- Eamonn Brennan, College Basketball Reporter
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Now that we know who's in and who's out of the NBA draft, it's time to take a spin through the (still) Way-Too-Early Top 25. Surprise: Kentucky's still No. 1.
Revised Way-Too-Early Top 25
For weeks -- OK, months -- the college hoops world played over-under with the Kentucky Wildcats. That's where things stood on the night of the national championship, as Duke dropped Wisconsin -- we were just guessing. How many of the team's seven potential NBA draft entries would, for whatever reason, decide to stay? Last spring was filled with surprising returns to Lexington, after all, and those decisions turned the 2014-15 Wildcats into a 38-1 behemoth. Who would surprise us now?
No one. On April 10, all seven of the Wildcats' top scorers -- Dakari Johnson, Devin Booker, both Harrisons, Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Trey Lyles -- collectively left college basketball behind. Yet Kentucky is still No. 1, and ... wait. What?
This is hardly the open-and-shut case it was a year ago. Still, the returning trio of Alex Poythress (a senior who would have declared for the draft had he not torn his ACL this season), Tyler Ulis (arguably the best all-around point guard in the country) and Marcus Lee (a freakish interior talent) would earn slavish headlines in just about any other context. Throw in the prospects already on the board -- Skal Labissiere, the possible top pick in the 2016 NBA draft, as well as top point guard Isaiah Briscoe and shooting guard Charles Matthews -- and the prospects John Calipari is still chasing (including Jaylen Brown, Jamal Murray, and Thon Maker) and it's hard to imagine UK beginning the 2015-16 season with anything but very real national championship aspirations.
Even with seven players gone, a string of uncharacteristic recruiting misses throughout April, and its least-settled roster in years, Kentucky remains the default choice at No. 1. Is it the right one? We're less convinced than ever. The 2015-16 prospectus feels more volatile at the top than any in recent memory. But it's not so volatile -- and we're not so unconvinced -- that we can drop UK, either. At least not yet.
For more on how the Wildcats will look in 2015-16, check out Kentucky's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
And again, part of that reluctance stems from a lack of alternatives. Since early April, there has been a minor rush to crown North Carolina 2015-16's obvious top team. We get it, and yet, somehow, the talk about UNC feels a little too much like the Underpants Gnomes' business plan: Phase 1: Return all of your players. Phase 2: ??? Phase 3: Profit.
As with the gnomes, Phase 1 is undeniably impressive. The Tar Heels will still have (almost) everyone from last season's solid but not spectacular bunch, including lead point guard (and former preseason All-American) Marcus Paige, a starting frontcourt of Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, emerging star(s) Justin Jackson and Joel Berry, and solid reserves/role players like Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt, Theo Pinson, and Joel James. The only notable departure is guard J.P. Tokoto, an athletic, defensive wing who led the team in turnover rate and occasionally combusted UNC's spacing with a nonexistent offensive game.
That's an extremely impressive roster, but it still doesn't answer the questions of Phase 2. Will Paige be fully healthy all season? If so, how good will he be? Are we to assume, as a rule, that everyone from a 12-loss team will automatically get better? Or will the emergence of Jackson, Berry and freshman prospect Luke Maye put UNC over the top? Or both? Without Tokoto, are we sure this team will guard better than its eighth-place per-possession finish in the ACC last season? Will the ostensible offensive gains make up for it? Both? Neither?
UNC will be good. But it was good last season, too. Will the Heels be great? What's their Phase 3?
For more on how the Tar Heels will look in 2015-16, check out North Carolina's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
Arguably the biggest question about this team is whether coach Fred Hoiberg -- who has long been openly discussed as a prime NBA candidate, even for franchises (cough, Chicago Bulls, cough) that currently retain widely respected coaches -- will still be in college hoops by November. If so, this may be the best team of his already remarkably successful tenure. Forward Georges Niang's decision to eschew the draft and avenge ISU's first-Thursday tourney upset to UAB, coupled with versatile returning veterans (Naz Long, Monte Morris, Jameel McKay) and the usual Hoibergian parade of transfers (former Marquette guard Deonte Burton chief among them) will put Iowa State in lofty preseason territory. If they can clamp down on the defensive end even slightly -- they allowed an average of 1.04 points per trip in Big 12 play last season -- going Beatrix Kiddo on the first round of the NCAA tournament will be the least of their concerns.
For more on how the Cyclones will look in 2015-16, check out Iowa State's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
No team in the Big Ten will have as much talent as Maryland -- and with Indiana and Michigan State both tooling up, that's hardly faint praise. The return of brilliant rising sophomore guard Melo Trimble and matchup nightmare forward Jake Layman would have made Maryland a conference title contender almost by default. The arrival of elite forward prospect Diamond Stone and transfer Robert Carter -- who grabbed 20.6 percent of available defensive boards as a sophomore at Georgia Tech -- has made Maryland a Big Ten title contender, and an obvious top-five team to begin the 2015-16 season. Our favorite thing about Mark Turgeon's roster is how complete it feels. Role guys like Dion Wiley, Damonte Dodd, Michal Cekovsky and (especially) Jared Nickens will give Turgeon a steady, and yet situationally flexible, rotation, to say nothing of what happens if former Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon joins up. Goodness. Never has losing five players to transfer in one offseason -- as Turgeon did in 2014 -- worked out so well.
For more on how the Terrapins will look in 2015-16, check out Maryland's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
With Justin Anderson back, Virginia would have been atop this list. Why not? When Anderson was healthy in 2014-15, the Cavaliers were the best combination of lights-out defense and efficient offense in college basketball, and the only team deserving of a mention in the same breath as Kentucky. When Anderson was injured, the offense took a major knock, and the Cavaliers couldn't put it back together in time to outduel Tom Izzo and Travis Trice's complimentary iso clinic in the round of 32. With Anderson now departed for the NBA draft -- a slightly surprising, though totally understandable, decision -- the same offensive questions will be asked about UVa. But here's the thing: This team, otherwise more or less intact, was still a defensive purebred when Anderson was out, good enough to win nine of its final 10 regular-season games (and finish 28-2 overall). And this time, coach Tony Bennett has an entire offseason to account for his star wing's absence, namely by coercing promising rising sophomore Marial Shayok into an approximation of Anderson's perimeter shooting and athletic slashing. You might not pick the Hoos to hang a national title as readily as if Anderson had returned, sure. But they're still awfully good.
For more on how the Cavaliers will look in 2015-16, check out Virginia's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
Even accounting for the arguably early, variously surprising departures of KU freshmen Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander, April has been plenty kind to Bill Self. Early on, he learned that program stalwart Perry Ellis would return for his senior season, alongside Wayne Selden Jr., Frank Mason III, Devonte Graham, Brannen Greene, and a host of other key pieces from 2014-15's effective group. Earlier this week, Self got the best news of all: That No. 3-ranked power forward Cheick Diallo -- a tireless shot-blocker, rebounder and rim-runner who won the McDonald's All-American Game and Jordan Brand Classic MVP awards -- had chosen the Jayhawks over Kentucky and St. John's. That's good news.
Meanwhile, Jaylen Brown and Thon Maker are still considering Kansas. But even if neither commit (which seems the likeliest outcome, but who knows), Self's roster already looks better than the one that maintained KU's decade-spanning Big 12 title streak a season ago. The floor, in other words, is already high. If Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk -- a highly touted Ukraine import who showed sporadic signs of brilliance as an 17-year-old freshman -- makes the leap, the ceiling is vastly higher.
When Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor led coach Mike Krzyzewski to the most modern of his fifth career national titles, the immediate future of the roster was uncertain. Winslow and Okafor were surely gone, alongside senior Quinn Cook; Jones seemed to be leaning toward leaving. Deference to Coach K -- whose teams almost never begin the season ranked outside the top 10 for very good reason -- was almost outweighed by his roster's massive holes.
Until the past, oh, eight days, at which point Duke became a national title contender once more. ESPN recruiting analyst Jeff Borzello summed it up better than we could: "Eight days ago, Duke had no point guard and few game-changers among its eight scholarship players. After Derryck Thornton (No. 17 in ESPN 100) and Brandon Ingram (No. 3) committed, the Blue Devils suddenly have one of the best high school point guards and an elite wing to add to the roster. Essentially, Duke went from a team that would have little chance of defending its national championship to one of the most talented teams in the country in the span of one week. Mike Krzyzewski has quality pieces all over his roster -- and now he has the depth and personnel to match." Throw in Amile Jefferson, Marshall Plumlee, Matt Jones, title-game hero Grayson Allen, and prospects Luke Kennard and Chase Jeter, and yeah: What Jeff said.
Little has changed for Villanova in recent weeks. The losses of Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston -- leaders in tangible and intangible matters both -- still hurt. Dylan Ennis' transfer still doesn't help. But the return of sure-handed all-Big East guard Ryan Arcidiacono, alongside elite freshman prospect Jalen Brunson still gives Jay Wright one of the nation's best backcourts. And that's before you adjust for Josh Hart's inevitable Hilliard-esque breakout, whatever low-post polishing Daniel Ochefu still has up his sleeve and, more than anything, the efficient mechanical whir Wright's teams have produced in their 62 wins and eight losses since November of 2013. The noise of early tourney losses tends to drown out the more subtle tones of consistent success. It shouldn't.
For more on how the Wildcats will look in 2015-16, check out Villanova's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
Kyle Wiltjer might be the best offensive player in the country and an early player of the year frontrunner. Przemek Karnowski may be the best pure center in the sport. Domantas Sabonis may be the best bench big in the game, and Mark Few may use Sabonis in more three-big lineups with Wiltjer and Karnowski not only because all three players are really good but because the losses of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell will leave Gonzaga's backcourt in the hands of a sophomore former four-star prospect who missed almost all of his freshman season with a broken jaw (Josh Perkins). You can interpret this information in one of two ways: Either you think the front line will be so good that the hollowed-out backcourt won't matter, or you think the backcourt will be so hollowed-out the frontcourt won't be nearly as good. We're leaning toward the former.
10. Oklahoma Sooners
Buddy Hield is back, and so is the Big 12: The Sooners are the third top-10 team in this early preseason top 25, setting up another fascinating multi-team recurring episode of Wile E. Coyote vs. The Road Runner scheduled throughout January and February of 2016. Indeed, Hield's return might be as important as any player's return to any team this offseason. His consistent excellence at the wing point of attack set the tone for Oklahoma's stifling defense, and his high-usage offensive productivity -- on a team without a wide range of offensive options a season ago -- relieved pressure on both ends of the floor. (It also unleashed assist-rate leader Jordan Woodard against help-side defenses, which in turn unleashed guard Isaiah Cousins, who shot 45 percent on 140 3-point attempts and scored a blazing 1.429 points per trip on no-dribble spot-up jumpers last season, according to Synergy scouting data.) Replacing forward TaShawn Thomas won't be easy, but it will be far easier with Hield running the show.
For more on how the Sooners will look in 2015-16, check out Oklahoma's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
When we last examined the top 25, Gregg Marshall had just spurned Alabama in favor of a massive contract extension raised by a deep-pocketed group of boosters, billionaire industrialist (and Wichita State arena namesake) Charles Koch chief among them. That was the first sigh of relief for Shockers fans. The next two came shortly thereafter, when Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet both announced their decisions to return for one more run at the glory they've been chasing, mostly successfully, since both players stepped on campus three years ago. They'll have help: Former Kansas guard (and Wichita's all-time high school leading scorer) Conner Frankamp will be eligible to suit up for his hometown school by December, and if all he does is space the floor and knock down shots, he'll be the perfect complement to an offense that already stretched the floor with three guards and one hybrid forward (Evan Wessel) a year ago. Replacing Darius Carter's interior productivity won't be easy, but Marshall always finds the right guys for the rebounding job. Shockers fans can breathe easy.
For more on how the Shockers will look in 2015-16, check out Wichita State's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
No team has risen higher in our rankings than Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans, who checked in at No. 24 on April 7. What happened? Center Caleb Swanigan -- a Fort Wayne, Indiana, native and top-10 prospect with Kentucky, Arizona and Duke among the teams vying for his services, who began the recruiting process late after reclassifying from the 2016 class -- gave recruitniks minor heart tremors with his decision to enroll at Michigan State. Almost overnight, the Spartans went from a team with some nice pieces (Denzel Valentine, West Virginia transfer Eron Harris) and obvious holes (left by Trice and forward Branden Dawson) to having more sheer talent than most of the rest of the Big Ten. Oh, also, Tom Izzo is awesome at his job. That tends to help.
For more on how the Spartans will look in 2015-16, check out Michigan State's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
Mike Brey doesn't build his teams with splashy recruiting, but through long-term development and cohesion, which is as good a way as any of explaining why nothing has changed for Notre Dame since April 7. Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant are still gone; Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia, and (especially) Zach Auguste are still back to lead another of Brey's efficient, and emergent, rosters.
For more on how the Fighting Irish will look in 2015-16, check out Notre Dame's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
14. Indiana Hoosiers
In March, Indiana fans were so openly displeased with coach Tom Crean that his athletic director, Fred Glass, was forced to give him an open vote of confidence. In April, the fans might well share Glass's view. Everything has gone right for the Hoosiers lately, from the signing of top center prospect Thomas Bryant -- a desperately needed infusion of size -- to the returns of James Blackmon, Robert Johnson, Troy Williams, and Yogi Ferrell. The latter was by far the most important, and also the most hotly debated; Ferrell, despite a second-round-or-Europe draft projection, was apparently very much on the fence before deciding to return to school last week. Ferrell now has a real chance to leave IU as one of its most productive players in history. His team -- if it can defend even semi-competently -- has a real chance to push Maryland for both the conference's actual title and the most stunning perceptual repair effort crown, which is a thing we just made up.
15. Arizona Wildcats
Few teams were as stripped clean of top players by the NBA draft as Sean Miller's: Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley all declared in recent weeks, adding to the already significant loss of senior point guard T.J. McConnell. But Kaleb Tarczewski's decision to stay may have been the most important, as it provides Miller with both experience and high-level interior protection as a foundation from which to build. And build Miller will: Another loaded class (starring guard Alonzo Trier) is on the way, along with transfers Ryan Anderson (from Boston College) and Kadeem Allen (from junior college). Wing exodus notwithstanding, Arizona is still the class of the Pac-12.
16. Utah Utes
Not that Utah won't have something to say about Arizona's title. The loss of high-usage senior guard Delon Wright is an unqualified bummer, but it would have been made far worse if center Jakob Poeltl had leveraged his standout freshman season into an NBA departure. Instead, Poeltl is back at the center of a roster that still blends perimeter shooting, elite defense, intriguing young players, and genuine experience (senior guards Brandon Taylor, Jordan Loveridge and Dakarai Tucker all return) with a potential All-American on the low block.
17. Baylor Bears
After an unexpectedly strong season that ended with a bit role in the Saga of Ron Hunter's Scooter, Scott Drew's team is primed to succeed yet again, this time with the expectations to match. Rico Gathers is the best rebounder in the country; Taurean Prince isn't far off; and if Lester Medford can handle a larger ballhandling workload, four-star prospect King McClure should help fill in for departed senior guards Kenny Chery and Royce O'Neale.
18. Georgetown Hoyas
A new entry since April 7's list, Georgetown arrives thanks to the (ahem) April 7 announcement of guard D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera that he was, in fact, merely kidding about that whole leaving for the NBA thing. His return is a major boon as John Thompson III waves farewell to three imposing seniors (Josh Smith, Jabril Trawick, Mikael Hopkins), and hands the team off to a group of sophomores (L.J. Peak, Isaac Copeland, Paul White, Tre Campbell) who collectively comprise an immense amount of potential just waiting to be unlocked.
For more on how the Hoyas will look in 2015-16, check out Georgetown's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
19. LSU Tigers
Ben Simmons is still the star attraction. Whether Johnny Jones, whose teams suffered a parade of collapses in 2014-15, has the chops to maximize his one season with perhaps the best player in the class -- one with guard skills and unselfishness uncommon to 6-foot-9 prep megastars -- is still the most pressing question. That said, Jones added yet more talent in recent weeks, when No. 39-ranked prospect (and former St. John's commit) Brandon Sampson joined Simmons and guard Antonio Blakeney in Jones' stellar 2015 class.
Perhaps this is too high. This is a team, after all, that is losing its leading scorer (LaDontae Henton) from a season ago, who took nearly 30 percent of the Friars' shots and lacks an obvious replacement. Still, we like the Friars' roster, particularly its Georgetown-esque group of nascent sophomores. Most of all, we like that Kris Dunn -- who posted a nation's best assist on exactly half of his possessions (!) in his first season after long strings of injuries -- seems intent on destroying any usurper who fancies himself the best guard in the country.
For more on how the Friars will look in 2015-16, check out Providence's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
Rick Pitino still has a lot of his roster to settle, but his returning players and incoming freshmen still seem to be the right blend of talent, athleticism, and defensive quirk to fit his ever-morphing matchup-zone/man press/you-name-it defensive orchestra. It may not be a vintage edition of the Pitino-era Cardinals, but they're not exactly going anywhere, either.
For more on how the Cardinals will look in 2015-16, check out Louisville's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
The loss of center Matt Stainbrook and point guard Dee Davis could obscure what is otherwise a stellar batch of returners for Xavier coach Chris Mack. It shouldn't: Trevon Bluiett is a star in the making, and Jalen Reynolds, Remy Abell, Myles Davis, and several others all have their best basketball ahead of them.
23. Texas Longhorns
Thanks to a potential trademark dispute (no, seriously) it's unclear whether first-year Texas coach Shaka Smart will use the H-word when describing his style of play at Texas. Whatever he calls it, though, he got closer to its immediate execution this weekend, when lightning-quick guard Isaiah Taylor -- a promising but frustrating player in his first two seasons at Texas -- decided to stay in Austin for at least one more season. The two are a perfect stylistic pair, and guards Kendal Yancy and Demarcus Holland fit the bill, too. If Smart can figure out how to work in the more plodding portions of Rick Barnes' roster (like Cameron Ridley, Prince Ibeh, and Connor Lammert), Texas might be good right away.
24. Texas A&M Aggies
The Aggies added yet another piece since April 7, landing South Florida transfer Anthony Collins, who will be eligible to play right away. Collins isn't a blockbuster, but he should blend nicely with Billy Kennedy's already-impressive mix -- which comprises not only a top-10 recruiting class but a group of returners, led by Danuel House, who were already pretty solid a year ago.
For more on how the Aggies will look in 2015-16, check out Texas A&M's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
The Bo Ryan Memorial "Who Cares About Their Roster, There's No Way We Aren't Ranking Them" award still goes to ... drum roll, please ... Bo Ryan! Now that star forward Nigel Hayes has confirmed his return, we feel even better about slotting the departure-decimated Badgers in the Way-Too-Early Top 25 and letting them figure the rest out. They always do.
For more on how the Badgers will look in 2015-16, check out Wisconsin's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
Also receiving consideration: Michigan, NC State, Oregon, Purdue, Vanderbilt, Marquette, Butler, Cincinnati, UCLA, Florida State, Miami
Now that we know exactly who's in and who's out of the NBA draft, it's time to take another spin through the Top 25 for next season. Surprise: Kentucky still tops the list.