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Most influential testing the water decisions

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The deadline to declare for the NBA draft has come and gone, which means we’re now waiting for the next deadline: When underclassmen have to pull their name out of the NBA draft if they are testing the waters.

That day is May 30th.

It is two weeks away, after the NBA draft combine and nearly three weeks before the draft itself.

So there is still a ways to go with this process.

But as things stand today, on the even of the combine, here are the players that will have the biggest impact on next season..

More than 150 players on declared for the draft.

To help you parse it all down, here are the most influential Should-I-Stay-Or-Should-I-Go decisions that are going to be made over the course of the next two weeks.

OMARI SPELLMAN and DONTE DIVINCENZO, Villanova

Villanova already lost a pair of juniors to the NBA draft as both Mikal Bridges, a potential top ten pick, and Jalen Brunson, last year’s reigning National Player of the Year, declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Eric Paschall and Phil Booth both opted to return to school for their redshirt senior seasons where, along with returnees Jermaine Samuels, Collin Gillispie and Dhamir Cosby-Rountree and a recruiting class that is as good as any that Jay Wright had landed in his time on the Main Line, has Villanova’s program in a great place for the future.

And frankly, even with just that group of guys, the Wildcats are likely still going to enter the season as the favorite to win the Big East once again, although that might say more about the Big East than it does about Villanova.

But if they get Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman back, we could be looking at a situation where this is once again the best team in college basketball.

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Let’s start with DiVincenzo, since I think he’s the more likely of the two to return. On the one hand, he might end up being a preseason first-team all-american if he makes the choice to play for Jay Wright for another season, and as such, he’ll likely end up taking over the lion’s share of Villanova’s offense as a result. But more importantly, at least when it comes to the draft, is that DiVincenzo still has some things that he can improve on that would make him a more palatable first round pick. As dynamic as he was this season, Divincenzo has always been a streaky scorer, a mixed bag as a decision-maker and a questionable ball-handler. Those are things that can be improved upon and, with a weaker draft coming up in 2019, the kind of thing that might be able to sneak him into the lottery.

One concerning note: Villanova landed a commitment from grad transfer Joe Cremo. That’s not exactly a promising sign for DiVincenzo, as Cremo more or less plays the same position as him, a spot that Villanova does have depth.

Spellman is a different story. He’s something of a finished product in terms of an NBA prospect. There are things that he can improve on — his post game, for one, and his ability to drive left, another — but the weight loss that he went through in his two seasons as a part of the Villanova program is what turned him into an NBA player. Given his size, his ability to shoot from three, the way he attacks close-outs and the fact that he can protect the rim and rebound the ball now that he’s shed 50 pounds, there is likely a spot for him in an NBA rotation somewhere. And while DiVincenzo can improve where he’s picked by coming back, I think Spellman is always going to find himself in that range of being a late first rounder or an early second rounder.

The catch, however, is that I think Spellman’s return might be more important to Villanova as a team. His skillset is what brings everything together and makes that Villanova offense so difficult to guard.

As it stands, Villanova is currently the No. 2 overall team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25. With both players officially back, I’ll have to think long and hard about whether or not they should be No. 1.

(Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

CALEB MARTIN, CODY MARTIN and JORDAN CAROLINE, Nevada

Should Nevada get all three of these guys back for another season, the Wolf Pack are going to enter the 2018-19 season as a preseason top ten team.

But are they going to get all three of these guys back?

That, at this point, is a major question mark for one, simple reason: After landing commitments from a pair of grad transfers and top 15 recruit Jordan Brown, Eric Musselman currently has a roster with 15 players set to receive scholarships. That’s two over the limit.

All three of these guys are all staring down the barrel of a redshirt senior season, meaning that it will be the fifth year that the three — all of whom transferred into Nevada — will be in college. If they already have their degree, and they are all turning 23 years old in the next year, is a shot at making the Final Four enough incentive to return to school?

For Caroline it might be. As talented as he is, I’m not sure that he gets drafted if he turns pro. Both Martin twins have an actual chance to end up hearing their name called on draft night — Caleb as one of the best shot-makers in college basketball and Cody as a 3-and-D role player — but it would be as second round picks. As we noted last week, that’s not a deterrent from landing a guaranteed deal, and for kids that are on the wrong side of the development curve, starting to earn money might be an attractive option.

If all three are gone, then I think we’re talking about Nevada as a team that is going to be in the back end of the top 25. With all three, the Wolf Pack will probably be the best Mountain West team we’ve seen since Jimmer and Kawhi were tearing the conference up eight years ago.

(Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

KEVIN HUERTER and BRUNO FERNANDO, Maryland

There are so many teams in the Big Ten with so much on the line over the course of the next five weeks, but I’m not sure anyone has more at stake than Maryland, who is still waiting to hear what Huerter and Fernando are going to do.

Let’s pretend, for a second, that both return to school. Huerter — a 6-foot-7 wing that averaged 14.6 points and shot 42 percent from three — joins Anthony Cowan and Darryl Morsell to give the Terps one of the better backcourts in college basketball while Fernando, a native of Angola, would be in line for a breakout sophomore campaign. Throw in a recruiting class that includes transfer Schnider Herard and five-star Jalen Smith up front and promising four-star wings like Eric Ayala, Serrel Smith and Aaron Wiggins, and there is something here for Mark Turgeon to work with.

It’s why Maryland is a top 20 team in our preseason rankings.

But Huerter has some second round appeal this season given his size, length and shooting ability while Fernando, who had some impressive moments as a freshman, is tangentially linked to the FBI investigation into college basketball corruption. Fernando and Kansas freshman Silvio De Sousa as childhood friends that both have the same American guardian. That guardian allegedly received a payout of at least $20,000 to get De Sousa out from under payments he already received from a rival apparel company when he committed to Kansas; De Sousa, who played for Under Armour sponsored high school and AAU teams, was considered a near-lock to head to Maryland, who is Under Armour’s flagship program.

Without those two, Anthony Cowan will take on the role of Melo Trimble, trying to carry the load for the Terps, and I’m not sure he’s cut out for it the way that Trimble was.

(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue

Edwards might end up being the best lead guard in college basketball next season. I would not be surprised to see him end up as a consensus preseason first-team all-american should he end up coming back to school, and if he does, I think Purdue is a borderline top 25 team that will be back in the NCAA tournament. Without him, however, and the Boilermakers will have to replace five starters on a team that really didn’t have much in the way of quality depth. Edwards is the difference between Purdue being a good team and Purdue being in a total rebuild.

ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin

Wisconsin just finished the worst season the program has had in two decades, snapping a 19-year NCAA tournament streak and a 16-year run of top four finishes in the Big Ten. And yet, I feel good about where this team is headed. Much of that, as I noted in this column, has to do with the promising crop of youngsters and the way that they finished last season despite being injured and, you know, young. But much more of it had to do with the idea that Happ, an all-american in 2016-17 and a preseason all-american heading into last season, would be back for his senior year. He is the anchor for this group on both ends of the floor.

JAMES PALMER JR. and ISAAC COPELAND, Nebraska

Palmer was one of the best players in the Big Ten last season, quietly putting together an incredible year that not enough people paid attention to. Copeland had his best season as a collegian last year, and the two of them, the two leading scorers for a team that tied for fourth in the Big Ten last year, are the reason why Nebraska looks like they have a shot to be even better next year. They are a borderline top 25 team that should get Tim Miles back to the NCAA tournament. They are also both transfers that might opt to turn professional with a degree in hand, and if that were to happen, the Cornhuskers are going to be heading back into rebuilding mode.

(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

CHARLES MATTHEWS, Michigan

Michigan is the team that I’ve gotten the most pushback on for leaving out of the NBC Sports preseason top 25. I have them out right now because I’m not convinced that Matthews returns to school and, when combined with losing their two best offensive weapons — Mo Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman — to graduation, would leave Michigan very young and without the kind of offensive firepower that they had this year. Matthews coming back would change that outlook and make the Wolverines more of a finished product than they are without him. Matthews, individually, would be a potential all-american — and top 20 picks — if he were to return and show off an ability to shoot more consistently from three.

MUSTAPHA HERON, BRYCE BROWN, JARED HARPER, and AUSTIN WILEY, Auburn

I’m honestly not sure what to do with Auburn here. It appeared initially that Mustapha Heron would be signing with an agent, but he has told reporters recently that he has not yet signed those papers and is considering returning to school. Without him, it is hard for me to justify to myself ranking the Tigers in the top 15 of the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 even with the success they had last season. When it’s all said and done, they’ll probably be there so long as they get the other three guys back. But if Heron does come back? There would be a case to make for him as a top ten player in the sport next, and the Tigers could legitimately be a preseason top five team and the favorite in an SEC that will include a pair of other top ten teams — Kentucky and Tennessee. And I haven’t even mentioned anything about the FBI yet. There is a lot going on down in Auburn this offseason.

UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas

Azubuike is on this list now because of the fact that Kansas will, more likely than not, be without the services of Silvio De Sousa following the latest reveal in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption. If Azubuike opts to remain in the draft, that means that the five-spot in the Kansas lineup will be manned by Mitch Lightfoot and freshman David McCormack. The reason that Azubuike is so low on this list is that, without him, I would fully expect Kansas to play a smaller, more versatile lineup, and that might actually make them more difficult to matchup with. Put another way, losing Azubuike would have a bigger impact on how Kansas plays instead of how good they actually end up being.

TYUS BATTLE, Syracuse

Battle is a borderline first round pick, a guy that could go anywhere between the 20s and the 40s, depending on which NBA organizations fall in love with him. If he’s back, Syracuse has to be thought of as a potential tournament team because, you know, they were this year without all that much around him. If he’s gone, things could get ugly.

N.C State guard Braxton Beverly out with broken hand

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Kevin Keatts has some decisions to make this season at point guard with a bevy of attractive options with Braxton Beverly, Markell Johnson and Missouri transfer Blake Harris all after minutes this season for N.C. State.

One of those options, though, just got taken off the table for the immediate future.

Beverly, who started 26 games and was second on the Wolfpack in 3s last year, broke a bone in his left hand, the school announced Monday. The sophomore will undergo surgery Tuesday and will be out indefinitely.

The 6-foot guard from Hazard, Ky. averaged 32.4 minutes per game last season, putting up 9.5 points and 3.9 assists against just 1.2 turnovers. He shot 38.5 percent from 3-point range.

The Wolfpack will now lean on Johnson and Harris. Johnson averaged 8.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game. Harris is a former four-star recruit who left Missouri midway through last year, but received a waiver from the NCAA for immediate eligibility.

N.C. State, which made the tournament last season in Keatts’ first year in Raleigh, opens the season Nov. 6 against Mount St. Mary’s

 

Jury deliberates fate of 3 men in college basketball scandal

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NEW YORK (AP) — A jury quietly deliberated for five hours Monday on its first day considering the merits of claims by the government that three men conspired to cheat major college basketball programs by paying young athletes to sign with schools sponsored by Adidas.

Attorneys for the defendants contend their clients broke NCAA rules but no laws.

Deliberations began midday Monday after U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan instructed the jury. Five hours later, jurors went home without sending any notes. They resume work Tuesday morning.

Federal prosecutors have portrayed universities with some of the nation’s best college basketball programs as victims of a group of individuals who arranged to pay the families of top recruits tens of thousands of dollars so young athletes would go to Adidas-sponsored schools.

Prosecutors say the men tricked the schools into giving scholarships to players who should have been ineligible.

The defendants are Adidas sports marketing manager James “Jim” Gatto, aspiring sports agent Christopher Dawkins and Merl Code, a former Adidas consultant.

Their attorneys told jurors over several weeks the government was overreaching when it brought the case against the three men and several others who are awaiting trial, including four former assistant coaches.

They say their clients were trying to help the schools build championship-caliber teams by steering the nation’s best high school athletes their way.

The lawyers argued that financially aiding struggling families of the athletes along the way was part of a process that involved big-brand shoe makers supporting the schools they sponsored in any way they could.

The scandal led to the firing of Coach Rick Pitino at Louisville and attracted scrutiny to other major college basketball programs. Pitino was not charged.

Key transfer ruled eligible to play for Virginia

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Virginia announced on Monday that forward Alabama transfer Braxton Key will be eligible to play for the Cavaliers this season.

Key is a 6-foot-8 junior that spent the first two years of his college career playing for the Crimson Tide. As a freshman, he averaged 12.0 points and 5.7 boards, but he managed just 7.0 points and 5.3 boards in limited time last season after missing the first ten games following knee surgery.

His addition is critical for the Wahoos, as it will allow them to move De’Andre Hunter, a potential all-american, to the position that he is best-suited to playing: The four. It also adds perimeter depth to a roster that frankly did not have all that much. Prior to Key getting his waiver, Virginia’s perimeter depth behind Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome consisted of a sophomore that played in 13 games last season (Marco Anthony), a redshirt freshman and a pair of true freshmen that are anything-but five-star prospects.

Key has his warts as a player. He’s turnover prone, he’s probably not quite as good of a perimeter shooter as he thinks he is and, like Hunter, he’s more of a combo-forward than he is a natural wing or a true four. But A) he can score, B) the fact that he’s a combo-forward is certainly not a killer given he’d spend time paired with Hunter, and C) there shouldn’t be an adjustment for him defensively. In the two seasons that Key was at Alabama, they finished in the top 20 of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric both years.

Preseason AP Top 25 poll released

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Kansas coach Bill Self sees big holes when he looks at his roster after losing three starters, including Associated Press All-American Devonte’ Graham.

The voters in the AP Top 25 poll see something different: a roster restocked so well that Jayhawks will start the season as the nation’s top team.

Kansas checked in at No. 1 in the preseason poll released Monday, earning the top spot to start a season for the third time in program history, all under Self. The Jayhawks topped the ballot for 37 of 65 voters, nearly double that of No. 2 Kentucky.

“Obviously we lost a lot off last year’s team with Devonte’, Svi (Mykhailiuk) and Malik (Newman), so I’m a little surprised that the writers put us there this preseason,” Self said in a statement to the AP. “It’s definitely a spot we welcome and certainly know the goal is to be playing to that ranking by when it counts the most.

“With the young players, we know it’s going to take some time before we’re anywhere close to where we’re going to be, but I do like this team and I think we have a chance to be very good.”

The Jayhawks return veteran starters in junior 7-footer Udoka Azubuike and senior Lagerald Vick from a team that reached its first Final Four since 2012. They’re also adding transfer help from Memphis twins Dedric and K.J. Lawson as well as California’s Charlie Moore — all double-digit scorers on their previous teams.

And yet, the previous two times the Jayhawks started at No. 1 didn’t end well. The 2004-05 squad lost to Bucknell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. And the 2009-10 team that held the top spot for 15 of 19 weeks overall and won 33 games lost to Northern Iowa in the second round.

The ranking comes as the program finds itself entangled in the federal corruption case tied to payments used to steer recruits to certain schools. Testimony during the recent first trials included references to Self and sophomore forward Silvio De Sousa , though Self isn’t charged with wrongdoing and it’s unclear if De Sousa’s status will be affected.

CLEAR CHOICES

Voters established a clear top tier: Kansas, Kentucky, No. 3 Gonzaga and No. 4 Duke. Those four teams appeared in some combination at the top of nearly half the ballots (32 of 65).

John Calipari’s latest group of touted recruits helped the Wildcats earn 19 first-place votes to open as a top-5 team for the eighth straight season.

Gonzaga’s ranking is the program’s highest in a preseason AP poll, though the Zags have reached No. 1 during the regular season before. As for Duke, the Blue Devils had started No. 1 in each of the past two preseason AP polls.

The points gap between the Jayhawks and the Blue Devils (129 points) at fourth was slimmer than between Duke and fellow Atlantic Coast Conference program Virginia (166 points) at No. 5.

FRESH START

Speaking of Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers, one of the biggest things to watch will be how well the Virginia responds to the most historic of tournament losses.

The Cavaliers ended the regular season as the unanimous AP No. 1-ranked team and the No. 1 overall NCAA Tournament seed, yet somehow became the first 1-seed to lose to a No. 16 against UMBC. Bennett said all the right things about learning from that moment. And his team returns Kyle Guy (14.1 points), Ty Jerome (10.6 points) and its best NBA prospect in sophomore De’Andre Hunter.

Virginia has its highest preseason AP ranking since Ralph Sampson’s final team opened at No. 1 in 1982-83.

LOFTY START

The Martin twins are back along with Jordan Caroline, and that has Nevada starting the year with the program’s highest ever AP poll ranking at No. 7 after last year’s NCAA Sweet 16 run .

CHAMPS AT 9

No Jalen Brunson, no Mikal Bridges, no Final Four most outstanding player Donte DiVincenzo. And yet reigning national champion Villanova checks in at No. 9.

The Wildcats still have Eric Paschall and Phil Booth back while adding Albany graduate transfer Joe Cremo. There’s also a bit of respect built into this ranking, both for the stature of program Jay Wright has developed (two national championships in three seasons) and for the Wildcats’ dominating romp through the postseason.

CONFERENCE WATCH

The ACC had the most teams ranked of any conference: Duke, Virginia, No. 8 North Carolina, No. 15 Virginia Tech (its highest spot since the 1995-96 season), No. 16 Syracuse, No. 17 Florida State and No. 22 Clemson.

The Southeastern Conference was next up with five teams: Kentucky, No. 6 Tennessee, No. 11 Auburn (the program’s highest ranking since 2000), No. 18 Mississippi State and No. 23 LSU.

The Big 12 had four (Kansas, No. 12 Kansas State, No. 13 West Virginia and No. 20 TCU), while the Big Ten and Pac-12 each had three, led by No. 10 Michigan State and No. 14 Oregon, respectively.

THE WATCH LIST

Hello again to Porter Moser, Sister Jean and Loyola (Chicago), last year’s Final Four surprise . The Ramblers were only three points behind No. 25 Washington, putting them just outside the poll.

Marquette was next with high-scoring junior Markus Howard back, while Archie Miller’s second year at Indiana has the Hoosiers lurking nearby as well.

Several power-conference teams like Florida, Nebraska, Maryland and Wisconsin could find their way into the poll with a few early wins.

Here is the full poll:

1. Kansas (37 first-place votes)
2. Kentucky (19)
3. Gonzaga (1)
4. Duke (4)
5. Virginia (2)
6. Tennessee (1)
7. Nevada
8. North Carolina
9. Villanova
10. Michigan State
11. Auburn
12. Kansas State
13. West Virginia
14. Oregon
15. Virginia Tech
16. Syracuse
17. Florida State
18. Mississippi State
19. Michigan
20. TCU
21. UCLA
22. Clemson
23. LSU
24. Purdue
25. Washington

Others receiving votes: Loyola of Chicago 162, Marquette 124, Indiana 98, Florida 71, Nebraska 35, Maryland 28, Wisconsin 24, Notre Dame 22, Cincinnati 21, UCF 15, Alabama 15, Arizona 14, Buffalo 14, Louisville 11, Miami 10, San Diego St. 9, Texas Tech 6, Southern Cal 6, Butler 6, Texas 5, St. John’s 3, Arizona St 3, Providence 2, Xavier 2, Davidson 1, Missouri 1, Marshall 1, NC State 1.

No. 5 Villanova: Reigning national champs lose four players to NBA

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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. 5 Villanova.


By now, I think everyone on the planet has figured out that last season’s Villanova team was no fluke.

Villanova finished the 2017-18 offense as the most efficient that we have seen in the KenPom era in college hoops. They may just be the best college basketball team in the one-and-done era.

The only loss they took when they were at full strength last season came when Butler beat them in Hinkle Fieldhouse, and even then Villanova lost by eight despite the fact that the Bulldogs shot 15-for-22 from three.

Villanova had four players taken in the first 33 picks of the 2018 NBA Draft. Three went in the first round, and that did not include the 2018 National Player of the Year, Jalen Brunson, who was their lone second round pick.

It also did not include Eric Paschall, who could very well hear his name called in the first round come this June.

And that is where the discussion for this upcoming season starts.

MOREPreseason Top 25 | NBC Sports All-Americans | Preview Schedule

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VILLANOVA WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

The narrative surrounding Villanova this season is that the Wildcats are too young to compete at the level that we have become accustomed to.

That’s what happens when a team we are used to seeing roll out a lineup that is entirely made up of upper-classmen is staring at a roster that has a majority of freshmen and sophomores.

But what that line of thinking ignores is just how good — and old — the veterans on this team are going to be.

Let’s start with Eric Paschall, a fifth-year senior that many are projecting to put up All-American numbers this year. A potential first round pick, Paschall is a 6-foot-8 athletic freak that shot 46.1 percent from three after a dreadful, 1-for-25 start from distance last season. He scored 24 points in the national semifinals against Kansas and finished the year averaging 10.6 points despite playing on a team with four draft picks on it. He’s won a title, he was a redshirt the year Villanova won the title in 2016 and, as a freshman at Fordham, he averaged 15.9 points.

Long story short: He’s a beast, and he’s ready for his breakout season.

As is Phil Booth, another fifth-year senior for the Wildcats. Booth is a talented combo-guard that has been a critical piece for the Wildcats for half-a-decade. He scored 20 points in the 2016 national title game against North Carolina. He started last season over DiVincenzo. Just this past weekend he put up 41 points on those same Tar Heels in an intrasquad scrimmage between the two programs that have won the last three national titles.

Again, he’s a beast that is ready be the star of this program.

Phil Booth (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

There aren’t two players in the country that are better-suited to provide leadership than those two, and they are doing so in a program that has the best ‘culture’ in all of college basketball. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that Villanova is going to be too young when those two players are on the roster while Duke — who will start four freshmen — and Kentucky — who is “old” because they landed Reid Travis as a transfer — are consensus top four teams.

At some point, I should probably mention Joe Cremo as well. A grad transfer from Albany, Cremo has won a lot of basketball games in his career and should be a perfect fit for the way Villanova wants to play: He’s a shooter with positional versatility to can make read-and-react plays offensively and attack a closeout.

And while the argument that those other programs are more talented than Villanova do hold some validity, that’s ignoring the fact that the Wildcats are talented in their own right. Jahvon Quinerly is a five-star point guard that should push Collin Gillispie for starters’ minutes. Gillispie himself is a point guard that impressed in his limited minutes as a freshman. Cole Swider, at 6-foot-9, is the best shooter in the 2018 freshmen class and a perfect fit for the way that Villanova wants to play. Both Brandon Slater and Saddiq Bey have the kind of size and versatility that Jay Wright loves; Bey scored 23 points and hit five threes in that scrimmage with UNC.

Then there is Jermaine Samuels, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

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BUT VILLANOVA IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

While I fully believe that this Villanova team is going to outperform expectation, the truth is that there is some guesswork involved here.

We’ve seen Booth and Paschall shine in supporting roles in the past, and we’ve seen Villanova players go from being pieces to stars without a problem in the past, but we won’t know how Paschall and Booth are going to perform as the focal point of an offense until we actually see it.

The same can be said about everyone else in this program.

I think that Gillispie is going to be an impact player as a sophomore, but he was also a three-star recruit coming out of high school that is going to be asked to carry a much, much bigger load this season. Quinerly has all the talent in the world, but he’s also a point guard that is best known for making “Jelly-fam” a movement in New York City. Is he less Jalen Brunson than Skip To My Lou at this point in his career? We won’t know until we see him running Villanova’s offense.

Slater and Bey are promising and precisely the kind of projects that take two or three years to develop until Jay Wright. Swider’s shooting is going to get him on the floor immediately, but will he provide the defensive presence that Villanova is going to demand from? Can Dhamir Cosby-Rountree do what Darryl Reynolds did in 2016-17? How will Cremo adjust to playing in the Big East after starting his career in the America East?

Personally, under Jay Wright’s tutelage, I am just going to assume all of these questions are answered with the best-case scenario, or close to it.

But there certainly is a scenario where the players on this roster just are not yet ready to play the roles they are going to be asked to play.

Eric Paschall (Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

The one guy that I haven’t really delved into yet is Jermaine Samuels.

A former top 50 prospect that picked Villanova over Duke, Kansas and Indiana, Samuels is an athletic, 6-foot-6 wing that can guard-up or guard-down, make a three-pointer and attack a closeout. He checks all the boxes for the kind of prospect that Wright has turned into an NBA player — from Dante Cunningham and James Bell to Josh Hart, Mikal Bridges and Darrun Hilliard.

I fully expect Samuels to take that leap … at some point, but I do wonder if it is going to come this season. It sounds like Samuels is destined to be more of a role player than he is a star this year, and just how big of a role he is capable of playing is something that can change the way we view this group.

The biggest concern I have for Villanova is going to be on the defensive end of the floor. This group was somewhere between good and really good defensive for much of last year, but they lose some critical pieces from that group. We don’t know how well these freshmen are going to end up being defensively. Gillispie and Cosby-Rountree don’t exactly profile as elite defensive pieces, and while Booth and Paschall should be fine, the strength of Villanova on that end is more due to the collective than it is any brilliant individual defending. If the collective is a group of average or below-average defensive pieces, that’s an issue.

Which is where Samuels comes in.

Outside of Paschall, he probably has the best tools when it comes to playing the multi-positional, versatility-driven style of defense that Wright has thrived with. If he’s capable of giving 20-25 really good minutes this season, it will make Villanova better defensively. If he starts to look like he’s ready to ‘make the leap’, suddenly Villanova is much more dangerous.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

At the very least, Villanova once again looks like the overwhelming favorite to win the Big East again after their four-year reign of terror over the conference was snapped last season by Xavier.

But that said more about the Big East than it does about the Wildcats.

What it all comes down to for Villanova is how quickly the underclassmen reach a point where they can play like upperclassmen. How steep is Quinerly’s learning curve at the point? Will Gillispie truly be the new Ryan Arcidiacono? Will Paschall and Booth take the step forward and play like they deserve placement on first-team all-Big East?

I think Villanova has Final Four upset, and I just invested some money in Villanova (+3,000) to win the national title. That’s how bullish I am on them.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 6 Nevada
No. 7 Tennessee
No. 8 Virginia
No. 9 North Carolina
No. 10 Auburn
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