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College Basketball Preseason Power Rankings: All the Nation’s Best Teams Are Flawed

Why each of the early Final Four favorites could be poised for greatness in 2016–17 … and why everything could go horribly wrong

Getty Images/AP/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/AP/Ringer illustration

If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that predictions are pointless. No expert in any field seems to have an idea what will happen before it does, which is why trying to make sense of something before there’s enough data to do so is a total waste of time.

In unrelated news, college basketball starts Friday night! To set the mood and serve a little appetizer before games tip off, the most powerful power rankings are here to make sense of a sport that’s yet to provide any data. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?

12. Louisville

Case for being over-power ranked: This figures to be a prototypical Rick Pitino team: The Cardinals will have a great defense with a terrifying press, they’ll score a ton of points in transition and/or off turnovers, and their half-court offense will likely be absolute garbage. That’s historically been Louisville’s Achilles’ heel, and this season should be no exception, especially since the Cards lost their top three scorers from 2015–16. Pitino always seems to have a team capable of getting to the Final Four, if for no other reason than he has a well-defined system and his roster is loaded with athletes. But what makes his teams go from really good to great is the presence of a go-to scorer like Russ Smith or Francisco Garcia, which is something this group lacks.

Case for being under-power ranked: Louisville is usually greater than the sum of its parts. That’s great news for this year’s team, as it has plenty of solid pieces. Sure, the Cards don’t have obvious All-American or lottery-pick candidates, but they have a deep roster of really good players, including guys like Quentin Snider and 2016 McDonald’s All American V.J. King. It remains to be seen how well they’ll mesh together and what lineup decisions Pitino will make. Still, the worst-case scenario seems to be a 25-win season and a no. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.

11. Arizona

Case for being over-power ranked: Arizona’s great underclassmen crop became a little less potent when forward Ray Smith retired from the game after suffering his third ACL tear in three years last week. That alone isn’t a deathblow for the Wildcats, but paired with sophomore guard Allonzo Trier’s eligibility issues that could cause him to miss the entire season, well, suddenly there’s cause for concern in Tucson. The Cats have eight eligible scholarship players right now; three of them are freshmen, one is a junior college transfer, and one is a sophomore who averaged six minutes per game last season.

Parker Jackson-Cartwright (Getty Images)
Parker Jackson-Cartwright (Getty Images)

Case for being under-power ranked: If Trier can sort out his eligibility issues, Arizona might be the third-best team in America in terms of raw talent. Talent doesn’t always translate to success, of course, but the Cats are absolutely loaded on paper. Pretty much every freshman and sophomore on the roster has a chance to be a first-round NBA draft pick, the most notable of whom is Lauri Markkanen, a 7-footer from Finland who is the best-kept secret in college basketball. Meanwhile, Dusan Ristic (another 7-footer), Parker Jackson-Cartwright, and Kadeem Allen are all solid role players who are good enough to make an impact, but not so good that they’ll try to do too much. Arizona enters this season with more questions than answers, but if it figures some things out, I truly believe it’s good enough to lose another close game to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight.

10. Indiana

Case for being over-power ranked: There are all sorts of ways this season could go off the rails for Indiana, from OG Anunoby crumbling beneath the insane expectations that have been placed on him to James Blackmon tearing his quad when he gets into a defensive stance for the first time in his life to head coach Tom Crean being Tom Crean. The Hoosiers will sorely miss graduated point guard Yogi Ferrell, not only because of his leadership, but also because his skill set allowed Indiana to spread the floor unlike any other team in America. That’s the big concern for the Hoosiers: Can they still pour in points when they don’t have four or five 3-point shooters on the court at once? Given the talent on this roster, I don’t doubt that they can, but adjustments will have to be made.

Case for being under-power ranked: TWENTY SEVENCREAN! This is the year of Tom Crean. I know many don’t want to hear that, but it’s true. In 2015–16 he finally got out of his own way and, in perhaps the biggest upset of the season, actually proved to be a decent coach. I have faith that, at long last, he’s realized what it is that drives IU fans crazy about him. That’s why this is the year that he stops screwing with lineups. This is the year that he stops switching defenses in the middle of possessions. This is the year that he teaches his guards how to feed the post. I know it sounds absurd, but if you think this seems too improbable to happen, I invite you to take five seconds to look at all that’s happened in world over the past few weeks.

Plus, think about this: All of the best Indiana teams have had a Tom of some sort play a prominent role. The undefeated Hoosiers of 1975–76 had Tom Abernathy. The 1980–81 national champs had Isiah Thomas. In 1986–87, the title-winning Hoosiers were led by Steve Alford, whose middle name is … wait for it … Todd (close enough)! The 2001–02 national runner-up had Tommy Tough Nuts himself, Tom Coverdale. And would you look at that: Indiana’s best player this year is center Thomas Bryant, and its coach is Tom Crean. DOUBLE YOUR TOMMYS, DOUBLE YOUR FUN. Competitive instead of blowout loss in the Sweet 16: HERE WE COME!!!

9. Wisconsin

Case for being over-power ranked: Wisconsin’s top-10 preseason billing could be a case of overvaluing the results of the NCAA tournament. The Badgers struggled at the start of last season, the common line of thinking goes, because new coach Greg Gard was getting his feet wet with a young team that had to replace a lot from the previous year’s national runner-up. Then, after bottoming out in January, they started to figure things out, racked up some wins over quality teams, and eventually reached the Sweet 16. So, with all five starters back, it stands to reason they should be a Final Four contender.

But what if we’ve already seen the Badgers’ ceiling? They beat Pitt 47–43 in the first round of last season’s tourney in a game that was every bit as ugly as you’d think a 47–43 matchup between Pitt and Wisconsin would be. If Wisconsin had faced Syracuse as its first-round opponent and played the way it did against Pitt, it would have lost by 15. If that would’ve happened, would we still be excited about Wisconsin bringing back five starters from a team that was unceremoniously bounced in the first round? Should we really expect a big season out of the Badgers just because they sucked a little less than Pitt and then beat Xavier with a miracle late-game run in the second round?

Case for being under-power ranked: Yes. Yes, we should. The concern with every Wisconsin team is that the program’s culture and conservative style of play limits its peak potential. But the era of the Wisconsin Buzzcuts is officially dead. Bo Ryan is gone, the awful Adidas uniforms are gone, and even the buzzcuts themselves are gone. I’m semiworried about Wisconsin not having NBA talent, but then we’re talking about the difference between a national championship and an Elite Eight. Either way, the Buzzc — uh, Badgers — are among the nation’s best.

8. Oregon

Case for being over-power ranked: Oregon’s best player, 6-foot-7 forward Dillon Brooks, being out indefinitely after having foot surgery during the offseason is the most obvious issue for the Ducks. But I’m more worried about the Duke curse. Since 2000, the Blue Devils have lost in the NCAA tournament by a double-digit margin five times. Oregon beat them 82–68 in March. Here’s how the other four programs that eliminated Duke have fared the following season:

  • 2005–06 Michigan State: Ranked no. 4 in the preseason AP poll, unranked in the final AP poll, no. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament, first-round loss to George Mason.
  • 2009–10 Villanova: Ranked no. 5 in the AP preseason poll, ranked no. 9 in the final AP poll, no. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, second-round loss to St. Mary’s after needing overtime to defeat 15th-seeded Robert Morris.
  • 2011–12 Arizona: Ranked no. 16 in the preseason AP poll, unranked in the final AP poll, lost by 11 at home to Bucknell in the first round of the NIT.
  • 2013–14 Louisville: Ranked no. 3 in the preseason AP poll, ranked no. 5 in the final AP poll, Sweet 16 loss to eighth-seeded Kentucky.

Every team that has smoked Duke in the tourney in recent years has entered the next season with significant expectations. None finished that campaign with a higher AP poll ranking than they started with, and only one even made the Sweet 16. I don’t know if we put too much stock in a team blowing Duke out in the tourney, if Coach K puts a hex on the programs that embarrass him, or if all of this is just coincidence. All I know is that Duke was the top-ranked team the day the Mayan calendar ran out and the day that Donald Trump was elected president. I’ll let you connect the dots.

Case for being under-power ranked: The Ducks return four starters from a Pac-12 regular-season and tournament champion that got a no. 1 seed in the tournament, made the Elite Eight, and fell just short of reaching the Final Four because the national player of the year (Buddy Hield) went bonkers for 37 points. If Brooks returns to the level he was at before surgery, the Ducks are the best team in the West by a wide margin and should be in the national title hunt by season’s end.

7. Xavier

Case for being over-power ranked: Xavier has some questions in its frontcourt, to the point that I can’t tell if I’m joking when I say I want to see head coach Chris Mack try a five-guard lineup. If a team has to pick between having great guards and great bigs, it’s definitely better to have great guards, so it’s not like Xavier is doomed or anything. But still: Every team in America will have weaknesses to open the season, and many of those will be fixed to a certain extent by March. It’s hard to envision a scenario in which interior play isn’t going to be a constant weakness for Xavier all season, which means the wrong NCAA tournament matchup could bring an otherwise great campaign crashing down.

J.P. Macura and Trevon Bluiett (Getty Images)
J.P. Macura and Trevon Bluiett (Getty Images)

Case for being under-power ranked: Xavier’s backcourt is so great that it probably won’t matter if the Musketeers don’t dominate the paint. Edmond Sumner is a potential first-round NBA draft pick, Myles Davis is on the verge of scoring 1,000 career points, J.P. Macura averaged 9.4 points per game on 47 percent shooting in 2015–16 … and none of them is Xavier’s best player. That designation belongs to Trevon Bluiett, a 6-foot-6 do-everything junior who averaged 15.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 2.2 assists last season and could play four positions if he had to. And besides, I’m making a bigger deal about the Xavier frontcourt than I probably should be. Tyrique Jones is a four-star recruit who should be able to at least clog the paint and grab some boards. And Norfolk State transfer RaShid Gaston averaged 15.5 points and 9.6 boards per game in 2014–15; while he’s probably not going to put up those numbers for the Musketeers, he’ll give them a veteran presence capable of holding his own down low.

6. North Carolina

Case for being over-power ranked: Carolina shot just over 31 percent from 3 in the 2015–16 regular season, tied for 306th out of 351 Division I teams. Considering that the best shooter on that team, Marcus Paige, graduated, it’s fair to say that this is the Heels’ biggest concern this fall. Joel Berry II and Nate Britt are both capable shooters who can get hot on any given night, but outside of those two there isn’t a single UNC player I’d trust to hit a wide-open shot beyond the arc. And the program also has to replace first-team All-American forward Brice Johnson, who averaged 17 points and 10.4 boards and was Carolina’s lifeblood last season.

Case for being under-power ranked: The Heels have always been about pushing tempo to let their size and athleticism overwhelm opponents, and that’s something they should be able to do really well again in 2016–17. Berry and Britt just have to be good enough from deep to force defenses to guard them, which, in turn, will give the Heels big men room to operate. Speaking of which, those bigs — Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, and Tony Bradley — have the talent to make up for Johnson’s lost production. This doesn’t have the feel of a Carolina team that we’ll be talking about 10 years from now, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be great.

5. Virginia

Case for being over-power ranked: Virginia coach Tony Bennett has one of the best Plan A’s in college basketball. His system, built on a disciplined pack line defense that’s always among America’s best, controlling tempo, and taking almost exclusively good shots, has few flaws; his players always seem to be on the same page; and the wins he’s stacked up over the past couple of seasons speak for themselves. But the nature of the sport is such that every so often Plan A will be a complete disaster. The best teams know this is inevitable and have a Plan B or Plan C ready. Virginia’s Plan B last season was to give the rock to ACC player of the year Malcolm Brogdon and let him bail the Hoos out. And if that didn’t work, Anthony Gill was also capable of creating something out of nothing.

Both have graduated, though, leaving a void that may or may not be filled. London Perrantes and Austin Nichols are plenty talented enough to become Plan B for Virginia in 2016–17, but as Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” It’s easy to lay out hypotheticals in November. Asking Perrantes or Nichols to step up when everything goes to hell against Duke in February is different.

Case for being under-power ranked: Virginia is an unbreakable machine. The Hoos lost some significant players from last season, but Virginia basketball isn’t about individual players. It’s about the machine. It doesn’t necessarily matter how good the quality of the parts are, so long as they’re the right parts, and Virginia definitely has the right parts. So while the Hoos might lose a game here and there, all it will take is some routine maintenance to get the machine back to churning out wins. (Unless the loss comes in the NCAA tournament, of course. [sad face emoji])

4. Kentucky

Case for being over-power ranked: The case for Kentucky being ranked too high in the preseason is the same every year: We have no idea what this team will be. The Cats are loaded with talent, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Kentucky has landed one of the two top-rated recruiting classes in college basketball every season that John Calipari has been in Lexington. Sometimes — like in 2010, 2012, and 2015 — those classes turn into great teams. Sometimes — like 2013 and 2016 — they don’t. And sometimes — like 2011 and 2014 — they produce so-so seasons capped by Final Four runs. Kentucky could be great this season, it could be a team full of great athletes who keep getting frustrated that things aren’t coming easy, or it could be something in between. Who the hell knows?

Case for being under-power ranked: Edrice “Bam” Adebayo is a top-5 recruit and projected lottery pick in the 2017 NBA draft. He will likely be somewhere between the third- and fifth-best player for Kentucky this season. That’s all that needs to be said.

3. Villanova

Case for being over-power ranked: If Xavier’s frontcourt situation is problematic, then Villanova’s is a full-blown catastrophe. Star 2016 recruit Omari Spellman was ruled ineligible in September because of an issue with his high school transcript, leaving the Wildcats with just three players on their roster who are 6-foot-8 or taller. Of those three, only one (Darryl Reynolds) has any college experience. Some might claim that Villanova having a target on its back as a top-5 team and the defending national champion is a concern, and maybe there’s something to that. But the only issue worth discussing is the frontcourt. We’ll have a better idea of how much it matters on Monday, when Villanova goes to West Lafayette to play Purdue, which has one of the nation’s best frontcourts.

Kris Jenkins (Getty Images)
Kris Jenkins (Getty Images)

Case for being under-power ranked: Big men aren’t nearly as important as they used to be, to the point that Villanova’s lack of interior options might prove to be a good thing, especially since Jay Wright’s offense has always been perimeter-oriented. Twenty years ago, the idea of Kris Jenkins playing center would’ve been unfathomable; he’d be giving up at least five inches and 30 pounds to opposing centers. Now, though, a lineup with Jenkins at center would allow Villanova to run a positionless attack and create all sorts of problems for teams trying to stop a motion offense. Also, while the Wildcats might lack a talented frontcourt, their backcourt might be the best in the country.

2. Kansas

Case for being over-power ranked: Like Villanova, Kansas’s biggest problem lies with its frontcourt, only for a very different reason. The Jayhawks have plenty of highly recruited big guys. The issue is figuring out how many of them that Bill Self can trust. To an extent, Self has always had a love-hate relationship with his bigs. Despite guards and wings often being the best players on the Kansas roster, big men have been the most important in Self’s system. Self values a big man he can trust far more than one with talent, which is why the absence of Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor has left him in a bit of a predicament. (Jesse Newell did a great job explaining that in this article.) And as of now, senior Landen Lucas appears to be the only interior player who Self trusts.

Complaining about this is sort of picking nits. But at the same time, have you ever noticed how Kansas has at least one game every season where the wheels completely fall off and you’re left wondering if the Jayhawks will survive the first day of the NCAA tournament? This is the kind of thing that explains how that happens.

Case for being under-power ranked: I’m not saying that the hype surrounding Josh Jackson has reached Andrew Wiggins levels. I’m just saying that if Jackson is half as good as everyone says he will be, Kansas could win the national championship by starting him and four walk-ons. The Jayhawks backcourt is going to be unstoppable this season, with Frank Mason III (obligatory link to everyone’s favorite college basketball rap) getting into the paint to hit floaters, throw lobs to Jackson, and kick the ball out to Devonte’ Graham and Sviatoslav “The Ukrainmaker” Mykhailiuk to drain 3s. And for all the headaches that the frontcourt will give Self, a rotation of Lucas, Carlton Bragg Jr., and Udoka Azubuike is plenty talented enough to hold its own against any in the country. Kansas won 33 games last season, lost the face of the team in Ellis, and might be better in 2016–17. The Jayhawks will be so good, in fact, that I honestly believe they have a decent shot of winning the Big 12.

1. Duke

Case for being over-power ranked: Aside from being hit with a wave of serious injuries — top freshman Harry Giles is expected to miss at least six weeks after having knee surgery in October — Duke’s only real concern should be managing egos. Grayson Allen is virtually everyone’s pick for preseason national player of the year, yet he’s the Blue Devils’ fourth-best pro prospect. How much spotlight is he willing to share?

Also, if everyone was healthy and Mike Krzyzewski wanted to start his most talented lineup, he’d trot out four freshmen alongside Allen. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing — Coach K won a national title starting three freshmen in 2014–15 — but relying so heavily on inexperienced players is always a gamble. These are manufactured concerns to be sure, as Duke will probably be devastatingly good all season. But there’s always a risk that things could go south, and if that happens for Duke, youth and an inability to spread the wealth around will be the most likely culprits.

Case for being under-power ranked: For my money, the only teams over the last decade who entered a season with as much hype as Duke this fall were Kentucky in 2014–15, Florida in 2006–07, and North Carolina in 2008–09. The only way Duke could prove to be under-power ranked would be if it lost two or fewer games and won a national championship with ease. In other words, this section should read: Duke’s case for being under-power ranked: N/A.