1. North Carolina – 2014-15 Record: 26-12 (Sweet 16)

Despite the rumors and allegations surrounding the program, Roy Williams has the Tar Heels on pace to make a run at another National Championship. It starts in the backcourt for UNC. Last summer, people were talking about Marcus Paige as a potential Player of the Year candidate. Though he didn’t have quite the season to be put in the conversation, he still showed flashes of absolute brilliance last year. He and Kennedy Meeks make up one of the most potent pick and roll tandems in the nation, and they’ll be out for blood after being bounced from the tournament early last year by the Badgers. Losing JP Tokoto will hurt, but his departure will give more touches to Meeks, Joel James, and Brice Johnson. This team may not stay at #1 all season, but they will be a relevant, dangerous team all the way through March.

  1. Kentucky – 2014-15 Record: 38-1 (Final Four)

The Kentucky Wildcats parted ways with an NBA roster this year. Their 38-0 start, one of the best in NCAA basketball history, was an incredible feat of talent and chemistry. Despite that, the Wildcats are retooled, re-equipped and ready to make a run at a similar type of season this year. After landing a top three recruiting class this year, head coach John Callipari again has a wealth of talent. He also has the luxury of bringing back senior Alex Poythress and junior Marcus Lee to help not only be mentors to the incoming freshmen, but also lead the team on the court. Poythress was expected to be a one-and-done level talent, but injuries have kept him in school. If this team develops an effective rotation, they could easily leap-frog into the top spot again.

  1. Maryland – 2014-15 Record: 28-7 (Round of 32)

Maryland was clearly one of the best teams in the B1G last year, and had Wisconsin not have had their best team in school history, the Terps may have had a chance at the Big Ten Title. Their only major loss is Dez Wells, but they bring back a lot of firepower for this upcoming season. Melo Trimble was an NBA prospect at point guard, and with Wells gone, he’ll have the ball in his hand even more. Senior forward Jake Layman will be a high impact player at the forward position. Still, it’s their off-season acquisitions that bring UMD into the top five. Former Duke guard Rasheed Suliamon will likely make his way into the starting lineup, bringing an experienced, well-rounded skill set with him. Milwaukee product and McDonald’s All-American Diamond Stone will start at center, giving the offense more potency and putting a potential anchor in the middle of the defense.

  1. Duke – 2014-15 Record: 35-4 (National Champions)

The defending National Champions lost their big three from last year. Jahlil Okafor, Justice Winslow and Tyus Jones all dashed for the NBA, and Quinn Cook’s campaign ended last year with the greatest victory there is. Sophomore phenomenon Grayson Allen will be back to help lead one of the top recruiting classes in college basketball. Okafor is replaced by Chase Jeter, who headlines 247 Sports’ number #2 class. Jeter is joined by fellow five-star recruits Luke Kennard and Brandon Ingram, both of whom are going to play very substantial minutes for Coach K. There’s still a lot that could go wrong when your team is lead by primarily freshman, but Duke has proven that it’s not impossible to be successful.

  1. Virginia 2014-15 Record: 30-4 (Round of 32)

The only major loss the Cavaliers have faced this offseason is Justin Anderson. Though Anderson is a great talent and will probably have a solid NBA career, the Cavs are still going to be one of the favorites for the ACC title. Even with Anderson injured and out for most of the season, the Wahoos still only dropped one regular season game on the road. Tony Bennett has proven to be one of the best coaches in the country, and the immense level of talent coming back will again make UVA a dangerous team. Malcolm Brogdon is going to be a pre-season All-American, and had UVA not faced Final Four bound Michigan State, they could have been on the way there themselves.

  1. Iowa State – 2014-15 Record: 25-9 (Round of 64)

Had Fred Hoiberg not left ISU for the Chicago Bulls, there’s a chance they could have been a top three team. For the Cyclones, Hoiberg’s departure will be detrimental both on and off the court. Bringing back a core of Monte Morris, Jameel McKay, and Georges Niang will certainly help offset that, though. Niang is going to be a pre-season All-American with the luxury of having a stellar supporting class around him. Sure, they blew a game as a three-seed to an unheard of UAB team, but before that, they were a lot of people’s sleepers to make the Final Four (including mine…RIP 2015 Tournament Bracket). Niang will lead this team with class and skill, and maybe be able to challenge Kansas for the Big 12 Title.

  1. Gonzaga – 2014-15 Record: 35-3 (Elite Eight)

Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis, and Kyle Wiltjer make up one of the most dynamic frontcourts in basketball. Karnowski is a bull underneath the basket, and Wiltjer and Sabonis both bring very unique, highly technical skill-sets to the forward position, giving the Zags incredible flexibility on both ends of the floor. The loss of Kevin Pangos is going to be glaringly obvious for this team as they’ll need to figure out a new focal point on the offensive end, and someone else to bring the ball up the floor. If Wiltjer and Sabonis both play like the NBA players they could be, look for the Zags to make it to their first Final Four in school history.

  1. Kansas – 2014-15 Record: 27-9 (Round of 32)

Perry Ellis, Frank Mason, and Wayne Selden are most likely the most skilled big three returning to college basketball this season. Incoming freshmen Check Diallo and Carlton Bragg round out a Bill Self team with an incredibly high ceiling. Hopefully, the loss of Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre Jr. will allow the Jayhawks to add by subtracting. Kansas has consistently been impressive in conference, winning 11 – yes 11 – conference championships in a row. There’s no doubt that they’ll be one of the favorites again this season, but they won’t be able to coast through as they have recently. If Kansas is to be a threat in the postseason, Perry Ellis is going to need to emerge as a superstar.

  1. Louisville – 2014-15 Record: 27-9 (Elite Eight) 

How on earth could a team losing 78% of its scoring be a top-10 pre-season team? A fair question to ask, but I’ll bet the person asking doesn’t have faith in the Rick Pitino system. Last season, Louisville struggled mightily getting consistent offensive production once people realized that if you double team Montrezl Harrell in the post, Louisville was S.O.L. How do you counter that? You bring in two graduate transfers that are both capable of lighting it up on a nightly basis. Louisville also returns a wealth of young talent both at point guard and in the frontcourt. A premier level recruiting class headlined by guard Donovan Mitchell and forward Deng Adel not only adds more offensive fire power, it also adds depth. UofL will be able to return to their press D, 3-point shooting ways that have been the mold of the program during the Rick Pitino era. Don’t forget, they were a made free-throw away from the Final Four.

  1. Oklahoma – 2014-15 Record: 24-11 (Sweet Sixteen)

The Sooners are only a top ten, maybe even a ranked team since Buddy Hield decided to come back to school. Hield proved consistently last season that he was always the best player on the floor, and I have no doubt this year will be more of the same. With three other starters returning in addition to Hield, the Sooners have a great shot to give Kansas a legitimate challenge for their Big 12 crown. Oklahoma’s X-Factor is going to be Ryan Spangler. His numbers last season (9.7 ppg, 8.2 rpg) were solid, but his presence is going to need to continue to grow for OU to have success.

  1. Arizona – 2014-15 Record: 34-4 (Elite Eight)

The story is the same every year for Arizona. After an impressive season, a few players dash early for the league, and head coach Sean Miller retools with a highly ranked recruiting class. This year, TJ McConnell graduated and Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson bolted for the NBA. The Wildcats bring in a pair of top-15 recruits (Ray Smith & Alonzo Trier) to team up with returning players like guard Gabe York and center Kaleb Tarczewski, who both have a chance to be NBA caliber players. JuCo transfer Kadeem Allen might be Arizona’s offensive X-Factor, given his 6’3” frame and scoring skills. Don’t expect Arizona to be at the level they’ve been in recent memory, but I’d say they’re still the Pac-12 favorites.

  1. Wichita State – 2014-15 Record: 30-5 (Sweet Sixteen)

Losing Tekele Cotton is going to reduce the athleticism on the floor for the Shockers. Despite that, Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker are returning for their senior campaigns, to make up a backcourt with great skill and a very high level of experience, since both of them played on the 2013 Final Four team. Wichita State is undoubtedly going to dominate their conference again this season, but some people outside the backcourt are going to need to produce if the Shockers are to succeed in the postseason. 

  1. Indiana – 2014-15 Record: 20-14 (Round of 64)

Yogi Ferrell is coming back to Bloomington and is going to be on the All-American radar all season. He’s joined in the backcourt by James Blackmon Jr., giving Indiana one of the most potent backcourts in the nation. With freshman Thomas Bryant entering the fold for the Hoosiers, forward Troy Williams will have the opportunity to return out towards the wing. In order for IU to be a true contender in the Big Ten, Tom Crean is going to need to figure out a way to make this unit gel. 

  1. Villanova – 2014-15 Record: 33-3 (Round of 32)

Nova said goodbye to three starters from last year’s squad, a team that reached the tournament as a number-one seed. Ryan Arcidiacono will be the leader for Villanova this year, and his averages of 10.1 ppg and 3.6 assists per game are both bound to go up. He’s joined in the backcourt by McDonald’s All-American Jalen Brunson, giving Jay Wright yet another dynamic backcourt to work with in the relatively weak Big East Conference. 

  1. California – 2014-15 Record: 18-15 (No Postseason Appearance)

Cal is traditionally not a basketball powerhouse. How do you change the culture of a program? You bring in an elite level recruiting class – exactly what Cal has done. Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown, a pair of top ten recruits are going to team up with Tyrone Wallace and Jabari Bird, giving Cal plenty of NBA-caliber talent to work with this season.

  1. Michigan – 2014-15 Record: 16-16 (No Postseason Appearance)

In recent memory, last season’s Wolverines team is one of the worst Michigan squads we’ve seen. Losing to a team like NJIT is always a blemish on a Big Ten school, there’s no way around it. This season, the Wolverines are all one year older, and Caris LaVert is going to come back looking to move his way up the 2016 draft boards.

  1. Michigan State – 2014-15 Record: 27-12 (Final Four)

Michigan State was definitely the “surprise” team in the Final Four last season, but are we really surprised anymore when Tom Izzo’s Spartans are there? Losing Travis Trice and Brendan Dawson will take away a lot of the offense and make the Spartans much less athletic, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a college basketball fan – it’s to never doubt Tom Izzo.

  1. Wisconsin – 2014-15 Record: 36-4 (National Runner Up) 

Wisconsin Basketball has probably just finished its most successful run in school history. Back to back Final Fours, a Player of the Year, two first round NBA Draft selections; the list goes on and on. How do you bounce back from that? The Badgers say goodbye to Kaminsky, Dekker, Jackson, Dukan, and Gasser this year, immensely hurting their chances of playing for National Championship. But, a Bo Ryan coached team with Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, and a solid recruiting class give Badger Nation and I a glimmer of hope. 

  1. Baylor – 2014-15 Record: 24-10 (Round of 64)

If you don’t already know the name Rico Gathers, you will be seeing his name on the rebounding leaders’ chart this year. With Taurean Prince also returning, Baylor has a very powerful and intimidating frontcourt. Point guard Lester Medford will be handling the ball this year, and given that he averaged 3 assists per game, confidence is high for the Bears. 

  1. Notre Dame – 2014-15 Record: 32-6 (Elite Eight)

Losing Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant is going to hurt the Irish this year. Both guards are probably going to make an NBA roster this summer, and that’s a lot of talent to lose. Kentucky killer Zach Auguste and Demetrius Jackson are both going to be on one of the All-ACC preseason teams, giving Notre Dame a chance to retool and continue their success. 

  1. Cincinnati – 2014-15 Record: 23-11 (Round of 32)

Cincy probably over achieved a little bit last season, but they bring back all five starters. Head coach Mick Cronin has to be excited about not only that, but returning to full-time coaching status as well. Playing in the AAC will help them stay fresh come tournament time, which will make them dangerous in March.

  1. Miami – 2014-15 Record: 25-13 (NIT Runner Up) 

Angel Rodriguez and company were able to shake things up a bit in the ACC, impressing the rest of the conference along the way. Tonye Jekiri is going to be a 7’0” senior center this season, likely to be one of the better role players in the conference.

  1. UCLA – 2014-14 Record: 22-14 (Sweet Sixteen) 

After a relatievly unimpressive start to their 2014-15 campaign, the Bruins were able to pull it all together and reach the Sweet Sixteen. Returning four key players like guards Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton along with bigs like Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh will help them get past the losses of Kevon Looney and Norman Powell.

  1. Texas – 2014-15 Record: 20-14 (Round of 64)

If Shaka Smart was a good enough to bring VCU to the Final Four, what’s going to stop him at Texas? The Longhorns have never lacked talent, they just lacked a coach able to manipulate that talent in the right direction. Look for Texas to make a strong late season push once Smart learns the ins and outs of his inherited roster.

  1. North Carolina State – 2014-15 Record: 22-14 (Sweet Sixteen)

Had Trevor Lacey not bounced early for the NBA, NC State would probably have climbed a little higher up this list. However, with Cat Barber running the point at such a quick pace, and Beejay Anya & Abdul-Malik Abu controlling the paint, the Wolfpack will still be a relevant and dangerous team in the ACC.

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