With NBA draft entrants finalized and all (assuming no major coach poaching from the NBA) recruiting classes set, it's time to make a preseason poll. Unfortunately, preseason polls mean about as much as preseason anything else. But college basketball fans need something to do during the dog days of summer until Midnight Madness practices usher in another great season. With the NBA season drawing to a close, only seven months (and two extra steps) later, it seemed like a solid time to release my rankings.
As defending national champions, Duke is the (un)popular pick for the top spot. While Duke loses seniors, , and to graduation, they bring in five-star point guard Kyrie Irving, Liberty transfer (who averaged 20 points as a freshman), and four-star power forward Joshua Hairston into the mix. Unlike last year the Blue Devils will look to run and create turnovers with athletic Irving and the Plumlee brothers playing considerable minutes instead of the lumbering Zoubek. They also have a wealth of talent in their backcourt with senior and sharpshooter on the roster. Duke also returns its best player, final four MOP Kyle Singler for his senior season. Don't expect the tough, grind-it-out nature that characterized Duke at the close of last year; this team will run and should score tons of points.
In my opinion the Blue Devils will run into the most problems replacing Jon Scheyer. I fully believe that the Plumlees will take the leaps everyone has been expecting this year, and I expect the backcourt to live up to its expectations. However, I think Duke will really miss Scheyer's lack of turnovers and senior decision making. Irving may have a better upside, but he's still a freshman.
If anything, I have underrated Purdue: before Hummel's untimely injury last year, they were arguably the best team in the country; they return a healthy, Etwan Moore, and Jujuan Johnson; and I can't think of a team that will want to win more than the Boilermakers. Hummel, Moore, and Johnson should be the most dominant trio in the NCAA. While Purdue doesn't have a stud recruiting class coming in, I don't think they'll need one. Don't forget, much like Duke's veteran team last year, Purdue's "Big Three" still haven't been to a Final Four, and I expect a real sense of urgency that drives them this year. Assuming Hummel is 100%, Purdue should be an experienced team with fewer questions to answer than the defending champions.
That said, Purdue does have to cope with losing seniors Kramer and Grant to the NBA. While I never saw Grant as a critical piece to the puzzle, Kramer offered outstanding perimeter defense and energy. He made Purdue the gritty team that shocked most of college basketball nation during the tournament last year, and I'm very interested to see who can pick up the slack. But I think the Boilermakers are a true contender, and stand a great chance to make it to the last weekend.
3. Kansas State Wildcats
I depart from the national "consensus" in choosing the Wildcats to round out my top three. But Kansas State is set up to be a real force next year. While they lose outstanding guard, K-State returns preseason All-American and one of best, deepest frontcourts in the country: , , , , and Jordan Henriquez-Roberts. I legitimately think will step up enough to lessen the impact of Clemente's departure. The Wildcats should be one of the most exciting teams in the country with their athleticism and depth. Yet again, I see Pullen and his remarkable facial hair leading one of the most explosive teams in the country.
Look for Curtis Kelly and Wally Judge to have breakout seasons; I wouldn't count out the rest of the Wildcats' frontcourt either, but in particular those two men really impressed me down the stretch last season. Offensive rebounding will be crucial for Frank Martin's athletic group, but there will not be many squads in the country who will be able to match the athleticism, talent, or depth of this team.
Side Note: I've decided to start a petition for Gus Johnson to announce all of Kansas State's games for the following reasons: (1) the man is a magnet for great basketball games and increases the intensity of even the greatest moments; (2) K-State should be one of the most exciting teams of the year; (3) combine reasons one and two. I can't even watch replays of the K-State Xavier game without sweating. You have to admit, this is a great plan.
4. Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State is going to be good. They also haveas a coach. They return everyone, including a healthy , except to a team that made the Final Four last season. They also have a great recruiting class that includes four-star shooting guard Keith Appling and five-star center Adreian Payne. But I haven't completely bought into the idea that they will be great... I would put them lower in my rankings; but I couldn't deal with looking back a year from now and seeing I bet against Izzo, and I couldn't think of any team I wanted to move up the list. Call me brainwashed from all of the "Izzo: God of March" stories this year.
Ironically, my questions for Michigan State are probably raised by the same stories that made me feel obligated to put them in my top four teams. Last year, the Spartans (albeit without Lucas) lucked into the easiest path to the Final Four (barely beat Maryland on Lucious' buzzer beater, beat a solid Northern Iowa team, and beat a Tennessee team running on emotional fumes). Maybe I'm biased or naïve, but I'm expecting the Spartans to see some trouble this year. They thrive as the underrated team, but all said and done, I still have them at number four.
5. Pitt Panthers
I'm not going to lie: this is a gut pick. I like Jamie Dixon, and I like how the Panthers played last year. They consistently overran everyone's expectations and proved to be the biggest surprise (for me) in the Big East. They have a former McDonald's All-American,, who I really expect to have a breakout year. If he can up his offensive production and keep rebounding well, this team will look a lot like the Pitt team a couple of years back with and LeVance Fields. Taylor has not proved to be the rebounder that Blair is, but he's shown a lot of talent without much playing time. Combine his abilities with Wanamaker and , and the Panthers suddenly look like an experienced team with great players all over the court.
While there are still plenty of questions surrounding the Panthers, I see them as the top team from the Big East and a really tough team to beat come postseason time.
The Bears lost two of their best players inand . Good news is they brought in the highest rated recruit in school history, Perry Jones. Jones should be a force to be reckoned with, and many scouts expect him to outshine Udoh. Combine Jones with arguably the best two guard in the country (Breaking News: is really that good), and the Bears are set to do big things. The Bears should be the most athletic team on the court during the entire season (possibly excluding K-State), and I expect them to take full advantage of their edge. If Acy blossoms like he should, the Bears might be the team to beat in the Big Twelve.
If nothing else, Baylor should lead the nation in awesome dunks: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=quxsxSe1YTo and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0H9ou2_7Tio should be ample evidence. They also should block shots in case you couldn't tell. And Dunn will put up 30 points if you try to swarm the middle. That is a recipe for success. Baylor has raw talent and lots of it.
7. Ohio State Buckeyes
Many experts have Ohio State ranked higher than 7. I beg to differ: they don't have a point guard. People seem to ignore the fact that last year Matta turned to, a forward, to play point guard because he didn't trust Diebler or Lighty to run the point. It turns out Turner was more than capable, and until I see evidence that Ohio State has someone to run the offense effectively, I refuse to put them in the top five. They also play in the Big Ten with the Boilermakers and Spartans (the rest of the conference shouldn't be bad either). These are a couple reasons I have Ohio State "so low."
The Buckeyes have five-star post player Jared Sullinger, who only adds to the list of great big men gracing the floor in Columbus. Sullinger should be one of the few freshmen to make an instant impact. Watching him during the McDonald's All-American game was watching a man amongst boys. Unlike many players out of high school, Sullinger has well-developed post moves to make him effective at the next level. His biggest competitor for best freshman big man is Turkish Enes Kanter from Kentucky.
It's hard to tell how good the Jayhawks will be next year. Obviously, the shoes ofand will be impossible to fill ( only rubs salt in their wounds), but I think people will be surprised how well the Jayhawks play. Five-star recruit Josh Selby is another freshman who will be expected to make an impact early, and the Morris twins should continue to get better with experience. Combine Selby and the Morris duo with and Bill Self, and I dare you to keep Kansas out of the top ten.
But don't underestimate their losses... Aldrich was a defensive monster and is likely to be a lottery pick. Collins was a born leader: he represented the best college basketball had to offer, even if he won't get a lot of playing time at the next level. Kansas will be younger, and they won't be the team they were last year.
Like Kansas, Villanova lost their heart and soul in. Unlike Kansas, I am not as confident in the Wildcats bouncing back (and I docked them a whole spot on my rankings! The horror!). They still have an outrageously talented backcourt in , , , and . SI writer Luke Winn seems to believe this is the core for a title team, but I think they'll need a year under their belt before making a real run. Villanova ran out of gas down the stretch and collapsed in the tournament.
This team should go on a deeper tournament run, but I have my doubts. They also need their frontcourt to step up down the stretch this year. If they can, they should be in the running for a Big East title.
Kentucky has the best recruiting class in the country. They might start five freshmen. At any moment, they legitimately could be the most talented team in the country. On any given night this team could beat anyone by 25. But lets face the facts, cultivated with my opinions: Brandon Knight is not; Terrence Jones is not ; they could lose by just as much. I expect Kanter to score more than Cousins (he should play more minutes), but this team is too young. Last year, Patterson provided a rock solid foundation for Calipari to build his team around (see the South Carolina game for what happened when Patterson took a night off), and they will suffer.
Kentucky fans should all hope for another Elite Eight. We all know Calipari has a tendency for misplacing Final Four appearances. Not to mention, Kanter played for a professional team in Turkey... If that doesn't reek of a recruiting violation waiting in the wings, I don't know what does. I wish you the best, Big Blue Nation, but when you play with fire, you're bound to get burnt.
Temple brings backand to a team consistently underrated (while they lost to Cornell in the first round, they had no business being a five seed...) squads in the country. Fran Dunphy should lead the Owls to the Atlantic 10 title, and hopefully a couple long overdue tournament wins to top off the season.
Memphis is ranked this high solely because of the recruiting class they brought in. After Calipari left them for dead a what seems like a decade ago, Josh Pastner has quickly reloaded with one of the best incoming classes in the country. They'll rely heavily on freshmen, but the Tigers are my favorite to win Conference USA next season.
The Florida Gators should be in the running with Kentucky for the SEC title this year. They will provide a nice foil for Kentucky, returning nearly their whole team. I expect Tyus to have a great season and lead the Gators to a strong finish.
14. UNC Tar Heels
I have no idea where to put UNC. They have Harrison Barnes, Reggie Bullock, and new (and hopefully improved) point guard Kendall Marshall. With the transfer of the Wear twins, their frontcourt is shallow, but Henson and Zeller should have strong seasons. Therefore the Tar Heels should be in the top 25, but they should have been a tournament team last year too. While there's no way Roy lets them miss the tournament this year, I may have drastically overestimated his team.
Returning Kim English and Marcus Denmon, and bringing inand Phil Pressey should make Mizzou a legitimate contender in the Big 12. Anderson's "Fastest 40 Minutes" should make for exciting, and maybe a little sloppy, games that will often go the Tigers' way if English develops.
Syracuse loses Johnson, Rautins, and Onuaku; they get Fab Melo, CJ Fair, and Dion Walters. They might be the most talented team in the Big East, but I expect they will struggle on the road. Melo has the potential to be one of the most dominant post players in the country next year.
Alas, John Calipari has stolen Lorenzo Romar's Christmas, grabbing Kanter and-more painfully for everyone involved-Terrence Jones from Washington's clutches. But the Huskies are my team to beat in the Pac-10 (aka Division 1-AA) next season, although the conference can't be as bad as last year...
With the return of, the Hokies sealed their position as an ACC contender next season. They will be a tough win for anyone, even Duke and Purdue (which should be just one of the fantastic games scheduled in the Big 10 ACC Challenge next season). While Hokies fans shouldn't go ahead and book tickets to Houston, they shouldn't have to worry about trying to find NIT games on TV either.
I could have ranked Tennessee higher, but I still think they won last year with emotional momentum. They also lost three of their top four scorers. But I have faith that they'll find a way to compete in the SEC with Hopson and Tatum leading the way.
Illinois returns leading scorerand rebounding aficionado Mike Davis after both flirted with the NBA draft. They could be a very difficult team to beat on the road, and might win some surprises in the Big 10. Their ACC Big 12 Challenge matchup with the Tar Heels should prove very entertaining.
The Bulldogs lost, but they've weathered many storms. Expect Elias Harris to really shine this year, and assuming the rest of the team improves (here is to looking at ), the Zags should be more than fine. Don't count them out in March when you're filling out your bracket either.
While the Spiders lose, they still have Kevin Anderson (the best player in the Atlantic 10). The rest of the team has much untapped potential, which will be key for making a legitimate run come next March, but I have faith.
Just a few short months ago, like most mortals, I completely underestimated Brad Steven's classy squad while I naively had them bounced by Syracuse in my bracket. While Gordon Hayward will leave a huge hole in Butler's team, Mack, Howard, and Nored are more than capable of dominating the Horizon League. Brad Stevens also is a pretty good coach.
24. NC State Wolfpack
Talk about your sleeper pick: the Wolfpack went a smooth 5-11 in the ACC last season (we'll give them a gentleman's C for the effort). But along the way, they notched some impressive wins: they beat Florida State on the road, Duke at home, and Wake Forest at home before making the semifinals of the conference tournament beating Clemson and Florida State. One thing all of these teams had in common: they were all NCAA tournament teams. With hot shot hometown recruit CJ Leslie joiningand company, Sidney Lowe has a good chance to hold onto his job.
Returning Jimmer Fredette gives the Cougars a slight step above the competition listed below. I think Michael Lloyd's transfer will hurt the team (his athleticism would really come in handy), but they should still compete for their conference title, and they are another team to keep an eye on for a possible deep tourney run (they were a popular sleeper this season as well, but were derailed by fate and Jacob Pullen).
Honorable Mentions: Texas, UNLV, and UTEP
Submitted by Matt Patton, Special to Big 12 Hoops