A Top 25 for 2018-2019 less than 24 hours after Villanova won the title? Yes. We do this every year. Last year’s early Top 25 had Gonzaga #1, then players went to the NBA, and Villanova came in at #9. Players have to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft by April 22; they can return to college without signing with an agent by May 30.
1 Duke (29-8, Lost in the Elite 8)
One word comes to mind: Unfair. The Blue Devils have, according to Rivals, the top three recruits in the country – forwards RJ Barrett (definitely 1-and-done), and human highlight reel Zion Williamson, plus shooting guard Cameron Reddish. So even with Marvin Bagley, Gary Trent, and Wendell Carter moving to the NBA, and Grayson Allen graduating, they’ll be stacked regardless of what happens with point guard Trevon Duval. The new point guard will be Tre Jones, a scoring machine who is the younger brother of Tyus Jones, who helped lead Duke to the 2015 National title. The Blue Devils will be the favorite to win the title. Marques Bolden will provide depth up front.
2 Kansas (31-8, Lost in the Final 4)
One of Bill Self’s best coaching jobs will be difficult to duplicate with heavy losses suffered with seniors Devonte Graham and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, plus sophomore guard Malik Newman likely going to the NBA. But Self has embraced transfers, and they’ll play a major part in 2018-2019. The offense will return bouncy Lagerald Vick and brutish post players Udoka Azubuike and Silvio De Sousa. Expect former Arizona State wing Sam Cunliffe to slide into the Mykhailiuk role, and former Cal point guard Charlie Moore to start at point guard (unless five-star recruit Devon Dotson beats him out). Another 5-star recruit, Quentin Grimes, should take the starting spot when Newman departs. The real excitement though is reserved for the Lawson twins, Dedric and K.J., who came over from Memphis. Dedric averaged 19 and 9 with Memphis as a sophomore; KJ averaged 12 and 8. Self has won 30+ games three years in a row; he should make it four next year.
3 Villanova (36-4, Won National Title)
This is how much of a juggernaut Jay Wright has built: They won the title in 2016, went back to the Final 4 in 2018, and they are absolutely loaded for next year. Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges will almost certainly turn pro, leaving a leadership void, but there’s still a ton of talent, led by forwards Eric Paschall (junior) and Omari Spellman (freshman), assuming the latter comes back. Phil Booth will probably start at guard alongside Collin Gillespie, and Donte DiVincenzo will slide into the spot vacated by Bridges. (Given how well DiVincenzo played in the Title game, perhaps he tests the NBA waters.) Forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree will be the first big off the bench. Incoming freshman Jahvon Quinerly (PG), Cole Winder (PF), and Brandon Slater (SF) will see minutes. There will be more Final Four expectations.
4 Kentucky (26-11, Lost in the Sweet 16)
John Calipari might consider last year an accomplishment, given where they were in January, but there’s no way he expected to lose to Kansas State as 5-point favorites. Gone will be the team’s best two players, Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and perhaps Hamidou Diallo (though he should stay and work on his game). Everyone else should be back, and the player I’m most excited about is Nick Richards, who barely played in the NCAA Tournament, but is more skilled than PJ Washington. If Quade Green starts at point guard, expect him to be joined by Top 20 recruits Keldon Johnson (SF) and Immanuel Quickley (G). Guard Tyler Herro will add to the young backcourt, which probably won’t be as good as the stacked frontcourt. Between sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel and freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt, the Wildcats should be much bigger and deeper than last year.
5 Gonzaga (32-5, Lost in the Sweet 16)
We’ll never know how good the Zags were last year because 6-foot-11 gunner Killian Tillie (12.9 ppg) missed the Florida State loss. With him, I’m certain they win. The Zags lose forward Johnathan Williams, who led them in scoring and rebounding, and steady senior guard Silas Melson, but if nobody goes to the NBA, they’ll be a strong Final 4 contender. If sophomore Rui Hachimura returns, he could be an All-American. So could rising sophomore Zach Norvell, who blew up in the NCAA Tournament and might be their best player. Then there’s point guard Josh Perkins, Tillie and promising wing Corey Kispert (6.7 ppg). Keep an eye on transfer Brandon Clarke, who two years ago averaged 17.3 ppg and 8.7 rpg for San Jose State. If Hachimura and Norvell stay, make a futures play on the Zags during your next Vegas trip.
6 Nevada (29-8, Lost in the Sweet 16)
Eric Musselman’s team had perhaps the best season in school history with a trip to the Sweet 16, and there will be legit Final 4 aspirations next year. The Martin twins will be back, as will the Wolfpack’s best interior player, Jordan Caroline (17.8 ppg, 8.7 rpg). Replacing their best 3-point shooter (Kendall Stephens) will be difficult, but point guard Lindsey Drew will return from injury. Three transfers will provide much-needed depth: forward Tre’Shawn Thurman (12.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg at Omaha in 2017); Nisre Zouzoua, a guard from Bryant University (20.3 ppg); and guard Corey Henson (14.6 ppg at Wagner). In a recruiting coup, 6-foot-9 power forward KJ Hymes picked Nevada over Clemson, Oklahoma and UVA.
7 Kansas State (25-12, Lost in the Elite Eight)
Before the year, nobody thought much of Kansas State’s talent, but after a fourth-place finish in the Big 12 and a run to the Elite Eight, the Wildcats’ core of Dean Wade, Barry Brown, Xavier Sneed, Kamau Stokes and Cartier Diarra looks pretty good. Better yet, they’re all expected to be back for 2018-19. That gives Kansas State a returning starting five that includes a first-team All-Big 12 forward (Wade) and a second-team guard (Brown) who also made the all-defensive team. The challenge for Kansas State, as always, is recruiting. Coach Bruce Weber has just one commitment from the class of 2018, three-star guard Shaun Williams. But then again there was the late-season blossoming of big man Makol Mawien, who will be a junior next season. In short, the Wildcats will return a proven veteran team with two of the best scorers in the Big 12.
8 North Carolina (26-11, Lost in the 2nd Round of the NCAA Tournament)
Losing seniors Theo Pinson and Joel Berry but it’ll hurt even more if Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson don’t return for their final seasons. If Maye sticks around to join Kenny Williams, and you toss in freshman Garrison Brooks, plus recruits SF Nassir Little (#5 overall) and SG Coby White (#25), and you’ve got another 25+ win season for Roy Williams.
9 Tennessee (26-9, Lost in the 2nd Round of the NCAA Tournament)
Will be back in the NCAA Tournament after a devastating late loss to Loyola. Rick Barnes returns his best two players, SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams (15.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and Admiral Schofield (13.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 39 percent on 3-pointers). And his stacked sophomore class of guards Jordan Bone, Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden should make them, along with Kentucky, the favorites in the SEC.
10 Loyola-Chicago (32-6, Lost in the Final 4)
The MVC Player of the Year, Clayton Custer (13.4 ppg, 4.2 apg, 45 percent on 3-pointers), is back, and so is 3rd leading scorer Marques Townes (11.1 ppg), along with freshman bulldozer Cameron Krutwig (10.5 ppg). Freshman shooter Lucas Williamson (43 percent on 3-pointers) is ready for a larger role. Of utmost importance: Keeping coach Porter Moser, who after a rough go at Illinois State, looks like a potential star. But the Ramblers will be the hunted next year, and we saw how another team from Chicago handled that this past season after a nice 2017 March run. Northwestern went 15-17 despite returning its best three players, and missed the tournament.
11 Syracuse (23-14, Lost in the Sweet 16)
There’s good news … and more good news. The Orange don’t lose anyone from the rotation. Tyus Battle (19.2 ppg), Oshae Brissett (14.9 ppg) and Frank Howard (14.4 ppg) are back, and so is rapidly improving role player Marek Dolezaj (5.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.5 apg). Depth will be a challenge with Top 10 recruit Darius Bazley opting for the G-League, but point guard Jalen Carey should contribute immediately.
12 Auburn (26-8, Lost in the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament)
The Tigers had four players average in double figures last season, and all of them return. In fact, nobody from the rotation graduates. Auburn lost six of its final 11 games, so Bruce Pearl will have a stacked team. Guard Bryce Brown’s going to need help from his teammates shooting 3-pointers if they want to make the leap to Final Four contender. The biggest question mark here is the status of Pearl, who was under fire before last season.
13 Virginia (31-3, Lost in the 1st Round of NCAA Tournament)
The stench from the UMBC loss won’t soon be forgotten. Virginia returns its top scorer (Kyle Guy, 14.1 ppg) and 3rd leading scorer (Ty Jerome, 10.6 ppg) plus promising freshman De’Andre Hunter, who missed that NCAA loss. The defense will be great, but will the offense improve? What does 30 wins mean if you don’t threaten to reach the Final 4? And they don’t have – as of now – any standout JUCOs or impact recruits coming in. The breakout star could be rising sophomore Marco Anthony, a combo guard who some think could be the next Malcolm Brogdon.