Sure, we still have eight months until the NCAA tournament and March Madness cranks up again, but it can never be too early to start talking college basketball. With plenty of time to digest Connecticut’s shocking dismantling of the NCAA field, replay each one of Aaron Harrison’s game winners (over and over and over again), oddly patronize Wichita State because of one loss, wonder how Dayton slipped through to the elite eight, bid adieu to Dougie McBuckets, celebrate Mercer’s miraculous win over the Devil, err, Blue Devils, and dissect each and every recruit, it’s time to shift focus to next season. So here is the early top 10 that will surely change each week for the next three months:
1. Kentucky Wildcats
Coach Calipari continues his revolution of recruitment in college basketball with this stellar 2014 class of talent. Second to Duke in ESPN’s class rankings, the group is headlined by lengthy Power Forward Trey Lyles and Center Karl Towns Jr. Point guard Tyler Ullis is an unconventional Calipari recruit; his meager 5-9 150 pound stature does nothing to diminish his substantive passing ability and slippery ball skills. Not to mention Devin Booker and his silky smooth shooting ability. Yet the difference between this year’s team and those of years prior lies not necessarily in those who are coming to Kentucky, but in those who are returning from last year’s championship run. From likely lottery selection Willie Cauley-Stein to the heroic Harrison twins who stimulated the final four run last year to freak athlete Alex Poythress, some of these guys will not even start this season and still be selected in the 2015 first round draft. Pure talent wise – from top to bottom – this team may be the deepest that John Calipari has had at Kentucky – including the 2012 Anthony Davis-led national champion Wildcats and the 2010 John Wall and Demarcus Cousins led superstar-laden team. So what could possibly stop this dynasty from waltzing its way to cutting down the nets in Indianapolis next April? Unlike those massively talented teams of Kentucky’s past, there is no defined superstar just yet. Could Lyles of Towns Jr. or one of the Harrisons develop into that guy? Sure, but nobody on this team is John Wall or Anthony Davis, at least not yet.
2. Duke Blue Devils
Duke doesn’t rebuild; Duke reloads. Most programs would be crippled by the loss of a player who led the team in scoring, rebounding, blocks, and took over one-fourth of his team’s shots the previous season. But not the Blue Devils. Enter Center Jahlil Okafor, Point Guard Tyus Jones, Shooting Guard Grayson Allen, Small Forward Justise Winslow and the top rated recruiting class in the country according to ESPN. Aside: with this class and last year’s recruitment of Jabari Parker, it appears Coach K has conformed to the one-and-done norm – a sign of the changing tides in college basketball. Couple all the talented fresh faces with Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson, Marshall Plumlee (yes, another Plumlee at Duke), and others, and Coach K has quite the raw clay to mold. As with most freshmen-laden teams the question of how well they will congeal is the main prohibiting factor, but with arguably the best basketball coach in the world at the helm, Duke is in fine hands. If this team performs up to par with it’s talent, the early NCAA tournament loss to Mercer in 2014 could soon become a distant memory (but hopefully we never forget that).
3. Arizona Wildcats
The elite eight loss to Wisconsin (and the terrifying sight of Frank Kaminsky with the basketball in his hands) is still rightfully at the Forefront of Arizona fans’ minds. That 64-63 overtime loss precluded Sean Miller from reaching the final four for the first time in his tenure. The only way to move on for fans, players, and coaches alike could be on the horizon. The Wildcats absorb the losses of Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson in stride with returning talent and talented freshmen. TJ McConnell is more than just a positive leader – he can play, too – and he will be the emotional and physical catalyst for a team with final four aspirations. Kaleb Tarzcewski showed signs late in the season that he can, and will, develop into a full-fledged superstar in the college game. Stanley Johnson out of Mater Day High School could be the best freshmen scorer in the country in 2015. Alongside quality complementary guys, Brandon Ashley and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson – both first-round talents – this Arizona team is blessed with a plethora of depth at nearly all positions and plenty of upside to boot. Arizona maintains a key advantage that can sometimes get overlooked in this one-and-done era – continuity and experience. Miller will likely start two juniors and a senior alongside Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson. They have been knocking on the proverbial door for a while, but this could be the year Sean Miller captures that elusive final four appearance.
4. Florida Gators
In college basketball, the coach has as much influence on the success of a team and a program as anybody else does. It’s hard to argue for many guys you would rather have at the helm than Florida’s Billy Donovan. He has instilled a culture of winning at Florida, so much so that he can lose Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, and Patric Young and not miss a beat because of the system and the culture. Oh, and they have some talent as well. Dorian Finney-Smith is a prime breakout candidate for this season and Kasey Hill has the talent to match the production of 2014 SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin. Guard play wins games in March and you would be hard-pressed to find a better duo than the one in Gainesville with Hill and Michael Frazier. After reaching a fourth-straight elite eight last season and advancing to the final four, Florida has one last mountain to climb – a height it has not reached since 2006-2007 – in 2015.
5. North Carolina Tar Heels
Surprised to UNC this high? After all, the team has not been to a final four since 2008-2009. Last year, the Tar Heels lost 10 games and scrapped its way to a second round NCAA tournament exit. And to top it off the athletic department is staring an academic scandal – including Rashad McCants calling Roy Williams out personally – straight in the face. Some surprise would be more than expected, so hop on the bandwagon now instead of later. The 2014-2015 squad has a little of everything: continuity, talent, versatility, and a go-to scorer. That would be Marcus Paige, the man who broke onto the scene last season and scored nearly 18 points per game as he put the backcourt of UNC on his back. This season he will have some help as ESPN’s third ranked recruiting class comes into Chapel Hill, headlined by the lengthy and crafty Justin Jackson. He will crack the rotation immediately, competing with JP Tokoto and Isaiah Hicks for minutes on the wing. The real breakout candidate on this team, though, is Center/Power Forward Kennedy Meeks. He has the talents of Greg Monroe (minus two inches) and is ready to take control of this team alongside Paige. The question with this team is the same one Heels fans have had since the unfortunate departure of PJ Hairston: who will make three pointers alongside Paige? Freshman Theo Pinson could answer that question, but that remains to be seen.
6. Wisconsin Badgers
Easily the least flashy team on the list, Wisconsin can quickly be forgotten amongst the elite teams in college basketball. The entire team that reached the final four in 2014, aside from Ben Brust, has returned to Madison for another run. Frank Kaminsky spurned a likely first round selection, calling the NBA “boring.” He could easily wind up as the Big Ten player of the year as he looks to build on his breakout 2013-2014 year. Look for slashing wings Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker to assert themselves offensively, and expect Bronson Koenig to slide into the open spot left by the graduated Brust. With weakened Michigan, Michigan State, and Iowa teams, the road to the Big Ten title appears to run through Madison, Wisconsin. When it comes to Wisconsin in 2014-2015, do not confuse flash with ability – because the Badgers have quite a bit of the latter.
7. Texas Longhorns
No, Kevin Durant has not made his way back to Austin. But Myles Turner has. Turner, a 7-footer with three-point range and elite shot blocking ability, has a unique opportunity to lead Texas to heights even Durant’s Texas teams never went. Turner was the last of the ESPN top 100 to commit due to his relatively late ascension in high school. With a little bit of LaMarcus Aldridge – another former longhorn – in his game, Turner can be an immediate force on the offensive and defensive end. With all key rotation players returning from a top-25 team, Cameron Ridley will be looked upon to step up his game. As a freshman, Ridley, an overweight center, struggled to stay on the court, averaging just 16.4 minutes per game and just 4.1 points per game. But last season as a sophomore, Ridley raised his minutes per game to 25.6 and his points to 11.2 per game. As talented as Turner is, expect Texas to go as far as Ridley will take them. And if he can play over 30 minutes per game while he continues evolve as an offensive big man, Texas could be in store for a magical season.
8. Louisville Cardinals
“Russdiculous” is out of Louisville (for the good and the bad), but that should be no problem, as Terry Rozier is just as capable of a basketball player, without the headaches and poor shot selection. Quietly, a case can easily be made that Montrezl Harrell is the best player, and the most fun player to watch, in college basketball. Harrell averaged 14.0 points per game to go along with 8.4 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, a stellar 60.9% field goal percentage, and some really thunderous dunks. Along with more opportunity will come more production for him. A step up in competition in the ACC should help prepare a Wildcats team that destroyed most conference foes en route to a regular season and postseason Conference USA title last season. It’s more of the same at Louisville, and for the time being, as long as Rick Pitino is there, that is the only thing Wildcat fans want to hear.
9. Kansas Jayhawks
The last time Kansas didn’t win at least a share of either the Big 12 regular season or conference championship, Andrew Wiggins was five years old. Since then, nine players have led the Jayhawks in scoring in a single season. Chances are, even without Wiggins and Embiid, Kansas is going to be very good. Enter Cliff Alexander, the third ranked player in the country. ESPN describes him as, “Big, strong and athletic, Alexander is productive every time he steps on the court.” He should step in and command double-teams immediately from opponents. Along with Alexander, Kelly Oubre, a strong, athletic guard will also produce in all facets of the game immediately. Not to mention that there is already a solid core of Wayne Selden Jr., Frank Mason, and Perry Ellis, Kansas will not skip a beat after having two of the top three picks in the NBA draft – a testament to Bill Self and the coaching staff. It may take a bit of a transitional period, but Kansas is going to win lots of games and will probably end atop the Big 12, because that’s just what they do at Kansas.
10. Virginia Cavaliers
The system, the system, the system. Tony Bennett and company put it all together last season and supplanted themselves as a team to be reckoned with in the ACC for the future. Despite the departures of Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, there is plenty of talent to pick them up. Malcolm Brogdon may be the star but Justin Anderson (the best dunker in the country, in my books) and London Perrantes are ready to break out. Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey are capable players in the frontcourt as well. But at UVa, the message is crystal clear. It’s not about the individual, it has nothing to do with a sophisticated offense, or even passing. Every player at Virginia buys into Tony Bennett’s team defense. They play with effort and pride on defense and last season it paid off with the lowest opponents’ points per game at 55.7 points. That, above all individual talent (which is aplenty in Charlottesville), will keep the Cavs as contenders year-in and year-out.