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Men's college basketball preview: 5 teams, 5 players to watch

Times staff writer Antonya English runs down what to watch for this season in men's college basketball:

Five teams to watch

1. Kentucky The Wildcats ended last season in disgrace — at least by Kentucky standards — with a first-round loss to Robert Morris in the NIT. But one year later, Kentucky is the preseason No. 1, and legitimate national title expectations have returned to Lexington. Why? A recruiting class of eight that includes six McDonald's All-Americans and two finalists for Kentucky's Mr. Basketball. According to 247Sports' rankings, coach John Calipari landed the No. 1 prospect at four of the five positions.

2. Duke The Blue Devils will be without their top three double-figure scorers from last season in Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly, yet this might be a better team overall. Rasheed Sulaimon and 7-foot post player Marshall Plumlee return, joined by freshman phenom Jabari Parker and Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood. With depth at the post position, speed and athleticism, expect to see a new-style uptempo Duke.

3. Louisville Since 1973 only Florida and Duke have won back-to-back titles, but Louisville is capable of joining that list. Yes, it lost point guard Peyton Siva and center Gorgui Deng, but it returns a solid nucleus including player of the year candidate, guard Russ Smith, and forward Luke Hancock. Add several touted newcomers and Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino and you understand why the Cardinals very well may defend their title.

4. Michigan Arch-rival Michigan State is the team predicted to make a Final Four run, but what makes the Wolverines worth keeping an eye on is last season. They stunned many with their run to the national title game but now have to regroup after losing star point guard Trey Burke and veteran shooting guard Tim Hardaway. But with a solid incoming class and the return of forwards Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson, they are poised to contend again.

5. UCLA No one is predicting the Bruins to be national title contenders, but they'll be worth keeping an eye on. The former perennial power and winningest program in college history has lost star Shabazz Muhammad to the NBA but has everyone watching to see how first-year coach Steve Alford fares. Three starters return, including sophomore guards Jordan Adams (15.3 ppg) and Kyle Anderson (9.7 ppg,). Expectations are already brewing for Alford and the Bruins.

Five players to watch

1. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: You rarely see his name printed anywhere without "presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft" next to it. Wiggins draws comparisons to LeBron James and Kevin Durant, and at 6 feet 8, 200 pounds, he's a guard who can who hit from 3-point range and play all over the floor.

2. Julius Randle, Kentucky: He was the No. 2 overall recruit in the nation, the top power forward. With his size — 6-9, 240 pounds — and ability to drive to the basket, he'll be a force for Kentucky's opponents and bring some much-needed toughness to the frontcourt.

3. Jabari Parker, Duke: One of the top incoming freshmen, the Chicago native brings versatility to the forward spot for the Blue Devils. Expectations are that when paired with Mississippi State transfer forward Rodney Hood, he'll help form an outstanding tandem for Duke.

4. Russ Smith, Louisville: The preseason All-American has returned for his senior season in an effort to raise his draft stock, although he was the Cardinals' leading scorer (18.7 ppg) on the national title team last season. He has spent the offseason trying to polish his game, and his expectations are high.

5. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: He was projected as a top-five NBA lottery pick but instead is back at OSU, saying he just loved college too much to leave. The 6-foot-4 sophomore point guard was the Big 12 player of the year as a freshman, was among the conference's top five in scoring and assists, and led the league in steals.

Men's college basketball preview: 5 teams, 5 players to watch 11/01/13 [Last modified: Saturday, November 2, 2013 10:55pm]
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