The college basketball preseason is just a little bit better when there’s a debate for No. 1, isn’t it?
Last year, the preseason favorite heading into the season was pretty clear. Arizona and Michigan State had strong cases, but once Marvin Bagley III decided in August to join Duke, the Blue Devils became the front-runners nationally.
This summer saw something similar. It didn’t draw the headlines of Bagley to Duke, but Reid Travis’ decision on June 20 to graduate from Stanford and play his final season at Kentucky had similar ramifications. Suddenly, the Wildcats were a legitimate contender for preseason No. 1 — but not the clear-cut favorite.
Gonzaga will be a major title factor this season, and Duke’s incoming freshmen give the Blue Devils perhaps the highest ceiling in the country. Even Nevada has high-level talent throughout its roster. But there are two teams a notch above the rest heading into the 2018-19 campaign: Kentucky and Kansas.
Kentucky’s hopes lie mainly on freshmen. The Wildcats do bring back PJ Washington and Quade Green from last season’s starting lineup, and Travis gives John Calipari a go-to-guy in the post, but their success this season will depend on its No. 2-ranked recruiting class. Immanuel Quickley, Ashton Hagans, Keldon Johnson and EJ Montgomery were all five-star recruits, and Tyler Herro generated buzz in the offseason and could make a bigger impact than expected.
Kansas, meanwhile, has been banking on its sit-out transfers since the spring of 2017. The marquee addition is former Memphis forward Dedric Lawson, who was one of the most productive players in the country two seasons ago. His brother, K.J., and former California point guard Charlie Moore enter the fold. Of course, Bill Self has his own collection of blue-chip recruits, especially guards Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson. Starters Lagerald Vick and Udoka Azubuike are also back.
A decade ago, it would have been unheard of for teams that lost four draft picks (Kentucky) and a first-team All-American (Kansas, Devonte Graham) to be fighting over the No. 1 spot. But make no mistake, both teams are loaded.
So how do we differentiate between the two?
Right now, it comes down to versatility, balance and experience — and Kansas just has more of it. The Jayhawks have three guys who can play point guard; they can go more standard with the Lawson brothers at the forward spots and Marcus Garrett or Vick at the 2; or they can go jumbo with Azubuike and Silvio De Sousa up front and Dedric Lawson also on the floor. Self is just spoiled for choice — and he has eight guys with college experience in his rotation. Grimes might be the best incoming guard in the country, but neither he nor Dotson will need to rush to get acclimated.
There’s certainly room for debate, though.
Circle Jan. 26 on your calendar. Kansas visits Lexington in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. This argument will be settled there — and potentially again on April 8 in Minneapolis.
1. Kansas Jayhawks : It’s a close call between Kansas and Kentucky, but as mentioned above, the Jayhawks get the edge for now. We’ll get an early look at the Jayhawks, as they’ll potentially face top-25 teams Michigan State, Marquette, Tennessee and Villanova within the first six weeks of the season. The freshman backcourt of Dotson and Grimes will be thrown into the fire.
2. Kentucky Wildcats : The buzz coming out of Lexington is through the roof heading into the season. One source said this year’s team is more balanced — not better, but more balanced — than the 38-1 team from 2015. John Calipari’s teams tend to hit their stride late in the season, but this one should be ready to compete for the No. 1 spot from day one.
3. Gonzaga Bulldogs : With North Dakota graduate transfer Geno Crandall getting cleared to play earlier this month, Mark Few might have his best shot at a national championship this season. Rui Hachimura, Killian Tillie and Zach Norvell Jr. are all poised to take the next step — but the biggest factor will be Josh Perkins. Is he a national title point guard? If he’s consistent, look out.
4. Nevada Wolf Pack: There might not be a team in the country with more college-proven depth than Nevada. Eric Musselman brings back three all-conference players, while adding six transfers who averaged at least 13 points last season — along with top-40 freshman Jordan Brown. Chemistry and playing time might be the only questions heading into the season.
5. Duke Blue Devils: Five starters gone, four five-star prospects entering the program. The highest-scoring returnee is Marques Bolden, who averaged under four points per game last season. So this season will come down to how quickly the freshmen acclimate themselves — primarily the top-three incoming frosh: RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish.
6. North Carolina Tar Heels: If Roy Williams totally buys into playing small-ball basketball, North Carolina will have one of the more dangerous lineups in the country. Coby White will be counted on to replace Joel Berry, and incoming freshman Nassir Little is a future top-five pick. Luke Maye is a preseason All-American but will need to step up against elite competition.
7. Auburn Tigers: Bruce Pearl could have brought back his entire starting five, but Mustapha Heron and Desean Murray both transferred after last season. He’ll survive. Jared Harper and Bryce Brown form a terrific backcourt, and the Tigers get back Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley after sitting out last season. Kentucky might be a cut above in the SEC this season, but Auburn could still be improved from its SEC title run.
8. Tennessee Volunteers : After shockingly winning a share of the SEC regular-season title last season, Tennessee brings back all five starters and the SEC sixth man of the year. Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield are unorthodox forwards, but they create numerous matchup issues. Don’t expect another first-weekend exit from the Volunteers this season.
9. Villanova Wildcats: Jay Wright is in an unfamiliar spot. Villanova being the favorite in the Big East is not unusual, of course, but the Wildcats needing to replace four NBA draft picks is not an every-year occurrence. Coming off two national championships in three seasons, Villanova is now one of the elite programs in college basketball — even if it takes a step back this season.
10. Michigan State Spartans : Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson leaving early for the NBA will be difficult to replace, but Tom Izzo might have a group that fits a bit better this season. Cassius Winston, Josh Langford and Nick Ward are all ready to become the leaders on this team, and a deep and balanced freshman class provides depth. They’re the clear Big Ten favorite.
1 1. Oregon Ducks: The talent level in Eugene this season is on another level — despite losing three starters. Payton Pritchard is an All-Pac-12-caliber player returning at point guard, but everyone is excited about the freshmen, specifically five-star Bol Bol and high-scoring blue-chip wing Louis King. Throw in a potential breakout performer in Kenny Wooten, and Dana Altman has all the pieces.
12. Virginia Cavaliers: On paper, this team has plenty of questions. There are three stalwarts in Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter — but what will Tony Bennett do in the frontcourt? And where is the depth going to come from? In reality, how far are we really dropping the Cavaliers? They’ve won at least 29 games in four of the past five seasons. They’ll figure it out.
13. Syracuse Orange: Hopefully Jim Boeheim and the Orange get it going a little bit earlier in the season in 2018-19 — because they could be a sneaky factor in the ACC race. Tyus Battle is one of the best scorers in the country, and Frank Howard and underrated Oshae Brissett are also back. Those three need help on the offensive end, though; Syracuse finished sub-300th nationally in 3-point and 2-point percentage.
14. Virginia Tech Hokies: This could be the season Buzz Williams puts it together in Blacksburg and reaches the second weekend after getting bounced in Round 1 each of the past two seasons. Four starters are back as well as one of the most versatile players in the ACC in Chris Clarke. The Hokies have to improve defensively after giving up more than one point per possession in 14 of their final 17 games.
15. Kansas State Wildcats: How good is Bruce Weber’s team? The Wildcats were inconsistent en route to a 22-11 regular-season record, avoided Virginia in the NCAA tournament, beat Kentucky by three in the Sweet 16 and then lost by 16 to Loyola-Chicago. But they do bring back Barry Brown and Dean Wade, and should enter the Big 12 campaign with no more than one loss.
16. LSU Tigers : In terms of talent, Will Wade has enough to stay in the top four of the SEC. Tremont Waters is one of the nation’s best point guards, and Wade brings in three high-level recruits in Ja’vonte Smart, Emmitt Williams and Naz Reid. This is a team that showed flashes last season and has now given Waters a lot more help at both ends of the floor.
17. Mississippi State Bulldogs: Another SEC team that should make the jump to the NCAA tournament, the Bulldogs have four starters back and also add five-star recruit Reggie Perry and ESPN 100 wing Robert Woodard II. Both players will bring toughness to Ben Howland’s squad. Last year’s group had a gaudy record with minimal substance; this team will be tested a little sooner with nonconference games against Arizona State, Clemson and Cincinnati.
18. Washington Huskies : Mike Hopkins has things rolling in the Pacific Northwest quicker than expected, and even has the Huskies competing for five-star talents on the recruiting trail. On the court, Washington brings back all five starters — and it’s time for elite defender Matisse Thybulle and sophomore scorer Jaylen Nowell to become household names.
19. Florida State Seminoles: This is another team that’s tough to figure out. The Seminoles were thoroughly average during most of the regular season but got it going in March and advanced to the Elite Eight before losing to Michigan by four. Terance Mann and Phil Cofer are the top returnees but look for former five-star recruit M.J. Walker to provide a lift offensively.
20. UCLA Bruins: It hasn’t been a great fall for UCLA, as incoming freshmen Shareef O’Neal (heart) and Tyger Campbell (ACL) were both ruled out for the season, and Alex Olesinski (foot) is out for a couple of months. The cupboard isn’t bare for Steve Alford, though, and Kris Wilkes could project for an All-American season. Newcomers up front will be the key.
21. West Virginia Mountaineers: At this point, we just assume Bob Huggins will churn out a 25-win team regardless of personnel. The past few seasons, though, Jevon Carter has been able to single-handedly paper over the cracks — and he’s no longer around. How Huggins replaces him is a major question. The Mountaineers will rely more heavily on their frontcourt than in recent years.
22. Marquette Golden Eagles: A top-25 ranking for Marquette banks heavily on the idea the Golden Eagles will improve on the defensive end. After ranking in or near the bottom half nationally each of the past two seasons in defensive efficiency, that’s not a sure thing. But Steve Wojciechowski has Markus Howard and Sam Hauser back for scoring, and transfers Joseph Chartouny and Ed Morrow should bring toughness.
23. NC State Wolfpack : Kevin Keatts surprised many people last season by leading the Wolfpack to an NCAA tournament appearance — and now he has five transfers in the rotation to make it two in a row. C.J. Bryce, who played for Keatts at UNCW, is the headliner of the group, and returnee Torin Dorn is one of the most underrated players in the ACC.
24. Alabama Crimson Tide: Even with Collin Sexton at the point of attack, Avery Johnson’s team ranked outside the top 100 nationally in offensive efficiency. That will need to improve without Sexton, but Johnson brought in some reinforcements in ESPN 100 prospect Kira Lewis and Texas transfer Tevin Mack. Returnees John Petty and Herbert Jones are poised for steps forward.
25. St. John’s Red Storm: This spot originally came down to Florida, Clemson and TCU, but with St. John’s getting a waiver for Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron to play immediately, the Red Storm get the nod heading into the season. The personnel is not in question. Heron and Shamorie Ponds form one of the elite backcourts nationally, but remember, this team has had talent in recent years and consistently disappointed. This is the year for Chris Mullin to put it together.