John Clay

John Clay’s preseason basketball Top 25: Blue bloods at the top, along with one party crasher

Kansas guard Frank Mason III (0) leaps in the air as he and teammates celebrate a score against Texas during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Feb. 29, 2016, in Austin, Texas. Kansas won 86-56.
Kansas guard Frank Mason III (0) leaps in the air as he and teammates celebrate a score against Texas during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Feb. 29, 2016, in Austin, Texas. Kansas won 86-56. AP

1. Kansas: Bill Self has won 12 straight Big 12 titles, but his one national crown came in 2008. Rock Chalk Jayhawk backers are slightly impatient. Self has a nice mix of veterans (senior guard Frank Mason, junior guard DeVonte Graham) and first-year talent (top freshman Josh Jackson) that could change KU’s recent NCAA Tournament luck.

2. Duke: Bad luck paid an early visit to the Blue Devils. Heralded freshman Harry Giles underwent yet another knee surgery. Heralded freshman Jayson Tatum injured his foot during Duke’s Pro Day. Luckily, Mike Krzyzewski’s roster is loaded. Grayson Allen’s return annoyed Duke haters, but popularized the Devils as the pick to win it all. So far, however, karma has not been kind.

3. Oregon: Serious. If any team can crash the Duke-Kentucky-Kansas party, it’s the Ducks. Coach Dana Altman sports an intriguing, veteran nucleus of Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey, Chris Boucher and Dylan Ennis, the latter a Villanova transfer. Offseason foot surgery will keep Brooks out the first part of the season, but he should return in time for a lengthy Ducks run.

4. Kentucky: One-and-done talent makes the Cats a national title contender once again. Rinse and repeat. John Calipari’s newest wave is unusually quick and typically athletic. Sophomore holdover Isaiah Briscoe provides the grit, however, and ultimately, could be the key to the school’s ninth national title run.

5. North Carolina: Six of Roy Williams’ top eight scorers from last year’s national runner-up return to Chapel Hill. Losing valuable wing Theo Pinson to a foot injury doesn’t help the Carolina cause. Still, the Tar Heels are typically deep and talented. Look for junior Justin Jackson to take a leadership role. He may be UNC’s best player.

6. Xavier: The Muskies do have one huge cloud hanging over their promising season. What’s the deal with Myles Davis, the 6-2 senior guard who was indefinitely suspended in September for charges involving an ex-girlfriend? If Davis returns, Chris Mack has a potential Final Four team, led by juniors Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura.

7. Virginia: Tony Bennett has done everything in Charlottesville except get the Wahoos over the NCAA tourney hump and into the Final Four. ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brodgon is no longer around, but Memphis transfer Austin Nichols gives the Cavaliers an intriguing new piece. Plus, you know that Bennett’s team is going to play relentless, sticky defense.

8. Villanova: The defending national champs are without their Philadelphia soul in senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono. Having top freshman Omari Spellman ruled ineligible was a blow. Still, Jay Wright has plenty back, including Kris Jenkins, who hit the title-winning shot. Watch out for junior Phil Booth, who led the winners with 22 points in the championship game.

9. Indiana: There were those who thought losing James Blackmon Jr. to a knee injury last season actually made the Hoosiers better. Blackmon’s return is a chance to prove the critics wrong. Look for OG Anunoby, ready for his breakout year, to team with sophomore post player Thomas Bryant for a possible Final Four run.

10. St. Mary’s: Yes, St. Mary’s, which should escape the shadow of West Coast Conference perennial power Gonzaga. Coach Randy Bennett has a boatload back from a team that won 29 games last season. Guard Emmett Naar is the leading returning scorer but the Gaels enjoy talent and balance. Only question is whether Bennett’s team can deal with the high expectations.

11. Purdue: Yes, college basketball is back in the great state of Indiana. After a couple of down years, the Boilermakers have won 47 games over the past two seasons and appear ready to take the next step now that Caleb Swanigan agreed to return for his sophomore season. Coaxing more scoring out of junior forward Vincent Edwards could be the key.

12. West Virginia: It is true that the Mountaineers have lost Devin Williams and Jaysean Paige, key pieces to last season’s surprise success. It’s also true that Bob Huggins has plenty back from a team that went 26-9 a year ago and was ranked eighth in the final AP poll. One thing is for sure, WVU will again drive its opponents to distraction with its trapping defense.

13. Louisville: Rick Pitino spent most of the summer raving about the current Cards. Donovan Mitchell, who shed excess weight over the offseason, is one reason for Pitino’s optimism. Freshman guard V.J. King is another. And Pitino has the depth he wants to return to the style of play he wants; the trapping, endline-to-endline approach that initially made him famous.

14. Wisconsin: Greg Gard has picked up right where his mentor Bo Ryan left off. The Badgers were better than expected last season, going 22-13 overall and 12-6 in the Big Ten, and could be even better this year. When not commenting on NCAA and social issues, senior forward Nigel Hayes might be the best player in the league.

15. California: Ivan Rabb’s return makes the Golden Bears more than just relevant in 2016-17. Rabb averaged 12.5 points and 8.6 rebounds last season and is among the handful of top pro prospects. Head coach Cuonzo Martin still has to deal with the aftershocks of a nasty sexual harassment investigation involving an assistant coach, but the addition of guard Charlie Moore helps.

16. Arizona: Had Terrance Ferguson made good on his commitment to Arizona and not signed with an Australian pro team, the Wildcats would have been a sure top-10, maybe top-five pick. As it is, Sean Miller’s team will be tough and feisty but its better days may be ahead. Much falls on the shoulders of 6-5 sophomore Allonzo Trier, who averaged 14.8 points a game last year.

17. Gonzaga: Just because St. Mary’s is the pick here to win the WCC doesn’t mean the Bulldogs have backed away. Transfers Jordan Mathews, Nigel Williams-Goss and Jonathan Williams should keep the Mark Few train rolling down the Spokane tracks. Przemek Karnowski, the 7-1 center, is among the nation’s better big men.

18. UCLA: No one seems to know what to think of the Bruins, who upset Kentucky in December then flopped to a 15-17 record. Steve Alford has a talented crop of freshmen that can hopefully pump new life into the program. Guard Lonzo Ball and forward T.J. Leaf should make an impact. So should last season, which no doubt did not sit well with the competitive Alford.

19. Texas: The Longhorns may actually be a year or two away from making a real splash. Shaka Smart is recruiting off the charts. The future looks bright. All that positive momentum, however, could help the Longhorns this season. So could Jarrett Allen, the 6-10 freshman considered one of the best prep prospects last season.

20. Connecticut: Head coach Kevin Ollie convinced Rodney Purvis and Amida Brimah, both seniors, to bypass the NBA for one more season and return to Storrs. That bodes well for a Huskies roster that enjoys an injection of new talent provided by five new faces. Freshman point guard Alterique Gilbert, whom Ollie imported from Georgia, is considered the player to watch.

21. Syracuse: Just when you were ready to count Jim Boeheim out, the ’Cuse comes up with a valuable transfer in Adam White from Nebraska. White should team with forward Tyler Lyon to give the Orange some punch. Tyler Roberson, who grabbed 8.5 rebounds a game last year, is another key. And by now, we know better than to ever count out Boeheim.

22. Florida State: After a four-year NCAA Tournament absence, our old friend Leonard Hamilton appears to have the Seminoles back in postseason contention. Dwayne Bacon, a 6-7 sophomore, averaged 15.8 points and 5.8 rebounds a game last season. He may be the best player most of the country has never heard of — until this season.

23. Michigan State: Tom Izzo can feel Mike Krzyzewski’s preseason pain. The first practice balls had hardly been rolled out before the Spartans lost two key frontcourt players. Ben Carter, the UNLV transfer, tore his ACL and may be out for the season. Veteran Gavin Schilling also suffered a knee injury and his return is uncertain. Izzo will have to rely on a dynamite freshman class.

24. Virginia Tech: Few could understand why Buzz Williams would leave tradition-rich Marquette for Blacksburg where Virginia Tech football is king. And yet Willliams has slowly built a basketball program that went from 11 wins to 20 last season. Zach Leday, a 6-7 forward who averaged 15.5 points per game last season, could help the Hokies get some national buzz this year.

25. Oklahoma: Buddy Hield has departed Norman. That’s not good. What is good, however, is Lon Kruger’s coaching ability and returnees Justin Woodard and Khadeen Lattin. The Sooners won’t be quite as dependent on one player — albeit one great player — and should surprise any team unfortunate enough not to take OU seriously.

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