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ACC Conference Reset: Get caught up on everything that’s happened this offseason

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone, and there are a dozen or so truly impactful decisions that are left to be made.

Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season.

The coaching carousel has come to a close.

The transfer market is slowly winding down.

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2018-19 season.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the ACC over the next six months.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

HOW WILL THESE DUKE FRESHMEN FIT TOGETHER?: To me, this is probably the most important storyline of college basketball’s offseason that does not involve the FBI or an NBA draft decision. On paper, this Duke team is going to be as talented as any team that we’ve seen in college basketball in recent memory. They have three of the consensus top five prospects — including the top two — coming into the program as well as the top point guard in the class. Those players they are adding (R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Zion Williamson, Tre Jones, Joey Baker) combined with some of the pieces already on the roster (Javin DeLaurier, Alex O’Connell) give the Blue Devils a roster that looks an awful lot like some of the NBA teams that are thriving in these playoffs. They finally have a steady point guard to replace Tyus Jones, and they surround him with big wings that are skilled and multi-positional defenders.

Put another way, this Duke team is built in a mold that is more similar to the Boston Celtics, the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors that anyone has been willing to mention. Hell, you can connect a lot of dots between the way that Villanova has been built in recent years and the way that Duke can, in theory, play this season.

That does not, however, mean that this experiment is going to work. For starters, the tie that binds all of those teams together is elite-level three-point shooting, and that’s not something that this Duke roster is going to have in abundance. The other part of it is on the defensive end of the floor. Just because players are switchable doesn’t guarantee that they are going to understand defensive concepts, be able to read where they are supposed to rotate to defensively or even be able to guard. There are plenty of great athletes that just don’t care about defending well.

Duke has had back-to-back ridiculous recruiting classes, and in those two seasons they’ve lost 12 ACC games and haven’t made it past the Elite Eight. Is this the year it all comes together?

JUST HOW GOOD IS NASSIR LITTLE?: At this point, I’m assuming that Luke Maye is not only coming back to school but that he will be the most accomplished returnee in the country. If you think that’s a weird think to say, imagine writing it. (More on Maye below.) But I’m not sure that Maye is going to be the best player on the Tar Heels next season, and that’s mostly because Nassir Little just won’t stop getting better.

Little had something of a tumultuous path to North Carolina. He was thought to be a heavy Arizona lean before the FBI’s investigation tied him to a deal that a Miami coach was allegedly working on to funnel his family $150,000 from Adidas in exchange for a commitment. He committed to North Carolina as a top 15ish prospect that did not have the greatest motor, jump shot or reputation for working hard. That’s changed. His was sensational during his senior season and on the all-star circuit, and suddenly he’s being talked about as a potential top three pick in the 2019 draft. A 6-foot-7 wing with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and the tools to guard bigger and smaller players, he’s turned into a star in a role that is becoming increasingly more valuable in modern basketball.

If he lives up to the hype, the Tar Heels are going to be in the mix for an ACC title.

CHRIS MACK SETTLING IN AT LOUISVILLE: Louisville made the hire of the offseason, reaching into Cincinnati and pulling Mack out of his alma mater, Xavier. Mack is a top ten coach in the sport, but given what Louisville has lost — Deng Adel, Ray Spalding, Rick Pitino, the 2013 title banner, their pride, their dignity, their recruiting class — the rebuilding (reloading?) job that Mack has in front of him is going to be large.

A big reason for that is due to the looming NCAA investigation into everything that happened with Brian Bowen and Rick Pitino. Who knows how long that is going to take to play out and whether or not the possibility of a postseason ban or the stink of a scandal that involved hookers on recruiting visits is going to limit who the Cardinals can get involved with on the trail. Mack will be hitting the road in July for his first summer with the Cards. It will be very interesting to see who he targets in the Class of 2019, and which targets are willing to hear him out.

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IS TYUS BATTLE COMING BACK TO SCHOOL?: Of all the stay-or-go decisions that are left to be made in the ACC, Battle’s is going to be the most important. The 6-foot-6 Syracuse guard averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore last season despite playing on a team that didn’t have another source of offense and played a pace that rivaled that of Virginia’s as the slowest in the league. Jim Boeheim really needs him back, and if he returns, there’s an argument to be made that the Orange are a top 25 team. O’Shae Brissett would be back in the fold and there is size, athleticism and wingspan at every position on the court the Orange zone might be impenetrable.

But all of that is assuming Battle is back.

Because if he’s gone, then Syracuse might struggle to crack 60 points per game next season.

WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE LEAGUE: There are seemingly a half-dozen teams that are not ACC title contenders but sure do look like they can be top 25 teams: Florida State, Virginia Tech, N.C. State, Clemson, Syracuse and Louisville. Who gets what back and adds which transfers? We’ll get into all that below.

WHO’S GONE?

  • ALL FIVE STARTERS, Duke: Duke will, once again, look entirely different next year. Their four star freshmen all declared for the draft and signed with an agent while Grayson Allen, the lone senior on last year’s roster, has graduated.
  • JOEL BERRY II, North Carolina: Berry had a long and illustrious career with the Tar Heels, winning a national title, making another national title game and playing a starring role for what felt like the better part of a decade. It’s going to be weird seeing UNC play without his hair bouncing around, bringing the ball up the floor.
  • MATT FARRELL and BONZIE COLSON, Notre Dame: It really is a shame how last season played out for the Fighting Irish, because these two — specifically Colson — deserved better than a senior season that ended in an injury-plagued trip to the NIT.
  • DENG ADEL and RAY SPALDING, Louisville: What separates these two from anyone else on this list is that they are not a) likely to get drafted or b) a senior. It would have ben nice for new Louisville head coach Chris Mack to have a pair of talented, all-ACC caliber seniors leading his roster next season. That is not going to be the case.
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WHO’S BACK?

  • LUKE MAYE, North Carolina: Maye averaged 16.9 points, 10.1 boards and 2.4 assists while shooting 43 percent from three on 116 attempts, finishing his junior season as an all-american one year after winning a national title in a tournament where he hit the shot that sent his team to the Final Four. That’s not bad, and it’s the reason that he is going to enter the 2018-19 season as a candidate for National Player of the Year and arguably the best returning player in college basketball.
  • DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia: For my money, the single-most important decision that has been made in regards to the NBA draft was Hunter’s decision to return to school for his redshirt sophomore season. There’s a chance that, as more of a focal point of Virginia’s offense, he could end up becoming a top ten pick in the draft. That’s a good thing for him. But he’s also the connecting piece to Virginia’s defense that allows them to match up with teams that go small. I fleshed that thought out more here, but suffice to say, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he was out of the lineup when the Cavaliers lost to UMBC as a No. 1 seed.
  • EVERYONE, Virginia Tech: The Hokies bring back seven of their top eight players from last season, including Justin Robinson, Chris Clarke, Kerry Blackshear. But the key for this team’s ceiling is going to be the development of their rising sophomore class: Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Wabissa Bede, P.J. Horne. We know how good Clarke, Robinson and Blackshear are, but if those three — specifically Alexander-Walker — take a step forward we could be looking at a top ten team.
  • ALMOST EVERYONE, Florida State: The Seminoles are coming off of a run to the Elite Eight as a No. 9 seed in which they upset No. 1 seed Xavier and played a brand of basketball that involved a lot of pressing, a lot of defensive versatility and enough perimeter firepower that they should enter this season as a top 20 team.

WHO’S COMING?

  • A NEW STARTING FIVE, Duke: paragraph
  • NASSIR LITTLE, North Carolina:
  • JAYLEN HOARD, Wake Forest:

COACHING CHANGES

  • CHRIS MACK, Louisville: For my money, Mack is one of the ten best coaches in college basketball. He’s young, he’s a high-level recruiter, he understands how to run a program in that part of the country, he’s dealt with a passionate fanbase at a basketball school. This was the hire, and Louisville got it done.
  • JEFF CAPEL, Pittsburgh: I think Capel is a good coach and a very good recruiter who doesn’t get enough credit for the job he did at VCU or at Oklahoma before everything blew up in his face post-Blake Griffin. He was overdue to get another shot at a high-major gig, and Pitt was able to land him. But I also think that Capel is going to have a nightmare of a time trying to rebuild this program, if, for no other reason, than the simple fact that Pitt is not what they once were. They’ve been to seven Sweet 16s in program history, and five of them came in a seven-year period from 2002-09. That was when the Panthers, who have no recruiting base to speak of, were pulling kids out of New York City with the pitch of being able to play in the Big East. Now? They’re in the ACC. That sale isn’t going to work, which means that Capel has to find a way to convince players to join a program that went 0-18 in the ACC last season.

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-ACC TEAM

DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia (POY)
R.J. BARRETT, Duke
CAM REDDISH, Duke
LUKE MAYE, UNC
NASSIR LITTLE, UNC

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. DUKE: As I wrote earlier, I have no idea whether or not it is all going to come together for Duke this season. What I do believe, however, is that this is the most talented team in the conference, and with the league’s other contenders losing key pieces, Duke should be the favorite to win their first regular season title since 2010.

2. VIRGINIA: I’m not worried about what happened in the NCAA tournament last year, but I am worried about how that is going to affect this group. An embarrassing loss like that is the kind of thing that can damage confidence and hang in the back of someone’s mind for a long time. Getting De’Andre Hunter back is incredibly important, and Tony Bennett’s teams are always going to defend, but it will be interesting to see just how bad the hangover ends up being.

3. NORTH CAROLINA: The key to the Tar Heel season is going to end up being their incoming freshman. Is Nassir Little as good as advertised? Can Coby White handle point guard duties? I think that there is going to be a sophomore big on their roster than can handle the big man duties, and Luke Maye is going to be awesome again. It’s those connecting pieces that I’m worried about.

4. VIRGINIA TECH: This is when it starts getting interesting in the ACC standings. I’m very high on this Virginia Tech team — I have them 11th nationally right now — but part of me is concerned over whether or not the pieces they are bringing back have maxed out on their talent. Does bringing back seven of your top eight from a borderline top 25 team make you an ACC title contender?

5. FLORIDA STATE: I was not sold on Florida State at all heading into the NCAA tournament. Now I have them 14th in my preseason top 25. I’m not really sure what to make of this group, but they have a nice combination of returning talent and players that can take a big step forward — M.J. Walker, Mfiondu Kabengele.

6. N.C. STATE: The Wolfpack lost a couple of valuable front court pieces, but they are going to be loaded with talented guards while playing for a coach that thrived running a pressing system at UNC Wilmington. They should be fun to watch.

7. CLEMSON: It’s tough to know precisely what to make of the Tigers without knowing where Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed are going to be playing next season.

8. LOUISVILLE: Losing Deng Adel and Ray Spalding is going to be brutal. There is some young talent on this roster, and the Chris Mack factor will help, but the more I think about this group the less confident I am that they are going to be a top 25 team.

9. NOTRE DAME: Losing two four-year seniors like Farrell and Colson is a nightmare, although I do think that Temple Gibbs, D.J. Harvey and Juwan Durham is a solid core to build around. That said, this happens every year, and I’m going to regret this ranking, I know.

10. SYRACUSE: If Tyus Battle returns, the Orange might be closer to top seven. If he doesn’t, they might end up in the bottom four. This seems like a happy medium.

11. MIAMI: I’m not quite sure what to make of the Hurricanes right now. Losing the talent that they lost is not going to be easy to replace, but they’ve added a few transfers and they still have Chris Lykes and Dewan Huell. Having them 11th here doesn’t mean I can’t see them making an NCAA tournament.

12. WAKE FOREST: I know they have some talent coming into the program and that there is some talent leftover on the roster from last season, but I bought into Wake last season and that burned me. I’ll believe it when I see it.

13. GEORGIA TECH: Losing Ben Lammers hurts. Losing Josh Okogie would hurt even more.

14. BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles had a chance to make some noise if they had gotten Jerome Robinson back. Now that he’s gone? I don’t know.

15. PITT: Good luck, Coach Capel.

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

MOREMid-Major Power Rankings The Hot Seat | Perry Ellis All-Stars

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