People, we have just about made it: This past Saturday marked the one-month countdown to the start of college basketball season. Yes, you read that correctly. Less than a month from now, Duke will play Kansas, Kentucky will play Michigan State, and the start of the greatest sport in the world will be officially underway.
And man, it couldn’t come a moment sooner.
It feels like a lifetime since Virginia cut down the nets and was crowned the 2019 national champs, and boy oh boy, has a lot of stuff changed since then. Mick Cronin left Cincinnati for UCLA, John Beilein left Michigan for the NBA, RJ Hampton left Texas for Australia, and some of the biggest stars in the sport left college for the NBA. Meanwhile, Sean Miller and Will Wade haven’t gone anywhere (remember when everyone assumed both would be gone by the middle of the summer?) and Bill Self is having to explain why he had strippers – excuse me, acrobatic dancers – at Midnight Madness.
What a world. And who could have predicted all that when last season ended?
Yet even with the change, the one thing that remains the same is that there is sooooo much excitement across the country entering the year. Sure, the faces changed, but the sport remains the same fun, unpredictable, rollercoaster ride it always is.
But we are now in October, and it isn’t “Way Too Early” anymore. It’s not even early. It’s just here. Here are those picks.
1) Michigan State Spartans
Key Returnees: Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford, Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, Foster Loyer, Kyle Ahrens, Xavier Tillman
Key Departures: Nick Ward, Matt McQuaid, Kenny Goins
Key Additions: Malik Hall, Rocket Watts, Julius Marble
Michigan State was No. 1 the day the season ended, No. 1 in May and is No. 1 now. And it’s really no big secret why. Cassius Winston is a National Player of the Year candidate, Aaron Henry is an emerging star on the wing and Xavier Tillman is a force down low. Rocket Watts, Malik Hall and Julian Marble are freshmen who add depth to this squad.
Understand, there are still issues in East Lansing (mostly surrounding the health of last year’s second leading scorer Joshua Langford) but those issues are relative when we’re talking about the Spartans.
Michigan State still has the best player in the country (Winston), depth, and the experience that is on par with just about every recent national champion (Virginia, Villanova, North Carolina).
Michigan State is the team to beat heading into the season.
2) Kentucky Wildcats
Key Returnees: Ashton Hagans, E.J. Montgomery, Nick Richards, Immanuel Quickley
Key Departures: PJ Washington, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro, Jemarl Baker
Key Additions: Tyrese Maxey, Kalil Whitney, Keion Brooks, Dontaie Allen, Johnny Juzang, Nate Sestina (transfer)
In watching Kentucky’s Pro Day workouts the other day, I couldn’t help but think two things: This team has the chance to be both the best defensive team John Calipari has had since he got to Kentucky, and also the best three-point shooting team. There is no obvious star, but I do believe that with natural development, Ashton Hagans and EJ Montgomery can each be First-Team All-SEC type players, and Tyrese Maxey could end up as the best freshman in the SEC. Johnny Juzang, Nate Sestina and Keion Brooks also looked farther along that I anticipated as well.
All of that is a long-winded way me saying that I not only like Kentucky’s talent this year, but their experience (they haven’t had this much in a long time) and how all the pieces fit together. It’s been five years since Kentucky last made a Final Four, but this Wildcats’ squad has all the pieces to not only get there, but win it all.
3) Louisville Cardinals
Key Returnees: Jordan Nwora, Dwayne Sutton, Steven Enoch, Malik Williams, Ryan McMahon, Darius Perry
Key Departures: Christen Cunningham, Khwan Fore, Akoy Agau, V.J. King
Key Additions: Samuell Williamson, Aiden Igiehon, David Johnson, Jaelyn Withers, Josh Nickelberry, Lamarr Kimble (grad transfer)
With the return of Jordan Nwora and the arrival of a loaded recruiting class (get to know Samuell Williamson and Aiden Igiehon, people) it was a banner spring for Louisville. It was also a bit of a frustrating summer, with both veteran Malik Williams and freshman David Johnson (who Chris Mack told me this summer had been the Cardinals best freshman throughout the summer) going down with injuries. Each will be out until at least December.
I bring that up to say that the Louisville team we see in November might not look like a title contender. But give it until March. This is not only the team to beat in the ACC, but one that can win it all in Atlanta.
4) Kansas Jayhawks
Key Returnees: Devon Dodson, Silvio De Sousa, Udoka Azibuke, Ochai Agbaji, Marcus Garrett, David McCormack, Mitch Lightfoot
Key Departures: Dedric Lawson, Quentin Grimes, LaGerald Vick, K.J. Lawson, Charlie Moore
Key Additions: Jalen Wilson, Tristan Enaruna, Isaiah Moss (grad transfer)
Man, what a wild few months for Kansas – and the crazy thing is I’m not even talking about the team’s recent NCAA notice of allegations and NCAA investigation.
Instead, let’s just focus on the court. When we last saw Kansas they were the “Fyre Festival of college basketball,” arguably the most disappointing team in the country and coming off a second round loss to Auburn in the NCAA Tournament. From there, Dedric Lawson, Quentin Grimes and Devon Dodson all declared for the NBA Draft, KJ Lawson and Charlie Moore transferred, Udoka Azibuke was still banged up and there was no reason to think Silvio De Sousa would be cleared by the NCAA.
Point blank, there was a legitimate thought that Kansas was about to lose its entire team… from a season where they had already been historically bad, at least by the insane standard Bill Self has set.
It’s also what made the last few months that much wilder. Dodson decided to pull a PJ Washington, and rather than hope he found a spot in the second round, return to college for what could be a monster sophomore season. Azibuke ended up healthy and out of nowhere De Sousa was reinstated for the season. Top 50 prospect Jalen Wilson became available after Beilein left for the NBA, and Isaiah Moss decided to come to Lawrence as a grad transfer after averaging double-figures at Iowa last year (and briefly committing to Arkansas).
I say that all to say that for whatever you think about Bill Self, he has another loaded roster. One that should once again compete in the Big 12 (although don’t count out Texas Tech) and be in the hunt for a No. 1 seed come March.
Regardless of what might be coming down the road from the NCAA.
5) Maryland Terrapins
Key Returnees: Anthony Cowan, Jalen Smith, Darryl Morsell, Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins, Serrel Smith, Ricky Lindo
Key Departures: Bruno Fernando
Key Additions: Makhi Mitchell, Makhei Mitchell
Maryland is basically a poor man’s Michigan State, a Big Ten team that was really good last year, and returns the majority of its roster (the one exception being low post stud Bruno Fernando). The Terps bring back a veteran point guard (Anthony Cowan), a potential first round NBA Draft pick down low (Jalen Smith) and a wild collection of talent on the wings, including Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins and Serrel Smith.
Seriously, this team is absolutely good enough to get to the school’s first Final Four since 2013. The question of course is whether Mark Turgeon is the guy to get them there. This is now Turgeon’s 10th season in College Park, and he has made it beyond the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament just once. It’s led to angst among the Maryland fan-base and a belief that they will never reach their ceiling as a program if he is the coach.
Which leads to a fascinating break-even point this season at Maryland. The ceiling is the Final Four. If Turgeon can’t at least get this team to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, he probably never will.
6) Duke Blue Devils
Key Returnees: Tre Jones, Alex O’Connell, Javin DeLaurier, Joey Baker, Jack White
Key Departures: Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Marques Bolden
Key Additions: Vernon Carey, Wendell Moore, Matthew Hurt, Cassius Stanley
I’m not sure whether it’s a “hot take” to “only” have Duke sixth nationally or not. But while the Blue Devils have a lot of good individual pieces, and will again be a Top 10-15 team most of the season, I’m just not sure how all the pieces fit together.
Tre Jones will be a stud at point guard and has potential All-American potential, but beyond him? Like last year, three-point shooting will likely be an issue, as Wendell Moore and Cassius Stanley are more “scorers” than “shooters.” Vernon Carey will probably dominate down low because he’s just so much more physical than everyone else – but he’s also an old-school center, playing new-age basketball. Matthew Hurt will be effective with his 12-15 foot jumper, but I’m just not sure how much defense he will play.
Now look, it’d be disingenuous to put Duke any lower than they are here. This team is talented. But once again, I think the “parts” of the Duke roster are greater than the “sum” and it will be a work in progress to piece those parts together this season.
7) Texas Tech Red Raiders
Key Returnees: Davide Moretti, Kyler Edwards
Key Departures: Jarrett Culver, Matt Mooney, Tariq Owens, Norense Odiase, Brandone Francis, Khavon Moore
Key Additions: Kevin McCullar, Jahmius Ramsey, Terrence Shannon, Clarence Nadolny, Chris Clarke (grad transfer), TJ Holyfield (grad transfer)
It’s crazy how quickly narratives change in college basketball. And in just two years, Chris Beard has gone from “dude that nobody really knows about” to a guy who I now believe is similar to Coach K/John Calipari in this regard: No matter who Beard loses off his team, I fully expect him to have the Red Raiders competitive the following season.
Remember, last year Texas Tech lost five of its top six scorers – and won the Big 12 and went to the national championship game. Therefore, I see no reason they can’t have similar success this year.
While there isn’t a ton returning, Texas Tech does bring back one of the best guards in college basketball (Davide Moretti) and have two grad transfers (Chris Clarke and TJ Holyfield) who will contribute major minutes. They also signed the best recruiting class in school history, headlined by Jahmius Ramsey, who had a wild, 44-point, 12-rebound performance during Texas Tech’s trip to the Bahamas this summer.
Like Louisville, I think things will take time, and this team might not have it all figured out on Thanksgiving. But mark my words: By the end of February they will be hitting their stride, and again a threat to win the Big 12 and make a Final Four run.
8) Florida Gators
Key Returnees: Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke, Keyontae Johnson
Key Departures: KeyVaughn Allen, Kevarrius Hayes, Jalen Hudson, Keith Stone (transfer)
Key Additions: Scottie Lewis, Tre Mann, Omar Payne, Kerry Blackshear (grad transfer)
It’s at this point where, in my mind, there is a pretty big drop-off. Once you get past the Top 6 (maybe seven with Texas Tech) there are basically like 20 teams you could put in any order and I’d be OK with it. For now though, let’s put Florida right here.
The obvious reason is that by signing grad transfer Kerry Blackshear, they plugged the only real hole they had on the roster. The Gators now have a big man capable of getting you 18 and 10 every night, to go along with maybe the deepest backcourt in college basketball.
Two questions though: Are we overrating Blackshear a little here? Like, if he were still at Virginia Tech, would anyone be talking about him as a potential All-American, or is it only because he got recruited by Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee this off-season? Also, are we overrating the backcourt a little bit too? Look, I like Andrew Nembhard. But he also didn’t really come into his own until the final few games of last season, and I just think it’s a lot to just assume he will make the massive leap that many are expecting from him. Then again, Scottie Lewis, Noah Locke and Tre Mann are nice compliments to him in the backcourt.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is, I’m not quite as crazy as everyone else is about Florida… but I do see why the hype is there.
The Gators enter the season as the second-best team in the SEC and a Final Four contender. Let’s see if they can live up to the hype.
9) Memphis Tigers
Key Returnees: Tyler Harris, Isaiah Maurice, Alex Lomax
Key Departures: Jeremiah Martin, Kyvon Davenport, Kareem Brewton, Raynere Thornton, Mike Parks, Antwann Jones
Key Additions: James Wiseman, Precious Achiuwa, Boogie Ellis, D.J. Jeffries, Malcolm Dandridge, Damion Baugh, Lance Thomas (transfer)
Say this for Memphis: One way or the other, they will be one of the most fascinating teams to watch in college basketball this year.
By now, most of you know the deal, but for those who’ve been living under a bridge for the last year, here’s what you need to know: Penny Hardaway has completely flipped this roster since the day he arrived. Not figuratively, but literally. There are zero players left from the day that Penny took the job back in April 2018. And in place now is a team that is full of almost all five-star talent. The problem is, virtually every key player is either a freshman or sophomore.
And the question now is what’s next? Do the kids live up to their potential? It’s certainly possible as this roster is absolutely loaded. James Wiseman was the top ranked recruit in this class, and Precious Achiuwa quietly might be even more talented. It wouldn’t shock me if Achiuwa ends up as a Top 10 pick on draft night. In the bigger picture, playing in the AAC certainly helps, where there will be more easy wins to come by than if Memphis was in the ACC, SEC or any other power conference.
Of course, there is the flip side. At this point, I’ve already written about what could go wrong for the Tigers. And remember, even when Kentucky and Duke have won with mostly young rosters, there have been a vet or two to help the young guys out.
Memphis doesn’t have that. What they do have is the talent. And there might not be a more interesting team to follow throughout the season than the Tigers.
10) Seton Hall Pirates
Key Returnees: Myles Powell, Myles Cale, Quincy McKnight, Sandro Mamukelashvili, Taruean Thompson
Key Departures: Michael Nzei
Key Additions: Tyrese Samuel, Ike Obiagu (transfer)
This might feel a bit high for the Pirates, but here me out on this:
They bring back a potential Player of the Year candidate in Myles Powell. They also bring back basically everyone else off of a team that made the NCAA Tournament last year.
Honestly, that’s basically it. That’s the whole argument for starting Seton Hall in the preseason Top 10.
Keep in mind that every single season we spend so much time overhyping teams with star freshmen (believe me, I just did it again with Memphis, Duke and to a smaller degree Kentucky all in my Top 10) and don’t spend nearly enough time focused on the good teams that return veterans. Like Seton Hall for example.
Ultimately when you have a player as good as Powell (who averaged 23 points per game last year) and all the pieces around him, your ceiling is really high. In the case of the Pirates, that ceiling could include “their first Big East regular season title since 1993” and “their first Final Four since 1989.”
Like Maryland, there is the question of whether Kevin Willard is the guy to get them there or not. But the Pirates have the talent to play with anyone in college basketball.
11) Baylor Bears
Key Returnees: Tristan Clark, Jared Butler, Devonte Bandoo, Mark Vital
Key Departures: Mario Kegler, Makai Mason, King McClure, Jake Lindsey
Key Additions: Macio Teague (transfer), Davion Mitchell (transfer)
Basically, Baylor is “Big 12 Seton Hall.” Take all the nice things that I said about up top about Seton Hall’s returning key pieces, their veterans and experience and apply it to the Bears here.
For starters, Baylor was already better than you might remember last season. They finished fourth in a really tough Big 12 and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, knocking off Syracuse in the process. And they did it with their best player, Tristan Clark, sidelined for the second half of the season.
Well heading into 2019-2020, Clark is healthy and overall, Baylor has six of their top nine scorers back from that second round NCAA Tournament squad and added two key transfers in Macio Teague and Davion Mitchell. The Bears depth did take a bit of a hit with the recent departure of Mario Kegler (who announced last week he’d pursue pro options) but this remains one of Scott Drew’s best teams in Waco, and one completely capable of going to the Final Four.
12) Villanova Wildcats
Key Returnees: Jermaine Samuels, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, Collin Gillespie, Cole Swider, Saddiq Bey, Brandon Slater
Key Departures: Eric Paschall, Phil Booth, Joe Cremo, Jahvon Quinerly
Key Additions: Bryan Antoine, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Justin Moore
Let’s just get this out of the way right off the top: I’m not quite as high on Villanova as others in the media. I know that there is this belief that Jay Wright just always has the next group of guys ready to go. But this program has had five guys drafted over the last two seasons, and a sixth (Phil Booth) who played a key role on two title teams. That is a LOT of talent to lose. It also doesn’t help that the best freshman in last year’s class (Jahvon Quinerly) transferred in the off-season, and the best freshman in this year’s class (Bryan Antoine) is out with a shoulder injury until at least December. That’s an even bigger talent drain than anyone could have expected in Philadelphia.
Still, that doesn’t mean this program is about to hit rock-bottom either.
Saddiq Bey was one of the pleasant surprises in all of college basketball last year and expect junior Jermaine Samuels to make a leap after scoring in double-figures in the final four games of the regular season. Collin Gillispie is still around to run the point, and Cole Swider is another name to watch that could break out.
Ultimately, this team will once again be a threat come March. I just don’t think they’re quite there yet.
13) North Carolina Tar Heels
Key Returnees: Brandon Robinson, Sterling Manley, Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman
Key Departures: Luke Maye, Cam Johnson, Kenny Williams, Coby White, Nassir Little, Seventh Woods
Key Additions: Cole Anthony, Armando Bacot, Anthony Harris, Jeremiah Francis, Justin Pierce (grad transfer), Christian Keeling (grad transfer)
There is no Zion Williamson in college basketball this year, so for the love of God, please don’t ask. But I do think that Cole Anthony can be a pretty close approximation to Trae Young a few years ago. Anthony won’t lead the NCAA in scoring and assists like Young did, but everything will run through him and the son of UNLV legend Greg Anthony will put up huge stats. If there is one freshman who I believe can compete for National Player of the Year, it’s him.
My concern however – and why I have the Tar Heels a little lower than some – is because I’m concerned with what’s around him. For all the talk about Anthony’s arrival let’s not forget that North Carolina basically lost everything off last year’s roster – not just Coby White or Cameron Johnson, but their Top 5 scorers overall. And right now, all that talent and experience is being replaced with a bunch of uncertainty. Specifically, UNC will be leaning a lot on a couple of grad transfers who have never played at the high-major level. No disrespect to Christian Keeling or Justin Piece, but the jump from Charleston Southern and William & Mary to the ACC is a massive leap.
I guess that’s all a long-winded way of me saying that I like North Carolina – I wouldn’t have them ranked in the Top 15 in the preseason if I didn’t. And I LOVE the potential that Cole Anthony has in his one season on campus. But I also think they’ll be a bit more of a work in progress than a lot of folks realize.
14) LSU Tigers
Key Returnees: Javonte Smart, Skylar Mays, Emmitt Williams, Marlon Taylor, Darius Days
Key Departures: Tremont Waters, Naz Reid, Kavell Bigby-Williams
Key Additions: Trendon Watford, Aundre Hyatt, Courtese Cooper, Charles Manning
I know you can’t get odds on these type things, but I would love, love, LOVE to know what the odds would have been back in April that both Will Wade and Javonte Smart would be back at LSU this season? 10,000-1? 100,000-1? A million to one? It’s just insane to think about.
Only here we are. Wade was reinstated in the middle of the spring, and after that, Smart, Emmitt Williams and Skylar Mays all took their names out of the NBA Draft. And I think all three could be All-SEC type players. Remember, Smart stepped in for an injured Tremont Waters late in the season and played well (including 29 points at Tennessee) and Williams is a former Top 20 recruit. Mays was one of the steadiest players in the SEC last season.
Then there’s Wade. Look, I understand the frustration that fans and opposing coaches have with him and the allegations that have come against his program. I’d be pissed if I was an opposing coach or a Kentucky or Tennessee with him as well. At the same time, what a lot of people are sleeping on is the fact that for all those accusations, this dude did a HECK of a job actually coaching this team last year. He took a roster that was essentially all freshmen and sophomores and basically got them to an SEC regular season title. They won two NCAA Tournament games without him.
Between the natural progression of Wade’s guys and Wade himself, the Tigers are one of the more undervalued teams in college hoops coming into the season. The Bad Boys of College Basketball are back, and they aren’t going anywhere.
15) Arizona Wildcats
Key Returnees: Dylan Smith, Chase Jeter, Ira Lee, Devonaire Doutrive,
Key Departures: Brandon Randolph, Ryan Luther, Justin Coleman, Alex Barcello
Key Additions: Nico Mannion, Josh Green, Zeke Njadi, Christian Koloko, Stone Gettings (grad transfer), Max Hazzard (grad transfer)
Yup, LSU and Arizona back-to-back in my rankings! I swear, I didn’t even do it on purpose. In all seriousness though, after a little dip last year I expect Arizona to bounce back up.
Look, the bottom-line is that because Sean Miller hasn’t made a Final Four yet, I think the national perception of him is totally warped. This is still a guy who has made four Elite Eight’s and seven Sweet 16’s in his career – yet because he hasn’t won an Elite Eight game people think he stinks. I’d argue that Sean Miller has become so “overrated” in the eyes of the public, that he’s actually underrated.
Which brings me to this year’s team. With the arrival of a loaded freshman class including Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Njadi and the return of Chase Jeter and Devonaire Doutrive (who people are telling me could be the breakout player in Tucson this year) this will look like an Arizona roster again.
And if there’s one thing that Sean Miller has proven it’s that when he has a talented roster he usually delivers – at the very least a Pac-12 regular season title and a trip to the Sweet 16. We’ll see if this is the year he finally takes it one step further and advances to his first Final Four. It’s definitely in play for this team.
16) Gonzaga Bulldogs
Key Returnees: Corey Kispert, Filip Petrusov, Killian Tillie
Key Departures: Josh Perkins, Geno Crandall, Brandon Clarke, Rui Hachimura, Zach Norvell
Key Additions: Drew Timme, Anton Watson, Pavel Zakharov, Oumar Ballo, Admon Gilder (grad transfer), Ryan Woolridge (grad transfer)
Midnight Madness events are supposed to be a festive time in college hoops, but it was a bit of a buzz kill for Zags fans this weekend. That’s because the school announced that the team’s best player, Killian Tillie underwent knee surgery and will be out for a bit. That continues a disappointing trend for Tillie, who was once viewed as a surefire first round NBA Draft pick, but just can’t seem to stay healthy the last year or so. Freshman Oumar Ballo also has yet to be cleared by the NCAA.
Because of it, I’ve gone ahead and dropped the Zags a few spots, but am trying to be cautiously optimistic with them. It seems as though Tillie’s procedure is minor and he shouldn’t be out an extended period of time – and as long as he’s not out too long, the Zags are a legit Top 20 team. In addition to Tillie, look for Corey Kispert to continue to emerge as a wing option, and for a loaded freshman class to fill gaps. Drew Timme could eventually evolve into one of the most versatile players in the sport as a 6-10 guy who plays more like a 6-7 or 6-8 wing.
If Tillie’s status changes and we find out he’s out for an extended period of time, well, I reserve the right to drop the Zags down, or out of the Top 25 together. But reports say the injury is minor, we will keep them in the Top 20 for the time being.
17) Xavier Musketeers
Key Returnees: Naji Marshall, Paul Scruggs, Tyrique Jones, Quentin Goodin
Key Departures: Kyle Castlin, Ryan Welage, Zach Hankins
Key Additions: KyKy Tandy, Dahmir Bishop, Jason Carter (transfer)
The Travis Steele era didn’t exactly get off to a rip-roaring start in Cincinnati, but as the old saying goes, it doesn’t matter how you start, but instead, how you finish.
And to the Musketeers credit, they were phenomenal down the stretch.
After limping out of the gate at 11-13 overall, Xavier won five of its final six regular season games, and ended the year as a frisky bubble team that just couldn’t quite do enough to get itself into the NCAA Tournament conversation.
This year, the NCAA Tournament shouldn’t be an issue. The Musketeers return their top four scorers, all of whom are either juniors or seniors, and add a solid freshman class headlined by KyKy Tandy. Early buzz out of practice is that Ohio transfer Jason Carter has been better than expected.
We’ll see whether Travis Steele is a guy capable of leading the Musketeers deep into March. But the talent is certainly there.
18) Saint Mary’s Gaels
Key Returnees: Jordan Ford, Malik Fitts, Tommy Kuhse, Tanner Krebs, Dan Fotu, Jock Perry
Key Departures: Jordan Hunter
Key Additions: N/A
Like Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s will get docked because of the conference they play in. But the bottom-line is that they were one of the hottest teams in all of college basketball down the stretch.
Overall, the Gaels won 9 of their final 11 games going into the NCAA Tournament with their only losses coming in two matchups against Gonzaga – and then rallied to beat the Zags in the WCC final. They also narrowly lost to LSU and Mississippi State in the regular season, and fell by four in the NCAA Tournament to Villanova.
And this year, they return basically their whole team. Jordan Ford – who averaged 21 points a season ago – is the best player that few people in America know about.
Point being, this is a team that is better than most realized last year, and should be in the Top 25 for all of 2019-2020. It wouldn’t shock me if they knocked off Gonzaga as the top team in the WCC this year.
19) Ohio State Buckeyes
Key Returnees: Kaleb Wesson, Andre Wesson, Luther Muhammad, Duane Washington, Justin Ahrens, Kyle Young
Key Departures: C.J. Jackson, Keyshawn Woods
Key Additions: D.J. Carton, Alonzo Gaffney, EJ Liddell, CJ Walker (transfer)
Ohio State isn’t on the Michigan State/Maryland level in the Big Ten, but instead, is just a fraction of a step behind. They got their most important piece of news right before May’s NBA Draft deadline, when big man Kaleb Wesson announced his return. He led this team in both scoring (14.9 points per game) and rebounding (6.9 per contest) a year ago.
More importantly, this could be a breakout season for sophomore guards Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington. Each took their lumps last year, but should do big things in 2019-2020.
Add in Andre Wesson, a loaded freshman class, and Florida State transfer CJ Walker, and the Buckeyes are probably a bit better than most realize.
20) Virginia Cavaliers
Key Returnees: Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff, Kihei Clark, Braxton Key
Key Departures: Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, DeAndre Hunter, Jack Salt
Key Additions: Kadin Shedrick, Casey Morsell
I’ll be honest: I see Virginia in the Top 10 in some preseason polls and I just don’t get it.
Look, nobody loved the Virginia run more than me last year (I’m Mr. Tony Bennett after all) but that team lost a lot off last year’s roster. That includes their top three scorers (DeAndre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy), who were all drafted following last year’s title run and Jack Salt (great name!), a great four-year program player. What’s left is just two starters, one of which (Kihei Clark) wasn’t expected to do anything offensively last year.
Because it’s Virginia and because I trust Bennett, I do think this team is good enough to start the year in the Top 25 and make the NCAA Tournament.
But Top 10? I just don’t see it.
21) Utah State Aggies
Key Returnees: Sam Merrill, Neemis Queta, Diogo Brita, Brock Miller, Abel Porter
Key Departures: Quinn Taylor, Dwayne Brown Jr.
Key Additions: N/A
All you need to know about Utah State is this: They went 28-7 a year ago, split the Mountain West regular season title with Nevada, won the Mountain West Tournament… and return basically everyone of significance. Included among that group is the reigning Mountain West Player of the Year Sam Merrill, and Neemis Queta, who will likely be selected in the next NBA Draft.
We’ll find out just how good the Aggies are early, with games against Florida, LSU, Saint Mary’s and BYU before Christmas, but at least right now, they look like the class of the Mountain West.
22) Colorado Buffaloes
Key Returnees: McKinley Wright IV, Tyler Bey, D’Shawn Schwartz, Lucas Siewert, Evan Battey, Shane Gatling, Daylen Kountz
Key Departures: Namon Wright
Key Additions: Maddox Daniels
In college basketball, you really can’t put a price tag on experience. And there really aren’t many teams that have more experience than the Buffaloes. This is a team that returns their top six scorers off a 23-win team a year ago, including a pair of players (Tyler Bey and McKinley Wright) who were All-Pac first team.
Here’s the crazier part: None of the players tested the NBA Draft waters and no one entered the transfer portal. Which means that this group has basically been together since last April working together heading into the season.
In the end, there might be a few teams in the Pac-12 with more upside (Oregon, Washington and UCLA among them). But I like the blend of experience and top-end talent in Boulder, and expect the Buffs to compete for their first ever Pac-12 regular season title.
23) NC State Wolf Pack
Key Returnees: Markell Johnson, C.J. Bryce, Braxton Beverly, Devon Daniels, DJ Funderburk, Jericole Hellems
Key Departures: Torrin Dorn, Wyatt Walker
Key Additions: Dereon Seabron, Pat Andree (grad transfer)
Yes, it was a disappointing end to last season, when NC State was basically the first team left out of the NCAA Tournament. The Wolfpack got crushed for their out of conference schedule (which was BS in my opinion) but the bottom-line is that of their 10 losses prior to the ACC Tournament, five came against Virginia, North Carolina and Duke, who all ended up as No. 1 seeds. Win one of those games and the Wolfpack are in the Big Dance.
So that’s the bad news in Raleigh, but the good news is just about everyone returns to a team that was thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis close to making the Big Dance. Overall, the Wolfpack bring back six of their top seven scorers, including Markell Johnson, who averaged just under 13 points per game last season. C.J. Bryce, Braxton Beverly and Devon Daniels can all get buckets. The frontcourt depth was hurt a bit with the recent suspension of DJ Funderburk but there’s no reason to think he won’t eventually be back. And grad transfer Pat Andree should add depth, versatility and shooting from the four-spot.
Point being, this Wolfpack squad will be similar to last season’s, full of playmaking guards and not much size. But after being on the fringe of the NCAA Tournament conversation in 2019, they could break out in a big way in 2020.
24) Georgetown Hoyas
Key Returnees: James Akinjo, Mac McClung, Josh LeBlanc, Jamorko Pickett
Key Departures: Jesse Govan, Trey Mourning, Kaleb Johnson
Key Additions: Omer Yurtseven (transfer), Qudus Wahab
Maybe I’m just out of my mind on this one, but I really like what Patrick Ewing has coming back in Year 3 at Georgetown. Remember, this is a team that was on the fringe of the NCAA Tournament conversation for most of February and early March, and didn’t quite get over the hump. This year that same team returns mostly intact with a couple of nice, additional pieces.
Yes, leading scorer Jesse Govan (17 points per game) is gone, but James Akinjo, Mac McClung and Josh LeBlanc all played major roles as freshmen, and should make a sizeable leap as sophomores. Akinjo was one of the most pleasant surprises in college hoops after averaging 13 and five assists this past season. NC State transfer Omer Yurtseven and four-star recruit Qudus Wahab add size down low.
For all the talk about Villanova, Seton Hall, Xavier and others in the Big East, don’t sleep on the Hoyas.
25) Davidson Wildcats
Key Returnees: Kellan Grady, Jon Axel Gudmundson, Luka Brajkovic, Luke Frampton, Kishawn Pritchett, Carter Collins, David Czerapowicz, Bates Jones
Key Departures: Nathan Ekwu, Dusan Kovacevic
Key Additions: Hyunjung Lee, David Kristensen
I strongly considered quite a few teams for this final spot ranging from Auburn to Tennessee to Colorado and Washington (more on them below). But in the end, I settled on Davidson.
The Wildcats return a core of veterans that played in the NCAA Tournament in 2018 and ended up with 24 wins a season ago. That group includes Grady, who many believe will play in the NBA, and Gudmundson (how sick of a name is “Jon Axel”) who is the reigning A-10 Player of the Year. He also doubles as unquestionably my favorite player from Iceland in all of college basketball this year.
Add in Frampton and Brajkovic (who both averaged double-figures last season) and this is a team that is not only talented but experienced and also itching to get back to the Big Dance after missing last season.
That shouldn’t be an issue. The issue instead is how many games they’ll win once they get there.
Auburn Tigers: Auburn returns quite a few pieces from last year’s Final Four team, the problem is, I’m not sure they’re the right ones. Jared Harper was the engine that made everything go, and Bryce Brown and Chuma Okeke provided plenty of floor-spacing. This year’s team will have plenty of size down low (Austin Wiley, Anfernee McLemore, Isaac Okoro) but won’t be quite as deadly from downtown. Don’t sleep on Samir Doughty as a breakout star both in this league and nationally.
Creighton Bluejays: I’ll say this for Creighton: They will be one of the most entertaining teams in the country to watch, with a whole bunch of speed, athleticism and three-point shooting. The problem is down low, and this summer’s trip to Australia showed that they are probably a big man short of being a real contender in the Big East.
Oregon Ducks: In last year’s preseason, I called Oregon the most fascinating “Ceiling/Basement” team in college basketball, a program with talent to match anyone’s ceiling, but with enough egos and question marks where they could miss the tournament all together. And to my credit, the Ducks largely lived up to that reputation, playing poorly through most of the regular season, before getting hot, winning the Pac-12 and making the Sweet 16.
Well, this year it is largely the same. With Payton Pritchard back, Shakur Juiston in as a grad transfer, and N’Faly Dante and CJ Walker leading a loaded freshman class, the talent is unquestionable. At the same time, trying to keep everyone happy won’t be easy. Oregon should be a tournament team. But I’ll believe they’re an elite, Top 15-ish type squad when I see it.
Tennessee Volunteers: Yes, Tennessee lost a lot with the departures of Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone. Still, if you watched the Vols last year, there were nights where Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden were the team’s best player. Those two are both back, and the freshman class has a bona-fide star with Josiah Jordan-James. The one thing that Tennessee needs? One of their big guys (Jon Fulkerson, Yves Pons) to step up and become a difference-maker down low.
UCLA Bruins: Every ounce of my being wanted to put UCLA in the Top 25 to start the season, before I eventually left them right out on the cusp. And the reason being is simple: The talent in Westwood is insane. Of the nine players expected to play major minutes, seven are former Top 100 recruits! SEVEN! An eighth is Chris Smith, who many believe have NBA potential. Meaning that outside of Kentucky, Duke and Memphis, there might not be a more talented roster top to bottom in college basketball. The one thing the Bruins needed though was a coach to push them, something Mick Cronin will undoubtedly do, which is why I expect this team to be better than many people project. And they should only continue to get better throughout the season.
Washington Huskies: There’s a lot to like at Washington, especially Isaiah Stewart, who might just end up as Pac-12 Freshman of the Year (if not Player of the Year). My problem is that I believe Jaden McDaniels is a tiny bit overhyped (his best basketball won’t be played until long after he leaves Washington) and Quade Green isn’t eligible until the middle of the season. This team could be dangerous in March. It could also struggle out of the gate.