North Carolina Tar Heels are No. 1 in preseason Top 25 (and one)

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The top of preseason rankings is typically pretty simple, and for two reasons:

There’s often an obvious No. 1 team.
You’re rarely picking between more than two options.

But this year is different.

You could make a reasonable argument for either Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland or North Carolina to be this preseason’s No. 1 team. I had colleagues suggest all four. I considered all four. But I ultimately decided to go with what I went with earlier this offseason, and make Roy Williams’ Tar Heels No. 1 in the CBS Sports Preseason Top 25 (and one), if only because I believe there are fewer questions with UNC than there are with other options.

Kansas and Kentucky still have eligibility questions surrounding star bigs.

And Maryland?

Listen, I really do like Maryland. But the analytics from last season never loved Maryland as much as the polls loved Maryland — presumably because the Terrapins’ 28-7 record was heavily reliant on close wins that, in theory, coud’ve gone either way. So will the ball bounce so favorably for Maryland this season? That’s a fair question to ask, most think.

Anyway …

The entire preseason Top 25 (and one) is below.

Have at it.

1. NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS 2014-15 Record: 26-12

The top four scorers — and every rotation player except J.P. Tokoto — return from a team that finished 11th in KenPom’s final ratings and won five of its last seven games before losing to Wisconsin in the Sweet 16. Assuming Marcus Paige is healthier this year than he was last year, the Tar Heels are as safe a pick as any to hover around the top of the polls all season and make a run at a national title, which would be the third of Roy Williams’ Hall of Fame career.

2. KENTUCKY WILDCATS 2014-15 Record: 38-1

It seems crazy that a team could lose its top seven scorers and still reasonably be ranked second nationally, but here we are. The Wildcats lost four lottery picks but added at least two in Skal Labissiere and Jamal Murray. Combine them with fellow five-star recruit Isaiah Briscoe and a veteran core of Tyler Ulis and Alex Poythress, and what you have is a clear favorite in the SEC and roster good enough to make a fifth Final Four in a span of six seasons — assuming, of course, that the NCAA eventually clears Labissiere to play.

3. KANSAS JAYHAWKS 2014-15 Record: 27-9

Kelly Oubre is the only player who finished the season with the Jayhawks who doesn’t return for the Big 12 champs, meaning KU is positioned well to win a 12th consecutive league title and maybe take Bill Self to his third Final Four. Perry Ellis is the most likely All-American — although Frank Mason could ultimately prove to be the Jayhawks’ Most Valuable Player. The only question is whether McDonald’s All-American Cheick Diallo will be cleared to compete as a freshman. KU is still waiting to find out.

4. MARYLAND TERRAPINS 2014-15 Record: 28-7

Melo Trimble and Jake Layman both postponed entry into the NBA Draft to return to school, which gives Maryland two experienced and great pieces. Add to that a couple of McDonald’s All-Americans in Rasheed Sulaimon and Diamond Stone, and Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter, and it’s easy to see why the Terrapins are just about everybody’s pick to win the Big Ten.

5. VIRGINIA CAVALIERS 2014-15 Record: 30-4

Virginia would’ve likely been the preseason No. 1 team if Justin Anderson returned to school. But he didn’t. So the Cavaliers won’t be what they could’ve been. But they’ll still have a chance to win a third straight ACC title thanks to the presence of Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, London Perrantes and one of the nation’s best defensive coaches in Tony Bennett.

6. IOWA STATE CYCLONES 2014-15 Record: 25-9

Fred Hoiberg’s departure from Iowa State to the Chicago Bulls puts a question mark over the Cyclones that wouldn’t otherwise be there. But it’s not like first-year coach Steve Prohm hasn’t handled a top-10 team before. He had one at Murray State a few years back, and he managed it well. So there’s reason to believe his transition to the Big 12 will go smoothly.

7. DUKE BLUE DEVILS 2014-15 Record: 35-4

Mike Krzyzewski and his staff are recruiting at the highest level of the sport, which is the only reason the Blue Devils can sensibly be placed this high after losing their top four scorers. Duke secured late commitments from five-star prospects Derryck Thornton and Brandon Ingram a few weeks after winning last season’s national championship. So things are restocked in Durham, and a 13th Final Four is a reasonable goal for Duke’s Hall of Fame coach.

8. OKLAHOMA SOONERS 2014-15 Record: 24-11

Kansas, as always, is the favorite in the Big 12. But Oklahoma, just like Iowa State, should be a real challenger for the Jayhawks’ place atop the league standings. Buddy Hield averaged 17.4 points and 5.4 rebounds last season. He’ll be a National Player of the Year candidate if the Sooners live up to expectations.

9. WICHITA STATE SHOCKERS 2014-15 Record: 30-5

Gregg Marshall is likely about to win at least 30 games for the fourth straight season thanks to, among other things, the presence of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker. Those two combined to average 28.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 7.7 assists last season. They are, arguably, the best backcourt duo in the country.

10. GONZAGA BULLDOGS 2014-15 Record: 35-3

The Zags must replace a backcourt of Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell and Byron Wesley, which isn’t ideal. But they’re so good up front with Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis and Przemek Karnowski that another 30-win season seems likely, and Mark Few’s first Final Four is a possibility.

11. MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS 2014-15 Record: 27-12

West Virginia transfer Eron Harris should be one of the biggest additions in the Big Ten, if not the country, given how he averaged 17.2 points two seasons ago. He’ll team with Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes, and, barring a surprise, have Tom Izzo in the NCAA Tournament for the 19th consecutive year.

12. VILLANOVA WILDCATS 2014-15 Record: 33-3

Go ahead and pencil-in Jay Wright for a third straight Big East title regardless of the fact that the Wildcats are without three of their top five scorers from last season. In other words, there’s still enough in place to be really good thanks to the return of Josh Hart, Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, and the enrollment of five-star point guard Jaylen Brunson.

13. INDIANA HOOSIERS 2014-15 Record: 20-14

Tom Crean has a roster talented enough to make the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five years and, maybe, also go to a third Sweet 16 in that span. If the Hoosiers challenge for a Big Ten title, Yogi Ferrell will emerge as a legitimate National Player of the Year possibility.

14. CALIFORNIA GOLDEN BEARS 2014-15 Record: 18-15

Cuonzo Martin’s top-10 recruiting class highlighted by five-star prospects Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb give the Bears a slight edge over Arizona in the Pac-12. And don’t forget about Tyrone Wallace. The senior guard wasn’t as heralded as his younger teammates coming out of high school. But he did average 17.1 points and 7.1 rebounds last season.

15. ARIZONA WILDCATS 2014-15 Record: 34-4

The projection here, as mentioned above, is Cal over Arizona in the Pac-12. But a third straight Pac-12 championship is still in play for the Wildcats even though they lost their top four scorers and do not return a single double-digit scorer. That’s because Kaleb Tarczewski and Gabe York are back and joined by five-star recruits Allonzo Trier and Ray Smith — as well as Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson, the last of whom averaged 14.3 points two seasons ago at BC.

16. UCONN HUSKIES 2014-15 Record: 20-15

The addition of Seton Hall transfer Sterling Gibbs should ease the loss of Ryan Boatright. And every other player who averaged at least 4.0 points per game is back — including Amida Brimah, who doubles as the nation’s leading returning shot-blocker and reigning AAC Defensive Player of the Year. Simply put, UConn shouldn’t miss the NCAA Tournament this season like it did last season.

17. WISCONSIN BADGERS 2014-15 Record: 36-3

The Badgers lost five of their top seven scorers from a team that beat Kentucky in the Final Four and played for the title. But they didn’t lose their coach, Bo Ryan. And that’s the biggest reason why they’re ranked and likely on their way to a 15th consecutive top-four finish in the Big Ten.

18. UTAH UTES 2014-15 Record: 26-9

Larry Krystkowiak has done one of the nation’s best rebuilding jobs while making Utah nationally relevant again. Delon Wright’s departure to the NBA won’t be simple to overcome given how much he did for the Utes. But there’s enough experienced talent in place to remain near the top of the Pac-12 standings — most notably sophomore Jakob Poeltl, a 7-foot-1 center and future first-round NBA Draft pick.

19. BAYLOR BEARS 2014-15 Record: 24-10

Taurean Prince and Rico Gathers provide Scott Drew with an experienced core from a 24-win team that should have the Bears in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five years. Gathers led all power-conference players in rebounding last season. He averaged 11.6 points and 11.6 boards per game.

20.NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH 2014-15 Record: 32-6

The Irish have made six of the past seven NCAA Tournaments and have enough coming back to make it seven of eight. There’s no great way to replace an All-American like Jerian Grant or sharp-shooter like Pat Connaughton. But a veteran core of Zach Auguste, Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia should keep Notre Dame from slipping too far, if at all.

21.MIAMI HURRICANES 2014-15 Record: 25-13

The Hurricanes return four starters from a team that was ranked as high as 15th last season before finishing 10-8 in the ACC and making the NIT title game. The four returning starters each averaged between 8.2 and 14.5 points per game — among them Tonye Jekiri, who nearly averaged a double-double by getting 8.6 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. Collectively, this season, they could prove capable of taking Jim Larranaga to his second Sweet 16 since becoming Miami’s coach.

22. VANDERBILT COMMODORES 2014-15 Record: 21-14

The Commodores won seven of their final nine games last season and returned just about every important piece from a team that finished 36th in KenPom’s rankings. The key is the return of Damian Jones, who could’ve reasonably entered the NBA Draft. But he didn’t. And Kevin Stallings has done a nice job of surrounding the 7-foot-1 center with enough shooters to create space — most notably Riley LaChance, Wade Baldwin IV, Luke Kornet and Matthew Fisher-Davis, all of whom shot at least 38.2 percent from beyond the arc last season.

23. OREGON DUCKS 2014-15 Record: 26-10

Dana Altman is already the first coach in history to guide Oregon to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments, and he has a roster in place that’ll likely extend that streak to four. The loss of Joseph Young will be felt. But Villanova graduate Dylan Ennis enrolled this offseason, meaning the Ducks will still have an experienced primary ball-handler, one who averaged 9.9 points and 3.5 assists last season for the Big East champions.

24. SMU MUSTANGS 2014-15 Record: 27-7

The Mustangs won’t play in the NCAA Tournament regardless of how many games they win because of a postseason ban for NCAA violations. Still, they’re one of the country’s best teams on paper thanks to Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy. That inside-outside duo combined to average 26.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 6.2 assists last season. The only question is whether SMU’s diminished goals will result in a lack of enthusiasm for a season headed nowhere.

25. CINCINNATI BEARCATS 2014-15 Record: 23-11

All but one player from a 23-win team is back — as is head coach Mick Cronin, who missed most of last season for medical reasons. Consequently, it’s reasonable to assume the Bearcats will be really good defensively again. And they could challenge for an AAC title if they improve offensively considering Cincinnati has won 42 straight games when scoring at least 60 points.

26. PURDUE BOILERMAKERS 2014-15 Record: 21-13

A.J. Hammons’ decision to return means Purdue has four starters back from last season’s team that finished 12-6 in the Big Ten and made the NCAA Tournament. In fact, six of the top seven scorers are back — including Rapheal Davis, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year — and they’ll be joined by Caleb Swanigan, a five-star prospect who picked Purdue after decommitting from Michigan State.

Marcus Paige (USATSI)
Marcus Paige is a big reason North Carolina is No. 1 in the CBS Sports Top 25 (and one) rankings. (USATSI)

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