1. Kentucky: Who else? Seriously. John Calipari has so much talent, he’s not sure what he’s going to do with it all. He promises a platoon system to stay with the “players first” mantra, but even then he admits that if a player proves he deserves more playing time, that player will get more playing time.
True, the Wildcats did lose Julius Randle and James Young off the group that reached the national title game last season, but now the Wildcats have Karl-Anthony Towns. And Trey Lyles. And Devin Booker. And Tyler Ulis. And we could go on and on and on – all the way to Indianapolis and the Final Four.
2. Arizona: Only the John Calipari juggernaut has recruited better than Sean Miller over the past couple of years and Arizona’s coach has built a big, physical team that doesn’t mind playing defense. Getting Brandon Ashley back from injury should boost the Wildcats’ fortunes and if Miller can develop a perimeter shooter or two, Arizona might be cutting down the nets at Lucas Oil Stadium.
3. Wisconsin: Only falling victim to one of Aaron Harrison’s deadly 3-pointers kept the Badgers from reaching the national championship, and the guess here is that not even Harrison’s heroics will keep Bo Ryan from playing for all the marbles this time around. Frank Kaminsky is the most well-known Cheesehead, but the key for the 2014-15 Badgers will be Nigel Hayes, a terrifically athletic forward who was all raw last season but could be all “awe” this season.
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4. Duke: For all the hoops hoopla over the collection of ultra-talented Wildcats in Lexington, it was Mike Krzyzewski who went out and signed the player most talent scouts believed was the class of the Class of 2014: Jahlil Okafor. Freshman point guard Tyus Jones is another difference-maker who should make Duke hard to handle.
5. Kansas: Newcomers Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre will give Bill Self a boost, but the Kansas coach needs better play at the point for KU to break through.
6. North Carolina: If great guard play is really what makes college basketball go round, then the Tar Heels should have a heck of a team, thanks in large part to Marcus Paige. Roy Williams has plenty of frontcourt talent, too, and for some reason the guess here is that the Tar Heels will be galvanized, an us-against-them thing.
7. Florida: Billy Donovan, the coach once known as “Billy the Kid” has a bunch of kids, talented kids, led by power forward Chris Walker, who got only a taste last season. Sharpshooter Michael Frazier, jack-of-all-trades Dorian Finney Smith and quick point guard Kasey Hill return to help the Florida cause.
8. Louisville: Forward Montrezl Harrell can be downright scary when he unleashes one of his patented displays of athleticism, but the frontcourt key for the Cardinals could be Mangok Mathiang, the center who wasn’t as far along in his development as Rick Pitino had hoped last season.
9. Virginia: Just as with Wichita State, it’s hard to picture the Cavaliers being really good again when they lost such a good player, in this case gritty guard Joe Harris, who led Tony Bennett’s team to the ACC crown last season. And yet, Bennett has five of his eight regulars returning, and now that the Wahoos have shown they know how to win, the guess here is that they can keep it up. Keep an eye on Mike Tobey, a 6-foot-11 center who could be UVa’s difference-maker.
10. Texas: Rick Barnes was already happy to have long Longhorns Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley return, then Texas got a commitment from Myles Turner, possibly the best frontcourt class of 2014 prospect not named Jahlil Okafor. Barnes has to get the Longhorns to hone their defense, a definite weakness a year ago.
11. Wichita State: Cleanthony Early was really good last season, but Gregg Marshall has proven beyond measure that he can coach, and he has back bookends Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker. It won’t be a shock if the Shockers are plenty good again.
12. Villanova: Junior guard Ryan Arcidiacono is back to lead the Wildcats way again as the veteran point guard who makes the Jay Wright machine go. Darrun Hilliard can make the perimeter jump shot, and JayVaughn Pinkston is a crafty, 6-6 post player who should keep things interesting in Philly.
13. Gonzaga: All hail Kyle Wiltjer, the Kentucky transfer who matriculated to the West and turned his doughy body into a slab of rock-hard steel, or something like that. Junior 7-footer Przemek Karnowski continues to develop, and Mark Few returns backcourt studs Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell. Could this be the season the Zags take that next step?
14. Iowa State: Georges Niang is a three-year starter who provides Fred Hoiberg a rock on the roster. The key could be Bryce Dejean-Jones, who led Nevada-Las Vegas in scoring at 13.6 points a game last season and is a graduate transfer in Ames. He’s the kind of player Hoiberg loves.
15. Virginia Commonwealth: Remember when every school in America was hot after Shaka Smart? Well, Smart is back, having led VCU to a 26-9 record last season. These Rams could be even better, but a key will be Treveon Graham, who averaged 15.8 points and seven rebounds last season, but whom many think can be much better than that.
16. San Diego State: We should all just face the fact that Steve Fisher has built a perpetual-motion machine out by the Pacific that continues to turn out top-notch, under-the-radar stars like Kahwi Leonard, Jamaal Franklin and Xavier Thomas. The Aztecs went 31-5 last season, and the experts are not sure who Fisher’s top gun will be this season, but you have to figure that one is on the roster.
17. Connecticut: The Huskies lost heart and soul Shabazz Napier off last season’s surprise national title team, but Kevin Ollie does have N.C. State transfer Rodney Purvis and top-drawer recruit Daniel Hamilton. Having Ryan Boatright back should help Ollie’s cause, and it will be interesting to see whether Boatright can fill the Napier role.
18. Michigan State: This doesn’t figure to be one of Tom Izzo’s deeper or more complete teams, but the Spartans have upside. Branden Dawson came on late in the season and is in prime position to be the team leader.
19. Oklahoma: Lon Kruger willed the Sooners to a 23-10 record last season, although Oklahoma did lose Cameron Clark and Je’lon Hornbeak, both of whom will be hard to replace. Ryan Spangler needs to step up and hit double-digits after averaging 9.6 points and 9.3 rebounds last season.
20. Ohio State: Thad Matta likes Temple transfer Anthony Lee and newcomer D’Angelo Russell. It’ll be strange seeing Ohio State without the pest Aaron Craft, but you wonder whether the Buckeyes don’t enjoy the change of personality without such a domineering backcourt presence.
21. Nebraska: The Huskers? Basketball? Tim Miles proved the doubters wrong last season, taking Lincoln by storm as Nebraska went 19-13 and made the NCAA tournament. Walter Pitchford, a forward, should be a key contributor this season and Miles has to turn his team into road warriors. Away from Lincoln, Nebraska was 4-12 last season.
22. Southern Methodist: Larry Brown’s cupboard isn’t bare. Markus Kennedy was an all-conference selection last season, and Yanick Moreira has ditched the nagging injuries that held him back. Meanwhile, Xavier transfer Justin Martin seems a good fit for the moving-on-up Mustangs.
23. Syracuse: We know, we know, the Orange lost point guard Tyler Ennis and forward Jerami Grant. Still, it’s hard to count out Jim Boeheim or his club, and the guess here is that Syracuse will find a way to wiggle into the Top 25, even if it is a rebuilding year.
24. Harvard: Tommy Amaker has it rolling in the Ivy League, and Harvard proved it last season by knocking off Cincinnati and putting a major scare into Michigan State before leaving the NCAA tournament. Point guard Siyani Chambers makes the Crimson click.
25. Utah: Senior guard Delon Wright (15.5 points) and junior forward Jordan Loveridge (14.7) are two of the four returning starters who should get the Utes back in NCAA tournament.