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2018-19 Top 25: A First Pass

April 2, 2018 Columns No Comments

Let’s get something out of the way to start: coming out with a top 25 for next season right as the national championship game ends is a hopeless exercise if you’re going for accuracy. There are many things that we can only take an educated guess at right now, and that is done here. But there are always surprises, and those can go either way. One player may or may not opt to enter/stay in the NBA Draft, one coach may or may not opt to stay at his current school, and so forth. There are also plenty of high school seniors who have not chosen a school, and that will also impact this.

Even so, this can be a fun exercise. It gives a sense of which teams appear well-positioned for next season provided there are no major surprises. So with that, here’s one crack at a top 25 for next season that is far too early but interesting all the same.

1. Kansas
The names and faces may change, but the Big 12 regular season finish remains the same: at the top. Until someone knocks off the Jayhawks in the Big 12, you pick against them at your peril. Next year’s team will have to replace the heart and soul of the team for the second year in a row, but Bill Self knows how to get the most out of a team and the thinking here is that Udoka Azubuike will stick around and Malik Newman is a toss-up. The Lawson brothers (Dedric and K.J.) become eligible and will make a big impact right away, while three McDonald’s All-Americans come in to ensure the Jayhawks will have lots of talent no matter who stays. If the seniors end up being the only departures, the Jayhawks will likely be the preseason number one team.

2. Villanova
The Wildcats have been on an amazing run of late, and there’s little reason to expect a big slip next year. The big question is what happens with Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Omari Spellman. If all three return, the Wildcats ascend to the top spot in this list when you add in guys like championship game hero Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall. If more than one goes, they will drop a bit from this, but not much. At this point, the Wildcats will likely have others ready to step into new roles to keep the winning going, from freshmen like Jahvon Quinerly, Cole Swider and Brandon Slater to players who didn’t play significant roles this year while waiting their turn.

3. Virginia
Yes, the Cavaliers made some pretty bad history a couple of weeks ago, but let’s not get carried away with what that means going forward. This is a team that still returns a great deal, notably their starting backcourt and De’Andre Hunter, who got better as the season went along and will be an All-ACC player sooner rather than later. While Devon Hall, Isaiah Wilkins and Nigel Johnson will all be missed, there’s enough returning and who know how to play the way Tony Bennett wants them to play that we can expect to be better in all areas to keep this team as one of the best in the ACC.

4. Duke
Don’t expect much to change. The Blue Devils will lose a key player or two early, but they are set to regroup once more with an elite group of newcomers led by R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish. Marvin Bagley will leave, Wendell Carter probably will as well, and Gary Trent, Jr. might as well, but the thinking is that others like Trevon Duval, Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier will return, which makes Grayson Allen the only other significant departure. That means Duke will contend for the top of the ACC once again, and more, although there may be a question of who the veteran leaders will be.

5. Auburn
This has to be prefaced with the reality that the coaching situation is an unknown, and not the only one. So far, the signs have been good with Bruce Pearl, but we don’t know what else is to come in the FBI investigation, which included former assistant Chuck Person among those arrested in September. The Tigers figure to return most of the roster of their SEC regular season champs (though Mustapha Heron could turn pro), and if that holds up they should be among the nation’s elite. But a lot can happen in this circumstance, so this is subject to a major revision.

6. Tennessee
Rick Barnes did one of his better coaching jobs this season, and the Volunteers are primed for a big year in 2018-19 provided there are no surprise defections. Reserve guard James Daniel III is the only scholarship senior, and Grant Williams will anchor this team as one of the SEC’s best players alongside Admiral Schofield, Lamonte Turner and Kyle Alexander. The big question is how they will deal with being on everyone’s radar from the outset.

7. Michigan State
This will be a case of reloading, as the Spartans figure to lose at least five and possibly six from this roster. Miles Bridges is gone, Jaren Jackson Jr. will probably follow and Nick Ward could, which means the frontcourt will take a big hit. Tum Tum Nairn is the big loss among seniors, although Gavin Schilling is not a small loss. The Spartans’ main returning talent is on the perimeter with Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and Matt McQuaid, and if you’re going to have most of it be in one place, the perimeter a good one in college basketball.

8. Kentucky
Exactly what this team will look like is anyone’s guess, because who will stay and who will go is a little harder than usual to determine. The thinking here is that Kevin Knox is definitely gone, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander probably will be as well. Aside from that, there are good pieces returning, although there will be a similar question as with this past season about veteran leadership. Does Wenyen Gabriel, a grizzled veteran on next season’s team, now become that?

9. Gonzaga
The Bulldogs regrouped nicely last season after fairly heavy personnel losses from the year before, but this team could really go far if there are no surprises. They lose Johnathan Williams and Silas Melson, two big pieces, but Josh Perkins emerged in a new role, Zach Norvell Jr. showed the potential he has, Rui Hachimura got better as the season went along and Killian Tillie gives them more size and skill up front. Corey Kispert is solid and San Jose State transfer Brandon Clarke will be eligible. It will be another year, another NCAA Tournament appearance and then some for Gonzaga.

10. Miami
The Hurricanes had a few questions coming into the season and answered them in fine fashion, finishing tied for third in the ACC despite being without Bruce Brown for the last month of the season. If Brown comes back – he could very well stay in the NBA Draft – there’s no reason this team can’t contend for the ACC title, especially if Lonnie Walker also returns since he got better as the season went along. Dewan Huell should continue to get better inside if he returns, Anthony Lawrence is underrated and Chris Lykes is another good guard who will be back. On top of all that, Jim Larranaga’s coaching chops are not in question.

11. West Virginia
The Mountaineers lose a lot with seniors Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles moving on, but Bob Huggins simply reloads and this team will be no different. They should still have Esa Ahmad, Sagaba Konate (who can take over a game as a post presence) and a number of other good pieces that will make them more than competitive with the way Huggins’ teams play.

12. Nevada
A lot depends on the NBA Draft, but Eric Musselman is building something really good as the Wolfpack continue to hit home runs on transfers. If the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline all return – and the thinking is they will, though they might test the waters – that’s a tough trio for anyone in the Mountain West to match. Add the return of Lindsey Drew and Josh Hall, and another group of transfers, and they will be the team to beat there again.

13. North Carolina
To begin with, the Tar Heels will miss Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson. Along with Luke Maye, they carried the Tar Heels this season. Maye is back, along with Kenny Williams, but this team was not all that deep. They will need newcomers like McDonald’s All-American MVP Nassir Little and Coby White to make an impact right away, and other holdovers to jump into bigger roles.

14. Florida
As long as Jalen Hudson returns, the Gators will be pretty good once again. They will miss Chris Chiozza, the heart and soul of the team, as well as Egor Koulechov, but this was a deep team with Hudson, KeVaughn Allen, Keith Stone and Kevarrius Hayes heading up the holdovers, and they add more pieces next year. If John Egbunu makes it back from his ACL injury, the Gators will get a further boost up front, which they could use as they were last in the SEC in rebounding margin.

15. Virginia Tech
Buzz Williams has it going in Blacksburg, and next year’s team should be even better with Justin Bibbs being the best of the departures. Justin Robinson is an underrated floor leader, Chris Clarke could step into a starting role and Kerry Blackshear and Ahmed Hill will be key veterans. Nickeil Alexander-Walker showed promise as a freshman and should be better with a year under his belt.

16. Oregon
The Ducks couldn’t quite keep the run of NCAA Tournament appearances going, but they weren’t that far off. They return key pieces from this team, led by Payton Pritchard, Kenny Wooten, Paul White and possibly Troy Brown, and welcome one of the nation’s best recruiting classes for an immediate boost.

17. Kansas State
The Wildcats made a run to the Elite Eight that probably few outside of Manhattan saw coming, but next year they won’t sneak up on anyone as they are poised to return everyone of consequence. The questions are if Barry Brown and Dean Wade opt to leave for the NBA; they might very well test the waters, but staying in is no guarantee. Xavier Sneed, Makol Mawien, Kamau Stokes and Carter Diarra all return as well for what will be one of the most experienced teams in the Big 12.

18. Mississippi State
Ben Howland has gotten this program going again, and next year could be the year. The only senior played in just eight games this year, and they begin with the solid foursome of Quinndary and Nick Weatherspoon, Aric Holman and Lamar Peters. Holman and Abdul Ado lead the interior on a team that led the SEC in blocked shots, and they will be boosted by freshman Reggie Perry. While the Bulldogs’ season didn’t end well, they showed a lot of promise and making the run to New York will only help.

19. Florida State
Last year was supposed to be a step back for the Seminoles, but they made an Elite Eight run. Do you bet against them again? Walker’s transfer will hurt, and they lose a couple of seniors plus C.J. Walker, but they bring back Terance Mann and Trent Forrest to lead a relatively unheralded but solid core. One thing you can usually count on with Leonard Hamilton’s Seminoles in recent years is that they will have a lot of length for opponents to deal with.

20. Texas Tech
The Red Raiders will lose a good deal of production and experience, especially with the departures of Keenan Evans, Zach Smith and Niem Stevenson. But Chris Beard showed how good a coach he is, and there is a good deal returning and coming in. Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver had solid freshmen seasons and should have better years ahead, while Brandone Francis and Norense Odiase will be additional veterans. Khavon Moore should help right away among a good group of newcomers, which also includes Missouri transfer C.J. Roberts, who will be eligible in December.

21. Penn State
The NIT champions should be in much better shape for the NCAA Tournament next year if they don’t have any unexpected defections. Tony Carr is gone, but they should be good without him. Shep Garner will be missed, but Lamar Stevens had a big NIT, Josh Reaves is solid and a healthy Mike Watkins is one of the best forwards in the Big Ten.

22. UCLA
It’s easy to think of what might have been had Aaron Holiday opted to come back, but even without him, UCLA could be very good next year if he’s the only early departure. Jaylen Hands has declared, but could return, and thinking is he will. Kris Wilkes and Prince Ali will get better, and Cody Riley should play after sitting this season, and the Bruins again bring in good recruits who should help right away, led by Moses Brown and Jules Bernard.

23. Michigan
Charles Matthews returns, and he found a home in Ann Arbor, and add him to Zavier Simpson, Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers and Jon Teske and there’s still a lot here to go with a five-man recruiting class led by forward Ignas Brazdeikis. Matthews should be the go-to guy unless Moritz Wagner surprises again and opts to return for his senior year, which would vault them into or near the top ten.

24. Cincinnati
To be sure, Gary Clark and Kyle Washington are not small losses, nor is Jacob Evans, who seems likely to stay in the NBA Draft. However, the Bearcats bring back perimeter experience with Justin Jenifer, Jarron Cumberland and Cane Broome, while Tre Scott should help pick up some slack in the frontcourt. When your departures are in the frontcourt and your experience is on the perimeter, that’s a pretty good situation in college basketball.

25. LSU
The Tigers were a pleasant surprise in Will Wade’s first season, and with Tremont Waters back and a solid cast of recruits, they won’t sneak up on anyone this time around. Skylar Mays is another holdover who will be a key, but watch newcomers like Nazreon Reid, Emmitt Williams and Ja’Vonte Smart as they should all play right away. The Tigers made the NIT this season, but will likely do a little better in Year Two under Wade.

Five more who were heavily considered: Xavier, Buffalo, NC State, Maryland, TCU

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