You can’t ride the road to the Final Four unless you’ve acquired a proper atlas. GPS won’t help you here. This is the tour through the sport that will decide and clear up the best of the best.
CBS Sports’ annual span of the college hoops globe offers up a map of college basketball country. Every state is represented with the unfortunate exception of the Last Frontier. Alaska is unlikely to go Division I any time soon. Nevertheless, there are 50 stops on this route; Washington, D.C gets representation.
What you’ll see here is a ranking of the top team in every state. This is like Risk, the board game. All about dominating your geography. So expect many of the teams highlighted here to be in the NCAA Tournament. The intra-border wars change by the year. The 2018-19 plat for college hoops looks markedly different in many states from where things stood a year ago.
The Tigers, who set up as a national title contender after earning a No. 4 seed in the 2018 NCAAs, return Bryce Brown, Anfernee McLemore, Jared Harper — and bring back Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy from suspension. It’s been almost two decades since Auburn was expected to be as good as it’s projected this season. Bruce Pearl got a contract extension in the spring.
The Hogs are always the best team in the the Natural State. With 6-foot-11 Daniel Gafford back, the Razorbacks at the very least should have one of the five or six most talented players in the SEC — and maybe the best big. Mike Anderson, who’s coached at Arkansas since 2011, is 151-86.
Sean Miller’s endured plenty off the court in the past year and maybe that continues over the next five months. But on the floor, the challenge comes with a new starting five and a lot of rawness to sort out. Still, we think Arizona’s set up to be a little bit better than Bobby Hurley’s Sun Devils up at Arizona State. The Wildcats will be hoping that Duke transfer Chase Jeter can show the promise he had as a prospect.
Kris Wilkes is a top-100 player and Jaylen Hands might prove to be that as well. Those sophomores will have a lot of fun playing alongside 7-2 freshman Moses Brown. There’s always a lot of competition in California for the best team in the state, but UCLA is the best program historically and now. Steve Alford should reach his fifth NCAA Tournament in six seasons in Westwood.
The Buffaloes won’t be as good as they should have been; an injury to sophomore center Dallas Walton will ding Tad Boyle’s team. But look for McKinley Wright IV to improve on a tremendous freshman season, so much so that he could become the sixth Buff since 2011 to get drafted.
The Huskies’ only real in-state competition is probably Yale, but Dan Hurley’s got enough on this roster that should elevate UConn to clear No. 1 status in the Nutmeg State. Hurley agreed to a six-year, nearly $18 million contract in March when he left Rhode Island. The Huskies’ best player is Jalen Adams, who needs to be Kemba Walker-ish if UConn is to have a hope for this year’s NCAA Tournament.
District of Columbia
Patrick Ewing told me that he expects this season’s Hoyas team to have a good combo of the low-post offense he played in at Georgetown and some of the lead-guard attack that he helped guide as an assistant for the Charlotte Bobcats. This will be possible thanks to power forward Jessie Govan and touted freshman point guard James Akinjo.
The Blue Hens should set up as a top-five team in this season’s Colonial Athletic Association race. Martin Inglesby is building the program slowly but surely. It was in rough shape when he took the job. Sophomore Kevin Anderson should be one of the most valuable players in the CAA.
The Seminoles are not short on Sunshine State competition. But after making last season’s Elite Eight and returning Terance Mann, Trent Forrest, Phil Cofer and David Nichols, this should be a top-25 team through much of the season. Leonard Hamilton is going for a third straight NCAA tourney and seventh overall at FSU.
Not often that a mid-major has top dog status in the Peach State. Georgia State is the best team in no small part because Georgia State has the best player inside state borders: D’Marcus Simonds is a pro prospect coming off a season in which he averaged 21.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.7 steals. Down in Athens, Tom Crean is rebuilding UGA.
Only one school in consideration, so Hawaii — in many ways — stays undefeated. There’s a good thing going on out in Honolulu. Eran Ganot kept the wobbling to a minimum amid some NCAA sanctions. Now the Rainbow Warriors get bigger and figure to compete for the Big West crown in a year’s time.
After an unavoidable step-back season, Cyclone fans are no doubt giddy and pumped to see their logo — not an Iowa Hawkeye — painted within state borders. Steve Prohm was able to keep sophomores Lindell Wigginton and Cam Lard on the program’s path. There won’t be many sophomore combos better than those two. Throw in senior wing Nick Weiler-Babb, a stat-stuffer extraordinaire, and this team’s got NCAA tourney ambitions once again. Virginia transfer Marial Shayok’s the X factor.
Idaho’s only got a few teams, and in most years it’s the Broncos of Boise State who are best. Leon Rice’s squad will rally after losing one of the best players in program history, Chandler Hutchison, to the NBA. Boise State has one of the most overlooked fantastic players in a multi-bid league in junior Justinian Jessup.
Last year Illinois fans got into a tizzy when I picked Illinois State to be better than the Illini. Guess what: It’s going to be the case again. The Redbirds, in fact, are expecting to be better than Loyola-Chicago, too. They’re picked as such here at CBS Sports. Dan Muller hopes to break through to the Big Dance after coming close multiple times in recent years.
The Hoosiers are no sure thing to be the best in Indiana, but the way things set up, Notre Dame, Purdue and Butler are reasonably clustered right behind IU. Romeo Langford steps in to play for Archie Miller in Bloomington. Indiana fans are praying this kid can bring a certain magic to this season, the kind of game-changing presence he had the past four years in high school.
The Jayhawks are the No. 1 team in the 1-353, so of course they continue to sit atop the throne in their home state. With Dedric Lawson aligned to be the team’s best player, Kansas could take an unusual route in that it will be carried by a big man. Kansas State could be better than it’s been in almost a decade. Wichita State takes a big step back this season.
We’ve had plenty of coverage about Kentucky, the top team in the commonwealth, in the buildup to the season. But we know you want to know all the new names on this team. First off, grad transfer Reid Travis is the most important. But the freshmen who will be factors are: guards Ashton Hagans, Tyler Herro, Immanuel Quickley; forward E.J. Montgomery; and wing Keldon Johnson. Johnson might well be the best overall player on the roster.
Will Wade’s Bayou Bengals have an All-American candidate in sophomore point guard Tremont Waters, who will get two complementary, talented big men to facilitate: freshmen Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams. LSU’s far and away the best team in its state. Waters could wind up as one of the two or three true must-watch players in college basketball this season.
Here’s a surprise! Out of the Colonial Athletic Association the Huskies of Northeastern are the top team in the commonwealth. Junior lead guard Vasa Pusica is one of the hardest matchups in the CAA because of his 6-5 frame and his long range capabilities. The CAA will be solid at the top of the standings. Northeastern’s trying to reach its second NCAA tourney in almost 30 years.
Losing NBA talent doesn’t mean Maryland slips from its practically permanent position atop the Old Line State rankings. Anthony Cowan’s a top-tier point guard. Cowan’s game will earn more respect this season if Bruno Fernando’s breakthrough in the frontcourt goes as expected. Reasonable to say Mark Turgeon is facing pressure to return to the NCAAs.
The Black Bears, the only Division I team in the Pine Tree State, start a new era with Richard Barron. It’s one of the toughest jobs in . Most interestingly, and refreshingly, Barron brought on Edniesha Curry, the only female assistant coach in men’s Division I basketball.
The best team in the Big Ten could have three of the 20 best players in the league if Cassius Winston, Nick Ward and Joshua Langford come together in their third year on the team to form a power trio. There’s options elsewhere (Foster Loyer might move into some good minutes eventually), but MSU’s success rests on those players’ shoulders.
My annual statement of disbelief: Minnesota, the 12th-largest state by area and 22nd-largest by population, only has one Division I men’s basketball team. The Golden Gophers bring back Jordan Murphy, whose 24 double-doubles last season led the sport. This can/should be an NCAA Tournament team, but sledding will be bumpy early since sophomore Eric Curry will be out for at least the first month of the season after another surgery was needed in late October on his left knee.
Takes over the top spot in Missouri after Mizzou lost Jontay Porter for the season due to ACL and MCL tears. At SLU, Travis Ford brings in a touted freshman class, but it’s the senior combo of Javon Bess and Drexel transfer Tramaine Isabell who will be the bell cows for a program seeking its first NCAA Tournament since 2014.
Few programs from major conferences have endured longer active NCAA Tournament droughts than MSU, which last got there in 2009. But everything has seemingly fastened into place for Ben Howland’s team this season. The best team in Mississippi has a top-100 player in Quinndary Weatherspoon, little brother Nick, and nearly 90 percent of the roster returns from a 25-win team.
The Grizzlies are going to be a very good mid-major team this season. Ahmadd Rorie, Michael Oguine and Jamar Akoh might be Nos. 1, 2 and 3 for best players in the Big Sky — and they all wear Montana uniforms. It’s become custom for every new coach that takes over this program to get it to the NCAAs. Travis DeCuire has already sealed that; Montana made last year’s Dance.
The only debate for Duke is obviously UNC, which does not have as much raw, NBA-type talent on its roster. But it’s possible — easily possible — the Tar Heels wind up as the better team from that state. As for Duke, you likely have heard all about R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson. Well, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones are the other two pivotal freshmen. But aside from the freshmen, the question becomes: Which vets can significantly get better? Marques Bolden, Javin DeLaurier, Alex O’Connell and Jack White will be competing for minutes against the new guys.
North Dakota State
Dave Richman’s got some unknown factors on this roster, but league coaches I spoke with said it would not be startling to look up in February and see NDSU in the third spot in the Summit League.
Want to give a shout to the basketball fans of the state of Nebraska. The most heated rivalry in college hoops that does not get its due for how deep things go is Nebraska-Creighton. And each year, whichever team gets the logo, the other fan base gripes and mocks. So have at it, Bluejays fans. You know Nebraska’s the superior team this season. Tim Miles was fortunate to return a lot of pieces and has built up a top-five Big Ten team two season removed from a lot of roster uncertainty.
Bill Herrion’s offense needs a makeover in the season ahead. The Wildcats went three straight years with 19 or 20 wins before tripping back to a 10-21 season in 2017-18. UNH can reasonably get to 13 or 14 victories over the next five months.
It’s not a positive sign for D-I hoops in the Garden State when Seton Hall is the best team in the land and yet it was picked to finish eighth in the 10-team Big East. The Hall will be worth watching from time to time because of Myles Powell, a sophomore shooting guard whose usage rate should skyrocket thanks to the departures of Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado and Desi Rodriguez. Syracuse transfer Taurean Thompson might be way better than people think.
The Lobos have a bona fide top-30 transfer this season in former UConn player Vance Jackson. His inclusion is vital, as Ohio State transfer JaQuan Lyle is injured for the season. UNM went 19-15 last season in year one under Paul Weir. The Pit has reason for optimism as Weir starts season No. 2. A couple of seniors will combo with a batch of sophomores ready for molding.
This can, and should, be the best Wolf Pack team in school history. And while Nevada is no UCLA or Kansas or North Carolina, it has a pretty good history for a school where it’s located and with its conference affiliation. Eric Musselman, the preseason Coach of the Year at CBS Sports, has one of the oldest rosters in the country, led by Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline and Jazz Johnson. Nevada is a legitimate Final Four contender.
The Orange have a terrific trio returning, led by Tyus Battle. But could it wind up that sophomore Oshae Brissett is the best player for Jim Boeheim’s team? Quite possibly. Guard Frank Howard will be the maestro. Syracuse is only narrowly ahead of St. John’s, which enters 2018-19 with more hype and expectation than we’ve seen for that program in the past 15 years. If only the Red Storm and the Orange (former Big Easts foes) were scheduled to play this season.
Mick Cronin’s aiming for nine straight NCAA Tournaments. The Bearcats will turn to Jarron Cumberland, a junior offensive weapon of devious ability. Cumberland’s grown into a go-to guy and will now need to be that with the departures of Jacob Evans, Kyle Washington and Gary Clark. Cincy clearly looks to have the best team in Ohio, as Xavier and Ohio State figure to take bigger steps back after exceptional campaigns last year.
The Sooners still have the top spot in their state. No Trae Young, but even still, Oklahoma should be an offense-first team that grows into a different version of itself by the start of conference play. Lon Kruger has his next star in Brady Manek.
Easy pick, as the Ducks should be by far the best in the Beaver State. Dana Altman’s team should also be the best in the Pac-12 thanks to a fantastic frontline of athletes that includes two of the 20 most hyped freshmen in college basketball (Bol Bol and Louis King). With all that size up front, it wouldn’t be a surprise if point guard Payton Pritchard wiggled his way into the All-American conversation by February if Oregon is in the mix for a No. 2 seed.
The Keystone State belongs to Villanova for the conceivable future. Jay Wright’s team gets a reload, not a rebuild, and the recruiting wins continue to pile up. This season, look for Eric Paschall and Phil Booth to steady the Wildcats on their way to what should be a fifth Big East regular season title in six seasons. New names to know include freshman sharpshooter Cole Swider, breakout sophomore Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and grad transfer Joe Cremo.
Friars fans used to build their hopes around reaching the NCAA Tournament every so often. Now PC’s gone five straight season and should make it six straight thanks to a stout roster led by Alpha Diallo. Freshman David Duke is the next coming of Kris Dunn, according to Friars coach Ed Cooley. Last year, URI was the superior program in the Ocean State. Now the Friars are back on top.
Brad Brownell’s Tigers shouldn’t be a flash in the pan. Clemson’s coming off its first Big Dance in seven seasons and brings back three seniors (along with 60 percent of its offense). Marcquise Reed is not a household name but is absolutely a top-10 player in a league (the ACC) that has more talent than any other conference.
South Dakota State
Mike Daum’s march to 3,000 points will happen if he can average just under 24 points this season and South Dakota State plays at least 32 games. If that happens, Daum will be one of just nine players (it could be 10 if Campbell’s Chris Clemons also pulls it off this season) in D-I history to do this. Kind of astounding there’s been so few. Oh, and by the way, SDSU is good enough this season to get a 10 seed out of the Summit League.
Rick Barnes brings back much of the roster that went 26-9 and return the Vols to prominence. Grant Williams is the first SEC Player of the Year in a decade to return to school the season following winning that award. Admiral Schofield is a man’s man and gets his share of pub as well. Kyle Alexander, a 6-11 senior, could be who makes the big jump and keeps Tennessee elite.
The best team in Texas is not the Texas Longhorns or Baylor Bears or Texas Tech Red Raiders. It’s the Horned Frogs of Texas Christian, who have been living through a revival thanks to Jamie Dixon’s tutelage. Desmond Bane is a great scorer for this team, but oft-injured Jaylen Fisher will be the force who determines how deep this team can go in March.
The ever-lasting rivalry between Utah and BYU will go to the Cougars this year. Dave Rose has experience, shooters, size and even some defense. This should be the West Coast Conference’s second best team. BYU will win on given nights, it’s just a matter of who gets hot. Nick Emery, Yoeli Childs and T.J. Haws are three of the 10 best players in the WCC.
Tony Bennett’s trusting his process and banking on his coaching philosophy to win out long-term. Forget the March disappointments. The overall record (219-86 at Virginia) brings credibility to Bennett’s credos. Now he’s got Kyle Guy back, plus future first-round pick De’Andre Hunter. And yet, on many nights we’re going to walk away from a UVA game thinking–knowing!–Ty Jerome is the best player for this squad.
The only Division I program in the Green Mountain State also happens to be one of the most consistent small-major teams in college basketball in the past 16 years. Vermont’s averaged 23 wins, made six NCAA Tournaments and won its regular-season league title seven times. And that doesn’t even account for all the times the Catamounts finished second. John Becker’s got it rolling up there. Look out for junior forward Anthony Lamb this season.
The Bulldogs are still streets ahead of the Washington Huskies, who I do expect to make a big push in year No. 2 under Mike Hopkins. For Mark Few’s Zags, a rough blow was announced on Tuesday when we learned forward Killian Tillie (an NBA guy next year, I’d venture) will miss approximately two months due to a stress fracture in his left ankle. That will make Gonzaga’s noncon push all the heavier, but still, this team has an onslaught of talent. Rui Hachimura, Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell Jr., Brandon Clarke, Geno Crandall and more. Might be the best collection of talent in GU history.
The Wisconsin-vs.-Marquette debate could be one of the closer ones among intra-state rivals in college hoops this season. Because Marquette’s got the superior offense, more experience and a bit more to build on from last season, Steve Wojciechowski’s team gets the nod here. Markus Howard’s star is rising, but watch from Sam Hauser and his brother, Joey, who’s a freshman. Joseph Chartouny and Ed Morrow come aboard as transfers. This sets up as the best season yet for Wojo in Milwaukee.
The Mountaineers have their closest competition in a long time, thanks to Jon Elmore and Marshall shaping up as an NCAA Tournament team for the second straight season. But WVU is still best in its state and will boast the Sultan of Swat, Sagaba Konate, who averaged 3.22 blocks last season and opted to return to school after testing the NBA Draft waters.
The Cowboys have one of the best natural homecourt advantages given they play in the highest elevation of any D-I team. There’s a player named Justin James who’s a senior small forward and arguably one of the 100 most talented guys in college basketball. Wyoming’s not projected as a peer of Nevada, but if you want a dark horse team to take second in the Mountain West, this team’s the pick.
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