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Re-ranking the 2009 recruiting class

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July’s live recruiting period, the last of its kind, just finished up, meaning that the Class of 2019 have fully had a chance to prove themselves to the recruiters and the recruitniks around the country.

Scholarships were earned and rankings were justified over the course of those three weekends, but scholarship offers and rankings don’t always tell us who the best players in a given class will end up being.

Ask Steph Curry.

Over the course of the coming weeks, we will be re-ranking eight recruiting classes, from 2007-2014, based on what they have done throughout their post-high school career. 

Here are the 25 best players from the Class of 2009, with their final Rivals Top 150 ranking in parentheses:

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1. Kawhi Leonard (48)

Despite a controversial 2017-18 season and a forced trade to the Toronto Raptors this offseason, Leonard is still only 27 years old and arguably the best two-way wing in the NBA. A former NBA champion and Finals MVP, Leonard has two first-team All-NBA selections to go along with winning Defensive Player of the Year twice. In a significantly weaker Eastern Conference, the Raptors are hoping Leonard gives them the edge to finally make a Finals push.

2. John Wall (1)

Wall has ascended into a perennial NBA All-Star and playoff performer as he’s become one of the best floor generals in the league. Putting up great numbers and making clutch plays during the 2017 NBA Playoffs, Wall also made an All-NBA team (third team in 2017) and an All-NBA Defensive Team (second team in 2015) within the last three years. Although Wall made some key plays in the playoffs, the Wizards have struggled to make a significant dent in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

3. DeMarcus Cousins (2)

Arguably the top player in this class from a pure talent perspective, Cousins has molded into a new-age threat in the middle. With his combination of inside ability, and an improved perimeter game, Cousins became a nightly triple-double threat for the Pelicans last season until a torn Achilles’ ended his 2017-18 campaign prematurely. Although Cousins has made two All-NBA Second Teams and four all-star games, he hasn’t played in a postseason game since Kentucky was eliminated by West Virginia during the 2010 Elite Eight. Cousins made a controversial decision to sign a one-year deal with the Golden State Warriors this offseason as he chases his first postseason appearance.

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4. C.J. McCollum (UR)

It took two seasons for McCollum to crack the starting lineup in Portland, but he’s thrived as an efficient 20-point-per-game scorer over the past several seasons. Forming one of the league’s best backcourts with point guard Damian Lillard, McCollum was the league’s Most Improved Player and also led the NBA in free-throw percentage during one season.

5. Khris Middleton (140)

Quietly one of the best two-way wings in the NBA, Middleton put up great numbers during the 2017-18 season after a left hamstring injury sidelined him for much of the previous season. Middleton averaged 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game last season as he didn’t miss a single game for the Bucks. Also stepping up his play in the 2018 NBA Playoffs, Middleton scored 24.7 points per game and shot 61 percent from three-point range in the seven-game series loss to the Boston Celtics.

6. Hassan Whiteside (87)

A classic late-blooming big man, Whiteside has become one of the NBA’s most productive big men over the last few seasons. Leading the league in blocks and rebounds during a season within the past three years, Whiteside puts up some monster numbers with the Miami Heat. But the perception of Whiteside might have changed in the postseason this year. Whiteside struggled to stay on the floor thanks to his lack of floor-spacing as he only played 15 minutes per game during the Heat’s first-round exit.

7. Eric Bledsoe (23)

Bledsoe has become a solid mid-level starter at point guard as he helped lead the Bucks back into the NBA Playoffs after a mid-season trade from the Phoenix Suns. Putting up solid all-around numbers during the past few seasons, Bledsoe emerged into a reputable scorer and distributor once the Clippers moved him to the Suns a few seasons ago. Although Bledsoe has put up numbers, he hasn’t played in many postseason games to this point in his career. Bledsoe was also soundly outplayed by the Celtics’ Terry Rozier during stretches of the first round.

8. Avery Bradley (4)

Just finishing a lost season between Detroit and the Clippers, Bradley was one of the key pieces in the revival of the Celtics the past few seasons. Known mostly for his perimeter defense, as he’s a two-time All-NBA Defensive Team member, Bradley has also improved his offense to become a consistent double-figure scorer and solid three-point threat. Bradley re-signed with the Clippers this offseason as he’s hoping for a bounceback 2018-19 campaign.

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9. Derrick Favors (3)

A consistent piece in the Utah Jazz frontcourt, Favors has been a double-figure performer and key rotation player on a playoff team the past two seasons. Although Favors never developed into a consistent scorer after a positive start to his pro career, he is a beyond serviceable big man who has improved as a shot blocker at the NBA level. Favors just re-signed with Utah this offseason to a 2-year, $36 million deal, as he’s also one of the highest-paid players on this list.

10. Kelly Olynyk (UR)

With his ability to play inside and outside, Olynyk has become a valuable reserve big man who signed a four-year, $50 million deal with the Miami Heat last offseason. Since Olynyk can knock down three-pointers, his versatility has enhanced lineups he’s played with in Boston and Miami as he’s one of the best backup big men in the NBA.

11. John Henson (5)

Spending his entire six-year run with the Milwaukee Bucks, Henson is a frontcourt rotation member for a playoff contender. A solid shot-blocker who spent much of this season as a starter, Henson is content to be a rim protector and limited scorer on a team filled with offensive weapons. Unfortunately for Henson, he battled some back issues with the NBA Playoffs as he had to miss most of the Celtics series.

12. Mason Plumlee (55)

A former All-American and four-year guy at Duke, Plumlee has been a solid rotation big man in the Western Conference. After starting his career with the Brooklyn Nets — which included a selection on the 2014 FIBA World Cup team — Plumlee was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers, and eventually, the Denver Nuggets. Plumlee averaged nearly 20 minutes a game and put up decent stats for Denver this past season (7.1 points, 5.4 rebounds per game) as he’s in the midst of a three-year, $41-million contract.

13. Lance Stephenson (11)

The up-and-down pro career of Stephenson has been fascinating to follow. At one point, Stevenson was a triple-double threat for the Indiana Pacers as he had some fierce battles with LeBron in the Playoffs. Then Stevenson left the Pacers, and played for a staggering six teams in three seasons before regaining some of his previous form as a role player with Indiana. In a strange twist, Stephenson has signed with the Lakers this offseason, as he’ll be teammates with James, his former rival.

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14. Alec Burks (UR)

At one point, Burks looked like a potential double-figure scorer as he was one of the bright, young pieces the Utah Jazz were building around. But Burks has fallen out of favor the past few seasons, as he only appeared in 64 games in 2017-18 as Donovan Mitchell fever swept through Utah. Burks did find a way to become more consistent in the NBA Playoffs this season.

15. Mike Muscala (UR)

Not many would have pegged Muscala as a steady NBA big man at this point in his career. But he spent five seasons on the Atlanta Hawks before getting traded to the Philadelphia 76ers this offseason. The big man has been able to stick in the league thanks in-part to his 37 percent career three-point percentage.

16. Rodney McGruder (84)

McGruder came out of nowhere to start 65 games for the Miami Heat during the 2016-17 season, as he proved himself to be an NBA-caliber player. A stress fracture in his left leg limited McGruder to only 16 games with the Heat last season. McGruder is in the midst of a three-year deal.

17. Tim Frazier (109)

A reserve point guard on the Wizards this past season, the former Penn State product has grinded to stay in the league. Frazier has played for five teams in four NBA seasons, as he averaged close to 15 minutes per game playing behind John Wall this past season.

18. Solomon Hill (27)

It took some time for Hill to find his way into the league, but he earned his stripes as a frontcourt rotation member with the Pacers and Pelicans. Known more as a defensive presence, Hill only played in 12 games for the Pelicans last season as he was recovering from a torn hamstring.

19. Isaiah Canaan (UR)

Canaan has played in parts of five NBA seasons with five teams, as he played 19 games for the Phoenix Suns last season. Canaan had some solid games for the Suns, before they released him in late January when he fractured his left ankle. The Suns have re-signed Canaan for the 2018-19 season.

20. C.J. Wilcox (108)

Playing in parts of three NBA seasons for the Clippers and Magic, Wilcox has bounced between the G League and the NBA. Wilcox missed all of last season after right knee surgery as he was on a two-way contract with Portland. The Pacers recently signed Wilcox to a two-way contract for the 2018-19 season.

21. Travis Wear (60)

Out of the NBA for two seasons after playing for the Knicks during his rookie campaign in 2014-15, Wear grinded his way back into the league this past season, as he appeared in 17 games for the Lakers. The Lakers were so impressed with Wear’s performance that they signed him for the rest of the season. He’ll start the 2018-19 season on a two-way contract with the Lakers.

22. Brandon Paul (42)

Another late-bloomer who grinded late into the NBA, Paul played in Russia, Spain and Turkey before latching on with the San Antonio Spurs on a fully-guaranteed contract last season. Paul appeared in 64 games for the Spurs as he put 2.3 points per game. The Spurs opted to waive Paul on July 31, making him a free agent.

23. Derrick Williams (UR)

The former No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft hasn’t found a way to consistently stick in the league as he’s bounced around the league the past few seasons. After playing in 50 games with the Heat and Cavaliers in 2016-17, Williams signed a 10-day contract with the Lakers this past season, as he only appeared in two games.

24. Thomas Robinson (31)

Another former top-five pick who washed out of the league prematurely, Robinson last played in the NBA during the 2016-17 campaign when he suited up for the Lakers. After playing for six NBA teams during his career, Robinson signed on to play professional in Russia last season.

25. Hollis Thompson (63)

Thompson spent four seasons with the 76ers and a brief stint with New Orleans before moving on to Greek powerhouse Olympiacos last season. At the height of his NBA career, Thompson averaged 9.8 points per game while averaging 28.0 minutes per contest for the 2015-16 76ers.

(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

FIVE NOTABLES THAT DIDN’T MAKE THE TOP 25

Renardo Sidney (16)

Still regarded, to this day, as one of the most talented high school underclassmen of his generation, Sidney was never able to sustain any sort of consistency when it came to basketball. After washing out at Mississippi State, Sidney tried to join on with the G League and a Venezuelan pro league. At least Sidney can claim he was, at one point, a No. 1 pick. The Compton Airmen of the California Basketball Association drafted Sidney No. 1 overall in 2016.

Royce White (19)

The former Houston Rockets first-round pick has been more notable for his mental health advocacy than his pro playing career. White did start to make some waves in the basketball world when he won MVP of the Canadian NBL during the 2016-17 season. Helping the London Lightning to a league championship that season, White’s issues re-appeared the following season. In April, in the midst of the NBL playoffs, White was suspended 11 games for a verbal outburst towards an official and the deputy commissioner of the league. White signed to play in Italy for next season.

Jordan Hamilton (6)

The highest-ranked player out of high school to be left off this list, Hamilton played parts of five seasons in the NBA before starting his overseas career. Hamilton has spent time in Russia, Turkey, Israel, Italy and Venezuela during his well-traveled professional career.

Xavier Henry (8)

At one time regarded as the No. 1 player in this high school class, Henry spent parts of five seasons in the NBA before playing in the G League the last several years. Henry last appeared in the NBA in the 2014-15 season when he appeared in nine games for the Lakers.

John Jenkins (15)

A first-round pick of the Phoenix Suns after three years at Vanderbilt, Jenkins was never able to carve out a role as a deep-shooting threat. After four seasons in the NBA, Jenkins eventually made his way over to Spain.

 

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