John Clay

Kentucky, Louisville, Western Kentucky, the gang’s all here in preseason Top 25

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2019-20 College Basketball Preview

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My preseason Top 25 for the 2019-20 men’s college basketball campaign:

1. Michigan State. Though he’s always knocking on the door, Tom Izzo hasn’t won a national championship since 2000. That could change for the Spartans, who boast college hoops’ best senior in point guard Cassius Winston. Leading rebounder Xavier Tillman also returns. If MSU can get Joshua Langford (foot) back in January, there may be no stopping the Spartans.

2. Kentucky. As always, John Calipari is dealing with wealth management thanks to a boffo recruiting class and a handful of talented holdovers. Tyrese Maxey is the freshman to watch. But the key to a title run could be EJ Montgomery, the 6-foot-10 sophomore who didn’t meet his sizable potential last season.

3. Duke. No more Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett. Could less be more? It could thanks to another great, though maybe not as glitzy recruiting year for Mike Krzyzewski. Point guard Tre Jones returned to run the show. And the Devils have a real, live post presence in 6-foot-10 freshman Vernon Carey.

4. Kansas. Matters are a bit messy at Rock Chalk Jayhawk what with the NCAA delivering a Notice of Allegations and Snoop Dogg bringing unwanted publicity — surprise — to the team’s preseason celebration. As always, however, Bill Self has a talented roster, led by center Udoka Azubuike and forward Silvio de Sousa, back after a one-year suspension.

5. Louisville. Chris Mack has attacked the U of L job with a vengeance, roping in 20 wins and a top-shelf recruiting class in his first season at the ‘Ville. Getting Jordan Nwora back after the All-ACC performer flirted with the NBA was huge, People knew the Cardinals would be back post-Pitino. Not sure we knew it would be this soon.

6. Florida. Some Kentucky fans were shocked when Virginia Tech graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear turned down the Cats for the Gators. But it’s not like the 6-10 senior won’t be surrounded by talent. Guards Andrew Nembhard and Noah Locke are back. And Mike White signed several star freshmen.

7. Maryland. When Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith adjusted their ambitions and decided to return to College Park, the Terrapins became an instant Final Four contender. A senior, Cowan averaged 15.6 points per game last year for head coach Mark Turgeon. A sophomore, Smith averaged 6.8 rebounds.

8. Memphis. Under regular circumstances, this ranking would be too high for such a young team. But Calipari changed all that and now his former employer is on the same track thanks to Penny Hardaway. There’s 7-foot freshman James Wiseman to lead the way.

Memphis freshman James Wiseman finished his high school career as the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the 247Sports Composite Rankings. Tracy Glantz

9. Texas Tech. Not exactly a historical heavyweight, Texas Tech made a Cinderella run to last year’s title game before losing to Virginia. Davide Moretti, who averaged 11.5 points per game, should lead the Red Raiders this year. But Tech’s success is based on defense, thanks to head coach Chris Beard. That won’t change.

10. North Carolina. Roy Williams’ top five scorers from last year’s team are gone from Chapel Hill. Enter Cole Anthony, the 6-3 freshman whom Williams has said “may be the most complete point guard I’ve ever recruited.” With plenty of inexperience around him, how far can Anthony take the Tar Heels?

11. Seton Hall. One player can only take you so far, but when that player is Myles Powell you could go far. A volume scorer who averaged 23.1 points per game, the 6-2 Powell will be helped the by the return of top rebounder Sandro Mamukelashvili.

Myles Powell led Seton Hall in scoring at 23.1 points per game last season. John Minchillo AP

12. Virginia. Tony Bennett’s team turned grit into gold last year by winning the national title. The heart of that team moved on to the NBA, but Bennett does have Mamadi Diakite, a star in last season’s Big Dance. Look for former Alabama player Braxton Key to have a bigger role in his second season with the Cavaliers.

13. Florida State. At age 71, former UK assistant Leonard Hamilton has become the wise old owl of college basketball. Somehow Hamilton finds a way to consistently get his Seminoles into the Big Dance, and that shouldn’t change this year. Senior guard Trent Forrest is the top Seminole.

14. Marquette. When star guard Markus Howard announced he was returning to Milwaukee, the Golden Eagles seemed to have the makings of a top-five team. Then the brothers Hauser hit the bricks. Joey transferred to Michigan State. Sam left for Virginia. Steve Wojciechowski’s team will be good, just not as good.

15. Washington. Mike Hopkins lost some big-time talent off last year’s Pac-12 title team, but the Huskies did pick up a star freshman in Isaiah Stewart, who turned down Kentucky, among others, to make Seattle home. Stewart and fellow freshman Jaden McDaniels should make Washington the class of the conference again.

16. Purdue. Carsen Edwards is gone, but Matt Painter has enough talent around to get the Boilermakers back in the Top 25. Junior center Matt Haarms, who stands 7-3, should be Purdue’s leader but sophomore Nojel Eastern will have a bigger role after averaging 5.5 rebounds as a rookie.

Matt Haarms, a 7-foot-3 junior from the Netherlands, averaged 9.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game for Purdue last season. Michael Conroy AP

17. Cincinnati. Big news with the Bearcats involved one who stayed and one who arrived. AAC Player of the Year Jarron Cumberland decided to stay in the Queen City for his senior year, which was great news for new coach John Brannen, who led Northern Kentucky to a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances.

18. Baylor. Scott Drew guided the Bears to the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament and Baylor could advance deeper this time. The key will be the return of Tristan Clark, a 6-9 forward who averaged 14.3 points per game before a knee injury ended his season.

19. Gonzaga. Heavy graduation losses hit the Zags, but Mark Few’s 2019-20 prospects could depend on the health of Killian Tillie. The 6-10 senior averaged 12.9 points and 5.9 rebounds in 2017-18 but has had a hard time staying on the floor since. Match a healthy Tillie and Few’s winning culture, and Gonzaga will be back in the hunt again.

20. Utah State. The Aggies would like to build off the momentum of last season’s 28-7 mark and NCAA bid. A 6-5 senior, Sam Merrill should lead the way after averaging 20.9 points per game last year. Seven-foot sophomore Neemias Queta is back after averaging 8.9 rebounds per game.

21. Houston. It’s not Phi Slamma Jamma, but Kelvin Sampson’s brand of hardball has paid off handsomely for the Cougars. AAC Sixth Man of the Year DeJon Jarreau will have a bigger role for Houston, who got good news when ex-Kansas guard Quentin Grimes was given an NCAA waiver to play this season.

22. Western Kentucky. Rick Stansbury can recruit. The former Mississippi State coach not only got Charles Bassey to come to Bowling Green, he got the 6-11 sophomore to postpone the NBA and remain a Hilltopper another season after averaging 14.6 points and 10 rebounds.

Western Kentucky’s 6-foot-11 center, Charles Bassey, entered but later withdrew from the 2019 NBA Draft, making the Hilltoppers an instant contender in 2019-20. Austin Anthony AP

23. Villanova. After winning two national titles in three years, Nova suffered the inevitable decline last year, falling to 26-10. Jay Wright is making his way back, however, thanks to some key returnees and a good freshman class. Freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is expected to play a key role.

24. St. Mary’s: Jordan Ford, who averaged 21.1 points per game, and Malik Fitts, a transfer from South Florida who averaged 7.6 rebounds per game last season, should keep Randy Bennett’s club on the heels of Gonzaga in the WCC.

25. Auburn. Bruce Pearl keeps sliding off that Teflon skillet. Two years ago, it looked like the Auburn coach would be fired thanks to another NCAA scandal. Last year, Pearl took the Tigers to their first-ever Final Four. Plenty of key pieces are missing from that team, but Pearl remains. Don’t count Auburn out.


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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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