Jeff Goodman, ESPN Insider 774d

Duke's crop of young talent stands above all

Men's College Basketball, Duke Blue Devils, Kansas Jayhawks, Kentucky Wildcats, Villanova Wildcats, Louisville Cardinals, North Carolina Tar Heels, Virginia Cavaliers, Xavier Musketeers, Arizona Wildcats, Oregon Ducks, Connecticut Huskies, Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan State Spartans, Indiana Hoosiers, NC State Wolfpack, San Diego State Aztecs, Gonzaga Bulldogs, Syracuse Orange, Saint Mary's Gaels, Florida Gators, Purdue Boilermakers, Dayton Flyers, West Virginia Mountaineers, UCLA Bruins, Baylor Bears

A year ago, there was no overwhelming favorite, no powerhouse that tore through everyone. Duke was mediocre, at least by recent Duke standards. Ditto for Kentucky. Villanova wound up cutting down the nets without a surefire NBA player on its roster.

This season the blue bloods are back -- and loaded. Look for Duke, Kansas and Kentucky to soak up the wins -- and the majority of the headlines.

The day Josh Hart decided to return to school, Villanova became a legit contender to repeat. But no, not the favorite. That honor belongs to the Blue Devils, who are deep and ultra-talented this season after Mike Krzyzewski found a way to land arguably the top two players in the country in Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum. Oh yeah, Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson are also back.

The gap from Duke to the next tier isn't significant, especially with Giles' history of knee issues.

Kentucky brings in a similar level of young talent, but the Wildcats don't have a player of Allen's caliber returning. Instead, John Calipari has Isaiah Briscoe and Derek Willis, a couple of nice players. Kansas has an experienced backcourt and added maybe the toughest frosh in the nation in wing Josh Jackson.

Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Villanova. The prohibitive favorites entering the season. On paper. We'll see what happens on the court.

Here below are's preseason power rankings. This year, it was not a committee, but a committee of one. So don't blame everyone else if you disagree, just blame me.

No. 1: Duke Blue Devils

The Blue Devils are the clear-cut preseason favorite because of talent as well as the blend of youth and experience. When Grayson Allen decided to return to Durham for his junior campaign, that cemented Duke as No. 1. Amile Jefferson is back and healthy -- and Coach K brought in arguably the top freshman class -- which includes Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Frank Jackson. The key will be point guard play (whether Jackson can adjust to being more of a facilitator) and the health of Giles, who has battled numerous knee injuries.


No. 2: Kansas Jayhawks

The Jayhawks lost a ton of players from last season's team but should be better this season. It starts with the veteran backcourt of Frank Mason III and Devonte' Graham and continues with tough, physical freshman wing Josh Jackson. Carlton Bragg should slide into Perry Ellis' spot, and Landen Lucas is solid up front. There's also no shortage of quality depth in Lawrence. One concern, though, might be perimeter shooting, where Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk is the team's top perimeter threat.


No. 3: Kentucky Wildcats

Yep, there's another crop of heralded and talented freshmen in Lexington -- not exactly breaking news. This group is long and ultra-athletic and should be a ton of fun to watch. Bam Adebayo is capable of a double-double every night, Malik Monk could go for 30, and De'Aaron Fox is a ridiculously fast point guard. Toss in holdovers Isaiah Briscoe and Derek Willis, and this team should have a chance to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. The question for John Calipari, though, is perimeter shooting from his guards.


No. 4: Villanova Wildcats

It won't be easy for Jay Wright to replace Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu -- a pair of team-first guys -- from last year's national championship team. But he returns three starters -- Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Jalen Brunson -- and three more who played key roles a year ago in Phil Booth, Mikal Bridges and Darryl Reynolds. The loss of freshman big man Omari Spellman, who wasn't cleared to play this season by the NCAA, will have an impact.


No. 5: Louisville Cardinals

Rick Pitino lost three starters -- Damion Lee, Trey Lewis and Chinanu Onuaku -- but the Cardinals should be a fixture again in the top 25. Quentin Snider returns at the point, and the wings are talented, with Donovan Mitchell, Deng Adel and freshman V.J. King. There's no shortage of options up front with guys like Jaylen Johnson, Ray Spalding, Anas Mahmoud and the return of Mangok Mathiang.


No. 6: North Carolina Tar Heels

The Tar Heels lost Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, but return three starters -- Joel Berry II, Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks -- from last year's team that was within a basket of winning the national title. Roy Williams also brings back key reserves Isaiah Hicks, Theo Pinson (currently injured) and Nate Britt, so UNC should have a chance to compete for another Final Four berth.


No. 7: Virginia Cavaliers

Tony Bennett. Those two words have given the Cavaliers instant credibility. UVa is 89-19 overall and 45-9 in ACC play over the past three years under him. Sure, Malcolm Brogdon is gone, but Virginia still has senior floor leader London Perrantes. Plus, Bennett will add the services of former Memphis forward Austin Nichols, one of the best frontcourt players in the country.


No. 8 Xavier Musketeers

The Musketeers won't be able to sneak up on people as they did last season. Coach Chris Mack brings back leading scorer Trevon Bluiett and the starting backcourt of Edmond Sumner and Myles Davis (he is currently suspended indefinitely). Look for Norfolk State transfer RaShid Gaston to step in and ease the loss of James Farr and Jalen Reynolds up front. Xavier should challenge Villanova for Big East supremacy.


No. 9: Arizona Wildcats

Sean Miller's team could be better than a year ago despite losing three starters, but it hinges on the eligibility concerns regarding Allonzo Trier. The Wildcats brought in a talented freshman class that includes point guard Kobi Simmons, skilled Finnish big man Lauri Markkanen and wing Rawle Alkins. Still, Trier is the team's one proven scorer.


No. 10: Oregon Ducks

This one largely depends on the health of Dillon Brooks, who missed the entire summer after foot surgery. Dana Altman has other quality players: guard Tyler Dorsey, long and athletic shot-blocker Chris Boucher and starting point guard Casey Benson, who had a stellar 5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio last season. But if Brooks isn't close to 100 percent, the Ducks aren't close to the same team.


No. 11: UConn Huskies

Guards win in college basketball, and Kevin Ollie will have a pair of point guards who can play in sophomore Jalen Adams and freshman Alterique Gilbert. Talented VCU transfer Terry Larrier is eligible and has pro potential. Plus, Rodney Purvis is back. The key is up front where the Huskies could use someone who can be a factor on the offensive end.


No. 12: Wisconsin Badgers

The Badgers return everyone of note from last year's Sweet 16 team. The trio of Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ does the bulk of the scoring, and Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter are vital to the success. These guys were playing to help get then-interim coach Greg Gard the permanent gig a year ago, and it worked.


No. 13: Michigan State Spartans

Denzel Valentine is gone. So are Bryn Forbes, Matt Costello and even Deyonta Davis. Tom Izzo will reload, and do it with the help of a talented freshman class that features combo forward Miles Bridges. However, there are questions: Will fellow frosh Cassius Winston be able to step in immediately and run the team? Does Izzo have enough up front after a couple of injuries to Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling? Will Eron Harris be reliable as a go-to guy? My money is on Izzo figuring it all out.


No. 14: Indiana Hoosiers

The Yogi Ferrell era is over, and now it'll be up to Tom Crean to find a point guard situation that works in Bloomington. The Hoosiers have plenty of offense still with James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson on the perimeter and Thomas Bryant in the post. OG Anunoby could have a breakout season and gives IU that defensive toughness.


No. 15: NC State Wolfpack

Mark Gottfried will have his most talented team since arriving in Raleigh. He'll have stud freshman point guard Dennis Smith Jr., plenty of wings with Maverick Rowan, Terry Henderson and Torin Dorn and no shortage of quality bigs with Omer Yurtseven, Abdul-Malik Abu and BeeJay Anya.


No. 16: San Diego State Aztecs

The Aztecs won 28 games a season ago, but found themselves in the NIT for the first time in seven years. Steve Fisher's team should get back to the NCAA tournament with a core that includes guards Trey Kell and Jeremy Hemsley, talented wing Malik Pope and enough up front with guys like Zylan Cheatham and transfers Max Hoetzel and Valentine Izundu.


No. 17: Gonzaga Bulldogs

The question won't be whether Mark Few's team can put up points, but whether it will defend. Few will likely start a trio of transfers: Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington) at the point, Jordan Mathews (Cal) on the wing and Johnathan Williams III (Missouri) on the front line. Big man Przemek Karnowski is back, and if he's healthy, the Zags are the favorite to win the WCC.


No. 18: Syracuse Orange

Jim Boeheim lost three starters, but returns Tyler Lydon, and adds a few key transfers in Andrew White (Nebraska), John Gillon (Colorado State) and Paschal Chukwu (Providence) as well as some talented frosh who could help immediately. He also brings back Tyler Roberson, veteran big man DaJuan Coleman and sophomore guard Frank Howard, who should battle Gillon for point guard duties.


No. 19: Saint Mary's Gaels

Randy Bennett and the Gaels return everything of note from last season's team that nearly made the NCAA tournament. Bennett has his usual Aussie flavor, led by underrated point guard Emmett Naar. This team was a surprise a season ago, but won't sneak up on anyone this time, especially with a group loaded with upperclassmen.


No. 20: Florida Gators

It's not easy to figure out who the second-best team in the SEC is, but it looks like it's going to be the Gators. Kasey Hill hasn't lived up to expectations, but he's a senior point guard, and there's enough around him, with wings KeVaughn Allen, transfers Canyon Barry and John Egbunu, and Devin Robinson on the frontline.


No. 21: Purdue Boilermakers

Matt Painter lost A.J. Hammons, but the frontcourt won't be much of an issue with center Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan swallowing up most of the minutes. Vince Edwards is also back, so it comes down to guard play in West Lafayette. The duo of P.J. Thompson and Michigan transfer Spike Albrecht will be the key at the point.


No. 22: Dayton Flyers

Most people are picking Rhode Island to win the A-10, but don't count out the Flyers. Why? Archie Miller's program is 27-9 in the league the past two seasons and made an Elite Eight appearance three years ago. Miller still has Scoochie Smith, Kendall Pollard, Charles Cooke and Kyle Davis. And remember: All four are seniors.


No. 23: West Virginia Mountaineers

Bob Huggins lost some guys, but the Mountaineers' success is largely predicated on their coach and his system. It'll again be a somewhat anonymous group of guards that includes guys such as Daxter Miles Jr., Jevon Carter and Tarik Phillip, who will wreak havoc on opponents.


No. 24: UCLA Bruins

The Bruins were 15-17 last season, but they added two talented freshmen in pass-first point guard Lonzo Ball and skilled forward T.J. Leaf. Throw them in with Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Thomas Welsh, and there's no reason Steve Alford shouldn't have this program back in the NCAA tournament.


No. 25: Baylor Bears

Scott Drew and the Bears have gone to the NCAA tournament four of the past five years and have been at least .500 in the Big 12 in each of the past six seasons. Miami transfer Manu Lecomte will run the show, and he'll have Johnathan Motley up front and veterans in Al Freeman and Ishmail Wainright.


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