We are getting dangerously close to the end of this preseason poll. Even more dangerous is the fact that I will be writing about one of my alma maters and the reason I’m writing about college basketball in the first place. We’ll get to those at the end, but first, as this is my last preview post, this is as good a time as any to mention that, while it seems like we annually say, “There aren’t any elite teams this year,” I could see 15 or so teams in this preview winning the national title, and probably all of them making the Final Four. Every team in our top four — to be released later this week — has legitimate questions, but all of these teams have legitimate shots at winning the national championship.
8. Virginia | 30-7 (16-2 ACC) | Sweet 16
2014 tweetcap: Virginia backed up an ACC regular season title with a tournament title, then almost became the first victim of a 16 seed
Key number: 5. Virginia had the nation’s 5th best defense last season.
Joe Harris is gone, but Virginia had one of the most balanced lineups in the country last season: six players had usage rates of 20 percent to 23 percent, and seven scored between 5.5 and 12.7 points per game.
What is most notable about Virginia, however, is its defense. The Cavaliers finished 5th in defensive efficiency and led the ACC in points allowed per possession, eFG allowed, defensive rebounding, three-point percentage allowed, and two-point percentage allowed.
Offensively, Malcolm Brogdon will get most of the hype. He led the Cavaliers in turnover rate and made 37 percent of his threes. I also like London Perrantes, who performed very well as a Freshman point guard, to take a step forward this season. Perrantes shot 43 percent beyond the arc and had a turnover rate under 20 percent, very impressive for a freshman.
7. Florida | 36-3 (18-0 SEC) | Final Four
2014 tweetcap: Florida ran through the SEC undefeated, but loses its three best players.
Key number: 18. Michael Frazier’s rank in eFG last season.
Florida will be counting on Kasey Hill and Chris Walker to take huge steps forward, but if Billy Donovan has shown anything, it’s that he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Walker somehow was ranked in the top 20 of some “top-100 players” lists, and while he’s probably not that good, if he gets his head on straight he certainly has all-SEC potential. He’s suspended for two games, however, so he’s not off to a great start in the “getting his head on straight” department.
Although his numbers were fairly pedestrian, I really liked Kasey Hill’s play. He was horrible from three but shot almost 50 percent from two. While his turnover rate was a bit too high, his assist rate was nearly 30 percent.
The Gators will rely on the tough defense they played last season while waiting for guys like Hill and Walker to take the next step. If they do, the Gators could make a return trip to the Final Four. Even if they don’t, Donovan has shown that Florida will still be an SEC threat.
6. Louisville | 31-6 (15-3 AAC) | Sweet 16
2014 tweetcap: Louisville was derailed by poor defensive rebounding and bad calls in an effort to repeat as champs
Key number: 1. Russ Smith’s rank in the KenPom player of the year standings each of the last two seasons.
Russ Smith is gone, and with him goes the most valuable player in college basketball over the last two years. Montrezl Harrell is expected to fill some of that void, but while his shooting percentage was nice, Harrell was mostly a dunker. His rebounding is suspect for his size, though he was part of an excellent interior defensive effort.
Also expected to take a big leap forward is Terry Rozier. Rozier’s numbers weren’t great last season, but he’s gotten rave reviews for his play over the summer, and he shot 37 percent beyond the arc last season.
Louisville lost some shooting behind the arc, but with Wayne Blackshear and Chris Jones joining Rozier for another season, the Cards should still be one of the country’s best shooting teams.
5. Kansas | 25-10 (14-4 Big 12) | Round of 32
2014 tweetcap: Kansas won its tenth straight Big 12 title last season.
Key number: 31. Kansas’s lowest defensive rank since Bill Self took over.
Although Kansas won the Big 12 yet again last year, the Jayhawks have some questions coming into this season. Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid are gone; the inconsistent but offensively good Naadir Tharpe transferred; and last Friday Conner Frankamp, potentially the best shooter on the team, announced he would be transferring as well.
Those two departures leave a big hole in the backcourt. Sophomore Frank Mason will likely be the starter at point guard, at least to begin the season, but he played in only 40 percent of the Jayhawks’ minutes last season. Wayne Selden struggled on both sides of the ball last season, but it was revealed in the offseason that he was struggling with a bad knee all year, and he’s looked much more explosive to start the season.
Perry Ellis returns for his third season, and is one of the most underrated players in college basketball. He excels at positioning down low and getting to the rim, two big reasons why he shot 55 percent from two-point range last season.
The two big recruits everyone knows about are Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre, but one who has flown a bit under the radar is Devonte Graham. Graham was originally committed to Appalachian State but saw his stock rise after decommitting and then committing to Kansas, causing some to call him the second best point guard recruit in the country. The Jayhawks also have maybe my favorite recruit in the country, Ukrainian Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, who has played in the Ukrainian League and was the youngest Nike Hoop Summit player ever.
Kansas will again be deep in the frontcourt, but the Jayhawks have a distinct lack of options in the backcourt if something goes wrong. Mykhailiuk and Brannen Greene have the potential to light it up from three, but perimeter shooting could be a big weakness for the Jayhawks, and that could doom them in March.