Ticket Top 25: College Basketball Season A Week Away

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Photo credit © Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
By 97.1 The Ticket
By Kyle Beery | 97.1 The Ticket College Basketball Insider

One week from today, the college basketball season gloriously tips off.

From Michigan State at the Champions Classic in New York, to Michigan hosting Appalachian State, and from ACC conference games on day one, all the way down to the low-major schools -- it all begins in seven measly days.

It seems like forever ago that Virginia completed the greatest redemption story, possibly in sports history, and beat Texas Tech in the national championship game. And before you know it, another team will be cutting down the nets in Atlanta.

The beauty of college basketball is the unpredictable. There will undoubtedly be teams not on this list that wind up making their way into the top 25 at various points, just as teams on this list may fall flat. But here's my best stab at the top 25 teams in college basketball, one week before the season gets underway,

1. Michigan State – The Spartans are widely considered the best team in the country, thus earning their first ever preseason No. 1 ranking. Cassius Winston is a National Player of the Year candidate and has a slew of talented players around him to create one of the deepest rosters in college basketball. But MSU took a blow last week when coach Tom Izzo announced that Josh Langford’s return from an ankle injury will be delayed until at least January, meaning he’ll miss the entirety of a very tough non-conference schedule. While they'll likely take some lumps early on this fall, this team is too deep to not hit its stride come conference play. 
2. Kentucky – Much like last year’s team, John Calipari has, at least in Kentucky terms, a pretty experienced roster and a nice veteran presence in Ashton Hagans, EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards. Plus big man Nate Sestina, a transfer from Bucknell, brings an outside shooting prowess and much-needed depth in the post. 5-star prospect Tyrese Maxey headlines a solid freshman class.
3. Kansas – The NCAA’s investigation into Bill Self’s program will undoubtedly be a cloud that hangs over the Jayhawks all season, but this is a team that very well could be in the thick of the national title conversation – wouldn’t that make for an interesting dynamic?

The Jayhawks don’t have a deadeye shooter per se, but Udoka Azubuike, Devon Dotson, Silvio DeSousa, Ochai Agbaji and Mitch Lightfoot is a heck of a returning core group of guys to build around.

4. Louisville – Chris Mack has a good thing going in Louisville. He has an All-American caliber player in Jordan Nwora, leading the way on a pretty experienced roster. There are question marks at point guard, but the Cardinals have a solid incoming crop, including grad transfer Fresh Kimble to add some depth.
5. Duke – This iteration of the Blue Devils is hard to get a read on. Tre Jones is back to run the point, which should be a very good thing. But losing virtually the entire focus of the offense in Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish leaves a lot of unknowns. They’ll have a good group of experienced players, but nothing that’s overly exciting. A lot will hinge on a recruiting class that, despite being a top-5 class, isn’t overwhelming.
Duke will head to East Lansing on Dec. 3 for what could be the most anticipated matchup of the non-conference slate in all of college basketball.
6. Maryland – Expectations are sky-high in College Park. Albeit a big loss, Bruno Fernando is the only player gone from a Terrapins team that finished with 23 wins and just seconds short of the Sweet 16. The onus moves to a heavily experienced group of players, including Jalen “Sticks” Smith, Anthony Cowan Jr., and Eric Ayala, to get to the next level. 
7. Florida – The Gators were good, not great, a year ago. Despite losing about 60% of their scoring, expectations are pretty high. Thanks in large part to Virginia Tech grad transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. If he can jump in without missing a beat, Mike White’s bunch has a shot to compete for an SEC title.
8. Virginia – Tony Bennett finally got the monkey off his back and wrote the greatest turnaround story in college basketball history with a national title back in April. A lot of talent is gone from that team, but the Cavaliers are flying a bit under the radar, believe it or not. Jay Huff will finally get extended run and he can be expected to have a massive breakout year.
9. Villanova – If the Wildcats want to be in the mix for a third national championship in five years, Collin Gillespie and Cole Swider will need to take huge steps forward, and freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl has to be as good as billed. But most of all, it hinges on whether freshman Bryan Antoine will be forced to redshirt with a shoulder injury suffered in the spring.
10. North Carolina – Freshman Cole Anthony, the son of former NBA star Greg Anthony, has received tons of hype over the last year and will be the center of attention for the Tar Heels. UNC lost the majority of production from last year, but Leaky Black and Garrison Brooks will provide some nice experience.
11. Seton Hall – Myles Powell. Get to know the name. The senior has made impressive strides each offseason, and if he improved again, look out. Powell is undoubtedly one of the top guards in the country and will have a very solid supporting cast around him. The Pirates were picked to win the Big East, and they could be eyeing a top-3 seed in the NCAA Tournament come March.
12. Gonzaga – Shame on me for having Gonzaga this low. Mark Few always finds a way to do a lot with what many see as “a little.” Yes, Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell are all gone, but that means it’s time for Killian Tillie and Corey Kispert to step into the spotlight. Don’t be surprised if you look up and this is a top-five team at some point this season.
13. Texas Tech – What Chris Beard has done in a short period of time in Lubbock is nothing short of remarkable. The Red Raiders were on the cusp of a national title last spring. Though they don’t bring back stud guard Jarrett Culver or Matt Mooney, Italian Davide Moretti and Kyler Edwards will provide the bulk of the scoring. And don’t forget about that Chris Beard defense, which ranked at the top of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings last season.
14. Memphis – Trae Young stole all the national headlines in 2017-18. Zion Williamson did it in 18-19. There’s likely not a player that will do that this season, but with former NBA star Penny Hardaway potentially starting five freshmen, the Tigers could collectively have the same effect this year. Led by 5-stars James Wiseman and Precious Achiuwa, the No. 1 recruiting class in the country is poised to make some noise.
15. Oregon – The Ducks, led by Louis King and Kenny Wooten, came on strong late last season and played their way to the Sweet 16. While those two are gone, along with a few other key players, Oregon will still have Payton Pritchard leading a solid bunch that should compete to win a much-improved Pac-12.
16. Ohio State – Chris Holtmann probably has his best roster yet with the Buckeyes, centered around Kaleb and Andre Wesson, Luther Muhammad, Kyle Young and pair of nice freshman guards in DJ Carton and CJ Walker. It’s hard to see the Buckeyes finishing outside the top four in the Big Ten.
17. Utah State – Other than Gonzaga, the Aggies are in the conversation for best team outside the power conferences. Sam Merrill, Neemias Queta and Brock Miller will be names to remember. Merrill, a career 42.2% 3-point shooter, is the front runner for Mountain West player of the year and Queta will probably become a double-double machine this season with a year under his belt.
18. Arizona – If you want a polarizing freshman player to love – or to hate – this season, look no further than Nico Mannion. The feisty guard from the Phoenix area has the capabilities of ruffling some feathers and shooting the lights out. The Wildcats don’t have a ton of returning talent, but Mannion and UC Irvine transfer Max Hazzard (name of the year candidate) bring a lot of shooting prowess to the table.
19. Baylor – The Bears managed to get back into the NCAA Tournament a year ago after questions began swirling about Scott Drew’s job security the year prior. Now Baylor is poised to take that a step further and potentially be a second-weekend team. Tristan Clark missed most of last season, but he’s back and may find himself in the conversation for Big 12 player of the year.
20. Xavier – Travis Steele struggled to get off the ground in his first year at the helm, but the Musketeers won six of their last seven regular season games, including Villanova, and almost knocked off the Cats again in the Big East Tournament. That momentum will keep going with Tyrique Jones, Quentin Goodin and Naji Marshall all back for more.
21. Purdue – The loss of Carsen Edwards cannot simply be nullified. What he did last season, especially in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8, was remarkable. Rather than trying to find someone to replicate that scoring output, Matt Painter will look to retool the offense around Matt Haarms, Nojel Eastern and Trevion Williams. The biggest question is who will be able to hit the outside shots.
22. St. Mary’s – The Gaels have seemingly lived on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble for the last half of this decade. But they should be on the other side this time around with Jordan Ford and Tanner Krebs leading the way.
23. Colorado – The Buffaloes may not be on most casual fans’ radars, but McKinley Wright IV is a name you’re going to know by the end of the season. He’s a solid scorer, rebounder and passer, though not the returning leading scorer. That would be Tyler Bey. Those two will be a force to be reckoned with in Boulder.
24. Auburn – The Tigers were one play away from playing for a national championship in April. The departures of Jared Harper, Chuma Okeke and Bryce Brown will be tough to overcome. But experience will play a factor on this roster, with four starters having made the run to the Final Four. Look for the Tigers to hit their stride late in the year with J’Von McCormick and Danjel Purifoy at the forefront.
25. Davidson – Bob McKillop is a coaching legend. He’s had some very good teams at Davidson, but this might be his best roster. Yes, that includes the teams Steph Curry played on. He only ever won NCAA Tournament games in 2008, when they went to the Elite 8, but this could be the team to break that streak. A deep roster highlighted by Kellan Grady, Jon Axel Gudmundson and Kishawn Pritchett will be at the front of the A-10 and ready to make some noise in March.

Next in line: LSU, Illinois, VCU, Marquette, Harvard