It’s tempting to place Kentucky atop the ranking for the 2012-13 season.
Yes, the Wildcats are probably going to lose all five starters and the sixth man from the 2012 NCAA tournament champions who won an NCAA record 38 games. But I can’t. Not until Shabazz Muhammad and Nerlens Noel decide where they’re playing next season. But once the two top recruits in the class of 2012 choose – they’re both elite players and at least one will be in Lexington – it’ll provide a more accurate assessment of where UK will fall.
Until then, I’m going with one of the two teams that did beat Kentucky this season and returns nearly every player from a 27-win team. Oh, did mention that team also sports a top-5 recruiting class?
(Note: When the NCAA’s NBA draft withdrawal date passes on April 11 and the 10 top 100 recruits commit, this ranking will be more informed. Until then, it’s just a waaaaay too early guess on everything. Also, the early version didn’t include Butler. This one does. Call it a late-night oversight.)
1. Indiana Hoosiers (Final ’12-13 record: 27-9)
Tom Crean’s rebuild is complete. The Hoosiers should have four starters back (frontcourt studs Cody Zeller and Christian Watford are expected to return) and five freshman who’ll provide depth and athleticism. Indiana won’t be a scrappy underdog next season. Be interesting to see how the Hoosiers handle it.
2. Louisville Cardinals (30-10)
The game’s most efficient defense will stay that way with Gorgui Dieng back in the middle and a (knock on wood) healthy roster around him. Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear should get the expected freshman-to-sophomore boost, transfer Luke Hancock adds experience and shooting. Also, that Peyton Siva’s pretty good. Only concern? No real impact freshmen.
3. Kentucky Wildcats (38-2)
The Wildcats are all the way down here. Oops. Sharpshooter Kyle Witljer is the only significant returner, but transfer Ryan Harrow spent all season practicing with UK. That’s a nice head start. Add freshmen Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley – not to mention either Muhammad or Noel – and coach John Calipari has the talent for another Final Four run. Who doubts that?
4. N.C. State Wolfpack (24-13)
Too high for a team that was an average ACC team that got hot at season’s end? Maybe. But the Wolfpack return four starters and bring in a top 5 recruiting class headed by guard Rodney Purvis. It’s an athletic, balanced group that also boasts elite athletes. Now we’ll see if coach Mark Gottfried can pull off some magic for an entire season.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes (31-8)
Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. return, along with a group of underclassmen ready for more playing time. Coach Thad Matta has the Buckeyes positioned to contend every year. And if center Jared Sullinger makes a surprise return for his junior season? Even better.
6. Kansas Jayhawks (32-7)
Too kind? Maybe not. The Jayhawks will shot-blocker Jeff Withey, guard Elijah Johnson and steady wing Travis Releford. Throw in touted freshman Perry Ellis and redshirt freshmen Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor and Bill Self will have enough pieces to win his ninth straight Big 12 title.
7. Michigan Wolverines (24-10)
This is if point guard Trey Burke returns. Give him Tim Hardaway Jr. on the wing, Jordan Morgan and elite recruit Mitch McGary inside and it’s a team that can contend for the Big Ten title. Losing wing Evan Smotrycz doesn’t help, though.
8. Baylor Bears (30-8)
Quincy Acy’s gone, but there’s still plenty of ballers in Waco, including guards Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip. Quincy Miller’s season wasn’t that awful and incoming center Isaiah Austin would offset the loss of Perry Jones III goes pro.
9. Creighton Bluejays (29-6)
Too high for a team that doesn’t play defense? Maybe. But Doug McDermott’s a player of the year candidate, Gregory Echenique’s among the best centers in the game and they have solid support. Just need to replace point guard Antoine Young in the starting lineup.
10. Memphis Tigers (26-9)
The Tigers lose guard Will Barton and senior forward Wesley Witherspoon, but remain a talented, deep team that has a coach in Josh Pastner who continues to improve as a motivator and Xs-and-Os guy. Expect Memphis to crush its final season in C-USA.
11. Duke Blue Devils (27-7)
Speaking of no defense, don’t expect another season of soft D in Durham. Austin Rivers may be gone, but the Devils boast experience and shooters. That’s enough for 25 wins with Coach K on the sideline.
12. St. Louis Billikens (26-8)
When you lose one starter from a team that won 26 games, finish among the top 15 in kenpom.com ratings and nearly knock off a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, you get ranked in the top 15. It’s a no-brainer.
13. Florida Gators (26-11)
Billy Donovan’s team got a huge boost when forward Patric Young elected to return. Even if guard Bradley Beal bolts for the NBA, the Gators should be the SEC’s second-best team behind Kenny Boynton, Young and Erik Murphy.
14. Michigan State Spartans (29-8)
This is probably too low for MSU given how Tom Izzo’s team exceeded expectations in 2011-12. But they do lose do-everything forward Draymond Green, not to mention Austin Thornton and Brandon Wood. Can incoming freshman Gary Harris provide scoring?
15. Syracuse Orange (34-3)
Dion Waiters, Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine and Fab Melo are gone. But ‘Cuse still has talent in C.J. Fair, Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams and add a dynamite big man in DaJuan Coleman. Also, they could add Noel. That would be a massive boost.
16. Butler Bulldogs (22-15)
Bulldogs couldn’t hit a perimeter shot this season. That won’t apply next year when Rotnei Clarke and incoming freshman Kellen Dunham suit up. That’ll make life easier for Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall down low, not to mention glue guy Roosevelt Jones.
17. Arizona Wildcats (23-12)
For now, the Wildcats boast the top recruiting class of 2012. Three five-star recruits arrive to bolster Nick Johnson, Solomon Hill and a healthy Kevin Parrom. But this anticipates a young team maturing, something the 2011-12 squad didn’t do.
18. Wisconsin Badgers (26-10)
Floor leader Jordan Taylor’s gone. That’s bad. But every other important player returns, including Ryan Evans, Jared Berggren, Mike Brueswitz and Josh Gasser. Also, Bo Ryan adds an athletic forward in freshman Sam Dekker. Athletic! At Wisconsin!
19. VCU Rams (29-7)
Senior star Brad Burgess is gone — their best player — but everyone else is back for a team that won a ton of games, featured some nasty defense and apparently is insistent on winning NCAA tournament games every season.
20. San Diego State Aztecs (26-8)
One player’s gone, replaced by three impact transfers. I’d say that’s a healthy recipe for success when Chase Tapley, James Rahon and MWC player of the year Jamaal Franklin are already in the mix.
21. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (22-12)
Four starters return, but with sharpshooting wing Tim Abromaitis back from a knee injury, Notre Dame could contend for a Big East title. Better be OK playing as favorites, though.
22. North Carolina Tar Heels (32-6)
UNC needs James Michael McAdoo to stay. Desperately. Without him, their frontcourt would be shot, leaving Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston to do the heavy lifting. Hope incoming freshman Marcus Paige is ready to run the show.
23. Missouri Tigers (30-5)
Only regulars Michael Dixon and Phil Pressey return. But Laurence Bowers is back from a knee injury and the Tigers add three transfers in Keion Bell, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross who’ll step right into the rotation. Time to see that national coach of the year at work.
24. Gonzaga Bulldogs (26-7)
It’s really not a Top 25 without Gonzaga. Mark Few’s team loses center Robert Sacre, but everyone else is back. That’s enough for a preseason ranking.
25. Kansas State Wildcats (22-11)
New coach Bruce Weber inherits a nice situation. Four starters return, along with the top three bench players. Will they respond to a guy who’s motivational methods are less severe?
Also considered (in no particular order): UCLA, Texas, UNLV, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida State, Stanford, Colorado, Marquette, Ohio, Saint Mary’s, New Mexico, Xavier, Cincinnati.
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