College basketball preseason rankings: What we learned
The first AP Top 25 Poll of the college basketball season is out, and tipoff is just 11 days away. Here are five key takeaways from the inaugural rankings.
- Folks are high on the Big Ten this season
The Big Ten leads all conferences with six teams in the top 25: Maryland, Michigan State, Indiana, Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan. The Wolverines finished just 16-16 last season and had some catastrophic losses, but their No. 25 ranking makes a lot of sense.
John Beilein’s squad doesn’t lose anyone particularly noteworthy, and Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton combined to miss 27 games in 2014-15. Combine that stat with Beilein’s track record of success in Ann Arbor, and it’s easy to see why voters were willing to give the Wolverines a mulligan after last year’s futility.
As far as the way the Big Ten is ordered among themselves, voters clearly put a lot of stock into who’s coaching these teams. And rightfully so. For example -- if Wisconsin had any coach not named Bo Ryan, the Badgers probably wouldn’t be ranked. They check in at No. 17. Indiana has a top-five starting lineup talent wise with the addition of Thomas Bryant, but Tom Crean needs to prove he is capable of getting talented puzzle pieces to fit. They start the season at No. 15 with potential to skyrocket.
Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans rank two spots ahead of the Hoosiers despite losing Travis Trice and Branden Dawson, but given Tom Izzo’s brilliance and dynamic West Virginia transfer Eron Harris’ arrival, and that’s hardly shocking.
- The freshman effect is real
If you’re a college basketball fan that doesn’t pay attention to recruiting, seeing LSU and Cal ranked as highly as they are would seem to be a bit of a head-scratcher. But each team welcomes a pair of blue-chip freshmen: Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney for LSU, and Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown for Cal.
The Golden Bears are a particularly interesting case, as a starting lineup of Rabb, Brown, Jabari Bird, Jordan Mathews and Tyrone Wallace looks like the best in the Pac-12 on paper. Arizona still ranks two spots ahead of Cal despite losing several crucial players, but given the Bears’ 18-15 record last season, it’s clear that the voters are mindful of the profound impact freshmen can have on college basketball.
Simmons is the biggest name of the four rookies mentioned above, and LSU was a tournament team last year year. But the Tigers lost their two best players in Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, so the they’re going to rely heavily on the Simmons-Blakeney duo from the get-go. Voters obviously think highly enough of their potential to rank LSU inside the top 25.
- At first glance, there appear to be six legitimate title contenders.
This is obviously subject to change, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone predict a preseason champion not named North Carolina, Kentucky, Maryland, Duke, Kansas or Virginia.
After Virginia at No. 6 comes No. 7 Iowa State, and the Cyclones finished with 162 less points than the Cavaliers in the AP Poll. Meanwhile, Virginia and No. 5 Duke were separated by three points. Expect all six of these squads to be jockeying for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament once March rolls around, and expect a few worthy teams to wind up disappointed.
- Note to 2015-16 slow starters: Keep plugging along
Why? Well, look at what it did for No. 18 Vanderbilt, who started off 1-7 in SEC play last season before going 8-2 in its next 10 league tilts. The Commodores still failed to make the NCAA tournament, but they look like the biggest threat to Kentucky in the SEC this year. Preseason rankings shape perception for the rest of the season, and if Kevin Stallings’ squad starts off hot, they could find themselves in the top 10 sooner rather than later.
Damian Jones has a chance to be the best big man in the conference, and sophomore guards Wade Baldwin and Riley LaChance really started to turn a corner at the end of last season. Stretch big Luke Kornet allows Vandy to play a four-out, one-in style that is a major headache for any team, including almighty the Kentucky Wildcats, to try and contain.
- Three ACC teams open up in the top six, and that’s great news for Gonzaga and Wichita State
It’s very possible that Duke, North Carolina and Virginia are three of the best six teams in the country. But once the ACC schedule tips off, those squads plus the likes of Notre Dame, Miami and North Carolina State are going to beat each other up, and it’s going to open up top-10 poll spots for Gonzaga and Wichita State.
Gregg Marshall’s squad faces No. 16 Utah in nonconference play, but if the Shockers can scoot by the Utes, they could build a lengthy undefeated streak similar to the one they had in 2013-14.
Gonzaga, on the other hand, has a tougher nonconference slate – the Bulldogs have a big clash with Arizona and also face UCLA, Tennessee and Pittsburgh. But Mark Few arguably has the best frontcourt in the country in Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis and Przemek Karnowski, so if the Zags can make it out of December with one loss (or none, obviously), it’s going to be impossible to ignore the Bulldogs.