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Early College Basketball Top 25 for 2018-19

Bill Self

Bill Self

The NBA draft deadline has passed, marking one of the major milestones in the college basketball offseason. With the exception of a few lingering transfers, and a handful of recruiting signees still to choose homes, rosters for the 2018-19 season are set.

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Defending national champion Villanova finds its standing for a repeat shaken with numerous draft departures. On the other end of the spectrum, Top 25 newcomers Mississippi State and Nebraska won big with key returners spurning the pros. Kansas takes over the top spot, but the Jayhawks face challengers to their long-held Big 12 throne from the likes of West Virginia, Kansas State and TCU.

The ACC should be its usual dog fight, the SEC is both top-heavy and deep, and the Pac-12 appears poised for a rebound.

1. Kansas Jayhawks

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

College Football Rankings: Kansas

Departures: Devonte' Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman

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

Buzz: Udoka Azubuike spurning the NBA draft completes the restructuring of a wildly talented, deep and experienced Kansas lineup for 2018-19. With the big man Azubuike back from a squad that reached the 2018 Final Four, Bill Self has the building block for what could be his best team since the 2007-08 national championship squad.

2. 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 (above, right) 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.

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 Killian Tillie, the Zags will have one of the most talented frontcourts in the nation in 2018-19.

4. 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., Wendell Carter

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

Buzz: Duke undergoes significant roster turnover, so consider this ranking erring on the side of caution. This is a Mike Krzyzewski-coached team, after all. What's more, Duke welcomes the nation's best recruiting class. Coupling high-profile new talent like R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson with intriguing returners like Marques Bolden gives this Duke team a look reminisicent of the Blue Devils' 2015 national championship squad.

5. Nevada Wolf Pack

College Football Rankings: Nevada

Key Returners: Jordan Caroline, Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Josh Hall

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

New Arrivals: Jordan Brown, K.J. Hymes, Jazz Johnson

Buzz: A Mountain West Conference championship in 2017 paved the way for a Sweet 16 in '18, which could be the platform for a Final Four run in '19. Eric Musselman has certainly built on the promise of Nevada basketball, and the 2018-19 squad faces limitless potential.

No team was a bigger winner in May, landing a 5-star recruit in Jordan Brown, as well as the return of Jordan Caroline and brothers Caleb and Cody Martin, a trio that powered the Wolf Pack's 2018 success.

6. Michigan State Spartans

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Michigan State

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

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 4-star forward, could alleviate some of the sting in losing Bridges. Nick Ward should have a monster season after spurning the NBA draft.

7. 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 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. How 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.

8. West Virginia Mountaineers

College Football Top 25 Rankings: WVU

Key Returners: Esa Ahmad, Sagaba Konate, Teddy Allen, James Bolden, Wesley Harris

Departures: Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles

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

Buzz: The loss of Jevon Carter cannot be overstated, as the Chicago-tough guard was the heart and soul of a West Virginia team that reached back-to-back Sweet 16s. However, Bob Huggins and West Virginia won big at the draft deadline with Esa Ahmad and Sagaba Konate each coming back to Morgantown. The duo gives a talented Mountaineers roster two solid cornerstones to perhaps push for the Big 12 regular-season title that eluded them this past season -- assuming No. 1 Kansas can be challenged.

9. 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 recruiting class. 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.

10. Syracuse Orange

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Key Returners: Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett, Marek Dolezaj, Paschal Chukwu, Frank Howard, Matthew Moyer

Departures: None

New Arrivals: Jalen Carey

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. Tyus Battle's decision to return is indicative of the key differences between this coming season and '16. In the latter, the Orange lost several burgeoning stars to the NBA. Not so this time around.

With pro prospects Battle and Oshae Brissett leading the way, as well as the rangy Marek Dolezaj, Syracuse may contend for the ACC championship.

11. Auburn Tigers

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Auburn

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

Departures: Mustapha Heron, Davion Mitchell

New Arrivals: Samir Doughty

Buzz: A veteran and deep backcourt returns from last season's surprise, breakout squad. With Bryce Brown, Jared Harper and DeSean Murray on the perimeter, Auburn can match just about any opponent with its guard play. The return of Anfernee McLemore, who sustained a season-ending ankle injury in February, adds needed size to the Tigers' frontcourt.

12. 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

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 4-star recruit Landers Nolley provides further depth.

13. Kansas State Wildcats

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

Departures: None

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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 the team potentially returns all of its contributors. Barry Brown 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.

14. UCLA Bruins

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Key Returners: Kris Wilkes, Jaylen Hands, Prince Ali, Alex Olesinski, Chris Smith

Departures: G.G. Goloman, Aaron Holiday, Thomas Welsh

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 an elite 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 could be poised for star turns as sophomores. 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.

15. Kentucky Wildcats

Key Returner:  P.J. Washington

Kentucky football schedule

Departures: Hamidou Diallo, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox, Tai Wynyard, Wenyen Gabriel

Wild Card: Reid Travis

New Arrivals: E.J. Montgomery, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, Immanuel Quickly

Buzz: John Calipari is a renowned recruiter known for signing a bevy of one-and-done NBA prospects. However, the most important recruiting job of his 2018 offseason might be for the proven commodity of Stanford transfer Reid Travis. Early departures have hit the Wildcats hard, leaving Kentucky with a typically young roster. Forecasting such a new-look lineup can be difficult, which makes the possible addition of an All-Pac-12 performer in Travis especially intriguing. A combination of Travis and P.J. Washington would give Kentucky a dangerous front-court. 

As it stands, the late addition of E.J. Montgomery adds star power to a roster losing Hamidou Diallo, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox, and perhaps most surprisingly, Wenyen Gabriel.

16. Villanova Wildcats

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Key Returners: Eric Paschall, Phil Booth

Departures: Omari Spellman, Donte DiVincenzo, Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges

New Arrivals: Jahvon Quinerly, Brandon Slater, Cole Swider

Buzz: Jay Wright's Villanova teams have typically flourished with veteran leadership. With an exodus to the NBA following the Wildcats' second national championship in three seasons, their fortunes this season will depend heavily on the performance of newcomers and role players in more prominent positions.

Villanova isn't without some proven potential, though. Phil Booth played a key role in both the 2016 and '18 titles, and could be poised for a big senior season. Eric Paschall is talented and perhaps ready for a breakthrough.

17. 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.

18. 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 one of the nation's top-ranked recruiting classes, 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.

19. Mississippi State Bulldogs

Key Returners: Lamar Peters, Nick Weatherspoon, Quinndary Weatherspoon, Aric Holman, Abdul Ado

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Mississippi State

Departures: Reggie Perry, Robert Woodard, D.J. Stewart, Jethro Tshisumpa

Buzz: Coach Ben Howland went to the NCAA Tournament at Northern Arizona, Pitt and UCLA (including three consecutive FInal Fours from 2006-08), and appears ready for his breakthrough campaign at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are loaded, returning the entire core of a promising young lineup that won 25 games in 2017-18.

Nick and Quinndary Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters all opting to forego the draft positions Mississippi State to contend in a deep SEC.

20. 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, 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 has established at Michigan in his tenure. Look for it to continue in 2018-19, despite the loss of star Moritz Wagner.

Tournament X-factor Charles Matthews can build off a spectacular March, while Zavier Simpson and Isaiah Livers both have star potential. Big man Jon Teske is another player that could develop into a key contributor, if not more.

21. Washington Huskies

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington

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

Departures: None
New Arrivals: Jamal Bey, Ed Chang, Elijah Hardy, Bryan Penn-Johnson, Nate Roberts

Buzz: Mike Hopkins earned Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors in 2018, and with good reason. Washington won 21 games and secured 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 both back in the fold, the Huskies' lineup features a diverse and balanced look. Washington could be a dark horse in what's likely to be an open Pac-12 race.

22. 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, who declared early for the NBA draft.

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.

23. 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 conference nd won 21 games overall. The Golden Eagles lose veteran leader Andrew Rousey, but the rest of the roster remains intact. 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.

24. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Nebraska's college football logo

Key Returners: James Palmer Jr., Isaac Copeland Jr., Glynn Watson, Jordy Tshimanga

Departures: Jack McVeigh, Anton Gill, Evan Taylor

Buzz: Nebraska finished the 2017-18 campaign with a KenPom ranking of No. 55, ahead of NCAA Tournament at-large entrants UCLA, Alabama, Providence and St. Bonaventure. Consider that motivation for a 2018-19 Huskers lineup rich with experience and talent.

Nebraska was a winner of the NBA draft decision deadline, with James Palmer Jr. and Isaac Copeland Jr. both opting to return. Jack McVeigh is gone for Australia, but he missed most of 2017-18. The meat of last season's lineup remains.

25. 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 an 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. Coach 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 NCAA Tournament. He could be the best post presence in the Missouri Valley this season.

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