The final countdown: Reid Forgrave’s preseason top 25

Kentucky (Tyler Ulis), Maryland (Melo Trimble) and Kansas (Perry Ellis) start the season at or near the top of the top 25.

You’ve seen all the preseason polls. With the season starting Friday, here’s mine — a last-minute top 25.

25. Louisville. Maybe the Cardinals fall apart under the added scrutiny from the prostitution scandal, but I see it as more likely that coach Rick Pitino uses that scrutiny as motivation to band this group together. No one is paying attention to this team’s basketball talent now, but Pitino really likes this group. Damion Lee, the transfer from Drexel, is the big-time scorer Louisville was missing last year.

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24. Texas. Why aren’t more people talking about Texas? Most of the players are back from an underachieving but extraordinarily talented bunch. Only coach Rick Barnes is gone, and Shaka Smart is bringing an up-tempo Havoc mentality to Austin. Talking with Texas players, it seems they’ve moved on to a new, more positive era. That’ll show on the court.

23. Baylor. Another stunningly athletic frontcourt for Scott Drew. Rice Gathers is a man-child who will again be the nation’s best rebounder, but the well-rounded Taurean Prince will be a bigger key to Baylor’s success in a Big 12 that’s brutal at the top. Drew is expecting big things out of freshman guard King McClure, and he’ll need him to perform on day one.

22. Xavier. Figure out the point guard position — Edmond Sumner, Larry Austin Jr., Myles Davis — and this group will surprise people. Yes, Matt Stainbrook is gone, but that means Xavier’s athleticism will be on full display in a more run-and-gun system. I expect two players to have breakout years: Jalen Reynolds, who could have a Montrezl Harrell-like impact on this team, and big-time scorer Trevon Bluiett.

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21. Notre Dame. One alpha male, Jerian Grant, is gone to the NBA. Another, Demetrius Jackson, stands in his place and ought to be in the NBA a year from now. No, Notre Dame won’t be as good as it was last season — because of Grant’s and Pat Connaughton’s graduation — but with Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson in the frontcourt and the dynamic Jackson in the backcourt, the Irish will win a lot of games.

20. Wisconsin. Two words: Bo Ryan. Four more words: Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig. Oh, and one more thing: A Big Ten coach told me the other day that the thing with the Badgers is they always have one player up their sleeve that no one else knows about. Then they bust him out in the beginning of the season, and he’s absolutely nails. This year, expect that guy to be 6-foot-9 redshirt freshman Ethan Happ. Wisconsin coaches rave about him.

19. Georgetown. A senior point guard in D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, one of the best leaders in the game. A fearsome triumvirate of sophomores in Paul White, Isaac Copeland and LJ Peak. Enough to contend in a crowded Big East.

18. Butler. Remember last season, when Kellen Dunham was hounded every time he got the ball yet still managed to make 41 percent of his 3-pointers? Well, this season he’ll be joined in the backcourt by NC State transfer (and former McDonald’s All-American) Tyler Lewis, who will ease an enormous amount of pressure off Dunham. Lewis shoots well enough to command attention, but his biggest skill is as an elite passer and floor general. It won’t surprise me if Lewis’ presence makes Dunham the nation’s top 3-point shooter, in percentage and in volume. Also: Roosevelt Jones is a beast. But you already knew that.

17. California. Cuonzo Martin landing stud freshman Jaylen Brown (as well as stud freshman Ivan Rabb) was the coup of this recruiting class. Brown will make Cal one of the most exciting teams in the nation. And focus too much on the freshmen in Berkeley and you may forget the older backcourt talent that may end up in the NBA someday: point guard Tyrone Wallace and shooting guard Jabari Bird. With a down year expected in Arizona (relatively speaking), Cal could absolutely win a wide-open Pac-12.

16. Purdue. With capable backcourt play Matt Painter’s team could be the dark-horse pick to win a stacked Big Ten. That’s how much I love a frontcourt that has two 7-footers, Isaac Haas and A.J. Hammons, and elite freshman Caleb Swanigan. Toss ball down low; toss ball toward hoop; repeat.

Kaleb Tarczewski will be in the middle of whatever Arizona does, even if the Wildcats are a bit down this season.

15. Arizona. Even in what ought to be a down year talent-wise, a Sean Miller team can usually be expected to be the class of the Pac-12. The Cats lost a ton last year. To win the Pac-12, Arizona will need 7-foot senior Kaleb Tarczewski to fulfill his enormous potential, fellow 7-footer Dusan Ristic to make a big sophomore jump and freshman guard Allonzo Trier to get tons of buckets. If Trier has a breakout freshman year like Maryland’s Melo Trimble a year ago, Arizona will be the Pac-12 favorite.

14. Oklahoma. This is as low as you’ll see this experienced Oklahoma team, and that just goes to show you just how important I thought TaShawn Thomas was to last year’s success in Norman. If there’s one team on this list that’ll make me look silly, and do it early, it’ll be the Sooners, especially if Buddy Hield continues to expand his offensive game and prove himself as an NBA player.

13. UConn. I’m bullish on Kevin Ollie’s group because of this loaded backcourt, led by Seton Hall graduate transfer Sterling Gibbs. Gibbs’ phenomenal last season was overshadowed by one split-second moment when he lost control on the court, but don’t forget how good he was for most of the year. The performance of junior center Amida Brimah, an elite shot blocker, is key. If Brimah stays near the basket on both offense and defense and simply does what he does, he can play himself into the first round of the NBA Draft and UConn into the Sweet 16.

12. Indiana. Versatile big man Thomas Bryant, a possible lottery pick, isn’t the best freshman in the nation. But he may be the most important because he fills what was a gaping hole in the post a year ago for Indiana. We all love point guard Yogi Ferrell for his ballhandling and deadeye shooting, but coach Tom Crean told me he’s the most underrated defender in the nation. These guys will be able to shoot, just like a year ago, but added experience for Troy Williams and James Blackmon means the Hoosiers can contend at the top of the Big Ten.

11. Gonzaga. Same old frontcourt — National Player of the Year candidate Kyle Wiltjer, possible NBA lottery pick Damontas Sabonis and future "Game of Thrones" actor Przemek Karnowski — and it might just be the best frontcourt in the nation. But losing two seniors from a great backcourt last season will take some adjusting to, especially with a tough non-conference schedule (six power conference schools in six weeks, plus whomever they draw at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament).

Ryan Arcidiacono is the brains behind Villanova’s top-10 operation.

10. Villanova. This may be too low for the team that’s again the Big East favorite. Villanova has what I think is the smartest backcourt in college hoops in senior Ryan Arcidiacono and elite freshman Jalen Brunson. It’s the perfect combination for a Jay Wright team. Plus, the Wildcats have a lot of talent around those two, starting with senior center Daniel Ochefu and also Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Phil Booth. A lot to like here, and you can always count on Wright to get the most out of his guys and get them to play as a cohesive unit.

9. Michigan State. This team is much more talented than last season’s Final Four version. That’s not just me saying that; coach Tom Izzo told me so himself. Izzo just isn’t sure whether the Spartans are a better “team” at this point. An excellent backcourt of Denzel Valentine and Tum Tum Nairn has been spruced up with the additions of Eron Harris, a West Virginia transfer who flat-out gets buckets, and Deyonta Davis, a freakishly athletic 6-foot-10 big man who will be one of the biggest impact freshmen in the Big Ten. I was more impressed with the Spartans than virtually any team I saw in the preseason.

8. Wichita State. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The best backcourt in the country is in Wichita. Same as a year ago, right? Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker are seniors, and when Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp, an elite shooter, joins them in December, these guys become downright scary. Graduate transfer Anton Grady might be the most important transfer in college basketball given his role in shoring up Wichita State’s frontcourt. Coach Gregg Marshall has created a national juggernaut in the Missouri Valley.

7. Iowa State. A new era begins at Iowa State with head coach Steve Prohm, who is promising the same free-flowing offense that’s become the Cyclones trademark but with a renewed emphasis on defense. Iowa State has a three-headed monster this year: big man Jameel McKay, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate; point guard Monte Morris, the most criminally underrated player in college basketball; and do-everything Georges Niang, who is college basketball’s biggest matchup nightmare. One of those guys goes down and it’s trouble for Iowa State because there aren’t any Plan Bs behind them. But if those three are healthy, there are tons of great pieces around them. Enough that Prohm could coach a Final Four team in his first season as a power-conference coach.

Marcus Paige’s injury could hold back North Carolina early.

6. North Carolina. The Marcus Paige injury — out a month with a broken hand — reminded me how much he is the heart and soul of this team. I hope his senior season isn’t as derailed by injuries as much of his career has been. If Paige is healthy, and if sophomore Justin Jackson becomes the star that he showed glimpses of a year ago, the deep and experienced Tar Heels could win it all. But for now, I’m going to play wait and see on Paige’s health.

5. Duke. This is completely different Duke team than the one that won the national title with three one-and-done freshmen in April. That team revolved around one transcendent post player in Jahlil Okafor. These Blue Devils are perimeter-oriented, with two great freshmen shooters in Brandon Ingram and Luke Kennard. Expect Grayson Allen to build off his bravura performance in the Final Four, and don’t be surprised if Ingram, a player in the Kevin Durant mold, makes a push to become the No. 1 overall draft pick. He’s that good.

4. Virginia. Tony Bennett’s Virginia teams have become a model of defensive consistency the past few seasons, but we don’t spend enough time discussing just how efficient the Cavs have been offensively. They have had a top-25 offense the past two years paired with their elite defense. Yes, they lose two players to the pros, but I expect upperclassmen Malcolm Brogdon, Mike Tobey and London Perrantes to step up. There’s no learning curve with this experienced group.

3. Kansas. As I wrote about in my preseason Final Four predictions, giant asterisk here. If lottery-pick-level big man Cheick Diallo becomes eligible soon, this is my national champion pick: Deep, balanced, experienced, Kansas has all the pieces. If Diallo is not eligible, then there’s a gaping hole in the middle. If he is eligible, name one thing this team doesn’t have. There are two elite shooters in Brannen Greene and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. Two slashing point guards in Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham. A supposedly improved Wayne Selden. Two elite NBA-level freshmen in Diallo and Carlton Bragg. A down-and-dirty guy in Jamari Traylor. And Mr. Reliable, Perry Ellis. The biggest challenge will be shuffling minutes.

2. Kentucky. All the talent in the world, but a completely different team than a year ago. Last season, Calipari’s squad went 38-1 on the shoulders of a monstrous front line and terrifying defense. This season it’s about the backcourt. I expect Kentucky to frequently go small, playing sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis and freshmen combo guards Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray, who I believe will lead this team in scoring and give us the most eye-opening plays. Add versatile freshman big man Skal Labissiere, a possible No. 1 overall pick, to the mix, and it’s scary to think how good these guys will be in November — not to mention how much better they’ll be by March.

1. Maryland. I’ve written before about how you need to look at Maryland’s 28-win season last year with a grain of salt. After all, they went an astounding 12-1 in games decided by six points or fewer and ranked second in the country in a statistic KenPom.com calls “luck.” But you can pretty much throw that out the window for this year. Coach Mark Turgeon brings back elite NBA talent and college experience in sophomore point guard Melo Trimble and senior forward Jake Layman, and he’s adding three big-time pieces: Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter, Duke graduate transfer Rasheed Sulaimon and likely one-and-done freshman Diamond Stone. Plus a deep bench. The Terps will be challenged by a stout Big Ten, but I expect them in the national title discussion all year.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

Melo Trimble and Maryland start the season on firm footing.