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Louisville edges Kentucky for top spot in preseason

The How-I-Think-They'll-End-Up Edition of the Power Rankings (or "preview edition," for short):

College Hoops Preseason Power Rankings
1Louisville Cardinals
The choice between Louisville and Kentucky for No. 1 is not clear-cut. To take the Cardinals, you have to believe that power forward Chane Behanan will indeed be back from his suspension; that their offense can still thrive with three of what coach Rick Pitino calls "one-guards" -- scoring guards Russ Smith, Chris Jones and Terry Rozier -- in its rotation and no true point; that they can have another top-ranked defense despite new rules preventing hand- and forearm-checking. You have to prefer players who've already starred in NCAA tournaments ... to prospects who are jars of talent. What, you may be asking, is a jar of talent? It's a classically Russdiculous phrase Smith used when I asked him what it's like to be a veteran All-American with an uncertain NBA future in a place where your rival -- and biggest competition for the No. 1 ranking -- is loaded with freshmen perceived as first-round locks.

"Playing against guys who are surely going to the NBA never scares me, because I've played against guys who are now in the NBA who I felt like couldn't guard me," Smith told SI in late October. "That's nothing against them; there are guys in the NBA now who I've had trouble guarding. But when I look at [one-and-done] guys in college, I don't see them as anything more than a jar of talent.

"Once they put it all together they'll have an explosive NBA career. But as of right now, in college, I'm probably the most confident person going in, because I know how to play this game. If you haven't played a game of college yet, you're still in purgatory. You don't know the ins and outs. I've got a freshman year under my belt, I've got an explosive sophomore year, I've got a tremendous junior year, and, now that I'm a senior, nothing scares me."

 
2Kentucky Wildcats
Sitting in on a Kentucky practice last month and reviewing tape of its exhibition games has led me to conclude that 6-foot-9, 250-pound freshman Julius Randle is more like an industrial silo of talent who could very well be the national player of the year. The 21-and-11 line he posted in the Wildcats' second exhibition game (against Montevallo on Nov. 4) should be a regular occurrence given how difficult he is to guard. Randle is technically a power forward, but Kentucky starts him on the perimeter in its dribble-drive offense, and he's an exceptionally good attacker off the bounce for someone of his size. In this GIF of his first basket in that Montevallo game, he's a LeBron-like freight train headed to the rim:

Photo Credit: Fox Sports South

 
3Michigan State Spartans
From the "exhibition trends that might actually be important" file:

• Against Grand Valley State on Oct. 29, 24 of the Spartans' 55 field-goal attempts were threes.

• Against Indiana (Pa.) on Nov. 4, 31 of the Spartans' 64 field-goal attempts were threes.

That makes for a 3PA/FGA percentage of 46.2, which is high for any D-I team, and remarkably high for Michigan State. The Spartans took just 27.2 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc last year,and have been in the 20s for seven of the past eight seasons. They are officially on Power Rankings TrendWatch in Year 1 after the graduation of Derrick Nix, a low-post star who never took treys.

 
4Duke Blue Devils
When I saw Blue Devils point guard Quinn Cook at this June's NBA Draft in Brooklyn (he was in the crowd to support close friends Victor Oladipo and Ben McLemore), Cook insisted that his teammate Rodney Hood could be a college star in 2013-14 and a first-round pick in the following draft.

A 6-8 small forward who transferred to Duke from Mississippi State and sat out all of last season, Hood was a role player for the Bulldogs as a freshman, using just 19.6 percent of their possessions. He's acted like more of an alpha-dog in Duke's two exhibition games, averaging 20 points and taking the highest volume of shots (15) and free-throw attempts (10) per 40 minutes of any Duke starter -- including freshman Jabari Parker, a projected Lottery Pick. Hood is currently slotted as a 2014 second-rounder by DraftExpress.com, but that could change if he co-stars with Parker on a national title contender.

 
5Kansas Jayhawks
Rankings-within-rankings! Five Andrew Wiggins-related eBay auction items, in order from least to most weird:

5. A signed Kansas No. 22 jersey, on which prospective buyers are supposed to ignore the "To: RG" personalized inscription. Asking price: an absurd $349.99.

4. A Houston Rockets No. 15 jersey game-worn by his father, Mitchell, in 1989-90. Awkward description: "A Clemson & Florida State Product with great unrealized potential due to substance abuse!" If you're a Rockets fan upset that you're chasing a ring rather than tanking, this is your consolation prize. Asking price: an I'd-at-least-consider-clicking-buy-it-now $245.15.

3. A trading card with painted head-portraits of Wiggins and LeBron. It's a wildly unfair comparison. But given my role in Wiggins being on an SI cover with Wilt last month, I should probably shut up about it. Asking price: $20.

2. A bootleg Huntington Prep No. 22 jersey, without the Nike swoosh, made in the basketball-crazy Philippines. Asking price: $54.99.

1. A white, 3x5 index card signed by Mitchell ... and on the flipside, in childish handwriting, the words, "Mitchell Wiggins -- guard Chicago Bulls -- Deceased". Note to seller: Mitchell is still very much alive, or at least sounded like it when I interviewed him on the phone for SI. Asking price: $75. Seriously.

Photo Credit: Ebay.com

 
6Michigan Wolverines
Hopefully Mitch McGary's back condition won't impact Michigan's ability to chase a Big Ten and/or national title, but we have to consider that possibility. The high-energy power forward hasn't practiced with the Wolverines for two months. Given that he's an early-entry candidate for the 2014 NBA Draft, he may not want to jeopardize his future by rushing back into the lineup.

That said, coach John Beilein told SI this week that there were reasons (or at least vague reasons) to be positive: "Mitch's back is improving, and it's been improving every single day, and he feels really good right now. We have a timeline for his return that we're not sharing, but we're still on that timeline."

 
7Florida Gators
There is no team more difficult to get an early read on than the Gators. I very much like the idea of them roaring into March with a frontcourt rotation of seniors Patric Young (now 10 pounds lighter and even more agile!), Will Yeguete and Casey Prather (both underrated workhorses), talented transfers Dorian Finney-Smith (from Virginia Tech) and Damontre Harris (from South Carolina) and freshman Chris Walker (a potential lottery pick).

Louisville and Kentucky have better 4-5 duos in their starting lineup, but Florida could have the deepest stock of frontcourt talent of any team in the country. The problem, at least to start, is that Finney-Smith and Harris will begin their season serving indefinite Suspensions, and Walker is not get eligible to enroll in school; the earliest he can even start practicing is December. Add to that the indefinite suspension of point guard Scottie Wilbekin, a heady player on the floor but seemingly not one off it, and you have a team that may struggle to look like it belongs in the top 10 in November.

 
8Ohio State Buckeyes
At the risk of reading too much into an exhibition lineup: It was big news, at least to nerds who chart turnover-creation stats, to see junior guard Shannon Scott make his first-ever start as a Buckeye in the team's win over Walsh on Nov. 3. Scott has exceptionally quick hands and feet. In his stints off the bench last season, he had a higher steal percentage (5.1) than Mr. Defense himself, Aaron Craft (3.8). Ohio State's offense is likely to take a step back after losing high-usage, high-efficiency scorer Deshaun Thomas, but giving Craft and Scott extended minutes together* should put an incredible amount of pressure on opposing ballhandlers. The Buckeyes are a top-10 team because they're likely to rank in the top five in defensive efficiency. "I really love our defense right now," Craft told the Columbus Dispatch, "and that's going to lead our offense."

* If the lineup sticks, the Power Rankings will consider a rebranded, Craft-Scott Turnometer.

 
9Arizona Wildcats
Kelli Anderson's summer profile of Aaron Gordon is an strong primer on a freshman who could be one of the game's most productive hybrid forwards this season. If you're bullish on breakout seasons from Louisville's Montrezl Harrell and Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes -- as you very well should be -- take heed of how Gordon's stats from this summer's FIBA U-19 world championships trumped those of his elders during their gold-medal run:

 
10Oklahoma State Sooners
Ken Pomeroy's preseason projections are higher on the 'Pokes than the polls (and the Power Rankings), putting them fourth due to an expected surge in offensive efficiency. Oklahoma State already had an elite defense, but kenpom sees them jumping from 68th in adjusted offensive points per possession all the way to 8th. With 6-4 All-American point guard Marcus Smart figuring to use the bulk of those possessions, it will be worth tracking whether he keeps taking 35 percent of his shots as threes, as he did as a freshman, or just uses his physical advantage over opposing guards to bull his way to the rim. The lone thing holding back Smart's efficiency last season was his 29 percent long-range shooting. In a small sample this summer for the U.S. U-19 team, it did not improve, as he connected at a 28.6-percent clip from the international line.
 
11North Carolina Tar Heels
The wonderful hoop-math.com provides an answer to why the Tar Heels ranked 224th in two-point shooting last year, posting their worst percentage (44.2) of the entire Roy Williams era. Just 18.1 percent of their attempts came at the rim, the second-lowest amount of any team in the country. Power forward James Michael McAdoo attempted 356 shots that were classified as two-point jumpers and just 119 layups/dunks, which dragged his efficiency down to substandard levels for a focal point of a historically elite offensive team.
 
12Virginia Cavaliers
The Cavaliers are far too low in the AP/coaches polls at 24/25, given that they have two of the best returning forwards in the ACC. Senior Joe Harris is an ACC Player of the Year candidate and even-more-underappreciated senior Akil Mitchell is a force on the glass. During my drop-in at the Nike Big Man Skills Academy in New Jersey this summer, I thought Mitchell looked just as good, if not better, than bigger pro prospects Willie-Cauley Stein (of Kentucky) and Mitch McGary (of Michigan). Between the 6-8 Mitchell and 6-11 breakout-sophomore candidate Mike Tobey, Virginia should be able to once again lock down the defensive boards, force opponents to shoot a low percentage on twos, and have one of the ACC's elite defenses.
 
13Syracuse Orange
Kenpom.com recently added a fantastic (subscriber-only) stat that gives a richer understanding of tempo: each team's average length of offensive and defensive possession. The most revealing data concerned Syracuse, which ranked 252nd in adjusted tempo last season even with the transition-happy Michael Carter-Williams, and thus was not regarded as a particularly "fast" team. The new splits show a team that pushes the ball on offense but grinds out extra-long defensive possessions with their 2-3 zone. The Orange had the fourth-biggest gap between offensive and defensive possession length of any team in D-I:

 
14Connecticut Huskies
The Huskies return an elite guard trio in Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun, but the reason they only played at the level of an NCAA tournament bubble team last year -- when they were banned from the dance -- was rebounding. They were atrocious on both ends, ranking 278th in offensive rebounding percentage and 319th in defensive rebounding percentage. The addition of 6-9 Jamaican freshman Kentan Facey and the development of 6-10 sophomore Phil Nolan should give DeAndre Daniels some help on the glass, but it may take some time. In their one exhibition against a mid-level opponent, Southern Connecticut State, the Huskies had rebounding percentage splits (offense 14.3/defense 67.9) even worse than last season's. If the situation doesn't improve, they have little hope of challenging Louisville for the AAC title -- or even finishing ahead of Memphis.
 
15Memphis Tigers
The critically acclaimed performances of Taylor Coppenrath's Ultra-Violence Mechanism were once considered to be the greatest crossover between the Vermont music scene and the world of college basketball. But no longer! In its Halloween show in Atlantic City, Vermont jamband Phish debuted "The Line", a song about Memphis guard Darius Washington Jr.'s devastating missed free throws with no time left on the clock in the 2005 CUSA championship game. Eight-year-old, soul-crushing/redeeming sports stories are apparently natural fodder for jam ballads. Although Trey Anastasio mis-dedicated it on stage -- saying it was about Washington's "experience when he missed those two free throws at the end of the Final Four Michigan State game" -- the tale of public failure and redemption resonated with the Phish guitarist, who publically battled drug issues in the mid-2000s.

And the reaction from Washington's camp? When his father, Darius Sr., was contacted by the Memphis Flyer and asked about Phish's song, he said, "Is [Anastasio] a famous country singer? I don't know them." After hearing the Flyer's full explanation of Anastasio's motives, Darius Sr. said, "If he decides to do a video, tell him to call us."

 
16Wisconsin Badgers
Since they ran in August, when you were probably focused on anything other than college basketball, I'll reintroduce my Breakout Sophomore Formula picks here:

1. Przemek Karnowski, 7-1 center, Gonzaga
2. Michael Carrera, 6-5 power forward, South Carolina
3. A.J. Hammons, 7-0 center, Purdue
4. D'Andre Wright, 6-9 power forward, Tulsa
5. Mike Tobey, 6-11 center, Virginia
6. Sam Dekker, 6-7 small forward, Wisconsin

Dekker's likely emergence as a go-to-guy is a reason to be high on the Badgers in general. I can't find a more extreme case of a team swapping out a low-efficiency centerpiece (Ryan Evans, whose offensive rating was 88.4) for a high-efficiency star on the rise (Dekker, whose rating as a freshman was 116.7). It should pay huge offensive dividends for Wisconsin, which finished an uncharacteristic 108th in points scored per possession last season.

 

The Next 16: 17. New Mexico, 18. UCLA, 19. Gonzaga, 20. Marquette, 21. Creighton, 22. Boise State, 23. VCU, 24. Notre Dame, 25. Tennessee, 26. Wichita State, 27. Iowa, 28. Georgetown, 29. Pittsburgh, 30. Colorado, 31. Baylor, 32. Saint Louis

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