Top title challengers to Kentucky

Louisville, Michigan State, UNC among programs fit for major seasons

Updated: April 29, 2013, 12:40 PM ET
By John Gasaway | ESPN Insider

Russ SmithJamie Rhodes/USA TODAY Sports(From left) Chane Behanan, Russ Smith and Kevin Ware all are back for the Cardinals next season.

Jason King has unveiled his latest preseason top 25, and Kentucky is No. 1 in my esteemed colleague's rankings. And, at the risk of merely parroting Jason's comments, to my way of thinking the Wildcats are indeed as good a choice as any as the nation's top team heading into next season. For instance, pay no mind to skeptics who point out that just two of the past 28 Final Four teams made it that far after missing the previous season's NCAA tournament entirely (the way Kentucky missed the tournament this past season). This time, there were extenuating circumstances.

Kentucky was outscoring the SEC by a solid, though hardly spectacular, 0.08 points per possession, until Nerlens Noel went down with a season-ending knee injury Feb. 12. Without Noel, the Wildcats' defense took a big hit (and their fouling increased dramatically), and the rest is history. At 21-11 overall, they missed the tournament for just the second time since 1992.

Next season, coach John Calipari will welcome perhaps his best recruiting class ever to Lexington, one headlined by Julius Randle, James Young, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee. They'll join veterans Alex Poythress, Kyle Wiltjer, and Willie Cauley-Stein to form a rotation that projects to have few equals nationally. Yet while Kentucky will be loaded in terms of personnel, not every talented team is able to close the deal at tournament time. Should the Wildcats falter, the national champion could well be one of the following teams: