So while Brunson (and perhaps Mikal Bridges and Omari Spellman) could move on, the foundation of Villanova’s success will not change. Jay Wright’s team will remain (relatively) old, with Phil Booth, Eric Paschall and especially Donte DiVincenzo set to be mainstays for a program that’s gone 165-21 over the last five seasons.
The Wildcats will be in the hunt for another Final Four trip, but they won’t be alone. Here, then, is an early shot at a full at-large field — 36 teams deep — for 2019, one certain to change by the day as players turn pro in the coming weeks.
1. Kansas. The Jayhawks will win the Big 12, because it’s what they do. Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk both depart, and Malik Newman could turn pro. But Bill Self will get transfers Dedric and K.J. Lawson (from Memphis) and Charlie Moore (California) eligible and will bring in a pair of top-20 recruits (per 247 Sports) in Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes. With much of a capable rotation back, Kansas will contend for another Final Four trip.
2. Villanova. Until proven otherwise, the Wildcats should be viewed as a perennial contender. DiVincenzo is well on his way to becoming the next great Villanova guard, and while bracket luck could prove fleeting, the truth is the beast of the Big East should remain one of the most consistent teams in the country.
3. Virginia. One game doesn’t wipe out a full season, and it would be silly to dismiss the Cavaliers based on their blowout loss to UMBC in the first round of the tournament. It’s also fair to ask how that historic setback impacts a returning core that will include Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter. By the time the postseason arrives next year, both the good obvious narrative (Virginia’s defense is awesome) and the bad one (Virginia can’t win in March) will be dead horses still receiving severe beatings.
4. Duke. There’s a bit of Duke fatigue built into this placement, and it’s the same thing tied to Kentucky year in and year out. The Blue Devils will welcome a stellar recruiting class led by R.J. Barrett, Cameron Reddish and Zion Williamson, and they’ll be the centerpieces of a team likely to lose its entire starting lineup. But it’s anyone’s guess how good a team they’ll form, and whether they’ll be able to defend (or if Duke will just go zone once league play begins). It’s the most talented roster, but is it the best team? Time will tell.
5. Kentucky. Wait, the Wildcats are allowed to have sophomores on their roster? Mind. Blown. How many returnees John Calipari will have is in flux, but there will be at least some. Kentucky played its best down the stretch before sputtering in the Sweet 16 against Kansas State. Unlike this past season, the Wildcats are likely to have at least a few players who have been there and done that, and it should make a difference — for both a more consistent regular season and a better showing come March.
6. Gonzaga. The Bulldogs just went 32-5 the season after losing arguably four of the top six players from a national finalist. They’ll be even better next season behind a loaded lineup featuring Rui Hachimura, Zach Norvell, Josh Perkins and Killian Tillie, among others.
7. Tennessee. Consider this a vote for inertia. The Volunteers were the most stable team in the Southeastern Conference all season, and Grant Williams leads a rotation that should return mostly intact outside of graduate transfer James Daniel. Tennessee’s defense will be one of the great givens of the 2018-19 season.
8. North Carolina. Who will run the point with Joel Berry II’s storied college career complete? That, along with whether the Tar Heels’ young bigs can develop enough to more effectively complement Luke Maye, will be one of the big questions of the offseason. Holdovers Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams figure to see expanded roles as well.
9. Michigan. Clearly, this could go down a bit. Moritz Wagner could (should?) turn pro. Charles Matthews might, too. Consider this more of a projection of where the Wolverines end up at season’s end if they merely get one of those two back to complement Jordan Poole and Zavier Simpson. John Beilein has won a pair of Big Ten tournaments in a row, and a three-peat isn’t out of the question.
10. Florida. Can Good Florida keep Bad Florida from sticking around for two weeks at a time? Will Jalen Hudson ultimately stick around Gainesville? Is there enough in place to compensate for Chris Chiozza’s graduation? This reflects some optimism on all three fronts for the Gators, who should at least find themselves in the top third of the SEC.
11. Nevada. The Wolf Pack had such a shallow rotation this season because Coach Eric Musselman was committed to having plenty of older transfers on the roster in the years to come. Assuming the Martin twins (Caleb and Cody) and Jordan Carolina stick around, Nevada will mix them with low-major scorers such as Nisre Zouzoua (a transfer from Bryant) and Jazz Johnson (Portland) to be a second-weekend threat again.
12. Michigan State. Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. have turned pro, so the Spartans have already absorbed much of their offseason losses. Michigan State will have plenty to prove after a 30-7 season that was relatively light on actual accomplishments thanks to a down Big Ten. Having Joshua Langford, Cassius Winston and (probably) Nick Ward is a good place to start for Tom Izzo.
13. West Virginia. The Mountaineers have to replace defensive ace Jevon Carter, as well as Daxter Miles, but they have one of the strongest identities in the sport, an eventual Hall of Famer on the sideline in Bob Huggins and a spot in a league where most of this past season’s strong teams have big holes to fill. Maybe not a national title contender, but plenty good.
14. Auburn. Here’s a vote of skepticism about the Tigers, who went 5-6 down the stretch (a good chunk of it without rim protector Anfernee McLemore). Yes, Auburn will bring back everyone of note and presumably will have Austin Wiley in the fold after he sat out last year after being tied to the FBI investigation. But the SEC’s going to be even better, and wins will be a little harder to come by.
15. Mississippi State. Maybe one of the early wild cards for next season. The Bulldogs quietly got a lot better in 2017-18, and Quinndary Weatherspoon (who has a knack for buzzer-beaters) is an overlooked star. Mississippi State just won 25 games for the first time since 2004 and will add the 6-foot-9 Reggie Perry as the jewel of a well-regarded recruiting class. Ben Howland should get the Bulldogs into the NCAA tournament.
16. Virginia Tech. There’s a lot to like about the Hokies, who demonstrated an increased commitment to defense last season. If that continues and Justin Robinson (a potential all-ACC guard as a senior) remains a reliable presence, Buzz Williams will have a team capable of sticking in March beyond the first weekend. Justin Bibbs is the big loss to graduation.
17. Oregon. There are a smattering of teams other than Kansas, Duke and Kentucky likely to lean on one-and-done talent. The Ducks have freshmen Bol Bol and Louis King in the fold, and they’ll draw the most attention as Dana Altman tries to go from 23-13 to contending for a league title — which isn’t the toughest thing in the Pac-12.
18. Xavier. Many of the big names from Xavier’s No. 1 seed in the West Region departed, but there’s still an interesting nucleus of Kaiser Gates, Quentin Goodin, Tyrique Jones, Naji Marshall and Paul Scruggs. Expect steady improvement as Coach Travis Steele’s first season unfolds. Bonus stat: Xavier’s last five coaches — all of whom eventually moved on to more prominent programs — averaged 23.4 victories in their first season with the Musketeers.
19. Purdue. Around this time last year, it felt like the Boilermakers’ window was a bit smaller after Caleb Swanigan turned pro. Then they went ahead and played about as well as anyone for much of the season while Carsen Edwards emerged as a star guard. Lesson learned. Edwards will be Purdue’s lone returning starter, and while the Boilers probably won’t land a No. 2 seed again, they’ll figure out a way to stay relevant.
20. Louisville. There’s two ways to look at the season the Cardinals just completed. One, it’s a wonder interim coach David Padgett held things together after Rick Pitino’s firing. Two, there’s a lot of room for improvement from a roster that was talented enough to finish in the top four of the ACC without the tumult. Look for new Coach Chris Mack to enjoy a solid debut with Deng Adel, Ray Spalding and Co.
21. Clemson. This placement hinges on the return of both Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed as fifth-year seniors. Both will investigate the draft process, but they could spur another tournament run for the Tigers (along with center Elijah Thomas). Losing guard Gabe DeVoe to graduation hurts, but if Brad Brownell retains the rest of his starting backcourt, Clemson won’t be overlooked again next fall.
22. LSU. Two things were established in Will Wade’s first season in Baton Rouge: One, Tremont Waters is an exceptional point guard; two, the Tigers won’t back down from anyone. Wade’s landed a strong recruiting class, and this ranking reflects some faith at least half of his four top-60 freshmen make an immediate impact.
23. Kansas State. Yes, the Wildcats bring back a bunch from an Elite Eight team, including Barry Brown, Xavier Sneed and Dean Wade. That was also a team that played strong defense and often-underwhelming offense and went 0-7 against the top three teams in the Big 12. A spot near the edge of the top 25 would be appropriate, as would an upgrade to what was a largely feeble nonconference schedule.
24. Florida State. The Seminoles are a great example of how a few wins in March can change the perception of a team. Leonard Hamilton’s team was abysmal away from home the last month of the regular season. Then it reached the Elite Eight. The strengths (depth, athleticism) will remain the same next year, with Terance Mann likely the top returnee.
25. TCU. Jamie Dixon has some work to do to retool his frontcourt, but the Horned Frogs are absolutely loaded at guard. Alex Robinson and Desmond Bane now have NCAA tournament experience, and a healthy Jaylen Fisher should make TCU a threat to again finish in the top half of the Big 12.
26. UCLA. There will be a lot of talent in Westwood, and much of it will be in the freshman and sophomore classes. Can Coach Steve Alford get the most out of it, or will the Bruins slog along as a borderline tournament team (or worse) as they have three of the last four years?
27. Cincinnati. You know the Bearcats will defend like crazy, and that alone will win them a lot of games in the American Athletic Conference. Losing seniors Gary Clark and Kyle Washington, as well as draft-bound junior Jacob Evans, drops the ceiling a bit.
28. Texas Tech. If Zhaire Smith opts to turn pro after a strong freshman year, the Red Raiders will have one returning starter from the first Elite Eight team in program history. The commitment to defense is exceptional in Lubbock, but that’s still a considerable exodus. If Smith is back to pair with fellow guard Jarrett Culver? Shoot Chris Beard’s team up about 10 spots or so.
29. Providence. Ed Cooley figures out a way to coax the Friars into the NCAA tournament every year. Why would next year be any different? Alpha Diallo and Isaiah Jackson will be key pieces, as will Indiana transfer Emmitt Holt after he missed this past season with an abdominal injury. Replacing Kyron Cartwright’s production at the point is critical.
30. Loyola Chicago. Clayton Custer? Back. Marques Townes? Back. Cameron Krutwig? Back. But the most important thing for the Ramblers is they will likely remain as committed to moving the ball with brilliance on offense as some younger players emerge in larger roles. Loyola should be the preseason favorite in the Missouri Valley after its Final Four run.
31. Boston College. Don’t forget about the Eagles, who could have one of the best backcourts in the country in Jerome Robinson and Ky Bowman. One early key for next season is whether the NCAA approves Deontae Hawkins’s appeal for a sixth year of eligibility. The forward looked like a difference-maker before going down with a knee injury after eight games.
32. Notre Dame. The Irish follow the “get old and stay old” credo like Villanova, but they couldn’t account for injuries to seniors Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell last season. It’s T.J. Gibbs’s turn to emerge as a star in Mike Brey’s system. Expect Notre Dame to return to the NCAA tournament after a one-year hiatus.
33. Penn State. Tony Carr’s decision to turn pro changes the dynamic a bit for the NIT champion Nittany Lions, who would have landed higher had the point guard returned for his junior year. Still, Josh Reaves, Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins make a quality core as Coach Patrick Chambers chases his first NCAA bid since coming to Happy Valley.
34. Vanderbilt. It’s not hard to figure out why a 20-loss team is in this conversation. The Commodores will add a pair of top-15 freshmen in forward Simi Shittu and guard Darius Garland and could yet land wing Romeo Langford, the top uncommitted incoming freshman. Bryce Drew’s team should be young, fun and plenty dangerous in the second half of the season.
35. N.C. State. Here largely on the strength of Coach Kevin Keatts, who exceeded expectations in Year 1 in Raleigh just as he had at UNC Wilmington. There will be a lot of moving pieces, but there’s no questioning the options in a Wolfpack backcourt that will include Braxton Beverly, Torin Dorn, Markell Johnson and UNC Wilmington transfer C.J. Bryce.
36. Maryland. Some skepticism is warranted for the Terrapins, who never got any traction last season — with inconsistency mixing with injuries that led to a limited bench. Nonetheless, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter could be two of the Big Ten’s top 10-15 players, and an improved Bruno Fernando (assuming he’s back) make Maryland a solid choice to return to the NCAA tournament.