Way-too-early top 25 for the 2018-19 college basketball season

The Dagger

The confetti on the floor of the Alamodome hadn’t even been picked up yet Monday night when the speculation about next year’s college basketball season began.

Will Duke’s historic freshman class propel Mike Krzyzewski back to the Final Four? How good will Kansas’ transfers be? Can Villanova get back to the national title game for the third time in four years?

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It’s too early to answer most of those questions since some top recruits haven’t chosen a school, transfer season is only beginning and we don’t know which NBA draft prospects are staying in school and which will leave. Nonetheless, based on Yahoo Sports’ best guesses for who’s staying and who’s going, here’s a look at a very early top 25 for the 2018-19 season.

Now that the 2017-18 college basketball season is over, it’s time to look ahead toward next year. (Getty)
Now that the 2017-18 college basketball season is over, it’s time to look ahead toward next year. (Getty)

1. KANSAS
Key losses: G Devonte’ Graham, G Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, G Malik Newman (projected)
Key returners: G Lagerald Vick, C Udoka Azubuike, G Marcus Garrett, C Silvio De Sousa, G Sam Cunliffe
Notable newcomers: G Charlie Moore (transfer), F Dedric Lawson, F K.J. Lawson, C David McCormack, G Quentin Grimes, G Devon Dotson

Pencil Kansas in as the class of the Big 12 next season despite the departure of All-American Graham and potentially two other members of the Jayhawks’ starting backcourt. Bill Self will reload thanks largely to a strong crop of newcomers highlighted by a trio of incoming transfers. Lawson averaged 19.2 points and 9.9 rebounds at Memphis during the 2016-17 season and performed like a potential All-American on the Kansas scout team this year. The opportunity to pair him and either Azubuike or De Sousa together could force Self to abandon his four-guard look and go back to Kansas’ traditional high-low system. The loss of Newman’s outside shooting and perimeter scoring would be a blow if he decides to turn pro after a brilliant March run, but Kansas has the perimeter firepower to absorb that loss. Look for Grimes and Moore to play alongside one another in the backcourt and K.J. Lawson and Vick to both see time at wing.

2. VILLANOVA
Key losses: F Mikal Bridges (projected), G Jalen Brunson (projected)
Key returners: G Donte DiVincenzo, F Omari Spellman (projected), G Phil Booth, F Eric Paschall, G Collin Gillespie, F Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree
Notable newcomers: G Jahvon Quinerly, F Brandon Slater, F Cole Swider

How well does Jay Wright have Villanova rolling right now? The Wildcats should be the class of the Big East next season even if Brunson and Bridges leave for the NBA as expected. DiVincenzo is an experienced, athletic guard who is capable of thriving with increased responsibility, as evidenced by his 31-point performance in the title game. Spellman stretches the floor and protects the rim as a big man. Paschall is an excellent athlete who presents matchup problems for opposing forwards and guards multiple positions. And Booth is a capable scorer and terrific perimeter defender. Depth will be a bit of a concern for Villanova, as will replacing the poise and playmaking savvy of Brunson at point guard. Look for Quinerly, a crafty guard and one of the top prospects in this year’s recruiting class, to inherit that responsibility.

3. DUKE
Key losses: F Marvin Bagley III, F Wendell Carter Jr. (projected), G Grayson Allen, G Gary Trent Jr. (projected), G Trevon Duval (projected)
Key returners: G Alex O’Connell, F Javin DeLaurier, C Marques Bolden
Notable newcomers: F R.J. Barrett, G Cameron Reddish, G Tre Jones, F Zion Williamson

The Blue Devils are in line to lose a ton but perhaps gain even more with the top three — and four of the top eight — members of the Class of 2018 heading to Durham next year. It’s the first time one program has ever landed the top three prospects in one class. Barrett, originally in the Class of 2019, reclassified over the summer and is this year’s top recruit. He led Canada to a FIBA U19 gold medal and recorded 38 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in a semifinal win over the United States. Reddish and Jones — younger brother of former Blue Devils star and current Minnesota Timberwolve Tyus — will provide solid guard play, and Williamson shockingly spurned home-state favorites Clemson and South Carolina for Duke in January. He has unreal athleticism (watch this dunk contest) and will be able to defend all five positions. Mike Krzyzewski just continues to reload; this class is his best ever.

4. VIRGINIA
Key losses: G Devon Hall, F Isaiah Wilkins, G Nigel Johnson
Key returners: G Kyle Guy, G Ty Jerome, F De’Andre Hunter, F Mamadi Diakite, C Jack Salt
Notable newcomers: G Kihei Clark

It’s easy to forget how dominant Virginia was this year given the attention its historic NCAA tournament flameout received. The Cavaliers lost their best NBA prospect to a broken wrist days before the NCAA tournament and then became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed ever, spoiling a 31-win season in which they won the ACC tournament by four games and also captured the league tournament title. Tony Bennett’s squad will be strong again next season as five of Virginia’s top seven players are expected back. Guy and Jerome, both juniors-to-be, will provide perimeter scoring. Diakite and Salt will bolster the interior defense. And following wrist surgery, Hunter should go from ACC sixth man of the year to all-conference. Virginia’s lack of guards who are adept at creating off the dribble in late-clock situations is a concern and Wilkins’ absence will be felt defensively, but this is still an ACC title contender.

5. NORTH CAROLINA
Key losses: G Joel Berry II, F Theo Pinson
Key returners: F Luke Maye, G Kenny Williams, F Cameron Johnson (projected), F Garrison Brooks, F Sterling Manley, G Seventh Woods
Notable newcomers: F Nassir Little, G Coby White, F Rechon Black

The remarkable careers of Berry and Pinson ended with a thud as Texas A&M blew out North Carolina in the second round of this year’s NCAA tournament. Now the Tar Heels will have to move on without their two longtime perimeter stalwarts. Roy Williams always has outstanding big men coming through the system, and 2018-2019 will be no different. Maye is one of the most versatile, skilled players in the ACC and Brooks and Manley showed flashes of becoming the next generation of terrific Tar Heel post players. Johnson could also be back if he doesn’t enter the draft, which would provide Williams the option of going big or small again next year. Regardless, the heralded Little should make an immediate impact at small forward. The big question in Chapel Hill will be who starts at point guard alongside the sharp-shooting Williams. Expect Woods’ playing time to increase and White, a McDonald’s All-American, to step into a big role immediately.

6. GONZAGA
Key losses: F Johnathan Williams, G Silas Melson
Key returners: F Rui Hachimura (projected), F Killian Tillie (projected), G Josh Perkins, G Zach Norvell Jr., G Corey Kispert, C Jacob Larsen
Notable newcomers: F Brandon Clarke (transfer), G Joel Ayayi, F Filip Petrusev, G Greg Foster

It appears Gonzaga will stay in the WCC for now, but the Zags would be the favorite in any league out West next season. They should have a top 10-caliber team returning next season if Hachimura and Tillie come back to school for their junior seasons. Gonzaga’s starters in the backcourt will almost certainly be the veteran Perkins and the rapidly improving Norvell, hero of the Zags’ Sweet 16 run this past season. The Zags could go smaller with Kispert at small forward and Hachimura at power forward or they could go big with Hachimura on the wing and Clarke and Tillie alongside him. Clarke, a former first-team All-Mountain West selection at San Jose State, should make an instant splash and help replace the interior production of Williams. The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 17.3 points in his final season with the Spartans and also blocks shots, defends and rebounds.

Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura dunks against Ohio State during the second half of a second-round game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament Saturday, March 17, 2018, in Boise, Idaho. (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger)
Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura dunks against Ohio State during the second half of a second-round game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament Saturday, March 17, 2018, in Boise, Idaho. (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger)

7. KENTUCKY
Key losses: G Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (projected), F Kevin Knox (projected), G Hamidou Diallo (projected)
Key returners: F Jarred Vanderbilt (projected), F PJ Washington (projected), G Quade Green, F Wenyen Gabriel, F Nick Richards, C Sacha Killeya-Jones
Notable newcomers: G Keldon Johnson, G Immanuel Quickley, G Tyler Herro

Projecting Kentucky’s 2018-19 season is a fruitless task at this juncture because we don’t know how many of this year’s freshmen will be back. Gilgeous-Alexander and Knox are the Wildcats’ lone projected first-round picks, and even Knox has said he’s still considering a return. If Kentucky loses only Gilgeous-Alexander, Knox and Diallo to early entries, the Wildcats could have an unusual amount of experience back next season. Quickley and Green could platoon at point guard and play alongside one another, the other freshmen could compete for immediate playing time alongside them and the Wildcats would again boast a wealth of frontcourt talent and depth, with Vanderbilt, Washington and Gabriel serving as the headliners.

8. TENNESSEE
Key losses: G James Daniel III
Key returners: F Grant Williams, F Admiral Schofield, G Lamonte Turner, G Jordan Bone, G Jordan Bowden, F Kyle Alexander, G Chris Darrington
Notable newcomers: none

Tennessee has been projected either last or next-to-last in the SEC in each of Rick Barnes’ first three seasons in Knoxville. Expect that to change next season. All but one of Tennessee’s rotation players are expected back from a team that shared the SEC title with Auburn and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. The lone player departing is Daniel, a graduate transfer from Howard who averaged just over five points per game. What that means is that barring unexpected departures, Tennessee should contend for the SEC title again next season. Tennessee’s strength this past season was a defense ranked sixth in the nation. Williams and Schofield are the two pillars of the offense, but the Vols could certainly benefit from adding a guard late either via the high school ranks or from the transfer market.

9. MICHIGAN STATE
Key losses: F Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson Jr., F Ben Carter, F Gavin Schilling, G Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn
Key returners: F Nick Ward (projected), G Matt McQuaid, G Joshua Langford, G Cassius Winston, F Xavier Tillman, F Kenny Goins
Notable newcomers: F Aaron Henry, F Marcus Bingham, F Gabe Brown, G Foster Loyer, F Thomas Kithier

The frontcourt that carried Michigan State to the Big Ten regular season title this past season will look markedly different next year. Bridges, Schilling, Carter and Jackson, a projected lottery pick, are gone. Ward has also entered the draft without an agent, though he would be unlikely to be selected if he does not withdraw. Michigan State won’t be nearly as long or intimidating inside next season, but the Spartans should have plenty of experience in the backcourt. Winston will have to score more himself, and sharpshooters Langford and McQuaid must evolve into more complete players. Tillman progressed at a rapid rate at the end of the season and could start alongside Ward or push him for playing time. Or the Spartans could start Bingham as a freshman and use Ward and Tillman as a center platoon.

10. AUBURN
Key losses: C Austin Wiley (projected), G Davion Mitchell
Key returners: G Mustapha Heron (projected), G Bryce Brown, G Jared Harper, F Anfernee McLemore, F Danjel Purifoy, F Desean Murray, F Chuma Okeke, G Malik Dunbar, F Horace Spencer
Notable newcomers: G Samir Doughty

Bruce Pearl elevated Auburn from the depths of the SEC to a co-regular season championship last season. Now he has a chance to keep the Tigers near the top of the SEC. Auburn could return the core of this past season’s team and add suspended forwards Wiley and Purifoy and the VCU transfer, Doughty, to the mix. Wiley, however is considering turning pro, as is Heron after leading the Tigers in scoring last season. If Harper, Brown and Heron all come back, Auburn would once again boast one of the SEC’s most formidable backcourts. Wiley would provide the size and interior scoring the Tigers lacked this past season, but even if he goes, a healthy McLemore will alleviate a lot of the rim protection and rebounding issues Auburn faced at the end of this past season.

11. NEVADA
Key losses: G Kendall Stephens, G Hallice Cooke, F Elijah Foster
Key returners: F Cody Martin (projected), F Caleb Martin (projected), F Jordan Caroline (projected), G Josh Hall, G Lindsey Drew
Notable newcomers: G Jazz Johnson, G Nisre Zouzoua, G Corey Henson, F Tre’Shawn Thurman, F Vincent Lee, C K.J. Hymes

Here’s something that should ease the sting of last month’s narrow Sweet 16 loss to Loyola for Nevada coach Eric Musselman: The Wolf Pack could be even better next season. There’s a chance that Nevada brings back five high-level players depending on whether the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline decide to return. Throw in the addition of four transfers and two freshmen to provide the depth this past season’s team lacked, and the Wolf Pack could realistically dream of going farther in the NCAA tournament than they did this past March. The Martin twins thus far are undecided about their draft plans. That’s the biggest concern for Nevada. Drew is also recovering from a torn Achilles, a serious enough injury that there’s no guarantee he’ll be the same player next season. Should that happen, look for a bigger role for Zouzoua, a combo guard who averaged 20.3 points per game at Bryant before transferring.

12. MICHIGAN
Key losses: G Muhammad Ali-Abdur Rahkman, F Moritz Wagner (projected), F Duncan Robinson, G Jaaron Simmons
Key returners: G Charles Matthews (projected), G Zavier Simpson, G Jordan Poole, F Isaiah Livers, C Jon Teske, G Eli Brooks
Notable newcomers: F Ignas Brazdeikis, F Brandon Johns, G David DeJulius, C Colin Castleton, F Adrien Nunez

How high Michigan’s ceiling is next season could depend on the early-entry decisions of Wagner and Matthews. The Wolverines should still be very good if even one of them comes back to Ann Arbor, but a return to the Final Four becomes less likely if both turn pro. Defense is likely to once again be a strength for Michigan next season with Zavier Simpson returning at point guard and Jon Teske potentially assuming a bigger role. Simpson wrecked opposing point guards during the second half of his freshman season with his ball-hawking instincts and lateral quickness and Teske is excellent defending ball screens. Poole — the hero of Michigan’s second-round victory over Houston — should emerge as a bigger scoring threat as a sophomore and Livers could also take a leap. Of Michigan’s freshmen, the most ready is Brazdeikis, a sweet-shooting 6-foot-8 Canadian lefty with a handle.

Michigan’s Jordan Poole, from left, Isaiah Livers and Zavier Simpson watch from the bench during the second half against Loyola-Chicago in the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 31, 2018, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Michigan’s Jordan Poole, from left, Isaiah Livers and Zavier Simpson watch from the bench during the second half against Loyola-Chicago in the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 31, 2018, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

13. KANSAS STATE
Key losses: G Barry Brown
Key returners: F Dean Wade (projected), F Xavier Sneed, G Kamau Stokes, G Cartier Diarra, F Makol Mawien, G Mike McGuirl, G Amaad Wainright
Notable newcomers: G Shaun Williams

Could Kansas State really be the second best team in the Big 12 next season? It’s possible with the Wildcats potentially returning every key piece from a 25-win team that finished fourth in the league this past season and advanced to the Elite Eight with little-to-no production from its injury-plagued leading scorer. Wade, a skilled 6-foot-10 forward who averaged 16.2 points per game this past season, should be preseason all-Big 12. So should Brown, who averaged 15.9 points this past season and emerged as the league’s top perimeter defender. Sneed blossomed in March, Mawien flashed potential as a frontcourt weapon and Diarra, Stokes and McGuirl should each battle for playing time at point guard. Kansas State’s biggest weakness this past season was its inability to rebound. That could be one area Bruce Weber might address on the transfer market if he can.

14. OREGON
Key losses: G Troy Brown (projected), F MiKyle McIntosh, G Elijah Brown, F Roman Sorkin
Key returners: G Payton Pritchard, F Kenny Wooten, F Paul White, G Victor Bailey, F Abu Kigab
Notable newcomers: C Bol Bol, F Louis King, G Will Richardson, F Miles Norris

While Dana Altman has molded newcomer-laden teams into Pac-12 title contenders before, this past season’s Ducks never appeared to click. They didn’t improve as rapidly as previous Altman teams have and failed to make a serious NCAA tournament push. Expect Oregon’s fortunes to get considerably better next season with the arrival of the most decorated recruiting class that Altman has ever signed. Five-star recruits Bol, a 7-foot-3 center, and King, an athletic small forward, should slide into the starting five right away, while Richardson and Norris also have the potential to make an immediate impact. One question facing the Ducks is whether shooting guard Troy Brown will return for his sophomore season. The five-star freshman didn’t have the debut season he expected at Oregon, but he is projected as a late first-round pick. Another question for Oregon is how next season’s roster will jell. Can Bol and Wooten play alongside one-another effectively in the frontcourt? Is there enough shooting or ball handling on the roster? Is Pritchard ready to assume the role of go-to scorer in his third year as starting point guard, or can one of the freshmen emerge? Time will tell.

15. VIRGINIA TECH
Key losses: G Justin Bibbs, G Devin Wilson
Key returners: G Justin Robinson, G Ahmed Hill, F Chris Clarke, F Kerry Blackshear, G Nickeil Walker-Alexander, G Ty Outlaw, C Khadim Sy
Notable newcomers: G Jonathan Kabongo, F Landers Nolley, G Jarren McAllister

Next season could be BuzzWilliams’ best in Blacksburg. Four starters return from this year’s NCAA tournament team and a combination of returners from injury and talented newcomers should provide ample depth. Robinson’s development was one of the biggest reasons the Hokies went to their second straight Big Dance this year. The rising senior raised his points per game (10.4 to 14.0), field goal percentage (41.3 to 46.4) and 3-point percentage (35.8 to 39.8) from his sophomore year to junior year, earning second-team All-ACC honors. Alexander-Walker was inconsistent as a freshman, but has good size and shooting ability. Hill averaged double figures this past season and shot over 40 percent from 3-point range. Clarke and Blackshear will anchor an energetic frontcourt that struggled on the glass this past season. Throw in the outside shooting of Outlaw and the size of Sy and some contributions from the freshmen, and Virginia Tech is definitely trending upward.

16. SYRACUSE
Key losses: none
Key returners: G Tyus Battle (projected), F Oshae Brissett, G Franklin Howard, F Marek Dolezaj, C Paschal Chukwu, F Matthew Moyer
Notable newcomers: G Buddy Boeheim, G Jalen Carey

Five-star recruit Darius Bazley’s decision to leap from high school to the G-League is a big blow to Syracuse, but the Orange still belong in the preseason Top 25 if Battle opts to return for his sophomore season. The second-team all-ACC selection is likely to at least test the waters after leading the Orange in scoring during the regular season and spearheading a surprise Sweet 16 run. The return of Battle, Brissett and Howard and the arrival of the sharpshooting Boeheim and the playmaking Carey should elevate a Syracuse offense that was often undermanned this past season. The Orange should remain elite defensively thanks to the size and length of their trademark 2-3 zone.

17. MISSISSIPPI STATE
Key losses: none
Key returners: G Quinndary Weatherspoon, G Nick Weatherspoon, F Aric Holman, G Lamar Peters, G Tyson Carter, F Abdul Ado, G Xavian Stapleton, G Eli Wright
Notable newcomers: F Reggie Perry, F Robert Woodard, G DJ Stewart

An appearance in the NIT Final Four qualified as progress for Mississippi State this season, but expectations will be higher next year. The Bulldogs not only are projected to return the core of this year’s team intact, they also add a talented recruiting class headlined by Perry, a 6-foot-9 McDonald’s All-American power forward. If Perry can bolster Mississippi State’s rebounding and provide some interior scoring punch, that would aid the Bulldogs’ chances of a big leap in Ben Howland’s fourth season in Starkville. The biggest concern for Mississippi State remains whether it will be able to shoot the ball well enough to sufficiently space the floor. The Bulldogs were 329th in the country in 3-point shooting this past season, and while Woodard and Stewart may help address that problem, it’s likely to remain a concern.

18. FLORIDA STATE
Key losses: F Phil Cofer, G Braian Angola, G CJ Walker
Key returners: G Terance Mann, G PJ Savoy, G Trent Forrest, F Mfiondu Kabengele, C Christ Koumadje, G M.J. Walker, C Ike Obiagu, F Wyatt Wilkes, F RaiQuan Gray
Notable newcomers: G Devin Vassell

Relying on fast-break offense, improved defense and impressive depth, Florida State made an unexpected run to the Elite Eight last month after finishing just 9-9 in ACC play. The Seminoles return enough talent from that roster that they should have a better regular season next year and return to the NCAA tournament. Florida State will once again have plenty of long, athletic wings with the slashing Mann and the sharp-shooting Savoy headlining the group. Kabengele is an emerging NBA prospect who flashed promise at both ends of the floor and former McDonald’s All-American M.J. Walker could also make a leap as a sophomore. Depth at point guard is a bit of a concern after CJ Walker announced he will transfer last week. Forrest is a capable defender who excels at getting to the rim and drawing fouls, but he needs to improve his perimeter shooting.

Florida State forward Mfiondu Kabengele grabs a rebound during the second half of the team’s NCAA men’s college basketball tournament regional semifinal against Gonzaga on Thursday, March 22, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae Hong)
Florida State forward Mfiondu Kabengele grabs a rebound during the second half of the team’s NCAA men’s college basketball tournament regional semifinal against Gonzaga on Thursday, March 22, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae Hong)

19. LSU
Key losses: F Duop Reath, F Aaron Epps, G Randy Onwuasor
Key returners: G Tremont Waters, G Skylar Mays, G Brandon Sampson, G Daryl Edwards, F Wayde Sims, G Brandon Rachal
Notable newcomers: F Kavell Bigby-Williams, F Naz Reid, G JaVonte Smart, F Emmitt Williams, F Darius Days

For a guy who didn’t inherit much from the previous LSU staff, Will Wade has worked quickly to replenish LSU’s roster. A pair of five-star prospects and two other top 75 recruits come aboard this summer, giving the Tigers an excellent chance to ascend in what should be a strong SEC next season. The returning star is Waters, a 5-11 dynamo of a point guard who averaged 15.9 points and 6.0 assists. Look for LSU to play lots of three-guard sets with Waters, Smart and either high-scoring Mays or defensive ace Edwards. Reid, Williams and the Oregon transfer Bigby-Williams each figure to make an immediate impact in the frontcourt. LSU flashed NCAA tournament potential at times this past season, but settled for an NIT bid because of its inconsistency. Next year’s team will have far higher expectations.

20. WEST VIRGINIA
Key losses: G Jevon Carter, G Daxter Miles, G D’Angelo Hunter
Key returners: C Sagaba Konate, F Teddy Allen, F Esa Ahmad, G James “Beetle” Bolden, F Wesley Harris, F Lamont West
Notable newcomers: G Brandon Knapper, F Derek Culver, G Trey Doomes, F Andrew Gordon, G Jordan McCabe

For four years, Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles were the heart and soul of West Virginia basketball. Now Bob Huggins will have to move on without two guards who combined for more than 3,000 points, 800 assists and 500 steals. Among the options to absorb some of that available playing time include the returning Bolden, promising redshirt freshman Knapper and incoming freshmen McCabe and Doomes. McCabe is a flashy point guard and Doomes is a slashing wing. The frontcourt is more settled for West Virginia and shot-blocking standout Sagaba Konate is the headliner. He’ll anchor a group that also includes former top 50 recruit Ahmad and Allen, a potential breakout candidate at small forward. There are likely to be growing pains for West Virginia without the leadership of Carter and Miles, but there’s enough talent and experience here for the Mountaineers to contend for a top three finish in the Big 12.

21. UCLA
Key losses: G Aaron Holiday, C Thomas Welsh, F Gyorgy Goloman
Key returners: G Jaylen Hands (projected), F Kris Wilkes (projected), F Chris Smith, G Prince Ali, F Cody Riley, F Jalen Hill, F Alex Olesinski
Notable newcomers: C Moses Brown, F Shareef O’Neal, G Tyger Campbell, G Jules Bernard, G David Singleton, C Kenneth Nwuba

The fate of an important season for UCLA coach Steve Alford will be determined by how quickly he can get a team of promising newcomers to mesh. The Bruins have eight players who have never played a college basketball game before and could return as few as three rotation players from last season depending on what Hands and Wilkes decide to do. The good news is the incoming freshmen are talented and redshirt freshmen Hill and Riley would have been part of the 2017-18 rotation were it not for the China shoplifting incident. Wilkes would appear to be the best bet for a go-to scorer if he opts to return to Westwood for his sophomore season. The frontcourt will be loaded with length and athleticism and Campbell could be the sort of pass-first point guard needed to keep this collection of talent happy. Expect UCLA to be an up-and-down team that overwhelms some opponents with talent and struggles with sloppy turnovers, stagnant offense and shoddy defense against others.

22. MARQUETTE
Key losses: G Andrew Rowsey, F Harry Froling
Key returners: G Markus Howard, G Sam Hauser, G Sacar Anim, F Jamal Cain, G Greg Elliott, C Matt Heldt, F Theo John
Notable newcomers: F Joey Hauser, F Brendan Bailey, F Edward Morrow, C Ike Eke

In a Big East without an obvious challenger to favorite Villanova, Marquette has a reasonable chance to emerge as the second best team. The Golden Eagles lose leading scorer Rowsey to graduation, but they have plenty of offensive punch to replace him. Howard and Sam Hauser are both excellent shooters and perimeter scorers. Top recruit Joey Hauser and Morrow, a Nebraska transfer, should make Marquette more multifaceted and less 3-point reliant. The obvious concern is whether the Golden Eagles can place a greater emphasis on defense instead of merely trying to outscore teams. Marquette ranked 183rd in defensive efficiency this past season, easily the worst in the Big East. Finding a ball handler to replace Rowsey will also be key. Either Howard and Elliot will have to share this responsibility, or Marquette will have to find a grad transfer.

23. USC
Key losses: F Chimezie Metu, G Jordan McLaughlin, G Elijah Stewart
Key returners: F Bennie Boatwright (projected), G Jonah Mathews, G Charles O’Bannon Jr., G Shaqquan Aaron, G Derryck Thornton, F Nick Rakocevic
Notable newcomers: G Kevin Porter, G Elijah Weaver, F J’Raan Brooks

USC won’t lack for motivation after being left out of the NCAA tournament last month despite finishing second in the Pac-12. The Trojans have a chance to return to the NCAA tournament next season despite the loss of three of their four leading scorers and the cloud of the FBI investigation still hovering over the program. If Boatwright’s February knee injury delays his ability to turn pro for another year, the stretch forward should be the focal point of USC’s offense. Rakocevic would likely start alongside him with Brooks also receiving considerable playing time. Replacing longtime stalwarts McLaughlin and Stewart in the backcourt won’t be easy, but USC has pieces. Thornton, the former Duke transfer, should share playing time at point guard with Weaver. Porter will add instant scoring punch at wing alongside returners Mathews, Aaron and O’Bannon.

24. XAVIER
Key losses: G Trevon Bluiett, G J.P. Macura, F Kerem Kanter, C Sean O’Mara
Key returners: G Quentin Goodin, F Naji Marshall, G Paul Scruggs, F Tyrique Jones, F Kaiser Gates
Notable newcomers: F Dontarius James, G Keonte Kennedy, C Jake Walker

After winning its first Big East title and claiming its first No. 1 seed this past season, Xavier is poised to take a step backward next season. The Musketeers lost their head coach to Louisville and their three leading scorers to graduation. The key to Xavier remaining Top 25 caliber will be whether its promising perimeter corps is ready to handle more responsibility. Goodin showed command of the offense in his first year as starting point guard this past season and Scruggs and especially Marshall have breakout potential. Finding a go-to scorer should be a concern for new Xavier coach Travis Steele, as should be depth, but defense will not be. The Musketeers should be very quick and athletic on the perimeter and Jones and Gates form a solid interior tandem.

25. WISCONSIN
Key losses: none
Key returners: F Ethan Happ (projected), G Brad Davison, G Kobe King, G D’Mitrik Trice, G Brevin Pritzl, F Aleem Ford, F Nate Reuvers, G Khalil Iverson
Notable newcomers: C Joe Hedstrom, F Taylor Currie, G Trevor Anderson

At the end of a disappointing season in which its 19-year NCAA tournament streak ended with a thud, Wisconsin offered a glimmer of hope. The Badgers won four of their last six and played Michigan State to a near-standstill in their two losses against the Spartans. Wisconsin has a chance to build off that finish as long as Happ returns for his senior season instead of turning pro. The all-Big Ten center will be the Badgers’ interior focal point, but there are also some promising options around him. Davison emerged as a leader over the second half of his freshman season and will likely start at shooting guard. King and Trice can provide some much-needed playmaking that Wisconsin lacked after they got hurt. Pritzl and Iverson both improved defensively last season, while Reuvers showed flashes of promise but needs to add strength. Expect Anderson, the Green Bay transfer, to have a role too after he impressed on the scout team. Ultimately, there are still a lot of questions with Wisconsin, but the Badgers have the potential for a strong bounce-back season.

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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