2014-15 college basketball top 25: An extremely early look at next season's top teams

Streeter Lecka

There are a ridiculous amount of things that need to happen before we can realistically start looking at the 2014-15 season, but let's not let that fact be the thing that stands in our way.

Lots and lots of players still have to decide whether to return to school or declare for the draft. Lots and lots of players still have to decide whether to return to school or transfer to another program. Lots and lots of major off-the-court things are going to happen between today and the opening week of the 2014-15 season.

I am aware of all of these things, and this is still going to happen. Just embrace it and try to enjoy the ride you're about to be dragged on.

1. Duke

Get your Mercer jokes in while you can. The Blue Devils are losing Rodney Hood and (almost certainly) Jabari Parker, and replacing them with two of the top five recruits in the country in Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor, as well as fellow five star recruits Grayson Allen and Justise Winslow. Couple that incredible freshman class with the return of Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson and company, and that opening Friday exit is going to sting the Cameron Crazies a little less over the next seven months. Oh, and if Parker does somehow decide to return for his sophomore season, then this should be your unanimous preseason favorite.

2. Wisconsin

The Badgers are likely only going to lose guard Ben Brust from the team that was a missed Aaron Harrison 24-footer away from playing for the national championship. The loss of Brust's leadership, ballhandling and perimeter shooting is a big time blow, but this is still a squad that's going to bring back seven of its top eight scorers, including West Regional MVP Frank Kaminsky. If Bo Ryan can find one guard to take his game up a level, then Bucky is going to be right back in the thick of the title hunt a year from now.

3. Arizona

Aaron Gordon is a going to be a lottery pick in a couple months, and there's a strong chance that All-American Nick Johnson heads to the NBA with him, but there's no reason to cry for Wildcat fans at the moment. T.J. McConnell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Kaleb Tarczewski are likely headed back for another year of school, and they'll do so with a hunger to avenge a heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin in the West Regional final. Toss in five-star recruit Stanley Johnson, a youngster with Jabari Parker-esque polish, and Sean Miller has his second championship contender in as many years.

4. Kansas

It never quite clicked for the 2013-14 Jayhawks in the manner the rest of the country was always expecting, but they'll be loaded with next-level talent yet again, even after the likely departures of Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. Perry Ellis, Wayne Selden and Naadir Tharpe are all back as proven veterans, and Bill Self will reload on the one-and-done front with Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander. There's also a possibility that KU could grow even stronger in the coming weeks by adding unsigned 7-footer Myles Turner.

5. North Carolina

The Tar Heels have a load returning to Chapel Hill, and I'm not sure you can overstate the importance of starting a season without any Leslie McDonald/P.J. Hairston-esque off-the-court drama ... assuming that happens. James Michael McAdoo wound up turning in a solid 2013-14 season, but I'm still not sure his departure isn't an addition by subtraction situation. One of the biggest reasons for that is the added minutes and touches it will create for potential national breakout star Brice Johnson. Oh, and Marcus Paige is back. He's really good. Top 20 recruits Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson and Joel Berry probably are okay, too.

6. Kentucky

Acting like you have a legitimate idea where to stick Kentucky in one of these "hours after the title game" ranking exercises is beyond disingenuous, so I'm not even going to attempt it. Nobody knows exactly how the next several weeks are going to play out for the Cats, and even after all the moving and shaking comes to an end, we're still not going to really know what to do with them. For now, I'll go with six because any higher seems wrong after what we saw for 80 percent of the past season, and any lower seems wrong after what we've seen from 80 percent of the postseasons John Calipari has produced since arriving in Lexington.

7. Florida

At first glance, losing four starters and the bulk of your scoring looks pretty bad, but the Gators are replacing those guys with players who probably would have put up comparable numbers if given the opportunity this season. Chris Walker only played one semester, but would still have a solid chance to be a first round pick if he chooses to declare. Assuming Walker decides to spend one more season in Gainesville, he and Dorian Finney-Smith will give Billy Donovan yet another elite frontcourt. Kasey Hill is ready to become a star now that Scottie Wilbekin is gone, Michael Frazier is unlikely to suddenly lose his outside stroke, and the rest of the country is about to find out how good Rutgers transfer Eli Carter is ... and by "about to," I mean, you know, in seven months.

8. Michigan

If the Wolverines return at least one member of the Nik Stauskas/Glenn Robinson III/Mitch McGary trio, then I think this ranking is justified. If not, well, then we're going to have to re-evaluate. John Beilein is still a national title away from being rightly recognized as the top-tier coach he is, but he'll get the most out of whatever parts return to Ann Arbor. That ceiling could be as high as Indianapolis or as low as the tournament's second weekend, but Michigan isn't going to fall back off the map anytime soon.

Michigan_medium

Photo credit: Andy Lyons

9. Louisville

The Russ Smith era in Louisville is over, and Rick Pitino is about to deal with as much player turnover as he's faced since arriving at U of L 13 years ago. But Pitino himself isn't going anywhere, and that alone is about enough to justify a top 10 ranking for the Cardinals here. If Montrezl Harrell chooses to stick around for his junior season, then Louisville is a big-time threat to make its third Final Four in four years. In the more likely event that Harrell bolts, the Cards are going to have to rely far more heavily on the backcourt of Chris Jones and Terry Rozier to be back in the title picture. Pitino is probably also going to need multiple members of his top 10 recruiting class to step up right away for his team to have a chance at competing for an ACC title in its first season as a member of the league.

10. Wichita State

March Madness

The biggest shame of an otherwise extremely memorable 2014 NCAA Tournament is that we were deprived of the chance to see Wichita State in the second weekend. Instead, the Shockers took their 35-0 record into a game against Kentucky that I think we can all agree now should have come at least one round later. National Coach of the Year Gregg Marshall loses All-American Cleanthony Early, but still has Missouri Valley Player of the Year Fred VanVleet, outside assassin Ron Baker and a next-level athlete in Tekele Cotton. The Shockers are going to be a national story once again in 2014-15, they just have to hope they get a better shake from the Selection Committee.

11. Villanova

Yes, we all suspected that the Wildcats were a bit of a fraud as a two seed, and yes, we were all ultimately proven correct, but that doesn't change the fact that Jay Wright is basically losing no one outside of leading scorer James Bell from a team that spent most of last season (justifiably) in the top 10. 'Nova's also going to be playing in a Big East conference that doesn't seem like it's going to be particularly challenging. That could be good for their regular season ranking, but not-so-great when it comes to their hopes of making a deeper run in the big dance.

12. SMU

The Mustangs swept the 2014 national champions and should have been in the big dance this season. Let's get that out of the way first. They should have been in the tournament. The good news is that so long as five-star freshman Emmanuel Mudiay has no problem gelling with first team All-AAC performer Nic Moore, SMU's 22-season tournament drought should be a thing of the past by this time next year. There's certainly no question surrounding whether or not they have the coach to get the job done.

Larry_brown_medium

Photo credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

13. Texas

There will be no "pleasant surprise" season for 2014 Big 12 Coach of the Year Rick Barnes. High expectations are back in Austin thanks to every key player returning from a squad that won 24 games and advanced in the NCAA Tournament in a year where an imminent coaching search was supposed to be the biggest storyline. If previously mentioned Myles Turner winds up choosing to suit up for the Longhorns, then this could be a preseason top 10 squad.

14. Ohio State

I'm not going to make an Aaron Craft joke. You think I'm going to, but I'm not. He was a good player, but he has played his last game as a Buckeye. The same can be said for LaQuinton Ross, Lenzelle Smith and Amadeo Della Valle. The electrifying Sam Thompson is now OSU's most important returnee, and he'll be asked to lead an extremely talented group of newcomers that includes blue chip freshmen D'Angelo Russell and Keita Bates-Diop, as well as Temple transfer Anthony Lee.

15. Virginia

Tony Bennett is losing his best player in Joe Harris and his leading rebounder in Akil Mitchell, but that doesn't mean the Cavs are going to fall off the face of the earth after their dual ACC titles the way Miami did. Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey are all experienced returnees, and Bennett also has a top-50 recruit in BJ Stith entering the fray. If Brogdon can shoulder the scoring load left behind by Harris, and Tobey can break out and become one of the ACC's best big men (it's going to happen), then UVA is going to have a major say in whether or not there's a new ACC champ.

16. VCU

The last-minute collapse (and extremely questionable foul call) against Stephen F. Austin will likely result in diminished expectations for VCU this offseason, but such is life in the microwave society of college basketball. The truth is, the Rams could have played with just about any team in the tournament, a fact that should be true again in 2015 thanks to the return of Treveon Graham, Briante Weber, Melvin Johnson and Jordan Burgess, among others. Shaka Smart also has done the one thing no one thought he could at VCU, and brought in three top 100 recruits. Also, yeah, Shaka Smart is coming back, which is just as big of a deal as anything mentioned before it.

17. Oregon

The decision of leading scorer Joseph Young to return to Eugene is huge, but the Ducks were going to be a legitimate squad even without him. Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson have seemingly been around (and solid) forever, and Providence transfer Brandon Austin and incoming freshman JaQuan Lyle should be able to come in and make immediate and positive impacts.

18. Connecticut

The national champs can't expect Ryan Boatright to become Shabazz Napier, but they'll need the diminutive guard to at least assume more of that role that the 2014 Final Four MOP is leaving behind. DeAndre Daniels will likely be back to help defend the Huskies' title, an attempt which will be aided by the additions of NC State transfer Rodney Purvis and potential freshman star Daniel Hamilton.

19. Michigan State

There are major decisions to be made by both Gary Harris and Branden Dawson, but Tom Izzo, consistency, blah ... whatever, you fill in the rest.

20. Oklahoma

Lon Kruger's team isn't going to surprise anyone a year after coming out of virtually nowhere to finish third in the Big 12 and earn a five seed in the NCAA Tournament. They bring back just about every key component of that squad and should be able to take advantage of a conference that would seem likely to take at least a small step back this season.

21. Harvard

Tommy Amaker is back and will command a Crimson team that should include six seniors and five juniors. If Wesley Saunders can somehow lead this team through the first portion of its non-conference schedule unscathed, then expect Harvard to generate some of the same undefeated buzz that Wichita State demanded during the early part of last season. The Crimson could easily win (at least) a round of 64 game for the third year in a row, but it's hard to see it happening without them being the better seed this time.

Transforming Harvard

22. San Diego State

The Aztecs are losing leading scorer Xavier Thames and top rebounder Josh Davis to graduation, but Steve Fisher doesn't win with offense. Still ... he's going to need to find some of that.

23. Minnesota

The NIT champions will return most of the major pieces from that squad, including the formidable backcourt duo of Andre Hollins (13.6 ppg) and guard Deandre Mathieu (12.0 ppg, 4.2 apg). Richard Pitino can make a pretty loud national statement right out of the gate by knocking off his old man when the Gophers open the season against Louisville in Puerto Rico.

24. UCLA

The loss of Kyle Anderson was expected, but it was the decision of freshman Zach LaVine that really hurt Steve Alford. Now all eyes turn to Jordan Adams, whose return or departure will easily make up a 5-10 spot rise or fall for the Bruins in later rankings like this. For now, I think the safe bet is to assume that Adams has played his last game in Westwood.

25. Dayton

The Flyers have never had a problem proving they're capable of competing with the big boys when given the chance, but for whatever reason, they've struggled tremendously with consistency in the Atlantic 10 over the past decade or so. They were given an opportunity by the Selection Committee three weeks ago, and it's safe to say they took full advantage. Two of Archie Miller's three leading scorers Jordan Sibert and Dyshawn Pierre return to a UD campus that will be buzzing through the summer, but which also will head into the fall with heightened expectations.

The Next 10:

Iowa
Gonzaga
Syracuse
Nebraska
Maryland
Colorado
Utah
West Virginia
Georgetown
Tennessee

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