Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) – Ranking teams before they have even
played a minute of meaningful basketball is a tough job, but one the
Associated Press must undertake every season.
The Top-25 is certain to shift throughout the ups and downs of the season, and
while some teams will rise above their current position, others will surely
fall. Figuring out which direction each squad will go is the challenge.
No. 25 Harvard – Lower
With five straight 20-win seasons, four consecutive Ivy League titles and
back-to-back wins in the NCAA Tournament, Harvard has been one of the top mid-
major programs in the country of late. However, the Crimson’s schedule is
rather weak. While that is simply part of being in the Ivy League, just a few
losses will likely keep them from spending all season in the national
rankings, although it won’t keep them out of the field of 68 come March.
No. 25 Utah – Higher
Utah also earned 98 points in the preseason poll, tying them with Harvard for
If you haven’t already heard of Delon Wright, it’s only a matter of time. The
6-foot-6 guard is one of the most versatile performers in the country, posting
team-highs in scoring (15.5 ppg), assists (5.3 apg), steals (2.5 spg) and
blocks (1.3 bpg) for a 21-win Utah team last season. Wright isn’t the only
top-notch player the Utes have, as Jordan Loveridge (14.7 ppg, 7 rpg) and
Brandon Taylor (10.6 ppg) are back for another go.
No. 24 Michigan – Higher
There is talent to burn in the backcourt for John Beilein’s squad, which is
coming off its first outright Big Ten title since 1986, and that’s even with
the departure of Nik Stauskas. Caris LeVert seems destined for stardom and
Spike Albrecht, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton, Jr. will all fight for time on
the floor. If the Wolverines get anything positive from a young group up
front, they will be tough to stop.
No. 23 Syracuse – Lower
The Orange have risen to No. 1 in this poll in three of the last five seasons,
but that won’t happen this time around. Syracuse lost too many key pieces,
including clutch point guard Tyler Ennis (12.9 ppg, 5.5 apg), leading scorer
C.J. Fair (16.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and highlight reel stud Jerami Grant (12.1 ppg,
6.8 rpg). Trevor Cooney (12.1 ppg) and Rakeem Christmas (5.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg)
remain, but Jim Boeheim needs to get a lot out of a young group.
No. 22 SMU – Higher
It is interesting that SMU is ranked lower than Connecticut in the preseason
poll. Obviously, the Huskies are defending national champions, but the
Mustangs have the most potential among teams in the American Athletic
Conference. All-conference guard Nic Moore (13.6 ppg, 4.9 apg) and defensive
enforcer Markus Kennedy (12.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.2 bpg) lead the way for a team
that won 27 games last season. They will be even hungrier following last
season’s NCAA Tournament snub.
No. 21 Nebraska – Lower
Five returning starters, including Big Ten scoring champ Terran Petteway, make
the Cornhuskers seem like an easy bet to return to the NCAA Tournament.
However, it is worth noting this is a program that has not made it to the Big
Dance in consecutive seasons in 20 years. The Cornhuskers also got into the
field in 2014 by the skin of their teeth, finishing at 19-13 overall. Some
degree of regression appears to be on the horizon.
No. 20 Ohio State – Higher
The Buckeyes find themselves in a different position than fellow Big Ten
member Nebraska, as they must replace a number of key players, including point
guard Aaron Craft and leading scorer LaQuinton Ross. Fortunately, there are
reinforcements and excellent ones at that. Shannon Scott averaged 3.4 assists
and two steals per game last season. His style of play mirrors Craft, who he
no longer has to back up. Anthony Lee, a transfer from Temple, and highly-
touted recruit D’Angelo Russell make for an even deeper talent pool.
No. 19 Oklahoma – Higher
There is a lot to like about the team that Lon Kruger has assembled. The
Sooners, who finished at No. 21 in last season’s AP poll are taking aim at a
third straight NCAA Tournament appearance, and with nearly every piece back
they could do more than that. While the loss of Cameron Clark stings, the
Sooners still have Buddy Hield, Ryan Spangler, Isaiah Cousins and Jordan
Woodard. If Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas, who was a double-double waiting
to happen with the Cougars, is granted eligibility, the Sooners will trot out
one of the best starting fives in the country.
No. 18 Michigan State – Lower
Gary Harris is gone. So is Adreian Payne. Oh, and Keith Appling no longer
calls East Lansing home. Those are three major hits to take, even for a Tom
Izzo-coached squad. That’s not too say the Spartans’ streak of 17 seasons with
an NCAA Tournament is in jeopardy. Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson will
make sure of that. It just may be another year before the Spartans are back
rubbing shoulders with teams in the top-10. For instance, next season when
West Virginia transfer Eron Harris is eligible to play.
No. 17 Connecticut – Lower
Led by Shabazz Napier and his clutch shooting, the Huskies won the national
championship last season. The encore will feature a change to the cast, as
Ryan Boatright is now the go-to guy in the backcourt, with Napier now cashing
checks in the NBA. Boatright is a blur on the floor, but he isn’t the scorer
that Napier was. Neither is promising center Amida Brimah, who is going from
DeAndre Daniels’ understudy to primary post option.
No. 16 San Diego State – Higher
Does San Diego State have another Sweet 16 run in it? Obviously the AP thinks
so, and for good reason. Winston Shepherd and the Aztecs ran to 31 wins last
season, taking home the regular season title in the Mountain West Conference.
They did so by playing tough defense, ranking second in the country in points
allowed (57 pg). Shepherd doesn’t have point guard Xavier Thames or leading
rebounder Josh Davis to help him this season, but the Aztecs will be among the
nation’s best anyhow, especially if they stay strong on the defensive end.
No. 15 VCU – Lower
The Rams started in the 14th position in this poll last season. They were at
No. 10 three weeks in, but then fell from the rankings altogether, not to
reappear until March when they lifted themselves to No. 23 before ending at
No. 24. This season’s squad has the tough task of replacing some important
parts, with Rob Brandenberg and Juvonte Reddic gone. Shaka Smart is still the
mastermind and that alone makes VCU dangerous. With Briante Weber and Treveon
Graham ready to go as well, the Rams will still be good, just not top-15 good.
No. 14 Iowa State – Higher
How did Fred Hoiberg deal with the loss of Big 12 Player of the Year Melvin
Ejim and potent scorer DeAndre Kane? Why, he just picked up several coveted
transfers, who will keep the Cyclones on an upward trajectory. Bryce DeJean-
Jones comes in from UNLV, Hallice Cooke brings his shooting touch from Oregon
State, and forward Jameel McKay (Marquette) adds even more depth. All that is
new will fit with all that is familiar (Georges Niang, Monte Morris, Dustin
Hogue) to create an enviable roster and one that will bring plenty of wins to
No. 13 Gonzaga – Higher
The Bulldogs won’t fall into the same trap as other mid-major programs,
although at this point it’s tough to group them there as their schedule
presents plenty of chances to pad their resume’. Mark Few’s squad will play
Arizona, UCLA and Memphis in non-league play, and two bouts with West Coast
Conference rival BYU won’t be easy. With an experienced backcourt led by Kevin
Pangos and Gary Bell Jr, as well as frontcourt titan Przemek Karnowski,
Gonzaga has a chance to win every one of those contests, and the other 30 on
the schedule as well.
No. 12 Villanova – Higher
Creighton no longer has sharpshooter Doug McDermott, and no team is happier
about that than the Wildcats. Villanova was the best team in the Big East last
season, finishing with a 16-2 mark in conference play en route to a No. 2 seed
in the NCAA Tournament. However, the Wildcats’ two losses in league play came
against the Bluejays, by an average margin of 24.5 points. While Creighton,
and many other teams in the conference are retooling this season, the Wildcats
have four starters back. Expect them to dominate their league and be a bigger
factor in the NCAA Tournament.
No. 11 Wichita State – Lower
The Shockers finished at No. 2 in this poll last season. That’s what winning
35 straight games will do for you. Greg Marshall has led his team to at least
27 wins in four straight seasons, including back-to-back 30-win finishes. He
also has Fred VanVleet, who may just be the best point guard in the country,
as well as Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton back. However, the loss of Cleanthony
Early cannot be understated. Wichita State is still the best team in the
Missouri Valley Conference, but it is not one of the 11 best in the country.
No. 10 Texas – Higher
Rick Barnes quickly turned things around following a disastrous 16-18 finish
in 2013, leading the Longhorns to a 24-11 record last season as well as a spot
in the NCAA Tournament. The expectations are set much higher this time around,
with the Longhorns expected to challenge for the Big 12 title and perhaps
more. It’s easy to imagine UT playing deep into March with the returning
talent on the roster. Isaiah Taylor, Javan Felix and Jonathan Holmes highlight
the group, which gets a major boost with the addition of prized recruit Myles
No. 9 Virginia – Lower
Tony Bennett has done an incredible job at Virginia, turning a program that
went 10-18 the season before his arrival into the Atlantic Coast Conference
champions. Bennett’s squad may not have been the flashiest, but its dedication
on defense made the Cavaliers difficult to topple. They led the country in
scoring defense (55.7 ppg), while holding foes to 38.8 percent shooting.
Bennett has a number of key components back, including all-league guard
Malcolm Brogdon, but improved squads at Duke and North Carolina, as well as
the addition of Louisville to the ACC, may push the Cavaliers back, albeit
No. 8 Louisville – Lower
In each of the last three seasons, the Cardinals have won at least 30 games.
They also have won three conference titles and a national championship in that
span. They are now a member of the ACC, which is a murderer’s row compared to
the diluted American Athletic Conference. Montrezl Harrell is the key for this
squad and a strong candidate for All-American honors. However, Rick Pitino has
a huge hole to fill with Russ Smith gone. Finding another scorer (or two) may
take some time, and could lead to a less prosperous campaign.
No. 7 Florida – Higher
One of the few teams in the nation equipped to deal with major roster
turnover, Florida is poised for another year of domination. Without the likes
of Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young, most teams would be ready
to go into rebuilding mode. Not the Gators, who will attempt to make up for
last season’s Final Four letdown with proven commodities (Michael Frazier II
and Dorian Finney-Smith), promising youngsters (Kasey Hill and Chris Walker),
a key transfer (Jon Horford) and a healthy Eli Carter, who was a double-digit
scorer at Rutgers before a fractured fibula slowed him down.
No. 6 North Carolina – Lower
It has been a turbulent time in Chapel Hill recently. There was the P.J.
Hairston and Leslie McDonald debacle last year, followed by former star Rashad
McCants’ damaging claims in the spring. Then, just a few weeks before this
season is set to begin, a report was released detailing past academic
wrongdoing. Setting aside all that, the Tar Heels are pretty talented this
season, led by Marcus Paige, who is at his best in big moments. If they can
push the distractions aside, this team could be great, but it remains to be
seen if it can be elite.
No. 5 Kansas – Higher
Bill Self has himself another pair of freshmen that will make Lawrence a
frequent destination for NBA scouts. After Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid were
key parts of last season’s Big 12 regular-season title team, Kelly Oubre and
Cliff Alexander are the key components of this year’s recruiting class and
squad in general. Oubre, at 6-foot-7, is an athletic specimen and Alexander is
a bully down low. They will team with Wayne Selden, Jr. and Perry Ellis to
form yet another immensely-skilled Kansas squad.
No. 4 Duke – Higher
Another team that is ready to compete at a high level because of a number of
talented freshmen is Duke. The Blue Devils brought in Jahlil Okafor, widely
considered the top recruit in the country, as well as Tyus Jones and Justise
Winslow. The young trio will have Blue Devils fans forgetting about the loss
of Jabari Parker and a painful setback to Mercer in the NCAA Tournament in no
time. Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook, who have actually played for Duke, will
be important contributors as well.
No. 3 Wisconsin – Lower
Four starters return from last season’s Final Four squad. None is bigger, both
literally and figuratively, than center Frank Kaminsky, an early favorite for
Naismith Player of the Year. Sam Dekker, who suffered a minor leg injury near
the end of October, should be good to go, and Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser
are each capable players as well. If there is any reason to believe Wisconsin
will fall back from the No. 3 spot it is the program’s history. The Badgers
have never finished in the AP top-five.
No. 2 Arizona – Higher
One of the teams Wisconsin beat on the way to the 2014 Final Four was Arizona,
which was the No. 1 seed in the West Region and probably will be again this
season. It really speaks to how well Sean Miller can recruit when a team that
lost Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Marshall and talented freshman Aaron
Gordon is expected to be better than it was a year ago. Top recruit Stanley
Johnson will be one of the best freshmen in the country, and he’s only the
beginning. Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Gabe York, T.J. McConnell
and Kaleb Tarczewski make for one of the deepest rosters in the country, and
one that is capable of winning the national title.
No. 1 Kentucky – Lower
This is a familiar spot for the Wildcats, who also topped last year’s
preseason poll. They fell from their lofty place during the regular season,
but wound up making a run to the national championship game anyway. For once,
John Calipari won’t have to start over following a mass exodus of one-and-done
stars. This season he gets back Willie Cauley-Stein, Andrew and Aaron
Harrison, Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson, to go with big-time
recruits Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns. If there is any concern it is a
lack of depth in the backcourt, which is admittedly a stretch, but it could be
a factor should one of the Harrison twins endure a sophomore slump.