Commentary

Picking the 25 best not an easy task

Originally Published: June 16, 2009
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Hey, here's something strange that happened this spring: Elite players actually wanted to stick with college basketball.

A number of big-time talents didn't even fool with the NBA draft process, and then a fair number over the past week decided the college game was too good to pass up since they weren't a lock for a top-20 spot in the draft. The result is that college hoops should have plenty of name recognition next season and as balanced a top 35 to 40 as it has had since the NBA draft rule changed.

Critics will pounce on these rankings. That's good. Keep clicking and ripping. That means you're interested. But trust me, trimming down to 25 is no easy task this season.

There were at least a dozen teams that could have gone anywhere from 15 to 25:

Georgia Tech: Tons of talent. Gani Lawal is back and Derrick Favors is arriving, but the Yellow Jackets still won only two games in the ACC last season.

Notre Dame: Luke Harangody returned and Scott Martin and Ben Hansbrough transferred in. But the Irish still need to defend.

[+] EnlargeChris Wright
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDayton is one of several teams that could have easily made Andy Katz's preseason top 25.

Dayton: The Flyers are the pick in the A-10, but the lack of star power makes them a team that could easily be in or out of these rankings

Illinois: The Illini have been too offensively challenged to be a given on this list.

Oklahoma: Willie Warren returns, but the frontcourt was gutted. And while the recruiting class is top 10, the Sooners might need more time to mesh.

Pittsburgh: No Jamie Dixon team falters too far. But losing Sam Young, DeJuan Blair, Levance Fields and Tyrell Biggs is too much to overcome in terms of making a preseason top 25.

Louisville: The backcourt is back, but not having Earl Clark and Terrence Williams makes it hard to buy the Cards this early.

Vanderbilt: A.J. Ogilvy didn't leave, and stud freshman John Jenkins will join him. The Commodores should defend well, but they're in what's shaping up to be a brutal SEC East.

Wake Forest: No Jeff Teague or James Johnson means too much pressure on Al-Farouq Aminu.

Clemson: Losing K.C. Rivers and Terrence Oglesby means the Tigers will lack perimeter shooting.

Gonzaga: The Zags believe they will be just fine without Austin Daye, but pile that on top of losing Jeremy Pargo, Josh Heytvelt and Micah Downs and that's too much to make them a given.

Texas A&M: The Chinemelu Elonu decision Monday leaves the Aggies with too big a hole in the middle.

All of the above teams have a strong case to be included. And they all might make cameos in the top 25 or stay for quite a while. There easily could be others, and I'm sure they will be posted in the comments section soon. But who made my cut after the early-entry withdrawal deadline?

Let's take a look …

1. Kansas: They were my No. 1 in April, and I found no reason why the Jayhawks shouldn't stay there. They have too much returning to knock them off their perch. Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich each have a shot to be Big 12 Player of the Year.

2. Michigan State: The Spartans won the Big Ten by four games, reached the national championship game and were humbled by North Carolina. The core of the team returns with Kalin Lucas, Raymar Morgan and Delvon Roe. This team is too talented to slip.

3. Texas: Damion James' return means the Longhorns will be on KU's heels. The addition of Avery Bradley and Jordan Hamilton, the return of Justin Mason, the beef in the middle with Dexter Pittman and the development of Gary Johnson means this squad is loaded.

4. Villanova: Corey Fisher and Scottie Reynolds and a highly touted newcomer class means the Wildcats are the pick to win the Big East. Losing Dante Cunningham hurts, but Jay Wright has this program rolling. There won't be a dip.

5. North Carolina: OK, so the easy thing to do is mock how much the Tar Heels lost in Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green. But I love what is returning in Ed Davis, Deon Thompson, Tyler Zeller, Marcus Ginyard and one of the top recruiting classes in the country. This might be too high, but a Roy Williams-coached team doesn't often disappoint.

6. Purdue: Matt Painter has the squad to compete with Michigan State, led by one of the most improved players in the country the past two years in JaJuan Johnson. Robbie Hummel should be healthy and the Boilermakers are now a serious player in the Big Ten and nationally.

7. Kentucky: Had Jodie Meeks returned, I would have snuck Kentucky up a few spots. Is this too low? Possibly. But John Calipari would agree with me that the Wildcats still haven't earned anything yet. Look, they have to learn a new system, and outside of Patrick Patterson, the key players on this squad are all new: John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Darnell Dodson, DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton. I just want to see UK mature a bit before it's anointed.

8. Tennessee: Tyler Smith coming back changed my perception of the Vols. This will be one of the more experienced teams in the SEC. And Scotty Hopson, Renaldo Woolridge and Bobby Maze are bound to live up to the hype in their second seasons. I expect Tennessee to be in Kentucky's grill as an SEC East contender.

9. West Virginia: Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks have the potential to be studs for the Mountaineers and in the Big East. Bob Huggins has a serious squad that should prove to be in step with Villanova for the Big East title. Watch this team develop and take on Huggs' personality throughout the season.

10. Duke: The Blue Devils lost Gerald Henderson, and that will hurt since he was their best blow-by offensive threat. But Kyle Singler is still one of the toughest matchups in college basketball. Duke will be bigger than normal, too. As long as Coach K is around, this program will contend.

11. California: The Bears return the core of their team, led by the best backcourt in the West in Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher. Give Mike Montgomery a full season to implement his system and Cal should flourish. The Bears should be the pick to win the Pac-10 and carry that banner into the NCAAs.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have the best shot-blocker in the country in Jarvis Varnado, and one of the more intriguing new big men in Renardo Sidney (assuming he's eligible). Rick Stansbury is poised to make a run with this group. He has been boasting about his squad, and this time he should.

13. Michigan: I could be in the minority here, but I love the way John Beilein has molded this crew over the past year. Manny Harris has fit quite nicely into Beilein's system. They struggled to make the NCAA field late in the season but did, and won a game. The Wolverines should be poised to make the Michigan State-Michigan basketball rivalry relevant for years to come.

14. Washington: The Huskies will have one of the deepest and quickest backcourts in the country with Isaiah Thomas, Venoy Overton and Abdul Gaddy. Quincy Pondexter should flourish inside, but the knock on the Huskies will be rebounding. Replacing Jon Brockman's hunger for boards will not be easy.

15. Butler: A year ago they were the surprise lower-profile team to emerge. Not this time. This season the Bulldogs will be expected to compete nationally. Gordon Hayward leads a Brad Stevens-coached squad that can defend as well as any other team in the country.

16. Ohio State: B.J. Mullens left for the NBA, but he wasn't the starting center and only averaged 8.8 ppg. And Thad Matta should be used to the one-and-done center at this point anyway. Getting Evan Turner to come back was the real coup for the Buckeyes. Matta should be back in contention and not sweating Selection Sunday for the first time since Greg Oden left.

17. Maryland: Yes, the Terps are getting this high a nod. I know they got rocked by Georgetown and Duke at one point last season and had to scratch and claw their way into the NCAAs. But Greivis Vasquez' decision to return gives Gary Williams the ammunition he needs to build a tough-minded, gritty bunch once again, with eight of the team's nine top scorers back.

18. Georgetown: The hype last season was skewed after the Hoyas went into Connecticut and won. And sure, DaJuan Summers bolted on the Hoyas, and Georgetown had a shakeup on the staff by dumping Robert Burke. Still, there is too much talent here to dismiss the Hoyas. Greg Monroe is likely a top-five pick, and guards Chris Wright and Austin Freeman should be ready to bust out. Hollis Thompson got a head start on the John Thompson III system by pulling a football-like move and spent the spring semester at Georgetown after graduating midyear.

19. Minnesota: The Gophers have the entire core of their team returning. Tubby Smith hasn't been a disappointment since he arrived in Minneapolis. But how will the Gophers handle expectations? No idea. Still, the way this team defended bodes well for Minnesota having a breakthrough season.

20. Siena: Let's see, two seasons in a row the Saints have won a first-round NCAA tournament game. Sure, they lose Kenny Hasbrouck. But he wasn't the one who made the big shots. Ronald Moore and Edwin Ubiles can handle themselves without Hasbrouck. The biggest thing was ensuring Fran McCaffery didn't get away and take another head coaching job. McCaffery is high on this squad. We're buying in, too.

21. Tulsa: Doug Wojcik finally got the opening he needed in Conference USA with John Calipari bolting for Kentucky. Jerome Jordan came back to take the tag as the best big man in the league. Ben Uzoh should be one of the best guards, and Wojcik picked up a key point guard in the offseason when he nabbed Donte Medder. The Golden Hurricane also hosts the conference tournament. It's time Memphis shared the wealth in this league.

22. Boston College: The Eagles lost Tyrese Rice. But anyone who watched this squad knows they were at their best when he wasn't the focus. BC is a solid team that won't be knocked easily. Rakim Sanders, Corey Raji, Joe Trapani, Reggie Jackson, Biko Paris, Tyler Roche and Josh Southern aren't going to scare anyone individually. But that collection of players and Al Skinner's consistent approach results in consistent wins.

23. South Carolina: The Gamecocks were a game or two away from making the NCAAs last season. They got Devan Downey and Dominique Archie back from the NBA draft. Downey played extremely well in workouts and has the capability to take over games. This is a team that should only get better and make the SEC East one of the toughest groupings in the country.

24. Kansas State: The Wildcats didn't lose any key players and bring back leading scorer Denis Clemente, who put 44 up on Texas in a road win last season. K-State was a few wins shy of getting an NCAA bid. That shouldn't be a problem next season, as Frank Martin continues to prove he was the right coach at the right time to replace Bob Huggins.

25. Connecticut: They lost a lot, but the Huskies slide in on the backside of the rankings with a trio of players that can rival any in the Big East: the backcourt of Kemba Walker and Jerome Dyson and a likely rising star in Stanley Robinson. The Huskies have had plenty of success with role players before, and this year's recruiting class should have plenty of pop.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com