by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Now, the fun begins!

College hoops has swung into action, and with the first full card on tap, we’re prepared with predicted margins and select writeups (including our usual featured Key Release selections), all found in our College Forecast.

As usual, there are some familiar teams in our preseason rankings, especially in the top ten; how we would love to see some school crash that party! A few of them will appear “down-ballot” as we alert to their potential prowess.

In the meantime, to get a bit better prepared for the unfolding drama, we present our TGS Preseason Top 40. Hang on for the ride!

1-DUKE...What we saw on opening night in Indianapolis had to scare the daylights out of the rest of the country. We suppose we don’t have to ask Kentucky which team should be top-ranked after the Blue Devils blitzed the Cats 118-84...and it wasn’t that close. With the one-and-dones perhaps soon to disappear, it looks like Coach K will end this era with a bang with what might be the best frosh class ever assembled, better than some of those John Calipari specials at UK. In explosive, tank-sized PF Zion Williamson, and 6-7 wings R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, Duke might have three of next June’s NBA lottery picks on the floor, while another frosh, PG Tre Jones, already looks as good or better than brother Tyus, who led the Blue Devils to their last national title in 2015. How good might this Coach K edition become?

2-GONZAGA...Mark Few did get some negative news in the run-up to the season, as 6-10 F Killian Tillie figures to be out until at least mid-December with an ankle injury, keeping him out of the upcoming Maui Classic (and perhaps a date vs. Duke). But WCC sources believe this might be Few’s best team yet, better even than the national runner-up team of two seasons ago. A couple of highly-productive transfers, G Geno Crandall (via North Dakota) and wing Brandon Clarke (via San Jose State) figure to immediately step into prominent roles, while the backcourt of Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell, Jr. could be special. Tillie’s absence could prove costly in a few high-profile early intersectionals, but come March, this could be your No.1 seed in the West.

3-KANSAS...Off on the right foot after the opening-night win over Michigan State in Indianapolis, Bill Self’s side has re-stocked a bit differently than Coach K. For the Jayhawks, it’s good old-fashioned transfers, in this case, the Lawson brothers (Dedric, a 6-9 scoring threat from the post, and 6-8 K.J.) via Memphis, plus PG Charlie Moore via Cal. Not to be left out of the one-and-dones, Self’s 6-5 SG Quentin Grimes was the best player on the FIBA U-18 team that won a gold medal in June. Meanwhile, wing Lagerald Vick and 7-footer Udoka Azubuike both pulled their names from the NBA draft to give it one more spin at the Phog. A 15th straight Big 12 regular-season title might be just the start for this Kansas bunch.

4-NEVADA...Dizzying heights for a Mountain West entry, and dream-like stuff for a program that was off of a nine-win season just three years ago. But HC Eric Musselman has done a reconstruction job worthy of Ulysses S. Grant in Reno, where the Wolf Pack crashed the Sweet 16 last March and looks the MW’s best bet to make a deep March run since perhaps Rick Majerus’ Final Four Utah team 20 years ago. When key cogs Martin twins Cody & Caleb on the wings, plus beastly 6-7 PF Jordan Caroline, all pulled their names out of the NBA draft in spring, Nevada suddenly became a Top-5 contender. Musselman has been a wizard in the transfer market and has added several key pieces, including 6-11 grad transfer Trey Porter from Old Dominion, who, along with 6-10 blue chip frosh Jordan Brown, gives the Pack size on the blocks it hasn’t had in years, and frees up Caroline to work more from his natural “stretch four” position. More transfers have added depth elsewhere on the roster; Musselman’s only challenge will be to find minutes for all of his charges.

5-KENTUCKY...The Cats seemed a consensus number two before they ran into Duke, and we’ll see how John Calipari navigates the waters after that humiliating opening loss. Has the UK psyche been damaged beyond repair? Or will the Cats use that loss as a motivator to eventually get another shot at Coach K in March (or April)? Coach Cal has several steady veterans in the mix, including 6-8 Stanford grad transfer Reid Travis, one of the Pac-12’s top frontliners last season. The usual diaper dandies also dot the lineup; 6-3 G Ashton Hagins and 6-10 E.J. Montgomery look the best of the new crop. We suspect, however, that UK is going to have to do something dramatic for the masses to forget about the Duke game.

6-NORTH CAROLINA...After doing an Ali-like rope-a-dope with the NCAA regarding its academic fraud investigation last season, the Heels are miraculously in the clear, and Roy Williams can proceed without distractions. After relying heavily upon upperclassmen the past couple of years, Roy will lean on a typical high-powered group of recruits led by McDonald’s All-Americans 6-7 Nassir White and 6-3 Coby White. Unlike Duke’s newcomers, however, Roy’s frosh will be taking a secondary role at the outset, as the roster features key returnees 6-8 F Luke Maye and former Pitt transfer wing Cameron Johnson. How quickly Roy can mix the new talent with the existing pieces will determine if the Heels can really challenge Duke in the ACC.

7-VILLANOVA...Yep, there’s no way ‘Nova can avoid a drop this winter...is there? Technically, that’s probably a yes, but from the lofty perch of an NCAA title, there’s nowhere to go but down, and odds are that Jay Wright will have another team favored to win the Big East and make a deep run in the Dance. The departure of so many key pieces makes a return to the Final Four seem unlikely, but underestimate Wright at your own risk. In G Phil Booth, F Eric Paschall, and Albany transfer G Joe Cremo, Wright has the nucleus of another contender, and hotshot frosh PG Jahvon Quinerly looks like he’ll be the next great Villanova guard. By March this could be a team no one will want to face.

8-TENNESSEE...Watching Loyola-Chicago careen into the Final Four, the Vols could have been excused for watching wistfully, wondering why it couldn’t be them after falling victim to the Ramblers on a last-second shot in the second round of the Dance. Rick Barnes won both the SEC regular season and tourney titles last season and returns the roster almost en masse, with 92% of the scoring and 95% of the rebounding from a year ago back for an encore in 2018-19. Barnes’ team takes no guff on the blocks with SEC POY Grant Williams and all-name PF Admiral Schofield, with 6-8 frosh D.J. Burns expected to add more quality depth to the frontline. Meanwhile, junior Gs Jordan Bone (at the point) and Lamonte Turner emerged as key cogs a year ago and are back for more.

9-VIRGINIA...The Cavs might have been tempted to go full Floyd Patterson-after-the-first-Ingemar Johansson fight, wearing fake beards and sunglasses around Charlottesville following a humbling 20-point first-round Big Dance loss to UMBC and becoming the first Big Dance 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed. But Tony Bennett has the Cavs in a high orbit, with three of the past five ACC regular-season titles in his satchel, while key cogs Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and De’Andre Hunter are all back from a team that went 20-1 in the ACC last season, and still plays some of the best defense in the country.

10-MICHIGAN STATE...So far, the fallout from the Larry Nasser storyline has danced around Spartan football and hoops, and while the major programs have been unscathed, it’s been an unwanted distraction in East Lansing. Tom Izzo Spartan hoopsters can never be counted out of making March run, but they couldn’t even make it out of the sub-regionals a year ago, before Mikal Bridges and Jaren Jackson were off to the NBA. Rugged PF Nick Ward, however, resisted temptation to go pro and returns as a key cog and will be an important factor if Izzo is going to avoid his fourth-straight Dance exit in the second round.

11-AUBURN...Last season ended with a whimper when Clemson took Auburn to the woodshed in a second-round Big Dance beatdown in San Diego, but Bruce Pearl has been carefully assembling the right pieces on the Plains and now is beyond the FBI probe that proved a distraction last season. Moreover, key cogs Daniel Purifoy and Austin Wiley return after sitting out last season.

12-KANSAS STATE...The Cats proved a nice surprise last March with a run to the Elite 8 that included a dumping of favored Kentucky in the Sweet 16, a real feather in the cap of Bruce Weber, whose many detractors never believed he could win such a big game. But Weber pushed a lot of the right buttons last winter and now brings back almost everybody, including Big 12 honors candidates 6-10 PF Dean Wade and explosive 6-3 G Barry Brown, Jr. If you think senior leadership is important, K-State is the team for you.

13-MISSISSIPPI STATE...Ben Howland has been slowly building the Bulldogs back into contender status, and this looks to be the year MSU finally crashes the Dance after advancing to the NIT semis last March. Three of Howland’s top four scorers (including 6-9 C Aric Holman, one of the nation’s most-refined big men) pulled their name from the NBA draft last June, while touted 6-10 frosh Reggie Perry gives Howland more frontline versatility as a big than can wander to the arc and fire away 3-balls.

14-VIRGINIA TECH...Buzz Williams has won 109 or more for three years running and got to the Dance last March with a roster very similar to this winter’s version. Buzz’s teams stress balanced scoring, ball control, and quality shot selection, and have a potent 1-2 combo of G Justin Robinson and 6-10 F Kerry Blackshear, Jr.

15-UCLA...Some team has to emerge from the Pac-12, and it could be the Bruins, who have a potential one-and-done in the paint in 6-11 frosh C Moses Brown. If Brown is as good as advertised, Steve Alford could have his best post threat since moving to Westwood five years ago. Better news for Alford was when three key components–Gs Kris Wilkes & Jaylen hands, plus 6-10 Cody Riley–all pulled their names from the June NBA draft to take at least one more spin around Westwood.

16-SYRACUSE...We usually give Jim Boeheim the benefit of the doubt, and why not after another Boeheim special last March, steering the Orange into the Sweet 16 just a few years after an unexpected appearance in the Final Four. The engine room for the ‘Cuse is on the perimeter where 6-6 Tyus Battle appears bound for the NBA while Frank Howard is one of the nation’s most-underrated point guards. Then there’s the Boeheim zone defense that will again prove flustering to foes.

17-LSU...We’re sticking our necks out pretty far here with the Tigers, who have made up a lot of ground in a short period of time under 2nd-year HC Will Wade. After adding a dazzling playmaker in frosh PG Tremont Waters a season ago, Wade has now built the rest of his roster, with one of the nation’s top recruiting classes that rebuilt the frontline, with 6-10 beast Naz Reid giving the Tigers a fearsome physical presence on the blocks, while 6-7 Emmitt Williams likely joins Reid in the lineup.

18-WEST VIRGINIA...Bob Huggins lost a lot of firepower from last year’s Sweet 16 team that had Villanova on the ropes midway thru the second half before faltering in the final ten minutes. Graduation losses were significant, but Huggins feels if jr. G James Bolden can fill one of the gaps on the perimeter, while having 6-8 Esa Ahmad for the full season after missing half of 2017-18 provides a menacing frontline presence. As always, the Mountaineers will be a difficult “out” in March.

19-OREGON...We highly encourage looking for an Oregon game on TV just to see 7-2 frosh Bol Bol, son of you-know-who but with much more refinement and athleticism to his game than his more-famous papa. Bol, however, is only part of a menacing defensive presence on the blocks alongside 6-9 Kenny Wooten, but what we really like about this team is jr. PG Payton Pritchard, a one-man engine room for HC Dana Altman.

20-MICHIGAN...We never want to underestimate a team coached by Jon Beilein, who has reached the title game in two of the past five seasons. Doing it for a third time in six years might be a challenge after heavy graduation losses, but don’t think Beilein is ever without something up his sleeve. Charles Matthews, a 6-6 senior wing, resisted a chance to throw his hat into the NBA draft ring and might be one of the Big Ten’s best players this winter, likely flourishing without having to play Robin to graduated Mo Wagner’s Batman. Beilein, however, has reloaded before at Ann Arbor and often not skipped a beatr; underestimate him at your own risk.

21-CLEMSON...One of the ACC’s best backcourts featuring Marquise Reeds & Shelton Mitchell will be augmented by Oral Roberts transfer Javan White. Brad Brownell’s program n the upswing after Sweet 16 run last March.  22-PURDUE...Matt Painter has plenty of new pieces to fit into a graduation-depleted puzzle, but still has do-everything G Carsen Edwards, one of the nation’s best, and the Boilermakers should get better as the season progresses.  23-SOUTH DAKOTA STATE...It’s been awhile since we rated a rep from a low mid-major loop into our Top 25. Meet the Jackrabbits and prolific scoring 6-9 F Mike Daum, who pulled his name ffrom the NBA draft or one more shot in the Summit League, and maybe gettign further than the first round of the Dance.  24-OHIO STATE...Chris Holtmann usually punched above his weight while coaching at Baylor and now has a chance to do the same in Columbus, with Florida State transfer C.J. Walker now alongside exciting C.J. Jackson in the backcourt. 25-WASHINGTON...Almost everyone is back from last year’s 25-win team that advanced to the second round of the NIT. The Huskies have quickly assimilated the Jim Boeheim-influenced zone D that Mike Hopkins employs.

Leonard Hamilton pushed the right buttons to steer the Noles to the Sweet 16 last March. Another Hamilton special beckons, with depth, length, and a lineup for every occasion led by G Terance Mann & F Phil Cofer.  
27-LOUISVILLE...With last season’s distractions now behind it, the ‘Ville can get around to rebuilding under new HC Chris Mack, who won big at Xavier. Four starters return from a 23-win team. 28-LOYOLA-CHICAGO...Will it be another 55 years until the next Rambler Final Four visit as it was between 1962-2018? Loyola again looks the class of the Missouri Valley, with G Clayton Custer the on-court spiritual leader (off-court, it’s Sister Jean) for underrated HC Porter Moser, a former Rick Majerus disciple. 29-CINCINNATI...The Bearcats are developing a knack for losing close games, dropping a tight one in the opener vs. Ohio State after kicking away a late lead in the final minutes vs. Nevada in the second round of the Dance. But Mick Cronin usually gets the Bearcats to the Dance, so the departure of so many productive pieces doesn’t overly concern us.  30-MARQUETTE...Which team is likely to offer the greatest challenge to Villanova’s dominance in the Big East? It could be Marquette, with bombardier G Markus (with a “k”) Howard still in the mix for Wojo.

31-BUFFALO...One of these days we’re convinced HC Nate Oats gets a power conference job. (Just a thought, but Jim Boeheim has to retire some day at the ‘Cuse, and...) Much the same team returns for Oats that rolled thru the MAC and buried favored Arizona by 21 in the first round of the Dance last March, led by G C.J. Massinburg & F Nick Perkins.  32-NOTRE DAME...Mike Brey must replace 6-6 PF Bonzie Colson, one of our favorite performers the past few seasons. But it’s the presence of the shrewd Brey that makes us believe the Irish can overcome some heavy graduation losses.  33-INDIANA...Archie Miller got a bit of a late start at Indiana but still demonstrated plenty of savvy as the Hoosiers stayed competitive most of last season. Five of the top seven scorers are back, augmented by superstar frosh G Romeo Langford, and likely return the Hoosiers to the Dance for the first time since 2016.  34-BYU...Likely to move ahead of Saint Mary’s in the WCC queue and take dead aim at Gonzaga are the Cougs, a pleasing team to watch under HC Dave Rose. Though BYU might not take flight until G Nick Emery returns from an early 9-game suspension.  35-NC STATE...Here’s our sleeper team of the ACC. We know Kevin Keatts can coach after his success at UNCW and last year’s Dance visit with the Pack. Now Keatts has hit the transfer market hard, with nuggets including 6-9 Wyatt Walker (Samford) plus Gs C.J. Bryce (from Keatts’ former UNCW) and Devon Daniels (Utah), all forming a nice buffer around explosive wing Torin Dorn.

36-DAVIDSON...Vet HC Bob “Leslie Nielsen” McKillop has withstood plenty of departures in the past (Steph Curry is one that comes to mind) so proceeding without key graduated F Peyton Aldridge should not impede things too much. The best G to play for McKillop since Steph is 6-5 soph Kellan Grady, who scored a Steph-like 18 ppg as a frosh last season. 37-TEXAS...They’re getting a bit antsy at Austin as the best Shaka Smart has been able to do is early exits from the NCAAs. The Longhorns, however might be ready to make some noise even beyond the days of C Mo Mamba, now in the NBA with the Magic, but four other starters are back, led by sr. G Kerwin Roach, who pulled out of the NBA draft last spring.  38-MARSHALL...The Herd was fun to watch last season as it scored a whopping 84 ppg to rank in the national top ten. Better yet, gunslinger Gs Jon Elmore (22.7 pgp) and C.J. Burks (20.1 ppg) are back in the fold for HC Dan D’Antoni, who’ll have ‘em running again.  39-ARIZONA...The Cats seem to have emerged without any serious penalties resulting from the FBI probe, though it was a mass exodus after last March’s opening-round Big Dance loss vs. unfancied Buffalo. But Sean Miller might enjoy working with this team a bit more. Now Miller moves forward with a smaller, quicker team featuring Samford grad transfer G Justin Coleman, while another transfer, ex-Pitt 6-9 F Ryan Luther, already made an impact in the ACC. The ceiling for these Cats is probably well beneath the Final Four, but no surprise if the resourceful Miller steers UA back into the postseason.  40-VANDERBILT...The SEC is deep and Vandy will hit more than a few speed bumps along the way in conference play.  But Bryce Drew brought in what is being touted as a top five recruiting class led by frosh stars-to-be G Darius Garland and 6-10 F Simi Shittu. Add in another blue-chip frosh, Aaron Nesmith, to the backcourt along with Garland and soph Saben Lee, and Drew might get the Dores back to the Dance.  

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