Gonzaga BulldogsChristopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsPrzemek Karnowski, a 7-1 center, averaged 10.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game last season.
My ESPN colleagues have done a nice job of putting together teams that should be superlative in areas such as offense, defense, rebounding and passing heading into the upcoming college basketball season. All had strong selections for each of the characteristics, but they’re not the only correct answers.

What other programs are set to thrive in 2014-15? Let’s break it all down.


Offense: Gonzaga Bulldogs

Mark Few’s club had its lowest offensive efficiency rating this past season since Kenpom.com starting tracking such numbers back in 2002. The Zags finished 51st in the country in OER after 12 seasons, with an average rating of 19th. But things are about to get back to normal in Spokane.

Few’s backcourt of four-year starters, Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos, returns. Even better news is that the two are finally healthy. Pangos suffered through season-long ankle and turf toe issues last season, while Bell Jr. missed nearly a month with a broken right hand. Combined, these two have made 40 percent of their 3-point shots in nearly 1,000 attempts during their careers.
Cauley-SteinPaul Abell/USA TODAY SportsKentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein is part of arguably the nation's top frontcourt.
Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari understands the business of college basketball. He thinks outside the box and has created the new model of the game. Over the past five years, he has had 18 players taken in the first round of the NBA draft. But don’t take that to mean he’s a “one-and-done” coach. Calipari replaced that phrase with "succeed and proceed." A down year for the Wildcats is having one lottery pick and one top-20 draft choice.

A funny thing happened this year, though, when potential top picks Willie Cauley-Stein, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison and Alex Poythress decided to return to Lexington as opposed to putting their names in for the NBA draft. They will be joined by the nation’s No. 2 overall recruiting class (featuring four players in ESPN’s Top 25). What it has created is one of the deepest and most talented teams in college basketball.

How will Calipari manage the rotation? How do you satisfy the expectations and egos of a roster of McDonald's All-Americans?

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MichiganLeon Halip/Getty ImagesJohn Beilein has led Michigan to the NCAA tournament for four consecutive seasons.
Michigan’s John Beilein has never been an assistant coach. He has coached at four different levels (junior college, NAIA, NCAA Division II and NCAA Division I) and has won 701 games along the way. He has gone from driving the van at Erie Community College to the national championship game as head coach of the Wolverines.

What makes the upstate New York native so successful? It’s more than the two-guard, four-out offense.

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Mark FewBrian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsMark Few has taken Gonzaga to 15 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
Mark Few has built Gonzaga into one of the most consistent major college basketball programs in the country: 15 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, four Sweet 16s and multiple first-round NBA draft choices. There’s speculation every year about Few leaving for other destinations, but the reality is he isn't going anywhere.

Why is Few so content in Spokane, Washington? How has he built this program into the power it is today? What makes Gonzaga a destination job? Let’s break it all down.

1. Don't mess with happy

Few is a perfect fit at Gonzaga. He’s from the Pacific Northwest (Creswell, Oregon) and enjoys the lifestyle. An avid outdoorsman, Few is a fly fisherman and enjoys taking his bike out on the trail. He’s comfortable in his surroundings. Few is an old-school grinder who has balance in his life. Though constantly engaged in the Spokane community, he still has enough time for family and friends.

Few is also coaching on his own terms and not held hostage by boosters and the demands of working at a large state university.

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Larry BrownAP Photo/Sharon EllmanLarry Brown has Southern Methodist in position to reach the NCAA tournament next season.
Each season there are teams that break through and show significant improvement from the prior season. In 2013-14, we saw Tony Bennett's Virginia Cavaliers win both the ACC and ACC tournament. Tim Miles’ Nebraska Cornhuskers went from a Big Ten bottom-feeder to the Big Dance. Kevin Ollie's Connecticut Huskies -- ineligible for the postseason a season earlier -- won the national title.

Breakthrough teams typically return a core group of players, have excellent guard play, defend, are physically tough and have roles that are well-defined. Let’s take a look at which programs are poised to have major seasons.

Southern Methodist Mustangs

In two short seasons, Larry Brown has made the Mustangs relevant and created excitement in Dallas. In 2013-14, they went 27-10 and 12-6 in the American Athletic Conference. They had two wins over Connecticut as well as victories against Cincinnati and Memphis. Their nonconference schedule cost them an NCAA bid, but they used that motivation and advanced to the finals of the NIT (losing to fellow breakthrough team Minnesota).

As Larry Brown says, the Mustangs "play the right way." They get high-percentage shots and make them (48.3 field goal percentage), are hard to score against (38.5 percent field goal percentage defense) and were seventh in the country in defensive rebounding percentage (69.5), which also led the American. This season SMU could have one of the best backcourts in the country in dynamic Nic Moore, developing 6-5 sophomore Keith Frazier and point guard Emmanuel Mudiay. Mudiay, ESPN’s No. 5 overall recruit, is a big point guard who is terrific in transition and uses his size to see over the defense. He can finish as well as make his teammates better. Sterling Brown brings depth and toughness to the backcourt.

The addition of Xavier fifth-year transfer Justin Martin, at 6-6, gives the Mustangs another versatile piece that can play either forward position. Martin averaged 11.7 points, 5.2 rebounds and made more than 50 perimeter shots. His skill set will fit in well with coach Brown’s offensive system.

Up front, Markus Kennedy is a load. The Villanova transfer is a wide body (6-9, 245 pounds) who has an old school low-post game.

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Tom CreanAP Photo/Kiichiro SatoIndiana University's Tom Crean didn't make the Top 50 cut.
I will admit it. I am sensitive to coaching lists, as well as "who’s hot" and "who's on the hot seat" articles. After spending 23 years as a college coach, I understand, uniquely, how hard the job is and how circumstances, real and imagined, can affect how coaches are viewed.

I've also seen how just one key win can propel a coach into the fans' and media's consciousness, and one heartbreaking loss can turn a guy into "someone who can't coach." Every coach on the Top 50 list has lived both sides.

This month, ESPN is unveiling a Top 50 college coaches list, and I have been asked to weigh in on it, with particular regard to coaches ranked too low, in my judgment, and coaches I believe have been wrongly omitted. To me, these coaches deserve a slot (or a higher slot) on the list.

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WilliamsChris Coduto/Icon SMIBuzz Williams is known as a relentless recruiter. Will that success continue at Virginia Tech?
Coaching is about problem solving, and when a new coach takes over a program, more often than not there are many issues to resolve. How do you take a school with no positive history and make it a contender? If it has had past accomplishments, how do you help restore that?

Here are five outstanding coaches in new situations, each with a unique problem he must navigate in order to have success.


Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech Hokies
Challenge: Geography

Williams surprised many, not by leaving Marquette, but by leaving for one of the more challenging jobs in the ACC. And the major issue is overcoming the location of the Virginia Tech campus.

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Kansas has added one of the best young players in Europe to its 2014-2015 roster. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (pronounced ME-kuy-luke), a 6-foot-6, 16-year-old Ukrainian guard, signed with the Jayhawks today after considering scholarship offers, initially, from Virginia, Oregon and Iowa State.

Mykhailiuk, who averaged 25 points and eight rebounds at the 2013 European Under-16 B Division Championship last summer and was named to the all-tournament team, recently played in the Nike Hoop Summit. His minutes were limited as he arrived in Portland, Oregon, as a late addition to the World Team, but his appearance made him the youngest player to ever compete in the game.

It was during the practice sessions leading up to the Hoop Summit game where Mykhailiuk really shined.

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Greg McDermott, Doug McDermottTom Pennington/Getty ImagesGreg McDermott must replace his son Doug's scoring and leadership next season.
Maintaining a program at an elite level is not easy in today’s culture of college basketball. It’s becoming more and more difficult each year to balance recruiting classes and have that much-needed continuity. Kentucky, Kansas and Duke are among a select few programs that have the ability to reload each year. But most aren't able to do so. When either a dominant player graduates or leaves for the NBA draft, it could leave a team in disarray. Transferring is also a major problem, as the amount of players leaving programs early is at an all-time high.

Which programs are hit the hardest heading into next season and who could help fill those voids? Let’s take a look.

Creighton Bluejays

Who’s gone: Creighton has been a great story the past two years having earned bids to the NCAA tournament and winning games once getting there. Coach Greg McDermott had a special player in his son Doug, who was the consensus National Player of the Year in 2013-14 after averaging 26.7 points per game. He was complemented by big, smart, point guard Grant Gibbs and long-range specialist Ethan Wragge. Now the Bluejays must move on without that talented trio.

How the void is filled: Austin Chatman’s role is going to evolve next season. He needs to be a better leader and manage the basketball game more efficiently. The senior guard must demonstrate a sense of purpose and not try to do too much. Chatman has been part of a winning culture thus far with Creighton and will need to show the proper intangibles that are crucial for a young team. He’ll be joined in the backcourt by Devin Brooks, who, like Chatman, will be a senior. Though Brooks was solid last season for Greg McDermott’s squad, he would benefit from an improved 3-point shot (28.1 percent on the season).

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Jahlil OkaforRich Graessle/Icon SMIFreshman center Jahlil Okafor will give the Duke Blue Devils a go-to interior scorer.
This past season was all about the freshman focus. The exceptional first-year players started out as the face of college basketball, and although none of them won a national championship, they all impacted their respective teams.

Being the highest rated-player doesn't always translate into instant success at the collegiate level. To contribute as a freshman, there has to be an opportunity and a fit. Often a lower-rated player at his particular school can have a greater impact than a player who is rated higher. Playing time, style, system and their teammates are factors in how the player fares.

Which freshmen are set to make the biggest splash next season? Here are my top six.


1. Jahlil Okafor | C | Duke Blue Devils

Okafor is a wide-bodied, low-post scorer who will draw consistent double-teams. He has great hands and excellent feet, runs the floor, rebounds balls in and outside of his area, and can face up in the high post as well as the midpost. He will give Duke a go-to interior scorer who carves out space and is versatile enough to utilize in ball screens and catch-and-finish situations.

With the departure of leading scorers Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, Okafor will be the focal point of the Blue Devils' offense. He will be playing on a team that has an excellent combination of youth and experience. Up front, he will joined by junior power forward Amile Jefferson -- or, if coach Mike Krzyzewski decides to go small, by rangy freshman Justise Winslow (ESPN’s No. 15 recruit).

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KentuckyAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesWillie Cauley-Stein could be a 2015 lottery selection if he develops more of a low-post game.
Coaches like to say that great teams are made from October to April, but great players are made from April to October. This is the time of year that players take stock of their games with input from their coaches and head to the gym to improve.

Here are five very good players who could have left early for the NBA but decided to come back. They’ll now spend the next six months improving their individual games and, in the process, improving their teams. The by-product of their efforts is they could all enhance their NBA draft opportunities in the future.


Willie Cauley-Stein | F | Kentucky Wildcats
Area of improvement: Gain a low-post game
Chad Ford’s 2015 ranking: 11

Cauley-Stein would have been a mid-first round pick this June on the strength of his athleticism and shot-blocking ability alone. The odds are that they will both remain two of his strengths next season. But if he wants to play a more key role for the Wildcats, even with a stable of quality big men surrounding him, improving his ability to score around the basket is crucial.

Cauley-Stein is essentially a big man who catches lobs, dump-off passes and offensive rebound putbacks. It is effective, as he made 59.6 percent of his field goal attempts.

Cauley-Stein’s game goes to another level with just one go-to, low-post move and, at 7 feet tall, a jump hook over his left shoulder would be ideal. From there, a counter move would make him extremely hard to handle.

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Domantas SabonisHuseyin Caglar/EB/Getty ImagesDomantas Sabonis, a forward from Lithuania, is expected to have a major impact on Gonzaga.
The basketball world continues to grow closer and closer. It’s evident in the nearly 100 international players who played in the NBA this past season. The same can be said for college basketball, as freshmen from around the world will play for American programs next season.

Some were born outside of the United States -- for example, Kentucky recruit Trey Lyles (Canada) and SMU recruit Emmanuel Mudiay (Democratic Republic of the Congo) -- but essentially grew up in the high school and summer basketball system in the U.S. Others are coming here to spend a year or two in high school to make the adjustment to college easier, while some are arriving to play immediately at the college level and must fit in to their new schools on the fly.

In recent seasons, international players have had major impacts on their respective programs. Gonzaga has seen success based around production from individuals including Ronny Turiaf, Elias Harris, Robert Sacre and Kelly Olynyk. Niels Giffey was a key contributor to national champion UConn this season.

Here are a few players who may have an impact next year and over the next four seasons. The floodgates are open.


Domantas Sabonis | Gonzaga Bulldogs | 6-foot-10 | Lithuania

Sabonis is the son of the great Lithuanian star and former Portland Trail Blazer Arvydas Sabonis, so he was likely very familiar with life in the United States. It is one reason he should have a relatively easy adjustment to Gonzaga and college basketball. The other reason is that he spent the last season playing in the Spanish ACB league, considered by most to be the second-best league in the world behind the NBA.

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Aaron HarrisonJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe return of Aaron Harrison and his brother could make UK a very special team in 2014-15.
While some players -- including Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Marcus Smart -- already have declared for the NBA draft, others are still weighing the decision. Do they leave for the chance at a major payday and a spot on a professional roster? Or do they come back and work to improve their skill set and draft stock?

The answer will likely have a major impact on their respective college programs. Let’s take a look at seven players who could leave and what it would mean for their college teams next season.


Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Kentucky Wildcats

If they stay: If both Andrew and Aaron Harrison come back, the Wildcats will be a legitimate national title contender again and arguably the country’s top preseason team. Kentucky is going to be the squad to beat in the NCAA tournament. You’re talking about the Harrison twins, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, Derek Willis (whom no one is even talking about) and Dakari Johnson. Right there in itself is a team that will compete for a national championship.

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Don't let the seed numbers fool you; in Monday night's national championship matchup between the Connecticut Huskies and Kentucky Wildcats, we have two very good teams with distinct strengths and weaknesses that should make for an interesting chess match between the two coaches. Where does each team hold the advantage? Let's take a look at my five biggest keys to victory in Monday's title game.

1. UConn’s defensive game plan

After 13 seasons playing in the NBA for guys such as Chuck Daly, Larry Brown and Don Nelson, Kevin Ollie has a Ph.D. in basketball that he simply could not have earned as an assistant at the college level. The NBA season is timed in dog years compared with the length of a college basketball season, and the games are longer and have many more possessions. The nightly game plans are designed to try to neutralize the best offensive players in the world.

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DeAndre Daniels, Dwight PowellJared Wickerham/Getty ImagesConnecticut is 6-0 this season when forward DeAndre Daniels scores at least 20 points.

It's easy to look at this season’s Final Four teams and pick out the stars: SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin (Florida), All-American guard Shabazz Napier (Connecticut), freshman twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison (Kentucky) and 7-foot stretch forward Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin).

But it will take a total team effort to advance to the national title game. Often it’s a complementary or blend player who is the difference between winning and losing. Other times it’s a particular matchup that a team can take advantage of.

Yes, each of the 2014 Final Four teams need their marquee players to play well. However they also need their X factors to step up under the bright lights. Here are four players who could make the difference Saturday.


Connecticut Huskies

DeAndre Daniels | F | Junior

If Napier is the heart of the Huskies, then Daniels is the soul. He’s a stretch 4 who can shoot the 3-pointer as well as drive from the perimeter. He and Napier have become one of the toughest ball-screen combinations in college basketball. The Huskies are 6-0 when Daniels scores at least 20 points and 6-0 when he makes at least three perimeter baskets.

Daniels has improved his commitment to rebounding. In Connecticut's win against the Gators, he made the biggest play of the game by tapping the ball back and enabling Napier to hit the game winner. Daniels is averaging just under eight rebounds a contest over his past six games.

As he did in their first matchup, Daniels must do a strong job guarding Dorian Finney-Smith. But the Florida forward is a different player now. It’ll be important for Daniels to keep him off the glass and contain him on drives, slips to the basket and when he pops in the Gators' ball-screen motion.


Florida Gators

Dorian Finney-Smith | F | Sophomore

Billy Donovan's Gators are as connected as any team in the country. Their roles are well defined, embraced and championed. They rarely get out of their personality and work each possession as a separate entity. They play the same way when behind as they do when ahead. The one player who could impact the outcome of the game is Finney-Smith. He's an instinctive offensive and defensive rebounder. He averages a team-best 6.7 boards in just 25.8 minutes a game.

Defensively Finney-Smith does an excellent job in the Gators' press. He anticipates well and is quick enough to recover when the ball is thrown ahead. In the half court, Finney-Smith will be responsible for containing Connecticut X factor Daniels.

Offensively it’s important for Finney-Smith to shoot the ball confidently. If he makes jumpers, the Huskies won’t be able to shrink the court and take away post feeding angles as they did against Michigan State.


Wisconsin Badgers

Sam Dekker | F | Sophomore

Everyone talks about Kaminsky being a tough matchup for Kentucky, however I feel Dekker is just as difficult to contain. He’s a hybrid forward who needs to play well for Wisconsin to win. Dekker not only does a very good job of moving up the floor, but due to the Badgers running competitive lanes, he could be running to the rim or to the trail. How he fares against Kentucky’s Julius Randle (and vice versa) could be the difference Saturday.


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