So here are the top five teams in the Associated Press preseason basketball poll: Kentucky, Michigan State, Louisville, Duke and Kansas. Hang on, the coaches poll is different: Arizona is ranked No. 5 and Kansas is ranked No. 6.
Gee, what a surprise.
Here’s another non-surprise: Four of those six teams — Michigan State and Louisville being the exceptions — are keyed by freshmen who will never be sophomores.
According to the so-called experts, Kentucky has the greatest freshman class assembled since . . . well, its freshman class of two years ago. Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins apparently already has been selected No. 1 in next year’s NBA draft. Duke’s Jabari Parker isn’t quite that good; he will probably have to settle for being a 12-time All-Star. The same goes for Arizona’s Aaron Gordon.
College basketball? Just a stopover required by the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement. But even if all those one-and-done players were in the NBA right now, the top five teams in the preseason poll probably would be Kentucky, Michigan State, Louisville, Duke and Kansas. Or Arizona.
The good news is that while the preseason rankings are almost certain to contain the usual suspects each season, the games tend to play out differently in March. Not only did Wichita State reach last spring’s Final Four, the Shockers led eventual champion Louisville for much of the game.
Teams such as George Mason, Butler (twice) and Virginia Commonwealth have all crashed the Final Four in recent years, so getting overlooked in November really doesn’t matter. It is remarkable, however, how often people pick names rather than teams this time of year. Harvard is ranked 31st in the AP poll. The Crimson return four starters from the team that beat No. 3 seed New Mexico in the NCAA tournament — plus two top players who sat out a year ago because of academic issues.
Anyone out there paying attention?
The team receiving the most attention is Kentucky, which went 21-12 last season and finished with a first-round loss to Robert Morris in the NIT. Coach John Calipari has reloaded with a class that has drawn comparisons to Michigan’s Fab Five — interestingly, a group that never won a national championship — and is so talented that even Calipari has been heard to utter the phrase “40 and 0” this fall. The Wildcats play Michigan State in Chicago on Nov. 12, which will be a very interesting early test for a team surrounded by so much hype.
What the AP top five teams have in common that is actually important is battle-tested coaches. All five have won national championships: Mike Krzyzewski four; Rick Pitino two; Calipari, Tom Izzo and Bill Self one apiece. In the end, who stays healthiest will have a lot to do with who reaches the Final Four.
Locally, Maryland hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2010 and, even though point guard Seth Allen’s broken foot will keep him out until the start of conference play, the Terrapins should be able to break that three-year drought. They have depth and a true star in junior Dez Wells. There has been a good deal of moaning over Duke and North Carolina not making trips to College Park in the Terps’ final ACC season, but the fact is that playing those teams only once each makes Maryland’s schedule easier — not as much fun for fans perhaps, but not as rigorous for the players and coaches.
Making the tournament hasn’t been Georgetown’s problem in recent years. The Hoyas, who were 25-7 a year ago, have made the field seven of the last eight seasons but have won just two tournament games since their 2007 Final Four run. Last March, as a No. 2 seed, they were stunned by Florida Gulf Coast in the first round. The addition of 6-foot-10 UCLA transfer Josh Smith should help keep Georgetown near the top of the new Big East.
George Mason and George Washington are now in the same conference: the Atlantic-10. GW Coach Mike Lonergan started four freshmen for much of last season and should reap benefits from the experience — painful as it may have been en route to a 13-17 record. Mason also returns all of its key players from a team that was 22-16 but may find the going rougher in the A-10 than it did in the CAA.
Virginia, coming off a 23-12 mark, is ranked 24th in the AP poll. Tony Bennett’s team reached the NCAA tournament two years ago but was bounced quickly by Florida. Virginia Tech finished last in the ACC a year ago with conference player of the year Erick Green. Without him, the Hokies could be in for a long winter.
After Jeff Jones left for Old Dominion, American has a new coach in Mike Brennan. The Eagles — and Navy, which should show progress in Ed DeChellis’s third season — are part of an expanded Patriot League, which added Loyola (Md.) and Boston University. No one in the conference is as good as Lehigh or Bucknell have been in recent years, meaning AU and Navy should be competitive. Howard would like to be competitive in the MEAC in Kevin Nickelberry’s fourth season.
There are some returning players around the country worth watching, among them Oklahoma State sophomore Marcus Smart and Creighton senior Doug McDermott. Both passed on the chance to be lottery picks last season to return to college — McDermott to play for his dad for one more season.
McDermott is a dying breed: a college senior, despite being good enough to play in the NBA. Players like him are rarer than all those ballyhooed freshmen spending their mandated year in college.