Hyped freshmen, new rules mark most exciting season in years

Thursday November 7th, 2013

John Calipari has said he wants an undefeated season, and he has assembled the team to do it.
John W. McDonough/SI

Almost every college basketball coach will tell you the sport is a mess, but this season, it will be a beautiful mess. It may be the most compelling college hoops season in a generation, the one-season masterpiece of the one-and-done era. Future NBA All-Stars dot the rosters of traditional powerhouse programs -- an irresistible mix of the future and the past. If you like college basketball, you will love this season, and speaking of which ...

John Calipari, did you say something?

"We don't just play college basketball," Calipari told Kentucky fans last month. "We are college basketball."

Calipari went on to say, "As you know, we are everyone's Super Bowl." That's not all! Kentucky is also some people's first-round NIT opponent. Like Robert Morris. Remember? Robert Morris University (the kids call it R-Mo) beat Cal's team in the first round of the NIT last spring. Kentucky had gone from the No. 3 team in the country to missing the NCAA tournament, and in a controversial move, the NCAA held the tournament anyway. Looking back, how did we have a college basketball tournament without college basketball? It's a mystery.

You can hate him or you can dislike him, but Calipari is the greatest salesman in the history of the sport. He could sell milk to a cow. College basketball is much more entertaining with him around, poking people in the chest and churning out half an NBA roster every year. I didn't say the sport is better or worse with him. I said it is more entertaining.

It is also more entertaining if players can drive to the basket without being hit with a billy club. New hand-check rules should spur freedom of movement, which is what makes the sport so beautiful. Sure, we may have a few 97-foul games in November while players adjust to the new rules. But it will be worth it. There were too many boring tackle-basketball games in recent years. Something had to change.

The new rules coincide with the arrival of the greatest freshman class in the history of my short attention span. Consider: A year and a half ago, SI put high schooler Jabari Parker on the cover and called him the best high school player since LeBron James. Parker is so good that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo pursued him as madly as any player he has ever recruited. Parker chose Duke instead, and he might be the first freshman to lead a Mike Krzyzewski team to a national title. Yet he could also fall out of the top five of next spring's NBA Draft.

How great will this season be? Well, start at the top of the rankings, with a little team that I like to call "college basketball":

The No. 1 team is Kentucky, and there is a general consensus that Calipari is coaching his most talented team ever. Yes, better than the 2012 champs of Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, better than the John Wall-Boogie Cousins crew, better than the Derrick Rose team at Memphis.

There is a pretty good chance that, by the end of the season, we will still be debating who Kentucky's best player is. Power forward Julius Randle appears to be the best prospect, but point guard Andrew Harrison is not far behind, and swingman James Young would be the diamond in almost any other recruiting class.

What do we do with this much hype? Add hype, obviously. Duh. There has been a lot of speculation about Kentucky going undefeated, which Calipari has stated in the past is a goal. (OK, it's everybody's goal. But nobody else says it.) The Wildcats actually could go undefeated, which would put enormous pressure on a team full of freshmen in March. Then again, Kentucky could lose next week in Chicago, against ...

The No. 2 team, Michigan State. This might be the most Michigan State-like team of Izzo's tenure. Star guard Gary Harris embodies everything Izzo wants his program to be: talented, tough, no-maintenance. Senior forward Adreian Payne has gone from skilled enigma to a guy who could play himself into the lottery and dominate in March. Rebounding, defense, athleticism, the ability to play any pace or style ... the Spartans could be as good as anybody, and Izzo knows it.

No. 3 is Louisville. Rick Pitino recently told the Louisville Courier-Journal that, "We are one year away from a potential mini-dynasty -- one year. If these players rise to the occasion once again -- win another conference championship, go back to the Final Four -- it takes three to have the makings of a dynasty."

A dynasty! Sure, he used the prefix "mini" before "dynasty," but that's a small hurdle for a clever copy editor. If you want to read between the lines, you can conclude that Pitino took a dig at Kentucky, which can't make three Final Fours in a row because of last year's debacle. Oh man, I want to read between the lines. Reading between the lines is awesome.

Louisville actually seems like it is ranked a bit high to me. Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng meant so much to the Cardinals last year, and I think Russ Smith will miss Siva. Still, my colleague Luke Winn has Louisville at No. 1. He might be right.

No. 4 is Duke. Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski announced recently that he will coach the U.S. Olympic team one more time. The man does love his country. He also loves telling recruits that he coaches LeBron James in the Olympics. Returning to the Olympic team helps him immensely in recruiting battles, and it helps Krzyzewski, who will turn 67 in February, fend off any retirement talk from rival recruiters.

That cachet is part of why Coach K reels in recruits like Parker; his coaching ability is why he wins with them. Duke was probably the second-best team in the country last year but got stuck in Louisville's region. This year, Parker and Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood could make up for the loss of Ryan Kelly.

No. 5 is Kansas. Yes, it took us this long to mention Andrew Wiggins, the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, and the subject of so many awkward fantasies in NBA cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City and Phoenix.

Wiggins is not alone; fellow freshman Joel Embiid may also be a top-five pick. Embiid's high school is listed as "The Rock," which I was really hoping meant "Alcatraz," but alas, that is apparently a private Christian school in Florida. (The Rock's teams are nicknamed the Lions. What a lost opportunity there. The Lions? Come on, man. They should have gone with The Rock Enrollers and called the gym A Hard Place.)

So yeah, Kansas should be more talented than last year's No. 1 seed. Welcome to college basketball in 2013.

We haven't even gotten to Arizona (with lottery pick Aaron Gordon), Michigan (which may be better than last year's national runner up, even without Trey Burke), Syracuse (which brings its usual truckload of athletes to the ACC), Oklahoma State (with probably the best returning player in the country, Marcus Smart), or Florida, which has another top 10 team.

And speaking of Florida: In 2006, the Gators won their first national championship in one of the least interesting Final Fours ever. Florida, UCLA, and LSU were good teams (Florida would be great the next year), and George Mason was a wonderful story. But there was no sense of history, no feeling that basketball greatness was on display. The only players in that Final Four to become first-round picks that year were LSU's Tyrus Thomas and UCLA's Jordan Farmar, who went to the NBA and were ... just guys, really. Eventually, that Final Four would produce some significant NBA talent: Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Darren Collison, Arron Afflalo. But it was mostly a Final Four of really good college players.

That was the last year that high school players could go straight to the NBA. The next year, Florida won its second straight championship by beating Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Ohio State.

College hoops has been an uneven game since then. Coaches at elite schools have tried to balance having the best freshmen talent with having an experienced, deep team. This is the year when the mix should work at some marquee programs. It should be the most exciting college basketball season in many years.

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