1. MICHIGAN STATE
Senior point guard Cassius Winston and strong, veteran big men give the Spartans an edge on the top spot. But it’s a narrow edge of one point. My rating of this team dropped 1.5 points to 88.5 with the news that senior guard Joshua Langford will be out until at least January with a foot injury. He might not play this season. The Spartans could lose a couple of games before the end of December, but Tom Izzo’s teams typically gain steam in the second half of the season.
Devon Dotson is a big-time point guard who almost bolted for the NBA after a great freshman year. Udoka Azubuike is a 7-foot, 270-pound scorer and rim protector. Marcus Garrett, Ochai Agbaji and Silvio De Sousa round out a high-quality starting lineup, and coach Bill Self has some reserves with the potential to emerge. The Jayhawks should reclaim their place atop the Big 12 and rate slightly better than Duke, Louisville and Kentucky in a tight top five.
Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish … all gone, with no Final Four to show for it. Mike Krzyzewski is not outcoaching many guys anymore. He wins when he has more talent than the other guy, which still happens most of the time. This team has plenty of talent, led by sophomore point guard Tre Jones and newcomers Cassius Stanley, Wendell Moore, Matthew Hurt and Vernon Carey. Only inexperience is keeping the Blue Devils a bit behind the top two.
This is Chris Mack’s program now, and the Rick Pitino fiasco is in the past. Junior forward Jordan Nwora, who averaged 17 points and 7.6 rebounds, passed on the NBA and will be one of the ACC’s top players. Louisville returns six of its top seven scorers and adds point guard Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble, a graduate transfer and a three-year team captain at Saint Joseph’s, to go with a highly-rated freshman class.
John Calipari’s reloading project does not appear to have the sky-high potential of most recent seasons. Sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans is the only returning starter. The stud players who departed — Tyler Herro, PJ Washington, Reid Travis, Keldon Johnson — leave too many holes, and the Wildcats could struggle to find their way early in the season. After the Michigan State opener, the schedule gets easier.
The Gators will give Kentucky a run for the money atop the SEC. Three sophomore starters — Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson — will benefit from transfer center Kerry Blackshear’s leadership and playmaking ability in the low post. Mike White’s recruiting class is highlighted by Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann, both McDonald’s All-Americans.
7. TEXAS TECH
Do not underestimate Chris Beard, who’s a younger John Beilein. The Red Raiders were picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big 12 last season and reached the NCAA championship game. Beard lost four starters but brings back point guard Davide Moretti and has enough returning and incoming talent to win at a high level and hang with Kansas.
8. NORTH CAROLINA
Freshman point guard Cole Anthony, the son of former UNLV star Greg Anthony, will be in the mix for the No. 1 pick in the next NBA Draft. Roy Williams has a big, talented front line with 6-foot-8 Leaky Black, 6-9 Garrison Brooks and 6-10 Armando Bacot. A team of prospects and role players needs time to develop.
Tony Bennett’s coaching style will keep the Cavaliers in the hunt, even after losing three starters from the NCAA title team. Point guard Kihei Clark and forwards Braxton Key and Mamadi Diakite are key returning pieces. The Cavs’ in-your-face defense will keep Bennett’s team competitive in the ACC, but forget about a title repeat.
The Wildcats are somewhat of a mystery team and might not deserve a rating this high. Early tests against Ohio State and Kansas will tell a lot. Jay Wright returns three starters from a 26-win season. Wright has plenty of young talent to work with and an outstanding point guard in junior Collin Gillespie.
Payton Pritchard is not much of an NBA prospect, but there might be no better college point guard. The senior is flanked by New Mexico transfer Anthony Mathis and UNLV transfer Shakur Juiston. Dana Altman is a great coach who gets his teams to peak later in most seasons. If freshman forward C.J. Walker and 6-foot-11 freshman N’Faly Dante develop, watch out.
Junior point guard Anthony Cowan and sophomore forward Jalen Smith are among the top returning players in the Big Ten.
Mark Few lost more than a few starters (four) from a 33-win team. He still has forwards Killian Tillie, Corey Kispert, Filip Petrusev and two good transfer guards in Admon Gilder (Texas A&M) and Ryan Woolridge (North Texas).
14. UTAH STATE
In his first season in Logan, Craig Smith coached the Aggies to a 28-7 finish. Four starters come back, led by senior sharpshooter Sam Merrill and 7-foot force Neemias Queta.
Mike Hopkins’ zone always makes the Huskies a tough matchup. Two stars left for the NBA but Hopkins pulled in hyped freshmen Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels. This team will mature, and there’s no true road game until Pac-12 play.
Junior shooting guard Kellan Grady and four other starters return from a 24-win team. Bob McKillop has his best team since he coached Stephen Curry.
17. SAINT MARY’S
The Gaels upset Gonzaga to win the West Coast Conference tournament, and coach Randy Bennett brings back four starters. Senior guard Jordan Ford and junior forward Malik Fitts lead the way.
This is a typical blue-collar Musketeers team with muscle and toughness. Junior shooting guard Paul Scruggs has a high ceiling, and Ohio transfer forward Jason Carter will help immediately.
Tad Boyle brings back five starters from a 23-win team, and some think the Buffaloes will be the Pac-12’s top team. Junior point guard McKinley Wright runs the show and forward Tyler Bey is an NBA prospect.
The Boilermakers will miss Carsen Edwards’ 3-point shooting, but coach Matt Painter has a deep and talented team with sophomores Aaron Wheeler and Trevion Williams set to emerge.
21. OHIO STATE
Former Butler coach Chris Holtmann is ready for a breakthrough in his third year in Columbus. Junior center Kaleb Wesson will be the key to a big season.
22. WICHITA STATE
Gregg Marshall is coaching a sleeper team in my estimation. Marshall pushed a young team to a 14-4 record down the stretch last season. Jaime Echenique, the team’s top returning scorer and rebounder, is 6-foot-11 and 260 pounds. Dexter Dennis, Jamarius Burton and Erik Stevenson are guards with good size, and Marshall hauled in an outstanding recruiting class.
Bruce Pearl said goodbye to three starters after an unlikely run to the Final Four. The Tigers lost a lot of offensive firepower yet will be athletic and better on the defensive end.
The Tigers are extremely talented yet overrated by most. Penny Hardaway hauled in five-stars James Wiseman, Precious Achiuwa and D.J. Jeffries. The 7-foot-1 Wiseman is the favorite to be the top pick in the next NBA Draft. Hardaway, an inexperienced coach, has a roster with no returning starters and 12 freshmen or sophomores.
Mike Rhoades is coaching a strong defensive team with four returning starters from a 25-8 season. The Rams top the Atlantic 10 and could be a factor in March.
26. SETON HALL
Senior guard Myles Powell is a legit star, yet the Pirates tend to underachieve and need to prove it. Coach Kevin Willard is serving a brief suspension for allegations of transfer tampering involving junior forward Taurean Thompson, formerly of Syracuse.
It’s hard to replace Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams. The Vols should be good, though, especially in the backcourt with seniors Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden and touted freshman Josiah-Jordan James.
The big surprise is that Sean Miller still is coaching in Tucson. He lured five-star Nico Mannion, who is the real deal, and has the talent to win 20 games with a strong home-court advantage.
The Bears return seven of their top nine scorers and welcome back junior forward Tristan Clark, who suffered a season-ending knee injury early in Big 12 play.
A big-time scoring guard such as Markus Howard, who nearly left for the NBA, can carry a team a long way. This was a potential Top 10 team before the Hauser brothers transferred out.
31. LOUISIANA STATE
Another coaching survivor is Will Wade, who’s surprisingly still in Baton Rouge. Wade signed two-time Alabama Mr. Basketball Trendon Watford, a 6-foot-9 workhorse in the paint.
32. NOTRE DAME
Last season was a disaster for the Irish, who tied for last in the ACC, but Mike Brey is an excellent coach and will bounce back with five returning starters.
The top team in the Ivy League also boasts its top player, senior guard Bryce Aiken. Tommy Amaker has four returning starters and a chance to make something happen in March.
Mick Cronin’s unexpected exit for UCLA is not a negative in Cincy, where John Brannen takes over a quality Bearcats team and plans to play a fast pace with full-court pressure defense.
This could be a surprise team in the Big Ten. Archie Miller has more talent on his roster than most think. The Hoosiers will be better around the basket with 6-foot-9 freshman Trayce Jackson-Davis and 6-11 center Joey Brunk, a transfer from Butler.
Who knows if Juwan Howard can coach the college game? We do know he can recruit. The Wolverines lost a lot yet return three proven players in Zavier Simpson, Isaiah Livers and Jon Teske. Howard was wise to add Phil Martelli as his top assistant.
37. NC STATE
Kevin Keatts returns three starters from a 24-win team. Backcourt play should be the Wolfpack’s strength with Markell Johnson and Braxton Beverly.
38. SAN DIEGO STATE
The Aztecs will be physical and tough. Senior transfer KJ Feagin (Santa Clara) and junior transfer Malachi Flynn (Washington State) will start in the backcourt.
The Flames finished 29-7 and won a game in the NCAA Tournament. Four starters return, including Scottie James and Caleb Homesley.
40. OREGON STATE
The head coach’s son, senior forward Tres Tinkle, is one of the top five players in the Pac-12. An assistant coach’s son, junior Ethan Thompson, is the Beavers’ second-best player.
Patrick Ewing is still learning going into his third year as coach. He does bring back four starters, including guards James Akinjo and Mac McClung.
42. UC SANTA BARBARA
The Gauchos won 22 games last season and four starters return, led by guard Max Heidegger and sophomore big man Amadou Sow. UCSB is the Big West favorite.
Several question marks surround junior forward Elijah Hughes, the Orange’s top returning scorer. Jim Boeheim will use the buddy system — Buddy Boeheim is a sophomore shooter — and find some answers with a big group of newcomers.
Shaka Smart kept some hope alive in Austin by winning the NIT championship. The Longhorns will be led by guards Matt Coleman and Courtney Ramey.
45. FLORIDA STATE
Leonard Hamilton is not a great coach yet typically has the talent to hang around in the ACC. He lost a lot of talent from a 29-win team and is rebuilding around junior guard M.J. Walker.
After a good run at Buffalo, Nate Oates takes over the Crimson Tide. Oates needs more players, but he will win because he coaches a fast-paced offense and relentless defense.
Friars coach Ed Cooley has five starters back after a mediocre season. This team will be better, headlined by Alpha Diallo, who led the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals.
Tom Crean got creamed in his SEC debut and finished 11-21. Crean went out looking for shooters and landed guard Anthony Edwards, the league’s most touted freshman.
Ty-Shon Alexander and three other starters return for coach Greg McDermott, who has outstanding guards. The Bluejays will play small-ball and let the 3s fly.
50. WESTERN KENTUCKY
The Hilltoppers, the top team in Conference USA, return four starters led by 6-foot-11 sophomore Charles Bassey and junior guard Taveion Hollingsworth.
THE NEXT FIVE: Houston, Wisconsin, Butler, USC, West Virginia