NCAA hoops preview: 'Heels team to beat

RYAN WOLSTAT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:00 PM ET

TORONTO - Thanks in large part to the NBA lockout, this NCAA basketball season is one of the most anticipated of all-time.

The threat of a lost season prompted many standout freshman to return to school, meaning, for the first time in over a decade, savvy seniors and juniors and a bumper crop of sophomores will be competing alongside or against an absurdly talented group of freshman.

The talent level in the NCAA will be higher than usual and it fans will be the beneficiaries.

Some super-teams have emerged — chief among them being Kentucky and North Carolina — while defending-champion Connecticut and 2010 winners Duke have reloaded.

The Tar Heels and Wildcats have the most talent of all, but with that will come a ton of pressure.

North Carolina returns its outstanding frontcourt of Harrison Barnes — who would have been a top-5 pick in 2011 and could go in the top three in 2012 — Tyler Zeller and disrupter John Henson as well as steady point guard Kendall Marshall. Already blessed with size and skill few teams could compete with, UNC will be bolstered by top five recruit James McAdoo (nephew of ex-Buffalo Brave Bob McAdoo) and P.J. Hairston, who will provide the missing link — scoring and outside shooting from the two-guard spot.

Ably coached by Roy Williams, the Tar Heels top the polls heading in for a reason.

That doesn’t mean Kentucky should be dismissed. John Calapari has brought in another off-the-charts freshman class.

Anthony Davis, a Kevin Garnett-esque, 6-foot-11, freak athlete grew eight inches in one year, becoming a do-it-all big man because he had learned the game as a guard. He’s the heavy favourite to be the first pick of the 2012 NBA draft.

Calipari also landed Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (fourth in ESPN’s rankings as a high schooler), point guard Marquis Teague (8th) and Canadian sharp-shooter Kyle Wiltjer. Oh yeah, Terrence Jones (15.7 points, 8.8 rebounds in 2010-11), Doron Lamb (12.3 points) and Darius Miller (10.9 points) are all back for another kick at a title.

UCONN might not have Kemba Walker any longer, but legendary head coach Jim Calhoun remains, along with rising star Jeremy Lamb, centre Alex Oriakhi and others. Plus, forward/centre Andre Drummond, Davis’ chief competition to go first in the NBA draft joined the team a year earlier than expected.

Ohio State was the top regular season team last year (32-2) and convinced freshman-of-the-year Jared Sullinger to stick around, but other teams have improved more. Still, it will be interesting to see if a noticeably slimmer Sullinger maintains his effectiveness.

Duke and Syracuse always seem to be in the hunt and this year won’t be any different. Austin Rivers is a mercurial talent who should flourish under Mike Krzyzewski.

The Orange added to its veteran base, but could use a big leap from a player or two (hello 7-footer Fab Melo) in order to make serious noise.

A number of other teams will be good, but Baylor, in particular, deserves mention.

A top-five team on talent alone, mental makeup will likely decide how far the Bears can go.

Perry Jones III has the potential and ability to be a perennial all-star, but his passion for the game and maturity have been called into question. If he and freshman Quincy Miller get it — Baylor will be excellent.

Though Texas’ Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph left for the NBA, this should still be a banner year for Canadians. The Longhorns replace Joseph with Toronto’s Myck Kabongo, considered the best pure freshman point guard, while Pittsburgh added Montreal’s Khem Birch, a 6-foot-9 defensive dynamo.

Syracuse will count on another Montrealer, Kris Joseph, while Gonzaga adds Newmarket Ont.’s Kevin Pangos to its British Columbia big man duo of Robert Sacre and Kelly Olynyk.

Best kept Canadian secret Andrew Nicholson (Toronto) will attempt to get St. Bonaventure into the tournament, while New Mexico State, under Toronto-born associate head coach Paul Weir, will have five Canadians on its active roster.

Stanford’s Dwight Powell has earned rave reviews, Oregon will lean on Pickering, Ont.’s Devoe Joseph and Toronto’s Olu Ashaolu and a record number of Canucks will make their marks this season.

It should be one to remember.

SEVEN TEAMS TO WATCH

With teams stacked with returning stars and impact freshmen, this projects to be one of the best NCAA seasons in recent memory. Here are seven teams that will make noise:

North Carolina Tar Heels – The favourites. Returning players would have made UNC a contender alone, freshmen led by James McAdoo and P.J. Hairston might put them over top.

Kentucky Wildcats – Stunning freshman class joins Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. Up to Calipari to work his usual magic.

Connecticut – Defending champs lost Kemba Walker but brought in stud big Andre Drummond who could be first pick of 2012 NBA draft and retained standout Jeremy Lamb.

Ohio State Buckeyes – Dominant big man Jared Sullinger shockingly stayed in school. Another 32-2 finish unlikely, but Sullinger can best his 17.2 point, 10.1 rebound freshman numbers.

Duke Blue Devils – Coach K loses some talent but adds Austin Rivers, son of Doc, Quinn Cook and a third Plumlee brother to the mix.

Syracuse Orange – Time for Montreal’s Kris Joseph to take next step. Scoop Jardine and freshman Michael Carter-Williams can fill it up.

Baylor – Immensely talented, Perry Jones might land in top 5 of draft, Quincy Miller won’t be far behind. Deuce Bello can fly and Jay Triano’s nephew, Brady Heslip, will make a ton of long jumpers.

ryan.wolstat@sunmedia.ca


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