John Clay

College basketball Top 25: Who says the SEC is a football league?

My college basketball preseason Top 25, which includes seven — count ‘em, seven — Southeastern Conference teams:

1. Kansas: Those sending Bill Self’s team to the front of the preseason line note the Jayhawks’ experience advantage over Kentucky and Duke’s hotshot rookies. Don’t be fooled. KU has a pair of dandy freshmen in Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson to go with holdovers Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick, plus impact transfers Dedric and K.J. Lawson and Charlie Moore.

2. Gonzaga: After years of failing to crack the Final Four, the Zags zipped all the way up the tournament ladder to the championship game, only to lose to North Carolina in 2017. Mark Few’s club could climb that high again, thanks to a loaded roster led by Rui Hachimura, Josh Perkins, Killian Tillie and Zach Norvell, plus a couple of transfers.

3. Tennessee: Given the struggles of the UT football team, perhaps Rocky Top is now basketball territory. Rick Barnes has made it so, recruiting, developing and coaching the Vols back to hoops relevance. Nearly everyone is back from last year’s 26-win team, including SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams.

4. Kentucky: The biggest difference between this Kentucky team and some of the more recent Kentucky teams is I.Q., as in basketball I.Q. The way John Calipari’s club passed and shared the ball during its exhibition blast in the Bahamas showed that these Cats aren’t just excellent athletes, they have basketball instincts. That’s big.

5. Virginia: Yeah, yeah, we know, Virginia plays s-o-o-o slow. And yeah, we know, Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed last season. But Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers return De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite, among others. If you don’t like Virginia, sorry for your luck. The Cavs will be good, again.

6. Duke: Zion Williamson will be the most intriguing player in all of college basketball. Being that he plays for Duke, you may get tired of hearing that repeated incessantly. Fellow and top-notch freshmen R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones will also contribute to the Coach K cause. Can Mike Krzyzewski find the right mesh in time for the Big Dance? We’ll see.

Duke’s R.J. Barrett, left, and Zion Williamson headline a freshman class expected to do big things for the Blue Devils this season. Christopher Katsarov AP

7. Nevada: The wheeling, dealing Wolf Pack has nine transfers on its roster, including the Martins, Caleb and Cody, who helped Eric Musselman’s men reach the Sweet 16 last season. Too much one-on-one basketball lost out to Cinderella Loyola of Chicago, but the guess is Nevada learned its lesson.

8. Auburn: A year ago at this time, Bruce Pearl appeared not long for his coaching life thanks to assistant coach Chuck Person being caught up in the FBI investigation and the suspension of stars Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy. Then Auburn won 26 games. Wiley and Purifoy are now eligible. The Tigers are a top-10 team. And Pearl is still gainfully employed.

9. Oregon: After a Final Four trip in 2016-2017, the Ducks waddled a bit backward in 2017-18. They’ll make up the lost ground this season, thanks to guard Payton Pritchard, forward Kenny Wooten and freshmen Bol Bol and Louis King. Dana Altman’s club should wear the Pac-12 champion title at season’s end.

10. North Carolina: Ol’ Roy Williams said he was “dumbfounded” by all the shady recruiting stuff referenced in the basketball corruption trial. The rest of the hoops world will be dumbfounded if the Heels aren’t in Final Four contention, what with holdovers Luke Maye and Cam Johnson being joined by fab freshman Nassir Little.

11. Villanova: After winning two of the last three national titles, the Wildcats are overdue for a regression to the mean. Still, Jay Wright’s club will be a force, especially in the Big East, thanks to the return of Eric Paschall and Phil Booth, plus the addition of former Albany star Joe Cremo.

12. Kansas State: The Kansas State that bounced Kentucky out of last year’s tournament returns key pieces Barry Brown and Dean Wade. Overrated when he took Illinois to the 2005 national title game, Coach Bruce Weber is underrated now. His teams play physical, sound and smart.

13. Michigan State: The Spartans appear the cream of an uncharacteristically weak Big Ten. Cassius Winston, Nick Ward, Joshua Langford and Matt McQuaid stock Tom Izzo’s kitchen. Michigan State may not be the perennial Final Four threat of a few years back, but Sparty is sticking around.

14. Virginia Tech: Buzz Williams has four starters back from a team that got bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season. Led by Chris Clarke, look for the Hokies to stick around a little longer.

Grant Williams, last season’s Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, is back for another year at Tennessee. Tony Gutierrez AP

15. Florida State: Leonard Hamilton’s slow starters put the pieces of the puzzle together in time to reach the Elite Eight last season. Terance Mann and Phil Cofer return. M.J. Walker is the top recruit. Then there’s the lovable Leonard, who usually finds a way to get his ‘Noles in contention.

16. Syracuse: Never shy, Jim Boeheim has reached that point in his long and illustrious career where he doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him. The Orange will start slow, get it going late and make a run in the tourney, thanks to veterans Tyus Battle, Frank Howard and Oshae Brissett.

17. Mississippi State: It’s taken longer than he would have liked, but Ben Howland finally has the goods in Starkville. Four returning starters are joined by five-star Reggie Perry and noted newcomer Robert Woodard II.

18. North Carolina State: Former Rick Pitino assistant Kevin Keatts is a rising star in the profession. Last year’s Wolfpack overachieved by making the NCAA Tournament. Now Keatts has injected the program with five transfers to go with star holdover Torin Dorn.

19. LSU: Second-year head coach Will Wade found his name dragged into the college basketball corruption trial. And Wade has been getting players, starting with top point guard Tremont Waters last year and Ja’vonte Smart, Emmitt Williams and Naz Reid for this year.

20. Washington: Five starters return for the Huskies, who should be Oregon’s chief competition for the Pac-12 title. Sophomore Jaylen Nowell is a budding star who deserves more pub outside the Pacific Northwest.

21. Marquette: The Golden Eagles have been to just one NCAA Tournament in Steve Wojciechowski’s four years as coach, but this will be the best team the former Duke guard has put on the floor in Milwaukee. Markus Howard and Sam Hauser can fill it up.

Bruce Pearl is 70-62 in four years as head coach at Auburn, coming off a 26-8 season in 2017-18. He is 301-161 across 14 seasons with Milwaukee, Tennessee and Auburn. Hayne Palmour IV TNS

22. Alabama: Texas transfer Tevin Mack will help Avery Johnson get over the loss of star point guard Collin Sexton to the NBA. Top prospect Kira Lewis joins returnees John Petty and Herb Jones for a Bama bunch that could surprise in the rough SEC.

23. West Virginia: Jevon Carter’s 10-year career as a Mountaineer has finally come to an end. Just kidding. It only felt like Carter was at WVU that long. Bob Huggins will miss his leaders, but Huggs has scary center Sagaba Konate back to take up the slack.

24. Indiana: Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Well, Indiana high school legend Romeo Langford is in Bloomington where he hopes to bring Archie Miller and the Hoosiers back to national prominence. Juwan Morgan will play a big role. He averaged 16.5 points and 7.4 rebounds a year ago.

25. Florida: After his third straight 20-win season and second straight NCAA Tournament bid, Mike White has Jalen Hudson, KeVaughn Allen and Kevarrius Hayes back to go along with top recruit Noah Locke. The Gators will be right there again.

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