Entering a season of countless uncertainties, Jay Wright is a known commodity. The Villanova coach won his first NCAA championship in 2016 and added another in 2018. He has a veteran team with the firepower to reach the top again.
The Wildcats welcome back four double-digit scorers from last season’s 24-7 team. Senior point guard Collin Gillespie leads what could be the nation’s best backcourt. Wright will play three guards much of the time, with sophomore Justin Moore, former McDonald’s All-American Bryan Antoine and Tulane transfer Caleb Daniels benefiting from Gillespie’s playmaking ability. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Jermaine Samuels form a strong front line.
Preseason power ratings are an inexact science, and a team rating in November is based mostly on opinion. The ratings seem likely to fluctuate more than usual this season during a cacophony of chaos.
Kansas replaced Michigan State as my No. 1 team two weeks into last season and remained in the top spot the rest of the way. When the season ended prematurely in March (and with 100 being the top of the scale), the Jayhawks’ rating was 96.5, ahead of Gonzaga (94), Dayton (93) and Michigan State (92.5).
Villanova opens this season with a rating of 88. Only four points separate the Nos. 1 and 10 teams in my rankings. While there appears to be no dominant team in college basketball this season, Wright and the Wildcats
lead the pack from the tip.
Junior point guard Kihei Clark is the ideal coach on the floor for Tony Bennett. The Cavaliers’ defense will be typically stifling, and the offense should improve with the additions of Marquette transfer Sam Hauser and touted freshman Jabri Abdur-Rahim. Jay Huff, a 7-1 senior, is an invaluable middle man on both ends of the floor. Bennett has built the most stable program in the ACC.
The Zags are a popular pick for preseason No. 1, and the potential is there, but they lost four double-figure scorers and are a little more of a mystery than Villanova and Virginia. Corey Kispert, Drew Timme and Joel Ayayi return from a 31-2 season. If five-star freshman guard Jalen Suggs is the real deal right away, coach Mark Few can reach his second Final Four.
It’s unfortunate the Jayhawks never got a shot to win coach Bill Self’s second NCAA title in March, and the team leaders — point guard Devon Dotson and 7-footer Udoka Azubuike — are history. Self always has talent and reloads. Senior guard Marcus Garrett is a defensive stopper, junior guard Ochai Agbaji will be a go-to scorer and freshman guard Bryce Thompson is a future star. Self’s track record earns him the Big 12’s top rating.
The top four teams in my rankings are led by elite coaches. Illinois’ Brad Underwood does not have similar career achievements, but he’s as tough as a $2 steak, and his teams reflect his personality. This Illini team has high-end talent too. Underwood was lucky that point guard Ayo Dosunmu and 7-foot, 280-pound Kofi Cockburn decided not to make a run for the NBA money.
Junior point guard Jared Butler’s decision to stay in school turned the Bears into national title contenders. If Baylor has a weakness, it’s a lack of interior scoring. I do not rate coach Scott Drew as highly as Bennett, Few, Self and Wright, which is why the Bears sit a little below my top five teams.
7. TEXAS TECH:
Never underestimate Chris Beard’s coaching ability. The Red Raiders have lost lots of big-time talent the last two years, but Beard knows how to put together a team he can develop. Junior guard Kyler Edwards and power forward Joel Ntambwe, a transfer from UNLV, will be major impact players in the Big 12.
Imagine a season minus the crazies in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke home games will be a strange experience. As usual, coach Mike Krzyzewski is reloading with a new-look roster highlighted by freshman point guard Jeremy Roach and sophomore forwards Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore.
This might be coach Rick Barnes’ best team in his six years in Knoxville. Barnes has put together a roster that’s deep in athletes and size. There are no superstars, but there are NBA prospects, and the front line of Yves Pons, John Fulkerson and E.J. Anosike is about as strong as it gets.
Amazingly, the Hawkeyes have not won a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship since 1979. If not this season, when? Iowa returns its top seven players and a total of 350 starts. Senior center Luka Garza is arguably the nation’s top player. Now, coach Fran McCaffery must get his team to play quality defense for a change.
The Big Ten looks to be a five-team race to the top with the Badgers in the running along with Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State. Wisconsin coach Greg Gard is making people forget about Bo Ryan. The Badgers will shoot the 3 and pound teams inside with 6-10 forward Micah Potter and 6-11 center Nate Reuvers.
12. WEST VIRGINIA:
Four starters return for coach Bob Huggins, who always finds tough guys to man the front line. The Mountaineers can bully most opponents inside with 6-9 Oscar Tshiebwe and 6-10 Derek Culver.
Similar to Coach K, Kentucky coach John Calipari runs an NBA farm team and spends the next season developing a team of blue chippers. Freshman shooting guard BJ Boston should be the Wildcats’ top scorer, and 7-foot, 250-pound senior Olivier Sarr, a transfer from Wake Forest, is an athletic center.
14. MICHIGAN STATE:
If senior guard Joshua Langford can return from a foot injury — and that’s no given — the Spartans’ rating could rise significantly. Rocket Watts is developing as a point guard, and the front line is solid with Aaron Henry and Joey Hauser, a Marquette transfer. Tom Izzo’s teams typically overachieve, but Michigan State was a disappointment as last year’s preseason No. 1.
15. NORTH CAROLINA:
Roy Williams took a beating last season while losing 19 games, including 14 in ACC play. There was no reason to feel sorry for the Hall of Fame coach. The Tar Heels will be back. Freshman point guard Caleb Love replaces Cole Anthony, and senior Garrison Brooks is flanked on the front line by Leaky Black and Armando Bacot. Williams reeled in a sensational freshman class.
Do not overlook Mick Cronin. His first season in Westwood got off to a rough start, but Cronin persuaded a motley crew of players to buy into his system and the Bruins went 7-1 in their final eight games. UCLA has perimeter shooting, size and depth. Cronin has his type of players now. Point guard Tyger Campbell and forward Jaime Jaquez lead what could be the Pac-12’s top team.
Maybe this is finally coach Shaka Smart’s breakthrough season in Austin. The Longhorns return five starters, including veteran guards Matt Coleman, Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey. Watch for freshman forward Greg Brown to blossom into a star. Smart’s sixth season should produce his first NCAA tournament win with Texas.
Dana Altman is a bet-on coach and always finds players. However, how will he replace Payton Pritchard, arguably the most valuable point guard in college basketball the last two years? UNLV transfer Amauri Hardy steps in for Pritchard but cannot fill his shoes. The Ducks are no lock to win the Pac-12.
19. OHIO STATE:
The Buckeyes said goodbye to their best player, center Kaleb Wesson, so coach Chris Holtmann went in search of immediate help. He brought in Florida State transfer point guard CJ Walker, Cal transfer forward Justice Sueing and Harvard graduate transfer Seth Towns, a 6-8 forward who can shoot from deep and do it all.
20. ARIZONA STATE:
Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley is a constant complainer who relentlessly badgers the refs. He’s making progress, even if the whistles don’t always go his way. This is not Duke. Hurley, who signed an impressive recruiting class, will put more talent around his veteran backcourt of Remy Martin and Alonzo Verge.
Nate Oats is a rising coaching star. In his second season with the Crimson Tide, Oats has a more experienced team led by star shooting guard John Petty.
The cancellation of the NCAA tournament was a crushing blow to the Scarlet Knights, who were set to go dancing for the first time since 1991. Fifth-year coach Steve Pikiell welcomes back four starters, including veteran guard Geo Baker and swingman Ron Harper Jr.
Despite the distractions of eligibility issues with NBA-bound star James Wiseman, Penny Hardaway coached the Tigers to 21 wins last season. Memphis returns four starters, and Hardaway scored by landing Virginia Tech transfer Landers Nolley.
The Bluejays can hang in a competitive Big East race despite losing star guard Ty-Shon Alexander. Coach Greg McDermott will count on veteran guards Marcus Zegarowski and Mitch Ballock to carry the scoring load.
Junior forward Keyontae Johnson is one of the SEC’s top players. The thing to watch will be this team’s changing style of play, with underperforming coach Mike White promising a faster-paced offensive attack.
In the last three seasons, Kelvin Sampson has won 83 games. This is not one of his most talented teams, but the Cougars will keep winning with guard Caleb Mills and forward Quentin Grimes, a former Kansas transfer, leading the way.
The Hoosiers return four starters and look promising on paper, but coach Archie Miller underachieved in each of his first three seasons, so it’s time to see results. Sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis returns after leading the team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots.
Chris Mooney is an under-the-radar coach, but sharp bettors know his name. The Spiders, 24-7 last season, return five starters. Senior guards Blake Francis, Jacob Gilyard and Nick Sherod make Richmond the Atlantic 10 favorite.
29. FLORIDA STATE:
The Seminoles are the reigning ACC champs after winning 26 games and going 16-4 in the conference. Don’t expect a repeat, but Florida State is not slipping much. Senior shooting guard M.J. Walker will lead an athletic team for coach Leonard Hamilton.
The Cardinals, who tied for second in the ACC, lost team leader Jordan Nwora. Radford graduate transfer guard Carlik Jones, the top player in the Big South, steps in along with San Francisco grad transfer Charles Minlend. Coach Chris Mack will hope 6-11 power forward Malik Williams finally has a breakout year.
Believe it or not, Will Wade is still coaching this team despite an NCAA investigation into his alleged payment of players. Wade will bank on point guard Javonte Smart and power forward Trendon Watford.
Coach Juwan Howard has been picking up recruiting wins, and one prize is 7-1, 255-pound freshman Hunter Dickinson. Howard has three scorers — Isaiah Livers, Eli Brooks and Franz Wagner — who can help the Wolverines continue to win.
33. SAINT LOUIS:
In the rugged and underrated Atlantic 10, the Billikens return five starters from a 23-win team and will make a run at overtaking Richmond to win the conference race. Senior guard Jordan Goodwin could be the league’s top player.
Freshman forward Ziaire Williams is the Cardinal’s main reason for optimism. The hyped, versatile Williams can play inside and out while senior forward Oscar da Silva controls the paint. Stanford has improved and should be the Pac-12’s fourth-best team in coach Jerod Haase’s fifth season.
Senior guard Austin Reaves and senior forward Brady Manek will give coach Lon Kruger a fighting chance to finish in the top half of the Big 12. Kruger needs touted recruits De’Vion Harmon and Trey Phipps to deliver.
36. SAN DIEGO STATE:
The Aztecs were 30-2 and ready for a March run when the tournament was canceled. Point guard Malachi Flynn was the best overall player and defensive player in the Mountain West, but he’s headed for the NBA. Senior forward Matt Mitchell and Cal State Northridge grad transfer guard Terrell Gomez are the new team leaders.
Sean Miller is still coaching in Tucson, and who else lost a bet on that? Miller’s recruiting methods are under the microscope, but he keeps finding ways to sign talent. Dalen Terry, Kerr Kriisa, Georgetown transfer James Akinjo and Seattle transfer Terrell Brown will give the Wildcats a completely new look.
The Big East welcomes back the Huskies, and coach Dan Hurley will make sure they are competitive. Hurley has a roster with a lot of upside, led by sophomore guard James Bouknight.
39. SETON HALL:
If he can stay healthy after a foot injury, Harvard graduate transfer Bryce Aiken could provide a big offensive lift for the Pirates. Sandro Mamukelashvili, a 6-11 forward, is a versatile scoring threat for coach Kevin Willard.
40. UTAH STATE:
Craig Smith has a 54-15 record in two years as the Aggies’ coach. He also has one of the nation’s best big men in 7-foot Neemias Queta. Utah State must replace leading scorer Sam Merrill, but Brock Miller is a 3-point threat and forward Justin Bean is a front-line force in the Mountain West.
41. NC STATE:
D.J. Funderburk, a 6-10 scorer and rebounder, and senior guard Devon Daniels will lead the way for Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts.
The Boilermakers blew out Iowa, Michigan State and Virginia in home games last season and swept Indiana, yet they finished 16-15. Purdue has finished in the top 25 of the Kenpom.com ratings for five consecutive years. Junior forward Trevion Williams is one of the Big Ten’s best big men. This is a talented team with several new faces.
43. OKLAHOMA STATE:
Looking for a Big 12 sleeper? The Cowboys have a dynamic scoring duo with guards Isaac Likekele and Cade Cunningham, who was ranked the No. 1 prep player in the nation.
Obi Tobbin has moved on to the NBA after what could have been the greatest season in Dayton history. The Flyers finished 29-2 (18-0 in the Atlantic 10) and were set to be a No. 1 seed in March. Senior guard Jalen Crutcher takes over for Toppin as the conference’s top player, and seniors Rodney Chatman and Ibi Watson also return.
ACC scoring leader Elijah Hughes left early for the NBA, so Buddy Boeheim, Marek Dolezaj and Joe Girard must step up their leadership and production for Orange coach Jim Boeheim, who brings back four starters.
Coach Bruce Pearl lost his entire starting lineup from a 25-6 team, but he could have the best freshman in the SEC. Point guard Sharife Cooper, a high-scoring McDonald’s All-American, will run an inexperienced but talented team.
Expect a bounce-back season for coach Mike Hopkins, a longtime assistant to Boeheim at Syracuse. The Huskies lost stars Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, but Quade Green, a former Kentucky transfer, returns to run the point.
48. GEORGIA TECH:
Senior point guard Jose Alvarado is a playmaking dynamo for the Yellow Jackets, who went 15-9 with him and 2-5 when he was out with an ankle injury last season. Alvarado is among four returning starters for coach Josh Pastner.
49. NORTHERN IOWA:
Junior guard AJ Green is a big-time scorer who’s starring on a small stage. Green has totaled 1,100 points in two seasons for the Panthers, who will battle Loyola-Chicago for the Missouri Valley title.
My ratings favor the better coaches, and Eric Musselman gets bonus points. The Razorbacks return one starter from a 20-win team, but Musselman landed three graduate transfers including Justin Smith, a 6-7 forward who started 32 games for Indiana last season.