particular and simply getting real time reps.  With a floor general like McConnell helping to mask youthful slips-ups with his solid decision-making offensively and pestering on the defensive side, Miller’s team should learn on the fly and become very dangerous by March. - Chris DiSano ____________________________________________ No. 7 Michigan Wolverines Last year’s national runner-up finish coupled with a revamped Crisler Arena ignited a passionate Michigan basketball fan base that comes into the 2013-14 season expecting an encore. Returning sophomores Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III hope to provide just that as they head into the year as member of the Preseason All Big Ten Team. Can they do it? Time will tell, but the Maize and Blue will be ready for battle as the Big Ten season draws near. Last Year’s Record/Result: 31-8, Lost in the national title game to Louisville Head Coach:  John Beilein – 7th Season Returning Starters: 3/5 (Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, Nik Stauskas) Impact Newcomers: Derrick Walton, Jr., Zak Irvin, Sean Lonergan, Andrew Dakich, Mark Donnal Most Important Player: Nik Stauskas – With Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. leaving for the NBA, it will be up to Stauskas to assume a larger role in the Wolverine game plan. Stauskas is clutch, shooting 46.3 percent from the field, 44 percent from beyond the arc and 85.1 percent from the charity stripe. But the pride of Ontario, Canada and his sharpshooting skills are no longer a secret after a stellar freshman season and a breakout NCAA Tournament. He’ll need more than 11 ppg to help guide the Wolverines to back to the madness of March. Strengths: Youth. While young, this Michigan team is no stranger to the spotlight. McGary, Stauskas, Robinson III and guard Spike Albrecht all saw playing time in the NCAA tournament, with Albrecht stealing some of Trey Burke’s spotlight along the way. This squad needs poise out of all their young players in order to have a successful season.  Robinson looks to step up production this year after averaging 11 per night a season ago. (Credit: University of Michigan Public and Media Relations Office/Tom Wywrot) Weaknesses: Youth. Fifth-year senior Jordan Morgan and redshirt junior Jon Horford need to step up their respective games in order to provide veteran guidance to a group that will be searching for chemistry and consistency as the year begins. Morgan has seen much during his tenure in Ann Arbor, and he will be counted on as a steady presence on and off the court. McGary and Robinson III will miss former teammates Trey Burke and Hardaway Jr. as they navigate what is sure to be a demanding Big Ten schedule. With six returning sophomores and six incoming freshman, veteran upperclassman leadership is at a premium. But that doesn’t mean the Wolverines won’t challenge for championships. At Michigan Basketball Media Day, Beilein referenced his schedule, stating, “We want to be champions of the Puerto Rico tournament, of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, of the Big Ten season, of the conference tournament. We’re worried about becoming champions one step at a time.” - Liz Reising ____________________________________________ No. 8 Oklahoma State COWBOYS (TIE) After an impressive 13-5 season in the Big 12, the Cowboys return the highest scoring trio in the conference in Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash. Pegged by most experts to be an Elite Eight or Final Four team, this season will be all about Travis Ford’s ability to build a national title contender. Since the Cowboys haven’t won a game in the NCAA Tournament since 2009, this season will truly test the mettle of this squad. No one will question State’s talent, but some may question their pedigree ad ability to compete with the Michigan States and Louisvilles. Smart hopes to be standing tall with his teammates at season’s end after having elected to return for his sophomore season. (Credit: OSU Athletics) Ford’s team will push the pace at every opportunity with Smart leading the way. Smart won Big 12 Player of the Year honors as a freshman and ranked in the league’s top five in scoring, assists and steals. His ability to create scoring chances for others and be an unselfish facilitator of the offense makes Oklahoma State a top 10 team. With additional weapons like Michael Cobbins, Phil Forte and JUCO transfer Gary Gaskins in the fold, the Cowboys are deep and talented. Whether or not they can make the Final Four will depend on their ability to grow into a mentally tough, mature basketball team that thrives in big moments. Last year’s record/Result: 24-9, Lost to Oregon in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Coach: Travis Ford — 6th season Starters Returning: 4/5 (Marcus Smart, Markel Brown, Le’Bryan Nash, Michael Cobbins) Impact Newcomers: Stevie Clark, Gary Gaskins. Most important Player: Marcus Smart. Likely the best point guard prospect in the nation, Smart’s return for a sophomore season shocked most of the college hoops world. Strengths: Offensive firepower. Few teams will have the offensive depth and talent of Travis Ford’s Cowboys. Oklahoma State returns 94 percent of its scoring and probably has the most talented offensive trio in the nation in Nash, Smart and Brown. The Cowboys should score in the mid 70s on a nightly basis in the Big 12 and will win many games solely with their offensive talent. Weaknesses: Managing expectations. The Cowboys haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2009 and are now being pegged as a potential national champion. Ford must mold the Oklahoma State into a team that believes they are national championship contenders early. Overall Outlook: Being the hunted isn’t easy, and it will be a story worth watching with this team. Smart, Brown and Nash returned to campus to finish business in March. Now it’s time for the trio to put their plan into action. Talent-wise, the Cowboys play second fiddle to no one. What’s their pedigree and mental toughness like? We’re about to find out. - Ian Nolan ____________________________________________ No. 8 Syracuse ORANGE (TIE) It’s hard to find a more compelling story line this college basketball season then the arrival of the Orange on Tobacco Road. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim says he doesn’t miss the Big East because the Big East he used to know doesn’t exist anymore. The lefty Fair can be unguardable at times, something ACC foes will learn quickly. (Credit: Syracuse University Athletic Communications) So much for sentiment. But sentiment doesn’t win you 900 games.  Excluding a two-year tenure playing pro ball in Scranton, Jim Boeheim has been at Syracuse since 1962.   At the highest levels of college sports, has anyone been more associated with one school? Syracuse was a charter member of the Big East and one of that conference’s spotlight programs.  Fellow ACC newcomers Notre Dame and Pittsburgh have notable basketball tradition, but Syracuse is a notch above, a program with a heritage almost equal to that of ACC thoroughbreds North Carolina and Duke. Boeheim will turn 69 in November, so the clock is ticking on his efforts to capture his second NCAA title.  And the absence of Georgetown and Connecticut from their schedule will take some adjusting for fans. But Syracuse and the ACC seems like a win-win for a proud conference and a proud program. Last year’s record/Result:  30-10, lost in Final Four to Michigan. Head Coach: Jim Boeheim — 38th season Starters Returning: 3/5 (C.J. Fair, Rakeem Christmas, DaJuan Coleman) Impact Newcomers: Tyler Ennis, Michael Gbinije, Tyler Roberson Most Important Player:  C.J. Fair. The preseason ACC Player of the Year is the only returning Syracuse player to average more than 5.1 points per game last season. Strengths: Fair turned down the NBA for a chance to be the senior star.  He’s got the ability to pull it off.  Fair, Christmas and Coleman comprise a huge front line, with 6-10 Baye Moussa Keita providing size off the bench.  Christmas led the Big East in blocked shots last season.  Sophomore forward Jerami Grant has break-out potential.  Grant, Gbinije and Roberson provide the kind of long, lean athletic wings who thrive in Boeheim’s trademark 2-3 zone. Most of the ACC is unfamiliar with that zone and may take some time to figure it out.   Syracuse can shut down anyone. Weaknesses:  But can they score on anyone?  The Orange lost three of their top four scorers from last season and most of their 3-point shooting. Guards Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche combined to average 74 minutes per game in Big East play and both are gone.  Ennis is the only pure point guard on the team.  That’s a lot of pressure for a freshman and there’s no clear Plan B.   The big men defend and rebound better than they score.  Coleman weighs 280 pounds, has had knee problems and averaged less than 13 minutes per game last season.  Is he ready for a bigger role? Sophomore guard Trevor Cooney came in with a shooter reputation but couldn’t buy a basket last season. Syracuse’s 30 wins last season gave them 30 or more wins in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history.  The Orange can go for three but only if some complementary players make the step up.  Boeheim has helped make this happen a lot over the last four decades and it’s a good bet we’ll see it again.  But another Final Four may be a bit much. - Jim Sumner ____________________________________________ No. 10 Florida GATORS Entering his 18th season as the Gators’ head coach, Billy Donovan is at the top of his game.  Last season he led Florida to his fourth SEC Championship and third straight Elite 8. And while most of the buzz about recruiting has centered around John Calipari’s incoming class, Donovan has put together a team that has a chance to challenge the Wildcats and make a deep postseason run. The offseason hasn’t exactly gone smoothly in Gainesville and several suspensions for disciplinary reasons have been handed out.  The mix of returners and impact newcomers has the Gators in position to have another special season if these issues can be worked out. All Donovan does is win… and this year’s version of the Gators is super-talented as usual. (Jim Burgess/University of Florida Athletics Communications) Last year’s record/Result: 29-8, lost to Michigan in Elite Eight Coach:  Billy Donovan — 18th season Starters Returning:  2/5 (Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin) Impact Newcomers:  Eli Carter, Dorian Finney-Smith, Kasey Hill, Damontre Harris Most important Player: Scottie Wilbekin – Last season, Wilbekin led the Gators in assists and was regarded as one of the league’s best perimeter defenders.   Currently suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules, the senior guard will be relied on heavily if he can get his act together. Strengths: This Gators roster is balanced.  There is scoring from multiple positions, size and depth. The frontcourt is led by returners Patric Young and Will Yeguete.  Damontre Harris, the South Carolina transfer who was named to the SEC All-Defensive team in 2011-12, will be a factor if and when his suspension is lifted.  Eli Carter is a double-digit scorer who left Rutgers amid the Mike Rice fiasco and received a waiver to play immediately.  Dorian Finney-Smith is another highly regarded transfer from Virginia Tech who is a long-range shooter.  The most touted freshman is Kasey Hill, a McDonald’s All- American who will start at least until Wilbekin comes back. Weaknesses:  The biggest concern for the Gators has been the uncertainty in the offseason.  Wilbekin, Harris and Finney-Smith are serving suspensions for rules violations.  Sophomore shooting guard Michael Frazier is out with mononucleosis.  Eli Carter and Will Yeguete are probably not 100 percent yet after suffering offseason injuries.  Without all these pieces, the Gators aren’t a top 10 team. Expect Billy Donovan to get control of the disciplinary issues sooner rather than later.  By the team SEC play begins hopefully the injured players will be 100 percent.  If both of these things occur, Florida will be a contender for not only the SEC championship but also Donovan’s fourth Final Four. But the Gators will need all hands on deck to make a run at Kentucky and remain a top 10 team throughout the season. - Jay Walton * * * Related Posts:Preseason top 25 hits and missesReturning for sophomore year isn’t a bad thing: 4…Big 10 Conference – Cheat SheetKansas’ Wiggins walking into hoops hype machineNCAA Elite Eight picks, Day 2

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