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No. 1 Kansas: Loaded Jayhawks will look like Kansas teams of old

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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. 1 Kansas.


Generally speaking, there are three ways for a college basketball program to be built.

One of them is the old school way: Recruit players that you know will be on campus for three or four years, develop them over time and, if the basketball gods are looking out for you, by the time they are upperclassmen they’ll be all-league players if not all-americans.

Another way is through the transfer market. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and there have been plenty of programs that have found gold with the castaways from another program, if not outright recruiting players from other rosters.

And then there is the one-and-done model, which is only really an option for the elite but has led to a pair of national titles in the last seven NCAA tournaments — Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015.

What’s rare, however, is when one program utilizes all three methods at once.

That’s precisely what this Kansas program has done. Their best player is probably Dedric Lawson, a transfer from Memphis that spent last season sitting out along with his brother, K.J., as well as former Cal point guard Charlie Moore. If Dedric isn’t the best player, then it will most likely end up being Quentin Grimes, a potential top ten pick that is a surefire one-and-done and looks to be joined in the starting lineup by another five-star freshman in Devon Dotson.

And while those guys are good and all, the leading returning scorer for Kansas is Udoka Azubuike, a center that averaged 13.0 points and 7.0 boards. He declared for the drafted but opted to return to school, as did senior LaGerald Vick, who will likely start at the three and looks to be the best shooter in the program.

Put all that together and what you have is the best team in college basketball.

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KANSAS WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

For the first time in three years, the Jayhawks have a roster that is actually suited to playing the way that Bill Self has always wanted to play.

Self is something of a throwback in this day and age of pace and space, three-pointers and small-ball. He likes having two big men on the floor. He likes getting the ball into the post. It wasn’t until recently that he really came around on the idea that shooting threes might actually be better than shooting twos.

That wasn’t necessarily by design, either.

In each of the last two seasons, Self’s roster has lacked the kind of frontcourt depth and talent that he would need to play the way that he wanted to play. In 2016-17 — the first season they played in the post-Perry Ellis era — it was Carlton Bragg that was supposed to slot into the role of the four-man, but between the legal issues that he dealt with and the fact that, you know, he wasn’t good enough, Self was forced to play small. Josh Jackson started at the four as Kansas played four guards, and it worked pretty well. Jackson was tough and physical enough to guard-up, and his skill-set on the offensive end gave Kansas another playmaker and created all kinds of mismatches. The Jayhawks won the Big 12 and reached the Elite 8, where Oregon picked them off.

Last season was much of the same. Jackson wasn’t there, but since Billy Preston was never able to get cleared and neither Mitch Lightfoot nor Silvio De Sousa were ready for that role, Self played even smaller. LaGerald Vick and Svi Mykhailiuk combined to play the two forward spots, and again, it worked. Kansas won the Big 12. They made it all the way to the Final Four, where it was the slow-footedness of Udoka Azubuike going up against the buzzsaw that was last year’s Villanova team that cost Kansas a shot at a national title.

This year’s roster looks much more like the best teams that Self has had in the past. Dedric Lawson, who averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 boards, 3.3 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.3 blocks in his final season with Memphis, might as well be Ellis. Or a Morris Twin. He can fill that role at the four perfectly. Azubuike is probably the best at-the-rim big in the country. David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot provide more than enough depth, while K.J. Lawson is there as well.

Then there is the KU backcourt. Self legitimately has five different players that deserve to start. Quentin Grimes is probably locked into a starting spot as the off-guard, while Devon Dotson and Charlie Moore will battle it out for point guard minutes and LaGerald Vick and Marcus Garrett will fight over playing time at the three.

This is a very good and very deep basketball team that is built precisely the way that Bill Self’s best teams have been built in the past.

It’s impossible not to like what’s on the table here.

Udoka Azubuike (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
RELATED: Expert Picks | CBT Podcast | Best non-conference games

BUT KANSAS IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

The amount of noise surrounding this program right now is not going to be easy to deal with.

Outside of Louisville, who has already purged essentially everyone decision-maker involved with the basketball program, no one made more headlines with their involvement in the first college basketball corruption trial than Kansas. There were allegations that Adidas executives were funneling money to the family of two Jayhawk recruits, Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa. There were text messages that seemed to imply — but did not conclusively prove — that the Jayhawk coaching staff (Self and assistant Kurtis Townsend) were aware of and approved those payments.

De Sousa is already being held out of competition pending an eligibility review. There are serious doubts about whether or not last year’s Big 12 title and Final Four banner will still be in existence by the time this process plays out. Kansas has not yet signed their new contract with Adidas. Self and Townsend are going to face repeated calls that they be fired throughout this season.

Distractions such as those are not ideal, and neither are the questions players currently on the Kansas roster are going to ask if they didn’t get what Preston and De Sousa got.

I don’t think it necessarily hurts this particular team, but I do firmly believe that it is going to be a constant headache for Self and his coaching staff.

How effective are you at your job when you constantly have a headache or distractions in your personal life?

THE X-FACTOR

The Jayhawks are almost too good to fail this season, and while I do wonder whether the change in scenery from the American to the Big 12 will have an impact on how good Dedric Lawson is, the x-factor for me here is going to be Grimes.

Grimes is probably the most talented player in the program. He is definitely the best NBA prospect on the Kansas roster. He is also a combo-guard that, at this point, is not a great shooter and is not a great point guard playing as one half of an all-freshman backcourt.

I believe that Self is going to run his offense through Lawson this season, but that’s simply what makes the most sense for him to do. Lawson is probably the best player on the roster, and he’s certainly the most-proven scorer they have. But the Jayhawks will need a secondary scorer, and they are going to need someone that can provide some firepower out of the backcourt.

Grimes is the best bet to be that guy.

But until we actually see what he is going to be capable of doing as a freshman, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

Kansas is not going to lose the Big 12 this year.

I think we all just need to accept that as fact and move on.

They are a consensus top two team in the country. They have one potential first-team all-american on the roster, another potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and enough depth, experience and talent to allow Bill Self to focus all his stress on what’s going to happen as a result of the FBI investigation, the looming trials and any potential NCAA ramifications that may come with it.

Kansas, believe it or not, is my favorite bet to win the national title. Of the clearcut top four teams in the sport this season, they are actually the team getting the best odds at the moment.

All that said, I do think this will be the final year that the streak of consecutive Big 12 titles will remain intact.

Because De Sousa played last season, the Jayhawks are going to eventually be forced to vacate wins; I’d be shocked if they weren’t. And when they do, the 2018 Big 12 title is going to be erased and the 2018 Final Four banner is going to come down.

There’s no time like now to start up that new streak.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 2 Kentucky
No. 3 Gonzaga
No. 4 Duke
No. 5 Villanova
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

No. 2 Kentucky: Are the Wildcats too deep and too talented for their own good?

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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. 2 Kentucky.


Think about where we are with this Kentucky program for a second.

Coming off of an OK season that saw Kentucky struggle early, win 26 games, find a rhythm and, just when you thought the field had opened up for them to make a run to the Final Four, get dropped by No. 9-seed Kansas State in the Sweet 16.

They lost four members of last year’s freshman class in the offseason — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo and Jarred Vanderbilt. They lost Sacha Killeya-Jones to a transfer. Tai Wynyard turned pro. All told, two-thirds of the players in Kentucky’s rotation last season left, and the only three returnees will all be entering their sophomore season.

As always, Kentucky head coach John Calipari landed an absolutely loaded recruiting class, landing five five-star prospects as well as Stanford grad transfer Reid Travis, the latter of whom is viewed as the difference-maker with this group.

And not just because he averaged more than 19 points in the Pac-12 last season.

It’s because Kentucky is now looked at as an experienced group, at least by their standards.

Think about that for a second.

This Kentucky team has a nine-man rotation. Five of the nine are freshmen, and one of those freshmen was originally a member of the Class of 2019 and enrolled in school early. Three of the remaining four are sophomores, and the fifth — a redshirt senior — only arrived in Lexington after the 2018 NBA Draft had taken place. He’s been there for all of four months.

That’s where we are with this Kentucky team.

They are looked at as experienced.

Will that experience be enough to get them John Calipari’s second national title?

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KENTUCKY WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

The Wildcats pretty much have the perfect roster build for a college basketball team.

There are nine guys on the roster that are going to be in the rotation — ten if you want to throw in Jemarl Baker — which is more or less the perfect number. There is enough depth that an injury or two won’t be crippling and they can survive foul trouble, but there are enough minutes in a basketball game to ensure that all nine are going to see consistent playing time; one of the tenants of Jay Wright’s Villanova program in recent years is to limit the number of players he has available to him to keep everyone happy with their playing time. That’s worked out pretty well.

And of those nine rotation players, four are bigs and five are guards. Three of their five guards — Quade Green, Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley — are point guards by trade, but all three of them are capable of playing off the ball if they want to use a two-point guard look. They have shooters on the wing — Tyler Herro, Green — as well as a physical athlete in Keldon Johnson that can guard up and let Kentucky play small if they have to.

In the front court, they have a seven-footer that can block shots and catch lobs — the new and improved Nick Richards, who looked terrific in the Bahamas — as well as a trio of power forwards that all have differing skill-sets. Travis is a bruiser on the block that can score in the post and will compete on the glass. P.J. Washington is the best defender and, potentially, the best player on the roster. E.J. Montgomery is probably the most skilled of the group, a smooth face-up four with the most ability on the perimeter.

The team is as balanced as they are versatile. They have guys that can be lockdown defenders and guys that are going to end up being all-conference scorers. They can play big and they can play small.

And perhaps the best part of all of this is that all of these kids can play. Of the nine, I’m not really sure there is a weak link. Richards really struggled as a freshman, but he looked like a different player during Kentucky’s trip to the Bahamas. Montgomery is probably the biggest unknown of the freshman class, but he was a top ten prospect for a reason.

Put another way, you can tell me that just about any combination of these nine kids is going to be Kentucky’s best five this season, and I’d probably believe it. That kind of depth and balance is valuable.

RELATED: Expert Picks | CBT Podcast | Best non-conference games
Keldon Johnson (Chet White | UK Athletics)

BUT KENTUCKY IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

The Wildcats are one of four teams in college basketball this season that I think are in a tier of their own: Kansas, Duke, Gonzaga and Kentucky.

Ranking those four teams in any order in the top four of your top 25 can be justified, although for my money Kansas and Kentucky, in that order, are the two best teams in college basketball.

There are a couple reasons that I would take the Jayhawks over the Wildcats.

First of all, I’m worried about just how different Kentucky’s best offensive lineup looks from their best defensive lineup. Ashton Hagans and Keldon Johnson are, without a doubt, the two-best perimeter defenders on this roster. I’d hesitate to call either a liability on the offensive end, but it’s pretty clear they have their limitations at this point in their development, Hagans more than Johnson.

Quade Green and Tyler Herro, on the other hand, are without a doubt the best perimeter scorers on this roster, but they are a liability on the defensive end of the floor.

There are some similar distinctions that we can make in the frontcourt. As good as Reid Travis and P.J. Washington are, I have some concerns that the two of them operate in the same space on the floor. Neither are known for their ability to make perimeter shots — in fact, that’s probably the very reason both are still in school at this point — and that could clog up the lane on a team that will have some shooting concerns again this season.

And yes, those shooting concerns are valid. Kentucky’s best shooters are not good defenders, and vice versa. If you don’t understand why this is a concern, think about the reason ‘3-and-D’ has become entrenched in basketball lexicon in the last decade.

Richards is not the player that either Travis or Washington is at this point in his development, but he’s probably the best fit stylistically to the way Cal wants his five-men to play. He’s a seven-footer than can block shots and spaces the floor vertically in the halfcourt. His guards can throw the ball to the top of the square when they drive and draw help knowing that Richards will be able to finish the lob off with a dunk. I’m not sure the same can be said for the other two bigs.

Then there is Montgomery, who is the most skilled of the four bigs and probably the best NBA prospect even if the impact he has on this Kentucky team this season will probably be the most muted.

But all of that brings me to the biggest issue …

Tyler Herro; Chet White/UK Athletics

THE X-FACTOR

… which is that I have no idea who is going to be Kentucky’s go-to guy this season.

Who is their star? Who is the guy that is going to get the rock at the end of a clock? Who is Coach Cal going to call a play for when he needs a bucket to slow down an opponent’s run? Who is going to have the ball in his hands when a game is on the line?

If I had to hazard a guess today, I think it would be Tyler Herro.

The 6-foot-6 sharpshooter and former Wisconsin commit was the program’s leading scorer during their trip to the Bahamas, and while he’s not the best NBA prospect or the most talented player on the roster, I do think that he is the most polished.

He’s also the guy that can fit perfectly into the role played by Kentucky’s leading scorer in each of the last three seasons: Jamal Murray, Malik Monk and Kevin Knox. Those three guys are all different players, but they were used essentially the same way by Coach Cal. They were run off of screens on the baseline and put into pindown actions in an effort to get them catch-and-shoot opportunities. For Murray and Monk, those shots came from beyond the three-point line. For Knox, they were 12-to-15-foot jumpers. The shots came from different spots on the floor, but the sets they ran weren’t all that much different.

Herro may not be the guy that gets all the hype this season, but I would not be shocked in the slightest if he is the player that gets trusted to take the biggest shots of the season for Coach Cal.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

I’m really excited to see how this Kentucky team unfolds this season.

The one thing that Coach Cal does better than just about any other coach in the sport is convince players — talented, NBA-caliber players destined for the NBA draft lottery — to buy into the collective and thrive in the role that will be best for his team.

This season, he has nine guys on his roster that are all more or less at the same level; nine guys that are going to be able to contribute important minutes to a team with national title aspirations; nine guys that, in theory, all have a case to be the starter at their position.

How is he going to make all these pieces fit? How is he going to utilize the skill-set of each of these guys? Will he find a way to unleash the athleticism of Hagans and Johnson while simultaneously allowing us to watch Herro run off screens like his Rip Hamilton? Will Travis be able to bully opponents in the paint without hindering the chances Montgomery has to flash his perimeter skill?

I fully expect Cal to find a way to make it work.

How, exactly, that happens?

I can’t wait to find out.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 3 Gonzaga
No. 4 Duke
No. 5 Villanova
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

No. 3 Gonzaga: Zags better than team that reached title game?

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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. 3 Gonzaga.


You would think that, being just 18 months removed from playing in the national title game as a No. 1 seed with a 37-1 record entering the final night of the 2016-17 season, Gonzaga would no longer have to justify where they are ranked in the preseason.

Because that was always the knock on Mark Few’s program, right?

They made that one run to the Elite 8 in 1999. Great. But in the first 17 seasons after Few took over for Dan Monson, he only managed to get the Zags passed the Sweet 16 once, and that was in 2015 when they only needed to dispatch No. 11-seed UCLA to get to the Elite 8. Before Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins helped carry the Zags to within six points of a national title, every single year that Gonzaga popped up ranked high in the preseason top 25, the hate would come out.

“The Zags are always overrated.”

“The media loves Gonzaga, but they’re always overrated because they beat up on bad WCC teams.”

“You’re an idiot if you actually think Gonzaga is better than [insert random high-major program ranked below them].”

I thought that line of thinking was done and dusted after everyone saw the Zags, who most experts believed was the best team in the country entering the 2017 NCAA tournament, played for a chance to cut down the nets in Glendale, but alas, that’s not true.

There are still plenty of people that believe Gonzaga being ranked in the top five is a disgrace to rankings, the sports of college basketball and life in general, which is why it gives me great pleasure to make this statement: Gonzaga is not only a consensus preseason top five once again, but they have the best frontcourt in all of college basketball and may just be the best team in the country.

Again.

Is this the year Mark Few can finally shut everyone up for good?

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GONZAGA WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

It is impossible to look at the frontline of the Zags and not come away impressed.

The name that you need to know is Rui Hachimura. A Japanese international of Beninese decent, Hachimura has been one of the best young players in FIBA World Cup qualifying after a season where he averaged just 11.2 points but really came on strong down the stretch. At 6-foot-8 and checking in at 230 pounds, Rui is a terrific athlete with the kind of length and body control that makes him an excellent finisher around the basket. His perimeter game is where the development is going to have to occur, but he shot 79.5 percent from the charity stripe on 132 attempts as a sophomore. The range will come.

He’ll be flanked by Killian Tillie, a French international that grew up with a background in volleyball. A terrific athlete that shot 47.9 percent from three, Tillie had one stretch late in the year where he made 22 of 26 threes over seven-game stretch, including 13 straight threes during the WCC tournament.

Rui Hachimura (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

That duo is the ideal pairing in a frontcourt, and the athleticism — and coaching — is there to help make up for the fact that the Zags are losing their best defender in Johnathan Williams III.

Most college basketball fans will know those names, however.

The name they won’t know is Brandon Clarke, a redshirt junior that spent last season sitting out after transferring into Gonzaga from San Jose State. At 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds, he profiles as the best defensive presence on this team and, given the athletic ability of Rui and Tillie, should allow the Zags to play the three forwards together.

Mark Few does not necessarily have a reputation for being an elite defensive coach, but the staff does a terrific job of teaching their big men how to defend — particularly developing their ability to stay vertical when challenging shots around the rim — and whileI don’t think that this year will be a repeat of 2017, when they were the nation’s No. 1 defense according to KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, I do expect Gonzaga to be very, very good on that end of the floor.

RELATED: Expert Picks | CBT Podcast | Best non-conference games

BUT GONZAGA IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

Their backcourt is still somewhat unproven, as is their depth.

Zach Norvell Jr. put together some big games as a redshirt freshman last season, not the least of which was a 28-point outburst against Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. There was one stretch early in the season where he scored at least 17 points in six out of seven games, including a three-game stretch where he cracked 20 points against Creighton, Villanova and Washington back-to-back-to-back.

He was streaky at times, but he was also a freshman. I expect big things out of him this year.

The rest of their backcourt has more question marks.

Let’s start with Corey Kispert, a sophomore that will be looking to takeover the minutes vacated by Silas Melson. The 6-foot-6 wing started last season as a starter, logging a ton of minutes in games against Florida and Texas in the PK-80, but a sprained ankle seemed to hamper him all season long. Assuming he is healthy — and that the crux of his midseason struggles was the ankle and not, you know, his ability — he should fit in fine as a glue-guy at the three for this group. He defends, he can make threes and he is athletic enough to throw down a tip-dunk in traffic.

Then there is Geno Crandall, a grad transfer from North Dakota that was brought into the program to be a backup point guard to Josh Perkins but that profiles more as a scorer off the bench than anything else. The concern with Crandall is that he did not actually complete his undergraduate degree from North Dakota until mid-October, meaning that he is behind by a few weeks learning Gonzaga’s system, terminology, defensive assignments and how to play with the players on the roster.

That’s an issue because, reading the tea leaves, it’s pretty easy to determine that Crandall was brought in since Joel Ayayi and Greg Foster still need another season or two to be ready to contribute major minutes off the bench.

All that said, the biggest concern, at least for me, is Josh Perkins.

Josh Perkins (Harry How/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

In a vacuum, Perkins is fine.

He’ll lead Gonzaga to a WCC title. They’ll end up as a high seed in the NCAA tournament. They’ll win 25 or 30 games. He’s good enough, and the pieces around him will be great enough, that it won’t have that much of an impact.

But at this point, is that enough for the Zags? They’ve been to a national title game. They’ve been a No. 1 seed. Anything short of a Final Four this year will probably be looked at as a disappointment, and to get to a Final Four, Gonzaga is going to have to beat the best teams in the country.

And my issue is whether or not Perkins, who averaged 12.3 points and 5.1 assists as a redshirt junior, can be as effective as he needs to be against the best teams in the country. Can he create against the best point guards in the sport? Is he improved as a decision-maker? Is he the leader on the floor that, say, Nigel Williams-Goss was?

If he is, then the Zags are a good bet to get back to the national title game.

But based on what I’ve seen out of him over the course of the last four seasons, I am not convinced that he is.

And if there is a reason to wonder whether or not Gonzaga can live up to the lofty goals they enter the season with, that is it.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

The criticism that Gonzaga is going to face come Selection Sunday is always going to center around the WCC schedule they have to play as a member of the league.

By the time that the nation at-large starts paying attention to college basketball, Gonzaga is more or less done playing games that actually matter. It is what it is. There’s a reason that Gonzaga made a push to try and get into the Mountain West this offseason, and there’s a reason that Mark Few is working to get the WCC league schedule reduced from 18 to 16 games.

But understand this: While you are not paying attention, the Zags are going to play a non-conference schedule that will be as tough as anyone’s. They play Texas A&M, a game that looked much tougher when it was scheduled than it does as of today. They play in the Maui Invitational, where they will get either Arizona or Iowa State in the second round and, basketball gods willing, Duke in the tournament’s title game. They play at Creighton. They play Washington, who might be the best team in the Pac-12 this season. They play Tennessee in Phoenix. They play at North Carolina.

We are going to know everything we need to know about the Zags by Dec. 15th, and while a Final Four run is never a given — that’s the beauty of March Madness — I would be shocked if Gonzaga doesn’t enter WCC play leaving no doubt as to whether or not they are one of the top four teams in college basketball.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 4 Duke
No. 5 Villanova
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

No. 4 Duke: Can Blue Devils avoid another disappointing season?

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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. 4 Duke.


Duke, once again, is going to enter a college basketball season with the best recruiting class in the sport.

The difference this year is that not only will the Blue Devils bring in the best crop of freshmen, they bring in the best freshmen — four of the top 15 prospects in 247 Sports’ composite rankings will suit up for Coach K this season, including three of the top five and the No. 1 and 2 players in the nation. There are some outlets that rank R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish as the three best recruits in the class, and there’s a chance that those three could end up being the top three picks in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Let’s ignore the how for now.

(The FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball has told us that everyone breaks NCAA rules, but the best players in the country turn down hundreds of thousands of dollars and jobs for family members of the prestige of spending nine months on Duke’s campus?)

The issue here has been the product on the court.

Duke has been a disappointment relative to expectation more or less every year since Coach K made the decision to go all-in on one-and-done prospects. The obvious exception was in 2015, when the Blue Devils figured out how to defend in late February and wound up winning the national title. The same happened last season, but Duke was bounced in the Elite 8 when a Grayson Allen floater spent six seconds on the rim before falling off.

It hasn’t been a total disaster, but it is clear that Duke is nowhere near as consistently dominant now as they have been in the past. The Blue Devils haven’t won an ACC regular season title since 2010. They’ve won just one ACC tournament title since 2011. They’ve reached the second weekend of the tournament just three times in the last eight years.

The biggest issue has been on the defensive end of the floor. It got to the point last season where Duke had no choice but to play zone full-time.

I don’t think that will be the issue this year. Duke, on paper, looks like a team that should be able to guard.

But this team still has some warts that Coach K is going to have to work out.

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DUKE WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

The amount of talent on this roster makes it nearly impossible for the Blue Devils to fail.

Let’s start with R.J. Barrett. The 6-foot-7 point forward is the overwhelming favorite at this point in the calendar to be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and rightfully so. He needs to continue to develop his jumpshot, but he has everything that you’re looking for in an NBA player in the modern NBA. He’s athletic, he’s big enough to be defensively versatile, he’s skilled enough to operate in ball-screens, he can get a bucket, he has impressive court-vision. As far as I’m concerned, all you need to know about Barrett is that, as a 17-year old, he put up 38 points, 13 boards and six assists for Canada in an upset of the United States — who were coached by John Calipari — en route to a gold medal in the U19 World Cup.

I don’t think Barrett is quite as good of a prospect as some of the elite prospects in past seasons, but I do think that it is clear he is the best player in this class.

R.J. Barrett, Reagan Lunn/@DukeMBB

I said ‘player’ and not ‘prospect’ because there are some people that believe Reddish, and not Barrett, actually has a higher ceiling. At 6-foot-8, Reddish is more of a scorer at this point in his development, although he has played as a ball-handler at the high school and AAU level. He’s probably the best shooter out of Duke’s freshmen as well, and has the tools to be a really good defender.

I haven’t even gotten to Zion Williamson yet. The most famous player in college basketball in years, Williamson became a social media sensation thanks to his otherworldly athleticism. He is 6-foot-7 and 280 pounds, yet he dunks from the free throw line like a normal human being claps backboard on a layup and he set Duke’s school record for vertical leap. He’s quick, he’s fast, he has impressive footwork and he’s skilled enough — he’ll be the most dangerous grab-and-go big in the history of college basketball — to be able to handle the ball. He’s even a better shooter and a (much) better passer than he gets credit for.

Throw in Tre Jones, the younger brother of Tyus and the first true point guard Duke has had since the elder Jones finished cutting down the net in Indianapolis in 2015, and we don’t need to discuss anyone else on the roster to justify ranking the Blue Devils in the top five.

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BUT DUKE IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

While I love all of the pieces in this freshmen class in a vacuum, I think there is reason to be concerned about how they all fit together.

Duke is going to try and play small this season. That’s not exactly breaking news here. Not only has Duke done this time and again in the past — Jabari Parker, Justise Winslow, Brandon Ingram and Jayson Tatum all played the for four the Blue Devils — but this group has three guys that can fill that role. In fact, this roster is the best-suited to playing that style. The ideal roster build for any team in this era of pace and space is having a point guard, a mobile five-man and three wings that can defend more than one position. That’s precisely what we see here.

It gets even more interesting when we start to think about the possibility of Zion Williamson playing the five a la Draymond Green.

The issue is the ability for the players on Duke to impact a game when they don’t have the ball in their hands.

What makes Golden State special in the NBA and what made Villanova so damn good in the college ranks last season is the same thing: The ability to shoot at every spot on the floor. Jalen Brunson was able to post-up and operate in ball-screens and beat a man one-on-one, but he was also a lethal catch-and-shoot guy. The same can be said for all of his teammates that played meaningful minutes, including center Omari Spellman, who scored 17 points and made four threes for the Atlanta Hawks this weekend.

Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, Reagan Lunn/@DukeMBB

The same thing is true with Golden State. Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala are the glue-guys on that team, but both of them cannot be left open from the three-point line. Kevin Durant and Steph Curry are two of the best isolation players in the NBA, but if you leave them open you will pay. Klay Thompson is one of the best three-point shooters in the history of the game.

Duke?

They have four freshmen that are all super-talented but that need to ball in their hands to be effective. Neither Zion nor Barrett are good enough from beyond the arc to force a defender to close out long on them. Reddish can make threes, but he’s known more as a scorer than a shooter at this point in his development than anything else. Jones is fine, but he’s more of a driver and playmaker than he is a shooter.

Without guys to space the floor, without someone willing to accept a role, running offense that doesn’t devolve into players going one-on-one into a crowded lane is difficult.

THE X-FACTOR

For me, the key here is going to be Reddish.

He has something of a reputation from the high school and AAU ranks as a talented kid that played on teams that lost far more games than they should have lost. He’s also going to be the guy that will likely end up having to make the most sacrifices for the good of the team.

Think about it like this: Jones is going to be the natural point guard on this team, and Barrett is going to be the guy that handles secondary ball-handling duties. Zion will be a grab-and-go threat and could lead the country in fast break buckets. In the halfcourt, his role will be pretty clearly defined — he’s going to be the guy attacking the glass and the player that gets isolated against slower and/or smaller defenders.

Reddish is the odd man out.

For a player that has spent his entire life as a lead guard, how will he take to being asked to play on a wing as something of a 3-and-D specialist?

2018-19 OUTLOOK

Duke’s outlook this season is no different than their outlook for the past four or five years.

They have as much raw talent as anyone in the sport of college basketball. They will enter the season as a consensus top four team that some folks are going to rank No. 1 overall. They are going to be the odds-on favorite to win the ACC regular season title, a favorite to get to the Final Four and one of the few true national title contenders in college basketball.

And there enough question marks about the talent, the youth, how the pieces fit and whether or not the pieces truly fit and how well Coach K is going to handle dealing with this much roster turnover to keep us from going all in on the Blue Devils.

Anything short of the Final Four will be yet another disappointment from this group.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 5 Villanova
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

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.

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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

No. 6 Nevada: Will the Wolf Pack be able to prove how good they are this season?

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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. 6 Nevada.


No one was a bigger winner at the NBA Draft early entry deadline than Nevada.

The Wolf Pack not only brought back both Caleb and Cody Martin, both of whom looked like they were as good as gone, but Jordan Caroline returned to school for his final year of eligibility while Jordan Brown, a 6-foot-11 McDonald’s All-American, announced that he will be playing his college ball for Eric Musselman.

The odds of all of those things happening were so low that the Wolf Pack had already promised their scholarships to other players. Ehab Amin, a transfer from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, never even made it to campus, while Josh Hall, who hit the shot that sent the Wolf Pack to the Sweet 16 last season, was forced out, transferring to Missouri State.

Tough break.

But that is decidedly good news for Nevada fans, as they will have a chance to watch and root for the best the Mountain West has had to offer since Jimmer and Kawhi were running roughshod over the league seven seasons ago.

The real question for this group is not whether or not they are good enough to deserve a top ten ranking.

They are.

They have nine players on their roster that have spent at least three seasons playing college basketball, and the only one of those nine that did not averaged more than 13.2 points the last year they played is Lindsey Drew; he averaged “only” 8.3 points, 4.7 assists and 4.4 boards as Nevada’s starting point guard last season before rupturing his achilles.

That also doesn’t include Brown, a top 15 prospect nationally.

The question is less about whether or not there is enough talent on the roster and more if there are enough minutes available to keep all this talent happy with their role.

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NEVADA WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

There is just such a ridiculous amount of talent on this roster.

We need to start with the Martin twins. Caleb is the star. Last season he averaged 18.9 points, 5.4 boards and 2.6 assists while shooting 40.3 percent from three in a year where he spent much of the second half of the season battling a foot injury that was initially thought to require surgery. He is one of the nation’s best shot-makers, even if the shots that he makes tend to be a higher degree of difficulty that would be ideal. His twin brother, Cody, is the more versatile of the two. He averaged 14 points last year, but he also posted 6.0 boards, 4.7 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.5 blocks per night. With Lindsey Drew — the youngest son of former Atlanta Hawks head coach Larry Drew — still working his way back from a ruptured achilles, Cody will likely take on the starting point guard role.

It sounds weird to say this, but Jordan Caroline took a little bit of a backseat to the Martin twins last season even though he himself managed to up his scoring numbers to 17.7 points per game. He’s a threat to go for 25 every time he steps on the floor; as a sophomore, he once put up 45 points and 13 boards in a win at Mexico.

All three of Nevada’s big names are transfers, which should tell you how this roster is made up. They’re far from alone, too: Trey Porter is a grad transfer from Old Dominion that averaged 13.2 points and 6.2 boards last season. Corey Henson, another grad transfer, averaged 14.6 points at Wagner last season. Nisre Zouzoua sat out last season at Nevada after averaging 20.2 points at Bryant in 2016-17. Jazz Johnson (15.8 ppg at Portland) and Tre’Shawn Thurman (13.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg at Omaha) sat with him.

Nevada was one of the nation’s most dangerous teams offensively last season. They had three guys that could put 25 on you on any night, and that certainly isn’t going to change. How many teams in the country can bring four — potentially five, depending on if Drew can get back into the starting lineup — players off the bench that have averaged at least 13.8 points at the Division I level?

(The answer is not a single one.)

The other part of it is that these guys, they’re all old.

Nevada is going to start four guys that are redshirt seniors playing their fifth season at the college level. They’ll bring two more redshirt seniors off of their bench, as well as a trio of players that are simply on their fourth season in college; one true senior and a pair of redshirt juniors.

And I still haven’t mentioned the starting center for this group, Jordan Brown.

He is an athletic, 6-foot-11 high-flyer that will provide a dynamic to this team that no one else can provide — vertical-spacing, rim protection, work on the offensive glass.

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Caleb Martin (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

BUT NEVADA IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

There might actually be too much talent on this roster.

I know how silly that sounds, but there are legitimately 10 guys on this team that deserve to play major minutes and will expect to get shots during those minutes.

But where are those minutes going to come from?

Cody Martin averaged 35.6 minutes last season. His brother averaged 33.3, but that number was higher before he was injured. Caroline played 34.8 minutes last season. Those are the three-best players on the roster, and I would be shocked to see them each average under 30 minutes a night this year.

There are 200 minutes available to be played during a college basketball game, and those three account for roughly 90 of them. Nevada’s other two starters averaged roughly 28 minutes last season. Let’s call that 25 this year, meaning that Nevada’s starters will be responsible for 140 of the available 200 minutes. The five guys on the bench would be left with about 12 minutes each.

And that’s before we even broach the subject of who would be getting shots and when.

This is not a unique phenomenon in college hoops. Every coach has to deal with it from time to time, and I’m not sure there is anyone in the country that is better at getting his players to buy into a role than John Calipari at Kentucky. The year he won the national title, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were the fourth and fifth options offensively. In 2015, the year they went 38-1 and made the Final Four, everyone played roughly 20 minutes a night. Karl-Anthony Towns averaged just 10.3 points.

The point isn’t to compare this Nevada team to that Kentucky team.

My point is that Musselman is going to have his work cut out for him getting the players on his roster, many of whom were brought into the program with the expectation of playing the minutes the Martin twins are going to be playing, to buy into their role and the team.

(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

The Wolf Pack, last season, were not a very good defensive team. They finished the year ranked outside the top 100 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, which was evidenced by the struggles they had stopping two anemic offenses in Texas and Cincinnati in the first two rounds of the tournament.

There were a couple of reasons for those defensive struggles:

  1. Nevada did not force a lot of turnovers.
  2. The Wolf Pack finished outside the top 200 in defensive rebounding percentage.
  3. Opponents shot better than 50 percent from two-point range.

In theory, this year’s team should be better on the glass and defending in the paint. Whereas there really wasn’t much size on the roster last year — for the most part, Musselman rolled out small-ball lineups with four or five guys all right around 6-foot-7 — this season Nevada will likely begin the year starting 6-foot-10 Trey Porter and 6-foot-11 Jordan Brown.

But that’s not guarantee. It ignores the benefits that come with putting a team on the floor where everyone is switchable defensively, not to mention limitations offensively that will come with having two big men playing together.

Either way, I think it will be Nevada’s ability on that end that will determine whether we are talking about a team with real national title potential or a highly-ranked team from the Mountain West that will sputter out early in March.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

The Wolf Pack are really, really good.

They are the class of their conference, and I would be shocked if they fell out of the top 25 at any point this season.

Part of that is because of how talented the are, but there is also a bit of an issue with their schedule. It’s not bad, per se, but there is a very real chance that the best team they play before the start of the NCAA tournament will be this Sunday’s exhibition with Washington, a contender for the Pac-12 title.

Nevada has road trips to Loyola-Chicago, USC and Utah. They play Arizona State on a neutral, and they host BYU and South Dakota State.

We’ve seen worse, that’s for sure, but with the Mountain West failing to provide them with a fellow top 25 team, I think we’re going to head into Selection Sunday talking about how we have yet to see Nevada prove they deserve the seed that they get.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

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