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Pat Forde's College Basketball Preseason Top 25

Ahead of Tuesday's opening night, who made the cut in Forde's first Top 25 ranking of the 2019-20 season?

This is one of those years in college basketball where preseason rankings are composed on a Who Do You Dislike Least basis. In other words, it’s hard to be stone-cold in love with anyone, because they all have flaws and concerns.

In a perfect world, the rankings would start at No. 3. Nobody seems good enough to be No. 1 or No. 2. But that’s not how it works, and somebody has to win it all come April, and so let’s start at the top with a quartet of teams that will be in action on the same floor Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden:

1. Kansas: From pole dancers to the pole position, what better No. 1 team for our times than the Jayhawks? Talented, experienced and with a major NCAA infractions case looming over their heads. Kansas will get this season in before any potential sanctions come down, then we’ll find out what (if anything) gets vacated.

2. Michigan State: The consensus No. 1 makes me hesitate to join the coronation for three reasons: the Josh Langford injury is a big one, with an iffy timetable for his return; the Spartans are always very good, but rarely good enough to win it all (2000 was a long time ago); the same goes for the Big Ten (no titles since Michigan State’s last one).

3. Duke: Zion Williamson isn’t walking through that door, or soaring through the ACC. This freshman class isn’t like the previous one, but it’s still really good and will be buttressed by the return of two-way star point guard Tre Jones and some solid role players. Duke has a bit more depth than it did last year, when the Blue Devils were low on reliable bodies by season’s end.

4. Kentucky: Here is the existential question for John Calipari: if the best pieces of this team suggest a Small Ball lineup, will he do it? Cal’s preferred lineups at Kentucky have been big, bigger and ginormous. The current bunch of Wildcats look more guard-centric and perimeter oriented. Expect the usual season arc: shaky early, fans despairing, grumbling about the Cal recruiting paradigm, then they coalesce into the best team in the SEC.

5. North Carolina: Roy Williams has a sensational freshman class, highlighted by No. 1 point guard recruit Cole Anthony. But he’s also replacing four starters from last season, including bedrock guys Luke Maye, Kenny Williams and Cam Johnson. He’s got a couple of grad transfers coming in to fill that void, but they’re coming from William & Mary and Charleston Southern, and they were there for a reason. Still, it’s an intriguing mix.

6. Gonzaga: Mark Few has mastered the reload, which is why this doesn’t feel like a huge overreach for a team that lost its top four players from 2018-19. Killian Tillie never really got his season off the ground last year due to injuries; expect a huge season from him. Few has been waiting for Corey Kispert to break out, and now he has the chance. Texas A&M grad transfer Admon Gilder will be a factor. The Zags will have a lot of size at their disposal.

7. Louisville: Chris Mack has a lot to work with: six players who averaged at least 16 minutes a game last year are back, along with a touted recruiting class. The star is forward Jordan Nwora, who led the team in scoring and rebounds last year and is the preseason ACC Player of the Year. But this was also a team that wobbled badly late last season after overachieving early. The big key: point guard. Can junior Darius Perry finally show he’s a dependable floor general, or does the job fall to St. Joseph’s transfer Fresh Kimble? Also a key: does an inevitable NCAA Notice of Allegations become a distraction at some point this season?

8. Florida: The temptation is to vault the Gators into the top five, but I’m slowing that roll until we see what it looks like when all the pieces are put together. Kerry Blackshear is the top grad transfer in the country and could well lead Florida in scoring and rebounding. Holdovers Andrew Nembhard and Keyontae Johnson were good freshmen who could be really good sophomores. The X-factors that could decide Florida’s upward mobility are Top 25 recruits Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann. How long does it take them to absorb what Mike White wants them to do?

9. Memphis: Tigers fans welcomed Penny Hardaway like a conquering hero prior to last season, but now the real hype has begun with the Tigers bringing in the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation. So this is the season we find out whether Hardaway is more than just a recruiter—can he take a young team led by the nation’s top recruit, big man James Wiseman, and turn it into a contender for the Final Four? That’s a big step up from last year’s NIT team.

10. Ohio State: The answer to the question of who is second-best in the Big Ten should be the Buckeyes. Their early buzz is strong, based on the blending of freshman guard D.J. Carton with productive post player Kaleb Wesson and other experienced returnees. Ohio State struggled to score in the latter stages last season, but should have more firepower this time around to go with the customary Chris Holtmann defensive ferocity.

11. Seton Hall: The Pirates last won the Big East in 1993. It may be time to end that drought. Kevin Willard has a loaded returning roster led by streak-shooting savant Myles Powell, last seen averaging 26.3 points in the month of March 2019. Willard is suspended for Seton Hall’s first regular-season game for a tampering investigation involving Syracuse transfer Taurean Thompson, but he got his guy and Thompson teams with Sandro Mamukelashvili to give the Pirates some frontcourt firepower.

12. Oregon: This should be the best team in the Pac-12. And if five-star freshman center N’Faly Dante gains eligibility and is on the floor for the Ducks come mid-December, this rating could be too low. Even if Dante doesn’t suit up, Oregon brings in six other recruits who can make a big impact alongside stellar veteran point guard Peyton Pritchard.

13. Virginia: If either Ty Jerome or Kyle Guy had come back to school, the defending champs would be a tempting ACC champion pick and start the season in my top five. Neither did, joining DeAndre Hunter in the NBA draft. Still, Tony Bennett is such a formidable program builder that he will have players ready to fill roles and keep the Cavaliers highly competitive. That will start with the two guys who combined to make the play that saved UVA’s season against Purdue: point guard Kihei Clark and big man Mamadi Diakite.

14. Maryland: Terrapins look great on paper, with every key player except Bruno Fernando returning from a 23-win team. So No. 14 might be too low. But only once in eight previous seasons at Maryland has Mark Turgeon lost fewer than nine games overall and six in conference play. And only once at Maryland has he advanced to the Sweet 16. There is some proving to do.

15. Texas Tech: This ranking almost feels disrespectful to Chris Beard after what he’s done the last two seasons: 58 total wins, plus advancement to a regional final in 2018 and the national title game in ’19. But the losses from last year are immense. The help and hope come from a couple of transfers—Virginia Tech’s Chris Clarke and Stephen F. Austin’s T.J. Holyfield—and holdover guards David Moretti and Kyler Edwards. Give Beard a few weeks and they’ll be a fanatical defensive team by the time Big 12 play starts.

16. Arizona: As is the case in Louisville, the Wildcats’ inevitable NCAA Notice of Allegations is circling, waiting to land, presumably sometime during this season. (With an outcome that will not be decided for many months afterward.) Sean Miller has been coaching under a cloud since February 2018 but he’s also bringing three top-40 freshmen into the fold this fall, led by creative and fearless point guard Nico Mannion. They join enough holdover talent to ensure that Arizona returns to the Big Dance after last season’s 17–15 flop.

17. Cincinnati: A pair of cousins have the Bearcats buzzin’: Jarron Cumberland, Cincy’s holdover best player, is joined by his cousin, Oakland grad transfer Jaevin. Between the two of them, they made 185 three-pointers last year and could be the hubs of new coach John Brannen’s offense, which relies heavily on points outside the arc. Brannen inherits some other quality players from Mick Cronin and has a chance to win the American Athletic Conference in his first season after arriving from Northern Kentucky.

18. Baylor: Scott Drew lost wing player Mario Kegler in September, when he left the team after being suspended. It won’t hold the Bears back significantly. They have returning players Tristan Clark, Jared Butler and Mark Vital, plus the usual impact pickups from the transfer market. That notably includes former Auburn player Davion Mitchell and UNC-Asheville transfer MaCio Teague.

19. Utah State: Could the Aggies be this year’s Houston, rising up and grabbing a top-16 NCAA tournament seed? Yeah, it’s possible. Nevada had all the Mountain West hype last year, but Utah State tied the Wolf Pack for the regular-season title and then won the league tournament. Craig Smith’s team returns four starters, led by 1,500-point career scorer Sam Merrill. And with 6'11" center Neemias Queta, the Aggies have the size to hang with a lot of teams.

20. Villanova: The Wildcats have won either the Big East regular season or tournament title six straight years, and often both. They’ll be challenged this year, as Jay Wright has almost a complete roster turnover of players who were contributors on the 2018 national championship team. Wright excels at player development, which means several role players are probably ready for liftoff this season, but he may also need his freshman class to be ready sooner than usual. That will start with talented power forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, and should eventually include guard Bryan Antoine if he recovers from injury issues.

21. Purdue: Matt Painter has elevated his program to something approaching autopilot: four straight seasons of 26 or more wins, three straight advancements to the Sweet 16 or better. Repeating that success won’t be easy this season, but you can count on year-over-year improvement from former supporting cast members Nojel Eastern, Trevion Williams, Aaron Wheeler and Matt Haarms. The Boilermakers aren’t sliding off the radar anytime soon.

22. Xavier: Travis Steele’s first season looked like a complete disaster in early February, when the Musketeers were 11–13 and on a six-game losing streak. They won six of their final seven in the regular season to pump some optimism back into the program, and that has increased accordingly heading into 2019–20. The best players from last year all return, and they’re joined by Ohio grad transfer Jason Carter.

23. LSU: Another school waiting for an NCAA shoe to drop at some point. The Tigers lost a couple players to early entry in the NBA draft but kept a couple who could have gone—most notably guards Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart. There are some other returning contributors from last season’s surprise SEC champions, and also an instant-impact freshman in 6-foot-9 Trendon Watford.

24. Notre Dame: Most improved team in 2019–20? It could be the Fighting Irish, who return all starters from last year’s 14–19 dud and welcome back mix-master Rex Pflueger from a season-ending ACL tear early last season. The only other time Mike Brey had a losing season at Notre Dame, in 2014, the Irish bounced back to win 32 games the next season. It may not be quite that dramatic a turnaround this time, but it will be significant.

25. Davidson: The Wildcats wandered the wilderness of defensive indifference for many years post-Stephen Curry, but they took steps in the right direction last year and should improve more on that end of the court this season. Offensively, like every Bob McKillop team, they’ll be fine. They return four double-digit scorers, led by the tandem of Kellan Grady and Jon Axel Gudmundsson.

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