Preseason Top 25

Top 25 Countdown: No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats

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source:
AP Photo

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package. We continue our countdown today with No. 1 Kentucky.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | NBCSports Preseason Top 25 | Preview Schedule

Head Coach: John Calipari

Last Season: 29-11, 12-6 SEC (t-2nd), lost in the national title game to UConn

Key Losses: Julius Randle, James Young

Newcomers: Karl Towns, Trey Lyles, Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker

Projected Lineup

G: Andrew Harrison, So.
G: Aaron Harrison, So.
F: Alex Poythress, Jr.
F: Karl Towns, Jr.
C: Willie Cauley-Stein, Jr.
Bench: Tyler Ulis, Fr.; Trey Lyles, Fr.; Dakari Johnson, So.; Marcus Lee, So.; Devin Booker, Fr., Derek Willis, So.; Dominique Hawkins, So.

They’ll be good because … : They’re loaded.

I mean, we all know this by now, right?

I’m not breaking any news here, am I?

source:
AP

Nine guys on this roster are McDonald’s All-Americans. As many as eight of them could end up being first round draft picks whenever it is they turn pro. We could talk about the fact that John Calipari is being forced into trying a platoon system in an effort to make sure that everyone on his roster is happy with their minutes, but if you really want to get a sense of how deep this Kentucky team is, think about Derek Willis: He’s a 6-foot-9 forward that was, at one time, a top 30 recruit in the country. No. 115, according to Rivals, in the final Class of 2013 rankings.

Derek Willis would start for all but about 25 teams in the country.

He’s essentially a walk-on with the Wildcats.

Think about that.

But they might disappoint because … : There are a number of concerns that I have about this Kentucky teams, so lets roll them out in bullet form:

  • First and foremost, I’m not convinced that the platoon system is actually going to work. When Kentucky faces teams that they should beat — Grand Canyon and Buffalo and Boston U. — it will be effective because the Wildcats simply are that much more talented. But what happens when they square off with teams that can actually beat them? Will Coach Cal be willing to give Marcus Lee or Trey Lyles their full rotations if they aren’t playing well? Will he be willing to play crunch time minutes without his five best players on the floor? If someone sees their minutes cut, will Cal be able to keep the peace in the locker room?
  • There is no natural small forward on this team. There are, however, six guys that play the four and the five spot. Alex Poythress is the guy that’s being forced into the role, but his natural position is as an undersized power forward. Lyles is really skilled for a power forward, but he’s a four through and through. Lee is, obviously, a four. The best lineup that Kentucky fields might end up having three guards on the floor. Who gets their minutes cut if Cal plays, say, Tyler Ulis and the Harrisons?
  • Karl Towns is better than Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein. Trey Lyles is better than Poythress and Lee. Ulis may be the best point guard on the roster. What happens if the freshmen end up getting all the minutes?
  • And lastly, I think that the Harrisons are going to have big years. I think that Aaron will be the team’s best perimeter scorer and Andrew will take control of the team at the point guard spot. But there’s no guarantee that they make that leap.

Outlook: It’s not going to be easy for Coach Cal to keep everyone happy. It’s not going to be easy for him to maintain the chemistry in the locker room. It’s not going to be easy for him to convince a kid that expects to be a first round pick that sitting on the bench in college is a good thing for him just because it’s a good thing for the team, but it’s what Cal is going to have to do.

But I will say this: Coach Cal’s issues are enviable. Having to keep everyone happy because there are too many good players is a much, much better problem to have than finding a way to win with guys that simply aren’t good enough.

Kentucky is the heavy favorite to win the SEC title. Anything less than a league title and a trip to the Final Four would be a disappointment.

Top 25 Countdown: No. 2 Arizona Wildcats

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source: Getty Images
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson tries to dunk on Gonzaga (Getty Images)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package. We continue our countdown today with No. 2 Arizona.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | NBCSports Preseason Top 25 | Preview Schedule

Head Coach: Sean Miller

Last Season: 33-5, 15-3 Pac-12 (1st), lost to Wisconsin in the Elite 8

Key Losses: Nick Johnson, Aaron Gordon

Newcomers: Stanley Johnson, Kadeem Allen, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Dusan Ristic, Craig Victor

Projected Lineup

G: T.J. McConnell, Sr.
F: Stanley Johnson, Fr.
F: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, So.
F: Brandon Ashley, Jr.
C: Kaleb Tarczewski, Jr.
Bench: Gabe York, Jr.; Kadeem Allen, Jr.; Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Fr.; Dusan Ristic, Fr.; Craig Victor, Fr.

They’ll be good because … : Finding a way to consistently score against this team is going to be an absolute nightmare, which is crazy to think about considering that the Wildcats lost two of the nation’s best individual defenders in Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson. That should tell you a thing or two about the way that Sean Miller has been able to recruit in recent years, but it also should give you an idea of just how strong the program is that he’s building. What I love about this group, particularly on the defensive end, is the pair of wings that they have — Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. I’d be comfortable having either of those guys matched with any player in the country save for maybe the five or ten best big men in the country. That’s how tough and versatile they are on that end of the floor.

source: AP
Sean Miller (AP Photo)

What that does is allow Miller to tinker around with his lineups. If he wants to go big, he can play Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski together along the front line, allowing Arizona to match up with the massive front lines of Kentucky and Texas. But if they want to spread the floor, they can bring on Gabe York or Kadeem Allen alongside T.J. McConnell in the back court, lining Ashley up with Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson up front.

To put it simply, Miller will be able to matchup with any team in the country — whether they play three bigs or four guards — and still have a size advantage and, in all likelihood, more talent without taking a hit defensively. That’s nice.

But they might disappoint because … : If there’s a concern about this Arizona team, it’s going to be their perimeter shooting. It was an issue last season as well, and that was with Nick Johnson, who was the team’s best and most clutch perimeter shooter. McConnell can knock down a three with time and space, and getting Ashley back from the torn ligament in his foot will be huge because of his ability to spread the floor.

But here’s the concern: Johnson is a good, not great, perimeter shooter and Hollis-Jefferson was the kind of guy you didn’t bother guarding beyond 10 feet. York can be a lights-out shooter from deep, but he’s streaky and a concern on the defensive end of the floor. Allen, a JuCo transfer, has a reputation for being a big time scorer, but he’s more of a slasher than a spot-up shooter.

One other thing that might become an issue: Arizona doesn’t really have a go-to guy offensively. I think Johnson is terrific, and he’s certainly a better offensive player than Aaron Gordon was, but I’ll be curious to see how he transitions on that end of the floor to the college level. What makes Johnson so special is his versatility and the fact that there really isn’t anything on the basketball court that he struggles with. I’m not convinced he’s a great one-on-one scorer.

Outlook: It would be a shock to me if anyone other than Arizona won the Pac-12 this season. That’s how good this Arizona team is when compared to the rest of the teams in the conference. They’ll drop a couple of games here and there in league play, but I would not be surprised to see the Wildcats win the conference by four games when it is all said and done.

On paper, Kentucky is the best team in the country. They’re deep, they’re talented and they have a ton of guys that will be playing for NBA paychecks in the not-so-distant future. It’s correct to say that Kentucky is the odds-on favorite to win the national title, but Arizona is not all that far behind them. If we know anything about a team coached by Miller, it’s that they are going to be tough as nails, particularly on the defensive end, and they are going to execute offensively.

Assuming everyone stays healthy, Miller should get this team to the Final Four this season.

Top 25 Countdown: No. 3 Wisconsin Badgers

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Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package. We continue our countdown today with No. 3 Wisconsin.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | NBCSports Preseason Top 25 | Preview Schedule

source: AP
Bo Ryan (AP Photo)

Head Coach: Bo Ryan

Last Season: 30-8, 12-6 Big Ten (t-2nd), lost in the Final Four to Kentucky

Key Losses: Ben Brust

Newcomers: Ethan Happ

Projected Lineup

G: Trae Jackson, Sr.
G: Bronson Koenig, So.
G: Josh Gasser, Sr.
F: Sam Dekker, Jr.
C: Frank Kaminsky, Sr.
Bench: Duje Dukan, Sr.; Nigel Hayes, So.; Riley Dearring, Fr.; Jordan Hill, So.

They’ll be good because … : There’s an argument to be made that this is the most talented team that Bo Ryan has ever had at Wisconsin, and Ryan has never had a team that’s finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten. It starts with Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, two potential all-americans and first round draft picks. Kaminsky was one of the breakout stars of last season, a seven-footer with perimeter skills and the size to overpower smaller defenders in the paint. Dekker is probably the more talented of the two, a 6-foot-9 wing with three point range and the ability to put the ball on the floor and dunk on a defender.

While those two will carry the team, the Badgers will be led by senior guards Trae Jackson and Josh Gasser, tough, defensive-minded players that are as prototypical “Wisconsin” as it gets. The x-factors for the Badgers are sophomores Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, both of whom had some promising moments during their first season in Madison.

All of that makes the Badgers look quite good on paper, but the biggest reason that they are looked at as the overwhelming favorite to win the Big Ten is that everyone except Ben Brust is back from last year’s team that earned a No. 2 seed in the tournament and made the Final Four. Bo’s teams don’t get worse with experience.

source:
AP Photo

But they might disappoint because … : The biggest concern that I can see with this Wisconsin team is their depth, particularly in the back court. A staple of Wisconsin basketball is that Bo is always going to find a guy on his bench that is capable of stepping into minutes and playing like an experienced veteran. That’s just the way that his system works, but right now it seems to me that there are really only three guards on the roster capable of playing major minutes for a national title contender. Part of Dekker’s value lies in his ability to slide over and play the three, but that still means that the Badgers are thin on the wing.

The other red flag is the limited athleticism and defensive ability that Wisconsin has on their front line. If there is a weakness to Kaminsky’s game, it’s that he can be overmatched by guys that are his size and more athletic, and a number of teams that are in and around the top ten have front courts like that — Kentucky, Arizona, Duke, Texas. Throw in the fact that Dekker is more of a wing than a power forward and that Hayes, for all he does well, it a bit undersized to be a post player, and the Badgers could be susceptible to bigger teams this season.

Outlook: To be frank, those concerns are me picking nits. I think out of every team in the top ten, Wisconsin has the lowest floor of them all. It’s easy to see a situation where, say, Kentucky can’t find a way to keep everyone in their rotation happy with their minutes or with Duke struggling defensively or Arizona having issues with their ability to score. I can see Virginia struggling to replace Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris defensively or North Carolina’s point guards and centers failing to reach expectations.

In other words, out of every team in the country that can be labeled a contender this season, the Badgers have the least amount of risk. At this point, we know what we’re going to be getting from everyone on the roster. Kaminsky is going to be the typical matchup nightmare that Badgers bigs end up being. Jackson and Gasser will be the bulldogs that lead this team. Koenig and Hayes will be, at worst, solid role players once again. And Dekker, who is expected to have a big junior season, will, at worst, be the regular old all-Big Ten caliber player he’s been the past two seasons.

There’s not as much upside with this group as there is with other teams, but that’s not a bad thing. Wisconsin’s worst-case scenario this year is probably still good enough to win the league and make a run at a second straight Final Four.

Top 25 Countdown: No. 4 Duke Blue Devils

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Jahlil Okafor (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package. We continue our countdown today with No. 4 Duke.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | NBCSports Preseason Top 25 | Preview Schedule

Head Coach: Mike Krzyzewski

Last Season: 26-9, 13-5 ACC (3rd), lost to Mercer in the Round of 64

Key Losses: Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood, Andre Dawkins, Tyler Thornton

Newcomers: Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow, Grayson Allen

Projected Lineup

G: Tyus Jones, Fr.
G: Quinn Cook, Sr.
G: Rasheed Sulaimon, Jr.
F: Amile Jefferson, Jr.
C: Jahlil Okafor, Fr.
Bench: Justise Winslow, Fr.; Grayson Allen, Fr.; Matt Jones, So.; Marshall Plumlee, Jr.; Semi Ojeleye, So.

They’ll be good because … : The Blue Devils have has much talent on their roster as anyone in the country, and that includes Kentucky. The Wildcats have nine McDonalds All-Americans on their roster, which just so happens to be the same number that Coach K has collected in Durham. Jabari Parker is no longer with Duke, but the team is headlined, once again, by freshman from Chicago that is expected to compete for All-American awards this year. Jahlil Okafor is the best low-post player to come through the high school ranks in a long time, and he’ll be the anchor for this group offensively. Don’t be surprised to see him average somewhere in the neighborhood of 17 points and 10 boards.

source: Getty Images
Getty Images

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Duke’s back court is absolutely loaded this year. Quinn Cook is a two-year starter at the point for the Blue Devils, and he may not even be the best point guard on the roster. Tyus Jones, who came to Duke in a package deal with Okafor, is expected to have the ball in his hands the majority of the time this season. Rasheed Sulaimon and Matt Jones are back as well, and they’ll be pushed for playing time by Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen, two more burger boys. Don’t be surprised to see Duke play with four guards at times this season, using Winslow at the four, in order to get their five best players on the floor at the same time.

But they might disappoint because … : There are two real question marks with this Duke team, the biggest of which has to do with how some veterans are going to accept a younger generation. Quinn Cook is a senior and has been the starting point guard for the Blue Devils for the past two seasons, but he may end up ceding that role to Tyus Jones this year. That doesn’t mean that Cook won’t see significant minutes — he actually would be a pretty good fit playing off-guard — but it will be a very different role. And he won’t be alone, either, as freshmen Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen are going to be pushing the like of Rasheed Sulaimon and Matt Jones — and Cook — for minutes. How will the vets handle it if their minutes are taken away? Will Sulaimon be able to bounce back from a rough sophomore season?

The other issue is front court depth. Jahlil Okafor is going to be a star. You won’t find anyone willing to argue that fact. But beyond that, there are question marks. Amile Jefferson had a better-than-expected sophomore season, particularly with his work on the glass, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s an undersized four that is limited offensively. He won’t be spreading the floor and creating space for Okafor on the block. Marshall Plumlee, another seven-footer, won’t be doing that, either. And Ojeleye? He wasn’t much more than a dunker as a freshman. That’s it when it comes to front court players. It will be interesting to see just how much of a supporting cast Okafor has there.

Outlook: It’s going to be interesting to see how Coach K uses this roster this season. I’d expect them to look similar to the Ohio State team from 2010-2011, back when Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft were freshman. Thad Matta surrounded Sullinger, another phenomenal low-post scorer, with four guards that could all hit open threes and dared teams to try and double-team the big fella. I could see Duke doing something similar with Jahlil Okafor, using Justise Winslow or even a guy like Rasheed Sulaimon or Grayson Allen at the four.

The difference between that Ohio State team and this Duke team is that those Buckeyes could grind defensively with the best of them. Duke is going to get out and pressure the ball in their man-to-man this season, the way that they always have done under Coach K. They’re not going to let you run your sets. But I’m not sure how many really good on-ball defenders they have in their back court. The ACC is absolutely loaded at the top this season, with North Carolina, Virginia and Louisville all capable of winning a league title. For my money, Duke is the favorite. But it will, by no means, be a cakewalk. They might make a Final Four despite finishing fourth in their conference.

Top 25 Countdown: No. 5 Kansas Jayhawks

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Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package. We continue our countdown today with No. 5 Kansas.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | NBCSports Preseason Top 25 | Preview Schedule

source: AP
Bill Self (AP Photo_

Head Coach: Bill Self

Last Season: 25-10, 14-4 Big 12 (1st)

Key Losses: Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Tarik Black, Naadir Tharpe

Newcomers: Cliff Alexander, Devonte’ Graham, Kelly Oubre, Hunter Mickelson, Svi Mykhailiuk

Projected Lineup

G: Devonte’ Graham, Fr.
G: Wayne Selden, So.
F: Kelly Oubre, Fr.
F: Perry Ellis, Jr.
C: Cliff Alexander, Fr.
Bench: Frank Mason, So.; Hunter Mickelson, Jr.; Landen Lucas, So.; Brannen Greene, So.; Jamari Traylor, Jr.; Svi Mykhailiuk, Fr.

They’ll be good because … : The Jayhawks are loaded, as usual. Cliff Alexander is the face of this year’s recruiting class, a powerfully athletic, 6-foot-8 forward that has the potential to one day shatter a back board during a game. He’ll remind some people of Montrezl Harrell in the way that he attacks the glass and the rim. Wayne Selden was overshadowed a top 15 recruit and a projected lottery pick last season even before struggling through knee issues as a freshman. He’s healthy now. Kelly Oubre is this year’s Selden, an elite-level NBA prospect on the wing that may be the most talented player on the roster. All of that is before you consider Perry Ellis, who could very well end up being the leading scorer for the Jayhawks this season.

There’s depth, too. Even after the transfer of Connor Frankamp, Kansas can legitimately go two-deep at every position. It’s not at the same level as Kentucky — the drop-off from Kelly Oubre to Svi Mykhailiuk is noticeable — but Bill Self has plenty to work with on this team.

And that’s the third part of this equation. Bill Self. It’s been more than a decade since he finished a season as anything other than the Big 12 regular season champ, and that’s not an accident. A team with this much talent, coaching and program pedigree is always going to be in the conversation as one of the best teams in the country. That’s just the way it works.

source:
Wayne Selden, Jr. (AP Photo)

But they might disappoint because … : There are three concerns that I have with the Jayhawks, however, and the biggest issue is one that has plagued them since Sherron Collins graduated: Point guard play. From Josh Selby to Tyshawn Taylor to Elijah Johnson to Naadir Tharpe, Self has had talent come through his program, but reliability and consistency hasn’t come with it. Enter Devonte’ Graham, a top 50 recruit and former Appalachian State signee who is expected to take over the roll this season. As a freshman. It may be a while before those questions are answered this year.

Youth is another issue with this team. Three of the five guys expected to start are freshmen, while Selden is just a sophomore. Hunter Mickelson, who is a redshirt junior, is the only guy on the roster that has been on a college campus for three seasons, and while Self has sent a handful of one-and-done players to the NBA’s lottery — Ben McLemore, Xavier Henry, Wiggins, Embiid — he hasn’t turned those seasons into Final Four appearances. His best years at Kansas have been when he’s been loaded with veterans.

Lastly, the front line is not a lock to be great. I think Ellis is the best front court scorer in the Big 12, but he’s not a rim protector defensively. Alexander has a ton of talent, but he’s still learning the game; Self has stated publicly that Alexander is raw, and he’s still getting into shape after an ankle injury this summer. Landen Lucas is nothing more than a body at this point. Jamari Traylor is an energy guy but ideally a role player on a Final Four-caliber team. The x-factor is Mickelson, a big, strong center that played two seasons at Arkansas before sitting out last year in Lawrence.

Outlook: Once again, the Jayhawks are the safe-bet to win the Big 12 title. That’s just the way it works in the league these days. It doesn’t matter that Texas has top ten-caliber talent, or that Oklahoma and Iowa State are good enough to make the Final Four, or that Kansas State is has the pieces to give all four of those teams a run for their money.

That said, I do have some concerns about Kansas continuing their consecutive league titles, mainly due to the reasons I mentioned above. We don’t know if Graham is going to be ready to takeover the reins of this team, which makes to question marks with the Jayhawks youth and front line that much more concerning. The Jayhawks have a ton of potential, and the talent to win a national title, but their floor is much lower than the other teams that find themselves ranked in the top five.

Top 25 Countdown: No. 6 Virginia Cavaliers

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source: Getty Images
Malcolm Brogdon (Getty Images)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package. We continue our countdown today with No. 6 Virginia.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | NBCSports Preseason Top 25 | Preview Schedule

Head Coach: Tony Bennett

Last Season: 30-7, 16-2 ACC (1st), lost to Michigan State in the Sweet 16

Key Losses: Joe Harris, Akil Mitchell

Newcomers: Devon Hall, B.J. Stith, Isaiah Wilkins, Marial Shayok, Jack Salt

Projected Lineup

G: London Perrantes, So.
G: Malcolm Brogdon, Jr.
F: Justin Anderson, Jr.
F: Anthony Gill, Jr.
C: Mike Tobey, Jr.
Bench: Evan Nolte, Jr.; Darion Atkins, Sr.; B.J. Stith, Fr.; Marial Shayok, Fr.; Isaiah Wilkins, Fr.; Jack Salt, Fr.; Devon Hall, Fr.

They’ll be good because … : There is one thing that we can always be sure of when it comes to a Tony Bennett-coached team: they are going to play tough, pack-line defense that forces you into tough shots and keeps you from getting to the offensive glass. That will not change this season despite the fact that the Cavs will graduate Joe Harris and the ever-underrated Akil Mitchell.

source:
Tony Bennett (AP Photo)

The Cavs do bring back every other member of their rotation while adding a solid recruiting class into the mix. Malcolm Brogdon may be the nation’s least-appreciated player. He’s a 6-foot-5 playmaker that should embrace being this team’s leader. London Perrantes grabbed hold of the starting point guard job early on last season and spent the season burying open jumpers and running offense without turning the ball over. Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey are big bodies with quite a bit of potential, and Justin Anderson is one of the ACC’s best athletes and the kind of player that will be among the league leaders in floor burns.

But they might disappoint because … : There are two major concerns I have with this team, and both of them involve the players that they will be losing. Joe Harris did not have a great senior season, statistically speaking, but what he provided the ‘Hoos was a knockdown perimeter shooter and a go-to guy. Harris wasn’t a great one-on-one player, but he was terrific running off of screens; Bennett could call his number and know he was getting a good shot out of it. Who plays that role for Virginia this season?

As for Akil Mitchell, he versatility defensively is going to be missed. Tobey is probably a better low-post scorer than Mitchell (particularly with the way he played as a senior) and Gill is probably better getting to the offensive glass. But neither of them has the lateral quickness of Mitchell. In other words, Mitchell could not only hedge and recover on ball-screens, but he could switch out and guard a wing if needed. Tobey and Gill don’t have that kind of athleticism.

Outlook: Virginia’s basketball program is as good as it has been since Ralph Sampson was roaming the paint three decades ago. They are coming off a dual-ACC title this past season, and they not only returned all but two of their rotation players from a year ago but only one player currently on their roster is a senior. Virginia will not only be good this season, the program’s future looks just as bright.

As far as this season is concerned, it’s going to be difficult for Virginia to repeat as dual-ACC champs even if their team, as a whole, is better than the one they put on the floor a year ago. That’s because the conference is loaded at the top this year. Duke, North Carolina and Louisville are all top ten teams, and that’s to say nothing of programs like Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pitt, Miami and N.C. State. The Cavs could very well finish in fourth place in the ACC’s regular season and I’d still call them a legitimate Final Four contender.