1) Kansas- This is a virtually inarguable pick. The Jayhaws (27-8, 14-2) were bounced in the Sweet 16 last year by National Runner-Up Michigan State, but return all five starters and practically their entire bench. Sherron Collins has one more year of running the point under his belt and Cole Aldrich brings an experienced post presence to a team that will certainly have a fair shot at cutting down the nets in nine months.
Also of note, while retaining the bulk of his rotation, Bill Self also managed to snag top Recruits Xavier Henry (SG, Rivals top 150 #8), and Elijah Johnson (PG, Rivals top 150 #24). They are joined by big-man Thomas Robinson (PF, Rivals top 150 #31), cementing KU’s place amongst college basketball’s elite for years to come. Self’s 2009 class is ranked the fifth-best in the country by ESPN.
2) Texas- In a big year for the Big 12, Texas (21-11, 9-7) will certainly prove a worthy adversary for Self’s Jayhawks. They return superstar swingman Damion James and bring ESPN’s 4th ranked recruiting class, headlined by Avery Bradley (SG, Rivals top 150 #4) and Jordan Hamilton (SF, Rivals top 150 #6). Bradley should more than make up for the loss of A.J. Abrams, and Hamilton will give defenses headaches by adding a third serious scoring threat to the Rick Barnes’ Lineup.
3) Kentucky- Nobody is supposed to rank a group of freshmen this high. However, not since the movie Blue Chips (below) has such a class of freshmen been gathered. Let’s not mention the fact that Patrick Patterson is returning and provides a polished post presence (alliteration intended). John Calipari, violations or no violations, has monopolized the upper echelon of the 2009 recruiting class. John Wall (PG, Rivals top 150 #1) has shown shades of a young Dwayne Wade, Demarcus Cousins (PF, Rivals top 150 #2) will leave opposing defenses at a loss for action and words when paired with Patterson, and Eric Bledsoe (PG, Rivals top 150 #23) will allow Wall to play the off-guard for variation. Oh, and that is not to mention Daniel Orton (C, Rivals top 150 #22), who will come in handy when Patterson or Cousins become fatigued or have foul trouble.
What more? Calipari also brought in Darnell Dodson and John Hood, two wing players rated by Rivals as 4 star recruits (out of 5). In short, Kentucky (22-14, 8-8) should not have problems in the SEC and could be the re-incarnation of Michigan’s Fab Five.
4) Villanova- Jay Wright brings back his entire offensive arsenal outside of Dante Cunningham and adds on ESPN’s third-ranked recruiting class. Corey Fisher and Scottie Reynolds have shown that they can perform on the big stage and have been seasoned with one more year of experience in the Big East. The Wildcats (22-13, 9-9) made it to the Final Four last year, but hit a wall when they met Roy Williams’ National Champion-to-be North Carolina squad.
Mouphtaou Yarou (PF, Rivals top 150 #9) and high school teammate Isaiah Armwood (PF, Rivals top 150 #62) should provide immediate help underneath the basket, and Dominic Cheek (SG, Rivals top 150 #30) brings yet another perimeter threat to a team that defines the term ‘loaded’ on offense. The players are there; the only question that remains is whether or not Wright has the coaching swagger to bring a team to the National Championship.
5) North Carolina- Despite losing essentially all of its key elements from last season, UNC (34-4, 13-3) still manages to have a mind-blowingly talented roster. They also keep arguably the nation’s best coach in Roy Williams. Low-post threats Deon Thompson and Ed Davis were men among boys in their action last year and Marcus Ginyard brings a more-than-competent wing presence.
The Tar Heels also boast the nation’s second-best recruiting class. John Henson (PF, Rivals top 150 #5) seems to have springs for legs and adds to Williams’ formidable front court. Dexter Strickland (SG, Rivals top 150 #34) brings back the perimeter scoring touch that Wayne Ellington had. And the Wear twins (PF, Rivals top 150 #59,60) create the standard UNC depth and have the outward appearance of Tyler Hansbrough (if that means anything).
6) Tennessee- Bruce Pearl’s Volunteers (21-12, 10-6) lost no players of value. They are a team with far too much talent and athleticism to let slip in these preseason polls. Bobby Maze has had another season of experience playing against legitimate competition, Wayne Chism and Tyler Smith are hungry for victory in their senior seasons, and Scotty Hopson is no longer a wide-eyed freshman.
And while they certainly could have done slightly better than adding just one four-star recruit to their roster, there is method to Pearl’s madness. His team retains the same chemistry and cohesion that they had during last season, but now are a more intelligent group that hopefully has refined its definition of a ‘good shot.’ Only time will tell, but things look good in Knoxville.
7) Duke- As much as it pains me to rank Coach K’s team this high, the Blue Devils (30-7, 14-5) have a tendency not to slip that far from the top ten, ever. And while they do lose swingman Gerald Henderson and the valued skill of Greg Paulus, something tells me that Duke is going to be alright.
The sharp-shooting duo of Kyle Singler and Jonathan Scheyer, along with a more experienced Nolan Smith running the point should suffice as a legitimate threat in the ACC. Coach K has also added ESPN’s ninth-best recruiting class by signing Ryan Kelly (PF, Rivals top 150 #20) and Mason Plumlee (PF, Rivals top 150 #55). These two should allow Brian Zoubek to fall back into his deserved role of towel boy.
8 ) Michigan State- While Tom Izzo’s team does not lose any key players, they showed major weakness in the National Championship game and I fear that the other teams, especially the above seven, have tooled up in a fashion that is unfavorable to the Spartans (31-6, 15-3). Raymar Morgan and Kalin Lucas are certainly two forces to be reckoned with in the back-court, but unless Delvon Roe develops faster than expected, they will be challenged and over matched in the paint by most other teams.
Derrick Nix (C, Rivals top 150 #69) and Garrick Sherman (C, Rivals top 150 #75) should help make up for the loss of Goran Suton, but will have a hard time doing so as true freshmen. Most preseason ranks have the Spartans as top-5 locks, which is why I felt the need to justify my negativity.
9) Washington- The Huskies (26-9, 14-4) bring back their entire team outside of John Brockman. And while Brockman’s inside presence will be missed, Pac-10-freshman-of-the-year point guard Isaiah Thomas and senior-to-be Quincy Pondexter are more than ready to make up for his loss. For insurance purposes the Huskies have also added on Abdul Gaddy (PG, Rivals top 150 # 13). Lorenzo Romar’s team will need to depend more on outside shooting, but they did that quite easily with Brandon Roy and Nate Robinson a few years ago.
10) West Virginia- Though I pine for the days of Kevin Pittsnoggle, the Mountaineers (23-12, 10-8) one hungry senior in Da’Sean Butler and two extremely talented sophomores in Devon Ebanks and Kevin Jones. Ebanks and Jones no longer have freshman jitters and flourished in a season during which they competed against what could be called the most talented group of Big East teams ever.
And though Bob Huggins was not able to sign a top-notch recruiting class to make up for the loss of expert marksman Alex Ruoff, his team will still be able to play a very uptempo brand of basketball that will make opponents very uncomfortable.
11) Michigan- The Wolverines (21-14, 9-9), besides having one of the coolest team names in the NCAA, return one of its most talented teams. John Beilein has a sure-fire future NBA lottery pick in Manny Harris and an excellent post presence in DeShawn Sims. Sophomore-to-be Zach Novack should also be able to find his groove playing on the wing now that he has a season’s experience in the Big Ten. He showed flashes of brilliance against rivals Wisconsin and Minnesota, but was inconsistent for the bulk of the season.
12) Mississippi State- There is one word to describe this Bulldogs (23-13, 9-7) team: Big. They lucked out in signing Renardo Sidney (PF, Rivals top 150 #16) and return repeat SEC Defensive Player of the Year Jarvis Varnado at center. Varnado and Sidney form possibly the most formidable front line in the country and will have an imposing presence on most teams MSU faces.
Rick Stansbury just needs to hope that Barry Stewart and Ravern Johnson have continued to work on their outside shooting and that Dee Bost feels more at home running the point.
13) Purdue- I am not as high on the Boilermakers (27-10, 11-7) as many, but I will acknowledge that they are a talented bunch. E’Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson and Robbie Hummel are all very good players; however, I cannot see any of them stepping forth and taking the lead. They have an iffy recruiting class and showed major weakness in their loss to Connecticut in the NCAA tournament.
14) Georgetown- The Hoyas (16-15, 7-11) were the disappointment of the college basketball community last season. They were young and Chris Wright seemed to struggle at times in his role as floor general. They asked too much of freshman Greg Monroe and Austin Freeman could never seem to decide when to assert himself offensively and when to default to Monro or Dajuan Summers.
John Thompson III is a good coach and should be able to pin-point these problems over the off-season. Monroe should be a dominating force in the paint, Wright should now know how to guide his teammates and Freeman now knows that he is the first option in the Hoyas’ perimeter attack. Finally, Thompson III recruited Hollis Thompson (SF, Rivals top 150 #63) to step in for Summers. The two have comparable playing styles and Georgetown should be able to rise back to the upper echelon of the Big East.
15) Connecticut- The team that will probably get the shaft in most preseason polls. Jim Calhoun can do a little more than fall off of a bicycle. He is one heck of a coach. And despite the losses of Jeff Adrien, AJ Price, and Hasheem Thabeet, will be able to lead this group of Huskies (31-5, 15-3) to success. I might even go as far as to say that I slighted them with this #15 ranking.
Calhoun brings back a jaw-droppingly talented point guard in Kemba Walker, a great compliment on the wing in Jerome Dyson, and a freaky front-court athlete in Jerome Dyson. He has also brought in Alex Oriakhi (C, Rivals top 150 #21), Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (SF, Rivals top 150 #50) and Darius Smith (PG, Rivals top 150 #71) to make up for his losses.
So long as this group can keep its hands off of other students’ laptops, I think Connecticut is going to have a very good year.
16) Minnesota- The Golden Gophers (22-11, 9-9) sure don’t sound threatening, but Tubby Smith knows how to guide a team and should be able to take this crew dancing come March. They return star senior guard Lawrence Westbrook and were able to lure in a top-25 recruiting class. Their prized addition is in-state talent Royce White (SF, Rivals top 150 #19). White and Westbrook are two extremely gifted wing players and should be able to flourish with Smith’s guidance.
17) Georgia Tech- Though the Yellow Jackets (12-19, 2-14) struggled mightily last season, they return power forward Gani Lawal and point guard Iman Schumpert, two players who showed the ACC just how special they could be a handful of times. With Lawal a junior and Schumpert a sophomore, improvement is practically a guarantee.
The big knock on this team is that their record was awful last year and that they lose top scorers Lewis Clinch and Alade Aminu. These concerns are legitimate, but completely negated by the acquisition of Derrick Favors (C, Rivals top 150 #3). Favors will have an immediate impact that rumbles throughout the entire conference. He has the frame to pack on muscle quickly and will surely provide an immediate front court boost. Joining him will be Kammeon Holsey (PF, Rivals top 150 #82), Glen Rice (SG, Rivals top 150 #45) and Mfon Udofia (PG, Rivals top 150 #32). The Yellow Jackets have ESPN’s seventh-best recruiting class and should prove to be a force in the ACC.
18) Butler- Not to be confused with Baylor (#20), Butler (26-6, 15-3) too has a great season to look forward too. It returns all five starters including Matt Howard, Gordon Hayward, and Shelvin Mack, its three top scorers. Guards Hayward and Mack are coming into their sophomore seasons and should really begin to blossom this year into legitimate stars. Howard, who is entering his junior year, will provide both an interior presence on the court and a veteran voice off of it.
And though they do not boast the recruits that many of the other schools on this list do, returning all five starters to an NCAA tournament team is certainly a worthy enough resume item to earn a spot on this list.
19) California- The Golden Bears (22-11, 11-7) return a potent but predictable offensive attack. Jerome Randle, Patrick Christopher, and Theo Robertson will hoist three point shots until they turn blue in the face. The odds are that at least one of them will get hot, and the opposition will struggle to slow them down. All three players are very talented, but watching the team gets rather tiresome at a point.
Cal does not bring in any recruits of note, but will surely experience a good amount of success with their perimeter attack.
20) Baylor- Outside of Curtis Jerrells, the Bears (24-15, 5-11) return the majority of their offense from last year. Guard LaceDarius Dunn returns for his junior year and is a lethal threat on the perimeter. Senior Tweedy Carter will have to step in as the offensive facilitator, but should not have a problem doing so after watching Jerrells for the last three years, and Quincy Acy has presumably worked on his low-post offense during the off-season.
In addition to returning most starters, the Bears have a top-25 recruiting class. It includes Cory Jefferson (PF, Rivals top 150 #51), Nolan Dennis (SG, Rivals 150 #58), and Mark McLoughlin, another 4-star shooting guard.
With their bolstered depth and seasoned core, Baylor should fare better in the Big 12 and be able to replicate its impressive overall record from last year.
21) Maryland- I feel guilty giving the Terps (21-14, 7-9) a preseason rank. It will probably jinx our chances at having a decent season; but all logic points to us earning a spot on this list. Greivis Vasquez, Landon Milbourne, Eric Hayes, Adrian Bowie, and Sean Mosely all return. We only lose Dave Neal and Braxton Dupree. And though those two provided comic relief when they did perform, it is time for Gary Williams to start getting serious about his team.
Vasquez has a legitimate shot at making the All-ACC First Team, and Milbourne showed flashes of greatness last season along with Dino Gregory in the front-court. Also, despite not having a monstrous low-post threat, the Terps have impressive overall size and good team chemistry on their side.
Finally, Williams was able to sign two more big men in Jordan Williams (PF, Rivals top 150 #85) and James Padgett, a three-star power forward. Obviously this ranking is subject to change based on the destination of Lance Stephenson, but it appears doubtful that he’ll be donning red, black, and gold next year.
22) Illinois- Let’s do the math. A team (23-8, 11-7) retains four of its top five scorers and signs two top-50 recruits to fill the void of the one player lost. I’d say sign that team up for a tournament birth. Demetri McCamey will be joined by wingmen Brandon Paul (SG, Rivals top 150 #42) and D.J. Richardson (SG, Rivals top 150 #38), while Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale return to their respective power forward and center roles.
This is an Illini team that is not receiving the preseason buzz that many other big time programs are getting. However that should not be a factor in their success. Bruce Weber just got a raise and should make the folks at Illinois proud with the crew that he can put on the floor.
23) Florida- Billy Donovan returns all of his starting Gators (25-11, 9-7) besides leading scorer Nick Calathes. Alex Tyus, Chandler Parsons, and Dan Werner give Florida a very strong interior, while Erving Walker provides a perimeter threat.
Walker, however, will not be alone on the arc this year. Donovan recruited blue-chip prospect and All-American, Kenny Boynton (SG, Rivals top 150 #12) to help as well as Erik Murphy (PF, Rivals top 150 #79) to add to the Gators’ depth. These two brought Donovan’s 2009 class the nod of ESPN’s twentieth-best.
24) South Carolina- In a year that several SEC teams appear strong, the Gamecocks (21-10, 10-6) are no exception. They return four of their top five scorers including Devan Downey, who was deemed a legitimate NBA prospect by many. Downey is joined by forward Dominique Archie and center Mike Holmes as the leading threats for SC.
And while the team absolutely will miss the outside shooting of Zam Frederick, the commitments of Lakeem Jackson (SF, Rivals top 150 #117) and Ramon Galloway (PG, Rivals top 150 #148) should soften the blow. The Gamecocks are starting to show that they are slightly more than just a football school; look for them to make their mark this year.
25) Tulsa- This is an honest-to-god toss-up. The Golden Hurricane (25-11, 12-4) had a great year in 2008 and returns most of its major contributors. Guard Ben Uzoh and center Jerome Jordan are both entering their senior seasons and seem primed to make a run for the Big Dance this year.
Though the school got no recruits of note, it showed tremendous character last year and played extremely well in conference. Expect similar results this season.
Honorable Mention (in order): Ohio State, Syracuse, Boston College, Kansas State, Indiana