Preseason NCAA Basketball Rankings 2014-15: Super-Early Top 25 Experts' PollApril 8, 2014
Preseason NCAA Basketball Rankings 2014-15: Super-Early Top 25 Experts' Poll
Congrats, Connecticut! Now it's time to move on.
Welcome to the 2014-15 season. Sure, it's seven months away and many NBA draft decisions are left to be made and transfer season is upon us, but who likes waiting these days?
Weeks ago, I thought the lesson we could learn from this season is to not put too much value in what teams have coming in and more on what they have coming back. Well, Kentucky kind of screwed that up these last few weeks.
So while my colleague Jason King and I placed more value in what teams return, what they have coming in—at least the top-ranked guys like Jahlil Okafor at Duke or Cliff Alexander at Kansas—were considered valuable assets. We also did some forecasting and many of these rankings are based on assumptions as far as who is going pro and who is staying in school.
Let's get to it.
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order): LSU, Minnesota, Memphis, Tennessee, San Diego State, Baylor, Dayton, UCLA, Arkansas, Colorado
25. Ohio State
Why They're Here: Coaching. This is a hat tip to Thad Matta and an assumption that his team will once again be one of the nation's best defensive teams even without Aaron Craft. He has some role guys returning in Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson, one of whom will have to step into a starring role.
Matta has signed a strong freshman class, headlined by McDonald's All-American guard D'Angelo Russell.
Greatest Asset: Perimeter defense. Scott is a great defender and was arguably just as valuable as Craft on that end. Thompson is also a strong defender and big man Amir Williams is a solid rim-protector.
Will Change If... LaQuinton Ross changes his mind and decides to come back to school.
24. Michigan State
Why They're Here: Out of respect to Tom Izzo.
This will be one of the least talented rosters Izzo has coached, but there's still enough there to be a solid team. Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine will likely be the stars. Dawson showed against Harvard (26 points) and Virginia (24 points) that he can be a go-to guy against legit competition. Once Keith Appling got hurt, Valentine became the best creator on the team and Izzo will likely run a lot of the offense through him.
Greatest Asset: Depth. With all the injuries this past year, Michigan State's young guys off the bench earned some valuable experience. Izzo has plenty of serviceable bodies who will compete for minutes.
Will Change If... Gary Harris decides to come back to school. Don't get your hopes up, Michigan State fans.
Why They're Here: Harvard has now won tourney games in back-to-back seasons and has earned the right to be considered in the preseason top 25 every year.
Tommy Amaker returns his three leading scorers in Wesley Saunders, Siyani Chambers and Steve Moundou-Missi.
Greatest Asset: Experience. It's quite the luxury when your best three players have been part of two NCAA tournaments and know what to expect.
Will Change If... Amaker leaves for another job. He seems to be happy at Harvard, but the opportunity to return to a major conference is probably out there for him if he wants it.
Why They're Here: The Hawkeyes were one of the most disappointing teams in the last two months of the season. When it was going right, they looked like a legitimate top-10 team.
The loss of Roy Devyn Marble is a tough one, but Fran McCaffery returns his second, third and fourth-leading scorers. Now that the program has experienced some success, maybe they'll handle it better next year.
Greatest Asset: Aaron White.
White is one of the fastest forwards in the country and McCaffery's up-tempo system is perfect for him. With Marble no longer around, he needs to become the star for the Hawkeyes and he's plenty capable. He has the skill. The only question is whether he'll be assertive enough.
Will Change If... This shouldn't change unless a key player unexpectedly transfers.
Why They're Here: When Louisville lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16, Rick Pitino called it the end of an era with Russ Smith and Luke Hancock graduating and Montrezl Harrell likely following them out the door.
Even with those losses, Pitino's system is one of those that you just don't doubt no matter who he has on the roster.
Greatest Asset: The backcourt.
Chris Jones is back at point guard and Terry Rozier will replace Smith in the starting lineup. Rozier had a solid freshman year and has the ability to be a star. Pitino also signed local product Quentin Snider, ESPN.com's fifth-ranked point guard, who will likely be one of the first guards off the bench.
The X-factor will be Wayne Blackshear, who was a disappointment as a junior. The Cards will need Blackshear to be more consistent and provide some scoring from the wing.
Will Change If... Harrell doesn't like where he's projected in the draft and decides to return to school.
Why They're Here: Oregon will have one of the top backcourts in the country with Joseph Young, Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson. Young was great in his first season as a Duck and he could be a dark-horse candidate to win National Player of the Year next season.
Greatest Asset: The backcourt.
Dana Altman also signed JaQuan Lyle, one of the top combo guards in the 2014 class. The Ducks love to push the pace and the added depth is key for an up-tempo team.
Will Change If... Young decides to declare for the draft. If that happens, drop the Ducks out of the top 25.
Why They're Here: Cameron Clark (15.6 points, 5.5 rebounds) is the only key player graduating from a team that surprised everyone by going 23-10 and finished second in Big 12 play. Guard Buddy Hield (16.5 points) can break an opponent down off the dribble. Don’t be surprised if he becomes a national name in 2014-15. Also, keep an eye on Ryan Spangler, who averaged 9.6 points and 9.3 rebounds after transferring from Gonzaga. Oklahoma could be one of the biggest threats to break Kansas' run of 10 straight Big 12 titles.
Great Asset: Chemistry. This unit has been together for a year now and will be hungry after losing its round-of-64 game against North Dakota State. Legendary coach Lon Kruger has all the ingredients he needs for a strong season.
Could Change If... Hield was injured. The high-scoring guard is the key to the Sooners’ success. They're not a top-25 team without him.
18. Kansas State
Why They're Here: The Wildcats lost four of their final six games in 2014, but they still should still feel good about a season in which they overachieved by making the NCAA tournament. Other than Will Spradling, all of the key players return. That includes standout guard Marcus Foster, who averaged 15.5 points as a freshman, and forward Thomas Gipson (11.7 points, 6.5 rebounds). Junior college signee Stephen Hurt, a 6'11", 275-pounder and Maine transfer guard Justin Edwards could both make an immediate impact.
Biggest Asset: Coaching. Bruce Weber is doing an excellent job in Manhattan. His teams play a selfless brand of basketball. They rarely beat themselves and are almost always well-prepared. It will be interesting to see what he can do with a group that has a full year of playing together under its belt.
Could Change If... Foster gets hurt. The rising sophomore is the only true star for Kansas State. The Wildcats would have difficulty manufacturing points without Foster on the floor.
Why They’re Here: Not many teams were as hot as Nebraska during the latter part of the 2013-14 season. Second-year coach Tim Miles led his team to wins in 10 of its final 12 regular-season games, a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten and a NCAA tournament berth for the first time since 1998. Other than guard Ray Gallegos, every key player returns. That includes first-team all-league selection Terran Petteway, who averaged 18.1 points as a sophomore.
Greatest Asset: Momentum and excitement. Nebraska lost just one home game all season in 2013-14. Fans in Lincoln have been dying for a winner and now they have one. Suddenly Nebraska boasts one of the top home-court advantages in all of college basketball.
Will Change If... The Cornhuskers become complacent. Nebraska’s biggest strength in 2013-14 was its intensity and confidence and gritty, hard-nosed play. Miles' squad beats teams by out-working them.
Why They're Here: The Zags return three of their top four leading scorers and former Kentucky forward Kyle Wiltjer will likely move into the starting lineup to replace Sam Dower.
Mark Few loves a big man who can step away from the basket and that's really the one thing he was missing this past season. Wiltjer might be the best shooting big he's ever had.
Greatest Asset: The backcourt.
It seems like Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell have been around forever and they'll finally be seniors next season. Pangos battled ankle and foot problems this past season, but a healthy Pangos will be one of the best guards in the country.
Will Change If... Center Przemek Karnowski decides to go play overseas.
Why They're Here: Rick Barnes returns his entire rotation from a team that finished tied for third in what many believed was the toughest league in America.
The Longhorns will go from relatively inexperienced last season to experienced this year. This isn't Barnes' most talented roster, but it turned out to be better than many thought with point guard Isaiah Taylor emerging as one of the best freshman guards in the country and Cameron Ridley as one of the most improved players in college basketball.
Greatest Asset: It's the length up front with Ridley, Jonathan Holmes and center Prince Ibeh coming off the bench. The Longhorns averaged 6.0 blocks per game this past season. Their front line could get even better (and longer) if Myles Turner decides to sign with UT.
Will Change If... Turner picks Texas. He would be the best prospect Barnes has signed since Kevin Durant.
Why They're Here: Faith in John Beilein's system.
Even if Michigan loses Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary to the NBA draft, don't expect the Wolverines to drop much in these rankings. Beilein would still have enough talent around with Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin to justify this ranking. LeVert has the ability to take over as the go-to guy and Irvin could make a LeVert-like leap in his sophomore season.
Greatest Asset: Shooters.
That's what Beilein looks for in recruiting and he's always going to have them.
Will Change If... Stauskas, Robinson III and McGary eschew jumping to the NBA and decide to return. If that's the case, move Michigan way up.
13. Iowa State
Why They're Here: This may seem high for Iowa State after losing Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane, but Fred Hoiberg has proven the last few years that he can handle a roster turning over. He has another talented transfer, Abdel Nader from Northern Illinois, who will immediately be one of ISU's top scorers and go along nicely with a strong core returning.
The Cyclones will be built around Georges Niang, who was playing great basketball at the end of the season before he broke his foot. Dustin Hogue also returns and will likely slide over to the four spot to replace Ejim. In the backcourt, Hoiberg brings back point guard Monte Morris, who led the country in assist-to-turnover ratio, and sharpshooters Naz Long and Matt Thomas.
Greatest Asset: Niang.
The versatile big man is a matchup nightmare with the ability to score from the post, shoot from the perimeter and also initiate the offense as a point forward. Hoiberg loves to spread the floor with shooters around Niang and let him create.
Will Change If... The Cyclones add another transfer. The one missing piece on this roster is a guard like Kane who can go get his own shot. Look for former UNLV guard Bryce Dejean-Jones to possibly end up at Iowa State. Dejean-Jones led UNLV in scoring this past year and would fill the void left by Kane.
Why They're Here: The Mustangs managed to finish the 2013-14 season on a high note despite getting snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection committee. Larry Brown's squad advanced to the title game of the NIT, where it lost to Minnesota. Look for SMU to be back in the Big Dance in 2015, when the Mustangs will have arguably the most-talented team in school history. McDonald's All-American Emmanuel Mudiay will join rising junior Nic Moore to form one of the country’s top backcourts, while Markus Kennedy and Yanick Moreira will be a load to handle in the paint.
Greatest Asset: Hunger. SMU is livid—and rightfully so—that it was left out of the 2014 NCAA tournament. (Remember, this is a team that beat Connecticut twice.) The Mustangs will be playing with a chip on their shoulder. Another advantage is that Moody Coliseum has become a daunting place for opponents to play.
Will Change If... SMU hits the jackpot and signs Myles Turner, the highest-ranked unsigned member of the 2014 class. Kansas and Texas are in the strongest with Turner, but it's believed that the Mustangs have worked their way into the picture in recent weeks, per Mac Engel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Why They’re Here: The Wildcats lose leading scorer James Bell to graduation but return every other key piece of a team that won a school-record 28 regular-season games along with the Big East regular-season title. Darrun Hilliard II (14.3 points) and JayVaughn Pinkston (14.1) had strong junior campaigns and point guard Ryan Arcidiacono is highly-underrated.
Greatest Asset: Experience. Villanova is expected to start at least two seniors (Pinkston and Hilliard II) and two juniors (Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu). These guys are used to winning at a high level.
Will Change If... A significant injury to Pinkston or Hilliard II could significantly alter Villanova’s season, although the Wildcats do boast strong depth.
Why They're Here: Even if DeAndre Daniels decides to declare for the draft, Kevin Ollie still has plenty of talent on the roster.
It's Ryan Boatright's turn to be the man at Connecticut and he'll be joined in the backcourt by rising sophomore Terrence Samuel, who played great off the bench in the tournament, and NC State transfer Rodney Purvis.
The UConn interior defense will once again be strong with Phillip Nolan returning and Amida Brimah's continued development.
Greatest Asset: The scoring of Boatright and Purvis. That backcourt is not as good as Shabazz Napier and Boatright, but it's not as big a drop off as you'd expect after losing a great player like Napier. Purvis averaged 8.3 points per game as a freshman at NC State and is a future pro.
Will Change If... Daniels returns. Daniels, Boatright and Purvis would be one of the more talented trios in the country.
Why They're Here: Tony Bennett deserves our respect. Starters Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell are gone, but much like Bo Ryan at Wisconsin, Bennett has a system that produces consistent results and the talent he returns isn't too shabby either.
Leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon is back and should compete for ACC Player of the Year. Freshman point guard London Perrantes didn't look much like a freshman this past year and should only improve as a sophomore. Inside, Bennett returns Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill. Gill is similar to Mitchell and got better as the season progressed. Tobey has the potential to be a double-digit scorer and is one of the few back-to-the-basket scorers in college basketball.
Greatest Asset: Defense.
The Cavaliers will need to find someone to fill the shoes of Harris as a shooter, but they shouldn't take a step back on the defensive end. With Brogdon (6'5"), Justin Anderson (6'6") and Perrantes (6'2") in the backcourt, Bennett has three great athletes who can make getting a clean look off from the perimeter very difficult. And scoring in the paint against Bennett's pack-line defense is always a chore.
Will Change If... It's not likely anything will change on this roster between now and the beginning of the season.
8. Wichita State
Why They're Here: As long as Gregg Marshall, Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker are around, Wichita State will live in the top 10.
The Shockers also return lockdown defender Tekele Cotton and big man Darius Carter. They will miss the scoring of Cleanthony Early, but remember that two years ago Marshall was replacing his entire starting five and ended up taking that team to the Final Four. The guy finds gold under rocks where no one else is looking.
Greatest Asset: The backcourt.
Look for Baker to increase his scoring with Early no longer around. VanVleet will continue to be one of the headiest guards in the country.
Will Change If... Marshall leaves. Marshall will always be a coach that bigger schools try to poach from the Shockers, but he's made it clear he's happy in Wichita.
Why They're Here: Sure, Billy Donovan loses a great group of seniors, but he has plenty of talent waiting in the wings. I'm convinced that Kasey Hill is going to make a big leap as a sophomore and has the chance to be one of the best point guards in the country. Chris Walker also has the ability to breakout as a sophomore and with the chance to actually start the season with the team.
Donovan also returns Michael Frazier, Dorian Finney-Smith, DeVon Walker and big man Damontre Harris is expected to rejoin the team. Donovan also signed three top-40 freshmen, according to Rivals.com's rankings.
Greatest Asset: The backcourt.
Frazier is one of the best shooters in the country—he made 44.7 percent of his threes this past year—and I've already made it clear how I feel about Hill. Donovan loves penetrating guards and Hill showed this past year that he's plenty capable.
Will Change If... Chris Walker decides to go pro. He rarely played this year and could benefit from at least another year in Donovan's system, but because of his athleticism, he has gobs of potential that make him an intriguing enough prospect who could go in the first round.
Why They're Here: Kentucky is the most difficult team to slot because of the number of UK underclassmen who have a decision to make.
This is based on the Harrisons leaving and only Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress returning from the top seven. Even if a majority of the 'Cats end up leaving, Calipari has another great recruiting class coming in and should have depth at nearly every position.
Greatest Asset: Whether Johnson returns or not, it should once again be the frontcourt. You saw what Marcus Lee could do against Michigan and both Trey Lyles and Karl Towns Jr. will both compete with Johnson and Lee for a starting spot.
Will Change If... Everyone leaves. The Harrison twins were likely to return until the NCAA tourney run boosted their stock. But again, even if everyone leaves, the cupboard will not be bare.
Why They're Here: Many will look back to this past season and become convinced that Duke's early exit from the tourney was the result of relying too much on a freshman. The real reason the Blue Devils went home early and had moments of inconsistency throughout the season is this was a flawed roster. Mike Krzyzewski was missing an anchor in the middle.
Coach K signed the solution in Jahlil Okafor. I don't like pumping up the hype machine, but I love Okafor's game and believe he's the closest thing basketball has seen to Tim Duncan since, well, Tim Duncan. The Blue Devils will rely a lot on Okafor, but they can bring point guard Tyus Jones along at his own pace with Quinn Cook back for his senior season.
Greatest Asset: Okafor's ability to demand double teams. That's bad news for defenses that play Duke, because Coach K has the shooters to surround the big fella. Look for Rasheed Sulaimon to have a breakout junior season. He averaged 12.3 points over his final 14 games.
Will Change If... Jabari Parker or Rodney Hood return. This ranking is based on both leaving. If either comes back, the Devils will rise. A frontcourt of Okafor and Parker would be the best in the country. Coach K also has enough depth up front to play Parker some on the perimeter if he decides to return.
4. North Carolina
Why They're Here: Roy Williams loses James Michael McAdoo and Leslie McDonald but he adds three McDonald's All-Americans to an already deep rotation.
Marcus Paige emerged as a star this past season and he should be able to focus even more on scoring with the addition of point guard Joel Berry and another year of experience for Nate Britt. McDonald's ability to shoot the ball will be missed, but look for Justin Jackson to slide into the starting lineup at small forward and provide that second knockdown shooter along with Paige on the court.
Greatest Asset: Kennedy Meeks averaged 13.5 points in the NCAA tournament and typically put up good numbers when he got the opportunity to play. He has a similar game to former UNC big man Sean May, who went from averaging 11.4 points as a freshman to 15.2 as a sophomore. Brice Johnson also had some really nice moments this past year and averaged 10.3 points in only 19.4 minutes per game.
With all that size up front and the athleticism of J.P. Tokoto on the perimeter, the Heels have the ability to be a great defensive team, something they showed glimpses of when they won 12 straight games late in the year.
Will Change If... A key rotation guy leaves unexpectedly.
Why They're Here: Even without Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid (assuming he goes pro), don't be surprised if Kansas improves next season. Bill Self's teams always do better after spending a couple years in his system, and Self returns a nice core that includes Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis.
Don't cry too much for the Jayhawks either. They replace Wiggins and Embiid with two McDonald's All-Americans in Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre.
Greatest Asset: Depth.
If Self isn't getting production out of his starters, he has a number of guys off the bench who would start for most teams. Look for freshman Brannen Greene to take a big step forward in his sophomore year. Self will also have a number of big men to work with even if Embiid leaves with Jamari Traylor, Landen Lucas and Arkansas transfer Hunter Mickelson.
Will Change If... Embiid returns or Myles Turner decides to sign with Kansas. Embiid returning is likely a long shot, but the fact that he hasn't announced yet suggests that he's actually considering coming back to school.
Why They're Here: Arizona could lose both Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon to the NBA, but a returning core of Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, T.J. McConnell and Gabe York still makes the Wildcats one of the most talented teams in the country. Sean Miller also signed a junior college transfer and four freshmen, including Stanley Johnson, the top-rated wing in the country.
That means Miller could likely start four future pros (S. Johnson, Tarczewski, Ashley and Hollis-Jefferson) and have one of the best pass-first point guards in the college game (McConnell) feeding them the ball.
Greatest Asset: Defense.
The Wildcats led the nation in effective field-goal percentage defense and they should be dominant on that end again.
If Stanley Johnson starts at shooting guard and Hollis-Jefferson at small forward, the 'Cats would have four players in their starting lineup 6'7" or taller. That's a dream lineup for Miller's pack-line defense.
Will Change If... The 'Cats get a surprise early-entrant to the draft—Hollis-Jefferson, Ashley or Tarczewski may be inclined to explore their options—or if Nick Johnson decides to return to school. If Johnson returns, bump the 'Cats up to No. 1.
Why They're Here: The last time a Final Four team returned at least four of five starters the following season was North Carolina in 2008-09. Those Tar Heels won the national title.
Assuming everyone comes back, Wisconsin only loses Ben Brust, and Bo Ryan has two viable options to replace Brust who were key bench contributors this past year in Nigel Hayes or Bronson Koenig.
Greatest Asset: Wisconsin cannot match that 2009 UNC title team for talent, but here's what we learned during the NCAA tournament: Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker formed one of the best front lines in the country and you'll have a hard time finding a better front line next year.
Both are extremely difficult to guard because they can knock down perimeter jumpers or score from the blocks. Kaminsky will be one of the preseason picks to win the Naismith award after averaging 16.4 points per game in the NCAA tournament.
The Badgers will also have better experience than anyone in the country as Kaminsky, Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser will all be seniors and Dekker a junior. Mix in the coaching of Ryan, and that combination of talent, experience and coaching sounds like a championship formula.
Will Change If... Dekker or Kaminsky decide to declare for the draft. Both have NBA skill sets and improved their stocks during the tournament, but I'd be surprised if either player declared for the draft.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.
Predicting the 2015 Final Four
Bleacher Report's Jason King gives his picks for the 2015 Final Four, giving us an early look at who'll be contending for next season's national championship.