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Grayson AllenLance King/Getty Images
It took seven months and an FBI investigation to get here, but Wednesday’s release of college basketball’s preseason Associated Press Top 25 means the return of hoops is just around the corner.
If you saw the Coaches Top 25 two weeks ago, then you already have a great idea of what the AP poll looks like. As we’ll get to later when discussing UCLA, there are no major differences between the two sets of rankings.
In both polls, Duke is No. 1, but it isn’t anything close to unanimous. Arizona, Michigan State and Kansas all received at least one first-place vote, which is a testament to how wide-open things seem to be heading into the start of a new year.
Read on for the biggest winners and losers of CBB’s first AP Top 25.
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Vic Law and Bryant McIntoshChristian Petersen/Getty Images
Everyone knows Northwestern had never been to the NCAA tournament until this past March. But did you know that until Wednesday, Northwestern had never been ranked in the preseason AP poll?
To be fair, the preseason AP poll only dates back to the 1961-62 season, so it isn’t nearly as impressive (or depressing, perhaps) as missing the NCAA tournament for nearly eight full decades. Still, it’s another streak of ineptitude snapped by Chris Collins’ Wildcats.
In fact, by debuting at No. 19, this is the first time—preseason or otherwise—that Northwestern has been ranked higher than No. 25 since January 1969. And with good reason.
The Wildcats get back all five of last year’s leading scorers, including Bryant McIntosh, who, along with Miles Bridges and Ethan Happ, was one of just three unanimous preseason all-conference selections at Big Ten media day in October. They do need to replace both Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn, but there aren’t many single-digit seeds from the 2017 NCAA tournament with more returning talent than Northwestern.
While the Wildcats are in the habit of breaking streaks, here’s another big one to keep an eye on: Northwestern has not earned a share of a Big Ten regular-season title since 1933.
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Deng AdelChuck Burton/Associated Press
Way-too-early Top 25 rankings are exactly that—way too early to mean much of anything. At least in other sports, we have a relatively good idea of what every team will be bringing back and/or adding to the roster via recruiting or free agency. It’s unclear why we bother trying in college basketball, because so much is up in the air between draft declarations, late recruiting, reclbadifying and transfers.
Nevertheless, we keep putting out way-too-early Top 25s, and Louisville was the consensus No. 3 team in early April.
Since then, expectations for the Cardinals have bounced all over the place.
When Donovan Mitchell and Jaylen Johnson declared for the draft, Louisville dropped. When Deng Adel made the late decision to put off the draft and return to school, the Cardinals got a slight uptick. Then they signed Brian Bowen and got a huge boost back into the Nos. 5-10 range. Then the FBI sting operation came to light, Louisville fired head coach Rick Pitino and Bowen remains suspended from team activities.
Add it all up, and Louisville opened the year at No. 16 in the AP poll. There isn’t a single person in the country who should feel confident arguing whether that’s too high, too low or just right.
Louisville’s difference of 13 spots from the original straw poll was, by far, the biggest shift in expectations over the past seven months. There isn’t a bigger wild-card team in college basketball this year, and it’s hard to recall the last time there was one quite like these Cardinals.
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Jordan McLaughlinEthan Miller/Getty Images
Normally, Novembers in Southern California are devoted to football. But the Trojans have already suffered two losses on the gridiron and aren’t getting anywhere near the Heisman-caliber campaign from Sam Darnold that they were promised. Those fans could desperately use a little optimism, and they should be able to find it on the hardwood.
It has been nearly four decades since the Trojans were ranked higher than No. 18 in the preseason AP poll, but they debut at No. 10.
They probably should be even slightly higher than that.
USC won a school-record 26 games last season and darn near reached the Sweet 16 after sneaking into the NCAA tournament as part of the First Four. Juniors Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart were sensational backcourt leaders, sophomores Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright admirably filled the forward spots and freshman De’Anthony Melton emerged as a star, particularly on defense and as a secondary ball-handler.
You may have noticed nary a senior in the previous paragraph, which isn’t a mistake. All eight of USC’s leading scorers return, along with Duke transfer Derryck Thornton and a top-30 recruiting clbad.
It isn’t nearly the ridiculous roster that 38-1 Kentucky had a few years ago, but on the off chance that USC decides to try its hand at platoons, it’s worth noting that a second unit of Thornton, Jonah Mathews, Charles O’Bannon Jr., Shaqquan Aaron and Nick Rakocevic is probably better than the starting units of half the teams in the Pac-12 this year. These Trojans are a legitimate threat to win the national championship.
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Steve Alford and Lonzo BallJamie Squire/Getty Images
Typically, there are at least a few significant differences between the AP poll and the coaches poll. This year, though, there are only two teams that differ by more than one spot: The AP has Arizona at No. 3 as opposed to No. 5 in the coaches poll, and the AP has UCLA at No. 21 as opposed to No. 18 in the coaches poll.
The Arizona portion makes sense, because at least one voter in the coaches poll (Idaho State’s Bill Evans) refused to vote for any team caught up in the ongoing FBI investigation. No one else explicitly stated such a bias, but it wouldn’t come as a surprise if a few other coaches bumped the Wildcats down a few pegs due to their predicament.
The UCLA divergence also makes sense since the Bruins underwent a ton of roster turnover, making it tough to peg their proper spot in the national hierarchy. Per College Poll Tracker, one AP voter had UCLA as high as No. 11, but a staggering 12 voters (18.5 percent of the total) didn’t have the Bruins in their Top 25.
More so than the fact that they’re three spots lower than in the coaches poll, that lack of respect from a not-insignificant portion of the voters is what makes the Bruins a loser in the preseason AP poll.
UCLA still has Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday, as well as lesser-used GG Goloman and Prince Ali and Alex Olesinski returning from redshirt seasons. More importantly, the Bruins also have the fifth-best recruiting clbad, per Scout, including top-50 talents Jaylen Hands, Kris Wilkes and Cody Riley.
Yes, they lost Lonzo Ball. And Bryce Alford, Ike Anigbogu, TJ Leaf and Isaac Hamilton. But this is still easily one of the 25 most talented rosters in the country—if not top 10 in terms of pure talent.
Maybe some of the voters don’t believe in head coach Steve Alford. Maybe they’re worried about LaVar Ball—LiAngelo will be a freshman on this year’s team—becoming a distraction that actually hurts UCLA this year. Either way, the Bruins deserved a little better than this.
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Robert WilliamsJeff Roberson/Associated Press
In the past eight seasons, at least one team has debuted in the AP Top 25 despite missing the previous NCAA tournament:
- 2010: North Carolina
- 2011: Baylor
- 2012: Arizona
- 2013: Kentucky
- 2014: SMU
- 2015: California
- 2016: Louisville and Rhode Island
Each of those teams did return to the dance, and all but Rhode Island did so comfortably as a single-digit seed.
This year, that bounce-back candidate is Texas A&M.
The Aggies just barely made it into the AP poll at No. 25, but that still counts. Last year’s team only went 16-15, but they bring back all five of their leading scorers, including potential NBA lottery pick Robert Williams. More importantly, they added two guys capable of running the show at point guard.
J.J. Caldwell was supposed to be the answer last season, but the NCAA clearinghouse ruled him ineligible. He has also already been suspended for the first five games of this season due to a “violation of university policy.” When he’s finally allowed to suit up, though, he’ll be a key factor.
Texas A&M also grabbed Marquette graduate transfer Duane Wilson, who is more than fit to fill in until Caldwell is up to speed. He didn’t play much last year for the Golden Eagles due to the addition of Markus Howard and Andrew Rowsey, but he was a good scorer and secondary ball-handler in his first two seasons with Marquette.
A&M doesn’t have a talent like Lonzo Ball running the point, but this team doesn’t need a game-changer as much as it needs a game manager. It just wasn’t working last year with Admon Gilder and DJ Hogg serving as de facto point guards, but this team could be special with those two, Williams and Tyler Davis dominating in their customary roles.
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Dazon IngramWesley Hitt/Getty Images
That previous section about Texas A&M could just as easily have been written about Alabama. The Crimson Tide were No. 25 in the coaches poll, but they swapped spots with A&M for the AP poll, slipping to No. 26.
Much like A&M, point guard play was Alabama’s undoing during last year’s 19-15 campaign. Redshirt freshman shooting guard Dazon Ingram tried to run the offense, but he and secondary ball-handler Braxton Key finished the year with 199 badists and 191 turnovers. In addition to the turnover woes, top players weren’t properly utilized and Alabama became just plain bad on offense, winning most games on the defensive end.
Enter Collin Sexton.
For a team that just needed a competent point guard to get a big boost, Alabama got arguably the best lead guard on the market. Sexton is far from the prototypical pbad-first PG, but he is a hyper-athlete with great court vision and a killer instinct who will change what this entire offense is capable of doing. (He’s also a solid defender who can jump pbading lanes for steals, so the Crimson Tide aren’t sacrificing on D to get that boost on O.)
Alabama is also adding Ohio State transfer Daniel Giddens. The big man wasn’t much of an offensive weapon in his limited time with the Buckeyes, but he’s an badet as a rim protector and should be a solid rebounder—which will pair nicely with junior power forward Donta Hall.
Apparently, though, that wasn’t enough, as 34 of the 65 AP voters opted not to include Alabama in their ballots.
But that’s OK. Last year’s No. 26 preseason team (Cincinnati) went 30-6. The year before that, Oregon started at No. 26 before winning 31 games and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. And as much as we enjoy arguing about preseason polls, where you finish is infinitely more important than where you start.
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Mike KrzyzewskiChuck Burton/Associated Press
At the beginning of the offseason, there was nothing close to a prohibitive favorite to open the 2017-18 season at No. 1 in the AP poll. Some sites had Kentucky at No. 1 in their way-too-early Top 25s, even though not even head coach John Calipari knew for certain what the Wildcats roster would end up looking like. Others had Arizona, Louisville or Kansas in that top spot. And when Michigan State forward Miles Bridges announced his decision to return for another year, the Spartans received some first-place love.
In the end, though, Duke will open at No. 1—with 33 of 65 possible first-place votes—for the second consecutive year and for the sixth time in the past two decades.
These things happen when you somewhat unexpectedly retain a veteran talent like Grayson Allen while adding potential lottery picks Marvin Bagley III and Trevon Duval in the offseason.
Heck, when we were first trying to figure out projected starting fives for the top teams back in April, Duke’s was Frank Jackson, Gary Trent, Alex O’Connell, Marques Bolden and Wendell Carter Jr. From that bunch, Jackson left for the NBA and Carter and Trent are the only likely starters. O’Connell might not even play 10 minutes per game.
Good luck finding a projected starting lineup which improved even half as much this summer as Duke’s did.
However, the Duke haters in the crowd will be glad to hear that being ranked No. 1 in the preseason hasn’t panned out particularly well for the Blue Devils. They did reach the national championship game in 1999, but the last four times Duke started out as the team to beat, it didn’t even make it past the Sweet 16—despite finishing in the Top 7 of the AP poll in each of those years.
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Joel Berry II and Roy WilliamsMark Humphrey/Associated Press
Even in this one-and-done era where teams win a national championship and immediately have to start over from scratch, it’s usually a given that the reigning champ will open the following season ranked in the Top 5 of the preseason AP poll.
At any rate, that had been the case for six of the previous seven NCAA tournament winners. The one exception to the rule was the 2014-15 Connecticut Huskies, which won the previous year as a No. 7 seed, lost four of the five leading scorers from that team and still debuted at No. 17.
North Carolina, though, will begin the year at No. 9—and even that seems mighty generous.
Like the aforementioned Huskies, the Tar Heels lost four of their five leading scorers. They’re also going to start the season without the fifth, because Joel Berry II broke his hand by punching a door after losing a video game. (We’ve all been there, right?)
Even before the Berry news broke, though, North Carolina wasn’t considered one of the favorites to win it all in 2018. There are far too many unknowns in the frontcourt, and most of the perimeter options aside from Berry and Pitt transfer Cam Johnson are question marks, at best. That isn’t to say North Carolina has no hope of repeating, but it shouldn’t be anywhere near the season-long topic of conversation that it was with Villanova last year.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.