The annual preseason AP Top 25 college basketball rankings were released last week, serving as a gentle reminder, like speed bumps before a stop sign, that the season is just around the corner.
Rankings provide great fodder, but let's face it: often times they are meaningless. You can rank teams on paper, but alas, games aren't played on paper. And in college basketball, the combination of culture, fit, experience, motivations -- all the intangibles you typically don't factor in to projections -- matter more than any other sport when projecting success (or failure) of a team.
Over the years, however, preseason rankings have forecasted outcomes quite accurately for the No. 1 preseason team. Since the NCAA Tournament's expansion to 64 teams, which includes 35 season's worth of data, six preseason No. 1 teams have gone on to win the championship, according to the NCAA. Seven lost in the title game. 17 reached the Final Four.
Going down the rankings, however, the likelihood of success -- and of accuracy with preseason rankings -- decreases drastically. Eight teams ranked in the preseason Coaches Poll last year finished the season unranked. The year before, 13 began the season ranked and ended it unranked. And the year before that, there were 10. There will inevitably be a handful once again this season.
Predicting which teams fall into that category is a dart throw, so I'll go easy on myself. I won't try and predict which ranked teams will end the season unranked. Rather, I'll tag the teams I've found in the preseason AP Top 25 poll that are either too high or too low, teams I feel are being overrated or underrated. Let's do this.
No. 4 Duke: Only once over the last decade has Duke finished a season ranked outside the top 10 in the final AP rankings. Once! If it happens this year, it'll be an anomaly. But looking ahead, No. 4 could wind up being a smidge too high. Four of its top five scorers from last season are gone, and those four were no slouches: Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Marques Bolden. Mike Krzyzewski still has a top-3 recruiting class on the way and returning sophomore point guard Tre Jones to build around, but the incoming recruiting class doesn't have a prospect anywhere near the caliber of Williamson or Barrett. That puts a lot on the shoulders of Jones, a tremendous defender and point guard. His biggest flaw last season was the lack of a reliable jump shot, and that could be a significant one if Duke's other freshmen don't overachieve.
- Prediction on final AP ranking: No. 14
No. 13 Texas Tech: This team is only a few months away from its first appearance national championship game, but was gutted in the offseason. Three of its top scorers are no longer in town, and one of those, Jarrett Culver, was the Big 12 Player of the Year and a lottery pick. The good news if you want to argue against me: Last season Tech lost four of its top five scorers, one of whom was a lottery pick, and still managed to advance further than any other team in its program's history. I think we're slightly overvaluing Texas Tech and slightly undervaluing Baylor (more on the Bears in a sec).
- Prediction on final AP ranking: No. 24
No. 22 LSU: Coming off its first conference regular-season crown in a decade, a regression is in order for LSU. Coach Will Wade lost several of his most talented players from a season ago -- among them veteran point guard Tremont Waters and big man Naz Reid. The Tigers don't have a similarly talented incoming recruiting class this year to help them reload with youth like they did last year. Plus, how secure Wade's job really is remains a topic of conversation after reports last season caught him discussing a "strong-ass offer" regarding the recruitment of a highly-coveted prospective student-athlete. There's a lot of uncertainty here that makes me skittish about the Tigers prospects this season.
- Prediction on final AP ranking: Unranked
No. 6 Florida: We're going to look back and wonder how Florida began the season ranked outside the top five. After winning 20 games last season and advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Mike White returns the talented backcourt of Andrew Nembhard and Noah Locke, as well as versatile forward Keyontae Johnson. He also brings in Kerry Blackshear, the most impactful grad transfer in the sport, as well as a top 10 recruiting class led by five-stars Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann. The Gators have the goods to go all the way.
- Prediction on final AP ranking: No. 2
No. 16 Baylor: Losing five of its final six games put a damper on an otherwise brilliant coaching job at Baylor by Scott Drew. As the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook noted in its preview of the Bears' season, four of the team's top five scorers missed at least five games due to either injury or suspension. And still, Baylor won 20 games and went to the NCAAs. This season the Bears are a legitimate Big 12 title threat as they return a tremendous frontcourt headlined by star forward Tristan Clark.
- Prediction on final AP ranking: No. 7
No. 25 VCU: The Rams have a blistering schedule with LSU, Purdue, Wichita State and Charleston all on deck before league play. We'll find out just how good VCU is by then, but the secret's already out: the Rams look like the best team in the Atlantic 10. Again. Here's what Gary Parrish said of VCU after talking with coaches at the league's annual Media Day earlier last week:
When you're the only college basketball program in the country to return the top six scorers from a team that won its conference by multiple games, the idea that anybody else would be picked to add a trophy wouldn't make much sense. So of course VCU is the preseason favorite. But what's most interesting about the Atlantic 10 in general, with the start of the regular season now less than two weeks away, is that despite all of VCU's success from last season, and despite everything it brings back from that team, the Rams are still expected to be pushed at the top of the conference by multiple programs, specifically Davidson and Dayton, because both of those schools also return most of the best pieces from rosters that won a lot. Davidson, coached by Bob McKillop, who should reach the 600-win mark this season, is returning the top six scorers from a team that went 14-4 in the A-10. Dayton, coached by Anthony Grant, who should take a third different school to the NCAA Tournament this season, is returning three of the top four scorers from a team that went 13-5 in the A-10. And when you consider that VCU, Davidson and Dayton featured four of the five players who were First Team All-Atlantic 10 last season, and that each of those players is back this season, it's undeniable that there's some real strength at the top of the league -- evidence being that the Atlantic 10 has three schools getting votes in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time since 2014.
- Prediction on final AP ranking: No. 11