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A Very Early College Basketball Top 25 for 2018-19

College Basketball Coach Jay Wright

College Basketball Coach Jay Wright

College basketball season is complete for another season, but the time to begin looking ahead to 2018-19 is already upon us. Villanova claimed its second national championship in three seasons to conclude the 2018 NCAA Tournament, and there's reason to think Jay Wright's club will once again be the program to beat come another March.

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However, a bevy of talented newcomers at established powers and veterans rotations at up-and-coming programs ensures the 2018-19 campaign will be as unpredictable and entertaining as everything that preceded Villanova's national championship.

1. Villanova Wildcats

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Key Returners: Donte DiVincenzo, Eric Paschall, Phil Booth

Wild Cards: Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Omari Spellman

New Arrivals: Jahvon Quinerly, Brandon Slater, Cole Swider

Buzz: The last team to repeat as national champions — Florida in 2006 and '07 — did so when its core trio bucked expectations and spurned the NBA draft for a year. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Omari Spellman all opting to come back and make a run at a third Villanova championship in four seasons would make the Wildcats a clear preseason No. 1 in the same vein as the 2007 Gators.

But if even just one returns, joining a starting lineup with veterans Phil Booth, Eric Paschall and national championship game hero Donte DiVincenzo, Villanova should top the rankings. Jay Wright has a trio of outstanding prospects coming in, headlined by 5-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly, so reinforcements await if there is an exodus to the NBA.

2. Kansas Jayhawks

Key Returners: Sam Cunliffe, Silvio De Sousa, Marcus Garrett, Mitch Lightfoot, Lagerald Vick

College Football Rankings: Kansas

Departures: Devonte' Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk

Wild Card: Udoka Azubuike

New Arrivals: Ochai Agbaji, Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes, Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson, David McCormack, Charlie Moore

Buzz: A strong case for Kansas as next season's preseason No. 1 can be made. Despite losing its top player from 2017-18, Devonte' Graham, the abundance of production expected to return blends with a bevy of newly eligible transfers and recruits to give Bill Self (above, right) arguably his deepest roster since the 2007-08 championship squad. But to quote Ric Flair, "to be the man, you've got to beat the man." Defending champion Villanova deserves top billing, but the 2018-19 Jayhawks are almost assured of the No. 1 spot when official polls arrive next autumn.

3. Gonzaga Bulldogs

Key Returners: Rui Hachimura, Killian Tillie, Josh Perkins, Silas Melson, Zach Norvell Jr.

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Departures: Johnathan Williams, Silas Melson

Buzz: Gonzaga reached its fourth consecutive Sweet 16 in 2018, and were it not for a hip injury forward Killian Tillie sustained early in the loss to Florida State, the Zags might have made it to back-to-back Final Fours. Double-double machine Johnathan Williams is gone, along with veteran leader Silas Melson. However, Rui Hachimura showed his star potential late in the season. Along with a healthy Tillie, the Zags will have one of the most talented frontcourts in the nation in 2018-19.

4. Virginia Cavaliers

Key Returners: Mamadi Diakite, Kyle Guy, De'Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, Jack Salt

Virginia: college football picks against the spread

Departures: Devon Hall, Nigel Johnson, Isaiah Wilkins

Buzz: Virginia will embark on the 2018-19 season with the stigma of having been the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 in the NCAA Tournament, but that will only be a chip on the shoulder for Tony Bennett's Cavaliers. Much of the core from a team that ran roughshod over the ACC returns, including talented big man De'Andre Hunter. Hunter missed the NCAA Tournament due to injury.

5. Duke Blue Devils

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Key Returners: Marques Bolden, Javin DeLaurier, Alex O'Connell

Departures: Grayson Allen, Marvin Bagley III, Trevon Duval, Gary Trent Jr.

Wild Cards: Wendell Carter

New Arrivals: R.J. Barrett, Tre Jones, Cam Reddish, Zion Williamson

Buzz: Duke's 2018-19 billing could hinge on the decisions facing a talented corps of underclassmen. Based on comments his mother made, Wendell Carter seems like a probable early entrant into the NBA draft, joining Marvin Bagley III, Trevon Duval and Gary Trent Jr. Even wtih all of the departures, the Blue Devils will still have a strong case for the preseason No. 1 designation — thanks to another star-studded recruting class.

6. Tennessee Volunteers

Tennessee Football Schedule

Key Returners: Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden, Admiral Schofield, Grant Williams

Departures: James Daniel

Buzz: Coach Rick Barnes' teams at Texas had a reputation for underachieving. His 2017-18 Tennessee Volunteers completely bucked that trend, emerging emerging as one of the season's biggest surprises. There will be no sneaking up on opponents in 2018-19, as Tennessee could enter the campaign a preseason favorite to win the SEC. However the Vols respond to going from dark horse to favorites will be an interesting development. The return of a solid core, starting with breakout star Grant Williams, should have Tennessee prepared to meet the challenge.

7. North Carolina Tar Heels

North Carolina Football Schedule 2019

Key Returners: Garrison Brooks, Cameron Johnson, Sterling Manley, Luke Maye, Kenny Williams, Brandon Robinson

Departures: Joel Berry II, Theo Pinson

New Arrivals: Rechon Black, Nassir Little, Coby White

Buzz: While the loss of veteran backcourt mates Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson leaves a big hole, Roy Williams reloads with a top 10-ranked recruiting. Nassir Little and Coby White should help offset the losses, and they join an established corps of returners. Luke Maye emerged as a superstar in 2017-18. He could be a national Player of the Year candidate in 2018-19.

8. Michigan State Spartans

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Michigan State

Key Returners: Kenny Goins, Joshua Langford, Xavier Tillman, Cassius Winston
Wild Card: Nick Ward

Departures: Miles Bridges, Ben Carter, Jaren Jackson, Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn, Gavin Schilling, 

New Arrivals: Marcus Bingham Jr., Gabe Brown, Aaron Henry, Thomas Kithier, Foster Loyer

Buzz: Three consecutive first-weekend exits from the NCAA Tournament have damaged some of the March mystique coach Tom Izzo built in his career, and the departure of NBA talents Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson leave significant voids. Nevertheless, Michigan State returns a solid rotation of experienced players to guide an impressive recruiting class. Marcus Bingham Jr., a high-4-star forward, could alleviate some of the sting in losing Bridges. Nick Ward (assuming he withdraws his name from draft consideration) will be poised for an All-America-caliber campaign as the Spartans' clear No. 1 option.

9. Kentucky Wildcats

Kentucky football schedule

Departures: Kevin Knox, Tai Wynyard

Wild Cards: Hamidou Diallo, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, P.J. Washington

New Arrivals: Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, Immanuel Quickly

Buzz: Kentucky's preseason designation could fluctuate more than any other program's based on the decision of draft-eligible underclassmen. Kevin Knox declared on April 6 despite comments his father had made earlier. This was preceded by P.J. Washington's announcement on April 4 that he is testing the waters. Hamidou Diallo was considered a lock for the 2018 draft not long ago, but isn't yet a sure thing to exit.

While John Calipari's aligned his usual stellar recruiting class, coming off a surprising 11-loss season, the future's very uncertain. If one or two of the most likely draft entrants returns, Kentucky is likely a preseason top-10 team with a potential Final Four ceiling.

10. Virginia Tech Hokies

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Virginia Tech

Key Returners: Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kerry Blackshear, Chris Clarke, Ahmed Hill, Ty Outlaw, Justin Robinson

Departures: Justin Bibbs, Devin Wilson

Wild Cards: Devin Robinson, John Egbunu

New Arrivals: Jon Kabongo, Jarren McAllister, Landers Nolley

Buzz: Virginia Tech demonstrated its potential with ACC wins over North Carolina, Duke, and the biggie: An overtime road defeat of conference champion and rival, Virginia. Coach Buzz Williams has a strong foundation in place for 2018-19, and what should be his best team at Virginia Tech. The Hokies return a considerable rotation of contributors, paced by standout Justin Robinson. The addition of high-4-star recruit Landers Nolley provides further depth.

11. Kansas State Wildcats

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Key Returners: Cartier Diarra, Xavier Sneed, Kamau Stokes, Dean Wade

Departures: None
Wild Card: Barry Brown

Buzz: Kansas State hit its stride at season's end, reaching the Elite Eight with suffocating defense. That's no accident: The 2017-18 Wildcats roster was made up of underclassmen who jelled over the course of a campaign. Their run in the NCAA Tournament provides momentum going into an offseason in which Bruce Weber's potentially will return all of its contributors. Barry Brown (who is testing the draft waters but could pull out before the deadline) is a rising star in the Big 12, and big man Dean Wade — limited by injury late in the season — could be an X-factor in the race to unseat Kansas from atop the conference.

12. West Virginia Mountaineers

College Football Top 25 Rankings: WVU

Key Returners: Teddy Allen, James Bolden, Wesley Harris

Departures: Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles

Wild Cards: Esa Ahmad, Sagaba Konate

New Arrivals: Derek Culver, Trey Doomes, Andrew Gordon, Jordan McCabe

Buzz: The loss of Jevon Carter cannot be overstated, as the Chicago-tough guard provided the heart-and-soul of a West Virginia team that reached back-to-back Sweet 16s. Nevertheless, Bob Huggins' presence on the sideline ensures the signature defensive tenacity will remain. What's more, the Mountaineers retain some promising contributors. Teddy Allen looks to make the leap into a star during his sophomore season. Should shot-blocking machine Sagaba Konate and fellow big man Esa Ahmad both withdraw their names from NBA draft consideration, West Virginia can start planning for a third consecutive Tournament lasting into the second weekend — perhaps longer.

13. Auburn Tigers

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Auburn

Key Returners: Bryce Brown, Jared Harper, Anfernee McLemore, DeSean Murray, Chuma Okeke

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Departures: Mustapha Heron, Davion Mitchell

New Arrivals: Samir Doughty

Buzz: Auburn came from nowhere in 2017-18 to split the SEC regular-season title with equally surprising Tennessee, and Bruce Pearl has the Tigers positioned to stay in contention come 2018-19. Auburn's perimeter is one of the deepest in the nation, with Bryce Brown, Jared Harper and DeSean Murray all back in the fold. The return of Anfernee McLemore, who sustained a season-ending ankle injury in February, adds needed size back to the Tigers lineup.

14. TCU Horned Frogs

College Football Top 25 Rankings: TCU

Key Returners: Desmond Bane, Jaylen Fisher, J.D. Miller, Kouat Noi, Alex Robinson

Departures: Vladimir Brodziansky, Ahmed Hamdy, Kenrich Williams

New Arrivals: Kaden Archie, Russell Barlow, Kendric Davis

Buzz: TCU's return to the NCAA Tournament after a two-decade layoff was soured somewhat, as the Horned Frogs tumbled from a top 10 ranking in December to on the bubble by March. Jamie Dixon's squad owed much of its late-season turmoil to injury; star guard Jaylen Fisher played only half of the campaign. It's no coincidence the Horned Frogs were a top-10 team with Fisher in the lineup, and his return alongside sharpshooters Desmond Bane and Kouat Noi gives TCU one of the most dangerous perimeter lineups in the country.

15. Florida State Seminoles

College Football Top 25 Rankings: FSU

Key Returners: Trent Forrest, RaiQuan Gray, Mfiondu Kabengele, Christ Koumadje, Terance Mann, Ike Obiagu, M.J. Walker

Departures: Braian Angola, Phil Cofer, C.J. Walker

New Arrivals: Devin Vassell

Buzz: Coach Leonard Hamilton said "no one expected [the Seminoles] to be [in the Elite Eight]," at end of his team's 2018 NCAA Tournament run. That may have been the case this past season, but the experience of going deep in March should bolster a roster that will return a bevy of players with Tournament experience. Mfiondu Kabengele could be primed to make the leap to stardom in his sophomore campaign, while Terance Mann cements the leadership role as a senior.

16. Nevada Wolf Pack

College Football Rankings: Nevada

Key Returners: Josh Hall

Departures: Elijah Foster, Kendall Stephens, Darien Williams, Hallice Cooke

Wild Cards: Jordan Caroline, Caleb Martin, Cody Martin

New Arrivals: K.J. Hymes, Jazz Johnson

Buzz: In 2017, Nevada won the Mountain West Conference to reach the NCAA Tournament. In 2018, the Wolf Pack spent time in the Top 25 and advanced to the Sweet 16. Come 2019, Eric Musselman could be overseeing the best Nevada lineup since Nick Fazekas led the Pack to a top-10 ranking in 2007. Nevada's forecast hinges largely on the trio of Jordan Caroline and the Brothers Martin, Caleb and Cody. The three powered what was ostensibly a six-man rotation, so the departure of any one for the NBA throws the entire projection for 2018-19 into question.

Still, Portland transfer Jazz Johnson gaining eligibility ensures Nevada will be the team to beat in the Mountain West next season no matter what.

17. Oregon Ducks

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Oregon

Key Returners: Victor Bailey, Troy Brown, Payton Pritchard, Paul White

Departures: Elijah Brown, MiKyle McIntosh

New Arrivals: Bol Bol, Louis King, Miles Norris, Will Richardson

Buzz: After reaching its first Final Four in almost eight decades, Oregon failed to return to the NCAA Tournament in 2018. Consider that a temporary blip for the Ducks, who head into 2018-19 the likely favorites in a tumultuous Pac-12. Oregon loses Elijah Brown and MiKyle McIntosh, the latter of whom provided a needed spark after transferring in from Illinois State. But the Ducks' 2019 forecast is less about who's leaving or staying, and more who comes in.

Dana Altman has the nation's No. 2-ranked recruiting class as of this writing, headlined by 5-star prospects Bol Bol and Louis King. The duo should have an immediate impact, and the 7-foot-1 Bol Bol (son of longtime NBA center Manute Bol) gives Oregon a look no team in the Pac-12 can match.

18. Syracuse Orange

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Key Returners: Marek Dolezaj, Paschal Chukwu, Frank Howard, Matthew Moyer

Departures: None

New Arrivals: Jalen Carey

Wild Cards: Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett

Buzz: Syracuse finds itself in a similar position to 2016, coming off a deep run in the NCAA Tournament (after narrowly getting in) and returning several key pieces. Assuming Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett both come back for another season under the Dome, the Orange have the pieces to challenge in an ACC that will be deep even by its own standards.

19. Michigan Wolverines

College Football Top 25: Michigan

Key Returners: Eli Brooks, Isaiah Livers, Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole, Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske

Departures: Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Duncan Robinson, Jaaron Simmons

Wild Card: Moritz Wagner

New Arrivals: Ignas Brazdeikis, Colin Castleton, David DeJulius, Brandon Johns, Adrien Nunez

Buzz: Back-to-back Big Ten Tournament championships and the program's second national championship game appearance in five years demonstrate the consistency John Beilein's established at Michigan in his tenure. Look for it to continue in 2018-19, with or without Moritz Wagner. While the talented big man's NBA decision could dramatically change the forecast for the Wolverines ahead of next season — should he return, Michigan's a no-doubt-about-it favorite in the Big Ten — they will contend again regardless. Tournament X-factor Charles Matthews can build off a spectacular March, while Zavier Simpson and Isaiah Livers both have star potential.

20. Cincinnati Bearcats

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Key Returners: Nysier Brooks, Cane Broome, Jarron Cumberland, Justin Jenifer, Trevor Moore, Tre Scott, Keith Williams

Departures: Gary Clark, Jacob Evans, Kyle Washington

New Arrivals: LaQuill Hardnett, Logan Johnson

Buzz: Don't fall victim to either of these classic blunders: Never start a land war in Asia, and don't bet against a Mick Cronin-coached team to succeed in the regular season. Cincinnati loses a key trio in seniors Gary Clark and Kyle Washington, and Jacob Evans declared his intention to enter the NBA draft on April 1. However, Jarron Cumberland emerged as a star for the best Bearcats team of Cronin's tenure, and the mix of returning role players will all be poised to take on added responsibility in 2018-19. Keep an eye on point guard Justin Jenifer in particular.

21. Marquette Golden Eagles

Key Returners: Sacar Anim, Jamal Cain, Greg Elliott, Sam Hauser, Matt Heldt, Markus Howard, Theo John

Departures: Harry Froling, Andrew Rousey

Buzz: With a very young lineup, Marquette was picked to finish seventh in the preseason Big East poll — and that's exactly where the Golden Eagles landed. However, that doesn't fully tell the tale. Marquette finished .500 in a remarkably deep and won 21 games overall. It loses veteran leader Andrew Rousey, but the rest of the roster remains in tact. Sam Hauser and Markus Howard, both of whom shot better than 40 percent from behind the 3-point line, lead what should be on the nation's most explosive offenses.

22. Loyola (Chicago) Ramblers

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Key Returners: Clayton Custer, Cameron Krutwig, Marques Townes

Departures: Donte Ingram, Aundre Jackson

New Arrivals: Franklin Agunanne, Cooper Kaifes

Buzz: Loyola stole the spotlight in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, but here's a news flash about the Ramblers: They weren't some overachieving Cinderellas. Loyola was excellent team throughout the 2017-18 campaign, employing the same tough-nosed defense and savvy, team-first offense that powered it to the Final Four. Expect more of the same in 2018-19. Porter Moser returns hot 3-point shooters Clayton Custer and Marques Townes, while youngster Lucas Williamson can help fill the void left by Donte Ingram's departure. Big man Cameron Krutwig came into his own over the course of the Tournament. He could be the best post presence in the Missouri Valley next season.

23. UCLA Bruins

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Key Returners: Prince Ali, Alex Olesinski, Chris Smith

Departures: G.G. Goloman, Aaron Holiday, Thomas Welsh
Wild Cards: Jaylen Hands, Kris Wilkes

New Arrivals: Julius Bernard, Moses Brown, Tyger Campbell, Kenneth Nwuba, Shareef O'Neal, David Singelton

Buzz: Veterans Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh were integral in stabilizing a UCLA team that began the season with three players booted off before ever playing a game. Their leadership leaves a big void, but coach Steve Alford is bringing on the nation's No. 3-ranked recruiting class to join a deep corps of returners. The highly publicized suspensions in November forced returners like Alex Olesinski and Chris Smith to log more minutes than they would have otherwise.

Talented freshman Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands also played crucial roles and their experience will be valuable provided they remove their names from NBA draft consideration. The incoming recruiting class also offers plenty of prospects that should be able to help right away — including Shareef O'Neal, the son of Shaquille O'Neal and a flip from UCLA rival, Arizona.

24. Penn State Nittany Lions

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Penn State

Key Returners: Nazeer Bostick, Shep Garner, Satchel Pierce, Josh Reaves, Lamar Stevens

Departures: Tony Carr

New Arrivals: Rasir Bolton, Myles Dread

Buzz: Penn State's NIT championship should serve as a springboard to much bigger and better things for the Nittany Lions in 2018-19. Pat Chambers returns everyone from the 26-win 2017-18 lineup with the exception of breakout performer Tony Carr, who declared the NBA draft. Still the outlook is bright and the 2019 campaign should culminate in the former Jay Wright assistant Chambers' first NCAA Tournament since 2011, when he was at Boston University. Coincidentally, that also was Penn State's last season in the field.

25. Washington Huskies

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington

Key Returners: David Crisp, Carlos Johnson, Jaylen Nowell, Matisse Thybulle

Departures: None
Wild Card: Noah Dickerson

New Arrivals: Jamal Bey, Ed Chang, Elijah Hardy, Bryan Penn-Johnson, Nate Roberts

Buzz: Mike Hopkins earned Pac-12 Coach of the Year in 2018, and with good reason. Washington emerged as an unexpected winner of 21 games, securing a spot in the NIT where the Huskies advanced past Boise State in the opening round. For the first time in a good, long while, Washington's roster should not be ravaged by early departures for the NBA draft. With defensive stopper Matisse Thybulle (fourth in the nation in steal percentage) and emerging post star Noah Dickerson (who is testing the draft waters), the Huskies' lineup features a diverse and balanced look. Washington could be the dark-horse contender in what's likely to be an open Pac-12 race.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

(Top photo courtesy of @NovaMBB)