1. Michigan State: Yeah, it’s a stretch, but why not predict that Tom Izzo ends the Big Ten national title drought? MSU was every bit the equal of Indiana, Ohio State, and Michigan last season, but just came up short at crucial times. Tom Izzo is already proclaiming this summer as his best offseason ever, and I don’t think Lousiville repeats or that Kentucky will catch that 2012 lightning in a bottle again. It’s a hunch, but I think there are three title-worthy teams at the top of the standings, and Izzo returns the right pieces and is due.
2. Louisville:- Pitino will have the Cardinals in contention for the title again. UL probably ought to start the season as #1, just out of respect (or Russ-pect) for coach Pitino and the amount of new and returning talent he has on hand. Still, Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng will missed. The nation’s top-rated Juco, Chris Jones, will battle 5 star frosh Terry Rozier to take Siva’s minutes, but I don’t see reserve bigs Montrezl Harrell and Stephen Van Treese getting the stops at the rate that Dieng did.
3. Kentucky: There’s a difference between the pieces that Calipari was bringing back in the Fall of 2011 to add to his top-ranked recruiting class and the pieces that he’ll have this season. Doron Lamb, Darius Miller, and Terrence Jones were coming off a Final Four trip. Cal has Kyle Wiltjer, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Alex Poythress returning from a first-round NIT loser. Hey, they’ll be good, no doubt, but I’m not ready to anoint them favorites for the title just yet. I’m thinking this Wildcat squad will be closer in what they accomplish to Cal’s first UK team in 2009-2010, that also featured an amazing frosh class (John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, etc.).
4. Oklahoma State: Well, this is a bit of a gamble. But I think Marcus Smart will only improve from an amazing freshman year, while Markel Brown, LeBryan Nash, and the improving Michael Cobbins provide balance to the Cowboy attack. They added a few decent recruits, but watch to see if Juco center Gary Gaskins can stabilize the paint for them.
5. Michigan: Trey Burke is a huge loss. But Beilien kept the Wolverines from falling too far when Darius Morris left, so I think he can find a way to keep UM performing at a pretty high level. Beilien has integrated freshmen into his rotation with amazing ease, so look for Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton to slide right into a line-up with Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas, and Mitch McGary (and/or possibly Jordan Morgan).
6. Florida: Coach Billy Donavan has a solid five guys returning who could start (Patrick Young and Scott Wilbekin being the best of them), plus impact recruits Kasey Hill and Chris Walker. I don’t know that the Gators can jump to the Final Four, but they should be in the mix again. WIll Yeguete needs to be healthy and well-rounded enough to start. I think he's the x-factor.
7. Duke: This pick is pretty much just out of respect for coach K. There’s no center here unless Plum-three suddenly turns into his brothers, which he might. If he doesn’t, that means Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson will be playing a lot of 5, which is trouble.
8. Kansas: Top freshman Andrew Wiggins and Memphis transfer Tarik Black should shore up the frontline graduation losses, but there’s so much turnover here. Bill Self will win, somehow, someway, but I wouldn’t look for a lot of postseason success in Lawrence in 2014.
9. Virginia Commonwealth: No significant losses, and they add power forward Terrance Shannon from Florida State. I rated them highly last year at this time, and I will do so again. I think they almost had it all last year, they just couldn’t stop teams who broke their traps. Getting Shannon should help with that.
10. Arizona: I’m not as high on these Wildcats as other experts. Sean Miller has shown he can win with the right balance of talent, and so Arizona should pile up some wins. But I’m not sold this club’s ability to achieve consistently, with Duquesne transfer TJ McConnell needing to fit in at point, and sophomore bigs Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski both having to step up to be full-time starters. Frosh forwards Aaron Gordon and Rahir Hollis-Jefferson are hyped, but the only vet in the regular rotation looks to be wing Nick Johnson.
11. Syracuse: With another Final Four under his belt, Jim Boeheim seems to be at the top of his game these days. Ho-hum, lose some guys to the NBA, return some great talent (CJ Fair) and get another great recruiting class (led by Tyler Ennis), and just keep rolling.
12. North Carolina: It was a tough year, but with only Reggie Bullock going pro, and good recruits coming in, look for a resurgence in Chapel Hill. Freshmen Isiah Hicks should give James McAdoo some help inside, and guards PJ Hairston and Marcus Paige seem to be ready to take the next step.
13. Gonzaga: The Zags absorb some significant losses, but Mark Few has built a winner. There’s replacements on hand for the losses of Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris, notably center Przemek Karnowski. Kevin Pangos, David Stockton, Gary Bell, and Sam Dower should fill out the starting five.
14. Connecticut:- Rookie coach did a fine job in his first season, and has everyone back of note. Transfer Lasan Kromah from George Washington should add some punch from the wing. Don’t forget, point guard Shabazz Napier started at point during the Huskies to national championship a couple of seasons ago. With Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels, and Omar Calhoun surrounding him, this is a dangerous team.
15. Ohio State: Defense will keep them in competitive games into the NCAA tourney. Offense.... will be a concern. Aaron Craft is one of the top point guards in the country, though, and Thad Matta just wins.
16. Wichita State: Last year’s cinderella tries to repeat its success as a marked team. Juco forward Darius Carter should help alleviate the loss of some of the key pieces here. Cleanthony Early looks like a budding star, and sophomores Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet should hold down the backcourt.
17. Alabama: The Tide essentially returns everyone. Coach Ty Grant should see significant improvement in the win-loss column, or he might start feeling the heat. Sweet-shooting Trevor Releford is the star here, but the return of 7-footer Carl Engstrom after a knee injury should help stabilize the paint for Alabama.
18. Saint Louis: The Bilikens have some losses, but this was a pretty decent team last season. I’d look for Jim Crews to maximize Dwayne Evans and continue to win.
19. Creighton: I thought that the Bluejays underachieved a bit last season, and will miss Greg Echenique and Grant Gibbs. But, Wichita State showed that the MVC was a pretty decent conference. With Doug McDermott and a variety of shooters back, the ‘Jays should pile up some wins next season.
20. New Mexico: - They’ll fall back with Tony Snell going pro, but not that far. Craig Neal takes over, and has Alex Kirk, Hugh Greenwood, and Kendall Williams as likely stars for next season's team.I particularly like the potential in Greenwood's multi-faceted game.
21. Iowa: This NIT runner-up squad definitely has some promise, but they’ve got to continue to develop their defense. Wisconsin transfer Jarrod Uthoff is the x-factor here. Is he worth the fuss? He and Peter Jok should boost the Hawkeyes, who return everyone but wing Eric May.
22. Virginia: I don’t see the Cavs mentioned much in the early top 25s, and I am not sure why. I think they’re going to be pretty good next season. They lose leading assist-man Jontel Evans, but they return everyone else and Justin Anderson was hitting his stride at the end of last season. Tony Bennett has some talent to work with here.
23. Louisiana State: The Tigers get a recruiting class not dissimilar to the Hoosiers’ haul, and return almost all of their key pieces. Sure, they only went 9-9 in a mediocre SEC, but their losses tended to bear the hallmarks of a young team, going 3-6 on the road. With recruits Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey joining four double-digit scorers (notably Johnny O’Bryant and Anthony Hickey), I think LSU has a chance to make some noise nationally this season.
24. Memphis: Josh Pastner nabs another great recruiting class to replace the losses, and hey, they won at Tennessee last season. I don’t have faith they’ll do anything special in the postseason, but give the coach credit for bringing in the recruits consistently.
25. Indiana: Really, the top-four recruiting class is the only thing keeping them in contention to be ranked. Yogi Ferrell and Will Sheehey should be solid, and landing transfer Evan Gordon was pretty huge for the backcourt, and I do expect big things from Noah Vonleh and the other freshmen. Even if many things go right, the defense is simply going to take a step back no matter what. You can’t lose Zeller and Oladipo and not feel it. If any other prognosticator chose not to rank the Hoosiers, I couldn't disagree that strongly. But, for now, I think they're worth considering for the top 25.
So close to being ranked!
Harvard: Andy Katz almost convinced me. Loads of experience returning and they get suspended players Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey back. This might be the best Ivy League team to hit the court in well over a decade.
Tennessee: I've been surprised at the love for the Vols among the pundits, but a lot of the top scorers do return. Still, the Vols were simply not that impressive last season. If Jeronne Maymon comes back fully healthy, then yeah, I can see them as a top 25 squad. But you’re talking about recurrent knee problems with a heavy guy who has to do a lot of battling in the paint.
Georgetown: Losing Otto Porter should be a pretty major hit, but they return a lot, too. I’m not ready to concede that UCLA transfer Josh Smith will be of much use (he just strikes me as another "Hot Plate" Williams type, too much hype for too little stability) but getting Greg Whittington back should keep them safely on the right side of the NCAA tourney bubble.
Wisconsin: Bo Ryan’s black magic should continue, with Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminisky starring inside and Josh Gasser teaming with Ben Brust on the perimeter. I don’t see the Badgers taking a notable step forward, but they won’t fall back too far. And they likely finish ahead of Indiana in the conference standings, somehow.
Marquette: Can’t discount Buzz Williams’ history of success here, but he lost a lot. I think Davante Gardner and Jamil Wilson will hold things down in the paint while Juco Jameel McKay, frosh JaJuan Johnson and Todd Mayo fill up the wings, but I’m not sure who the heir apparent to Junior Cadougan at the point is. Is frosh Duane Wilson really ready, or does Mayo take over?