Thanks to the Champions Classic, getting early returns on the teams at the top of preseason rankings has gotten considerably easier over the past few years.
And the biggest observation from last Tuesday? Kentucky was clearly the best team at Madison Square Garden, and therefore, the Wildcats are the best team in the country right now and deserve to rise to No. 1 in the first in-season edition of the Power Rankings.
Regardless of personnel, John Calipari generally gets his freshman-laden teams to defend as well as anyone in the country. Given that this year’s version of the Wildcats has more experience than usual, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they’re already guarding at high level this season. Ashton Hagans is one of the best on-ball perimeter defenders in the country, and freshman Tyrese Maxey and sophomore Immanuel Quickley bring quickness and length to the backcourt. Nick Richards can block shots and rebound, but he also looked improved in his pick-and-roll coverage and with his defensive awareness.
Offensively, Maxey showed very quickly why he’s considered the best NBA prospect on the team. He had 26 points in the season opener against Michigan State off the bench, then scored nine against Eastern Kentucky on Friday. Bucknell graduate transfer Nate Sestina stretches the defense and provides a different dimension to Richards and E.J. Montgomery on the inside.
Calipari appears to like bringing Maxey off the bench, as the freshman from Texas provides immediate scoring pop. Richards looked better than Montgomery in the season opener, and Montgomery’s ankle injury gave Calipari an easy excuse to move Richards into the starting lineup for Game 2. The biggest lineup question moving forward might be whether Calipari starts all three guards together at some point.
How long will Kentucky stay atop the rankings? The Wildcats don’t have any true tests on their schedule until late December, when they face Ohio State in Las Vegas and then host Louisville. So get used to Calipari’s Cats at No. 1.
1. Kentucky Wildcats (2-0)
Preseason ranking: 3
This week: vs. Evansville (Tuesday)
Perhaps the biggest development for Kentucky in the first two games was the improvement of Richards. The former five-star recruit hasn’t quite lived up to expectations during his first two seasons in Lexington, but he was a factor against Michigan State around the rim and then went for 21 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks against Eastern Kentucky. If Richards can provide rim protection and a last line of defense behind Kentucky’s aggressive guards, and then get some easy paint points at the other end, the Wildcats will be even more imposing.
2. Michigan State Spartans (1-1)
Preseason ranking: 1
This week: at Seton Hall (Thursday)
Basketball has taken a back seat in East Lansing this week because Cassius Winston’s younger brother died Saturday night when he was hit by a train. Thoughts are with Winston and his family.
3. Duke Blue Devils (2-0)
Preseason ranking: 6
This week: vs. Central Arkansas (Tuesday), vs. Georgia State (Friday)
Duke certainly is not the same team it was last year, but the Blue Devils are deeper and are not afraid to play a more rugged half-court game. They took Kansas completely out of its comfort zone at the Champions Classic, forcing 28 turnovers, and have shown a more balanced offense than a season ago. Tre Jones has been terrific through two games, totaling 30 points, 11 rebounds, 15 assists, three steals and just four turnovers. He also took over the game late against Kansas and is spearheading Duke’s aggressive defense.
4. Louisville Cardinals (2-0)
Preseason ranking: 5
This week: Indiana State (Wednesday), NC Central (Sunday)
It went under the radar on opening night, but Louisville’s blowout at Miami — the 13-point margin was awfully kind to the Hurricanes — was a statement for the Cardinals. Louisville is still not close to full health, with David Johnson and Malik Williams both sidelined for another few weeks. Darius Perry’s emergence at point guard has been a bright spot for Chris Mack’s team, as Perry dished out 12 assists against Youngstown State and looks to have secured the job ahead of Saint Joseph’s graduate transfer Lamarr Kimble.
5. Oregon Ducks (2-0)
Preseason ranking: 7
This week: vs. Memphis (Tuesday), vs. UT Arlington (Sunday)
It was a thoroughly impressive opening week for Oregon, as the Ducks beat Fresno State on Tuesday and then obliterated Boise State on Saturday night. Neither win made headlines, but it’s a strong start for the Ducks. Dana Altman’s team had six different players hit double figures in the two games combined, with Payton Pritchard the lone player to do so in both games. There were some questions surrounding the Ducks’ shooting and inside play; graduate transfers answered those questions. Anthony Mathis (New Mexico) buried nine 3s against Boise State, and Shakur Juiston (UNLV) went for 16 points and 12 boards.
6. North Carolina Tar Heels (2-0)
Preseason ranking: 8
This week: vs. Gardner-Webb (Wednesday)
It didn’t take long for Cole Anthony to become must-see TV this season in college basketball. The freshman point guard set all sorts of records in the season opener against Notre Dame, finishing with 34 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. It’s clear Roy Williams has given him the keys to the car, letting him initiate offense and keep the ball in his hands for long stretches. Anthony’s usage rate is outrageously high, and that doesn’t appear like it’s going to change anytime soon. Be prepared for video game numbers from him.
7. Kansas Jayhawks (1-1)
Preseason ranking: 2
This week: vs. Monmouth (Friday)
Kansas looked a far cry from a national championship contender against Duke in the Champions Classic, and the Jayhawks drop accordingly — but let’s not write them off this quickly. Bill Self made adjustments in Game 2 that made Kansas’ offense run more smoothly. He played fewer two-big lineups, with David McCormack playing only 11 minutes and Silvio De Sousa seeing six minutes. Isaiah Moss’ return from injury was a big help on the perimeter, and versatile Tristan Enaruna played 20 minutes off the bench. Expect to see more of that moving forward.
8. Gonzaga Bulldogs (2-0)
Preseason ranking: 9
This week: vs. North Dakota (Tuesday), at Texas A&M (Friday)
Gonzaga rolled by a combined 81 points in its first two games, and both wins came without Killian Tillie. Mark Few is rolling with three newcomers in his starting lineup, including graduate transfers Ryan Woolridge and Admon Gilder in the backcourt and freshman Anton Watson up front. If there’s one player poised for a breakout season, though, it might be returnee Filip Petrusev. Petrusev entered the program with some hype last season, and he showed flashes. In the first two games of this season, Petrusev totaled 40 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks.
9. Maryland Terrapins (2-0)
Preseason ranking: 10
This week: vs. Oakland (Saturday)
Maryland erased an early deficit Saturday against Rhode Island to roll to an 18-point win, but the biggest note from Week 1 was the emergence of Jalen Smith heading into his breakout sophomore season. Smith was pegged for a big year, and he did nothing to silence the hype: 16 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in the opener against Holy Cross, and then 19 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks against Rhode Island. There’s a good chance Smith and point guard Anthony Cowan are one of the best inside-outside tandems in the country.
10. Villanova Wildcats (1-0)
Preseason ranking: 11
This week: at Ohio State (Wednesday), vs. Ohio (Saturday)
Five-star freshman Bryan Antoine is expected to begin practicing, but he’s still not ready for games. Whenever Antoine is cleared, he will provide a huge perimeter scoring boost for the Wildcats. There’s a clear shift in Villanova’s lineup this season, as Jay Wright is leaning more heavily on his frontcourt — a departure from the Wildcats’ perimeter-based attacks of the past several seasons. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl had 24 points and 13 rebounds in the opener, and Saddiq Bey went for 22 points and five rebounds.
11. Texas Tech Red Raiders (2-0)
Preseason ranking: 12
This week: vs. Houston Baptist (Wednesday)
There were plenty of questions about Tech coming into the season, as Chris Beard had to rebuild essentially his entire roster. But the Red Raiders brought in several high-level freshmen and transfers, and they were ready to contribute from day one. Moreover, Beard has a few more weeks to work out some of the kinks in his rotation. Tech should rack up three more blowouts before heading to Las Vegas to face Iowa and then either San Diego State or Creighton. Based on the past few seasons, we have faith that Beard will figure it all out.
12. Ohio State Buckeyes (2-0)
Preseason ranking: 13
This week: vs. Villanova (Wednesday)
Ohio State’s win over Cincinnati last Wednesday was one of the more impressive wins of opening week, and Kyle Young’s emergence as a frontcourt factor was a big positive for Chris Holtmann. The buzz coming out of preseason was that Young had been making an impact early on due to his energy and motor on the glass. He turned that into 14 points and 13 rebounds against the Bearcats in the season opener. Keep an eye on the injuries to Andre Wesson and Musa Jallow, however.
13. Virginia Cavaliers (2-0)
Previous ranking: 16
This week: vs. Columbia (Saturday)
We’re not ready to say Virginia isn’t going to miss a beat without Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter, but, well, it sort of looked that way against Syracuse. The Cavaliers were their usual selves on the defensive end, holding Syracuse to 34 points in the Carrier Dome. Tony Bennett will obviously need to get more scoring punch from some of the newcomers, but the preseason hype about Jay Huff looked warranted against the Orange: 11 points, 12 rebounds.
14. Washington Huskies (1-0)
Preseason ranking: 23
This week: vs. Mount St. Mary’s (Tuesday), vs. Tennessee in Canada (Saturday)
Outside of the Champions Classic, there might not have been a better Week 1 win than Washington’s comeback to beat Baylor in Alaska. The Huskies dominated defensively down the stretch, and Mike Hopkins made adjustments on the final possession to come out with a win. There’s a ton of talent on Washington’s roster, with length and size across the board. The frontcourt duo of top-10 prospects Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels was highly impressive, combining for 33 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks. Those two could be dominant by the time Pac-12 play rolls around.
15. Florida Gators (1-1)
Preseason ranking: 4
This week: vs. Towson (Thursday), at UConn (Sunday)
Well, here’s one preseason hype train that perhaps was a bit premature. Florida lost at home by 12 to Florida State on Sunday, only a few days after the Seminoles lost at Pittsburgh. The Gators just couldn’t get anything going from their best players: Returnees Noah Locke and Andrew Nembhard, five-star freshmen Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann and star graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. combined to shoot 4-for-33 from the field against Florida State. There’s not a team on the schedule that Florida can beat while getting that sort of production from its top guys.
16. Memphis Tigers (2-0)
Preseason ranking: 14
This week: at Oregon (Tuesday), vs. Alcorn State (Saturday)
Memphis rolled through its first two games, but that has taken a backseat to the James Wiseman saga that’s hovering over the Tigers’ program right now. Ruled ineligible, then cleared just before Friday’s tipoff against Illinois-Chicago, Wiseman has been dominant through two games: 45 points, 20 rebounds and eight blocks. But for how long will he suit up for Penny Hardaway’s team? Hardaway said Wiseman is going to play until a final ruling comes down, and there’s a hearing tentatively set for Nov. 18. Before then, though, there’s a massive showdown against Oregon on Tuesday.
Dropped out: Seton Hall (No. 15)
In the waiting room
Seton Hall: The Pirates dropped out of the rankings after Washington’s rise, and Myles Powell’s injury also provides a major question mark heading into their Thursday showdown against Michigan State.
Arizona: The Wildcats rolled in their first two games, including Sunday’s game against Illinois, and will be favored in every game until at least early December.
Utah State: Star center Neemias Queta didn’t suit up in the Aggies’ first two games after the knee injury he suffered in July, but the team that won 28 games last season won’t be tested for a couple of weeks.