In Luke Winn's off-season power rankings, North Carolina is No. 1, while Kentucky, Kansas, Maryland and Virginia round out the top five.
This is the time of year when college basketball fans and writers are liable to talk themselves into anything: That North Carolina, despite having almost the exact same roster as last season, will solve its shooting and defensive issues and win the national title; or that Kentucky, despite losing seven of the nine players who saw the floor during the Final Four, and not bringing in a blockbuster (by its own standards) recruiting class, will be back near the level it was last season. That Maryland will be a contender due to the sum of its talent, rather than just a slightly better version of the team that finished 10th in the Big Ten in offensive efficiency in 2014-15; or that Kansas will use the addition of a super-freshman as a springboard to a national championship run, rather than what's happened with its blue-chippers over the past two seasons: second-round exits from the NCAA tournament.
This is also a preseason without a clear No. 1 team, which makes it ripe for over-optimism tinged with delusion. There are many promising-but-flawed national championship candidates; the number depends on how far you're willing to stretch your imagination. The first Power Rankings of 2015-16 do some serious stretching, serving up arguments for why 10 different teams could win it all. The discussion of their flaws can wait 'til the fall.
• Key roster additions: Kenny Williams
• Key departures: J.P. Tokoto
How To Talk Yourself into UNC as The Champ:
The first thing to do is imagine combo guard Marcus Paige completely healthy. He was bothered by plantar fasciitis, a bum ankle (he had surgery on it in April) and a bruised hip as a junior, and still averaged 14.1 points with an offensive rating of 118.9. What he lacked was a full ability to drive, draw fouls and take advantage of his 86.5% career free-throw shooting. As a healthier sophomore, Paige generated more free-throw attempts and his "most similar sophomores," according to kenpom.com's comparison machine were:
1. Shane Larkin, Miami (2012-13)
2. Matthew Dellavedova, St. Mary's (2010-11)
3. Jimmer Fredette, BYU (2008-09)
All three of those guards were college stars who went on to the NBA.
Paige's closest junior-year comps have a different look:
1. Quinn Cook, Duke (2013-14)
2. Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga (2013-14)
3. B.J. Jenkins, Murray State (2009-10)
That's Cook when he was a role player on the Jabari Parker-led Blue Devils, Pangos while he was injury-ridden and mostly a standstill shooter, and a mid-major guard who wasn't on the national radar. You can see what I'm getting at: Healthy Paige can carry a team, while hobbled Paige is just a component.
The other big-upside area for Carolina is that it retained three sophomores who were top-25 recruits: wing Justin Jackson (No. 9 in the Recruiting Services Consensus Index), wing Theo Pinson (No. 15) and point guard Joel Berry (No. 25). The statistical projection system that Sports Illustrated debuted last season—based on historic data for thousands of players—is bullish on the year 2 and 3 production of former elite recruits, and Jackson (if his shooting improves) and Pinson (if he can earn playing time in Tokoto's old spot) have real growth potential. While the Tar Heels have the most returning talent of any contender, they won't win it all if they're merely the same team they were last season. They need returnees to become better versions of themselves.
How To Talk Yourself Into Kentucky as The Champ:
Even without Towns and Cauley-Stein, Kentucky is capable of having one of the nation's best defenses. Upping point guard Tyler Ulis' minutes by 9-10 per game is bound to have a positive effect; he's a gnat who'll only get better at on-ball pressure as he adds strength. Wing Alex Poythress, who played just eight games before suffering a season-ending knee injury in December, has offensive limitations but is a high-level defender. When I charted every defensive possession of the Wildcats' first 20 games for an SI magazine project, opponents Poythress was guarding shot a team-low 12.8%. (Not a typo: 12.8%. Poythress just did not give up baskets.)
Kentucky's lack of front-line depth is alarming, but the likely starting 4-5 duo of Marcus Lee and Labissiere—both long-armed, athletic shot-blockers—will provide rim protection as long as they stay out of foul trouble. Historically at Memphis and now Kentucky, when the John Calipari-John Robic coaching duo has a long and defensively engaged roster, it usually results in an elite overall D. If they can mold Ulis, Briscoe and Labissiere into an respectable offensive trio, use Lee as an efficient lob-and-garbage collector and Poythress as an occasional slasher, they'll score enough to be in the thick of the title hunt.
How to Talk Yourself Into Kansas as The Champ:
The way the Jayhawks exited 2014-15—with a sad whimper, losing to Wichita State in the NCAA tournament round of 32—makes them easy to dismiss. But KU played well below its ceiling last season. Its rotations were unstable due to the slow integration of Oubre and Alexander, and Alexander getting ruled ineligible for March; and then two of its most valuable offensive players, power forward Perry Ellis and wing Brannen Greene, were banged up for the postseason.
Beyond the fact that the offensive core of point guard Frank Mason, Ellis and Greene is returning, KU has a veteran bounce-back candidate in junior wing Wayne Selden, and two sophomores in point guard Devonte' Graham and wing Svi Mykhailiuk who could make leaps. (Graham because his efficiency numbers were strong in spurts as a backup, and Mykhailiuk because he was getting minutes as a 17-year-old last season and NBA scouts still look at him as a first-rounder.)
Bill Self has the best track record of any coach over the past decade of producing high-efficiency teams with strong frontcourts, and the Ellis-Chieck Diallo combo could be dominant. Diallo, who measured at 6'9" with a 7'4" wingspan at the Nike Hoop Summit in April, isn't getting as much hype as incoming LSU freshman Ben Simmons or Kentucky's Labissiere, but Diallo's high-motor, high-productivity, defensive-first game seems like a perfect complement to Ellis's crafty, skilled offense.
The (limited) AAU analytics available on Diallo are promising. According to advanced-statistical data of the past four seasons of Nike EYBL kept by DraftExpress, Diallo has the fifth-highest Player Efficiency Rating (PER) on record, much of it based on his defensive impact. This puts him in good company: The only players ahead of Diallo are Jarnell Stokes, Georges Niang, Andrew Wiggins and Tyus Jones, all of whom went on to be instant-impact college freshmen.
If Diallo gives Kansas the value that his numbers suggest, Selden puts his sophomore slump behind him, and the Jayhawks do a better job of leveraging their long-range shooting talent, they could easily be a top-10 team in offensive and defensive efficiency—and therefore a true contender.
How To Talk Yourself Into Maryland as The Champ:
Start by following the odds. The Westgate Las Vegas Superbook's updated futures after Sulaimon's graduate-transfer to the Terps have them as co-title favorites along with North Carolina and Kentucky. Westgate provided SI with odds for 99 teams, with a max bet to win $50,000 for each; I'm running the top 17 here, or every team that's 40-to-1 or better:
Next acknowledge that Melo Trimble is a national player of the year candidate and the best foul-drawing point guard in the country ... and that the 6'10" Stone could be the most polished frontcourt scorer in the freshman class of 2015. The potential for Stone to be surrounded by three or four accurate long-range shooters—and Trimble, Sulaimon, Jared Nickens and Jake Layman all fall into the 37-41% range—gives Maryland a high offensive ceiling.
And then, through this hyper-optimistic lens, regard incoming transfers Sulaimon and Carter as the exact pieces the Terps needed to contend. It's a sign of how starved Maryland fans are that they celebrated the addition of a Duke castoff with on-and-off-court problems, but Sulaimon could be a big help if he's willing to defend and accept a role as scoring option C or D. As for Carter, he had the nation's seventh-best defensive rebounding percentage at Georgia Tech in 2013-14, and he and Stone should help elevate the Terps from a weak rebounding squad (they ranked 251st in offensive board percentage and 143rd in defensive last season) into a respectable one.
How To Talk Yourself Into Virginia as The Champ:
By believing in the consistency of Tony Bennett's system. The Cavaliers are coached by one of the game's best defensive teachers. They ranked No. 1 in defensive efficiency last season, and No. 5 the year before that. They have six of their eight rotation players back for 2015-16. Virginia having a top-five defense once again is a very safe bet.
Bennett spends so much time on the Pack-Line that it can withstand departures—even of Atkins, who was one of the nation's best defenders as a senior. Veteran guards Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes have the system down pat. Thompson, a transfer from Tennessee, should give them defensive backcourt depth; sophomore Isaiah Wilkins should be able to slide into the frontcourt rotation and add rebounding and shot-blocking value; sophomore wing Marial Shayok looked promising off the bench; and more minutes for senior Evan Nolte on the wing might not be a bad thing.
Nolte is one of those odd cases of a player who has subpar individual stats—an offensive rating of just 99.6, a three-point percentage of just 27.6—yet seems to make his team better when he's on the floor. According to data from HoopLens.com, in ACC games and the postseason (a 1,307-possession sample), the Cavaliers were +0.24 PPP with Nolte in the lineup and just +0.08 PPP without him. That was the biggest positive gap of any Virginia rotation player.
If the Cavaliers can figure out a way to score now that Anderson is gone—and that's possible if the three-point shooting of Brogdon, Perrantes and Nolte positively regresses from their cold 2014-15s—they're just as strong of an ACC title pick as fellow national-title hopeful North Carolina.
How To Talk Yourself Into Iowa State as The Champ:
The foremost thing is to pretend that the Chicago Bulls aren't coming after Fred Hoiberg for their coaching vacancy after they fire (or trade) Tom Thibodeau. Hoiberg is one of the game's best offensive minds, and he's capable of molding a core of Monte Morris, Naz Long, Georges Niang, Cooke (all potential 40%-plus long-range shooters) and Jameel McKay (a 79.2% shooter at the rim last season, according to hoop-math.com) into the nation's best offense. I don't see the Cyclones struggling to replace the offensive production of Jones or Hogue, even though they were both effective scorers. Cooke, a sharpshooter from Oregon State, and Burton, a high-usage scorer who barely played at Marquette, are both offensive-minded additions who should fit in nicely. This Iowa State team isn't going to defend at an elite level, but if its offense can reach a Wisconsin-like level of efficiency, the defensive issues may not matter.
Even though Niang has been the focal point of the Cyclones' offense for two seasons, he still has room to improve his production on the interior. As a sophomore, he was one of the country's elite post scorers, averaging 1.015 PPP on post-up possessions according to Synergy Sports Technology. As a junior, his post possessions decreased by more than half—down to just 64 on the season—and his efficiency plummeted to 0.797 PPP. Niang spent more time on the perimeter in order to accommodate the low-post presence of McKay, a non-shooter, but it might be worth trying to let Niang rediscover some of his old low-block magic in '15-16. It's one way for Iowa State to become even more difficult to guard.
How To Talk Yourself Into Oklahoma as The Champ:
Vegas doesn't love the Sooners—Westgate gives them the same title odds as Indiana, at 30-to-1—but advanced stats suggest they could be in the title hunt. They finished 13th in adjusted efficiency in '14-15 and bring back everyone but Thomas and Booker, which makes them similar to Virginia and North Carolina in terms of returning talent and last year's quality of play.
The Sooners are on a positive trajectory. They've improved in efficiency in each of coach Lon Kruger's four seasons in Norman, going from 115th, to 49th, to 33rd, to 13th—a clear sign he was a great hire—and there's reason to believe they could crack the top 10 this season. Star shooting guard Buddy Hield has been on his own upward path; he was an inefficient role player as a freshman, followed that with a breakout sophomore season, and then was one of the country's best high-usage scorers as a junior. He should be a preseason first-team All-American, and he's complemented by an efficient interior scorer in fellow senior Ryan Spangler, who has pick-and-pop potential that could be utilized on a more regular basis in '15-16.
Oklahoma needs a new big man to emerge in place of Thomas, who helped take their defense to an elite level last season. There is, at least, a candidate in sophomore Khadeem Lattin. His offensive skills were non-existent as a freshman but he was the team's second-best defensive rebounder and shot-blocker on a per-possession basis, and he could develop into a valuable defensive role-player.
• Key additions: None
• Key departures: Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell, Byron Wesley
How To Talk Yourself Into Gonzaga as The Champ:
The Zags will have the nation's best three-headed frontcourt—and probably the best frontcourt, period—in Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis. They should have the nation's best post-oriented offense, given how efficiently that trio scores on the blocks. Sabonis is such a beast that he'll be in the running for the title of best all-around rebounder, and Wiltjer is so polished that he'll be in the running for title of nation's best all-around scorer—as long as they can effectively run pick-and-pops for him in the post-Pangos era.
As painful as it is to lose Pangos and Bell, a backcourt that played in more victories than anyone else in the history of the program, Gonzaga's guard situation is in decent shape. Josh Perkins, who'll inherit the point-guard spot, was off to a nice start as a freshman before breaking his jaw against Georgia in November; combo guard Silas Melson is a sleeper NBA prospect; and Vandy transfer Eric McClellan, who debuted for the Zags in January, is an experienced option who should start to see more minutes. With a frontcourt this good, the guards don't need to be All-America candidates. They just need to be efficient shooters on kick-outs and smart passers coming off ballscreens, and the Zags will be on their way to another top-three seed in the NCAAs.
How To Talk Yourself Into Duke as The Champ:
Coach K is one of the best at adapting and/or overhauling his strategy to fit new personnel, so shifting from an Okafor-on-the-blocks offense to one that's perimeter-oriented shouldn't be too daunting. Sophomore Grayson Allen, the occasionally used shooting guard who ignited the Blue Devils' comeback victory in the national title game against Wisconsin, isn't going to make like Spike Albrecht and fade back into anonymity. Allen's per-possession stats suggest that he's wired to become Duke's highest-usage scorer as a sophomore: In 17 minutes against Michigan State in the Final Four, he used 30% of the Blue Devils' possessions, and in 21 minutes against the Badgers, he used 27%. Five-star recruit Brandon Ingram has plenty of scoring potential, and from what I've seen of Thornton, a five-star point guard, he'll be able to smoothly run the offense. But Allen is the best bet to be the alpha-dog.
Duke is also rich in role players. Junior wing Matt Jones and senior forward Amile Jefferson were its most valuable defenders in the title game, and both can be high-efficiency scorers in small doses. Rice transfer Sean Obi arrived with no name-recognition, but this chart should convince you of his abilities as a rebounder (data from kenpom.com):
Obi played on an abysmal, 7-23 team at Rice that lacked anyone else to chase down boards, but rebounding stats tend to translate regardless of the situation. The last time a highly productive Rice rebounder transferred away—Arsalan Kazemi, to Oregon in 2012—he remained an elite glass-cleaner despite upgrading to a major conference.
One last bit of Duke data, via HoopLens.com, that's baffling but promising: In ACC and postseason games, the Blue Devils were more efficient (a +0.21 PPP margin) with senior Marshall Plumlee at center than with Okafor at center (+0.13 PPP). This is not to suggest that Plumlee is the better player, but just life after Okafor might not be so miserable in Durham.
How To Talk Yourself Into Wichita State as The Champ:
By applying Backcourt Theory. The Shockers are going to make the NCAA tournament, and they'll have the most talented and experienced backcourt of any team in the field. Point guard Fred VanVleet and two-guard Ron Baker are fringe NBA prospects but elite college players capable of one last run at a national title. Wichita's offense should get a boost from Frankamp, a Kansas transfer who's an effective shooter and distributor. Although he played sparingly as a KU freshman in '13-14, he was the Jayhawks' best guard in their forgettable, second-round tourney loss to Stanford. In VanVleet, Baker, Frankamp and sophomore Zach Brown, the Shockers will have four long-range threats and a shot at a top-10 offense.
There were higher-profile grad transfers this spring than Anton Grady leaving Cleveland State for Wichita—namely Sulaimon to Maryland and Drexel's Damion Lee to Louisville—but Grady might be just as important to the national-title race. The Shockers were in dire need of frontcourt help after losing Darius Carter, and Grady, an underrated 6'8" forward, projects to give their defense a boost. His advanced defensive stats from last season at Cleveland State (a 24.0% DReb rate, a 6.0% block rate, and a 3.0% steal rate) show an all-around impact, and a pairing of Grady and developing 6'7" sophomore Shaq Morris could give Wichita a respectable front line.
This isn't a perfect team, but it has veteran talent, a fantastic backcourt, and a coach in Gregg Marshall whose offenses and defenses have ranked in the top 16 in adjusted efficiency each of the last two seasons. That streak can continue. Wichita can run the table or come close to it in the Missouri Valley Conference, then enter the NCAAs as a No. 2 or 3 seed. After being dealt tough regions each of the past two seasons, they're due to catch a few breaks in the bracket and make a deep run.
The Next Tier
13. Michigan State
17. Notre Dame
25. Texas A&M
27. West Virginia
30. San Diego State
32. Stephen F. Austin