The commentary regarding the cancellation of the Kentucky game and replacing it with another "top 5" team got me thinking about who is actually going to be a top 5 team next season. So, this seems as good a time as any to post an early look at college basketball's top 25 next season. One quick aside about the Kentucky situation: in my humble opinion, Kentucky wanted to switch the game locations to avoid the very real possibility losing to Indiana in Lexington next season. They've got a nice winning streak going there, and right after the NCAA tourney game I saw a couple of comments among UK fans about ending the home-and-home for that reason - not for all the other reasons listed. And that was before their top six players all jumped ship. The fact that Coach Cal has come out and said "We'd play two games in Indiana" just supports my thinking. Of course, I've not seen this mentioned anywhere else, so maybe I'm way off base.
Top 25 for next season below the jump!
1. Indiana (27-9): If at this point, I wasn’t going to pick IU at #1, I should just hand in my alumni pin right now. The Hoosiers should have the top offense in the nation, and if the defense continues its slow but consistent improvement, that should be enough outgun the rest of the field to be the favored team in the NCAA tournament.
2. Louisville (30-10): Louisville’s the primary threat, in my mind, to the Hoosiers’ chances. Losing Chris Smith and Kyle Kuric hurts, but they get a couple of guys off of redshirt years, including GMU transfer Luke Hancock, who should start on the wing. Lanky center Dieng and robust forward Chase Benahan shut down the lane as well as anyone. Hancock’s the only decent outside shooter on the roster, though, and as good as the defense was last season, the offense was pretty mediocre.
3. UCLA (19-14): OK, this is risky. But Ben howland has succeeded before, and there's a lot of talent. The Wear twins produced last season, Tyler Lamb is a capable wing, and Shabazz Muhammad looks like the real deal. There’s some depth, but I’m most concerned with the position of point. Can Larry Drew redeem himself from a bad exit at UNC? Enigmatic talent Josh Smith and blue-chipper frosh Ryan Anderson may well come off the bench. If Howland can’t blend this talent, he may not be at Westwood much longer.
4. Kentucky (38-2): The Wildcats had a great season. And although they lost their top 6 players, they’ve got several great recruits (notably, Nerlens Noel) who will start next to NCSU transfer Ryan Harrow and returning reserve Kyle Wiltjer. But this isn’t the title-threat level of talent that we’ve been accustomed to seeing in Lexington. Still, Calipari gets his freshmen up to speed on playing defense very quickly, so the Wildcats will still win a bunch of games. I probably won't pick them actually getting to Atlanta, but Calipari deserves some respect at this early point.
5. Michigan (24-10): Legit final four team? Sure, maybe. But the Wolverines lost essentially three starters, who happened to also be some of their best shooters. Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Jordan Morgan return, alongside blue-chippers Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary. Reserve forward/center Jon Horford also returns from injury. Can the available pieces blend with Beilien’s system? I’m not betting against them just yet, but I’m also not putting money on them getting to the Final Four.
6. Michigan State (29-8): This is an end of the year ranking, as I don’t think Branden Dawson will be at any kind of decent production level until then. But Gary Harris should produce instantly on the wing, Keith Appling can fill it up as a combo point, and Derrick Nix/Adriean Payne are the toughest center duo in college basketball. Keep an eye on frosh Matt Costello and Kenny Kaminsky, if they aren’t ready for minutes quickly, Izzo might have problems.
7. Creighton (29-6); Doug McDermott returns, and as such, the Blue Jays are nationally relevant. The Blue Jays lose starting point Antoine Young, but return essentially everyone else. Look for a balanced team featuring one of the great talents in college - think Gonzaga with Adam Morrison. Creighton in 2013 won’t be that flashy, but might have more staying power.
8. Ohio State (31-8): I’m starting to think Thad Matta isn’t the best post-season coach. He just keeps losing narrowly with really good teams. That said, I suppose it took Jimmy Boeheim a while to win it all, and once he did, the complaints sure dwindled. I don’t think the Buckeyes fall that far despite the loss of Sully & Buford. Matta tends to hide some of his talent (look at what Lenzelle Smith did with some PT this year) on the bench, and this OSU team will likely be a defensive terror. Outside shooting may keep them from going too far in the NCAA’s, tho.
9. Duke (27-7): Oh, you think this is overrating them? Wait until the Blue Devils win enough games in pre-conference to spend all season at the #1/#2 spots. That’ll be over-rated. For right now, I do actually think most pre-season chatter is under-rating them a bit and over-rating the loss of Austin Rivers. Coach K keeps his guys playing well on defense, always, and there's actually quite a lot of veteran experience on hand here.
10. Florida (26-11): Balance, talent, experience. Even without Bradley Beal, this will be a tough team. They’d be a top-5 team if Erving Walker was returning, but the Gators will have to make do with Patric Young, Erik Murphy, Kenny Boynton, and Mike Rosario. There's a good recruiting class as well, headlined by point Braxton Ogbueze.
11. St. Louis (26-8): Sure, forward Brian Conklin is gone, but Rick Majerus returns everyone else from a team that beat Memphis and put a scare in Michigan State. SLU has size, experience, and is starting to make enough of a name in Atlantic-10 that they could actually get the seeding where they could play their way into the Sweet 16.
12. North Carolina State (24-13): CJ Leslie returns, and the Wolfpack actually have enough to make a run for the ACC title next season. I don’t think it happens yet, but this a dangerous club. Mark Gottfried brings in several freshman who should earn big minutes next to Scott Wood and Lorenzo Brown, as wings Rodney Purvis and TJ Warren could probably start for most D-I programs.
13. Ohio (29-8): Coach John Groce may have some pangs of regret next March when he watches his former Bobcats roll into the postseason. Point DJ Cooper has seen postseason success a few times, and won’t let his team get off track, which returns the entire playing rotation from last year’s sweet 16 team that came thisclose to upsetting UNC before falling in overtime.
14. Virginia Commonwealth (29-7): Besides Bradford Burgess, everyone’s back from a team that nearly beat IU in the second round. However, there’s still a lot of firepower here, and Bradford’s kid brother Jordan Burgess arrives, and looks good enough to start. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure that Shaka Smart knew he had something special to look forward to this year in Virginia, or he would’ve jumped to Illinois. Don’t sleep on these guys!
15. Texas (20-14): I still believe that Rick Barnes can coach, and he’s got one of the best recruiting classes in the nation. Prince Ibeh and Cameron Ridley should supply some power in the paint to give Myck Kabongo and Sheldon McClellan the support they need to continue the Longhorns rise back to prominence. Look for a big jump despite the loss of J’Covan Brown to the NBA, but this roster is going to be very young... there’ll be some bumps.
16. Gonzaga (26-7): center Robert Sacre is gone, but with Sam Dower ready to take over in the paint, and Elijah Harris returning, Mark Few’s club may finally live up to expectations in the postseason. You’ve probably heard about David Stockton’s solid play, but Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell were a great freshmen backcourt last season.
17. Memphis (26-9): Yes, Josh Pastner has gotten talent here, and Ken Pomeroy’s laptop loved the Tigers’ performance. But how far does it get against non-C-USA teams? There's a couple of decent recruits coming in to replace a couple of lost starters, but the real questions here are chemistry and discipline, i.e. is the young talent going to actually mature?
18. Wisconsin (26-10): The Badgers look fearsome in the Big Ten, but consistently don’t go very far in the NCAA’s. Sure, Bo Ryan’s 16-11 record in the NCAA tourney at Wisconsin is nothing to sneeze at, but the one-point loss against a weakened Syracuse team was emblematic of Ryan’s postseasons. Key opportunities just seem to get wasted. The Badgers return everyone but Jordan Taylor & Rob Wilson, and Sam Dekker looks like an instant-impact recruit (he’s rated above than Glenn Robinson III, for example), but I don’t expect them to get far at the end of the year, again.
19. UNLV (26-9): Although Chace Stanback moves on, there’s enough returning here to feel good about ranking, namely Mike Moser and Anthony Marshall. Keep an eye on the development of big man Carlos Lopez, and frosh wing Katin Reinhardt looks like he will be exactly the offensive spark that to give the Rebels a real boost. Transfers Khem Birch and Bryce Jones, if they decide to be team players, could boost this club up even higher!
20. Kansas (32-7):The national runner-ups lose a lot, but Bill Self teams don’t disappoint. However, I do think expectations are a little high for a team that loses Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. Elijah Johnson and Jeff Withey will be the new stars, and Self brought in a good recruiting class, but I think next season is a bit of a rebuilding season.
21. Notre Dame (22-12): If the Irish get Scott Martin back for a 6th year, and return almost everyone else, and add in the solid recruiting class, they should be the competition for Louisville for the Big East crown. However, ND has succeeded as a grind-it-out underdog. Not sure how they successfully shift their system with feature more talent, but the potential is there. Former MSU center Garrick Sherman also becomes eligible, but imagine if Tim Abromaitis had gotten another year? They’d have to be projected at a top-5 level.
22. Missouri (30-5): losing your top three guys is never great, but Frank Haith got a boatload of quality transfers, and returns medical redshirt forward Laurence Bowers. I don’t trust the depth here, but a solid backcourt of Michael Dixon and Phil Pressey should facilitate the scoring of Bowers, UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi, Auburn transfer Earnest Ross, and Pepperdine transfer Keion Bell. Are the enough basketballs to keep all of these guys happy?
23. Marquette (27-8): Losing Jae Crowder will really put the Golden Eagles back a step. But even with the graduation of Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom, there’s enough talent left here that I’ll stop underestimating Buzz Williams. Junior Cadougan, Vander Blue, and Devante Gardner should keep the ship steady, and freshman Steve Taylor is exactly the kind of combo forward that has always blown up (in a good way) at Marquette. Also, center Chris Otule is scheduled to return, which should alleviate the loss of Crowder's defensive play-making.
24. North Carolina (32-6): I thought the Tarheels were a good bet to win the championship last year. And lsing all those guys to the NBA hurts, sure. Roy Williams still will have enough to keep UNC in the national picture, though. They’ve got a couple of decent guards coming off injuries in Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald, and James McAdoo should help hold down the paint. Frosh Marcus Paige & Brice Johnson may well just step right into the starting line-up, and Reggie Bullock might be your next star here.
25. San Diego State (26-8): I thought Steve Fisher took the job in San Diego, because, hey, what a great place to kick up your feet and wind down a tumultuous career. No, Steve has fashioned a menace in southern California, and he has a ton of weapons back for next season. Jamal Franklin, James Rahon, Chase Tapley, and Xavier Thames can make it rain. They’ll make noise, but I’d feel better about putting them if skinny 6-8 DeShawn Stephens can prove that he can play center consistently.
Just outside: St. Mary's College, Miami (Fl), Drexel, Arizona, Syracuse, and Minnesota