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2018-19 Big 12 Preview: Kansas and everybody else, once again

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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.

Today, we are previewing the Big 12 Conference.


Ah, the Big 12. It’s the league that has spent the last five years as the top-rated conference by KenPom, and usually by a wide margin. Seventy percent of its membership made the NCAA tournament last season, with a total of 90 percent playing in the postseason. Its teams won 60 percent of its games against other power conferences. Six players were selected in the NBA draft for the third consecutive year. The league is a running, dribbling, dunking, winning monster.

It also has been singularly, completely and, I’d argue, embarrassingly dominated by a single team for 14 consecutive years.

It’s not Kansas and the Little Nine, but to say the Jayhawks aren’t in a class of their own is sort of like arguing the sun is just another piece of our solar system.

The separation this looks to be significant enough that the annual head-meet-wall exercise of “Who will dethrone Kansas?” seems to be more of a futile exercise than typical.

Kansas is going to win the conference. It’ll be the 15th-consecutive time. They’re going to better than the numerous storied, proud and accomplished programs in the league.

Again.

We’re not far off from an enrolling a freshman class literally not knowing a world without the Jayhawks winning the Big 12. No matter how good the rest of the nine teams in the conference all may be any year, that’s a tough reality to swallow every single year.

Udoka Azubuike (John Weast/Getty Images)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Kansas reaches a singularity

The last half-decade or so of college basketball has produced essentially three paths to competing at the highest levels of the sport. You can accumulate five-star, one-and-done freshmen. Another way is to round up high-level transfers. Then there’s this other way of having players contribute and play for, and hear me out on this, multiple years on the same team and stepping into bigger and bigger roles.

Kansas just said eff it and did all three.

The Jayhawks have a top-five recruiting class featuring five-stars Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson while putting together maybe one of the more fearsome transfer groups ever with Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson and Charlie Moore. Then there’s Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick, both Final Four starters, plus Mitch Lightfoot, back for more. The Jayhawks may not be Duke, they may not be Nevada and they may not be Villanova, but they basically are a mashup of all the best talent-acquisition and roster-building strategies.

It’s easy to see why the rest of the league ends up on its back seeing stars while the Jayhawks pull away the Big 12 trophy every season. Kansas just does it better.

2. Kansas State runs it back

It took something like 500 words to get here, but I’m actually going to discuss – actually even just name – a Big 12 team other than Kansas now.

Let’s head west to Manhattan, where Bruce Weber has his entire team back after a surprise Elite Eight run. It’s a rather astounding turnaround for a coaching tenure that looked cooked in February 2017 when Kansas State had lost eight of 10, looked primed to miss the NCAA tournament for the third-straight year and Weber was under intense pressure.

Dean Wade is a legitimate All-American candidate, Barry Brown isn’t far behind and Xavier Sneed, Carter Diarra and Kamau Stokes are all proven Big 12 difference-makers. The Wildcats are going to have a level of continuity that is exceedingly – maybe entirely – rare in college hoops today. If that stability can keep them strong defensively – they make opponents grind out possessions when they’re not turning them over – and make strides offensively – they ranked outside the top-100 in eFG% last year – then Weber and the Wildcats might have a busy March once again.

Dean Wade (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

3. Is the honeymoon over in Austin?

It took four seasons after an earth-shaking Final Four appearance for a school to pull Shaka Smart away from VCU. Texas fans have to be hoping that’s exactly how long it takes for him to live up to expectations in Austin.

Smart has gotten the Longhorns to two NCAA tournaments in three years, but both resulted in first-round exits. In between those Big Dances in 2016 and 2018, Texas finished dead-last in the Big 12. It’s basically undeniable that Smart’s best season with Texas was on the strength of a roster compiled by a guy run out of town for not winning enough (that guy won an SEC title last year, by the way).

It’s probably not wholly accurate to say Smart is on the hot seat – most Texas fans probably won’t remember they have a basketball team until Tom Herman’s squad stops playing – but given his contract and Texas’ resources, it’s more than fair to expect something better than what he’s delivered in three years. The Longhorns have talent this season despite losing Mo Bamba with Jericho Sims, Matt Coleman, Kerwin Roach and Dylan Osetkowski all back while Andrew Jones continues his valiant battle with leukemia and holds out hope to be back on the floor. There’s also a top-10 recruiting class and Mount. St. Mary’s transfer Elijah Mitrou-Long. That’s probably not a roster that’ll wreak havoc on the Big 12, but it should be good enough to keep fans from fixating on spring football in February.

4. Mountaineer Machine

After two lackluster years to start its Big 12 tenure, West Virginia morphed into Press Virginia and Bob Huggins’ team hasn’t looked back. There have been standout players like Juwan Staten, Jaysean Paige, and Jevon Carter, but the strength has been the system for the Mountaineers. That’ll be put to the test this year again with the loss of Carter, a national defensive player of the year and All-American, but Huggins should once again have the bodies to throw weight around the Big 12.

Sagaba Konate may be the most entertaining defensive player in the whole country. The 6-foot-8 forward has wingspan and vert for days, plus a panache for the dramatic. The guy just seems to love blocking dunks and snatching shots out of mid-air. Esa Ahmad had a breakout sophomore campaign before academic issues upended his season last year, but a return to form is in order and would be a huge boon for the Mountaineers on both ends of the floor. Those are the headliners, but Huggs will again be able to roll out waves of talented and tough dudes that’ll be a menace in the Big 12.

5. Will there be any federal fallout?

Three Big 12 programs have become embroiled to varying degrees in the federal investigation into corruption in college basketball that rocked the sport more than a year ago, reverberated throughout last season and continues to send aftershocks with testimony ongoing in the Southern District of New York.

Brian Bowen Sr. alleged under oath that agent/runner Christian Dawkins told him Texas was willing to “help” with housing if his son, top-30 recruit Brian Jr., joined the Longhorns while Oklahoma State was offering $150,000 in cash, $8,000 for a car and more to buy a house. Cowboys associate head coach Lamont Evans was one of 10 arrested last fall, and was fired by the school.

The potential involvement and rule-breaking by Texas and Oklahoma State is certainly noteworthy and interesting, but the question that hangs over the conference is just how exposed Kansas may be. The Jayhawks are one of adidas’ flagship programs, and the three-stripes are knee-deep in federal investigators. There’s already been testimony that former Jayhawk Billy Preston got money, and there’s also under-oath statements saying that not only did current KU sophomore Silvio De Sousa as well, but that the Angola native previously had signed a pro deal with a Spanish club as well. De Sousa played in the Final Four last season, which would seem to imperil that banner at Allen Fieldhouse, at minimum.

So far, there have been no bombshells of alleged wrongdoing by coach Bill Self and the Jayhawks – especially when judged against a backdrop of fans increasingly caring less about players getting paid – but that possibility seems to be the biggest what-if still out there in a federal case that we’ve learned has spanned more than three years now.

Dedric Lawson (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

PRESEASON BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas

There are two fan bases that are indebted to the Lawson family. Really, the entire season of 2018-19 owes them thanks. If it wasn’t for Keelon Lawson getting demoted from assistant by Tubby Smith, Memphis might not have its electrifying alum, Penny Hardaway, at the helm of the program and Kansas might not be a popular preseason No. 1 pick. Those are two of the most interesting storylines this season and a testament to how good Dedric Lawson is.

The 6-foot-9 transfer averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.2 steals and 2.1 blocks per game as a sophomore for the Tigers, but left his hometown for Lawrence, along with his talented brother K.J., after Smith dumped their dad before getting dumped by Memphis. He now gives Bill Self one of the most productive and versatile players in the country to headline one of the most talented rosters in the country. Must be nice.

THE REST OF THE BIG 12 FIRST TEAM

  • SAGABA KONATE, West Virginia: The rare player who is it is actually exciting to watch play defense, Konate changes games with his work at the rim.
  • DEAN WADE, Kansas State: The 6-foot-10 senior is effective inside and out, which helps keep the Wildcats’ offense from bogging down.
  • QUENTIN GRIMES, Kansas: This is a bet Kansas leans on the Team USA’s MVP at the FIBA U18 Americas Championship at guard.
  • BARRY BROWN, Kansas State: The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 15.9 points per game last season and will be critical in the Wildcats’ quest to backup last year’s Elite Eight season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • LINDELL WIGGINTON, Iowa State
  • UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas
  • JAYLEN FISHER, TCU
  • MAKAI MASON, Baylor
  • KERWIN ROACH, Texas
Jarrett Culver (Elsa/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith stole the show for Texas Tech’s resurgent season and Elite Eight showing under Chris Beard, but Jarrett Culver was no slouch and figures to step into the void created by those two stars’ departures. He averaged 11.2 points per game and shot 38.2 percent from 3-point range. With a bigger role, he could put up major numbers in Lubbock.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

Aside from Smart for the aforementioned reasons, the Big 12 doesn’t have any coach who is explicitly feeling the heat. So if we dig below the surface (and, yes, stretch some), there are a few things to talk about.

It’s probably worth watching to see what happens with Kansas and the government’s corruption case, but the list of more bulletproof coaches than Bill Self probably isn’t longer than Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams. Mike Boynton was on staff when Oklahoma State was allegedly offering the Bowen family money, and his contract (and short, if surprisingly strong, track record) would make him easily expendable if the Cowboys had to. Steve Prohm went to back-to-back NCAA tournaments, won a Big 12 tournament and got to the Sweet 16 in his first two years with Iowa State but that was exclusively with players Fred Hoiberg brought to Ames, and when the roster turned over last year, the Cyclones sunk to last place. Prohm’s talent pool is much improved and he’s got plenty of goodwill with administration, but if the Cyclones aren’t back to relevance after missing the tournament for the first time since 2011, some impatience could bubble up.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

Kansas is once again the Big 12’s best – and maybe only – hope for winning its first national title since 2008, but the league’s depth is once again one of – and maybe the – best in the country.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

The inevitable collision between the Super Slam Swatter Sagaba Konate and Soul-Snatching Slammer Lindell Wigginton.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Dec. 15, Kansas vs. Villanova
  • Jan. 26, Kansas vs. Kentucky
  • Nov. 9, West Virginia vs. Buffalo
  • Nov. 22, Texas vs. North Carolina
  • Dec. 20, Texas Tech vs. Duke
Sagaba Konate (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. KANSAS: Because there simply has been enough written about the Jayhawks in this space, here’s some more to consider about Kansas’ streak.

The last time the Jayhawks shared the Big 12 title: It was 2013, with Kansas State in Bruce Weber’s first season leading the Wildcats and playing the Jayhawks to a draw. Back then, Perry Ellis was a freshman, twerking was a thing people talked about a lot, Ben McLemore looked like a future NBA star, the power went out at the Super Bowl and Jeff Withey shot 100 percent (1-1) from 3-point range.

The last time there was a non-Kansas outright Big 12 winner: It was 2004. Eddie Sutton led Oklahoma State to a a 14-2 mark in the Big 12 and the Final Four. Those were the days when Kansas rolled with a Wayne Simien and Keith Langford 1-2 punch, everyone was quoting ‘Anchorman,’ Jameer Nelson was the national player of the year and MySpace and Facebook began their battle for friends. Which reminds me that ‘Friends’ was still on TV then, too.

2. KANSAS STATE: So I think Kansas State is going to be quite good. I think it’s clear going into the season that they have to be slotted as the second-best team in the Big 12. They’ve got continuity and talent. Stability and skill. Let’s indulge, for a moment, though, that maybe we’ve got them overrated some.

Would everyone be so high on the Wildcats if UMBC accomplish the 16-1 miracle and they instead had to face No. 1 overall seed Virginia? What if Arizona had actually played up to its talent level and gotten by Buffalo and Kentucky, to face Kansas State instead of a good-but-not-great John Calipari team? Kansas State, after all, was ultimately beat by a team that had losses to Milwaukee and Indiana State, although admittedly it was a team was from Chicago that had the backing of a nun, so Loyola could have been on a mission from God.

I dunno. Something to think about.

3. WEST VIRGINIA: The Mountaineers’ offense was actually ranked higher than its defense last season on KenPom for the first time of the Press Virginia era. West Virginia really didn’t make a ton of shots but they took care of the ball and hit the offensive glass. Losing Jevon Carter is a blow, no doubt, but the Mountaineers should be able to recreate that success on offense without him. It’s also probably a safe assumption that Bob Huggins won’t let the defense fall off a cliff.

Jaylen Fisher (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

4. TCU: It was pretty obvious in 2016 that the Horned Frogs had pulled off quite the coup when it took Jamie Dixon off Pitt’s hands, but the 1987 TCU graduate has outperformed expectations in a hurry. The Horned Frogs made their first NCAA tournament appearance in 20 years last year, and look to have staying power under Dixon.

Vlad Brodziansky made a lot of what TCU did work with his presence in the middle and his loss, along with Kenrich Williams’, will be felt, but Dixon has plenty to work with. Point guard Jaylen Fisher is back after being sidelined with a knee injury to team with Alex Robinson in the backcourt while sharpshooters Desmond Bane and Kouat Noi return to give the Horned Frogs deadly shooters on the outside. The frontcourt could be a question, but TCU is a Big 12 contender.

5. TEXAS: Texas may not have a Jarrett Allen- or Mo Bamba-caliber NBA prospect on its roster this season, but the Longhorns are plenty talented. It wouldn’t shock anyone to see any of Matt Coleman, Dylan Osetkowski, Kerwin Roach and Jericho Sims on all-conference teams come season’s end while Texas also welcomes a top-10 recruiting class and Elijah Mitrou-Long, a Mount St. Mary’s transfer who averaged 15 points per game as a sophomore. Andrew Jones’ long-term health is obviously the chief concern, but if he is able to play, that gives Shaka Smart another highly talented player to deploy.

Smart has gotten Texas to play defense in his three years in Austin, but they’ll need to make strides on the offensive end to finally start competing at the upper echelon of the Big 12, much less the country, which was the expectation when the Longhorns became the team to finally pull Smart from VCU after a long list of schools failed to.

6. IOWA STATE: The Cyclones are going to be much more talented this season as they come off a 13-18 campaign that saw them finish four games behind ninth-place Oklahoma State in the standings, but getting all the pieces to fit could be the trick for coach Steve Prohm.

Lindell Wigginton is a proven scorer and his return after an NBA flirtation was paramount for the Cyclones, but if he wants to play point guard, his likely pro position, what’s that mean for Nick Weiler-Babb, who became a nightly triple-double threat at PG before injuries ended his season? Cameron Lard is a hugely talented big man, but found himself in trouble off the court and spent the summer off-campus at a wellness center. Iowa State will also have to figure out how to integrate transfers Marial Shayok (Virginia) and Michael Jacobson (Nebraska) along with one of the program’s best recruiting classes, headlined by top-50 recruit Talen Horton-Tucker, who the Cyclones think could be a star. There’s also the matter of Iowa State having no proven shooters outside of Wigginton.

If Iowa State can make it all fit together, they could be this year’s rags to riches story, but if things go wobbly, is there enough leadership to keep things steady?

Lindell Wigginton (J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

7. TEXAS TECH: It’s going to be difficult for Chris Beard to replace Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith, but if he’s able to do it, it’ll probably be on the strength of graduate transfers. The Red Raiders welcome South Dakota’s Matt Mooney, who averaged 18 points per game in back-to-back seasons for the Coyotes, and St. John’s Tariq Owens, who averaged 8.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game for the Red Storm.

Beard isn’t without returners to lean on, however, with Jarrett Culver expected to take a major role and Norense Odiase back after starting 29 games. An Elite Eight repeat is probably a tall task, but Beard seems to have a formula figured out to keep things rolling in Lubbock.

8. BAYLOR: It’s going to be a rebuilding season in Waco for coach Scott Drew, who narrowly missed guiding the Bears to their fifth-straight NCAA tournament appearance last year with a 19-15 overall record and 8-10 Big 12 mark. Drew is experiencing heavy losses from that team, namely Manu Lecomte, Jo Lual-Acuil and T.J. Maston.

There will still be experience at Drew’s disposal, though, with Jake Lindsey, Tristan Clark, King McClure and Mark Vital all back after starting at least 14 games each, though none were huge contributors. The most fascinating pieces for Drew are transfers Mario Kegler (Mississippi State) and Makai Mason (Yale), who hasn’t played in essentially two years due to injury.

9. OKLAHOMA: Lon Kruger is one of the best coaches to do it, but he could be in for a long season with the Trae Young Show moving on after one year. Sure, it turned out to be a bumpy ride with Young, a lottery pick to Atlanta, last season, but you could never count the Sooners out with him on the floor.

It’s not going to be as difficult to bet against the Sooners this year as they return the bulk of the supporting cast from last year that seemed incapable of supporting Young. Maybe that singular style of play was just too hard to adapt to, but it’s difficult to see how Oklahoma is better this season than last.

10. OKLAHOMA STATE: Mike Boynton’s team was the surprise of the Big 12 last year as they won 21 games with a roster few in the Big 12 would have envied. That roster, though, lost basically all its best pieces and there aren’t much in the way of immediate reinforcements on their way. The Cowboys will try to hang their hats on defense, and if they’re able to parlay that into a season similar to last, it’ll be perhaps as big a surprise as their two wins against Kansas last year.

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