NCAA basketball face-off: Writers make their picks

Welcome to the 2013-14 NCAA Men’s Basketball Preview with Charlie and Zach.

Here’s a quick recap of what you missed last year:

CS: Championship game from the 2012-2013 season: Louisville over Michigan in a thriller. Best championship in awhile. Great tournament. It’s gonna be tough for 2013 runner-up Michigan without point guard Trey Burke, though. He was Michigan’s motor and hit one of the most clutch shots in NCAA history. Burke is not alone. There are a plethora of good players who left. Sadface.

ZG: Syracuse also lost their main man in Michael Carter-Williams (11th pick to the Philadelphia 76ers), but the Orangemen still look like a team that could contend. Joining Carter-Williams in Philadelphia is Nerlens Noel, the sixth pick in the draft and an AP First Team All-American last year as a freshman for Kentucky. The 76ers are off to a big start thanks to Carter-Williams, who became the second player in history to win Player of the Week in his first week in the NBA. Noel and his hi-top fade is likely out for the year with a torn ACL.

Players to Watch

CS: While Kentucky lost Noel, they arguably have the best incoming freshman class in college hoops history. The Harrison twins (Andrew and Aaron), Julius Randle, Marcus Lee, Dakari Johnson and James Young plus two good in-state players make up Kentucky’s incoming class. That means ruh-roh for everyone else in college basketball. Andrew Wiggins at Kansas is the most highly touted baller since LeBron James. We will see if he is worth the hype. I saw Jabari Parker (Duke) play a lot in high school, and he is just a fun dude to watch. Also, he’s a very humble guy, which is a plus in today’s game. He will be a key leader for Duke. Lastly Aaron Gordon (Arizona) out of the South Bay has some serious talk surrounding him. He has “stupid hops,” as they say in the business, but his shooting game needs some work. On top of their talent, all of these frosh are playing on stacked teams.

ZG: Enough about the freshman. I’m excited to see the big names return. I love watching guys who have passion for the college game and their team. That’s what college basketball is all about. Speaking of heart, how can you not love Doug McDermott? No team relies on one player the way the Creighton Bluejays rely on McDermott, which is as much a compliment to the big man as it is a shot at Creighton. “This is where my heart is. The NBA can wait. I feel like I can play there someday, but this is an opportunity I can’t pass up,” he said during the summer. If that doesn’t make you a fan, how about the fact that he is a full-tuition paying walk-on who has worked his way to All-American status?

CS: McDermott is good. But Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State is so much better. He could be the number one pick in the 2014 NBA Draft if Wiggins doesn’t live up to his billing. More on him later.

ZG: Outside of Kentucky, the Michigan duo of Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III may be the most dangerous duo in the NCAA. Both started for the runner-up Wolverines last year as freshman, and if McGary can stay healthy, big things should be expected from the Wolverines. Both McGary and Robinson III should have their names read in the first round of the draft next June.

CS: Agreed. Michigan is young, but they have their heads on straight and will be back with some serious talent.

Honorable Mentions

Gary Harris (Soph.) — Michigan State

Russ Smith (Senior) — Louisville

C.J. Fair (Senior) — Syracuse

James Michael McAdoo (Jr.) — North Carolina

Sam Dekker (Soph.) — Wisconsin

Editor’s Note: (Ben Bartenstein): My team held Dekker to nine points when we played in eighth grade. Classy kid who will make some noise with the Badgers this season, but he doesn’t seem like a top-15 NBA pick to me.

Joe Harris (Senior) — Virginia

Yogi Ferrell (Soph.) and Noah Vonleh (Fr.) — Indiana

Teams to Watch

Kentucky

CS: Much of what we know about Kentucky is how most of their team played in high school. Safe to say, they have the best high schoolers in the country, but the talent will still need to translate onto the court. The Wildcats, by far, have the most ability in the country, but by the end of the year, they could be starting five freshman. That’s a lot to ask of a group of 18 year olds. Who will be this team’s on-court leader? Top scorer? That remains to be seen.

Michigan State

CS: Tom Izzo is arguably one of the best coaches in the country. The Spartans are an experienced bunch this season, with lots of defensive prowess and power on the glass led by Keith Appling, Brendan Dawson and Adreian Payne. They lucked out when their top scorer Gary Harris chose to return. This Spartans squad will tire teams out. They will take their hits early in the season with a tough schedule, but will be Final Four favorites come March.

Louisville

ZG: The defending champs should be right back in the mix this season as they look to be the first team to repeat since Florida in 2007. They have a vast array of tools available, most notably third-team All-American and last season’s leading scorer Russ Smith. The Cards also return Final Four MVP Luke Hancock and late season breakout star Montrezl Harrell. Chase Behanan was suspended from the team this fall, but with him rejoining, Louisville has their starting power forward back, and will be ready to roll.

Duke

CS: Like Michigan State, Duke is always going to be in the mix, and for good reason. Legendary Coach Mike Krzyzewski molds smart players who usually grow considerably over the course of the season. Freshman Jabari Parker, transfer Rodney Hood and junior point guard Quinn Cook will shoulder much of the offensive weight while role players find their niche over the course of the season.

Arizona

ZG: “In November and December, there are going to be moments when we don’t look like a great team. I hope we can become one with continued work throughout the year.” This is what Arizona coach Sean Miller had to say about his team’s chances this upcoming season. While they boast great freshman and sophomore classes, including Aaron Gordon, a top five prospect, not many teams who go into the season with this attitude come away with a National Championship.

Kansas

ZG: All eyes are on freshman sensation Andrew Wiggins in Jayhawk nation, and rightly so. Wiggins is ranked as the No. 1 prospect by most after winning the Naismith Prep Player of the Year and the Gatorade National Player of the Year awards. He will be joined by two other five-star recruits, in forward Wayne Selden and center Joel Embiid. Kansas has big talent and great depth this year, and if they can overcome a lack of experience, they’ll be right up with the big shots fighting for a title. We’ll quickly see what this team is made of, as they take on No. 4 Duke next week in just their second game.

Dark Horses

ZG: Michigan came within minutes of cutting down the nets at the NCAA Tournament last year, and even with the loss of their top two scorers, they are a force to be reckoned with once again. The sophomore trio of Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Nick Stauskas is capable of stepping up and leading the team, and with a solid freshman class that includes five-star prospect Zak Irvin and No. 30 (ESPN top 100) Derrick Walton, writing off this team would be silly.

CS: VCU surprised the world in 2011 and with their “havoc” style defense, quick guards and wicked bright coach, Shaka Smart. I can never count them out. Upperclassmen Briante Weber, Juvonte Reddic and Treveon Graham can lead this team far into March and will catch a few breaks in March.

ZG: Don’t forget about the boys from Wichita State. After finishing second in the Missouri Valley Conference last year, just about no one saw them making moves in the Big Dance. Brackets were busted as the Shockers shocked just about everyone, taking down No. 1 and No. 2 seeds Gonzaga and Ohio State, before running into champions Louisville in the Final Four. Cleanthony Early, their top scorer last year, returns for his senior season and with Creighton leaving the MVC, look for the Shockers to qualify automatically and make a push in March.

CS: Oklahoma State. While Marcus Smart is the engine, motor and really the whole team, there are a few other guys on the Cowboys team, Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown, who can put the biscuit in the basket. It’s a long shot, but Marcus Smart and friends could come alive in a big way come March. OSU will also be battle tested in the Big-12.

ZG: Gotta show some love to the local team. The Gophers were all over the place last year, starting off 15-1, but winning only six of their final 18 and losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Minnesota fans would’ve been devastated by the trainwreck that was the second half of the season, if they weren’t already so accustomed to seeing their other home teams choke in the worst ways possible. With losses to three of the team’s starters, Andre Hollins will be asked to star for the Golden Gophs in what could be a tough rebuilding year. Richard Pitino, son of Louisville head coach Rick, will have a lot on his plate as he begins his inaugural season at Minnesota, in an extremely competitive Big Ten conference.

Games to Watch

There are a ton of exciting, high-quality non-conference games on display early this winter. We each chose our favorites and made predictions:

Nov 12: No. 4 Duke at No. 5 Kansas

CS: Kansas by 6

Nov 12: No. 2 Michigan State vs No. 1 Kentucky

ZG: Michigan State by 3

Dec 3: No. 7 Michigan vs No. 4 Duke

CS: Duke by 3

Dec 3: Indiana at No. 8 Syracuse

ZG: Indiana by 2

Dec 7: No. 17 Marquette at No. 20 Wisconsin

CS: Wisconsin by 11

Dec 14: No. 12 North Carolina at No. 2 Michigan State

ZG: MSU by 15

Dec 14: No. 6 Arizona at No. 7 Michigan

CS: Michigan by 7

Dec 28: No. 3 Louisville at No. 1 Kentucky

ZG: Kentucky by 9

Jan 8: Harvard at No. 18 Connecticut

CS: Harvard by 2

Feb 8: No. 15 Gonzaga at No. 13 Memphis

ZG: Zags by 4

Bold Predictions

CS:

• Louisville and Arizona will not make the Sweet 16 • Seven Pac-12 teams will make the tournament • Julius Randle of Kentucky will be Player of the Year • Ohio State forward Sam Thompson, but more importantly hailing from Whitney Young High School (Chicago, Ill., #shamelessplug), will have the most SportsCenter Top 10 plays of the season • Virginia Commonwealth will make the Elite 8

ZG:

• Wisconsin, lead by sophomore Sheboygan, Wis. native Sam Dekker, will reach the Elite 8 for the first time since 2004 • Seven of this year’s freshman class will be selected in the first 10 picks of next year’s NBA Draft • Doug McDermott will carry Creighton to the Elite 8 • The Oregon Ducks will challenge for the PAC 12 title. • Six Big Ten teams will reach the sweet 16

Lastly, our way too early Final Four predictions:

CS: Final Four: Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State, Kansas (I know, so boring)

Championship: Duke over Michigan State

ZG: Final Four: Michigan State, Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan (Wolverines gets revenge)

Championship: Kentucky over Michigan