by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

 1-MICHIGAN STATE...We’re sure that Tom Izzo hasn’t forgotten how to coach. And things might be breaking in the Spartans’ direction for the first time in a couple of years. Recent Big Ten challengers Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana, and Ohio State (the latter two with new coaches) might be taking a step back this season. But Izzo received his early Christmas present in spring when touted 6-7 soph wing Miles Bridges (17 ppg LY) opted out of the NBA draft to return to East Lansing for a second season as a prime Wooden Award candidate. Izzo thus loses only two contributors from last year’s 20-win team that scrapped its way to another Big Dance invite. The Spartans should also have an old-fashioned, punishing Big Ten look on the blocks with 6-9 Gavin Schilling having returned from last year’s knee injury, bullish 6-8 soph Nick Ward a year older and wiser, and the jewel of Izzo’s recruiting class, 6-11 Jaren Jackson, Jr. likely to make an immediate impact in the post.

   2-DUKE...Never far from the title discussion, Coach K might have another of his teams like the 2010 & 2015 national title winners that were there to pick up the pieces when various other power programs slipped. Of course, they’re even more hated than usual in the ACC with G Grayson Allen, the last holdover from the 2015 title team, remaining in the fold. Allen’s 2016-17 had more ups and downs than a rollercoaster, with hamstring and ankle injuries and more controversies than Trump’s tweets due to on-court antics. But Duke has a lot more than Allen, including a major league haul of frosh led by 6-11 Marvin Bagley III, who has so much ballyhoo that Duke will un-retire Danny Ferry’s #35 and give it to Bagley (with Ferry’s blessing). Although, admittedly, some of Coach K’s other diaper dandies, including hotshot PG Trevon Duval, have eligibility issues on the eve of the season. If Allen stays out of trouble and Bagley is as good as advertised, however, Duke might again get back to the Final Four after not escaping the sub-regionals last March.

   3-WICHITA STATE...The Shockers have bid adieu to the Missouri Valley and begin residence in the American, which should remove some of the annual bubble angst brought about lately by strength of schedule. Wichita should also not have to worry about being underseeded as a 10 like a year ago (though the cluelessness of the Selection Committee can never be underestimated). With star soph PG Landry Shamet having recovered from a summer foot fracture, all of the pieces remain in place, with Shamet surrounded by accomplished upperclassmen such as 6-8 Markis McDuffie, punishing 6-8, 279-lb. C Shaq Morris, and sr. sharpshooting G Connor Frankamp, a former Kansas transfer. Best of all, HC Gregg Marshall again resisted significant overtures from elsewhere (including one from Indiana) to stay in place at Koch Arena, where it looks as if he plans to stay for a long while.

   4-ARIZONA...This might be the year when HC Sean Miller finally gets the Wildcats to the Final Four. Though Lauri Markkanen and Kobi Simmons bolted after just one season, 6-5 soph G Rawle Alkins remains from last year’s recruiting bonanza and joins explosive 6-5 jr. Allonzo Trier (17 ppg) on the perimeter. But it’s 7-1 frosh DeAndre Ayton, regarded by some as the nation’s top recruit, who has them really salivating at the McKale Center, where a “Twin Towers” look with 7-0 sr. Duran Nistic figures to be featured this winter. If there are questions, it’s with the wherewithal of 5-11 sr. PG Parker Jackson-Cartwright, and how the indictment of asst. coach Book Richardson in the hoops corruption scandal might prove a distraction.

   5-KANSAS..Never lurking far from the Final Four, Bill Self’s Jayhawks are on the cusp of an astounding 14th straight Big 12 regular-season title (all the more amazing since the Big 12 is no chump league). Self lost some key cogs in sr. G Frank Mason III and NBA first-round pick F Josh Jackson, but as usual has some blue-chippers to plug in their places. In particular, watch 6-10 frosh Billy “Outa-Space” Preston (oh, we’re gonna’ have some fun with that name this winter!), who could hold the key to a rebuilt frontcourt. The perimeter looks loaded as usual, with sr. PG Devonte Graham (13.4 ppg) back to run the show and joined by touted Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman, a combo G who was a McDonald’s All-American a couple of years ago before leaving Starkville, while another ballyhooed frosh, 6-5 Marcus Garrett, is going to be hard to keep off of the floor. Rock, Chalk Jayhawk once again, with feeling, this winter at the Phog.

   6-KENTUCKY...John Calipari’s task is the same as it has been for several seasons; replace a mass exodus of talent, and develop coherence from a mass import of new talent. Yearly. But before another rinse, wash, rinse cycle at Rupp Arena, consider that not all of Coach Cal’s one-and-done editions are created equal. For example, the 2015-16 team lost nine games and didn’t make it out of the sub-regionals. And back in 2013, the Nerlens Noel team could only get to the NIT, where it lost off the bat to Robert Morris (when Noel was injured). The new names for this year are F Kevin Knox, PF P.J. Washington, PG Quade Green, and SG Hamidou Diallo, the latter not an altogether new name after enrolling for the second semester last season but not activated, then pulling his name out of the NBA draft. If there is a difference in composition of the new Calipari roster, it’s an abundance of big, versatile forwards, not just traditional guard/big man lineups.

   7-SOUTHERN CAL...No, this isn’t a leftover from our preseason football rankings. SC has a real chance at its first Final Four since 1954 thanks to a slew of key players who resisted the temptation to jump early into the NBA draft. The versatile 6-10 Bennie Boatwright and 6-11 intimidator Chimezie Metu both could have been sitting on NBA benches this season but instead again anchor one of the most scary-looking frontlines in college hoops, while explosive 6-5 wing Elijah Stewart (12.3 ppg LY) also pulled his name late out of the draft. With go-go sr. PG Jordan McLaughlin (13 ppg & 5.5 apg) still pulling the strings, HC Andy Enfield has an enviable combination of high-level, combustible talent and experience, the latter something many frosh-dominated powerhouses cannot replicate. Then Enfield located depth in the primary (frosh wing Chuck O’Bannon, son of former UCLA star Charles O’Bannon) and secondary (Duke transfer G Derryck Thornton) talent markets. Anything less than a Sweet 16 would be a disappointment for the Trojans.

   8-XAVIER...Fans of the “X” were holding their breath a couple of times in the offseason after job openings at Indiana and Ohio State were filled by Dayton’s Archie Miller and Butler’s Chris Holtmann, respectively...and not Musketeer HC Chris Mack, who was rumored on both the Hoosier and Buckeye radar. Instead Mack returns for an encore after steering the 11th-seeded X to an unexpected West Regional final that no one saw coming, especially after star wing Edmond Sumner went down with an ACL injury in late January. Sumner subsequently declared for the NBA draft and was taken by the Pacers, but the senior backcourt duo of Trevon Bluiett (18.5 ppg; nursing a shoulder injury in preseason not deemed to be serious) and J.P, Macura (14.4 ppg) returns, while sophs PG Quentin Goodin and 6-9 PF Tyrique Jones will play larger roles after emerging late last season. A key addition will be 6-10 Green Bay transfer Kerem Kanter, brother of Enes and a Euro-style big who can shoot from the perimeter but also provide some protection at the rim that the Muskies missed last season.

   9-FLORIDA... Michael White’s second season in Gainesville was an unqualified success, as the Gators caught fire in March and made it all the way to the Elite Eight before bowing in a tense all-SEC East Regional final against South Carolina. The run was unexpected after most gave up on Florida in mid-February following the ACL injury suffered by C John Egbunu. Egbunu returns, though might not be ready to play until after the holidays. Still, Florida will be just fine, with leading scorers G KeVaughn Allen and PG Chris Chiozza (bothered by a shin injury in preseason not deemed serious) still in the fold. The Gators should again be bombing away from beyond the arc, especially with the addition of Rice grad transfer 6-5 Egor Koulechov, who hit better than 47% of his triples for the Owls last term.

   10-CINCINNATI...With a bit more competition in the American provided by Wichita State, the Bearcats might be able to sharpen their claws and get a bit more national respect than a year ago when they never cracked the top ten, even when bolting to a 21-2 record. Now, Mick “The Ghost” Cronin has his top three scorers back from a 30-win team that reached the second round of the Dance, led by no–nonsense 6-8 F Gary Clark, a complete player who does everything well save perhaps shoot 3-pointers. Forwards Jacob Evans and Kyle Washington are flashier, but it’s Clark who is the heart-and-soul of the Cincy operation. An interesting newcomer is jr. lefty PG Cane Broome, a transfer from Sacred Heart who was the Northeast MVP in 2015-16 when scoring better than 23 ppg. If Broome comes anything close to that sort of production, this might be Cronin’s best team. One note of interest for the Bearcats is that they will be playing home games across the Ohio River at Northern Kentucky this season as Fifth Third Arena undergoes renovation.

   11-WEST VIRGINIA...Bob Huggins reached another Sweet 16 last season and returns his top three scorers, including sr. PG Jevon Carter, a Big 12 MVP candidate. Again, nobody will want to face the Mountaineers, who lead the nation with 740 forced turnovers from the high-pressure defense, though Huggins must replace 35 ppg from last year’s squad. Huggins is hoping that 6-5 frosh wing Teddy Allen can become a designated scorer while he learns the nuances of Huggins’ press and never-stop defense.  12-VILLANOVA... Though everyone recalls how Nova made a dramatic run to the national title in 2016, keep in mind that Jay Wright’s Cats have also flopped an awful lot lately in the Big Dance and often failed to get out of the sub-regionals, as was the case again last season when Wisconsin dealt the KO in the second round. But Wright does have three consecutive 30-win seasons and a veteran core led by jrs. G Jalen Brunson and wing Mikal Bridges. Keep an eye on 6-9 RS frosh Omari Spellman, who brings more offense than usual to a Wright frontline.     13-NORTH CAROLINA...It’s already been a big 2017 for the Tar Heels, who won yet another national title in April (the third for HC Roy Williams) but then pulled off a bigger surprise by avoiding the hammer from the NCAA in October. Thus, everything else is just gravy for UNC this winter. Roy lost a lot from last season and no way can he replace the massive bulk from last year’s frontline. Plus, sr. PG Joel Berry II was nursing a hand injury in preseason that could keep him out for a while. But 6-6 sr. Theo Pinson and 6-8 jr. Luke Maye (hero of the Elite 8 win over Kentucky) should be able to step into more-featured roles, while 6-8 grad transfer Cameron Johnson from Pitt hit almost 42% of his triples for the Panthers last term and gives the Roy the sort of long-range bomber many of his recent editions have lacked.     14-NOTRE DAME...We admit to having enjoyed watching the Irish as much as any team last season, with HC Mike Brey perfecting a “small-ball” style featuring the unique talents of versatile 6-6 sr. Bonzie Colson, equally at home battling bigs in the paint or shooting over them from the perimeter. The inside-outside look is complete with sr. G Matt Farrell, a strong distributor who can also score from all over the floor. A newcomer to watch will be 6-5 frosh D.J. Harvey, who does some of the same things as Colson but works more off the dribble. 15-GONZAGA... Unfortunately for Mark Few, his best newcomer might be San Jose State transfer F Brandon Clarke, who has to sit out until the 2018-19 season. At that time, Clarke might be the West Coast Conference’s MVP. But don’t feel too bad for the Zags even though they lost several key cogs from last season’s national runner-up. Two major pieces from a year ago, F Johnathan Williams & G Josh Perkins, are back in the fold, and SG Silas Melton and 6-10 PF Killain Tillie played important roles off of the bench and should be able to seamlessly step into the breach. Meanwhile, RS frosh wing Zach Norvell and touted true frosh PG Jesse Wade (who reminds of former Zag Kevin Pangos) look capable of making early contributions...as do most of Few’s top recruits.

   16-LOUISVILLE... We’ll see how the ‘Ville copes after scandal wiped out the Rick Pitino era and former Card David Padgett tries to hold the operation together in his interim role this term. As of yet the Cards are not on tourney probation, so a carrot remains, and there is plenty of established contributors still on hand, though replacing the contributions of wing Donovan Mitchell (making a bit of a mark with the Utah Jazz) might be a chore. Expect sr. PG Quentin Snider to assume more of the scoring burden, and the gems of Pitino’s last recruiting class, 6-8 Brian Bowen II and 6-11 Malik Williams, could make immediate contributions.   17-SAINT MARY’S... The Gaels were on the cusp last season, doing more than enough to steer clear of the bubble despite their WCC slate and then pushing Arizona into the final minutes in the second round of the Dance. Along the way, another of Randy Bennett’s Aussie brigade, 6-11 C Jock Landale, progressed to the point that he should be a lottery pick next June. Complementary pieces G Joe Rahon and F Dane Pineau will not be easy to replace, bit most of the roster returns from last year’s 29-5 juggernaut, and has been augmented by grad transfer G Cullen Neal, a sharpshooter on his third school in three seasons after leaving New Mexico (where he played for his dad) and a brief stopover at Ole Miss.    18-MIAMI-FLA... The Canes enter the season on a bit of a slippery slope as they have been on the periphery of the FBI investigation. But Jim Larranaga has some well-established coaching chops and usually steers his teams to the Dance when they have enough talent. Convincing 6-5 soph SG Bruce Brown to hold off at least another year before entering the NBA draft guarantees this Miami edition some star power, and fellow soph PF Dewan Huell, the other gem of last year’s recruiting class, figures to take a significant step up this winter. Lots of hype surrounding true frosh 6-4 G Lonnie Walker, touted to be Miami’s best-ever recruit (and this is a school that once produced Rick Barry!).    19-TEXAS A&M...Though 6-10 star soph PF Robert Williams will miss the first couple of games on suspension, as will touted RS frosh PG JJ Caldwell, they’ll both be playing before December. The fact Williams pulled his name from the NBA draft for another go at College Station should help get Billy Kennedy’s team back to the Big Dance after a one-year hiatus. Williams and 6-10 jr. Tyler Davis form the backbone of one of the SEC’s best frontcourts, and if Caldwell is as good as advertised, Kentucky has something to worry about in the SEC.   20-NORTHWESTERN...No longer do we have to worry about including the Cats along with William & Mary and a few others with forever Big Dance droughts after NU finally qualified a year ago, and beat Vanderbilt once it got into the Madness. Chris Collins, positioning himself nicely to get strong consideration as Coach K’s eventual successor at alma mater Duke, has his top four scorers back from last season, with a vet backcourt featuring difference-makers Bryant McIntosh (15 ppg LY) and Scottie Lindsey (14 ppg). No bubble trouble come March in Evanston.

   21-TCU...Pitt’s loss was TCU’s gain as the Frogs found out what it was like to have a legit top-notch coach a year ago when Jamie Dixon steered his alma mater to the NIT crown. TCU won’t sneak up on anybody this season, but all five starters are back led by 6-11 sr. F Vlad Brodziansky, who unnerves opponents when stepping back to fling some 3s, and 6-7 matchup nightmare Kenrich Williams, who won the NIT’s MOP award. Dixon has added a handful of touted four-star recruits to the mix as well. A return to the NIT would be a significant undershoot in March.   22-MINNESOTA...At this time a year ago, HC Richard Pitino was on the hot seat. Now he’s the toast of Minneapolis after steering the Gophers back to the Dance and the only Pitino still involved in coaching (papa Rick is out at the ‘Ville). Pitino returns everyone of note from last year’s 24-10 team including four DD scorers led by perimeter weapons sr. Nate Mason (15.2 ppg) and soph Amir Coffey (12.2 ppg). Meanwhile, the frontline will get a big boost of sr. F Davonte Fitzgerald, a onetime Texas A&M transfer whose career has been derailed by knee problems to this point.   23-VIRGINIA...We might regret placing the Cavs this low, as HC Tony Bennett has been one of our favorites for several years. Bennett’s schemes, however, might have squeezed as much as possible out of the Charlottesville talent base when getting to the Elite Eight two years ago, led by G Malcolm Brogdon, who immediately made his mark in the NBA last year with the Bucks. No Brogdon in the current mix, and he was missed last year, too, when the ‘Hoos would go on extended scoring droughts and endured an ugly 65-39 beatdown by Florida in the second round of the Dance. Now Bennett needs to replace top two scorers London Perrantes and Marial Shayock, but another sticky defense (UVa led the nation with just 56 ppg allowed) can get Bennett back to the Dance, especially if versatile 6-5 sr. wing Devon Hall (8.4 ppg LY) picks up a bit more of the scoring burden.     24-VIRGINIA TECH...Buzz Williams has put the Hokies back on the hoops map in quick order, getting to the Dance just two years after inheriting a mess in 2014-15, and winning just 11 games in his first try. But as long as 6-6 PF Chris Clarke is recovered from last February’s ACL injury (rehab continues and could keep him out until December), Buzz ought to be able to absorb the losses of top scorers Zach LeDay and Seth Allen, who helped Williams re-establish the program. Another injury casualty from last season, 6-10 C Kerry Blackshear, is being counted on to provide some presence in the paint, but it’s our admiration for Buzz that prompts us to put VPI into the Top 25.   25-PURDUE...Matt Painter has established the Boilermakers as a fixture in the Dance and should have no trouble returning again in March, especially with the Big Ten appearing as if it might be a bit watered-down this season. Star F Caleb Swanigan, as expected, bolted early for the NBA (Blazers first-round pick last June), but remaining in the fold up front are srs. 7-2 C Isaac Haas, who seems to date to the Gene Keady era, and 6-8 F Vince “Ben Casey” Edwards. Another sr., G Dakota Mathias, is a dangerous dagger-thrower who nailed 45% of his triples last season. But any chance for Painter to get beyond the sub-regionals likely rests with contributions from a touted crop of newcomers led by bullish 6-6 SG Nojel Eastern, who reminds some in the Big Ten of ex-Illinois G Rayvonte Rice.

   26-SETON HALL... Once again they’re expecting Big Dance bids at the Hall, which teased for several years but now looks for a third straight NCAA invite for the first time since P.J. Carlesimo’s days in the early ‘90s. Credit HC Kevin Willard, who welcomes back three lightning bolts, all with more than 1000 career points–G Khadeen Carrington, F Desi Rodriguez, and C Angel Delgado. Experience and firepower should get the Pirates dancing again in March.     27-RHODE ISLAND...Looking for a gate-crasher from the mid-major ranks? Check out the Rams, who “made a good fist of it” in the Dance last March and pushed eventual Final Four Oregon in the second round, and return several contributors of note, including star Gs EC Matthews (15 ppg) & Jared Terrell (13 ppg) from a backcourt that returns five guards who averaged at least 18 minutes per game. Replacing workhorse frontliner Hassan Martin will be the first order of business for HC Dan Hurley, who has no shortage of candidates, including 6-8 soph Cyril Langevine, who hinted at being ready for a much larger role with several effective performances down the stretch last season.  28-MICHIGAN...We’ve learned to never underrate a John Beilein-coached team, and the Wolverine chess-master schemed an unlikely Sweet 16 and near Elite Eight out of last year’s edition. Three starters departed, but Beilein gets help this winter from a recently-unexpected source, with ex-Ohio PG Jaaron Simmons, who scored 16 ppg last year for the Bobcats and becomes the first grad transfer in the Beilein era at Ann Arbor, as well 6-6 ex-Kentucky wing Charles Matthews. Beilein’s departures could have been more severe had 6-11 C Mo Wagner (12.1 ppg LY), who has improved by leaps and bounds the past 12 months, not decided to pull his name from the NBA draft.    29-UCLA...The transformational Lonzo Ball has moved across town to the Lakers after helping revive the Bruin program and perhaps saving HC Steve Alford’s job (though Alford’s buyout also precluded Indiana from luring home its native son in late March). The next of the Ball clan, 6-5 frosh LiAngelo, is now in the mix, which means papa LaVar will still show up at Pauley Pavilion. But LiAngelo is no Lavar and now we’re not sure if he’ll even make it back with the team from the opening game in China vs. Georgia Tech after being charged with two other frosh, 6-10 pair Cody Riley and Jalen Hill (who were both expected to contribute) for shoplifting. Tssk, tssk, and stay tuned for further developments. In the meantime, another pair of frosh, 6-3 Jaylen Hands and stringy 6-8 Kris Wilkes, have avoided trouble and could make a quick impact alongside improving 7-0 sr. C Thomas Welsh and 6-1 G Aaron Holiday, who takes Lonzo’s place after pulling his name out of the NBA draft.    30-BAYLOR... Scott Drew has made the Bears a Big Dance regular and don’t envision that changing much in March, especially with do-everything sr. PG Manu Lecomte (among Big 12 leaders in points, assists, and 3-point percentage last term) still pulling the strings out top. How deep Baylor might eventually advance probably depends on if RS frosh, such as 6-4 G Tyson Jolly and 6-5 F Mark Vital, plus former juco 7-footer Leonard Allen, who also redshirted last season, become reliable contributors.

   31-BUTLER... The Bulldogs absorbed a punch to the gut in June when Ohio State’s delayed dismissal (forced resignation, or whatever you want to call it) of HC Thad Matta prompted the Buckeyes to snatch away up-and-comer Chris Holtmann, who had re-established the Butler “brand” in Indy the past few years. We’ll see if Butler alum LaVall Jordan, who almost got Milwaukee to the Dance in his first season with the Panthers, can get the Bulldogs firing on all cylinders. Butler lost some firepower but still retains a pair of All-Big East-caliber talents in sr. F Kelan Martin (16 ppg) and soph G Kamar Badwin (10.1 ppg), a Big East All-Frosh pick last year.   32-GEORGIA...The Bulldogs ought to at least be happy that HC Mark Fox has kept the program out of trouble, no easy feat in this era. But Fox needs to turn some of these 19-win seasons into 24 or 25-win years, and make the Big Dance for the third time in his nine seasons at Athens, to stick around for a tenth year. We say Fox can do it, with 6-8 PF Yante Maten primed to crack 20 ppg, while the arrival of touted 6-8 PF Rayshaun Hammonds to go along with punishing 6-8 jr. Derek Ogbeide gives the Bulldogs a football-look on the frontline. Now, can Fox squeeze some better production from his backcourt, and keep oft-injured 6-4 sr. Juwan Parker healthy?     33-OKLAHOMA...Lon Kruger is too good of a coach for the Sooners to flounder two years in a row. Last year’s drop to 11 wins was not wholly unexpected after the mass exodus of talent, including mercurial G Buddy Hield, from the Final Four team of 2015-16. But Kruger knew his team could benefit long-term from taking some lumps last season and used the campaign to develop youngsters such as Gs Kameron McGusty and Rashard Odomes, and F Kristian Doolittle. Now they have a year of experience and a hotshot McDonald’s All-American frosh PG, Trae Young, with them in the fold. Plus one of the best coaches in the country. Not a bad mix.   34-OREGON...Early departures to the NBA robbed HC Dana Altman of what would have been a legit chance to return to the Final Four. But it’s hardly a bare cupboard at the Matt Arena, with 6-7 frosh Troy Brown rated by many among the nation’s top ten recruits, and another Brown, New Mexico transfer G Elijah (son of NBA coach Mike Brown), perhaps the prized grad transfer in the Pac-12. Meanwhile, soph PG Payton Pritchard emerged as an on-court leader in the Final Four run. The Ducks will look a lot different this winter, but we’ve learned not to underestimate Altman.   35-MIDDLE TENNESSEE...Proving they were no one-year wonders last season, the Blue Raiders not only returned to the big Dance for HC Kermit Davis, they won another game vs. a Big Ten team when whipping Minnesota as a year before after scoring a major 15 vs. 2 upset over Michigan State. Davis has some reloading to do on his frontline and will be hoping for some immediate help from 6-7 grad transfer Nick King, who has already been at Memphis and Alabama on his travels. But the backcourt returns in tact led by all-name sr. bowling ball Giddy Potts (15.2 ppg) and All-Frosh C-USA pick Tyrik Dixon.

   36-TEXAS... A little bit of a slow-go for the Longhorns, as “Shaka Ball” has not ignited in the Big 12 as it did a few years ago at VCU. But after last season’s 11-22 face-plant, many in the region expect Texas to rise again thanks to 6-11, five-star recruit Mo Bamba out of New York City, a possible transformational player (if he stays more than a year). Convincing soph G Andrew Jones (11 ppg LY) to wisely yank his name from last June’s NBA draft will also benefit Shaka, whose frontline has also added 6-9 Tulane transfer Dylan Osetkowski. Smart says the pieces are now in place; they’d better be, because the Texas-exes are getting anxious to see a return on investment in Austin.   37-ALABAMA...It’s been a bit hard for happy-faced HC Avery Johnson to keep smiling in the run-up to the season with 6-8 soph star F Braxton Key, an All-SEC Frosh pick a year ago when scoring 12 ppg, dealing with a knee injury that will keep him out until further notice. Meanwhile, touted frosh PG Collin Sexton, rated by some insiders among the top five recruits in the country, is sidelined for the moment with eligibility issues related to the wide FBI probe. While Sexton’s status remains up in the air, Key, at least, is likely to be back before Christmas, and Johnson’s recruiting class was deeper than Sexton, rated as high as 8th nationally and also featuring hotshot 6-5 SG John Petty.   38-MISSOURI...While some schools made reaches in their coaching hires, Mizzou hit, what looks to us, like a homerun with Cuonzo Martin, who has taken teams to the Big Dance in all of his previous stops. Cuonzo then swung into action quickly by luring a top-five recruiting class led by the touted Porter brothers, much-ballyhooed 6-10 Michael Jr. and 6-11 Jontay (who reclassified to 2017), along with their dad Michael Sr. as an assistant (that’s a good bit of business there by Cuonzo). The Porters, along with other frosh hotshots Gs Blake Harris (a de-commit from Washington) & CJ Roberts, plus Canisius grad transfer Kassius Robertson (16 ppg LY for the Golden Griffs), likely give the Tigers a completely new–and much better–look and a threat to qualify for the Dance after the program spun its wheels for a couple of seasons under well-meaning alum Kim Anderson.    39-NEVADA...Eric Musselman knows how to beat the bushes and in two short years has made the Wolf Pack the big boys in the Mountain West. After a first Big Dance appearance in a decade, Nevada looks like a good bet to return, even after 6-8 F Cam Oliver got some bad advice and was a bit hasty to put his name into the NBA draft, where he was not selected (Cam eventually signed with the Rockets but was released). Fear not for Musselman, however, as he still has prized former Southern Illinois transfer F Jordan Caroline, the non-stop MVP of the MW Tourney, and another load of potential-impact transfers led by ex-Purdue wing Kendall Stephens, ex-Iowa State G Hallice Cooke, ex-St. John’s F Darien Williams, and ex-NC State 6-7 twins Caleb and Cody Martin (the latter dealing with a foot injury in November). Rugged 6-7 sr. PF Elijah Stephens also returns after scoring 12 ppg in the early going last season prior to suspension.   40-UT-ARLINGTON...Looking for a deep sleeper? Try the Movin’ Mavs, good enough to win 27 games last season and beat St. Mary’s at Moraga before advancing into the quarterfinals of the NIT. This season UTA might be able to make it to the Dance with 6-9 sr. F Kevin Hervey (17 ppg) poised for a monster year and fellow sr. Erick Neal the Sun Belt’s best PG, still in the fold for underrated HC Scott Cross. Also expect more contributions from sr. G Kaelon Wilson, who flourished as the sixth-man a season ago.

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