- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- It's not often you see a headline that intentionally undermines the piece below it. This, dear hoops fans, is one of those times.
Yes, the "Way Too Early" prefix in "Way-Too-Early Top 25" pretty much gives this game away. We are not even a day removed from the confetti-infested "One Shining Moment" madness of the 2014 NCAA tournament. There are six months of offseason between now and the start of practice in October, and seven months between here and the return of actual college basketball. This depressingly long stretch of calendar will comprise a rush of NBA draft decisions, at least one massive recruiting race (Myles Turner, a 7-foot center ranked No. 2 overall in the 2014 class, is still undecided), transfer market dominoes, a coaching change or two, and any number of minor surprises -- suspensions, dismissals, reclassifications, and all the rest.
In the infamous words of a former United States defense secretary, there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. The Way-Too-Early Top 25 is a prisoner to these same predictive limitations. It is a glimpse at the landscape, and an educated guess. It is subject to change. It certainly will. And we will update it accordingly as the offseason rolls along.
This is especially true at the top of the Top 25. Any of at least three teams could, depending on draft decisions and Turner's final call, end up in the preseason No. 1 spot. Let's see how that plays out in the weeks and months to come. For now, the way-too-early No. 1 team in the 2014-15 season is . . .
While coach Sean Miller fell agonizingly short of his first-ever Final Four, he (and that legion of hungry Arizona fans) can be comforted knowing that their Wildcats will be every bit the national title contender next season. Miller has delivered so well in recruiting that Arizona could lose star freshman forward Aaron Gordon and junior All-American Nick Johnson and still project as one of the best, deepest teams in the country. Gordon's departure seems a given, and Johnson is reportedly leaning toward it. Center Kaleb Tarczewski and athletic pivot player Rondae Hollis-Jefferson seem likely to be back. Point guard T.J. McConnell will still be running the show. Brandon Ashley will have recovered from the foot injury that ended his season in February. And incoming recruit Stanley Johnson -- the No. 1-ranked small forward and the prize of a loaded five-man haul -- might be the most skilled all-around player in the Class of 2014. Miller's team had one real flaw in 2013-14: its dearth of depth after Ashley's injury . Even if Johnson, a probably second-round pick, leaves -- and that's a 50-50 proposition right now -- this team might be even deeper and more versatile on the offensive end, if not nearly as dominant defensively. Either way, it's a title favorite. Maybe the title favorite. The future in Tucson is as bright as the midday Arizona sun.
By all accounts, gifted Duke freshman Jabari Parker is genuinely weighing the notion of coming back to school. Stranger things have happened, we guess, but let's be real: Parker is almost certainly going pro. Same goes for smooth lefty wing Rodney Hood. And you know what? Duke should be even better. How? By replacing one of their best freshmen ever with perhaps the most highly touted recruiting class of Mike Krzyzewski's coaching career. Point guard Tyus Jones and center Jahlil Okafor are the top-ranked players at their positions, according to the ESPN 100 (No. 4 and No. 1 overall, respectively). Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen are five-star prospects in their own right. That group will mix in with a solid core of returners, from skilled guards Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon to rebound-gobbling forwards Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee. Two big questions here: Will Myles Turner, who is still considering Duke, pair with Okafor in a frightening frontcourt? And can Coach K, who has never had a team as young as this, get the Blue Devils up to speed (particularly defensively) in time to make a national title run?
Surprise, surprise: The Kentucky Wildcats have another stellar recruiting class arriving in Lexington this fall. Power forward Trey Lyles and center Karl Towns Jr. are two of the 10 best players in the class, per the ESPN 100, and shooting guard Devin Booker might grade out as one of the most efficient perimeter scorers in the country. As is custom, Kentucky is losing much of this season's roster, but it could return some important pieces, especially hyper-promising center Marcus Lee, who played a key, sudden role in UK's Final Four run. Whether coach John Calipari's latest batch of future NBA pros is as good as the world-destroying 2013 class -- which began with Fab Five comparisons and talk of an undefeated season, then waited until March to show everybody why -- is beside the point. What matters is how good the 2014-15 Wildcats will be relative to their competition. After four Elite Eights, three Final Fours, and one national title (and nearly his second Monday night) in Calipari's five seasons at UK, that answer should be fairly self-explanatory.
Don't get it twisted: Wisconsin's Final Four run was no fluke. Save a rough patch in January, the Wisconsin offense you saw in March -- the one that was a possession away from a crack at the national title -- really was that good all season. Next season, almost everyone is back. Ben Brust is the only significant contributor graduating this spring. Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker both declared their intentions to return almost immediately following their loss to Kentucky on Saturday night; both could compete for national player of the year honors next season. Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson will be seniors. Rising sophomore Nigel Hayes will be a seasoned and even more polished frontcourt force. And if Bronson Koenig can re-create his stellar work against Kentucky on a regular basis, the Badgers have every chance of getting back to the Final Four a year from now.
Losing senior Cleanthony Early hurts for all the reasons he displayed in his remarkable 31-point performance in the Shockers' second-round loss to Kentucky. (Has any player helped his draft stock so much with one game? What a stud.) And role players Nick Wiggins, Chadrack Lufile and Kadeem Coleby won't be easy to replace. But coach Gregg Marshall has on the way another crop of sturdy junior college reinforcements who will join hyperefficient point guard Fred VanVleet and NBA-eschewing shooting guard Ron Baker -- to say nothing of Darius Carter and Tekele Cotton. The Shockers aren't going anywhere.
Leslie McDonald graduated and James Michael McAdoo declared for the NBA draft, and those are the only two departures coach Roy Williams has to worry about. In other words, the Tar Heels are going to be good. Marcus Paige came of age in his sophomore year. McAdoo's departure creates room (and loads of deserved touches) for uber-efficient Brice Johnson. That swap may be addition by subtraction. Then there is addition by addition: Williams has the No. 3-ranked class en route to Chapel Hill, which includes Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson and Joel Berry, none of whom ranks lower than third at his respective perimeter position. With Paige running the show, UNC will be within range of national title contention once more.
Much was made of the Cavaliers' experience and their long road to 2014's ACC title sweep, and the team's seniors -- lights-out shooter Joe Harris and imposing forward Akil Mitchell -- were crucial to this season's success. But that's it. Those are Virginia's only two senior contributors. Everybody else is back. Team usage leader Malcolm Brogdon will be a junior, as will Justin Anderson, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey (the latter of whom looks capable of replacing some of Mitchell's interior work). Freshman London Perrantes shot 44 percent from 3 and should get many more looks with Harris gone; Perrantes is a breakout candidate waiting to happen. And coach Tony Bennett's team is still going to play the same brand of smothering, stifling pack-line defense.
Coach Billy Donovan, as is his wont, has another strategically perfect class coming in. It's a group of four-star players who should be able to contribute and fill needs right away, but they won't necessarily need major minutes or lots of touches right off the bat. That's good, because losing Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Patric Young creates a need for a smooth, structured transition. The talent is here: Kasey Hill flashed brilliance in a backup role before wilting in the Final Four; Michael Frazier II is a knockdown shooter; Dorian Finney-Smith is a highly skilled forward; and rising sophomore center Chris Walker is a complete athletic freak whose late start to the season gave him no time to develop. When he does, look out. Florida may have some growing pains, but Donovan will get them there.
The general rule with lottery picks -- especially top-five picks -- is to plan for their departure. That's why it seems unlikely Kansas, having already lost Andrew Wiggins to the draft, will keep currently undecided center Joel Embiid on campus for another season. It just doesn't happen often. But if Embiid does leave, a spot would open up for Myles Turner, who has kept Kansas near the top of his list throughout his recruitment. The Jayhawks already have the No. 1 power forward in the country (Cliff Alexander) signed, as well as No. 4 small forward Kelly Oubre, and will put those two alongside Wayne Selden Jr., Perry Ellis, Naadir Tharpe, Frank Mason, Brannen Greene and Conner Frankamp -- a deep and versatile core. After 10 straight regular-season Big 12 titles, the first rule of Bill Self is to never doubt Bill Self.
Losing Shabazz Napier is tough. (That's the kind of hard-hitting analysis you get from the Way-Too-Early Top 25.) Napier is the Huskies' heart and soul, and he was also a massively productive, efficient player -- replacing him won't be possible. But even without him, UConn has a promising 2014-15 on deck. If Ryan Boatright's jump shot develops, he could be a devastating ball-dominant point guard. DeAndre Daniels is rounding into an unstoppable wing scorer. Freshman center Amida Brimah blocked 15.4 percent of opponents' shots this season, fourth-most in the country; his future is limitless. Coach Kevin Ollie could get contributions from still-promising guard Omar Calhoun and incoming talent Daniel Hamilton. And NC State transfer Rodney Purvis -- whom Ollie referred to as "a Ferrari in the garage that I can't drive" in Arlington this week -- may be the best player of them all. The Huskies are in excellent hands.
11. SMU Mustangs
Wait ... what? Don't refresh your browser, folks. This isn't a mistake. Coach Larry Brown got a long-moribund SMU program into tournament contention in 2013-14, just his second season, thanks to a deep and scrappy group of homegrown recruits and transfers. Nearly everyone will return in 2014-15. Meanwhile, Brown's aggressive staff managed to land fifth-ranked 2014 prospect Emmanuel Mudiay, a 6-5 lead guard with physical scoring skills, a tight handle, and a well-developed, crafty midrange game. (Think the Harrison twins, maybe. Or Tyreke Evans.) An already excellent defense will benefit next season from serious scoring punch, with a legendary coach still running circles around his contemporaries on a play-by-play basis. This is a fascinating team to watch moving forward.
The Cardinals are losing a ton. There's Russ Smith, an All-American and the lead force on the Cardinals' 2013 national title team. There's Luke Hancock, the Most Outstanding Player of that Final Four. Stephan Van Treese leaves with size and hoops IQ in tow. And Montrezl Harrell, who became a dominant interior force this season, looks likely to enter the NBA draft. Yet coach Rick Pitino's team might still be a title contender by next March, and not just because Pitino has been masterful in working through roster changes in recent seasons. He also brings in the No. 4-ranked recruiting class -- including four solid, top-100 players in Shaqquan Aaron, Quentin Snider, Anas Osama Mahmoud and Chinanu Onuaku. Pitino may need to get more out of Mangok Mathiang and (especially) Wayne Blackshear, but the Cardinals won't lack for talent.
After a two-year lull, coach Jay Wright got Villanova back among the elite, and expectations will be similarly high next season. Four starters (Ryan Arcidiacono, Darrun Hilliard II, JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu) return alongside promising rising sophomore Josh Hart (who posted a 126.8 offensive rating this season). Two top-100 prospects (forward Mikal Bridges, guard Phil Booth) should be able to contribute right away. Villanova's season didn't end the way Wright wanted, but some of the sting comes off when the No. 7 seed that "upset" you streaks all the way to the Final Four. Wright's program is back in a big way.
14. VCU Rams
Could next season be VCU's best? Coach Shaka Smart will lose two four-year contributors this spring, but he has his best recruiting class (and it's not even close) on the way, including three top-100 players. Oh, and Briante Weber (maybe the most disruptive defender in the country) is back, along with Treveon Graham and Melvin Johnson. The Rams are going to be super-deep; Smart's ball-pressuring, turnover-inducing style may get its best exhibition yet.
15. Gonzaga Bulldogs
When Przemek Karnowski arrived at Gonzaga, he was little-known outside international circles, and his early struggles didn't earn him much fanfare. The 2014-15 season may be his coming-out party. He was excellent down the stretch for Gonzaga this past season. Next season's Bulldogs will keep Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Kyle Dranginis on the perimeter, with the 7-1 Karnowski as the featured post player, and they'll add former Kentucky forward Kyle Wiltjer. It's easy to see coach Mark Few playing a four-out, one-in configuration, with Wiltjer occasionally rotating into high-low and post sets with Karnowski. The results could be devastating.
Fred Hoiberg hasn't merely had successful seasons in his brilliant four-year run as coach at Iowa State. He's also built the Cyclones into a program that can sustain annual losses and still expect to be really good. So it is in 2014-15, when the Cyclones will lose DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim -- both seniors, and two of the best players in the country -- but will still have Georges Niang and Dustin Hogue in even bigger roles, Monte Morris and Naz Long emerging from the wings, 3-point threat freshman Clay Custer, and frontcourt transfers Abdel Nader and Jameel McKay.
Early in the season, as Nik Stauskas morphed into an all-court killer, his father let slip that his son's sights were focused on the NBA. Stauskas had to deny it at the time, but there's little reason to pretend otherwise now: Stauskas' comprehensive offensive season (not just scoring but passing, ballhandling, you name it) have made him a bona fide lottery pick. NBA people have fallen head over heels. So where does that leave Michigan? It depends: Will Glenn Robinson III leave? What about Mitch McGary, who missed most of the 2013-14 season thanks to back surgery? If both are back, the Wolverines are the Big Ten favorite. If one or both are gone, things are more fluid -- but the return of Caris LeVert and the ongoing development of Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin will keep coach John Beilein's team in the mix.
Last week, coach Tom Izzo told reporters that star sophomore shooting guard Gary Harris was "torn" on the NBA draft. Izzo admitted it probably makes sense for Harris to enter the draft, and he probably will. Adreian Payne will be there already, and Keith Appling graduates this spring. Branden Dawson is reportedly 50-50. Izzo has one top-100 player inbound -- No. 15-ranked point guard Lourawls Nairn -- and a good backcourt in Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine. But if four of Michigan State's five starters go missing, 2014-15 may see the Spartans take at least a half-step back.
19. Texas Longhorns
Coach Rick Barnes needed a quality campaign to shore up support in Austin, and he got exactly that this season. Next season holds the promise of much more. All five starters are returning -- including Cameron Ridley, Javan Felix and productive rising senior Jonathan Holmes -- while adding wing Jordan Barnett, who combines explosive athletic ability with 3-point shooting.
20. Oklahoma Sooners
Oklahoma has been ahead of the typical rebuilding schedule almost from the moment Lon Kruger took over as coach. Next season, the Sooners have a chance to take another step. Buddy Hield, Jordan Woodard, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler all return to a team that finished in the top 20 in adjusted offensive efficiency, and the loss of second-leading scorer Cameron Clark should be offset by the addition of top-100 power forward Dante Buford and lanky four-star center Khadeem Lattin. The Sooners are adding a ton of size to a skilled offensive team. If they perk up even a smidge defensively, be forewarned.
21. Syracuse Orange
If Tyler Ennis had returned, coach Jim Boeheim's team would be in the ACC contention tier with Duke and Virginia. With Ennis committed to the NBA draft, the Orange could struggle. There is obviously still some talent left (Michael Gbinije, Trevor Cooney, Rakeem Christmas) -- and that goes double if Jerami Grant, a potential late first-round pick right now, decides to come back -- but losing Ennis may mean forcing incoming freshman guard Kaleb Joseph into a starting point role. Wait and see.
22. UCLA Bruins
Can coach Steve Alford maintain the Bruins' trajectory in his Year 2 as coach? Kyle Anderson, UCLA's multitalented 6-9 point guard, is headed to the NBA, a major loss for a team structured around his versatile skills. Jordan Adams seems likely to join him in the NBA draft, though he hasn't announced yet; little-used guard Zach LaVine surprised many with his decision to throw his lot into the NBA sweepstakes. UCLA adds some serious talent in the form of Kevon Looney (and others), but going from Anderson to Bryce Alford at the point guard position could portend a downturn.
23. Oregon Ducks
Oregon had one of the strangest campaigns in the country this past season, one that began 13-0 and saw the Ducks droop to 3-8 in Pac-12 play before a late-season surge carried them through to the NCAA tournament. What fresh madness does 2014-15 hold? Coach Dana Altman's 1-2-3 trio is among the best in the country; Dominic Artis, Joseph Young, and Damyean Dotson are difficult to guard on the perimeter. (Young was especially impressive as an efficient perimeter shooter and midrange scorer who almost never turned the ball over.) The Ducks look far less sturdy in the frontcourt. But Providence transfer Brandon Austin could be a factor, and Altman finds a way to get the most out of his teams.
In a season spent fetishizing elite freshmen, Kansas State's Marcus Foster was simultaneously one of the sport's least heralded and most productive. Foster's breakout season augurs an even better sophomore campaign, and coach Bruce Weber will surround him with a batch of quality role players and an imposing big man in Thomas Gipson.
25. Iowa Hawkeyes
Are people sleeping on Iowa? Don't get us wrong: The Hawkeyes' last month was an unmitigated disaster. They slipped from a single-digit seed to a 9-9 record in the Big Ten and a First Four date with Tennessee in Dayton, Ohio. But hold on a minute: Their only departures are Roy Devyn Marble and Melsahn Basabe -- good players, sure, but hardly irreplaceable. Meanwhile, they bring back Mike Gesell, Aaron White, Adam Woodbury, Gabriel Olaseni (who grabbed 16.8 percent of available offensive rebounds this season, sixth-best in the country), Josh Oglesby, Peter Jok and the one player no one seems to be mentioning in their Iowa discussions, forward Jarrod Uthoff. Uthoff was a dynamic player off the bench, not unlike Olaseni. It's easy to picture coach Fran McCaffery going big with those two in a lineup and having a lot of balance and skill at his disposal. Could that version of the Hawkeyes exceed this past season's? Would it be more cohesive?
Then again, we don't really know. It's the first full week of April. It's way too early to know much of anything.
Here are 15 more teams that may crack the list at some point before November: San Diego State Aztecs, Baylor Bears, Ohio State Buckeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Stanford Cardinal, West Virginia Mountaineers, Memphis Tigers, Tennessee Volunteers, Georgetown Hoyas, Pittsburgh Panthers, Dayton Flyers, Utah Utes, Oklahoma State Cowboys, Harvard Crimson, Maryland Terrapins.