NCAA basketball’s projected preseason Top 25 is coming into sharper focus, which also means a better look at the teams who will be on the outside looking in. If any of the likely front-runners falters, there are plenty of programs ready and eager to climb into the rankings instead.
One of the most dangerous of that group will be the Creighton Blue Jays. Ranked for much of 2012-13, Creighton could well return to poll territory—even as it navigates the realigned Big East—thanks to the return of unstoppable scorer Doug McDermott for his senior year.
Herein, a closer look at the Blue Jays’ daunting offense and the rest of the 25 best teams that couldn’t crack our latest preseason rankings.
SMU had its share of problems in Larry Brown’s first season at the helm, none more glaring than the team’s lack of three-point shooters.
Only three teams attempted fewer treys than the Mustangs, but Brown’s prized recruit will put that concern in the rearview mirror.
Keith Frazier, the first McDonald’s All-American in program history, is set to step in at shooting guard and provide a major boost to a middle-of-the-pack offense.
He’ll have more help around him than most fans will expect from this unheralded program, with 6’10” Cannen Cunningham providing a legitimate interior presence and 6’6” swingman Jalen Jones leading a physical group of perimeter defenders.
Despite the departures of lottery pick Steven Adams in the middle and leading scorer Tray Woodall outside, Pitt returns a surprising amount of talent.
The key for next year’s Panthers will be Woodall’s erstwhile sidekick, James Robinson, who’s set to take over the point guard spot after averaging 6.1 points and 3.5 assists a night as a freshman.
The dynamic Robinson will have a strong frontcourt to set up, with promising freshman Mike Young joining rising seniors Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna.
Jamie Dixon also scored a late recruiting coup by landing sweet-shooting Detrick Mostella, who might wind up starting at SG after being snatched away from Oklahoma State at the last second.
A major factor in Wichita State’s Final Four run last March was the Shockers’ ability to control the glass. With that in mind, it’s a good year to keep a close eye on Towson, which returns four starters from the country’s ninth-best rebounding team.
The star of the show is Jerrelle Benimon, who did more with less fanfare than any player in the country last season. As a 6’8” junior, Benimon dominated the bruising CAA, averaging 17.1 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game.
As rough a season as Purdue had in 2012-13, the Boilermakers still notched eight wins in the brutal Big Ten. Now, four starters return from that battle-tested group, and they have their eyes on getting back to the NCAA tournament.
Brothers Terone and Ronnie Johnson will provide the scoring punch from the backcourt, with freshman Kendall Stephens likely to chip in as well.
The key to the Boilermakers’ hopes, though, is gargantuan sophomore A.J. Hammons, who led the team with 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. If his 7'0", 280-pound frame translates into a bigger offensive contribution next year, watch out.
Louisiana Tech dominated the WAC for most of last season with an offense-by-committee approach that saw nine Bulldogs play at least 14 minutes per game. Eight members of that rotation return to lead the program’s Conference USA debut.
The biggest key to Tech’s chances is rising junior point guard Kenneth Smith, who averaged 1.7 steals and 5.0 assists per game while setting up a flotilla of teammates.
That said, don’t sleep on 6’9” Michale Kyser (5.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks a night) or scoring leader Raheem Appleby (14.9 points per contest).
Mick Cronin loves his guard-heavy lineups, but this year’s Bearcats will actually be strongest on the inside. Top recruit Jermaine Lawrence will add a bit of offensive flair to a blue-collar frontcourt led by Titus Rubles and Justin Jackson.
The best of Cincinnati's vets, though, is rising senior Sean Kilpatrick. Although backcourt mate Cashmere Wright is gone, the 6’4” scoring machine should top even the 17 points per game he averaged to set a career high last season.
Memphis’ departure from Conference USA leaves a power vacuum at the top, and UTEP is in a perfect position to step in as the new class of the league.
The Miners finished third in last season’s standings and feature the conference’s best combination of returning veterans and incoming talent.
The former group includes a productive frontcourt anchored by 6’10” center John Bohannon.
Tops among the new arrivals, meanwhile, is McDonald’s All-American Isaac Hamilton, a 6’5” shooting guard who becomes the immediate favorite to lead the conference in scoring.
The Big Ten’s most underrated frontcourt resides in Iowa City, where 7’1” Adam Woodbury, 6’8” Aaron White and 6’7” Melsahn Basabe give the Hawkeyes a power game to be reckoned with.
The hardworking White is the conference’s top power forward (albeit only because Adreian Payne is moving to center), and Woodbury has a great chance to build on his strong March showing as a freshman.
With that trio doing the dirty work, Roy Devyn Marble has plenty of room to provide offensive firepower.
The 6’6” swingman led the team with 15 points and 3.0 assists per game, and he’ll be even more effective with former sixth man Mike Gesell—a streak shooter who’s lethal when hot—joining him in the backcourt next season.
Five years into his head-coaching career, Johnny Dawkins still hasn’t made an NCAA tournament. That should change next March thanks to his most experienced Cardinal squad yet.
All five starters are back for Stanford, highlighted by the bruising interior duo of Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis (25.4 points, 17.4 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game combined).
Look for the return of defensive ace Anthony Brown (out with a hip injury most of last season) to take some pressure off an undersized backcourt.
The Cougars reeled in one of the top recruiting classes for any mid-major program, giving Dave Rose plenty of firepower to replace two graduating starters.
The headliners among the freshmen are Eric Mika, a 6’9” power forward with terrific rebounding instincts, and his high school classmate Nick Emery, a three-point gunner who can handle the ball.
Of course, neither of the newcomers is about to eclipse Tyler Haws as the main man in Provo. Haws’ breakout sophomore year saw the 6’5” guard leap to 11th in the country in scoring (21.4 points per game) and grab 4.6 rebounds a night in the bargain.
LSU would have a lot more preseason buzz if it were in a different conference. The Tigers’ recruiting class ranks in the top 10 nationally, but it’s only the third-best in the SEC thanks to Kentucky and Florida.
The loss of Jordan Mickey to eligibility woes takes a bite out of that group of freshmen, but 5-star combo forward Jarell Martin will make an immediate impact on a roster that brings back four quality starters.
Those returnees include 6’9”, 262-pound behemoth Johnny O’Bryant III down low and quick-handed Anthony Hickey (third in the nation in steals) at the point.
In 2012-13, Minnesota rode the return of an injured superstar (Trevor Mbakwe) to its highest AP ranking in 16 years. In 2013-14, Penn State has a great chance to replicate that performance behind now-healthy point guard Tim Frazier.
The versatile Frazier had an astounding junior year—18.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 2.4 steals per game—before blowing out his Achilles last season.
He returns to a far stronger Nittany Lions roster, one that includes high-scoring guard D.J. Newbill (16.3 points per game in Frazier’s absence) and gritty power forward Ross Travis (7.4 rebounds a night).
After surviving an academic scandal that cost them two star players a year ago, the Harvard Crimson bounced back to upset third-seeded New Mexico in March. Now they're set to push for a return to the Top 25.
The two-time Ivy League champs are loaded on the wings, where Siyani Chambers, Laurent Rivard and Wesley Saunders return a combined 38.9 points and 4.3 steals per game.
Harvard doesn’t have a ton of length, but the toughness of 6’8”, 250-pound Kenyatta Smith and 6’7”, 225-pound Steve Moundou-Missi (9.4 rebounds and 3.0 blocks a night between them) will go a long way to make up for that.
The individual players come and go, but Bo Ryan’s Badgers just keep plugging along as one of the most consistently dangerous teams in the country.
This year’s edition has to replace its entire starting frontcourt, but that won’t keep Wisconsin from grinding its way to plenty of upsets against the Big Ten’s glamour teams.
The 2013-14 Badgers will actually have some offense to speak of, with rising sophomore small forward Sam Dekker adding his three-point touch to the backcourt of playmaker Traevon Jackson and sniper Ben Brust.
Look for 6’11” Frank Kaminsky to anchor the always-imposing defense with help from top recruit Nigel Hayes at power forward.
The latest success story from the First Four, La Salle earned a Sweet 16 trip in March by knocking off Boise State, Kansas State and Ole Miss.
With four starters back from that squad, the Explorers are a dark horse to be reckoned with in the Atlantic 10 race.
Combo guard Tyreek Duren will anchor the offense after pouring in 15 points per game on .395 three-point shooting last season.
He’ll have veteran help inside (rising juniors Jerrell Wright and Steve Zack) and out (rising senior Tyrone Garland, another serious scoring threat).
Last year’s Red Storm squad had talent to burn, but never quite came together. Getting the most out of a promising team is the job of a great point guard, and now St. John’s has one of those as well.
High-powered freshman Rysheed Jordan isn’t just a floor general, he’s another top-drawer athlete for a team that can run and jump with anyone in the country.
With Jordan’s passing, D’Angelo Harrison’s scoring (17.8 points per game) and Chris Obekpa’s defense (4.1 blocks per game, second in the nation), the Red Storm will be a major factor in the rebuilt Big East.
Boise State barely managed to sneak into the field of 68 last season, but the Broncos will be galloping in next March.
All five starters return from an uptempo squad that came agonizingly close to upsetting Michigan State in East Lansing and did upset Creighton in Omaha.
The key for Leon Rice’s team is the high-scoring backcourt tandem of Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks, who piled up 34 points per game between them (including .398 three-point shooting).
6’9” Ryan Watkins provides most of the interior muscle, though it remains to be seen which of last year’s little-used reserves will step up to help him in Kenny Buckner’s absence.
The Pac-12 will get an injection of Big Ten physicality this season as Arizona State adds a pair of key transfers on the wings.
Brandan Kearney (Michigan State) and Jermaine Marshall (Penn State) both know how to body up on opposing scorers, and Marshall will do plenty of scoring in his own right after averaging 15.3 points per game last season.
He’ll provide a terrific sidekick for lightning-fast point guard Jahii Carson, a favorite for Pac-12 Player of the Year honors after racking up 18.3 points and 5.0 assists a night as a freshman.
The X-factor for this team will be the performance of 7’2” rising senior Jordan Bachynski, who could become much more than a shot-blocking specialist in his final collegiate season.
A year after tying for 16th nationally in field-goal defense, Virginia returns four starters to continue stifling opposing shooters.
The Cavaliers’ length has a lot to do with their defensive success; all four returnees are 6’6” or taller, and 6’11” Mike Tobey is back as a reserve.
Offensively, Virginia will depend on marksman Joe Harris, one of the nation’s top shooting guards with 16.3 points per game and a dazzling .425 three-point percentage.
He gets some help inside from rebounding machine Akil Mitchell, who chips in 13.1 points to go with his 8.9 boards a night.
Shabazz Muhammad may be off to the NBA, but his recruiting classmates return to make UCLA a formidable team for another season.
New coach Steve Alford will have plenty of talent to work with in his Bruins’ debut, thanks in no small part to the return of a healthy Jordan Adams.
Now that he’s recovered from the foot injury he suffered in the Pac-12 tournament, Adams and his 15.3 points per game will be ready to headline the offense.
He’ll be a great safety net for ballyhooed freshman point guard Zach LaVine, as will another rising sophomore, versatile small forward (and team rebounding leader) Kyle Anderson.
Creighton got a rare pleasant surprise from the NCAA this offseason, learning that point guard Grant Gibbs will have an extra year of eligibility.
Considering that Gibbs dished out 5.9 assists per game at the helm of the No.1 field-goal shooting offense in college hoops, the Blue Jays aren’t about to complain about another season with him on the ball.
Even more important, of course, is the return of Gibbs’ top target: two-time All-American Doug McDermott, the second-leading scorer in the nation at 23.1 points per game.
He’ll make sure the Blue Jays put so many points on the board that even a suspect defense won’t keep them from another 20-plus wins in their Big East debut.
Villanova lived off its upset wins last season, but this year the Wildcats should get some chances to be the favorites instead.
The group that earned a No. 9 seed to the Big Dance last March returns four starters, with 6’11” Daniel Ochefu looking ready to step into the fifth spot in place of graduated Mouphtaou Yarou.
Just like last year, these Wildcats will live and die behind gritty point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, a streaky three-point shooter who rises in crunch time.
He gets some much-needed interior help from combo forward JayVaughn Pinkston (a team-leading 13.3 points per game).
Having four starters back from an NCAA tournament team, as Cal does, is always a good way to start a season. Having a McDonald’s All-American arrive to replace the one graduated senior is an even better way.
Jabari Bird should step right into the starting lineup in place of Pac-12 scoring champ Allen Crabbe, and the athletic freshman will have a loaded team around him.
Point guard Justin Cobbs is one of the best passers in the country, while David Kravish and Richard Solomon combined for 13.5 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game up front.
Graduation and transfer losses have ravaged the Baylor backcourt, but the defending NIT champs will still be a major force in 2013-14.
The Bears boast the Big 12’s most intimidating frontcourt, a group with the length and strength to excel in Scott Drew’s zone-heavy defensive schemes.
Rising sophomore Isaiah Austin should be in for a monster season after averaging 13.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game in his college debut.
The lanky 7’1” Austin is supported by physical forwards Cory Jefferson and Rico Gathers (19 points and 13.7 rebounds a night between them), with just enough perimeter help from sniper Brady Heslip (.386 from deep).
Losing the NBA’s No. 3 overall draft pick is always going to take its toll, but the post-Otto Porter, Jr. Hoyas are still a formidable bunch. All four other starters return from a roster that won 25 games and shared the Big East title with national champion Louisville.
The Hoyas’ physical defense will be back in full force, led by 6’9” center Mikael Hopkins.
Offensively, rising sophomore guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera is the best bet to pick up Porter’s scoring slack, but it’ll be rising senior Markel Starks (12.5 points per game and .418 three-point shooting) who poses the biggest threat from the perimeter.