Dissecting the Preseason AP Top 25

Preseason rankings are silly taken at face value, but if we dig deeply into them, they are a great way to reset from last year and look forward to the season to come. That being said, let’s grab the new top 25 and break it down team by team. 

1. North Carolina

“Hello, my name is Shane and I’m a North Carolina non-believer.”

(insert all of you responding “Hi, Shane”)

Are they among the most talented teams in America? Yes, they absolutely are.

Do I trust Roy Williams to steer this particular team to the promised land? Quite frankly, no.

This team is full of athletic marvels, but I fail to see how they coalesce into a coherent basketball team. Justin Jackson and Brice Johnson could reach from Chapel Hill to Durham hand-in-hand (this is a dumb jokey way of saying they have long arms). Nate Britt is a serviceable point guard. For the third consecutive summer, Kennedy Meeks is in the best shape of his life. No, really this time!

That’s all fine and good, but I know when this team had a chance to beat the eventual national champs, their archrivals, on the road, every one of those guys looked terrified to even touch the basketball. Several Tar Heels passed up decent looks at the rim, while others barely faced the basket or treated the ball like a hot potato. This offensive paralysis affected nearly every Carolina player, except Marcus Paige.

Williams’ team is fully capable of high level defense and a deadly transition game, but when push comes to shove against Duke, Virginia, and Louisville in the ACC, can anyone on this team but Paige score in the half court? And if not, can Roy Williams put Marcus Paige in a better position to score than a high screen and iso?

Not to mention, Paige just broke a bone in his hand. He will miss close to a month. Those are big shoes to fill and it remains to be seen if someone in Chapel Hill can fill them.

I’m not writing this team off. They can win the title. But to do so, Johnson, Meeks, or Jackson had better step up and become a reliable second option. I’d put my money on Jackson if I had to, though I’d keep that cash in my pocket if I could.

If this team has the chance to be great, we’ll find out quickly, while Paige is sidelined.

2. Kentucky

via Chet White, UK Athletics

Kentucky is to point guards as the Philadelphia Eagles are to running backs. Or perhaps the Sixers are to young big men. You get the idea.

I could ask three different basketball minds which of the three Wildcat point guards they like the best and get three different valid answers.

I love Tyler Ulis and I never ever want him to leave college. I’m hard pressed to remember a college freshman who was more able to put his teammates in a position to score. Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein both owe their little buddy a thank you for giving them tons of open dunks and looks for NBA scouts to drool over. A year older and a year even wiser, Ulis was supposed to have the keys to Calipari’s kingdom.

Except Cal loves bringing in top recruits in droves, so enter Jamal Murray. Murray is a future top 10 pick in the NBA draft who wowed audiences, including myself, playing against grown men for the Canadian men’s national team this summer.

*SIDEBAR: Canada is going to medal at the 2016, 2020, or 2024 Olympics, if not all three. Their current team features NBAers Andrew Wiggins, Robert Sacre, Anthony Bennett, Kelly Olynyk, Nik Stauskas, Corey Joseph, Andrew Nicholson, and D-League sharpshooter Brady Heslip. This doesn’t even include other Canadian natives like Tristan Thompson and Trey Lyles. Add in current, former, and future college stars like Kevin Pangos, Melvin Ejim, Kyle Wiltjer, and Murray, and you come to one conclusion: Gonzaga loves to recruit Canadians. No wait, I meant that their national team will be really good for a long time to come.*

Anyway, back to Murray. He, like so many Cal recruits before him, is likely using one NCAA season as an NBA tryout, but I will have my eyes glued to Big Blue while he does. He’s considered the best guard prospect since John Wall.

And he’s not alone. He’s joined in Lexington by not only Ulis, but by Isaiah Briscoe, the top point guard prospect in this year’s class by ESPN (only because Murray was not ranked by ESPN as he reclassified his graduation year late in the recruiting process). So if you’re keeping track, that’s one of the best returning points in all the land and the top two recruits at the position.

Throw out those Eagles and Sixers comparisons. Calipari is in the same pickle with his points than Urban Meyer was with his signal callers. Luckily for Cal, he can play more than one at a time.

Oh, and by the way, Kentucky returns Alex Poythress, Marquise Lee, and brings in the top big man recruit in the nation, Skal Labissiere. Buckle up, college basketball.

3. Maryland

Dez Wells is gone, but Melo Trimble and Jake Layman are not. They are joined by Diamond Stone, who is a 6’10, 253 lb beast, instead of, as his name suggests, the antagonist in a 1987 Sly Stallone movie.

4. Kansas 

The school with the top team name in the nation looks to their trifecta of unanimous selections to the “HE’S STILL IN COLLEGE??” Team: Perry Ellis, Wayne Selden, and Frank Mason. Unbelievably, Mason and Selden are only juniors. I don’t buy it. They were on the Mario Chalmers team, right?

But Bill Self also adds two top recruits and the development of my two favorite Jayhawks. I’m currently writing something else about (and fawning over YouTube clips of) Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, but Brannen Greene was the most exciting Kansas player by the end of last season. He has Klay Thompson-esque heat-up-ability. Don’t be surprised when he’s winning a Big XII game every other week by dropping three triples in the late second half.

5. Duke

What do you call it when the reigning national champions lose all of their relevant players? That’s not fair to Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones, but the roster that won last year’s title has nearly completely turned over. Are you ready for a year full of Grayson Allen? HE IS COMING AND HE’S WEARING VINEYARD VINES WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT.

via Streeter Lecka, Getty Images
via Streeter Lecka, Getty Images

Meanwhile, Coach K continues to silently out-Calipari John Calipari. Duke brings in a stacked freshman class, led by the dynamic Brandon Ingram.

They’ll be very good again. They are Duke.

6. Virginia

BORING BORING BORING THEY PASS TOO MUCH.

The Slow-Mo Wahoos are back, sans Justin Anderson’s sweet shooting, which makes them even more boring to the casual fans’ untrained eye.  Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill lead the returning Cavs who will still be a defensive juggernaut.

Making things as boring as possible, they add a human being whose actual name is Jack Salt and who actually looks like this:

jack sal

If they could boil UVA basketball into a pill, he’d take it every morning with no side effects.

7. Iowa State 

The Mayor has left office, but Georges Niang is back to lead the Cyclones and the “HE’S STILL IN COLLEGE??” Team.

Look for an even bigger breakout year from Monte Morris. I can feel the “Is Monte Morris the best point guard in the nation?” discussions already.

8. Oklahoma

Another year Sooner basketball, another year of me shouting “Buddy!” every time Buddy Hield shoots the ball (which is kind of a lot).

Buddy will make a run for the Naismith, and deservedly so. He averaged a cool 17 and 5 last season and should add to those numbers this year. He’ll turn 22 years old in December, which makes him fairly unattractive to NBA scouts. Raising his 3-pt percentage from 35% would go a long way in swaying scouts into thinking he’s capable of making it at the next level, at least as a 3s-and-D guy.

9. Gonzaga

dont write two thousand words about the zags

dont write two thousand words about the zags

dont write two thousand words about the zags

deep breath

If Ohio State is chock full of quaterbacks and Kentucky has their fill of point guards, Gonzaga knows the feeling. Mark Few is faced with a perplexing scenario this year. What do you do when your three best players are all over 6’10? An embarrassment of riches for sure, but no one likes to have one of their best guys riding pine just because it’s a numbers game. Kyle Wiltjer is a preseason All-American, Domantas Sabonis is as skilled a teenage big you’ll ever see, and Przemek Karnowski is a shaved Grizzly bear pretending to be a human.

Luckily, in the same way Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel have been starting the game together but not sharing the floor much after that, the Zags should be able to rotate the three somewhat seamlessly. Karnowski has avergaed 4.1 personal fouls per 40 minutes in his career and, despite reports of slimming down, is still not capable of being conditioned enough to demand a workhorse amount of minutes.

But Mark Few has promised to play all three together at least some of the time. Whether this means seeing if Wiltjer or Sabonis can chase a small forward around the court or taking a cue from every out of shape men’s league team and packing into a zone, this will be one of the most interesting lineups in college basketball.

Even if Wiltjer finds someone to guard, if he tries to take advantage of a mismatch on the other end, where will the spacing come from? Clogged lanes on the offensive end and streaking dribble drives on the other must keep Mark Few awake at night. Trying to defend and rebound against three skyscrapers at once will do the same for opposing coaches.

10. Wichita State

Eventually America will tire of watching Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker play basketball next to one another and we’ll finally get our collective dream: a buddy cop movie starring Baker and Van Vleet.

via Peter G. Aiken, Getty Images
via Peter G. Aiken, Getty Images

MAKE IT HAPPEN HOLLYWOOD.

11. Villanova

Nova Nation will be a very interesting team all season, led by their litany of talented guards (Arcidiacono, Booth, and Brunson). If they really want to be a player on the national stage, Daniel Ochefu needs to make another mini-leap. He’ll never be a guy who they can throw the ball to in the post for buckets, but if he can be a next level terror on the glass and at the rim defensively, Jay Wright’s guards will be able to get out in transition and reek havoc.

12. Arizona

Not a lot of teams could recover from losing Brandon Ashley, TJ McConnell, Stanley Johnson, and Rhondae Hollis-Jefferson. That is a lot of talent.

Sean Miller and the Wildcats seem to be able to cock the gun and reload. Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson will be a big part of that. I was at BC at the same time as Anderson and watched him slog through games with a series of overwhelmed teammates. The guy is a fundamental machine. A poor man’s Baby Tim Duncan. Despite the negative qualifiers, that’s still high praise, but in today’s world, you don’t find agile bigs with a stash of post moves who can also score facing the basket.

They also have a freshman named Chance Comanche who, based simply on that, should be the villain in the Ron Baker-Fred Van Vleet buddy cop flick.

13. Michigan State

Izzo.

Rinse.

Repeat.

14. Cal

Cal?

California?

BERKLEY?

Yeah! Cal is good again. Weird, isn’t it? They added two of the nation’s top recruits to a team already filled with promising youngsters.

If Cuonzo Martin is able to make the team mesh into a real unit, they could be dangerous. If he doesn’t and the Golden Bears simply fight over turns playing hero ball for the NBA scouts in attendance, avert your eyes. It could get ugly.

But Jaylen Brown is a freak talent who Martin has toyed with in a variety of lineups.

In the end, most times talent wins out. And this team has it coming out of their ears.

15. Indiana

Watching Tom Crean try to steer a talented Hoosiers team is like watching a raccoon in human clothes attempt to successfully manage a Panera Bread franchise.

His saving grace is a veteran point guard in Yogi Farrell. If Yogi can transcend the levels of Crean-dom leaking from the bench, Indiana can be really, really good.

If not, let’s all just dive headfirst into BRAD STEVENS TO INDIANA rumors. Sure, it may be a pipe dream, but it would be worth it just to see delusional Celtics fans squirm.

16. Utah

This is a team that jumped out at me as being too highly ranked. The Utes lived and died with Delon Wright last year and alas, he is no longer around. Jakob Poeltl is a lot to deal with inside, but I’m curious how much of his development as a freshman was thanks to Wright.

17. Wisconsin

Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes, and Vitto Brown aren’t Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, though they are veterans in Bo Ryan’s system. No team in the country can rely on two players late in games as heavily as the Badgers can with Koenig and Hayes.

18. Vanderbilt

Can I be honest with you? I know a lot about basketball, specifically college basketball. I do a lot of research for these posts. I’ve probably mentioned several players and coaches in this post already that you’ve never heard of. On my first attempt, I was only missing two letters in “Sviatoslav Mykhialiuk”.

But I looked at Vanderbilt’s roster. I looked at their recruiting class. Checked out some stats and metrics.

I have no idea why they are ranked or what makes them good. They might be really good! I don’t know. Check back with me by Christmas.

19. Notre Dame

Notre Dame joins Wisconsin in the class of teams answering the question, “Just how much is left in the cupboard?”.

For the Irish, three starters from last year’s Elite Eight team are still around. Losing Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton is huge. Demetrius Jackson, Zach Auguste, and Steve Vasturia will all need to make major steps forward in order to keep the Golden Domers in the ACC conversation.

20. UConn

Transfers, both new and settled in, will lead the Huskies. Rodney Purvis (nee of NC State) can score the rock and Sterling Gibbs (Seton Hall) adds some pop to the backcourt.

Most importantly, UConn is home to Sam Cassell Jr. I pray to the basketball gods he gets a chance to hit a big shot and showoff the dance his father made famous.

sam dance

21. LSU

The Tigers have a lot to be excited about this season, but all we really need to talk about right now is Ben Simmons.

The Aussie comes to the US as heralded as any recent teenage star. He may just be the best player in college basketball right now. I just hope he’s more Kevin Durant/Carmelo Anthony (dominates in his one year) than Andrew Wiggins (shows flashes for the future, but not much at this level).

22. Baylor

Rico Gathers is back to gather more rebounds, more dunks, and more weeping opponents in his wake.

In the event aliens came to earth and demanded we send a champion to fight their greatest warrior, we’d send JJ Watt, but Rico would deserve to be at least nominated.

23. Purdue

I always roll my eyes when people say things like “The NFL is more fun when the (insert team here) are good.”  Frankly, I don’t care who is good, just that we get great games and fun teams to watch.

For whatever reason though, I think the Big Ten is more fun when Purdue is competitive. And this year, there certainly will be. Purdue’s twin towers (veteran AJ Hammons and freshman Caleb Swanigan) will torment lanes across the Midwest this season.

24.  Butler

Speaking of the “HOW IS HE STILL IN COLLEGE??” Team, greetings to team captain Roosevelt Jones, who has been at Butler for 147 years. Time is a flat circle, but at all points on that circle, Roosevelt Jones plays for Butler.

He and Kellen Dunham will anchor a solid Bulldogs squad that will look to challenge Villanova in the Big East.

25. Michigan

Last year’s nightmare season is over and Caris LeVert is back from injury. He’ll try to piece things back together with Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton, and Spike “Remember that one amazing game I played?” Albrecht.

Also receiving votes: A whole bunch of teams, including YALE!

Header image via Associated Press

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to palestraback@gmail.com.

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