When we last looked in on an absurdly early preseason ranking, Kansas was the unquestioned No. 1, Kentucky still hadn’t amassed all of its absurd freshman class and plenty of underclassmen were hemming and hawing about exploring their draft status.
Well, Kansas is still No. 1 (by a little less), Kentucky looks a lot scarier and all of the are-you-in-or-are-you-out questions have been answered.
And that’s why it’s possible to come up with a more substantial top 35 heading into next season:
1. Kansas. Two great returning players plus a top recruit in Xavier Henry make the Jayhawks quite a daunting team to deal with in the next 10 months.
2. Michigan State. Going to stick with the Spartans at No. 2 despite the accumulation of talent in Lexington. You know Michigan State will be well-coached, and you know Kalin Lucas and Raymar Morgan are an excellent start for any team. Just don’t see the national runners-up fading much.
3. Kentucky. Got Patrick Patterson back and added John Wall, but losing Jodie Meeks hurts. John Calipari has already jettisoned some dead weight, and clearly the Wildcats will be scary next year. But if this is a ranking for how the team will look on Nov. 15, Kentucky probably belongs a few spots lower.
4. Villanova. The return of Scottie Reynolds is a huge boost for Jay Wright, who still has to replace a lot of his frontcourt. But given the hits the rest of the Big East took, Nova should be an early conference favorite and a possible Final Four team.
5. Texas. The Longhorns look even better with Damion James returning to school. Texas will be great up front, but it’ll be curious to see if the backcourt can match it.
6. Purdue. A little bit closer to where I wanted to place the Boilermakers in the first place. This is the year everything should come together in West Lafayette, though Michigan State stands in the way of Big Ten hegemony.
7. West Virginia. Assuming Bob Huggins can stop running into doors in the middle of the night, he’s going to see that the Mountaineers have amassed a fair bit of talent. They lose less than much of the rest of their conference, and a top-10 spot doesn’t seem so far-fetched right now.
8. Duke. OK, so no Gerald Henderson, and no John Wall, either. But, the Blue Devils bring back Kyle Singler and Jon Scheyer, and obviously they have Coach K, too. This could be like most post-2001 Duke teams —- top 10 for a good chunk of the year, then gone from the proceedings by the round of 16.
9. Connecticut. The thought of Kemba Walker and Stanley Robinson creating headaches for opponents sounds better and better as time goes along. If the Huskies actually get to use Ater Majok at some stage, it will make them a more fascinating possibility in ‘10.
10. North Carolina. Because an exodus of talent in Chapel Hill simply means a new generation of McDonald’s All-Americans will don Tar Heel blue. The Marcus Ginyard-Deon Thompson-Ed Davis core is a nice start.
11. Washington. The Huskies should be the class of the Pac-10, and their backcourt certainly will create headaches for a few teams that will be on the downswing next year (the Arizonas and the L.A. schools, among others). Definitely a team that could go far.
12. Butler. Upon further review, probably underrated the Bulldogs the last time around. In a related note, can’t wait to see them play Georgetown in the Jimmy V Classic if that matchup comes to fruition.
13. Louisville. Things Rick Pitino will be glad to see at Freedom Hall: Plenty of bigs, new assistant Ralph Willard‘s reassuring presence on the bench. Things Ptino doesn’t want to see at Freedom Hall: Bug-eyed women he accuses of extortion.
14. Michigan. Still seeing big things from the Wolverines, who return their top players from their first NCAA appearance in more than a decade.
15. Pittsburgh. Are the Panthers ever bad? No. So a little benefit of the doubt is in order here.
16. California. Reaching the NCAA tournament in year one under Mike Montgomery was a good first step. Now it’s time to continue the path of becoming a standard-issue Monty team —- a good call for the round of 16 but not necessarily much beyond that.
17. Tennessee. One of the big winners of the withdrawal period. The return of Tyler Smith means the Volunteers will be more than capable of standing tall in the rough-and-tumble SEC East. Yes, that division will be good this year, unlike that entire league a season ago.
18. Xavier. Derrick Brown‘s departure does the Musketeers no favors. But that just means the gulf between them and Dayton will be miniscule in the A-10. Otherwise, just look for another NCAA berth.
19. Oklahoma. Just fixing a miscue from the last time around. The Sooners have Willie Warren back and a solid recruiting class coming in, so there’s no reason they can’t finish third in the Big 12 and remain a fixture in the national rankings.
20. Wisconsin. Maybe not a top-20 team to start the season, but the Badgers seem like a good bet to finish in that neighborhood in most seasons.
21. Dayton. No reason to underestimate the Flyers, who knocked off West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament this past March.
22. Clemson. Trevor Booker‘s return alone is worth a spot in the rankings. The Tigers won’t miss Terrence Oglesby‘s defense or postseason ejections, but they do have some work to do in their backcourt.
23. Ohio State. Starting to delve into the middle of the Big Ten pack, and that’s really not all that much fun at all. Too bad there’s another two or three teams in that scrum left to touch upon.
24. Florida. The loss of Nick Calathes to Greece certainly is a bit of a hit. But the Gators will surely be better, even if they don’t stir up the echoes of their recent back-to-back champions.
25. Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane has as good a chance as anyone of ending Memphis’ stranglehold on Conference USA thanks to returning big man Jerome Jordan.
26. UCLA. Darren Collison is gone, and so is Jrue Holliday. But the talent remains in Westwood to make this ranking look silly.
27. Siena. The Saints do lose a star in Kenny Hasbrouck, but just about everyone else is back from a bunch that’s won a first round game the last two years.
28. Gonzaga. Had the Zags 11 spots higher the last time, and probably hadn’t taken into account the severe losses Mark Few‘s team faces. But they’ll still be a quality team, and certainly the class of the West Coast Conference.
29. Maryland. This is a team that won 21 games, reached the second round of the NCAA tournament and brings back seven of its top eight scorers —- including Greivis Vasquez. The Terrapins might not win many style points, but a spot in or near the top 30 sounds about right at this stage.
30. South Carolina. The Maryland of the SEC. The Gamecocks lost only one big piece (Zam Fredrick) and received good news when their best player (Devan Downey) withdrew from the draft. If the Gamecocks can survive the SEC East, they’ll be in good shape to make a run at an NCAA berth.
31. Minnesota. You know the Golden Gophers will be well coached, but I feel more comfortable with them here than pushing for a top-25 spot. Still, bank on an NCAA appearance.
32. Illinois. Let the procession of Big Ten teams continue. But seriously, the Illini will be good and might be a tad underrated here.
33. Mississippi. The Rebels had a lot of injuries last year, and should be the best team in the substantially weaker half of the SEC. Adjusting them down for now since the late April forecast was particularly upbeat based on potential more than production.
34. Florida State. Toney Douglas held that team together last season. It’ll be curious to see if anyone else proves quite so charismatic in Tallahassee this year.
35. Syracuse. Yes, a lot was lost. Certainly, too much to warrant top 20 consideration. But the Orange will remain a nuisance —- and relevant.
Right there: Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Wake Forest, Louisiana State, UNLV.
—- Patrick Stevens