Kentucky Basketball: Aaron Torres answers questions on his Top-25
Aaron Torres is a college sports writer, a Fox Sports Radio host, a podcaster, and a contributor to Kentucky Sports Radio.
When he released his early preseason Top-25 this week Cats Illustrated reached out to him to explore his thought process.
Torres has Kentucky ranked No. 9, the highest position for any SEC school.
Cats Illustrated: What was your thought process in putting together your top five and how strongly do you feel about Villanova in that top spot?
Aaron Torres: Justin, thank you for checking in. To me, there is a pretty clear divide between the Top 3 - Villanova, Gonzaga and Baylor - and everyone else in college basketball. All three of those teams were already really good last season and return largely in tact in 2021. But I do think even within that context, Villanova has a leg up on the other two (and the rest of college hoops).
The bottom line is that they split the Big East regular season title last year with Creighton and Seton Hall, and did it without a single senior on their roster. While they did lose their best player to the draft (Saddiq Bey) they return *four* other guys who averaged double-figures, and a bunch of role players too. They brought in a McDonald's All-American in the 2019 recruiting class (Bryan Antoine) who basically wasn't healthy at all last year and is closer to full strength. So yeah, they were already good - and are now a year older.
The other thing that needs to be discussed with them is that in a shortened off-season, where no team has really gotten to spend a ton of time in the gym together, the thought is that continuity will be key. No one has more continuity - to go along with actual talent - than Villanova heading into the year.
CI: Is Kentucky in the top-10 with or without Olivier Sarr?
Torres: Yes, I did have Kentucky Top 10, and yes that is without Sarr in the lineup. Unfortunately I could only rank teams based on what the roster looks like today. It was the same with other schools waiting on waivers for players, like Texas Tech and Mac MacClung for example.
In terms of "will he get eligible" you never know with the NCAA. But, John Calipari thinks he will get eligible, and - without getting anyone's hopes up too high - I do too. The truth is, I think he has a really strong case, and it's mostly what fans already know. Sarr didn't want to leave Wake Forest, but when your coach gets fired in mid-May, a couple days before the NBA Draft deadline, it left him in a tough spot. Especially since he couldn't go through the typical acclimation process with his new head coach Steve Forbes because of the pandemic.
In the end, this isn't a slam dunk like say, Johnny Juzang transferring to a school 15 minutes from his house and getting immediate eligibility. But I do believe he will get eligible.
CI: If Sarr were to become eligible how would that impact the ranking?
Torres: If Sarr were NOT to get eligible than Kentucky would stay right where they are. If he were to get eligible I would have them Top 5. I think the fact that I have Kentucky ranked where I do, even without him, is a testament to my faith in John Calipari and the talent outside of Sarr on this roster.
Terrence Clarke and BJ Boston are the most talented freshman duo this program has brought in, in a few years and I love the energy Isaiah Jackson plays with. I also think it's a testament to John Calipari. I know everyone in Lexington is itching for title No. 9, but the fact that he has gotten to four Final Four's and seven Elite's in 10 NCAA Tournament's since he has been there is a testament to me, that team is always one of the top teams in college basketball. It also gets me excited about what this team's potential could be if Sarr does get eligible.
I had a high-major assistant tell me that he believes Sarr was the most skilled big man they faced last year - and they faced multiple kids who will be first round picks. His skill-set is exactly what Kentucky needs. And he is the missing piece.
CI: Besides Kentucky, Tennessee, LSU, and Arkansas what other teams in the league would you say folks should keep an eye on this year?
Torres: I actually snuck Alabama in the back-end of the Top 25 as well as the four teams you mentioned. John Petty (insert your own "how many years of eligibility" joke here) and Herb Jones are back, and they had Jahvon Quinerly, a former McDonald's All-American sitting out at point guard this past year. They filled out their roster with grad transfers and high-end high school players and are absolutely loaded. Speaking of "absolutely loaded" let me just say, the SEC has a chance to be REALLY good this year.
I had five teams in the Top 25, Florida will be an NCAA Tournament team (after struggling to open the season, of course), and even teams like South Carolina, Missouri and Ole Miss are pretty good. Just as an example, Missouri returns something absurd like 88 percent of their scoring from last year, so they won't be an easy out. Same with Texas A&M - Buzz Williams is a freaking wizard. Outside of Georgia (sorry Tom Crean) and Vanderbilt, there will be no easy outs in this league.
CI: Any darkhorse teams you believe have a legitimate shot to make a lot of noise and even contend nationally, whether they are in your top-25 or not, and why?
Torres: It's a layered question since as we know, once the season ramps up, there's usually only about 5-7 teams that have a legit shot to win a national title. In terms of teams that really haven't been around very much, I'll say this: Illinois is probably the team that hasn't really been on anyone's radar the last few years that could actually win a title
It was just a foregone conclusion that their point guard Ayo Dosunmu was gone, to the point that the coaching staff (which includes Orlando Antigua) brought in two point guards to replace him. Instead, he is back after making the All-Big Ten team, and so too is former UK target Kofi Cockburn at center.
Other teams that will be fun to watch should include Arizona State, which will play crazy fast and has two dynamic freshmen (Josh Christopher and Marcus Bagley, the younger brother of Marvin Bagley). Selfishly as a UConn alum, the Huskies are finally starting to look like the program we all remember from the 1990's and 2000's. I had them just outside the Top 25, but believe they are the third best team in the Big East this year (remember, they are back in the Big East!) and have a legit first round talent on the wing in James Bouknight. It may be a year before they really have a roster that is Top 10-15 in college hoops, but they are trending in the right direction.