With transfers, NBA Draft early entrants and a few unsigned high school seniors needing to be taken into account, it is nearly impossible at this time to project who will be next year's top teams in college basketball. However, based on returning players, we can project a handful of teams that should improve their win total and/or NCAA Tournament performance.
We won't talk about Duke or Kentucky here -- this is not a 2014-2015 pre-season top 25. Instead, here are seven (plus one) teams poised for better seasons.
It is a big time program desperate for success, with a roster that returns everyone. The pieces are in place for the Longhorns to be a top 15 mainstay next season with eyes on the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Rick Barnes can leverage this past year when he established the roles of a young but maturing team, and he'll lean on point guard Isaiah Taylor and big man Cameron Ridley to meet what will surely be lofty expectations.
Unless Myles Turner, arguably the best center of the 2014 class, stays close to home and signs with Texas, there will be no blue chip freshman coming in to inject talent into the rotation, so Barnes will have to somehow find more offense (which was 262nd in effective FG%, by far the worst of all at-large 2014 NCAA Tournament teams) and continue to improve defensively.
If the Longhorns take a step forward or two next season, which they can and should, it will happen with sound perimeter defense and maximizing second chance opportunities.
We know Texas will be improved, but overall the Big 12 may not be as strong as it was this past season -- Oklahoma State is rebuilding, Iowa State and Baylor retooling, and West Virginia is losing Eron Harris, who is transferring. This means that veteran coach Lon Kruger can make a real run at Kansas in the conference with a high-powered offense that brings nearly everyone back.
Sophomore-to-be Jordan Woodard looks like the consummate college point guard (2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio), and undersized, but physical forward Ryan Spangler will control the paint while conference Player of the Year candidate Buddy Hield becomes a true go-to guy. Kruger is a defense-first coach, and that was the Sooners' weakness this year. It will be interesting to see if next year's roster improves in that area.
Here's an all-too-early but stone cold guarantee: Utah will be in the 2015 NCAA Tournament.
Nobody is talking about it, but the steadiest rebuilding project is taking place in Salt Lake City, and a team that went 9-9 in the Pac-12 (with convincing wins over BYU, UCLA and Colorado) can take the next step by finding more in-season consistency. Head coach Larry Krystkowiak earned a five-year contract extension recently and all key pieces return, including dynamic point guard Delon Wright and the steady Jordan Loveridge.
Nobody really associates Utah with excitement, but this could be one of the most fun teams to watch next season if it improves its offensive efficiency and continues to employ a disruptive defense.
One of the best stories of the 2013-14 season didn't play out the way many expected. The Mustangs did not earn an at-large spot in the field of 68, but they did play for the NIT title and confirmed that Larry Brown had completed a culture change of the program by bringing in talented and hungry players.
Of the four AAC teams that did make the tournament, all are suffering major roster losses or are named Louisville and move to the ACC. SMU, however, returns nearly 80 percent of its scoring and rebounding from a team that ranked 17th defensively and lost only one home game last season.
Oh yeah, and Emmanuel Mudiay, arguably the top-ranked player of the class of 2014, will call Moody Coliseum home next season. The physical and gifted point guard can create for himself, but also should enhance the offensive games of Markus Kennedy and Nic Moore.
Some may call this wishful thinking, but SMU will be talented enough to challenge for a conference title and eye a regional final next season.
The Badgers aren't used to being in this position, but the team is going to be a hunted, preseason top three squad by some publications, with the expectation that they will win two more post-season games than they did in their last NCAA tournament run.
Everyone is back with the exception of Ben Brust, whose scoring can be replaced. The country fell in love with Frank Kaminsky in March, and for good reason, but some would argue that Sam Dekker is Wisconsin's best weapon on offense. He's an underrated rebounder (6.1 RPG) who could break out and become a true go-to guy on the perimeter.
Freshmen Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig were exceptional role players who improved throughout the season and will see increased playing time. Hayes is a bull who can handle anyone in the low post, and Koenig could turn into a dangerous spot shooter backing up Traevon Jackson at point guard.
Bo Ryan's team was balanced on offense and executed beautifully in the halfcourt this past season, and he should have a lot of fun adding more wrinkles to a group of smart players with great chemistry.
Wisconsin's defense will still be a bit of a concern, but there is no doubt that 2015 will be title-or-bust in Madison.
A pair of dark horses
Clemson - It was a good-not-great season for the Tigers, but they were unheralded on defense last season (20th defensive efficiency; 1st in 3pt% defense, according to KenPom.com) and will return their entire rotation if breakout star K.J McDaniels returns. The ACC completes its move to be a super conference next season by welcoming Louisville. The league will be difficult but we've seen strength of schedule serve as a key differentiator for bubble teams, so it could help the Tigers earn their first berth since 2011.
Maryland - While Wisconsin will be the unquestioned favorite, many Big Ten teams will take a step or two back next season, clearing the way for the Terps to make some noise. Barring another injury, point guard Seth Allen will have a full season to play with Dez Wells (who posted career lows in all shooting statistics but possesses the athleticism to scare opposing coaches) and Jake Layman. Newly-signed 7-footer Michal Cekovsky will also help provide frontcourt depth, though his arrival will force someone on the current roster to give up a scholarship or transfer.
Update: Shaq Cleare, Nick Faust and Roddy Peters have reportedly volunteered themselves to be those transfers.
It's wild to think that this team has not reached the tournament since 2010, but that should be a reasonable goal for next season -- especially if Mark Turgeon wants to stay awhile in College Park.
Also note: Colorado could jump back into the top 15 if point guard Spencer Dinwiddie decides to return for his senior season and fully recovers from his ACL injury. All other key pieces will be back in Boulder next season, but the Buffs were not the same without their dynamic 6'7 leader, and there are varying reports on what his plans are.