Men's Basketball

John Clay: Breaking down college basketball's Preseason Top 25

Frank Kaminsky and Wisconsin were knocked out of title contention by Kentucky last season.
Frank Kaminsky and Wisconsin were knocked out of title contention by Kentucky last season. MT

1. Kentucky

Who else? Seriously. John Calipari has so much talent, he's not sure what he's going to do with it all. Cal promises a platoon system to stay with the "players first" mantra, but even then he admits that if a player proves he deserves more playing time, that player will get more playing time.

True, the Cats did lose Julius Randle and James Young off the group that reached the national title game a year ago, but now the Cats have Karl-Anthony Towns. And Trey Lyles. And Devin Booker. And Tyler Ulis. And we could go on and on and on — all the way to Indianapolis.

2. Wisconsin

Only falling victim to one of Aaron Harrison's deadly three-pointers kept the Badgers from reaching the national championship, and the guess here is that not even Harrison's heroics will keep Bo Ryan from playing for all the marbles this time around.

Frank Kaminsky is the most well-known Cheesehead, but the key for the 2014-15 Badgers will be Nigel Hayes, a terrifically athletic forward who was all raw last season but could be all "awe" this year.

3. Arizona

Only the John Calipari juggernaut has recruited better than Sean Miller over the past couple of years and the Arizona head coach has built a big, physical team that doesn't mind playing defense.

Getting Brandon Ashley back from injury should boost the Wildcats' fortunes and if Miller can develop a perimeter shooter or two, Zona might be cutting down the nets at Lucas Oil.

4. Duke

For all the hoops hoopla over the collection of ultra-talented Cats in Lexington, it was Mike Krzyzewski who went out and signed the player most talent scouts believed was the class of the Class of 2014.

That would be Jahlil Okafor, a low-post dynamo who figures to be the center of attention for the Blue Devils. Freshman point guard Tyus Jones is another difference-maker that should make the Dookies hard to handle.

5. Kansas

Anthony Wiggins and Joel Embiid couldn't deliver another national title to Phog Allen Fieldhouse, so maybe a less stellar group of Jayhawks will be able to hang a banner.

Newcomers Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre will give Bill Self a boost, but the Kansas coach needs better play at the point for KU to break through.

6. North Carolina

If great guard play is really what makes college basketball go round, then the Heels should have a hell of a team, thanks in large part to Marcus Paige, the point guard who is on the cusp of being a breakout star. And Paige isn't alone in the UNC backcourt, which also boasts Nate Britt and freshman Joel Berry.

Roy Williams has plenty of front-court talent, too, and for some reason the guess here is that the Tar Heels will be galvanized by all the attention over the academic scandal that rocked the campus. It'll be an us-against-them thing.

7. Florida

No doubt it was a tough good-bye when Billy Donovan had to bid adieu to the senior-laden group that helped the Gators win the SEC and advance to the Final Four a season ago.

Now, the coach once known as "Billy the Kid" has a bunch of kids, talented kids, led by power forward Chris Walker, who got only a taste last season. Sharpshooter Michael Frazier, jack-of-all-trades Dorian Finney Smith and quick point guard Kasey Hill return to help the Florida cause.

8. Louisville

Montrezl Harrell can be downright scary when the Cardinals' frontcourt star unleashes one of his patent displays of athleticism, but the frontcourt key for the Cards could be Mangok Mathiang, the center who wasn't as far along in his development as Rick Pitino had hoped last season.

Losing Russ Smith from the backcourt will hurt the Cards' "Russidiculous" quotient, but Pitino might enjoy a little more stability this season, thanks to Terry Rozier, Chris Jones and freshman Quentin Snider.

9. Texas

Rick Barnes was already happy to have long Longhorns Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley returning to Austin, then Texas got a commitment from Myles Turner, possibly the best frontcourt class of 2014 prospect not named Jahlil Okafor.

Barnes has to get the 'Horns to hone their defense, a definite weakness a year ago.

10. Gonzaga

All hail Kyle Wilter, the Kentucky transfer who matriculated to the West and turned his doughy body into a slab of rock-hard steel, or something like that. The guess here is that Wiltjer hasn't lost his shooting touch in the move and that a year's maturity has done the Canadian good.

Junior 7-footer Przemek Karnowski continues to develop, and Mark Few returns a pair of backcourt studs in Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell. Could this be the year the Zags take that next step?

11. Wichita State

On one hand, Cleanthony Early was really good. In fact, the lean, mean 6-9 forward who could jump and shoot and really play didn't get nearly enough attention last season, even though he played on a team that nearly won every game. And now Early is playing in the NBA.

Still, Gregg Marshall has proven beyond measure that he can coach, and he has back a pair of bookends in Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker. It won't be a shock if the Shockers are plenty good again.

12. Villanova

After his Final Four run, Jay Wright became just another handsome face when 'Nova fell on hard times and out of the spotlight. But then, last year, the Wildcats went all throwback, riding good guard play back to the NCAA Tournament.

Junior guard Ryan Arcidiacono is back to lead the Wildcat way again as the veteran point guard who makes the Wright machine go. Darrun Hilliard can make the perimeter jump shot, and JayVaughn Pinkston is a crafty, 6-foot-6 post player who should keep things interesting in Philly.

13. Nebraska

The Huskers? Nobody wins at basketball at Nebraska, right? Wrong. Tim Miles proved that wrong last season, taking Lincoln by storm as Nebraska went 19-13 and made the NCAA Tournament.

Walter Pitchford, a forward, should be a key contributor this season and Miles has to turn his team into road warriors. Away from Lincoln, Nebraska was 4-12 last season.

14. Virginia

Just as with Wichita State, it's hard to picture the Cavaliers being really good again when they lost such a good player, in this case guard gritty guard Joe Harris, who led Tony Bennett's team to the ACC crown last season.

And yet, Bennett has five of his eight regulars returning, and now that the Wahoos have shown they know how to win, the guess here is that they can keep it up. Keep an eye on Mike Tobey, a 6-11 center who could be UVA's difference-maker.

15. San Diego State

We should all just face the fact that Steve Fisher has built a perpetual-motion machine out by the Pacific that continues to turn out top-notch, under-the-radar stars like Kahwi Leonard, Jamaal Franklin and Xavier Thomas, who help compile a large number of victories.

The Aztecs went 31-5 last season, and the experts are not sure who Fisher's top gun will be this season, but you have to figure that one is on the roster and will present himself in due time and lead Fisher to another sterling record.

16. Oklahoma

Lon Kruger willed the Sooners to a 23-10 record last season, although OU did lose Cameron Clark and Je'lon Hornbeak, both of whom will be hard to replace.

Ryan Spangler needs to step up and hit double-digits after averaging 9.6 points and 9.3 rebounds last season, but Kruger's pure coaching talent should have the Sooners back in the hunt.

17. LSU

In previous years, losing Johnny O'Bryant III would deal a death blow to the Bayou Bengals, but Johnny Jones has proved to be a top-notch recruiter who should get the most out of sophomore Jordan Mickey and teammate Jarrell Martin.

Jones chased off point guard Anthony Hickey, now at Oklahoma State, only because he thinks he has an upgrade in former junior college star Josh Gray.

18. SMU

Just think how good the Mustangs would be if Emmanuel Mudiay had decided to keep his promise to come to Dallas instead of going overseas for a large bag of green. Then again, Larry Brown probably thinks about that every single day down in Big D.

Still, Brown's cupboard isn't bare. Markus Kennedy was an all-conference selection a year ago, and Yanick Moreira has ditched the nagging injuries that held him back last season. Meanwhile, Xavier transfer Justin Martin seems a good fit for the moving-on-up Mustangs.

19. Ohio State

The Buckeyes would be higher on the pre-season ladder had LaQuinton Ross chosen to return to Columbus, but Thad Matta likes Temple transfer Anthony Lee and newcomer D'Angelo Russell.

It'll be strange seeing OSU without the pest Aaron Craft, but you wonder whether — see "Russdiculous" — the Buckeyes don't enjoy the change of personality without such a domineering backcourt presence.

20. Michigan State

This doesn't figure to be one of Tom Izzo's deeper or more complete teams, because of the loss of Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Gary Harris. But the Spartans do have a lot of upside.

Branden Dawson came on late in the year, and the veteran, who hasn't quite reached his press clippings as a prospect, is in prime position to be the team leader.

21. Harvard

Tommy Amaker has it rolling in the Ivy League, and Harvard proved it last year by knocking off Cincinnati and putting a major scare into Michigan State before leaving the NCAA Tournament.

Point guard Siyani Chambers makes the Crimson click, and Amaker has built a program that not just thinks it can play against the big boys, but proves it.

22. Iowa State

Georges Niang is something of an anomaly for the Cyclones, who usually have a strong stack of transfers and junior college players. Instead, Niang is a three-year starter who provides Fred Hoiberg a rock on the roster.

The key could be Bryce Dejean-Jones, who led UNLV in scoring at 13.6 points a game last season and is a graduate transfer in Ames. He's the kind of player Hoiberg loves.

23. Syracuse

We know, we know, the Orange lost point guard Tyler Ennis and forward Jerami Grant, both of whom could have used another year inside the Carrier Dome.

Still, it's hard to count out Jim Boeheim or his club, and the guess here is that Syracuse will find a way to wiggle into the Top 25, even if it is a rebuilding year.

24. Connecticut

The Huskies lost heart and soul Shabazz Napier off the surprise national title team from a year ago, but Kevin Ollie does have North Carolina State transfer Rodney Purvis and top-drawer recruit Daniel Hamilton.

Having Ryan Boatright back should help Ollie's cause, and it will be interesting to see whether Boatright can fill the Napier role.

25. VCU

Remember when every school in America was hot after Shaka Smart, once the young coach with the cool name and exciting style of play, led the Rams to the Final Four? Whatever happened to that guy?

Well, Smart is back, having led VCU to a 26-9 record last season. The Rams could be even better than last season — in fact, they might be too low at No. 25 — but a key will be Treveon Graham, who averaged 15.8 points and seven rebounds last season, but whom many think can be much better than that.

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