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Checking In On the “Way Too Early” Rankings

With draft decisions finalized, the 2020 picture is coming into focus

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NCAA Basketball: Georgia Tech at Duke
 Jan 26, 2019; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Tre Jones (3) defends as Georgia Tech Yellowjackets guard Jose Alvarado (10) handles the ball during the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils won 66-53.
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

With the deadline to withdraw from the NBA Draft in the rearview mirror, the landscape for the 2019-2020 season is starting to clarify. Both ESPN and SI, amongst others, have released updated “way too early” rankings, which means it’s time to check back in on my own version of the rankings from a month ago. What do the “tiers” of competitors look like now that most every major domino has fallen?

(Still) The Frontrunner: Michigan State

There is near unanimity that the Spartans will enter next season as the No. 1 team in the country, and rightfully so. Tom Izzo will return a NPOY candidate in Cassius Winston to run the point, a developing paint defender in Xavier Tillman, and a hopefully healthy Joshua Langford as Winston’s partner on the perimeter. And there’s plenty of talent to replace outgoing seniors Kenny Goins and Matt McQuaid, including sophomore Aaron Henry, who started much of last season, and stud incoming freshmen Rocket Watts.

But Michigan State still has two major question marks that keeps them closer to the pack of other contenders, in my mind, than many other writers. First, who will be the secondary scoring option to Winston? The obvious answer is Langford, but come this fall he won’t have played meaningful basketball for nearly a calendar year. There’s no guarantee that he’ll come back the same player he was. And if Langford can’t fill that role, one of the unproven young Spartans will likely have to step in, as Tillman, while skilled, has not shown much of an ability to create his own offense.

Second, will there be any depth up front? Nick Ward’s departure doesn’t sting nearly as much given Tillman’s development, but without him there isn’t a clear answer on the roster to back up Tillman, let alone play alongside him as a traditional power forward. Watch for teams to attack this lack of depth early in the season while Izzo tests out his new parts; indeed, it wouldn’t shock me if Duke’s game plan for it’s B1G-ACC Challenge rematch with the Spartans is to try to get Tillman into quick foul trouble.

The Clear Contenders: Duke, Kentucky, and Kansas

There are a lot of commonalities amongst the blue-blood programs that are the most likely to compete with the Spartans for a National Championship next year. All three return a stud sophomore point guard who eschewed the NBA draft (Tre Jones, Ashton Hagans, and Devon Dotson respectively) alongside experience in the front court. Duke’s incoming recruiting class is the most talented of the three, with Vernon Carey and Matthew Hurt poised to man the front court alongside senior captain Javin DeLaurier. Kansas got good news when Udoka Azubuike decided to return for his senior season, and an additional boost when Silvio De Sousa was (finally) ruled eligible by the NCAA. Meanwhile, Kentucky brings in their typical assortment of 5* recruits to play alongside returning bigs E.J. Montgomery and Nick Richards.

Differentiating between these programs before seeing how the new pieces fit into place is like splitting hairs. But Jones is the most talented of the three returning point guards (with arguably the most room to grow if he can fix his perimeter shot), while Dotson was a major disappointment in his freshman year despite entering as a presumptive lottery pick. Hagans is talented, but has many of the limitations of Jones without quite as much upside. Meanwhile, although Kansas returns arguably the most overall production from last season, it’s a group that made up one of the most disappointing teams in Lawrence in a generation. And Kentucky’s ceiling, as it does every year, will depend entirely on how all the new faces gel together. Give me Duke as 2a, Kentucky as 2b, and Kansas as 2c behind Michigan State.

Final Four Dreams: Louisville, Villanova, Maryland, Memphis

These group of four may not be the next four teams in the rankings come November, but in my mind they have the greatest potential to contend for top seeds come March. Louisville was one of the biggest winners when it came to NBA Draft withdrawals, with Jordan Nwora and Stephen Enoch returning to campus to join a stellar recruiting class in Chris Mack’s second season at the helm. Similarly, Maryland got good news when Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith spurned the draft, and return alongside starters Darryl Morsell and and Eric Ayala to a team that was competitive in the B1G last year.

Villanova and Memphis find themselves in this tier less on their returning talent and more on their incoming talent. Jay Wright does return three starters in Philadelphia, but also brings in arguably his most talented recruiting class, including expected lottery pick Bryan Antoine. Meanwhile, the recruiting class that Penny Hardaway has put together at Memphis, including former Duke commit Boogie Ellis, cannot be ignored. The Tigers will likely have some growing pains, but if the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation gels, Memphis could boast its own version of the “Fab 5”.

Dark Horse: North Carolina

The Tar Heels rocketed back up the “way too early” rankings thanks to the commitment of freshman point guard Cole Anthony and a pair of high-profile grad transfers. Still, Anthony and fellow freshman Armando Bacot are the only players with NBA upside on the roster, which lost every significant contributor except Garrison Brooks from last year’s squad. Add to that the uncertainty of grad transfer contributions (especially from players moving up from mid-majors, as is the case for the Tar Heels), and you’re left with a talented team with too many question marks to consider amongst the real contenders at this point. Still, the potential will be there, so sleep on Roy Williams’ bunch at your own peril.

Draft Doldrums: Gonzaga, Virginia, Michigan

These three teams ended the season with hopes of raising banners in 2020, but now they could potentially struggle to stick in the Top 25. The National Champion Cavaliers got decimated by draft departures, leaving Mamadi Diakite and Kihei Clark the only major returning contributors. Gonzaga lost most of it’s starting lineup, with stretch-4 Killian Tillie the main returning factor. Meanwhile, Michigan might have been able to weather losing its three top scorers considering it returns senior leaders at point guard and center, but the loss of coach John Beilein to the NBA alongside Charles Matthews, Ignas Brazdeikis and Jordan Poole turns what could’ve been a special season in Ann Arbor into a likely transition year.

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