A Top 25 for College Basketball eight months before the season? Before the top recruits are unsigned and before college stars have declared for the NBA? Yes. We’ll adjust this list in a few weeks.
1. North Carolina (26-12, Sweet 16). If Marcus Paige returns, the Tar Heels should be the No. 1 team in the country. If he leaves early for the NBA, they’re still a Top 20 team because everyone else is back. They’ll have wing players – Tokoto, Jackson – and a surfeit of bigs in Meeks, Johnson and James. Pinson and Berry looked good at times as freshman. Wouldn’t it be fun with UNC was No. 1 and the academic scandal decision was finally reached? Good times.
2. Maryland (28-7, 2nd round). Star point guard Melo Trimble is returning, and the Terps are the team to beat in the Big 10. Dez Wells (15.1 ppg) is a big loss, but versatile Jake Layman (12.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) is back, as is 3-point specialist Jared Nickens. Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter (11.4 ppg, 8.4 rpg) will help inside, and so should bullish freshman Diamond Stone (6-foot-10, 250-pounds), who is a rim protector and will add toughness the team lacked in the 2nd round loss to West Virginia.
3. Kansas (27-9, 2nd round). You can already write much of next year’s script, right? Lofty expectations, stumble in November/December, win the Big 12, ousted early in March. Couple big differences: 1) Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, a wing from Ukraine who only turns 18 in June, played sparingly and is supposed to be a superstar. 2) The Mason/Graham backcourt developed nicely, and by the end of the season was the team’s biggest plus. 3) Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor will continue to do grunt work inside. 4) Forward Carlton Bragg looked really good in the McDonald’s All-American game. If it’s possible to buy low on Kansas … on paper, this team is Final Four material.
4. Oklahoma (24-11, Sweet 16): Let’s start with the bad news – The team’s 3rd leading scorer and 2nd leading rebounder, TaShawn Thomas, graduates, leaving Oklahoma thin on the interior. Now, the good: Everyone else should be back. I say “should” because the team’s best player, Buddy Hield, could decide to leave early for the NBA. If he stays, it isn’t absurd to put Oklahoma in the Top 5 to start the season.
5. Virginia (30-4, 2nd round). Assuming Justin Anderson doesn’t bail early for the NBA draft, the Cavs return eight of their top nine players and once again should be among the elite teams in the nation (forward
Anthony Gill, Darion Atkins, the team’s 2nd leading rebounder, graduates). The defense will once again be there, but the biggest question: Will they have enough offense when it matters in March?
6. Gonzaga (35-3, Elite 8). Point guard Kevin Pangos graduates, as do two very good role players in Gary Bell and Byron Wesley. Does Kyle Wiltjer return for his senior year? Domantas Sabonis, the budding star, is coming back for his sophomore year. No pressure on incoming point guard Jesse Wade.
7. Kentucky (38-1, Final Four). Which players will turn pro? The Wildcats could lose six players to the NBA and Kentucky would still open in the Top 10. Already inked for next year – 6-foot-11 center Skal Labissiere and point guard Isaiah Briscoe, both Top 20 players. Potential starting lineup, for now: Ulis, Booker, Poythress, Lyles and Dakari Johnson, with Marcus Lee and the freshman coming off the bench. But Booker and Lyles and Johnson could go to the NBA. It just means two more of the Top 20 players will (likely) sign with UK.
8. Iowa State (25-9, 1st round): Georges Niang is staying, and he’ll have a nice supporting cast: guards Naz Long and Monte Morris and forward Abdel Nader. Transfer U also has big guard Deonte Burton (6.9 ppg at Marquette before leaving) coming in. A key to this season could be the improvement of forward Jameel McKay (11.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg) who needs to be a bigger factor inside along Niang.
9. NC State (22-14, Sweet 16). Enigmatic team only loses one of its top eight players (2nd leading scorer Ralston Turner, who graduates), and should open the season with expectations of the Sweet 16, with the real possibility of the Final Four. Leading scorer Trevor Lacey should be a 1st team All-ACC player, and guard Anthony Barber is really emerging as a star. It’s the interior trio of Abu, Anya and Freeman that teams really need to worry about. Questions: Can they improve on defense, and can the offense reliably make shots? It’s probably recency bias, but depending on what odds you can get this summer on the Wolfpack to win the title … why not?
10. Florida State (17-16): Intriguing team that will be on a few (read: Mine) Final Four sleeper lists. One key: Xavier Rathan-Mayes, the super scorer, has to pass on the NBA. If he’s back, along with Aaron Thomas (14.8 ppg) [Ed. Thomas won’t be back.] and Montay Brandon (11.8 ppg), this team will be very long, athletic and deep. The real reason for the hype will be incoming freshman Dwayne Bacon, a 6-foot-6 wing, an elite recruit who can score with anyone. Toss in two other Top 100 players (Malik Beasley and Terance Mann) and two potential rim-protectors in 7-footers Ojo and Bojanovsky, and it’ll be a fun year in Tallahassee.
11. Arkansas (27-9, 2nd round). Two seniors from the rotation – Madden and Harris – graduate, but if the team’s best two players don’t leave early for the NBA – Bobby Portis, who would go in the 1st round, and Michael Qualls, who wouldn’t – the Razorbacks will definitely be dancing again. Two freshman should have an impact: PG Jimmy Whitt and PF Ted Kapita. What could really make this team special is if coach Mike Anderson can land superstar guard Malik Newman, who has 1-and-done potential, and, with Portis and Qualls, could lead this team to an SEC Title and perhaps the Final 4.
12. Indiana (20-14, 1st round). Tom Crean has been given the vote of confidence from his AD, and he just reeled in Top 50 big man Thomas Bryant (6-foot-10, 230-pounds), so let’s assume the embattled Crean returns. Still, questions remain: Do PG Yogi Ferrell and wing Troy Williams leave early for the NBA? Neither should, but kids do it all the time. With those two back, plus James Blackmon and Bryant … the Hoosiers might challenge Maryland in the Big 10.
13. Duke (35-4, National Champions). Okafor and Winslow will head to the NBA, and the big question will be point guard Tyus Jones. If he leaves – after winning Final Four MOP, I can’t imagine him staying – they’ll need to replace four starters, because Quinn Cook graduates. It’ll be interesting to see how Coach K reloads: Will he pursue any of the unsigned 1-and-done players in the Class of 2015, like Thon Maker or Malik Newman? Two 5-star recruits (center Chase Jeter, shooting guard Luke Kennard) probably start along with Grayson Allen, Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson.
14. Villanova (33-3, 2nd round). Disappointing finish (again) for the Wildcats, who had another great regular season, and then were bounced before the Sweet 16. Lose their leading scorer (Hilliard), 2nd best inside player (Pinkston) and Dylan Ennis decided he’ll transfer for his graduate year. Return the co-Big East Player of the Year (Arcidiacono) and best volume 3-point shooter (Hart, 46%). Bring in impact freshman in Jalen Brunson (son of Rick, former Temple star and NBA player).
15. Wisconsin (36-4, National Championship): Two senior starters, Frank Kaminsky and Josh Gasser, will graduate, as will reserves Duje Dukan and Traevon Jackson. Junior Sam Dekker will head to the NBA. The stars of next year’s team will be PG Bronson Koenig and PF Nigel Hayes. Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter will slide into the starting lineup. Two Top 150 recruits (Brevin Pritzl and Alex Illikainen) should help with depth.
16. Michigan State (27-12, Final 4). Sparty’s two best players graduate – Trice and Dawson – but there are enough building blocks (Valentine, Costello, Forbes) for Michigan State to once again be a factor in the Big 10. Also, Izzo. Plus, Eron Harris, a lightning-quick scoring guard from West Virginia, figures to be an impact transfer. The recruiting class is strong, led by PF Deyonta Davis, who should slide into Dawson’s spot. Incoming fresman Matt McQuiad is a shooter who should crack the rotation.
17. Dayton – (27-9, 2nd round). The Flyers have one of the best young coaches in America in Archie Miller, and will be back Dancing in 2016. Their best player graduates (Jordan Sibert), but their next three best 3-point shooters return (Darrell Davis, Scoochie Smith and Dyshawn Pierre) plus they add an impact transfer in small forward Charles Cooke (14.3 ppg), who will take Sibert’s spot, but can’t shoot like him. Three incoming freshman are 6-foot-7.
18. Notre Dame (32-6, Elite 8). Heavy losses, with the terrific tandem of Jerian Grant (16.8 ppg) and Pat Connaughton (12.5 ppg) graduating. But PG Jackson returns, as does inside force Zach Auguste (12.6 ppg, 60% FGs). The Irish will be deeper thanks to a nice freshman class (expect SG Rex Pflueger to contribute immediately).
19. Arizona (34-4, Elite 8). Sean Miller’s excellent team says goodbye to point guard TJ McConnell, but also probably scoring leader Stanley Johnson and defensive standout Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Brandon Ashley going pro is a huge loss, because the team could have built around him. Perhaps center Kaleb Tarczewski will stay. But a stacked recruiting class will have the Wildcats in the Top 20 all season. Sharpshooter Gabe York remains a defensive liability, and the season could hinge on point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who showed flashes during his freshman season.
20. Texas (20-14, 1st round). Lose 2nd leading scorer Jonathan Holmes to graduation, and leading rebounder Myles Turner to the NBA. No matter. Stealing Shaka Smart from VCU is bigger than either of those players. He’ll succeed in Austin, the only question is how long it’ll take. Pretty confident he’ll get more out of Taylor, Felix, Ridley, etc than Rick Barnes did.
21. Miami (25-13). Sneaky-good year for Hurricanes, who had wins over NC State and Duke, and lost in the NIT Title game. More good news for Jim Larrananga: His entire starting lineup is back, led by Sheldon McClellan (14.5 ppg) and point guard Angel Rodriguez (11.9 ppg).
22. Tulsa (23-11). Should make all the Sweet 16 sleeper lists. Why? Because they don’t lose anyone. There wasn’t a senior on Frank Haith’s team. Forward James Woodard (14.5 ppg) and Shaquille Harrison (13.1 ppg) will lead the Golden Hurricane to the NCAA Tournament.
23. Wichita State (30-5, Sweet 16). The backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker returns for one more season, but graduating are wing Tekele Cotton and forward Darius Carter. Role players return – Zach Brown, Evan Wessel – but most importantly, coach Gregg Marshall is staying.
24. Ohio State (24-11, 2nd round). Best player D'Angelo Russell is off to the NBA, and four major contributors graduate. There’s not much experience outside of Marc Loving and Jae’Sean Tate, but keep an eye on 6-foot-11 Virginia Tech transfer. As usual, the recruiting class is loaded with four 4-star recruits, but JaQuan Lyle (who previously committed to Oregon) is the centerpiece. He’s coming off meniscus surgery.
25. UCLA (22-14, Sweet 16). Got lucky to get in the tourney, then caught a couple breaks and reached the Sweet 16 for the 2nd straight year. Norman Powell, the team’s leading scorer and only attacking guard, graduates. Power forward Kevon Looney left for the NBA, or the Bruins would be a fringe Top 10 team. Can Hamilton replace Powell? Can Parker learn to stay out of foul trouble? Recruiting class is off to a good start.
Just Missed the Top 25:
Louisville (27-9, Elite 8). It’s going to be a long offseason for the Cardinals, who will lose Montrezl Harrell to the draft and leading scorer Terry Rozier, too. Blackshear graduates. Replacing your top three scorers will be a massive challenge, but Pitino reloads: Three 4-star recruits enter the program, including two forwards who could start, Deng Adel and Raymond Spalding. Quentin Snider finished strong and figures to be the team leader.
LSU (22-11, 1st round). The good news is that the Tigers have the best recruit in the country in 6-foot-9 forward Ben Simmons, and they’ve also locked down one of the most explosive guards in the country, Antonio Blakeney. Simmons is a 1-and-done talent who will be good enough to get the Tigers to the dance. Coach Johnny Jones leaves something to be desired.
Buffalo (23-10, 1st round). They kept coach Bobby Hurley and their two best player (Justin Moss, 17.5 ppg, 9.2 rpg) and Shannon Evans (15.4 ppg) are back. Moss is an All-American candidate and the Bulls are going to be a darkhorse next March to pull off an upset or two.
Belmont (22-11, 1st round). Played Virginia tough for 35 minutes before folding. Three of their top four players return, including star Craig Bradshaw (25 points vs UVA). Taylor Barnett is one of the best mid-major shooters in the country.
Auburn (15-20). Year two for Bruce Pearl will be an exciting one for the Tigers. The recruiting class is absolutely loaded. It includes Trayvon Reed, a 7-footer who was slated to go to Maryland, but then got busted stealing a Twix Ice Cream bar. Two very important seniors – KT Harrell and Antonie Mason – graduate, but keep an eye on Marshall transfer Karrem Canty, a point guard who will be the team’s leader. The Tigers are the only team with a losing record on this list.
Virginia Commonwealth (26-10, 1st round). The heart of the team graduates – Treveon Graham and Briante Weber – and they were at the center of a glorious 4-year run for Shaka Smart. 2nd-leading scorer Melvin Johnson (12.4 ppg) returns, and Mo Alie-Cox must be an enforcer inside. The recruiting class, so far, is OK. VCU will be near the top of the A-10 again, but losing Shaka Smart to Texas is the biggest loss, one that will be felt for years.
Xavier (23-14, Sweet 16). Lose two pivotal seniors – interior force Matt Stainbrook and point guard Dee Davis, and could lose rangy sophomore Jalen Reynolds to the NBA (he could obviously could use more work, but who can begrudge him?). Still, the trio of Remy Abell (Indiana transfer), gunner Myles Davis and 2nd leading scorer Trevon Bluiett will be enough to get terrific young coach Chris Mack back to the NCAA Tournament.
Connecticut (20-15). Should bounce-back to the NCAA Tournament after missing out on March Madness in 2015. Lose their best overall player in Ryan Boatright, but there’s plenty of talent here – Rodney Purvis, Omar Calhoun, Sam Cassell Jr and Phillip Nolan – for this team to challenge Tulsa or SMU in the AAC. Amida Brimah make the leap next year? The 7-footer averaged 9.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg and 3.5 bpg, but expectations are higher than that. Keep an eye on incoming freshman guard Jalen Adams.
SMU (27-7, 1st round). If defensive force Markus Kennedy stays in school, this team will be in the Top 25 for sure to start the season. He hasn’t decided yet. Yanick Moreira (11.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg) graduates, but Keith Frazier (10.5 ppg) and Nic Moore (14.5 ppg) return for Larry Brown and the Mustangs.
Purdue (21-13, 1st round). Leery of putting them in the Top 25 because 7-foot junior AJ Hammons has not made an NBA decision. If he leaves, the Boilermakers will still be a good team (leading scorer Vince Edwards returns), but with Hammons they’re a Top 25 team with perhaps Sweet 16 potential. Isaac Haas, a 7-footer, had a nice freshman year and has breakout potential. Keep an eye on incoming freshman Ryan Cline. Very, very nice player.
Utah (26-9, 2nd round). Losing their best player, Delon Wright, hurts plenty, but there’s probably enough talent for the Utes to get back to the dance. Center Jakob Poeltl has All-Pac 12 potential, and Brandon Taylor (10.6 ppg, 43% on 3-pointers) and Jordan Loveridge (10.0 ppg, 43% on three-pointers) are both back.
Oregon (26-10, 2nd round). Pac-12 POY Joseph Young graduates, but there’s enough in Eugene left for another run to the tournament. Elgin Cook and Dillon Brooks are a nice forward combination, but Ducks fans are really excited about Tyler Dorsey, a 5-star recruit who could start.
Baylor (24-10, 1st round). Lose seniors O’Neale and Cherry, but should return double-double beast Rico Gathers and leading scorer Taurean Prince. Recruiting class has plenty of promise, led by 4-star scorer King McClure, who yes, has some Eric Gordon in him.