Way-Too-Early Top 25: Kansas, Houston, Gonzaga are the new top 3

NCAA Basketball

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History was made Monday night, as UConn became the first back-to-back national champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007.

Is a three-peat “in Storrs” for the Huskies next season? Or will Dan Hurley and UConn finally be knocked from their perch?

As the title game fades from memory and the transfer portal — and the coaching vacancy at Kentucky — takes center stage, it’s already time to look ahead to the 2024-25 season.

Early top 25 rankings vary dramatically from outlet to outlet, so let’s lay out the ground rules for the only Way-Too-Early Top 25 you need to read.

  • Any player ranked in the top 60 of ESPN’s 2024 NBA draft rankings is considered a departure — for now. Obviously, a team’s ranking will be adjusted should such players opt to return to school.

  • Players not ranked in the top 60 are included as returnees, unless they already announced their intentions to leave school and turn pro. (Notable players this rule impacts: UConn’s Alex Karaban, Creighton‘s Ryan Kalkbrenner, BYU‘s Jaxson Robinson, Baylor‘s Jalen Bridges, half of Kentucky’s roster.)

  • This is the final offseason impacted by the COVID year, where players have an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-impacted 2020-21 season. We’re not going to try to guess what each senior is going to do, so we’re projecting them as departures unless they’ve officially announced they’re returning.

With that out of the way, it’s time to dive in. Only seven months until the 2024-25 season tips off!

Duke entered this past season as a national title contender, but never quite seemed to put it all together for an extended stretch and ultimately fell in the Elite Eight. Jon Scheyer will have two of the best NBA prospects in the country next season, in No. 1 recruit Cooper Flagg and projected top-five NBA draft pick Khaman Maluach, but the Blue Devils could have point guard issues if Jeremy Roach decides not to take advantage of his fifth option year.

Projected starting lineup:

Tyrese Proctor (10.5 PPG)
Caleb Foster (7.7 PPG)
Cooper Flagg (No. 1 in ESPN 100)
Mark Mitchell (11.6 PPG)
Khaman Maluach (five-star)

The Zags could bring everyone back except Anton Watson from a group that played like a top-10 or top-15 team for the final two months of the 2023-24 season. Ryan Nembhard and Graham Ike form one of the best inside-outside duos in the country, and Mark Few will also welcome Pepperdine transfer Michael Ajayi and welcome back former Eastern Washington transfer Steele Venters — who missed this past season with injury — to provide added perimeter pop.

Projected starting lineup:

Ryan Nembhard (12.6 PPG)
Nolan Hickman (14.0 PPG)
Michael Ajayi (17.2 PPG at Pepperdine)
Ben Gregg (9.0 PPG)
Graham Ike (16.5 PPG)

After entering the 2023-24 season ranked No. 1, Bill Self had one of his most disappointing seasons since taking over in Lawrence. Hunter Dickinson has the ability to come back for another year — a year in which the Jayhawks will be back in the No. 1 conversation. Even without him, though, Dajuan Harris Jr. and K.J. Adams Jr. are tested veterans and the additions of Zeke Mayo (South Dakota State) and Riley Kugel (Florida) should bring much-needed scoring from the wing.

Projected starting lineup:

Dajuan Harris Jr. (8.5 PPG)
Zeke Mayo (18.8 PPG at South Dakota State)
Riley Kugel (9.2 PPG at Florida)
K.J. Adams Jr. (12.6 PPG)
Flory Bidunga (No. 9 in ESPN 100)

Back-to-back-to-back? Don’t count out Dan Hurley and the Huskies. As of right now, though, it’s impossible to put that sort of expectation on their shoulders. There’s a chance all five starters and sixth man Hassan Diarra are gone: Tristen Newton, Cam Spencer and Diarra are seniors (Diarra has one year of eligibility if he chooses, though), and Donovan Clingan, Stephon Castle and Alex Karaban are projected to be drafted in June.

Projected starting lineup:

Ahmad Nowell (No. 31 in ESPN 100)
Solomon Ball (3.5 PPG)
Jayden Ross (0.7 PPG)
Jaylin Stewart (2.6 PPG)
Samson Johnson (5.4 PPG)

T.J. Otzelberger produced another exceptional season in Ames, winning the Big 12 tournament and earning a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament. The backcourt duo of Tamin Lipsey and Keshon Gilbert returns intact, Milan Momcilovic should take a step forward and Iowa State has already landed transfers Nate Heise (Northern Iowa) and Dishon Jackson (Charlotte). If Curtis Jones returns for his final year, Iowa State will move up.

Projected starting lineup:

Tamin Lipsey (12.4 PPG)
Keshon Gilbert (13.7 PPG)
Nate Heise (13.5 PPG at Northern Iowa)
Milan Momcilovic (10.9 PPG)
Dishon Jackson (11.4 PPG at Charlotte)

The post-Zach Edey era in West Lafayette has officially begun, but don’t expect Matt Painter’s team to fall too far in the national discussion. The Boilermakers will still bring back one of the best backcourts in the country in Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer, and Trey Kaufman-Renn is ready for a bigger role in the frontcourt. The questions will be whether Smith and Loyer can take the jump from complementary players to go-to guys, and which reserve or freshman breaks out. A good bet would be Camden Heide.

Projected starting lineup:

Braden Smith (12.2 PPG)
Fletcher Loyer (10.6 PPG)
Camden Heide (3.4 PPG)
Trey Kaufman-Renn (6.4 PPG)
Caleb Furst (2.2 PPG)

A big part of this ranking is faith in Kelvin Sampson, who has led the Cougars to the second weekend in five straight NCAA tournament. But the announcement of the return of J’Wan Roberts on Monday evening was a big boost, too. L.J. Cryer could also choose return to Houston for his COVD year, but he hasn’t announced his decision yet. Sampson does need to find a bonafide replacement for Jamal Shead — an All-American and arguably the nation’s best perimeter defender — at the point guard position.

Projected starting lineup:

Emanuel Sharp (12.6 PPG)
Terrance Arceneaux (5.5 PPG)
Chase McCarty (No. 98 in ESPN 100)
J’Wan Roberts (9.5 PPG)
Ja’Vier Francis (6.0 PPG)

Arizona has several moving parts right now. Caleb Love, Pelle Larsson and Oumar Ballo all have one more year of eligibility, although it’s difficult to project any of them returning to Tucson. But Tommy Lloyd will have one of the best perimeter groups in America with Kylan Boswell, Jaden Bradley, KJ Lewis, Joson Sanon and Jamari Phillips. Motiejus Krivas will have to make strides up front and Lloyd will likely pursue a more proven player alongside him in the frontcourt.

Projected starting lineup:

Kylan Boswell (9.6 PPG)
Jaden Bradley (7.0 PPG)
KJ Lewis (6.1 PPG)
Carter Bryant (No. 20 in ESPN 100)
Motiejus Krivas (5.4 PPG)

Dalton Knecht is gone and Rick Barnes’ best offense in several years is out the door with him. But if the more up-tempo, 3-point-heavy offensive system remains in Knoxville, there should be plenty of optimism. Zakai Zeigler is one of the best point guards in the country, and Jonas Aidoo made significant strides as a junior. The Vols will need someone on the wing to step up as a scorer, and a sleeper name to become that guy is sophomore-to-be Cameron Carr.

Projected starting lineup:

Zakai Zeigler (11.8 PPG)
Jordan Gainey (6.8 PPG)
Jahmai Mashack (4.5 PPG)
Jonas Aidoo (11.4 PPG)
Tobe Awaka (5.1 PPG)

Scott Drew will have an intriguing collection of players entering next season, and that doesn’t even include the potential return of Jalen Bridges, who has one year of eligibility remaining but is projected as a second-round draft pick. Jayden Nunn and Langston Love are both double-figure scorers, and Robert Wright III and V.J. Edgecombe should be two of the best freshmen in the country. The Bears will be a perimeter-oriented group, but an inside presence will need to emerge.

Projected starting lineup:

Robert Wright III (No. 25 in ESPN 100)
Jayden Nunn (10.5 PPG)
V.J. Edgecombe (No. 4 in ESPN 100)
Langston Love (11.0 PPG)
Josh Ojianwuna (4.9 PPG)

Tyler Kolek and Oso Ighodaro have likely played their final game in a Marquette uniform, but Shaka Smart brings back three other starters in star guard Kam Jones, David Joplin and Stevie Mitchell — plus key rotation pieces in Chase Ross, Ben Gold and a potentially healthy Sean Jones. This is a team that has won a combined 58 games over two seasons and earned a 2-seed in each of the past two NCAA tournaments — the Golden Eagles shouldn’t fade away quickly.

Projected starting lineup:

Sean Jones (5.8 PPG)
Kam Jones (17.2 PPG)
Stevie Mitchell (8.8 PPG)
David Joplin (10.8 PPG)
Ben Gold (5.0 PPG)

We know Nate Oats is going to add plenty via the portal, and starters Mark Sears, Grant Nelson and Nick Pringle all have a COVID year of eligibility remaining. So, this ranking is also going to dramatically change in the coming weeks. As things currently stand, there is talent in Tuscaloosa. Sam Walters and Jarin Stevenson showed flashes up front and Rylan Griffen is a knockdown shooter. A top-five recruiting class is also coming to town.

Projected starting lineup

Davin Cosby Jr. (3.6 PPG)
Rylan Griffen (11.3 PPG)
Derrion Reid (No. 8 in ESPN 100)
Sam Walters (5.6 PPG)
Jarin Stevenson (5.4 PPG)

Florida struck gold in the portal last spring and bringing in a few more reinforcements on the wing could be beneficial for the Gators again. But they should have an All-America candidate at the guard position in Walter Clayton Jr., one of the nation’s top scorers, and Will Richard is a double-figure scorer. Alex Condon, Thomas Haugh and a hopefully healthy Micah Handlogten form a terrific frontcourt group — but another perimeter piece or two would be huge.

Projected starting lineup

Walter Clayton Jr. (17.6 PPG)
Will Richard (11.4 PPG)
Denzel Aberdeen (3.3 PPG)
Thomas Haugh (3.9 PPG)
Alex Condon (7.7 PPG)

Mark Pope made sure BYU hit the ground running in its first season in the Big 12, starting 12-1 and eventually earning a 6-seed in the NCAA tournament. Jaxson Robinson could return, but he’s inside the top 60 of ESPN’s NBA draft rankings, while Spencer Johnson has a COVID year if he chooses. Even without them, Pope has a core that should win games in March. Dallin Hall, Trevin Knell and Aly Khalifa were regular starters, while Richie Saunders and Fousseyni Traore would slot in seamlessly.

Projected starting lineup:

Dallin Hall (9.0 PPG)
Trevin Knell (10.6 PPG)
Richie Saunders (9.6 PPG)
Fousseyni Traore (10.9 PPG)
Aly Khalifa (5.7 PPG)

How the Tar Heels are ultimately ranked heading into next season will be determined by the decisions of RJ Davis and Harrison Ingram. Davis isn’t likely to be drafted and he still has a COVID year of eligibility, while Harrison Ingram has played himself into the early second-round discussion. Without those two, Hubert Davis will be heavily reliant on returning guards Elliot Cadeau and Seth Trimble, and incoming five-star guards Ian Jackson and Drake Powell.

Projected starting lineup:

Elliot Cadeau (7.3 PPG)
Seth Trimble (5.2 PPG)
Ian Jackson (No. 16 in ESPN 100)
Drake Powell (No. 13 in ESPN 100)
Jalen Washington (3.9 PPG)

The portal departure of Joshua Jefferson hurts, but a third straight WCC regular-season title isn’t out of the question if Randy Bennett can dip into it and find some frontcourt reinforcements — and if Mitchell Saxen opts to take advantage of his COVID year. The duo of Augustas Marciulionis and Aidan Mahaney is enough to win plenty of games on its own, and former four-star recruit Jordan Ross could make strides at point guard.

Projected starting lineup:

Jordan Ross (1.3 PPG)
Augustas Marciulionis (12.4 PPG)
Aidan Mahaney (13.9 PPG)
Luke Barrett (5.5 PPG)
Henry Wessels (4.2 PPG)

Looking to shake off a disappointing campaign, Miami has been busy in the portal already, landing a couple of frontcourt pieces in Lynn Kidd (Virginia Tech) and Brandon Johnson (East Carolina). That’s on top of the potential returns of Nijel Pack, Wooga Poplar and Matthew Cleveland. But the majority of the excitement centers around elite recruit Jalil Bethea, the program’s highest-ranked recruit in nearly 40 years. He’s a dynamic guard who could transform this team.

Projected starting lineup:

Nijel Pack (13.3 PPG)
Jalil Bethea (No. 6 in ESPN 100)
Wooga Poplar (13.1 PPG)
Matthew Cleveland (13.7 PPG)
Lynn Kidd (13.2 PPG at Virginia Tech)

Does Johni Broome return for another go-round in college? Five years ago, the answer would have been an emphatic no. But given that he’s unlikely to be drafted, maybe there’s a chance. Assuming he leaves, though, Bruce Pearl is still loaded on the perimeter. Aden Holloway, Denver Jones and Chad Baker-Mazara will all return, while top-30 recruit Tahaad Pettiford should make an impact. But the Tigers need help up front; there’s not much there besides Chaney Johnson.

Projected starting lineup:

Aden Holloway (7.3 PPG)
Tahaad Pettiford (No. 27 in ESPN 100)
Denver Jones (9.1 PPG)
Chad Baker-Mazara (10.0 PPG)
Chaney Johnson (4.7 PPG)

Mick Cronin’s worst season in 15 years is unlikely to be repeated in 2024-25. The Bruins have already hit the portal and landed versatile two-way wing Kobe Johnson from USC and scoring point guard Skyy Clark from Louisville, and they’re bringing back starters Dylan Andrews, Sebastian Mack and Lazar Stefanovic. There are some questions on the interior: Is Adem Bona leaving for the NBA draft? Will Aday Mara and/or Berke Buyuktuncel return, and will they make strides?

Projected starting lineup:

Dylan Andrews (12.9 PPG)
Sebastian Mack (12.1 PPG)
Kobe Johnson (10.9 PPG at USC)
Lazar Stefanovic (11.5 PPG)
Berke Buyuktuncel (4.5 PPG)

Another team that underachieved relative to preseason expectations. But Kevin Willard will trot out a revamped starting group in November. Julian Reese announced he’s returning and former top-50 recruit DeShawn Harris-Smith will be expected to improve. Then there are the newcomers. Willard has already landed transfer guards Ja’Kobi Gillespie (Belmont) and Rodney Rice (Virginia Tech) and is bringing in top-10 recruit Derik Queen, who could be the fulcrum of the offense.

Projected starting lineup:

Ja’Kobi Gillespie (17.2 PPG at Belmont)
Rodney Rice (7.4 PPG at Virginia Tech)
DeShawn Harris-Smith (7.3 PPG)
Julian Reese (13.7 PPG)
Derik Queen (No. 10 in ESPN 100)

Rutgers will have two of the top six players in ESPN’s early 2025 NBA mock draft in Airious “Ace” Bailey and Dylan Harper, the Nos. 2 and 3 players in the ESPN 100, respectively. Both should have a transformative impact on the team next season — but Steve Pikiell will have to surround the two with some veteran pieces. The return of Jeremiah Williams is a boost, and Pikiell has already landed Tyson Acuff (Eastern Michigan) and Zach Martini (Princeton) from the portal.

Projected starting lineup:

Dylan Harper (No. 3 in ESPN 100)
Jeremiah Williams (12.2 PPG)
Tyson Acuff (21.7 PPG at Eastern Michigan)
Ace Bailey (No. 2 in ESPN 100)
Antwone Woolfolk (3.3 PPG)

DaRon Holmes II could leave — he’s been dominant for two years and is a projected second-round pick — but there’s enough on the roster to be in the top-25 discussion again next season. Starters Nate Santos, Enoch Cheeks and Javon Bennett are all expected to return and sixth man Koby Brea, one of the best shooters in the country, is also back. If Holmes does leave, Anthony Grant will need a big from the portal, although reserves Isaac Jack and Petras Padegimas return.

Projected starting lineup:

Javon Bennett (8.4 PPG)
Enoch Cheeks (8.1 PPG)
Koby Brea (11.1 PPG)
Nate Santos (11.7 PPG)
Isaac Jack (3.1 PPG)

This is a complete shot in the dark at this point. The Wildcats are without a coach after John Calipari left for Arkansas — and the nation’s No. 2-ranked recruiting class is also likely to fall apart. But as of April 8, the only recruit to decommit is Karter Knox and Kentucky should still attract one of the nation’s best coaches to replace Calipari. So we shouldn’t write off the Wildcats next season just yet. Expect plenty of fluctuation with Kentucky’s ranking this offseason.

Projected starting lineup:

Boogie Fland (No. 15 in ESPN 100)
Travis Perry (No. 71 in ESPN 100)
Billy Richmond (No. 39 in ESPN 100)
Jayden Quaintance (No. 14 in ESPN 100)
Zvonimir Ivisic (5.5 PPG)

The loss of AJ Storr hurts the Badgers, especially given the dynamism he provided on the offensive end, but Greg Gard still has Max Klesmit, Chucky Hepburn, Steven Crowl and John Blackwell coming back to form the core of his 2024-25 team. Wisconsin had its best offense last season since Bo Ryan was in Madison, but that led to huge issues on the defensive end of the floor. Gard will have to find better balance if the Badgers are to advance out of the first weekend for the first time since 2017.

Projected starting lineup:

Chucky Hepburn (9.2 PPG)
John Blackwell (8.0 PPG)
Max Klesmit (9.9 PPG)
Carter Gilmore (1.8 PPG)
Steven Crowl (11.2 PPG)

Cincinnati has won 45 games the past two seasons but has yet to reach the NCAA tournament in Wes Miller’s three at the helm. That could change, as the Bearcats should bring back key pieces Dan Skillings Jr., Day Day Thomas, Simas Lukosius and Jizzle James. Aziz Bandaogo has his COVID year remaining, which would solve the lack of a true big on the roster. ESPN 100 recruits Tyler Betsey and Tyler McKinley also arrive to bolster the rotation.

Projected starting lineup:

Day Day Thomas (10.4 PPG)
Jizzle James (8.8 PPG)
Dan Skillings Jr. (12.9 PPG)
Simas Lukosius (11.8 PPG)
Josh Reed (2.0 PPG)

Next in line:

Texas Longhorns
Ohio State Buckeyes
San Diego State Aztecs
Michigan State Spartans
New Mexico Lobos

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