With the season now just days away, it’s time to roll out my preseason rankings.
Because I’m an overachiever (read: a college hoops-obsessed junkie who was excited to find the Louisville-Bellarmine game on TV Wednesday night), the more traditional Top 25 just wasn’t enough, so below are my Top 30 teams heading into the season.
A healthy Tray Woodall and talented Central Michigan transfer Trey Zeigler give the Panthers a talented perimeter duo, while highly touted seven-footer Steven Adams is a Top 10 recruit who will anchor the team inside.
The key will be improving a defense that was uncharacteristically poor last season.
The injury to Josh Gasser is a big blow and leaves Bo Ryan with two untested options at the point, but the frontcourt depth is impressive with Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans, Mike Bruesewitz, and versatile freshman Sam Dekker.
History has taught us that Ryan will find a way to get things to fall into place.
The Gophers return virtually everyone from last year’s NIT runners-up, and they also get Trevor Mbakwe back from the knee injury that cost him most of last season.
If point guard Andre Hollins can use his strong post-season play as a springboard into his sophomore year, Minnesota should be dancing again in March.
This ranking is predicated on point guard Myck Kabongo being deemed eligible following a recent NCAA investigation. Assuming he suits up for the Longhorns, he’ll lead a team packed with underclassmen.
Kabongo is one of five returning sophomores who played extensively last season, and the team adds a pair of freshman bigs with Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh joining the squad.
26. Saint Louis
The Billikens would most certainly be ranked higher if not for Rick Majerus taking a leave to focus on his health and star guard Kwamain Mitchell breaking his foot.
Mitchell should be back early December, but in the meantime interim coach Jim Crews will rely heavily on stout defense and an experienced roster to navigate the early part of the schedule.
Mick Cronin always seems to get the most out of his players, and the Bearcats have a strong foundation in the backcourt with Sean Kilpatrick, Cashmere Wright, and JaQuon Parker.
The big questions are in the frontcourt where Cheikh Mbodj and juco transfer Titus Rubles have to step up along side junior Justin Jackson.
Don’t expect any growing pains for the Rams as they move into the Atlantic 10. Shaka Smart’s team is incredibly deep, which they have to be in order to wreak “havoc” on defense.
Guards Darius Theus, Troy Daniels, and Rob Brandenberg all scored at least 8.5 points per game last season, while Juvonte Reddic provides a strong presence inside.
Look for a breaout season from sophomore Treveon Graham on the wing.
Cuonzo Martin’s squad nearly played its way into the tournament last season, thanks in large part to the mid-season addition of big man Jarnell Stokes. He played well for the USA U18 team this summer and may wind up as an All-SEC First Team performer.
Trae Golden gives the team a strong point guard, and the Vols seem to have embraced Martin’s hard-nosed demeanor, which bodes well for a strong season.
22. Notre Dame
All five starters return for the Irish, who won 22 games last year.
Jack Cooley is a load inside, while guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant each averaged at least four assists last season.
Depth is a question mark, but given the team’s slow pace of play and the fact that they rarely get into foul trouble, that shouldn’t be a huge concern.
The Baylor frontcourt is completely re-tooled and will rely heavily on the play of freshmen Ricardo Gathers and Isaiah Austin. Both come in highly rated and will need to provide immediate production.
In the backcourt, dynamic point guard Pierre Jackson and sharpshooter Brady Heslip return, and Scott Drew will rely on both to shoulder the scoring load while the freshmen adjust to the college game.
20. San Diego State
The Aztecs have won at least 25 games in each of the last four seasons, and they should make a strong run at a fifth this year.
MWC Player of the Year Jamaal Franklin will pace the offensive attack after posting 17.4 points and 7.9 boards per game last year. Guards Chase Tapley and Xavier Thames both scored in double figures as well, but there isn’t much experience up front.
Transfers Dwayne Polee II, J.J. O’Brien, and James Johnson will all be in the mix, but keep an eye on freshman Winston Shepherd, who is arguably the biggest recruit to ever sign with the Aztecs.
National Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott leads an experienced squad, which is a heavy favorite to win the Missouri Valley.
The biggest question mark is at the point, where Austin Chatman and Grant Gibbs will look to fill the void left by the graduation of Antoine Young.
The Bluejays will be tested early against a tough non-conference slate, so we’ll know just how good they can be by the time MVC play rolls around.
Mark Few has heaped praise on his team leading into the season, and the Zags definitely boast a balanced attack.
Sophomores Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. both shoot a high percentage from beyond the arc, while senior forward Elias Harris is looking to end his career on a high note.
The key for Few’s squad will be how well Sam Dower and Polish big man Przemek Karnowski can fill the void left by the graduation of Robert Sacre.
The Tigers have to replace leading scorer Will Barton, but the other four starters return, led by junior guards Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford who combined for 20.1 points and 7.8 assists per game last year.
Freshman Shaq Goodwin is the team’s top newcomer and provides another big body inside, while the breakout player looks to be sophomore Adonis Thomas, a highly touted recruit who was limited by an ankle injury last season.
16. North Carolina
After losing four starters to the NBA, UNC will be interesting to watch early this year.
Freshman Marcus Paige will be asked to run the show right away, and sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo simply has to have a breakout season if this team wants to challenge for the ACC title. Reggie Bullock is another year removed from his knee injury and looks poised to take the next step after strong play down the stretch last season.
Outside of McAdoo, there are huge questions in the frontcourt for Roy Williams’ team, but if someone steps up, the Heels could outperform this ranking.
In light of last season’s success, the Tigers won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year, but they may not have to.
Point guard Flip Pressey is one of the nation’s best, and Michael Dixon is ready to step into the starting lineup after excelling as the team’s sixth man last year.
Senior Laurence Bowers is back in the frontcourt after missing last season with a knee injury, and transfers Alex Oriakhi, Keion Bell, Earnest Ross, and Jabari Brown are all expected to play key roles on the team.
If all the new pieces mesh, this team could make a deep run in March.
Dave Rose needs to replace some key members of last season’s 26-win squad, but the cupboard is far from bare in Vegas.
Point guard Anthony Marshall and high-motor forward Mike Moser are the key returnees, and they will look to break in a couple major conference transfers (Khem Birch and Bryce Dejean-Jones) along with impact freshman Anthony Bennett, who was the top power forward in this year’s class according to some rankings.
Assuming Shabazz Muhammad, the top player in last year’s class, is cleared to play, this ranking is way too low, but so far there don’t appear to be many positive signs on that front. Fellow freshman Kyle Anderson was deemed eligible though, which provides Ben Howland with some measure of good news heading into the season.
Even without Muhammad, there are some talented pieces on the roster, but Larry Drew II’s play at the point and Josh Smith’s conditioning could make or break this team.
There are plenty of new faces on the Arizona roster, including a trio of freshmen big men and Xavier transfer Mark Lyons, who will be relied on to run the show in his final college season.
The freshmen, Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, and Grant Jerrett all come to Tucson with lofty recruiting rankings and will be counted on to contribute immediately.
With so many newcomers, forward Solomon Hill’s consistency will be critical both in the scoring column and on the glass.
Like so many teams, point guard play will be key for the Gators, as Scottie Wilbekin takes the reins from Erving Walker, who left Florida as its all-time assist later.
A number of experienced players will be on the receiving end of Wilbekin’s passes, most notably guard Kenny Boynton, who lit it up from long range last season, and Patric Young, who is a beast inside but needs to be more consistent.
Erik Murphy and Mike Rosario bring additional firepower to the starting lineup, and if things come together for the bench players, a Final Four run isn’t out of the question.
The frontcourt duo of Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee are the strength of the Blue Devils, and their games complement each other very well with Kelly able to step out and stretch defenses and Plumlee able to impact the game through his rebounding and a developing post game.
Freshman Rasheed Sulaimon gives Coach K a versatile option on the wing, but point guard play is the biggest question mark for this team. Soph Quinn Cook should get first crack at the job, and if he takes the job and runs with it, Duke will once again challenge for the ACC Championship.
9. Ohio State
Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft are both All-Conference caliber players, and along with Lenzelle Smith Jr., they provide Thad Matta with a reliable nucleus. Outside of those three though, there are a number of question marks but plenty of talented and athletic players who hope to answer them.
Stout defense will serve the Buckeyes well as usual, and if roles sort themselves out quickly, this team has Top Five potential.
8. North Carolina State
The Wolfpack peaked late last season to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament and made the most of their opportunity once they got there, advancing all the way to the Sweet Sixteen.
They return most key members of that team, led by star point guard Lorenzo Brown, dead-eye shooter Scott Wood, and uber athletic forward C.J. Leslie. Throw in rebounding machine Richard Howell and you have a strong core of players. NC State also adds highly touted freshman Rodney Purvis, who should be a difference maker on the perimeter.
Depth is a question mark for Mark Gottfried’s squad, but few teams can match the talent of the Wolfpack’s starting five.
Jim Boeheim will be looking to replace a number of key contributors from last season’s squad, but six players are back who logged double-digit minutes last year.
Brandon Triche is a four-year starter in the backcourt, while sophomores Michael Carter-Williams and Rakeem Christmas will both need to embrace expanded roles.
Forward C.J. Fair will be counted on to step up and become a more consistent force offensively for the Orange, who will once again be in the hunt for a Big East title.
The Wolverines’ preseason ranking has been the subject of much debate in the statistical community, but I like what I’ve heard so far about how well the freshmen are fitting into the rotation. Glenn Robinson III’s versatility gives John Beilein a number of potential lineup options, while Mitch McGary’s rebounding will address one of the team’s deficiencies from last season.
Trey Burke is one of the nation’s top point guards, and so far Tim Hardaway Jr. hasn’t been forcing the action in the way he did a season ago.
Replacing guys like Zack Novak, Stu Douglass, and Evan Smotrycz won’t be easy, but Michigan has the pieces to challenge for a second straight Big Ten crown.
5. Michigan State
I’m higher on the Spartans than some people, but I love their balance offensively. Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne give Tom Izzo two solid options inside, while Keith Appling and freshman standout Gary Harris form a strong backcourt.
Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism is the return of Branden Dawson, who is already back from a knee injury suffered at the end of last season. Dawson is an electrifying athlete who is a force on the glass and excels in transition, and his presence gives MSU another dimension on both ends of the floor.
If last season didn’t teach us to never count out the Jayhawks, nothing will. So even though Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor are gone, I’m still all in on KU.
Elijah Johnson made some huge plays in the NCAA Tournament last season, and big man Jeff Withey provides a strong presence defensively as well as on the glass. Both guys will take on key leadership roles on the team, as will Travis Releford, who started 38 games last year.
Freshman scorer Ben McLemore has earned high praise from Bill Self so far, and fellow frosh Perry Ellis should be an immediate contributor as well.
Rick Pitino returns nearly everyone from last season’s 30-win team that ran through the Big East Tournament and wound up in the Final Four.
Senior Peyton Siva is back to run the show, and Gorgui Dieng returns to anchor the post after averaging 9.1 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks last season. Sophomores Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear should both become double-digit scorers, while Russ Smith makes everything a bit more interesting when he’s in the game.
The Cardinals will undoubtedly be one of the nation’s top defensive teams, but they need to improve their offensive efficiency and outside shooting to live up to their preseason billing.
Everyone knows by now that the Wildcats don’t return anyone who started a game for last year’s National Champions, but John Calipari has restocked the roster with another loaded recruiting class.
Nerlens Noel has some work to do offensively but will be a game-changer based on his rebounding and shot-blocking prowess. Guard Archie Goodwin can score in bunches, and Alex Poythress can do a little bit of everything.
The point guard play of NC State transfer Ryan Harrow will be critical, and Calipari has really pushed him to become tougher in practice. Still, the team has high-level talent and will be drilled to play stifling defense, which should help them stay in games while all the new pieces come together.
Things have changed quite a bit in Bloomington over the last couple seasons, and the signing of Cody Zeller was arguably the biggest catalyst for IU’s resurgence. His decision to return for his sophomore season following an incredibly efficient and prolific freshman year vaulted the Hoosiers to the top of the polls.
Virtually everyone else is back from last season’s team, including seniors Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls. The intensity of juniors Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey has also been critical to Indiana’s turnaround, and the return of Maurice Creek will be more than just a feel good story if he can provide instant offense off the bench.
Tom Crean adds McDonald’s All-American Yogi Ferrell at the point, and his quickness and pass-first mentality will give the Hoosiers a new dimension in the backcourt.
Frontcourt injuries and suspensions will hurt the depth behind Zeller to start the season, but IU should be at full strength by the time Big Ten play begins. If the Hoosiers want to hang their first banner since 1987, they have to improve a defense that finished outside of the Top 60 in defensive efficiency.
Enjoy the start of the season on Friday, and be sure to follow me on Twitter (@andybottoms) for more thoughts on college hoops throughout the year. I would also strongly recommend subscribing to the Bottoms Line College Basketball Podcast on iTunes.