Which programs are primed to break through this year? Check out our list below for five teams that will rise during the 2013-14 college basketball season. In no particular order....
The Volunteers have a roster that should be able to compete with Kentucky and Florida at the top of the SEC standings. Tennessee will have one of the best power forward/center combos in the country with Jeronne Maymon's return and Jarnell Stokes' increased commitment to conditioning (down to 260 pounds). 6-6 Jordan McRae returns as a senior after averaging 15.7 PPG last year as a junior, and Josh Richardson will give Martin the type of tenacious defender he craves on the wings. Look for Memphis transfer Antonio Barton and 6-4 freshman Darius Thompson to split time at point guard for Tennessee, who also boasts one of the SEC's top first-year players in 6-6 guard Robert Hubbs.
The Rams look like a 20-win team. Senior guard Xavier Munford is the Atlantic 10's leading returning scorer (17.4 PPG) and his supporting cast has been drastically upgraded. Dan Hurley adds three impact transfers in Gilvydas Biruta (Rutgers), Jarelle Reischel (Rice), and Biggie Minnis (Texas Tech), along with red shirt big man Ifeanyi Onyekaba. Rhode Island also boasts two freshmen --- E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin --- that would be more than capable of immediately contributing at most BCS level programs. Is it possible to go 8-21 one year and compete for an Atlantic 10 the next? Absolutely. Hurley has things in Kingston moving in one direction --- upward.
How good was Johnny Jones' first recruiting class? Good enough to have three freshman --- Tim Quarterman, Jarell Martin, and Jordan Mickey --- start in their first year in college basketball. The wiry Quarterman has an "Evan Turner" type feel to his game and will log minutes in the back court next to veteran guard Anthony Hickey. Martin and Mickey meanwhile should instantly take pressure up front off Johnny O'Bryant thanks to their uncanny length and athleticism. Jones is also high on 7-foot freshman Darcy Malone, an Australian import who can extend defenses with his ability to make shots from the high post. Veterans Andre Stringer and Shavon Coleman will add experience off the bench along with Malik Morgan, a 6-4 guard who will be counted upon to replace some of the outside shooting that was lost when Charles Carmouche exhausted his eligibility after last season. The Tigers should finish in the top tier of the SEC.
Larry Brown returns five starters from last year's team that went 15-17 in Conference USA and adds three impact transfers in Nic Moore (Illinois State), Crandall Head (Illinois), and Markus Kennedy (Villanova). 6-11 JUCO import Yanick Moreira could wind up being this team's offensive focal point while freshman shooting guard Keith Frazier should add instant scoring. Brown said recently that he feels he has 13 really good players and while the Hall of Fame coach can't play everyone on his roster, he should have SMU in contention at the top of the American Athletic Conference.
Make no mistake about it, the Red Storm have the most talented roster in the Big East. St. John's brings back its top five scorers from last year's team and adds a high-profile prospect in electric freshman Rysheed Jordan. Jordan, along with Phil Greene, Jamal Branch, and sharpshooter D'Angelo Harrison give Steve Lavin an exceptionally deep perimeter to go with a baseline of JaKarr Sampson, Orlando Sanchez, and shot blocker Chris Obekpa (4.0 BPG in 12-13). The real key to the Red Storm though? 6-5 junior Sir'Dominic Pointer. St. John's reached another level last season when Pointer's minutes increased and he's the type of player that can impact the game in a plethora of ways thanks to his versatility. Anything less than the NCAA Tournament will be a major disappointment for this group.