Last season ended with a familiar scene, as Jay Wright cut down another net and Villanova cemented its place among the country’s elite with its second national championship in three years.
This season begins with a familiar look, too, with Kentucky, Kansas and Duke among the favorites to reach the Final Four in Minneapolis.
Though the country’s most powerful programs still dominate the top of the rankings, Loyola-Chicago’s magical run to the Final Four and UMBC’s shocking first-round upset of top-seed Virginia are fresh reminders that anything can happen this season.
Here is The Post’s preseason Top 25:
The Wildcats boast depth, next-level talent and experience — components all championship teams seek. John Calipari has his usual array of five-star freshmen, led by point guard Ashton Hagans and forward EJ Montgomery, but Calipari’s kids are now supplemented with older players — including Stanford grad transfer Reid Travis and sophomores Nick Richards, Quade Green and PJ Washington — giving Kentucky its most complete team since the 2015 Final Four group.
The Jayhawks lost three starters from a Final Four squad and still look like a lock to take home their 15th consecutive Big 12 championship. Bill Self lost on-court leader Devonte’ Graham but brought in a pair of five-star guards (Quentin Grimes, Devon Dotson) and boosted his frontcourt with Memphis transfers/brothers Dedric and K.J. Lawson. With an enviable mix of depth and experience, Self’s long-awaited second national championship could finally come.
Nobody had a better offseason than Mark Few. First, junior forwards Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie opted to return to school rather than go pro. Then, the Gonzaga coach landed North Dakota graduate transfer Geno Crandall, a high-scoring lead guard. As a result, the Bulldogs, enter the season ranked third in the AP Poll — their highest preseason ranking ever — though Tillie’s stress fracture in his ankle, which will keep him out up to two months, could put a damper on those sky-high hopes.
Mike Krzyzewski fell one game short of another Final Four with one of the most talented one-and-done classes ever assembled. Now, he’ll chase ring No. 6 by trying it again. The Blue Devils may end up starting four freshmen — including point guard Tre Jones, the younger brother of Tyus Jones, who led Duke to its most recent national championship. The other three (R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cameron Reddish) could end up the top three picks in the next NBA draft. Outside shooting and the group’s ability to gel are legitimate questions, but the talent is overwhelming enough to erase those issues.
Because of the stunning upset loss to UMBC, it’s easy to forget Virginia was clearly the best team in the country entering the NCAA Tournament, cruising to the ACC regular season and postseason titles while losing just two games. Most of that team is back, led by the sharpshooting backcourt of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy. They’re joined by valuable wing De’Andre Hunter, who missed the UMBC game because of injury and is considered a first-round pick. The Cavaliers also added forward Braxton Key, an immediately-eligible Alabama transfer.
The Wolf Pack won’t sneak up on anyone after last season’s trip to the Sweet 16 — and they don’t need to. Eric Musselman brings back nearly everyone from a 29-win team and, most importantly, Caleb and Cody Martin, twins who double as the Mountain West’s best offensive and defensive players. The transfer-heavy roster is capable of shooting the school to its first Final Four, but the defensive lapses that led to blowing a double-digit lead against Loyola-Chicago remain a concern.
Go ahead, doubt Jay Wright. Point to him losing his top four scorers and needing to rely on youth for the first time since Villanova’s emergence as a national powerhouse began with the creation of the new Big East five years ago. Just remember, no program develops players better year after year than the Wildcats. The freshmen class is loaded, and don’t be surprised when hard-nosed senior forward Eric Paschall breaks out as a National Player of the Year candidate.
The reigning SEC champs won’t be a surprise this season, with Rick Barnes bringing back all five starters — including SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams — from the 26-win team, which earned a 3-seed in last season’s NCAA Tournament. Though their league will be even stronger this season, the Volunteers’ elite defense and outside shooting — over 38 percent on 3-pointers as a team — makes a repeat a strong possibility.
Leading scorer Mustapha Heron is gone, transferring to St. John’s, but the Tigers should be improved nonetheless. Top guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper return after helping Auburn to its best season in nearly two decades, and Bruce Pearl gets back forwards Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley after the two were ineligible — the result of being involved in the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball — providing much-needed size.
10. Kansas State
The Wildcats made it to the Elite Eight despite being without their leading-scorer and rebounder (Dean Wade) for all but eight minutes of their run. With Wade and the other four starters back, Kansas State has a chance to make the Final Four for the first time since 1964. The offense needs to improve after finishing 229th in the nation in scoring (71.1 points), but a tough-minded defensive approach will still carry them on most nights.
11. North Carolina
Versatile forward Luke Maye was named the ACC Preseason Player of the Year, but he isn’t the most important Tar Heel. Neither is acclaimed freshman wing Nassir Little, a projected one-and-done lottery pick who was the MVP of the McDonald’s All-American game. That honor belongs to five-star newcomer Coby White, the leading prep scorer in North Carolina history, who is being asked, along with junior Seventh Woods, to replace team leader and four-year stalwart Joel Berry II on the ball.
12. Michigan State
The Spartans won 30 games for the first time in nine years, but faced another early disappointment in March. This season will have a much different look without lottery picks Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges, but Tom Izzo still boasts as much talent as almost any team in the country. Izzo will rely on star point guard Cassius Winston and center Nick Ward to help Michigan State defend its Big Ten crown.
13. Virginia Tech
The Buzz Williams era in Blacksburg is already a success, with back-to-back NCAA Tournament bids for the first time in more than 30 years. Now, led by do-it-all senior guard Justin Robinson, it’s time for a breakthrough. With an experienced roster that lost just one of its top eight scorers, this group could finish in the top four of the typically loaded ACC. The indefinite suspension of starting forward Chris Clarke last week is a concern.
Having followed a Final Four appearance with an NIT trip, coach Dana Altman is banking on instant production from a lauded freshmen class — headlined by 7-foot-2 Bol Bol, the son of 7-foot-7 former NBA center Manute Bol. Returning starters Payton Pritchard and Paul White provide much-needed experience on the young team, but Bol and fellow potential one-and-done prospect Louis King make the Ducks the Pac-12 favorite.
15. Florida State
Seven of the Seminoles’ top nine scorers are back after a stirring run to the program’s first Elite Eight in 25 years. They also add quality Albany transfer David Nichols, a playmaking guard who will help replace departed floor general CJ Walker. Leonard Hamilton has so much depth, he can rotate his players in and out of the lineup like hockey shifts, going big or small depending on the opponent or his preference.
The Orange made a controversial NCAA Tournament berth memorable by reaching the Sweet 16 and shouldn’t be anywhere close to the bubble this season, with all five starters returning. The unwatchable offense should take a leap with Tyus Battle, Frank Howard and Oshae Brissett back, but even if the team still struggles to score, Jim Boeheim’s famed 2-3 zone should produce one of the country’s best defenses again.
Replacing the team’s top scorers and rebounders, Kenrich Williams and Vladimir Brodziansky, won’t be easy, creating uncertainty. But there is upside with this experienced roster — if talented but injury-prone junior guard Jaylen Fisher can stay healthy, impressive sophomore forward Kouat Noi can take the next step after a strong freshman year and junior guard Desmond Bane builds off a breakout season in which he led the Big 12 in 3-point shooting (46.1 percent).
18. West Virginia
The Mountaineers will take a step back without star guard Jevon Carter, but Bob Huggins’ swarming defense should send the team back to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight year. “Press Virginia” forces turnovers as well as any team in the nation and Sagaba Konate will erase the mistakes of their overaggressive defenders, swatting 3.2 shots per game last season as a sophomore.
It seems silly to suggest for a John Beilein-coached team, but this group’s questions are on offense. The returns of pitbull point guard Zavier Simpson and skilled two-way guard Charles Matthews should ensure the Wolverines remain elite defensively. But after the losses of Mo Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson, a lethal trio who averaged a combined 36.7 points per game a year ago, Michigan needs Matthews to emerge as a go-to guy and one of its younger players — possibly intriguing Lithuanian freshman wing Ignas Brazdeikis — to break out.
The Boilermakers won a school-record 30 games last season, but guard Carsen Edwards is the only returning starter from that group. Fortunately, few players are better equipped to make up for such heavy losses. Edwards has the potential to become an All-American and one of the top scorers in the nation, but Purdue needs transfer Evan Boudreaux to emerge as his wingman after averaging 17.5 points and 9.5 rebounds at Dartmouth two years ago.
Villanova at Kansas (Dec. 15)
Hopefully, this will be more competitive than their Final Four matchup, which ended with the Wildcats hitting a record 18 3-pointers in a blowout win. The defending national champions remain the Big East favorite, but the Jayhawks’ superior depth gives them the edge in Allen Fieldhouse.
Kansas at Kentucky (Jan. 26)
The SEC-Big 12 Challenge offers a potential Final Four preview less than two months before the tournament begins. By this meeting, the nation will know Kentucky’s E.J. Montgomery and Kansas’ Dedric Lawson, two of the most versatile forwards in the sport. Kansas has won each meeting with Kentucky in the past three seasons, though each game was decided by six points or fewer.
The Post’s All-Americans
Fr. F RJ Barrett, Duke
Considered by some the best pro prospect in years, the son of former St. John’s star Rowan Barrett is well-rounded, defensively-inclined and capable of scoring at all three levels. Barrett has already won at a high level, leading Canada to the FIBA U-19 World Cup in 2017, and Montverde Academy (Fla.) to an undefeated season and national championship a year ago.
Jr. G Carsen Edwards, Purdue
Edwards will shoulder the weight of a team that lost its four other starters from last season, but the 6-foot-1 scorer is built for it. As a sophomore, Edwards was named First Team All-Big Ten and nearly doubled his scoring average (18.5) while becoming a 40.6 percent 3-point shooter.
Jr. F Dedric Lawson, Kansas
An ultra-skilled 6-foot-9, 230-pound load, Lawson was last seen two seasons ago, averaging nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds for Memphis. Now, he’ll be surrounded by similarly talented playmakers for the national championship-contending Jayhawks.
Sr. F Caleb Martin, Nevada
Playing alongside his twin brother Cody, the reigning Mountain West Player of the Year led the Wolf Pack on an unlikely run to the Sweet 16 last season. The 6-foot-7 N.C. State transfer shot over 40 percent on 3-pointers and averaged 18.9 points with 5.4 rebounds.
Sr. F Luke Maye, North Carolina
From one-time walk-on to surprise Elite Eight hero and the ACC’s Most Improved Player a year ago, the potent 6-foot-8 inside-out threat has come a long way, and enters his senior year a National Player of the Year favorite.
Jr. G Tyus Battle, Syracuse
Sr. F Mike Daum, South Dakota State
Jr. F Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga
Sr. F Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
Jr. F Grant Williams, Tennessee
Source : https://nypost.com/2018/11/03/kentucky-resurgence-highlights-college-basketball-top-25/