Why Kansas and Kentucky, no matter the order, must be considered the top two teams for 2018-19
After unexpected and significant summer roster additions, both UK and KU have separated from the rest of college hoops
High-profile roster revisions, and the meme-generating extravaganza of the open free agency period, are ruling the NBA and dominating headlines inside the sports world and beyond.
It feels like the late June/early July newsflash carousel has never been so busy, buzzy or entertaining. This time of the year used to signal a significant depression in sports activity. It'd be baseball and ... not much else. But with the advancement of social media and with sports leagues chasing relevance every week of the year, intended periods of dormancy in many American sports are over, probably forever.
College basketball, of course, could never compete with what the NBA has become, and it's still got its slow stretches, but there has been news as of late that's altered the outlook on the 2018-19 season. In fact, two particular roster upgrades could wind up being bigger than any summertime acquisitions of the past half decade, with the exception of Marvin Bagley III's unprecedented reclassification days before Duke's fall semester started in 2017.
College hoops hasn't benefited from blasts of publicity with its free agency-esque transactions, but these moves shouldn't go overlooked.
The schools I'm alluding to are Kentucky and Kansas. Let's quickly zip back to early April, to the morning after Villanova won its second national title in three years. At that point, UK and KU weren't projected as the top two teams as we turned to 2018-19. Kansas, yes; it was in place to vie for preseason No. 1. Kentucky was unquestionably top 10-quality, but a lot of pre-draft pieces had to be sorted out.
Well, the NBA Draft has come and gone, and in its wake an interesting and unexpected piece of news came down: Lagerald Vick is going back to Kansas. He joins Udoka Azubuike, who declared for the draft and then hopped out of the pool, as the only returning starters for KU.
The Vick news came days after Stanford graduate transfer Reid Travis, who could be a top-20 player in college hoops next season, . Over the past couple of months, Gary Parrish and I have mulled on our podcast over who should be No. 1 heading into November. We're still not certain. But with the Vick and Travis additions, it's clear: Kansas and Kentucky, in whatever order you prefer, deserve to be in the top two spots. They shape up as the two teams with the best chance to be the best.
Quite a nice turn of events for college basketball. Oh, you think this is another typical offseason/preseason arrangement? No. Bill Self and John Calipari have seen their teams at the top of the preseason polls multiple times, but never with rosters like this. To the doubters and cynics, those who laugh at UK again being ranked highly -- go ahead.
It's clear: Kansas and Kentucky, in whatever order you prefer, deserve to be in the top two spots.
Keep in mind that Calipari's made the Final Four more times than any coach since he got to Kentucky in 2009. Next year's team will be his oldest in three years.
Let's circle back on Vick because his return could leapfrog Kansas over Kentucky. He's had a bumpy career at KU, but his double back unquestionably strengthens a behemoth. It's bizarre it got to this point, though. Less than a week removed from Kansas' embarrassing 95-79 Final Four loss to Villanova, Vick announced he was leaving KU to play professionally. At that point, Vick wasn't a sure thing in terms of being drafted, but after three years in college it seemed like Kansas had lost him for good.
"It was our understanding with Lagerald at the conclusion of the season that he would go pro," Self said.
It was pretty much everyone's understanding. Until mid-to-late June, the idea of Vick playing in Lawrence for one more season wasn't considered -- even by Vick, who averaged 12.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 2017-18. He's only able to do this because his actions didn't match the conviction of his words; Vick never signed with an agent, so he was eligible to return.
"I honestly thought I played my last game at Kansas after the Final Four because, with my situation and my family's situation, I felt I needed to turn pro," Vick said in a statement. "After seeing where I stand and meeting with Coach Self, I feel it is best to return to Kansas for my senior year."
With Vick coming back, it's easy to label the Jayhawks as the favorite to win the 2019 national title. The Athletic's C.J. Moore writes that 2018-19 Kansas is now built to be arguably the deepest Jayhawks team Self has ever had. Last season Kansas was a No. 1 seed, made the Final Four and won the Big 12 for the 14th straight year. It now returns two starters and adds five-star freshmen capable of being one-and-done talents. Names to know: Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson.
Just as Lawson could be KU's standout, Travis, by way of Stanford, could be Kentucky's best. And if either of those things winds up being true, you can count on Self and/or Calipari mining the transfer market to repeat that process.
The Wildcats return P.J. Washington, Quade Green and Nick Richards, all of whom could start but also all of whom will be challenged because of talent incoming. That trio has size and smarts and toughness. It's a great sign. Of course, in comes another freshman class that's oozing with potential: point guard Immanuel Quickley, shooting guard (and sniper) Tyler Herro, sleek wing Keldon Johnson and power forward E.J. Montgomery.
Let's also not gloss over the reclassification of former 2019 point guard prospect Ashton Hagans, who was the top-ranked PG in his class. But he'll be in uniform for UK next season. And if that's not enough, Jemarl Baker (another reliable 3-point shooter) will be in the fold after being sidelined in 2016-17 due to injury.
Kentucky is undeniably going to be massively upgraded on offense next season. It would surprise me if this group wasn't top-10 in efficiency by season's end.
Thankfully, we're assured of Kansas-Kentucky next season at least once. These schools have annually played each other over the past four years, thanks to the SEC/Big 12 Challenge and the annual Champions Classic. The cycle is perfect: Champions is a neutral-court game, and then the conference challenge flips hosting duties each time. The 2018-19 schedule has Kansas visiting Rupp Arena on Jan. 26. Kansas is 3-1 vs. UK over the past four seasons.
If these teams play to expectations, the Jan. 26 tilt could wind up being a determining factor in which school gets the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Regardless, it's going to be fascinating to see how Self and Calipari distribute minutes and who winds up being the stars on each team. There's a lot of talent here, but plenty of unknowns because of how resourceful both rosters should be. (I like Lawson and Grimes to be Kansas' two best players. I think Kentucky winds up having Hagans and Travis become the two best options in Lexington.)
You can expect Kansas and Kentucky to be sitting atop almost every mainstream. With good reason. We can only judge based off coaching, experience, roster returnees and overall talent. Using those gauges, there's no one else on their level in advance of 2018-19.
Variety is always welcomed in college hoops (it's part of why the NCAA Tournament is so great) but the sport is best served when its biggest programs are preseason frontrunners. Fortunately, and unexpectedly, Kansas and Kentucky have once again -- but by different methods -- aligned as juggernauts.
We've arrived at this point thanks to college basketball having a little offseason movement of its own. It's nothing like the NBA, but what's happened at Kentucky and Kansas at least puts an either/or into the equation. The NBA, with its world-crushing Warriors, can't say the same.
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