College Basketball Rankings: Bleacher Report's Preseason Top 25
The Duke Blue Devils are No. 1 in Bleacher Report's college basketball preseason Top 25—just like they are in every other poll you've seen in the past seven months.
Unlike most of those other polls, though, we've got North Carolina State in the Top 25, Baylor in the Top 20 and both Indiana and Wisconsin in the Top 10.
Voters in the poll were C.J. Moore, Brian Pedersen and Kerry Miller, and there surprisingly wasn't a ton of variation in the ballots. All three have Duke at No. 1 and Kansas at No. 2. Moreover, 20 of the 25 teams appeared on all three ballots.
Usually, one of us is punch-drunk in love with a sleeper or gung-ho about a certain team's being overrated, but no team had a difference of more than nine spots between its best and worst ranking. Thus, when these rankings go horribly awry two or three weeks into the season, know that we're all equally to blame.
Others Receiving Votes: Texas A&M, Iowa State, Clemson, Florida State
Our experts participate in weekly voting for B/R's Top 25. Once a vote is cast for a specific team, it's assigned a value—25 points for the No. 1 team in the rankings, 24 points for the second spot and so on. The point totals are then added up to create the Top 25.
Nos. 25-21: Rhode Island-Connecticut
25. Rhode Island Rams
With a healthy E.C. Matthews and the addition of Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson, perhaps Rhode Island can meet the expectations many folks had for this team last year. Jared Terrell and Jarvis Garrett both blossomed nicely as sophomores for what should now be one of the better starting fives in the country.
24. West Virginia Mountaineers
There's a ton of roster shakeup, but that didn't stop Bob Huggins and company from nearly winning the Big 12 last year. Look for Elijah Macon to make a huge leap in year No. 3, providing frontcourt support to a dynamic backcourt of Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles Jr. and Tarik Phillip.
23. North Carolina State Wolfpack
There's minimal love for the Wolfpack in the AP poll and not in a single vote in the coaches poll, but count us among the ones buying stock in Dennis Smith Jr. and (eventually) Omer Yurtseven. The ACC is absurdly loaded this year, and N.C. State could be the best team in that conference's second tier.
22. Creighton Bluejays
They didn't begin their careers with the Bluejays, but transfers Marcus Foster, Mo Watson and Cole Huff should be the leading scorers as Creighton returns to the NCAA tournament. Ronnie Harrell Jr. should also be a key breakout guy on a breakout team.
21. Connecticut Huskies
If VCU transfer Terry Larrier has a big year as Connecticut's small forward—a big "if"—the Huskies could channel a form of the San Francisco Giants' even-year magic. They won a title in 2011 and another in 2014. How about 2017?
Nos. 20-16: Texas-UCLA
20. Texas Longhorns
With a painfully young yet exceptionally talented roster, Texas might be the biggest wild card in the country. If Jarrett Allen and Andrew Jones hit the ground running as freshmen while Kerwin Roach Jr. and Eric Davis Jr. explode as sophomores, the Longhorns could battle Kansas for the Big 12 title. If any or all of those young guys fail to live up to the hype, this No. 20 ranking will look terrible in retrospect.
19. Baylor Bears
The Bears lost a lot of key players to graduation, but they're refueling with transfers. Miami's Manu Lecomte and JUCO transfers Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. and Nuni Omot should all be key additions. Johnathan Motley is the key, though. If the big man can thrive in a full-time role, this team could finally reach its first Final Four since 1950.
18. Saint Mary's Gaels
As everyone returns from a 29-win team, expectations are sky-high for Saint Mary's. The good news is the Gaels scheduled more aggressively this fall, so 29 wins would go much further with the selection committee this time around. November games against Nevada, Dayton, UAB and Stanford will give us a good, hard look at this squad.
17. Syracuse Orange
It's hard to believe this team is still dealing with a reduction of scholarships, because it is loaded. In fact, there are so many quality players on this roster that top-100 freshman Matthew Moyer might take a redshirt to fully recover from a foot injury, and it wouldn't even hurt the Orange. If Frank Howard takes a big step as a sophomore point guard, back-to-back Final Fours is a strong possibility.
16. UCLA Bruins
Could UCLA go from 15 wins one year to Sweet 16 the next? Notre Dame made that exact leap two years ago, improving upon a 15-17 record to nearly end Kentucky's perfect season in the 2015 Elite Eight. Those Fighting Irish were nothing special on defense, but they had one of the most efficient offenses we've ever seen. With the addition of Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf, UCLA could follow suit.
14. (Tie) Michigan State Spartans
What's to Like: Outstanding Freshmen
Head coach Tom Izzo has had solid recruiting classes throughout his career, but never anything like this. He has two 5-star studs and a total of four top-50 recruits. That's more top-50 guys than he has had in the past five years combined. Miles Bridges is the star we're all dying to see, but when Nick Ward is your fourth-best freshman, you're in great shape.
Biggest Question Mark: Frontcourt Health
Seniors Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter both had knee surgery as a result of injuries suffered in practices within the past six weeks. Izzo recently told reporters he's hoping Schilling will be back in time for conference play, but that Carter's injury is worse, offering no timetable on a return for the UNLV transfer. Other than redshirt freshman David Nsengiyumva, Bridges and Ward—the aforementioned freshmen—are the only players left on the roster taller than 6'6". Trial by fire, anyone?
First Litmus Test: Nov. 11 vs. Arizona (in Hawaii)
Never mind litmus tests. Michigan State's entire November is a dunking booth. The Spartans open with Arizona and Kentucky on neutral courts, play in the loaded Battle 4 Atlantis and finish out the month with a road game against Duke. Even if they were at full health, we wouldn't expect an undefeated record at the start of December. Thinking for the long run, though, that's one heck of a great way to prepare these freshmen for March.
14. (Tie) Purdue Boilermakers
What's to Like: Frontcourt Strength
Even without A.J. Hammons, Purdue is loaded in the paint. Junior center Isaac Haas has been efficient in limited minutes. Caleb Swanigan was considerably less efficient as a freshman, but he rebounded well and showed a lot of (good) aggression. Vince Edwards has been egregiously underappreciated over the past two years for his ability to shoot, rebound and pass.
Biggest Question Mark: Point Guard
If Carsen Edwards pans out, this is a scary good team. However, the Boilermakers brought in Spike Albrecht—a Michigan transfer who temporarily retired from basketball due to issues with his surgically repaired hips—as something of a safety net in case Edwards needs a year or two to start contributing. Point guard play was the biggest thing that held Purdue back last year. It may still be an issue this season.
First Litmus Test: Nov. 14 vs. Villanova
There's nothing quite like playing the reigning national champs four days into the season to get a feel for where you're at. It should be an interesting battle between a Purdue team with a dominant frontcourt and a Villanova team whose frontcourt situation remains a mystery. The Boilermakers will also play at Louisville in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
13. Arizona Wildcats
What's to Like: Lauri Markkanen
To the best of my knowledge, Markkanen is not Finnish for "unicorn," but it might as well be. Arizona's 7'0" freshman forward has to be the tallest triple-threat guy to ever play at this level. He has lethal three-point range, is a willing passer and, scariest of all for opposing teams, can take his man off the dribble with the footwork and handling of a wing. College basketball fans never got the chance to see Kristaps Porzingis, but Markkanen might be as close as we get.
Biggest Question Mark: Overall Depth
Terrance Ferguson decided to play overseas rather than go to Arizona. Ray Smith retired from basketball after his third torn ACL. Chance Comanche is suspended indefinitely for academic reasons. And you don't have to squint too hard to see that head coach Sean Miller is preparing to play without Allonzo Trier for the foreseeable future.
Despite all that, there's good talent here. A starting five of Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Kadeem Allen, Rawle Alkins, Markkanen and Dusan Ristic with Kobi Simmons and Talbott Denny off the bench is good enough to contend for a Pac-12 title. One more rolled ankle or suspension, though, and this team is officially in a world of hurt.
First Litmus Test: Nov. 11 vs. Michigan State (in Hawaii)
Two short-handed teams will duke it out on opening night when the Wildcats face the Spartans. Arizona will also play neutral-court games against Gonzaga, Texas A&M and either Butler or Vanderbilt before the start of Pac-12 play.
12. Gonzaga Bulldogs
What's to Like: Transfer Central
Gonzaga lost its three leading scorers in Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis and Eric McClellan, but it also added this year's likely three leading scorers in Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews and Johnathan Williams III. Of those six players, the only one to originally sign with Gonzaga was Sabonis. Fred Hoiberg used to be the coach we always mentioned as the transfer whisperer during his time at Iowa State, but Mark Few has taken up that torch and sprinkled it with gasoline.
Biggest Question Mark: Defense
Mathews can score, but he was California's worst defender last year. In four combined seasons at Washington and Missouri, Williams-Goss and Williams never had a D-rating lower than 104.2—where 100 is considered average and lower is better. Przemek Karnowski and Josh Perkins are decent defenders, but the Zags may have trouble keeping opponents from racking up points.
First Litmus Test: Nov. 14 vs. San Diego State
It will be quite the contrast in strengths when the always stingy Aztecs come to town. San Diego State won't get many chances to make statements this year, so it will be more than eager to pull off the upset. Gonzaga will also face Arizona in early December after likely games against Florida and Miami in the Advocare Invitational.
11. Louisville Cardinals
What's to Like: Sophomore Class
Louisville lost all three of last year's leading scorers, but that just means the guys who were highly rated freshmen are about to become heavily used sophomores. Donovan Mitchell, Deng Adel and Ray Spalding are each high on the list of this year's potential breakout stars. All three are freak athletes who could (should) be starters this year.
Biggest Question Mark: Shooting
Quentin Snider shot 40.4 percent from three-point range last season, but he barely averaged three attempts per game. The long ball hasn't been a strength for this team in recent years; however, it would be nice to know that the option is there if need be. Mitchell should shoot better than 25 percent this year. Whether he becomes a reliable weapon in that area remains to be seen.
First Litmus Test: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 23-25)
Louisville has some brutal games later in the calendar against Purdue (Nov. 30), Kentucky (Dec. 21) and Indiana (Dec. 31). The first couple of weeks are light, though, as even the toughest road through the Battle 4 Atlantis only includes games against Old Dominion, Wichita State and Michigan State. Per usual, the Cardinals should carry a nice ranking into the big rivalry game against Kentucky.
10. Xavier Musketeers
What's to Like: Breakout Potential
Edmond Sumner ranked second on the team in both points and assists per game last year, but he's more than capable of putting up Semaj Christon sophomore-year numbers (17.0 PPG, 4.2 APG, 38.8% 3PT). Teammate J.P. Macura is also ready to make a leap as a full-time starter. Even big man Sean O'Mara has a chance to shine after playing just seven minutes per game as a sophomore.
Biggest Question Mark: Myles Davis
Myles Davis was suspended indefinitely by Xavier after being accused of threatening an ex-girlfriend, who was also granted a protective order against him. Since then, there's been no word on whether he will play this season, outside of this tweet Nov. 2 from Jeff Wallner of the Sports Xchange that Chris Mack didn't hesitate to name a starting backcourt without Davis in it. This team is already short-handed in the frontcourt. If the Musketeers also don't have their experienced triple-double threat, this season could spiral out of control.
First Litmus Test: Take Your Pick
Outside of a home game against Eastern Washington on Dec. 20, there's not a gimme on Xavier's schedule. Early games against Lehigh, Buffalo and Missouri ought to result in wins, but it's all downhill from there, beginning with either Clemson or Davidson in the Tire Pros Invitational semifinals.
9. Indiana Hoosiers
What's to Like: Versatility
What Indiana lacks in a true point guard it makes up for with guys who can play anywhere. OG Anunoby is a Swiss army knife who can drain a three on one end before getting a block or steal at the other. Thomas Bryant is a big man with some three-point range. Robert Johnson was more than capable as a secondary ball-handler last season. And 6'7" forward Juwan Morgan even started at point guard in an exhibition game earlier this month. If you think you know what this team's rotations will look like, you're wrong.
Biggest Question Mark: Defense
Indiana got much better on defense once Anunoby became a bigger part of the equation, but the Hoosiers will miss both Troy Williams and Max Bielfeldt on that side of the court. James Blackmon Jr. is a better defender than he gets credit for, but this team needs to find another defensive stopper if it wants to avoid playing shootout after shootout.
First Litmus Test: Nov. 11 vs. Kansas (in Hawaii)
Oh, hello, come right in. The Hoosiers open the season with a neutral-court game against our No. 2 team—a game they were supposed to play in last year's Maui Invitational before getting bounced to the losers bracket by Wake Forest in the opener. They'll also face North Carolina, Butler and Louisville before diving into the meat of their Big Ten schedule.
8. Virginia Cavaliers
What's to Like: Defense
What? You were expecting special teams? Defense has been Virginia's bread and butter under head coach Tony Bennett, ranking in the top seven nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency in four of the past five seasons. Malcolm Brogdon was an outstanding individual defender, but the three team leaders in defensive box plus/minus—Isaiah Wilkins, Devon Hall and Darius Thompson—are all back for another year, plus they added one of the best shot-blockers in the country in Austin Nichols. There will be no easy buckets against this team.
Biggest Question Mark: Shooting Guard
Despite losing both Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey, Virginia will be just fine in the frontcourt. (Don't forget the Cavaliers are getting redshirt freshman forward Mamadi Diakite.) But can anyone even begin to replace the offensive production of Brogdon? Freshman Kyle Guy should eventually be, well, the guy, but we'll see how long it takes him to be ready for the job.
First Litmus Test: Nov. 30 vs. Ohio State
The first two-plus weeks of the schedule are nothing special, but don't be surprised if Virginia has a top-50 nonconference strength of schedule after games against Ohio State, West Virginia (Dec. 3), California (Dec. 21) and Villanova (Jan. 29). That ACC/B1G Challenge battle with the Buckeyes will be a nice litmus test for both teams.
7. Wisconsin Badgers
What's to Like: Cohesion
Between a strong finish to last season—winning 11 of 12 games from mid-January through early March before reaching the Sweet 16—and getting back everyone from that roster, Wisconsin is the team to beat in the Big Ten and a legitimate candidate to win the national championship. Both Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown were breakout stars who should continue to play crucial roles.
Biggest Question Mark: Nigel Hayes
Will Wisconsin get the version of Hayes who had the 40th-best O-rating in the country as a sophomore, or the one whose field-goal percentage dropped 129 points the following year? That might be the most important unknown in the entire country.
First Litmus Test: Nov. 15 at Creighton
The Badgers only get three warm-up games before the Maui Invitational: two guaranteed home wins over Central Arkansas and Chicago State and a road game against Top 25 Creighton. Wisconsin's three-point defense has been dreadful over the past two seasons. Isaiah Zierden and Cole Huff should give us an early indication of whether that trend will continue for a third year.
6. Oregon Ducks
What's to Like: Frontcourt Defense
Oregon was No. 3 in the nation in block percentage last season, even as senior forwards Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin blocked a combined 23 shots in 2,039 minutes. Without those guys, Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell should both be headed for more minutes while Kavell Bigby-Williams—the leading shot-blocker among JUCO players last season—serves as their top frontcourt reserve. It's not crazy to think this team could average 10 blocks per game.
Biggest Question Mark: Dillon Brooks' Foot Injury
It has been three-and-a-half months since reports first surfaced about a "hot spot" on Brooks' foot that could turn into a stress fracture. He had surgery in early August and is questionable for the start of the season, though he has been practicing without a walking boot for several weeks.
Bell missed the first month of last season due to a foot injury, while Dylan Ennis appeared in just three games before taking a medical redshirt due to a foot injury of his own.
First Litmus Test: Nov. 15 at Baylor
Aside from the Maui Invitational, Oregon's nonconference schedule is filled with home cupcakes. KenPom gives the Ducks at least a 91 percent chance of winning nine of their 10 non-Maui games. The one exception is a coin-flip road game against Baylor. The Bears may need time to jell with so many incoming transfers, but the Ducks and Brooks can't possibly be operating at full strength five days into the season either.
5. North Carolina Tar Heels
What's to Like: Well-Rounded Attack
We often focus on the best player on the court, but a team's worst starter is often a better indicator of its ceiling. After all, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. So who is North Carolina's worst starter? Even with Theo Pinson likely to miss up to two months with a broken foot, having either Kenny Williams or Nate Britt as a starter is hardly the end of the world. The Tar Heels don't have much star power this year, but they are loaded with quality options.
Biggest Question Mark: More Injuries Coming?
North Carolina has been snake-bitten in recent years. Pinson missed 14 games as a freshman due to a broken foot. Joel Berry II missed about a month the same year with a groin injury. Marcus Paige broke his hand during the preseason last year prior to Kennedy Meeks' missing about four weeks with a knee injury. Any other bumps or bruises would be a problem.
First Litmus Test: Maui Invitational Semifinal (Nov. 22)
Early games against Chattanooga and Long Beach State could be interesting, but the Tar Heels shouldn't be on upset alert until facing either Connecticut or Oklahoma State in the Maui Invitational semis. The real test should come in the championship game, though, with either Oregon or Wisconsin most likely waiting for them.
4. Villanova Wildcats
What's to Like: Versatility
Kris Jenkins, Josh Hart, Mikal Bridges and Eric Paschall are 6'6" or 6'7" wing-forwards with three-point range and the ability to crash the glass. Though the Wildcats lack a conventional center, don't expect them to get abused in the paint. With just about everyone on the court capable of stretching the floor, there might not be a tougher offense to slow down this year.
Biggest Question Mark: Three-Point Consistency
The long ball was Villanova's best friend in March and April, but without any regulars who shot 40 percent or better on the season, there were a handful of games in which this team couldn't buy a triple. Heading into the Big East tournament, the Wildcats were shooting just 33.5 percent as a team. Jenkins was red-hot in the second half of the season, and Hart was a 46.4 percent shooter two years ago, but how reliable will that shot be this year?
First Litmus Test: Nov. 14 at Purdue
We will find out in a hurry just how well the Wildcats fare against a dominant frontcourt. Both Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas will look like giants compared to Villanova's bigs, but speed and versatility may win out against size and strength.
3. Kentucky Wildcats
What's to Like: Another Great Recruiting Class
It wouldn't be a proper college basketball season without a big haul of freshmen for head coach John Calipari, and this has a chance to be his best yet. De'Aaron Fox (No. 6), Bam Adebayo (11), Wenyen Gabriel (12) and Malik Monk (13) are among Scout's highest-rated incoming freshmen, with Sacha Killeya-Jones (27) just barely missing out on a 5-star rating of his own.
Biggest Question Mark: Small Forward
Kentucky has three great guards in Fox, Monk and Isaiah Briscoe. It is also loaded in the frontcourt in the form of Adebayo, Gabriel, Killeya-Jones, Derek Willis and Isaac Humphries. But who on this team guards a wing-forward like Duke's Jayson Tatum, North Carolina's Justin Jackson or "Take Your Pick" from Villanova's roster? Gabriel is a great, versatile defensive weapon, but the lack of a quick 6'6" perimeter defender might be a problem.
First Litmus Test: Nov. 15 vs. Michigan State (in NYC)
Given how banged up the Spartans are, this Champions Classic showdown might not be all that great. At any rate, Kentucky's loaded frontcourt should tear Michigan State to shreds. But it could be a good battle between young teams that are going to be much better in March than they are in November.
2. Kansas Jayhawks
What's to Like: Guard Play
Josh Jackson (No. 4), Devonte' Graham (No. 28) and Svi Mykhailiuk (No. 29) are all projected as 2017 first-round draft picks by DraftExpress. The Jayhawks also have senior leader Frank Mason III at point guard and Lagerald Vick as a potential breakout sophomore. This team is absolutely loaded with perimeter weapons and may even need to play 6'8" Jackson at the 4 from time to time just to give each of these studs enough playing time.
Biggest Question Mark: Frontcourt Leader
Who becomes the go-to forward in the absence of Perry Ellis? Landen Lucas had a surprisingly strong junior year, but mostly as a defender and rebounder. He only averaged one field-goal attempt for every 5:46 on the floor. Carlton Bragg Jr. should be a key guy as a sophomore, but if he doesn't step up to the plate, it may be guards or bust on offense.
First Litmus Test: Nov. 11 vs. Indiana (in Hawaii)
With questions in the frontcourt, Kansas could be in trouble to start the season. The Jayhawks open with Thomas Bryant and Indiana before the Champions Classic game against Duke's loaded roster.
1. Duke Blue Devils
What's to Like: Quality Depth
Here is Duke's primary nine-man rotation and how Scout ranked each player coming out of high school: Amile Jefferson (No. 21 in 2012), Matt Jones (No. 25 in 2013), Grayson Allen (No. 22 in 2014), Chase Jeter (No. 15 in 2015), Luke Kennard (No. 22 in 2015), Harry Giles (No. 2 in 2016), Jayson Tatum (No. 4 in 2016), Marques Bolden (No. 8 in 2016) and Frank Jackson (No. 18 in 2016). Regardless of their starting five, the Blue Devils will have four 5-star guys coming off the bench (once Giles is healthy).
Biggest Question Mark: Point Guard
There are plenty of options between Jones, Allen, Jackson and Kennard, but there's no Tyus Jones type of true point guard on the roster. It's probably not as big of a deal as some have made it out to be. Still, finding the proper balance among ball-handlers could be a noteworthy development for the Blue Devils.
First Litmus Test: Nov. 15 vs. Kansas (in NYC)
Two teams with the perfect balance of veteran leaders and talented freshmen, Duke and Kansas should be the two best teams in the country this year. Which one will be more able to tap into its potential less than a week into the season?
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.