Coach Cal and the Kentucky Wildcats are just under 3 weeks away from beginning their "Revenge Tour" under the Madison Square Garden lights. This means we are still a long ways away from rankings meaning anything important. However, they are fun and it is never too early to start scoping out who Kentucky's biggest threats are. So here begins my season long weekly series of rankings, where I will rank my top 25 teams, as well as give an explanation for the position of the top 10 teams and Kentucky, if they are not already in the top 10.
One quick disclaimer with these rankings: these rankings do not reflect how I think these teams will finish the season. This is a reflection of where I believe these teams deserve to be ranked at the given time. Higher upside teams, namely Kentucky, Duke, or Memphis, may not have as high of ranking to start, due to them not yet proving that they are a top team. For pre-season rankings, I gave favor to teams who have had a lot of success last season, and are returning key players that have caused that success. High roster turnover or lack of previous success can hurt teams' initial rankings, even if I think they will ultimately be a top team.
#1 - UCLA
"Would they still be a top 10 team if they lost in the play in game?" Well, they didn't lose. "They had a fluke final four run." There is no such thing as a fluke run of 5 straight tournament wins, and only losing to an undefeated 1 seed on a half court buzzer beater. "They lost 9 regular season games." Many of them came when star player and consensus preseason All American Johnny Juzang was injured. This was a legitimate final 4 team who is not only returning every single player who played a minute for them in the tournament, but is also adding a top 10 freshman, another top 50 freshman, and an immediate impact transfer. The #1 spot easily belongs to UCLA and is theirs to lose.
#2 - Gonzaga
Gonzaga, like UCLA, was a final 4 team last year. Unlike UCLA, they had quite a bit of roster turnover. They lost 3 key starters, including Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs, and Joel Ayayi, as well as 6th man Aaron Cook. Yet, Mark Few reloaded and more by adding 5 star guards Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis, as well as arguably the best freshman in the country, Chet Holmgren. Gonzaga is still returning All American Drew Timme and added in the portal as well. This looks to be another year where Gonzaga will constantly be at the top of the polls. The question still remains whether they can go all the way and get that national championship title.
#3 - Illinois
Coming from someone who has spent half of the offseason fighting Illinois fans on Twitter (the other half being Memphis of course), I have to give credit where it is due. Brad Underwood lost a lot of his staff and the best player in college basketball in Ayo Dosunmu, as well as Adam Miller to the transfer portal. However, he found a way to convince All American Kofi Cockburn to remove himself from the NBA draft process and the draft portal to return for his junior season. The Fighting Illini also return key starters and rotation pieces in Trent Frazier, Jacob Grandison, Da'Monte Williams, Coleman Hawkins, and who I project to be the best point guard in college basketball this year, Andre Curbelo. A couple key additions in the transfer portal, returning key veterans, and the emergence of Curbelo should have Illinois back on top of the Big 10 and ready to redeem themselves in the NCAA tournament.
#4 - Villanova
Villanova was the school who best took advantage of the COVID free year of eligibility rule, as they return 2 of their best 3 players in Colin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels for a 5th year of college basketball. This was a team that made it all the way to the Sweet 16 last year without even having Gillespie due to injury. We have seen Jay Wright have huge success (like 2 national championships) with elite upperclassmen before. I fully expect this year to be no different and have them in the running again.
#5 - Texas
Outside of maybe Kentucky, Texas had by far the best offseason in college basketball in almost every regard. To begin with, they returned their best 2 guards in Courtney Ramey and Andrew Jones to lead their team. They also added one of the best coaches in the country in Chris Beard from in-state rival Texas Tech. However, by far the biggest splash they made was in the transfer portal. They added 8 total players from the portal, including some of the biggest names, such as Dylan Disu, Marcus Carr, Tre Mitchell, Christian Bishop, Timmy Allen, and former Cat, Devin Askew. My biggest question is whether all of these pieces will fit together or not. If they do, Texas will be a serious threat to win the national championship.
#6 - Purdue
Purdue is not the sexiest team on this list, but three names put them this high for me. The first is head coach Matt Painter. Painter's teams seem to always buy in, play hard, and perform well over expectations. I expect extra motivation from him following a first round tournament exit last season. The second name is center Trevion Williams, who I expect to be an All-Big Ten selection, and in contention for All-American as well. The last name, and the biggest one for Purdue's success, is guard Jaden Ivey. We saw the sophomore look like a completely different player this summer playing for U19 Team USA in the FIBA in their route to gold. If he carries this over into a breakout college season, a Final 4 is a serious possibility.
#7 - Kansas
Bill Self once again puts together a very solid team. Kansas drops a few players to the draft and portal, but made it up with a top 10 recruiting class and transfer portal additions themselves, headlined by 5th year, former All-PAC 12 selection Remy Martin. I do not think that this is going to be a special Kansas basketball team that will make a championship run, or even win a BIG 12 title. I do, however, think that they have a very high floor, earning them a top 10 ranking, at least to start the season.
#8 - Michigan
Michigan follows the theme of "lost a lot, but also returned and reloaded a lot too". Notably, Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner leave for the NBA draft, while All-American center Hunter Dickinson returns to be joined by the consensus #1 overall recruiting class. This class is headlined by sharp shooter Caleb Houston, along with Moussa Diabate and Frankie Collins. Coach Juwan Howard has had a ton of success in first 2 seasons. I expect another great season from him, but the Wolverines will have their hands full with 2 other power houses in the top heavy BIG-10, in Illinois and Purdue.
#9 - Baylor
The defending champion Baylor Bears make it into my top 10 to start the season. Losing guards Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell might be the 2 biggest losses from any team this off-season. True freshman Langston Love and Kendall Brown will have the task of filling that void, along with a few other immediate impact transfers. As defending champs, I believe they deserve an "initial" ranking over teams like Kentucky, Duke, and Memphis who all missed the tournament completely last year. However, as the season goes on, I would not be surprised if Baylor falls from this initial ranking in favor of those other teams.
#10 - Duke
The first matchup of the year for the Cats falls just inside of my top 10. While I am hesitant to rank other teams high because of freshman, due to them not proving themselves yet, I will give Duke the nod because I believe Paolo Banchero is as "can't miss" as they come. I think he will have somewhere between a Marvin Bagley and Zion Williamson type impact in what will be his lone year at Duke. He will be joined by breakout candidates in Wendell Moore and Mark Williams, as well as other top freshman and potential first round picks, AJ Griffin and Trevor Keels. Duke's lack of a point guard limits this team's ceiling and ranking. Either Jeremy Roach will need to step up, or one of the other off guards will need to become a playmaker for this team to become a legitimate top threat.
#11 - Kentucky
The "Revenge Tour" will begin with the Cats falling just outside the top 10. For once in my life, I really do not care where Kentucky is ranked. The Cats were terrible last year, and while they may have the talent to be ranked higher, I have no problem with them needing to prove their way into the top 10 and eventually the top 5. I wouldn't put them any lower because the proven veterans on this team, notably Kellan Grady, Davion Mintz, Sahvir Wheeler, Oscar Tshiebwe, and Keion Brooks Jr, give this team a floor. Even if the freshmen, TyTy Washington, Bryce Hopkins, and Daimion Collins, do not pan out to be what we think they can, those veterans should still keep Kentucky ranked throughout the season and get into the Sweet 16. If those freshmen do hit stride, this team will be absolutely stacked and have a serious chance to get Coach Cal back into the Final 4, and even hang up their 9th banner.
#12 - Oregon
#13 - North Carolina
#14 - Alabama
#15 - Memphis
#16 - Arkansas
#17 - Tennessee
#18 - Ohio State
#19 - Auburn
#20 - Texas Tech
#21 - Maryland
#24 - Oklahoma State
#25 - San Diego State