By Kevin Sweeney
The countdown is complete.
Throughout the week, I’ve released my top 100 for the upcoming season. As always, I appreciate all the kind words and feedback I’ve received this week. It’s been a fun ride!
In case you’ve missed it:
And now, #20 to #1.
#20. Purdue– For Matt Painter to have brought a team that had lost four starters from the previous year to within one amazing play by Kihei Clark of a Final Four is nothing short of remarkable, and he’ll have similar work to be done if he wants to keep the Boilermakers at the top of the Big Ten once again. Every player on that team fit seamlessly into the role they were thrust into– all with the end goal of maximizing the scoring talents of Carsen Edwards. How will Painter retool? A breakout offensive season from Nojel Eastern would certainly help, while Aaron Wheeler & Trevion Williams are atop most around the Big Ten’s breakout list. Still, the Boilers are in need of someone to consistently create offense when the shot clock runs down– High Point grad transfer Jahaad Proctor might have to be the answer.
#19. Seton Hall– As was detailed by 3 Man Weave this summer, Seton Hall represents a fascinating case of a “run it back” team. Somewhat similar to the 2017-18 team, SHU brings pretty much everyone back from a team that played well down the stretch and danced. The question is how big a jump can realistically be projected from year to year– if we follow the model of that 2016-2018 iteration of the Pirates, the big jump may not come. Still, with the potential improvement of Jared Rhoden and Anthony Nelson as well as the addition of athleticism and defensive upside to the frontcourt in Florida State transfer Ike Obiagu, all surrounding the best shot-maker in the country in Myles Powell, it seems prudent to have the Pirates in the top 20 preseason.
#18.Washington– Landing a pair of top-10 recruits (Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels) and a former 5-star recruit on the transfer market (Quade Green) is a pretty nice way to recover from losing a pair of first-round picks and two other starters. Meanwhile, the buzz out of Seattle this summer has centered heavily around the breakout potential of junior wing Nahziah Carter. The big question is at the point guard position– Green has to be the guy once eligible in December, but he struggled to create for others at Kentucky.
#17. Baylor– The midseason turnaround that Scott Drew engineered after star big man Tristan Clark went down with a season-ending knee injury was one of the more impressive coaching jobs in the nation last year. The Bears now bring back over 75% of their minutes from last season and add a pair of high-impact transfers to boost the backcourt in Davion Mitchell (Auburn) and MaCio Teague (UNC-Asheville). If that duo provides strong backcourt play next to Adam Butler to go along with this team’s dominance on the offensive glass, watch out.
#16. Villanova– Phil Booth and Eric Paschall took close to half of Villanova’s shots last season, serving as the only two members of Jay Wright’s club that could consistently create their own shot. Saddiq Bey, Jermaine Samuels, and Collin Gillespie are excellent complementary options, but one or more of that group will have to establish themselves as bona fide shot-creators. Freshman Bryan Antoine should help in that area when he heals from a shoulder injury, and I’m a huge fan of Jeremiah Robinson-Earl up front. If they can score efficiently, the Wildcats will be right on track to win yet another Big East title.
#15. LSU– The Tigers lose plenty from last year’s breakout campaign that was rife with controversy thanks to Will Wade’s involvement in a scandal regarding paying Naz Reid and Javonte Smart during the recruiting process. Nothing of consequence has come of that so far, and the return of Smart and Skyler Mays in the backcourt and Emmitt Williams up keeps the Tigers in the mix for a second straight trip to the Sweet 16. Playmaking PF Trendon Watford choosing the Tigers furthers the upside of this group, freeing up Smart to create shots for himself at times for Wade’s bunch.
#14. Virginia– It’s a completely new-look Cavaliers team after completing one of the best redemption stories in the sport’s history last season. The primary question: who will score the ball? Casey Morsell seems like the primary option to do just that, an elite recruit from the DMV who can play with or without the ball. Bigger lineups will likely be en vogue for the Wahoos this season, with Braxton Key playing more the 3 next to two-big looks featuring Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff. The defense will travel– but can the offense win enough close games to keep the Cavs at the top of the ACC?
#13. Ohio State– Returning six of your top eight scorers and adding three top-50 recruits along with a high-level transfer seems like a pretty good way to vault yourself into national contention. Chris Holtmann did just that, surrounding Kaleb Wesson with enough talent to make the Buckeyes incredibly interesting in the Big Ten. Consistent guard play from CJ Walker and DJ Carton at the point guard spot and Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington at the 2 is a necessity– with shooting from those spots especially key in maintaining spacing for the bruising Wesson inside.
#12. Gonzaga– Point guard play was the major topic of conversation this offseason in Spokane, as Mark Few turned over every stone looking for a Josh Perkins replacement. He finally settled on North Texas grad transfer Ryan Woolridge, a slashing guard who can pass and defend, to be paired with fellow grad Admon Gilder (Texas A&M). The x-factor in the backcourt: Joel Ayayi, the breakout star of the FIBA U19 World Cup who can play either guard spot. Between that trio and perhaps the deepest and most talented frontcourt in the country, the Zags will be just fine despite losing two first-round picks and one of the most accomplished players in program history.
#11. Maryland– The early departure of Bruno Fernando does little to stem the optimism in College Park, thanks to the return of Anthony Cowan and the potential growth of Aaron Wiggins and Jalen Smith. Smith has a chance to be one of the best big men in the country as a sophomore as he continues to fill out his frame and refine his all-around game– a truly dynamic threat in ball screens with Cowan. Wiggins’ development from shooter to all-around wing star would be the real move that increases the upside of these Terps to national title contender. If Mark Turgeon can’t make big things happen with this group, questions about his coaching ability become legitimized.
#10. Texas Tech– Just two rotation players from last year’s national runner-up are active members of the roster at this moment thanks to Deshawn Corprew’s suspension. So why do I still have the Red Raiders as a top-10 team? Chris Beard for one, but the amount of talent on this roster is the primary reason. 5-star guard Jahmius Ramsey and a pair of key grad transfers in Chris Clarke (Virginia Tech) and TJ Holyfield (SFA) buoy a returning group headlined by breakout candidate Kyler Edwards and elite shooter Davide Moretti. The defense will be elite, and if Ramsey and Clarke perform the way they did on TTU’s international trip earlier this month, watch out.
#9. Memphis– Without a doubt the most polarizing team in the country, we’ll see just how good an almost-entirely freshman roster can fare under a coach not named Calipari or Krzyzewski. The athleticism and versatility up front is off the charts, with the potential for three NBA players starting at the 3, 4, and 5 spots in DJ Jeffries, Precious Achiuwa, and James Wiseman. The real question is who runs the show– can the wired-to-score Boogie Ellis be the lead guard who helps mesh together all these talented pieces? Damion Baugh played well in the team’s international trip, and could wind up starting at point guard as well. The answer to those point guard questions could determine if the Tigers are a national title favorite or a significant disappointment.
#8. Oregon– This may wind up being the most bullish ranking anyone has for the Ducks, and I’m okay with that. Given that Oregon had six eligible scholarship players committed on May 20, it’s pretty remarkable how well-positioned they are now. Late additions through the grad transfer market (Anthony Mathis from New Mexico and Shakur Juiston from UNLV) and late-signing freshmen (N’Faly Dante, Addison Patterson, and Lok Wur) leaves the Ducks with an elite roster that pairs experience and NBA upside. A second-weekend run or better should be the expectation in Eugene.
#7. Duke– It’s hard to imagine a more skilled offensive frontcourt than what Duke will trot out, with the freshman pairing of bruising faceup 5 Vernon Carey (who Coach K sold on initiating some pick-and-roll) and perhaps the best shooter in the class of 2019 in Matthew Hurt. Tre Jones will have to continue to develop his offensive game without the luxury of Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett next to him, but the talent level is still sky-high in Krzyzewskiville.
#6. Kentucky– Yep, you guessed it. John Calipari brought in another strong recruiting class. This group is a wing-dominated 5-man class, not including the spring addition of Bucknell grad transfer big Nate Sestina in the frontcourt. The headliner: Tyrese Maxey, an elite-level scoring guard who’ll fit perfectly next to defensive whiz Ashton Hagans in the backcourt. Missing out on 5-star big N’Faly Dante to Oregon makes the play of Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery that much more important in determining just how far this UK group can go.
#5. North Carolina– Like Self and Kansas, Roy Williams and the Tar Heels had lots of questions to answer entering the offseason. Those questions were answered in rapid succession, thanks to having plenty of minutes to offer and some strong recruiting by 5-star signee Armando Bacot. Grad transfers Christian Keeling (Charleston Southern) and Justin Pierce (William & Mary) provide a much-needed veteran presence to a backcourt that features potential #1 overall pick Cole Anthony running the show. Anthony combined with a slew of athletic bigs who can run the floor should be the perfect group to run Williams’ ‘Carolina Break’, with Anthony in particular a force in transition.
#4. Florida– The Gators were frustrating at times last season, failing to put it all together on the offensive end despite having a number of talented pieces. However, it’s hard not to get excited about the group Mike White has assembled, with a high-level lead guard back in Andrew Nembhard, the best grad transfer in the country in Kerry Blackshear, and a pair of 5-stars in Tre Mann and Scottie Lewis. On paper– this roster fits together incredibly well and is built for modern basketball. Can White put it all together?
#3. Louisville– It’s remarkable how quickly Chris Mack has Louisville back on track among the nation’s elite. An All-American in Jordan Nwora leads the way, but he’s surrounded by a good group of role players and an elite freshman class that features potential first-rounder Samuell Williamson. The swing piece for the Cardinals is Saint Joe’s grad transfer LaMarr Kimble, who needs to provide serviceable or better point guard play for Mack’s group to reach its ceiling.
#2. Kansas– Kansas entered the offseason at a bit of a crossroads after an injury-riddled 2018-19 season, with major holes on the wing and questions at point guard while Devon Dotson went through the draft process. Dotson’s 11th-hour return to Lawrence, the late additions of high-level wings in Iowa grad transfer Isaiah Moss and Michigan decommit Jalen Wilson, and the return of Udoka Azubuike gives Bill Self a national title contender. The question centers around how Self navigates playing two non-shooting bigs in Azubuike and Silvio De Sousa in a modern game centered around spacing, but as Jordan Sperber noted recently, no one gets as many efficient post-ups as a Bill Self team.
#1. Michigan State– The consensus #1 team in the country preseason, I’m pretty much as confident as everyone else in the Spartans. They have the nation’s best player in Cassius Winston and an elite-level big in Xavier Tillman. Throw in a breakout candidate in Aaron Henry, the return of Josh Langford, and a strong recruiting class, and this roster has the perfect mix of talent and experience necessary to enter the season as the favorite to win the national title.