Ranking College Basketball's Top 10 Conferences for the 2019-20 Season
With the start of the 2019-20 college basketball season rapidly approaching, we've put together a definitive ranking of the 10 best conferences.
OK, maybe it's not definitive and is instead extremely subjective. Even the idea of what makes one conference better than another varies from one analyst to the next. Is it based on championship potential? Depth of tournament candidates? Lack of cannon fodder?
For us, it's a delicate balance of all three.
For instance, the ACC has two of the projected best teams in the nation in Duke and Louisville, as well as two other teams with obvious Final Four potential in North Carolina and Virginia. It should be the most top-heavy conference and would be expected to win any sort of round-robin tournament pitting the four best teams of each league against one another.
But the ACC doesn't have much of anything beyond that and may only be a five-bid league. Moreover, the basement of the conference—Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Pittsburgh, Boston College and Clemson—could be awful.
Where do you rank that against the deep SEC, the loaded Big Ten and a Big 12 that isn't as strong as usual, but where no team should be all that bad?
In addition to ranking the conferences, we'll be taking a deeper look at each conference's projected champion, a sleeper candidate, POY favorites, key freshmen and transfers and the coach on the hottest seat, just for good measure.
Note: In the "NCAA Tournament Candidates" section of each conference, teams are listed alphabetically.
10. Mountain West Conference
NCAA Tournament Candidates: New Mexico, San Diego State, Utah State
Championship Favorite: Utah State Aggies
After transitioning from the WAC to the MWC and putting together five consecutive years of .500-ish basketball, Utah State took a huge step forward last season, winning 28 games and earning a single-digit seed in the NCAA tournament (No. 8) for the first time in program history.
Now, it's time to build on that success.
The Aggies bring back their top four scorers, meaning they'll still have one of the best inside-outside duos in the nation in Sam Merrill and Neemias Queta. With that fearsome twosome, they should have a Gonzaga type of season, dominating what is otherwise an inferior conference and spending perhaps the entire year in the AP Top 25.
Sleeper to Watch: Nevada Wolf Pack
The whole starting five graduated. The McDonald's All-American freshman (Jordan Brown) transferred to Arizona. The head coach (Eric Musselman) left for Arkansas. Aside from sharpshooter Jazz Johnson, nothing about this team looks the same.
But the Wolf Pack get three-year starting point guard Lindsey Drew back from a torn Achilles, they add a quality transfer in former Louisiana Tech guard Jalen Harris, and they signed a coach (Steve Alford) who thrived in this conference once upon a time. They won't quite challenge Utah State for first place, but a full-fledged fall from grace is hardly a guarantee here.
Freshman to Watch: Emmanuel Kuac, New Mexico
The Mountain West Conference did not sign a 5-star or a 4-star recruit from this year's class, but New Mexico's Canadian import, Emmanuel Kuac, could be a game-changer. On a roster practically overflowing with former major-conference transfers—Carlton Bragg Jr., Vance Jackson, JaQuan Lyle, JJ Caldwell, Corey Manigault and Vante Hendrix—the 6'6" freshman wing with rim-rattling hops could be the glue that brings this team together for its first tournament appearance since 2014.
Most Noteworthy Transfer: KJ Feagin and Malachi Flynn, San Diego State
With a nod to UNM's Lyle, this new pair of scoring guards is what will get the Aztecs into the big dance. Feagin averaged 17.5 points and 4.0 assists with Santa Clara two years ago. Flynn put up similar numbers (15.8 PPG, 4.3 APG) with Washington State in 2017-18, and his 1.6 steals will be a major asset on defense.
Top Wooden Award Candidate: Sam Merrill, Utah State
Merrill had to shoulder a heavier load last season after backcourt running mate Koby McEwen transferred to Marquette, but he rose to the occasion by ranking second in the conference in scoring at 20.9 points per game. If he can get back to hitting threes like he did in his first two seasons with the Aggies (46.0 percent), Merrill will be one of the top five scorers in the nation. Doesn't hurt that he's the leader of the best team in the conference, either.
Coach on the Hot Seat: Jean Prioleau, San Jose State
Four wins last year. Four wins two years ago. Even though Prioleau inherited a roster gutted by transfers and the pressure to succeed at San Jose State isn't exactly what it is at a school like UCLA or Kentucky, you can't keep winning four games in a season and expect to keep your job for long.
9. West Coast Conference
NCAA Tournament Candidates: BYU, Gonzaga, Saint Mary's
Championship Favorite: Saint Mary's Gaels
Gonzaga will be ranked higher in the preseason polls, but Saint Mary's is an old team with the potential to do something special. Aside from center Jordan Hunter, everyone from last season is back, and the Gaels are in a great position to replace Hunter with Seattle transfer Aaron Menzies. The 7'3" giant from the UK averaged 11.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 27 minutes per game two years ago and should be an upgrade on Hunter if he has fully recovered from the hand ligaments injuries that kept him out last year.
The real stars for Saint Mary's are Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts, who combined for more than 36 points per game last year, despite the team's snail-like pace of play. Both guys (and Tanner Krebs) are excellent three-point options, which is where the addition of Menzies most comes into play. Similar to Kansas in recent years when Udoka Azubuike has been healthy, defenses will have to pick their poison between defending the many proficient shooters or double-teaming a dunking machine.
Uncertainty with Gonzaga is the main reason for this pick, though. The Bulldogs lost four starters, and as we'll mention shortly, a crucial piece of this year's rotation is already a question mark due to injury. The Zags have earned at least a share of 18 of the past 19 regular-season titles, but this could be the year Saint Mary's breaks through.
Sleeper to Watch: Santa Clara Broncos
Picking a sleeper in the West Coast Conference is like throwing a dart at a wall with no dartboard. BYU, Gonzaga and Saint Mary's are the only WCC teams to play in the NCAA tournament in the past decade, and that figures to continue for at least one more season. But Santa Clara gets back all five of last year's leading scorers and adds an intriguing sat-a-year transfer in former Wake Forest forward DJ Mitchell. In Herb Sendek's fourth year as head coach there, something could be brewing.
Freshman to Watch: Drew Timme, Gonzaga
Rated by the 247Sports composite as the No. 43 overall recruit in this year's class, this 6'10" center was already bound to be a key contributor for the Zags. But with Killian Tillie undergoing knee surgery earlier this month—this after he missed most of last season due to foot/ankle injuries—Timme may well be a starter from day one.
Most Noteworthy Transfer: Admon Gilder, Gonzaga
Gonzaga lost four double-digit scorers from last season, leaving Corey Kispert (8.0 PPG) as the top returning scorer. This team needs a few new "just go get me a bucket" guards, and Gilder should slide right into that role. After two years of watching Tyler Davis and Robert Williams steal the spotlight at Texas A&M, this former top-100 recruit is ready to be the star.
Top Wooden Award Candidate: Yoeli Childs, BYU
If Tillie manages to play 30 or more games, he's the guy for this spot. If not, BYU's double-double specialist should be the WCC's best player. Childs has racked up at least 600 points and 300 rebounds in each of the past two seasons. He averaged 21.2 points and 9.7 rebounds last year.
Coach on the Hot Seat: Terry Porter, Portland
Portland hasn't won 20 games in a season since 2010-11. It hasn't played in the NCAA tournament since 1996. But it has gone from bad to worse under Porter, dropping from 12 wins the season before hiring him to 11, 10 and seven over the past three years. Worse yet, the Pilots are 6-46 in WCC play under Porter, including a winless 2018-19 season. They don't need to make the NCAA tournament to save his job, but they do at least need to show some signs of life.
8. Atlantic 10
NCAA Tournament Candidates: Davidson, Dayton, St. Bonaventure, VCU
Championship Favorite: VCU Rams
It's a 1A/1B deal between VCU and Davidson, each of which retains four double-digit scorers and doesn't lose anyone of particular consequence. But if that means both teams keep the status quo, advantage VCU, which finished the regular season on a 12-game winning streak to claim the regular-season title. (Although VCU did lose to Davidson in their only head-to-head game.)
The Rams flexed their muscles on defense, and the return of Marcus Evans to lead a senior-heavy backcourt should ensure that remains the case in 2019-20. Evans was no Briante Weber, but he did average 2.0 steals per game, leading VCU in that category, as well as points and assists.
Sleeper to Watch: Rhode Island Rams
After losing five key seniors and head coach Dan Hurley, Rhode Island's 2018-19 season would best be described as "understandably inconsistent." The Rams had a few impressive victories, including taking two out of three from VCU, but it wasn't until a six-game winning streak that bled into the A-10 tournament that they showed an ability to win on a regular basis. That late momentum could carry over to the new season, considering six of the top seven scorers return.
Freshman to Watch: Nah'Shon Hyland, VCU
The A-10 only landed two of the top 150 players in this year's class—"Bones" Hyland at VCU and Tre Mitchell at Massachusetts. The Minutemen don't figure to be relevant, so the Rams' backup point guard gets the nod here. He probably won't get a ton of run this year with three senior guards in the projected starting lineup, but quality depth is always good to have.
Most Noteworthy Transfer: Rodney Chatman, Dayton
A versatile asset for a Chattanooga team that didn't have much else, Chatman averaged 13.3 points, 4.5 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game in 2017-18. He won't be the main ball-handler for the Flyers—that honor belongs to Jalen Crutcher—but Chatman will give them a solid dual-combo-guard starting backcourt.
Top Wooden Award Candidate: Jon Axel Gudmundsson, Davidson
Tough call between Gudmundsson and teammate Kellan Grady here. The latter has more NBA potential than anyone in the conference, but "J.A.G." is a stat-sheet stuffer who became a much more assertive piece of the offense last season. The Icelandic star finally got his first triple-double against Rhode Island in late February, and more are coming.
Coach on the Hot Seat: Chris Mooney, Richmond
Fordham's Jeff Neubauer (34-61 over the past three seasons) is a close runner-up here, but Richmond's fans are beyond fed up with Mooney. Some even came together to rent a "Fire Mooney" billboard on I-95 this past February. After consecutive NCAA tournament appearances in 2010-11, it was six years of mediocrity followed by back-to-back 20-loss seasons. And with Blake Francis (17.3 PPG at Wagner) joining a Spiders roster returning its six leading scorers, it's a serious now-or-never year for Mooney.
NCAA Tournament Candidates (Likely / Potential): Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Oregon, Washington / Oregon State, UCLA, USC, Utah
Championship Favorite: Arizona Wildcats
Take a four-sided die, label those sides "Arizona," "Colorado," "Oregon" and "Washington" and let it fly. That's about where we're at in trying to decide which of the Pac-12's borderline Sweet 16 candidates is most likely to win the conference.
Washington is loaded with young talent, but it also only has one returning player (Naz Carter) who averaged at least 3.0 points per game last season. Similar story for Oregon, which is surrounding senior point guard Payton Pritchard with five top-100 recruits, a noteworthy D-I transfer to be mentioned shortly and a JUCO star (Chris Duarte). And Colorado looks the best on paper, but, come on, the Buffaloes haven't even earned a share of a regular-season title since before we landed on the damn moon for the first time (1969).
So, almost by default, Arizona seems like the favorite, despite missing the tournament last year in what was one of its worst seasons of the past 35 years. The Wildcats have four returning players who logged significant minutes, picked up a dandy of a transfer in Max Hazzard and put together a recruiting class on par with Oregon and Washington. Nico Mannion and Josh Green help lead Arizona back to a Pac-12 title.
Sleeper to Watch: Oregon State Beavers
In the eight years that I have been with Bleacher Report, I'm fairly confident Oregon State has been my preseason Pac-12 sleeper pick more often than not, and the lone time it actually panned out in the slightest was the 2015-16 season. But the Beavers only lost one starter from an 18-win team, and they still have one more year of Tres Tinkle, who put up 20.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.7 steals per game last season. Do you know how many returning players averaged at least 20.0, 8.0, 3.0 and 1.0, respectively? If you guessed one, you're correct.
Freshman to Watch: Isaiah Stewart, Washington
At a time when even players taller than 7'0" are expected to have an outside game, Stewart feels like a throwback to the Charles Barkley era of big men. Stewart (6'9") is three inches taller than Barkley, but he is built like a bull and has a 7'4" wingspan that helps make him one of the best offensive rebounders in recent history. Expect to see an awful lot of "grown man" moments from this 18-year-old.
Most Noteworthy Transfer: Shakur Juiston, Oregon
After two years of destroying JUCO opponents at Hutchinson C.C., Juiston went to UNLV and averaged a double-double (14.6 PPG, 10.0 RPG) as a junior in 2017-18. A meniscus injury cut short his senior year, but it happened early enough that he was able to redshirt and transfer to Oregon, where he will join forces with 5-star freshmen N'Faly Dante and CJ Walker to replenish a depleted frontcourt.
Top Wooden Award Candidate: Tyler Bey, Colorado
Bey is the biggest reason Colorado looks so good on paper. He averaged 20.6 points, 15.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per 40 minutes last season and is the only non-freshman from the Pac-12 frequently showing up in the first round of 2020 NBA mock drafts. He had 17 double-doubles last season, and he's the anchor of a unit bringing back its entire primary seven-man rotation.
Coach on the Hot Seat: Jerod Haase, Stanford
Some power-conference team was inevitably going to hand the reins to Jerod Haase during the 2016 offseason. UAB improved in each of its four seasons under his tutelage, culminating in a program-record 26 wins in 2015-16. Stanford probably thought it was hitting the jackpot when it kicked Johnny Dawkins to the curb and brought in Haase.
Instead, he has a 48-49 record through three seasons and has done nothing to improve the trajectory of this program. He lost three non-seniors from the primary rotation this offseason when KZ Okpala declared for the draft and Cormac Ryan and Marcus Sheffield transferred. Unless the Cardinal surprise everyone by making the NCAA tournament, Haase is probably gone.
6. American Athletic Conference
NCAA Tournament Candidates: Cincinnati, Houston, Memphis, South Florida
Championship Favorite: Memphis Tigers
Unless it's Duke or Kentucky, you rarely see a team lose five of its six leading scorers and enter the following season as the clear favorite to win its conference. But Penny Hardaway put together the No. 1 recruiting class—not just in the AAC; in the entire nation—and is ready to bring this program back to its Calipari-era level of greatness.
Memphis signed seven of the top 115 players in the nation, including 5-star studs James Wiseman and Precious Achiuwa. Hardaway also flipped top-40 overall combo guard Boogie Ellis from Duke, which was arguably even more of a monumental moment in recruiting history than signing the top player (Wiseman).
There may be some serious hiccups on account of the fact that former Kansas State/JUCO transfer Isaiah Maurice is the only junior or senior on the roster, but no team in this conference can even hold a candle to the amount of talent the Tigers have. They'll find a way to win at least 15 games in league play and will earn a No. 5 seed or better in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009.
Sleeper to Watch: South Florida Bulls
Neither ESPN's Joe Lunardi nor CBS Sports' Jerry Palm has South Florida in his preseason bracket projection, but Brian Gregory clearly has this program pointed in the right direction. After bottoming out with three consecutive seasons of single-digit win totals, the Bulls went from 10 wins in 2017-18 to 24 last year—and they did so with three sophomores, four freshmen and just one senior among their 10 leading scorers. The returning backcourt duo of David Collins and Laquincy Rideau combined for 29.3 points, 8.5 assists and 5.0 steals per game.
Freshman to Watch: James Wiseman, Memphis
The top recruit in this year's class and the early favorite for the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA draft, Wiseman is the main reason Memphis is a borderline preseason top-10 team. We've referred to a lot of players as "unicorns" in the past few years, but this 7'1" lefty might be the rarest force of nature yet. His combination of dunking and blocking prowess will ensure he's a staple on highlight reels all season.
Most Noteworthy Transfer: Quentin Grimes, Houston(?)
We've been waiting all summer to find out if Grimes will be ruled immediately eligible...and we're still waiting. If the former 5-star Kansas Jayhawk is allowed to play, Houston will join with Memphis and Cincinnati to make quite a trio atop this conference's standings. If Grimes has to sit out this season, slot South Florida's Zack Dawson in this spot. The 4-star point guard only appeared in five games off the bench with Oklahoma State, and he's ready for a second start to his college career.
Top Wooden Award Candidate: Jarron Cumberland, Cincinnati
Wiseman probably belongs here, if only because he has been hyped to the point where even casual college basketball fans already know his name. But Cumberland broke out in a big way last season, averaging 18.8 points per game at Cincinnati, which hadn't even had a 14 PPG guy since Sean Kilpatrick graduated in 2014. Cumberland scored nearly twice as many points as any teammate, yet also led the 28-win team in assists. The Bearcats go as far as he carries them.
Coach on the Hot Seat: Tim Jankovich, SMU
Between his nine-game audition during Larry Brown's 2015-16 suspension and his subsequent first season as the head coach, Jankovich led the Mustangs to a 39-5 record. Over the past two seasons, however, he's 32-33 and has lost 12 of his last 16 games. There is not a single senior on this year's roster, but anything less than 20 wins may be cause for a change.
5. Big East
NCAA Tournament Candidates (Likely / Potential): Creighton, Georgetown, Marquette, Seton Hall, Villanova, Xavier / Butler, Providence
Championship Favorite: Villanova Wildcats
Two huge losses in seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, but in typical Jay Wright fashion, the Wildcats are well-positioned to deal with those departures.
Collin Gillespie will become "the man" in this backcourt. Both Jermaine Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree are former highly touted recruits who should benefit from increased playing time as juniors. Saddiq Bey impressed as a freshman and might blossom into a star, a la Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges. And there's plenty of incoming help on the way, even if 5-star shooting guard Bryan Antoine is unable to play at all following offseason shoulder surgery.
Those aren't household names yet, but Villanova finds a way. This team went 14-4 in the Big East in 2017-18, won the national championship, lost all four of its leading scorers and won the league outright at 13-5 the following year. Seton Hall and Xavier have potential, but do you really want to bet against the Wildcats?
Sleeper to Watch: Providence Friars
Providence missed the NCAA tournament last season, snapping a five-year dancing streak. But all seven players who made at least 10 starts will be back. So is Emmitt Holt, who was a key contributor in 2016-17 before abdominal injuries cost him almost two entire seasons. The Friars also picked up Massachusetts transfer Luwane Pipkins, who averaged 21.2 points per game two seasons ago. Let's just say Ed Cooley has done a lot with less than this.
Freshman to Watch: Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Villanova
Most of the recruiting experts expected Robinson-Earl to choose either Kansas or North Carolina, but he was practically built in a lab for Villanova's system. A 6'9" power forward with three-point range and the ability to handle the ball in the open floor, Robinson-Earl should immediately fill the spot in the starting lineup occupied by Paschall over the past two seasons. He probably won't be Villanova's star player right away, but he'll quickly become an indispensable cog in the offensive machine.
Most Noteworthy Transfer: Jayce Johnson / Koby McEwen, Marquette
Marquette's way-too-early championship aspirations took a massive blow when the Hauser brothers transferred out of the program in April. But these two incoming transfers should at least keep the Golden Eagles in the hunt for the NCAA tournament. McEwen averaged 15 points per game in his two seasons with Utah State and should be a good second fiddle to Markus Howard. And Johnson (7'0") provides the big presence in the post that this team has been sorely lacking for the past two years.
Top Wooden Award Candidate: Myles Powell, Seton Hall
Two of the best players in the nation reside in this conference. Both Powell and Marquette's Howard are worthy of preseason first-team All-American honors. But forced to choose just one in this spot, let's roll with Powell solely because Seton Hall's ceiling is higher. Go ahead and mark your calendars for the head-to-head battles on Jan. 11 and Feb. 29, though. They might both go for 40 in one of those games.
Coach on the Hot Seat: LaVall Jordan, Butler
Let's be frank: Jordan was a Band-Aid hire. The Bulldogs lost Chris Holtmann to Ohio State two summers ago, long after the coaching carousel had stopped spinning. Jordan was a quality player for Butler back at the turn of the century, he had some coaching experience and he was willing to leave his post at Milwaukee to fill the opening. He was about the best the program could have hoped for in that situation.
If it worked out, awesome. But early returns haven't been great. After winning 25 games in Holtmann's final season, Butler backed into the NCAA tournament with 21 wins in 2017-18, finished below .500 this past season and is only projected to finish ahead of DePaul and St. John's this year. If an eighth-place finish in the Big East is, in fact, the Bulldogs' destiny, a coaching change will be almost inevitable.
4. Big 12
NCAA Tournament Candidates (Likely / Potential): Baylor, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas Tech / Iowa State, Kansas State, Oklahoma, West Virginia
Championship Favorite: Kansas Jayhawks
It's quite unusual for the Big 12 to be this low in the preseason conference rankings, but sure things are few and far between in this league. Texas Tech lost five key contributors from last year's national runners-up. Baylor lost its leading scorer (Makai Mason) and will be relying heavily upon forward Tristan Clark, who missed most of last season following knee surgery. And those are probably the top two challengers to Kansas.
But at least the Jayhawks look like a legitimate national championship contender. Both Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson could have gone pro, but they'll be back to lead this team. Silvio De Sousa is also back after being held out of the entire 2018-19 season due to eligibility issues. And watch out for Ochai Agbaji as a dark horse for the Big 12 Player of the Year title. His abridged freshman season was a sign of big things to come.
Sleeper to Watch: Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners lost six of their top nine players, but Lon Kruger restocked those shelves nicely with a pair of potential high-impact JUCO transfers (Alondes Williams and Corbin Merritt) and top-50 overall recruit De'Vion Harmon. Depth is a legitimate question mark on this roster, but if two of those three pan out alongside Brady Manek, Kristian Doolittle and breakout-waiting-to-happen Jamal Bieniemy, that's at least a starting five that can go to war with any other lineup in this conference.
Freshman to Watch: Jahmi'us Ramsey, Texas Tech
A big part of the reason the Big 12 doesn't have the look of a top-tier conference this year is that the league did not sign a single 247Sports composite 5-star recruit. There are a trio of freshmen—West Virginia's Oscar Tshiebwe, Texas' Will Baker and Texas Tech's Ramsey—who didn't miss the cut by much, but a glaring lack of can't-miss NBA talent hurts the league's perception as a whole.
Ramsey could be special in a hurry, though, and Texas Tech needs playmaking guards with Jarrett Culver now out of the picture. Junior sniper Davide Moretti will likely open the season as the primary ball-handler, but don't be surprised if Ramsey is running the show by the time conference play rolls around.
Most Noteworthy Transfer: Chris Clarke, Texas Tech
If Clarke is able to rediscover his 2016-17 form, he might be the most important transfer in the country. While with Virginia Tech that season, Clarke averaged 11.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game. He's not an assertive scorer, but the defense, the rebounding and the willingness to distribute should be a crucial combination for a team that needs to plug a lot of holes.
Top Wooden Award Candidate: Devon Dotson, Kansas
It's just a question of which Jayhawk you think belongs here. There are strong cases to be made for both Udoka Azubuike and Ochai Agbaji, but we're going with Dotson since he is the undisputed "quarterback" of this offense now. He averaged 12.3 points and 3.5 assists per game as a freshman, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if he makes a leap to senior-year Devonte' Graham numbers of 17.3 and 7.2, respectively.
Coach on the Hot Seat: Shaka Smart, Texas
It doesn't seem like any Big 12 coach is particularly close to the chopping block, but Smart is probably in the most danger. In his four seasons with the Longhorns, they have missed the NCAA tournament twice and lost in the first round in each of the other two years. They got rid of Rick Barnes because they were tired of mediocrity and early postseason flameouts, so it stands to reason that a half decade of Smart leading them to the same destination is more than a little unacceptable.
3. Atlantic Coast Conference
NCAA Tournament Candidates (Likely / Potential): Duke, Florida State, Louisville, NC State, North Carolina, Virginia / Georgia Tech, Miami, Notre Dame, Syracuse
Championship Favorite: Duke Blue Devils
Tough call between Duke and Louisville, both of which are mortal locks to open the season ranked in the AP Top 10. (North Carolina and Virginia may well land in the preseason Top 10, too.) But let's give the nod to the Blue Devils for one simple reason: point guard.
Louisville has six returning players who averaged at least five points per game while Duke only has one. However, none of those Cardinals racked up at least two assists a night, while Duke's lone marquee returnee (Tre Jones) is easily one of the five most noteworthy point guards in the nation.
Though only a sophomore, Jones will be the veteran leader—along with seniors Javin DeLaurier and Jack White—for a roster that is, per usual, flooded with freshman talent. Louisville is the older, much more established team, but its uncertainty at point guard means Duke gets the slight edge.
Sleeper to Watch: Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Last year spiraled out of control for Notre Dame. After a 10-3 record in nonconference play, the Fighting Irish lost 16 of their final 20 games. But it's not like they were an unmitigated disaster. Of their 19 losses, 11 came by a margin of seven points or fewer. Losing Rex Pflueger to injury 10 games into the season was simply a blow from which the offense never recovered.
Save for D.J. Harvey, everyone is back, including Pflueger for a fifth year. Notre Dame should bounce back for a middle-of-the-pack type of season. It probably won't be anything close to a few years ago when the Fighting Irish went straight from 15-17 to 32-6, but betting against Mike Brey winning 20 games has been a fine way to lose money over the past two decades.
Freshman to Watch: Cole Anthony, North Carolina
If you thought Coby White was fun to watch as a freshman point guard with UNC, just get ready for the Cole Anthony experience. If there's a Trae Young type of backcourt sensation in this year's freshman class, it's this guy.
As was the case with Young at Oklahoma, Anthony should have a permanent green light to flash his wide array of skills, considering North Carolina lost all five of last year's leading scorers—plus Seventh Woods, who would've had the best chance of pushing Anthony for minutes had he not transferred. For UNC's sake, hopefully the addition of graduate transfers Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce will provide Anthony with more scoring options and some veteran leadership if and when the freshman gets into any funks.
Most Noteworthy Transfer: Kameron McGusty and Keith Stone, Miami
McGusty was a top-50 recruit in the 2016 class, but a sophomore slump and a demotion from the starting lineup led to his departure from Oklahoma. Likewise, Stone was a top-100 guy in the 2015 recruiting class who never quite found his fit at Florida, despite a near-40 percent three-point stroke. That pair of transfers could have the same positive effect for Miami that Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez had in 2014-15.
Top Wooden Award Candidate: Jordan Nwora, Louisville
Though Duke is the pick to win the league, Nwora is a great candidate to win the Wooden Award. His late decision to withdraw from NBA draft pool was perhaps the most important one as far as the entire national landscape of college hoops is concerned. Had he bounced, the Cardinals would be a borderline Top 25 team. With him, their national championship potential is undeniable.
After playing sparingly as a freshman (12.0 MPG, zero starts), Nwora was one of the biggest breakout sensations of the 2018-19 season, tripling his scoring average from 5.7 to 17.0 while just about single-handedly carrying what was otherwise an uninspiring Louisville roster. Even if he just maintains the status quo, he's a potential All-American. But if he improves as a junior, look out.
Coach on the Hot Seat: Danny Manning, Wake Forest
It's a minor miracle that Manning still has a job following identical 11-20 records in three of the past four seasons. The Demon Deacons have only had one respectable year under Manning, and even that John Collins-led bunch just barely got into the NCAA tournament with 19 wins. They are nowhere close to competing with the other three ACC schools in North Carolina, and it's hard to imagine Wake Forest will keep him around if that trend continues for another year.
2. Big Ten
NCAA Tournament Candidates (Likely / Potential): Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue / Indiana, Minnesota, Penn State, Rutgers, Wisconsin
Championship Favorite: Michigan State Spartans
Despite losing Nick Ward, Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins from last year's Final Four team, Michigan State is the relatively clear preseason favorite to win the national championship. Getting Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford back as seniors—as well as second-half-of-last-season-breakout-star Xavier Tillman for a junior year—is an almost unfair level of veteran dominance.
On top of that returning corps, freshman combo guard Rocket Watts is going to be a major contributor right away, fellow freshman Malik Hall is going to see a lot of action at power forward, and there's still an outside chance that Marquette transfer Joey Hauser will be ruled immediately eligible.
Add in the fact that Tom Izzo seems to find a diamond or two in the rough on his bench every season, and a healthy Michigan State will be the team to beat once again.
Sleeper to Watch: Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Yeah. Let's get weird, y'all. Rutgers hasn't had a winning record since 2006 and hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 1991, but all bad things must come to an end. If Northwestern could finally make the tourney a few years ago, why not Rutgers?
Beyond the overdue factor, there's some clear talent here. The Scarlet Knights did lose leading scorer Eugene Omoruyi as a transfer to Oregon, but they added former Texas guard Jacob Young and Stony Brook's Akwasi Yeboah—who averaged 16.7 points and 7.7 rebounds per game last year and who was originally recruited to Stony Brook by current Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell.
Rutgers made a noteworthy leap to seven Big Ten wins last year, this after opening their Big Ten stay with four consecutive years of three wins or fewer. Maybe Geo Baker and Co. can make another push to a .500 record.
Freshman to Watch: Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana
As with the Big 12, nary a 5-star freshman in this year's Big Ten. But Trayce Jackson-Davis was a McDonald's All-American who opted to remain close to his hometown of Greenwood, Indiana, by signing with the Hoosiers. The big man doesn't profile as quite the force of nature that Thomas Bryant was for two seasons, but he will probably immediately become Indiana's primary post presence.
While we're on the subject of Indiana newbies, look out for redshirt freshman Jerome Hunter. He missed the entire 2018-19 with a leg injury that eventually necessitated surgery, but he's back now and could be a star for the Hoosiers. Replacing Romeo Langford and Juwan Morgan won't be easy, but Archie Miller has some quality new options.
Most Noteworthy Transfer: Jahaad Proctor, Purdue
After losing both Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline, Matt Painter had to find a guard willing and able to take a lot of shots and log a ton of minutes. This High Point graduate transfer fits the bill. Proctor averaged 19.5 points in 34.6 minutes per game last season. If he can bring anything close to that level of production to Purdue, he'll be the sizzle to complement a Matt Haarms and Trevion Williams frontcourt that might be the best in the Big Ten.
Top Wooden Award Candidate: Cassius Winston, Michigan State
Winston might not be the unanimous preseason national player of the year, but he's certainly the consensus. He was the Big Ten POY last year, averaging 18.8 points and 7.5 assists per game. That included a 20-point, 10-assist performance in the Elite Eight victory over Duke—which, of course, didn't even factor into his regular-season accolades.
Excluding Jalan West, who endured countless injuries after his junior year and was never the same again, the only other player in the past 15 years to average at least 18 points and 7.5 assists and actually return for another season was Kay Felder. Oakland's pint-sized phenom put up 18.1 and 7.6 as a sophomore, then came back and went for 24.4 and 9.3 as a junior. If Winston has that type of spike in his senior year, Michigan State could go 40-0.
Coach on the Hot Seat: Pat Chambers, Penn State
Chambers has to be the world-record holder for longest time spent on the hot seat. He has been at Penn State for eight years with a 127-140 record and no NCAA tournament appearances. For five straight seasons, we've been waiting on the inevitable termination notice that never comes.
Improved recruiting has been the biggest argument for keeping him around in recent years. That and the "If you get rid of Chambers, can you actually sign an upgrade?" debate for a program that has never been particularly relevant in college basketball. However, this year's class leaves a lot to be desired, so unless Lamar Stevens somehow wills the Nittany Lions to the big dance, this has to be it for Chambers, right?
1. Southeastern Conference
NCAA Tournament Candidates (Likely / Potential): Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Tennessee / Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri, South Carolina
Championship Favorite: Kentucky Wildcats
Breaking news, I know, but Kentucky has some quality freshmen. Tyrese Maxey, Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks are all 5-star guys, and Johnny Juzang is one of the highest-rated 4-star recruits.
The ridiculous part is there's a good chance only one of those four freshmen actually starts for the Wildcats.
Don't worry. We're not going to propose the dreaded P word (platoons). But with Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley back as potential starters in the backcourt and with Bucknell graduate transfer Nate Sestina joining a frontcourt of EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards, there's plenty of non-freshman talent on John Calipari's roster, too.
Regardless of who is on the floor for the opening tip, this should be the best nine-man rotation in the country.
Sleeper to Watch: Arkansas Razorbacks
The Razorbacks lost star big man Daniel Gafford from an 18-win team, but they hired former Nevada head coach Eric Musselman and supplied him with the type of roster that he thrived with in the Mountain West Conference. No one is taller than 6'8", but just about everyone rebounds a little bit, and there are a handful of excellent shooters, most notably sophomore Isaiah Joe. The competition is a lot stiffer for Musselman, but this team could win nine or 10 SEC games and sneak into the dance.
Freshman to Watch: Anthony Edwards, Georgia
Tom Crean put together an incredible class by Georgia's standards, boasting five of the top 105 players in the 247Sports composite. And there's no question that the star of the bunch is Anthony Edwards. Cut from the same cloth as Arizona's Stanley Johnson in 2014-15, Edwards is a freight train masquerading as a guard. He's going to muscle his way to a lot of buckets and highlights.
The unknown for Georgia is whether it will be enough, given last year's 11-21 record and minimal supply of returning production. We could be headed for a return to the days of Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz when the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft comes from a team that doesn't even make the NCAA tournament.
Most Noteworthy Transfer: Kerry Blackshear Jr., Florida
Tip o' the hat to Sestina as a strong runner-up here, but Blackshear was the best transfer on the move this offseason. Serving as Virginia Tech's only legitimate frontcourt presence, he averaged 15.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists last year. And this 6'10" forward is a matchup nightmare because of his ability to stretch the floor. He is the reason the Hokies beat Duke in late February and the reason they almost upset the Blue Devils again in the Sweet 16. He will be Florida's biggest star and a borderline Wooden candidate.
Top Wooden Award Candidate: Ashton Hagans, Kentucky
Per usual, this is just a game of "Pick a Wildcat." Maybe you like Maxey or Whitney for this spot as freshmen. Perhaps Montgomery makes up for a disappointing freshman campaign by becoming an eater of worlds as a sophomore. Or if Sestina does what Reid Travis did as a graduate transfer last year, he's a good candidate, too.
But Hagans is the leader of this bunch, fresh off a season with 30 starts in which he averaged 7.7 points, 4.3 assists and 1.6 steals. Even though he's not a great shooter, the scoring should improve, considering Kentucky lost a quartet of double-digit scorers. Pair that with his elite defense for a title contender, and you've got a star player everyone will be talking about.
Coach on the Hot Seat: Cuonzo Martin, Missouri
It might be premature to put Martin in this spot, but we're also talking about a guy who has yet to stay anywhere for longer than three seasons. He left Missouri State, Tennessee and California on his own terms, but Missouri might be the one making the decision this time if he leads the Tigers to another sub-.500 season. Jeremiah Tilmon and Mark Smith ought to be enough to prevent that, though.