By Kevin Sweeney
The bad news: there aren’t any college basketball games until November.
The good news: you get to read my (and literally every other college basketball writer in the country) WAY-too-early top 25 for the 2018-19 season.
There’s certainly a lot of guess work involved in putting together a list like this, especially given the fact that most rosters aren’t close to finalized. NBA Draft decisions are likely to make the biggest impact, but there are also some high-level transfers and 2018 recruits that could make a big impact on the 2018-19 landscape.
That said, let’s have some fun and take a look at my earliest thoughts on the 2018-19 season.
Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk will both be gone for sure, but the Jayhawks bring in a TON of talent from both the transfer and prep markets. Dedric Lawson enters from Memphis as a legit Big 12 POY candidate, and his brother KJ (12 ppg, 8rpg) along with Cal transfer PG Charlie Moore (12.2 ppg, 3.5 apg) are no slouches either. Combine that incoming trio with elite recruits like Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes, and David McCormack, and the Jayhawks will be elite once again. The draft decision to track is Malik Newman, who exploded onto the scene in March and is expected by most to at least test the waters. If he returns along with Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick, Kansas will be the clear #1 going into next season.
I’m working on the assumption that Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges will go pro, but the rest of the team’s core will return. If so, I believe Villanova has as good a chance as any to repeat as national champions. The trio of Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman, and Eric Paschall is as strong as any returning group in the country, and Jay Wright brings in an excellent recruiting class headlined by Brunson’s heir apparent in Jahvon Quinerly and a floor-spacing combo forward in Cole Swider. Jay Wright seemingly has mastered bringing the spacing and shooting concepts from the NBA to the college game, which also factors into my decision to keep the Wildcats this high despite losing two players the caliber of Bridges and Brunson.
The first ACC team off the board for me is Virginia, not the Duke team hyped up by everyone thanks to an off-the-charts recruiting class. For a regular season top 25, I’ll bet on the experienced club that was dominant this season. Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and DeAndre Hunter should return, as should several key role players from this year’s club, that was the #1 overall seed before a stunning upset at the hands of UMBC. I trust Tony Bennett’s system (at least in the regular season) and I trust these veterans to come back and work even harder than they did last season after a crushing end to the season.
I couldn’t go any lower on the Blue Devils with the raw talent on this roster, but I refuse to fall into the trap that most will and pick Duke #1 or #2 in the country. Over the last 10 years, Duke hasn’t been a team that dominates in the regular season, and those problems have been accentuated as Coach K has continued to embrace the one-and-done. Duke is bringing in the top 3 players in the 2018 class, along with #9 Tre Jones, and while that talent is enticing, it’s natural to expect some regular season bumps with freshmen contributing virtually all the production. I expect the Blue Devils to hover in the #4-#8 range throughout the regular season, but will certainly be as dangerous as any in March.
Killian Tillie’s potential draft decision looms large here, but if he comes back, everyone except for Johnathan Williams & Silas Melson will be back for a Gonzaga team that went 32-5 this season. Add San Jose State transfer Brandon Clarke into the mix, and this team goes from really good to elite. I see Zach Norvell and Rui Hachimura making big strides after showing signs of brilliance this season, and Mark Few also brings in a top-70 player in the class of 2018 in stretch big man Filip Petrusev. Gonzaga will be a legitimate Final Four contender next season.
For the purposes of this, I’ll assume that Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander go pro and the rest of Kentucky’s core returns. If that happens, Kentucky could have a “veteran” group of sophomores already in place to compliment a very solid class that fills a lot of needs. Keldon Johnson is the headliner, a hard-playing wing who can do a little bit of everything. Immanuel Quickley will help solidify the point after Quade Green struggled as a lead guard this season, while Tyler Herro is a polished pure scorer who will make big contributions in the backcourt. I think the pieces fit a lot better with this potential roster than they did this season, when a lack of shooters seemed to plague the Wildcats all season.
If Caleb and Cody Martin, along with Jordan Caroline, return for Nevada (they are all expected to at at this point), this is a legit top 10 team. Lindsey Drew comes back from an achilles injury that cost him the end of the 2017-18 season, and the Wolf Pack add 4 transfers who combined to average more than 64 points per game at their previous homes. They address their biggest weakness (frontcourt depth) with UNO transfer Tre’Shawn Thurman and a pair of highly-regarded freshmen in Vincent Lee and KJ Hymes. This will be the deepest, most talented team Eric Musselman has had at Nevada, and look for him to do big things with it.
Assuming no unexpected departures, this will basically be the same team as this season. Grant Williams will enter next season the frontrunner for SEC Player of the Year, and Admiral Schofield made big strides this season. Tennessee feels like they are one impact piece from being very real national title contenders. We’ll see if Rick Barnes can find that piece (perhaps via the grad transfer market) and continue the Vols’ ascension to the top of the college basketball world.
Even if Troy Brown elects to head pro, I love the potential of this Oregon team. They have a stud PG in Payton Pritchard, some high-upside returners like Kenny Wooten, Abu Kigab, and Victor Bailey, but perhaps most importantly, an outstanding recruiting class. Bol Bol is the NBA’s next unicorn, a 7-1 big capable of doing everything on the court. Louis King has limitless upside and can play multiple positions, and Will Richardson out of Oak Hill is an excellent guard who will see time right away. Putting all these pieces together may be a challenge, but having a returning core headlined by Pritchard is important in situations like these. The Ducks enter the season as my favorite in the Pac-12.
Even if Moe Wagner doesn’t return, I think Michigan will be one of the elite teams in college basketball. John Beilein brings in an excellent recruiting class headlined by Canadian combo forward Ignas Bradzeikis and East Lansing native Brandon Johns. Charles Matthews, Zavier Simpson, Jordan Poole, and Isaiah Livers are very likely to return, with Poole and Livers primed for breakout years. Beilein remains one of the coaches I trust most in college basketball to get the most out of his guys, so I don’t have as much concern as others might about the potential loss of Wagner.
#11. Michigan State
This will be a new-look Spartan team, losing stars in Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson to the NBA. However, a strong core featuring Cassius Winston, Josh Langford, and Nick Ward should return. Combine that with Big Ten breakout candidate Xavier Tillman and a recruiting class with 5 4-star recruits, and there’s hardly reason for worry in East Lansing despite losing 2 guys who will likely be top 10 picks this June.
After overachieving significantly before falling flat on their face come March, Auburn is an interesting team to place in this top 25. The Tigers bring virtually everyone back and add 3 high-level talents in Danjel Purifoy, Austin Wiley, and Samir Doughty to the rotation. Anfernee McLemore, perhaps the team’s most important player this season, should be back healthy after missing the end of the season with a gruesome leg injury. That said, this team had great chemistry and played with a massive chip on their shoulder after Purifoy and Wiley were suspended for the season thanks to the FBI investigation. Where you place Auburn in this 25 shows whether you believe that momentum can continue with a massive talent injection, or if we could see some subtraction by addition. Make no mistake, the Tigers have National title-level talent.
#13. North Carolina
As of now, I’m not sure what to make of the Tar Heels in 2018-19. Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson, and Kenny Williams all return for Roy Williams, but the team’s 2 primary offense creators graduate in Joel Berry and Theo Pinson. Coby White and Nassir Little make up the best recruiting class the Tar Heels have had in quite some time, but they’ll have big shoes to keep one of the nation’s best offenses running smooth.
#14. West Virginia
The senior backcourt of Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles graduates, but West Virginia brings back a strong core from what was a top 25 team all season long. Sagaba Konate drew headlines for his highlight-reel blocks, and with another year of offensive development has a chance to be one of the elite players in college basketball. Teddy Allen showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman and should be one of the breakout performers in the Big 12. My concern with this team is how their identity changes without Carter. Bob Huggins’ defense was great before and it will be great again, but Carter was a leader on the floor whose toughness and energy rubbed off on his teammates. Losing a team’s emotional leader is always underrated.
#15. Kansas State
Another team that brings virtually everyone back, Kansas State is one of the safer teams to project coming into this season. At worst, they are a clear NCAA Tournament team that can’t quite crack the top 25. At best, they could be a top 10 team. The Wildcats are deep in the backcourt, have on of the most versatile forwards in the country in Dean Wade, and are coming off an Elite Eight run that gave them a taste of March glory. I’d love to see this team add one more quality piece to the frontcourt for next season.
The talent Will Wade is bringing in with his first full recruiting class at LSU is nothing short of remarkable. 3 top-30 recruits headline the nation’s #4 recruiting class. Add that to SEC Player of the Year candidate Tremont Waters and some other key cogs returning in the backcourt, and you get a really talented, versatile roster that can hurt you in a lot of different ways. Naz Reid’s ability to distribute and stretch the floor as a big man will be extremely valuable, and Emmitt Williams gives this team a big-time athleticism boost that can guard multiple positions. If everything comes together as hoped, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Tigers are SEC title contenders.
#17. NC State
Losing Omer Yurtseven is a big blow for Kevin Keatts and company, but this NC State team gets a massive talent injection after a surprise NCAA Tournament season this year. CJ Bryce and De’Von Daniels come in on the wing as sit-out transfers, both guys who can really shoot the ball and create off the bounce. A backcourt featuring those 2 guys along with Torin Dorn, Braxton Beverly, and Markelle Johnson will give opposing coaches nightmares all season long. Add in some of the length Keatts wants to play his up-tempo style in 4 4-star recruits over 6-6, and NCSU will have the depth and talent to thrive in that system.
I’m a believer in Maryland this season despite a disappointing 2017-18 campaign. The star backcourt of Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter comes back, along with high-upside big Bruno Fernando and physical wing Darryl Morsell. Then comes the recruits, headlined by 5-star big man Jalen Smith and a pair of top-100 guards that will take some of the load off Huerter and Cowan. Mark Turgeon enters this season feeling some heat, but I expect a big bounce back year from the Terps.
#19. Virginia Tech
Everyone except for Justin Bibbs is back for the Hokies, including 3 double-digit scorers in the backcourt. Look for Nickeil Alexander-Walker to continue his development after an excellent freshman season, and VT should get Ty Outlaw back after he missed this season with an injury. Basically, Virginia Tech brings back every significant piece from this year’s team and gets significantly deeper in the frontcourt. Watch out.
There will without a doubt be apprehension about putting the Boilermakers in the top 25 with what they lose from this team, but Carsen Edwards is back and likely to be a preseason all-American to lead the way. I’m excited to see how Matt Haarms expands his game on the offensive end after a solid freshman campaign, and Nojel Eastern is a high-upside piece if he can improve as a shooter. Plus, Matt Painter already swooped in for a big grad transfer in Evan Boudreaux, a 6-10 Big who was a double-double machine at Dartmouth.
A season that exceeded expectations ended on a sour note in year 1 of the Mike Hopkins era in Seattle, but it certainly gave Huskies fans reason for optimism for the future. UW’s top 7 scorers will be back, including freshman sensation Jaylen Nowell. Add in a strong class and the potential improvement that rising sophomores Nahziah Carter and Hameir Wright could show, and this roster looks very dangerous in 2018-19.
#22. Mississippi State
If no one leaves unexpectedly for the NBA Draft, this team has a chance to be the best in Starkville since the Rick Stansbury era. One of the most talented backcourt in the country will now be complimented with excellent big men, as 5 star Reggie Perry joins a group that already featured Abdul Ado and Aric Holman. Top to bottom, this roster is loaded with talent and anything less than an NCAA Tournament bid would be a disappointment.
I’m likely in the minority with Stanford in the top 25, but I’m a if believer in the Cardinal this season. Dorian Pickens and Michael Humphrey depart, but Jerod Haase brings in another terrific class to compliment returning stars Reid Travis, Daejon Davis, and Kezie Okpala. This team rally found its stride once Okpala returned to the lineup, and I’m excited to see a full season of this group together.
#24. Texas Tech
A lot of key pieces depart for Chris Beard, but the freshman duo of Jarrett Culver and Zhaire Smith should be back to anchor this Texas Tech roster. That’s good news for Red Raider fans, as that pairing has almost limitless upside. Add in Khavon Moore, an athletic combo forward, and Beard will once again have the athletes and length he loves. Beard has been active in grad transfer recruiting as well, so look for the Red Raiders to add 1-2 more pieces through that.
This isn’t just throwing a bone to the little guy coming off a deep run. Loyola has legit talent once again, bringing back arguably their 3 best players from this season’s Final Four team. Add in the x-factor in New Mexico transfer Aher Uguak, a high-upside combo forward who has drawn rave reviews during his redshirt year, and this team has a chance to be really good once again. Porter Moser is building something special at Loyola.