Blue bloods heavily stocked as hoops begin

Courtesy of Andy Lyons/Getty Images | Stud freshman Zion Williamson dribbles the ball up the court against No. 2 Kentucky at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Nov. 6, 2018. Duke won, 118-84.

Staff Writer Jacob Hebda & Sports Editor Adam Lindner

11/8/2018

College basketball was welcomed back on Nov. 6 in the form of several high-profile matchups, with the annual Champion’s Classic pitting No. 10 Michigan State against No. 1 Kansas and No. 4 Duke, coached by Mike Krzyzewski, against John Calipari’s No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats. The results (a ton of eye-popping Duke highlights) leave college hoops fans ecstatic for what the new season may bring. Luckily for them, The Duke briefly summarized each team ranked in the AP Preseason Top 25 Poll below, just in time for basketball binge-watching season.

1. Kansas —
One would think that the top overall team would have the best incoming recruiting class, or perhaps a plethora of returning starters from a prior championship team. That’s not the case for the Jayhawks.

Sure, freshmen Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson should be great. It also helps that Lagerald Vick and Udoka Azubuike are back. However, what sets Kansas apart are their three incoming transfers, headlined by former Memphis forward Dedric Lawson. This is a unique compilation of talent and experience that could ultimately earn Kansas its first national title since 2008.

2. Kentucky —
In addition to another one of John Calipari’s trademark recruiting classes, Kentucky has some solid returning players and transfer Reid Travis on board. Calipari’s teams are always packed with talent, but generally need a little time to gel as a unit. Coach Cal is starting to feel some pressure from Big Blue Nation, whose favorite team hasn’t made it to the Final Four since 2015. That may not seem like that long, but the Kentucky faithful expects greatness. This may be one of those years.

3. Gonzaga —
After silencing critics with a championship run in 2017, the Zags were eliminated from the 2018 tourney in familiar fashion. Gonzaga, a three-seed, was defeated by nine-seed Florida State in the Sweet 16. It was a disappointing exit for a program with a history of underperforming come March. With the likes of Josh Perkins and Rui Hachimura back and additional support arriving via a couple transfers, don’t be surprised if the Zags find their way back to the game’s biggest and brightest stage.

4. Duke —
Zion Williamson, one of the most-hyped prospects in recent memory, is a Duke Blue Devil. I’m usually not one for cliche sayings, but if you didn’t know that by now, you’ve probably been living under a rock. Scarier than a Zion dunk is the realization that he will be playing alongside R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, ESPN’s No. 1 and 3 recruits for 2018, respectively. Duke has the talent, but with no returning starters, there will certainly be some kinks to work out. These Blue Devils could be special.

5. Virginia —
Lost in the shock following No. 1-seeded Virginia’s loss to 16-seed UMBC is that this team could be among the nation’s best this season. They return three starters and some core players from last year’s team. As with past Cavalier squads, scoring is an area of concern. Virginia will be a contender again, and its zone defense will probably be as dominant as ever, but Tony Bennett and company will face an uphill battle as they look to prove skeptics wrong.

6. Tennessee —
It isn’t very often that Tennessee fans are more excited about basketball than football at this time of year, but this Volunteer team has shifted that narrative. Kentucky has won the last four SEC Tournaments, but Tennessee could break that streak. Grant Williams, the 2018 SEC Player of the Year, will be back on the court for the Volunteers. He’ll have an experienced supporting cast, featuring the likes of Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bowden, around him. The expectations are high, but don’t be shocked if the Vols meet, and maybe even exceed, them.

7. Nevada —
After grabbing a No. 7 seed in the tourney’s South Region last season, Nevada enters 2018-19 ranked seventh in all of college basketball. That’s what happens when three big stars like Caleb Martin, Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline bypass an early exit to the pros in favor of another year in school. In the “one-and-done” era, a trio of seniors with this much talent is not just unlikely, but possibly a formula for a national championship.

8. North Carolina —
UNC’s favorite Tobacco Road neighbor, Duke, snagged the nation’s top three recruits in the class of 2018, and will most likely garner much more national attention than the Tar Heels will this season. Nevertheless, Carolina will be a tough out this season, as veterans Luke Maye, Kenny Williams and Cam Johnson join forces with an impressive class of freshmen, including No. 6 recruit Nassir Little.

9. Villanova —
Any time a team loses four players to the NBA draft, as the Wildcats did this past offseason, concern is inevitable. Don’t worry too much about the reigning NCAA champions, though. Seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall lead a roster more inexperienced than Jay Wright is
probably used to. Even so, with an incoming recruiting class ranked ninth overall (according to 247Sports), Villanova will surely be in the mix for another title.

10. Michigan State —
Losing top picks Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges to the NBA will hurt the Spartans, but Tom Izzo’s squad should be just fine anyways in 2018-19. The Spartans return Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford in the backcourt, as well as junior forward Nick Ward. Three top-100 recruits will join them in East Lansing.

11. Auburn —
Bruce Pearl may be a controversial coach, but his success with the Tigers cannot be disputed. Auburn won the SEC regular season last year for the first time since 1999. It was also the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003. With Kentucky and Tennessee both fielding strong squads this year, competition at the top of the SEC could be tight. Even so, Auburn has the tools necessary to win another conference championship.

Courtesy of AP | Florida and Florida State showed off on Nov. 6 in Tallahassee, resulting in an 81-60 Seminoles victory. Above, FSU guard PJ Savoy is defended by the Gators’ KeVaughn Allen.

12. Kansas State —
Kansas State is riding high coming off an Elite Eight appearance this past March. Granted, outside of an impressive victory over Kentucky, that run included wins over softer opponents Creighton and UMBC. Even so, with star forward Dean Wade back from a foot injury, things are looking up for the Wildcats. Building on that March success will be challenging, but KSU has the experience and skill to hang with the best.

13. West Virginia —
With Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles leaving Morgantown, it’s easy to assume 2018-19 will be a down year for the Mountaineers. However, given the return of defensive beast Sagaba Konate and an influx of talented freshmen, WVU could be among the nation’s best yet again.

Bob Huggins could be facing one of his more challenging seasons as a coach, but he always seems to field a competitive team. Don’t sleep on the Mountaineers.

14. Oregon —
With just about everyone jumping on the Zion Williamson bandwagon, 7-foot stud freshman Bol Bol has been a relative afterthought. When you watch him on the court though, you’ll be mesmerized. He’s one of the most uniquely talented players in recent memory. Oh, and fellow five-star freshman Louis King will be joining the Ducks, too. Coach Dana Altman has to put all the pieces together first, but Oregon could be lethal.

15. Virginia Tech —
After falling out of favor at Marquette, Buzz Williams has established himself in Blacksburg by turning around a historically irrelevant Virginia Tech program. With most of last season’s top scorers and rebounders returning, the Hokies find themselves vying for a third-straight tourney berth. The only factor hindering a potential ACC Championship run is a crowd of elite programs at the top. Virginia Tech probably isn’t at the level of Duke, UNC or Virginia just yet, but Williams surely has the team trending in that direction.

16. Syracuse —
A year after averaging 39.0 minutes per game, junior Orange guard Tyus Battle returns for Head Coach Jim Boeheim. Franklin Howard returns, too, as does budding ACC star Oshae Brissett, who averaged 14.9 points per game last season as a freshman.

Losing no major contributors a year after falling to Duke in the Sweet 16, the Cuse may be poised for even more this season.

17. Florida State —
The Seminoles stunned Gonzaga last year before falling just a few points short of a Final Four appearance. They lost a few key role players this offseason, but the solid trio of Phil Cofer, Trent Forest and Terance Mann is back. FSU has a high ceiling, but it will be up to longtime head coach Leonard Hamilton to make the most of the talent present in Tallahassee.

18. Mississippi State —
Mississippi State hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2009, but Ben Howland’s current Bulldogs outfit has the look of a group ready to end that dry spell.

The Bulldogs lose no major contributors from last season’s 25-12 team as all five starters return in 2018-19. McDonald’s All-American Reggie Perry should add to Mississippi State’s attack immediately.

19. Michigan —
Moritz Wagner led the Wolverines to the NCAA title game last year, but Wagner’s now a Los Angeles Laker, and Michigan finds itself back at square one.

Not all hope is lost on Wolverines fans, though, as several key contributors from last season’s team return in 2018-19. Sophomore guard Jordan Poole should be a fun player to continue to watch develop.

20. TCU —
In his second season in Fort Worth, Jamie Dixon and the Horned Frogs took a massive leap forward by qualifying for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years. He has been impressive so far, but as Pittsburgh fans know, Dixon has struggled to find much success come March. TCU will be looking to change that narrative this year.

21. UCLA —
With Lonzo in the NBA, LiAngelo possibly headed to the G League and LaMelo’s future professional plans yet to be determined, it looks like UCLA has moved on from the Ball family. For as talented as the Ball brothers are, Steve Alford must be relieved he no longer has to worry about the headache that is their father, LaVar. Now, with no more distractions and another highly touted incoming class of freshmen, Alford needs to win. If this program has another down year, Alford very well could be shown the door.

22. Clemson —
The jury is still out on the Tigers. Despite their Sweet 16 appearance this past March, there are plenty of questions about whether they can improve upon that success. Their freshman class has some interesting prospects, but they aren’t likely to make a drastic impact immediately. Coach Brad Brownell will be tasked with getting the most he can from what projects to be a high-floor, low-ceiling group.

23. LSU —
Baton Rouge will be home to one of the best recruiting classes of the 2018-19 season, but questions still abound for LSU. Second-year coach Will Wade is looking to take the Tigers dancing come March, but standing in his way will be some surprisingly strong SEC competition. LSU is moving in the right direction under Wade, but with three freshmen projected to start, LSU may need some time to put all the pieces together.

24. Purdue —
Disappointment and frustration are just a couple of the adjectives that could be used to describe Purdue’s 2018 tournament. The Boilermakers had legitimate Final Four aspirations before bigman Isaac Haas suffered a season-ending injury in the first round. After losing four total starters, Purdue won’t reach the levels seen over the past few years. Even so, with star guard Carsen Edwards at the helm, the Boilermakers could make some noise this season.

25. Washington —
The Washington program has struggled to find its footing in recent years. Even with future NBA draft top pick Markelle Fultz, the Huskies were abysmal in 2016-17. That led to a coaching change, with former Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins taking the reins last season and leading his squad to an NIT appearance. Despite such improvement, with a mostly senior core, the goal of this season’s Huskies team will be qualifying for their first NCAA Tournament since 2011.

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