Villanova, Michigan and Kansas all made it to the Final Four of the 2018 men's NCAA tournament, and our way-too-early rankings for the 2018-19 season suggest all three could make another deep run next year.
Making early April projections of college basketball rosters is a fool's errand. As always, the next seven weeks will be flooded with news of draft declarations, transfers and late signings of incoming freshmen. And this year, we also have the potential further fallout from the FBI probe.
But the show must go on!
Based on a combination of what we know and reasonable assumptions of who will (and who will not) leave for the NBA, here is our way-too-early ranking of teams for the 2018-19 men's college basketball season:
- North Carolina
- West Virginia
- Florida State
- Kansas State
- Penn State
- Michigan State
- North Carolina State
2019 Title Favorite: No. 1 Villanova Wildcats
If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Villanova has finished in the top six of the AP Top 25 for five consecutive years, earning either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in each of those NCAA tournaments. We can spend a portion of this offseason arguing over whether these Wildcats have become a college basketball dynasty, but the fact of the matter is that no one has been better for the past half-decade.
And here's the ridiculous part: There was not a single senior in this year's primary nine-man rotation.
We're assuming Mikal Bridges will leave for the NBA. There's a good chance Jalen Brunson joins him on that one-year-early journey. But Villanova would still be in great shape, thanks in part to a recruiting class that features three of the top 50 prospects on 247Sports' composite rankings—Jahvon Quinerly, Cole Swider and Brandon Slater.
Even without factoring in any of those incoming freshmen, Villanova would have a starting five of Collin Gillespie, Phil Booth, Donte DiVincenzo, Eric Paschall and Omari Spellman, with both Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Jermaine Samuels providing valuable minutes off the bench.
If Brunson decides to follow in the footsteps of Josh Hart and North Carolina's Joel Berry II by coming back for one final season rather than maybe getting selected at the end of the first round of the draft, even better. He would be the runaway preseason favorite for the Wooden Award, and Villanova would be the near-unanimous preseason No. 1 team.
Dark-Horse Title Candidate: No. 10 Tennessee Volunteers
Tennessee surprised everyone this year.
It's kind of poetic that the Volunteers landed at No. 13 in the final AP poll as well as No. 13 in the KenPom rankings, since they were projected to finish 13th in the SEC. Instead, they won the conference title and got the highest seed among the eight SEC teams who received an invite to the Big Dance.
This was only the beginning, though.
2017-18 was supposed to be a stepping-stone season for the Vols. Save for Howard graduate transfer James Daniel III, there were no seniors on this roster. And aside from Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander, there won't be much of a senior class next year either.
That's because four of this year's five leading scorers were sophomores. Most notable among them, Grant Williams was named the SEC Player of the Year. The big man averaged 15.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game, and he is all but guaranteed to be no worse than a third-team All-American when those preseason lists start publishing in October.
Here's the big question for Tennessee: Will this success translate to wins on the recruiting trail? Head coach Rick Barnes was always able to sign big-name talent when he was at Texas, but that has not been the case thus far in Knoxville. The Volunteers do not yet have a single recruit signed in the 2018 class, whiffing on in-state 5-star point guard Darius Garland.
Top Non-Tournament Team: No. 16 Penn State Nittany Lions
Long before Penn State won the NIT, this was a team destined for a ton of way-too-early love.
Five Nittany Lions averaged at least 10 points per game, but injuries and missed opportunities marred the season. Star big man Mike Watkins (12.1 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 2.3 BPG, 1.0 SPG) missed the final nine games because of a right knee injury. Defensive stalwart Josh Reaves (10.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 3.1 APG, 2.2 SPG) missed four games in January, resulting in three of Penn State's worst losses of the year.
When the Nittany Lions were at full strength, though, they were impressive. From late January through mid-February, they beat Ohio State twice and nearly won road games against both Michigan State and Purdue.
Will everyone come back next season?
They're definitely losing starting shooting guard Shep Garner as a senior and reserve big man Julian Moore, who's a graduate student. But if Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens, Reaves and Watkins all return, that's one heck of a quartet to build around. It could be an even better version of the fearsome foursome that carried Seton Hall to a 14-2 start to this season.
Watkins has already announced that he'll be returning, but Carr is the wild card. He's on the long list of players who might go late in the first round but whose long-term checkbook would probably benefit from one more year of college ball. Penn State should be second in the preseason Big Ten standings if he does come back.
Unranked Draft-Dependent Wild Card: Alabama Crimson Tide
Duke and Kentucky are always the toughest teams to peg in these way-too-early rankings. Between not knowing for sure which of their current players will leave for the NBA draft and not knowing how many of the remaining top recruits they'll sign, projecting their rosters in early April is a shot in the dark.
But the Blue Devils and Wildcats will be Top 10 teams regardless of those decisions.
Alabama, on the other hand, could either be top-10 in the nation or an afterthought in the SEC depending on who goes pro.
If everyone comes back, Alabama is going to be loaded. There were 10 players on this roster who averaged at least 4.0 points per game this season. The only senior in that bunch is Riley Norris, and he might get a fifth year of eligibility since he only appeared in nine games this season. And don't forget about Tevin Mack, who averaged 14.8 points per game two seasons ago with Texas before transferring to Tuscaloosa.
Will everyone come back, though?
The obvious big name here is Collin Sexton. Most everyone assumes the surefire lottery pick will declare for June 21's draft, but that's what we thought about Miles Bridges last year, Ivan Rabb the year before that and Marcus Smart in 2013. There's almost always one huge surprise, and Sexton has not yet declared whether he's going to even test the waters, let alone hire an agent.
If that domino decides to remain with the Crimson Tide, perhaps the rest will follow. But if Sexton skips town, could Herb Jones, John Petty and Donta Hall all join him? Not one of those players is a projected first-round pick, but they all have futures in the pros.
Our assumption is that Sexton leaves, Jones declares without an agent before returning and Petty and Hall decide to come back without even testing the waters. Alabama will end up right back where it started this season: Atop the list of "others receiving votes" in the preseason AP Top 25.
Noteworthy Absences: Purdue Boilermakers and Xavier Musketeers
These were two of the best teams in the country this season. Xavier won the Big East and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. And before Isaac Haas suffered a fractured elbow in the first round, Purdue was a strong candidate to win the title as a No. 2 seed.
The problem is that both of those teams were great because they were loaded with seniors, and neither one is a popular destination for top-notch recruits. In fact, neither Purdue nor Xavier has a top-125 recruit in the 2018 class, and neither has an incoming transfer worth mentioning.
The Boilermakers are losing four of their five leading scorers as seniors, and top player Carsen Edwards is at least testing the NBA draft waters. Even if he does come back, it'll be him, Matt Haarms and a bunch of question marks. Meanwhile, the Musketeers are losing all three of their leading scorers, and they already lost head coach Chris Mack to the Louisville Cardinals.
Because both of those programs have been solid for more than a decade, it wouldn't be a huge surprise if they sneak into the preseason Top 25 seven months from now. Based on what the rosters are looking like, though, they won't deserve it.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports' composite rankings unless otherwise noted.