By Kevin Sweeney
We’re officially on to day four of our preseason top 100 rankings for the 2019-20 season.
In case you’re just joining us, classes across the country are starting in the coming days, which means rosters are, for the most part, set. That makes it the perfect time to release the rankings I’ve been working on for much of the month of August, making it clear on where I stand on every team with a chance to Dance.
#40. Tennessee– Losing Grant Williams early may have been expected– what more could the star forward have realistically proven at the college level? However, losing Jordan Bone early was a massive blow for Rick Barnes and the Vols, taking away perhaps the best piece of what would have been one of the most dynamic backcourts in the country. A Jordan Bowden/Lamonte Turner/Josiah James unit still should be very good, but we’ll see if it’s enough to outweigh a frontcourt with little offensive promise. If summer FIBA competition is any indication, nuclear athlete Yves Pons hasn’t taken the step forward many have been hoping for.
#39. Georgetown– The dynamic young guard duo of James Akinjo and Mac McClung has a chance to be special, and getting Omer Yurtseven eligible as a replacement for Jessie Govan is important to keep Patrick Ewing’s frontcourt rolling along. Improvement on the defensive end is a necessity, but I’m bullish enough on the young talent on this roster that I’ll bet on the Hoyas to get back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2015.
#38. Oklahoma– A trio of newcomers in the backcourt are a major source for optimism in Norman, as freshman De’Vion Harmon, JUCO transfer Alondes Williams, and Wichita State transfer Austin Reaves will be added to a backcourt that already featured the multi-talented Jamal Bienemy. The question is how the frontcourt looks, and whether small ball will again be en vogue for OU or if Kur Kuath can provide competent minutes at the 5. Going small could be a blow to the Sooner defense, but could open up several intriguing offensive lineups.
#37. Houston– Kelvin Sampson turned down overtures from Arkansas and got his son Kellen the “head coach in waiting” position in the process, then continued the upward trajectory of the program by landing Kansas transfer Quentin Grimes this offseason. The early NBA departure of Armoni Brooks may make it more difficult for the Cougars to score, with a massive offensive load likely to be dumped on the shoulders of the dynamic Dejon Jarreau. A waiver for Grimes to play right away would certainly help matters, and if that waiver were to be granted the Cougars would certainly be in line for a bump in these rankings.
#36. Dayton– The “Flyers” nickname has new meaning thanks to the presence of dunking sensation Obi Toppin. Toppin can do more than just throw it down though– a likely 2020 first round pick who has a wide array of moves facing up or with his back to the basket. Add in Jalen Crutcher at point guard, stretch 4 Ryan Mikesell, and a quartet of talented transfers, and Anthony Grant has no reason not to win with this group.
#35. Michigan– The Juwan Howard era gets underway in Ann Arbor with one of the hardest teams to crack in the country. On one hand, the return of two high-level players in Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske, a creative shot-making combo forward in Isaiah Livers, and a high-level recruit on the wing in Franz Wagner creates quite the core. On the other hand– Simpson and Teske rarely create for themselves, Livers has never been looked to as consistent creator, and Wagner is a lanky freshman. Plus, it’s unclear what the offense will look like without John Beilein running his patented actions. Neither finishing in the top 3 in the Big Ten nor missing the Big Dance would surprise me.
#34. Auburn– It’s a very different-looking Auburn team this year without Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, and Chuma Okeke. That leaves plenty of questions about how the Tigers will create offense, with J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty taking on larger responsibilities alongside elite wing prospect Isaac Okoro. This will undoubtably be a more frontcourt-laden team, with increased scoring loads on Anfernee McLemore and Austin Wiley down low.
#33. Providence– Point guard woes doomed the Friars in 2018-19– watching Makai Ashton-Langford pound the ball into the ground time after time wasn’t fun, David Duke struggled to penetrate the defense and functioned more as a ball-mover than shot-creator, and Maliek White is better-served as a defender than a creator. Enter Luwane Pipkins– the dynamic combo guard who won’t have a problem getting buckets. The 3, 4, and 5 spots are in great shape with AJ Reeves, Alpha Diallo, and Nate Watson, so as long as the Pipkins/Duke pairing at the 1 & 2 provides adequate play, the Friars will be well on their way to the Big Dance.
#32. Saint Mary’s– Few teams have a more dynamic duo in ball screens than the Gaels, who can deploy some fairly filthy 1-4 looks with Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts that will be tough for anyone to defend. Ford’s innate ability to find the smallest holes in the defense and attack is so dangerous, allowing him to get to the rim, use his floater game, or step back into a three. A big key will be finding the next man up at the 5– Seattle transfer Aaron Menzies and rising sophomore Matthias Tass are the candidates.
#31. Cincinnati– John Brannen had a lot of work to do to fill out this Cincinnati roster around the margins after he took over in April following Mick Cronin’s departure for warmer pastures in Westwood. With an eclectic mix of grad transfers and late signees, Brannen checked almost every box– surrounding Jarron Cumberland with enough talent to maximize his scoring ability. Cousin Jaevin Cumberland can really shoot it, and paired with Keith Williams and fringe top-50 recruit Zach Harvey should form quite the formidable backcourt. Perhaps most interesting will be how Brannen handles the point guard position: buzz around the program is that Jarron Cumberland could take the reigns and run offense, but that’s a role he has never played before.
#30. NC State– Not getting to watch the explosive Jalen Lecque play college hoops is disappointing, especially with how many run-outs he could have gotten in Kevin Keatts’ pressing defensive system. Still, Keatts has hoarded backcourt talent, with Markell Johnson running things as one of the best veteran point guards in the country. Where the Wolfpack will have to improve is in the foul shooting margins– NC State fouled like crazy and rarely got fouled. Adding veteran frontcourt bodies in Pat Andree (Lehigh) and Danny Dixon (UMKC) along with redshirt freshman Immanuel Bates should help provide more of an interior presence, though Andree and Dixon are both stretch bigs by trade.
#29. Arkansas– Another coaching hire I loved, it’s hard not to get excited about what Eric Musselman will do in Fayetteville after the job he did at Nevada. The roster he inherits fits nicely with what ‘Muss’ wants to do– spread you out with shooters and attack. Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones should flourish in Muss’s pro-style system, and SMU grad transfer Jimmy Whitt should be able to provide a bit of everything running the show in his return to Fayetteville. Getting steady frontcourt play from Reggie Chaney will be critical.
#28. Xavier– After bottoming out with six consecutive losses early in Big East play, Travis Steele’s club turned things around remarkably down the stretch to make a last-ditch push towards the bubble. From February 13 on, Xavier was a top-30 team per T-Rank, with just three losses in their final 11 games (and two of those coming in overtime). A pair of grad transfers in Jason Carter (Ohio) and Bryce Moore (Western Michigan) should serve as plug-and-play rotation players around a solid returning core that features the do-it-all Naji Marshall and scoring guard Paul Scruggs. Still, the loss of Zach Hankins in the middle shouldn’t be overlooked– the Ferris State grad transfer was incredibly productive on both ends and was a major key in the Musketeers’ late run.
#27. Utah State– I think Craig Smith should have been the national Coach of the Year last season, taking a team that was .500 in the Mountain West and lost Koby McEwen and leading them past Nevada in the Mountain West and to the NCAA Tournament. Between Sam Merrill and Neemias Queta, few teams have a better duo than the Aggies. Upside for improvement lies in the hands of Queta’s continued development down low and a freshman class that features Sean Bairstow, the brother of former New Mexico star Cameron Bairstow.
#26. Creighton– The Big East is a guard-driven league, and few teams have more talented backcourts than the Bluejays. Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitch Ballock, Marcus Zegarowski, Davion Mintz, Denzel Mahoney, Damien Jefferson, and the list goes on: Greg McDermott can send guard after guard at you capable of attacking off the bounce or hitting outside shots. The real question is in the frontcourt, as Creighton loses Martin Krampelj from a group that wasn’t deep to begin with. Some combo of Jacob Epperson, well-traveled grad transfer Kelvin Jones, and the undersized Christian Bishop will have to step up to to the dirty work down low. Bishop put up big numbers during Creighton’s international trip, so early returns are positive.
#25. Florida State– Florida State has a large collection of good players.. I’m not sure they have one great player. That balance will be fascinating to track as we get into the season. Can Trent Forrest effectively lead an offense and create shots for both himself and others? Will Devin Vassell break out? Can highly-regarded freshman wing Patrick Williams make an immediate impact? Those questions will have to be answered for the ‘Noles, but the potential is there for this team to be elite on the defensive end with lots of long, switchable athletes all over the floor.
#24. Marquette– This will be a different look Marquette team, surrounding Markus Howard with versatile athletes all over the floor at the expense of shooting after the stunning transfer of the Hauser twins. Utah State transfer Koby McEwen and 2020 reclassified guard Symir Torrence will be critical in taking the pressure off Howard, who became a bit too ball-dominant at times last season. However, it’s easy to get excited about the defensive upside of a group that could trot out plus athletes at every position other than point guard with an elite back-end rim protector in Theo John anchoring things.
#23. Arizona– The loss of Brandon Williams to a season-ending knee injury was the latest change-up thrown to Sean Miller in an offseason of attrition for the Wildcats. However, the introduction of a pair of 5-star guards in Nico Mannion and Josh Green along with a pair of high-level transfers in Max Hazzard (UC-Irvine) and Stone Gettings (Arizona) to a solid group of returning rotation players should be plenty to get the Wildcats back into Pac-12 contention.
#22. Alabama– I’ve been bullish on the Tide since Greg Byrne hired Nate Oats to take over in Tuscaloosa, and I don’t think a top-25 ranking is unreasonable heading into the season. Sophomore guard Kira Lewis is an amazing fit for Oats’ guard-driven offensive system– to me he possesses All-American upside. Avery Johnson did not leave the cupboard bare, and the late additions of grad transfer Beetle Bolden (West Virginia), JUCO forward James Rojas, and stock-rising freshman Raymond Hawkins should give the returning roster the boost it needs to get Bama back in the Big Dance.
#21. VCU– The Rams rode a terrific defense to an at-large bid last season, and are well-positioned to be even better this season thanks to improvements on the offensive end. A healthier Marcus Evans along with the introduction of top-75 guard Na’Shon Hyland should help the Rams create offense more efficiently, and the presence of veterans De’Riante Jenkins and Marcus Santos-Silva should also help the cause on that end of the floor. Consistent floor-spacing would go a long way towards pushing this group into the top 20.
Check back tomorrow for the top 20!