NCAA Pre-Season Top 25
… well, sort of.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
I’m not going to spend too much time defending myself for making a pre-season Top 25 less than a week after the previous college basketball season has ended. I know it’s silly and a little meaningless to go through this when more than half of the teams on this list will have their rosters significantly altered by the May 8th deadline to withdraw from the NBA Draft.
But in the words of Dwayne Johnson, formerly known as “The Rock”, “IT DOESN’T MATTER,” if it’s silly or meaningless. Rankings (preseason, during, or postseason) are part of college basketball because they are as fun as they are pointless. Pre-season rankings looking forward to the next season before we finish wrapping our brains around the old one are special because we are embarking on a depressing seven-month voyage devoid of college basketball action. Lists like this one (not necessarily this one, but ones like it) help us college basketball diehards get through the harsh and unforgiving summer/fall months that lie ahead.
I’ve taken some liberties and assumed that certain players will be leaving school for the NBA. We all know what happens to those who assume, so when some of these players return to school or don’t declare at all, you can count on a much-needed revised version of these rankings in a month or so. So without further ado, here is a premature top 25 list for the 2011-2012 season.
Stop me if you’ve heard this song and dance before. It doesn’t matter that Kentucky could lose most of its star-studded freshmen. John Calipari reloads better and faster than anyone in the country. The Wildcats are bringing in a stronger class than the one that just made a Final Four appearance, highlighted by Michael Gilchrist and Anthony Davis.
2. Ohio State
Jared Sullinger claims he’s returning. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. The return of the country’s most dominant big man and his classmate point guard Aaron Craft should put the Buckeyes at the top of the Big Ten once again.
John Henson and Tyler Zeller took away some of the guesswork of this ranking. Both decided to return to Chapel Hill next season. That is huge. If Harrison Barnes joins them it’s gargantuan. Even if Barnes enters the draft, the Tarheels are clearly one of the country’s most talented teams. Expect a breakthrough season from Kendall Marshall.
The Orange lose Rick Jackson, but everyone else from an extremely talented and scary team returns. Another top-notch recruiting class arrives and Kris Joseph has potential to become the Big East’s top player.
Texas is one of the largest tossups in the country. No one would blame Jordan Hamilton and Tristan Thompson for fully submerging themselves in the NBA draft waters, but should they remain in Austin, this is a Big 12 championship squad. If not, Rick Barnes still has an exciting enough recruiting class to keep Texas in the pre-season top 10.
Kyrie Irving is gone. So are Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith. So why so high? Has everyone seen Austin Rivers play? Or at least a video of the kid? Scary, scary good. Expect Andre Dawkins, Seth Curry, and the Plumlees to take steps forward in their development as well. Plus there’s always Coach K. Much to the chagrin of most hoops fans, and the delight of ESPN executives, Duke’s not going anywhere.
This is a hard one to judge because of how dependent the defending national champs were on Kemba Walker, but the reason the Huskies made their run(s) in March was because of the development of other players. While Kemba probably won’t be coming back, those players most likely will return to Storrs. Jeremy Lamb, Alex Oriakhi, and Shabbaz Napier should give Jim Calhoun plenty of reason to return to defend his title.
The Cardinals’ shocking loss to Morehead State in the Tournament doesn’t diminish the unbelievable season Rick Pitino’s team put together. No one saw it coming. Now the entire team, outside Preston Knowles, returns for what should be a much deeper run in March. Next November the Cardinals shouldn’t catch anyone by surprise.
Vanderbilt is the tournament’s most predictable upset victim every March. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t pull its weight in the regular season. The ‘Dores might have an argument for being ranked higher, considering Jeffrey Taylor, John Jenkins, and Festus Ezeli all return to Nashville. Outside Kentucky, this is the most dangerous team in the SEC.
The Jayhawks could struggle early next season with the departure of the Morris twins. Josh Selby is possibly gone as well. Role players like Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson are expected to return and inherit more starring roles for Bill Self. Expectations are always high in Lawrence, but even die-hard Kansas fans will have to temper hopes for the upcoming season.
The loss of Jon Leuer will hurt, but Jordan Taylor’s stratospheric leap last season proves he is ready to shoulder more responsibility. Other players, like Mike Bruesewitz, John Gasser, and Ryan Evans will be counted on for more production. As questionable as the Badgers’ roster is beyond Taylor, Bo Ryan should be worth a top-15 ranking for Wisconsin.
The Wolverines are going to be a popular national dark horse next fall. Might as well stick John Beilein’s team up here right now. Assuming Darius Morris makes the wise decision and pulls out of the draft, this team will be dangerous and will challenge Ohio State in the Big Ten. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Morris will be a matchup nightmare in the backcourt. Expect Michigan to carry the momentum from their shellacking of Tennessee and near defeat of Duke into next season.
Xavier, easily the businesses’ greatest coaching trampoline of the past decade, finally caught a break when Chris Mack decided to pass on the prominent job openings available so far this spring (you never know with college basketball … Xavier might not be safe until the end of the summer). But with Mack back for now and Tu Holloway returning, the Musketeers should be the team to beat in the A-10.
Memphis is poor man’s Kentucky (probably because Calipari left his fingerprints all over Tiger program). Josh Pastner continues to pour in star-studded recruiting classes. After nearly defeating Arizona in the Tournament, this could be the year things come together. Another stellar class arrives in Memphis. If the newest one meshes with the older one, and the returnees learned a thing or two from this past up-and-down season, the Tigers will be tough to handle in Conference USA.
I can’t imagine why Derrick Williams would return. If he does, Arizona is Pac-10 favorite and a top-10 team. If not, the Wildcats probably are still the team to beat out West. If the tournament proved anything other than Williams’s pure freakishness, it showed Sean Miller, he of the aforementioned Xavier coaching tree, is a rising stud in the college game.
The Panthers sadly continue to lose early in the Tournament in the seasons they should be making deep runs. Last year’s senior-stacked and hungry roster was supposed to be the one that would finally take Jamie Dixon to a Final Four. Instead, Butler happened to Pitt. Pitt should rebound solidly next season, especially if Ashton Gibbs returns from his flirtation with the Association. Pitt is above a few key players graduating …it’s one of college basketball’s most solid programs
Tyler Honeycutt has hired an agent, but hopefully for Ben Howland’s sake, Malcolm Lee comes to his senses and returns to school for his much-needed senior season. If Josh Smith continues to develop, improve his conditioning, and mature, the Bruins will have possibly the country’s hardest one-on-one matchup on their roster.
The Gators entire frontline will be gutted by graduation. Losing Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus, and Vernon Macklin won’t be easy, but it helps to have both Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton return in the backcourt. One key to the season could be how effectively man-child Patric Young can develop an offensive game. Also, the successful integration of talented Rutgers-transfer and former McDonald’s All-American Mike Rosario would be a welcomed X-factor for Billy Donovan.
Before you cry foul at my lack of respect for Butler, let me just say that any other program that loses Matt Howard, Shawn Vanzant, and potentially Shelvin Mack, does not belong in a preseason top-25. The Bulldogs’ presence in nearly everyone’s ‘11-12 top-20 is 100% out of pure respect for continuity of the program. I don’t know how it will get done, but Butler will find a way. Do you want to be the one who bets against Brad Stevens?
The NIT runner-ups will be the SEC-West favorites next fall. Before getting hosed by the Tournament Committee, Anthony Grant engineered the country’s most surprising conference performance. Motivation shouldn’t be an issue for the Tide. Also, young teams that perform well in the NIT usually show enormous growth the following season. Just saying.
There’s obviously no shame in losing to the eventual national champion. And before falling to UConn in the Tournament, the Bearcats put together a nice little 26-win campaign. Plus, Mick Cronin returns his top four scorers from last season. Hopefully the Cincinnati challenges itself a bit more than it did this last pre-season, when a cupcake non-conference schedule forced the Bearcats to scramble for a tournament bid in the regular season’s final weeks.
Leading scorer Steven Gray will be tough to replace, but Marquise Carter emerged late last season to give the Zags reliable backcourt production. Elias Harris and Robert Sacre should continue to hold down a stout frontcourt, and a few highly touted recruits could provide a spark in the rotation. The WCC figures to get a little rockier with BYU joining the party, but Gonzaga should be a safe bet to top the conference once again.
Missouri fans’ hatred of the Frank Haith signing may be unwarranted now. But if the former Miami head-man can’t win with the roster he is inheriting from Mike Anderson, he deserves some heat. The Tigers should be loaded with the expected returns of Kim English, Phil Pressey, Ricardo Ratliffie, and Marcus Denmon (among others). Missouri could be a surprise contender if they adapt quickly to a new system. It should be a tournament team regardless.
24. Texas A&M
Kris Middleton is one of the Big 12’s most exciting talents, but that’s about the only time you’ll hear Texas A&M basketball described as “exciting.” I’m sure Mark Turgeon could care less. The Aggies may win ugly, but the physical, defensive-minded style has A&M winning ball games and making NCAA Tournaments. Expect another solid year out of the Aggies in ’11-12.
The Golden Eagles are in great shape to repeat their relatively surprising ’10-11 season. Jimmy Butler will be very hard to replace, but nearly everyone else returns to Marquette. Most importantly, Buzz Williams rejected the overtures of his higher-profile suitors. The Big East figures to be down a little bit next year (at least without a clear-cut favorite), so there is no reason Marquette can’t compete for a top four finish in conference play.
How did I do? I miss anyone you think deserves mentioning? Let me hear it below …
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.