UNC, Kentucky and OSU will reign in college hoops this season

With the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll being released last week, one thing is clear: The top three teams are well ahead of the pack.

No. 1 North Carolina, No. 2 Kentucky and No. 3 Ohio State will be among the Final Four teams come March.

This year more than other years, it seems as if every team is suffering from either seniors graduating or players leaving for the NBA draft.

Last year’s national champion, Connecticut, lost its go-to player when junior point guard, Kemba Walker, left for the NBA draft. The Huskies’ opponent in that game, Butler, lost its heart and soul when forward, Matt Howard, graduated, and was shocked when guard, Shelvin Mack, decided to leave for the draft.

Texas would’ve been my prediction for the national champions had it not lost freshmen, Corey Joseph and Tristan Thompson, to the draft along with sophomore guard Jordan Hamilton. Even Illinois lost Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis to graduation and surprisingly lost Jereme Richmond to the draft (none were drafted).

The list of teams depleted by losses is staggering. The three teams at the top, though, were hardly affected.

h2. No. 3 Ohio State

Although Ohio State will miss the senior leadership of guard David Lighty, the 3-point shooting of Jon Diebler and the amazing shot-blocking of Dallas Lauderdale, they will be easily replaced this season.

The Buckeyes bring in a strong recruiting class with four ESPN top-100 players, including McDonald’s All-Americans, Shannon Scott and Amir Williams, who figures to jump into the starting rotation immediately.

Incoming recruiting class aside, this Buckeyes team will return significant players from last season. The biggest one of all is forward Jared Sullinger.

The man is a beast. Sullinger averaged 17.2 ppg last season as a freshman along with 10.2 rpg while leading Ohio State to a 34-3 record. If Sullinger had left for the draft, there’s a good chance he would’ve averaged a double-double in his first NBA season — he’s that talented.

Ohio State’s other returning double-digit scorer is senior guard William Buford, the Buckeyes’ second leading scorer last year, averaging 14.4 ppg. Buford will help replace Diebler’s 3-point shooting after hitting 44.2 percent of his shots behind the arc last season.

Ohio State also returns its leading assist man in point guard Aaron Craft, who was spectacular in his freshman season. Craft averaged 4.8 assists per game and led the Big Ten with two steals per game. The hard-nosed Craft will have an even bigger role this season with Lighty’s departure.

h2. No. 2 Kentucky

Kentucky is somewhat of a dark horse this season. Although Kentucky lost its best offensive player in point guard, Brandon Knight, and its best defender in shooting guard, DeAndre Liggins, the Wildcats bring in so much talent that it doesn’t matter.

The Wildcats easily have the best incoming recruiting class in the nation. Kentucky’s class includes four ESPN top-100 players, all of whom are McDonald’s All-Americans. Kentucky’s class has the best power forward Anthony Davis, small forward Michael Gilchrist and point guard Marquis Teague.

Yes, Teague is the younger brother of Atlanta Hawks’ point guard Jeff Teague. The younger Teague is considered by many to be the superior Teague, which is saying a lot.

The class is led by Davis, the No. 1 recruit in the nation and thought by many to be a possibility for the first overall pick in the next NBA draft.

Davis is receiving comparisons to Kevin Garnett. He is a rare one-and-done recruit who possesses an excellent motor and is an elite shot-blocker. He grew seven inches in one year in high school, so he still possesses many point guard skills. His stat line was ridiculous in high school, averaging 32 points, 22 rebounds and seven blocks per game.

And don’t forget Kentucky returns three players that were crucial to its success last season. Forward, Terrence Jones, led the team in rebounds and blocks last season as a freshman. Many were surprised at his decision to stay at Kentucky, since he would’ve easily been drafted top 10 had he left. Fellow sophomore, Doron Lamb, returns after leading the team with a 3-point percentage of 48.6 percent. Senior shooting guard, Darius Miller, also returns after filling up the stat sheet last season, averaging 10.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game while shooting 44.3 percent from the 3-point line.

h2. No. 1 North Carolina

North Carolina returns everyone.

This is my prediction for this year’s national champion. How could it not be? After going 29-8 last season while winning the ACC, the Tar Heels will only get better after everyone decided to forgo the NBA draft and return to win a title.

Senior forward, Tyler Zeller, figures to be the captain of this young squad. Zeller tied for the team lead in points per game last season with 15.7, and had a 54.7 percent field goal percentage.

Zeller, a future first round pick, is possibly the best player in the nation in the post. Once he gets the ball on the block, he’s hard to stop.

Sophomore forward, Harrison Barnes, could’ve been the draft’s No. 1 overall pick had he left. Barnes was tied with Zeller for the team lead in points per game and came on strong later in the season after a slow start (Illinois fans might remember him as the guy wearing the No. 40 jersey that shot 2-for-9 last season at the Assembly Hall. He’s also the same guy who dropped 40 against Clemson in the semifinals of the ACC tournament). I expect Barnes to live up to expectations this season. Barnes got better near the tail end of last season and should be among the Naismith Award finalists this season.

Center John Henson and point guard Kendall Marshall also return after having spectacular seasons. Henson led the team with 10.1 rpg and 3.2 blocks per game. Marshall led the team with 6.2 assists per game and figures to take on an even bigger role this season after point guard Larry Drew II decided to transfer.

The rich are only getting richer after the Tar Heels bring in a five-man recruiting class that includes two McDonald’s All-Americans in forward James Michael McAdoo (his first name is James Michael) and guard P.J. Hairston. McAdoo, who should take on a big role as a freshman, is the sixth-best recruit overall, according to ESPN, and is a two-time Gatorade player of the year in Virginia.

Although Butler, Connecticut and Virginia Commonwealth unexpectedly made Final Four runs last year, I expect this year to be very different.

This year, the preseason’s top three teams will be the postseason’s top three teams.

_Michael is a sophomore in Media. He can be reached at [email protected]_