No Shortage of Legit Contenders for No. 1 CBB Preseason Ranking

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreBRCollege Basketball National Lead WriterOctober 16, 2015

Jan 10, 2015; Chapel Hill, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels guard Marcus Paige (5) reacts in the second half. The Tar Heels defeated the Cardinals 72-71 at Dean E. Smith Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The college basketball season ceremoniously kicked off Thursday with the release of the coaches poll, which had two teams (Kentucky and North Carolina) sharing the top spot and five receiving first-place votes.

In most years this result would make me stand on my soapbox and scream "wussies!" at the coaches for handing out first-place votes like participation trophies, but instead I'll stand down and admit that only three people should apologize—those who voted for Duke.

I can (and will) make an argument for five teams that could justifiably receive a first-place vote this preseason based on talent and/or experience.

Preseason Coaches Poll Top 10
Team (First-Place Votes)Points
1. Kentucky (11)749
1. North Carolina (12)749
3. Maryland (5)723
4. Duke (3)686
5. Kansas (1)675
6. Virginia667
7. Iowa State541
8. Oklahoma520
9. Villanova498
10. Arizona477
ESPN

Even in this one-and-done era of parity, there's usually a clear-cut No. 1 in the preseason. Last year, for instance, Kentucky received 24 of the 32 first-place votes. There were other teams worthy of consideration—Wisconsin was returning four starters from a Final Four run, and Duke, the eventual national champion, had a nice mix of veterans and freshman talent—but Kentucky legitimized the ranking by starting 38-0.

The fact the 'Cats didn't win the national title didn't mean the coaches got it wrong in the preseason; it was just another reminder that the NCAA tournament is a fickle beast and the best team doesn't always win.

There is no Kentucky in 2015-16—no team, on paper, that demands we anoint it the king of October. The best teams from a season ago saw their cores leave for the NBA, and I'm hearing from NBA scouts that the 2016 NBA draft isn't looking like that deep of a draft. Translation: This freshman class isn't going to knock our socks off.

So of all years to have a tie in a preseason poll, this would be it.

As promised, here are the five teams who belong in the conversation for No. 1...and Duke.

 

North Carolina

CHAPEL HILL, NC - FEBRUARY 21: Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels speaks to teammate Marcus Paige #5 during a game against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on February 21, 2015 at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Nor
Peyton Williams/Getty Images

In terms of returning talent, North Carolina has the best goods coming back from a year ago. The Tar Heels lost starting shooting guard J.P. Tokoto, but they return everyone else who played meaningful minutes.

North Carolina played its best basketball late in the season last year and gave Wisconsin a run in the Sweet 16. The Heels should expect gradual improvement from just about everyone, most importantly talented sophomore wing Justin Jackson. The other big lift could come from senior guard Marcus Paige, who enters the year healthy after playing through nagging injuries all of last season.

The question with the Heels, as has been the case each of the last two seasons, is whether anyone outside of Paige can become a reliable outside shooter. Paige is the only guy on the roster who made more than 30 threes a year ago.

This group has also never really defended at an elite level, even though the pieces are there to have what should be a pretty good defense. That's why it's easy to make the case for the Heels—they should be a complete team—but it's just as easy to point to the last two years and ask: Why should we believe this year will be different?

 

Kentucky

James Crisp/Associated Press

Kentucky's case comes with an asterisk: Are the Wildcats going to have Skal Labissiere or are they not?

Labissiere is one of the best talents in the country—the early consensus is that the 2016 No. 1 pick will be either him or LSU freshman Ben Simmons—so his eligibility, which is still in question, is key to how good Kentucky can be.

Even without Labissiere, this is a Top 10 roster—maybe even still Top Five—because of a dynamic backcourt and frontcourt depth that John Calipari provided with some insurance by signing freshman big man Isaac Humphries this past summer.

The recipe for a Calipari team's being elite is to mix some solid veterans with elite newcomers. Check and check.

The role of leader and floor general will be in the capable hands of Tyler Ulis. The 'Cats were arguably stronger last year when Ulis was running the show, because he's such a gifted creator off the dribble that he makes everyone around him better. Calipari also has the luxury of starting three guys capable of being primary ball-handlers. There is reason to question how freshmen Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe will handle sliding off the ball, but Calipari is a master at managing elite talent and egos.

Kentucky also benefits from the return of Alex Poythress, who was the team's MVP on the trip to the Bahamas in the summer of 2014 when he was able to play power forward, which is where he should get a majority of his minutes this season. Kentucky is not nearly as deep as last year, but its top seven, which will likely include Marcus Lee coming off the bench, is more talented than any other team's top seven in the country.

Yep, same old song and dance: Calipari has the best talent on paper. We just have to wait and see how it blends...and if it includes Labissiere.

 

Maryland

Paul Vernon/Associated Press

The Terps have what looks to be the best starting lineup in the country. Sophomore Melo Trimble is a preseason All-American candidate; former Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon was once considered star material and should benefit from a change of scenery; small forward Jake Layman is a future pro; and up front, the Terps have the back-to-the-basket scorers they lacked a year ago in Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter and freshman Diamond Stone, who is considered one of the top incoming freshmen in the country.

It's also as easy to poke holes in an argument for the Terps as it is for any of these teams. They won a lot of close games last year—going 12-1 in games decided by six points or fewer—which is one reason the computers suggested they weren't as good as they appeared. Ken Pomeroy's ratings, for instance, had Maryland ranked 32nd. It's also worth pointing out the Terps lost in the round of 32 to West Virginia, a scrappy bunch that was difficult to play but not overly talented.

The additions should plug some of the weaknesses. Sulaimon adds the secondary ball-handler the Terps were missing, and both Carter and Stone give them some inside scoring. But they'll miss the toughness Dez Wells provided, and a move from power forward to small forward could negate some of the effectiveness of Layman.

 

Kansas

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

The Jayhawks are another team that probably deserves some skepticism based on what happened last season. Sure, that team won the Big 12 (again), but you could make an argument it was the worst team of the Bill Self era. This is also a group that hasn't made it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament the last two years.

The breakthrough, it appears, came this summer on KU's march to a gold medal in the World University Games. That's no small feat considering a group of college all-stars that represented the U.S. in the previous World University Games (and featured six guys who played in the NBA last season) finished ninth.

The main difference between the 2014-15 Jayhawks and the team they took to Korea was the play of Wayne Selden. Selden was underwhelming as a sophomore, often too reliant on his shaky jumper. But this summer, Selden moved from the 2 to the 3 and started to use his athleticism and strength to attack the rim. He also shot the ball well from the perimeter.

Now the Jayhawks have what could be a three-headed monster in Selden, point guard Frank Mason (the surprise MVP of last year's club) and senior Perry Ellis. The Jayhawks also have depth at every position, so much so that if freshman Cheick Diallo isn't ruled eligible by the NCAA, it might not be as crippling as you'd think.

Self also has his best seasons when he's leaning on upperclassmen and gets guys to stick around longer than originally expected—Selden and Ellis would qualify. But again, picking Kansas would be a leap of faith that Selden will be more like his summer self than his sophomore self and that Kansas will be much better off at the 5 with Diallo (assuming he's eligible), Hunter Mickelson and Landen Lucas than it was a year ago when Cliff Alexander was a bust.

 

Duke

Apr 4, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Grayson Allen (3) dunks against the Michigan State Spartans in the second half of the 2015 NCAA Men's Division I Championship semi-final game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

I interrupt this look at the five teams worthy of consideration for preseason No. 1 with some thoughts on Duke as a preseason Top Five team.

Mike Krzyzewski is a genius. Duke is talented. But the Blue Devils just aren't in the same class as these other five teams and may not even deserve to be in the Top 10, and here's why:

  • Duke lost four starters, and the one starter returning, Matt Jones, is a role guy and will forever be a role guy.
  • Duke's starting point guard, Derryck Thornton, should be a senior in high school this season.
  • Duke's most proven scorer is Grayson Allen. As amazing as Allen was in the national championship game, he had the luxury of defenses barely paying any attention to him. Now, defenses will be designed to stop him and freshman Brandon Ingram.
  • Duke has bodies up front, but I'm not sure there's much scoring there. Freshman Chase Jeter is the most talented of the bunch, and from what I saw out of him last summer, he struck me as more of an energy guy than a scorer. There's some potential there to be a scorer down the road, but the Blue Devils will have to lean a ton on their perimeter shooting, because Jeter is no Jahlil Okafor.

It's easy to say that Duke relied on freshmen last year, and that turned out just fine. And Kentucky is leaning on a lot of freshmen too. But the talent level of this roster is nowhere close to the talent level of last year's roster. Add in the inexperience, and it just doesn't make much sense to pick Duke in the Top Five. If I'm wrong, I'll happily eat crow (or maybe a crow alternative).

 

Virginia

Nell Redmond/Associated Press

I saved the least sexy of the picks for last.

It's not that surprising that Virginia didn't have a first-place vote, because it's really easy to forget about Virginia.

Tony Bennett doesn't have any future lottery picks. He didn't sign any McDonald's All-Americans. He's still yet to make a Final Four.

But Bennett did return three starters from a team that was a top-two seed in the tournament for a second straight year, and one of those starters, Malcolm Brogdon, was a second-team All-American last year. Virginia also returns one of the most underrated big men in the country in Anthony Gill, and point guard London Perrantes is only going to get better with age—and he's now a junior.

Oh, and that defense...

As unbelievably talented and long as Kentucky was a year ago, the advanced stats showed that Virginia was the best defensive team in the country. And there's no reason to believe the defense isn't going to be just as good as it was last year. In fact, the "Pack Line" could be even more dangerous with the shot clock going from 35 to 30 seconds.

The Cavaliers may bore you. They will play slow. They will not make mistakes. They are the anti-YouTube team.

But they're going to win a lot of games and probably be a No. 1 seed at the end of the year.

Out of these five teams, Virginia has the fewest number of question marks, and that might be as good a reason as any to put Bennett's team No. 1.

Or, a tie is good. But forget a two-way tie—make it five!

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.

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