1. Kentucky — John Calipari typically downplays expectations this time of year, but he’s talking up this team and that’s a sign of what’s to come. While maybe not as talented as Duke, the Wildcats have more experience due to the addition of power forward Reid Travis, a grad transfer from Stanford. PJ Washington tested the NBA’s draft waters before returning to Lexington. Calipari lured another five-star recruiting class (Immanuel Quickley, Keldon Johnson, Ashton Hagans and E.J. Montgomery) to campus. Tyler Herro, the lowest-ranked player in the class, is a sharpshooter. Travis was the needed piece to complete a Final Four puzzle.
— The return of 7-footer Udoka Azubuike gives the Jayhawks interior strength to complement their scoring guards and wings. Bill Self recruited top guards Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes to join transfers Charlie Moore, Dedric Lawson and K.J. Lawson. The departure of point guard Devonte Graham is a lot to overcome, but LaGerald Vick will play a bigger role as Bill Self hangs another Big 12 banner.
— The Blue Devils, regardless of the result in the season opener against Kentucky, will only improve. Mike Krzyzewski sold out for the one-and-done approach to recruiting and this class is historically great. He pulled in the top three players in 2018 and another player ranked in the top 10. R.J. Barrett, Cameron Reddish, Zion Williamson and Tre Jones will take the Devils deep into the dance.
— A 31-3 season ended in embarrassment for the Cavaliers, the first No. 1 seed to get bounced from the NCAA Tournament by a No. 16. Tony Bennett brings back three starters, including guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome. Virginia led the nation in scoring defense (54.0 points per game) and fewest turnovers (8.5 per game) and will be tough as nails again.
— Eric Musselman used the transfer market to build a powerhouse in Reno. The three players who led the Wolf Pack on a deep March run — 6-7 wings Jordan Caroline, Caleb Martin and Cody Martin — pulled out of the draft. Musselman signed Jordan Brown, a 6-11 five-star recruit, and 6-11 Old Dominion transfer Trey Porter. Nevada is athletic, big, deep, experienced and well coached.
— There is futures value on the Ducks in the 20-1 odds range. Dana Altman has a loaded team, though not everyone knows it yet. Payton Pritchard is a skilled and smart point guard and there is elite young talent around him with 7-foot-3 Bol Bol and Louis King. This is the Pac-12’s team to beat.
— The Zags are actually my No. 2 power-rated team, but 6-10 forward Killian Tillie is injured and expected to miss the first two months, so Mark Few might lose a couple games while at less than full strength. Few added talented transfers Geno Crandall and Brandon Clarke to surround stud forwards Tillie and Rui Hachimura. Gonzaga will be dominant when Tillie returns and this team could win the whole thing.
— Rick Barnes returns five starters from a team that got eliminated in March by Sister Jean. The Volunteers’ duo of Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams will challenge Kentucky atop the SEC.
9. North Carolin
a — When senior forward Luke Maye turned down the NBA, the Tar Heels remained relevant as title contenders. Roy Williams has a stud front line with Maye, Pittsburgh transfer Cameron Johnson and big-time freshman Nassir Little.
10. Kansas State
— Five starters, including guard Barry Brown and center Dean Wade, return from the Wildcats’ Elite Eight team. Bruce Weber’s team still ranks No. 2 in the state.
— Bruce Pearl won 26 games last year and has escaped the FBI. Led by senior guard Bryce Brown, the Tigers can run with Kentucky and Tennessee in the league race.
12. Michigan State
— The Spartans would be ranked lower if not for Tom Izzo’s reputation. It’s tough to imagine Izzo making a Final Four run with Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson departed as NBA lottery picks. Izzo is coaching the Big Ten favorite with big man Nick Ward returning and Cassius Winston running the point.
13. Mississippi State
— Do not sleep on the Bulldogs. Ben Howland still can coach and has four quality starters returning from a 25-win team.
14. West Virginia
— Bob Huggins will find it hard to replace Jevon Carter, one of the nation’s toughest point guards. But Huggins has another rugged front line of 6-8 forwards with Esa Ahmad, Sagaba Konate and Lamont West. The backcourt play is the question mark.
— After winning 30 games and losing four senior starters, Matt Painter is not exactly rebuilding. Carsen Edwards, a junior guard, was named national preseason Player of the Year by Blue Ribbon. Edwards is a dynamic scorer, and Dartmouth transfer Evan Boudreaux is a physical 6-8 forward who fits in the Big Ten.
— Junior guard Tyus Battle withdrew from the NBA Draft to give Jim Boeheim five returning starters. There is futures value on the Orange at 40-1 odds.
— In the ACC, Brad Brownell is not a coaching star, but he’s quietly good and he has three starters back from a 25-win team.
— The Gators could be rated too high here, but Mike White is a legit coach and has three starters returning, including shooting guard Kevaughn Allen.
— It’s always a mistake to underestimate John Beilein, a true coaching wizard. The Wolverines lost Mo Wagner and a lot more from the NCAA Tournament runner-up team, but Beilein still has shooting guard Charles Matthews and lots of young talent.
— Jay Wright does not have another national title team this year. But even after losing Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman to the NBA, Wright has enough talent to get back to the tournament and win a game or two.
21. South Dakota State
— You will not find the Jackrabbits in the “Also receiving votes” section of the preseason polls, but the motley crew from Brookings, S.D., is the real deal. SDS won 28 games last season behind 6-10 Mike Daum, one of the nation’s top 10 players. The “Dauminator” is complemented by guards David Jenkins and Tevin King. The Jackrabbits play at Nevada on Dec. 15 in the season’s marquee mid-major matchup. No Top 10 team wants to see Daum in the other half of a bracket matchup in March.
22. Virginia Tech
— Buzz Williams has four returning starters led by point guard Justin Robinson and power forward Kerry Blackshear. The Hokies knocked off Duke and North Carolina in Blacksburg last season.
23. Florida State
— The Seminoles are athletic, as usual, and forwards Phil Cofer and Terance Mann are flanked by 7-foot-4 Christ Koumadje.
— Will Wade is a rising coaching star. He recruited an outstanding freshman class to help star point guard Tremont Waters.
— Noah Dickerson, a 6-8 senior, flirted with the NBA before returning to Seattle to give Mike Hopkins all of his starters back. Hopkins, a former Syracuse assistant, frustrates opponents with a 2-3 zone defense that was tough enough to beat Kansas last year.