The early-entry withdrawal deadline has elapsed and college basketball rosters are being set. That means it’s time for our first pre-preseason Power 36 for 2018-19.
1. Gonzaga: Experience matters. You will hear that phrase often. Sure, Duke and Kentucky may have the most talented rosters, but just look at the last few Final Fours and national title games – experienced teams have been playing for and have won the championship. No team survived the early-entry NBA draft process better than the Zags. They didn’t even have to sweat it since Rui Hachimura, Killian Tillie and Zach Norvell all didn’t bother putting their names in for consideration, even though all three would've and could've pushed the deadline with a tough decision. Josh Perkins is the leader at the point and Brandon Clarke is getting rave reviews from the staff. Let’s just hope Gonzaga and Duke play each other in the semifinal or final of the Maui Invitational for a possible Final Four preview.
2. Kansas: Bill Self said Kansas State could be picked to win the Big 12. Not quite. The Jayhawks will be one of the teams projected to win the national title. Udoka Azubuike’s decision to return gives Kansas an anchor inside who is only going to blossom with more touches. Self said he has another possible Big 12 and national player of the year candidate in Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson. Freshman Quentin Grimes could be a special player, too. But Kansas’ best teams have had key, experienced guards returning, which this team does not. So, Kansas would be bucking a bit of its own trend. Still, it’s hard to ignore what is in place in Lawrence.
3. Virginia: The Cavaliers should get consideration for the top spot. Yes, I know Virginia lost to UMBC in the first ever 16-over-1 victory. But let’s not totally forget the Cavaliers won the ACC regular season and tournament title. Virginia has its core returning with Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome. Both said they have never worked harder in their life. De’Andre Hunter wasn’t healthy for the UMBC game and is easily the team’s top NBA prospect. Jack Salt could be the anchor inside for the Cavaliers. This team will still be the toughest to score on in the country. The drive and edge to get back and advance deep will keep the Cavaliers going all season long.
4. Tennessee: The Volunteers will be in quite a tussle atop the SEC with Kentucky and Auburn. But Tennessee has an experienced frontline that will be tough to match in Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams. This team also is no longer sneaking up on opponents. The Volunteers will head into the season confident and self-assured that they can compete for a deep NCAA tournament run.
5. Nevada: The Wolf Pack went from a possible top-25 team to a top-five team with the return of Caleb and Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline. Those three were the core group that led the Wolf Pack to the Mountain West Conference regular season title and a Sweet 16 appearance. Now toss in heralded big man Jordan Brown and the Wolf Pack will have someone to throw the ball inside to if the offense stalls. Eric Musselman wants to play fast and his roster will have the numbers to create fatigue for opponents. This team will be a joy to watch throughout the season as it makes Reno a happening spot for basketball throughout the winter.
Twice as nice!— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) May 31, 2018
Caleb and Cody Martin are returning to Nevada for their final seasons! pic.twitter.com/oAhHqpUV9i
6. Duke: The easy thing to do is put Duke at No. 1. The Blue Devils have the top three players in the 2018 class with R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish. The only potential experienced starter is Marques Bolden. That’s still quite a powerful lineup and one that is going to be fine-tuned probably by December after playing this summer on a trip to Canada. Still, experience will matter on the road in the ACC in February and then again in elimination game situations in the NCAA tournament. Duke can still be tabbed the preseason No. 1 and the favorite, but no one should be surprised with a bit of hesitancy based on the lack of experience.
7. Kentucky: The Wildcats will be just as loaded and they get an experienced forward back in P.J. Washington. They can also lean on Quade Green and Nick Richards, too. If Reid Travis were to end up here then the Wildcats would certainly leap ahead. Keldon Johnson, E.J. Montgomery and Immanuel Quickley will be the latest star newcomers who will have their moments to shine. The loss to Kansas State in the Sweet 16 will still sting, considering Kentucky had the goods to get to the Final Four last season based on its bracket. UK does again in 2019.
9. Kansas State: Bill Self wasn’t wrong in thinking highly of the Wildcats. This is easily Bruce Weber’s best team in Manhattan. The Elite Eight run was a surprise, but Kansas State will now have to deal with high expectations. The starting five returns intact and Dean Wade should be healthy, giving Kansas State a do-everything producer. Barry Brown’s decision to come back was a no-brainer and Xavier Sneed should be a known commodity outside of the Big 12.
10. Villanova: The Wildcats would have been No. 1 had Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman decided to come back to school. But alas they did not and Villanova is losing arguably their four most talented players off its title team. But Jay Wright has plenty to work with and Phil Booth and Eric Paschall will be go-to players for the Wildcats with newcomers Jahvon Quinerly and Cole Swider ready to make an impact. Travis could end up here, too, which would make the Wildcats even more of a threat. The Big East will still run through Nova.
11. Auburn: The Tigers got great news last week with the return of Austin Wiley, Jared Harper and Bryce Brown. Mustapha Heron withdrew and bolted to St. John’s. Auburn now knows how to win and will be expected to do so in the SEC.
12. Loyola Chicago: The Ramblers were hardly a fluke last season. They did win at Florida long before they won the Missouri Valley regular season and tournament titles. Their run to the Final Four was epic. This team can ball and there is enough talent returning with Clayton Custer, Cameron Krutwig, Marques Townes and Lucas Williamson to make the Ramblers a legit threat to go deep in March again.
13. Syracuse: Tyus Battle’s decision to return puts the Orange back in position to make another March run. The Battle-Frank Howard combo with the improving Oshae Brissett and the confident Marek Dolezaj and Paschal Chukwu gives the Orange one of the most experienced starting fives in the ACC.
14. Virginia Tech: Buzz Williams has been building toward this season. The Hokies made the NCAA tournament last year but this should be the season they take that next step. Chris Clarke leads an experienced crew that has bought into Williams’ work ethic. The Virginia series should be must-see next season in Charlottesville and Blacksburg.
Game Winner! Kerry Blackshear Jr., scored here to give #Hokies win at Virginia on Feb. 10. Important part of the @virginia529 Commonwealth Clash season victory for @hokiesports pic.twitter.com/nOApTnFaNw— Virginia Tech Basketball (@HokiesMBB) May 14, 2018
15. Michigan State: The Spartans did get Nick Ward back and still have Cassius Winston and Josh Langford. But the loss of go-to scorer and late-game shot-maker Miles Bridges – let alone the shot-alterer in Jaren Jackson Jr. – cannot be understated. The Spartans will have loads of talent and could still win the Big Ten.
16. Nebraska: This shouldn’t come as a shock that I’m bullish on Nebraska. The Huskers got James Palmer Jr. and Isaac Copeland back, with Glynn Watson at the point, giving the Huskers experience, scoring and the ability to defend at key positions. Nebraska will be playing with a bit of an edge that should bode well for a potential Big Ten title season.
17. Michigan: I have no issues grouping these Big Ten teams all together in the middle of the poll. They all have the potential to win the Big Ten. Mo Wagner is gone and so too are sharpshooter Duncan Robinson and steady guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. But the Wolverines got Charles Matthews back and the experience of Zavier Simpson, Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers and Jon Teske gives the Wolverines one of the more ready starting fives at the beginning of the season. Last season’s team needed a few months to get the learning curve straightened out. That shouldn’t be a problem next season.
18. Florida State: The Seminoles were one of the surprise Elite Eight teams and it had a lot to do with their defense, length and ability to stay together. None of that should change. Terance Mann could have a banner season and should be in contention for ACC player of the year.
19. Clemson: The Tigers could've been facing a rebuild but the decisions to return made by Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed mean Clemson has its backcourt in place to make another run at a top-four finish in the ACC. Clemson has stability and is confident that it can be a major player in the ACC.
20. Purdue: The Boilermakers got Carsen Edwards back and he is talented enough to carry Purdue toward the top of the Big Ten. Edwards is a preseason national player of the year candidate. He will have an inside presence in Matt Haarms and complementary players like Ryan Cline, Nojel Eastern and Grady Eifert who can make plays to offset the attention that will be focused on Edwards from opposing teams.
21. West Virginia: The Mountaineers lost their Mr. Everything in Jevon Carter. The guard play will be inexperienced as a result. But the frontcourt has the ability to be the most menacing in the Big 12 with Esa Ahmad, Lamont West and Sagaba Konate, who will strike fear into opponents with his ability to block shots.
22. Indiana: The Hoosiers were a few wins away from turning a rebuilding season into an NCAA tournament appearance last season. The starting five has some star power in Romeo Langford, whose decision to come to Bloomington was celebrated all over the state. Juwan Morgan was one of the most improved players in the Big Ten last season. De’Ron Davis inside, Devonte Green at the point and swingman Justin Smith give the Hoosiers plenty of pop. The players seem to have all bought into Archie Miller’s desire to defend at a high level.
23. TCU: The Horned Frogs will have a healthy Jaylen Fisher next season to go along with Alex Robinson in the backcourt. That means TCU should be in play for a top-four Big 12 finish. Jamie Dixon has created a winning culture at his alma mater in short order. And TCU’s rise means there isn’t one team in the Big 12 that is a given win for any opponent.
24. Mississippi State: Ben Howland got all four of his early-entrants to return to school. That means the Bulldogs should be an NCAA tournament team next season. Quinndary Weatherspoon is an SEC player of the year candidate. Anything less than making the NCAA tournament will be deemed a major disappointment in Starkville.
25. Wisconsin: Expect the Badgers to make a huge leap after an injury-plagued season. Ethan Happ will compete for Big Ten player of the year. Brad Davison will be the toughest player on the floor each night and now that his shoulder is repaired, he should be an even better shooter. Getting guards D’Mitrik Trice and Kobe King healthy means the Badgers have multiple scorers on the perimeter. Khalil Iverson gives the Badgers the athletic wing they need and Brevin Pritzl can focus on being a sharpshooter with Aleem Ford as a utility player who can do a bit of everything for the Badgers. Wisconsin will have experience at every spot. This will be the kind of Wisconsin team that Badger fans have grown accustomed to over the past decade.
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26. Minnesota: Coach Richard Pitino could have his deepest and most talented team since he’s been at Minnesota. It was supposed to be last season but injuries and a major suspension derailed a once-promising season. The Gophers have one of the top double-double players in the country in Jordan Murphy. Amir Coffey, Eric Curry and Dupree McBrayer give the Gophers a crew that can be as potent as any in the Big Ten. If this team can finally stay healthy, there is no reason the Gophers can’t be in the thick of the race for the conference title.
27. Marquette: The Golden Eagles could be the second-best team in the Big East, possibly nudging out St. John’s if the Red Storm can't find consistency. Marquette could have the conference player of the year in prolific scorer Markus Howard. Andrew Rowsey is gone but Marquette will have a 1-2 punch with Sam Hauser back. Marquette was probably two wins away from getting a bid last season if it were the right two. The Golden Eagles will be a tough out every night.
28. LSU: Tremont Waters was one of the most underrated freshmen in the country last season. He’s back after testing the NBA draft process. And the Tigers picked up two of the top recruits in the country in Javonte Smart and Emmitt Williams, giving the Tigers plenty of star power. LSU has a chance to do what Alabama did last season and be that tough out in every SEC arena.
29. Washington: The Huskies could and should be the pick to win the Pac-12. Noah Dickerson’s return with Matisse Thybulle gives the Huskies a terrific tandem. Washington now knows how to play Mike Hopkins’ zone. There should be no surprise with the Huskies’ ability to beat quality teams next season.
30. Buffalo: Nate Oats stayed at Buffalo and that should tell you something about the Bulls' chances next season, following their shocking win in the tournament by beating Arizona. Buffalo can still deliver a knockout of a high-major with Jeremy Harris, CJ Massinburg and Nick Perkins. Buffalo will be a team to watch throughout the season with how it handles the expectations of being the team to beat in the MAC.
CJ Massinburg is one of just four active players in the nation with at least 1,300 points, 500 rebounds and 200 assists through his junior season. His 1,354 points are the second most by a returning @MACSports player next season #UBhornsUP #FunFactFriday pic.twitter.com/uMy1VSldD3— UB Men's Basketball (@UBmenshoops) June 1, 2018
31. UCLA: The Bruins did lose glue guy Thomas Welsh and scorer Aaron Holiday. But Kris Wilkes has the potential to be an Pac-12 player of the year candidate. He should have the ball in his hands quite a bit and be a catalyst for an offense that should flow well.
32. Florida: Losing Chris Chiozza means the Gators will need to develop the next breakdown player when the offense goes awry. The experience of Jalen Hudson, Keith Stone and KeVaughn Allen will keep the Gators in the hunt in the SEC.
33. San Diego State: The Aztecs beat Mountain West regular-season champ Nevada twice in the first week of March. Getting Jalen McDaniels back after he flirted with the NBA draft means they’ve got a potential double-double player. Devin Watson will be a staple at the point and the playmaker the Aztecs need to hang with the Wolf Pack. The Aztecs could make a name for themselves early in the season in a loaded Maui Invitational.
34. Oregon: The Ducks made a late run for a possible tournament bid last season. Oregon shouldn’t have to sweat it out next season with Bol Bol adding to an experienced starting lineup led by Payton Pritchard. This team should start to mimic the Final Four squad of two seasons ago with length, athleticism and plenty of options.
35. Cincinnati: The Bearcats will challenge UCF for the American title and possibly Memphis. But Cincinnati did take a hit with the departures of Jacob Evans, Gary Clark and Kyle Washington. Jarron Cumberland will have to take on more of a load offensively. But don’t ever dismiss Mick Cronin’s chances of winning a conference championship.
36. Davidson: The Wildcats’ run to the A-10 tournament title wasn’t a one-hit wonder. Davidson returns a possible first-round NBA talent in Kellan Grady and his backcourt mates KiShawn Pritchett and Jon Axel Gudmundsson give the Wildcats plenty of pop. This is a deep team that just needs to ensure it has the rebounding to advance come March. The productive guard play will ensure this team can hang with anyone.