In the offseason, the NCAA made some changes to the bracketing rules, which will make life for bracketologists a bit more challenging this season. For now though, I focused only on selecting and seeding the field. Last season I finished seventh in the Bracket Matrix, which hopefully proves that my second place finish in 2012 was no fluke.
Kentucky – Led by Julius Randle, James Young, and the Harrison twins, the nation’s best recruiting class has propelled the Cats to the top of the preseason polls. If the influx of new talent can mesh well with sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, the sky is the limit.
Michigan State – Super-soph Gary Harris and senior Adreian Payne passed up the NBA for a shot to get Tom Izzo and the Spartans back to the Final Four. It feels like I’ve said this the past couple seasons, but point guard Keith Appling will be the key for Sparty.
Duke – Look for the Blue Devils to play more uptempo this season, as freshman Jabari Parker, sophomore Rasheed Sulaimon, and Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood all flourish in transition. Duke lacks a true interior presence and doesn’t boast many upperclassmen, but I don’t expect either of those deficiencies to hold the Blue Devils back.
Kansas – Andrew Wiggins is the most heralded high school player since LeBron James, but the Jayhawks have plenty of other offensive weapons in Perry Ellis and an improved Naadir Tharpe at the point. Fellow freshmen Wayne Selden and Joel Embiid will also be counted on to produce right away as the Jayhawks shoot for their 10th straight Big 12 title.
Louisville – The Cardinals will miss Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng more than most people seem to think, and the Chane Behanan suspension takes away another solid scorer and rebounder for an indeterminate period of time. Still, the combination of Russ Smith and breakout sophomore Montrezl Harrell should keep Louisville in contention for a top seed as they look to defend their national title.
Oklahoma State – Marcus Smart stunned us all when he decided to return to Stillwater, and he’ll team with Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash to form one of the nation’s top trios. Consistent contributions from Michael Cobbins in the post will be critical if the Cowboys hope to make a deep run in March.
Arizona – Freshman Aaron Gordon will be fun to watch this season, but he’s not the only newcomer the Wildcats will be counting on. Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell will be asked to run the show and provide leadership for a team composed primarily of freshmen and sophomores.
Syracuse – The Orange have great depth but will be relying heavily on freshman point guard Tyler Ennis to be the floor general from day one. Led by C.J. Fair, expect Syracuse’s frontcourt to be among the best in the country.
Florida – I probably would have had the Gators on the two line if not for a flurry of offseason suspensions and injuries. If and when they get back to full strength, Billy Donovan’s club should be a formidable team, but with so many question marks, there’s a pretty wide range of potential outcomes at this point.
Michigan – Freshman Derrick Walton won’t step in and replace Trey Burke’s production, but with guys like Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Nik Stauskas back, he doesn’t need to. McGary’s back injury is a potential red flag, but we should get a better idea of how serious it is once the season gets underway.
Ohio State – The Buckeyes need LaQuinton Ross to step up and fill the scoring void left by Deshaun Thomas’ departure, while Aaron Craft will continue to be a steadying influence at the point for a veteran team.
North Carolina – P.J. Hairston’s status is still up in the air, but it’s naive to think he’ll miss many meaningful games. His eventual return will bolster a strong backcourt, which complements James Michael McAdoo up front. The Heels need a couple of their freshmen and sophomore big men to step up and provide defense and rebounding.
Marquette – The Golden Eagles enter the season as the favorite in the new look Big East thanks to a veteran nucleus and a number of talented newcomers. The big question is who will pick up the scoring slack left by the departure of Vander Blue.
Connecticut – Given the circumstances, Kevin Ollie acquitted himself very well in his first season as head coach, and he’ll look to ride the talented backcourt of Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun back into the NCAA Tournament.
Memphis – The Tigers boast arguably the nation’s best backcourt in Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford, and Michael Dixon, but they need someone to step up in the frontcourt as they enter AAC play. The development of sophomore Shaq Goodwin will be critical in that regard.
VCU – Despite losing a pair of starters, the Rams might actually be better this season. Treveon Graham, Juvonte Reddic, and Rob Brandenburg are all established double-digit scorers, and FSU transfer Terrance Shannon should fit in well up front. VCU looks to be the class of the A-10 this year.
New Mexico – The Lobos lost a few key rotation players from last season (not to mention their coach), but with Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk still in the fold, the team is in good hands. Look for freshman Cullen Neal, whose dad is UNM’s new coach, to pick up some of the scoring slack left by the departure of Tony Snell.
Wichita State – Last season’s surprise Final Four squad lost some key players, but the Shockers still have plenty of talent on the roster. Cleanthony Early was outstanding in the Big Dance and is poised for a huge senior season. Gregg Marshall needs guards Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker to build on their postseason success as they move into expanded roles.
Tennessee – The Vols don’t have a ton of depth, but they do have an intimidating one-two punch up front in the form of Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. Throw in the prolific scoring of Jordan McRae, and there’s plenty of reason for optimism in Knoxville.
Colorado – Tad Boyle has done an outstanding job since taking the helm in Boulder, and this season should be no exception. The backcourt duo of Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker is one of the most underrated in the nation, and sophomore Josh Scott appears to be poised for a breakout season up front.
Oregon – The Ducks would have been a spot or two higher if not for the recent suspensions of Dominic Artis and Ben Carter. Still, there are a number of intriguing pieces here thanks to the addition of transfers Mike Moser, Joseph Young and Jason Calliste. Its unclear how quickly things will gel in Eugene, but the Ducks should be firing on all cylinders by the time Pac-12 play rolls around.
Wisconsin – Death, taxes and the Badgers finishing in the top four in the Big Ten. With three starters gone from last year’s team, look for sophomore Sam Dekker to make the leap. The backcourt should be solid with Ben Brust, Traevon Jackson and the return of Josh Gasser.
Iowa – A tough non-conference schedule will prepare the Hawkeyes for rigors of Big Ten play. The good news is that Iowa returns virtually everyone from last season and counts depth as one of its greatest strengths. The duo of Devyn Marble and Aaron White doesn’t hurt either.
Virginia – Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell give Tony Bennett’s club a formidable inside-outside combination, and if sophomore Mike Tobey can build on his experience with the USA U-19 team from this summer, I might be a couple seeds too low on the ‘Hoos.
Gonzaga – With Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., the backcourt is in good hands for the Zags, but there are questions up front after losing Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris. Mark Few will be counting on big seasons from Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski.
Indiana – No one lost more offensive production than the Hoosiers, who will be relying on Will Sheehey to flourish as a starter and Yogi Ferrell to become more of a scorer. Freshmen Noah Vonleh, Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson will be asked to produce immediately, which means it could be a roller coaster season for IU.
Georgetown - With Otto Porter in the NBA, John Thompson III will look to the backcourt trio of Markel Starks, D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Jabril Trawick to shoulder the scoring load, but the newly eligible Josh Smith gives him another viable option in the post.
Baylor – The play of juco point guard Kenny Chery will be critical for the Bears, who have solid frontcourt options in Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin and a deadly long-range bomber in Brady Heslip.
UCLA – Steve Alford will rely on sophomores Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson along with the Wear twins during his first season with the team. With a number of talented teams in the Pac-12, the play of freshman Zach LaVine will help shape whether the Bruins finish toward the top or in the middle of the pack.
Saint Louis – Replacing Kwamain Mitchell won’t be easy for the Billikens, but senior Dwayne Evans is one of the A-10’s top players. Throw in a stout defense, and Saint Louis seems like a solid pick to finish second behind VCU in the league.
Creighton – Outside of big man Greg Echenique, everyone is back for the Bluejays as they move into the Big East, most notably First-Team All-American Doug McDermott returns. His presence, along with the return of do-everything senior Grant Gibbs, should prevent a drop off despite the step up in competition.
Notre Dame – The perimeter trio Jerian Grant, Eric Atkins and Pat Connaughton give the Irish a solid foundation, but someone needs to step up in the frontcourt following the graduation of Jack Cooley.
Harvard – Virtually everyone is back for the Crimson, including Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry who were suspended last season. Consequently, it’s hard not to expect them to cruise through the Ivy League. There’s room to improve on this seed, but the non-conference schedule doesn’t allow many chances for statement wins.
Villanova – The Wildcats bring back six of their top seven scorers, including sophomore Ryan Arcidiacono who should be more consistent in his second season.
La Salle – Even without Ramon Galloway, the backcourt will still be the Explorers’ strength thanks to Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland.
Boise State – Nearly everyone is back for the Broncos, led by the duo of Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks. They won’t sneak up on anyone this season, but don’t be surprised to see them challenge New Mexico for the MWC title.
Cincinnati – Outside of Sean Kilpatrick, I’m not sure who the top offensive options will end up being for the Bearcats, but strong defense should keep them competitive while the offense sorts itself out.
UNLV – There are tons of personnel changes for Dave Rice’s squad this season, and it will be interesting to see how all of the transfers integrate with a handful of returnees. It will likely take time, but the Rebels should still be among the top tier in the Mountain West when it’s all said and done.
Stanford – The frontcourt tandem of Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis will anchor things for the Cardinal down low, and junior guard Chasson Randle gives them a third returning double-digit scorer.
LSU – Talented freshmen Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey join four players who averaged in double figures last season for Johnny Jones, who has done a solid job of turning this program around.
St. John’s –D’Angelo Harrison and Jakarr Sampson can fill it up, and this will be Steve Lavin’s most talented and athletic team since taking the job.
BYU – Replacing Brandon Davies won’t be easy, but Tyler Haws is one of the most prolific scorers in the country. Throw in talented freshman Eric Mika, and if everything breaks right, the Cougars could challenge Gonzaga in the WCC.
California – This assumes freshman Jabari Bird can step in and pick up most of the slack left by Allen Crabbe’s departure. In the end, I’m putting my trust in what Mike Montgomery can do with a veteran team.
Iowa State – The injury to Melvin Ejim will hurt the Cyclones early on, but once he’s back, ISU looks like the fourth best team in the Big 12. Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane and Georges Niang should provide the scoring punch while Ejim is out.
San Diego State (First Four) – There are huge shoes to fill following the departure of Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley, but Tulane transfer Josh Davis should help to stabilize things while all the pieces sort themselves out.
Maryland (First Four) – A foot injury to Seth Allen leaves the Terps thin in the backcourt to start the season, so look for Dez Wells to see time at the point. Size won’t be an issue for this squad with a slew of 6-foot-8 or taller options in the frontcourt that Mark Turgeon can mix and match.
Massachusetts (First Four) – If you’ve never seen guard Chaz Williams play, you’re missing out on the chance to see one of college basketball’s most exciting players. Keep an eye on Western Kentucky transfer Derrick Gordon, who should help shoulder the load offensively.
Indiana State (First Four) – The Sycamores have a few chances to pick up solid non-conference wins. If they can pick up a couple of those and stay close to Wichita State in the Missouri Valley while creating some separation from the rest of the league, an at-large isn’t out of the question for Jake Odum and company.
Louisiana Tech – The Bulldogs move to Conference USA after winning 27 games and tying for the regular season title in the WAC last year. Raheem Appleby leads a talented backcourt for a team that will rely heavily on its overall depth.
New Mexico State – Conference realignment has done a number on the WAC, and I would be shocked if the Aggies didn’t win it going away this year. Daniel Mullings is a talented scorer, and Sim Bhullar is a mountain of a man inside.
Eastern Kentucky – The Colonels need to replace their point guard, but pretty much everyone else is back from a team that won 25 games last season, including leading scorer Glenn Cosey.
North Dakota State – Look for Denver to challenge the Bison in the Summit League, but NDSU has virtually everyone back, led by four double-digit scorers in Taylor Braun, Marshall Bjorklund, Lawrence Alexander, and TrayVonn Wright.
Weber State – The Wildcats made it to the CIT Finals last season and finished with 30 wins, but I look for them to get back to the Big Dance this season thanks to the duo of Davion Berry and Kyle Tresnak.
Toledo – The Rockets tied for first in the MAC West last season even though they were ineligible for postseason play, but there’s obviously much more on the line this season. Expect a close race in the MAC, but I’m giving the Rockets the edge thanks to the duo of Rian Pearson and Juice Brown.
Stony Brook – After winning the regular season title in the America East last year, the Seawolves are looking to get over the hump and earn their first ever NCAA bid. Sophomore forward Jameel Warney appears poised to help them do it.
UC Irvine – There should be a number of teams in the mix for the Big West crown, but I’m taking the Anteaters. Some intriguing newcomers will look to team with the trio of Will Davis II, Chris McNealy, and Alex Young.
Wright State – Virtually everyone is back for the Raiders, led by forward Cole Darling, and look for Butler transfer Chrishawn Hopkins, who is eligible in December, to provide some additional punch on offense.
Florida Gulf Coast – Mercer and USC Upstate will provide Dunk City with plenty of competition in the Atlantic Sun, but Bernard Thompson, Chase Fieler and Brett Comer give the Eagles a strong nucleus to go with major conference transfers Nate Hicks and Jamail Jones.
Towson – A tournament bid would cap off one of the biggest turnarounds in NCAA history, and double-double machine Jerelle Benimon should help put them over the top.
Elon – It’s hard to envision anyone other than Davidson coming out of the SoCon, but the Phoenix have essentially everyone back from a team that won 13 league games last season, including the talented frontcourt duo of Lucas Troutman and Ryley Beaumont.
Manhattan – Iona and Canisius will also contend for the MAAC crown, but I’m giving the Jaspers the edge thanks to the return of George Beamon, the addition of Ashton Pankey, and the defense of Rhamel Brown.
Georgia State – Sophomore guard and coach’s son R.J. Hunter will be the class of the Sun Belt, and the Panthers, who already return four starters, will be bolstered by the addition of transfers Ryan Harrow and Curtis Washington.
Texas Southern – The Tigers lost a pair of double-digit scorers from a team that finished atop the SWAC last season, but returning point guard Ray Penn and West Virginia transfer Aaric Murray are more than capable of picking up the slack.
Northwestern State – DeQuan Hicks and Jalan West will pace an uptempo attack for the Demons, who are looking to make back-to-back trips to the Big Dance.
High Point – Along with Charleston Southern, the Panthers appear to be the class of the Big South thanks to five returning starters, led by the frontcourt tandem of Allan Chaney and John Brown.
Boston – The Terriers move to the Patriot League this season, and with all five starters and their top seven scorers back, I like their chances of making a strong first impression.
Wagner – There should be plenty of competition atop the NEC with a number of talented teams in the mix, but I’m going with the Seahawks, thanks in part to the experienced backcourt of Latif Rivers and Kenneth Ortiz as well as Valpo transfer Jay Harris.
Norfolk State – Pendarvis Williams leads an experienced team that went undefeated in MEAC play last season before being upset in the conference tournament.
First six out: Arizona State, Kansas State, Missouri, Pitt, Purdue, and SMU.
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