Kentucky is downright talented. And the Wildcats have the depth to fill two top-10 teams. It takes some luck to make reach the Final Four no matter how talented a team is, but it’s hard to imagine Kentucky not playing during college basketball’s final weekend.
Wisconsin advanced to last year’s Final Four and returns four starters and all three of its main bench players. The trio of Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Traevon Jackson have the ability to lead the Badgers to another deep run in March.
Losing Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon is huge, but the Wildcats could actually be better this season. Brandon Ashley will return from his injury and rejoin Kaleb Tarczewski and Rondae-Hollis Jefferson in the frontcourt. T.J. McConnell returns at point guard, and the team adds impact freshman Stanley Johnson, who could become the Wildcats’ leading scorer.
One stud from Chicago leaves, and another comes in. The Blue Devils lost Jabari Parker, along with a few others, but they are another team that could be better than last year. Jahlil Okafor should be a first team All-American, and freshman point guard Tyus Jones will also be one of the better players in the country. Add those two to Rasheed Sulaimon, Amile Jefferson and Quinn Cook, and you have a very talented core.
Perry Ellis is continuing to develop into one of the nation’s premier forwards, and shooting guard Wayne Selden is primed for a breakout season. Plus big man Cliff Alexander will be one nation’s top freshmen. The Jayhawks will have multiple options at point guard with sophomore Frank Mason and freshman Devonte’ Graham, and wing Kelly Oubre should also make a big impact.
6. North Carolina
Marcus Paige is an elite point guard, Brice Johnson is ready for a major frontcourt role, J.P. Tokoto’s versatility can cause mismatches and Kennedy Meeks will be more effective after losing some weight. The Tar Heels also have some impact freshmen in Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson.
Virginia is an ACC contender again with three starters returning. Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes are a great tandem in the backcourt, and Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill can accomplish a lot together up front.
The Big East was nothing too special last season, but Villanova still won the league by multiple games. The Wildcats lost leading scorer James Bell but return just about everyone else.
9. Wichita State
Wichita State lost Cleanthony Early, but it returns its backcourt of Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton. Forwad Darius Carter is coming off a strong junior season, but he played only 18.2 minutes per game. His ability to produce in larger quantities will be key for the Shockers.
This is as good a team as Mark Few has had at Gonzaga. For starters, the backcourt is loaded and deep. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. return, and they add three impact guards in USC transfer Byron Wesley, Vanderbilt transfer Eric McClellan and freshman Josh Perkins. Up front, returning center Przemek Karnowski is joined by Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer and freshman Domantas Sabonis.
Louisville has one of the nation’s best players in junior forward Montrezl Harrell, but the questions for the Cardinals are their experience and depth. The Cardinals have a pair of seniors in guards Chris Jones and Wayne Blackshear, but those two and Harrell are the only upperclassmen.
12. Iowa State
As usual, Iowa State loses a lot but has reloaded. Dustin Hogue and Georges Niang already form a strong front line, and the additions of former Marquette forward Jameel McKay, Northern Illinois transfer Abdel Nader and 7-1 freshman Georgios Tsalmpouris will only help in that regard. The Cyclones return three of last year’s guards while adding UNLV transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones and freshman Clayton Custer.
Texas was one of the last year’s better surprises, and it returns the whole roster minus one bench player. And with the addition of five-star recruit Myles Turner, the Longhorns should only be better. The combination of Turner, Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley deserves to be in the conversation for best frontcourt in college basketball.
Oklahoma returns four starters from a team that finished second in the Big 12 last season. Between Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard, the Sooners’ backcourt is loaded.
Florida remains a threat to Kentucky even though the Gators lost four of their six leaders in minutes per game. Michael Frazier II is a proven shooter and sophomore point guard Kasey Hill showed promise as Scottie Wilbekin’s backup.
16. Ohio State
Ohio State lost its top three scorers, including one of the Big Ten’s best players in Aaron Craft. Shannon Scott is an adequate replacement as the starting point guard, although he is not on the same level Craft. But with star freshman D’Angelo Russell alongside him, the Buckeyes’ backcourt is in fine shape. Up front, seniors Sam Thompson and Amir Williams return while head coach Thad Matta added graduate student transfer Anthony Lee from Temple.
VCU is the heavy favorite to take home this season’s Atlantic 10 title. If Treveon Graham played for a coach who didn’t balance out his minutes so much, he would be one of the nation’s top scorers. And Graham will have a lot of help with vicious defender Briante Weber and shooting guard Melvin Johnson.
18. Michigan State
Despite losing a ton of talent and production, Tom Izzo will have Michigan State in the Final Four hunt again. Senior forward Branden Dawson is a monster inside, and junior Denzel Valentine and senior Travis Trice have great chemistry in the backcourt. Getting junior forward Matt Costello or sophomore forward Gavin Schilling to produce while playing greater minutes will be a big part of the Spartans’ 2014-15 success.
19. San Diego State
Xavier Thames did a ton for San Diego State last season, leading the team in points, assists, steals and 3-pointers. And he’s gone. But the Aztecs return three starters and most of their bench, making them the favorite in the Mountain West this season. It’s time for 6-10 junior Skylar Spencer to have a breakout season.
Was Nebraska’s success last season a fluke? We’ll know within a few months. The Cornhuskers largely have the same group, led by Terran Petteway, Shavon Shields and Walter Pitchford. Losing Leslee Smith to an ACL tear, but the Huskers once again have the talent to finish in the upper-third of the Big Ten.
SMU returns the core from last year’s team, which nearly made the NCAA Tournament. Forward Markus Kennedy is currently not eligible to play this season, and losing him would knock the Mustangs out of the Top 25 and bump Connecticut up to AAC favorite. But if Kennedy gets his academics together and becomes eligible, SMU can be a dangerous team.
There’s a lot of production to replace with Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels gone. The Huskies’ backcourt will be fine. Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun return; NC State transfer Rodney Purvis, junior college transfer Sam Cassell Jr. and freshman Daniel Hamilton join the group. Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan will have to take on bigger roles up front.
23. Kansas State
Kansas State was a borderline Top-25 team last season, and the Wildcats return three starters and most of their bench. Marcus Foster was one of the nation’s better freshmen, even though he did not get much attention. He should have a huge sophomore year.
Michigan won’t have much depth, but what the Wolverines have at the top is pretty good. Caris LeVert is a potential Big Ten Player of the Year, and Derrick Walton Jr. is coming off a very solid freshman season as the starting point guard. Zak Irvin, a marksman from 3-point range, could have a big sophomore year as he takes on a larger role.
Losing Spencer Dinwiddie is big, but Colorado already has experience playing without him — Dinwiddie suffered a season-ending injury 17 games into last season. After Dinwiddie, the Buffaloes return everyone who played more than eight minutes per game. They are going to be Arizona’s toughest competition in the Pac-12.
Others to consider: Baylor, Georgetown, Georgia, Harvard, Memphis, Minnesota, Stanford, Utah
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