Early College Basketball Top 25 for 2019-20

John Calipari has another loaded recruiting class coming to Lexington

Uncertainty best defines the state of college basketball in 2019. That extends from the game's future relationship with the NBA, as the One-and-Done Rule appears headed to a close; the forecast for programs probed in the recent FBI investigation; and onto the court. The race for the 2019-20 national championship is never certain 10 months out from the Final Four, but projecting how the campaign might unfold for this coming season feels more difficult than in recent years.

 

When running up against the unknown, falling back on the familiar is a reasonable option. To that end, some usual suspects lead the way in the post-NBA draft early-entry declaration deadline Top 25 for 2019-20. Kentucky and Michigan State have strong cases for No. 1, but don't sleep on Villanova. The 2016 and '18 national champions could be posed for a title run akin to the San Francisco Giants in MLB earlier this decade, when even-number-year championships fell their way on three occasions.

 

1. Kentucky Wildcats

Key Returners: EJ Montgomery, Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, Nick Richards

Departures: Reid Travis, P.J. Washington, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson

New Arrivals: Kahlil Whitney, Tyrese Maxey, Kelon Brooks, Johnny Juzang, Dontale Allen, Nate Sestina

Buzz: Kentucky losing a raft of NBA-caliber players, only for John Calipari and his staff to replace them with more, is nothing new. An intriguing angle to Kentucky's 2019-20 roster, however, is the veteran presence there to welcome the loaded freshman class.

 

EJ Montgomery's surprise withdrawal from the draft pool sets the foundation. Nick Richards gives Kentucky a potentially elite rim protector, which will work nicely in conjunction with Ashton Hagans' tenacious, on-ball defense. The addition of Bucknell transfer Nate Sestina (15.8 points, 8.5 rebounds per game in 2018-19) provides another veteran presence, who should immediately mesh in the same vein as Reid Travis a season ago. Now combine that with the influx of talent — in particular, 5-star prospects Kelon Brooks, Tyrese Maxey and Kahlil Whitney — and Kentucky has the formula for a Final Four run.

 

2. Michigan State Spartans

Key Returners: Xavier Tillman, Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford

Departures: Nick Ward, Kenny Goins, Matt McQuaid

New Arrivals: Malik Hall, Rocket Watts, Julius Marble

Buzz: A three-year dip warranted concern that perhaps Tom Izzo no longer had the March touch. The 2019 Spartans emphatically refuted any such questions with a run to the Final Four, and very nearly a trip to the national title game. Michigan State's Elite Eight defeat of Duke sent a resounding message about the prospects for the 2019-20 team, too, as a pair of that game's stars — Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman — are back in East Lansing. The recruiting class also features a potential Miles Bridges-style impact player in Malik Hall.

 

3. Villanova Wildcats

Key Returners: Jermaine Samuels, Saddiq Bey, Collin Gillespie, Cole Swider, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree

Departures: Eric Paschall, Phil Booth, Jahvon Quinerly

New Arrivals: Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Bryan Antoine, Justin Moore, Eric Dixon

Buzz: Jay Wright landed a loaded 2019 recruiting class, and the dynamic of Villanova basketball takes on another new face. Wright's constantly reinvented how the program competes, reflected in national championship runs with a team of veteran overachievers in 2016; and a roster of pro-caliber studs in '18.

 

The 2019-20 lineup marks another evolution, with Wright bringing in a star-studded recruiting class to mesh with a corps of promising returners yet to play their best ball. Colin Gillespie is poised for a breakout season, taking over for Phil Booth as the primary backcourt scoring option. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is a supremely talented big man who should flourish right away.

 

4. Duke Blue Devils

Key Returners: Tre Jones, Javin DeLaurier, Alex O'Connell, Jack White

Departures: Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Marques Bolden

New Arrivals: Vernon Carey, Matthew Hurt, Wendell Moore, Cassius Stanley

Buzz: Zion Williamson's superhuman plays brought attention to Duke last season unmatched by any program since Kentucky's 2014-15 flirtations with a perfect season. The dream of a Final Four ended in a heartbreaking, Elite Eight defeat, and as expected, Williamson headlined an exodus of talented Blue Devils to the NBA. But as he's done repeatedly, Mike Krzyzewski reloaded with another crop of immediate impact freshmen.

 

Post player Vernon Carey has the potential to be another high-profile star; perhaps not at the same level of Williamson, but he will have an impact all the same. With veteran Javin DeLaurier spurning the NBA draft, the Blue Devils have the foundation for the best front court in college basketball.

 

5. Ohio State Buckeyes

Key Returners: Kaleb Wesson, Andre Wesson, Luther Muhammad, Duane Washington Jr., Kyle Young

Departures: C.J. Jackson, Keyshawn Woods

New Arrivals: DJ Carton, EJ Liddell, Alonzo Gaffney, Ibrahima Diallo, C.J. Walker

Buzz: Kaleb Wesson's decision to bypass the NBA draft his year gives Ohio State the cornerstone for a potential Final Four run in 2020. The Buckeyes overachieved last season, reaching the Round of 32 with a lineup made up largely of underclassmen — of which Wesson was the leader. His bullying game on the low block sets the tone for Chris Holtmann's preferred style of play, which is a physical, defensive-oriented approach.

 

The Buckeyes finished No. 25 in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, per KenPom.com, and should be better this year. As Texas Tech and Virginia demonstrated, that's a recipe for a championship. The addition of three 4-star recruits adds depth, and transfer C.J. Walker is eligible after redshirting in 2019.

 

6. Louisville Cardinals

Key Returners: Jordan Nwora, Ryan McMahon, Malik Williams, Dwayne Sutton, Ryan McMahon, Steve Enoch

Departures: Khwan Fore, Akoy Agau, Christen Cunningham

Arrivals: Samuell Williamson, Aidan Igiehon, David Johnson, Josh Nickelberry, Jaelyn Withers, Quinn Slazinski

Buzz: Louisville ran hot-and-cold in Chris Mack's first season at the helm. The Cardinals could beat some of the nation's best, but also endured periods of deep disappointment — like the unceremonious NCAA Tournament exit against Minnesota.

 

A much more experienced roster in 2019-20 should make for a much more consistent Cardinals team. Jordan Nwora returns to lead the way after averaging 17 points per game last season. Joining the veterans is an excellent recruiting class, with 5-star Samuell Williamson poised to make a splash from the outset.

 

7. North Carolina Tar Heels

Key Returners: Garrison Brooks, Brandon Robinson, Sterling Manley, Leaky Black

Departures: Cam Johnson, Luke Maye, Nasir Little, Coby White, Kenny Williams, Seventh Woods

New Arrivals: Cole Anthony, Armando Bacot, Anthony Harris, Jeremiah Francis, Justin Pierce, Christian Keeling

Buzz: North Carolina lost a *ton* of production from its 2018-19 roster, ranging from both supremely talented youngsters like Nasir Little and Coby White; to veteran leaders like Luke Maye and Cam Johnson. But behind those players a season ago were some high-potential Heels just waiting for their opportunity. In 2019-20, Leaky Black and Garrison Brooks have the potential to shine as an inside-out combo akin to Joel Berry II and Kennedy Meeks on the 2017 national championship team.

 

Depth was a hallmark of the 2019 Tar Heels, and the incoming crop of new faces should continue that look. Roy Williams signed an excellent recruiting class, headlined by 5-star prospects Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot. North Carolina should also get an immediate boost from Charleston Southern transfer Christian Keeling, who averaged more than 17 points per game all three seasons he was with the Buccaneers.

 

8. Seton Hall Pirates

Key Returners: Myles Powell, Taurean Thompson, Quincy McKnight, Ike Obiagu, Sandro Mamukelashvili

Departures: Michael Nzei

Arrivals: Tyrese Samuel, DaShawn Davis

Buzz: Seton Hall ran into a buzzsaw against Wofford in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament, a prime example of poor seeding. The Pirates will have that motivation fueling them in 2019-20, returning a roster loaded with talent veterans from last season's 20-win team. At the forefront is Myles Powell, a prime candidate to lead the nation in scoring next season.

 

Powell's an explosive combo guard who posted 23.1 points per game in 2018-19, whose knack for getting to the rim (and drawing fouls) keys the Seton Hall offense. With most of the primary contributors from a season ago back, Kevin Willard oversees one of the most experienced teams in the nation. Seton Hall is a prime preseason dark horse for a 2020 Final Four run, though that status should quickly disappear once Powell helps the Pirates into the Big East title race.

 

9. Gonzaga Bulldogs

Key Returners: Killian Tillie, Corey Kispert, Filip Petrusev

Departures: Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell, Geno Crandall 

Arrivals: Drew Timme, Anton Watson, Pavel Zakharov, Oumar Ballo, Martynas Ariauskas

Buzz: Gonzaga's fifth straight second-weekend run in the NCAA Tournament serves notice that Mark Few has this program firmly positioned among college basketball elite. For further evidence, consider how effectively the team is reloading, despite losing key pieces from arguably its most talented roster ever. Both Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke are likely first-round NBA draft picks, but the 2019 signing class adds some new, prospective pro prospects.

 

Those who return, meanwhile, include Corey Kispert. Kispert became an integral part of Gonzaga's Elite Eight run last season. A full season of Killian Tillie back in the lineup provides a boost.

 

10. Texas Tech Red Raiders

Key Returners: Davide Moretti, Kyler Edwards, Deshawn Corprew

Departures: Jarrett Culver, Tariq Owens, Matt Mooney, Brandone Francis, Norense Odiase

New Arrivals: Kevin McCullar, Andrei Savrasov, Jahmius Ramsey, Terrence Shannon, Tyreek Smith, Clarence Nadolny, Russel Tchewa

Buzz: Chris Beard's work elevating Texas Tech from a decent Big 12 program into a national championship contender is one of the more remarkable stories in college basketball over recent years. Tech reached the 2018 Elite Eight and came a few plays from a title last season in part due to the play of NBA first-rounders, Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver.

 

Culver is gone, the headliner of a considerable contingent leaving the program. But both Smith and Culver emerged as surprise NBA talents, proving Tech isn't reliant so much on landing blue-chip prospects as helping development high-potential talents. Jahmius Ramsey just might be exactly that, bringing an all-around game to the Red Raiders backcourt, similar to that of Culver. Combined with the typically stout defense Tech will continue to play under Beard, the Red Raiders could be the team to beat in the Big 12 next season.

 

11. Maryland Terrapins

Key Returners: Jalen Smith, Anthony Cowan, Ricky Lindo, Eric Ayala, Serrel Smith Jr., Aaron Wiggins, Darryl Morsell

Departures: Bruno Fernando 

New Arrivals: Chol Marial, Makhi Mitchell, Makhel Mitchell, Donta Scott

Buzz: Maryland came one hoop away from advancing to the Sweet 16 in 2019. Most of the players responsible for leading last season's efforts return for 2020, and Mark Turgeon is bringing in a host of promising recruits. All told, the Terps look like strong contenders in a top-heavy Big Ten.

 

One loss from the 2018-19 roster is a big one, literally and figuratively. Replacing Bruno Fernando in the middle is a huge challenge, by two new faces will help fill the void: twins Makhi and Makhel Mitchell. Rising sophomore Jalen Smith is a potential Big Ten Player of the Year candidate if he can build on an impressive debut campaign.

 

12. Memphis Tigers

Key Returners: Tyler Harris, Jayden Hardaway, Ryan Boyce, Alex Lomax

Departures: Jeremiah Martin, Kyvon Davenport, Raynere Thornton, Antwann Jones, David Wingett

New Arrivals: James Wiseman, Precious Achiuwa, Boogie Ellis, Lester Quinones, Malcolm Dandrige, DJ Jeffries, Damion Baugh

Buzz: Penny Hardaway led then-Memphis State to an Elite Eight in 1992. He'll have the talent to replicate that feat in his second season as his alma mater's head coach. Memphis landed the nation's No. 1 recruiting class, per 247Sports, headlined by 5-star big man James Wiseman and 5-star swingman Precious Achiuwa.

 

The kiddie corps will have to come up big, with a bulk of last season's production leaving. Jeremiah Marti and Kyvon Davenport accounted for more than 32 points per game. Memphis won't have an entirely inexperienced look, though, with Tyler Harris showing some breakout potential.

 

13. Michigan Wolverines

Key Returners: Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske, Isaiah Livers

Departures: Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole, Ignas Brazdeikis

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

Buzz: John Beilein's sudden and perhaps unexpected departure for the Cleveland Cavaliers adds further uncertainty to a team losing leading contributors Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews, as well as promising youngster Ignas Brazdeikis. Michigan loses people to the NBA, but the pros give back with Juwan Howard returning to his alma mater as head coach.

 

The Fab Five alum comes from the Miami Heat staff, and he inherits enough in his first year back in Ann Arbor to remain in the Big Ten hunt. And while he lacks head coaching experience, the pursuit of longtime Saint Joseph's head coach Phil Martelli is a savvy, first move from Howard. Martelli is a proven winner — and so are returners Zavier Simpson, Isaiah Livers and Jon Teske.

 

14. Florida Gators

Key Returners: Andrew Nembhard, Keyontae Johnson, Noah Locke

Departures: Jalen Hudson, KeVaugh Allen, Keith Stone

New Arrivals: Scottie Lewis, Tre Mann, Omar Payne, Jason Jitoboh, Ques Glover

Buzz: The heart of an excellent few years for Florida basketball departs with KeVaughn Allen graduating, and Keith Stone transferring. However, the emergence of a talented, young crop of Gators promises to restore Florida as an SEC contender.

 

The Gators won big at the NBA draft deadline, with point guard Andrew Nembhard opting to return. Nembhard is primed to be one of the best pure point guards in the nation next season, building off a freshman campaign in which he averaged eight points and 5.4 assists per game. Fellow first-year standout Noah Locke is back, and promising rishing sophomore Keyontae Johnson returns, as well. Combined with a recruiting class of instant-impact reinforcements, Florida's roster shapes up nicely.

 

15. Virginia Cavaliers

Key Returners: Mamadi Diakite, Braxton Key, Kihei Clark, Jay Huff

Departures: De'Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, Jack Salt

Arrivals: Casey Morsell, Kadin Shedrick, Justin McKoy, Tomas Woldetensae

Buzz: Until someone unseats them, the Virginia Cavaliers are college basketball's team to beat in 2019-20. That said, Tony Bennett faces considerable turnover from his national championship-winning squad. Four Wahoos opted for early entry into the NBA draft, and stalwart big man contributor Jack Salt graduated. Bennett must replace some lofty production, particularly from the trio of De'Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome.

 

Mamadi Diakite's return leaves the roster not entirely decimated, at least. Diakite stepped up big during the national championship run. The primary question mark will be if Braxton Key, Kihei Clark can pick up on the 44 points per game Virginia loses from its departing big three.

 

16. Kansas Jayhawks

Key Returners: Silvio de Sousa, Udoka Azubuike, Devon Dotson, Ochai Agbaji

Departures: LaGerald Vick, Dedric Lawson, Quentin Grimes

New Arrivals: Tristan Enaruna, Christian Braun, Issac McBride

Buzz: Reclassified 5-star recruit R.J. Hampton pulled a misdirection when he spurned college basketball for Australia's NBL. Losing out on Hampton put a further damper on Kansas' offseason, which included an uncharacteristically lowly ranked recruiting class, and the loss of Quentin Grimes to transfer. Despite that, the Jayhawks did get some good news with Devon Dotson announcing his return to Lawrence at the NBA draft early-entry deadline.

 

Big man Udoka Azubuike already declared his intent to return. With Silvio de Sousa reinstated after suspension that stemmed from the FBI's fraud investigation, Bill Self has the pieces to return to the Big 12 mountaintop after The Streak reached its conclusion.

 

17. Arizona Wildcats

Key Returners: Chase Jeter, Ira Lee, Dylan Smith, Brandon Williams

Departures: Brandon Randolph, Justin Coleman, Devonaire Doutrive, Ryan Luther

Arrivals: Nico Mannion, Josh Green, Zeke Nnaji, Terry Armstrong, Christian Koloko, Max Hazzard

Buzz: The specter of the FBI investigation loomed over Arizona throughout 2018-19. Amid conflicting reports about Sean Miller's involvement, a makeshift Arizona team limped to what was, in some regards, the program's worst season since before Lute Olson built a national power in the '80s.

 

The trial from the investigation is now in the past, and a nationally top 3-ranked recruiting class remained in tact. The 2019 crop may be the Wildcats' best in 20 years, when a group that included Jason Gardner and Gilbert Arenas led UA to its last Final Four. Expectations on Nico Mannion, Josh Green and the rest of the newcomers — which include Max Hazzard of NCAA Tournament Cinderella UC Irvine — will be sky-high. But the key to UA returning to prominence may rest in returners Ira Lee and Brandon Williams taking strides, and Chase Jeter staying healthy.

 

18. Saint Mary's Gaels

Key Returners: Jordan Ford, Malik Fitts, Tanner Krebs, Tommy Kuhse

Departures: Jordan Hunter

Arrivals: Alex Ducas, Kyle Bowen

Buzz: A year after a pretty egregious NCAA Tournament snub, Saint Mary's left no doubt with a WCC Tournament thrashing of rival Gonzaga in 2019. The impressive postseason win sets the stage for an intriguing 2020.

 

The Gaels welcome back Jordan Ford, a 21 points per game scorer and likely preseason All-American. Ford looks like the best NBA prospect at Saint Mary's since Patty Mills. He drives the engine for Randy Bennett's unlikely, perennial power in Moraga. With Gonzaga undergoing some changes, this may be Bennett's best chance to win an outright WCC title since doing so just once in 2012.

 

19. Baylor Bears

Key Returners: Tristan Clark, Jared Butler, Devonte Bandoo, Mario Kegler, Mark Vital, Matthew Mayer, Freddie Gillespie

Departures: King McClure, Jake Lindsey, Makai Mason

Arrivals: Jordan Turner, MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell

Buzz: A balanced and efficient (No. 20 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency) offense carried Baylor to 20 wins and the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2019. In 2020, the Bears could ride a similar approach to contention in a wide-open Big 12.

 

Scott Drew returns much of last season's leading contributors, including three double-figure scorers: Tristan Clark, Mario Kegler and Jared Butler. Filling the void Makai Mason's departure leaves will be a challenge, but rising junior Mark Vital could see a more significant role in the offense.

 

20. Utah State Aggies

Key Returners: Neemias Queta, Sam Merrill, Diogo Brito, Brock Miller, Abel Porter

Departures: Quinn Taylor

New Arrivals: Alphonso Anderson, Liam McChesney, Sean Bairstow

Buzz: The dizzying emergence of Utah State last season was perhaps the biggest pleasant surprise of the 2018-19 season. The good news continues into 2019-20, with Neemias Queta pulling his name out of the NBA draft pool shortly before deadline. Queta was a force on the interior in his freshman campaign, and should put up double-double averages if he progresses as a sophomore.

 

Sam Merrill is one of the nation's most effective returning scorers, and the combination of he and Queta presents mismatch problems for any opponent. The veteran presence on a team ranked 39th in offensive efficiency and 52nd in defensive efficiency should only raise the bar for the 28-win Aggies.

 

21. LSU Tigers

Key Returners: Skylar Mays, Ja'vonte Smart, Emmitt Williams, Darius Days, Marlon Taylor

Departures: Tremont Waters, Naz Reid, Kavell Bigby-Williams

Arrivals: Trendon Watford, James Bishop

Buzz: Perhaps no other team in college basketball benefited as greatly from the NBA draft deadline as LSU. Four Tigers with their names in the pool opted to return for a run in 2019-20. Chief among the returning Tigers is Skylar Mays, a 13.4 points per game scorer on last year's surprise, breakout squad. LSU also welcomes back another double-digit scorer in Mays' backcourt mate, Ja'vonte Smart. But the name most of the nation will be watching come November is a newcomer, Trendon Watford. 

 

The 5-star recruit Watford scored more than 23 points per game all four seasons at nationally ranked Mountain Brook (Ala.) High School. Watford has the look of a surefire NBA lottery pick. Combine his talents with the veterans back, and Will Wade should have a winner upon his controversial return to the sideline.

 

22. Auburn Tigers

Key Returners: J'Von McCormick, Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore, Austin Wiley

Departures: Bryce Brown, Jared Harper, Malik Dunbar, Chuma Okeke, Horace Spencer
New Arrivals: Isaac Okoro, Tyrell Jones, Jaylin Williams, Babtunde Akingbola, Allen Flanigan

Buzz: The NCAA Tournament is an exercise in just how narrow the difference between losing and winning can be. Auburn needed a few fortunate breaks to escape an opening test against New Mexico State, but after bludgeoning Kansas and North Carolina, the Tigers scored a win over Kentucky to make the Final Four. There, Auburn very nearly advanced to the national championship game.

 

Those narrow wins (and losses) could benefit Auburn in 2019-20, which turns the page after losing the bulk of its primary contributions from 2018-19, but won't lack for experience.  J'Von McCromick, Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore and Austin Wiley all saw invaluable minutes. They'll take on more responsibility next season, while helping integrate a top 20-ranked recruiting class.

 

23. Creighton Bluejays

Key Returners: Davion Mintz, Ty-Shon Alexander, Jacob Epperson, Marcus Zegarowski, Damien Jefferson, Mitchell Ballock 

Departures: Martin Krampelj, Sam Frolin, Connor Cashaw, Kaleb Joseph

New Arrival: Shereef Mitchell

Buzz: Creighton's balanced offensive attack should remain strong in 2019-20 with Ty-Shon Alexander returning to lead the Bluejays. Alexander put up 15.7 points per game a season ago, making him one of four Bluejays to average double figures. Two from the remainder of the quartet, Mitchell Ballock and Marcus Zegarowski, are also back in the fold.

 

Creighton also scored an important return with Davion Mintz pulling his name from NBA consideratio. Mintz averaged just below 10 points per game, and was an effective on-ball defender.

 

24. Colorado Buffaloes

Key Returners: Tyler Bey, McKinley Wright, Shane Gatling, D'Shawn Schwartz, Lucas Siewert, Evan Battey

Departures: Namon Wright

Buzz: Colorado snuck into an unexpected fourth-place tie in the Pac-12 last season, and won 23 games — the Buffs' most since the 2014 NCAA Tournament season. Tad Boyle returns just about every main contributor from the 2018-19 roster, giving his team a veteran presence that more discussed Pac-12 counterparts like Arizona, Oregon, USC and Washington lack in the coming campaign.

 

The perimeter duo of McKinley Wright IV and Tyler Bey packs a potent one-two punch. Should highly touted 2017 signee D'Shawn Schwartz up his production, the Buffs could boast the best trio of guards in the Pac-12.

 

25. Davidson Wildcats

Key Returners: Jon Axel Gudmundsson, Kellan Grady, Luka Brajkovic, Luke Frampton, KiShawn Pritchett

Departures: Nathan Ekwu

Buzz: A big-time beneficiary of the later NBA draft withdrawal date, Davidson scored two important returns for 2019-20 when both Atlantic 10 Player of the Year Jon Axel Gudmundsson and Kellan Grady announced they were coming back.

 

The high-scoring tandem put up more than 34 points per game in 2018-19, but they weren't alone in their production. Freshmen Luka Brajkovic and Luke Frampton both averaged in double figures. They'll be a year more seasoned as sophomores.

 

— 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 ukathletics.com)

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