Rex Chapman, an All-SEC player at Kentucky in 1986-87 and ’87-88 and an NABC All-American in 1988, gives his opinion each week on five teams that impress. Team statistics are through Jan. 13.

Louisville's Peyton Siva
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There is not a coach in college basketball who improves his players from one year to the next better than Louisville’s Rick Pitino. That improvement certainly shows in each of the 12 returning players from last season’s Final Four squad. Pitino’s 2012-2013 squad is arguably the best team he has put on the floor during his 12-year tenure as coach of the Cards.

Last season’s trip to the Final Four, losing to eventual champ Kentucky, provided these Cards with confidence and big-game experience which will prove invaluable the further they progress into their always tough Big East schedule. For a team returning its core and one who has begun this season with a splendid 15-1 record, a bull's-eye has been placed squarely on the back of this team. The Cardinals' sole loss this season came against fellow a fellow title-contending team, Duke. That early season game, played in the Bahamas at the Paradise Jam, saw Louisville playing its first-game without starting center Gorgui Dieng in the lineup. Dieng broke his left wrist a day earlier against Missouri.

LOUISVILLE THIS WEEK
Jan. 14: Louisville at Connecticut
Jan. 19: Syracuse at Louisville
 Full Season Schedule

With a healthy shot-blocking Dieng, who stands 6-foot-11, now back in the lineup and holding down the middle for the Cards after missing seven games, this Louisville team has its sights set awfully high. As well they should.

Alongside Dieng in the frontcourt is a much improved and much more consistent man-child Chane Behanan. Behanan is one of the most powerful players in America -- he has terrific touch. The knock on Behanan coming out of high school was that his motor didn’t run high all of the time. Well, in Year Two with Coach P, I’m pleased to report that Chane’s motor is operating at full capacity. That spells trouble for Big East opponents. When in the right frame of mind, Behanan can flat out punish foes.

U of L also welcomes transfer Luke Hancock, who redshirted last season after two very solid years at George Mason. Hancock has terrific range and is as tough as they come. Throw in the rough-house style of the surprising Montrezl Harrell and this squad will not be beat upfront on too many nights, if any. The 2012-13 Cards roll-out one of the more physical frontcourts in the country

What separates this Cardinal team, however, from the pack is that they are led by arguably the country’s best and most experienced backcourt. With one of my all-time favorite Louisville Cardinals leading the way, Peyton Siva is every coach’s dream. Siva has been a tireless worker from the day he stepped on the U of L campus as a highly regarded and recruited McDonald’s All-American out of Seattle. Playing PG for Rick Pitino is not a walk in the park and Siva has worked his way into becoming a terrific leader and a certain NBA guard. He is a great young man as well.

Siva’s backcourt mate is Russ Smith, or as I like to refer to him, “Russdiculous.” Smith is a lot like Allen Iverson, and can flat put the ball in the hole. Russdiculous never met a shot he didn’t like -– and I love him even more for it. (I used to jokingly say to teammates, "Unless you were sitting on the rim I didn't see you.") Seriously, Smith has harnessed some of his “wild” this year and he and the Cards are benefitting immensely. Louisville's guard play is tough-minded, smart, experienced, talented and tenacious. In this day of one-and-done in college basketball, this backcourt is a luxury.

Adding Wayne Blackshear to the mix of Smith and Siva in the backcourt and you’ll be hard-pressed to find another team in the country with this type of guard play, save Michigan. (More onthe Wolverines below.) Blackshear missed nearly half of his freshman season after surgery to repair a torn labrum at the beginning of last season. Fully healthy as a sophomore, Blackshear spreads the floor and possesses an elite-type jumpshot. He also plays at a very nice pace and rarely forces things. He reminds me a bit of Louisville native and former Tennessee and NBA All-Star Allan Houston. Look for big things from Blackshear.

With a little luck along the way I believe you’re looking at a team poised to hang its third NCAA championship banner, and in the process keep the title in-state for another year.

LOUISVILLE CARDINALS | BIG EAST
  PPG FG% 3PT% FT% PA
77.1 45.5 32.7 71.3 56.3

 

Duke's Quinn Cook and Seth Curry
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Coach Mike Krzyzewski is an amazing leader. Year in and year out Coach K gets it done. Whether you are a “Dukie” or  a “Pukie” you can’t help but respect the Hall of Fame coach at the helm of this ridiculously successful program. Look, I’m Kentucky bred; I’m supposed to dislike Duke. But I have to admit that I’m a Duke and Coach K fan.

This Blue Devils squad, like Louisville, is built with top-quality veteran college basketball players. Duke’s experience will serve it well in an awfully deep Atlantic Coast Conference and well into the NCAA tourney.

DUKE THIS WEEK
Jan. 17: Georgia Tech at Duke
 Full Season Schedule

Duke returns a majority of its core. Austin Rivers bolted for the NBA and Andre Dawkins is redshirting this season. But when a Hall of Fame coach with 32 seasons under his belt at the same school can trot out returning players the likes of the ones Coach K has at his disposal this season -- well,  I don’t think he will have many sleepless nights.

The Blue Devils went 27-7 in 2011-12, but were promptly bounced from the Big Dance in the first round by giant-slayer Lehigh. It’s little secret that last year’s Blue Devils were not the most cohesive Duke team in its stellar history. I sense a team this year whose camaraderie is light years ahead of last year’s squad. A team that appears to have one goal: being the last team standing when all is said and done.

Returning from last year’s team is the playmaker Seth Curry. He is the kind of player that every coach would love to have on his squad. (Full disclosure: I used to change Seth’s and older brother Stephan’s diapers. Not recently, but way back when their father, Dell, and I were first- and second-year NBA players/teammates/nextdoor neighbors. Seth and Steph were in their first and third years of life. Pops Dell was/is the greatest shooter of the basketball I’ve ever known. The apple does not fall far from the ol’ tree. OK, so maybe I’m a bit biased ...)

Also returning is Mason Plumlee, a man amongst boys most nights. Along with Curry and Plumlee is veteran shooter and scrapper Ryan Kelley. Joining the vets for the Blue Devils are two extremely gifted youngsters -- Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon. The emergence of Cook has allowed Curry to slide over as the shooting guard for large periods of time, a more natural position for him. With Sulaimon on one wing, Curry on the other and Kelly roaming free, teams will have to think twice before doubling Plumlee in the post.

I for one will not be surprised if the Blue Devils are the last team standing when all is said and done in April.

DUKE BLUE DEVILS | ACC
  PPG FG% 3PT% FT% PA
79.1 47.8 41.8 71.5 61.8

 

Kansas' Ben McLemore
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Bill Self somehow finds a way to make his Kansas Jayhawks one of the top teams in the country every year. Now in his ninth year at the helm for this storied program, Self stands a big chance to lead this team back to the Final Four and possibly be playing on the final day of the season once again. Just as it did last year after coming up just shy of beating an incredibly gifted Kentucky squad.

Very talented and quality senior experience is a luxury in college basketball. Kansas’ veterans will benefit this season’s squad immensely, given that they are depending heavily on a few freshmen for big contributions.

KANSAS THIS WEEK
Jan. 14: Baylor at Kansas
Jan. 19: Kansas at Texas
 Full Season Schedule

One of those seniors returning from last year’s Final Four squad is Jeff Withey. He is NBA-big and a standout defensive force in the middle for the Jayhawks. Long and athletic, Withey runs like a guard and has legitimate next-level basket-protecting ability.

Along with Withey, Travis is an all-around solid basketball player, both offensively and defensively. He’s strong, tough and defensive-minded. Releford and Withey are not the only vets on this tough Kansas ballclub. Kevin Young returns and provides that wiry athlete that Self always seems to have in his frontcourt. Adding to the aforementioned trio of seniors is explosive Elijah Johnson. That gives Bill Self and the Jayhawks as much big-game, tough-situation, battle-tested experience as any team in the country.

There are plenty of players I’ve enjoyed watching thus far in the 2012-13 campaign, but none any more than the Jayhawks' Ben McLemore. If you haven’t paid close attention to McLemore then pull up him on YouTube. He shoots, slashes, passes, gets to the line and usually about once or twice a game looks as though he’s just been dropped from the rafters when tip-dunking over a couple of opponents. This kid has a live, active body to say the least. And, if he wants, can be an absolute lockdown defender. McLemore is a joy to watch play the game.

Joining McLemore in this freshman class for Self and the Jayhawks is Perry Ellis. He was recruited by everyone from coast to coast, but decided to stay home (he is from Wichita) and play for Kansas. Ellis is still finding his way but my guess is that he will be a huge contributor the deeper we get into the year. Ellis is a big, strong athlete who can really get up and down the floor.

In essence, this 2012-13 version of Kansas Jayhawk basketball has shooters all over the place, experience and athletes galore. This is also a basketball team with a very high basketball IQ from top to bottom. I feel this Kansas squad is as well-equipped as anyone to be playing on that final Monday night in March.

KANSAS JAYHAWKS | BIG 12
  PPG FG% 3PT% FT% PA
77.8 49.7 37.7 74.2 60.3

 

Indiana's Cody Zeller
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What Tom Crean has done at Indiana in four years is just short of miraculous. Check that, it is miraculous. The program was dead in the water. As recently as this time last year I found myself arguing on Twitter with a couple members of the media who had predicted IU to finish last in the Big Ten.

I bumped into Crean before last season began. I asked him how his incoming freshmen looked. He got a grin on his face from ear to ear and told me, “Cody Zeller is the real deal.”  And he was absolutely correct. Zeller is extremely skilled and what I love most about him is that he’s as tough as nails. He’s my kind of guy. For a guy as skilled as Tyler is he’s never on “cool duty.” He doesn’t pose for the camera or beat his chest. He’s a workman-like talent -- the best combination of player there is. He’s one heck of a basketball player.

INDIANA THIS WEEK
Jan. 15: Indiana vs. Wisconsin
Jan. 20: Indiana at Northwestern
 Full Season Schedule

In the backcourt for the Hoosiers is a player who is currently my favorite college basketball player to watch -- Victor Oladipo. His combination of athleticism, quickness, explosiveness and high energy makes him one of the most dynamic wing players in the country. Oladipo is long and rangy. His Jumper has come a long way during the past year and in my opinion now qualifies as being a solid shooter of the basketball. Amazing what can happen after a few years on campus, eh? Oladipo still needs continued improvement in the decision-making department. He has gotten better, but still needs work.

Two other key returning starters from last season’s Hoosiers squad are Jordan Hulls and high-riser Will Sheehey, who is sort of an X-factor for the Hoosiers. This young man is extremely athletic. He’s bouncy and very tough. I’m not entirely sure that Will Sheehey knows just how good he can be. His concentration and confidence, at times, seems to ebb and flow. If he’s able to put it all together though, lookout.

The toughness level of these four returning core players is off the charts. But with that said, the key to how far the Hoosiers are able to advance in the postseason may rest squarely on the shoulders of Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell. Much like the effects Quinn Cook has had on Seth Curry for Duke, Ferrell has allowed Jordie Hulls to slide over from point guard to his natural shooting guard position. Hulls is as tough as they come, competes every possession and will drop the gloves and fight you if push comes to shove. He also is easily one of the best shooters in the college game, and the addition of Ferrell has allowed Hulls many more opportunities to do what he does best -- hoist that rock. “Yogi” is a joy to watch play the game. He searches for open teammates each and every time down the floor, and for a freshman this young man is awfully poised and has proven thus far to be a very solid decision-maker.

This IU basketball team is on a mission to prove that last year was no fluke and to prove that this program is indeed back to the Hoosiers of old. I'm already a believer -- and I’m happy they are back. With a few breaks along the way these Hoosiers are capable of hanging another championship banner in Assembly Hall.

INDIANA HOOSIERS | BIG TEN
  PPG FG% 3PT% FT% PA
87.1 51.1 41.9 73.8 60.4

 

Michigan's Trey Burke
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Talk about being back. The 2012-13 Michigan Wolverines are baa-aaaack!

John Beilein has this team, as we like to say down south, “gettin’ thangs dunn.” In his sixth season at the helm of the Michigan basketball program, Beilien has assembled its most talented team since The Fab Five. Talk about a fun team to watch, look no further.

MICHIGAN THIS WEEK
Jan. 17: Michigan at Minnesota
 Full Season Schedule

Michigan’s Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson Jr. make up arguably the most exciting and dynamic backcourt in college basketball this season. This is a team that also makes me feel extremely old. Hardaway Jr.’s father and I were teammates in the mid 90s with the Miami Heat. We watched my son Zeke and “Little Timmy” tear up the Nerf-Goal and fight over the ball in the family room -- much like Tim and I did on occasion on the big court. But as teammates Tim and I faced-off against the immensely talented “Big Dog” -- Glenn Robinson -- many times through the years. "Big Dog" certainly passed along those designer genes of his to son “Lil’ Big Dog.” The sky is the limit for this young man.

Nothing can be said about the Michigan basketball without gushing over the play of Burke. This youngster is the real deal;  Burke leads Michigan in scoring, steals and assists. He shoots 39 percent from the 3-point line and 52 percent overall. Burke is a player, who as a fan of good basketball, I’d pay to watch play the game.

Beilien and staff obviously pulled off a coup when they convinced Robinson Jr. to come to Ann Arbor and join the Michigan program; he is a super compliment to Burke and Hardaway Jr. But this staff wasn’t satisfied. Along with Robinson Jr., Beilein and Co. went out and added a big-time shooter to this year’s freshman class, Nik Stauskas. I saw him play a couple of years ago at the NBPA camp in Charlottesville, Va. He had a lot of game, but was flying a bit under the recruiting radar. Stauskas elected to leave his hometown of  Mississauga, Ontario, Canada and enroll at St. Mark’s Prep in Southborough, Mass. for his senior year. The year at St. Mark’s did wonders and now Stauskas is raining 3’s on Wolverine opponents. This kid has crazy-range.

These 2012-13 Michigan players are more thoroughbred than wolverine. And with Burke leading the way, look for Michigan to be running into April.

MICHIGAN WOLVERINES | BIG TEN
  PPG FG% 3PT% FT% PA
79.1 50.8 40.4 71.7 58.6

Rex Chapman played at Kentucky from 1986-88. He was a two-time All-SEC selection as well as an NABC All-American in 1988 before opting for the NBA Draft. He was the No. 1 choice — eighth overall — of Charlotte and played for the Hornets (1988-92), Washington Bullets (1992-95), Miami Heat (1995-96) and Phoenix Suns (1996-2000). Follow Rex on Twitter @rexchapmanv