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2017-18 College Basketball Preseason Top 25

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The NCAA’s deadline to withdraw from the NBA Draft for early entry candidates that have not signed with an agent came and went last night, and while a few of the decisions took us right up to the deadline, it mostly played out the way it was expected to.

Some big names returned. Some surprising names left.

Next season’s top 25 is awful uninspiring. There also isn’t anything close to a clear-cut No. 1 team, although the consensus at this point seems to be that Michigan State, Arizona and Kansas, despite their flaws, are the three best teams in the country in some order. 

Drop us a line here or @CBTonNBC if you see any names missing.

Here is the top 25:

1. Duke

  • Who’s gone: Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles III, Luke Kennard, Frank Jackson
  • Who do they add: Marvin Bagley III, Gary Trent Jr., Wendell Carter, Alex O’Connell, Trevon Duval, Jordan Tucker
  • Projected starting lineup: Trevon Duval, Grayson Allen, Gary Trent Jr., Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter
  • I totally get why people are going to push back against this, but think about it: Duke has the Class of 2017’s top power forward who doubles as the best player in the class and a potential No. 1 pick in 2017 in Bagley, 2017’s top point guard in Duval, 2017’s second-best center in Carter and a fourth five-star in Trent that some rank as 2017’s best shooting guard. All of that is before you factor in senior and former all-american Grayson Allen, who Coach K has told us is finally healthy. They’re still flawed — I’m not sold on Duval as the point guard they need — but to me they’re the best team in the country.

MORE: Bagley makes Duke THE story … again

2. Michigan State

  • Who’s gone: Eron Harris, Alvin Ellis III
  • Who do they add: Jaren Jackson, Xavier Tillman
  • Projected starting lineup: Cassius Winston, Josh Langford, Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, Nick Ward
  • I like this Michigan State team a lot. Nick Ward was a beast last year and Jaren Jackson is the perfect sidekick. Cassius Winston and Josh Langford will both take a step forward. The key, however, is that a potential Player of the Year in Miles Bridges opted to return to school.

3. Arizona

  • Who’s gone: Lauri Markkanen, Kadeem Allen, Kobi Simmons, Chance Comanche
  • Who do they add: Deandre Ayton, Emmanuel Akot*, Brandon Randolph, Ira Lee, Alex Barcello, Dylan Smith
  • Projected starting lineup: Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins, Deandre Ayton, Dusan Ristic
  • The Wildcats add the most talented big man in the class in Deandre Ayton, as well as Emmanuel Akot and Brandon Randolph. The reason they’re a top five team, however is the return of Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins.

4. Kansas

  • Who’s gone: Frank Mason II, Josh Jackson, Landen Lucas
  • Who do they add: Malik Newman, Billy Preston, Marcus Garrett, Sam Cunliffe
  • Projected starting lineup: Devonte’ Graham, Malik Newman, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Billy Preston, Udoka Azuibuike
  • The Jayhawks are going to have a lot to replace, but they do have some players coming in. With Devonte’ Graham back, I think he’ll be a star and all-Big 12 player at the point, and he’ll be joined by a former top 10 prospect in Malik Newman and a current top ten prospect in Billy Preston.

5. Kentucky

  • Who’s gone: De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo, Isaiah Briscoe, Derek Willis, Mychal Mulder, Dominique Hawkins
  • Who do they add: Hamidou Diallo, Quade Green, Kevin Knox, Nick Richards, P.J. Washington, Jarred Vanderbilt, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jemarl Baker
  • Projected starting lineup: Quade Green, Hamidou Diallo*, Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt, Nick Richards
  • Kentucky is a tough team to peg for next season. They should be really good defensively — Hamidou Diallo and Jarred Vanderbilt are elite defenders — and insanely athletic, but it’s going to be another year where we don’t know who shoots it for Kentucky. Adding Knox is big.

6. Miami

  • Who’s gone: Davon Reed, Kamari Murphy
  • Who do they add: Lonnie Walker, Chris Lykes, Deng Gak, Sam Waardenburg
  • Projected starting lineup: Ja’Quan Newton, Bruce Brown, Lonnie Walker, Anthony Lawrence, Dewan Huell
  • Losing Reed and Murphy will hurt, but Bruce Brown was one of the best-kept secrets last year, Lonnie Walker is a big-time scorer and Dewan Huell is a former top 30 prospect in line for a big bump in minutes this year. Jim Larrañaga is exactly the coach to take advantage of this guard-heavy lineup, too.

7. Florida

  • Who’s gone: Kasey Hill, Canyon Barry, Justin Leon, Devin Robinson
  • Who do they add: Isaiah Stokes, Egor Koulechov, Chase Johnson, DeAundre Ballard, Michael Okauru, Jalen Hudson, Dontay Bassett
  • Projected starting lineup: Chris Chiozza, KeVaughn Allen, Egor Koulechov, Kevarrius Hayes, John Egbunu
  • Coming off of a trip to the Elite 8, the Gators bring back most of their key pieces while adding a talented recruiting class and two players that redshirted last season. Two keys to this team’s ceiling: The health of John Egbunu, who missed the second half of last season, and the development of KeVaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza.

8. Louisville

  • Who’s gone: Mangok Mathiang, David Levitch, Tony Hicks, Jaylen Johnson, Donovan Mitchell
  • Who do they add: Brian Bowen, Malik Williams, Darius Perry, Jordan Nwora, Lance Thomas
  • Projected starting lineup: Quentin Snider, VJ King, Deng Adel, Ray Spalding, Anas Mahmoud
  • Louisville has a chance to be very, very good next season, particularly now that Deng Adel is back and Brian Bowen is in the mix. If guys like VJ King, Ray Spalding and Anas Mahmoud take a step forward, the Cardinals might compete for an ACC title. That says a lot this year.

9. Villanova

  • Who’s gone: Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Darryl Reynolds
  • Who do they add: Jermaine Samuels, Collin Gillispie, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, Omari Spellman
  • Projected starting lineup: Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth, Donte DiVincenzo, Mikal Bridges, Omari Spellman
  • The Wildcats are going to take a major hit with Josh Hart finally graduating, but the good news is that Jay Wright is still around, as is Jalen Brunson. Omari Spellman getting eligible will help, and I know I’m not the only one that thinks Donte DiVincenzo has a chance to develop into an all-Big East player.

10. Wichita State

  • Who’s gone: No one
  • Who do they add: Samajae Haynes-Jones, Asbjorn Midtgaard
  • Projected starting lineup: Landry Shamet, Connor Frankamp, Zach Brown, Markis McDuffie, Shaq Morris
  • The Shockers finished the season ranked in the top ten at KenPom, but ended up with a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament because they struggled to get used to each other early on in the season. With everyone returning from last year’s team, don’t be surprised to see Gregg Marshall’s team as a Final Four contender.

11. West Virginia

  • Who’s gone: Tarik Phillip, Nathan Adrian, Teyvon Myers, Brandon Watkins
  • Who do they add: Derek Culver, Brandon Knapper, D’Angelo Hunter, Teddy Allen, Wesley Harris
  • Projected starting lineup: Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles Jr., Esa Ahmad, Lamont West, Sagaba Konate
  • At this point, I’m just going to assume that Bobby Huggins is going to put a good team on the floor regardless of the situation. The names don’t even matter, although Jevon Carter is back for what feels like his 17th season in college hoops while Esa Ahmad seems primed for a monster year.

12. USC

  • Who’s gone: Charles Buggs
  • Who do they add: Derryck Thornton, Charles O’Bannon, Jordan Usher
  • Projected starting lineup: Jordan McLaughlin, De’Anthony Melton, Elijah Stewart, Bennie Boatwright, Chimezie Metu
  • There is a lot of talent on the USC roster for now, especially now that Metu, Stewart and Boatwright are all returning. The Trojans will push Arizona for the Pac-12 title if they decide to defend.

13. Minnesota

  • Who’s gone: Akeem Springs
  • Who do they add: Isaiah Washington, Jamir Harris, Davonte Fitzgerald
  • Projected starting lineup: Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer, Amir Coffey, Jordan Murphy, Reggie Lynch
  • The Golden Gophers bring everyone back from last season, a year where they were one of the most surprising teams in the country. Minnesota could win the Big Ten.

14. UCLA

  • Who’s gone: Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton
  • Who do they add: Jaylen Hands, LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley, Jalen Hill, Chris Smith
  • Projected starting lineup: Jaylen Hands, Aaron Holiday, Kris Wilkes, Cody Riley, Thomas Welsh
  • It’s going to be interesting to see how the Bruins move on from the Lonzo Ball era. It will also be interesting to see how LaVar Ball handles the fact that LiAngelo Ball isn’t Lonzo. Jaylen Hands and Aaron Holiday will be an elite back court.

15. Cincinnati

  • Who’s gone: Troy Caupain, Kevin Johnson
  • Who do they add: Keith Williams, Trevor Moore, Eliel Nsoseme, Cane Broome
  • Projected starting lineup: Cane Broome, Jarron Cumberland, Jacob Evans, Gary Clark, Kyle Washington
  • The Bearcats return a lot of important pieces from a team that won 30 games last season. Broome averaged 23 points for Sacred Heart as a sophomore.

16. Seton Hall

  • Who’s gone: Madison Jones
  • Who do they add: Myles Cale, Darnell Brodie
  • Projected starting lineup: Khadeen Carrington, Myles Powell, Desi Rodriguez, Ishmael Sanogo, Angel Delgado
  • This is the team that I’m going to probably overhype all offseason. I love this group.

17. Xavier

  • Who’s gone: Edmond Sumner, Malcolm Bernard, RaShid Gaston
  • Who do they add: Kerem Kanter, Paul Scruggs, Naji Marshall, Elias Harden, Jared Ridder, Kentrevious Jones
  • Projected starting lineup: Quentin Goodin, J.P. Macura, Trevon Bluiett, Kaiser Gates, Sean O’Mara
  • The Musketeers were thrust back into the top 25 and the Big East title conversation when Trevon Bluiett opted to return to school.

18. North Carolina

  • Who’s gone: Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt
  • Who do they add: Jaleek Felton, Cameron Johnson, Sterling Manley, Brandon Huffman, Andrew Platek, Garrison Brooks
  • Projected starting lineup: Joel Berry II, Kenny Williams, Theo Pinson, Luke Maye, Garrison Brooks
  • The Tar Heels are coming off of back-to-back national title game appearances, but they lose three key seniors from that team as well as Justin Jackson and Tony Bradley. Berry will be a National Player of the Year contender and Luke Maye will move into the starting lineup. Will Cam Johnson be eligible to play?

19. Gonzaga

  • Who’s gone: Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski, Jordan Mathews, Zach Collins
  • Who do they add: Jacob Larsen, Zach Norvell, Corey Kispert, Jesse Wade
  • Projected starting lineup: Josh Perkins, Silas Melson, Zach Norvell, Johnathan Williams III, Killian Tillie
  • With Nigel Williams-Goss gone, the key to Gonzaga’s season will be the development of Josh Perkins. Can he play the point full-time and do it successfully?

20. Northwestern

  • Who’s gone: Sanjay Lumpkin, Nathan Taphorn
  • Who do they add: Anthony Gaines, Aaron Falzon, Rapolas Ivanauskas
  • Projected starting lineup: Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law, Aaron Falzon, Dererk Pardon
  • The Wildcats, a year removed from their first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament, bring back essentially everyone from last season and get Aaron Falzon healthy. Bryant McIntosh will contend for Big Ten Player of the Year.

21. Alabama

  • Who’s gone: Nick King, Jimmie Taylor, Shannon Hale, Corban Collins
  • Who do they add: Collin Sexton, John Petty, Daniel Giddens
  • Projected starting lineup: Collin Sexton, John Petty, Dazon Ingram, Braxton Key, Daniel Giddens
  • The Crimson Tide bring back a talented young core and add two five-star guards, including Collin Sexton, who could lead the conference in scoring.

22. Notre Dame

  • Who’s gone: Steve Vasturia, VJ Beachem
  • Who do they add: DJ Harvey, Nikola Djogo
  • Projected starting lineup: Matt Farrell, Temple Gibbs, Rex Pflueger, Bonzie Colson, Martinas Geben
  • At this point, I’m fine betting on Brey to have Notre Dame in the mix every year. They’re going to need Rex Pfleuger and Temple Gibbs to take a step forward, but Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell can carry the Irish.

23. Virginia Tech

  • Who’s gone: Seth Allen, Zach LeDay
  • Who do they add: Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Wabissa Bede
  • Projected starting lineup: Justin Robinson, Ahmed Hill, Justin Bibbs, Chris Clarke, Khadim Sy
  • The Hokies return all five starters from last season despite the fact that the team graduates their top two scorers. A healthy Chris Clarke and Kerry Blackshear will help.

24. Saint Mary’s

  • Who’s gone: Joe Rahon, Dane Pineau
  • Who do they add: Kristers Zoriks, Malik Fitts, Cullen Neal
  • Projected starting lineup: Jordan Ford, Emmett Naar, Calvin Hermanson, Evan Fitzner, Jock Landale
  • Losing Rahon will hurt, but with Naar and Landale coming back, the Gaels are going to push Gonzaga in the WCC race once again.

25. Baylor

  • Who’s gone: Ishmail Wainright, Johnathan Motley
  • Who do they add: Mark Vital, Tyson Jolly, Tristan Clark
  • Projected starting lineup: Manu Lecomte, Jake Lindsey, King McClure, Terry Maston, Jo Lual-Acuil
  • Losing Johnathan Motley is a massive blow for the Bears, but there should be enough experience on the roster to keep them in the top 25.

Four-star forward Kai Jones commits to Texas

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Shaka Smart picked up an important piece for the future Monday ahead of a critical season in Austin.

Kai Jones, a top-75 forward, committed to Smart and Texas, he announced via social media.

“I’d like to thank my mom and dad, who have always been on my side and were my No. 1 supporters from Day 1,” Jones said in his commitment video. “I’d also like to thank coaches and teammates who pushed me and believed in me and always told me that I could do more than I thought. It’s been a great process. I’ve been recruited by top universities and legendary coaches, and I feel truly honored to be considered. However, in the end, I can choose only one.

“I’ll be committing to the University of Texas. Hook ‘em, baby.”

The 6-foot-10 Jones, who hails from the Bahamas, is a four-star prospect out of the powerhouse prep program Brewster Academy in New Hampshire. He chose the Longhorns after taking official visits to Syracuse, Baylor and Florida State.

While Texas’ results on the floor have been so-so in three years under Smart, the Longhorns have done well on the recruiting trail. That again seems to be the case in 2019 with Jones now joining Donovan Williams, a four-star guard from Texas, in Smart’s next class.

“The relationship I’ve built with the coaches sand the opportunity to come in and make a big impact was too much to pass,” Jones told Rivals. “They showed a sincere interest. They made me a priority down the stretch. They came up to Brewster and when I thought about everything they hadn’t missed anything I did.”

Coach K downplays shoe company involvement as Duke mentioned at trial

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Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski took the opportunity Monday to downplay the breadth of the illicit actions being alleged/revealed/confirmed in testimony over the last two weeks of Brian Bowen Sr. and T.J. Gassnola.

The father of an elite recruit and and adidas consultant, the pair have essentially narrated a roadmap to college basketball’s underground that includes payoffs, cars, deception, hustling and layers upon layers of NCAA violations.

“It’s a blip. It’s not what’s happening,” K said at the Blue Devils’ media day. “We haven’t lost guys because of someone’s shoe. I’m not aware of that.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, and we’ll get to it, but first it’s worth pointing something out. Something that came, ironically enough, to light Monday thanks to court proceedings in Manhattan as part of the Southern District of New York’s college basketball corruption case. Let’s go now to text messages between Gassnola and Kansas coach Bill Self.

Gassnola: “In my mind, it’s KU, Bill Self. Everyone else fall into line. Too (expletive) bad. That’s what’s right for Adidas basketball. And I know I’m right. The more you have lottery picks and you happy. That’s how it should work in my mind.”
Self: “That’s how ur (sic) works. At UNC and Duke.”

So despite K’s handwringing and outright dismissal of shoe companies’ involvement in high-profile recruitments, there is a Hall of Fame, national-championship winning coach at one of the most prominent and storied programs in the history of the sport that, apparently, thinks different.

That seems noteworthy.

Coach K’s whole premise, in fact, ignores the whole point of what, whether he admits it or not, is going on, seemingly, at a wide scale. The idea that Duke may or may not have lost guys because of their shoe affiliation is beside the point. The Blue Devils, you may have heard, are a Nike school. One of the preeminent Nike schools. Another thing you may have heard is that Nike is far and away the predominant player in basketball apparel. The pool of players that Duke could even conceivably miss out on because of shoe affiliation is tiny compared to the amount of high-level prospects that are “Nike guys.”

Let’s also not forget that Nike outfits another pretty influential group in the basketball world. USA Basketball. Which Coach K has essentially headed as the men’s national team coach for the last 10 years where he worked with some of Nike’s most high-profile athletes like LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Oh, and Mason Plumlee, who got a spot on the 2014 World Cup team totally because he was one of the best players the United State had to offer and not at all because of his Duke connections.

But I digress.

What we learned today is that the perception nationally that shoe companies, to whatever degree, help their favored schools land top recruits is not one held simply by media blowhards and paranoid fanbases. It’s one a coach of one of those favored schools holds, too. The fact that there have been days of testimony in a federal courtroom that back up that sentiment should matter here, too.

Krzyzewski’s statements are self-serving. He’s not the first one to take this route. That’s fine. It’s his job to win basketball games and protect Duke basketball. Pretending like shoe companies are a non-factor in recruiting is in his best interest as he and his program continue to enroll the best players in the country while wearing a swoosh on every piece of clothing.

It’s not reality, though.

Adidas trial: Texts between Bill Self, T.J. Gassnola revealed

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As the first of three trials stemming from the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball churns towards a finish, Kansas head coach Bill Self and one of his assistants, Kurtis Townsend, have been dragged into the mix thanks to text messages that were provided to the court on Monday.

There has never been a question of whether or not the Kansas program was involved. T.J. Gassnola, a fixer for Adidas that also runs an Adidas-sponsored AAU program, has testified that he paid the mother of former Kansas forward Billy Preston $89,000 and that he was planning on paying the Fenny Falmagne, the guardian of current Jayhawk sophomore Silvio De Sousa, an additional $20,000 to the $2,500 he had already paid, money to payback someone with Under Armour ties that was trying to get De Sousa to go to Maryland.

The defense has not argued otherwise.

Instead, their defense has been that the Kansas coaching staff was aware of, and supportive of, the payments that were being made.

On Monday, they presented text messages to the court between Gassnola and the Kansas coaching staff, the most damning of which came on Sept. 19th, 2017, just days before Kansas — who is supposed to be the victim in this ordeal — announced that they had agreed to a 12-year, $191 million extension on a sponsorship deal with Adidas.

After Gassnola texted Self to thank him for helping get the deal done, Self responded by saying, “Just got to get a couple real guys.”

Gassnola: “In my mind, it’s KU, Bill Self. Everyone else fall into line. Too (expletive) bad. That’s what’s right for Adidas basketball. And I know I’m right. The more you have lottery picks and you happy. That’s how it should work in my mind.”

Self: “That’s how ur (sic) works. At UNC and Duke.”

Gassnola, after acknowledging that it works like this at Kentucky, too: “I promise you I got this. I have never let you down. Except (Deandre). Lol. We will get it right.”

Presumably, this is in reference to Deandre Ayton, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft after one season at Arizona. Earlier in the trial, Gassnola testified that he had paid $15,000 on behalf of Adidas to the family of Ayton while trying to find a house and a job for Ayton’s mother, who is Bahamian. There was a point in time during Ayton’s high school career that he was considered likely to end up at Kansas, and he even told reporters in April of 2016 that Kansas was the only school recruiting him.

When Gassnola was asked if he felt like he let Self down when Ayton picked Arizona, he replied, “I did.”

There is also a text trail between Gassnola and the Kansas staff in the weeks prior to De Sousa’s surprise commitment to the program. From the KC Star:

On Aug. 9. 2017, Gassnola texted KU’s assistant Townsend in a conversation about Fenny Falmagne, the guardian of then-recruit Silvio De Sousa, now a KU sophomore. Gassnola told Townsend, “Hit me when you can,” and Townsend replied, “Coach Self just talked to Fenny. Let me know how it goes.”

Gassnola also texted Self, saying he talked with Falmagne. Self asked “we good” over text, and Gassnola replied “always,” saying this was light work and the ball was in Falmagne’s court now.

That same day, Gassnola texted Self to call him when he had five minutes and he was alone. The two had a five-minute, six-second phone conversation. The call was not wiretapped by the FBI nor played in court.

No. 10 Auburn: How will the reigning SEC champs handle what’s returning?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 10 Auburn.


Auburn, last year, had one of the strangest seasons I can recall in my time covering this sport.

No one, and I mean no one, had the Tigers pegged as a surefire tournament team heading into the season. It’s true that Bruce Pearl was coming off of his best season as the head coach of the Tigers, but that doesn’t mean that Auburn was particularly good. The Tigers went 18-14 in 2016-17 and 7-11 in the SEC, climbing out of 13th place in the SEC for the first time in Pearl’s tenure.

So expectations weren’t particularly high heading into the year, and all of that happened before the bombshell of an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball dropped right as practices were starting.

Suddenly, Auburn and Pearl were thrust into the middle of a massive scandal. Former assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested and charged with fraud, part of a bribery scandal where he was paid as much as $91,000 to help funnel money to players on his roster and exert his influence over where they would opt to invest their money once they reached the professional ranks. Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, two of the most talented players on the team, were ruled ineligible — Purifoy will be suspended for the first nine games of the 2018-19 season as well — while five-star prospect E.J. Montgomery eventually decommitted from the program.

And while all of this was happening, Pearl — who already had an NCAA rap sheet thanks to a barbecue and Aaron Craft — was refusing to speak with Auburn’s investigators; the scuttle was that he might not make it to the new year employed.

What did the Tigers do?

Oh, they just went out and won 26 games, took home a share of the SEC regular season title and reached their first NCAA tournament in 15 years despite losing their best frontcourt weapon in February to a grisly dislocated ankle.

It was a remarkable year, one that likely would have resulted in numerous Coach of the Year awards had Pearl, you know, not been on the brink of being fired.

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AUBURN WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

They bring back a number of key pieces from last season’s team, and get a number of key players back that were in street clothes in March.

Let’s start with Anfernee McLemore. He’s not the most well-known player on this team by a longshot, but I think he may be the most important. When he’s healthy, he is the perfect piece to put at the five for the Tigers. He’s only 6-foot-7, but he’s a terrific athlete vertically, he shot 39.1 percent from three last season and he would have led the nation in block percentage had he managed to play enough minutes to qualify. An energetic rim-protector that can rebound the ball and shoot it from distance is exactly what you want in your big man if you are a team that wants to play fast, spread the floor and create mismatches.

McLemore suffered a gruesome injury to his left ankle in mid-February — think Gordon Hayward — and the Tigers fell off a cliff afterwards. They lost to South Carolina the day he was injured. They lost two of their last four regular season games. They lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and after struggling to beat a short-handed Charleston team in the first round, they were dropped by 31 points in the second round by Clemson. McLemore is expected to be back to 100 percent by the time the season. If and when he is, he’ll be back in the starting lineup and the Tigers should be closer to what they were for the majority of last season.

Anfernee McLemore (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The other guy that is critical to the way that this Auburn team wants to play is point guard Jared Harper. He led the team in assists last season and is integral to the way that they run that uptempo offense. He — and Bryce Brown, the best shooter in the program if not the SEC — both declared for the NBA Draft before opting to return to school. Like McLemore, Brown should be healthy to start the season; he was slowed by a shoulder injury down the stretch of last season.

With the gut that makes their offense click bank in the fold and the most important player defensively healthy, the Tigers should be back to their uptempo, high-scoring ways once again.

They also bring back Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

ST LOUIS, MO – MARCH 09: Jared Harper (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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BUT AUBURN IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

The reason that the Tigers were as good as they were last season was due to the fact that they played in an SEC where everyone was just OK.

Look at the teams that finished behind Auburn and Tennessee in the league standings. Florida finished third despite losing 13 games on the season. It took Kentucky four months to figure out who their go-to guy was, and they still managed to finished fourth in the league, tied in the standings with a Missouri team that didn’t have Michael Porter Jr. Texas A&M was a massive disappointment. Alabama finished below .500 in the conference despite having Colin Sexton and one of the nation’s top ten defenses.

The league was deep, there were plenty of teams that were tournament-worthy and winning a league title in a conference that is that balanced is not something that should be overlooked.

That said, looking up and down Auburn’s roster, what is there that is really all that intimidating? I don’t know that they had an NBA player last season, and that was before they lost Mustapha Heron to a transfer.

What made Auburn so good last season was the style they played — super-uptempo, spread out and hard to guard — while doing so with an energy level higher than everyone they played. I’m not sure if there is a coach in the country better at getting a group of guys with a chip on their shoulder to play with that foxhole mentality than Bruce Pearl, and he proved it last season.

Calling Auburn a group try-hards would not be fair, and I truly do believe that playing hard, playing with a motor and playing with the kind of energy that Auburn did is a skill, but at some point, talent in basketball wins out, and Auburn does not have a roster that is as talented as many of the other top teams around the country and in their own league.

Bryce Brown (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

On the court, the key to this season for the Tigers is going to be how they replace the scoring of Mustapha Heron.

While he has hit warts as a player, Heron was certainly capable of being a guy that could get a bucket when Auburn needed a bucket. He finished the season as the team’s leading scorer and popped off for more than 20 points eight times.

And that brings me to what is arguably the bigger question mark for this program moving forward: How will they reincorporate Purifoy and Wiley into the mix?

Like I mentioned earlier, the reason that Auburn had as much success as they did last season was because they had a group of guys that bought into the collective and fit into the way that Pearl wants to play. Wiley is a former five-star recruit that was once projected as a first round pick, but he’s also a lumbering 6-foot-11 center that is over 250 pounds even when he’s in shape. He is the polar opposite of McLemore, and it is hard to figure how a dude like that is going to play in that offense.

The same can be said for Purifoy, who is a talented wing but, again, is not a player that is necessarily the ideal fit for Auburn’s style of play. Can he fill the scoring void left by Heron?

And can Wiley co-exist on a roster that wants to play fast? What happens if McLemore and Chuma Okeke take over the starting roles? How will the program’s chemistry be if Samir Doughty ends up starting over Purifoy?

2018-19 OUTLOOK

I don’t see Auburn winning a second straight SEC regular season title.

Kentucky is absolutely loaded and might be the best team in the country. Tennessee, who won a share of the title last season, returns everyone from that team. They are going to enter the season in the top five of some preseason rankings, and deservedly so. Auburn, as much as they bring back, has more question marks and more risk than any of the other teams sitting at the top of this league.

That said, it’s hard to ignore the success they had last season or the importance McLemore’s return.

The Tigers should make a return trip to the NCAA tournament and they should do so as a top four seed.

They’re good.

But given what they lost — and, in a way, what they’re getting back — I think it’s more likely that the bottom falls out and this group ends up outside the top 25 than they find a way to win the SEC.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 11 Kansas State
No. 12 Virginia Tech
No. 13 Michigan State
No. 14 Florida State
No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Injury bug biting Iowa State as Solomon Young the latest Cyclone to get hurt

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Iowa State has dealt with a lot of injuries and illnesses this preseason as the Cyclones are trying to get healthy with the regular season only weeks away.

The latest Iowa State player to go down is starting center Solomon Young, as the junior is out indefinitely with a groin strain. The 6-foot-8 Young has been a key cog on the interior for the Cyclones the past two seasons as he put up 7.2 points and 5.9 rebounds per game as a sophomore last season.

Young is also far from the only key Iowa State player currently dealing with an issue. Veteran forward Zoran Talley just had surgery to repair a broken nose as he’s hoping to return faster than a 4-to-6 week window that doctors gave him. Talley will be required to wear a protective face mask once he’s cleared to return.

Iowa State’s highly-touted freshman class is also trying to overcome illness and injury. Big man George Conditt and guard Tyrese Haliburton are both recovering from mono. Forward Zion Griffin just returned from a knee sprain while wing Talen Horton-Tucker has been in a boot at times during the preseason.

While none of these injuries seem to be for an excessive amount of time, it’s clear that Iowa State just needs to get healthy before they start their season on Nov. 6. With all four freshmen missing some time, it will be vital to make sure they catch up and understand everything before they are thrust into the spotlight.