This makes any morning-after-the-national-title-game look-ahead attempt a bit more perilous, but it’s a reasonable price to pay for providing players more flexibility. Nonetheless, consider this exercise a little more fluid than in the past.
It would, however, take quite the surprise to significantly dislodge the top two teams — both of which played in Minneapolis over the weekend — as early favorites for next season.
1. Michigan State (32-7 in 2018-19): Next season marks the 20th anniversary of the Spartans’ lone national title under Tom Izzo, and the core of that team endured the crucible of a Final Four before snipping the nets on the season’s final day.
Michigan State projects to be a senior-dominated team next year, led by Cassius Winston, Nick Ward and a presumably healthy Joshua Langford. Xavier Tillman will be a junior, Aaron Henry a sophomore. And they’ll be hungry. Very, very hungry.
2. Virginia (35-3): At long last, the questions about whether a team playing the Cavaliers’ style can claim a national title are gone. Win enough games, enough years in a row, and the opportunity will present itself.
Now, about the possibilities of a repeat. Assuming title game hero De’Andre Hunter turns pro, there’s still an impressive core group back: seniors-to-be Mamadi Diakite, Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and Braxton Key, along with sophomore Kihei Clark. Virginia has won 178 games over the past six seasons. Even if it hadn’t won Monday night, you could count on the Cavaliers being a contender next season.
3. Duke (32-6): The Zion Williamson Show moves on to the NBA, as do RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish. But the Blue Devils will have a point guard with college experience in Tre Jones, and they’ll bring in another batch of star freshmen (led by center Vernon Carey Jr.). They won’t be nearly as much fun to watch and they’re not a sure thing to make a Final Four, but they’ll be a threat to win 30 games.
4. Kentucky (30-7): Another case of covering the bases with a program never left with an absence of talent. Wing Tyler Herro probably would be a preseason all-America pick if he sticks around Lexington for another year, but there will be enough options in place to give the Wildcats a chance to make a push for the Final Four.
5. Tennessee (31-6): The Volunteers could be a team in flux. Admiral Schofield graduates. Grant Williams might turn pro. Jordan Bone is already in the draft with plans to remain. Coach Rick Barnes spurned UCLA, and he’ll have a pair of proven senior guards (Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner) and one of the nation’s top incoming guards (Josiah-Jordan James). The ceiling drops some if Williams departs, but the Vols won’t be an easy out.
6. Auburn (30-10): Bryce Brown graduates, but so many of the other pieces of the Tigers’ first Final Four team — Samir Doughty, Jared Harper and Anfernee McLemore — could be back for their senior seasons. Harper declared for the draft Tuesday, and he would be a big piece to replace if he remains there. If Auburn can get going earlier (remember, the Tigers opened the year 18-9), they’ll spend much of the season in the top 10. At the very least, the deep March run ensures the Tigers won’t be an afterthought at any point next year.
7. Louisville (20-14): Chris Mack’s record at Xavier speaks for itself, and he did a fine job of getting the Cardinals to 17-6 in his first season before things unraveled down the stretch. He has landed a large, capable recruiting class, and he could have as many as four starters back. Jordan Nwora is the name to keep an eye on as the draft process unfolds; Louisville could use its top player back for his junior year.
8. Michigan (30-7): Another Big Ten team with most of its rotation back, though freshman Ignas Brazdeikis’s seemingly firm decision to turn pro knocks the Wolverines out of the top five. Michigan must also replace Charles Matthews, but it will still have the fearless Zavier Simpson running the point and a junior class that includes Isaiah Livers and Jordan Poole. That’s a pretty good place to start.
9. Gonzaga (33-4): Will the Zags be as good as this past season by the time their roster experiences its share of defections to the NBA? Probably not. But after three consecutive 30-win seasons and five in the past seven years, Mark Few’s program deserves the benefit of the doubt.
10. Florida State (29-8): The downside to the Seminoles’ cast-of-thousands approach is they’re bound to lose useful pieces every year. The upshot is there is always a smattering of players who logged meaningful minutes returning. Trent Forrest will be the senior presence, and Raiquan Gray and Devin Vassell will take on larger roles, but the name to know is Mfiondu Kabengele. He was the Seminoles’ best player this past season and should be again.
11. Oregon (25-13): The Ducks went from this past season’s great “what if” to figuring things out in impressive fashion, winning four games in four days to claim the Pac-12 tournament and then reaching the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed before pushing Virginia. Payton Pritchard will be a tested senior guard with Final Four experience; Louis King could become a star if he sticks around for a second college season; and Kenny Wooten is Oregon’s latest prominent shot-swatter. Toss in another big freshman class, and the Ducks are in good shape.
12. Kansas (26-10): A team that probably has at least one major addition coming between now and the end of the spring, the Jayhawks figure to be young and talented. Ochai Agbaji, Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes and David McCormack all started at least 13 games as freshmen and figure to make up the nucleus of Bill Self’s team.
13. North Carolina (29-7): It’s always hard to imagine the Tar Heels taking too much of a step back, but they are in line to lose their top five scorers. Landing freshman guard Cole Anthony is a vital step for Coach Roy Williams’s team, which gets the benefit of the doubt in this exercise — at least for now.
14. Houston (33-4): Even this placement feels like it’s selling the Cougars short after their Sweet 16 appearance. Corey Davis is gone, but Coach Kelvin Sampson is sticking around. Chances are, so does Houston’s impressive commitment to defense. It will be Armoni Brooks’s turn to handle the role of the Cougars’ tough senior lead guard.
15. Marquette (24-10): Can the Golden Eagles get their mojo back? They were never quite the same after going scoreless from the field in the final 5:14 of a Feb. 27 loss at Villanova that precipitated a 1-6 slide to end the season. Marquette has plenty of Hausers (Joey and Sam) and a key transfer (former Utah State guard Koby McEwen), and the potential return of Markus Howard would give it one of the nation’s most dynamic scorers. Still, there’s some reflection to be done this offseason in Milwaukee.
16. Maryland (23-11): The Terrapins received welcome news Monday when Jalen Smith announced he would remain in school for his sophomore season. Mark Turgeon’s team won’t have youth as a crutch next year, even if Bruno Fernando opts to depart College Park. A tested backcourt led by Anthony Cowan Jr. coupled with a commitment to defense will make Maryland a threat to reach the second weekend of the tournament.
17. Texas Tech (31-7): Chris Beard is clearly a magician, and his ability to conjure a regional final spot and a national title game appearance over the past two seasons in Lubbock is impressive. His ability to restock a roster shouldn’t be undersold, either; he got Matt Mooney and Tariq Owens in the grad transfer market after last season. He’ll need all those skills. If Jarrett Culver turns pro, just three of the eight Red Raiders who played in Monday’s national title game will return.
18. Villanova (26-10): The key figures who helped the Wildcats claim a pair of national titles have exited, and the absence of a senior class next season (here’s looking at you, Donte DiVincenzo) means Villanova’s core in 2019-20 could be together for two years. The Wildcats probably won’t make a run at a third national title in five years, but contending for another Big East championship could be within reach.
19. Utah State (28-7): The ultraefficient Sam Merrill returns for the Aggies, who look like they’ll be the class of the Mountain West (though don’t count out San Diego State). Utah State won 17 of 18 before its first-round loss to Washington, and it is exceptional at sharing the ball. Look for Craig Smith’s bunch to be even better — and capable of winning a game or two in the postseason.
20. Virginia Commonwealth (25-8): Were the Rams as good as their record suggested in a decidedly down Atlantic 10? Maybe not, especially after getting drilled by Central Florida in an 8/9 game. But they looked like VCU for the first time in a few years: deep, relentless and thoroughly committed to defense. Mike Rhoades’s team has room to improve on offense, certainly. But a rotation led by Marcus Evans that almost entirely returns should get better at that end of the floor.
21. Ohio State (20-15): No underestimating these guys this time around. In what could have easily been a transitional year in Columbus, the Buckeyes made it to the NCAA tournament and managed to win a game once they got there. This placement assumes Kaleb Wesson is back patrolling the paint for Ohio State, but even if he isn’t, Chris Holtmann has coaxed quite a bit from his roster the past two seasons and probably will do so again.
22. Seton Hall (20-14): Most of the Pirates’ rotation, including four starters, is set to return from a team that absorbed serious graduation hits and reached its fourth consecutive NCAA tournament. Guard Myles Powell, who closed out the year with eight consecutive 20-point games, can further burnish his credentials as a showstopping scorer as a senior if he chooses to remain in school.
23. Purdue (26-10): The Boilermakers must replace the sublime Carsen Edwards (who appears determined to remain in the NBA draft), as well as Ryan Cline and Grady Eifert, but Coach Matt Painter repeatedly has plugged in new pieces and continued to pile up victories. Purdue will be a tough out again, and if Edwards somehow has a change of heart, the Boilermakers would shoot up to the top 10.
24. Memphis (22-14): Center James Wiseman, who played high school ball in Memphis and is the No. 1 recruit in the country according to 247 Sports, is on his way to play for the Tigers. The assumption Penny Hardaway would be able to recruit local talent has held up. Now come far greater expectations than existed during his first season back at his alma mater.
25. Louisiana State (28-7): The single biggest wild card in the sport thanks to a hyper-athletic rotation that could return many of its pieces … or could scatter to the wind in the wake of however the situation surrounding suspended coach Will Wade. It’s anyone’s guess.
Ten others to watch: Arizona, Baylor, Cincinnati, Creighton, Florida, Georgetown, Iowa, Saint Mary’s, Washington, Wisconsin.
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