Your first AP Top 25 of the 2018-19 college basketball season is here:
Let’s break each team down into tiers.
Tier 1: The best of the best (Kansas, Kentucky)
Kansas and Kentucky were the only two teams to earn more than 1,500 points from voters, and it’s easy to see why.
The Jayhawks have talented, proven veterans at every position and also welcome a highly-touted recruiting class. Dedric Lawson is probably Kansas’ best player, but it feels like the Jayhawks have six or seven guys who could lead the team in scoring on a given night. They can overpower you with big lineups. They can outrun you with small lineups. Plus, the Jayhawks have won 14 straight Big 12 titles. The No. 1 ranking is justified.
It was essentially a coin flip with Kentucky, which isn’t experienced by a normal team’s standards, but is old by its own. Reid Travis, P.J. Washington and Quade Green are proven veterans, and John Calipari brings in his usual star-studded recruiting class. This should be the best Wildcats team we’ve seen since 2015.
Tier 2: Right behind them (Gonzaga, Duke)
It was a bit surprising to see Gonzaga ranked third, but it’s probably the right spot for the Bulldogs. Duke is young, and may take some time in figuring out how it should play and who should see the bulk of the minutes. Gonzaga knows exactly what it is: a well-rounded, inside-out offensive machine with shooters and playmakers up and down the lineup. The Bulldogs won 32 games last season and welcome back most key pieces outside of Jonathan Williams and Silas Melson.
Duke, meanwhile, has the highest ceiling in the country. But its top three returning players are, in some order: Marques Bolden, Alex O’Connell and Javin Delaurier. If the freshmen are as good as we expect and one (or more) of those guys becomes a valuable role player, Duke could win it all. But there may be growing pains.
Tier 3: Title contenders, but need X to go right (Virginia, Tennessee, Wichita State, Nevada, North Carolina, Villanova)
These are teams that could reasonably win the national championship but probably need an unexpected breakout from someone in order to make it happen.
North Carolina seems a bit low at No. 8, though. Luke Maye is a star, Nassir Little is likely to become a star, and the Tar Heels have two excellent role players in Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams. Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks showed flashes last year, and Coby White is tantalizing. The Tar Heels could reasonably be in Tier 2 with Gonzaga and Duke.
The rest of this looks about right. Nevada could vault even higher if it improves on defense. Same with Tennessee, but on offense. Villanova needs multiple players to make leaps, but judging by the Wildcats’ track record, that’s entirely possible and it felt appropriate to include them in this tier.
Tier 4: Really good, but probably not championship-level good (Michigan State, Auburn, Kansas State, West Virginia, Oregon, Virginia Tech, Syracuse)
There are reasons to like all of these teams. Some, like Kansas State and Syracuse, made solid NCAA tournament runs and bring back most key pieces. Michigan State is always competitive, and even though it lost Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson, the Spartans seem to be at their best when they aren’t the most talented team in the land. Tom Izzo is able to make mediocre players good, but he struggled to put together the Spartans’ puzzle last season. West Virginia loses Jevon Carter, but Bob Huggins always reloads. Oregon is young but has two freshman studs in Bol Bol and Louis King. Auburn and Virginia Tech were feisty a year ago and return plenty of shooting and defense.
All of that said, these teams don’t have as high of ceilings as those in the first three tiers. But that’s OK. March Madness is a volatile beast, and any of these schools can make a run.
Tier 5: The best of the rest (Florida State, Mississippi State, Michigan, TCU, UCLA, Clemson, LSU, Purdue, Washington)
These schools are here for a variety of reasons: trust in the programs despite losing a lot of talent (Purdue, Michigan); untapped potential (Mississippi State, LSU, Washington); and flashes of dominance combined with injury concerns or inconsistency last year (Florida State, TCU, Clemson, UCLA).
There are some stars here who could carry their otherwise unproven rosters, like Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, LSU’s Tremont Waters and Michigan’s Charles Matthews.
These are the kind of teams who can beat anyone but may lose some games they shouldn’t. They’re potential bracket busters, but probably won’t be winning their respective conference championships come early March.
College basketball season is right around the corner. Let the journey to March Madness begin.