College Basketball Rankings 2014-15: Bleacher Report's Preseason Top 25
On paper, the clear-cut No. 1 team in the nation this preseason is Kentucky. The Wildcats have 10 players who could all end up in the NBA someday, and we got a preview this summer during their trip to the Bahamas of what they look like against legitimate competition.
But college basketball seasons rarely play out like we think they will. We are, after all, coming off a season in which Connecticut won the national championship, and I think I speak for everyone who covers the game by saying we're still trying to figure that one out.
When it comes to UK, coach John Calipari finally has some experience on the floor, which is a huge plus, but his most talented player (Karl Towns) is once again a freshman, and he's experimenting with a platoon lineup to try to get all 10 of those future pros equal playing time. It is not going to be a cakewalk.
Other legitimate contenders loom as well. Wisconsin returns four of five starters from a Final Four team. Duke has one of the best big-man prospects of the one-and-done era. Arizona has future pros and talent. Kansas is almost as deep as Kentucky. And there are teams out there like Gonzaga, which have the type of talent that would make up a top-five team if the guys on the roster had Kentucky, Kansas or North Carolina on the front of their jerseys.
This could be another wide-open season, or maybe Kentucky has the goods to go on a 2012-like run and cruise to a title. I'm going to predict the former.
Happy college basketball season.
Also Receiving Votes: Syracuse, Colorado, Michigan State, Stanford, LSU
What's to Like: Last year, I witnessed Iowa's dominant 18-point win over Michigan and came away convinced the Hawkeyes had a legitimate shot to go on a Final Four run. They went 2-7 the rest of the way.
What we did learn last year is that when the Hawkeyes were good, they could be really, really good. And what made them good was an offense that operated at a breakneck pace and generated quality shots.
Biggest Question Mark: Can Iowa be as good without leading scorer Roy Devyn Marble?
Marble and his talent will be missed, but if you want to look at this team with a glass-half-full perspective, Marble was a high-volume shooter and used up a lot of possessions. This offense is at its best when it doesn't matter who is shooting, just that the Hawkeyes are playing fast and taking the first quality look.
It will also be a good thing if there are more shots to go around for Aaron White—the fastest 4 in the country—and sharpshooter Jarrod Uthoff, who made 42.5 percent of his threes last year but took only 40 attempts.
What's to Like: Harvard has won an NCAA tournament game each of the last two years. One year could have fallen in the fluke category. Back-to-back years suggest Tommy Amaker has built something that can last.
The three leading scorers from last year's team return. The backcourt of Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders would match up well with any major-conference backcourt in the country. And Amaker scheduled nonconference games against Massachusetts, at Virginia and at Arizona State. He would not have done that if this team wasn't for real.
Biggest Question Mark: Three-point shooting.
The Crimson didn't take a lot of threes, but they shot well from deep (38.7 percent) last season. They graduated two of their best shooters in Laurent Rivard and Brandyn Curry. Chambers and Saunders are at their best when the floor is spread and they have room to penetrate. If another shooter or two doesn't emerge, defenses may be able to pack the paint.
What's to Like: Delon Wright is one of the best point guards in the country, and at 6'5", he's a near-impossible matchup for other college point guards.
Wright is a slithery driver who can get to the rim and is a great finisher when he gets there. Utah was one of the best finishing teams in the country last season, shooting 69.3 percent at the rim—good for fifth-best in the nation, according to Hoop-Math.com.
The Utes went from a Pac-12 doormat to finishing 9-9 in the league thanks to the presence of a proven star in Wright and a much improved defense. Everyone is back and the teams in front of them in the league—except Arizona—should all take a step back this year.
Biggest Question Mark: Can the Utes survive the nonconference with their confidence intact?
Last year, coach Larry Krystkowiak scheduled a cream-puff nonconference schedule to get his team used to winning, and Utah started 11-1. Krystkowiak is going about things very differently with this team with a legit nonconference schedule that includes games at San Diego State, Wichita State at home, at BYU, Kansas in Kansas City and at UNLV.
What's to Like: The offense will have a very different look with Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels no longer around, but enough is left over from the championship team to hang its hat on defense.
Any defense that starts with the pressure of Ryan Boatright at the top and has Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan inside protecting the rim should be a good one. Kevin Ollie just needs to get his newcomers to buy in on that end.
Biggest Question Mark: What will the offense look like without Napier?
He was the best bailout scorer in the country. Napier could make something out of nothing and had the ability to carry the Huskies for long stretches.
Boatright is a good scorer, but he doesn't have that kind of ability. How good UConn is could depend a lot on whether one of the new guards—Rodney Purvis, Daniel Hamilton or Sam Cassell Jr.—can step into a primary scoring role.
What's to Like: Before disregarding SMU this year because Emmanuel Mudiay didn't make it to campus, remember three things.
1) The Mustangs swept the team that won last year's national title; 2) SMU still has one of the best point guards in the country in Nic Moore, who is both a great shooter and dynamite using ball screens; and 3) Larry Brown is still the head coach.
This is still a talented roster that got even better with the late addition of Xavier transfer wing Justin Martin, who averaged 11.7 points and shot 37.3 percent from deep last year. It will take a hit if Markus Kennedy isn't able to get eligible. According to a source of ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman, Kennedy is not eligible for the first semester.
The Mustangs would be better with Mudiay, but what's left over is a pretty good roster with a great coach.
Biggest Question Mark: Can former McDonald's All-American Keith Frazier break out?
Brown has always been hesitant to trust young guys and he played Frazier only 14.8 minutes per game last year. Frazier should get more playing time this year as a sophomore. We know that Moore and Kennedy—once he's eligible—are going to produce. If Frazier plays to his potential, that could make a big difference and make for less "what if they had Mudiay" talk.
What's to Like: John Beilein has had the country's most efficient offense over the last two years thanks to the presence of three or four really good scorers who could share the ball and spread the floor. Two years ago, it was Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III. Last year, it was Stauskas, Robinson and Caris LeVert.
This season the pieces are there, just more unproven, to make Beilein's offense work. Point guard Derrick Walton figures to take on more responsibility as a sophomore. LeVert proved himself as a scorer last year, and Zak Irvin projects to have a big breakout sophomore year. On a trip to Italy this summer, Irvin averaged 20.8 points and 7.3 rebounds for the Wolverines.
Freshman Kameron Chatman, a playmaking forward, will take over Robinson's role and allow the Wolverines to have four really skilled guys on the floor at one time. Just as Beilein likes it.
Biggest Question Mark: How does Michigan replace Jordan Morgan?
Morgan was a terrific screener, a good passer and had a great understanding of Beilein's offense and his role in it. He was also a solid defender as well.
Michigan is going with a by-committee approach at Morgan's spot, and it's Morgan, not Stauskas or Robinson, who could end up being the piece that Michigan misses most.
19. San Diego State
What's to Like: San Diego State coach Steve Fisher has built this team with defense in mind. The Aztecs have long, rangy athletes who can defend multiple positions, cause turnovers and make getting a clear look at the basket a real chore.
Wings JJ O'Brien, Dwayne Polee II and Winston Shepard are all in the 6'7" to 6'8" range and can all play together at the same time with Skylar Spencer at the back of the defense as a rim protector. Fisher also went out and got him another talented and long forward in 6'10" freshman Malik Pope.
This team should be dominant once again on the defensive end, but will they be able to score?
Biggest Question Mark: Obviously, it's the offense. Almost everything went through Xavier Thames last year. He was a great shot-maker and really efficient for such a high-volume shooter who had to take a lot of tough shots. Freshman Trey Kell will replace him, so the Aztecs' go-to guy isn't going to be playing point guard.
Polee came on late last year and could turn into a consistent scorer, but even if that's the case, the Aztecs will still be searching for offense and more outside shooting. They missed all eight of their three-point attempts in their exhibition opener.
18. Kansas State
What's to Like: No matter the coach, Kansas State has made a habit of exceeding expectations the last few years. Last season, the unexpected emergence of Marcus Foster was the key.
K-State's coaching staff really likes Maine transfer guard Justin Edwards. Edwards averaged 16.7 points two years ago at Maine as a sophomore. Adding another scoring guard to run off screens could be a nice boost for Bruce Weber's offense.
Biggest Question Mark: With dependable Will Spradling gone, K-State needs a point guard to emerge who can simply be solid and get the team into its offense. Both Nigel Johnson and Jevon Thomas were inconsistent as freshmen. One needs to break out as a reliable option this year.
The other thing that could put K-State on another tier is shot-blocking. Kansas State had one of the Big 12's best defenses last year and that was without a rim protector. The 'Cats have two transfers who could help in that department—both 6'11"—in Stephen Hurt from Lipscomb and Brandon Bolden from Georgetown.
What's to Like: Nebraska coach Tim Miles has changed the culture in Lincoln and the city has embraced this team. The Cornhuskers' new arena was one of the toughest spots to play in the Big Ten last year.
Nebraska won eight of its last nine conference games, including a road win at Michigan State and a home win over Wisconsin. All five starters return and now have a better idea of what it takes to win.
Biggest Question Mark: The Huskers had to win ugly a lot last year and will once again depend on their defense, but the offense needs to improve to finish near the top of the Big Ten.
Terran Petteway had a great year last season—leading the Big Ten in scoring at 18.1 points per game—but the offense would be better served if those around him busted out and he didn't have to force as many shots. Shavon Shields scored 29 points in the exhibition opener, so that's a good sign.
What's to Like: When the rules changed last year and less contact on the ball-handler was allowed, the full-court press was expected to suffer.
Would Havoc survive?
Well, for the third straight season, the VCU Rams led the nation in the percentage of possessions that ended up in a turnover for the opponent, per Kenpom.com (subscription required). Point guard Briante Weber, the best thief in college basketball, is back for his senior year and Havoc isn't going anywhere.
No matter the pieces, Shaka Smart's system is pretty much worthy of a Top 25 ranking every season.
Biggest Question Mark: Will the Rams be able to find an inside scorer to replace the production of Juvonte Reddic?
Smart may just elect to go small and shoot a ton of threes. He didn't have one player over 6'6" in the starting lineup for VCU's one exhibition game. The Rams took 28 threes in that game.
Star wing Treveon Graham could end up being the best option for scoring in the paint. Graham had a lot of success last year in limited opportunities posting up.
What's to Like: Lon Kruger has brought the excitement back to Norman with a tamed-down version of the old Billy Tubbs teams. The Sooners play fast and shoot a lot of threes.
Kruger has recruited well to this system with several under-the-radar guys who have hit, led by junior guard Buddy Hield. The core of last year's Big 12 runner-up is back with four of five starters returning.
The talent could get even better if the NCAA allows Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas to play right away.
Biggest Question Mark: Defense. Transition defense, in particular.
OU opponents scored 1.123 points per possession on transition opportunities last year, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). That's a lousy mark, especially for a team that is used to a quicker tempo.
Whats to Like: Tony Bennett has a system in place that's at its best when he has experience and length.
Well, the Wahoos return seven of their nine rotation players, led by leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon.
On the perimeter, elite defender Justin Anderson, at 6'6", will likely take the place of Joe Harris. And on the inside, Anthony Gill (6'8") will take the place of Akil Mitchell and play a similar role.
Biggest Question Mark: Outside shooting.
Harris was the best shooter on the team, and Anderson, his replacement in the starting lineup, was just a 29.4 percent three-point shooter last year. Junior Evan Nolte could provide some shooting off the bench. But this team will compete regardless because of its defense.
What's to Like: Experience. Villanova returns four of five starters from a team that was a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and was knocked out by eventual national champion Connecticut.
Senior JayVaughn Pinkston is a really tough matchup inside, and the Wildcats are able to surround him with a bunch of shooters.
Biggest Question Mark: This team is pretty well-rounded and its best players are proven. If there's a question mark, it's how the Wildcats will handle going in as a favorite instead of kind of sneaking up on everyone, as they did last year. Sure, that's a stretch, but it's tough to find a real flaw here.
What's to Like: The Longhorns have the deepest frontcourt in the country outside of Kentucky.
Cameron Ridley started to live up to his potential last season and had a breakout year as a sophomore. Jonathan Holmes is a solid stretch 4. Myles Turner was the best defensive prospect in the 2014 class and could end up a lottery pick one day. On top of that, Texas will bring solid role guys Connor Lammert and Prince Ibeh, another great shot-blocker, off the bench.
Last year, UT held opponents to 42.9 percent shooting inside the arc, good for 11th-best in the country, per Kenpom.com. This team has a chance to be even better and also dominate the paint on the offensive end.
Biggest Question Mark: Perimeter scoring.
Texas took a hit when wing Martez Walker left the program earlier this year. Walker had finished last season strong, averaging 15 points in two NCAA tournament games.
That puts even more pressure on sophomore point guard Isaiah Taylor and junior Javan Felix. Outside of Taylor, the 'Horns don't really have a guy who can penetrate inside the paint. Felix is better as simply a spot-up shooter. Barnes will also be playing Holmes more on the perimeter, and he's limited in what he can do off the dribble.
11. Wichita State
What's to Like: Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton.
It's hard to find three guards more dependable than those three. At a practice last month, VanVleet was stopping the action to teach a freshman guard the proper defensive footwork and placement.
These three know exactly what it takes to win and have been a big part of the Shockers' success over the past two years, which have produced a Final Four and an undefeated regular season.
Biggest Question Mark: You would think it would be who is going to replace the scoring of Cleanthony Early, but that's not as much of a worry for the Shockers as who will emerge as their second big man to play alongside Darius Carter.
The three starting guards and Carter should be able to provide enough offense. Look for Baker to really become a star this year. But the Shockers are still searching for a big to provide quality defense and just not make mistakes on the offensive end, a role that was filled last year by a combination of Chadrack Lufile, Kadeem Coleby and Carter.
10. Iowa State
What's to Like: The Cyclones are going to score. They return two double-digit scorers (Georges Niang and Dustin Hogue) along with two outside gunners (Naz Long and Matt Thomas) and table-setter Monte Morris, who led the country in assist-to-turnover ratio as a freshman last year with a 4.79 mark, which was an NCAA record.
Head coach Fred Hoiberg also went out on the transfer market—surprise, surprise—and nabbed him a replacement for DeAndre Kane, UNLV leading scorer Bryce Dejean-Jones. Hoiberg is as good as it gets at exploiting mismatches, and he has plenty of toys to play with on this roster.
What could make this Iowa State team different—and better—than his previous squads is the defense. Last year, the Cyclones made strides in that department, and for the first time Hoiberg will have a true rim protector in Marquette transfer Jameel McKay, who will be eligible Dec. 20.
Biggest Question Mark: Will Dejean-Jones provide the leadership and production that Kane did last year?
Kane was awesome for the Cyclones in his one season there. Hoiberg has had a ton of luck with transfers fitting right in and contributing. To be a Top 10 team, Dejean-Jones is going to have to replace some of what Kane did, and McKay needs to help offset the loss of Melvin Ejim.
What's to Like: Christmas came early when Montrezl Harrell decided to stay in school. Harrell is a beast and his presence on the defensive end is just as important, if not more, than what he provides on offense.
The Cardinals should once again be a dominant defensive team. Louisville is the only squad in the country that has finished in the top four in adjusted defensive efficiency each of the last four seasons, per Kenpom.com. The key has been the rare ability to both force turnovers and keep shooting percentages low.
Head coach Rick Pitino once again has the depth, quickness and size to pressure opponents for 40 minutes and protect the paint in the half court.
Biggest Question Mark: What will the offense look like without Russ Smith?
Smith did so much for the Cardinals, and it wasn't just the points he scored. He was the team's best creator and passer. He was the heart and soul of the program. It could take some time for the Cards to get used to not having Smith out there to bail them out.
The Cardinals will rely a lot on the backcourt of Chris Jones and Terry Rozier, who both have the ability to be great scorers. One of the two will also need to take pride in setting up teammates as well.
Freshman wing Shaqquan Aaron, a gifted passer, could also help in that department. Aaron's status is up in the air right now as he has yet to be cleared by the NCAA, according to Steve Jones of The Courier-Journal.
What's to Like: Gonzaga will go a legitimate 10 deep once Vanderbilt transfer Eric McClellan is eligible at the start of the second semester.
You know you're going to get good production out of the veteran backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. USC transfer Byron Wesley and McClellan both provide scoring on the wing. Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer fits really well in Gonzaga's system as a stretch 4.
Freshman big man Domantas Sabonis, son of Arvydas Sabonis, has the reputation as one of the best international prospects to come into college basketball over the last few years. And if Sabonis isn't ready to produce right away, no worries. He's playing behind Przemek Karnowski, who averaged 10.4 points per game last year.
Biggest Question Mark: March.
The Zags have the talent to get to the Final Four. They could have a season very similar to the one they had two years ago when they were a No. 1 seed. But until coach Mark Few gets his team to a Final Four, many will question whether the program is as good as its record every year or just a product of playing in the West Coast Conference.
What's to Like: Florida has been to four straight Elite Eights, and it's getting to the point that no matter what Billy Donovan has coming back, one can just go ahead and slot his team in the Top 10.
What the Gators do have is a really good backcourt that has a chance to be great if Kasey Hill turns into a star as a sophomore. Hill had the luxury of learning behind Scottie Wilbekin last year. His progress could be the key to Florida's success.
Biggest Question Mark: Chris Walker.
The sophomore big man is super athletic and has the potential to be a lottery pick. But will he live up to that hype? Last year, he showed some nice glimpses in the limited playing time he got. There was good reason why he didn't become a regular part of the rotation. He had to sit out the first semester and was playing behind the dependable Patric Young.
Young was an anchor to a great defense. Walker will need to be the same, and any offense he can provide will be gravy.
6. North Carolina
What's to Like: The Tar Heels were one of the hottest teams in the country near the end of last year, winning 12 straight ACC games at one point. It was the combination of a young team learning how to play together and finally putting the P.J. Hairston saga behind it.
Marcus Paige turned into one of the most dependable scorers in the country, and he should have more help this season with the additions of Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson on the wing. Big man Kennedy Meeks is listed 20 pounds lighter this year at 270, and uber-athletic Brice Johnson will finally get the chance to start.
Biggest Question Mark: Outside shooting.
That was the biggest issue last season, and Paige is the only player returning who made more than 10 threes last year. Jackson has a nice stroke, and his success could be key to the Heels having a great campaign. He was their leading scorer in the exhibition season.
What's to Like: Last year the one thing Duke was missing was a true big man inside who could score and defend the rim. So Mike Krzyzewski went out and got one of the best big-man prospects in the last decade.
The Blue Devils are young, but they have a complete team. Jahlil Okafor is a throwback big man with an array of post moves. On the wing, Justise Winslow should be able to provide scoring and great defense. Tyus Jones is a pass-first point guard who will be able to set the table, and the Blue Devils have plenty of shooters to surround the three talented freshmen.
Biggest Question Mark: Experience.
The Blue Devils haven't won a game in the NCAA tournament the last two times their go-to guy was a freshman. Krzyzewski's best teams in recent years have been experienced ones.
This team, however, has a nice blend of youthful talent and experience, and Okafor's game is advanced for his age. Big men have also had an easier time dominating the college game as freshmen. Seven freshmen have been named Associated Press first-team All-Americans over the last eight years, and five of the seven were big men.
What's to Like: When Kansas coach Bill Self has had a core of guys together for a few years, that's when he has had his best teams.
The Jayhawks look to be reloading after losing Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, but two of their go-to guys (Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis) return. When you add in Frank Mason, Jamari Traylor, Landen Lucas and Brannen Greene, that's a good core that understands what Self wants.
And how does Self replace two lottery picks? He brings in three potential future lottery selections in Cliff Alexander, Kelly Oubre and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. The Jayhawks are loaded on the wing, and Alexander is a great fit in Self's big-friendly system.
Biggest Question Mark: Point guard play.
Starting point guard Naadir Tharpe left the program, but that could end up being a positive. Tharpe was inconsistent, had some trouble off the floor and couldn't defend. Because he left, that allowed Self to go sign Devonte' Graham, who is a better defender and more of a traditional point guard.
Graham and Mason will battle for the starting spot. If they can both play quality defense and run the team without turning the ball over, the Jayhawks will be in a good spot.
What's to Like: Arizona coach Sean Miller had his best team yet at Arizona last season, and the biggest difference-maker was point guard T.J. McConnell. The Wildcats always had great talent under Miller, but the coach never had a traditional point guard to distribute the ball.
McConnell is once again surrounded by talent with the potential to make this team just as good as last year's squad was at full strength. The Cats have one of the best front lines in college basketball with Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski, and they have the country's best talent combo on the wing in Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Biggest Question Mark: Outside shooting.
Nick Johnson was not a great shooter, but he was at least a threat from deep. Stanley Johnson is known as an inconsistent shooter, and Hollis-Jefferson made only two threes his entire freshman season.
The good news is that Ashley is back, and that should help stretch the floor. Gabe York, the team's best shooter, will also be a big part of the rotation, and McConnell shot a solid 36 percent from deep last year.
But if there's a way to beat the Cats, it's pack the paint and hope they shoot it poorly. Whether another guy can step up to be a quality shooter—either Johnson or JUCO transfer Kadeem Allen—could be the difference between this team being great or just really good.
What's to Like: Wisconsin returns four of its five starters and has the best frontcourt in the country with Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker.
In the backcourt, the Badgers have two reliable senior guards in Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser. Both know coach Bo Ryan's offense inside and out and will not make mistakes.
The Badgers were a couple plays away from knocking off Kentucky in the Final Four. No team will be better prepared to handle the pressure of the NCAA tournament.
Biggest Question Mark: Can Wisconsin defend at a championship level?
The Badgers ranked 49th in adjusted defensive efficiency last year, per Kenpom.com. It was the worst defense Ryan has had in his 13 years at Wisconsin. Since 2002, the only champion to finish outside the top 20 in adjusted defensive efficiency was North Carolina in 2009—and UNC was 21st.
Wisconsin's defense could take a different look with Dekker playing more at small forward, which would give Hayes additional minutes. The hope is that added length will help Wisconsin in the paint in the pack-line defense.
What's to Like: The Wildcats can overwhelm with talent and length. Most programs are thrilled to have one future NBA center. Kentucky has three.
What seemed to put UK over the top in 2012 was a veteran presence to go along with a great freshman class. Head coach John Calipari might not have a player as good as Anthony Davis on this roster—let's wait and see on Karl Towns—but he does have comparable experience with Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress as juniors and the Harrison twins (Andrew and Aaron) and Dakari Johnson as sophomores.
After struggling in the regular season and then making a tourney run, they know what doesn't work and what does.
Biggest Question Mark: Will Calipari's guys make sacrifices for the good of the team?
The two big questions are: How does Calipari handle his rotation, and will Andrew Harrison revert back to what he was in the regular season?
It's hard to believe that Calipari will stick to his platoon, and some talented guys are going to see their minutes decline. Will those players be willing to wait their turn?
As for Andrew Harrison, Calipari convinced his point guard to be more unselfish in the tournament, and that was a big key to UK's run. Harrison needs to continue to be that guy, but the one luxury Calipari does have this year is a viable backup in Tyler Ulis. Ulis is such a good creator and floor general that the Cats may be better off with him at point guard and sliding Harrison to the 2. Will Harrison be willing to make that sacrifice?
If everyone is unselfish, this team has a chance to be really special.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.