While most of America has football fever this time of year (well, unless you’re an Arizona Cardinals fan), as crazy as it sounds, college hoops season isn’t all that far around the corner. Practice officially started at most schools on Tuesday (even if they’ve been going on unofficially all summer) and games are a little over a month away. The fact that Kentucky is holding its NBA Combine in like 10 days really does show you just how close we are to the start of the season.
And with the season nearly here and other outlets already rolling out preview content (shout out to NBC Sports and Barstool, where the love of college basketball never really dies) I figured, why not do the same? I am the foremost expert on pretty much all things college basketball (self-described, trademark pending) so why not jump the gun and let you know what will happen this season, before it happens.
In addition to all my other responsibilities here (including my podcast – which you should subscribe to), I’ll be rolling out all sorts of college basketball preview stuff the next few weeks, be it players to watch, conference previews, coaches hot seat. Basically, whatever you guys want, I’ll deliver it. Hit me on Twitter @Aaron_Torres with anything specific you’d like to see.
Still, it only seems appropriate that we start with the Top 25. Admittedly, I did one at the NBA Draft Deadline, and while not a whole lot has changed since then –some stuff still has, which is why I decided to update it. After some late player turnover and just re-thinking some things this off-season, here is my Top 25 headed into the 2018-2019 season.
1) Kentucky Wildcats
Key Returnees: Quade Green, P.J. Washington, Nick Richards, Jemarl Baker
Key Departures: Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo, Wenyen Gabriel, Jarred Vanderbilt
Key Additions: Immanuel Quickley, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, E.J. Montgomery, Ashton Hagans, Reid Travis (transfer)
I had Kentucky at No. 2 in my “Way Too Early Top 25” following the NBA Draft, and after the Wildcats added Reid Travis (a two-time All-Pac 12 first team member at Stanford) and Top 10 recruit Ashton Hagans since then, I bumped them up to No. 1. Understand, that’s not an “I work for KSR” thing. It’s a “I really believe the Wildcats are that good” thing.
To break it down into its simplest form, all you need to know about Kentucky is this: Their 10-man rotation includes seven McDonald’s All-Americans (it would have been eight if Ashton Hagans hadn’t reclassified) and nine Top 40 recruits overall. Oh, and one of the players who wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American is Tyler Herro – who may just end up as Kentucky’s leading scorer this season. As I mentioned back at the NBA Draft deadline, there are no apparent weaknesses on the Wildcats’ roster.
And by the way, I wrote all that before UK went to the Bahamas. Once there, the Wildcats proved that they not only had the talent to match the hype, but also played with a tough, physical, nasty edge that makes it feel like the team – not the fans, the team – is playing with a “we’re here to win the national championship mindset.” P.J. Washington and Keldon Johnson specifically look like they’ll be terrifying for the rest of college basketball this season.
In the end, if someone wants to argue on behalf of Kansas, Gonzaga, Duke or anyone else at No. 1, that’s just fine. But right now, a month before the season, the Wildcats are the team to beat in my eyes.
2) Gonzaga Bulldogs
Key Returnees: Killian Tillie, Rui Hachimura, Zach Norvell, Josh Perkins, Corey Kispert
Key Departures: Jonathan Williams III
Key Additions: Brandon Clarke (transfer), Geno Crandall (transfer) Joel Ayayi, Filip Petrušev
Following the NBA Draft I had the Zags at No. 1, and had Kentucky not added Travis and Hagans in the middle of the spring I would have kept them there. Ultimately, bumping Mark Few’s club down isn’t an indictment on them, as much as it is about how good Kentucky appears to be right now.
In terms of the “why” I had Gonzaga No. 1 back in May, the answer is simple. Gonzaga is, as best I can tell, the only team that returns two players who I believe would have gone in the first round of the NBA Draft last year if they had declared. Killian Tillie would have been a fringe first rounder and has the talent to be a potential All-American this year. And Rui Hachimura is a player who I believe, had he worked out for NBA scouts, would have played his way into the Top 10 of last year’s draft. But he never did declare, and now he’s a candidate to compete for National Player of the Year.
When you add in that Gonzaga also returns veteran Josh Perkins (who started in the 2017 national championship game against North Carolina), NCAA Tournament hero Zach Norvell (who averaged 13 a game last year) and Corey Kispert, you can see how loaded they are. By the way, I haven’t even mentioned Brandon Clarke, a transfer who averaged 18 points per game at San Jose State two seasons ago. The buzz out of Spokane was that he dominated in practices last year.
Oh, and there is one more thing: When I put together that post-draft Top 25, the one glaring hole on Gonzaga’s roster was the need for extra help in the backcourt. They appear to have addressed that with grad transfer Geno Crandall, who averaged 16 points per game last year (and dropped 28 on the Zags). He’ll arrive in October.
Point being, this team is absolutely loaded and has the chance to not only get back to the Final Four next March, but win it too.
3) Kansas Jayhawks
Key Returnees: Udoka Azibuke, Silvio de Souza, Marcus Garrett, LaGerald Vick
Key Departures: Devonte Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman
Key Additions: Dedric Lawson (transfer), K.J. Lawson (transfer), Charlie Moore (transfer), Quentin Grimes, Devon Dodson, David McCormack
In a weird twist, the Jayhawks are another team that sat atop virtually every “Way Too Early Top 25” following the season – yet somehow got better after the NBA Draft deadline. The Jayhawks were able to re-enroll LaGerald Vick in the summer after Vick declared for the draft and went undrafted, but never hired an agent.
With Vick’s addition, it is a familiar face on a somewhat unfamiliar roster, as Kansas lost its top four scorers from last year. Still, this year’s team may actually be more talented than last year’s Final Four bunch, and definitely deeper. The name to watch here is Dedric Lawson, a 6’9 transfer who averaged 19 and 9 at Memphis two seasons ago. Ask folks around Kansas, and they believe that he – and not Devonte Graham or Malik Newman – was the best player in the program last year. Also, keep an eye on point guard Charlie Moore (who averaged 12 points per game at Cal two years ago) and Quentin Grimes, arguably the best pure scorer in high school basketball last year.
Add in other returnees (Udoka Azibuke, Silvio de Souza) and more high-profile freshmen (Devon Dodson, David McCormack) and you could argue the Jayhawks might have too many good players. Still, that’s a good problem to have, and look for Kansas to win roughly it’s 11,280th straight Big 12 title this season.
4) Nevada Wolfpack
Key Returnees: Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline, Lindsey Drew
Key Departures: Kendall Stephens
Key Additions: Tre’Shawn Thurman (transfer), Corey Henson (transfer), Jazz Johnson (transfer), Nisre Zouzoua (transfer), Trey Porter (transfer), Jordan Brown
It’s funny because back in May when I declared that Nevada might be a Top 10 team coming into the season, people just about lost their minds (yes, people overreacted to something on the internet. Crazy. I know). But now, after an off-season of hype the Wolfpack are in everyone’s Top 10 and a legitimate Final Four threat.
And looking at this roster, it’s easy to see why there is so much buzz in Reno. The Wolfpack return the core of a Sweet 16 team that spent most of last year in the Top 25, including three different players (Cody Martin, Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline) who could have gone pro but elected to return to college. They also add Jordan Brown to their frontcourt, who is just the second ever McDonald’s All-American to sign with the school.
Really though, what’s crazy about this roster is everyone else. Thanks to the transfer market, a team that only played six or seven guys last season now goes legitimately 10-deep, and it’s basically inarguable that the Wolfpack have the most experienced roster in college basketball. As “The Ringer’s” Mark Titus pointed out, if you take Nevada’s three freshmen off this roster, every other key player in Nevada’s rotation is either entering their fourth or fifth year of college basketball. The Wolfpack have a comically deep and experienced roster.
Add in one of the most accomplished coaches in college basketball (remember, Eric Musselman was the head coach of both the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings, and actually finished second in the NBA’s Coach of the Year voting in 2003), and it’s easy to see why the buzz is so real in Reno. Yes, this team is good enough to win a national championship
(For more on Nevada, listen to Eric Musselman’s recent appearance on the Aaron Torres Sports Podcast).
5) Virginia Cavaliers
Key Returnees: DeAndre Hunter, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Mamadi Diakite, Jack Salt
Key Departures: Devon Hall, Isaiah Wilkins, Nigel Johnson
Key Additions: Kody Stattmann, Francisco Caffaro
Many of you are probably surprised to see Virginia ranked this high after I’ve been so critical of Tony Bennett throughout the years. Well, ultimately I think there are two different things at play here. I truly believe Bennett is a slightly overrated coach who can’t adjust in March. But he is also be a guy with a system that is innately designed to rack up wins during the regular season. Those two things can be mutually exclusive.
So when I look at Virginia, what I see is that they are a club which returns its top three scorers off a team that won 31 games last year, an ACC title and earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Which also means that it’s very likely that in 2018-2019 they will again win around 30+ games, compete for an ACC regular season title and compete for a No. 1 seed.
If you do all that, you should be Top 5 in the preseason. Even if it will likely end with a crippling, first weekend loss in the NCAA Tournament.
6) Tennessee Volunteers
Key Returnees: Basically, umm, everyone off last year’s team
Key Departures: None
Key Additions: None
I’m not sure if it’s possible for a fan-base to get upset for “only” being ranked sixth nationally, but a case can be made that Tennessee fans have that right. After all, they return the top six scorers off last year’s SEC co-champs, including the reigning SEC Player of the Year (Grant Williams). At the very least, many are probably wondering why they’re ranked as the second best team in the SEC behind Kentucky.
Well one, this isn’t really a knock on Tennessee, as much as it is the reality that Kentucky is just really, really good. Also, if we’re being perfectly honest, the Vols are a team that isn’t nearly as talented as most of the top teams in college basketball. There isn’t a single future NBA player on their roster. Which leads me to this question: Is it possible that we saw something close to Tennessee’s ceiling last year? It seems so. Therefore, it doesn’t seem likely that the Vols will make a massive leap from last year to this one, like say a Kentucky, Kansas or Duke will. Tennessee kind of is, who they are.
Of course “who they are” is one of the most across-the-board tough teams in college basketball, and one that should once again win 25+ games in the regular season and be in contention for a top two seed come the NCAA Tournament.
7) Duke Blue Devils
Key Returnees: Alex O’Connell, Javin DeLaurier, Marques Bolden
Key Departures: Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter, Trevon Duval, Gary Trent
Key Additions: Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Tre Jones
I’ll admit that my opinion on Duke has changed some after their trip to Canada this summer. In three games against moderately good competition the Blue Devils dominated, and that was without their starting point guard Tre Jones or Cam Reddish, one of the top players in college basketball. I’ll also readily admit that Zion Williamson looked significantly better than I expected. Like his teammate R.J. Barrett, I believe he can make a run at an All-American type season in Durham.
But even with those extra games in Canada, I still worry about the same thing with Duke that I’ve worried about since Barrett, Reddish and Williamson all committed to play together: They’re three guys that are all kind of the same player. All are best when they have the ball in their hands. None are great shooters. And while it isn’t sexy to talk about, stuff like “floor spacing” and “movement” do matter. Tre Jones will help some. I just don’t know how much.
Add in the fact that Duke once again doesn’t have much depth (poor Marques Bolden looked as lost as ever in Canada) and to me, this really feels a lot like the 2017 season for Duke (the year they had Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard etc). This is a team that will have some up and down moments, but also one with the talent to beat anyone on any given night.
8) Auburn Tigers
Key Returnees: Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, Anfernee McLemore
Key Departures: Mustapha Heron (transfer)
Key Additions: Austin Wiley (suspended last season), Danjel Purifoy (suspended last season)
Auburn is a team that I like more than most. And considering that I probably watched more SEC basketball last season than some people who work at SEC Network (what can I say? I have the fever) I trust my instincts more than most on the Tigers.
The big news out of Auburn this summer was the loss of leading scorer Mustapha Heron to transfer, but in reality, I think it may be addition by subtraction for the Tigers. As much as I love Heron (us Connecticut kids have to stick together), he was a ball-dominant, me-first player who often slowed down the offense at the sake of getting his own points. With his departure it opens the floor for guards Bryce Brown (16 ppg last year) and Jared Harper (13 ppg) to create and shoot, which they do best. That’s an opinion I’ve had since Heron left, and it was confirmed earlier this week by Pearl.
Bruce Pearl tells me that this year's Auburn team is better offensively than last season's group that won the SEC regular season title. Tigers averaged 82 PPG in 17-18.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) September 24, 2018
Add in the return of Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy (who were both suspended in the FBI probe) as well as a healthy Anfernee McLemore, and it isn’t a stretch to say the Tigers have a team good enough to make its first Final Four in school history.
9) North Carolina Tar Heels
Key Returnees: Luke Maye, Cam Johnson, Kenny Williams, Sterling Manley, Garrison Brooks
Key Departures: Joel Berry, Theo Pinson
Key Additions: Nassir Little, Coby White, Rechon Black
Like Auburn, I’m more excited about North Carolina than most. Whatever you think about Luke Maye (and his quest to be the first college basketball player to play at least one game in the 1980’s, 90’s, 2000’s and 2010’s) he averaged 17 and 10 last year and will return to college basketball as one of the most accomplished players in the sport. Cam Johnson was a double-figure scorer who will only get better, and Nassir Little is their first truly elite recruit to arrive in Chapel Hill since Harrison Barnes signed in 2011. Like Maye, Little legitimately has a chance to compete for ACC Player of the Year. Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley add size down low.
To me, the Tar Heels are one of the more underrated teams heading into the 2018-2019 season. While they might be quality point guard play away from being a true national championship contender, they are once again flying under the radar in a loaded ACC.
10) Villanova Wildcats
Key Returnees: Phil Booth, Eric Paschall, Collin Gillespie
Key Departures: Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVencenzio, Omari Spellman
Key Additions: Joe Cremo (transfer), Jahvon Quinerly, Cole Swider, Brandon Slater
Let’s be clear on something: It never sucks to win a national championship, but last year’s title for Villanova did come with a cost. Had the Wildcats not made their run, there is a zero percent chance that either Donte DiVencenzio or Omari Spellman would have considered going pro. Instead, they both used a hot March to test the NBA Draft process, where they both ended up as first round draft picks.
Good for them.
And the good for Villanova is that even after losing their top four scorers off last year’s national championship team, the drop-off shouldn’t be as steep as most expect. Collin Gillespie was slated to begin in the sixth man role that DiVencenzio played last season, but now is likely this team’s starting point guard, and the Wildcats still return a pair of double-digit scorers in Phil Booth and Eric Paschall. Villanova also brought in its best recruiting class in years, where Jahvon Quinerly could get major minutes in the backcourt and Cole Swider is a future star on the wing. Joe Cremo – a grad transfer from Albany – should also fit this system perfectly as well, as a long-range bomber from deep. Incredibly, he shot 46 percent from three-point land last season.
Had the Wildcats not lost DiVencenzio and Spellman they’d probably be ranked No. 1 in the country. Without them, the Wildcats will have to “settle” for a fringe Top 10 ranking. Not bad at all.
11) Virginia Tech Hokies
Key Returnees: Justin Robinson, Ahmed Hill, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Chris Clarke, Kerry Blackshear
Key Departures: Justin Bibbs
Key Additions: None
This is going to sound crazy, but you could legitimately make a case that Buzz Williams is the most underrated coach in all of college basketball. After taking Marquette (Marquette!!) to the Sweet 16 or beyond three times in six seasons, it took him all of three years to get Virginia Tech – the worst team in the ACC when he arrived – to the NCAA Tournament. Last year they made the Big Dance in back-to-back years for the first time since 1986.
I’m guessing not too many of you knew just how bad this program has been historically. Or how quickly he turned things around. And this year will be his best team by far.
The Hokies return five of their top six scorers off last year’s team, which finished a respectable 21-12 and 10-8 in ACC play. Not bad, but here’s what people forget though: While the Hokies had their struggles, they were the only team in the league that beat Virginia, North Carolina and Duke last year. Heck, they were the only team that beat Virginia in ACC play period (if only UMBC played in the ACC, Virginia might have actually had a chance to beat them last year. What? Too soon?).
Point being, this team was good enough to play with, and beat anyone in college basketball last year. With more experience and the sport’s most underrated coach, the sky is the limit for the Hokies in 2018-2019.
12) Mississippi State Bulldogs
Key Returnees: Lamar Peters, Nick Weatherspoon, Quinndary Weatherspoon, Aric Holman, Abdul Ado
Key Departures: None
Key Additions: Reggie Perry
The Bulldogs were a fringe NCAA Tournament bubble team throughout much of conference play last season, and if we’re being honest, probably missed the tournament because of a bad out of conference schedule more than because of their actual talent on the court. Well that same team returns basically intact, with its top six scorers returning to Starkville.
Mississippi State is one of the few teams on this list which came out of last season with a lot of hype and where nothing changed in the off-season. No high-profile players left for the draft. No one of major significance left via transfer. And all the big-time freshmen (including stud Reggie Perry) enrolled and arrived this fall.
The Bulldogs haven’t made the NCAA Tournament in 10 years. Barring catastrophe, that will change this season.
13) Michigan State Spartans
Key Returnees: Joshua Langford, Cassius Winston, Nick Ward, Matt McQuaid, Xavier Tillman
Key Departures: Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, Tum Tum Nairn
Key Additions: Marcus Bingham Jr.
If you watched the Kentucky games in the Bahamas, you heard ESPN’s Dan Dakich repeatedly say that “Nick Ward and P.J. Washington will be the two most improved players in college basketball this year.” So yeah, the buzz about Ward is real, and it’s fantastic. The buzz out of practice is that junior point guard Cassius Winston has taken the next step as well.
And in a down Big Ten, where there are no obvious national title contenders, that might just be enough for Tom Izzo’s. Jaren Jackson and Miles Bridges are gone from last year. But this is still the best team on paper in the Big Ten entering the 2018-2019 campaign.
14) UCLA Bruins
Key Returnees: Kris Wilkes, Jaylen Hands, Cody Riley, Prince Ali, Chris Smith, Jalen Hill
Key Departures: Aaron Holiday, Thomas Welsh
Key Additions: Moses Brown, Tyger Campbell, Shareef O’Neal (pending), Jules Bernard, David Singleton
UCLA was one of the big winners at the NBA Draft deadline, with Kris Wilkes, Jaylen Hands and Cody Riley all testing the draft waters before eventually deciding to return. Wilkes is a Pac-12 Player of the Year type guy and Hands should take over the point guard and play-making duties from the departed Aaron Holiday. Steve Alford also welcomes in a consensus Top 5 recruiting class which features headliners Moses Brown and Shareef O’Neal.
In the big picture, UCLA has inarguably the most talented roster in the Pac-12 and one of the most talented in all of college basketball – but there are still questions. Is Hands ready to be the leader at point guard this team needs? Which freshmen will step up? And is it possible that –like a few other big-time schools – UCLA actually has too many good players? Minutes will be hard to come by for a lot of high-profile high school recruits in Westwood this year.
Still, these are problems that just about any coach would like to have and Alford has a team capable of winning his first Pac-12 regular season title since arriving at the school. And considering that some consider him to be on the hot seat entering this season, Alford may need to do just that to feel comfortable about his return in 2019-2020.
15) LSU Tigers
Key Returnees: Tremont Waters , Skylar Mays
Key Departures: Duop Reath, Aaron Epps, Brandon Sampson
Key Additions: Kavell Bigby-Williams (transfer), Naz Reid, Emmitt Williams, Javonte Smart, Darius Days, Aundre Hyatt, Marlon Taylor
This might feel insanely high to have LSU ranked, but just hear me out and let me explain. Just trust me, once I’m done here you’ll be waving purple and gold pom-poms and buying LSU gear online to show your support.
Ok, maybe not. But again, hear me out.
To Will Wade’s credit he completely flipped this program on its head in year one, taking a club which was picked to finish 14th in the 14 team SEC (thanks for nothing, Johnny Jones) and helping them finish ninth in the league standings overall. One of their early season wins was against Michigan, who eventually made it to the Final Four.
This year though, expectations are about to go through the roof. Tremont Waters is a legit All-American candidate after averaging 15 points and six assists per game last season, and he is joined by the nation’s No. 3 overall recruiting class. Overall, Wade signed four of the Top 60 high school recruits in America. That includes McDonald’s All-American Naz Reid and forward Emmitt Williams, both of whom could end up as first round picks in next year’s NBA Draft. Wade also raved about junior college wing Marlon Taylor when he joined “The Aaron Torres Sports Podcast,” with Wade saying that Taylor is a player who is better than anyone realizes.
The Tigers will be young. But on paper, they are capable of hanging with just about anyone in college basketball.
16) Syracuse Orange
Key Returnees: Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett, Frank Howard, Marek Dolezaj, Paschal Chukwu
Key Departures: Matthew Moyer
Key Additions: Jalen Carey
For the first time in pretty much forever, the Orange were one of the big winners at the NBA Draft deadline thanks to Tyus Battle’s surprise decision to return for his junior year. Had he left, Battle would have been a fringe first round draft pick and Syracuse would have been screwed. Instead, they bring back a 19 point a game scorer last year who also led all of college basketball in minutes played at over 38 a game.
And with Battle back in the fold, Syracuse now returns all five starters off last year’s Sweet 16 team, and adds high-profile recruit Jalen Carey. Admittedly, the Orange would have loved to have Darius Bazley (who shockingly decided to spend this season training for the pro ranks than play college basketball), and overall their depth isn’t quite there with the other big-time contenders.
Still, this is the best Syracuse team on paper in a long time.
17) West Virginia Mountaineers
Key Returnees: Sagoba Konate, Esa Ahmad, Lamont West, James “Beatle” Bolden, Wesley Harris
Key Departures: Jevon Carter, Teddy Allen
Key Additions: Emmitt Matthews, Jordan McCabe
Yes, the Mountaineers lose Jevon Carter, the transformational point guard and second team All-American last season. But they return one of the most intimidating front courts in college basketball, including Sagoba Kontate one of the most feared shot blockers in America.
Really though, this ranking is a bet on Bob Huggins. The Mountaineers have finished third or better in the Big 12 in each of the last four seasons and finished second in each of the last three. In Hugs and his windbreaker we trust. Until someone knocks West Virginia from the top 2-3 of the Big 12 standings I’m going to keep them right here.
18) Kansas State Wildcats
Key Returnees: Dean Wade, Barry Brown, Xavier Sneed, Cartier Diarra
Key Departures: None
Key Additions: None
Kansas State is kind of the exact opposite of West Virginia. I don’t trust Bruce Weber at all, and feel like their preseason ranking (I’ve seen them as high as Top 10 in some polls) is wildly inflated by their run to the Elite Eight. Had Kansas State lost in the second round, would anyone be as high on them? Of course not.
Still, they do return virtually every key player off that Elite Eight team, so they probably deserve to be here. It will be interesting to see if they can live up to expectations once the season begins though.
19) Washington Huskies
Key Returnees: Jaylen Nowell, Noah Dickerson, David Crisp, Carlos Johnson, Matisse Thybulle
Key Departures: None
Key Additions: Jamal Bey, Bryan Penn-Johnson
Washington is a team that I just can’t figure out why folks don’t have them ranked higher (or in most cases, ranked at all) coming into the season. They were a bubble team throughout most of the 2018-2019 campaign before falling apart down the stretch (not surprising for a young team playing under a first-year head coach), but return their top seven scorers off a team that was a wild overachiever last season. They also add a pair of high-profile recruits, including Bryan Penn-Johnson who is a developmental prospect with long-term NBA potential.
With a year’s worth of experience under their belts, there’s no reason to think that this team can’t be a dark horse contender for a Pac-12 title.
20) Nebraska Cornhuskers
Key Returnees: Isaac Copeland, James Palmer Jr., Glynn Watson, Isaiah Roby
Key Departures: Anton Gill
Key Additions: None
The Cornhuskers are kind of the Midwest’s version of Mississippi State, a team that finished fourth in the Big Ten regular season standings and talent-wise was probably one of the 36 “best” at-large candidates. Like Mississippi State though, they were doomed by an awful out of conference slate and didn’t have a resume that warranted a bid.
Well this year they return their top four scorers, including a potential Big Ten Player of the Year in James Palmer (17.2 ppg last year). And just last week a week a source in the program told me “We’re way better than people realize.”
It should allow the Cornhuskers to comfortably make the NCAA Tournament this year, and maybe even make a run once they get there.
21) Indiana Hoosiers
Key Returnees: Juwan Morgan, Devonte Green, De’Ron Davis, Justin Smith, Zach McRoberts
Key Departures: Robert Johnson, Joshua Newkirk
Key Additions: Romeo Langford, Jerome Hunter, Damezi Anderson, Evan Fitzner (transfer)
The big news here is obviously the arrival of Romeo Langford, who, in my opinion is the most significant recruit that Indiana has signed in my 20+ years as a college basketball fan (you could argue for Eric Gordon or Cody Zeller, but I don’t think either is more important). Still, the thing that no one seems to realize about Indiana is that Langford doesn’t have to do this alone, and he doesn’t need to be the program’s “savior.”
Understand, this isn’t a “Ben Simmons at LSU” type deal. One, Archie Miller is a way better coach than Johnny Jones, and two, there are plenty of other pieces around him. Indiana returns three of its top four scorers off a middle of the pack Big Ten team a season ago, added a Top 10 recruiting class (highlighted by Langford) and grad transfer Evan Fitzner. The Hoosiers aren’t “back” to being a title contender. But they’re back to being relevant, and should be a Top 4 finisher in the Big Ten.
22) Oregon Ducks
Key Returnees: Peyton Pritchard, Paul White, Victor Bailey Jr., Kenny Wooten
Key Departures: Troy Brown, Elijah Brown, MiKyle McIntosh
Key Additions: Bol Bol, Louis King, Miles Norris, Will Richardson, Francis Okoro, Ehab Amin (transfer)
If we’re being honest (and since we’re all friends here, why wouldn’t we be?), I’m just going to lay it out for you: I’m not nearly as high on the Ducks as many others in the media. I’ve never been a Payton Pritchard guy and Bol Bol needs a lot of work. Louis King – who some can be a lottery pick after this season – is temperamental and at times injury prone.
Still, while that’s the “bad” on Oregon, it’d also be disingenuous if I didn’t add this: Their talent is breathtaking. No, Bol and King aren’t there yet, but they can be. And Victor Bailey and Kenny Wooten are two phenomenal athletes who can develop into really productive players this season.
Therefore, to me Oregon is one of the most fascinating “ceiling/basement” teams in college basketball. If all goes right, they are probably a team that can make the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. But if it all goes wrong though, they could miss it all together.
23) Florida State Seminoles
Key Returnees: Trent Forrest, M.J. Walker, Terance Mann, Mfiondu Kabengele, Phil Cofer
Key Losses: CJ Walker, Braian Angola
Key Additions: None
Florida State is like a deep South Kansas State – a team that has been wildly inflated this off-season because of a 2-3 game stretch in last year’s NCAA Tournament. Yes, they pulled off a few upsets and made the Elite Eight. But that doesn’t change the fact that they were a largely forgettable team for most of the regular season.
Sure, the Seminoles return five of their top seven scorers off last year’s team. But I’ll believe that they’re an upper-tier ACC team when I see it.
24) Texas Longhorns
Key Returnees: Andrew Jones, Matthew Coleman, Kerwin Roach, Dylan Osetkowski, Jericho Sims
Key Departures: Mohamed Bamba, Eric Davis, Jacob Young
Key Additions: Courtney Ramey, Gerald Liddell, Kamaka Hepa
I’m pretty sure I’m the only national writer with Texas in my preseason Top 25, and in this case, I understand why. It’s not as though Shaka Smart has exactly set the earth on fire since his Final Four run in 2011. If you can believe it, he’s won a grand total of two NCAA Tournament games since making that Final Four run. None of them have come in his three years at Texas. Not. Good.
Still, just about everyone not named “Mo Bamba” returns, and this will be Smart’s best team in Austin. There are veterans and upperclassmen throughout the roster, as well as three Top 50 freshmen who should all contribute as well. What will be interesting to see however is the health of Andrew Jones, who was diagnosed with leukemia mid-season last year. Jones returned to basketball activities this summer and Smart has said that he hopes to work him back this winter. If Jones is back, it totally changes the outlook of this team and is obviously an incredibly positive sign for Jones himself.
25) Arizona Wildcats
Key Returnees: Brandon Randolph, Emmanuel Akot, Alex Barcello, Ira Lee
Key Departures: DeAndre Ayton, Rawle Alkins, Allonzo Trier, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Dusan Ristic
Key Additions: Chase Jeter (transfer), Ryan Luther (transfer), Justin Coleman (transfer), Brandon Williams, Devonaire Doutrive
Like Texas above, I’m almost certain I’m the only national writer with Arizona in my Top 25. But I really do think this is the year that – thanks to expectations that are as low as they’ve been in a decade – we realize just how good of a coach Sean Miller really is. I also think because of how talented Arizona has been the last few years, it’s making us view this roster a bit differently.
Now look, does this team have NBA Draft lottery talent at the top of the roster like in years past? Absolutely not. But the entire team is made up of either Top 50 recruits (Brandon Williams, Brandon Randolph, Emmanuel Akot) or big-time transfers who have produced elsewhere (Chase Jeter, Ryan Luther, Justin Coleman). If literally any other team in the Pac-12 had this roster except Arizona (or maybe UCLA) we’d be saying “that’s a really good team.” Instead, they’re being compared to Arizona clubs in the past. And they shouldn’t be.
Instead they’ll be a smart, hard-nosed club who should play a different style of basketball overall than previous Wildcats teams. Freshman Brandon Williams will be the go-to guy, and with Pitt transfer Ryan Luther as a stretch four, look for the Wildcats to play more small-ball, with an emphasis on spacing and shooting. Ask people around the program, and the days of loading up down low (like last year with DeAndre Ayton and Dusan Ristic) are over.
While Miller has never broken through to a Final Four, the simple truth is that you don’t win as much as he has (five Pac-12 regular season titles, four Elite Eights) if you don’t know what you’re doing. People will realize that this season just how good of a coach Miller truly is.